Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti speaks with Jennifer Murtazashvili about the problems with imposing liberal democracy in Afghanistan, building state capacity, education, the role of the U.S. in the Ghani government’s collapse and much more. Murtazashvili is the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets and an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on issues of self-governance, security, political economy and public-sector reform in the developing world. She is also a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of “Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan” and the co-author (with Ilia Murtazashvili) of “Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan.”
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Today my guest is Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, the author of “Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan.” Jen is associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh.
It has been a year since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban took control. We talked about what may have led to these events, how Afghans think about governance, the consequences of forcing liberal democratic ideas from the top down, education under the Taliban and the future of the Afghans.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Hi, Jen. Thank you for coming on the show. It’s so good to finally have you.
JENNIFER MURTAZASHVILI: It’s a pleasure.
Afghanistan and Liberal Democracy
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I’ve been reading your work for years. I’ve learned so much about Afghanistan. Last year, it was quite clear that by the time President Ghani’s regime fell, that so many people in Afghanistan thought it was so incredibly corrupt and there wasn’t that much support for the regime. On the outside, as we saw the horrors unfold in the news, it was shocking to most people in the Western world that the Taliban would have any support of the people, right, even relative to the Ghani administration.
This seems to be the big paradox that people can’t wrap their head around, and the reactions have been twofold: one, that the Afghans really don’t want a liberal democratic governance or anything like that. The other extreme is they’ve just been captured by terrorists who are the Taliban, and they need to be rescued from this oppressive state. What exactly is going on in Afghanistan? I know that’s a big question, but you have all the context, so I thought you’re the person to ask this question.
MURTAZASHVILI: Thank you very much. These are big questions, and it’s been a real privilege to be a student of this country for so long and see the war, unfortunately, unfold from beginning to end, really.
I think what most people fail to understand about Afghanistan is that people are so committed to participation, that there are such strong norms in communities at local levels in terms of expectations of being able to have a say in what goes on. The liberal democratic project in many ways was a natural fit for Afghanistan, except the institutions that were imposed on the country by the country’s elite and also by the international community—there was a real mismatch between the highly centralized formal institutions and a very decentralized society that was really used to managing affairs by itself for so long.
When the international community really doubled down, along with some of the political leaders in the center, saying people at the local level have no right for participation, have no right to select their own governors, their own district leaders, and then so much money came in that yielded such a corrupt government, Afghans really walked away from this heartbroken because so many people gave everything to this effort.
And the deep, deep indignation—and I want to say that word because I think it’s a word we don’t talk about enough, alienation and indignation—it didn’t mean that people were supporting the Taliban. It meant that they had nothing left to fight for. If they felt that government wasn’t fighting for them and their interests, why should they lose another child to war?
Imposing Democracy from the Top Down
RAJAGOPALAN: This mismatch between the very long-formed customary institutions, especially at the local, the village level, and this top-down, very (on paper) what looks like a functional democratic regime that was imposed—I want to dig in a little bit more into that mismatch. From what I’ve understood from your work, especially “Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan,” the local governance is managed by the trifecta between the majlis, the malik and the mullah, is that right?
For the Indian audience, the majlis would be like the Panchayati system which we have in India. The mullah is, of course, representative of the religious authority. The malik, the head of the councilmen or the head of the village—someone people look up to for any kind of adjudication. My understanding based on your work is most of the local-level problems get solved at that point.
Now, can you walk us through whether the Western, the U.S. military-liberal-democratic-industrial complex made any accommodation for the village-level governance? Was it ignored? Was it oppressed? What was really the source of that mismatch?
MURTAZASHVILI: It’s a good question, and it’s a complicated answer, so brace yourselves, okay. It’s not what you might think, and it took me a long time to wrap my head around this. Before going to Afghanistan, I had spent five years in Uzbekistan and other countries in Central Asia, and I was working at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and I was doing local governance, democracy and governance promotion.
When I started looking at projects in Afghanistan, I saw what donors were doing, and I said, “This is amazing. If I were to design something, it would look just like what they’re doing in Afghanistan. They are creating community councils all over the country that they’re supposed to tap into local leadership. Isn’t this wonderful?” When I started going to villages, I was really surprised because what I found was very different from what I read in these reports.
Then I started hearing complaints from villagers who would say, “These community councils that the World Bank and the government is supporting, this is what the communists tried to do.” I was saying, “What do you mean, the communists?” They would say, “Ashraf Ghani. He’s a communist.” This is before Ashraf Ghani was president. He was—I forget; maybe at that point he was president of Kabul University—but he was minister of finance, and then he was spearheading a lot of these World Bank programs. He worked at the World Bank.
The minister of rural development, who was implementing this program on his behalf and on the government’s behalf, was actually a former communist. His name was Haneef Atmar. He was actually the foreign minister under Ghani when the Taliban collapsed. He was a KHAD agent. And this was well known; it’s not a secret. But Afghans were saying, “It’s all of these communists, and they’re doing the things that the communists did, and they’re trying to create these councils in the same way that the communists did.” And I couldn’t shrug my shoulders because I had no idea what they were talking about.
To be honest, I think many young, early-career scholars in Afghanistan, even Afghans themselves, were not aware of this kind of history due to this displacement. I started looking at records and, lo and behold, I found the same exact structure that the communists tried to impose in rural Afghanistan in the late ’70s, ’80s. They even went back even further when a centralizing state sought to impose order. But to the donors, it looked wonderful. We’re creating these new councils, it’s gender quotas, half women are participating, we’re giving them block grants.
John Kerry called this program the only program that worked. But what was funny about this is that the people who put customary authority on the map in a very serious way was the U.S. military. Because it was soldiers who were dying, American soldiers who were in rural Afghanistan, not under the guise of a nice NGO project, who kept saying, “These are the people who are fighting the Taliban. It’s these customary leaders.” When the Taliban come into a village, the first people they kill are customary leaders because they have local legitimacy.
I was trying to scream about this for years with the donors, but they were not receptive to these ideas. It was the idea of building a centralized state, state building is imperative, and we’re using these councils as a way to bring the communities closer to the state. But I think what that meant was to have the communities controlled by the state. There wasn’t real opportunity. It wasn’t real participation.
Unintended Consequences of Forcing Democracy
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s super helpful. It seems like this top-down effort, which looks so good on paper but doesn’t quite function in reality, it seems like there are two problems. One, they don’t actually have the local knowledge of who are the people involved, what is the legitimacy that is required to adjudicate their troubles. Can that person be formalized with an on-paper state blueprint, or is that person never going to inform or substance the kind of person you want on these World Bank councils? One is, it seems very clear that there’s this knowledge problem right at the top.
What I’m also picking up from your work is there are these huge unintended consequences of trying to impose a state which tries to delegitimize the existing malik or the mullah or that village council. What are those unintended consequences? Is it that there is suddenly a lot of indignation against the American effort? Is it that people turn further to their local environment to adjudicate problems, there’s a sense of mistrust? Is it that the democratic effort itself gets called into question? Is it just that there are some past Soviet land reform triggers? What is exactly the nature of the unintended consequence?
MURTAZASHVILI: I think the unintended consequence is that the whole thing collapsed. What is the expression? It collapsed under the pressure of its own weight, right?
MURTAZASHVILI: They created this monster that it couldn’t sustain. There was actually no meaningful participation. What participation would’ve looked like is actually a decentralized government where people were electing their officials, but they wouldn’t allow this. The officials in Kabul didn’t want this. “Our people are not ready.” I always hate this argument, “Our people are not ready.” Then many people, many Afghan elites would say, “We have to centralize power first, and only then can we give power away. We have to build a strong state first, or else it’ll fragment into a million pieces.”
I said, “You’ve been fragmenting into a million pieces for many years. You continue to fragment by doubling down on this heavy hand,” but there were real splits among the intellectual elites of the country. Unfortunately, this has tended to map on ethnic lines with many ethnic Pashtuns arguing for a highly centralized government. Then the non-Pashtun groups—there’s no group that’s a majority in Afghanistan. I’m constantly reminded of this. The Pashtuns are plurality, potentially, but this is highly debated. The other groups—the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, Hazara groups—they would say, no, we need a more decentralized system. Some would call for federalism. Then this became an ethnic argument.
What I tried to do in my work was try to diffuse this debate and say, look, there’s efficiency, a public goods argument that we can make that I think brings everyone together on this issue. In fact, I was in Kabul just about a year before the government collapsed, and I was asked to speak with the mayors of the country. It was a really fascinating experience.
