Small Wars Journal

Understanding the Dialectic of Nomad and State

Mon, 12/02/2013 - 10:36am

Understanding the Dialectic of Nomad and State: The Tectonics of Conflict, Trade and Modes of Living in Afghanistan

Chris Elliott

The differences between stateless societies and societies with States has throughout the history of social anthropology remained one of the discipline’s most persistent fascinations. While teleological models of social change have long since been rejected, one of the discipline’s chief focuses has always been to uncover how it is that disparate nomadic and hunter-gatherer groups came together to form the “early civilisations”.

With the structural-functionalist’s conceptualisation of social change as analogous to the process of single-cell organisms gradually evolving into complex organisms, assumptions about nomadic peoples have always imagined “the nomad” as the proto-individual who existed prior to large-scale society, his independent mode of living thereby making him the very antithesis of the State.

This paper will seek to determine the veracity of this assumption, examining whether the relationship between the State and nomadic groups is inherently oppositional or necessarily symbiotic particularly with reference to Middle Eastern and Central Asian societies.

In doing this, this paper will first discuss the foundational theories of stateless societies, discussing whether systems for the distribution of power and authority in nomadic societies are ineluctably opposed to the establishment of institutionalised central authority. In examining also the notion of the State as a fundamentally agriculturalist project, this paper will discuss how tensions in the relationship between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary agriculturalists can be extrapolated to understand how and why nomads and States collide.

Following this, this paper will discuss the arguments for conceptualising the nomad-State relationship as a symbiotic relationship. In discussing alternate theories regarding the origins of the State this paper will outline how nomads as mercantilists (that is, as peripatetic facilitators of trade) may also have been integral in the early development of settler civilisations and how conversely, the opportunities that economic interaction with the State provides has been vital for the subsistence of itinerant nomadic groups.

After a general examination of the dialectic of nomad and state, this paper will seek to comprehend the relationship within the context of contemporary conflict in Afghanistan, looking specifically at the case study of kuchi Pashtun nomads near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It will seek to understand how their predicament might be situated within the context of the wider struggles faced by that country. In outlining a general theory for understanding the nomad-State relationship, this paper will also argue that the wider ideological war between Taliban-aligned groups and the Afghan State (including its Western allies) is superimposed over a collection of micro-conflicts some of which represent tension in nomad-settler relations.

In order to outline a general theory on the nomad-State dialectic this paper will first define “a nomad” as an individual whose mode of living involves regular, peripatetic movement and the subsistence lifestyles associated with it such as pastoralism or itinerant mercantilism. Secondly, in defining the latter half of the binary, this paper will use a Weberian definition which sees the State as an institution which derives its power from centralized authority and the monopoly over the use of legitimate violence within recognized territorial borders.

Henceforth, the first question waits now to be answered – how is political power distributed in nomadic societies and how does this differ from the model of centralised, institutionalised authority which the State embodies? If one is to accept the proposal that stateless nomadic societies were among the first human societies to inhabit the Earth then it seems to follow that nomadic groups have historically been able to function without the existence of a State. As such, it is not a matter of debate whether nomadic societies can function without the State since prior to the establishment of the first human settlement, mobile bands of hunter-gatherers existed in cohesive social units[i]. What is a matter of debate, however, is whether or not nomadic societies tend to actively resist the emergence of the State as a unitary entity in favour of the atomization of authority and the primacy of personal independence.

In drawing his distinction between societies without States and those with States, Clastres argued that “primitive societies are societies without a State because for them the State is impossible”[ii]. More than anything else, Clastres argued, it was the intentional kinglessness of primitive society which defined it. From his observations of the hunter-gather Guyaki he argued that while chiefs existed in these societies, “the chieftainship” was better understood not as the locus of power but as a role allocated to a representative or a peacemaker who, while he might wish “to turn the tribe into the instrument of his desire”, could never outgrow himself as the tribe’s own instrument[iii]. Thus, in the Clastrian model, “primitive society” is characteristically stateless, anarchic, egalitarian and chiefs, though they might wish it were otherwise, are “prisoners of a society from which nothing escapes, which lets nothing get outside itself, for all the exits are blocked”[iv]. Thus, the central pre-occupation of “primitive societies”, he argued, was “the endeavour to exorcise the State”[v].

Frederick Barth in his classic study of the Swat Pashtuns seems to have been in agreement with Clastres, arguing that in many cases, stateless societies have self-mobilized to prevent the rise of the State. Indeed, according to Barth, since allegiance in Pashtun society was not “something which is given to groups, but something which is bartered between individuals”[vi], freedom of choice became the defining characteristic of the political system, such that the resultant acephalous structure was one which prevented the emergence of State-like formations.

While neither of these studies focussed solely on nomads or identified statelessness as an endemic feature of nomadic societies, a number of important insights emerge from these descriptions of pre-state societies. The question, it seems, is whether nomadic societies resemble the classic model of acephalous society as a form of society which is against the State. Indeed, while Clastres refuted the economic determinist model in arguing that neighbouring agriculturalists and nomadic groups could have identical socio-political characteristics[vii], it seems opportune now to consider if “the itinerancy” (and the independence that goes with it) which defines nomadic groups could be attributed as a factor in the non-emergence of a State.

Take Barth’s Swat Pathans, for example. Though, as farmers, the Pathans of the Swat valley did not conform to the archetypal image of the nomadic camel breeder or transhumant pastoralist seasonally picking up and moving from summer to winter grazing grounds, in many ways the groups of Barth’s study might be described as “nomadic” as they also undertook regular periodic migrations. According to Barth, when the Yusufzai Pashtun conquered the Swat valley and a land dispute erupted between various factions, a local notary “decreed that the land should be periodically re-allocated. Where a sub-tribe had two main branches, these two should alternate, say every ten years in their occupation of the two halves of the region”[viii]. This system, according to Barth, gave rise to the acephalous political order which defines the region, and also to a complex system of alliances which could be called upon when conflicts over land and rights to water emerged. One might argue from the connection drawn between history and the current political system that it is the migratory aspect of the Yusufzai system of land tenureship which prevented the emergence of the State since an institution tied to specific territories with specific borders seems exceptionally difficult under these conditions. Or in other words, since the State requires fixed boundaries, a certain degree of “settledness” may be required in order to delineate the limits of these boundaries.

If the acephalous political structure is to be attributed to the population’s periodic land re-allocations and subsequent movements, than it is perhaps also acceptable to hypothesise that “the more nomadic” a population, the greater the likelihood its political system will trend towards an acephalous model. Indeed, historically on the AfPak frontier, it may indeed have been the case that Pashtun nomads demonstrated an even greater aversion to the centralisation of power. As JA Robinson, a British colonial officer observed “Powindah [Pashtun nomads] chiefs wield much less power than do the maliks of the tribal territory of the Frontier; in fact it is only during the actual migration when fighting is imminent… that they seem to have any power at all. The Powindah is far more impatient of control not only by Government but by his own maliks[ix]. Extrapolated, the essence of the malik in Robinson’s account bears many similarities to the Guyaki chief of Clastres’ account.

On a similar tangent, Glatzer observes amongst Pashtun nomads in north-western Afghanistan that while there are oftentimes men who aspire to power, there are no such khans who emerge amongst the itinerant population because each man effectively blocks the other’s political ascent. Similarly he argues, the only khans who have emerged from the nomadic population are those whose livestock numbers grow so large that they must be reinvested in the purchasing of farmland which is in turn rented to landless families seeking access to pasture. The subsequent client-patron relationship becomes the basis up which the khanship is built. In this sense, while the emergent khans were once nomads it is only in the act of becoming sedentary that they are able to build a power base[x].

All of these observations seem to paint nomadic peoples as what Scott calls “barbarians by design”[xi]. That is, peoples whose social organization is “purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them”[xii]. The nomad, it seems, follows a dictum of “divide that ye be not ruled”[xiii].

 This brings us to a second question – whether the State’s emergence is hinged on the sedentary mode of living and indeed whether it constitutes a fundamentally settler-agriculturalist project. In this regard, Hawtrey argued that “there is a difference of kind between the nomad’s influence upon environment and that of the cultivator” which had follow-on effects in the way he relates to territory. According to Hawtrey, “the cultivator commits himself to improvements fixed in a particular place” which ultimately “tie a human community to the locality where it is”[xiv]. This fixed-in-place mode of living he argued was the basis on which the “territorial character of sovereignty” was founded, allowing a nascent State to actualise itself not only as a political entity but as a geographic entity[xv]. “The nomad” on other hand was “in a state of chronic migration”[xvi] and thus held a fundamentally different attachment to territory.

Spooner, from his study of nomadic peoples in the Iranian deserts seems to agree. “The nomad,” he argues. “Insofar as he is pastoral and nomadic and does not also cultivate, relates to a total and unimproved environment… the agriculturalist, on the other hand, must improve his environment. He must irrigate… where waterflow is available from spring or river, fields of cultivable soil must be constructed[xvii].

