For Afghanistan to break the cycles of violence and impoverishment it has been caught up in, the new and subsequent governments need to let go of its colonial past and the internalization of colonial thinking, argues Shah Mahmoud Hanifi.
It is useful to begin this discussion of colonialism, war and governance in Afghanistan with reference to the varieties of jihad or struggle in Islam. The relevance is that jihad takes many forms (greater or internal vs. lesser or external, offensive or defensive, etc.) of which military activity equating to war is only one. Islam contains sets of rules for war, and these rules are grounded in the sharia or Islamic law. The sharia in turn contains multiple madhabs or schools of law resulting in competing juridical principles for how war is supposed to work. This is to say there are laws that govern warfare in Islam, and these laws are sometimes in conflict. We can similarly outline laws for hukumat or governance in all its complexity, while also noting that governing principles can also be at odds within the umma or Muslim community, among Shia and Sunni populations, for example.
These generic statements regarding the legal bases and historical complexities of war and governance in Islam can guide our approach to these issues as well as colonialism in Afghanistan by helping us focus both on norms and precedents, on the one hand, and deviance and innovation, on the other hand. One effect of colonial warfare in Afghanistan is that historical facts and realities compete with historical imaginings and mythologies for discursive space in Afghanistan and war-making metropoles. This essay will not erase the difference between competing narratives over colonial wars and their impact on forms of governance in Afghanistan, rather, it is designed to refine and expand discussion of them by focusing on mobility and its limits.
Mobility through the Hindu Kush as the Historical Predicate of Modern Colonialism
The geographic space of Afghanistan is defined by the Hindu Kush mountain range that frames a very deep multi-millennial record of human settlement and cultural production. The longue durée history of mobility through the Hindu Kush established a historical predicate of wide-ranging connections within and beyond this unique geographic space that modern colonialism dramatically transformed. We can very briefly note the following pre-colonial historical episodes and eras in this space.
Aq Kupruq is (at least) a Neolithic archaeological site north of Hindu Kush, Alexander the Great established settlements in and around the Hindu Kush in the third century BC such as Bagram in the Kabul valley, and less than a century later the Mauyan King Ashoka bequeathed an imperial monumental inscription legacy south of the Hindu Kush in Qandahar. By the second century AD, Buddhism was flourishing in and round the Hindu Kush, with Bamiyan and its two giant montane Buddhas becoming most notable as a global pilgrimage site as we learn through Chinese travelers’ descriptions later in the first millennium.
A Hindu kingdom ruled in Kabul when Islam arrived in the Hindu Kush in the tenth century AD via the Ghaznavids and their Ghorid dynastic successors. The most consequential aspect of this period is the origin of the modern Persian language written with a modified Arabic script that fueled a rich historiographical tradition and sphere of Persianate cultural production within the Islamic World. The historical geography of Persian as a literary and broader cultural force expanded considerably in Central and South Asia over the next two centuries.
The thirteenth century Mongol invasions destroyed cities, villages and irrigation works in geographic Afghanistan, particularly Ghaznavid and Ghorid architecture and infrastructure in the very well cultivated Helmand river valley south of the Hindu Kush. The fourteenth and fifteenth century Timurid renaissance involved sophisticated urban development and a remarkable surge in artistic and literary production north of the Hindu Kush in Mazar-e Sharif and on the western fringe of the Hindu Kush in Herat. The founder of the Mughal empire, Babur, came of age during the two decades he spent in and around Kabul before following the well-established five hundred year-old historical trail of Muslim migration through the Hindu Kush to north India debouching on the political center of gravity of Delhi, where he established the Mughal empire in 1526. For the next two centuries, the Mughals, Safavids, and multiple Central Asian dynasties competed over urban nodes in and around the Hindu Kush.
The early-eighteenth century nomadic imperial surge of Nadir Shah Afshar through the Hindu Kush laid the foundation for Ahmad Shah Abdali’s emulation of Nadir Shah’s culturally and geographically fluid system of authority and power built upon wide-ranging nomadic cavalry. Ahmad Shah is the apocryphal founder of the Afghan polity, and he established a political center in Qandahar in 1747 where his enterprise took shape under the innovative imperial guise of Durrani. The Durrani political center shifted to Kabul during the reign of Ahmad Shah’s son and successor Timur Shah (r. 1772-1793) when the historical pattern of mobile royal warfare and migratory governance dramatically decreased. Competing imperial sovereignties in Qandahar and Kabul developed under Timur’s sons and other Durrani competitors, while relatively more autonomous local sovereignties emerged in Mazar-e Sharif and Herat.