This was just as the peace negotiations with the Taliban began, and I asked to talk about what a peace process would look like for the cities. What would this entail? I was really surprised because I knew this issue of decentralization was such a sensitive topic in the country. But every single mayor that was there—Pashtun, not Pashtun—they all wanted more decentralization. They said, “We can’t do our jobs. We have to go to Kabul for everything. It’s highly inefficient.”
Of course, there was the efficiency argument that we could make, but there’s also the legitimacy argument that people were not participating at all. They were promised the world. I cannot tell you how supportive people were in those early years of the global effort. I would travel from village to village. I would have villagers yelling at me saying, “Bush needs to send more troops.” This is not something you would think you would hear. Obama was actually president at that time, but it didn’t matter. There was such optimism, such hope. I think that the U.S., the international community has lost so much credibility, but really more than that, it’s just been a huge tragedy for the Afghan people.
Solutions at the District vs. Village Level
RAJAGOPALAN: What was the roadblock in turning the existing local leaders who did have legitimacy and making them more formalized? That seems to me to be such an obvious solution to the problem. The people have already chosen, in a way. The system is working at the lowest level; they have the maximum information. Why couldn’t that be done? Is it because they don’t look and sound like what representatives look and sound like in the Western world?
MURTAZASHVILI: I think that’s a huge part of it, but I’m also skeptical that that could be the solution as well. Because when I talk about, for example, the maliks in rural Afghanistan, I think of the maliks, they are—I call them representatives. They are village leaders, but they are representatives. They’re primus inter pares, meaning they’re first among equals. They speak on behalf of the community, but they are not feudal lords. I would read all of this literature on Afghanistan, whether it was from diplomats or other scholars. They would say, “Oh, in Afghanistan, they have this traditional system,” and they would compare it to a feudal lord or a tribal chief, and they’ve used this to—
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s not at all.
MURTAZASHVILI: It’s not at all. In fact, in Pashtun—
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s a very flat society, right?
MURTAZASHVILI: It’s very flat. It’s very egalitarian, which makes leadership hard. I always thought that the solution to this is not to necessarily recognize the informal system but actually scale up and focus governance at the district level, not at the village level.
First, there’s the economies of scale issue. When I first started going to Afghanistan, there were estimates that the country had like 18,000 villages, but by the time I left, there were 33,000 villages. What happened? Did the population grow? No. Aid was allocated by village, so government officials had the incentive to inflate the number of villages they had. When this happened—it was insane.
The United States, by comparison, has 50,000 units of subnational governance, and this includes school districts, police districts, any kind of consolidated—not just local government units. And Afghanistan was having 33,000 in a very, very poor country. I would say, forget the village. Why do they need governance at the village level? It’s completely unnecessary. They have 400 districts, which are very, very small. That’s the third tier of government. Let’s focus on the district because that’s where the scale issues really come into play.
If people are good at solving their problems at the community, no need to do more there, can’t afford it, it’s too much. How are we going to demarcate villages? Lord forbid. Focus on the district level where there’s actual real disputes that break out. This is where people can come together and people have to work beyond their own group and their own community to solve problems. This was a natural fit to build peace.
And Afghans all recognize the need for government, and I want to be clear about this. This is a huge misconception that many people have. They’re watching the fall of the Ghani government and saying, “Oh, okay, well, they’re allergic to government,” or “They can’t be governed.” No, the problem is, for their entire modern history, they have been governed by formal institutions that are heavily, heavily centralized. Their recent constitution was one of the most centralized in the world, and it didn’t give people a choice.
And so, wash, rinse, repeat. Every new government that comes, they reinstitute the same thing that the previous government did, and they find themselves in this vicious cycle of state failure. And so what is the Taliban doing now? The Taliban have been handed the keys to the most centralized state in the world. Do you think that they’re going to give up any of this power? They’re going to decentralize? No, of course not.
RAJAGOPALAN: At the district level, do you see any movement? The Taliban, relatively speaking, have more local knowledge, so their incentives are the same perverse incentives. But do they have more information about what is this group of villages? What are the conflicts between those villages? How should we think about district government? Are they going to be better at least on that margin, or not even?
MURTAZASHVILI: I’m not necessarily sure the Taliban have better local information. I think it depends on the place where they’re governing. And they rule with an incredible amount of coercion.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely, but it’s also in their interest to delegate some of the governance problems to the lower levels because they’re not themselves capable of solving a lot of these issues. They don’t have the capacity themselves. One would imagine that the clever long-term strategy would be to do something like that.
MURTAZASHVILI: The key is to get people to think about long-term strategies, and that’s been the problem. Right now the Taliban is very, very focused on the short term. Look at what they have in front of them. They have a government that is collapsed. They have an economy that’s collapsed. They’re under incredible sanctions. People are starving, and they have to figure out how to run a state.
What I’ve been saying recently is that a lot of people have asked about Taliban 1.0 and 2.0, or is there Taliban 2.0? And there were these great hopes that the Taliban had changed during Doha. They put on a great show, trying to convince people. I don’t think the U.S. actually cared whether they changed or not. The U.S. just wanted to leave, and it made everybody feel better that they could say that we’re changing, and women, and so forth.
I think Taliban 2.0 is the Taliban state capacity. Taliban 1.0 didn’t really believe in much of a state. They weren’t really interested. They let ministries collapse. They were not interested in governing at all in a very serious way. They were interested in posing some norms and some rules in the cities, but for the most part, they did not build ministries or build governance.
This Taliban is very different. This is an authoritarian Taliban that understands the mistakes of the past. They clearly understand that one of the reasons that they did not survive was because they didn’t build this coercive capacity, and so they are hell-bent right now on building a strong state. They are consolidating their authority and building a military and using the state apparatus to impose their control. To me, they don’t look like long-term players quite yet. They are making the same mistakes that the previous government made. I’ll talk about what those are.
State Capacity and Institutions
RAJAGOPALAN: If you can walk us through what is the short term and what is the long term, because sometimes when you talk about state capacity and state capacity building . . . One of the reasons India has these elite, liberal-looking institutions, at least on paper—and to a very large extent the democracy functions—but it’s also because there was 200 years of colonialism. And the entire technocracy and the initial leadership in India was educated with that view, with the colonial view of running a colonial state. So there was a lot more continuity in the independence movement in India and right after.
To me, long term looks like a 300-year project. What is short term and long term? That’s one question. And the other is, what are the mistakes that are being repeated by, first, the communists, then the United States effort, then the Taliban—now the Taliban 2.0, whatever the new version is—what do these mistakes look like? What can we expect?
MURTAZASHVILI: What is short term and what is long term? I think the only long-term player that the Afghans really had was what they call this period between, really, 1933 to 1973, which was the period of the monarchy, which collapsed in 1973 when Daoud Khan overthrew Zahir Shah, his cousin. You began to see changes to governance there, but it was very, very slow. You saw a constitutional monarchy emerge in the ’60s, but Daoud overthrew this because he didn’t think progress was happening fast enough.
There are some really interesting parallels with India, I could say. In fact, one of the things that I want our listeners to understand—1955 was a really big year. You know why, and I read your work on this. Well, in 1953, Stalin dies. 1955 was the trip of Khrushchev to Burma, India and Afghanistan.
MURTAZASHVILI: This was the beginning of communist internationalism. I think the legacy of this in terms of building state capacity is one of the most understudied aspects of social science. I’m actually working on a book project right now on this. It’s called “Built to Fail.” It’s with my colleague Mohammad Qadam Shah. We’re looking at the legacies of Soviet-era institutions for the development of modern Afghanistan.
What we argue is that over this period of time, there has not been enough attention to the administrative state. That external powers, donors, paid a lot of attention to putting democracy—or what the framework at the national level looked like—but slapping democracy on this old constitution, which was basically what happened as a result of the Bonn process in 2001. But really what it did is resurrect the 1964 constitution and all of the administrative regulations that went along with that.
A lot of those administrative regulations came from the communists, came from Soviet era, or were somehow influenced by that during the monarchy. They weren’t necessarily Soviet themselves, but who were the advisers in all of these ministries, and actually the Afghans were learning a lot from India as well. The Afghans began their first five-year plan in 1956. People, when they look at Afghanistan, they don’t necessarily see it along those lines—1978 was the revolution, the Soviets invaded in ’79—but it actually went back much further than that.
When we’re thinking about state capacity, this institutional aspect of it is so important. As you mentioned, this path dependency in India among the colonial institutions and how this is reproduced, I think for Afghanistan in the 1950s, was such a crucial point because it was a period of time where the government became very serious about governing like a state. There was real lock-in of those institutions, and they persisted.
