August 19, 2021

Every empire is woke on ethnicity, including Muslim ones from Afghanistan

Time for another major correction of very popular delusions about Afghanistan, i.e. that it's an ungovernable black hole of hyper-tribalistic chaos. The implication is that no one could have overcome its tribal schisms in order to unify the country. Ethno-political pluralism simply could not ever take root there.

But this is just a face-saving cope for those who failed to conquer it, most recently the American Empire, and previously the Soviet and British Empires. In this view, it's no proof of their impotence that they failed to accomplish the impossible. In the most negative interpretation, it's a sign of the empire's hubris and overweening ambition; in the most favorable view, it's a sign of how difficult it is for noble civilizing missions to succeed. In either case, the empire was attempting the impossible, so don't read too much into its failure.

Even if history were not an interest of yours, wouldn't you at least skim the Wikipedia entry on a country before concluding that it's an ungovernable perma-fractured shithole? No, because the goal of talking heads on TV and reacting avis on social media is to rationalize the plans of power-wielding elites, and to soothe the egos of the other elites who were not in charge of that particular domain of failure.

Back on Planet Earth, though, Afghanistan did in fact set aside tribal feuding enough to unify not only into a cohesive nation, but an international empire, as recently as the 18th-19th centuries — the Durrani Empire. That's not ancient history. Nor was its success merely due to the absence of competitors. It triumphed over two of the most powerful empires of the early modern era, which had been squeezing it from both sides — Safavid Persia from the west, and Mughal India from the east.

Granted, those rivals were in a declining stage of their imperial life-cycle (they had begun circa 1500), but then that's true for every nascent empire. New empires are forged in the presence of powerful empires nearby, to withstand their incursions, a la War and Peace and War by Turchin. When the formerly dominant neighbors begin to decline internally, that opens up room for the newly forged empire to take their place, to some extent if not full geographic replacement.

No empire unifies by a leading group dominating and excluding from power the other groups within their inchoate coalition. Although one group may be the leader, the other groups must have a seat at the table to prevent internal schisms.

Even when the nation begins expanding into an empire, the elites of its newly conquered subjects are incorporated in the same fashion, and for the same reasons. The whole point of conquest is to bring those people under your control and administration, so after defeating them in battle, it's time to make peace with them as your subjects.

This makes ethnic pluralism and cultural tolerance a defining feature of all empires — if you continued to view and treat your new subjects as though they were inferior sub-humans requiring your domestication, they would not integrate well, but would become unruly, and be a perpetual thorn stuck in the side of your attempts to control them. At the same time, it shows how far such pluralism will be extended — only to those who have been conquered by the empire, not those lying outside its control.

The view and treatment of foreigners as sub-humans needing to be conquered is only a structurally functional ideology when they have not yet been conquered, and the empire's expanders need motivation and justification to conquer new peoples. Once they have been conquered, it's time to welcome them into the imperial fold, and suddenly the previous views and treatments become backward and out-of-touch.

This is why, for example, "racism" was useful to the American elites during their expansionist phase, but why it became discarded as backward and counter-productive once its territorial growth had reached its maximum after the victories of WWII. Then it became necessary to integrate all of its conquered subjects, and "anti-racism" became the imperial ideology.

I expanded on these views in an earlier post about wokeness being a form of polytheism, and successor ideologies being a kind of monotheism that transcends ethnic, national, and imperial borders. The main example is the polytheism of the Roman Empire, which did not mean everybody worshiped the same large number of gods — it meant that each little group within the empire was allowed to keep worshiping its distinctive local gods, as long as they also worshiped the Roman Emperor's cult as supreme.

Once their empire fell into terminal decline during the Crisis of the Third Century, a successor religion took its place, transcending even the borders of the empire — Christianity, which said that there is only one god that everyone will worship. It was not treating everyone's local gods as valid and seen, to hold together an ethnically diverse political unit.

But woke imperialism is not just a Western thing. The major example from the Muslim East is the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, which guaranteed the elites of the various conquered groups a seat at the table. In the wake of Ottoman collapse, their trans-imperial ideology has become the Muslim Brotherhood strain of Islamism. Iran has always protected the non-Persian elites, and that remains true even today, where certain ethno-religious groups have a guaranteed number of seats in the parliament.

