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Matthias Hofmann

Afghanistan - Awakening in the Hindu Kush?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 11/2009, P. 723-734
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In Afghanistan elections were held in August. MATTHIAS HOFMANN, historian and consultant for the deployment of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan, gives an insight into the current situation of the country and explains the determinants of its future development.


On 20 August 2009 in Afghanistan the elections for the presidency and the 34 provincial councils took place. There were in the end thirty six presidential candidates, only a few (16 per cent) belonged to political parties. Immediately after the election both office-holder Harmid Karzai and his strongest opponent, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah declared to be the winner. It was in the interest of the Western community of states that Karzai was re-elected. In the run-up to the elections Karzai had also succeeded in splitting his avowed political enemy - the Northern Alliance {1}. He had succeeded in winning the military leader of the Northern Alliance, the warlord Mohammad Fahim (former minister of defense) as his future vice-president and warlord Rashid Dostum (Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army, ANA) as election campaigner. The political camp of the Northern Alliance, of which Abdullah is considered to be the new political leader, thus lost a support that cannot be replaced for the moment.

Harmid Karzai is from the ethnic group of Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, which therefore claims the office of president for itself. Abdullah is Tajik. If Abdullah had won the election serious restructuring in the Afghan society would have been the result. There was a similar situation already in June 1992, when the Loya Jirga (Council of Elders) proclaimed by decree Burhanuddin Rabbani (Tajik) as President. Thereupon, his political opponent Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Pashtun) fired at Kabul, which started the civil war again. It could ultimately only be terminated in favour of the Pashtuns by the Taliban invasion as from 1994.


The Political System

According to the Constitution of January 2004 Afghanistan is a presidential republic. At the head of the state is the President, who is every five years directly elected by the people. He is head of state and at the same time head of government. The Parliament consists of the People's Chamber (Wolesi Jirga) with 249 directly elected deputies and the House of Elders or Upper House (Meshrano Jirga) with 102 deputies. The latter consists each of a third representatives of the provinces, of the districts, and advisers of the President.



The newly elected President appoints his cabinet. He may propose every suitable Afghan citizen as a minister. After a hearing, the Parliament votes on the proposals. It would be desirable that the allocation of cabinet posts corresponds to the ethnic majority situation in Afghanistan.

The election of the People's Chamber - the next will take place in summer 2010 - is a mere voting on individuals. The introduction of a short-list electoral system, which would give parties a formal role, could not be enforced until now. The problem of campaign financing results from it. Many warlords make full use of this voting on individuals by financially supporting "their" candidates alone. There is admittedly a state institution that has to prevent especially this action in the run-up to the elections, but it was successful only in very few cases before the last parliamentary election in 2005. The social background of not a few representatives of the present Parliament seems therefore very questionable.

An election campaign in Afghanistan cannot be compared with a European campaign. There are admittedly occasional public pre-election rallies, but they are mostly initiated by European political foundations (Friedrich Ebert, Konrad Adenauer, Heinrich Böll Foundation, etc.). The usual "vote-catching" on the spot is done by the candidate's meeting with the individual clan chiefs and negotiating then the price for the votes. One has to assume that an election is manipulated by various parties. After the presidential elections in August, too, election frauds were denounced in many cases {2}. It can be concluded from it that in many regions of Afghanistan those people continue to become members of parliament who can procure the most money for the candidature.

In the Afghan Constitution (Article 83) is stipulated that in parliament every province has to be represented at least by two women. This is approximately equivalent to one quarter of parliamentary seats. Despite this high proportion, women play a rather minor role in Parliament. It is suggested to them to contribute not necessarily their own ideas to the discussions, and when voting to orient themselves by their male colleagues.


Afghan Identity

The population is made up of different ethnic groups: About 38 to 43 per cent belong to the Pashtuns, 25 to 29 per cent to the Tajiks, six to nine per cent to the Uzbeks, and five to eight per cent to the Hazaras. There are also many minorities. It is estimated that in Afghanistan more than 50 different languages are spoken. Within the ethnic groups, the various family clans organize the everyday life of their members.



So, Afghans feel firstly as a member of a family, secondly as belonging to a particular ethnic group, and at last they identify with their country.

