Political Rule & Legitimacy in the Pamir Mountains


A review of To Rule the Roof of the World: Power and Patronage in Afghan Kyrgyz Society, by Edward M. Callahan, Jr.

This anthropological study of two communities in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains examines the changing nature of political leadership in Afghan Kyrgyz society over the past forty years. For an area that is little known to outsiders, Callahan provides an exhaustive and compelling account of Kyrgyz history, demography, pastoral production, and, most importantly, the political strategies of various Kyrgyz leaders since the 1970s. This thesis addresses core questions in political anthropology, specifically what is legitimacy, how it is socially constructed, and how is it achieved? In addition to their theoretical importance, these questions are of manifest importance to the international community seeking to rebuild a nation-state and support a government that might be recognized as legitimate by Afghanis. Beyond these, Callahan asks us to consider the effects of changing borders, the dynamics of foreign aid, and the possible futures of a region rife with conflict and in desperate need of stability.

A remote enclave in a remote country, the Pamir region has traditionally been governed through the informal leadership of a khan and councils of elders. These political structures have functioned mainly for two purposes: to maintain internal order and to manage relations with the outside world. Patriarchal authority consisting of elders at the household or camp level handled domestic matters, while the khan represented Kyrgyz interests externally. Yet, rather than characterizing the Afghan Kyrgyz as somehow backward-looking or ‘traditional,’ we realize in reading this thesis that they have had to invent entirely new approaches to dealing with the modern world, often manifested through novel political structures as well as the redefinition of more ancient ones.

As Callahan shows, far from being a timeless or static process, gaining and retaining leadership has been and remains opportunistic and dynamic in the Pamir, demanding considerable adaptability to changing social, economic, and political conditions. It bears repeating, particularly when expressed in such a thorough and eminently readable manner, that pastoral communities are not at all static: they are, as we observe here, remarkably adaptive and resilient. Callahan works to correct the common fallacy that pastoral societies are autarkic and economically independent from outside world – misconceptions that are fed, in part, by the lack of obvious signs of outside world in the material culture of the Afghan Kyrgyz.

A critical institution that has regulated economic and social relationships among the Kyrgyz is the amanat, a system whereby richer members of the community (especially the khan) lent animals to poorer families. In addition to providing a mechanism for outsourcing labor, the amanat system functioned to spread risk – a basic reality in the lives of pastoralists – a critical innovation that allowed the Kyrgyz, especially poorer members of the community, to wrest survival in the Afghan Pamir. The amanat system also functioned to ensure that such stratification was likely to endure between generations as well, since it offered a means of preserving as well as accumulating wealth. Callahan analyzes the inequality and stratification among the Kyrgyz in the ownership of reproductive capital (i.e., breeding stock, pastures, and fodder producing areas) not only as an economic matter but couches these issues in a broader historical and social context. In particular, Callahan considers how pastoral production strategies were adapted to the exigencies of closed frontiers and how closed frontiers nomadism exacerbated pre-existing economic inequalities based on differential access to productive resources (livestock and pastures) and contributed to the extreme stratification of Kyrgyz society.

The cascading effects of border closures have long been a productive site for social analysis, and Callahan offers valuable insights into this process in a little studied yet high stakes region at the crossroads of Central Asia. There have been many iterations of borders for the residents of the Pamir, contested at different points by the Soviet Union, the British empire, Chinese Turkestan, the People’s Republic of China, and Pakistan. In the case of the Pamir, the closing of borders forced a reorientation of Kyrgyz political and economic strategies as they found themselves artificially isolated from nearby Tajikistan, causing underdevelopment in the region in terms of access to goods and services. In particular, the Kyrgyz were forced to respond to the challenges of losing access to their winter pastures and being cut off from their traditional markets when the borders of this erstwhile frontier region were closed.

The limited options created by closed state of borders in the Pamir increased the dependency of the amanat clients upon their wealthy patrons—as their dependency grew, so, too, did the leverage that wealthy stockowners had over them. In turn, Callahan argues, local leaders such as the khan were freed from many of the constraints typical of consent-based leadership. Callahan reminds us that the difference between leadership and authority hinges on power – the ability to compel others to do our bidding. While power is often backed by the threat of violence, the authority of the khan in the Pamir region was instead predicated on the threat of withholding or withdrawing amanat. This highly efficient means of distributing risk and attracting clients made possible by the amanat system ensured that the wealthy maintained control of the key productive resources: land and livestock. And, by controlling these resources under the conditions of closed frontiers, the wealthy also dominated Kyrgyz political life.

By closely tracking livestock numbers and distributions over time, Callahan shows us that, despite a tendency (both emic and etic) to view pastoralists as fundamentally egalitarian, economic inequality and stratification are common features of pastoral societies like the Afghan Kyrgyz. In this case, differential access to productive resources such as land and livestock was the main driver of inequality and the resulting economic stratification. According to Callahan’s carefully collected data – which he compares with those of his scholarly predecessor, Nazif Shahrani (The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002 [1979]) – the structure of livestock populations in the Pamir has dramatically changed both absolute and relative terms, with a sharp decrease in sheep and goats but significant increases in both yak and camel populations over the past 40 years. He shows how these changing patterns of livestock ownership reflect a shift from a highly stratified society to a diffuse smallholding system that occurred during two discrete periods – after the Marxist coup of 1978 and post 2001.