What happened, what we’re arguing in this book “Built to Fail,” is that the donors resurrected all of this stuff that was really pernicious. As long as these administrative regulations about public finance, the centralization of finance administration, how officials at the subnational level are appointed, the way the bureaucracy works never changed at all. That is how people experience the state.
RAJAGOPALAN: For me, the most interesting thing about that Khrushchev moment and influence of the Soviet Union—they conflated equality with uniformity. The goal is everyone should be equal. That’s the message. There shouldn’t be aristocrats and feudal lords and peasants. That’s the point of view with which they’re coming in, but to them, that automatically looks like a very uniform system. It has to be exactly the same everywhere. The only way you can do that is to have a uniform blueprint which is highly centrally controlled, right?
That just doesn’t work in a country like Afghanistan. Actually, it doesn’t work in most countries. Even in the United States, we can see how many differences there are at the state level, at the county level, often in big states. But in a place like Afghanistan or India, it just simply does not translate at all. To me, it feels like that has been the conflation over and over again, that we need to impose this very uniform system because that’s what equal looks like in our head. Equal doesn’t look like, “We need to treat each of these people with dignity and allow them to participate with the state the way they wish to participate with the state.” That would be some kind of an equal liberal democratic project in these countries.
MURTAZASHVILI: This is a really good point, and my colleague and really a mentor, Tom Barfield, who is an anthropologist at Boston University and a long-time scholar of Afghanistan, in his book—which I would really recommend everyone read. It’s a beautiful read, and I wish I could write as well and as clearly as he does. He talks about a Swiss cheese model of governance and an American cheese model.
He says that the Americans—and I don’t think it’s the Americans alone, I think it was the Soviets as well—we’re really intent on this uniformity. And we know what American cheese looks like: this thing that’s orange and a square and every piece always looks the same. Whereas the Swiss cheese model has holes in it and is imperfect. What he was trying to communicate in this parable is that different parts of the country are going to have to be governed differently. This striving, constant aspiration for uniformity as if it yields equality has really led the country into a lot of trouble.
RAJAGOPALAN: What’s a good way to think about Afghanistan? Is it that it is a union of villages or a federation of villages? Is it that it needs to be union at the district level that we formalize? When I say formalize, I mean determine the unit, which is the district geographically or population unit or otherwise. Then the real problem that needs to be solved, funnily enough, is not ethnic. It’s a public finance problem, right?
It is, how do each of these units govern themselves? How do they raise revenue? What kind of expenditure are they responsible for? When do they need to cooperate with other units bigger than themselves or higher than themselves to actually create and develop those public goods? Is that the way to think about this as a long-term project?
MURTAZASHVILI: I think so, and there are some colleagues, some Afghan colleagues who are now finding themselves in the diaspora. Unfortunately, so many colleagues have now had to leave, and I could talk to you about some of them that we were hosting at the University of Pittsburgh. I just had a conversation with a couple of folks earlier this week about a project to work on Afghan alternative futures, mapping out just this kind of thing. What are really viable solutions? With the understanding that the Taliban, I don’t think, are going to be around forever. They’re certainly not governing like they’re going to be. What are some alternative proposals? Is it finally time to rethink all of this?
I think, increasingly, there’s a consensus, at least among those in the diaspora right now, even people who fought really hard against this . . . I can’t tell you how many disagreements I had with many scholars and policymakers on this issue that the people were very defensive of the centralized state. I think now there’s a clear understanding that this is one of the things that really contributed to the failure, but what would it look like? It’ll be interesting to have discussions with Afghans about how they would view this, where do they need the state.
This is why I talk about a need for a demand-driven state, not a supply-driven but demand-driven. Because it is not that Afghans don’t want—they want an army. In fact, one of the real tragedies over the past year was the way that the Afghan army was discredited. In our book, actually, we’re writing about the Afghan army as a real success story of the country. Yes, it collapsed in a minute, but that wasn’t for technical reasons. A lot of people are, “Oh, if they had better logistic support, if they had—.” No, no, they decided not to fight. That was a legitimacy issue. That wasn’t a technical issue. Yes, there was corruption, but those soldiers were dying in spades every day, they were fighting for their country. They gave up because their government gave up.
The Taliban were very clever, did some very clever strategic communications to encourage people to surrender. But people were fed up with it, and the Afghan army was really a source of national pride. You can see there are certain things that people want, and understanding where the limits of self-governance exist, where are those limits, and then where is the need for an external third party to help solve some of these problems. Sometimes that could be the state; in other cases, it may be another actor.
Customary Authorities at the Local Level
RAJAGOPALAN: You’ve done some work on this. This is your world development paper, which is on different kinds of possible local government models. One, I completely agree with you. We need more experimentation, but in that particular work, you actually look at what are the different possibilities to work through local governance. What are the different models you experiment with, and what do you find there?
MURTAZASHVILI: So this was a really interesting one. This was a survey experiment that we did about a decade ago now—time flies—looking at how people would respond, especially to peace with the Taliban, under different electoral models at the local level. The idea was would people be more likely to reconcile with the Taliban if they had more local control? The answer was yes.
We did an experiment. You have an election for local government officials, and then the treatment was, this is done through a traditional—your local government becomes a traditional council—
RAJAGOPALAN: Or the CDC [Community Development Council].
MURTAZASHVILI: —or the CDCs. We found that when people were using their customary leaders to select their local government leaders, they were much more likely to accommodate the Taliban and bring them in to have a peace process. The reason that the people were much more amenable to peace when the customary leader is their local government is because, from what I found in my qualitative research—and I want to talk a lot about mixed methods and why it’s really important, when you’re doing survey experiments or any kind of quantitative survey work, that you can’t explain outcomes unless you understand mechanisms.
The mechanism here was that customary authorities provide you a much more effective bulwark against government predation than other forms of governance and especially donor-created councils. You feel much more confident to have peace with the Taliban when your local government is your customary authority because you are more confident to engage; you know that you’re dealing with people who protect your interests; you know people who could fight back against predation. And this to me was really important for people to understand the peace process.
Customary governance wasn’t just important for the efficiency and representation and legitimacy, but it also emboldens people, because the government certainly isn’t protecting them. And this is where it was right in this period, 2011, where we were doing the survey, where faith in the government was collapsing left and right.
Something that was so ironic to me—and I’m actually working on another project, global project, focused on this research, global resurgence of customary or traditional authority. It’s not just Afghanistan that’s seeing this. But at the apogee of the state-building program, at the time when their money was the greatest was around 2011, also was the time where trust in customary leaders was the highest.
That, to me, really, we should have seen this. Look at this data a decade ago. Why are people going to alternative governance structures at a time when you’re claiming your support for the state is the highest? People were exiting the state left and right. They didn’t trust it; they didn’t believe in it. The more money that came in, the more people didn’t like it.
And so this explanation is that customary authority really protects people. They believe it to be more honest. They believe it to be more fair and more trusted than any other form of governance. But the reaction that I was getting from the donors, from the diplomatic community was, “Those village headmen are so corrupt, they’re always abusing women. Oh, it’s terrible. We need to get rid of them. We need to replace them with sustainable development goals. This is the solution to Afghanistan, and these things don’t fit into our uniform plan.”
And it was really, really difficult trying to make sense of those kinds of arguments, of course, because then I was made to feel as if I was arguing against human rights and women’s rights. But I think we have just different views about how you achieve that, and actually what’s feasible, and what actually aligns with the norms of people in society.
Perception vs. Reality of Education in Afghanistan
RAJAGOPALAN: To me, it seems like there is a huge demand for education and women’s rights in Afghanistan, right? I know it’s mushrooming and bottom up, and it’s not credible. and it doesn’t look like fancy schools and universities. But the number of mushrooming private education centers in Afghanistan—it’s like India, right? People are willing to pay money and go and get something that looks like a modern education because they see the enormous benefits coming from it. Even if it is just a way to leave the system, they still see the huge value in it.
What is the mismatch between what the world is seeing in terms of the demand for governance, the demand for women’s rights, the demand for education and what actually happens on the ground through these village leaders? Why is there such a big mismatch? People are obviously studying in those schools in the same villages that the village leaders are headmen of. It’s not happening behind anyone’s back. All this is happening in Afghanistan, it’s been going on for three decades. Why is there this confusion?
MURTAZASHVILI: I think this is a really good question, and if I did know the answer to this question, I think I’d be on a better path to understanding Afghanistan more. I think that if we look at the different actors and what are their incentives here, the international community was really operating from a set of blueprints. At the political level, yes, there was the Bonn process, yes, at the high level. But then once the donors became involved and they were implementing things, there was no political strategy really behind it. It became just these blueprint cookie-cutter things from East Timor.
