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The Taliban Did Not Create the Taliban, Imperialism Did
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Academic Journal Article, Democracy, Democratic, Democratization on March 1, 2020 0 Comments 53 min read
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The Taliban Did Not Create the Taliban, Imperialism Did

Originally published in the Journal of South Asian Development, 7(1), 2012, Pp. 23-42.

[The idea to write this essay came forcefully whilst I was reading histories of Afghanistan (if you write professionally or otherwise you’ll probably have experienced the force of an argument that simply needs to come out and you, in that process, are merely the vessel) . Violence, imperialism, plays out in much of it and it struck me that this surely has some formative role to play in the rise of the Taliban. Read on to see if you agree.]


Sir Karl Popper’s (2002) method of historicism has been neglected in the analysis of the radicalisation of Afghanistan’s society in the form of the Taliban. Popper’s historicism is the idea that the past may allow the forecasting of the future by understanding the state of the present in one specific line of historical inquiry. It is argued herein that by analysing periods of imperialism—those eras of social injustice, violence and oppression—it is seen that such imperialism led to radical fundamentalism, as many had no choice but to lash out. The push to strenuous religious identity, heavily laden with violent tactics, was the natural response of peoples trying to maintain their identities and collective destiny from imperial domination. Furthermore, as evidence continues to show, most often those individuals that are first to radicalise are the poorest of the poor, the dispossessed, or those who have experienced violent injustices. Using Popper’s method, it is possible to explain how imperialism breeds radicalism (using Afghanistan as an example) and as such provide some general recommendations to swing the pendulum in reverse so as to minimise radical behaviour. This article has implications for international relations, foreign policies and aid.


The recent history of Afghanistan, as with many other post-colonial countries, reveals telling evidence concerning the present state of the country (Das 1942 [1]; Eliot 1991; Kakar [2] 2006, at times interesting but critically flawed; Noelle-Karimi 2009; Schneider 2007, especially at page 498; Seddon 2003, who shares my arguments about Afghanistan’s long history of battles with imperialism; Sykes 1940). This viewpoint is derived inherently from Sir Karl Popper (2002) who argued that historicism is the sociological version of forecasting the weather. Supposedly concerned by Newtonian theory and its ability to predict where planets will be positioned in the future (Bamford 1996), Popper argued that such might also be possible with sociology. He argued that educated minorities could control a
country’s—or even the world’s—state of affairs through this specialised knowledge. Although the use of his method herein does not extend quite that far, it does borrow the idea that past events can explain present behaviour and allow for convincing (well based) forecasting concerning the future. As such, this method is applied to Afghanistan, focusing on the Taliban, effectively asking how we might come to defeat this violent regime without violence.

We must, however, confront the fact that Popper’s almost middle ground historicism has been heavily critiqued: certainly humans and our pluralities of history are not in any convincing account the same as planets, but so too are we not completely without determinism (Jacobs 1983: 203–4; Keaney 1997; Shaw 1971 [3]; Tilley 1982; Urbach 1978). There is sympathy here for Popper’s arguments that although history is relevant to distinct people, there are certain patterns that we could come to observe. In the comparative analysis of historical causation, given that the primary data is at least similar, we may have the capacity to infer certain determinisms about human society and/or politics.

This discussion is of course central to the long-standing argument in the social sciences over whether a universal about anything human could possibly exist. [4] For this article to function, it is argued that Popper’s middle ground should be entertained: that it could be possible for a human universal to occur if a series of objective studies (taking in, of course, the complete heterology of the subject) supports the fact. How many studies are needed to encompass the heterology of a subject, and how, indeed, objectivity is reached, can only partly be answered. For the first, as many studies as possible should be conducted until an answer cannot convincingly be disproved both within and without the subject (it must, of course, be falsifiable). For the second, computational methods, as these somewhat remove the subjectivity of the author during research. As will come to be seen, both were used for the concept of democracy that this article will draw upon. It is hoped that this article will encourage others to do the same concerning the argument that imperialism acted as the direct cause of radicalism—at least in regard to the case of the Afghani Taliban. [5]

Although this article deals with a rather broad topic, it approaches it with a
particular scrutiny from which it derives its ability to remain concise. It is only the following that will be focused upon: the linear argument regarding imperialism’s effect of creating radicalism and how to mitigate those ills to dispel imperialism’s monster (Frankenstein’s creation, which in turn came to harm its master and those around it). However, that linear argument does neglect by way of necessity a number of investigative areas, which are nevertheless interesting and relevant. For example, the empirical analysis of poverty during the Afghan–Soviet war (or during other historical periods); the changing behaviour of US or coalition military tactics in Afghanistan or Iraq; the discussion of a crisis of Afghani identity during the Cold War; or any argument using the psychological explanations of why certain individuals turn to fundamentalist belief systems that are at odds with normative religious behaviour. All of those other areas are crucial to understanding the nuances that operate within the imperialist-radicalist metanarrative nexus.

The discussion of this issue is highly relevant to the current situations in
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Israel/Palestine, amongst others, because it seeks to highlight certain real implications of social injustice that imperialism foments. As will be seen, the generally recommended countering mechanisms that can be used to dispel imperialism’s monster are derived entirely from recent history as it was in this period and to a certain extent at present, when the greatest social injustices occurred. In other words, this article will help politicians and military professionals understand the big picture of at least one approach that should be taken to alleviate violence in their spheres of operation.

