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Thomas Barfield – CFA talk, 22 March 2021

March 29, 2021

It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of Thomas Barfield, one of the leading Western experts on Afghanistan and author of “Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History”.  He spoke via Zoom conference organised by the UK Conservative Friends of Afghanistan group on 22 March.  These are my notes of his talk, slightly reordered into themes.


There have been many different regime types in Afghanistan: in the last 40 years there has been a cycle of falling governments and rising insurgencies.

Foreigners enter Afghanistan for their own reasons and Afghanistan has never successfully been colonised.  The British Raj had no interest in Afghanistan per se, but for its own defence of the British Empire, for use as a buffer state with no need to colonise it

In Afghan history the greatest period of violence was during the time of the Amir Abdur Rahman, during the late 1880s to 1890s.  During King Amanullah’s time in 1929 there was a brief period of civil war but no long term insurgency – in a fifty year period from then there were no insurgencies in Afghanistan, largely because the government was careful not to overreach

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Having an international sponsor makes it hard for the rebels to topple the government

In 1992 there were two choices as the Najibullah regime was collapsing – Massoud, who was actually in country and fighting or the group of 7 party leaders from Pakistan.  The wrong decision was made – a group of 7 leaders came from Pakistan and seized power.

The 2001 US intervention

The US was trying to rebuild Afghanistan in its own image, with the help of some particular groups in Afghanistan.  If the international community goes, does the money go as well?  The Afghan regime cannot survive the loss of international aid

The US did not go into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban – Al Qaeda were the terrorists, the Taliban were not.  The US could have reconciled with the Taliban but the US has a “with us or against us” mentality.  The US did go into Afghanistan to build, but, over time, Afghanistan became a different project.

In 2001 the US could have created a stable Afghanistan but did not recognise that the war was over.  In 2002-03 it was very safe to travel.  An opportunity was lost – it was not inevitable that an insurgency would be created, governments and external sponsors made it happen

Iraq lost its sovereignty when the US invaded, Afghanistan did not (the Northern Alliance liberated Kabul).  At the Bonn conference the US did not claim to be the rulers of Afghanistan – Afghanistan could have told the Americans to get lost.

Political situation

The new Afghan constitution is the 1964 revamped, with the word “King” removed and “President” inserted.  It is fit for a tyrant or a monarch.  The president can appoint any provincial governor – the local people have no say.  In the 20th century, all Afghanistan’s leaders have either been overthrown or assassinated.  But, unlike the Balkans, no ethnic leader has threatened to seek independence – Afghanistan is not likely to break up.

Afghanistan has never had a census – the Pushtuns claim a majority, but who knows?  All ethnic groups claim they are twice their actual size and so everyone claims they are being “cheated” if they lose government positions in aid of balance and equality.  In the absence of facts from a census, every group makes claims.  But each ethnic group has a majority in one area.  Barfield favours the idea of an Afghan federation, with 4 or 5 regions rather than running at the provincial level – you should not run everything from Kabul

Afghanistan is rich in resources, but foreign interference needs to cease.

Afghanistan allows the recognition of political parties but follows leaders or ethnic groups.  How can parliament be reorganised?  In 2001, liberal “statebuilding” has created a highly centralised government (the Amir Abdur Rahman would have been proud!).  Ought to separate the “administration” – courts, police, bureaucracy – from policy.  Afghanistan’s leaders are never chosen by a Loya Jirga

Afghanistan is not a liberal state, it is an autocratic one.  There are no institutions that can intervene to protect – Kabul politics is national politics.  A change to the ways in which power is distributed is necessary.

