Repositioning to adapt, compete and succeed

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Thirty years ago, Jack Trout and Al Ries published their classic bestseller, Positioning: the Battle for Your Mind — a book that revolutionised the world of marketing. But times have changed. Competition is fiercer. Consumers are savvier. Communications are faster. And once-successful companies are in crisis mode. Hence, companies are increasingly going for re-positioning.

Repositioning tells you how to adapt, compete and succeed in today’s cut-throat marketplace.

Moving the brand

Repositioning is an effort to “move” a product to a different place in the minds of consumers. Sometime back, Porsche unveiled its new line of Panamera vehicles at a Shanghai car show. The car is a global model, but unlike Porsche’s other cars, it’s longer. The rich car buyers in China prefer to be driven by chauffeurs. The re-positioning trick worked and Porsche’s profits skyrocketed. Brands position and reposition themselves frequently to sustain the Brand identity, to be the repertoire of the customers, enhance brand equity. Here’s a classic example of brand repositioning at Dabur India Ltd. in the year 2001. A transformation of confectioning recognized as a pharma company to building one of the Leading Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) firms of India.

Why should buyers purchase your offering versus another? If your product faces competition, you will need to think about how to “position” it in the marketplace relative to competing products. Launched in Indian in early 2003, Mountain Dew was positioned as an ‘energy and exhilaration’ drink. Yet, it did not live up to all the hype. A survey by Synovate in late 2005 showed that people preferred Sprite and Limca, with Mountain Dew performing only a shade better than Frooti. This survey and the market performance of Mountain Dew set the stage for a course correction. Just a market repositioning rather than a radical re-branding was the need of the hour. This repositioning saw the introduction of the ‘Dar Ke Aage Jeet Hai’ campaign, which clicked big time.

Working on the same formula, The Quaker Oats Company, a division of PepsiCo (PEP), created a flutter recently after announcing that it was launching an expansive re-positioning of its business. For the first time in its 130-plus year history, Quaker was opting for a change and it clicked big time. “It’s all about sailing through the cut-throat competition. Everyone wants to stand out,” says Sanjit Baruah, a South Delhi-based marketing professional.

“After all you don’t want the product to be just another “face in the crowd” in the minds of consumers,” says Sumit Mahajan, a senior business executive with Johnson and Johnson. LG Electronics recently announced that it was globally repositioning the LG brand identity including its local unit, LG Electronics India, with the theme of `Harmony of smart technology with stylish design to fit into’ in India. Nestle India Limited (NIL) felt the need to reposition Maggi as a ‘health product’, just when the profits were plummeting.

For new and old alike

Product positioning is not limited to new products alone. It is relevant for occasional face lifting of the existing products. This is evidenced by so called “new and improved products” of almost all kinds such as toilet soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, tooth pastes, even designer labels. Ritu Wears is going for an overhaul with Ritu Wear Biglife. This all new format is more interactive & responsive, making it customer-focused. The new logo with four human figures celebrates the colourful bond of a family and position.

Repositioning does not mean total change. It sometimes entails strengthening and clarifying identity. A famous garment firm was having a tough time with the sales of its men’s shirts. Instead of involving into a futile competition with its competitor, it shifted the weight from men’s shirts to women’s blouses and sports wear. The result was an amazing increase in its profits.


What the Presidential candidates have to offer!


There is palpable buzz, chaotic exuberance, lingering fear, and an elixir of hope. There are no measured steps or calculated moves. It’s a no-holds-barred political showdown.  As their tryst with destiny inches closer, the Presidential candidates are throwing all the caution to winds and quite vigorously gearing up for the grand political spectacle in April this year.  The election campaigning is in full swing these days and the candidates are firing on all cylinders.