Establishing Democracy as a Concept

Before proceeding, democracy should be conceptualised. Currently, no single foreign military operation in this world—especially those discussing ‘democracy building’ reasons for being there (i.e., Iraq)— has any idea what it is saying whenever the word ‘democracy’ is espoused. That statement can be made for the verifiable fact that no scholar or professional has been able to identify what democracy actually is. This statement is understandably contentious and provocative, which is why it requires a careful explanation.

As Dunn and Gagnon (2011) argues: theories, places (like ancient Athens or
modern Washington DC) and institutions of democracy have been and continue to be fundamentally contestable. (That is, contestation occurs over the very question of whether the aforementioned can be thought of as democratic or democracies as opposed to, for example, a widely regarded democratic institution based on heterological non-parochial theory being contested as not functioning as it should. Therein, the idea of the institution is legitimately democratic, despite its operational shortcoming). Whereas certain Athenians likened one distinct period of their governance as having been what we now call a democracy, many more today and certainly a large number during the sixth and fifth centuries BC likened otherwise. (Women, metics, certain men and slaves for example were not permitted to formally participate in politics). The cantons of Switzerland, although termed democratic for centuries, did not allow women to vote until as recently as the late 1970s in certain cantons (Charnley et al. 1998). And today, institutions such as parliament, voting, election campaigns and public policy formation or law enforcement are increasingly being challenged as un-democratic. Despite having well over 50 competing theories of democracy [6] available for polities to use, there is still no robust conception of that democracy from which all these styles stem. We are, in many ways, operating in a Wittgensteinian word game where meaning is construed differently by cultural context or even by an individual thinker. In simplistic terms, what one polity or person may consider to be democracy or democratic, another polity, institution or person may reject. This is why the argument is made above that foreign offices and those deploying the operations, cannot possibly know what ‘democracy’ is: they certainly can know a number of different (if not unclear) conceptions of democracy, but we are uncertain as to whether those can be termed democracy at all since we as of yet have not defined its core conception in a non-parochial universalist context.

However, Gagnon, in a paper titled ‘Democratic Theory and Theoretical
Physics’ (2010), addressed this very problem. [7] A mixed methods analysis of 40 types of democracy resulted in a grounded theory (see Charmaz 2006) termed the ‘theory of basic democracy’. This cutting-edge (due to its use of computational methods and recognition for the need to start from heterology) study found that these 40 types of democracy shared at least six parameters. It suggests that democracy from which at least 40 types of democracy stem can be explained as follows: a bounded citizenry that is both sovereign and expressing its sovereignty through competing conceptions of equality, law, communication and the selection of officials. It is important to note that each of these six parameters (citizenry, sovereignty, equality, law, communication and selection of officials) must be defined by humans in any given polity or society. As these parameters are defined, that is, as a citizenry comes to be structured and as the claim to and process of sovereignty gains meaning, the type of democracy becomes apparent.

However, democracy has not in the known history of humanity ever happened in this way. Although these parameters are observable in societies ordered by both democratic and non-democratic governments, we have not had the opportunity to collectively and explicitly determine how these parameters will be homogeneously understood. In this perspective, democracy has evolved through time and practice—through the instances where vertical or central power has been challenged—into a complex array of potential but inescapably parochial models. Essentially, the project of democracy’s taxonomy and the arguments found in ‘Democratic Theory and Theoretical Physics’ have reverse engineered known conceptions of democracy to find one (and quite possibly, if not most probably, the only) possible, non-parochial and universal conception of democracy. That will be the conception used for this argument about how the Taliban came to life as a response to imperialism.

With that perspective in place, it is understandable for example that parliaments, voting, campaigning, constitutions and militaries are institutions that can be used to facilitate or suppress democracy. [8] In the end, whatever institutions or practices are in place create the style or styles of democracy or democide in a country or polity.

Addressing the Taliban

Returning from the tangent of explaining our conception of democracy, we must elaborate on how this will relate to our forthcoming discussion on the Taliban. As will be argued in the conclusion, due to the plurality of cultures that had existed in what is now Afghanistan through a number of temporal spaces were not able to consolidate a distinct, or several distinct, types of democracy because of prolonged imperialistic domination—they were forced to attach to one or another centre of power in order to survive or live a better life. That is why a current distinctly Afghani approach to democracy is needed: the plurality in that country must come to a wide (preferably 80 per cent agreement) over what the country’s citizenry will look like, what sovereignty means to them and how that will be practised, as well as what and how concepts of equality, law, communication and the selection of officials will be realised. At a minimum, observing and exercising basic democracy in Afghanistan, with the hope to create Afghani democracy is the major prescription for the ills of imperialism.

The central argument of this article, that imperialism created the Taliban, will be made in three steps. The first will be the analysis of imperialist periods in Afghanistan’s recent history; the second will extrapolate from those periods of heterogenous oppression in the hope of defining imperialism’s monster; the third will deal with broad suggestions for current and immediate use, which may reduce violence by mitigating social injustices and promoting an endogenous democracy.

Imperialism in Afghanistan

It is at this point crucial to note that imperialism is not used herein in its conventional sense. It is rather more likened to the combination of Gregory’s (2004) idea of colonialism and Edward Said’s (1978) orientalism. Gregory explains:

I speak about the colonial—rather than the imperial—present because I want to retain the active sense of the verb ‘to colonize’: the constellations of power, knowledge, and geography that I describe here continue to colonize lives all over the world. They are not confined to the legatees of empires old or new, formal or informal, so that it is not a matter of colonial guilt…but a matter of recognizing the ways in which so many of us…continue to think and to act in ways that are dyed in the colors of colonial power.

(Gregory 2004: xv)

I use the term imperial because of its inherent viewpoint of unilinear dominance without shedding Gregory’s (2004) placed importance on colonialism. The use of Said (1978) in this argument is best explained by Rooney:

After Said’s Orientalism, it may be claimed that the term ‘Orientalism’ is no longer able to mean what it once meant. Thus, Orientalism may be understood to be a work of deconstruction in its transformation of a given lexicon and domain of enquiry. Furthermore, and more specifically, it may be understood to be a work of deconstruction in its exposure of a perverse logic of bias that masquerades as a rational discourse adequate to a supposedly real state of affairs. While for Derrida, logocentrism concerns the privileging of one term of a binary opposition so that it comes to determine and define both of the two terms; Said shows how the West gives itself the authority to define both itself and the East in oppositional terms that are favourable to the West’s self-image and vested interests.

(Rooney 2009: 37)

In that way, the combination of colonialism and orientalism forms the basis of imperialism for this argument. Yet, orientalism is not the only social injustice felt by Afghanis as there were regional difficulties prior to ‘Western’ colonial dominance. [9] These must be addressed and are crucial to the development of a theory that radical religious movements are an antithesis of imperial occupation and politics.

From Alexander ‘the Great’ [10] (356 BC) to the Durrani Empire (approximately ad 1740–1830) historians have recorded the turbulent pasts of the land that is roughly similar to modern Afghanistan (Brendon 2007; Crile 2003; Haydar [AD 1500] 1970; Mackeras 2009; Misdaq 2006). However, it is not these turbulent periods and regional battles (although they are important) that are conventionally focused on, but rather the regional difficulties that arose with more recent European infiltration as of the early to mid-1800s. Iran, Pakistan (then non-existent), India, the former Soviet satellites to the north and China all had their own unique battles with European encroachment. It was also however cultural dissimilarities and historical animosities that led to regional problems in Afghanistan, and the manner in which Europeans played these divides to their advantage. That is why we must discuss earlier periods of typically non-European imperialism. [11]

One example, created by the competing interests of early Islamic empires and derived from Rashid (2000), is the Sunni–Shia divide. Not only are Sunnis and Shias fighting in Afghanistan (the Taliban is argued to be anti-Shia), but it is occurring in Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and many other central Asian as well as Middle Eastern countries (Lane 2009; Merranci 2008; Rabasa 2009; Riddell 2009). This invariably affects the geopolitical relations of groups within countries and equally amongst countries themselves. As such, before delving into the manipulation of European colonists, it is important to recognise that this age-old religious debate has fragmented Afghani societies and has been a cause of violence on its own. Further research into the Durrani Empire would be beneficial to know if religious violence was mitigated or whether the Durrani Empire sanctioned one style at the expense of another.

Furthermore, another pre-European difficulty was the multiplicity of culture within Afghanistan (although this is technically not a ‘bad’, but rather a celebrated ‘good’). Currently, there are two officially spoken languages in Afghanistan: Farsi and Pashto (in the east and south respectively); however ethnologists have recorded the presence of 49 different languages including Farsi and Pashto (Lewis 2009). This abundance of culture recalls current post-colonial difficulties in Africa where inappropriately drawn geographic borders fomented violence between tribes—which does not exclude the dominance of tribes elevated in power by European preference. The point goes to show that Afghani history and regional interaction was rarely a peaceable one and the geographic region currently known as Afghanistan has simply not had enough ‘peace time’ to consolidate its own mechanisms of democracy.

Spain (1961) reveals that, as of 58 years ago, there were roughly 10 million tribal Pathans (those that speak Pashto) living on the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He writes that high achievers from these tribal areas ascended political and military ranks within both countries and that they came from a people that are generally orthodox and militant followers of their religion—Islam. But why so orthodox? Why so militant? Obviously these are large questions, but they do lead the inquiry in the direction it needs to go.

One reason for militancy concerns irredentist claims over territory by both
Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given that the Durand Line is starting to lose its porous nature, the goals of Pashtuns on either side of the border to unite under one state (whether that be Pakistan, Afghanistan, or a separatist body) are both fading quickly and are possibly grounds for further violence as a Pashtun right to selfdetermination is dashed. State conflict and counter-intelligence meddling between Pakistan and Afghanistan over territory may also be grounds for further international skirmishes if not small-scale war. This point re-emphasises the theoretical argument that imperialist domination breeds radical and violent responses. Clearly the Durand Line took no account of the already territorially bounded tribes living in the south and east of Afghanistan or the north and west of Pakistan.

Ali (1975) sheds some light on a possible generalist answer. His work attempts to explain the fall of the Mughal Empire (which ruled over large swathes of Afghanistan) and reveales that the Mughals exploited other peoples, which was, regrettably, à la mode for empires of that era. Yet, and contrastingly, Ahady (1995) claims that the fall of the Pashtuns occurred in 1992 with the decline of the Soviet supported Afghani nation-state. Ahady’s (1995) statement is problematic. What should have been said is that certain reform-inclined individuals within Afghani government were from Pashtun tribes—but that they were also trying to equalise the strife between ethnic groups (like Pasthuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks for example) and end the ‘centuries-long discrimination against the Shiite Muslims’ (Ahady 1995: 622). Gommans (1994: 52) describes a Durrani ruler (ad 1710–80) as being ‘a most just and tolerant ruler who discouraged the radical anti-shi’ism of his Afghan and Uzbek following’. Evidently, equalisation efforts were on the political agenda in Afghanistan for some time.

At this stage two important points have emerged. The first is that the Mughal Empire discriminated against Pashtuns (and other ethnic groups); the second that the pre-Taliban government of Afghanistan was trying to secularise government by removing its anti-Shia policies. It is also known that the Taliban is, or at least was, anti-Shia, and that the ethnic radicals living on the Durand Line were made powerful and more organised by counter-communist tactics provided by the CIA. Coll (2004) and Crile (2003) share that the Soviet military efforts designed—at least officially—to support the government of Afghanistan incurred the guerrilla tactics and specialised weaponry of militants, which invariably tore the country apart. When the Soviets pulled out of their nine-year conflict, there was understandably a power vacuum. But what many scholars have come to neglect is that there was a whole other war between Afghanis that was raging which culminated in the 1989–92 Afghan civil war. Establishing this point was the goal of the discussion made just on the previous page.

This was a civil war between radical fundamentalist Mujahideen and the normative, everyday individuals supported (perhaps illegitimately) by the prevailing government. Thus, and apart from Cold War meddling, it has been established that many Afghanis have been put under the yoke of social injustice for at least the last two to three hundred years, which understandably radicalised groups and turned them toward ruthlessly maintaining their identity (often through religion) and trying to gain power so as to correct the injustices they or their ancestors had felt. Finally, this was fomented by centuries-old religious divides. Clearly, Afghanistan had some chance for peace in a secular (albeit) distant Kabul government, but Cold War bipolar imperialist stupidity dashed it.

The role of Pakistan during the rise of the Taliban should also be considered. Gregory (2007: 1013–15) argues that the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), or Pakistani intelligence, had been both sharing intelligence with ‘Western’ allies but also at the same type promoting Sunni Islam at home and a pan-Islamic jihad abroad.12 Gregory contentiously points out that this may help to explain why fundamentalist violence continued to plague Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 2000s. It is probable that the ISI contributed to the maintenance, if not growth of violent religious movements; but what is missing from this analysis is its actual role in the invasion of Afghanistan (and for that matter Iraq—but that is a separate discussion). Yes, the removal of the Taliban was highly acclaimed at home in Afghanistan just as it was outside of that country, but the act does not escape the adage ‘violence bequeaths violence’. Indeed, this role of the invader, although at first apparently celebrated, has come to many Afghanis as a burden: this is perhaps why talks with the Taliban and the opening of a diplomatic office in Qatar are even on the table. Without giving individuals, even those holding radical views, a chance to peacefully determine how matters will progress, the answer returns to violence. Individuals will reject imperial politics, and it appears, unless the coalition forces leave the country in some numbers, and Kabul formalises inclusive procedural methods, the national (and potentially lower tier) politics may be viewed as illegitimate—prompting further attacks.

Now, in terms of European meddling, violence only increased in the nineteenth century onwards as social injustices further irritated these pre-colonial divides. Simply put, regional strife (with Pakistan or British India) and intra-governmental or better yet, inter-societal (namely urban versus rural) divides within Afghanistan left the country incapable of defending itself against the encroachments of the British, Russian and American empires. Although three wars were fought between the British and mainly non-tribal Afghanis with the eventual resignation of the British with the Treaty of Rawalpindi (August 1919), the currently agreed upon instigator of violence in Afghanistan were US Cold War tactics against the Soviet Union and the role of the ISI in supporting insurgent groups. These collapsed a rather more secularist government that was in no manner of form communist (except that during multiparty elections a hard-core left wing communist party won some seats). The sudden violence erupting from rural fundamentalists (the poorest of the poor and often forgotten) supposedly trained by the CIA in Pakistan crippled the Afghani military, leading to a plea by the ruling government for the Soviet Union’s assistance, which invariably started the incorrectly labelled Soviet War in Afghanistan. It should be called ‘the Soviet–Afghan War against rural Afghanis, America and Pakistan’ or perhaps something less impractical.

One is uncertain about the role of Pakistan during this period. Two arguments (Saikia 2002 and Gregory 2007) concerning the ISI posit that its role would have been to support Islam. Perhaps this is why counter-Kabul insurgents were training in Pakistan. But it seems to contradict the interest of the powers in Pakistan of supporting Sunni instead of Shia (which, if we trust the ethnographic works done along the Durand Line, most insurgents apparently were). Perhaps the Pakistani brokers saw the opportunity to support pan-Islamism at the expense of an increasingly secular central government in Kabul. Pakistan may have also wanted to continue its supposedly two-faced rapprochement with the USA since secularist Kabul had been cosying up to Moscow for some time. In contributing to the defeat of this Kabul government and conspiring against the Soviet Union, support to the USA would be demonstrated.

Before engaging the sociological impacts of imperialism in Afghanistan, it is
prudent to discuss Barnett’s (1988) work concerning whether or not pre-Taliban Afghanistan could be called a government (as the Taliban clearly was not). Barnett (1988) argues that the legality of the pre-1992 state was too poor to legitimately govern its territories. Vast swathes of land, especially along the Durand Line, were left to the powerful ethnic groups that occupied those areas. In other words, it is clear that for a considerable amount of time various empires and religious animosities had fragmented the pluralist composition of Afghanistan to such a degree that even elected governments in the twentieth century had fallen prey to a variety of coups which further weakened the state. Elections were also not inclusive of all groups composing the Afghani plurality (elections worldwide can rarely do that convincingly) and compounded the representation crisis of the jaded and the poor—once again mostly in the Durand Line area.

Sociological Impacts

It would realistically take years for a large team of psychologists to empirically analyse certain impacts of imperialism in Afghanistan, but there are some general results that are widely known and that can prove useful in this normative discussion. The first result of war or oppression, especially if an ethnic group is targeted by a more powerful entity, is violence: the complete anti-thesis to democracy (Keane 2004). It destroys equality, communication, the ability to select officials, and erodes laws. The pluralist citizenry cannot express their sovereignty because violence has crippled society’s capacity to do so as people suddenly become acutely aware of the impending need for self-preservation, rather than governance, to secure some basic services. Keane (2004, 2009) is telling in this respect:

This essay is about violence, and the pity of violence. It dwells upon its connections with democracy because unwanted physical interference with the bodies of others, such that they experience pain and mental anguish and, in the extreme case, death—violence, in a word—is the greatest enemy of democracy as we know it. Violence is anathema to its spirit and substance. This follows, almost by definition, because democracy, considered as a set of institutions and as a way of life, is a non-violent means of equally apportioning and publicly monitoring power within and among overlapping communities of people who live according to a wide variety of morals.

(Keane 2004: 1)

Minorities, especially those living in rural and underdeveloped areas of
Afghanistan, often take up a quality similar to those experienced by indigenous people around the world: they create a strong local cultural identity (something often termed tribal). As such, the Durand Line is currently aptly named the ‘Tribal Belt’ in the US fashion (similar to ‘Bible Belt’ and ‘Tornado Alley’). These tribal identities are the social fabric that holds small, impoverished communities together. There are often traditions, linguistic dialects, rituals, foods, religious beliefs and other nuances that are in play, offering individuals a sense of belonging—perhaps constructing belief systems to provide greater meaning to an otherwise hard life. Furthermore, poverty (in the cash economy sense) and violence often places a much greater importance on these identities resulting in a radicalised community. Imperialism over the centuries has done little but push tribal communities into greater depths of radicalism by giving individuals reason to despair, despise and detest.

In light of that trend, development, the alleviation of poverty and increased
representation of poorer people is a must to de-radicalise Afghanistan’s rural tribes. A simple thought experiment emerges from this discussion: Consider yourself a common individual (based on the normative values of the village you live in) somewhere in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. The successive governments in Kabul over the generations have done little if anything to help further the condition of your village by providing, for example, roads, a hospital, school, food, security and clean water. But another group has. The Taliban has provided children with religious education, they have provided the village with guns and security, infrastructure is gradually built, and some form of development has been taking place. Now your elders are talking about how good the Taliban is and how it has looked after the village, winning their allegiance, in a way the governments of Kabul never have. Which side would you be on? It is not a difficult scenario to understand, which is why development and poverty alleviation are important. Because once people can have a break from self-preservation, sustenance, and the only belief system that has been getting them through their hard life, can they actually and reasonably think about other issues like education, family planning and gender equality, among others.

It is here that the theoretical linkage between imperialism and radicalism is
best explained. Thus far in this discussion we have established two central themes: that imperialism has existed in the history of what is today Afghanistan (which caused inter-tribal strife often based on religious or irredentist grounds) and that endogenous democracy (including its quest for good governance) can be one key for breaking out of the imperial cycle (where one distinct people may have had to violently oppose several higher orders of politics through time and space as these higher polities were not viewed as legitimate through religious, territorial or democratic eyes). What we have then is the entire point of this argument: that imperialism created radical violence by denying peoples the right to their own democratic development. It removed, through the dominance of power, the capacity for peoples to pursue their conception of good governance through their conceptions of democracy. This ties in directly with the thought experiment above. Where the oppression or neglect from empire is recognised, a vacuum is created, one that is often filled by radically violent and community focused groups to buyoff (almost implicitly it seems) the loyalty of individuals so as to support violent anti-imperialist aims.

But the striking feature of the Taliban in Afghanistan is that it did not afford the capacity for peoples to determine for themselves their politics and culturally relevant development. The Taliban deployed a regime as violent, or potentially more violent, than those of the other occupiers (British India being one good historical example or the coalition forces at present to offer a contemporary edge). Violent rule was viewed as the only game in town in Afghanistan because this is what empires had been doing for centuries (if not as far back as Alexander ‘the Great’). Thus, by tying oneself to the only aspects of life that seemed to care for the individual—religion, tribal or cultural norms and family for example—the human came to rage. In the noise and fury of a heterology of abused peoples retaliating against the seemingly endless oppression by other powers, we see the birth of the
Taliban. It is argued that in this theoretical instance, the Taliban is imperialism’s monster, freed from its bonds to be let loose on the innocent and the guilty alike. Imperialism is perhaps the only valid reason for how this reality, one based on the anti-imperialist relevance of radical religion and cultural norms, came into existence. It is asked, how else could the socio-political context that allowed for the rise of the Taliban have come into existence without this history of imperial abuse? And because of that, the most certain way to defeat this creature is to deliver an antithesis to imperialism and to the Taliban: non-violent, culturally relevant and endogenous democratic development by the pluralities that call Afghanistan their home.