Colonial Boundaries of Violence in Afghanistan
Modern colonialism dramatically transformed pre-modern and early modern patterns of mobility through the Hindu Kush region. The historical developments in this regard involve a shift from vaguely defined frontiers and peripheries where little was known, to boundary regions where colonial knowledge and power accrued unevenly, culminating in a regime of more scientifically precise and industrially militarized borders inherited by nation-states including and surrounding Afghanistan. The British interest in the Hindu Kush was routed through imperial anxieties about a potential French invasion of India through this remarkably porous montane zone and a commercial desire to capture and link the Indus river trade with an emerging, increasingly violent and predatory imperial political economy. The first 1808 British emissary, Mountstuart Elphinstone, was dispatched to the Kingdom of Kabul within the Hindu Kush but made it only to the primary eastern gateway of the Hindu Kush, Peshawar, where the Durrani ruler Shah Shuja signed an imperial treaty of alliance and promptly fled from his dynastic opponents in pursuit of his colonial suitors to British India.
Shuja remained in British India (Ludhiana in the Punjab) as a political refugee-pensioner for thirty years before being installed at the pinnacle of what became colonially effected Durrani dynastic politics in Kabul. To secure the city as a node in a wider series of imperial commercial circuits within and beyond South Asia, the British occupied Kabul from the summer of 1839 to the late fall of 1841 when local resistance took shape around the assassination of a bombastic whore-mongering spy, Alexander Burnes, and culminated in the infamous retreat and legendary destruction of the imperial Army of the Indus in January of 1842. In the fall of 1842 an imperial Army of Retribution sacked and looted Ghazni, bombarded and set fire to the renowned Mughal-era Chahar Chatta bazaar in Kabul, mass-raped, murdered and pillaged ruthlessly north of Kabul in Charikar, kidnapped thousands of women and relocated them in British India, and committed many other known and unknown atrocities upon innocent local populations before installing Dost Mohammad, the same Durrani potentate they deposed in 1839. What is commonly referred to as the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42 did not involve sustained conflict between two comparable forces suffering and inflicting similar hardships for multiple years. Rather, it involved discrete episodes of a swift military occupation of Kabul, the unexpected expulsion and destruction of an imperial occupation army, followed by a vengeful punishment exercise. This war-not war resulted in the global circulation of occupational experiences that became a form of social capital for European, Indian and Afghan actors throughout the British empire well beyond England and India, in Australia, for example.
The British subsidized Shuja both as a political refugee and occupational prop, and they increasingly subsidized Dost Mohammad during his second tenure as the colonially determined Durrani ruler in Kabul. The colonial subsidization of Kabul rulers was amplified and became structurally entrenched during the imperial bordering process that resulted in the territorial unit of Afghanistan. The bordering of what became Afghanistan from the late 1860s to the early 1890s was an episodic process driven primarily by British imperial geo-strategizing in relation to Russian expansion in Central Asia and Russian influence in Persia. These inter-imperial concerns account for a brief British occupation of Kabul and a handful of relatively small and brief battles that have been exaggerated and mythologized to become the 1878-80 Second Anglo-Afghan War. British imperial anxieties generated this conflict that concluded with the self-nomination and practically instantaneous colonial authorization of a Durrani dynastic claimant (a grandson of Dost Mohammad) who clearly understood that imperial patronage had become a prerequisite for holding power in Kabul.
The most impactful subsidization and bordering processes that resulted in the unit of political economy known as Afghanistan occurred during the 1880-1901 reign of Abd al-Rahman when the final and most contentious 1893 Durand Line boundary was agreed to, which in turn further elevated an already substantially enlarged Durrani colonial largesse by 50%. This contentious boundary reconfigured historically very well-established patterns of seasonal commercial mobility from and through the Hindu Kush to South Asia, that further distinguished the economic spaces of Afghanistan and British India cum Pakistan while also politically re-connecting them in new ways that privileged rulers in Kabul as locally legitimizing agents for national borders desired, paid for, and surveilled primarily by imperial actors. Afghanistan’s imperial borders inaugurated the structural dependency of Durrani rulers in Kabul on the international system that became the primary yet opaque arbiter of new forms of and purposes for Afghan mobility beyond these historically brand new national territorial confines.
