The Politics of Survival: Center-Periphery Relations in Today’s Afghanistan

One of the bloggers recently asked whether there are “regional authorities who benefit from [the] US war aims and associated resources and who do not attract suicide bombers?”

It is my understanding that there are local authorities who benefit from the US presence: the former US-backed Northern Alliance commanders who have managed to capture state positions after 2001, as well as their local clients who benefit from the redistribution of resources coming from the center (mainly through appointments to official positions). Although those former commanders have been increasingly depicted as human rights violators and illegitimate “warlords” by Western media and policy-makers, it seems today that President Karzai needs them more than ever. In times of uncertainty about the US presence in Afghanistan, I argue that local elites who oppose the Taleban rely increasingly on the strong non-state armed actors that were once able to resist the Taleban. In a strongly conservative country where Westernized technocrats have failed to demonstrate their ability to bring a brighter future for Afghanistan, where there is no reason to believe that the American presence will last, people tend to rely on what they know best: strong leaders who proved their resilience over the years.

As the United States is now openly supporting government-led negotiations with the Taleban, I argue that these leaders find themselves confronted to a paradoxical situation that contributes to their empowerment. On the one hand they have no interest in seeing the Taleban come back to power and threaten their political positions. On the other, they benefit from the risk of Taleban resurgence. It gives them leverage over a politically isolated President who has no choice but to seek their support and redistribute some of the resources he receives from the international community.

For them, the Afghan political system therefore works as a virtuous circle. They have leverage on the center that they can use to strengthen their power on the local level. In return, their local authority prevents them from being sidelined by the central ruler and increases their leverage. They work as a link between the center and the periphery and as such, can hardly be replaced. While many observers argue that those leaders have no more power, it is enlightening to see that President Karzai keeps most of them on board: Marshall Fahim as his First Vice-President or Ismail Khan as his Minister of Water and Energy for example. He even brought General Dostum back to Afghanistan to benefit from his political support in the 2009 Presidential election. Considering the post-2001 international environment in Afghanistan, their power might not express itself in the way it used to, with undisputed control over large portions of the territory, but it does not mean that this power is gone. On the contrary, these actors have proved their resilience: they have the capacity to survive in an extremely hostile international environment.

Although some leaders (such as Ismail Khan) openly criticize the US presence in Afghanistan to strengthen their legitimacy vis-à-vis the local population, it is clear that they all benefit from it and have no interest in seeing the US leave the country. The situation might however change if they stop reaping the fruits of the American involvement in Afghanistan.


About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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6 Responses to The Politics of Survival: Center-Periphery Relations in Today’s Afghanistan

  1. Durkheim says:

    This is a more personal rather than academic response. Perhaps it reflects my mentality at the moment which is not exactly positive. This is probably an unnecessary post but what the hell.
    The situation almost feels hopeless right now. Not only in the Middle East but throughout sub-Saharan Africa as well. It appears as though all of today’s wars are characteristically “unconventional” yet we continue to fight with conventional methods. In addition to modern warfare, foreign aid is a disaster in and of itself. I feel like there is such a disconnect between the military and the public that both consider each other enemies despite defending the same nation/causes. The whole situation depresses me in the end.

  2. Valkyrie says:

    @ D

    Cheer up a bit.

    It sounds daunting, but democratic reform seems to be taking root in a more “organic” way (I remembered that conversation from class) in various parts of the Middle East.

    Recall how we discussed how the top-down imposition of reform was problematic? In Egypt, it was organic; the people were ready, and the military did not turn on them. This was quite amazing to watch, actually, harrowing as it seemed.

    In other parts of the Middle East, calls for reform did not go so well (Libya’s brutal dictator ordering destruction of his own people for daring to revolt), but on a very positive note, the US policy (so far) seems to be that yes, there may be a call to intervene for humanitarian reasons (enforcement of a No Fly zone), but that it must be up to the people to keep up the fight and determine their own future.

    It’s as if the current US leadership is taking a “hybrid” approach to promoting democratization in other regions, promoting “change” while insisting it must come from the ground up (organic, as in from the people), and only where it becomes necessary to intervene to halt the air assault of innocent civilians by a corrupt and truly non-legitimate government does the international community step in to help out.

