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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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Timeline Timeline

Wealth and Warlords

CIRCA 1992 CE
THEMES:

Identity & Perception

Tradition & Modernization

Reveal Source

50-50. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

59-R19-16. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
83-1663. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
A69-561. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
Awalmir. "Esta De Qasam Wi." Radio-Television Afghanistan Archives. 
 
H-00240-10. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
K-00313-01. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
Sl-00001. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
Sl-05563. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
Sl-05765. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Producer: Alexis Menten

 

Reveal Transcript

Afghan society is an intricate web in which multiple relationships connect individuals to the whole. These include not only relationships to family, ethnic groups, and the land, but also relationships based on power and authority.

In traditional Afghan society, say for example, among the Pashtuns, when leaders had greater wealth and greater prestige, greater status, greater authority among their people, they also tended to recycle that prestige and that wealth back into the community.

One way they did that was through hospitality. And men who were of notable ancestry, of notable prestige, of authority, had maintained guesthouses. And people who were poorer than them would often avail themselves of the hospitality of the leader, and come frequently to sit in his house, to sit and chat with the people who were there, to receive the food that was offered at lunchtime, for example.

Because there were few ways for these leaders to horde their wealth, it was more strategic to use it to acquire obligations from others in their community. And as a result, there were strong ties within the community to the leader. And if over time, people received hospitality from an individual over and over and didn’t return it, that reciprocity would be broken and it would be understood that those people were essentially clients. They were obliged to that leader. And he could ask them to do favors for him or to do services for him.

Once the Soviet-Afghan War began, these relationships between wealthy leaders and the people of their community began to change.

When we turn to the concept of warlords, I think we really are dealing with a different sort of phenomenon, and one that has been perverted by the situation of Afghanistan over the last 30 years. At that point or shortly after that period, the Pakistan government, and with the assistance of the Americans, the Saudis and other foreign interests, began to funnel money, weapons and other kinds of support to Mujahideen, to Resistance Fighters who were opposed to the Marxist government in Afghanistan and to their Soviet sponsors.

Now the leaders who had wealth—and therefore positions of authority—were war leaders.

Suddenly people who did not have an established position in Afghanistan, who were not tribal leaders, were being given great wealth that gave them a disproportionate power over other Afghans. And they used that wealth in part to try to defeat the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan; in part to try to defeat their rivals; and to gain more power for themselves.

After the Soviets withdrew, the support to the mujahideen was also withdrawn. Now the war leaders had to find their own sources of wealth to maintain their power. And those people were preying, essentially preying on the people. They became predators who were trying to take advantage of their lost wealth; take advantage of the people in order to gain wealth for themselves. And so those are the people who are really called warlords now.