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Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town

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After the fall of the Taliban, instability reigned across Afghanistan. However, in the small town of Istalif, located a little over an hour north of Kabul and not far from Bagram on the Shomali Plain, local politics remained relatively violence-free. Bazaar Politics examines this seemingly paradoxical situation, exploring how the town's local politics maintained peace despite a long, violent history in a country dealing with a growing insurgency.

At the heart of this story are the Istalifi potters, skilled craftsmen trained over generations. With workshops organized around extended families and competition between workshops strong, kinship relations become political and subtle negotiations over power and authority underscore most interactions. Starting from this microcosm, Noah Coburn then investigates power and relationships at various levels, from the potters' families; to the local officials, religious figures, and former warlords; and ultimately to the international community and NGO workers.

Offering the first long-term on-the-ground study since the arrival of allied forces in 2001, Noah Coburn introduces readers to daily life in Afghanistan through portraits of local residents and stories of his own experiences. He reveals the ways in which the international community has misunderstood the forces driving local conflict and the insurgency, misunderstandings that have ultimately contributed to the political unrest rather than resolved it. Though on first blush the potters of Istalif may seem far removed from international affairs, it is only through understanding politics, power, and culture on the local level that we can then shed new light on Afghanistan's difficult search for peace.

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Editorial Reviews

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"[Coburn's] single-case, ethnographic approach has a distinct advantage: It allows him to paint a fascinating and finely detailed portrait of a local political system that defies many Western categories and concepts of governance . . . an invaluable perspective on the international operation."—Roland Paris, Perspectives on Politics

"This book is based on an ethnographic study of Istalif, a small town north of Kabul. . . Coburn's strongest opinions emerge when he writes about local NGO's, and about the presence of international military and development groups in the town. . . [His facts] raise many questions about class relations in Istalif and in the region, and other important questions about the effects of current styles of imperial war on everyday lives."—Nancy Lindisfarne, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Soldiers and civilians deploying to Afghanistan and those writing policy papers can all profit from Coburn's work. The focus on a single village opens understanding of crucial factors about Afghanistan that need comprehension; the complexities of political power, why decisions are often difficult to achieve, the superficiality of NGO and foreign interventions, and the fictions that sustain political interactions are as enlightening as they are humbling to our theorizing. This book is worth reading."—Ronald Neumann, US Ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-2007, author of The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan

"Coburn explores and explains a strange paradox in Afghan politics: that local communities appear to have the means to maintain stability even when the national government does not. This is the first ethnographic study published on post-2001 Afghanistan, and is highly recommended not only for those interested in Afghanistan, but those seeking a new perspective on comparative politics more generally."—Thomas Barfield, Boston University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804776721
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/19/2011
  • Series: Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and I Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 759,421
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Noah Coburn has worked as a specialist for the United States Institute of Peace in Kabul, Afghanistan, as well as a researcher for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Between 2006 and 2008, he spent eighteen months doing research in an Afghan village on the Shomali Plain. He holds a PhD in anthropology from Boston University, and has taught at the University of Michigan, Boston University, and Skidmore College.
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Read an Excerpt

Bazaar Politics

By Noah Coburn

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7672-1

Chapter One


AFTER THE FALL OF THE TALIBAN IN ISTALIF, a small town west of the Shomali Plain, there was a high degree of political tension, as well as numerous disputes over land and water, a tendency toward factionalism and feuding, and a reluctance to cooperate. Simultaneously, local politics remained relatively peaceful and free of violence. What created this seemingly paradoxical situation?

It is inadequate to say that the low rate of violence was a consequence of government and international military intervention, because these forces had little presence in Istalif. Towns that were closer to urban centers, and thus more susceptible to intervention, experienced significant violence. At the same time, the region was deeply divided ethnically, and there was intense competition for limited resources, as well as a general disillusionment with the Afghan government and the international presence. An examination of why Istalif remained peaceful has implications not only for how local politics in Afghanistan have shifted in the post-Taliban period, but also, more generally, how group organization shapes the presence or absence of violence. In many ways, academics and policy makers have misunderstood the forces driving local disputes and insurgency in Afghanistan, and, as a result, these elements have not been addressed very effectively by either the Afghan government or the international community.

