Afghanistan is at a crossroads. With the departure of American forces scheduled for 2014, no one really denies the fact that things are going to change. It seems like the country’s future is at stake. Right now, policy-makers, analysts, US pundits and whatnots are busy wondering what the negotiations with the Taliban will unfold. The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar draws most of the media attention. Presidential elections are also high on the news agenda: What is Karzai going to do? Will he summon Afghan leaders to a Loya Jirga to try to change the constitution and run for a third mandate? Will he try to highjack the democratic process and put one of his men in his place? Speculations run high, but once again, no one really knows.
Only a few observers pay attention to the elements of continuity in Afghan politics. People (and policy-makers in particular) are interested in short-term events, what Fernand Braudel called the écume of history. What’s particularly striking in Kabul these days is the discrepancy between the Afghanistan we read and hear about and the Afghanistan we see when we spend time there.
As we conducted interviews for our new research project last month, it quickly became clear that what we were observing in the field and hearing from our interviewees and friends in Kabul was totally different from the Afghanistan we were reading about in Western media outlets. The latter does not exist. Of course this is nothing new. It is, in a way, inevitable. Part of what journalists and policy-makers (and social scientists!) have to do is to simplify and vulgarize complex social realities. Psychological studies also show that it’s the way the human brain works: we create categories that help us understand multi-faceted phenomena. It is needed. But the gap is growing. It is not wrong to be interested in elections, political parties, and official negotiations. It is just a very narrow focus and understanding of the way politics in this country (and others) really works.
This discrepancy is best described in a short piece (8 pages) entitled “Le climatiseur et la veranda.” In this article, which focuses not on Afghan but on African politics, Emmanuel Terray explains that two systems coexist in most of post-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa. The first one, easily visible, which focuses everybody’s attention, is inspired by Western models, institutions, and norms. It follows, writes Terray, the logics of rational (Weberian) bureaucracy. At least it appears to do so. It is technocratic, and uses the language of democracy, development, and modernization. Most importantly, he says, this system uses the symbols of sovereignty (which is, by the way, exactly what the Taliban did when they opened the office in Qatar, provoking President Karzai’s ire in the process). This system of government, says Terray, takes place in the comfort of air conditioning. It’s the world of diplomats and East coast journalists.
Serious business, however, takes place somewhere else (under the veranda). In Afghanistan, it means sipping tea and eating pistachio ice creams. What Terray writes about is the behind the scenes; what social scientists describe as patronage, networks, social capital, and “friends of friends.” It’s the politics that make sense of seemingly counter-intuitive agreements and alliances. It’s the world of armed groups and unelected leaders. It follows a logic of sharing that shouldn’t be simply described as petty corruption. Without basic access to the veranda, one cannot have a full grasp of Afghan politics.