Returning to the Afghan Way of War

With a Taliban offensive taking the country by storm, PhD candidate Mujib Abid examines why both the Kabul’s Government and the Taliban emphasise their commonalities and return to Afghan modes of war, and peace making.

In Afghanistan, there is a long-held tradition in warfare: the defeated are allowed to retire into a life of solitude, an exile of sorts for the combatant or the politician. How often have we heard of the concept of sih-pir, and not char-pir, where the encircled enemy unit is, in a tactically unsound move, allowed an exit route from the field of battle. Senior level PDPA military leaders and Mujahidin commanders have relayed accounts of it to me over the years – in the 1980s, they would deliberately allow one another to retreat, to spare themselves any more bloodshed than is absolutely necessary. The most high-profile case of a slip through, Osama Bin Laden himself, in the much commented upon Battle of Tora Bora in November and December of 2001, could very well have been a case of one of the presiding local commanders, Haji Zaman, allowing the ‘international terrorist’ to slip through the lines as part of an unsanctioned ceasefire. The Americans, of course, to this day hold the man in contempt; his treachery, they maintain, was rewarded by the al-Qaeda. As is noted by Peter Bergen in his book (2011), the reality was far more complex: the Afghan militias helping the CIA and Delta Force units hunt down their number one target had been slow, observing Ramadan, and too independent-minded in their decision making. In practice, it resembled a sort of infusion of Afghan sensibility into the theatre of war that the American could not quite fathom. For them, the enemy is to be annihilated, to bury the enemy combatants under the rubble. The Western approach to war satisfies its objectives only with the complete annihilation of its ‘Other’; the Afghan traditional approach to war defies such absolutism for a different spatial and temporal sense of warfare. 

This clash of styles of warfare, of course, is not a standalone confrontation. It is an articulation of a broader confrontation, between the modern and traditional. Over the last twenty years, in many sites of cultural and political experience, the Western and traditional styles have clashed: the assimilationist Totality of the White outsider seeking to engulf the relatively non-hegemonic and non-hierarchical priorities of the traditional Afghanistan into its matrix of power. 

Unfortunately for Afghanistan, as much as subversive and public resistance by the local population have countered much of this absolutist imposition of the Western order, in other ways it has contaminated the Afghan perspective. The Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban Emirate stand as prime examples of this sort of native mimesis. Accepting the nation-state as the exclusive organiser of power, and infatuated by the promise of hegemonic control from one seat of power (in Kabul), both have seemingly internalised a Eurocentric fundamentalism to the point that in realising the promise of its ideological argument, it sees killing, maiming, and destroying as justified. 

As I write this, the once promising ‘intra-Afghan’ peace talks are dead on its tracks. Over six thousand prisoners have been exchanged, and yet there is no progress on a roadmap to peace. It is as if more than a potential trust building measure, the ideological groups sought to embolden their frontlines with the locked-away fighters. Despite many a promise of a commitment to peace and, specifically, from some two weeks ago, a noted policy position on not wanting to enter the provincial capitals, five provincial capitals have fallen into the hands of the Taliban amidst much avoidable loss and carnage. The government, for its part, has stubbornly insisted on constitutional and institutional retention, the so called ‘achievements of the last two decades,’ a rhetoric that increasingly comes across as a euphemism for retention of (personal) power. 

What sort of ‘fundamentalism’ in both the Taliban and the Afghan government allow for a continuation of war when there is a clear path for peace? A note on the ideological makeup of each of the warring factions is important.

As a complex entity, the Taliban Emirate stands as a theoretical puzzle; what started essentially as a peasant movement against Islamist ‘fundamentalism’ in the mid-1990s, was thrust in the second half of the decade into the role of a state (custodian), before reshaping its makeup to turn into an insurgency to face the new reality of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Instead of falling under the banner of a strict ‘neo-Deobandi’-style Islamist movement or a traditional movement tethered exclusively to identifying with and championing the traditional ‘village Islam’ of Afghanistan, the movement shares a precarious relationship with the modern nation-state and with the village. Traditional Islam of Afghanistan contain significant iconography and textual representation from esoteric Islam of the Sufis. Unlike the modernists (including socialists, liberals or Islamist ‘fundamentalists’), Taliban tend to carry a more responsive approach towards Tasawwuf [Sufism] and traditional mechanisms for organisation of society (an approach that, unlike the modern state, prefers socialisation of power and de-hierarchisation).

Alongside this ambiguous relationship with the traditional Islam of Afghanistan, however, Taliban as an insurgency is caught in an asymmetric conflict with the West. This asymmetry and discourse-setting power of the West has resulted in a ‘hardening’ influence, where the Taliban have increasingly embraced the language of modern politics. This comes both as a reaction to the type of power it ‘encounters,’ where the state is accepted as an exclusive organiser of power, and in its own search for legitimacy in the international community. As a result, the group has tended to go the nativist route, demonstrating a sort of tradatio-Islamist ideological disposition that is ‘fundamentalist’ enough to forego, seemingly, the path of peace for a violent military takeover; yet aware of and appreciative towards the traditional cultural priorities within which it operates. 

The Afghan state, as a Western-backed regime, may appear easier to categorise as a neoliberal regime that has internalised the logic of statebuilding and ‘war on terror.’ Hence the ‘fundamentalism’ with which it operates. One has to only read the career path and educational background of its ‘elected’ leader Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, or any one of its key leadership people. Westernised, products of Western liberal arts academy, ‘technocratic’ émigré returning from exile for glory and material rewards, ‘Fullbrighter’, sold on the liberal promise, all in all ardent modernists that reproduce the most volcanic aspects of the Enlightenment promise.   