The Taliban

It is not clear who the Taliban are now.  Some want the Islamic Emirate back.  Today the Taliban have a robust media structure and are more nationalist.  The violence is overwhelmingly Afghan killing Afghan – is this still a legitimate jihad?  The Taliban are also present in the north and the west.  Is the Taliban a unitary force – who are we negotiating with?  Who do the Taliban representatives in Doha actually represent?  This is a proxy war with the Taliban as a proxy of Pakistan.  While Afghans have the capacity to reconcile amongst themselves, the US is negotiating with a Pakistan proxy insurgency

The Taliban’s problem now is that they have been out of Afghanistan for many years – the Afghanistan they remember from 2001 has long gone.  The population is very young, communications networks and education are very extensive now, there are few Taliban who are prone to compromise or who even understand the current problems in Afghanistan.  If the Taliban alienate the international community, they will be back in the same desperate situation as they were in 2001

Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban

Pakistan’s role – 30 years of support for the Taliban (and ISI support to the Mujahideen, with the US and Saudi)

Post-2001, the US did not recognise that Pakistan was actually a belligerent.  Pakistan was a nuclear power with a population of 180 million and a long tradition as a US ally.  In dealing with Afghanistan, particularly in the 80s, the US tended to ask/defer to Pakistan.  Afghanistan as “Pakistan’s 5th province”.  In the 1990s, Kandahar even had a Pakistan area code

Prospects for talks and the future

It was a mistake at Bonn not to incorporate the Taliban

The issue of dealing with the Taliban needs to be internationalised: China and others need to be involved – the neighbours, Iran, Russia… There are many good reasons for the neighbours to seek stability in Afghanistan, even they do not like the US

Federalism – there is a need to devolve power – don’t focus on the provinces, focus on the regions: policies that may work in Kandahar may not work in Mazar… If the Taliban are popular in the south then let them run for election.  The problem at the moment is that everything is zero sum.  Are the Taliban now more willing to accept foreign aid (in the 1990s it was the UN that fed Kabul, not the Taliban).  But while the Taliban may now recognise that they need international aid, will American Congressmen sign off millions of dollars once the Taliban start closing down girl’s schools?  The Taliban’s best ally is Pakistan and Pakistan is broke (i.e. if you are going to pick patrons, pick one that isn’t broke…)

Prospects for the Turkish Summit – it won’t work.  This is not a Bonn 2001 situation, wrapping up a war.  It needs to be much more multi-lateral.  It needs an accord amongst rival states: UDS, China, Russia…  It needs the UN and also the EU (there are more EU troops in Afghanistan than American).  Europe is much better at getting disputing factions somewhere where the ground is neutral (ie maybe Norway instead of Doha or Moscow…?).  And the UK also.  Mediation should not be done by the US and Khalilzad, it needs someone from the UN to broker a deal – need to stop outside interference, the US is too bilateral. 

Tim comments:

A couple of points that occur to me from this very useful talk:

The role of hindsight: I increasingly find myself wondering about the role hindsight is playing when I hear expressions like: “it was a mistake not to bring the Taliban in at the Bonn Conference”, “the US could have reconciled with the Taliban” and “in 2001 the US could have created a stable Afghanistan but did not recognise that the war was over…An opportunity was lost”.  It seems to me to be equally plausible that if the Taliban had been brought to the table and been given government roles at Bonn in a power-sharing arrangement with the Northern Alliance and the international military presence never established itself in Afghanistan in 2002 (with the US rushing into Iraq), the civil war could have resumed again 12 months later.  That period of time – 2001-2003 was still all about warlords, foreign influence and authoritarian grabs for power in an unstable and swirling environment. Would Pakistan have learnt any lesson about not interfering in Afghanistan if there was no ISAF?

Role of Pakistan: It was noticeable that Barfield points the finger very clearly at the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan – Pakistan using the Taliban to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. 

The prospects for the future: Mr Barfield makes some important comments about what is needed to “solve” Afghanistan. 

  • Afghanistan is rich in resources, but foreign interference needs to cease.
  • The peace process needs to be much more multi-lateral.  It needs an accord amongst rival states: US, China, Russia… 
  • Pakistan needs to stop using the Taliban as a proxy for its own agenda in Afghanistan
  • Federalism – there is a need to devolve power from Kabul
  • Afghanistan is not a liberal state, it is an autocratic one.  There are no institutions that can intervene to protect – Kabul politics is national politics.  A change to the ways in which power is distributed is necessary.

These points are hard to disagree with.  But, in terms of successful implementation, achieving these goals seem either very unlikely, exceptionally difficult (a lot of working parts need to be working in the right directions) or still at some point 30, 40 or fifty years into the future. 

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