In many ways Spooner’s view demonstrates aspects of the Wittfogel’s view that historical despotism in the early civilisations of Asia can be traced to the economic modes of production of the peoples amongst whom they emerged. Wittfogel, in coining his theory of “hydraulic civilisation” argued that due to the exacting needs of highly-organized irrigation amongst agriculturalist communities in desert climes (such as those in Mesopotamia) or with rice-growers (such as in imperial China), the first governments emerged from the bureaucratic structures which maintained control over these systems. By this reading of history, not only was the early State a fundamentally agriculturalist project but the despotic character of the first Empires could be traced to the monopoly they maintained over the water supply[xviii].

If one is to accept this model – that the agriculturalist base and its centralised hydraulic system gave birth to the State superstructure – than it seems to follow that the nomadic pastoralist groups who were neighbours to these early civilisations would be the conceptual corollary to their State Other. Or in other words, the Oriental despotism of the padi-state finds its inverse in the peoples of the periphery – in the transhumant pastoralists of the hills and mountains and the trading nomads of the desert. Correspondingly, a political ecology perspective might envision the hills and deserts where mobile communities flourish as the refuges of what Scott calls “the fugitive, maroon communities who have over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys”[xix].

Scott’s “peoples of periphery” then, are not only painted as different social entities to the States of the valleys and fertile plains but are also threatened by what he sees as the inevitable expansion of the State into the domain of non-state peoples (of which nomads are one). In replicating itself padi-by-padi and projecting its influence to the edge of its territory, Scott argues, the state adopts a strategy of “enclosure” which he defines as “an effort to integrate and monetize the people, lands and resources of periphery”[xx] with the desired end-state being “the complete elimination of non-state spaces”[xxi]. This inevitably results in areas such as mountains, deserts and marshes (that is, areas where only itinerant groups can prosper), because of their ecological and geographical unattainability becoming refuges for state-fleeing peoples.

Thus, the formation of “the frontier”, where dwell the peoples of the periphery, who, in thwarting incorporation into the state, may occasionally form “shadow empires”, what Scott calls “a predatory periphery designed to monopolize trading and raiding advantages at the edge of empire”[xxii]. Politically then, we arrive at the position where the nomads relationship with the State hovers somewhere between oppositional and parasitic – where the State presents either a threat or a raiding opportunity for these historical “shadow empires”.

In accepting this position for a moment, we see that the zone where the periphery and the State overlap thus become zones of conflict, fault-lines between societies with essential differences in their economic modes of production – sedentary agriculturalists (the State) on the one hand and nomadic pastoralists (the nomad) on the other. If the State is also thought to be inherently expansionistic, capitulating the periphery one farm at a time, then land tenure becomes a focal point of this tension, the core of a veritably tectonic relationship.

In this regard, it is indeed true, that the question of whether land is to be ploughed or grazed is often a significant leitmotif in determining pastoralist-agriculturalist relations[xxiii]. As Koster argues, when competition for limited strategic resources is the crucial element in these relations the biblical model of Cain (the farmer) and Abel (the herdsman) is perhaps sufficient[xxiv]. Indeed, as with any conflict over resources, here the first assumption is to deduce that “nomadic society” is fundamentally opposed to “settled society” and any conflict between the two could be seen as a kind of demographic seismism, the inevitable consequence of when nomad collides with settler. But just as every interaction between tectonic plates (such as subduction) does not necessarily cause an earthquake, neither does every interaction between the nomadic pastoralist and the settler State inevitably involve conflict.

Land in areas of overlap is central to the issue. But although it can be a source of friction between those with a common boundary[xxv] a simple oppositional model cannot explain all relations, particularly when interdependence and peaceful interactions are observed. Or as Koster succinctly puts it: “competition must be demonstrated, not simply assumed”[xxvi].

Indeed, while it might seem inevitable that farmers and shepherds will come into conflict as ecological or resource pressures push the two together, interdependence is often observed in many regions, even where ethnic divides are also a factor. For example, goats belonging to pastoralists can graze the summer fallow on farmland which in turn provides concentrated manure deposits for the next crop cycle[xxvii].

Even in cases where resource pressures might make competition and conflict seem inevitable, interactions between nomadic and settled groups can take place in peaceful contexts. Indeed, even if one is to assume that the agriculturalist-pastoralist relationship is inevitably confrontational, in understanding the meaning of “a nomad” as “a peripatetic trader” (that is, not only a “pastoralist”) it seems clear that the relationship between the nomad and the State (even if it is, as Wittfogel posits, a fundamentally-agriculturalist project) can often be symbiotic as well as oppositional.