For example, that project I described came from East Timor and Indonesia. These were imported models, and they were tweaked for Afghanistan, but really a community-driven development. I’m sure you’ve talked about those models that came from the World Bank and others. Robert Chambers did his work in India. India was a big place, but these became cookie cutters.
It’s easy. We don’t have to think much about it because we know how to do it: We just take one model imported from somewhere else. It wasn’t a lot of strategy behind this. There was also a group of—I know you see this in every society; you see in the United States, you see it in Afghan society—you have a lot of elites among the educated class who are very far removed from society and who grew up as refugees in Pakistan, had not spent much time in rural areas and, frankly, viewed their countrymen and women as backward. We see this in the United States. This is nothing special about Afghanistan.
RAJAGOPALAN: I see this in India. I have this paper with Alex Tabarrok; it’s called “Premature Imitation and Limited State Capacity.”
MURTAZASHVILI: Yes. It’s a great paper.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you. This is the thing. There’s this group of very educated Indian elite who live in this Anglo-American bubble. To them, a school is a good school if it looks like a school in the United States and like a school in Denmark. That’s what they want to impose in India with India’s very limited state capacity.
The blueprint for schools is it needs to have X number of rooms, and the windows need to be this particular size. Every school must have a playground, and it must offer these kinds of meals. We’re like, “We’re still struggling to get the teacher into the room.” That’s I think the essential thing about a school. They have all this idea of what a school looks like, which is completely based on inputs, and all the inputs are these first-world inputs, and it’s not the outcome, which is education. I feel like something similar might be going on in Afghanistan.
MURTAZASHVILI: Oh, it’s the nirvana fallacy, exactly, right? Education is such a wonderful example, and I should say that it’s easy to beat up on some elites, but the hunger and the thirst that so many Afghans have for education is unlike anything I have ever seen. I went from village to village when I was doing work for my first book, and I can’t tell you how much—all these stories I heard: “We don’t have a girls’ school in our village. But we pay a woman and she comes from two villages over and she teaches the girls. We don’t have a school for boys. We do the same thing.”
People were contributing so much of their own money and resources to send their kids to school because everybody understood. I think this is also something that’s misunderstood about parts of the south, the Pashtun areas, that they’re not sending their girls to school. A lot of people really demonize them quite a lot, but those are the areas that were so insecure, and there’s bombings every day, whether it’s from the United States or the Taliban. Of course, the first people who parents are going to keep home are their girls.
Now, of course, there are historical trends where women were not getting educated, but I think we have to look at norms changing, values changing. This is why I call this customary authority, not traditional because I think the norms that are embedded in this authority change over time. It’s not static norms, but people were using this institutional technology, this infrastructure of customary leaders to get things done.
In fact, I was really surprised because people would describe, “We were in Pakistan during the war. We came back, everybody came back to the village after the fighting was over. This guy was the head of our village. He died or he didn’t come back, but we recreated that system.” Sometimes they would give it different names. People would have different titles, but they were doing the same thing, but the expectations that people had of these leaders had changed substantially.
Maybe 50 years ago, we had a khan who led, who’s a large landowner. We don’t have that anymore. That went away, and actually, you can’t do that anymore. Afghans won’t tolerate that kind of thing. Those norms changed, but the institutional structures looked from the outside to be the same.
This is what I would argue to the outside world, to the donors, is you’re just basing this on some stereotypes. You’re not actually looking at what’s happening. What’s happening is extremely dynamic. It’s very creative, and people have so many solutions, whether it’s education, whether it’s healthcare. These solutions are not perfect, and if you compare them to the perfect plan of all of the materials from the United States shipped in, in your perfect school, no, it’s highly imperfect.
Afghanistan had more private universities when the government collapsed than public universities—huge, huge explosion in the number of private universities. People were so hungry for education, empowerment, betterment, opportunities. They were paying for it. They weren’t wasting their money on the free public education. It was better to go to a private school. They became more prestigious over time. And that’s why I have this effort right now at Pitt to resettle scholars from Afghanistan, because when I started going there 20 years ago, 15, 16 years ago, higher education was decimated.
There was hardly anything there; they were just reconstructing. And I watched the intellectual class go from absolutely nothing to the most dynamic in the region. I have to say, Afghans took advantage of every opportunity they had for their incredible freedom of expression and they ran with it, and they created something very, very special.
Education Under the Taliban
RAJAGOPALAN: What does education look like now in Afghanistan with the Taliban regime? Depending on what kind of news one follows, some people are suggesting that actually, the Taliban just looks the other way, and women are going to school, and it’s the same thing that it always was. There are some reports in places that say, “Oh, now women’s schooling is completely gone. It’s completely underground. They’ve shut those places down.” What is going on? I imagine it’s not uniform, but has there been a huge backslide when it comes to primary education, especially the girl child, or has it just gone underground? It’s not visible as a regular school, but it’s still going on because that’s what the people really want and they refuse to give it up?
MURTAZASHVILI: I think it’s really hard to know exactly. I think one of the tragedies that we’re seeing is that the incredibly vibrant media that existed in Afghanistan—it was unlike anything we’ve seen, at least in Central Asia, if you compare it to even Pakistan or Iran or the neighboring countries. So we’ve lost that capability to really understand what’s going on. Then what we do get is really filtered. I’m really careful in terms of how I consume information about what’s coming out of Afghanistan right now.
I do know that some schools in the north remain open until high school. In fact, I was just in Uzbekistan a few weeks ago, and I was talking to some senior Uzbek government officials who are engaged in their Afghanistan policy. They’ve said that they have put pressure on the Taliban to keep the girls’ schools open in Uzbek-speaking areas. Very interesting.
I know that in other parts of the country, in Kabul, they’re staying home after middle school, and universities remain closed for girls after middle school. Kabul really matters, right? Now, are people doing this at home? I think yes and no. I think right now people are faced with a huge economic crisis.
RAJAGOPALAN: They’re starving, so schooling immediately takes second place, right?
MURTAZASHVILI: Yes. They’re trying to figure out how to get through their harvests, how to navigate sanctions, all of the incredible things that they have found themselves confronted with very quickly in a new government that they don’t really know how to navigate as well. I would anticipate and I think we’ve seen education really take a back seat. There are some incredibly brave leaders who are still in Afghanistan who are promoting education, some civil society folks who are doing an incredible job, but it’s a really uphill battle given everything else that’s happening.
RAJAGOPALAN: People often say about India that it’s an interesting country because it lives in three centuries at the same time. I feel like something similar is true for Afghanistan because Kabul became this sort of spot for women’s liberation. Women were going to universities, women were becoming the new generation of intellectuals, and there were a lot of freedoms that came with the American regime.
At the same time, you have certain parts of Afghanistan which are literally being bombed. There are parts where the clergymen are just so unwilling to make even small accommodations that the young female children just can’t leave the house and get an education, or even the boys can only get a relatively religious education. I don’t see any uniform outcome in the horizon for the next many, many, many decades. All the improvements will be made on the margin. Is that a good way to think about it, and while the improvements are being made, there’s going to be some forward and backward sliding?
MURTAZASHVILI: I think so much of this hinges on what the Taliban do. I guess I’m so concerned that it’s hard to think about the margins right now because all I’m seeing right now in front of me, to be honest, is a return to violence. I feel that the way they’re behaving—that this is going to be quite inevitable in the coming year or two because the level of oppression that they’re using, their inability to accommodate difference, their desire to impose uniformity, all of the things—
RAJAGOPALAN: A different kind.
MURTAZASHVILI: A different kind, but I’m very, very wary of this. If they were to govern, as they did Taliban 1.0 and just lash some women on their ankles in Kabul—and really, that really occurred much more in Kabul than they did in the countryside because that’s where you see these things really happen—then I wouldn’t be as concerned. But I’m very, very concerned about their hunger for power right now. They have perfected this as an insurgency for 20 years. And the people who they have in government, the Haqqanis, these are not nice people, who are masters of violence and intimidation.
I think some of the neighbors even support this who are really tired of the instability inside of the country. I made a comparison recently to Ramazan Kadyrov. I think this came up on Russian media or something. He’s the president of Chechnya. I don’t know if your listeners are familiar, but Chechnya was this really restive part of Russia. And Putin puts in Kadyrov and he says, “Kadyrov, you do whatever you want. I don’t care, just bring order. Be loyal to me, but you can go at it. Have fun.” And Kadyrov has brought order into Chechnya but at—
RAJAGOPALAN: At a huge cost.
