The New Khans
The King of Afghanistan was crowned in 1933 and lasted 40 years. Despite decades of intermittent attempts to modernize it, the national government remained weak and backward. Early parliaments had to be strung with barbed wire to keep the delegates from knifing tribal enemies across the aisle. During this time, the University of Kabul spawned two schools of political activism. Communists plotted to free the peasantry and women from the oppression of Khan and Mullah, and the Islamists schemed to make Afghanistan a society of godly virtue. When the King visited Italy in 1973, his prime minister, Daud Khan, told him not to come back. Daud established the Republic of Afghanistan, which fell to a military coup by communist officers in 1978. The Islamists took to the hills in revolt, and decades of civil war began.
Established institutions were damaged by civil war. Power drifted into the hands of the leaders of war bands, called warlords. Without the traditional checks which had mitigated the authority of the Khans, warlords routinely abused their power. War bands were guilty of torture, rape, murder, and theft. Warlords built reputations for Islamic piety, patriotism, generosity, courage in combat, and fearsome acts of cruelty with theatrical flair. They overstated the size of their war bands, lied about their feats, and slandered their enemies without shame. But they provided a defense for people of their ethnicity or tribe and had genuine support from segments of the public.
As civil war ends, warlords and their men need to be disarmed and integrated back into peacetime life. Westerners, especially idealistic non-governmental organizations (NGOs), place great importance on justice. But in civil war all sides commit atrocities, so the losers see prosecution as hypocrisy. Experienced guerilla fighters protected by a sympathetic public may choose flight over arrest. Jesse and Frank James avoided capture for 17 years after the end of our civil war. At present, Taliban leaders roam their home province. A war crimes court in Kabul could flood the hills with bandits.
The Soviets tried to force communism on Afghanistan and failed. Pakistan pushed a backward theocracy which was just as distasteful to most Afghans. Force-fed democracy may go down easier, but hold your breath. Afghanistan is a shaky feudal system again, which is familiar and acceptable to Afghans. The warlords are the new aristocracy. When we hold provincial elections and ask the warlords to step aside for the winners at the ballot box, we might be in for an unpleasant surprise.