In the last few weeks, we have seen some high-voltage, rip-roaring and adrenaline-gushing television debates between the candidates. No, it’s not the race for White House. It’s the marathon for Presidential Palace of Afghanistan. The most difficult political job in the world, perhaps also the most exciting. The manner in which they have spelt out their roadmaps and articulated their thoughts on various pressing issues, with sheer eloquence and sense of purpose, bears eloquent testimony to the fact that this war-weary country has come a long way.Operation Mountain Fire

It is incredibly heartwarming to witness the socio-political metamorphosis in this country, and the way local media is emerging as a stimulus of political and social change and custodian of public interest. A decade back, politics in Afghanistan was defined by anarchy and lawlessness. Warlords used to call the shots. Bullets were synonymous with ballots. Free and independent media was a figment of wild imagination.

It is incredibly heartwarming to witness the socio-political metamorphosis in this country, and the way local media is emerging as a stimulus of political and social change and custodian of public interest

Today, Afghanistan is a country that has come out of obscurity and embraced change. The sword of Damocles still hangs overhead but the resilience of people is amazing, almost infectious. When Hassan Nasrullah, the Hezbollah leader from Lebanon, mentioned Afghanistan four times in his powerful speech on Sunday, with reference to the ominous threat of takfirism, he meant that the battle is not over yet. Of course, the battle is on. And, as my Afghan friends often say, with a hint of confidence and optimism, we shall overcome one day.

Right now, the five top contenders for the most challenging assignment in world politics are Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmai Rasool, Qayoom Karzai and Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf. The other candidates are dark horses in the race, so it would be naïve to rule them out completely.

Ahmedzai, who ended up with a meager three percent votes in last elections, has emerged as a frontrunner this time. The former advisor to President Karzai, Ahmedzai is a celebrated anthropologist, having authored many books, including Fixing Failed States: A Frame for Rebuilding a Fractured World. He studied at American University, Beirut and Columbia University, U.S. and taught at University of California and John Hopkins University.

His political vision is both amalgamated and lucid. He seeks to transform the system and devolve financial powers to the provinces, giving them 40 percent of the national budget. In terms of security, he wants to establish rule of law and end discrimination of all manifestations. Unlike Karzai, who has developed cold feet, Ahmedzai is willing to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S.

On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he has his priorities spelt out clearly. He wants talks with those Taliban who are not allied to foreign countries, but he does not wish to engage with Al-Qaeda linked groups operating on the soil of Afghanistan. He wants to fight corruption, bring accountability and transparency in governmental and nongovernmental projects. To address the issue of violence against women, he wishes to engage religious scholars and preachers. To develop economy, he wants to attract investments by ensuring foolproof security and incentives to potential investors.

Abdullah Abdullah, who was the main challenger for President Karzai in previous elections before he was forced to beat a hasty retreat following reports of fraud, is another strong contender in the race. An ophthalmologist by training, he jumped the political bandwagon in 1980s when Soviets invaded the country. After the ouster of Taliban in 2001, he was appointed as the Foreign Minister in the interim government led by Karzai, a post he continued to hold in Karzai’s first term as President, before he was axed in 2006.

Ahmedzai wants talks with those Taliban who are not allied to foreign countries, but he does not wish to engage with Al-Qaeda linked groups operating on the soil of Afghanistan

His political vision is of a parliamentary system of governance with devolution of power to provinces. He says he will strengthen the security infrastructure and ensure justice to all. Like other candidates in the fray, he is also willing to end the stalemate over bilateral security pact with the U.S. On the issue of negotiations with Taliban, he says those fighting to decimate the Afghan government will not be spared and those who fight because of political grievances would be invited for peace parleys.

On the question of corruption and nepotism, he wants to introduce meritocracy and rule of law. The trade agreements and development projects, he says, would be monitored by Parliament and Provincial Councils. The institutional prejudice against women would end and they would get adequate representation in political institutions. He wants to generate employment for youth through reforms and promote agriculture to boost the national economy.

Zalmai Rasool, a veteran statesman and former Foreign Minister, is a staunch Karzai loyalist and another heavyweight contender. A doctor by training, he served at many prestigious hospitals in France and Saudi Arabia before entering politics and joining as Chief of Staff under King Zahir Shah. In 2002, after years of war, he returned to Afghanistan amid much fanfare and became Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism in the interim government. In the transitional government, he served as the National Security Advisor.  In 2010, he was elevated as the Minister of Foreign Affairs by Karzai, before he stepped down in 2014 to run for Presidential elections, on the insistence of Karzai.