Polanyi, in his seminal work on the role of trade and market in the development of early empires, argues that in many cases the market can be a crucial component of ensuring peaceful relations between otherwise opposing groups, not only between nomadic and settled populations but also between nomads themselves. In the Morocco’s Atlas Mountains for example, while the segmentary social system acted to prevent the emergence of centralised power structures, Polanyi observed that clashing tribes can rely on the “peace of the market” in the brokering of truces which tended to coincide with seasonal trading periods[xxviii]. Under this system, although nomadic Berber groups saw their territory in the high Atlas as governed only by the rules of siba (meaning “anarchy”) in contrast to the lowland makhzen (meaning “government” from the Arabic khazana meaning either “to lock up”) markets functioned as places for peaceful interaction between both warring nomadic groups and nomadic traders and sedentary settlers. In oasis towns (known as qasr meaning “castle”), nomadic groups coming in from the desert would engage in exchange with settled populations leading Polanyi to observe that “the qasr of the oases seems in many respects… the ‘port of trade’. Desert and sea are akin”[xxix]. Market towns populated by settlers thus required the assistance of nomadic groups in the surrounding desert to facilitate trade as intermediaries between other towns such that each relied on the other – the nomad for the wells, the settler for the nomad’s trading networks.

On the same plane, refuting Wittfogel’s theory of hydraulic civilisation, Polanyi argued that it was the institutionalisation of the market itself that had primacy in the emergence of early civilisations. In the qasr for example, Polanyi observed that “command of the market is a stepping stone to power [and] it is in ‘commanding over the market’ that an amghar [local chief] shows best his prestige and ability. This may open the door to a makhzen development”[xxx].

In many respects, this market-based model is the most convincing of all them, not least because it solves one of Clastres’ central dilemmas – if primitive society was so against the State then how did states emerge organically from within primitive societies? Polanyi’s answer – the market.

Indeed, if one is to conceptualise the qasr as an embryonic State at the centre of a desert inhabited by peripatetic nomads (both pastoralist and mercantilist), then it seems to explain why all pastoralist-agriculturalist relations are not uniformly oppositional and indeed why peaceful nomad-State relations can be mutually beneficial. In this model Polanyi’s “nomadic merchant”, so crucial to the development of civilisations seems a long-shot from one of Clastres’ “primitives” – the antithesis of the State. Indeed, referring back to the geological metaphor, here when nomad and settler collide the result is not demographic seismism (conflict) but social orogenesis (the formation of mutually-beneficial trade centres) – men build mountains as well as causing earthquakes.

Barth, in his discussion of the issue argued that nomadic peoples have the choice between three strategies when engaging with the State: “submitting to it in return for peace, withdrawing and defining themselves from it to avoid the tax drain, or seeking control by attempting conquest of the whole state apparatus”[xxxi]. By accepting these as the strategies available to the nomad, Barth argues that one “might be able to account for the seesaw of power between nomad confederacies and irrigation states, and the expansion and contraction of city bureaucracies”[xxxii].

This also coheres with Scott’s view which proposes that while the periphery is often the domain of those resisting the State, peripheral peoples have “always been linked economically to the lowlands”[xxxiii] such that even when these “shadow-empires” rise to challenge the State’s authority, they are “typically parasitic” in the sense that the collapse of the host-empire will result in the collapse of an economic niche which may be vital when pastoralist subsistence is prevented by other ecological or political conditions.

Barth’s push-pull model is sound since it explains how the nomad-State relationship can change over time as well as providing a useful economic rationale for the historical conquest of States and civilisations by nomadic empires (cf Genghis Khan). The nomad it seems while often abrogated to the periphery has a variety of options available with which to engage the State. Depending on the character of the State’s interactions with the nomad, it seems (or perhaps it is obvious) that the latter’s response will vary.

Thus, one can conclude, the nomad-State relationship can be both symbiotic and oppositional. In this sense then, a Cain-versus-Abel dichotomy is not enough to explain the complex history of interactions between nomadic pastoralist groups and neighbouring agriculturalist groups who established the first civilisations – conflict is only one possible outcome.

Moving now to our case study, this paper will seek to examine the nomad-State dialectic within the context of the kuchi Pashtun in Afghanistan. The word kuchi, it should be said at the outset, refers not to a separate ethnic group (for they are Pashtuns) but rather to a mode of living (peripatetic nomadism) as opposed to the settled Afghani population. Kuchi are Pashtun nomads and, for the most part, belong to the Ghilzai confederation whose primary domain is centred in the south and east around Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces (the locus of hostilities in Afghanistan today) but extends into the far northern reaches of Afghanistan where their summer pasturelands often overlap with settled non-Pashtun populations[xxxiv]. According to a 1973 census (the last of its type conducted in Afghanistan), kuchi comprised 16% of the total Afghan population.