The Quest for Modernity: New Global Dependencies and Migrations in the Twentieth Century
The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 is the least warlike of the three so-called British colonial wars in Afghanistan. It involved minor border skirmishes and an ominous aerial bombardment of Kabul that established an imperial precedent for the twenty-year American tempest of bombs imprecisely and indiscriminately layered upon the innocent Afghan people who had absolutely nothing to do with the events of 11 September 2001. The 1919 war-not war resulted in Afghanistan’s formal independence from British India that ended the subsidy and began a metaphorical feeding frenzy by a wide assortment of international actors eager to extend patronage to the Kabuli political elite whose ready acceptance of these offerings intensified their dependence on a widening range of increasingly unfamiliar resources. A new set of global economic and political opportunities impacted patterns of mobility for the political, administrative and intellectual elite, while ordinary Afghans faced new obstacles in crossing national and international boundaries.
Rather than evaporating upon Afghan independence, British influence on the Kabuli political elite was amplified in many ways after 1919. The difference was that British influence and connections in Kabul were now joined by many other competitive suitors, particularly the French and Germans. From the 1920s through the1940s hundreds of Afghan state elites studied or trained in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and other locations in Europe, while hundreds of Europeans diplomats and bureaucrats, many with their families, as well as independent capitalists and entrepreneurs, plied their material, scientific, and ideological wares to commercial, administrative and intellectual elites in Kabul.
During the Cold War, the circuitry of international relations involving Afghanistan structurally shifted in accordance with the bipolarity of the global system after World War II. In this period, thousands of Afghans were sent for various forms of education and training throughout the world but mainly to the United States and the Soviet Union and its favored eastern European allies. The Afghans sent abroad now included proportionally more students than professional classes, and some of the fields involved were political and military sciences, education, engineering, medicine, dentistry, hydrology, and police administration. In broad measure, it may appear that Afghans gained military and ideological training primarily in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and economic and scientific training primarily in the US and western Europe. However, the reality was much more complex with, for example, Afghans studying in the US adopting progressive socialist political principles rather than a capitalist ethos.
The international presence in Afghanistan during the Cold War revolved primarily around major economic development projects with, for example, the US funding hydroelectric dams and related infrastructure (roads, schools, hospitals, airports) construction in the south, and the Soviet Union doing the same in the north. In addition to this official presence, the US and USSR were also developing and practising new forms of espionage over one another in Afghanistan, and international studying and training opportunities became a major component of superpower surveillance and covert influence over the elite classes in Kabul.
International Occupational Violence, Global Migrations and Local Im/mobility
The global patronage of Afghan political, military and intellectual elites during the Cold War is a key aspect of both the April 1978 socialist revolution and December 1979 Soviet invasion. During the nine-year Soviet occupation, Afghans became the world’s largest refugee population with between four and six million primarily economic migrants in Pakistan and Iran, and multiple hundreds of thousands more in Europe, Australia, and the US where a large portion of the Kabuli merchant class relocated. This massive outward migration paired with a large and significant inward migration organized around the US response to the Soviet invasion. The US response was an increasingly expansive and expensive covert operation with global range that was locally centered in Peshawar, and it generated a global flow of Muslims toward Afghanistan in service of a CIA-funded anti-Soviet jihad. The diverse demography (upper, middle and lower-class African, American, Arab, Asian, European Muslims) of mujahideen ideologically gravitating or financially lured to the Afghanistan battlefield reflected the cosmopolitanism and varied personal motivations and collective aspirations comprising the Muslim world.
On a local level, the Soviet and mujahideen landmining of the Hindu Kush mountain passages and valley pasturelands impeded and continues to restrict mobility around Kabul, in borderland areas of the eastern Afghan provinces Nangarhar, Logar, Khost and Paktiya, and across the Durand Line. The 1980s Cold War conflict in Afghanistan also generated major new intertwined global commodity and social flows, outwardly related to opium and inwardly related to armaments. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan was much more than a military conflict between Soviet and Afghan forces alone as conveyed by the Soviet-Afghan War label. Rather, it was a superheated local flashpoint of a multifaced overt and covert global Cold War between the US and USSR and their respective blocs of allies, clients and customers that complexified and militarized patterns of human and resource mobility to and through Afghanistan.