    Maybe it is still too early to tell what’s going to happen, but so far, it does seem that reform is coming from the bottom-up and that democratic reforms are imminent in that region, messy as the process seems to be (and quite depressing, at times, obviously).

    At least current leadership can work WITH the international community rather swiftly; international relations are much improved these days, I must say.

    This was not relevant to the original post, but I thought to throw in something somewhat positive, despite the mess that’s currently taking place in the Middle East.

    Cheers D! One more class for you (and 2 for me), and then we get to be proud members of the…well…the Class of the Apocalypse, I think (tsunamis, earthquakes, revolutions…it’s like the freaking Apocalypse). At least it’ll be over and done with in terms of studying!

    • Valkyrie says:

      Just to add something to Durkheim, since I’m up to my ears with a law and a statistics class, now, and probably won’t be posting here (or following what seems to be turning into yet another mess in the Middle East, especially if reports are true that the CIA is now over there in Libya, and not just that there’s a No Fly enforcement for “humanitarian” reasons).

      Even I’m getting bored with following all of the wars we’re in, now. Enough already.

      Anyways, so just to add to Durkheim (to cheer her up a bit)…

      YOU ARE ON THE DEAN’S LIST from Fall quarter! Smile at the accomplishment. : )

  3. Durkheim says:

    Thanks for all the kind words and encouragement.
    Regarding Libya, the No-Fly Zone could be harmful in terms of humanitarian relief. In combination with the sanctions the US has imposed, it is not unlikely that such actions would result in many civilian deaths (ahem…Iraq).
    According to reports, the CIA is training and arming Libyan rebels (some of whom openly admitted to having ties with Al Qaeda). I can’t help but think of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the words of Mr. Kucinich: “We help to accelerate the chaos and in creating more chaos, which we think somehow we are going to be able to direct the outcome, it is the same hubris that has visited the United States in Iraq. The same hubris that keeps us pinioned in Afghanistan, causes us to believe that somehow we are going to direct the events and the outcome in Libya. We cannot do that, nor do we have the right to determine who the leader of Libya should be.” I truly hope this will not be yet another repeat of history but, honestly, I would not be at all surprised given our track record and inability to learn from mistakes.

  4. Valkyrie says:

    Hey, great points. And since I dropped one of my classes (I can only do one per quarter, at this point, because I am sooooo burned out not having enough “chill” time away from work/school), I’ll chime in, here, again.

    First off, one of our drones just hit some of our own (US service personnel) in Afghanistan (so much for drones having greater precision in the “fog of war”). : (

    Secondly, I noted that we are cutting spending on state and local law enforcement, but NOT on defense (or is it offense, these days? I can’t tell the difference, lately). So, we (meaning the USA) apparently care less about policing our local streets, despite the rise in crime due to the lagging after-effects of the recession, but yet we’re still spending money to send our personnel way over yonder, getting bogged down, yet again, in more of the same (possibly hanging around to help out in Libya, now, too).

    Thirdly, Mr. Kucinich has ears like the Easter Bunny, but he’s probably also right!

    Geez, it always sounds like a good idea when lives are at risk, but I’ll be darned if anyone can figure out how to toss out a non-legitimate regime without having to actually occupy entire territories. My coworker pointed this out, to me, a while back, that you’d have to occupy to get the job done right.

    As a (soon to graduate) senior, I feel that there’s still so much you cannot understand, fully, when it comes to political science, because the dynamics are always changing in these socio-political situations. As soon as something changes, it alters the entire picture in terms of possibilities.

    And yet, if you do nothing when innocents are being brutalized…

    What, then, is the answer? Seems there isn’t one magic bunny that can be pulled out of a hat to solve such complex issues (unfortunately).

    Anyways, at least the movement is afoot to push for democratic reform (too bad the violence tends to always turn up along with it in so many cases).

    C’est la vie

  5. Durkheim says:

    PLEASE watch this TED talks video. Out of all of my posts, this is the one most worth your time. I am a social psychologist and have dedicated a lot of time to the field of “empathy.” The speaker combines social psychology, sociology, political science and the Middle East in his analysis. Fascinating stuff. Here is the link:

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