Afghanistan’s Arc of Modernization: 1880 to 1978
What lessons can be learned about Afghanistan from the country’s past modernization efforts?
September 1, 2010
It is becoming a modern state. Its road communications have been transformed. There is a well-trained army. There are excellent schools. The metric system was recently adopted. In the centre of Asia what is almost a new country is in process of birth — or at least the old country is being metamorphosed.” (S. Huddleston, “Europe and Afghanistan,” in The New Statesman, January 1928)
One of the most persistent myths about Afghanistan is that there has never been an Afghan state, only a seething mass of often-warring tribes and ethnic groups, in turn composed of “fiercely independent Afghan tribesmen.”
This is an especially troubling myth, not just because it meant that the international community would get much of post-2001 state-building wrong, but also because it ignores the role that the West played post-1978 in hobbling and decimating the state that was.
As the late Afghanistan scholar Louis Dupree observed, throughout Afghanistan’s modern history there has been a tension between the outward-looking modernizing elements and the inward-looking conservative ones. Yes, there were palace intrigues, ethnically and tribally based disruptions, frontier wars and conservative resistance to reforms — an often dysfunctional state, but a state nonetheless.
While in terms of functionality Afghanistan was certainly not Valhalla or even Switzerland, the Afghan state had been making steady if slow (and sometimes erratic) progress on extending its reach starting in 1880 with the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (reigned 1880-1901), who was considered the first modern ruler of Afghanistan.
In what has been called “internal imperialism,” the so-called Iron Amir used a series of brutal campaigns to bash together disparate, geographically dispersed tribal and ethnic entities to form the current state. Often through brute force, he began the development of what we would call a state, using money and weapons obtained from the British along with internal taxation.
He appointed non-family members as governors and a Supreme Council that we would recognize as a cabinet, created boards and offices that we would recognize as ministries, formulated laws on currency and began to construct a civil administration — all in pursuit of building a centralized state, and in part with the explicit aim of reducing the power of tribal and feudal leaders at village and regional levels.
To reduce the power and influence of the clergy, he nationalized the religious endowments and established exams that determined the right of judges to sit. In fact, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan created a unitary state in which all administrative, political and economic power was centralized in Kabul, even if its application in the villages was far from perfect.
The Afghan state continued to develop during the reign of Abdur Rahman Khan’s son Habibullah (1901-1919), the first Afghan ruler to ascend to power peacefully. Firsts during this period included a secondary school (still the country’s premier high school), a military academy (under the guidance of Turkish officers), a state hospital, elements of a public health system, a newspaper and a hydroelectric plant.
In part because of the order inherited from his father’s iron-fisted rule, he was able to draw back to Afghanistan some of those his father had exiled, many of whom returned from outside with new ideas, including the notion that Muslim societies needed to modernize.
After securing its formal independence and the right to conduct its own foreign policy in 1919 under King Amanullah (1919-1929), Afghanistan then embarked on a decade of modernization, which included creating the country’s first constitution in 1923.
Amanullah also turned around a number of Abdul Rahman Khan’s more inward-looking policies by actively developing the communication infrastructure and encouraging the exploitation of Afghanistan’s known mineral deposits.
After famously returning from a tour of Europe, and using Ataturk’s modernizing Turkey as a model, Amanullah was inspired to giddy heights of modernization.
His initiatives included emancipation of women (including removing the veil), compulsory education, some coeducational schools, separation of mosque and state, monogamy, universal military conscription, education of nomads and the wearing of western clothing inside Kabul.
While Amanullah had been counseled by senior advisors to proceed more deliberately in some of the more sensitive areas, the pace of his reforms, not surprisingly, upset the apple cart of conservative religious and tribal interests and led to his overthrow in 1929 — a conflagration that is much discussed but apparently insufficiently heeded by subsequent modernizers.
Once the turbulence had subsided, development of the state resumed cautiously during King Nadir Shah’s four-year reign (1929-1933), then more substantially under his successors King Zahir Shah (1933-1973) and Mohammad Daoud (1973-1978).