However, the way to do this is fraught with difficulty. Getting the Afghani plurality engaged in the process of selecting officials is important as it provides a direct outlet of representation for them. That, however, is troubling as representation is in crisis the world over due, in part, to the gradual separation of those elected officials and the desired issues of those who voted. [13] Nevertheless, the UNDP (2004) has stressed the importance of focusing representation on the poor of society. This argument also emerged from a presentation made by Dr. Jan Vandemoortele (one of the architects of the Millennium Development Goals) at a recent conference in Melbourne, Australia. [14] He stated that the bottom 30 percentile (in economic figures) of the poorest citizens required greater focus through representation—not just for easier access to politics—but also to create greater equity. A conceptual relationship is now visible between equality and properly representing (however that is defined) the poor who are generally numerous in societies.

Yet, there is this issue of good governance. Like democracy, no one has an
exact understanding of what it actually was or is going to be. In Afghanistan, it is felt that ultimately good governance will increase the capacity of Afghanis (indeed, however this group of individuals is defined) to move beyond their current difficulties and maintain peace so that it can get on with the process of improving the human and environmental conditions of its country. Based on the findings of my doctoral thesis, it is inferable (although this requires much further investigation) that endemic governance problems are potentially a key to good governance in this one normative discussion. A mixed methods historical and modern analysis of different democratic polities and current international democratisation efforts reveal that for approximately the last 3,500 years, human polities have been dealing with, at least, the same seven problems: (1) a lack of accountability, (2) a lack of transparency, (3) the presence of corruption, (4) poor systems of representation, (5) poor campaigning methods, (6) problematic constitutional issues, (7) and a lack of long-term goals derived specifically from a plural citizenry. Furthermore, the empirical segment of the analysis showed that many of these terms are interrelated (meaning that mitigating one may invariably result in mitigating others) and that endemic problems are also strongly linked with the parameters of basic democracy: recalling (1) the way a citizenry is decided to be bounded, (2) the way sovereignty is understood and practised, (3) the way equality is understood, (4) the way communication occurs in the citizenry, (5) the way laws are created, administered and enforced, and (6) the way officials are, or to be, selected.

Hence, the conclusion is that if there is a focus on mitigating endemic governance problems, they may invariably enhance basic democracy in any polity, and at any level of governance and government, resulting in one potential universal definition of good governance. The key to understanding this point is that if this method actually does produce a conception of good governance, it would be very difficult, if not improbable, to guess what that may be, as it must be endogenous, culturallyrelevant and democratically legitimated through key formal procedures derived strictly from the population in question. It could also be inappropriate to try to determine what (based on this model) good governance would be as it is not our place to be so doing (an interesting point in itself when thinking of Popper’s historicism).

In the end, the aforementioned good governance process results in a culturally distinct style of democracy commensurate with culturally relevant notions of justice, development, economics and overall societal organisation. Good governance, meaning ultimately the capacity for Afghanistan’s plural citizenry to govern themselves toward some homogeneous conception of a zenith, is a matter that can be achieved in Afghanistan or other war-torn countries. (Invariably, the same can be said with developed countries, as endemic problems are evident there as well.)

Mitigating Social Injustice

Stemming from the previous analysis, there are some key problems to focus on in Afghanistan if we want to defeat imperialism’s monster (violent radicalism, or in this case, the Taliban). First and foremost, there has to be peace. A current option (although its realism is debatable) is to attempt to lock down borders, monitor all airspace activity, and put extra guards on ammunition and weapons depots within the country itself (preferably under some kind of surveillance so the guards do not make off with the munitions either). This is necessary to stem the flow of small and large munitions, including base products used for the construction of powerful explosives. A regional summit for the strategic enclosure of Afghanistan could be held amongst the governments of Afghanistan, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, USA and England, and the United Nations and other coalition forces as well as civil societies vested in Afghanistan. The goal of this summit would be to strategically choke the flow of weapons and weapon-making products to the country. The question of whether bad blood can be put aside and whether the summit can yield any practical results is another issue. Iran versus USA, Russia versus the ‘stans’, Tajikistan versus China, Pakistan versus Afghanistan—and those are just the well-known animosities, could imaginably prevent any progress. Yet, despite these divisions, each country has an understood vested interest (or perhaps this is only known to political scientists) in regional security. One dysfunctional nation, a ‘Somalia of Central Asia’, is all it takes to plague its neighbours with violence, reduce the effectiveness of democracy, hinder development and eventually radicalise marginalised citizens of other countries.

But stemming the flow of weapons, ammunition and their products predicates the need for communication, equality, law and the capacity to enforce it, as well as a hyper-inclusive mechanism for selecting officials: like elections on representative steroids. Communication for the sake of dialogue, transparency and greater understanding of one another can dispel violence built on ignorance or mistrust. One Afghani, or perhaps regional, standard of equality (which may have been defined over the past hundreds of years, at least in the religious aspect) [15] has to be mixed into the equation. Communication and a properly targeted supercensus [16]
can aid in assessing the other nuances involved in the Afghani definition
of equality. A census being conducted in a war zone, however, is surely unrealistic, which brings in circular fashion a further emphasis on peace (if not massive amounts of security for those sporting the questionnaires).

The aspect of law, it must be said, is something that is being strategically targeted by the coalition forces in terms of training citizens of Afghanistan in, for example, the arts of policing, legislating and adjudicating (Barnett 2007; Dreyer 2006; Perito 2005; Wilder 2007). However, there are difficulties on this front, arising for a variety of technical reasons which the reader may investigate further with Barnett (2007), Dreyer (2006), Perito (2005) and Wilder (2007).

