Ahmad Wali Karzai's story illustrates how the American neoconservatives' way of war allowed entrepreneurs of violence to expand their power in Afghanistan.
Eleven centuries ago, Afghan poet Abu Shukur wrote words which have often haunted rulers of his tormented nation:
“a tree with a bitter seed,
fed with butter and sugar,
will still bear a bitter fruit.”
The assassination of Ahmad Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half-brother and one of the country's most feared men, necessitates a careful reflection on the abiding power of its country's warlords and what their influence portends, as the United States begins scaling down its forces.
Long cultivated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mr. Karzai used his connections to build an empire in Kandahar: an empire that is alleged to have been paid for with cash harvested from the drugs trade as well as business interests that extended from land to transportation and infrastructure projects. Even though the U.S. was well aware of his corruption, leaked diplomatic cables suggest it feared losing a powerful partner in the war against the Taliban.
In a little-noticed speech delivered in the winter of 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush's Defence Secretary, declared that the U.S. was not in Afghanistan “to engage in what some call nation-building.”
That decision gave birth to the Emperor of Kandahar — and demonstrates, as nothing else could, the failure of the neoconservative way of war.
Manufacturing warlords: Modern Afghanistan's foundations are often said to have been laid by Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747. For over a century though, the country remained locked in a near-permanent state of crisis. Lacking domestic resources and hemmed in by powerful neighbours, successive kings simply did not command the cash needed to build a strong state.
From 1880 though, King Abdur Rahman Khan and his successors began to lay the foundations for a modern state, adroitly leveraging competition between imperial Britain and Russia to raise the resources they needed. Afghanistan acquired a standing army and a functioning tax-collection and banking apparatus.
King Zahir Shah, the last Afghan monarch, was deposed in a bloodless coup led by his brother-in-law, Muhammad Daud, in 1973. Daud accelerated the pace of reforms, using aid from the Soviet Union. Five years later, another coup brought the Afghan communist party to power.
Faced with rebellion by traditional tribal elites and clerics, who were incensed at the new regime's programme of land reform and social change, Afghanistan called for military assistance from the Soviet Union. The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan responded to the Soviet intervention by sponsoring Islamist insurgents, sparking off one of the greatest wars of our times.
The war had seismic consequences for Afghanistan's political life. “New Khans,” scholar Antonio Guistozzi has recorded, displaced the traditional leadership. In the main from humble backgrounds, the New Khans were “effective military leaders [who] emerged from the ranks of former officers, political activists, former outlaws and only marginally rural notables.”
In 1992, a coalition of Islamist groups led by Burhanuddin Rabbani — now a key figure in Mr. Hamid Karzai's efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban — came to power in Kabul. It lacked the resources though, to impose its authority over the “New Khan” warlords who had fought the anti-Soviet jihad.
From 1994, the Pakistan-backed clerical networks which called themselves the Taliban began to battle the tide of warlord violence that washed over Afghanistan. In 1996, the Taliban took power in Kabul, and set up a shari'a-based regime, called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Islamic opposition to the Afghan state has a long history. Najamuddin Akhundzada, Mullah of Hada, led what came to be known as the Great Pashtun Rebellion in 1897. His mentor, Sayyid Ahmad of Rae Bareilli, sought to unite the Pashtun tribes to wage a jihad against the Lahore durbar — dying, in 1831, during a battle which still fires the imagination of regional Islamists. Mirza Ali Khan, the Faqir of Ipi, waged a guerrilla war against Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.
Sana Haroon's magnificent history of the region, Frontiers of Faith, has demonstrated that Afghanistan's clerical networks cut across tribal and clan lines, allowing for mobilisation against both the growing influence of the British and the expansion of the Afghan state in the late 19th century.
Even the Taliban was compelled to seek accommodation with the warlords. Elements of groups like the Hizb-e Islami, the Jamiat-e Islami and Junbesh-e Milli — as well as mainly Shi'a groups like the Hizb-e Wahadat — entered into agreements with the Islamic Emirate, allowing them to continue policing their local areas of influence.