In then establishing that the term “kuchi” refers to the mobile population amongst the Ghilzai Pashtuns, the anthropologist’s first task is to understand the cultural meanings of “tribe” and “State” in Ghilzai discourse. Put simply, the Ghilzai understand the relationship between “tribe” and “state” through the lens of three cognate distinctions: 1.) the distinction between qoum (tribal kin) and gund (faction); 2.) between atrap (the countryside) and shahr (the city); 3.) between hukumat (land of government) and yaghistan (land of unrestraint). According to Anderson, these cognate distinctions “articulate a thematic tension which is the motif of Pashtun social organisation”[xxxv].

In many respects, the latter of the distinctions (that of hukumat and yaghistan) could be seen as more or less analogous to Polanyi’s Siba and Makhzen dichotomy (borrowed from the writings of Ibn Khaldun), a useful distinction which describes the structural differences of political organization in the population centres of the State and the “tribal areas” of the periphery. More central in Ghilzai ontology however is the concept of qoum which, in Anderson’s terms represents the Ghilzai’s “total identity”, stipulating the essential sameness shared and felt by all members of the tribe. The corollary of qoum (tribe) is gund (faction) which magnifies difference as focus of the relationship between individuals such that “tribalism is understood as the antithesis of factionalism”[xxxvi]. In this frame of reference, gund seems to be the object of abhorrence for Ghilzai Pashtuns – divisive, acrimonious, the cause of friction and conflict.

In the sense that gund is seen as a typical characteristic of the land of hukumat it is not the government in and of itself which the Ghilzai oppose but rather the metropolitan society in which the seat of government is located. Metropolitanism (and cosmopolitanism), in the Ghilzai imaginary, exemplifies heterogeneity and diversity, precursors of fractiousness and chaos in contrast to “the encompassing uniformity of qoum”. Thus, shahr (the city) is, as Anderson puts it “the place of gund at the lowest level, of rulers and ruled, [where] divisions of labour are necessarily unequal”[xxxvii]. While the disdain for urbanity does not pollute all aspects of the Ghilzai’s concept of “the State”, that clientage to city-folk is understood by Ghilzai as equivalent to subjugation it seems to jeopardize good relations between tribe and State. The distinction the Ghilzai draw been the city and the State also explains why Pashtun tribesman can in some instances accept the State (such as when a local khan is vested with political complementarity) whilst maintaining a concurrent loathing of the city where the seat of government is located[xxxviii].

Interactions with settled populations in cities and with State officials are nevertheless necessary for the Ghilzai. To the degree which Ghilzai must periodically engage in exchange with the State in market places and ministries the tribesman confront not a monolithic State but rather individual officials. This means, of course, that all interactions between the State and the Ghilzai are protean and vary across space and time. These interactions emerge always, according to Anderson “as a contest between the importuning and the recalcitrant”[xxxix] in much the same way as any bargaining interaction between a seller and buyer in any Central Asian bazaar. The relationship, in this regard, might be described as a quest for qoum – for sameness, for an agreement – often an agreement can be reached on terms to which both benefit. Where relations break down between tribe and State is when the relations proceed “from an a priori disparity” that is a fundamental inequality that renders the tribesman a subject rather than partner. Being a subject of the State, is never acceptable, for to the Ghilzai “to be ruled is to become an extension of the ruler, which can be avoided only by not being ruled at all”[xl].

In his examination of the relations between Afghan nomads and the State, Glatzer observes that “imposing new or strengthening existing authority roles seems to be a traditional strategy employed by oriental states in ruling their nomads”[xli] and it is perhaps here where the tension arises – there can be no qoum when there is a power imbalance in the relations between two actors.

Indeed, even a cursory examination of recent history shows that the interactions between kuchi nomadic populations and surrounding settler groups (of which the State is only one) have been characterised by tension. In Hazarajat, for example, changes to the status of summer grazing grounds exploited by kuchi nomadic pastoralists has seen their access to these pastures seriously compromised[xlii].