MURTAZASHVILI: —a huge, huge, huge cost. And I think that a lot of the neighboring countries have seen the chaos in Afghanistan, and they think that the country needs a Kadyrov.
RAJAGOPALAN: Wow. Yes.
MURTAZASHVILI: I think that’s what many of them maybe are even tacitly supporting. “Make some nods to inclusion, make some nods to make the donors happy or the West happy, but we really just want investment, we want transit routes, we want stability, we don’t want the spillovers from any kind of terrorism. You clamp down on that, we’ll provide you money and assistance.” And I think that’s the deal that’s being made right now with the Taliban that’s giving them the green light to behave this way.
The Taliban and the Military
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I know what you mean in the sense that what looks like order to the rest of the world need not look like order within Afghanistan. That’s the heartbreaking part of all of this, that what looks like governance in Afghanistan is going to be not uniform. It’s going to be chaotic. It’s going to look a little bit different in all the different places, and nobody quite seems to want that.
I think the worst thing about the current Taliban, even relative to the previous version of it, is they have also inherited the American military equipment and also, in terms of organization, sort of the highly centralized state. It just feels like this time they’re poised for a more ruthless regime, a more centralized regime than even last time.
MURTAZASHVILI: One of the reasons I argued that the army was a much more successful venture—it goes back to an institutional explanation. And if the Taliban do take the army as a model, it may not be as bad. This may sound very counterintuitive. We’re working on this in our book right now. We talked about the Soviet legacies, and we’re looking at variation within different parts of the public sector to see where there were changes, and could these changes be then linked to better outcomes?
We need some variation on our dependent variable and our independent variables to tell the story. If we just say that nothing changed and then it all ended up bad, well, it’s not really falsifiable at all. Right? What we do find was actually, one area that there was dramatic changes in Afghanistan in terms of institutions was the army. If you compare the army to the police, the police didn’t change. They maintain this ministry of interior, old Soviet model. And if you look at public opinion surveys, they were deeply distrusted. Military, on the other hand, was completely scrapped. After about a couple of years, United States worked to scrap that.
They didn’t necessarily build an American model. They did use American equipment, but they moved to an all-volunteer force rather than a conscription model, which was key. And they did decentralize authority to some extent from what it was in the past. That institutional change, actually at the highest levels in terms of an army—an army is something maybe from, an institutional perspective, you need to do from the top down rather than the bottom up, just given that armies are hierarchically organized structures.
I think what the Taliban are doing is really dismantling that. They had their own vision for what security looks like and how an army should be organized, and it’s much more hierarchical than what was there in the past. They are using their coercive authority. They are coming after people, left and right. They promised an amnesty to any, but this is actually how they were so brilliant in their strategic communications at the time of the withdrawal. They said, “You poor soldier from your village, just surrender. We will not shoot you.”
They posted all of these videos on social media of them even letting prominent political figures go who they captured. I thought, as soon as I saw some of these people captured who had been long adversaries of the Taliban, I said, “They’re dead.” The Taliban said, “No, we forgive you. Please go.” Of course, they ran off to Iran or they crossed the border as quickly as they could. That really had an amazing effect psychologically. That’s why we saw the collapse so quickly of the army.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and that’s why the legitimacy, when it goes, it just goes.
MURTAZASHVILI: It just went, and they just said, “You can go. Go home. Enough fighting.” I think all of us—at least I was hopeful that they seemed to have learned some lessons, but quickly now they are on to consolidating.
Why the Ghani Government Collapsed
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to talk a little bit about the collapse. One, I don’t think too many people were surprised that it did happen, because people were counting down to the point if and when the U.S. troops leave, it is going to cause some instability, and then it’s a question of when and not if. I think everyone was surprised by just how quickly it came. That’s one part of it.
The two other parts of the collapse are, one, how messy the American withdrawal was, and why it happened that way, both in terms of the troops but most importantly in terms of the Afghan people who helped the American effort for 20 years in nation building and winning the war and so on, and they were just left stranded.
The enduring memory of those times for all of us who were watching this on the news is people hanging onto airplanes on the outside, or these really crowded airports, these cargo planes, which were just chock-a-block full of people. We received many, many flights full of people like that in India, and they were hugely welcomed. There was that element that I saw even on the Indian news, not just the international news. Can you walk us through what happened during the collapse and the three different parts: What the Taliban did, why the American withdrawal was so messy and what consequences it’s had for the Afghan people, especially those who helped the United States?
MURTAZASHVILI: Why did it collapse the way that it did? I think a lot of this had to do with two things, the intransigence of the government, the Ghani government, and I think that is turning out to be very clear. Ghani actually came to the White House about a month or two before the collapse of the government, two months. And my understanding of that meeting is he was still in denial that the U.S. was going to leave. And, basically, the U.S. was like, “You got to prepare for this, and you have to make peace, and maybe you should decentralize power. Maybe you should accommodate your rivals.”
He was so hell-bent—I mean, he was hell-bent on marginalizing internal rivals. He spent more time fighting Northern Alliance leaders from the Uzbek and the Tajik community, and getting rid of them to consolidate his own power—he spent more time doing that than fighting the Taliban. And that’s why to many people, it looked like it was a conspiracy. That is something you hear all the time, is that Ghani was a Pashtun, he was aligned with the other Pashtuns, and he just handed power off, and he was much happier to do that than to give power to a minority group. I don’t want to use the word minority. I always get in trouble when I say it, but to non-Pashtuns.
This was unthinkable, and I think there is some bias there. I don’t know Ghani at all. I never met the man, but it’s the way that he treated people. His government was so beloved by people in Washington for long. And that was another thing I really struggled with, was these critiques of what he was doing. There were so many people in Washington who were so enamored with his Columbia Ph.D. and his World Bank experience and the fact that he talked about social capital.
And he wrote a book called “Fixing Failed States,” which has got to be one of the worst books I’ve ever read, and I assign it to students as what not to do. But people say, “He wrote a book.” I say, “Have you ever read it? Do you see what’s in there? How inappropriate all of that is for Afghanistan?” He laid this out, but yet still he was able to garner so much support from the international community.
He was busy fighting rivals, not the Taliban. He was unwilling to accommodate power, and the Taliban took advantage of this in brilliant ways. What the Taliban did is they understood what Ghani was doing, for example, in the north, where there’s Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras. Remind me to tell you the story of Faryab province, really good example. There’s no census. It’s an Uzbek province, Uzbek majority, I think. It’s really the heart of much of the Uzbek population in Afghanistan.
A few months before the collapse of the government, Ghani replaces the governor of Faryab province, who was an Uzbek allied with General Dostum, who was this historic—you heard people speak of him, this “warlord” from Faryab. He ousts him and replaces him with a Pashtun from southeastern Afghanistan. Huge protests erupt. Why is he doing this at the height of the war? Why is he replacing many of the non-Pashtuns who are in the army in senior positions right as the government is about to collapse? Many people felt like he was telling these senior officials not to fight.
He was tying the arms of the army at a time when—it’ll be interesting to see the consequence of this, to see what really comes out, what we find out about all of this when the history is finally written. There was that one dynamic, is he was really power hungry and still in denial that the U.S. was leaving, still paranoid about other rivals for power, not focused on governing or accommodating people, not realistic about the threat that Taliban were to his own existence as a leader.
RAJAGOPALAN: And so corrupt.
MURTAZASHVILI: I think he just thought the U.S. would take care of it. And so corrupt. But even worse than the corruption was the ethnic card that he played. And he did huge, enduring damage to Afghan society by this. Because 20 years ago, the vernacular—the way that people talked about ethnicity was not the way it was. He’s created lasting, lasting social damage by exacerbating these kinds of cleavages. That’s one element. The Taliban understood how disaffected people were in the northern communities with Ghani. They began their offensive in the north. What did this do? It allowed them to take advantage of how unpopular Ghani was.
They promised an alternative. It cut the north off from the opposition, the Northern Alliance off from their traditional supply lines—which may have come from Tajikistan or Uzbekistan historically—isolated them. And if they can win in the areas that they have normally faced extraordinary resistance, it’ll be easier for them to take the rest of the country. Then they used the social media campaign; they did it so brilliantly. They would arrest people, they would have groups of soldiers, and they would say, “Go home. Take off your uniforms, give us your weapon, go home,” and they would hug them.
