Context & Culture

Afghanistan’s not-so-hermetic rural-urban divide

Rural vs urban areas, traditionalists vs modernists, Kabul vs the mountains – these are only a few of many simplifications that are used to explain Afghanistan. Such simplifications are repeated so often that they affect political decision making, to the detriment of those Afghans who support reform, argues AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig. He advocates to see the shades of grey.

This is to thank Ahmad Shuja who, a few days ago on UN Dispatch (read it here), commented about an op-ed articlewritten by Douglas A. Ollivant, a former member of the US National Security Council, and published in the Washington Post about how many wars are going on in Afghanistan. The WP author says three: the war against al-Qaeda and its associated groups, the war to help the Afghan government, and:

‘the least understood but the most enduring [war]: The internal social and cultural battle between the urban modernizers of Afghanistan, mostly based in Kabul, and the rural, tribal, anti-modern peoples who live in the country’s inaccessible mountain regions.’

This latter – let’s call it conflict dimension rather than war – is also what Mr Shuja very rightly so takes issue with. He replies:

‘While there is an internal social and cultural struggle going on between progressive Afghans and their more traditional counterparts, it is by no means “mostly” based in Kabul. And by no means are the “anti-modern” segments of Afghan society only based in the “inaccessible mountain regions” – in fact, it’s often the opposite. And, no, “rural” and “tribal” Afghans are not necessarily anti-modern.

The truth is that like any country, Afghanistan has its contradictions and complexities that cannot be easily reduced to convenient generalizations. For example, in Kabul, the heart of Mr. Ollivant’s progressive Afghanistan, there are those who rail against shelters for battered women and those who steadfastly fight back; there are those who are educating Afghan girls and boys in the modern arts and sciences and those who violently oppose them; and there are those who valiantly protest misogynistic laws and those who lodge counter-protests.’

There is not much to be added to this, except that this is anything but an academic discussion. The rural-urban dichotomy is often used (by Western politicians and diplomats!) to argue that those advocating reform are a minority which is not rooted in real – or at least, majority – Afghan society which, according to this version, has to be rooted in ‘tradition’ and Islam. I have heard it used when discussing support for civil society groups and political parties: ‘Who do these people really represent?’

On the other hand, there is some strange kind of political ‘correctness’, very likely driven by the (correct) understanding that a lot of Afghan ‘traditions’ – or more correctly, Afghans’ dignity – have been trampled upon by the ostensibly ‘light footprint’, which did not remain light in the military sphere and was never so in the political one, with all the viceroys and advisors. As a democratically minded friend recently commented:

‘When you do a women’s project, the donors want ulema in it. When you do a human rights project, the donors want ulema in it. When you do an AIDS project, the donors want ulema in it. But nobody asks what the school or university teachers say.’

Not many seem to notice the links between those who define what is ‘Islamic’ or ‘Afghan tradition’ in today’s Afghanistan and the atrocities committed during the past 30 years’ wars. As a result, often enough, not representativeness but fear owns the definition of power. For the same reason, a Muslim can very well be secular, i.e. against ‘the mullas’ ruling his country (while it is still dangerous to say so publicly). But it is a bit like this rural/urban thing: there are some shades of grey amongst the black and white.

The rural = anti-modern / urban = modern line of argument is also uninformed about Afghanistan’s history. It ignores that the struggle for modernization in Afghanistan has been going on for more than a hundred years now, starting with the ‘first constitutionalists’ (the mashruta-khwahan-e awwal) in 1903. Although most of these pioneers ended, in 1909, tied up in front of cannons and blown into pieces, their aspirations were picked up by later generations of reformers: from the Young Afghans via the Wesh Zalmian to the political activists of the ‘decade of democracy’ that followed the 1964 constitution and, finally, those who hoped and stood up for democratization in post-Taleban Afghanistan.

Many authors have argued that reforms like those of King Amanullah (ruled 1919-29) ‘failed’ because they were top-down and had no social base. Maybe the reforms have been stopped or slowed down, as under Nader Shah who followed Amanullah after a short interregnum. But some of their results survived and continued to effect Afghan society. Take the education system, for example:

Between 1918 and 1928, i.e. under Amanullah, Afghanistan’s expenses for education grew 1000-fold. Each district received one basic school at least, with altogether 40,000 students in 1928, and each province at least one secondary school for the first time. Education was made free-of-charge. Access to education was not limited to the court, the aristocracy and the Ulema anymore. The urban middle-classes and tribal leaders sent their sons (under Amanullah also some daughters – there were 800 girls in school in 1928) to the new schools. Those educated descendants of tribal leaders traditionally kept their links to their tribal origins even after they entered the state bureaucracy and settled down in Kabul or other cities. (And ‘[b]etween 1950 and 1978, numbers increased by ten times at primary schools, twenty-one times at secondary schools and forty-five times at universities.’)*

And, at least in Amanullah’s case, one reason of the reforms’ failure was that an outside colonialist – and modernizing – power incited and paid the rural ‘anti-modernists’ to rise up against those reforms, most likely not so much because of the reforms themselves, but rather in order to take revenge for Amanullah’s unilateral 1919 declaration of the country’s independence.

It was this peculiarity of the Afghan education system – with members of the ‘traditional’ tribal society becoming a large part of the new educated classes – that contributed to a situation that the rural-urban divide is not so hermetic anymore. There still might be rural areas untouched by most of it, but many – perhaps most – have been affected. Also just look at where the students of Kabul University come from, look at the provincial ‘diasporas’ in and around the larger cities, at the coming and going between villages and towns, the distribution of modern means of communications around the country, mobile-phone-carrying nomads and educated web users who want to blow up TV stations that show Indian movies.

Last but not least: Even if the modernists were urban only and a small minority, they still would be entitled to be listened to and factored into any discussion of where the country is going to. At least in a political system that is ‘European good enough’.


(*) Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, London 2011, p. 17.

Thematic Category: Context & Culture