Book Review: Bazaar Politics

Long time no substantive post – sorry, blog! Let’s try a quick book review. My most recent round of Amazon splurges led me to pick up a copy of Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town, by Noah Coburn of the Kabul-based Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit. I finished it over the course of a day and a half (it’s only around 200 pages) and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Afghanistan, post-conflict peace and reconciliation, or in questions of how the state and local political actors interact, particularly in situations where state power is limited.

I am a sucker for a good anthropological study and Coburn’s portrait of the small town of Istalif (located on the edge of the Shomali Plains, north of Kabul and off the road to Bagram and points further north) is an accessible and interesting one. It is also billed as the first such book-length study that actually focuses on communities in post-2001 Afghanistan (and if there have been others, I’m not aware of them). Developing the policy implications of Coburn’s findings for the U.S. or Afghan governments is not the focus of the book, but the attention paid here to local politics and how local actors respond to and balance against one another (as well as larger national forces) is an important one that has been overlooked by U.S. policymakers for, oh, about ten years now. Coburn offers a humbling view of Afghanistan for any international observer; when NGOs or international military patrols enter the picture, which is rarely, their concerns are almost wholly disassociated from those of the locals, and the effects of their intervention on locals’ behavior are rarely lasting or as intended.

If nothing else, I don’t think anyone can read this book and come away still thinking that Afghan politics is just a matter of “tribes” (a view that persists in the popular imagination despite the efforts of Afghanistan analysts to beat it back, this paper being one of the best-known attempts) or a dichotomy of insurgent-bad-guys-versus-government-good-guys. Istalif’s potters – who appear to be marginally better-organized than the other actors and are linked by kinship, profession, and neighborhood geography, even as they compete with each other for market access – get the most in-depth focus (probably thanks to the access he was able to get to them). But Coburn documents in considerable detail the whole complexity of local power arrangements – maliks, mullahs, commanders, businessmen, as well as national government officials, NGO aid agencies, and international military forces – as well as the tenuousness of their ability to actually mobilize their power against rivals.

(As a side note, the political class of Afghanistan I feel I know the least about and would love to see more anthropological and political study of is the business community, especially the noveau-riche businessmen of the past 10-20 years, their diaspora experiences in Pakistan and the Gulf, and how the influx of external resources and influences have reshaped them. If anyone knows of work that’s been done on this, please point me towards it.)

This point about tenuous power is Coburn’s main takeaway from his observation of Istalif’s various political groupings. “Violence is simply one of many political tools available to actors in certain settings,” Coburn notes on page 219, particularly settings where the state has little to no monopoly over force as in Afghanistan. But despite the limited resources available within the community and Istalifis’ interest in competing for access to them, none of the political organizations within the town risk direct violent confrontation with one another and are instead willing to settle for sub-optimal outcomes rather than escalate conflicts in ways that might disturb the existing balance of power (from which, it should be noted, they all currently benefit) in unpredictable ways.

Instead they hedge, manuever and gossip about their rivals behind their backs, and seek to preserve their power at all costs rather than exposing its limits by putting it to a serious mobilization test. (Readers who grew up in small towns anywhere may see some parallels here.) If this were international politics we might call this strategy “off-shore balancing”; Coburn gives it the label of “masterly inactivity”. The money quote, from page 146:

Masterly inactivity was a product of the political landscape of the post-Taliban period. The fragmentation of power during this time meant that the state had some power, but could not really penetrate society; commanders had been demobilized, but had not submitted all their arms; quam leaders maintained much of their influence on neighborhood politics, but could not mobilize on more serious issues; and international military forces and NGOs had enough strength to upset this balance, but little interest in involving themselves in local politics. Because of the improbability of any of these groups being able to defeat the others, along with memories of violence and instability during the civil war and the Taliban period, no group seriously considered trying to establish hegemonic control over town politics. … In a system where the potential costs of losing in a confrontation outweighed the potential gains from winning in most scenarios, individuals went out of their way to avoid the appearance of engagement.

“In most cases,” Coburn writes (on page 216), “what generates stability [in a democratic system] is the fact that competition is regulated by the shared understanding of members of society that, while they may be defeated on one political issue, the system guarantees them the ability to return the next day and compete for other resources.” There are no such guarantees in Afghanistan, but Istalif still operates at a level of tenuous stability, not as a result of the presence of the state (the district governor, like everyone else, must conserve his power or risk exposing how little of it he possesses, and is mostly absent from town politics) but as a result of this detente between all the major players.  It is the shared history of unpredictable and destructive violence that has led the oligarchy of actors who dominate the town’s politics to conclude that they should avoid resort to it at this time.

That experience of unpredictable violence is not unique to Istalif, and an optimistic interpretation of Coburn’s study would be that local Afghan political actors can in fact live in relative peace with one another even without relinquishing their interest in competition for power and resources; that reconciliation is in fact possible, even in a country as fractured as Afghanistan. The pessimistic interpretation would be that this is all an extremely tenuous balance which can be upset at any time by big changes in resource availability or the entry of new or formerly marginalized political actors (potentially including the young generation, which as elsewhere is marginalized from the current decision-making organizations that benefit from the current status quo) into the mix. Coburn makes no claims that Istalif – which is ethnically mixed but primarily Tajik, removed from current conflict centers, and not closely linked to any of the major national-level political actors – is necessarily representative of Afghanistan as a whole, but the country is so internally diverse that I’m not sure such a place exists anywhere.

There are many more interesting parts to the book, including a discussion in the final chapters of how the concept of a strict boundary between state and non-state actors doesn’t hold up in practice in Afghanistan, even though it’s often in the interests of both sides to pretend that it does. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Pottery of Istalif

Pottery of Istalif by egerstner, via Flickr

Next up on my reading list: Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy and Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi.

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One response to “Book Review: Bazaar Politics

  1. Pingback: Squabbles in Garmsir - Military News | Military News

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