13 February, 2012Issue 18.3Asia & AustraliaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Marketplaces in Afghanistan

Andrew Fleming

BritishNoah Coburn
Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town
University of Stanford Press, 2011
288 pages
ISBN 978-0804776721


Noah Coburn’s ethnography of day-to-day political life in the Afghan village of Istalif comes at a time when international attention to the Islamic world is shifting. As President Barack Obama signals the ongoing withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the almost daily reiterations of suicide bombings, insurgency, and civilian deaths from improvised explosive devices have faded into the news ticker background, in favour of the more dynamic narratives emerging in the wake of the Arab Spring. It’s not hard to see why this might be. We’ve had ten years of discussing the inability of America and Britain to win the war in Afghanistan, and now the case seems closed: the Karzai administration is corrupt and ineffective, insurgent attacks will continue (under varying levels of Taliban direction) until the last American helicopter leaves, and there’s little indication that anything should change thereafter. Conversely, the consequences of upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East have yet to play out; the stakes are high, and for those anxiously peering out from the vantage point of the democratic West, things could still go either way. Most significantly, the Arab Spring can be analytically nipped and tucked into something recognisably and comfortingly Westphalian: if you don’t like the conduct of the state, the argument goes, it’s still possible in 2011 to protest and democratically elect your way to a better one.

Bazaar Politics complicates this model in a novel and enormously impressive way. For what is essentially an anthropological study into how a community of potters sells their wares, arranges marriages, and conducts itself with surrounding society, Coburn’s analysis is unexpectedly portable to much larger political systems. Within this community (or quam, a political and social affiliation of malleable definition), the author studies the distribution of power and authority, both in relation to other social groupings and external forces such as NGOs, the district government, and so forth. His basic thesis is this: in the absence of established state power, the most effective political strategy to prevent violence, and sustain existing interests, is to maintain the social status quo. In Istalif this is practiced through social behaviours that explicitly avoid overt disputes, but also through the discreet undermining of opponents’ political plans or the social capital (in the form of reputation) that they would need to execute them. This is a system that Coburn describes as “masterly inactivity”.

This analysis might come as unexpected; to an outsider, few adjectives would seem to characterise the operation of any Afghan political system less than “inactive”. Indeed, there are fleeting suggestions that this system is not reflected in the more volatile social and political environment of Kabul; as comprehensive a treatment of Istalif as it is, it is a shame that Bazaar Politics lacks this comparative dimension. In some ways, this is a familiar story of vested interests. The community leaders who surreptitiously go about perpetuating existing circumstances, be they ex-warlords or Maliks (local elders), not only have the most to lose from rocking the boat, but are least likely to benefit from external interference.

Coburn’s key case study is of an unpaved road between Istalif and Kabul. The Istalifi Maliks, who could happily travel to Kabul themselves in private vehicles, feared that the perception of iniquitous distribution of resources would upset the balance of power in the village. Similar attitudes governed commercial exchange amongst potters and other vendors within the bazaar. In contrast to the received view of bazaars as clamorous places, Istalif’s is a reserved affair, where actively soliciting custom, or even advertising, is considered poor form. Instead, social networks, constructed and upheld through marriage alliances, are used to guard an individual’s reputation, and conversely, gossiping about one’s rivals aims to undermine the competition. In both cases, potential economic capital is sacrificed for the upkeep of social capital. Indeed, Coburn argues that in Istalif the former is not easily exchangeable for the latter; wealthy Istalifis returning from exile in Pakistan, and warlords who intimidated their way to power under the Taliban or during the civil war, are unable to exert quite the same kind of influence as an established Malik.

Coburn’s point here is that the central importance of social capital is precisely because of Afghanistan’s status as a “failed state”. With governmental power so weak and the future so uncertain, no single authority was prepared to show its hand. An important corollary of this is the lack of coercive violence present in Istalif; this stands in stark contrast to both received views of Afghan politics and earlier, unambiguously orientalist anthropological work on Pashtun societies. Instead of the instrumental deployment of coercive power, the impression of organised authority in the village was delivered through rhetoric and symbols. As well as the whispered politics of reputation, this could take the form of overt display: the range of hats worn in Istalif all connoted different political and cultural affiliations, pakuls implying an association with a warlord, karakuls an affinity with Karzai’s metropolitan Kabuli elite, kepi with the awkwardly between-stools police force, and so on. Plugging gaps in the political infrastructure, in this fashion, led to a situation in which people behaved as if the state was much stronger than it really was, whilst privately acknowledging that its only real power was interventionary and disruptive. The failure to understand this crucial point, the author argues, has hamstrung Western attempts to redress Afghanistan’s problems. Perceptions of corruption, for example, assume that state officials are in some sense doing their job, just not correctly; this elides the way that patronage networks substitute for formal state systems entirely in a society in which the parameters of state control are so unclear and prospectively subject to change.

It is the way that these networks operate so conservatively on the cusp of political change that makes Coburn’s analysis so pertinent, at a time when so many other societies in the Islamic world are violently undergoing just that. Violence, as Hannah Arendt and others have pointed out, is an inherently unpredictable game changer in all sorts of situations, and consequently, difficult to fit into sociologists’ models of how people go about making decisions. The wary rigging of the status quo improvised in Istalif may seem at odds not only with wider Afghan society, but also in other circumstances in which the threat of instability and the fear of violence have to be practically managed on a day-to-day basis. How might a study like Coburn’s play out in the markets of Mogadishu, for example? And how long can this delicate balance of interests hold out under increasing social and economic pressures? As Coburn makes clear, political enfranchisement is not in itself a solution to violence when violence is just one political strategy among many others. To believe otherwise reflects the misguided insistence of Western state building’s efforts and misplaced belief in the efficacy of NGOs as a means of effecting change.

Despite gushing praise from Ronald Neumann—ex-US Ambassador to Afghanistan—on the book’s back cover, it remains to be seen how much of Coburn’s argument is taken on board by policymakers as America and Britain prepare for military withdrawal. It would be a shame, however, if this book was only read by those looking for a solution to Afghanistan’s problems. In parts of the book, the reader is so swept up in the mechanics of the local pottery industry that it’s easy to forget we’re in Afghanistan at all—the Taliban are but a fleeting presence, usually in memory, and Osama Bin Laden doesn’t even make it into the index. Just as Coburn’s analysis is portable to a wider social context, so is his methodology. As a commendable example of bringing anthropological approaches to bear on the study of how power operates in small networks, Bazaar Politics deserves a readership from a wide range of disciplines.

Andrew Fleming is reading for a DPhil in History at St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford.