For most of the past 135 years, the central theme of Afghan history has been not outside interventions in Afghanistan—crucially important though these have been—but the attempts by Afghans themselves to create an effective modern state. Recent works by Robert D. Crews and Nile Green bring out the extent of this concern among large sections of the Afghan elites. On the other hand, the works of Antonio Giustozzi illustrate the immense obstacles that such efforts have faced, both from the resistance of much of the population and from central and enduring features of the Afghan state itself—features that it has shared with many other states in the “developing world,” and indeed in late medieval and early modern Europe.
Today, with most US and NATO troops withdrawn, the modern state in Afghanistan is once again fighting for its life, not only against a range of Islamist forces, but against its own inner demons. So far, its prospects do not look good. Twice since late September important towns have fallen to the Taliban and have only been recovered with the help of US air power and special forces. All but a small part of the state budget is supported by Western aid, with the US wholly responsible for funding the armed forces.
The chances of the state surviving without such US support appear minimal. Equally importantly, as I found during visits to Afghanistan in June and December of last year, the dual government jointly run by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah is largely paralyzed by its internal divisions. The arrangement between the two men was brokered by the US in 2014 as a way of resolving the bitter dispute between them over the presidential election that year, which Abdullah’s followers believe was rigged against him. It never seemed likely to produce effective government—and it hasn’t.
The split between Ghani and Abdullah reflects in part that between the ethnic Pashtuns (the old dominant nationality of Afghanistan, with roughly 45 percent of the population) and the next-largest ethnic group, the Tajiks, who make up about 25 percent. This split has shaped much of Afghanistan’s modern history, with the Taliban attracting support from Pashtuns in part because of resentment at perceived Tajik domination since 2001.
Afghanistan, however, is divided along many other lines, which often crisscross one another in highly confusing ways: between the other ethnicities of the country, including Hazaras and Uzbeks; between various regional warlords, such as Vice President General Rashid Dostum, the leader…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.