Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival

Darulaman Palace, Kabul

The prospect of yet another general history of Afghanistan is unlikely to excite. But Amin Saikal’s updated Modern Afghanistan, reprinted this year after a first edition in 2004, is an exception. Saikal is that rarity among published authors on Afghanistan: an Afghan, and his work demonstrates a cultural understanding that is usually lacking among foreign historians and political scientists. He relies on first-hand interviews with informed Afghans, and uses Afghan sources written in Dari as well as others from Soviet archives. This allows Saikal to see his country’s historical development through social and political traditions that most Western historians ignore, or fail to see altogether.

Afghanistan’s state fragility, he argues, is inherent in systems of rule derived from families that were dynastic and polygamous. Such loose patrimonial systems provoked interdynastic rivalry in which challengers often sought external assistance to usurp incumbents. In this way, Afghans are players of their own Great Game: “Any government or official political movement in Afghanistan,” writes Saikal, “whatever its proclaimed goals and position on the left-right continuum, recruited, mobilised support and operated according to criteria of ethnic/tribal/clan solidarity. All prominent ‘Constitutionalists’ in the age of Habibullah and Amanullah were Durrani Pashtuns, linked by conjugal and patronage ties. Through the ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ periods in the post-Second World War era, the Mohammadzai clan never relinquished power”.

Consequently, Saikal sees President Hamid Karzai as little more than a “Pashtun Khan” singing to the United States’s tune of liberal democracy and centralized government, while in reality “operating along the lines of the past”. The emergence of a “Karzai cartel”, in which the President’s brothers and half-brothers “as well as secondary relatives and ethnic loyalists, came to play a dominant role in politics, business, trade and outreach activities”, is proof of the persistence of “family rule” in Afghan politics.

Saikal’s use of sources, his insight into the process of internal political change, and his somewhat sympathetic view that, in the end, Afghans have always been the main agents of their history, make Modern Afghanistan essential reading for anyone wanting original, informed perspectives on the country’s historical development since its “foundation” under Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747.


Times Literary Supplement