Understanding War in Afghanistan: Politics, Culture and Social History

Omar Sadr

After the formation of the modern nation-state between 1880-1929, Afghanistan has witnessed at least seven major conflicts. Starting from the war of state construction and establishing a centralized authority between 1880-1901; on through the 1919 conflict with British India and guerrilla war against the Soviet invasion and the Communist administration in Kabul (1979–92); onto the civil war among the rival mujahedeen factions (1992–96); and the ongoing fight against the Taliban, war has been an almost continual presence in the lives of Afghans.

Mainstream literature on Afghanistan tends to portray the country as a terra incognita – the land of tribes, the home of warlords, and the graveyard of empires. The current media analysis with regard to politics of Afghanistan takes a culturalist approach, which ignores the sociopolitical conditions and historical context of events. In the words of Mahmud Mamdani, there is a “cultural talk” with respect to Afghanistan. Relating war and conflict to political culture is stereotypical and reductionist. In Nazif Shahrani’s view, cultural factors do not have a direct causal relationship with social conditions. It is the specific economic, political and historical context that facilitates the conditions for cultural factors. Therefore, the war in Afghanistan should be studied in relation to the country’s political culture, political economy and broader national and regional history. Continue reading