Again, not just any ol' groups outside of the leading group — only those who have been conquered and need to be absorbed into that particular nation, e.g. Armenians in Iran, not Mexicans in Iran. That's why the American Empire has set-asides for African-Americans, but not Russians, Iranians, or North Koreans, whom we have never conquered (and who indeed are our geopolitical rivals).

Most of the left and right in America look at Putin's Russia as anti-woke, based on non-ethnic matters like gayness. But wokeness is primarily an ethnic affair. And Russia, now and under the Soviets, has always promoted and protected the elites from non-Russian and non-Slavic ethnicities, whom they have conquered in the past. That is especially true of the peoples of the Caucasus (Stalin was a Georgian, and Anna Khachiyan's professor mathematician father was Armenian). But it also goes for the various Turko-Mongolian groups they have conquered in Central Asia, e.g. the Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu being half-Tuvan and born in Tuva.

Returning finally to Afghanistan, the same model applied to the Durrani Empire, whose founder Ahmad Shah Abdali was from the Pashtun majority, but who governed with a council of leaders from the non-Pashtun groups within his territory (Uzbek, Hazara, etc.). If all of the different groups wanted to avoid becoming permanent vassals of the Safavid or Mughal Empires, they had to set aside their tribal distinctions enough to form a single polity.

Although their imperial heyday has passed, they retained enough cohesion to resist the British Empire's attempt to conquer them during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Britain ultimately lost because its own heyday was passed, and they had to surrender to the Afghans during the WWI cataclysm that killed off all of the early modern empires.

But when Britain first tried to conquer Afghanistan circa 1840, that was still when the British Empire was cohesive and strong. The fact that they were humiliatingly driven out proves how united the Afghans still were. A nation that is bitterly divided among itself is easily conquered by a united outsider, so the Afghans of 1840 were not a black hole of tribalistic anarchy.

Now, when the Soviets tried to conquer them during the 1980s, the invading empire was well past its peak. And when the Americans tried to conquer them during the 21st century, the invaders were again far past their peak of expansion (WWII). The fact that the Afghans have repelled the Soviets and Americans does not prove they are incredibly cohesive, only that they have been more unified than the Soviets or the Americans.

The Taliban is now unifying the country again, in the same way as always. They come from the Pashtun majority in the south and east of the country, and their main antagonist several decades ago was the Northern Alliance of non-Pashtun ethnicities (Uzbek, Hazara, etc.). But now, having been forged into a cohesive unit by the occupation of a global superpower, the Afghans will set aside their regional differences enough to form a single nation.

The Taliban are not turning vindictive against the non-Pashtun groups, to settle scores from recent decades. They are burying the hatchet in the interest of national unity, incorporating the elites of those minority groups into the national leadership. And so, the Taliban — like every other ruling group of a diverse polity — are becoming woke on ethnicity, if not on other cultural matters like gender, gayness, etc.

At the same time, I don't think the outside pressures from the Soviet and American occupations have lasted long enough to forge Afghanistan into a nascent empire. There has only been a powerful meta-ethnic frontier there for 40 years (roughly 1980 to 2020), and it's rapidly evaporating as the Americans GTFO. It usually takes centuries of pressures from the other side of a meta-ethnic frontier to galvanize the target peoples into an expansionist empire.

And so far, Iran, Pakistan, and China don't seem interested in conquering Afghanistan (they have greater priorities). India may wage an unsuccessful proxy war, at most, but will otherwise not be like the Mughals were several centuries ago.

As the memories of the Soviet and American occupations fade, it's possible that tribal feuds will re-emerge within Afghanistan. But the idea that it's an inherently tribalistic black hole is a ridiculous cope from failed wannabe conquerers. There will never be a shortage of expanding states in that part of the world to exert pressure on Afghanistan, so it could transform into a new empire in the centuries to come.

If they have done it before — whether the Durrani Empire of modern times, or the Ghaznavid Empire of the Middle Ages — they can do it again, if the forces that gave birth to the earlier empires come back into being.

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