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War, Factionalism, and the State in Afghanistan

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Abstract

Since September 11, 2001, the explanations offered to account for the rise of a foreign-led terrorist network on Afghan soil have variously focused on the political vacuum opened up by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989, interference by foreign powers in Afghanistan's internal affairs, the failure of Afghanistan to produce a "strong state" because of ethnic factionalism, and an internal moral incoherence inherent to Afghan culture. I argue that none of these explanations is entirely satisfactory in itself. To understand the situation in Afghanistan, we must recognize that its political and military chaos is not an isolated or unique phenomenon, and at the same time acknowledge the particular social and political dynamics of Afghanistan's history that have set the parameters for current events. I show that communal conflicts in Afghanistan are part of a much wider affliction common to many postcolonial states and multinational societies, and that Afghanistan's current situation can only be understood by focusing on its failed attempts at nation-state building within the broader geopolitical circumstance of foreign manipulation and proxy wars that have given rise to particular forms of ethnic division. [Keywords: Afghanistan, nation-building, ethnic factionalism, warfare, the State]
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Thesis
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This thesis studies the relations between war and ethnicity in Afghanistan from the historical and theoretical perspectives. Its focus is on the impact of the 1979 Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil wars in transforming Afghanistan’s inter-ethnic relations given relevant social and political factors. To that end, this thesis categorizes factors that have played a role in ethnicization or de-ethnicization of politics in Afghanistan, including language, intermarriage, power balance, and modernization. Additionally, this thesis periodizes inter-ethnic relations based on levels of intensification and pacification. The reviewed literature on Afghanistan’s inter-ethnic relations have been divided into two chapters, pre- (Chapter II) and post-Soviet invasion (Chapter III), to demonstrate the possible impact of the invasion. While the relevant literature review with a focus on theory and empirical work is also presented (Chapter V), the key segment of this thesis is in its semi-structured in-depth interviews (N=6) with prominent social scientists with extensive experience and fieldwork in Afghanistan, with the results of the interviews having been utilized to conduct the analysis and hypotheses testing of this thesis (Chapter VI). Two hypotheses are tested on the impacts of the Soviet invasion on social and political transformations of inter-ethnic relations in Afghanistan (H1: change in traditional power balance, and H2: promotion of political consciousness and ethnic preferences). From the two, H1 failed to be disproved given responses by the interlocutors and analysis of the literature, while H2 only partially failed to be disproven given evidence in favor of decrease in inter-ethnic marriages. And despite opinions of the experts interviewed having been fragmented on how the Soviet invasion transformed the social and political landscape of Afghanistan vis-à-vis inter-ethnic relations, all agreed that the Soviet-Afghan war changed the traditional power relations and promoted political consciousness in the country, in turn, resulting in ethnic-based mobilizations and competition for power and resources. The use of ethnicity in politics continues to this day and society has been ethnicized more than ever in post-2001 Afghanistan, as the new elites returned from the West view ethnicity as a means for mass mobilization. The fact that there is no ideology or party-based parliament and government that could attract members from different ethnicities and region makes ethnic-based and region-based competitions further salient.