To accept this as the full picture, however, is misleading. For because all these projects are to be implemented in a ‘traditional,’ ‘backwards’ or parochial society, the state has had to feign an approving nod to the traditional, for legitimacy, consolidation of the self, and in galvanising support. Its utilitarianism allows for such slyness. A couple of nights ago, the state tried, to my estimation without much success, replicating the historically significant ‘Seh-i-Hut’ uprising. Though, it must be noted, the original was also quite far from being an organic moment and in many ways replicating the creative protests in Kandahar and Herat, in 22 February 1980. On that occasion, civilians in droves jumped to the rooftops of their blacked out houses to protest the still arriving Soviet occupation force to chant ‘Allah Akbar,’ to denounce the communists, and to echo the call for liberation. Afghan historian Hassan Kakar describes that night in Kabul:

The azan [call to prayer] sounded the whole night. Nearby villagers also took part in making them. Soon the sound and color of rockets fired into the sky accompanied the azan. The invaders from the military cantonments in the city fired the rockets to frighten the people. In response, the Afghans raised the volume of their calls. It was as if a competition was under way, and indeed it was. (Kakar 1997, p. 98)

In August 2021, the vile language more concerned with denouncing Pakistan (dangerously conflating the state with the people) combined with the sacred enchantment only created terror and disquiet amongst the populace. It came across as nakedly manufactured, derivative, and out of tune with the state rhetoric from the last two decades. 

The state, nonetheless, since its origin from early 2000s have acknowledged the traditional. Loya Jirgas, a historically misappropriated local tribal body unfit for national deliberations, have been regularly convened. An Ulema Council, with pro-government Fiqh scholars, have been maintained. National Solidarity Program (NSP), the premier rural development program in the country, was designed to function around local jirgas. Justice system was systematically bifurcated between the codified official and the uncodified traditional modes. In many ways, the modern state has curbed its own officialising capacity by working with and through an unofficial and amorphous traditional order.

All in all, in both the Taliban and the Afghan government, there is still enough investment, for strategic or historical purposes, in the traditional. This is a blessing. This traditional sensibility has tended to embrace the sih-pir over the char-pir, and that metaphor has a productive bearing over the gloomy horizon Afghanistan seems to be staring at.  The tradition tends to be non-hierarchical, preoccupied with the immediate and the local over the global and the national. Its Islam is replete with esotericism, and not content with the behaviourism of the exoteric, or zahiri, Islam. It organises society through local ‘democratic’ governance mechanisms of self-rule. More importantly, it is not, against the customary modernist charges, static or unchanging; instead, as is increasingly demonstrated by academic work, it is dynamic, responsive, and about dwellings in the borders between the ‘new’ and the ‘old’.  

In finding pathways out of the conflict, and towards a peaceful settlement, in a sense to avoid a repeat of the disastrous end of the Soviet retreat, I make two practical suggestions. The ingredients are there, it is about whether each of the warring factions can find within them the willingness to disassociate themselves from the oppressive weight of their Eurocentric ideological leanings. 

First, it is imperative for both factions to embrace the bifurcation of the conflict into its ‘international’ and ‘national’ components, instead of diluting them into one ‘Afghan conflict’ as is customary. At this moment, Afghanistan has seemingly overcome the ‘international’ component of its conflict. That is progress. The February 2021 2020 U.S.-Taliban peace agreement has practically ended foreign military operations in the country. The future, however, much like at the end of the Soviet invasion in 1989, depends on a successful ‘intra-Afghan’ peace talks. Then it failed, but now it must succeed.

This takes me to my second point. Potential pathways for a successful peace agreement between the warring factions in Afghanistan involves a debate on the theoretical and ideological sources of the warring factions. In this debate, it must be realised that the path towards peace requires a certain de-radicalisation of political discourse and praxis at each end. The status quo of ‘fundamentalist’ dispositions, in the form of militant liberalism and traditional (Islamo) nativism, stands to rupture potential for peace and reconciliation. It is important to overcome such exclusionary logics for one that sees possibility and co-existence; that instead of the language of ‘red lines,’ ‘Pakistani stooges,’ or ‘firounian,’ a language of traditional acceptance bearing the mark of local sensibilities needs to be embraced.

This must sound like a lot of to ask when the warring factions are daily engaged in street-to-street combat, terrorising the civilian population and cutting on each other’s ranks. However, I maintain that the ingredients are there. Both the state and the insurgency need only look at themselves. The processes that they have thrown a nod of approval towards or maintained a precarious respect for, the traditional approach to organisation of society and its logics that they are familiar with, can deliver Afghanistan from its woeful condition. The state needs to learn from the American betrayal and the Taliban from Deash, that to seek complete annihilation of the ‘Other’ only causes more chaos and misery. By imagining an alternative future, it is time to set an example for the rest of the world by shaking off the corrosive effects of their encounter with a fundamentalist West.  

Mujib Abid
Mujib Abid
Mujib is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. His research focuses on histories of encounters with modernity in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on modernist enactments of power and embodied subaltern experiences, resistance and tradition. Mujib brings in (and critiques) a postcolonial/decolonial sensibility to his work. He currently teaches as a Sessional Academic at the University of Melbourne.

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