Abdullah Abdullah wants to generate employment for youth through reforms and promote agriculture to boost the national economy

His political vision is all about better management and improvement in the current scheme of things. His key campaign themes are moderation, equality and reconstruction. For security, he seeks to pursue diplomacy with neighboring countries to end cross-border terrorism. Unlike his political mentor, he is ready to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S.

On negotiations with Taliban, he wants to engage those insurgents who accept the constitution of Afghanistan, and isolate those killing Afghan civilians and security forces. To fight the malaise of corruption, he wishes to bring transparency by appointing officials on the basis of merit. To empower women, he wants to increase employment opportunities for them and give them 20 percent representation in union cabinet.

Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, known as ‘Ustad Sayyaf’, is a conservative leader who has been at the center of many major political events in Afghanistan over last three decades. An alumnus of Al-Azhar University, he was a close aide of Hekmatyar in 1970s, and was put behind bars in 1974 for his criticism of the then government. In 1979, he launched his party Ittihad Islami Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan. He may be a controversial political figure but he enjoys tremendous public support, and his name was recommended by President Karzai himself.

His political vision is based on people-centric government that seeks to bring rule of law and end the malaise of corruption. He promises to bring visible change in the security environment within four months of his election, and quite interestingly, he is also in favor of the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he wants to engage with ‘good Taliban’ and isolate ‘bad Taliban’ who destroy schools and kill civilians. Among his priorities includes accountability in the political machinery, giving fillip to the culture of meritocracy and eradicating opium cultivation.

Women, he says, would have adequate representation in the government and women’s rights would be respected and safeguarded. Youth will have more job opportunities and focus will be on exploiting the rich mineral resources in the country, modernizing agriculture and improving trade ties with neighboring countries.

Women, says Sayyaf, would have adequate representation in the government and women’s rights would be respected and safeguarded

Qayoom Karzai, the elder brother of President Karzai, is also one of the strong contenders, if not the strongest. He used to run his family business in the U.S. before he returned to Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban. He served as the member of National Assembly of Afghanistan and was also the member of Narcotics Committee in Wolesi Jirga. In October 2008, citing health reasons, he resigned from his seat. He is believed to have played a key role in negotiations with Taliban.

His political vision is focused on economic development and reforms in current Presidential form of government. Unlike his younger brother, he says he will sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. without any caveats. On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he also wants to engage only with ‘good’ Taliban who show willingness to join the peace process. The Afghan High Peace Council, which has been negotiating with Taliban on the behalf of government, will be changed into an independent body if he comes to power.

To combat corruption, he wants to cut the red tape, bring transparency and increase the wages of government workers. To empower women, he promises to include them in his grand plans and promote the businesses run by women. For economic development, he wishes to build infrastructure such as railroads, airports and factories. Promoting trade and generating employment is also high on his agenda.

Now, the ball is in the court of voters, majority of them youth. As they say, youth hold the key to 2014 elections and they will decide who should lead the country forward. May the best person win.

Source: Afghan Zariza (

It’s all out war in Kabul!

Weekends in Kabul can be real fun. It was no different yesterday. Kite flying and horse riding at Tappe Nadir Shah, street photography in Shehr e Naw, shopping at Gulbahar City Center, brunch at Serena Hotel. It was a fabulous day till all hell broke loose and joys turned into melancholy. This city can be so ruthlessly unpredictable. You think it’s peaceful and calm and then suddenly a storm erupts and you are forced to eat your words. Yes, all the talk about Afghanistan bouncing back is no fluff. The war-weary country has embraced change after groping in the dark for decades. But, it remains a tinderbox that it has always been and the people continue to live on the razor’s edge. I realized it lastnight.war crimes ii

At around 7 pm, we were driving home after a rip-roaring day, if I may call it so. I was telling my friends how safe Kabul has become and why it is important for the international forces to withdraw and hand over the reins to local Afghan security forces. As we reached the 15th street of Wazir Akbar Khan, a highly-fortified diplomatic enclave of Kabul and home to many embassies and high-end restaurants, a friend warned me about the unpredictability and fickleness of situation in Kabul. You never know what happens when and where, he said.

