Afghanistan’s Global Entanglements

by Magnus Marsden

For many viewers in the West, the horrific scenes at Kabul airport in August 2021 appeared to suggest that after a brief period of international intervention, Afghanistan had once again resumed its isolated position in world affairs. Against the backdrop of those tragic scenes, leading military officials and politicians in the UK depicted Afghanistan as a fundamentally inward-looking society. The international intervention, they argued, had ushered parts of Afghanistan into the modern era, introducing democracy, creating a civil society, and securing women’s rights. Yet, the enduring division between the country’s urban centres and rural regions made the return of the Taliban inevitable.

If twenty years of international intervention had turned Afghanistan’s cities into vibrant if isolated islands of progressive social life, the narrative goes, then rigid tribal social structures continued to shape life in its villages. The only forms of political loyalty of significance in such parts of Afghanistan, the generals opined, were those rooted in viscerally local bonds of blood and tribe. The UK’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, a military figure with a penchant for “tribal studies”, went as far as describing the Taliban as “country boys” committed to “Pashtunwali,” the “tribal code” of the Pashto-speaking peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Carter, it was local and tribal affiliations that led influential actors to switch allegiances in the face of the Taliban’s military momentum, the result being the collapse of the Afghan National Army and with it the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.  

Depictions of Afghanistan as a society divided by a boundary between urban centres and rural communities is a long-standing yet unhelpful trope in thinking about the country. For centuries, global dynamics have informed the dynamics of the territories making up Afghanistan and the lives of its people, rural and urban. In the early modern era, the people living in the territories now known as Afghanistan traded the horses upon which the expansion of the great Islamic empires of Asia depended. In the nineteenth century, Afghan transporters – often categories as “trading tribes” – moved goods from India to Central Asia, bolstering the coffers of both the British and Russian Empires as they did. The significance of the territories that currently form Afghanistan to these types of economic activity meant that far from being home to some static “peasant economy”, capitalism was long embedded in the everyday life of the country’s cities and villages.

In the twentieth century, Afghan men and women played an active role in multiple and oft-competing movements of political reform and modernisation. In South Asia, in the 1920s, Afghanistan occupied an important destination on the itineraries of Indian Muslim socialists; in the 1930s, leading proponents of modern forms of Muslim political life in the 1930s regarded a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan as being central to the fortunes of Asia more widely. After the end of the Second World War, Afghanistan, like so many countries in the “third world”, was gradually yet inexorably sucked into the vortex of the “Cold War”. Kabul University played a critical role in the emergence of student organisations that advocated a wide range of Islamist and socialist ideologies. By the 1980s, Western governments openly declared political leaders from Afghanistan who claimed to represent and preserve the country’s “traditions” as “freedom fighters”. By contrast, those in Afghanistan who were invested in modernising projects were casually written off as representing the interests of a bourgeois elite. These depictions failed to acknowledge the extent to which the social and political divisions in Afghanistan during this period arose in the context of the “global Cold War”, a conflict that was hot more than cold and that bifurcated social relations rather than being simply a geopolitical contest.

The depiction of Afghanistan as a society fundamentally split between city and country similarly fails to take account of the historical context in which the Taliban, the movement that General Carter and others claim represents “rural Afghanistan,” emerged. The forms of Islam advocated by the Taliban arose not in Afghanistan’s villages and tribes but, instead, in the intellectually effervescent small towns of British India. The year 1886 saw the founding of a religious college (madrassa) in the north Indian town of Deoband. In the decades that followed, the school of thought (maslak) established in this college expanded its influence through networks of institutions and like-minded scholars across South Asia. The imprint of the British Indian context on this movement of religious reform was evident in multiple respects, including its organisation of religious knowledge into a curriculum (dars-e nizami) and the rigid timetabling of the school day. The establishment by the Deobandi College of “old boy networks” underscores the influence of the colonial context.

Afghanistan-Tajikistan border by Magnus Marsden

From the late nineteenth century onwards, people from different regions of Afghanistan – urban and rural – studied in the classrooms and courtyards of the college in the Deoband, and in its sister institutions across northern British India. Until at least the 1960s, locals in Afghanistan associated students of the college not with traditionalism but, rather, the bringing of dangerously modern influences into the country. A friend from the north-eastern province of Badakhshan told me that his grandfather – having been observed by his fellow villages listening to a radio – was accused of having become an infidel during his years of study in Deoband. Ironically, in later years my friend was himself labelled an infidel by his fellow villagers, though now because of his support for a leftist political party in Afghanistan.

