What lessons for political transition in Afghanistan today can be learned from Mahmud Tarzi’s efforts to reform Afghan politics in the early 20th century – such as on engaging key domestic constituencies to establish an-Afghan owned agenda for change?
Mahmud Tarzi looked to introduce progressive ideas drawn from his travels in the Middle East. But progress in realising his ambitions was hampered by a dearth of receptive constituencies in Afghanistan, such as activist civil servants, students or disgruntled military.
Support for Tarzi’s programme was restricted to a few returnee exiles, Kabul-based intelligentsia and dissenting officials, leaving him over-reliant on his proximity to the crown. Tarzi’s modernising vision combined an exclusive, Pashtun-centred nationalism with a multinational state and a progressive approach to science and technology – as well as to Islam, which placed him in direct opposition with the Afghan clergy.
A number of key factors undermined prospects for Tarzi’s agenda: 1) imported reformist ideologies that were alien to most Afghans; 2) failure to engage either influential landed tribal leaders or clergy with authority to legitimate the reform agenda; and 3) Tarzi’s royal patron lacking either the domestic power to impose changes or the foreign diplomacy to secure external support, and further failing to reconcile internal rifts between progressive and conservative camps within his court.
Notwithstanding fundamental differences between Afghanistan today and a century ago, some core blockages to modernisation have persisted – in particular the inability of the government to promote reforms among rural populations combined with the fact that transformational politics are largely seen as an external agenda. Unless these are addressed, modernisation will continue to struggle.