As the car turned right on the 15th street and was barely 30 meters away from my residence, we heard a massive explosion, following by heavy burst of gunfire

As the car turned right on the 15th street and was barely 30 meters away from my residence, we heard a massive explosion, following by heavy burst of gunfire. My friends looked at me and I looked at them. We parked the car inside, and I turned to security guards. “Is it some crazy festival tonight,” I asked. “No Sir, it is a terrorist attack nearby,” said one of them. There was a moment of silence, interrupted by the deafening sound of gunfire. We realized it was too close.

Someone called to inform it was near Spinney’s, a high-end departmental store, barely 100 meters from our place. The U.S. embassy, which is at a few kilometer distance, immediately sent out alarm calls. Soon we received a confirmation that it was a suicide attack and target was a popular Lebanese restaurant, La Taverna du Liban. The owner of the restaurant, Kamal Hamadi, a Lebanese national, was among the 21 killed in the attack. The Head of IMF’s Kabul office and four UN employees were also killed.

The restaurant is barely 50 meters from our place on the same street. We rushed to the spot but the roads had been cordoned off and there was total chaos. The cops said three terrorists had ambushed the restaurant, which is popular among foreigners. One of them detonated his explosives outside the gate of the restaurant and the other two barged inside.  Carrying AK-47 rifles, the two terrorists went on murderous rampage, firing indiscriminately at everyone. The operation was on till 10 pm, before ambulances arrived at the spot.

The American Embassy, a number of European embassies and the NATO headquarters are all in close proximity; the Norwegian Embassy is in the same lane

Journalists were not allowed too close to the restaurant as police feared one of them might still be holed up inside. Some media organisations got emails from Taliban claiming responsibility for the attack. The statement said they have targeted “a foreign restaurant where foreign invaders were having dinner.” According to the cook who escaped miraculously, the bombers screamed “Allah-u-Akbar” before blowing themselves up.  So, their intention was clear, and it could have been any one of us.

This is unarguably the most popular Lebanese restaurant on 15th street catering to large number of expats living in this locality. The American Embassy, a number of European embassies and the NATO headquarters are all in close proximity. The Norwegian Embassy is in the same lane.

It was the second major attack on foreigners in less than two weeks. On January 4, there was an explosion outside an American military base in Kabul.

Even though the international forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year,  16000 US led allied forces will be staying back to train Afghan forces and for counter insurgency operations after 2014. On the other hand, the stalemate over the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement continues and it has generated lot of debate in recent months. Just after the agreement was passed by Loya Jirga – a grand council of Afghan tribal elders, political leaders and lawmakers – last month, Taliban issued a damning statement, warning of its repercussions.

With historic Presidential elections in Afghanistan just two months away, there is a likelihood of more such audacious attacks. It is an all-out war. “Welcome to Kabul,” says my friend, as we take a stroll on the deserted 15th street a day after the attack.

Source: Afghan Zariza (

How the ‘lone survivor’ was rescued in the 2005 Operation Red Wings in Kunar

 In the summer of 2005, a team of Navy SEALs embarked on a difficult mission to neutralize a Taliban leader Ahmad Shah inside his hideout in the mountains of northeastern Kunar province, closer to Pakistani border. The team decided to abandon their mission after being discovered by a few Afghan goat herders. But before they could cover the difficult mountainous terrain to safety, the insurgents opened indiscriminate fire at them. Three Navy SEALs were killed on the spot while the fourth one, Marcus Luttrell, managed to escape in a badly wounded state.  Some locals helped him and treated him in that condition.