The rise of men like Mr. Karzai, Guistozzi has argued, must thus be traced to “the slow and incomplete formation of nationwide social classes and groups” — not to the traditional structures of Afghan tribal life.
Afghanistan had witnessed, to use Guistozzi's evocative term, an extended act of “state-icide.”
Stateicide in Afghanistan: Less than three weeks after the events of 9/11, the Islamic Emirate quickly collapsed — not least because of the defection of its warlord-clients to the side. Few of the victors, though, had any intention of surrendering power to the new central regime they had installed: Ismail Khan declared himself the emir of western Afghanistan; General Abdul Rashid Dostum enjoyed similar authority, if not the title, in Faryab.
In Kandahar, analyst Anand Gopal has noted, the defeat of the Taliban paved the way for a “reversion to the rule of the traditional tribal leadership” — not the flowering of democracy that had been promised.
Kandahar's tribes are broadly divided between the Ghilzai and Durrani confederations. The Durranis are further subdivided between the Zirak and Panjpai tribes — the former historically occupying a privileged status.
The warlord Gul Agha Sherzai used his influence as governor to bring several of his fellow Barkzais, who are a part of the Zirak, into positions of power — reversing the displacement of the tribal aristocracy which took place during the Soviet and Taliban rule. Mr. Karzai, who succeeded him, promoted his sub-tribe, the Popalzai. Not surprisingly, the rising influence of these groups fuelled resentment — and the rebirth of the Islamist insurgency.
Force increasingly came to be used to maintain the warlords' new patronage networks. “There is,” lamented a provincial governor interviewed for a 2004 World Bank-funded study, “currently a paradoxical situation where the international community and government of Afghanistan want to bring security to Afghanistan through those people who don't want security.”
For key policy-makers in the U.S. though, the paradox was not evident. In a thoughtful essay on the U.S.' war in Iraq, scholar Toby Dodge has noted that the neoconservatives grouped around President George W. Bush were deeply hostile to the projects that sought to use state power, basing their opposition on the argument that left to themselves, people would make rational choices, paving the way for a free market economy. Paul Bremmer thus set about dismantling the Iraqi army and bureaucracy; in Afghanistan, administration and security were subcontracted to warlords. Faced with reports of large-scale looting in Baghdad in 2003, Mr. Rumsfeld could blithely observe: “freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes.”
Though President Bush had invoked the memory of post-Second World War reconstruction at the outset of the Afghan campaign, Mr. Rumsfeld successfully argued a long-term presence in Afghanistan would be “unnatural,” even “counter-productive.” In Europe, Japan and South Korea, the U.S. had successfully invested in long-term state-building; in Afghanistan, the neoconservatives were unwilling to put in either the cash or the effort.
Ironic, because the challenge in Afghanistan was, and is, of magnitudes larger than that Europe faced after the horrors of the world war. Post-Nazi Germany had an educated population, a bureaucratic structure, an entrepreneurial tradition and a history of industrialisation. Afghanistan has drugs, a devastated agricultural centre and a population of whom less than one-third can read and write. “Even on the day the Second World War ended,” James Surowiecki noted in an essay written in 2001, “Germany was vastly better off than Afghanistan is today.”
Where might Afghanistan now be headed for? Back in 1985, social scientist Charles Tilly offered a radical reappraisal of the role of organised violence in the making of the modern nation-state. European warlords, Tilly argued, laid the foundations of the modern state system in the centuries after 1400, using the growing revenues from the territories they controlled to build ever-more sophisticated coercive arms to quell domestic opposition and subjugate their rivals.
Popular resistance, though, tempered the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, while economic imperatives restrained states from waging total wars. In countries like Afghanistan, though, these constraints did not apply: external support allowed warlords and insurgents to develop their military capabilities independently of their ability to mobilise resources.
Mr. Karzai was a bleak emblem of Afghanistan's political future: a dystopia brought about by the neoconservative way of war, in which entrepreneurs of violence fused organised crime and politics. Few in Kandhahar will mourn Karzai — but there is little doubt that the political void he has left will be filled by someone similar.