This precedence of the ethnic over the national identity makes it difficult to form a government according to our Western understanding of democracy. Democratic structures are in principle advocated, but the president of the country ought to come from one's own ethnic group. In addition, the Pashtuns as the largest ethnic group lay claim to providing the president, resp. conversely not to acknowledge a non-Pashtun as president. The Tajiks regard the Pashtuns as allies of the Taliban. In 1996 they had driven Burhanuddin Rabbani out of Kabul. Rabbani had consequently to go to Feyzabad (Badakhshan province) with his government in exile under the protection of the Northern Alliance and its commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. In 2001 the Northern Alliance fought together with the U.S. in the "Operation Enduring Freedom" against the Taliban and expelled them for the time being. This is the base of the Tajiks' claim to be entitled to present the legitimate president of Afghanistan. The Hazaras in turn insisted that it would only be fair to take the president from their ranks, because they had for such a long time been oppressed by all the other peoples of Afghanistan.

If there should be the chance for Afghanistan in future to exist as a state, this thinking in categories of rival tribes has to be given up. There are approaches for it: The last King of Afghanistan Mohammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007) from the Pashtun dynasty Mohammedzai, and the Tajik and leader of the Northern Alliance Ahmad Shah Massoud are acknowledged as "Father of the Nation" resp. as "resistance fighters" against the Red Army and the Taliban and are revered beyond ethnic borderlines.

Within the ethnic group, the family is the key element of the Afghans. One is prepared to do much for the family, because only a "healthy" family is strong enough to survive in emergency situations and to feed, care for und support family members who, for whatever reason, are suffering want and deprivation. In some regions of Afghanistan - especially in the countryside - it is still the case that no state structures can be recognized locally. It is necessary that the local civil societies develop, respectively cultivate their "systems" of an organized living together. Social security agencies as supporting institutions in cases of disease, disability and age do not (yet) exist.

Both the internal family ties and a treatment of "business partners" that is free of biases and incriminating memories [erinnerungsneutral] are important for the survival of Afghan families. In Afghanistan it is not unusual to do business with persons of rather dubious reputation - from a European perspective. It is quite possible that enemies become partners by means of a commercial contract; if it is required by the local situation friends can also become opponents.



The Afghan history has shown us that loyalties among Afghans are often short-lived or often change. This is an important aspect of how Afghans organize survival. He who understands it and takes it into account in his work will be more effective with relief efforts and projects as if he simply follows his European ways of thinking and acting in his local actions.


Religion in Afghanistan

Since the state Afghanistan has been existing in its present borders, which were defined by the British colonial power in the course of the 19th century and confirmed by King Abdur Rahman Khan, who was appointed by and loyal to the colonial power {3}, the country saw the most diverse political regimes: monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, communism, Taliban regime - and now democracy again. Democracy already existed under Mohammed Zahir Shah, who introduced in 1964 the Constitutional Monarchy (until 1973). Already in September 1965 the first free elections were held in the country. All governmental systems, however, were only enforceable in the capital Kabul and in larger cities and villages. In the rural areas with poor infrastructure different, very individual political structures have been valid until today, which are closely oriented towards Islam.

Ninety nine per cent of the Afghan population are Muslims. According to the Afghan constitution, the state is now an Islamic republic (Article 1), and Islam the state religion (Article 2). But Afghanistan has nevertheless a modern and democratic constitution. Article 3, however, includes a reservation in so far as no law may contradict Islam. Article 130 stipulates the application of Sharia law within the constitutional limits.

In Afghan society religion still plays a dominant role, not by the dictate of the so-called fundamentalists but because the state system, which is in many regions of Afghanistan still insufficiently implemented, is replaced by Islam with the commandments of the Quran and its interpretations and amendments. People trust their family, the clan and religious traditions more than the state. That's why in many places the "valid" Penal Code is ignored until today; the Sharia laws are still applied without any reservation. As a support of the needy one gives the Zakat, which is laid down in the Koran and the amount of which is dependent on one's assets, but one pays only reluctantly and to a small extent taxes. Children unfailingly go to madrassas (religious schools) and not equally to public schools. Valid is what the mullah or imam preaches in the mosque, whereas one rarely trusts in what politicians say and promise.



In order that the Constitution is acknowledged by the entire Afghan population, the promises of the government, of international organizations and of supporter nations must be turned into deeds. The Afghans are to experience personal benefits and actual participation in the democratic process. Here the young state is exposed to a double dilemma: on the one hand it still lacks sufficiently and well trained civil servants in the administration, police and the military in order nationally to enforce laws and regulations, on the other hand, it is incapable to send funds into the remote regions of the country in order there to implement own projects, the lack of skilled workers included.