It was during this 1933-1978 period that many of the state’s institutions and much of its economic infrastructure were built, including the state bank, the first professional army, Kabul University and the national airline, Ariana (with 49% ownership by Pan Am) — as well as roads, airports, telecommunications, schools, power generation and distribution, natural gas development and factories to produce fertilizer, cement and textiles.
Many of the social reforms instituted during this period, most notably the unveiling of women in 1959, did not create the same reaction as in the 1920s, in part because then-Prime Minister Daoud used the machinery of the state (including legal advisors trained in western legal institutions as well as by the prestigious al Azhar University in Cairo) to implement them and did not make them coercive.
By 1978, there was a highly developed, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, bureaucracy, which many believe was intended to slow or impede change rather than encourage it. Delegation, decentralization and deconcentration were very reluctant impulses, which remains a characteristic of the bureaucracy today.
Many have observed that the Afghan state exerted influence rather than control (or presided rather than ruled), but through most of the 20th century, the government in Kabul governed in its own way, through a combination of coercion, bribery, spying, subversion and, where necessary, military force, often borrowed from the eastern or southern tribes.
As for the perpetual war myth, excepting the odd coup, civil disturbance or local uprising, Afghanistan enjoyed a mostly peaceful period of almost 50 years from the dislocations of 1929 until the Communist coup in 1978. At all times, of course, there were tensions, including most profoundly between the conservative rural forces and the modernizing elites.
Unfortunately, political development and material progress did not keep pace with aspirations, and the development of the Afghan state faltered with the 1978 Communist-led coup, Soviet invasion and subsequent “resistance.” In fact, much of what is pointed to as evidence of the lack of a state are the consequences of the U.S.-backed jihad against the Soviets between 1979 and 1992.
It is a sad irony that, while the technology of war may have changed, many of the tactics of today’s Taliban (e.g., night letters, targeted assassinations, rumors that government health services such as vaccinations are intended to sterilize Afghans) were used by the mujihadin (“freedom fighters”) during that earlier period.
Some observers point to the notion that family, kinship or ethnic ties trump loyalties to the state as evidence that there was essentially no state.
Yet, identity is not the same as priority, and while any sensible Afghan would prioritize relationships with family or immediate relatives (given historical uncertainty, why wouldn’t one put one’s faith in local leaders, better still if from one’s own family or tribe), this is not to say that many do not express nostalgia for a time, however imperfectly remembered, when there was more of a state and an emerging national identity.
Even after so many years of conflict and the lack of a functioning state, many Afghans retain a faith in education and the development of a modern, cohesive state as a way out of the apparently endless violence and suffering which has taken and destroyed so many Afghan lives.
It is notable that while regional power-brokers have moved to expand their influence and power viz. a viz. Kabul, there has been very little serious call for federalization, much less partition.
What can the history of the Afghan state teach us about the current predicament in Afghanistan? Certainly, overzealous attempts at modernization, with unrealistic expectations for the possible rate of change, have been destabilizing.
While the current counter-insurgency strategy acknowledges the past errors, oversights and blind spots, the supercharged pace of development driven in part by home-country political factors sets totally unrealistic timetables for the transformation of institutions and attitudes. And against a July 2011 “is-it” or “is-it-not” deadline that encourages all players to discount the long-term in favor of the short.
At the same time, too much of our technical assistance has been based on incomplete or incorrect knowledge and the assumption of a blank slate, which has too often led to cut-and-paste institutions. In many cases, it was easier to buy into the myth that there was a blank slate than to try to understand what was there and to build on it.
The Afghan state had been making steady if slow (and sometimes erratic) progress on extending its reach starting in 1880 with the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan.
It was from 1933 to 1978 that many of the state's institutions and much of its economic infrastructure were built.
Afghanistan enjoyed a mostly peaceful period of almost 50 years from the dislocations of 1929 until the Communist coup in 1978.
By 1978, there was a highly developed, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, bureaucracy, which many believe was intended to slow or impede change rather than encourage it.
Using Ataturk's modernizing Turkey as a model, Amanullah was inspired to giddy heights of modernization. His initiatives included emancipation of women (including removing the veil).
Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University Paul Fishstein is currently a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is involved in a research project looking at the relationship between aid and stabilization in Afghanistan. Previously, he served as […]