More than eight years later, the harrowing incident is again in the news, thanks to Lone Survivor, the cinematic adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch. The action thriller, which has already created stir across the world, is releasing tomorrow, January 10.

Afghan Zariza went back to that sleepy, forlorn village tucked inside mountains to look for the family who helped the only survivor of that deadly military operation crawl back to life and freedom. No hustle and bustle, no movement of traffic, no market and no roads. The villagers stare at you with distrust and suspicion, which is partly annoying and partly justifiable. The old scars and wounds, it appears, have not fully healed yet. They tread cautiously, respond to queries warily, and refuse to divulge details about anything related to America and Taliban. The area has been a traditional stronghold of Taliban and people here remain loyal to the guerilla forces.

After running helter-skelter for hours, we come to know the person we are looking for has moved out of the village. He now lives with his family in Asadabad, the capital city of Kunar which is 30 km from Qalacha village. Qalacha is a small, nondescript village in Dara i Pech district, also known as Manogay district. It grabbed the international headlines 8 years ago after that deadly operation.

We head to Asadabad city, capital of Kunar province, nestled in the Hindu Kush Mountains, 13 km northwest of Pakistan and 80 km northeast of Jalalabad. After some hard slogging in a big city located at the confluence of Pech River and Kunar River, we manage to find his house. A young man of 26, sporting neat peran tumbaan, traditional Afghan dress, opens the door and greets us with courteous Pashtu expression. He introduces himself as, Gul Mohammad, the son of Mohammad Gulab, the man we are looking for.

“Sangayay,” (how are you) he asks. My colleague replies: “Khayuu,” (we are fine). Quite unexpectedly, he does not grill us with more questions and invites us inside his small house.

Gulab, he says, is in the U.S. since October. “He often travels there on the invitation of the U.S. soldier he had saved eight years ago,” says Gul. His first visit to the United States was less than three years after that incident when Luttrell was writing his book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10. Gulab has a special mention in the book that went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

More than eight years later, the harrowing incident is again in the news, thanks to Lone Survivor, the cinematic adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s memoir, releasing on January 10

After some interesting chitchat and light banter with his son Gul Mohammad over a cup of sugar-free green tea, a serious conversation picks up. Gul vividly recalls that horrifying episode that turned their world upside-down.

In June 2005, US Navy SEALs came in helicopter to Dara i Pech district of Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan. Calling it Operation Red Wings, the four-member reconnaissance unit had their task cut out: to hunt down the local Taliban commander Ahmad Shah. Despite meticulous planning, the mission went kaput and three members of the unit were gunned down in an ambush.

Some goat herders passing through the mountainous area spotted them, which threw the team of Navy SEALs led Navy Lt. Michael Murphy into a tizzy and forced them to retreat to a defensive position. The change of plan and miscommunication with base led to a deadly ambush, in which all the unit members except Luttrell were killed.

The lone survivor hid himself in a crevice and crawled almost seven miles before he was spotted by Mohammad Gulab, father of Gul Mohammad. Gulab, a Pashtun, who risked his own life to save the U.S. Navy SEAL, Luttrell. The officer was paralyzed from the waist down, and his body was riddled with gunshots and shrapnel wounds. Gulab, like a true Samaritan, looked after the wounded U.S. soldier for five long days, before Luttrell penned down a note mentioning his location. The note was ferried by one villager to a nearby U.S. military camp, after which a rescue team arrived and took Luttrell.

“It was 8’o clock in the morning when my father saw him, pleading for help,” says Gul. Moved by his plight, Gulab offered him shelter in his small house. He immediately called up his friend who was working with Afghan Red Cross as medic. Unmindful of the repercussions it could have had, the medic went out of his way to treat the wounded U.S. soldier. “It was my duty to treat the patient and it does not matter whether he was an American or an Afghan,” says the medic, who goes by his first name Sarwar. Despite threats from Taliban to hand over the wounded soldier, they did not cave in. “Taliban sent many letters asking to hand over the soldier, but for Pashtuns, it is important to serve a wounded person, irrespective of who he is,” he says.

