Beyond ethnicity and religion: The social structure of the Afghan war

Philipp Münch | 24 September 2021

A photo showing a paved road with solar street lights and a modern building in the distance on the right, with an irrigation canal visible in the centre, with some small shops and trees on the left.
Main street in Faizabad, Afghanistan. Photo by Philipp Münch.

Recent dramatic political changes in Afghanistan have highlighted that Western audiences, including academics, still struggle to understand the logic of this more than forty-year-old war. Mainstream interpretations in the news media and many academic studies have focused on the belligerents' supposedly ideological motivation. Accordingly, they interpreted the first phase of the war, from the start of the insurgency against the communist government in 1978 until its fall in 1992, as a contest between communism and Islam or Islamism. Consequently, most journalists and many academics have been depicting the following civil war between the victorious Mujahedin organizations and since 1994 the Taliban as an ethnic war.

Anthropologists and area experts have long been rejecting the ethnic interpretation of the war. They have been pointing to the fact that—probably except for the Hazara's Hezb-e Wahdat-e Melli—no warring party has ever been ethnically homogeneous or championed an explicitly ethnic agenda. Local networks between the groups' leadership often appear as ethnic politics but are the result of ethnic groups concentrating in specific regions, forming political networks [1]. Irrespective of this strand of academic literature, the ideological interpretation of the Afghan war is still dominating. For instance, "terrorism expert" Peter Neumann of King's College characterized the Taliban in recent interviews as a "Pashtun tribal militia," referring to the ethnicity of most of its leadership [2].


Yet, it is long known that the Taliban have been recruiting among other ethnicities as well [3]. Since there has been almost no resistance against the fast Taliban take-over of the country and no popular uprising outside major cities is in sight, it is hard to argue that the vast majority of Afghans strongly oppose their rule. Recently, numerous observers have been depicting the conflict as one of the modern westernized strata of society that are pitted against the medieval fundamentalist Taliban. Yet, this overlooks that Afghanistan is still an "Islamic Republic," article 3 of its constitution stating that no law should violate the "holy religion of Islam." Actually, even Sharia has been implemented as the major source of Afghan criminal law [4]. Everybody who has traveled to Afghanistan outside of Kabul will confirm that it is a religiously deeply conservative country. Also, the leaders of the Mujahedin organizations, who were seen as "moderates" after "9/11" by the US and her allies, introduced the very same strict religious rules in Kabul during their short-lived reign [5]. It is therefore not convincing to see a strong ideological divide in Afghanistan outside the small westernized circles.


Yet, if the Afghan war is not an ideological conflict, what is it instead? Area experts and anthropologists have somewhat agreed on it being a contest for political power and rejected the idea of an ethnic conflict, but so far have not elaborated on the character of the war. I argue that the decades-long struggle would be best understood as a social conflict, even though few of its antagonists have coined it like this since the end of the communist government [6]. However, taking the social background of the warring parties into account, it becomes evident that the war has mostly been pitting people from a lower social background against those from a higher one. The use of ideology has mostly been tailored to the social position of the actors involved. I will highlight this by looking at two arenas: 1. The political center of Afghanistan, Kabul, where elites violently fought for political power since the 1960s, 2. The periphery where local power holders competed for influence.


Seen from the angle of social struggle, in the first phase of the conflict, mostly actors from Kabul's upper class or upper-middle class rebelled against the royal establishment that monopolized the most influential state positions. People from the upper class or upper-middle class participated as students in violent protests at Kabul University since the 1960s or tried to break the royal monopoly as mid- or senior-level government officials. In previous decades, protestors from these groups had referred to Young Turk nationalism, Islamism, and liberal democracy. Since the 1960s, however, communism has become more popular.


Poorly translated and poorly understood, communism in Afghanistan was a workers' movement without workers. Yet, it was not the ideological content that made it so popular but the fact that it relentlessly delegitimized the monarchy that had fended off some liberal criticism through its 1964 democratic reforms. The political struggles culminated in 1973 as the moderate wing of the communist party, in alliance with the King's cousin, Daud Khan, drove the monarch Zahir Shah from power. Five years later, the party's radical wing staged a successful coup against the authoritarian nationalist-communist regime and established a nominally fully communists government.


