Reprinted from Anthropology News January 2004




What Caused the Collapse of the State Infrastructure of Afghanistan?



M. Jamil Hanifi




In his article “Speaking Out on War, Peace and Power” in the November AN, Roberto Gonzalez raises a number of important points regarding the contributions of anthropology and anthropologists to foreign policy discourse.  I wish to address only his view that had the US government taken the advice of an Afghan anthropologist to “not abandon” Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the “Taliban’s rise might have been less likely” and, by implication, the Afghan state might not have collapsed.


 On the “Abandonment” Theory

This kind of oblique hypothesizing is typical of the thinking in Western media and academic tracts about the devastation of Afghanistan. However, a closer, on-the-ground, local examination reveals that the popular “abandonment” theory has neither ethnographic moorings nor historical validity. On the one hand, this widely used perspective misrepresents and oversimplifies the root causes of the destruction of the infrastructure of Afghanistan and the gravity of the implosion of a multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-tribal (albeit soft) state structure. On the other hand, it whitewashes the enormous cost and complexity of the rehabilitation and reconstruction of an imploded state.


By 1989 the decline of the Afghan state was well underway and pleas for interruption of the flow of arms were not only late by almost ten years but were uninformed by the dramatic changes that had already taken place there. Moreover, the couching of such pleas in distortions like “Afghanistan can boast of nearly 300 years of recorded history of self-rule” (Ashraf Ghani, Los Angeles Times, 1089, pt II, p 7, emphasis added) could only have added confusion to the cynicism of neo-colonialists who made (and continue to make) fateful political decisions about Afghanistan.


In that same LA Time op-ed the American-trained Afghan anthropologist (now Minister of Finance in the US-appointed Interim Kabul government) had in 1989 suggested the “delaying [of] any shipment of arms…[to the mujahidin] mercenaries” and to help bring about an “interim government truly representative of the Afghan people.” Neither Ghani nor Gonzalez mention (or perhaps realize) the profound disruptive impact of billions of dollars and massive quantities of means of destruction that were introduced by the USSR and the US (and its oil rich ally, Saudi Arabia), with the facilitation of Pakistan, into Afghanistan during 1979-1989.


 Transformations in Afghanistan

The destabilization of Afghanistan over the last 25 years has resulted in four major overlapping transformations: 1) the center has collapsed causing the center-periphery relationship to evaporate; 2) the national market of Afghanistan has disappeared; 3) ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, and regional contrasts have become robust and assertive; 4) fundamentalist Islamist ideologies have become powerful transparent forces in the construction of self and the structure of political and social life of Afghanistan. All these changes have been induced by the introduction of new material resources and radical ideological orientation of the left and right.


The introduction and competitive distribution of vast amounts of external resources (overwhelming by Afghan and regional standards) by the US into the Afghan periphery, and by the USSR into the Afghan center during the 1980s, converted the quiescent traditional balance of socio-cultural variations into competing and fiery ethno-linguistic, sectarian and regional cleavages. By pouring billions of dollars and massive quantities of weapon into the Afghan periphery through the recruitment, training and arming of tens of thousands of local mujahidin mercenaries and by inventing the ideology of their assembly line jihad, the US radically altered the balance of center-periphery and intra-periphery relations in the country. As early as the summer of 1980, these changes and contrasts and tensions could easily be observed in the behavior of Afghan opposition factions managed and subsidized by the US and its allies. As an adaptation to the weakened center, alternative social and political arrangements for local governance in the periphery emerged and assumed increasing autonomy and self-sufficiency. These arrangements characterize present day center-less Afghanistan.


The changes in the political economy of Afghanistan and Afghan Islam had begun long before the Soviets left the country in 1989 and shortly after the US assumed sponsorship of the mujahidin in the early 1980s, at the same time encouraging Wahabi fundamentalists and other Muslim extremists to have access to the country. The withdrawal of the USSR and the corresponding reduction of the underwriting of the mujahidin by the US are events that, ipso facto, have little to do with the collapse of Afghanistan, the emergence of Taleban, or the infestation of the country by al-Qaeda. The seeds for these transformations were sown during the early 1980s. In fact, had the US stayed on in the region and continued funding its Afghan clients, the exacerbated political, ethnic, and sectarian contrasts would have assumed even sharper, bloodier, more articulate and organized forms, as they did from 1992 to 2001 when the Wahabis and Iran replaced the US as the source of weapon and cash. In fact, Russia picked up where the USSR had left off, only this time it concentrated on the non-Paxtun mujahidin factions. It is during this period that al-Qaeda drove deep and wide reaching roots in Afghanistan.


Notable in the USSR’s role in the collapse of Afghanistan’s state infrastructure was its bolstering of the Afghan center’s destructive ability and radicalization of the thinking and behavior of the Kabuli leftists (more anti-Western than doctrinaire Marxists); in a way, the opposite of the role of the US. In comparative terms, the Soviet Union corrupted the Afghan center by encouraging its revolutionary and anti-Western rhetoric, socialist policies and behavior – thereby moving it to the extreme left of traditional Afghan relations of power and political discourse. The US corrupted the periphery by converting its tolerant and flexible folk Islam into inflexible anti-communist and, after 1989, anti-Western, radical fundamentalist rhetoric and behavior – thereby moving it to the extreme right of traditional Afghan relations of power and political discourse. Paralleling this alteration were rapidly increasing intra-periphery tensions and armed confrontations. The center-periphery and intra-periphery courses of armed conflict ultimately caused the disappearance of the Afghan center and the atomization of its periphery.


These violent confrontations continued, and together with the debris of the fall of Kabul in April 1992, frame the 1992-to-present political dynamics in the country. The various extreme elements are currently scattered all over Afghanistan and are nested in virtually all organized political groups in the country. They dictate the content, pace and tone of Afghan political discourse. Unless these extremes negotiate their differences without arms and violence, Afghanistan will continue on its current course of decline into further instability. And unless this process is so carefully managed as to make it gradual, peaceful and successful, there is a good chance that the country will disintegrate into smaller units. On no other level is the task of rebuilding the infrastructure of Afghanistan more daunting than in integrating its vast and complex socio-cultural diversity in the framework of a nation-state.


 Discussion of “Afghan” Identity

There has never been a frank, critical, and open discussion about who or what is an “Afghan” and how an “Afghan” has been conceptualized by various ethno-linguistic groups and government elites in Afghanistan nor by academics inside and outside the country, notably Western anthropologists with experience there. This taboo was part of a policy crafted by the non-Paxtun, Persian-speaking elite that dominated the state bureaucracy over the last 250 years – especially since the 1890s when the country's current borders were colonially constructed. Leaving this question unattended enabled the central government to manipulate one group against another, Paxtuns versus non-Paxtuns, Sunni against Shi’a, region against region. Any serious attempt at the re-integration and rebuilding of Afghanistan requires open and free discussion of this crucial issue. Avoiding or postponing it will, sooner than later, turn the country into entities in which the categories “Afghan” and “Afghanistan” will have no applicability.




M Jamil Hanifi ( is an independent scholar of anthropology and the history of Afghanistan. He is the author of “Anthropology and the Representations of Recent Migrations from Afghanistan” in Rethinking Refuge and Displacement (2000).