I have videos, I show them to my students all the time. I say, “This is how a state collapsed. Look how peaceful this is. This isn’t shooting. They’re hugging, they’re shaking hands. ‘You go.’” And they were doing it with great dignity. That was brilliant, and that’s how province after province after province fell because Ghani wasn’t willing to recognize that the U.S. was really leaving. He had no plan. He surrounded himself with yes-men, and I don’t think history will be very kind to him.
RAJAGOPALAN: It shouldn’t be.
U.S. Response to the Collapse
MURTAZASHVILI: No. That’s how the state collapsed. Why was the U.S. so unprepared? That is a question I have a really hard time understanding. Something I was in dialogue with policymakers about—for months, people were texting me, “How do I get out?” I worked for the United States. There was only one process for military translators. I didn’t work with anybody in the military. Didn’t really know a lot of military translators. I had no idea how that process worked. We were not prepared, and I think this speaks volumes about our immigration system and how this is a bipartisan mess.
We don’t have the ability to bring people here. We don’t want to bring people here to the United States. It’s a real crime. We make a lot of promises, but from what I’ve been dealing with over the past year—I’m extremely heartbroken. So many promises have been made. Very little has been delivered. But in terms of why the U.S. wasn’t prepared, I think the U.S. just wanted to get out.
RAJAGOPALAN: I can fully appreciate that the American people have had enough and they want to get out. That is a political decision at a different level. Whatever one might say about it, we can recognize that there are people who feel a particular way, and that was the decision of the administration. Now, the part two of that is how it’s done, and to me, that speaks volumes about state capacity and intent.
To me, it is shocking that the State Department doesn’t have a clue how many applications need to be processed or what it takes to process those applications, or the 700 steps that each of these applications requires people who are homeless or sitting at an airport or fleeing a bad regime need to produce in order to fulfill the requirements that the U.S. is then going to let them in. What is broken in the American State Department when it comes to state capacity and also when it comes to intention? What’s the problem there? Because it seems like you and the students at Pitt did a better job than what the government was doing.
Just for some context, the Americans had made promises that the Afghan people who had helped the American effort, both the military and the civilian effort, would be allowed to leave Afghanistan and get visas. But the requirements for that were onerous, and sometimes they had ridiculous conditions, like you have to actually apply from a third country. So they had to actually flee the country to get the process going. They needed a lot of information. They needed a very strong identification.
They needed reference letters from people and contractors they had worked with in the past who hadn’t worked in Afghanistan for 20 years. Some of them were dead; some of those companies were bankrupt. And what you guys did, just purely through a volunteer effort, was help all these people get some of these documents and get them in touch and get them the references. Now, why is it that a university with two professors, a small center and 50 volunteers can get this done, and the State Department can’t figure this out?
MURTAZASHVILI: I don’t know, but it was very harrowing times. That just happened because the issuance of that program happened about two weeks before the government collapsed. The government State Department said we have this P-2 visa program that will expand who’s able to come to the United States, not just to military translators but to anybody who worked for the U.S. All of a sudden, my DMs are filled with colleagues, former colleagues—I’ve been going to Afghanistan for 20 years, the number of people who I engaged with in different capacities—all of my DMs asking for this employment verification.
They don’t understand. These are people with Ph.D.s, many of them: “How do I find out? I worked for this NGO 25, 20 years ago, 18 years ago, 15 years ago. I need to find this person.” Basically, I was just initially helping friends of mine, and then I mobilized some students to help my friends because it was too much for me to do individually. Then what I realized is, we have actually figured out we have a service we can provide to others. Wouldn’t it be great if we could scale this up a little bit, get other student volunteers involved?
We didn’t anticipate the government collapsing the next day. We put out a call, we had about 500 or 600 requests we received. We had about 10 volunteers going through them, trying to match these Afghans with their former employers. It was for the students really kind of fascinating. They were learning about how foreign policy, about how aid contracts work and all of this. Well, then the government collapsed, and we found ourselves with 6,000 people—
MURTAZASHVILI: —came to us, and then we mobilized more than 100 volunteers. It was really amazing. Most of them were virtual. I had faculty, I had staff. It was really quite astonishing, and we did as much as we could. But then the evacuations were going on, and then these poor volunteers found themselves on the phone with Kabul Airport, trying to navigate people to gates so they could get into the airport so they could get on a plane. People were working flight manifests.
This is your question, I had people calling me from senator’s office, State Department. I had people calling me from big government organizations, nongovernment organizations that are supported by the government, asking me. And I said, “I’m so far removed from this. You are the people who are on the ground there. You should know this. Why don’t you know?” It was extraordinarily frustrating, and I think it will go down as one of the darkest stains in our foreign policy history. Why didn’t they know? I think that what the U.S.—to be charitable, if we don’t want to say it’s just incompetence, it’s that I think many anticipated that the political settlement would look a little different.
This is where Ghani really did screw things up. They thought he would stay. Even the Taliban expected some kind of power sharing, and that’s where the pressure was on Ghani to do, for power sharing. Then you don’t need everyone to run away, and he refused. He refused, and I think that the way that—why didn’t the State Department know this, if Ghani was telling them this the whole time, is another question. But I think maybe they were hoping that he’d resign or do something. He just ran away, and when he ran away, the whole thing collapsed.
Supplementing State Capacity
RAJAGOPALAN: I think this goes back to your previous discussion about state capacity. We’re trying to build state capacity in Afghanistan. This is the great development aid project, that we need to get these districts to start building roads and start developing schools and so on. One of the richest countries in the world, one of the best-resourced governments that ever existed in the history of time, we can’t evacuate 6,000 additional people.
Aside from pointing to the irony of it, I just feel like this is a development lesson in itself, that we can’t just scale state capacity up without context, without preparation for conditions that are foreign to us, just magically. It just can’t happen. In one sense, it’s a matter of great shame what happened in the United States. I think the other part of it is it’s actually a huge lesson.
How nimble a volunteer system can be at Pitt tells us something about local-level, decentralized governance, people who have knowledge, people who have legitimacy. I think your personal experience may have more lessons about development and aid and how we embed ourselves in Afghanistan than is apparent at first blush, aside from just criticizing the U.S. State Department, which I could go on for a while.
MURTAZASHVILI: Yes. There was a huge heaviness to this. I felt a real responsibility to everybody who had reached out to us, and we’re still working on this project, actually. We’ve created an asset online. We’re going to publish it, even though it may be unnecessary at this point—we’re not sure—but we still have the contact list. Basically, what we’ve done now is cataloged all of the organizations for people, so when they are applying, they can know who to go to. Now organizations have a point person, but in those early days, they didn’t. There was nothing.
The organizations were told that the State Department was going to do this, so we were going on LinkedIn, our students, trying to find a connection and connect people with the hopes that someone could get on a flight to get out. Then a lot of the people who got out took the spots of people who really should have gotten out ahead of them. That’s another history that’s going to be told at some point. Even today, I keep my DMs on Twitter wide open, just in case. A lot of people message me constantly wanting to get out.
Unfortunately, we’re not a rescue organization. We provided a very, very small thing, which is just connect people with their former employers. We were not promising people evacuations. It was a very small thing that we were providing that would help them facilitate their application, but as soon as the U.S. issued this P-2 program, it almost became obsolete because then they were flying hundreds of thousands out on these planes, or tens of thousands. We’re actually still going through all of our records to make sure that we’ve responded to everyone who came to us. It’s really important to us.
Then the subsequent thing that we’ve done is we’ve resettled scholars. We have six here in Pittsburgh now. We have several more on the way. For us, it’s really important to preserve intellectual communities. As a scholar of community, I work on communities. I’m really fascinated by the way communities can do things or not do things. But as we know, academic research doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s not good for a man or a woman to be alone.
We just thought that, given the really dynamic nature of the scholarly community in Afghanistan, it would be a real tragedy to lose all of that because I saw the dynamism, the debates, the fights, the extraordinary work that they had published, publishing in top peer-reviewed journals, books, amazing things, and from zero to incredible in a very short amount of time. I really wanted to preserve that. Those intellectual communities create the basis of a network that could keep these people engaged with one another even if they couldn’t work in Afghanistan.
I know many of these people. They are very smart. They could come, they would settle to the United States, wherever they go, and they would be very successful. As a scholar, as an academic, I know that once you stop doing that kind of work, it’s very hard to continue it, especially through resettlement, especially through all the trauma that they have been through. I just thought in order to preserve their dignity and not to lose what they are, what they have gained, what they have really built over the past, what they have taught all of us over these past 20 years, is to preserve that and with the hopes that they can go back one day soon.
And I’ll introduce you to these wonderful individuals that we have, but they really inspire me. We complain about how hard it is to do work, we complain about reviewer number two, but these folks have dealt with so much and are so committed to their own research and the world of ideas. It’s been really quite something to watch.
