Three Longs & Three Shorts

An Afghan tragedy: the Pashtuns, the Taliban and the state

Author: Anatole Lieven
Source: Survival: Global Politics & Strategy (

Those who understand how closely the fates of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are linked will enjoy reading this brilliant analysis of why Afghanistan has been and will be for some time to come a troubled country. The piece also raises powerful questions about whether the rest of the world – and especially the West – can foist upon Afghanistan institutions which are so alien to the Pashtuns:
“It is an old cliché that the Pashtun highlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are highly resistant to state authority, and old masters of ‘the art of not being governed’ (to use James Scott’s phrase). Like so many clichés, this has a real basis in historical fact. The old name ‘Yaghistan’ (the land of lawlessness, rebellion or dissent) was given to them by the people of the region, not by Western observers. This name, and what it indicates, also corresponds very closely to patterns in other Muslim tribal regions….
As an index of the Afghan state’s failure to make its society ‘legible’ (in another phrase of Scott’s), it may be noted that in the whole of modern Afghan history there has never been a census that could be regarded as remotely reliable. As for Max Weber’s classic definition of a state as ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’, that has never been true of Afghanistan. Even when the Afghan state was at its strongest, local communities insisted, usually successfully, on keeping rifles, on conducting limited armed disputes with other kinship groups, and on executing their own members who violated traditional community norms.
Only in the late 1940s, as a result of the import of modern tanks and aircraft, did the Afghan state army become strong enough to defeat a general tribal uprising – and that superiority lasted a bare 30 years. It collapsed with the anti-communist revolts and army mutinies of the late 1970s, and since then, no Afghan state – not even the Taliban, which came closest – has successfully possessed a monopoly of organised armed force across the whole of Afghanistan.
This basic truth obscures an important nuance, however. The Pashtun tribes have not been categorically hostile to state authority as such; after all, Pashtun tribes created the kingdom of Afghanistan in the first place, and most rural Pashtuns accepted Taliban rule in the 1990s willingly enough. Rather, they have been hostile to three kinds of government: those lacking traditional or religious legitimacy; those which force them to pay too many taxes; and those which try rapidly to change their lives, their society and their traditions. In the traditional Pashtun tribal view, the legitimate role of the state, though essential, is also highly limited. Apart from leading the people against invaders, it is to judge tribal disputes, and thereby prevent these disputes from creating a state of permanent warfare. Given the traditional omnipresence of weapons in Pashtun society, and the cultural obsession with honour and prestige, journalist Anand Gopal has observed that ‘the role of dispute resolution in Pashtun society cannot be emphasised enough … In post-2001 Kandahar, the Taliban’s judicial services became one of the key advantages that the movement had over the state.’”
Seen in this light, the Taliban are actually very clever political entrepreneurs i.e. they realised that the West was foisting on the Afghans a bunch of institutions which were neither useful (from an Afghan’s point of view) nor tenable. And thus the Taliban roared back into the big time.
The link we have given above allows you to then go to download the full article. If you read that you will learn that: “In other words, if Pashtuns have often revolted against the Afghan state (whether foreign-backed or purely indigenous), they have often had good reasons to.
There is, however, a reciprocal relationship between state nastiness and tribal resistance. It takes a great deal of nastiness (or at least the threat of it) to persuade tribes to pay taxes, but without taxes, what is the state? Either an impotent shadow, or a dependency of some foreign state and its subsidies. Both of these fates have befallen Afghanistan repeatedly over the past 200 years.
Key to the West’s failure successfully to build a new order in Afghanistan after 2001 was not just an inability to understand the historic alienation of ordinary Afghans in general, and Pashtuns in particular, from ‘their’ state, but also a refusal to recognise that, given the miserable history and eventual collapse of Afghan states, the Taliban may have been the best state-building option left, at least as far as rural Pashtuns were concerned. Not by any means a good option – just better than all the others.”