The Deobandi School emphasised a programme of education in South Asian Islam that sought to reform but not eliminate Sufi concepts and practices. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the school of thought’s teachings underwent a profound shift in Pakistan. Reeling from the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, increasingly influenced by “petro-dollars” from the Gulf States, and divided ethnically and politically, calls in Pakistan for Islam to play a more prominent role in the organisation of state and society grew. In this context, scholars and colleges affiliated to Deobandi teaching and principles developed a more political and militant approach to being Muslim. A political party established by Deobandi scholars in 1947 (the Jamiat Ulamai-i- Islam) became an increasingly vocal advocate of the “Islamisation” of society. In the 1980s, Western governments funnelled support for the war against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan by way of Pakistan-based “mujahidin” organisations and institutions, including an increasing number of madrassas. By the mid-1990s, this different expression of Deobandi thought, identity and political mobilisation formed the ideological backbone of the Taliban. Many other Islamic organisations and movements active in Afghanistan also drew inspiration from trends in Muslim thought important elsewhere in the world, from Khartoum and Medina, and London and Qom. Today, the influence of movements advocating “global Islam” is as visible in the supposedly static cultures of Afghanistan’s rural regions – north and south – as much as in the country’s cities.

Afghanistan’s relationships with the outside world has not solely been concerned with the relationship between religion and politics, but also commerce. From the 1960s onwards, thousands of Afghans travelled to the Soviet Union for training and education. After the collapse of the Afghan state in 1992, these educated people switched their activities from the sphere of politics to that of the economy. They established small but vibrant communities in Moscow and Kiev, Odessa and Rostov on Don, and many places beside, earning a living by trading in the commodities they imported. Decades before talk of the US’s “new Silk Road” or China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” people from Afghanistan forged commercial routes that connected multiple Asian contexts to one another. Traders from Afghanistan’s cities, towns and villages, stocked the bazaars of the newly independent Central Asian republics with food products from Iran and South Asia, for example; they were also critical to the commercial and construction sectors of Pakistan and Iran.

Far from being the passive observers of their country’s global entanglements, people from across a range of locations in Afghanistan – some more “rural,” some more “urban” – have directly experienced and participated in multiple processes of change and transformation over the past century and more. They are conscious and reflective of these processes, and their active role in them. Depictions of the country that overlook this history of participation and depict a society divided into rural and urban are simply inaccurate.

Culturally versatile and multi-lingual people who are conversant in not only their own rich traditions of debate, poetry, art, the learning of the religious sciences and logical thinking, but also those of their neighbours and the wider world, Afghanistan’s populations have not simply been on the receiving end of trends and processes emerging from outside the country. From laying the grounds of “new Silk Roads,”, to developing hybrid musical forms, and purveying and adapting the country’s famed and ever-evolving cuisine, Afghanistan’s internally diverse and flexible culture has shaped the experiences of people in many contexts in Asia and beyond.

The NATO-led intervention failed to appreciate the depth of Afghanistan’s global connections, and the profound ways in which the country’s pivotal position in multiple geopolitical processes and conflicts have affected its culture and society, as well as the multiple and shifting identities of its people. Instead, policy makers have tended to view Afghanistan through a colonial-era paradigm that depicts it as unremittingly isolated, exceptional, and tribal. From the outset, the NATO intervention marginalised multiple actors of various political positions from debate and discussion about the country’s future, excluding them from the political structures of the Republic. This narrow, rigid and flawed understanding of Afghanistan eventually resulted in NATO policy-makers themselves arguing that the unbridgeable division between urban and rural contexts in Afghanistan had made the return to power of the Taliban inevitable. As regional states seek to play a greater role in Afghanistan’s affairs, it is now more important than ever before that they pay attention to the dynamic and sophisticated nature of Afghanistan’s society and the multiple, deep, and socially mediated connections its citizens have forged with the wider world. Recognising the sophistication and multi-dimensionality of these connections can be one important step in establishing a polity that reflects the diverse political and cultural aspirations of the country’s people.

Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of the Sussex Asia Centre at the University of Sussex; he is also the Chief Academic Advisor of the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies. He has conducted research over more than two decades in South and Central Asia and his most recent publications include Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants across Modern Frontiers (Oxford, 2016) and Beyond the Silk Roads: Trade, Mobility and Geopolitics across Eurasia (Cambridge, 2021).

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