His words are echoed by Malik Shina, a village elder. “Pashtuns have a rich tradition of hospitality and protection; that man had asked help from a Pashtun family so there was no question of backstabbing him,” says the 80 year old man. He said everyone in the village took their gun and supported Gulab to protect the wounded soldier. “We are not afraid of the Taliban. They still threaten us, but we don’t care because this person came to a Pashtun home and we had to protect him.”

“It was a harrowing experience for my father and our family,” says Gul. “The three U.S. soldiers had been killed and Luttrell was badly wounded, barely able to stand on his feet. The wounded soldier had crawled to the house of Mohammad Gulab with his gun.  “My father felt obliged to help him, because it is a Pashtun tradition to help anyone who comes to your house for sanctuary, be it your friend or your enemy.”

Gulab was interrogated by the U.S. military officers before they came to know he was the savior.  A local journalist, Rohullah Anwari, who was perhaps the only reporter tracking the news that time, was caught by the angry U.S. soldiers when they came to pick Luttrell from the house of Gulab. He spent 10 days detained and questioned.  “I was interviewing the wounded soldier in the house of Gulab when they came and bundled me in a gypsy,” recollects Anwari.

As a reward for their magnanimity, Gulab’s family used to get 2,000 USD every month from Luttrell, however, it stopped coming after three years. “After three years, my father left for U.S. to help Luttrell with the book he was writing on the whole incident, and then he came back to Afghanistan,” Says Gul.

“But, we faced many threats from Taliban for saving the wounded U.S. soldier, which forced us to move from that area to Asadabad city, the center of Kunar province,” says Gul. They family continues to live there and own a house too.

The lone survivor hid himself in a crevice and crawled almost seven miles before he was spotted by Mohammad Gulab, father of Gul Mohammad. Gulab, a Pashtun, who risked his own life to save the U.S. Navy SEAL, Luttrell 

Though most of the people in their own village supported them, they had to face vicious public backlash from other areas. “It was not easy to deal with the anger and outrage after that incident, as many locals labeled us American stooges,” says Gul. “Most of the people here are fiercely against America and they believe American aggression is responsible for all the problems we are facing today.”
Luttrell, who was awarded the Navy Cross in that 2005 ‘Operation Red Wings’,  recovered from his injuries and was sent to Iraq. The leader of his team, Mike Murphy, whose remains were found during a search and rescue operation on July 4, 2005, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Matthew Axelson and Danny Dietz, also killed in the operation, got the Navy Cross too, making them the most decorated SEAL team in the history.

As a sequel to unsuccessful Operation Red Wings, a fierce offensive was launched throughout Kunar province in August 2005, called Operation Whalers. For 11 straight days and nights, U.S. marines engaged the Taliban guerillas in a fiercest military fight. The dreaded Taliban leader Ahmad Shah was critically wounded in the ambush.

Eight years later, the province continues to be the stronghold of Taliban, and a sword of Damocles continues to loom over people living here.

Source: Afghan Zariza (

Foreign intervention is ineffective when it goes against the will of the people involved.’

Thomas Barfield is the Director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization and President of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. He is a widely recognized expert on Afghanistan and the author of Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (2010), The Central Asian Arabs of Afghanistan (1981), Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture (1991), among other books. 