Importance of the Diaspora
RAJAGOPALAN: I’d love to meet them. Honestly, I’ve been thinking a lot about ideas and where the big ideas for how to shape India and Indian political economy came from. The more I dig into this, the more I realized that it was at least catalyzed or started off by a particular Indian elite and their networks through the diaspora, after English education starts getting introduced in India. Basically, the goal is to create a new cadre of civil servants who are educated in English and can do the bidding of the colonial government, but there are so many byproducts of that.
All these folks start going to London, they start getting educated, they become lawyers, they become economists, they start writing about these things. And that is really the first intellectual wave of the Indian nationalist movement. Now, it just so happens that their biggest supporters were Fabian socialists, so a lot of the ideas were Fabian socialist, and there’s a big legacy of that. But even if we talk about the reforms that happen in India in 1991, when India lets go of its socialist past and reduces controls and embraces markets, a huge push for that came from what we pejoratively call the Washington Consensus, but it’s really Indian elites who had been exposed to these ideas.
I mean, the number two at the Indian Central Bank had been a student of monetary economics at University of Pennsylvania. When we recently interviewed him, he told me that, “Oh, I was sitting in the room when Milton Friedman gave his 1964 presidential address.” And this is the guy who devalues the Indian currency in multiple stages and saves India from the currency crisis in 1991.
One is the path dependence, and the other is this network of the elites with the diaspora and keeping those ideas alive and the ideas of what a liberal democracy must look and feel like, but one that suits the Afghan people. I think that project, just aside from supporting fellow scholars, there’s a very long-run impact of this that we can’t quite predict. So I think it’s an incredible thing that you have embarked upon.
MURTAZASHVILI: I hear also a word of caution there as well, if I’m not mistaken, and these are actually conversations that we’ve had with many of them because they were very critical of the diaspora. I said, “That is you now.”
MURTAZASHVILI: “Whether you like it or not, you are now this diaspora, and as you think about what should or shouldn’t be done in Afghanistan, you also have to consider who’s there.” One of the challenges, though, that does make this a little different is that one of the people who we have with us, her father is a very prominent academic. She’s my Ph.D. student. Her name is Hasina Jalal, and her mother was the first woman to run for president of Afghanistan. Her father’s a very prominent intellectual, was a long-time professor at Kabul University, very critical of all governments, and he got on the TV—he stayed.
He decided to stay, and in January, he went on TV and just blasted the Taliban, blasted them on national television, and then he found himself in jail. There was an international campaign to get him out. We were trying to help with that. He was a very prominent figure and very well known, so, thankfully, he was able to get out. There was a lot of pressure put on the Taliban to let him out. He’s now outside of Afghanistan.
But the diaspora—of course, these people will come, and they are now the diaspora, and they have to come to terms with that. But the unfortunate thing is that within Afghanistan, there is no space anymore.
These people would be killed. And some of them were pretty prominent thinkers who had been very critical of the Taliban. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much of a choice. This was really a life-or-death situation for them, especially being prominent thinkers. I think there is a heavy duty going forward to think about all of the grand plans that they’re going to make from afar and easy to thumb your nose at the people who are remaining, or to thumb your nose at what’s happening there, but to look at it from a place of real empathy. It’s hard when you’re going through so much.
My heart goes out to everyone on all sides of this because there are no easy answers to this. One of the things I know that we wanted to talk about was engagement with the Taliban, and I don’t have any easy answers to this one. I go back and forth. I’m very confused about how to deal with this. I have very strong opinions about what has happened and explaining the past, but trying to figure out a best way forward for the international community, for us as individuals, is a very, very hard one.
RAJAGOPALAN: No, I really appreciate that. You’ve seen this happen multiple times, and I want to talk a little bit about your intellectual journey and also your process. One is, how did you find yourself in Uzbekistan, and then Afghanistan, and launch yourself into this, now what is a 25-year project? You’ve been doing this a long time, and then I’ll come to your writing process and so on.
But first, how did you get involved in this, learn the local languages, have this constant, very detailed fieldwork? I’ve read both your books, and the incredible depth and nuance in the field research is what I find amazing about them. How did you go down that path as someone who could have had any kind of American academic career?
MURTAZASHVILI: I’m a mother of four children, and I should say that as a mother of four, I see kids who have very different personalities. I think any parent will tell you that. But I was one of five kids, and I ended up as an extrovert who really liked talking to people and exploring questions and probing. When I was in high school here in Pittsburgh, actually—I’m from Pittsburgh. I have the real pleasure—I studied communities, and I get to grow up in the community where I lived growing up, and my kids live in the neighborhood I’ve lived in as a kid. It’s really quite fun.
I was given the choice of what language to study in high school, and it was French, Spanish, German, Latin, and my high school offered Russian. It was a Cold War hangover, so I studied Russian for four years in high school. It was the time of perestroika and the Soviet Union. It just collapsed, and it was a fascinating time to be studying Russian. I get to college, and they put me in second-year Russian. I almost failed out of university because Russian is terrible, and there was no grade inflation in the Russian department, I tell you.
RAJAGOPALAN: There was communists and their lack of grade inflation.
MURTAZASHVILI: No grade inflation, very strict, like, “Are you stupid?” I’m like, “Yes, I don’t—.” I ended up going to Russia my junior year, and the war in Chechnya had just broken out. This was 1995. I remember being in Moscow and talking about Chechnya and not having any idea about what this was. I had done post-Soviet studies for almost two years in college, and I felt really embarrassed.
I realized that the way that we were taught about the Soviet Union, it was all about Russia. It was Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible, and then it was the history of Krushchev and Stalin and all the Soviet leaders. Then there was hardly anything about these minority populations. I lived with a Russian host family, and the brother that I lived with had a very close friend, a Russian who had fought in Chechnya and his best friend in Moscow was Chechen. I saw how this Russian came back from that war so traumatized because he was sent off to fight people, like kill his best friend. I became so curious about this, and I started asking questions about the Muslim population in Russia.
Then I came back to Georgetown, I finished my senior year and I started studying Turkish, because at that time, I learned about the Turkic Muslim population. I felt very interested. I started taking anthropology courses. Turkish was a gateway maybe to some of this. I was just very curious. Then when I was finishing university, a professor of mine suggested that I join the Peace Corps. He himself was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria during the Biafra Civil War, and he still encouraged me.
He was a real mentor, Herbert Howe at Georgetown. I hadn’t really thought about it. I applied, and Peace Corps said, “You speak Russian? We’re opening up all these outposts in the former Soviet Union. Where would you like to go?” I said, “I’m really curious about Central Asia or the Caucasus.” They said, “Central Asia, no one wants to go there. You could leave tomorrow.” I ended up in Uzbekistan, and I got to Uzbekistan, had three months of intensive Uzbek language training. Uzbek is a Turkic language, so I thought I was pretty cool. I spoke Uzbek. I spoke Russian, so I could communicate.
I should tell you that I was really shocked by what I found in Uzbekistan. I had read everything how the Soviet Union had transformed the culture, transformed society. Didn’t look anything like Moscow. The Peace Corps assigned me to a city where I would live for the next two years, and I taught English in a high school, and I lived in the beautiful city of Samarkand. I get to Samarkand and go to the bazaar, and I start talking in Uzbek. And I get scolded immediately by the tradesmen, the merchants who said, “We speak Tajik here, not Uzbek. It’s a Tajik-speaking city.” So I learned Tajik, which is a dialect of Farsi, which is spoken in Afghanistan also.
RAJAGOPALAN: Afghanistan. Exactly.
MURTAZASHVILI: That is how I got the linguistic skills to do the research in Afghanistan. Ended up spending five years. I loved Uzbekistan. I spent five years there. After I finished the Peace Corps, I got a job at the U.S. Agency for International Development, where I managed democracy and governance programs. I was there in the embassy on 9/11. Uzbekistan at that time was one of the world’s most authoritarian states. I was pretty frustrated with my work—that’s a whole other conversation—and ended up going back to grad school in 2002 because I wasn’t very good at aid.
I felt like I had more questions than answers, and I was giving out a lot of money and not really understanding why. I was very young as well. I didn’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life. I just had more questions. I did a Ph.D. in political science. I didn’t really seem like the right fit. I had no idea what political science was. I ended up at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and I could say that I was formed intellectually by being really disappointed by this transitology literature, the post-Soviet literature.
