“I’ve seen this war from the beginning to its end,” says Jennifer Murtazashvili, referring to the nearly two decades the United States spent in Afghanistan. Murtazashvili, an associate professor in political science at the University of Pittsburgh and director of its Center for Governance and Markets, has conducted research in the region for nearly a quarter-century. She has also participated in IHS events and programs, working with students and faculty on topics like how to coexist in a pluralistic society.
Before she attended graduate school, Murtazashvili spent her early career in Uzbekistan, where she worked in the Peace Corps and with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). During this time, she became disillusioned with the top-down approach of many within the international aid community, acknowledging their good intentions but realizing that the development mission was failing to achieve its goals.
What really stood out to Murtazashvili, however, were the “incredible capabilities of individuals and communities to do lots of things under a very authoritarian state,” she says. After her work in Uzbekistan, Murtazashvili began to conduct interviews and surveys in Afghanistan, learning more about the structures of informal governance that characterize much of the country.
This motivated her to write her first book, “Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan,” published in 2016.
Jennifer Murtazashvili expands on the themes of informal governance in her most recent book, “Land, the State, and War,” coauthored with Ilia Murtazashvili, also a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh and her husband. The book investigates how property rights are enforced at the local level and how the overcentralization of Afghanistan’s institutions neglect the forces that support the de facto norms of its people. She notes that property rights ought to rely on the informal system, since “about 8,000 households and 92% of Afghans in rural areas have customary land deeds,” for example.
Last spring, Murtazashvili began helping some friends and former colleagues in Afghanistan who were looking to evacuate. But when Kabul collapsed suddenly in August and the Biden administration announced that it would be expanding refugee applications as part of the State Department’s Priority 2 (P-2) Program, she received a flood of emails from people looking to escape the country.
To cope with the flurry of emails, Murtazashvili put out a call for volunteers to connect Afghans with their former U.S.-based employers, a messy step that the asylum application process required. This procedure involved navigating an endless web of contacts that would often turn up empty, she explains, but with the help of some 400 students and faculty volunteers, Afghans who needed assistance could find it. “We started to fulfill a really important need that no one else was doing at the time,” she remembers.
“We became sort of a source of information, like a middleman that could connect people during this period. Our volunteers were active in so many areas. In fact, one volunteer set up his own nonprofit and now provides much-needed humanitarian legal aid. He helped us rescue one girl who was hit by a tear gas canister at the Kabul airport.”– Jennifer Murtazashvili
After the U.S. withdrew all troops from Afghanistan, Murtazashvili notes that her program transitioned into serving as a coordinator for Afghan scholars and intellectuals looking to contact different organizations. This led to the Afghanistan Project, which seeks to give Afghan scholars and policymakers a safe refuge to conduct and share research. With help from the Scholar Rescue Fund and other donations, the Project has already welcomed Omar Sadr, a political scientist from the American University of Afghanistan and IHS alum.
The focus for the project, she says, is to preserve the vibrant intellectual community that thrived in Afghanistan for the last few decades. She adds that “this is an opportunity to bring scholars together and have them recreate the communities they had in Kabul.”
In addition, she wants the incoming scholars to have maximum room to grow and expand their research on Afghanistan. Ultimately, this community will encourage the same kinds of conversations that took place in Afghanistan, demonstrating that the power and force of intellectual ideas have no boundaries. A web platform is already in development that will connect Afghan scholars to the larger policy debates happening on the global stage.
Unfortunately, the abrupt collapse of Afghanistan’s government was predictable, says Murtazashvili. The endless flow of money from the U.S. government to the Afghanistan regime subsidized a bloated and overextended government that failed to listen to its people, she explains.
“The U.S. government’s funding of Afghanistan for so many years really undermined a lot of the accountability structures in society and created a terribly rapacious and corrupt government. Therefore, Afghans haven’t trusted their government for a very long time and now it appears that this distrust will continue with the rule by the Taliban since they have been handed the keys to one of the most centralized states in the world.”– Jennifer Murtazashvili
Murtazashvili strongly emphasizes that the Afghanistan government must first respect the rights of its people by showing them human dignity and allowing individual freedom to flourish. She says that “the Afghan people have always understood that their rights were being violated.” For example, governors in Afghanistan were not freely elected by their citizens but appointed. She argues that the Afghan people are the ultimate resource that will lead to a better future for the region, and by giving them a voice, economic development will be unleashed.
Currently, Murtazashvili is seeking more donations and support to ensure that Afghan scholars are properly introduced to American life. Her efforts — alongside so many selfless student and faculty volunteers — have made it so that Afghan scholars have what they need to learn and to teach without fear of persecution or retaliation. Murtazashvili has displayed a limitless degree of academic outreach that will only strengthen community no matter where it takes shape.
IHS strives to bring together scholars and intellectuals like Murtazashvili who share an interest in advancing the principles and practice of a free society. To learn more about our student and faculty partners, visit TheIHS.org.
If you are interested in learning more about the Afghanistan Project, including donating to it, you can go here for more details.