The Soviet invasion and the Marxist Saur coup of 1978 marked a watershed moment in the contemporary history – and, concomitantly, social, political, and economic relationships – of the Kyrgyz. At the urging of their khan, a significant portion of the Kyrgyz population left their homeland in response to the Soviet invasion. By migrating away from the Pamir, the Afghan Kyrgyz escaped communist rule and, concomitantly, avoided the collectivization that their brethren in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and China underwent. They also avoided complete encapsulation by the Afghan state and were able to maintain a greater degree of political autonomy than any other Kyrgyz community in the world. This exodus resulted in the leveling of pre-existing economic inequalities and temporarily eliminated much of the inequality that had characterized Afghan Kyrgyz society. This brief moment of near-equality did not last long, though.

In a way that only close ethnography can show, Callahan carefully differentiates the experiences of the two main valleys in the Pamir (Great and Little). Even in valleys so close together, patterns of economy emerge as quite different based on goods produced and sold, borders, and access to markets. These, in turn, have affected the livelihood strategies adopted by the Kyrgyz residing in these two valleys. After the 1978 exodus, Kyrgyz society in the Little Pamir began to re-stratify economically, though nowhere near the extremes it had previously exhibited. The most significant change in the Little Pamir has been the development of a “middle class” of smallholders who own sufficient animals to meet their subsistence needs and generate a surplus for trade, without being completely dependent upon amanat livestock. Today, the households in the Little Pamir that accept amanat livestock do so primarily to maximize the secondary pastoral products that they can produce, rather than out of dire need. Having additional animals means more dung, milk, and wool, which can be used for subsistence or trade purposes. By contrast, in the Great Pamir, the ownership of campgrounds and pastures was largely unchanged, perpetuating preexisting wealth inequalities between rich and poor, with pastoral wealth still concentrated among a small elite. As such, the amanat system has remained politicized in the Great Pamir, with many recipients of amanat livestock dependent upon their patrons for their subsistence, lacking any animals of their own.

Over the past 40 years, the different types of political leadership that Callahan reconstructs have retained the same goal: extracting patronage to accumulate political capital and legitimacy. Lacking alternate forms of authority to draw upon, Afghan Kyrgyz politics has tended to have more of a material than a traditional, charismatic, or legal-rational basis, and leadership is established and legitimized based more on efficacy, the ability to deliver, than tradition per se. For the Kyrgyz khan, legitimacy in the pre-1978 period depended on his ability to act as a patron, attracting and distributing resources – for example, livestock – over which he had direct control. The dilemma for the khan after 1978 was that he no longer controlled those resources that sustained his leadership. In the contemporary period, new and different sources of political capital supplanted livestock capital as sources of political influence.

In contrast to the pre-1978 period, when it was derived mostly from pastoral wealth, political capital has increasingly been accumulated through the process of extracting and redistributing exogenous resources, via patron-client networks, by Kyrgyz leaders seeking to establish, maintain, legitimize or contest political authority. In turn, lessened inequality occurred with the decline in the importance of the amanat system as a means of subsistence. Since it was now much more difficult to convert pastoral capital into political capital through the loaning of livestock, the amanat system became less of a patron-client relationship and more of a vehicle for economic investment, replacing clientelism with purely fiduciary responsibilities.

In later chapters, Callahan carefully traces the sources of change in political capital among the Kyrgyz. He shows how external assistance in the form of commodities and development aid replaced amanat livestock as the predominant source of political capital. As the “currency” of political capital changed to an exogenous resource, the task of governing for the khan became much more difficult. Lacking indigenous means to cultivate clients, the khans instead pursued an external strategy of clientelism, by acting as brokers between their community and whoever controlled the exogenous resources – services (medical care) to goods (food aid, livestock, warm clothes) to privileges (continuing exemption from taxes and conscription) – desired by the Kyrgyz. The degree to which a Kyrgyz leader leveraged these external resources largely determined the nature of his leadership: what (if any) authority he wielded, whether he was seen as legitimate, and how effectively he could fend off challengers. In this context, the status and influence of the khan, especially in the post-2001 era, were increasingly determined by both the quality and quantity of the external patronage the Kyrgyz leader could leverage on behalf of his people. These, in turn, depended on the khan’s access to government officials and his ability to act as an intermediary between Kyrgyz and power brokers.