The Soviets departed in 1989 and the progressive government of Afghanistan headed by Dr. Najibullah remained in place until he voluntarily relinquished power to a consortium of mujahideen parties in 1992, before being betrayed by them and taking refuge in the United Nations compound. For the next four years Kabul and the country as a whole was decimated by intra-mujahideen party violence that involved profoundly more dire consequences for Afghan civilians, especially women and children. Wide-ranging human rights violations, including rampant sexual violence against women and children, partially account for the emergence of the Taliban out of and in opposition to the lawlessness of the CIA-spawned Afghan mujahideen. The Taliban came to prominence in Qandahar in 1994 and captured Herat the next year. In 1996 the Taliban assumed control of Kabul where the limited infrastructure had been thoroughly decimated and the population terrorized by constant shelling, abductions, assassinations and rapes since 1992. The Taliban and their Pakistani ISI collaborators inaugurated their own misdeeds in conjunction with a demonstration of impotence by the international community that resulted in the execution of Dr. Najibullah which created a deep and damaging chasm in the national body politic. The Taliban gained control over Mazar-e Sharif in 1998 and continued in power until October 2001.
CIA and ISI collaboration also attracted Saudi ideological and material resources, and this symbiotic covert consortium courted Afghan, Pakistani and global mujahideen bent on cannibalizing the Afghan state corpse. The seven primary mujahideen parties inflicted highly ethnicized violence against one another, while rogue factions and individuals perpetrated increasingly wanton violence against innocents in Afghanistan and in the sprawling refugee camps in Pakistan. Taliban rule in Afghanistan emerged out of this trans-border epidemic of covertly funded violence produced through CIA, ISI and Saudi collusion with the mujahideen. In structural terms, the Taliban relied more directly on Pakistani ISI and Saudi patronage and influence, but their CIA support continued. In practice, the Taliban operated on a different set of coercive principles that inflicted far lesser doses of lethal force and much more public symbolic violence in urban areas especially. By amplifying the visibility of Qandahar as a locus of cultural and political power, Taliban rule de-centered Kabul and highlighted the strength of the rural zone, thus inverting colonial and mimetic national projections of power from Kabul to its peripheries and regional provincial capitals. The Taliban governed through tiered collective leadership councils rather through singular, scattered authorities voicing state policies. Most significantly, Taliban governance involved a high level of mobility in the dispensation of law, and this modern feature bears some historical resemblance to much older forms of mobile kingship practiced over millennia in and around the Hindu Kush.
The US-led international invasion and twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan involved an unprecedented level of indiscriminate aerial bombardment, an awkward series of crudely staged experimental political shadow puppet theatrics involving national elections and other forms of political representation, and a litany of war crimes and human rights abuses perpetrated against Afghan civilians. The most notable features of governance during the American imperium in Afghanistan were a hyper-fixation on Kabul, the fetishization of ethnicity as the singular political currency, and the outsourcing of governing responsibilities through the yoke of military occupation to international humanitarian organizations who objected to their civil society work being subjugated to the military and political logics and exigencies of the Global War on Terror.
The US presence in Afghanistan involved systemic illegalities (e.g., drone assassinations, night raid abductions, a torture regime utilizing local and global black sites resulting in an International Criminal Court indictment for War Crimes), constant military experimentation (e.g., new counterinsurgency theories organized around the Human Terrain System and Provincial Reconstruction Teams, new munitions such as the Mother of All Bombs, sound and pain rays for crowd control, biometric and electronic surveillance technologies, etc.) that brought exorbitant profits to the US military industrial complex (especially its corporate conglomerates such as Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, MacDonald Douglas, and Raytheon), an increasing reliance on military contractors (e.g., Blackwater-XE-Academi and DynCorps) and, most perniciously, covert operations involving the CIA and as many as fifteen other US intelligence agencies. The 2001-2021 US presence turned Afghanistan into a testing ground for drone- and intelligence-based covert warfare by executive fiat alone that has become routinized and now increasingly serves as foreign policy while remaining fully veiled from US public view and US Congressional oversight.
Regarding patterns of mobility during the American occupation of Afghanistan, the basic structure was that international military and humanitarian actors could move when and where they wanted, while Afghans faced increasingly hard choices and often faced mortal consequences when practising ordinary forms of mobility, such as economic movements related to the spatial distribution of markets or ritual mobility related to life-course events, especially weddings and funerals. These conditions produced continuous large-scale out-migration and the development of a further layer of Afghan refugee populations around the world from Asia and the Pacific to Europe and the Americas.
