Tuesday, November 23, 2010

M&A in "Turko-Persia"

In Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, anthropologist and Afghanistan specialist Thomas Barfield quickly disposes of two current cliches about the troubled country. First is the notion that Afghanistan has never been subject to unified central rule. It was, via a dynasty that ruled from 1745 through 1978, albeit with a light touch in nomadic and lightly populated areas (and prone to violent transitions).  Second is the notion that the region's inhabitants always proudly repelled foreign invaders.  On the contrary: as part of a broad region Barfield dubs "Turko-Persia," the people of what's now Afghanistan were accustomed to a political economy in which they were always subject to imperial rule, sometimes under empires centered in what's now Afghanistan, more often to those based in Persia, India, or what's now the Central Asian republics (often, different parts of the country were subject to different empires). 

Barfield points out that accommodating themselves to "foreign" rule was a norm not only for inhabitants of what's now Afghanistan, but throughout Turko-Persia and indeed throughout most of the inhabited world.  He gets that norm across with a striking analogy:

We do, however, have a present-day analogy that captures both the feel and dynamic of this earlier age: corporate mergers and acquisitions. As factory workers and paper pushers continue their normal production of widgets and patterns of work, rival teams of mercenary bankers and corporate lawyers wielding proxy votes engage in furious battle to gain majority control of the target corporation's stock. On victory, the winning side purges the losing executive board members and appoints its own. The new CEO dismisses most of the high-ranking staff (though often compensating them with gold parachutes to ease their pain), keeps on those they think can provide key local knowledge, and then installs their own loyalists who have no previous ties to this company. The new owners and managers may even be from different countries. Nothing changes on the factory floor during this process, and workers are not expected to take part in the struggle. They are not required to ratify its outcome even though they have more to lose or gain from the new owners' policies than other players. It is beyond their control whether the company will be squeezed like a lemon for its asset value, improved and run more profitably, or turned over again through a new takeover or merger. Rulers in Turko-Persia also viewed their subjects as economic assets rather than political actors, and there was no necessary connection between the rulers and the lands they ruled  (pp. 72-37).

The Durrani Pashtuns, based in the Kandahar region, acted within this tradition when they took advantage of a period of weakness in Iran to gain control in 1745, and they held onto power through the period in which European nationalist concepts made their influence felt worldwide. I have not yet read Barfield's account of how the Durranis accommodated the imperial governing techniques they absorbed from the Persians to the demands and expectations of a people that at least to some degree absorbed modern ideas of nationhood -- or how intrusion by infidels, as opposed to mere foreigners, changed the dynamic in the nineteenth century. More later.

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