Political power in Istalif was fractured. It coalesced around groups and categories of authority, such as maliks (local elders), who led patrilineal descent groups, and commanders (warlords), who led former militias. Some of the men referred to as warlords committed countless crimes against humanity during the civil war and Taliban period, but others were instrumental in filling the void left by the lack of a central government, keeping schools open, and providing security. In fact, most "warlords" in Istalif who were active in town politics during my research fall into this second category.

All of these groups were produced, and reproduced, by social and economic processes. They were distinguished from one another and represented by symbols, ranging from the hats they wore to the language they used. I initially looked at several lineages of potters who formed a guild-like group that cooperated—politically and economically—using the idiom of kinship. Often, however, these ties broke apart, particularly when potters competed in the marketplace. Other sources of political power, job opportunities in Kabul, and economic resources offered by aid groups also caused young men to attempt to build personal, semi-covert networks of allies outside their group.

Although tribe–state relations were the central focus of many anthropological studies in Afghanistan during the 1960s and 1970s, my research shows that the next thirty years of war and reconstruction significantly complicated political relations. In attendance at the meeting with the engineers from the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development described in the interlude "A Rocky Road," for example, were the district governor representing the central government, traditional elders, a former warlord, and two wealthy businessmen. Others vying for power in town included the mullah (the town's chief religious leader), French forces that regularly patrolled the area, an assortment of mostly small-sized non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a police chief. A more structural study of Istalif might focus on the differences between groups. However, by abandoning traditional categorical approaches that focus on kinship or political terms such as tribe, clan, or state, and by using a more Barthian model of social formation focusing on the maintenance of boundaries, it becomes apparent that these were flexible groups that created a coherent political system in which all struggled for power. The system, in fact, created a struggle of "all versus all" that led not to a Hobbesian war and violence, but to temporary peace and stability.

My analysis focuses on patrilineal descent groups (qaums), religious leaders, a newly wealthy merchant class, former militia groups, the district government, the police, and international groups, including the military and NGOs. The chapters examine these models of social organization and cultural definitions of power, and explore how they shaped violence and local stability.


Istalif sits in the western foothills of the Shomali Plain. In older accounts this area was often referred to as Koh-e Dahman, skirt of the mountains. Occasionally it is included in the region called Kohistan, which more accurately refers to the mountains further north of Istalif. Today most people simply refer to Istalif as part of the Shomali Plain that includes the northern districts of Kabul Province and Parwan Province north to the Hindu Kush. People in Kabul often refer to Istalifis simply as Shomalis.

Istalif 's green hills and cool breezes offer a respite from the dusty heat of the plains below. Its fertile orchards and thriving craft industries have been attracting visitors for hundreds of years. While there are few mentions of Istalif in academic accounts of the area, the name appears numerous times in travel accounts of the region by Westerners and non-Westerners alike. In the 1958 travel classic A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby's guide Ghulam Nabi told him, "He who has not seen Istalif has seen nothing"—a problematic observation since the two were speeding by on the road north. Others, however, have lingered.

Emperor Babur was the most famous early visitor, and often when in Kabul he would visit and hunt in the area. In his 1504 autobiography he wrote:

There are few places known to equal Istalif. A large torrent that runs through the middle of the village has orchards on both sides. Verdant, pleasant small garden plots abound, and the water is so pure and cold, there is no need for iced water.... When the trees blossom, no place in the world equals it.

He goes on to praise the grapes and Judas trees of the area, both of which are still found in abundance. Babur also had several irrigation channels built using elaborate stonework to distribute water to other gardens, including some on ridges high above the village. The descendants of these channels continue to make Istalif a popular picnic spot.

Numerous visitors followed Babur to the area, often seeming to borrow from his prose as well as his itinerary. Notably, in the decade before the first Anglo-Afghan war, a series of British visitors wrote what were at the time immensely popular travelogues. Charles Masson, a British deserter, numismatist, and occasional spy, visited the town while doing archeological work in the area between 1826 and 1838; he wrote:

Istalif is one of the most picturesque spots which can be conceived; all that a combination of natural beauties can achieve we behold here in perfection: their effect is not diminished, but rather augmented by the rude appearance of the houses of the town. The scenery of the country around is extensive and grand, in happy unison with the keeping of the whole picture.

