How have the Taliban, despite being defeated within months in autumn 2001, managed to beat the US in such an asymmetrical conflict? The West’s defeat stems from the flawed vision of Afghanistan produced by experts from thinktanks, governments, universities, international and Afghan NGOs, and private companies. This vision is a work of imaginary anthropology that sees Afghan society as local in its preoccupations and resistant to the state’s presence in any form. The notion of a culture of opposition to Kabul, although contradicted by recent historiography, keeps resurfacing in reports, articles and books on the West’s intervention, and even in official discourse.
General Stanley McChrystal, in his Commander’s Initial Assessment on assuming command of western forces in 2009, said: ‘Historical grievances reinforce connections to tribal or ethnic identity and can diminish the appeal of a centralised state. All ethnicities, particularly the Pashtuns, have traditionally sought a degree of independence from the central government’. Most experts contrasted a ‘distant’, ‘illegitimate’ and ultimately ‘artificial’ state with a local reality characterised as ‘close’, ‘legitimate’ and ‘natural’. In this view, physical proximity was the guarantor of familiarity and personal relationships, in contrast to the cold bureaucratic logic of the state.
Institutions responsible for ‘development’ frequently used the same received idea, enabling them to sidestep the existing state apparatus. Championing the local justified bypassing the Afghan government in favour of local assemblies (jirga, shura). International aid organisations presented these as traditional, but in fact they created them (as with the village shuras in the World Bank’s National Solidarity Programme). Fixating on the local also gave public policies an ethnic dimension. Pashtun traditions were invoked to circumvent substantive law, for example on inheritance and marriage, and Uzbek, Hazara and Tajik (…)
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Adam Baczko &
Adam Baczko is a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique — Centre de Recherches Internationales (CNRS-CERI), and author of La Guerre par le droit: Les tribunaux Taliban en Afghanistan (War by law: Afghanistan’s Taliban courts), CNRS Éditions, Paris, 2021; Gilles Dorronsoro is a researcher at the Centre Européen de Sociologie et de Science Politique (CESSP), Paris 1 University, and author of Le Gouvernement transnational de l’Afghanistan: Une si prévisible défaite (Afghanistan’s transnational government: such a predictable defeat), Karthala, Paris, 2021.
(3) The United States Army and Marine Corps, The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, University of Chicago Press, 2007.
(4) Jim Gant, One Tribe at a Time: a Strategy for Success in Afghanistan, Nine Sisters Imports, Los Angeles, 2009.
(5) Bernt Glatzer, ‘The Pashtun tribal system’, in Georg Pfeffer and Deepak Kumar Behera (eds), Contemporary Society: Concept of Tribal Society, Concept Publishers, New Delhi, 2002.
(6) Ronald E Neumann, The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan, Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2011.
(9) The Deoband Madrasa (India) was founded in 1867 as a reaction to British colonialism.
(10) The following quotes are from Adam Baczko, La Guerre par le droit: Les tribunaux Taliban en Afghanistan (War by law: Afghanistan’s Taliban courts), Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2021.