Hazarajat being located in the north of the country (an area of non-Pashtun majority), the kuchi pastoralists have since their arrival in the region been in the minority, typically viewed by the local Hazara and Tajik groups as Sunni outsiders whose expansion into the north is prognostic of a greater Pashtunization of Afghanistan. At the same time, in recent decades, the ploughing of established kuchi pasture lands for rainfed cropping has become increasingly widespread which in turn has inflamed kuchi anger[xliii].  Indeed, with the ethnic divide between Pashtun and non-Pashtun groups emerging as a point of conflict in the battle for control, the competition over a fixed resource (land) has taken on a specifically ethnic dimension which in turn has created the faultlines for a tectonic slip.

In a 2008 conflict between Shia Hazara sedentary agriculturalists and Sunni kuchi nomadic pastoralists one can observe a textbook archetype of an ethnic conflict – a religious divide, an ethnic divide and a lifestyle divide. Here, access to land has emerged as a decisive issue in the development of tensions between the two groups, manifesting (if not as a catalyst) as a contributing factor to the eventual war[xliv].

In many ways, the nature of kuchi-Hazara tensions in Hazarajat (and therefore the disposition of the kuchi) has, throughout the area’s history, hinged directly on State decision-making. With the amir of Afghanistan’s establishment of pastoral lands for kuchi Pashtuns in the late 19th century, a co-operative relationship with the State left the kuchi in a position of comparative advantage. With the emergence of the Taliban to fill the vacuum left by the Soviets, kuchi pastoralists again found themselves in a position of advantage with their Pashtun lineage linking them to the majority of the Taliban. Indeed, since many Taliban recruits came from kuchi groups, following the formation of a Taliban government in Kabul, Hazara attempts to re-acquisition kuchi pastureland were immediately halted[xlv].

Following the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of a new government in Kabul however, fierce resistance to continued kuchi access to pastureland in the far north developed within the non-Pashtun population. After the formation of non-Pashtun militias and the denial of access to their high-altitude summer pasturelands, many Pashtun fled these areas and a large segment are now internally-displaced[xlvi].

The State in all this has emerged as a rather ambivalent actor and as far as the rights of kuchi nomads are concerned has reconfigured kuchi ownership of the summer pastures as “seasonal access”[xlvii]. In this context then, the interactions between nomad and State seem to have left the kuchi at a disadvantage, particularly given the feeling amongst kuchi pastoralists that they are being punished for their links to the Taliban[xlviii].

Ashraf Ahmadzai, a kuchi leader on the outskirts of Kabul was reported by journalist Paul McGeough as saying: “we have the documents from (the Iron Emir), so we have asked the Government for a national tribal council – if they ignore us, we’ll have to fight”[xlix].

The precedent set by the State in resolving the kuchi-Hazara land dispute and the subsequent dispossession of a significant number of the kuchi population, could in many ways set the tone of future transactions between nomads and the State in Afghanistan.

The case study in the north demonstrates the propensity for conflict to develop as a result of pastoralist-agriculturalist tensions between kuchi Pashtuns and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups. At the same time, while the ensuing conflict in Hazarajat seems to have developed at the sub-state level with the Afghani government only involved as an external actor, the violence elsewhere in the country, particular in the south is markedly different in that the State (currently engaged in counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban) is an active participant in the hostilities rather than a simple mediator. Thus, while the Hazarajat example illustrates a more general sociological problem in agriculturalist-pastoralist relations, the war in the south might well illustrate a greater problem of nomad-state relations when state expansion into the periphery results in disruption and backlash from groups like the kuchi.

A classic example of this can be seen in the slow transition of kuchi subsistence from licit to illicit economies – from pastoralism to smuggling activities which support and maintain resistance movements in the periphery.

In crafting a history of the emergence of kuchi transportation enterprises in western Kabul, Pederson argues that the Pashtunistan conflict in the 1960s produced problems for kuchis seeking grazing grounds and trading opportunities on both sides of the border. Indeed, according to Pederson, growing competition from a modern transport sector and… State interference in the informal import-export activities of the nomads[l] prompted some kuchi households to form lorry operations to exploit an emerging and profitable niche.

While many of these early transportation associations were legitimate enterprises, in the context of the Afghani conflict, the transition from pastoralism to mercantilism has seen nomadic groups increasingly clashing with the interests of the State.

Indications that kuchi groups hold market shares in opium trafficking are not lost on the State. For example, in combatting the opium trafficking which supports the Taliban insurgency, Western coalition forces have developed tactics specifically targeted at searching kuchi caravans for drugs and weapons. Members of ISAF returning from a deployment in Afghanistan have described the kuchi as “neutral opportunists” envisaging kuchi as mercantilists exploiting an economic niche offered by the cross-border movement of contraband.