In a freewheeling interview with Afghan Zariza, Mr. Barfield talks about his research on the problems of political development in Afghanistan, systems of governance, ineffectiveness of foreign intervention, future of the country after foreign withdrawal, US-Afghan security pact, April 2014 elections and much more. Q) In the minds of westerns, Afghanistan mostly conjures up images of a rugged land occupied by befuddled, tribal people. What reasons do you attribute to such stereotyping?
A. Afghanistan is a geographically rugged land but few foreigners are aware of the country’s rich culture and its diverse population.  Like most national stereotypes. ‘the tribal Afghan’ is just as rare a person in Afghanistan as the ‘American cowboy’ is in the United States or ‘Arab camel rider’ is in Cairo.  Most Americans have never even gotten close to a cow or ridden or horse, and most Arabs know camels only from films.  But just as cowboys represent a type of freedom and independence for Americans, the tribal Afghan is sometimes portrayed by Afghans themselves as a similar stereotypic symbol of independence, hospitality and honor.Q) Your research primarily focuses on the problems of political development in Afghanistan. Can you identify some of these problems in the present context?
A. Over the course of last century, the Afghan political system has seen a transformation from a tradition of rulers being drawn from a small traditional elite where ordinary people expected they would have no role in national politics to a more inclusive system in which hereditary privilege fails to command the authority it once did and ever larger numbers of people expect both to participate in national politics and assume a significant role in choosing their leaders. One problem today is that the constitution and the leaders of Afghanistan refuse to recognize this major social change and try to rule as if they were the kings of old.

Q) Why has foreign intervention in Afghanistan proved so ineffective? Do you see it differently than U.S. intervention in Iraq or Vietnam?
A. Foreign intervention is ineffective when it goes against the will of the people involved.  The initial intervention of the U.S. in Afghanistan had a great deal of popularity because it ended a civil war, helped guarantee more equal political rights for all groups in Afghanistan and gave people hope of a brighter future.  Yet, both the international community and the Afghan government then squandered so many opportunities to fulfill promises of better security and economic development that the Afghan people became disillusioned.  In addition, the US, like other foreign powers before it, initially attempted to remake Afghanistan in its own image without considering Afghanistan’s own culture and history but as the desire to leave became stronger, they became more content with allowing Afghans to follow their own ways of doing things.

Q) In your book ‘Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History’, you have done an ethnographic study of the country. What systems of governance, according to your study, have been most popular over the years in Afghanistan?
A. Since Afghanistan is a diverse country, it needs a political system adapted to that reality. Until the late 19th century, even powerful kings in Kabul left local administration in the hands of regional governors who had considerable autonomy to raise revenue and supervise local officials. But beginning with the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman, the central government in Kabul created a highly centralized system of administration where everything was decided by ministries in the capital and all officials were appointed solely by the ruler. This is the system that still exists, although it neither meets the expectations of the Afghan people nor does it allow local populations to hold Kabul-appointed officials accountable for its actions. Afghanistan would have been more stable if the central government handled the higher order affairs (foreign relations, national security, and finance) and set national policies; but they allowed it to be implemented by local officials.

One innovation would be to allow for the election of governors — Afghans elect Presidents and Parliaments but have no say in choosing or holding accountable those who have the greatest impact on their lives locally. Although there is a fear in Afghanistan that any devolution of power might lead to the country’s breakup, this fear is misplaced. Countries are more likely to fail when their governments are so highly centralized that any failure at the center can cause the collapse of the whole system. When power is more broadly distributed, mistakes at the center are less destructive.  The United States, for example, has the oldest federal constitution in the world and the country is stronger precisely because it allows different states to enact their own laws and elect local officials who represent their interest and values but within a national system that protects constitutionally guaranteed rights for all.

Q) In your work, you have applied analytical tools developed by 14th century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Do you also attribute the success of ruling dynasties in Afghanistan to the strong sense of group solidarity, in absence of robust economic structure and political institutions?
A. Royal dynasties were successful in Afghanistan because people believed only members of that group had a right to rule. However, there was little solidarity within such groups, and when a ruler died there was always a violent struggle among his descendants for power. Thus members of the Durrani Sadozai lineage fought bitterly among themselves every generation after the death of Ahmad Shah Durrani until they were displaced the Barakzai lineage of Dost Muhammad.  His heirs then fought each other for power until the end of the 19th century when Abdur Rahman consolidated power and for the first time the throne passed peacefully to his son Habibullah. Yet after that secession, struggles continued when King Amanullah fought his uncle for power in 1919 and lost the throne himself in 1929, replaced by a new Musahiban dynasty of Nadir Shah.