In a partly overlapping second phase of the conflict, the rural upper-middle-class led uprisings initially against the royal and then the nationalist-communist and the communist establishment, respectively. Under the banner of Islamism, these actors joined the Kabul University student struggles since the 1960s. Almost all of the later leaders of the seven Mujahedin organizations originate from this group. In contrast to most of their communist competitors, they came from the countryside, where their families owned larger amounts of land. Islam certainly resonated with their background in the more conservative rural areas. Yet, it is widely accepted in research on the subject that Islamism was actually a modern ideology. As such, it served to express modern ideas like political participation and a positive view on technical progress in religious terms. In fact, Islamism's content was so similar to communism that the leader of the Afghan Muslim Youth, Abdur Rahim Niazi, had to explain the difference in a pamphlet in 1970 [7]. Again, to understand the meaning of ideology, it is paramount to look at its social function. For Islamists, it served to delegitimize first the monarchy and then created the necessary distinction to reject the two subsequent (semi-)communist governments.


Fleeing prosecution under Daud Khan, the Islamists went to Pakistan. In 1975, they started an unsuccessful, half-baked insurgency. Only after the communist government started a major reform to redistribute land in the countryside in 1978 did their "jihad" attract more followers. Like laws that prohibited village clerics (mullahs) from teaching at schools, the communist measures targeted the power of the landowner class. In the quasi-feudal Afghan countryside, the mullahs lived from the alms of the landowners. In return, they preached to the broader populace that the current system resembled God's will. The wealthiest landowners had become part of the royal establishment and mostly fled the country during this tumultuous time. Their place was taken by mostly mid-level landowners who took up arms and joined the Islamists to fight the communist attack on their power. Together with the mullahs, the landowners successfully mobilized the broader rural population through the more familiar ideology of Islamism.


In the third phase of the conflict, originally subordinated mullahs rose against their former masters, the Islamist-turned landowner class. After the fall of the former communist government in 1992, which had turned into a nationalist-religious regime after the end of Soviet material support in 1991, the leaders of the Mujahedin organizations fought each other in changing constellations. During the jihad, mullahs and students (Talib) who wanted to become mullahs had joined these organizations to fight the communists. Sometimes, they fought in associated groups that already called themselves Taliban (Dari and Pashtu plural of Talib). Their pious adherence to religious rules also created military cohesion that was superior to those of other Mujahedin groups.


During the often fragmented, chaotic, and abusive rule of the Islamists, some Taliban groups took up arms in southern Kandahar province. Since 1994, they started under the official name Taliban to engage Mujahedin groups and restore order. The rural population had not followed the communist call to turn against the landowners, but had become increasingly politicized. Therefore, many war-weary peasants supported the Taliban, who—also thanks to their cohesion and finally massive Pakistani material and military support—took most of the country until 1998. Village mullahs like the Taliban leaders received only a poor Islamic theological education in religious village schools. Few learned Arabic, which is fundamental for Islamic theology. As a result, the Taliban could not compete theologically with the university-educated Islamists and develop a consistent, markedly different religious ideology. In order to delegitimize the Islamist establishment, however, they claimed to build a "truly Islamic" order—without being able to elaborate on the actual difference [8].


The conflict's fourth phase, from 2001 until 2021, restored and synchronized previously diachronous elements of the pre-Taliban social order. Thanks to the US military and financial support, the Islamists quickly drove the Taliban from power. Therefore, major leaders of the Mujahedin organizations initially occupied the most powerful government positions according to the international Bonn agreement. Hamed Karzai became chairman of the Interim Administration and later president. Coming from a wealthy southern landowner family, he represented the resurgence of the landowner class. Numerous former members of the royal and communist establishment or their adult children returned to become high-ranking officials. Often having studied and built international networks in exile, they returned as "technocrats" who were highly regarded by representatives of the "international community.”


While most of the "technocrats" certainly did not appreciate strict Islamic rules, the ideological difference between the post-2001 "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" and the Taliban emirate should not be overstated, as pointed out in the introduction. The dramatic surge of international aid certainly improved the living standard of most Afghans on the most basic level. Yet, economic inequality increased even more. Officials and other power brokers who sat at the streams of international money often acquired obscene wealth by Afghan standards. Operating from Pakistani sanctuaries, the Taliban regrouped and resurged since 2002. To gain popular support, they supported those who were on the losing side in the local redistribution of power. The Taliban also successfully exploited the dramatic inequality. For instance, as they officially declared the death of their leader Mullah Omar in 2015, they were eager to point out that he had never owned "any cash deposits in any foreign bank accounts" [9].


