Inside a war-torn country
Following a 40-year fascination with the political situation in Afghanistan, Professor William Maley AM has released his third book on the country, Transition in Afghanistan: Hope, Despair and the Limits of Statebuilding. The book explores the difficult task of statebuilding after severe disruption, and seeks to identify what has gone wrong and why.
What is the current situation in Afghanistan?
After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan has been going through a process of statebuilding. The broad thrust of my new book is that the transition to a more stable state in Afghanistan has been thrown off course by two developments: the internal development of a neo-patrimonial political order which has become entrenched, making it very difficult for any other political order to take root; and the external development of a ‘creeping invasion’ from neighbouring Pakistani territory, where sanctuaries for the Taliban still exist.
While various milestones for the transition process have been met, there were some major issues relevant to the future of Afghanistan which haven’t been addressed. This embedded neo-patrimonial system, where the power hierarchy is based on relationships and reciprocity entwined with formal political institutions, has interfered with the achievement of some of the higher level objectives, such as free and fair elections and the promotion of human rights.
It’s important to consider the timeframe here. If it took 30 to 40 years for the country to get into a mess – it’s pretty realistic to think it’s not going to get out of that mess in a much shorter timeframe. Political scientists tend to emphasise the need for patience, learning and adjustment of attitudes on the part of actors on the ground, while states have an inclination to want to see this transition progress as quickly as possible.
There is a lot to be said for ‘allowing the pot to simmer for a reasonable period of time before you taste the recipe’.
How did you first get interested in researching the political situation in Afghanistan and what has kept you interested for so long?
I was planning a PhD dissertation on the Soviet Union, and my cousin travelled to Afghanistan in the early 70s, which piqued my interest in that country. Then in December 1979, my two interests came crashing together when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
I’ve always been interested as a political scientist in how one goes about studying politics when formal institutions give you only a small picture of what political life actually involves.
In countries like Afghanistan, the level of political institutionalisation tends to be lower, so you have to probe through evidence of informal rules and understanding in order to get a sense of the dynamics of the political situation.
So much of what goes on politically is based on relationships, reciprocity, solidarity and historical affinities between different groups. Networks and patronage are much more difficult to study than just the operation of formal institutions, but they stretch you intellectually, which was very interesting to me.
How do you build your understanding of the situation and the region?
For countries with a lower level of formal institutions, you need to be a ‘political detective’ to get the richest political understanding. You can’t just rely on official reporting and the free press to tell the story.
As my PhD supervisor at ANU – one of the most eminent Sovietologists in the world, T. H. Rigby – told me, ‘you should never underestimate the value of simply getting the smell and feel of a political situation’. In order to do that you need to get ‘out and about’, in the thick of it.
Really, what you are doing is relying on the integration, almost subconsciously, of very large volumes of information about how a political system functions. That then underpins what might look like instinct, but is actually more – it’s tacit knowledge and understanding.
For my research, I tend to get out and about a lot. I have travelled to different parts of Afghanistan at different times – before, during and after the Taliban period – so I am able to compare the atmospherics in different periods, right down to people’s willingness to talk in public places.
There are advantages in being an academic because people will often talk much more candidly to academics than they will to people they see as representatives of foreign governments.
I try to visit Afghanistan at least once a year, in between teaching diplomacy here at ANU. Getting to Afghanistan is a lot easier than it used to be. I used to have to cadge a lift on a UN or Red Cross flight, but these days I can leave Canberra on a Monday evening, and be in Kabul by Tuesday lunchtime.
What would you like people to know about Afghanistan?
There are three things about Afghanistan that are often overlooked.
First, since 2001, the thing that has irreversibly changed Afghanistan the most is globalisation and technology – not the military presence, or constitutional change – but those two factors together have created a space for the forces of globalisation to find their way into Afghanistan.
The access that everyday Afghans now have to telecommunications, in a cheap, highly competitive mobile phone market, and television, with solar-powered units in small villages, has enabled them to be connected to a wider world in a way that had never previously been possible.
Second, as a result of the international presence, the level of empowerment of Afghan youth is much greater. They are the future of the country and have opportunities that would never have previously been available to them.
And finally, in a country as war-torn as Afghanistan, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it was only a very small minority – no more than 100,000 people in a population of 30 million – who have caused all the trouble. The vast majority of Afghan people are very friendly and hospitable and just trying to get on with their lives in very difficult circumstances.