The Future of War, Governance and Mobility in Afghanistan
Afghanistan was co-produced by Durrani political elites in Kabul eager to accommodate expanding British imperial desires to reconfigure historic patterns of mobility through the Hindu Kush in exchange for financial and military subsidies. A counter-intuitive form of independence from British India in 1919 allowed Durrani leaders in Kabul to avail themselves of a much greater range of international patrons and forms of patronage such that state elites became increasingly desirous of and dependent on the global system. Since 1979 Afghanistan has been subjected to competing sets of overt and covert international military and political influences that have resulted in seemingly unlimited access to and mobility through Afghanistan for non-Afghans and increasingly perilous movements for Afghans inside and outside the country. The unjust spatial disparities of external access and exploitation in relation to internal poverty and escape require radical inversion if Afghanistan is to survive as a territorial unit of political economy in its current form.
The overt and covert internationalized violence inflicted on the people and territory of Afghanistan over the past two centuries represents less a pattern of state-on-state war than a series of imperial occupations, dispensations of extreme, often vengeful coercion, organized criminality involving theft and rape as well as material and environmental destruction. These episodes of imperial violence have created and exacerbated ethnic tensions in Afghanistan. As such, moving forward for the benefit of the innocent Afghan people who have been decimated and eviscerated by the global nation-state system, the Taliban and all potential future governments of Afghanistan should immediately take the following steps.
The first priority is to recognize the imperial production of ethnicity as the primary tool for the domination and exploitation of the Afghan people and the manipulation of state politics. Relatedly, Afghan political leaders must recognize the full historic depth and range of their colonial heritage and imperial dependencies. An objective and candid appraisal of the historical record leads to an irrefutable crypto-colonial situation where self-proclaimed national elites of all ideological persuasions who wield power in Kabul reproduce and amplify colonial representations of themselves and perpetuate intellectual, economic, political and military dependencies and race-based inequalities that characterize colonial encounters and imperial relations. Critical awareness of ethnicization and other crypto-colonial processes at work in the consciousness of Kabuli elites will be liberating and, more importantly, open up avenues of political and cultural resistance to empires and imperial pretentions no matter their metropolitan points of origin.
Once released from the intellectual shackles of false historical consciousness it then becomes immediately imperative for rulers in Kabul to embark upon a sustained commitment to disseminating their newfound awareness of deleterious imperial effects to Afghan society at large. This crucial second step will require innovative pedagogical strategies that must cohere across localities and throughout the educational system and institutional infrastructure to achieve their liberating potential. In this regard, the Taliban model of information and personnel circulation through an organizational structure appears better attuned to the rural zone and inter-urban communication and may hold more promise than political models that concentrate information and power in a singular and exclusive centripetal manner.
Political elites in Kabul typically ‘jump-scale’ and look to international patrons to supply information and resources that keep them in power. Future governments need to look inward and rigorously cultivate local knowledge and resources. This agenda can begin with existential realities, particularly food shortages and the catastrophic environmental impact of the American military presence in Afghanistan. How is it that Afghanistan went from exporting food to importing food in the twentieth century? Any answer to that question must confront the role of international actors promoting development by providing technologies and resources to the political elites in Kabul who are, in the last instance, responsible for the failure of economic and political development technique and technologies, and the resulting hunger and starvation that has impacted ordinary Afghan lives and communities for generations now.
Future governments must also work hard to gather and circulate information about the environmental impact of the American military presence in Afghanistan. American bombs have left depleted uranium in the groundwater that has poisoned all life forms and led to birth defects among humans and animals. Burn pits at American bases have left toxins in surface soils, and military vehicles have polluted air in the Kabul valley especially. No food, poisoned soil, polluted water, and genetic deformities, these are the conditions Americans bequeathed to future rulers in and the people of Afghanistan. The cumulative environmental impact of the American imperial experiment in Afghanistan impedes not only future agricultural self-sufficiency, but the very habitability of the territory. Future governments in Afghanistan must aggregate this calamitous environmental information and circulate it to the Afghan people. This will build local popular knowledge and political consensus around the shared historical experience of natural resources depletion. In this effort, it will be important for future governments in Afghanistan to maximize the value of Islamic environmental ethics involving, for example, the democratic bases of water consumption and the sanctity of trees. With a popular national political consciousness organized around how imperial conduct and imperial dependencies have imperiled the environment and human habitation throughout the country, future leaders and governing agendas will be in a stronger position to engage the people of Afghanistan and mobilize the international community for large-scale, immediate and sustained collective advocacy and action for the remediation of Afghanistan’s natural resource base involving most importantly the water supply, forest products and top soil fertility.
Shah Mahmoud Hanifi is Professor of History at James Madison University where he teaches courses on the Middle East and South Asia. Hanifi’s publications have addressed subjects including colonial political economy and intellectual history, the Pashto language, photography, cartography, animal and environmental studies, and Orientalism in Afghanistan.