Muslim Societies Expert Considers Afghanistan's Future
Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2013 02:10
The year of 2014 is one of promise and anxiety for Afghanistan. After the United States begins withdrawing there, the country will have its first open presidential election in many years. The country can either return to turmoil or retain the stability that Afghanis once took for granted and have only just recently reacquired.
Thomas Barfield, director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization, spoke Monday about these issues to a group of students gathered in Higgins Hall. A grant for the study of Islamic civilization from the Institute for Liberal Arts made Barfield’s speech possible.
“The project itself is a series of academic presentations and cultural events related to the political, social, economic, and human rights of Afghanistan’s people,” political science professor and event organizer Kathleen Bailey said. “Many are contemplating what Afghanistan will look life after 2014 when the United States disengages.”
To answer this question, Bailey and the audience turned their attention to Barfield, a professor of anthropology who has done extensive field work in Afghanistan since the 1970s. Barfield focused on 2014 as a transition date for the country, because of the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. American troops currently are focused on training the Afghan army. The U.S. hopes this army will keep the country secure after international forces disengage.
2014 is also a transition because of an upcoming presidential election. Barfield believes the race is currently wide open because current President Hamid Karzai is ineligible to run again. “The presidential question is a great one,” Barfield said. “It would have been much better if these two transitions were staggered.”
Negotiation in Afghanistan will remain an important issue even after troop withdrawals, according to Barfield. “It is really important to make a decision now before election period presidential politics,” he said. “If the U.S. leaves air support, the Taliban will not be able to take down the government.”
Barfield characterized the electoral process in Afghanistan as patrimonial and highly centralized. According to Barfield, running a successful political campaign is more about building coalitions and deal-making than catering directly to voters. “What we’re dealing with in terms of democracy is ethnic and economic rather than institutional,” he said. “We have to really ask ourselves about process in Afghanistan rather than just outcome.”
The possibility of a military coup in Afghanistan after an election is also an important issue to Barfield, who posed the question of what would happen if the military intervenes in the event of a civilian government breakdown. Afghanistan has never had a military coup. Barfield said that to ensure one does not happen, there needs to be an investment on the civilian side in addition to the military side in Afghanistan.
Barfield went into the history of the country as well. In particular, he focused on relative stability there from 1895-1978 partially due to outside support for their military union. He stressed that no internationally supported Kabul government has fallen. “Kabul governments have been successful because of insurgency’s inability to take them,” he said. “It’s also really important to realize that if there’s aid coming in, Kabul governments are hard to topple.”
After the majority of foreign aid ended, however, there was civil war and strife in the ’90s followed by U.S. engagement in the 2000s. Because of this outside support, Afghanistan has one of the lowest rates of taxation in the world.
Barfield concluded the lecture portion of his talk by postulating two distinct paths for Afghanistan. “If it goes bad, things could return to the way they were in the ’90s,” he said. “It gets worse if the international community gives up.”
The other scenario Barfield proposed was that a new patron for the country steps up to provide Afghanistan protection because of that country’s own economic self-interest. “On a positive side, I like to think about how 500 years of European fighting ended through economic integration,” he said. “It is extremely important over the next three, four, five years that there is stability that allows this to maybe happen.”