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  • Afghanistan:A New Approach
  • Amin Saikal (bio)

Afghanistan is in the midst of the most critical transformation in its modern history. The Soviet-installed regime of President Najibullah is now more than ever an anomaly on the international scene. Not only is it a stumbling block to peace in Afghanistan, it also appears increasingly incongruous in the post-Cold War world. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the regime has lost its main source of external support. On 13 December 1991, as one of its last official acts, the USSR joined in an agreement with the United States to halt all arms shipments to the warring parties in the Afghan conflict from the beginning of 1992; it has now been confirmed that all such shipments came to a halt before the deadline.1 If this is followed by the cessation of all nonmilitary shipments to the Kabul regime from the former republics of the Soviet Union and other sources, Najibullah will soon find himself in an extremely difficult position.

The crumbling of his regime will usher in a new period during which Afghans will have to rebuild their country out of the ruins left behind by the tragedies of the last 13 years. The task will surely be unprecedentedly complex, painful, and burdensome, and will make stern demands on the patience, perseverance, and ingenuity of the Afghan people. Afghanistan is today a highly fragmented, badly disjointed, and murderously factionalized country. No matter what regime rules in Kabul, repairing the profound and pervasive damage done to the country since [End Page 95] 1979 will in all likelihood require the energy and skills of several generations.

Two key factors have long conditioned the political development of Afghanistan. The first is the heterogeneous nature of the country, which includes a welter of self-contained and territorially entrenched "microsocieties." The second is Afghan society's ancient and complex Islamic heritage.

Each of the microsocieties draws its distinct identity from its unique location within Afghanistan's highly complex and richly variegated pattern of ethnic divisions, tribal cleavages, and linguistic differences. The main ethnic groups in order of size and influence are: the Pushtuns, who mostly populate the south and southeast, followed by the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Aimaq, Nuristani, and Kirghiz, who inhabit mainly the northern, western, and central regions of the country. Each of these groups speaks its own multiple-dialect language, though only two tongues, Pushtu and Dari (a dialect of Persian), have achieved national prominence.

These ethnic divisions are complicated by tribal cleavages. The Pushtuns, for example, fall into two large but historically somewhat hostile groupings, the Durrani and the Ghilzai, each of which is in turn subdivided into a plethora of subtribes, clans, and families. Exacerbating the situation has been the gap between the city-dwellers and country folk, as well as the prominent social distinctions that prevail among rural-dwellers themselves. While rural society may appear merely feudal to the superficial observer, its true character is far more complex. Rural folk have long functioned within their own microsocieties, where authority traditionally resided with a jirgah or shura (assembly) under a local leader whose influence within the assembly could vary widely depending on his social position, mediating skills, and institutional resources. The existence of powerful local institutions of this sort has meant that rural-dwellers have remained largely insulated from their urban fellows.

The second factor is the overwhelming dominance among Afghans of Islam, which has both served as the central binding force of the larger society, and spawned diverse followings along a variety of sectarian and interpretive lines. About 15-20 percent of Afghanistan's population, estimated before the December 1979 Soviet invasion at 15-17 million, belongs to the Shi'ite sect; the rest are Sunnis. Each of these broad categories, moreover, contains a range of different influences that lend considerable variation to the attitudes of the faithful. The Shi'ites, for instance, are divided between those who see themselves as part of a broader Shi'ite world with close links to Iran, and those who see themselves as Afghans first and foremost. Many of Afghanistan's Sunnis are influenced by the mystical piety of Sufism, in particular through...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 95-104
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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