The Education System

A comprehensive general education is the basic prerequisite of a functioning state. Education can best be imparted by a well funded and uniform school system. Under the Constitution establishing and operating of higher, general and vocational education are the duties of the state (Article 46). But in Afghanistan there is no comprehensive school system with a uniform curriculum. There is a lack of schools and of a trained teaching staff that are needed for them. In addition, the attractiveness of the teaching profession suffers from the fact that wages are very low and irregularly paid. For a teacher - usually it is women who take up this profession - it is therefore an advantage if s/he can work near to the residence of her family, so that s/he can get a share in its livelihood.

European leaders urge a quick implementation of a uniform school system throughout the country. Here they forget, however, that no European school system (except in Switzerland) was introduced under democratic conditions but under monarchical or aristocratic forms of government, and enforced against all opposition. Europeans cannot or only with difficulty understand the problems that the Afghan government has in establishing in the shortest possible time a comprehensive general education.

The Afghans are aware of the need for schools. They invariably send their children to the madrassa. Its compulsory school attendance is for girls from the seventh to the ninth year of life, and for boys from the seventh to thirteenth year of life. But since the madrassa is no state institution and is mostly also funded by private individuals or organizations (e.g. by international Islamic organizations, mostly from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan), the lessons are also not based on uniform, nationally valid curricula.

Another factor that impedes the adoption of a uniform school system is the fact that more than 75 per cent of Afghans work in agriculture. Since the state does not additionally support the rural population by financial subsidies, all family members have to help with field work in order to ensure the survival of the family.



Given these conditions a population whose main source of income is agriculture will only with difficulty reconcile with a general state compulsory education, with fixed school hours and a curriculum that shows no immediate relevance for their daily struggle for survival.

Many aid organizations work exactly in this sector by building schools in many places. Some organizations also support the universities, twenty one of which are state-run and six private. Unfortunately, they do not always talk locally with the state authorities about their plans, as it is essential for a sustainable implementation, but usually carry out their own schedules. Since the state cannot raise the necessary funds, it is massively dependent on the willingness of the various aid organizations and thus at their mercy as regards their implementation strategies.


The State Finance

Since May 2005 Afghanistan has a new tax law (based on Article 42 of the Constitution) and income tax legislation. Like the country's constitution, this law has been drafted with international assistance. When studying this law it is noticeable that it was actually designed specifically for Afghanistan. However, the authors have left two important details out of consideration: Firstly, the fact that in Afghanistan has never been a tax law that was enforced throughout the country. Therefore, and also because the appropriate educational background is missing, the Afghans do not know what taxes are, and of what importance they are for the community and for the state. Secondly, in all countries of the Middle East only tax legislations are known that are based primarily on indirect taxes such as VAT or sales tax. In Iran, for example, all revenues are taxed at 20 per cent (with the exception of minor turnovers). In addition, there are special fees for members of recognized religions, a land tax, the religiously prescribed alms tax and customs duties. An income tax, which in Germany constitutes one third of tax revenues, is unknown.

There is only a rudimentary understanding of taxes, whereas the understanding of the principle of income tax is completely missing and can also not be learnt from neighbouring countries by way of comparison. The Afghan state has therefore massive problems with collecting taxes from its citizens. A further complication is that in Afghanistan people almost entirely pay with cash. The Afghans know of course financial dues, for you have to pay them to warlords and drug barons, as well as to corrupt government agencies and authorities.



However, with the difference that here a direct "interaction" is recognizable - in return for the payments you can run your business in peace or you will be "protected". It would have been more effective to introduce a tax legislation that corresponds to that of neighbouring countries or is adjusted to it.

At present, the country draws its tax revenue mainly from customs duties. This money, of course, is not nearly enough to compensate the financial challenges of the state. The budget of 2008 amounted to about 600 million U.S. dollars - a sum that cannot be procured yet by Afghanistan. The deficit is mainly be offset by the donor countries. It is declared to be "reconstruction aid" so that the dependence of the state, resp. of its president is not too obvious, which would rather undermine his authority in the country, since it could suggest that the president was a "puppet" of the donor countries.


Police and Military

It is absolutely necessary that an assertive police and a powerful military are established so that Afghanistan is able to solve its internal political problems in the foreseeable future. Here, the states of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are trying to do their utmost. With their locally stationed military and the police officers who are for this purpose deployed to Afghanistan, they have as far as possible taken on the task to train the Afghan police and the military. It is the aim of this training assistance as soon as possible to enable the Afghan security forces to settle independently the internal affairs of the state on the basis of its constitution. This training is good, and in many places it is also crowned with success.