The lucrative prospects of smuggling has meant that in some districts, while pastoralism continues as a means of subsistence for some, the main basis of the rural economy is the cultivation and movement of the opium poppy across the Afghan-Pakistan border[li].

Beyond the mere economic challenge the State presents to nomadic mercantilists and trafficking networks, other information seems to indicate that a greater crisis in nomad-State relations is emerging in the country.

In a leaked cable sent by Karl Eikenberry to Hilary Clinton, the Director-General of the Afghan government’s Kuchi Directorate estimated that “over half of the Taliban are kuchis” and that in Paktika province alone the majority of Taliban commanders are kuchi. According to Eikenberry, some kuchis were active Taliban leaders in some local districts and the under-repesentation of kuchi in the government had prompted a complete break from the Afghan State. While Eikenberry, in the same cable, refuted the Director-General’s numbers (citing a CIA estimate that the percentage of kuchi Taliban was in the single figures), the ambassador estimated that only twenty percent of eligible kuchi male voters would vote in the August 2010 presidential elections because of “their dissatisfaction over the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s (GIRoA) lack of regard for kuchi interests and concerns”[lii].

Given the considerable variation between the CIA and the Director-General’s estimates of the kuchi-Taliban composition, it is difficult to determine the extent to which a break between nomad and State has occurred in Afghanistan. Indeed, it may just be that the kuchi, not unlike many peoples are simply unhappy with their government and wish for greater representation of their interests. A the same time however, given what has been discussed about the kuchi in Kabul and Hazarajat and their palpable vulnerability in post-Taliban Afghanistan, it seems highly possible that there is a direct correlation between kuchi “dissatisfaction” (as Eikenberry puts it) and the continued support at the local level for the Taliban in the northern, predominately non-Pashtun regions of the country.

This description of the kuchi as constituting the centre of gravity for the Taliban seems to echo Scott’s description of the “predatory periphery”[liii] – that is, the kuchi, in forming polities which seek to thwart incorporation by the State are, so to speak, “biting back”.

Indeed, I would argue that apart from an ideological struggle between Taliban-aligned Pashtuns and non-Taliban Afghans supported by the West, the conflict in Afghanistan could also be conceptualised in Clastrian terms as a struggle of society (that is, a highly-atomised collective of insurgents, smugglers and a supportive populace which ultimately comprises a “social organism”) against the State.

At the same time I would argue, based on the findings, that the relationship between nomads and the State is not necessarily oppositional and that under conditions where both sides proffer from peace (as in Polanyi’s example), the relationship between pastoralist societies and agriculturalist settler societies (and by extension the State) mutual symbiosis is beneficial to both parties.

In this sense, I would use Scott’s description of the relationship between hill peoples and padi-states in Asia to describe the nomad-state relationship. That is, the relationship is characterised “by symbiosis” – a general term which does not specify “whether this mutual dependence is antagonistic, or even parasitic, or whether it is mutually beneficial”[liv]. This description of the relationship as “symbiotic” thus gives space for a rationale which explains when co-operation occurs as well as when conflict occurs – a concept which can perhaps be extrapolated to describe other dyadic relationships (husband and wife, citizens and police), and indeed human relations in general.

The catalyst of conflict, it seems, is when equilibrium is lost. That is, where the State-nomad relationship becomes oppositional, it is when the subsistence patterns of nomads are threatened or when the niche activities of nomads are perceived as imperilling the State itself.

In many ways, the case of the kuchi is an almost classic example of how the institution of the State can create both friends and enemies out of nomadic peoples. With the exodus of kuchi Pashtun groups from grazing grounds in Northern Afghanistan, the unstable future of pastoralism in the region seems to have presented the kuchi with a choice. For those who chose to settle, such as those groups on the outskirts of Kabul, the future is likely to be one of marginalisation as Pashtun groups are resigned to the periphery of a Tajik-dominated future. For those who choose to continue with mercantilism, such as those groups in the Southern dashts, the future is likely to bring kuchi groups more and more in conflict with the State, as traders become smugglers and the State continues to increase pressure on informal cross-border economies in drugs and weapons. Either way, it seems, the choices allotted to kuchi groups will likely bring them into further conflict with the State.

The fundamental irony of the Afghan situation may indeed be that while development policy has often focussed on “State-building” as its cornerstone, realised through the expansion of roads and government outreach into remote communities, it is this expansion of shahr that may be the root of Pashtun angst. That Ghilzai discourse emphasises the negative consequences of State expansion seems worthy of consideration to policy-makers. Likewise with the emergence of a “predatory periphery” it may be that the State, in failing to secure a future for Pashtun nomads has forced former pastoralists to seek out niche activities such as smuggling – activities which are likely to bring them into collision with the government. Because the future of the Afghan economy will largely rest on the State’s ability to exploit cross-border trading networks for the transportation of produce, government engagement with kuchi trading networks seems to provide a market-based opportunity for resolving tension between tribe and State. Or in other words, an obvious solution to any kuchi-versus-State conflict it seems, may be economic – enhancing ties with kuchi mercantilists with the desired end-state being economic interdependence.