In other words, to outsiders, the Durrani rulers of Afghanistan appeared to have strong solidarity because they held power from the beginning of the Afghan state in 1747 to Daud Khan’s death in 1978, but they internally followed the model of Ibn Khaldun who said that dynasties could rarely sustain themselves for more than three or four generations.  That such a system continued to exist at all in the 20th century was because Afghanistan’s economy and political structures were so underdeveloped that they offered no alternatives to a system of royal rule that had died out much earlier elsewhere.

Q) Under King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan witnessed a prolonged period of economic prosperity and internal stability. What went wrong in the last 10 years of his rule before he was ousted in a coup?
A. Zahir Shah became victim of what is known as “the revolution of rising expectations”.  When conditions are very bad politically or economically, people rarely revolt because they are consumed by fear or personal distress.  Political systems are in more danger when they attempt political reform or experience better economic conditions.  While people are pleased with things, they are also more critical of the defects that remain and question why the existing system is even allowed to continue.

The French, Russian and Iranian revolutions all followed this pattern, as did the collapse of the Soviet Union at the time of Gorbachev’s reforms.  Afghanistan was growing more prosperous from 1963-73 but at the beginning of the period, everyone who entered the growing educational system could be guaranteed a government job, by the end of that period, Afghan high schools and universities were producing more graduates than the government could hire and it had done nothing to encourage the growth of the private sector as an alternative.  These young people were dissatisfied with the monarchy and enthusiastically endorsed its overthrow.

The famine of 1971 that let to starvation in the Hazarajat and Badakhshan also did great damage to the king’s reputation.  On the political side, Zahir Shah had created a democratic constitution and established a parliament in 1964, but his refusal to allow political parties and the palace’s continued control of executive appointments only angered those who argued he had not really changed the political system in any fundamental sense.

Q)  Do you believe Taliban was able to command political legitimacy because in Afghanistan, the Islamic belief is closely intertwined with tribal customs?
A.      The Taliban came to power by promising security.  Only after they took control, did they stress the religious aspect heavily. This actually came to hurt them because the majority of Afghans believe that their own Islamic faith is so strong that that they are unwilling to accept that other people have the right to tell them how to practice it. While the Taliban’s religious leadership was able to use that authority to overcome tribal divisions, its close association of tribal customs with religion hurt it in urban areas where the movement was seen as reactionary — attempting to impose rural values on people who did not accept them.

Q) How do you predict the future of Afghanistan after the foreign withdrawal in 2014? Will the country emerge stronger or slip into chaos?
A. One is a return to the civil war conditions of the 1990s that brought disaster and disunity. In this scenario, Afghanistan is abandoned by the international community before falling prey to the machinations of neighbors who bankroll conflict between rival ethnic groups, potentially bringing about the country’s dissolution as a unitary state. The other is the emergence of a stable, prosperous Afghanistan bankrolled by these same neighbors. In this scenario, economic self-interests trump old parochial politics.

Q) What are your thoughts on the contentious US-Afghan security pact? Why is President Karzai dragging his feet over it?
A. It is not clear why President Karzai is refusing to sign. He acts as if it is he who must be pleased, not whether it is in Afghanistan’s national self-interest. The 2014 transition marks a return to Afghanistan’s full sovereignty. He should sign and if in a year, or anytime thereafter, the Americans have not lived up to their commitments, and then the new president can tell them to leave. While Karzai is concerned about his legacy, a failure that leaves Afghanistan abandoned and back at war would never be forgiven by the Afghan people. The question is less military than political, with no agreement the bulk of international aid for Afghanistan is also likely to disappear and no Afghan government can survive that.

Q)  Do you think the historic Presidential elections in April 2014 would be free and transparent? Is there a possibility of foreign stakeholders manipulating the results?
A. The 2009 election set a bad precedent for fraud, but without an incumbent running, perhaps this one will be more open. I think that any manipulation of the election results is more likely to occur with Afghan stakeholders than foreign ones — they have more to lose or gain.

Source: Afghan Zariza (