In building up its security forces Afghanistan has to struggle with different and partly self-induced problems. On the one hand, police officers are, like other state employees, too, paid poorly and in many cases discontinuously. This tempts them to seek and accept additional forms of income. Since the police are partially corruptible their prestige among the population is often burdened with great reservations. On the other hand, the warlords gladly lure away well-trained soldiers for their own armies by the prospect of a significantly higher income.

In addition, by the fights in southern Afghanistan the military personnel is also reduced. According to the target structure, the Afghan army is to grow to 134,000 men {4}, but at present the number stagnates at about 45.000 to 50.000 men.



The weakness of the military personnel becomes above all noticeable by their lacking presence in the country. There are not enough soldiers in order to establish a presence in all provinces of the country, and above all to take decisive action against the warlords there.


Warlords and Taliban

Warlords are still a reality in Afghanistan, and they partially have considerable political influence. Their power seems to be as strong as ever. This is mainly the result of the prolonged state of war and of the consequent loss of authority of the Afghan state. Many mujahideen (resistance fighters) were able to achieve secure positions within their regions and eventually act as warlords. The frequently changing loyalties among them enable an ever-increasing number of warlords to exert influence on government policy.

In addition, the Afghan government has occasionally downright "recruited" the warlords as representatives of the state to maintain "public order" in their respective regions. As result of that gentleman's agreement and of the inability of the state government in recent years, the warlords achieved extensive autonomy. It is very difficult and almost impossible for the State to end this state, as several times already Hamid Karzai had painfully to learn.

The warlords got enough financial resources through drug cultivation and trafficking in order to resort to soldiers and weapons. They should therefore not be underestimated also militarily. They are regarded as a serious factor in the Afghan society; and they in turn know well how to appear as indispensable partners of the new state. As to that, Kabul's policy is very ambiguous. On the one hand, one tries to defeat the warlords and to destroy their main source of income - drugs, on the other hand one thinks that their actions contribute to the good of the state and rewards them for it with important government positions. So it is e.g. not surprising that well-known warlords find themselves in the circle of the President's advisers or even as his Vice President. In addition, the reproach of some female members is true that war criminals are among the parliamentarians.

Besides the warlords there is the group of Taliban that shakes more and more the Afghan government in its foundations. The Taliban (talib = students) is a politico-religious group that came into existence in the early 90s of the 20th Century in Pakistan's madrassas {5}. At that time the Taliban belonged mainly to the ethnic group of the Pakistani Pashtuns.



Those "Taliban of the first hour" had set themselves the aim of bringing peace to Afghanistan and of ending the civil war between Pashtuns and Tajiks - in favour of their Pashtun "brothers". The Taliban's way of proceeding, with which they sought to achieve their goal, was brutal but successful.

Through the cruel civil war in Afghanistan the civilian life had more or less come to a standstill. Most citizens of Afghanistan welcomed the Taliban with "open arms". After all, they got - often by using violence - the feuding warlords to stop their hostilities. Many of the warlords were also prepared to change their loyalty, to take the Taliban's side, and to become a "Talib". Thus, the initial dominance of the Pashtuns in the Taliban was interspersed with members of other ethnic groups, and the Taliban became more and more a mirror of the entire Afghan society.

The Afghan civilian population was of course aware of the fact that the Taliban were no pure "good guys" [Gutmenschen] and that they in future would occupy an important position if their project - the pacification and conquest of Afghanistan - would be crowned with success. The population's initial sympathy changed quickly into fear after the final seizure of power by the Taliban in 1996. The Taliban were now trying to implement their idea of a "theocracy." The Afghan "theocracy project" was terminated by the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom in October/November 2001. The "Taliban threat" was thus averted for the time being.

In the weeks, months and years after the end of Taliban rule many countries have declared themselves in favour of an international Afghanistan help and have offered to help with rebuilding the country. That were, unfortunately, often mere promises. The Afghans, however, want to see successes; they want that they can feel the changes in their country. However, what they experience until today is that the international assistance remains mainly in Kabul, that the Kabul Government's political promises are empty words, and that the warlords in the provinces continue to call the shots. The Taliban might once again make up ground in this bitterly disillusioned society. Due to the inability, and sometimes unwillingness of the international community to adapt to Afghanistan and to its culture - so different from the European -, the Taliban might be strengthened and win again social and political room.

