Some reflections on ‘The idea of Afghanistan’

Some reflections on ‘The idea of Afghanistan’

Blog posts reflect the views of the authors and not those of AREU.


What does it mean to ask ‘What is the idea of Afghanistan?’? This may seem a curious way in which to embark on a discussion to mark 100 years of Afghan independence, but a closer scrutiny suggests that the question ‘What is the idea of Afghanistan?’ is by no means an easy one to unpick. There is in all likelihood no single idea of Afghanistan at all, but rather different ideas in the minds of different people, all of whom may have something to contribute to a discussion of the issue. In his famous book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that history has no meaning but that we can give it meaning. This may also be true of the idea of Afghanistan.

The complexities involved in unpacking the idea of a country are well illustrated by a 1943 American song called The House I Live In:

What is America to me?

A name, a map, the flag I see,

A certain word, ‘Democracy’.

What is America to be?


The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street,

The grocer and the butcher and the people that I meet,

The children in the playground, the faces that I see;

All races, all religions, that’s America to me.


The place I work in, the worker at my side,

The little town or city where my people lived and died,

The ‘howdy’ and the handshake, the air of feeling free,

The right to speak my mind out, that’s America to me …


The key point of this lyric is that a country is more than a piece of territory. It is a populated space, and the character, the orientations, and the ideas of the people occupying it have a great deal to do with its identity. But in reality, not everyone’s idea of a country will carry equal weight in shaping its destiny. Power, of its nature, is relational and asymmetrically distributed, and the ideas of the more powerful can play a more critical role in determining what kind of social world the country will be. This is the very problem that is confronting Afghanistan, and Afghans, at the moment.

For this there is one overarching explanation: the initiation by the United States of direct discussions with the Taliban, over the heads of members of the Afghan government. Three striking features of these discussions stand out. The first is that whilst the US envoy, Dr Zalmay Khalilzad, has repeatedly stated that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, the ultimate figure determining when the terms of an agreement are good enough for Washington is not Dr Khalilzad, but rather the most erratic US president in living memory. The second is that the Taliban have secured a precious place at the table despite very low levels of popularity amongst the Afghan people: the 2018 survey of opinion in Afghanistan conducted by The Asia Foundation found that 82 per cent of the Afghan respondents had no sympathy at all for the Taliban. The third is that the Taliban movement is one animated not just by interests but by values, and moreover, values which are inimical both to those long preached by the United States, and those which have ostensibly underpinned Afghanistan’s transition since 2001.

Some cling to the belief that this might change, but here, it is worth recalling Dr Samuel Johnson’s characterisation of a second marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. In the case of the Taliban, there is plenty of past experience on which one can draw in assessing what ‘idea of Afghanistan’ they might entertain. Several points stand out from their earlier exercise of power between 1994 and 2001. First, their mindset and aspirations were totalitarian rather than pluralist, even though they did not have at their disposal the kinds of state instrumentalities that could allow them to give full effect to a totalitarian vision. Second, in their propagation of the idea of an emirate as a model polity, they demonstrated a distaste for the democratic ideal that ordinary people should be able to change their rulers without bloodshed. Third, their thinking about religion was extremely doctrinal but not sophisticated, and the scope for better-informed religious scholars to induce them to reconsider some of their ‘religious’ views was extraordinarily limited.

There are significant grounds for doubting whether the Taliban have changed in any meaningful way, or are capable of doing so. In recent times they have spoken with hostility about the activities of the free press, one of the great achievements of the post-2001 transition; their statements about women’s rights are invariably qualified by some kind of reference to an ‘Islamic framework’, which they themselves would define; and there is no sign that they would ever countenance the idea that they could be ejected from power by popular vote if that was what the people of Afghanistan wanted. Of course, in 2019, it is easy for Taliban figures to suggest that things are different now, but what they say when they are seeking access to power gives very little guidance as to how they would exercise power if they actually attained it. As Lord Acton famously put it in 1887, power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

On what basis, therefore, might one argue in favour of accommodating such an idea of what Afghanistan should be? One argument, infuriating to many young Afghans modernists, is the insinuation that they are somehow inauthentic, and that the Taliban represent the ‘real’ Afghanistan. The orientalist dimensions of such a claim are fairly obvious. But another argument is that accommodating the Taliban’s idea of Afghanistan at the expense of the ideal of a pluralist political space is a necessary price to pay for ‘peace’.

It goes without saying that Afghans desperately crave peace, and who can blame them? Two sobering observations, however, come to mind in response to such an argument. The first is that peace, as Richard Caplan has pointed out in his 2019 book Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices, and Politics, is a complex and multidimensional idea of a ‘highly heterogeneous character’. This is not a new idea: in his Agricola, the Roman writer Tacitus quoted a chieftain who warned, of the Romans, that ‘they make a desert, and call it peace’. The second is that much can be sacrificed in an ill-considered quest for peace. This was captured in a Soviet anecdote from the 1950s, recounted by the dissident Vladimir Bukovsky: A man went to his rabbi to ask if there would be a war. ‘There will be no war,’ replied the rabbi, ‘but there will be such a struggle for peace that no stone will be left standing’. This is worth bearing in mind as Afghans are increasingly pressured to consider living in a house designed along lines that the Taliban find acceptable.


Professor William Maley is Professor of Diplomacy at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. He is author of several books on Afghanistan including The Afghanistan Wars (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, 2009), Rescuing Afghanistan (London: Hurst & Co., 2006), Reconstructing Afghanistan: Civil-military experiences in comparative perspective (New York: Routledge, 2015.)