This paper has sought to discover whether the nomad-state relationship is oppositional or symbiotic. In interpreting the relationship as symbiotic this paper has concluded that while the two can, and often do, form oppositional entities, this by no means, is an inevitability. Indeed, while historically, upheaval and turmoil has been present from time to time, the tectonics of the relationship can be realised in ways other than the purely tumultuous.


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End Notes

[i] (Bar Yosef 1998: 159)

[ii] (Clastres 1989: 173)

[iii] (Clastres 1989: 178)

[iv] (Clastres 1989: 180)

[v] (Clastres 1989: 180)

[vi] (Barth 1959: 3)

[vii] (Clastres 1989: 171)

[viii] (Barth 1959: 10)

[ix] (Glatzer 1983: 223)

[x] (Tapper 1983: 224)

[xi]  (Scott 2009: 8)

[xii] (Scott 2009: 8)

[xiii] (Scott 2009: 32)

[xiv] (Hawtrey 1933: 8)

[xv]  (Hawtrey 1933: 8)

[xvi] (Hawtrey 1933: 92)

[xvii]  (Spooner 1972: 253)

[xviii] (Wittfogel 1957: 8-15)

[xix] (Scott 2009: i-ii)

[xx] (Scott 2009: 4)

[xxi] (Scott 2009: 10)

[xxii] (Scott 2009: 22)

[xxiii] (Koster 1976: 275)

[xxiv] (Koster 1976: 275)

[xxv]  (Tapper 1979: 256)

[xxvi] (Koster 1976: 275)

[xxvii] (Koster 1976: 282-283)

[xxviii] (Polanyi 1971: 188)

[xxix] (Polanyi 1971: 199)

[xxx] (Polanyi 1971: 202)

[xxxi] (Nelson 1973: 18)

[xxxii] (Nelson 1973: 18)

[xxxiii] (Scott 2009: 4)

[xxxiv] (Wily 2013)

[xxxv] (Tapper 1983: 124)

[xxxvi] (Tapper 1983: 126)

[xxxvii] (Tapper 1983: 142)

[xxxviii] (Tapper 1983: 143)

[xxxix] (Tapper 1983: 144)

[xl] (Tapper 1983: 127)

[xli] (Tapper 1983: 215)

[xlii] (De Weijer 2007: 9)

[xliii] (De Weijer 2007: 15)

[xliv] (Wily 2013)

[xlv] (Wily 2013) (De Weijer 2007: 20)

[xlvi] (Wily 2013)

[xlvii] (Wily 2013).

[xlviii] (McGeough 2005)

[xlix] (McGeough 2005)

[l] (Pederson 1994: 93-97)

[li] (Fitzherbert 2006: 35)

[lii] (Eikenberry/Wikileaks 2009)

[liii] (Scott 2009: 22)

[liv] (Scott 2009: 26)


About the Author(s)

Chris Elliott is currently undertaking a Master of Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra. Prior to this, he completed a Bachelor of Arts in Security Studies, Arabic and French at the ANU. His research focuses on nomadic peoples, ethno-nationalism, the anthropology of conflict and trans-national arms smuggling. Chris has served for five years in the Australian Defence Force, first as an infantry soldier and currently as an RFSU patrolman (reconnaissance and surveillance) with the Far North Queensland Regiment. His experience serving with indigenous soldiers in the latter role has fueled further research into hunter-gatherer societies and aboriginal Australia.


Yes I think so.
The concept could definitely be broadened to a wider discussion of "the periphery". Not only the geographic periphery (mountains, deserts etc) but also the social and urban periphery. You could definitely include the Roma in this latter category as well as Syrian refugees in Jordan or immigrant populations in Paris' banlieues. If we're to accept Kilcullen's hypothesis that future conflict will take place in cities and not mountains and deserts, the "urban periphery" is certainly a concept worthy of further examination.


Tue, 12/03/2013 - 2:39pm


I am curious how far you could take your dialectic model of nomads out of the hills and deserts. For example, if you compare the symbiotic push/pull relationship of the Kuchi nomads to the Roma, who have a more complex internal political structure, but who also live on the periphery?