Once the country is on its own two feet (a difficult thing to imagine but not impossible), the US and other coalition troops should pull out unless expressly asked—preferably by referendum with a large majority agreement (recalling the 80 per cent requirement)—to stay on and help by continuing to provide security. Otherwise, unwelcome foreign military presence is not going to win any ‘hearts and minds’ (Perito 2005: 3) in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Finally, the focus on democracy and endemic problems is a necessity. However, it is made much more difficult with violence raging, and as such peace and the removal of munitions is the first strategic objective recommended. Without the abatement of violence, all other efforts towards Afghani democracy and good governance will potentially, if not certainly, fail to function.


It was seen in a concise fashion that Afghanistan has been affected by imperialism for centuries. Its pluralist citizenry was and remains fragmented, divisive and violent toward each other for many reasons, but the major ones emerging from this work concerned Sunni–Shia and inter-tribal irredentist contentions. Furthermore, the effects of imperialism were noted concerning its capacity to radicalise communities—especially those tribal groups living in rural and underdeveloped areas, which are unfortunately found in majority along the Durand Line. A thought experiment revealed the importance of poverty alleviation and development for gaining the allegiance and cooperation of tribal groups whilst two brief discussions concerning the definitions of democracy and good governance pointed out what this author’s reasons were to be the apogee of those restructuring efforts currently underway in Afghanistan. Finally, some broad indicators emerged from the literature designed to defeat imperialism’s monster (i.e., to de-radicalise groups), which converged on the necessity of attaining peace, perhaps by choking off munitions through controlling Afghanistan’s borders via a regional country summit.

The importance of doing so is not difficult to understand. Regional stability,
human and environmental development, potential global stability, trade and a windfall of other benefits await the rise of Afghanistan’s peoples. It would also permit the US and coalition forces to curb military expenditure and focus those funds and attentions elsewhere—perhaps in the enhancement of their own governments and governance methods. Further research into how endemic governance problems are affecting the Afghani polity are needed, as is empirical testing of this new non-parochial universal theory of basic democracy in the effort to describe Afghanistan’s culturally distinct forms of democracy.