The current phase since 2021 started with the complete withdrawal of the international forces, followed by a Taliban offensive and the quick collapse of the Afghan government. The total lack of popular support for the Islamic Republic became apparent as almost nobody was willing to risk their lives defending it. Mimicking the Bonn agreement in reverse, the Taliban appointed a transitional government that does not include any member of opposing political groups. Thereby, they are likely going to restore the social structure of government until their fall from power.


Legitimized by different ideologies, more than forty years of war brought members of the urban and rural, higher and lower middle classes to national power, replacing the royal oligarchy. In the countryside, the war elevated mid-level landowners who stood out as military leaders to the highest positions. Yet, the situation of the by far largest lowest social groups—subsistence farmers and day laborers—did not significantly improve. Politicized since the jihad, however, people from these social strata probably became increasingly aware that their support matters. Apparently, to mobilize against the post-2001 establishment, the Taliban recently pointed to economic inequality by showing the occupied lavish private mansions of anti-Taliban power brokers and former higher government officials to local and international journalists [10,11].


However, sharing the intellectual background of a conservative ideology that protected the landowners' rule, the Taliban seem unable to extend their ideology to one of social progress for the broader society. They have also inherited a distorted economy tailored to a large-scale Western civil-military intervention. Certainly, they will not enjoy the same generous international donations as did the previous government. Therefore, it will be hard for the Taliban to satisfy demands for more substantial political and economic participation. They will also struggle not to fall prey to the very same logic of the last decades when militant groups fought their way up the social ladder into the political center of Afghanistan.

Keywords: #Ideology #Ethnicity #Anthropology #AfghanHistory #Islamism #AfghanMonarchy #SocialConflict #UrbanRuralDivide #Taliban #StateFormation

Dr. Philipp Münch is a project director at the Center of Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr in Potsdam, Germany. He has been researching NATO, US and German security policy with a special focus on military interventions. As a second focus, he has also done research on state formation and conflict in Afghanistan, including extensive field research. One of the products is a comprehensive study for the Afghanistan Analysts Network entitled "Local Afghan Power Structures and the International Military Intervention. A Review of Developments in Badakhshan and Kunduz Provinces."

[1] See e.g. Conrad Schetter, “Ethnicity and the Political Reconstruction of Afghanistan”, Center for Development Research, Department of Political and Cultural Change, Bonn 2005, https://www.zef.de/uploads/tx_zefportal/Publications/wp03.pdf. [2] Fabian Eberhard, “Terrorism expert Peter Neumann on the Taliban victory in Afghanistan”, in: RemoNews, undated, https://remonews.com/switzerlandeng/terrorism-expert-peter-neumann-on-the-taliban-victory-in-afghanistan/. [3] Antonio Giustozzi, “The Taliban Beyond the Pashtuns”, The Centre for International Governance Innovation, July 2010, https://www.cigionline.org/static/documents/afghanistan_paper_5.pdf. [4] “An Introduction to the Criminal Law of Afghanistan”, Afghanistan Legal Education Project (ALEP) at Stanford Law School, [2009], 11. [5] Anand Gopal and Alex Strick Van Linschoten, “Ideology in the Afghan Taliban”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 2017, 22-23, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/201705-AGopal-ASvLinschoten-TB-Ideology.pdf. [6] This is an updated version of my earlier publication. More references to the literature can be found there: Philipp Münch, “Forces of heresy versus forces of conservation. Making sense of Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan’s and the Taleban’s positions in the Afghan insurgency”, in: Small Wars & Insurgencies, 29 (2018) 4, 709-734, https://doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2018.1488409. [7] David B. Edwards, “Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad”, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, p. 137, http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3p30056w/. [8] Gopal and Strick Van Linschoten, “Ideology in the Afghan Taliban”. [9] “Commemorating the nineteenth anniversary of the historical gathering and selection of Ameer-ul-Momineen on 4th April 1996 in Kandahar. The biography of the leader of Islamic Emirate Ameer-ul-Momineen, Mullah Mohammad Umar ‘Mujahid’ (May Allah safeguard him)”, 4 April 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150410061940/http://shahamat-english.com/index.php/paighamoona/53792-commemorating-the-nineteenth-anniversary-of-the-historical-gathering-and-selection-of-ameer-ul-momineen-on-4th-april-1996-in-kandahar. [10] Hamayon Afghan Official, “In gozaaresch yak hafta pesh zebat gardida. Shaay’aat chur khaana Maarshaal Dostum haqiqat daarat?”, 1 September 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YrtIntCvqE.

[11] The New York Times, “Inside an Abandoned Mansion that 150 Taliban now Call Home”, 9 September 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dCuSBJtZlk.