The Afghans do not see the Taliban as something fundamentally evil; they recognize in them the freedom fighters who are ready to die for Afghanistan. If the international community continues focusing on fighting the Taliban, the opinion might emerge that those who haunt the Taliban are actually fighting against an essential element of Afghanistan. But those who are fighting against Afghanistan will inevitably be driven out by the Afghans, as it has earlier befallen Alexander the Great, the Persians, the British and the Soviet Union.



The Drug Problem

Afghanistan is currently producing twice as much drugs as the world really needs. The harvest of 2009 was approximately 6900 tonnes of opium {6} and has since 2002 steadily significantly increased (2004: 4200 tonnes). The export of opium is the most lucrative source of revenue of the country. Pledges of the Afghan politicians to the international community to fight more intensively drug cultivation and trafficking are generally only empty talk, since many senior politicians in the country are involved in the drug trade {7}.

There were and are international projects, which offer the population - beyond the burning of poppy fields - alternatives to drug cultivation, but they are always associated with a financial disadvantage. A Belgian NGO (Network of European Foundations) e.g. launched a project to cultivate a different sort of poppy, usable for medical purposes, instead of opium poppy {8}. This project will probably fail because the pharmaceutical industry does not want to pay the normal price for drugs to the suppliers, but the drug producers are not willing to accept losses. The German Agro Action supports the project "Roses instead of drugs" in eastern Afghanistan. 300 farmers grow roses, from which oil for cosmetic purposes is extracted {9}. This project has not yet failed. But the fact that a liter of rose oil costs in Europe about 4500 euros, whereas a kilo of heroin costs a multiple of it, causes the hopes raised to turn into concerns.

The drug barons will not accept alternatives as long as they cannot earn just as much money with another product. Thus, there remains only the strategy of destroying drug crops in order to defeat them. However, it should be taken into consideration that the small farmer whose drug field and thus his income is destroyed will have massive problems in supporting his family. It is not yet noticeable how this problem can be solved in a way satisfactory for all parties. At the moment Europe derives "benefit" from the Afghan overproduction of drugs, because the price falls and thus the profit of drug barons is also diminished. But that does not mean that people in Afghanistan abstain from drug cultivation, in the best case the production will be adapted to the market.




The commitment of international donors is varied, but often badly thought-out. Certainly, the Afghan state currently gets paid enormous sums of money from abroad, but very often the money will stay in Kabul and then drain away there. The government and non-governmental aid agencies rarely go into the remote regions of the country but stay usually in the larger towns of the provinces.

The international cooperation propagated by the ISAF, too, not only the military one but also that of the respective state agencies exists often only on paper. In reality, each state pursues its own interests. But before condemning this action, you should first look at the procedures within the German Federal Government: Not least because of press reports it becomes increasingly clear that there is actually no effective cooperation of the ministries working in Afghanistan.

The population in the Afghan provinces reproaches its government with mismanagement and corruption and the international forces with disinterest in a concept designed especially for Afghans - and it bemoans its perpetual misery. It should be clear that this emotional state of the Afghans is an all too fertile ground for opposition groups of all kinds.

Despite everything, Afghanistan and its people deserve it that the world comes to terms with the local conditions. However, eight years after the last war the time has come to develop more effective concepts for Afghanistan's reconstruction, which are coordinated nationally and internationally. It's also absolutely essential to integrate the Taliban, because without them the international community will definitely fail in Afghanistan.



{1} The Northern Alliance is an alliance of convenience founded in October 1996 by Massoud, Dostum, Rabbani and Khalili against the Taliban; see B. Chiari, Afghanistan. Wegweiser zur Geschichte (Paderborn 2006) 75 et sequ.

{2} A. Spalinger, Wahlbetrug in Afghanistan, in: NZZ Online, 23.8.2009, see:

{3} C. Schetter, Kleine Geschichte Afghanistans (München 2004) 55 et sequ.

{4} Die Bundeswehr. Modern u. leistungsstark, edited by Bundesministerium der Verteidigung (Berlin 2009) 32.


{5} Schetter (note 3) 125ff.

{6} Afghanistan Opium Survey 2009, edited by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, see:

{7} M. Hofmann, Drogen am Hindukusch, eine unendliche Geschichte? in: Afghanistan - Land ohne Hoffnung?, edited by H. Schuh and S. Schwan (Brühl 2008) 23 et sequ.

{8} J. Jun, Afghanistan: Think Tank Promotes Strategy For Country's Opium Problem, in: RadioFree-Europe/RadioLiberty, 31.1.2006, see:

{9} M. Fütterer, Rosen statt Opium, in:, 11.5.2008, see:


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