Masson's journals include a lithograph that is strikingly similar to today's view of Istalif.

Alexander Burnes, a British political agent and adventurer (later killed in the Kabul bazaar, days before the British Army's disastrous retreat from Kabul) followed Masson a few years later, exclaiming: "No written description can do justice to this lovely and delightful country." Burnes wrote: "We pitched our camp on one side of the valley, and directly opposite us, at a distance of about a thousand yards, rose the town of Istalif in the form of a pyramid, terrace on terrace, the whole crowned with a shrine embosomed among wide-spreading plane-trees." From the description, Burnes undoubtedly camped on the present site of the district office described in the interlude "A Rocky Road," where Kabulis still come to enjoy the view and eat at the small teahouse.

Travelers did not remark exclusively on the beauty of the landscape. Nineteenth-century observers also described the instability of local political relations with Kabul, and a tendency toward feuding that set Istalifis apart from Tajiks in other parts of Afghanistan. Burnes lamented:

It is a source of deep regret that this beautiful country should be inhabited by a race of men so turbulent and vindictive as the Tajiks have here proved themselves to be; and yet, throughout Afghanistan generally, these same Tajiks form the most peaceable classes of population. Here, however, their blood-feuds are endless: a week never passes without strife or assassination, and I have been assured, on the best authority, that a man frequently remains immured in his own tower for two and three years from the fear of his enemies.... It is rare to see a man go to bathe, hunt, or even ride out, without a part of his clan attending him as a guard.... These people have the reputation of being the best foot-soldiers in Afghanistan, and from all I could learn they merit the distinction.

Many of these disputes revolved around land and women. The numerous gardens and orchards located some distance from the center of town became sites of conflict because the gardens, with shorter walls, exposed women to outside eyes and men to the rifles of their enemies. As Masson recounted, "Nearly every householder in Istalif has his garden or orchard.... The people themselves, Tajiks, are not very amiable ... and the mulberry season, which draws them into the orchards ... is generally marked by sanguinary conflicts and murders." 11 Beyond the Orientalist rhetoric of some of these accounts, Masson and Burnes do seem to have identified some trends in the local politics of the region.

Colonel Haughton noted in his account leading up to the siege of Charikar in 1841 that the areas around Charikar and Istalif were dominated by large, mud qala (fort) architecture that was more typical in eastern and southern Pashtun regions. These large structures, some of which remain today in the eastern section of the district, have few exterior windows, many turrets, and often contain gardens—features that enabled their inhabitants to withstand long sieges during feuds or periods of unrest.

The tendency toward feuding can be explained, at least in part, by the high value of land and the ethnic and tribal diversity of the region, which meant villages were always in danger of losing land or water to their neighbors. In addition, Istalif and the entire region of Kohistan have a history of political volatility, during which Shomali leaders regularly renegotiated their relationship with Kabul. In contrast with many simple narratives of Afghan history, which describe the Pashtun government's dominance over other ethnicities, the Pashtun tribe in control of Kabul has almost always been forced to forge alliances with at least one major non-Pashtun group. This has given the Shomali area enormous importance at several stages in Afghan history. It also means that many of the revolts that have overthrown regimes in Kabul originated in the Shomali and Kohistan. The most notable of these was the overthrow of Amanullah Khan, in 1929, by Habibullah Kalakani, known pejoratively as Bach-e Saqao (son of the water carrier).

Istalif's political situation was even more complex because the town, located on the edge of the Shomali, was not socially or politically integrated into the region, as were areas further down in the valley. On several occasions the Istalifis broke politically with their neighbors. British accounts before the siege of Charikar noted that they had several allies in Istalif despite the near- universal contempt for the British occupation of the area. Similarly, when describing the civil war and fighting with the Taliban, Istalifis claim to have supported Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Panjshiri leader who became one of the key figures during the resistance against the Soviets. However, they spoke of him with much less reverence than other Tajiks in the region, and his picture was not displayed with the same prominence as it was in towns closer to Kabul.

