Are Afghans really a nation? Truth is, this question can be asked of all nations. After all, the ideas of nationalism and the nation-state are not more than 250 years old. They are a product of what is often referred to as ‘modernity’ and/or a set of political, economic and social ideas that aimed to replace the ‘pre-modern’ with the ‘modern.’
Modernity was a product of the West. It emerged from years of chaos triggered by the gradual erosion of pre-modern conditions and the rise of the middle-classes. To challenge the primary centres of power of the pre-modern world —mainly the monarchy, the landed elites and the Church — the emerging new classes began to build their own vessels that were more suited to sail the choppy waters of rapid change sweeping Europe.
Integrated economies began to take shape, bolstered by Europe’s colonial conquests. Combined with an emphasis on science and reason to understand and rationalise the present and to chart a way forward, this gave birth to the idea of integrated polities residing in a nation-state. A state powered by market economics and industrialisation, regulated by constitutionalism, and populated by a ‘nation’ with shared languages, histories and a depoliticised version of a shared religion.
Western modernity was mushrooming when various European powers began to conquer and colonise regions outside Europe. The colonised regions were still under the sway of ‘pre-modern’ conditions that were clearly eroding in a world turned on its head. Local intellectual elites began to sprout in colonised regions. They believed that colonial powers could not be challenged by pre-modern ideas and means. Instead, they advocated the modernisation of their own communities and the formation of their own nations to throw off the yoke of European colonialism.
A combination of internal forces and external influences shaping present-day Afghan nationalism threatens to plunge the country into what it was before the 19th century
Forming nations is a complex task. Especially when it also requires the creation of myths and concocted historical narratives that are then romanticised as proofs of the organic homogeneity of a people brought together as a nation. The creation of the Afghan nation constituted similar elements.
But the difference between nation-formation in the West and elsewhere was that the West had already witnessed an expansion of the middle classes. This was not the case in other regions. Modernity and its products — including nationalism — in the colonies, were largely adopted and propagated by small groups of modernised intelligentsias.
Various studies on the evolution of Afghan nationalism place the emergence (and re-emergence) of the Taliban as the latest expression of Afghan nationalism. But this thesis is often refuted by those who understand the Taliban as an expression of anti-nationalism. They see the group as one of the many examples of Islamist militancy that was created and bolstered in the 1980s by anti-communist forces. But if this means the Taliban are a concoction of an anti-nationalist mindset, then nationalism was a modernist construct and equally non-organic.
Before the late 19th century, the area which became Afghanistan was populated by various competing tribal and ethnic fiefdoms. The Pashtun were a majority but they were often at war with each other and with other ethnic groups. The tension between Russia in the region’s north and Britain’s colony in India in the east and south shaped the map of Afghanistan that we know today.
In the late 19th century, after reaching a costly stalemate in its wars with Pashtun tribes, the British began to support Abdur Rahman Khan as the ‘Emir of Afghanistan,’ despite him being a reactionary despot. Abdur Rahman used exceptionally violent means to incorporate non-Pashtun areas and groups into his emirate, which began to be seen by the British as a buffer between imperial Russia and British India.
Abdur Rahman was succeeded by his son Habibullah Khan in 1901. He began to overturn many of his father’s policies. According to Omar Sadr, in his book Negotiating Cultural Diversity in Afghanistan, Habibullah founded a college in Kabul called Habibya to create a modern elite of intellectuals and civil servants to serve the monarchy.
The idea of an Afghan nationalism began to emerge from Habibya. It called for complete sovereignty from British political influence, a constitutional monarchy, and the modernisation of economy and education. But it also propagated Pashto as the country’s only national language.
In 1918, Habibullah’s son Amanullah came to power. It was under him that Afghanistan became a sovereign state. In 1923, the Amanullah regime authored the country’s first constitution, which declared Afghanistan a constitutional monarchy. A plethora of literature was produced to historicise Afghan nationhood, as if it had existed long before the 19th century.
Amanullah’s reforms included emancipation of women (including removing the veil), compulsory education, co-educational schools, separation of mosque and state, monogamy, and education of rural folk. His idol in this context was the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kamal Ataturk. The Afghan nationalist project was a curious mixture of modernisation, monarchism, constitutionalism and secularism.
Footprints: Splendour falls on Afghan palace
In 1973, Afghan nationalism finally adopted the next stage of nationalism, which is republicanism, when the monarchy was toppled in a coup by King Zahir Shah’s cousin, Sardar Daud. He declared Afghanistan a republic.
But by then, the modernist projects in most former European colonies that had become nation-states, seemed to have run their course. The world was apparently entering a ‘postmodern’ age. As Muslim nation-states now began their shift towards a more theocratic path, Afghanistan jumped from late republicanism to sudden socialism. In 1978, a communist coup toppled Daud and drew Soviet forces into Afghanistan.
Over the next two decades, Afghan nationalism split into three competing factions. I will refer to them as version 1 (V1), version 2 (V2) and version 3 (V3). The leftist faction (V1) had emerged from the old modernist faction that had earlier adopted republicanism. The other, anti-left dimension of this faction (V2), began to increasingly appropriate Islamist ideas.
With Saudi, US and Pakistani help, it politicised and then radicalised the clergy that had earlier been kept out of the national project. The Islamist groups were used to oust the leftists in Kabul. But the radicalisation produced another expression of Afghan nationalism (V3), which is entirely Islamist with its own set of historicised mythos, mostly rooted in pre-modern times.
What the US created after its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was a government built on V2, a conservative form of Afghan nationalism that had emerged as a reaction to the 1978 communist coup. V2 has been at war with V3. It is a war that just might return Afghanistan to what it was before the late 19th century: a fragmented whole with competing fiefdoms.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 1st, 2021