  1. Das’ (1942) review of Sykes’ (1940) work is convincing. An important feature to keep in mind throughout this article, which Sykes made and Das as well as others like Seddon (2003) have come to note, is that Afghanistan as a ‘national’ polity is only a very recent reality. Seddon places the creation of this ‘national’ polity as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to this, it was a land composed of several unique polities (one such being the Kingdom of Kabul), many competing and allied tribes, and as borders were not fixed, there was quite a lot of this political manoeuvring going on in Pakistan as well (along what is now commonly called the Durand Line, after Mortimer Durand who—with all the privileges colonial power conferred to the position of British Foreign Secretary—drew the line that has now come to divide two countries, and one that, being increasingly enforced, will come to split many tribes).
  2. The author agrees with the arguments of Noelle-Karimi (2009): Kakar’s (2006) monograph, although providing certain interesting primary evidence, is argued in a fatally flawed manner. This, of course, is not the place to go into that and the reader should see Noelle-Karimi’s work instead. What is unique from Kakar’s work, and something worth building a discussion upon, is his insistence on the Pashtun tribe being central to the early modern Afghani state. This leads us to reason therefore that the Pashtuns, who came to power tried to illegitimately (from a democratic theorist’s perspective) consolidate a singular ‘national’ image over a truly diverse number of other tribes. This casts a significant amount of doubt over whether Afghanistan should at all be called Afghanistan. Despite the overthrow having been, at least under one aim, designed to topple a brutal and completely illegitimate regime, it did not bring into question who would decide what this region, slightly larger than France (which used to be composed of a number of polities and not just one), would come to look like. Indeed, we are still left with the question of whether Afghanis (or the plurality of peoples forced to live under the Afghani flag) would want to be Afghani. There is the very real and palatable point that this country might be better off breaking into several smaller polities, which reflects the socio-political composition of the region to a more accurate degree. Fragmenting the state into several states would have the added advantage of placing more focus on culturally relevant democracy and may be one way to solve a number of problems plaguing Afghanistan’s democratic consolidation. In the context of what would then become an international arena of smaller countries, democratic participation between countries could, as it arguably does in the EU (to some extent), support democracy at lower tiers of government: a kind of mutually reinforcing effect. Now this is, of course, a normative discussion but one that would be useful for Afghanis (or however we may call this plurality of peoples) to start or imaginably continue discussing.
  3. This work, from pages 299 to 300, makes an excellent point that the author has been arguing for some time: that seldom, if ever, has a ‘people’ ever made a decision to go to ‘war’ for example. These are decisions made and controlled by a government or body of individuals in the government. This point is important for us to consider when examining Afghanistan today: have the people (however that may be construed) ever made a collective decision that could change the fate of their nation.
  4. See Brown (2004), Carmichael (2010), Chomsky (2005), Maffesoli (2007) and Schatzky (2003) for more information. Maffesoli, on page 81, raises the argument that humanity needs to formalise an understanding of ‘heterology’, the real existence of multiples. This concept indeed wages a successful battle against the ‘Western’ type or even ‘Chinese’ type of universals which we are still to this day trying to correct (that is, do away with parochialisms where heterology exists or where a study does not take into complete regard the existing heterology over which it is positing deterministic findings). However, and this is a point Maffesoli seems to have neglected in his work, it is in heterology that we can come to find non-parochial universals. To be sure, this is a point worth exploring in a different forum.
  5. The reader should also note that there is no singular taliban in Afghanistan or Pakistan other than the regime known as the Taliban (the capitalised letter is key). There are, indeed, many different talibans as the word in Arabic means students (typically connoted in the religious sense). In Afghanistan, especially between 1996 and 2001, the world stood witness to the rise of one of history’s most brutal regimes. This Taliban is argued to have been trying to enact a very close reading of one fundamentalist understanding of Islamic canon. There are talibans, as reported by the popular commentator Khalid Aziz (2007, 2012), some of which are actually against the Taliban. An ethnography of talibans who straddle between Pakistan and Afghanistan would make for a much needed contribution.
  6. Slightly more than 50 types of democracy have been, and continue to be, classified categorically in the ongoing project of democracy’s taxonomy. These categories are, approximated for Homo sapiens and using the Before Present (BP) system of dating: prehistory (200,000–50,000 BP), early history (50,000–9,500 BP), classical history (9,500–1,500 BP), middle history (1,500–300 BP) and contemporary history (300–0 BP). Therein we have previously instituted or practised democracies, presently instituted or practiced democracies, and never or little instituted or practised democracies (those are most often seen in phronesis rather than praxis). This project is also looking to non-anthropogenic types of ‘democracy’ such as those evolutionarily determined and practised by certain ants, bees, wasps, shrimp, and birds among other social or eusocial animals.
  7. This analytic project has grown from 40 theories of democracy mentioned in the article to slightly over 50 populating the categories presented in note vi.
  8. It is argued that democracy is not something that can be destroyed. Types of democracy, institutions that are built by people (such as the institution of a sovereign citizenry) can be destroyed, but basic democracy remains in what is reasoned to be an implicit state—possibly because it is attached to the socialisation of the human animal. This, of course, is a highly contentious statement and posits that democracy exists implicitly even in the societies that fall under the most anti-democratic governments. This, nevertheless, offers hope: if basic democracy (a non-parochial theory), for example, can be observed in Burma, then democracy exists in Burma and a Burmese type or types of democracy can be institutionalised.
  9. Terms such as ‘East’ and ‘West’ are put into single inverted commas because we have not democratically legitimated these terms. Why, for example, are China in the ‘East’ and the USA in the ‘West’ or Argentina in the ‘South’ and the UK in the ‘North’? Could it not, legitimately, be considered as the reverse? To ask one final question, where indeed, is centre? When trying to answer these questions, the legitimacy of cartography and time itself (consider time zones) is called to account. See Marquand (2011) for more.
  10. The author is uncertain as to why this individual is still afforded this title as posterity has since established his many flaws. Certain Russians have made this point concerning one particular ruler: Ivan. For some, he was Ivan the Great, for others (imaginably those he came to kill), he was Ivan the Terrible (that of course rests on how one translates his common title from Russian into English). Alexander, for all of his crimes against humanity, could legitimately be entitled Alexander the Bloody.
  11. Aziz (2012) made the interesting point that retribution, retaliation and bloodletting had become (and still is) a distinctive feature of Pashtun (or Pushtun) culture in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This relates to arguments made by Edith Durham (1909) in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century during her travels in the Balkans—especially High Albania. Therein, tribes were left for the most part to their own development, and were often battled over by three different churches: Islam, Catholic Christianity and Eastern Christianity. But the distinguishing feature through Durham’s recorded history of these peoples under various imperial yokes (from the sixth century onwards), is their ferocious temperament leading to blood feuds, which required the creation of what is now known as the Canon of Lek. This law was apparently meant to manage blood feuds that had gotten out of hand, and was apparently adhered to by these tribal cultures more than religious canon. Could the modern Pashtuns be a similar case (that is, following tribal canon rather than state or religious law which both in most normative accounts abhor violence)?
  12. Saikia (2002), supports this point. In his article, he argued that the ISI had been providing direct financial support to separatist groups in India—even in regions bordering Bangladesh (apparently in a bid to draw attention away from Kashmir).
  13. See Manin (1997), Keane (2009), Arendt (1990, 1993), Alonso, Keane and Merkel (2011) and Habermas (1987, 1991, 1996, 2008) for further information.
  14. Keynote Speech, La Trobe University and ACTRAV Conference: Engaging the Millennium Development Goals, Dec 9–11, 2009, Melbourne, Australia.
  15. This can be seen by investigating past empires, and the current calls for equality made by regional polities. By conducting a qualitative and quantitative analysis of selected texts, a rough picture of equality emerges in central Islamic Asia. Saudi Arabia is a bit of an anomaly, but taking the fact that the Wahhabis in power are not representative of the state, they can be viewed as less influential. Such an analysis permits the understanding that one conception of equality is based on religious toleration between Islamic divisions: Sunnis, Shias, Twelvers and others, are equal and no one is more right than the other. This point argues that since the 1990s (and certainly earlier), the battles between one type of Islam and another are radical acts opposed to normative accounts of equality in the region.
  16. The super-census is a new census model designed by the author, which builds on current models. This is done to allow for a much greater statistical mapping of the pluralist citizenry by asking questions not normally, or ever, found on censuses. One example is to ask the entire plurality of the Afghanistan the following: what is the purpose of Afghanistan? What is the purpose of Kabul (or a different city or village if the people living there are being asked this question)? What is your individual (or familial) purpose in the state? What should be Kabul’s or Afghanistan’s long term goals? What is your understanding of equality? And so forth.


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