Istalif's location is not simply beautiful—it is strategic. The entire Kohistan area has always been a focal point for resistance to Kabul, and controlling the area has been key to holding the entire region around Kabul. Over thousands of years, the Shomali Plain, with Bagram at its center, has been a tactical nexus. As historian Arnold Toynbee noted, "Plant yourself not in Europe but in Iraq, it will become evident that half the roads of the Old World lead to Aleppo and half to Bagram." Sitting in the hills overlooking Bagram, Istalif has watched countless armies marching between India and Central Asia—sometimes assisting them, and sometimes drawing back and waiting for them to pass. In addition, at key points in Afghan history, opponents of rulers in Kabul gathered resistance forces in the mountain valley of Bamyan, to the west. For example, opposition forces regrouped in the valley at the end of the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1842, and almost ninety years later opponents of Habibullah Kalakani used Bamyan as a base from which to launch raids on Kabul in 1929.

Kabul is only a few days' march from Bamyan, but the narrow passes leading to the area made any group settled in Bamyan difficult to uproot. The Bamyan valley has two main passes leading east toward Kabul: a southern pass through Wardak, and a northern pass that follows the Ghorband River, parallel to the Istalif River just to the north and flowing toward Charikar. In times of peace, virtually all traffic along this northern route follows the Ghorband River. However, when the regime in Kabul wanted to seal off the Bamyan region, on several occasions it tried to block access to Kabul from the Ghorband valley by sending troops from Charikar as the British did during the first Anglo-Afghan war.16 Once the main pass was blocked, one of the best alternative transport routes was across a few small mountain passes to the south of the Ghorband River, which took the traveler on a brief detour into the valley created by the Istalif River. It took about one long day's walk from the town of Ghorband to the center of Istalif for a man travelling lightly. Several men remembered making this trip on foot during the Soviet period, when it was an active route for those fighting against the communist regime. Townspeople blame the importance of the pass and its use by the mujahideen, Islamic resistance fighters, for the aerial bombardments Istalif was subjected to during this period. This, however, is just one of the tragedies from Istalif 's troubled past.


At the time he wrote his lyrical description of Istalif, Burnes was unaware that his fate had become inexorably linked with that of the town. Following Burnes' murder in November 1841 in the Kabul bazaar, there was a crisis of leadership among British officers leading the army that had recently occupied Afghanistan. Negotiations with Afghan leaders failed, but instead of immediate withdrawal, officers delayed until January 1, 1842. These decisions contributed to the disastrous retreat that resulted in the death of 16,000, with famously only one British survivor, Dr. William Brydon, completing the retreat to Jalalabad. Eight months later the British sent an army of retribution back into Afghanistan to rescue 93 prisoners still held captive near Bamyan, and to attempt to restore some dignity to the British Empire.

Unlike the previous British presence in Kabul, this was not an occupying army. The main goal of this army, led by Major General Pollock, was a public display of force, with "the declared wish of the Governor General that the army should leave behind some decisive proof of its power." The most notable display was the British destruction of the Kabul bazaar. Less well known, but central to our story, was an event that occurred earlier. A force taken from General Pollock's and General Nott's troops was sent to Istalif under Major General McCaskill. Istalif was said to have been chosen because Hazin Khan, one of the accused killers of Burnes, was hiding in the area. There were also material incentives; wealthy families in Kabul had moved many of their valuables from the capital to Istalif to protect them from the advancing army. Just beyond Istalif, Akbar Khan, one of the central figures in the massacre of the retreating British, was also said to be in Ghorband, with his ally Aminullah Khan, amassing Barakzai troops. If this was the case, however, the Afghan troops in Istalif offered only minimal resistance to the advancing British.


Excerpted from Bazaar Politics by Noah Coburn Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


A Rocky Road....................1
1 Groups and Violence....................5
Ethnography and Suspicion....................17
2 Social Organization in Istalif....................22
Making Pots....................32
3 How Making Pots Bound People Together....................34
The Art of Finding a Bargain....................50
4 How Selling Pots Tore People Apart....................53
Telling Stories....................73
5 Leadership, Descent, and Marriage....................76
6 Cultural Definitions of Power in Istalif....................106
Election Day....................142
7 Masterly Inactivity: The Politics of Stagnation....................145
The Director of Intelligence....................180
8 The Afghan State as a Useful Fiction....................182
Paktya-Eighteen Months Later....................206
9 Thinking About Violence, Social Organization, and International Intervention....................208
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