I had spent so much time on the ground in Uzbekistan, living in villages, in communities, dealing with people in my work at certainly the grassroots level, and I got to these political science debates about why the Soviet Union collapsed or explaining this political trajectory or explaining nationalism. I felt like it was very, very removed. I was about to drop out of graduate school until I discovered Elinor Ostrom. I read her work and I said, “This explains everything.”
RAJAGOPALAN: Everything. Yes.
MURTAZASHVILI: I also wanted to do research that I thought was important to people, and I felt like there was so much literature debating nationalism and identity and identity construction. I’m like, “I mean, okay, enough already. There’s a lot of people doing this, but I want to understand things that people are really concerned about in their day-to-day lives.”
Of course, this can be an issue. We’ve seen in Russia and Ukraine, this is obviously a huge issue. But I felt like the way that identity was constructed in all of these nationalism theories didn’t travel well to Central Asia, which—you didn’t have these ethnonyms 100 years ago. There was no such thing as an Uzbek 100 years ago, 150 years ago. These were constructs really of the Soviet period.
I found Ostrom and it was a very positive story about how people collaborate. That’s what I experienced in very authoritarian Uzbekistan, was that underneath this deep veneer of authoritarianism, there was incredible ways that people were cooperating and doing so many things. It was really exciting to be part of that as a community member.
I think it was Ostrom that gave me faith, but I also found limitations to Ostrom’s work, and that’s what I’m trying to build on now in my own. One of her design principles is that you need a state to recognize these things, design principle number six. Well, what happens if you erase design principle number six? I wanted to extend this beyond just commons and natural resources, but really look at meat-and-potatoes governance issues. I think it was Ostrom’s work.
I had an incredible adviser who was a China scholar. I had a lot of China scholars on my committee—Melanie Manion, and she’s now at Duke. She studies local governance in China. She’s a political economist. Scott Gehlbach, who’s now at Chicago, who walked me through formal theory very patiently. I worked with Ed Friedman, who was a scholar on peasants in China. Then I had Dan Bromley, who’s an old-school institutional economist, who I argued with and fought with just about every day. It was wonderful to have that diverse committee of people who had very different ideas about the world, and they knew nothing about Afghanistan.
I get this from students all the time. I say, “Well, your committee should guide you theoretically.” And they trusted me on the empirics. I really take the institution seriously, the rules seriously. People say, “Well, you do ethnographic work. How can you do game theory? Or how can you do institutions?” I say, “We have to understand the rules,” and that’s what I’m really committed to in my ethnographic work. What I’d love to do in the future is train more quantitatively oriented scholars, economists on how to do ethnographic work.
Research and Writing Process
RAJAGOPALAN: You mentioned you have four kids, so you’re just like Superwoman at this point. You are incredibly productive. You have multiple books; you have dozens of papers. I recently read so many of them. Each one of them is so incredibly detailed in the fieldwork. How do you think about a project? How do you split the time between the field versus the time you spend writing? What’s the writing process? Can you just walk us through all of those parts?
MURTAZASHVILI: I would first say that you have to marry well. I’m a Superwoman, I appreciate that, but it does take a good partner to make this happen. Without my husband, Ilia [Murtazashvili], who I have written quite a lot with and who I disagree with quite—
RAJAGOPALAN: Who’s also incredible and very productive, and all the things I said about you, I would also say about Ilia.
MURTAZASHVILI: It’s very much a partnership in terms of children. We’re blessed as scholars. I go into academic Twitter, and I see people so upset about this and that, and I just think we’re so blessed to have this opportunity. Of course, there’s inequities. There are things that drive me crazy about all of it, and the hierarchies—it’s just really ridiculous. Just to have the time and the flexibility that we have has made actually having children incredibly easy.
I won’t say raising children is easy, but compared to other professions, we have a lot of flexibility baked in. And then when you have two of us, I stayed at home with the kids for almost two years before doing any kind of day care, and we would switch. We’re constantly doing shifts. When COVID hit, it was like, “Okay, we’re back to this again. You do one day, I do the next. You do mornings, I do nights.” For writing, for me, it is difficult, I should say. Especially the past year, I’ve not been very productive. I’m very sorry to all of my co-authors who I owe things to.
My life has really been taken over by these events and by this urgency to help my colleagues. I’m really far behind on my writing, but it does take me a long time to concentrate. You could talk to Ilia, who can write through children screaming. When I get home, I can’t do that at all. I can’t concentrate. I really need a lot of quiet, and I need a regular schedule to do it.
With children, I can’t do the really deep, deep fieldwork that I used to do, so I do a lot more survey work these days. I work with partners much more. That’s why I’m eager to train other scholars to do the kinds of work and live vicariously through others. I think that’s normal through the stage of a scholar’s career.
You talk to anthropologists who did their great ethnography, and that’s what they talk about for the rest of their careers because that’s what they did as a graduate student when they didn’t have as many obligations. I don’t work 9:00 to 5:00. I work when I can because I feel that my work time goes into my family time, my family time goes into my work time. That’s a blessing to be able to do that, so that I can pick up my kids if they’re sick at school and have them with me and stop working, with the understanding that maybe after they go to bed at night, I pick things up again.
I just feel really just fortunate to have the opportunities that I have to talk to people, to ask questions. It’s an amazing world that we live in, and it’s humbling. This past year has been incredibly humbling. Of course, I feel a lot of vindication because I knew that it was going to fall, but I didn’t think it was going to fall the way that it did. I’m really heartbroken seeing so many families torn apart, seeing the pain that people have to endure because of the Taliban. In that regard, I’m not very well organized.
RAJAGOPALAN: You still get an incredible amount done. I hope you’ll come back. I had a lot of questions about your other book written with Ilia, your co-author and your partner and your husband, on property rights. Hopefully, you both will come back and we can chat about that.
Before I let you go, on a slightly happier note, I like asking everyone what they binge-watched during the pandemic. But, of course, you were dealing with state collapse and four kids, so I don’t know if you got time to do any of that. I will ask you though, what do you think is your favorite TV show which is an accurate representation of what’s happened, or even a tiny sliver of Afghanistan that we should probably watch?
MURTAZASHVILI: I should tell you, I’m really embarrassed. I don’t say this as a mark of honor, but I haven’t binge-watched anything and I haven’t watched television in a long time, and it’s not because I’m anti-TV. It’s one of these times where during the pandemic, we were home with four kids, and we ended up homeschooling them. The other thing is we watched our school district collapse. The pandemic for us was a really traumatic period. I saw people baking bread, and I was setting up a research center, and then Afghanistan collapsed, and we saw our school district collapse. I became very, actually, active in local issues here related to the school district. I mentioned I’m from Pittsburgh. I went to Pittsburgh public schools myself. I really believe in having a healthy school district. We really watched everything fail around us. It was really quite astonishing.
One book I would actually encourage folks to read that turned into a movie—the movie actually wasn’t as good as the book—on Afghanistan. I listen to Tyler Cowen every once in a while talk about fiction and the importance of reading fiction. The book that got me to give up fiction was “Charlie Wilson’s War.” I would really encourage people to read this book because what I understood from that book is that truth is far stranger than fiction could ever be. It is an incredible story. The book is written by a producer at “60 Minutes,” and it was an incredible story of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan from the very beginning, and how we romanticize things, and many of the policies that we saw really come out of that period of time. That would probably be my advice.
I started watching “Tehran,” which is on Apple TV. Honestly, I get through some of it. The torture scenes, I can’t watch violence. I think this is actually very hard for me, I think coming out of war, losing people in conflict, losing people to suicide bombers and assassinations, it’s very hard for me. I don’t know how many of my Afghan colleagues deal with it, but it’s something I can’t really do very well. Also being a mother, I have a hard time with violence. I used to not think much about it. I just want a good romantic comedy. They don’t seem to make those anymore. Give me Jennifer Aniston. I don’t know where she is.
RAJAGOPALAN: I am with you on this. This was such a pleasure, and I got to read some of your stuff once again, which is always a joy. And I hope to have you back to talk about property rights.
MURTAZASHVILI: This was great, Shruti. I really appreciate it. These were wonderful questions, and I wish I had more answers. Just have more questions. I hope that your listeners keep an eye on Afghanistan, they don’t forget. The one-year anniversary of the withdrawal is coming up, and it’s easy to cast blame on them. Many leaders there deserve blame themselves, but, unfortunately, I think one of the lessons is they were never active participants in their own history, except resisting the things that were imposed on them. I think this is a lesson. It’s a lesson for all of us.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Thank you. Thank you, on that wonderful note, joy to have you here, and good luck with everything.
MURTAZASHVILI: Thank you very much, Shruti.