Resident Expert: Afghanistan at a Crossroads

Norwegian soldiers on a patrol in Faryab Province, Afghanistan. International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)

Peace and redevelopment efforts in Afghanistan were dealt a major blow on July 22 when a suicide attack in Kabul killed 80 peaceful demonstrators and injured another 231, the city's deadliest attack in more than 15 years.

It's been about two years since the US-led combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended, and before this attack in the capital, there were some signs that life in Afghanistan was getting better, politically and socially. There are less foreign soldiers in the country, the Afghan military is increasingly standing on its own, and Pakistan is becoming involved in forging peace.

"In addition, women have a greater role in the public social, political, and economic spheres, and there has been progress in the local media industry and — hopefully imminent — major development projects involving Afghanistan's neighbors," said Daniel Karell, NYU Abu Dhabi assistant professor of social research and public policy, who studies political sociology and post-conflict dynamics in places like Afghanistan and North Africa.

Others would say, however, that the situation has steadily deteriorated, Karell noted, particularly during the government's transitionary period. For example, the Taliban still controls large parts of the country, a branch of Daesh has emerged, civilian casualties from political violence are occurring at record numbers, and many Afghans see the government as corrupt and ineffective.

So, what can we make of this complexities of what's happening in Afghanistan?

I think that this complex picture raises two important questions. First, what counts as success or improvement? Are things improved when levels of political violence decrease? If so, that points toward a certain governmental structure and specific policies toward insurgent groups, like power-sharing. Or, are things improved when the central government has a monopoly on power and violence? If so, that points toward different policies toward insurgent groups, governmental organization, and support from international allies.

Second, what are the unexpected life changes and consequences of development in conflict settings? That is, when do we see residents of conflict-affected societies say that life has improved due to largely unplanned processes? For example, many of my friends and colleagues in Afghanistan say that one part of life has gotten better: their connection to the rest of the world. For the most part, they believe that these small, incremental ties to individuals and organizations outside of the country will serve as a check on any backsliding into social division and violence. But how were these connections made? Were they the result of central planning by international organizations, large donors, and Western policy makers and militaries? Or were they the result of largely undirected growth in media, telecommunication services, and small-scale professional relationships?

How is armed insurgency fought today and what are the consequences of that?

The post-9/11 war fought in Afghanistan (and Iraq) introduced some new (and some not-so-new) technologies of war-making and social control with poorly understood long-term consequences. Armed opposition groups, for example, advanced the production and use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mainstream and social media campaigns (recall that Al Qaeda in Iraq recorded the beheadings of captives for television a decade before Daesh). Foreign and incumbent forces have tasked soldiers with local level development efforts ("winning hearts and minds"), relied on "night-raids" (raiding private residences during the night in the search of suspected insurgents), and increasingly deployed remote instruments of violence, like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.


The post-9/11 war fought in Afghanistan ... introduced some new technologies of war-making and social control with poorly understood long-term consequences ... improvised explosive devices ... social media campaigns ... and remote instruments of violence like drones. We have not begun to grasp the consequences of such practices.

Daniel Karell, postdoctoral associate

We have not begun to grasp the consequences of such practices. One recent study, for example, suggests that residents of areas under regular drone surveillance and attacks live in a near-constant state of terror and have been severely traumatized. Other new research shows how incumbents' targeting of specific local elites suspected of supporting insurgents — either through drones, night raids, or regular capture — can disrupt the local social fabric in a way that leads to more violence. My own research is finding that the delivery of aid during "hearts and minds" campaigns can increase social inequality within communities and potentially reshape the intra-community relationships between elites and their non-elite neighbors. Ultimately, I think that social science can make very important contributions to future public discussions of political conflict if more research is focused on the consequences of contemporary methods of war-making.

How are ethnicity and violence in Afghanistan related?

There is no easy answer to this question. The political violence in Afghanistan is certainly often portrayed as ethnic-based, with supporters of the Taliban primarily coming from one group and an array of other groups set in opposition. But, as usual, reality is more complicated. During the last few decades, Afghan individuals and groups have crossed ethnic boundaries during instances of conflict. Moreover, recent research, including my own, shows how violence in Afghanistan is related to disrupted patronage networks, the opium trade, local (intra-ethnic) rivalries, and intra-community exclusion from public good provision, rather than ethnicity.

However, while a lot of evidence points to a weak relationship between ethnicity and violence, some of my Afghan friends and colleagues believe that political violence in their country is tied to ethnic division. Namely, they say it is members of ethnic group X that are always committing violence.

I think that social science can make very important contributions to future public discussions of political conflict if more research is focused on the consequences of contemporary methods of war-making.

Daniel Karell

The question thus becomes how to reconcile these two arguments. I think the answer lies in understanding that Afghan society, like nearly every other country, is in a historical moment when ethnic categories order how people understand the world. Consequently, our attention should be focused on the social, political, economic, and conflict-based processes that have resulted in the prevalence of ethnic or sectarian categories as a way to make sense of the world.

Afghanistan is sometimes referred to as a failed state. What do you think?

Answering this question depends on how we conceptualize a failed state. For example, if we adopt Weber's or Bourdieu's definition of a state, then, yes, Afghanistan appears to be a failed state because the central government does not monopolize legitimate physical or symbolic violence. But Afghanistan's central government has never monopolized these types of violence — it has often existed, as Thomas Barfield puts it, "over the horizon." That is, for much of recent history, Afghanistan's state has operated as a compromise and alliance between the central government and regional and local power holders on the periphery. If we adopt this definition of the state, then we would assess state failure and success in a different light.

Ultimately, I think that considering the state in Afghanistan points toward three important ideas and questions. First, this case reminds us that much of the world's population does not in practice live under a Weberian (or Bourdieu-ian) state. In other words, in the daily lives of many, many people, the central state does not actually have total control over legitimate political and symbolic violence. Instead, powerful neighbors often act out of their own interests, not the state's. Second, states should be thought of as processes rather than static entities. We should explore how states are "state-ing" rather than whether a state is or is not. Third, it may be fruitful to consider the extent to which states actually rest on order in the absence of formal laws. That is, when we observe order in a society it may appear to be the result of formal laws — and we may quickly conclude that a state is successful because of the observed order — but what we might actually be seeing could instead be the result of informal, somewhat self-organizing norms, conventions, habits, incentives, and enforcement mechanisms.

What lessons are to be learned from what's happening in Afghanistan?

War generates winners and losers. Consequently, when powerful governments and militaries plan for war, they should try to anticipate who the losers will be and how their situation can be alleviated once the conflict is over. Actively including the losers in the post-war social, political, and economic landscape can help avoid some of the lasting negative consequences of war.

Indeed, the last few decades in Afghanistan has taught us that war has terrible unanticipated consequences that are almost never felt by government leaders, policy makers, industry elites, and the relatively wealthy residents of the planet. Instead, it's often the most marginalized and disadvantaged individuals and groups who suffer. Because of this imbalance, many governments and their supporters — not just in the West — promote war too easily. These decision makers will not suffer the consequences, so they have no real, personal reason to be cautious.