During the Taliban period, the Khan’s role was mainly to prevent or minimize harm to the Kyrgyz community. Later, in the post-2001 period, the khan’s political role lay increasingly in reaching out beyond regional administrators to the Kabul government and to various aid agencies. Since the 2004 Constitution devolved little power to the provincial or district level, local leaders realized that it was in their best interest, and the best interest of their constituency, to establish relations with the Karzai administration and various international bodies. Provincial and district authorities do not control substantial resources, in part because they lack the ability to raise revenue locally and so are dependent upon the national government for their budgets. Accordingly, local leaders realized that their parochial interests would be served by direct appeal to the powers in Kabul. In an episode revealing of the dynamics of governance during this period, Callahan tells how the Kyrgyz khan attempted to bypass ineffective and oftentimes predatory district and provincial officials by appealing directly to President Karzai and central administrators in Kabul.

In his strongest and most ethnographically effective chapter (no. 7), Callahan describes the last days of Khan Abdul Rashid, in which he nicely captures the nuances of interactions between a local leader and his people, and the khan’s relationships, in turn, with external powers. In contrasting this late khan with his successors, Callahan notes that in order to be a khan you have to act like one. You have to want to be one. Where once the customary duties of a khan included domestic responsibilities such as mediating disputes, hosting distinguished visitors, and providing assistance to various petitioners, Khan Abdul Rashid’s successors were less inclined to do such work, effectively marking the end of one kind of rule and the transition to another that is still ongoing. Callahan argues that there has effectively been a shift from power to much more nominal authority, with shifts in the means of accumulating political capital and a much weaker basis for patronage, a reflection of broader changes in the political landscape of Afghanistan.

The dynamics of foreign aid also play an important role in the story Callahan tells. He provides us with a tidy dissection of the patron-beneficiary relationship in the NGO industry as viewed from the Kyrgyz perspective. The focus of much development efforts in the Pamir comes in the form of food aid. To date, each Kyrgyz household receives more than five months’ worth of food aid from the World Food Programme, with no strings attached (e.g., there is ‘no work for food’ element as practiced in other regions in Afghanistan) since activities such as road-building or constructing schools would be hard to implement and oversee in the Pamir. In this, the Kyrgyz preferred NGO patronage to government aid, since it came with few, if any, expectations of reciprocity, unlike the state’s transactional quid pro quo. The Kyrgyz strategically employ the rhetoric of poverty and ethnicity to leverage food aid, even though these claims are dubious and have not been empirically verified. Much of this food is subsequently exchanged for opium, a key factor in the increased prevalence and steady price decrease of opium.

Callahan’s work provides us important insights into what we might imagine post-2014 and the full withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan. In his estimation, Callahan predicts that the National Solidarity Program (NSP) is likely to prove anything but enduring in the future, leading him to conclude that governance is constituted more by leaders than by structures, endogenous or exogenous. Despite claims that the NSP is simply a vehicle for community assistance, development in Afghanistan is an inherently political endeavor since it involves control of resources, which inevitably brings in questions of leadership. Thus, Callahan convincingly argues that in Afghanistan, political systems – be they informal, formal, or hybrid – will continue to be predicated upon resource extraction and redistribution, i.e., patronage networks at the center of which individual leaders will continue to operate as lynchpins.

Callahan knows his literature and pays diligent homage to his predecessors. In the end, he has very much updated this literature and on numerous points – in ethnographic detail, spatial analysis of pastoral production, and the explication of the horizontal and vertical ties functioning in Kyrgyz society – he has truly advanced the work of those who went to the Pamir before him. In this thesis we have a masterfully told story of a little known region replete with insights on the nature of political leadership, the effects of borders on small-scale populations, and the dynamics of development aid. This is also an important regional story because Callahan is able to link relatively distant locales like Turkey and Pakistan through the exodus of the Kyrgyz, illustrating how relatively marginal populations like these have, in fact, played an outsize role in the attempts of Central Asian states to build and instill national identity. It is particularly relevant to the study of modern political conflict and change, which too often is limited by an over-reliance on historical sources and a dearth of grounded and in-depth case studies of local realities.

Callahan demonstrates how the Kyrgyz have been active agents in adapting their livelihoods to largely exogenous forces and constraints (e.g., closed boundaries, limited access to markets, changing political regimes), which they were powerless to change. The importance of this study lies in part in the ways that Callahan demonstrates how informal leadership articulates with the authority of the state. Callahan convincingly argues that leadership in Kyrgyz society is not simply some formulaic result of their clan-based social organization nor is it driven entirely from the top-down as part of the process of their encapsulation by the Afghan state. Rather, Callahan emphasizes the transactional nature of Kyrgyz politics rather than locating his analysis either in social structure or else in its post-structural equivalent, the hegemony of the state. The abiding impression we are left with is the resiliency and adaptability of populations like the Kyrgyz to political and economic changes, and the need to consider deeply the local dynamics of leadership if we are to understand, much less act upon, this complex and fascinating region.

Kenneth Bauer
Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program
Dartmouth College

Primary Sources
Ethnographic field research conducted over five years of intermittent residence in the Afghan Pamirs
Previously published (circa 1970s) ethnographic research on the Afghan Kyrgyz

Dissertation Information
Boston University. 2013. 350 pp. Primary Advisor: Thomas Barfield.

Image: Photograph by Author.

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