The biggest divide within a single ethno-linguistic group or nation-state is that between urban and rural. This is a delicate dichotomy that must be balanced in a healthy society. It’s also very important to understand how various nations (past and present) are dealing with this divide before you can understand the broader societal issues they’re dealing with.
People living in rural areas often lack a cogent ideology, but are more connected to their neighbors. Their communities are geographical rather than based on ideologies or common interests. They have a stronger connection to the land and generally a weaker understanding of what’s going on in the world outside their communities.
Rural people can easily be coaxed into violent action, if it’s viewed as in defense of their homeland and against an adversary they don’t understand.
Let’s take Cambodia in the 1970s as an example. The Khmer Rouge fighting force were mostly uneducated, teenage peasant boys. According to Khmer Rouge Tribunal documents, the average age of the troops who seized Phnom Penh in 1975 was 17. Their educational backgrounds are almost impossible to find, but, based on all the first-hand accounts I’ve heard and read, I would be surprised if their literacy rate was more than 20%.
Do these boys look like they’ve read the ‘Communist Manifesto’ and complemented the plight of the proletariat and made an informed decision to take up arms?
They wouldn’t know Carl Marx from Richard Nixon. They probably couldn’t even point out Cambodia on a map. All they knew was that things used to be peaceful, but now bombs were falling all the time, their king had been deposed, and people gave them guns and pointed them in the right direction.
The reality of the Viet Cong was similar. Only late in the conflict did they expand to include urban battalions. They also took advantage of the most vulnerable by employing child soldiers.
If you don’t understand this dynamic, then you don’t understand cold-war Indochina. Today, in 2018, the urbanization rate of Cambodia, according to the UN, is 20.7% (186th out of 197 countries). In Vietnam it is 33.6% (159th in the world). By contrast, in the US it is 81.6% (ranked 36th). In the 60s and 70s, these percentages would have been much lower, especially in Vietnam.
In Cambodia, in the 70s, the divide between urban and rural was so massive that most rural areas did not have electricity. Some, in the most isolated villages, had never seen a motorized vehicle. Stepping into Phnom Penh or Saigon would have been like stepping decades into the future. In Vietnam, even today, there is a system of jokes and idioms about how ignorant and unsophisticated the Viet Cong and NVA were.
To the illiterate members of the Khmer Rouge, the extravagances of Phnom Penh must have seemed like at least part of the problem. After all, their neighbors on the farms didn’t drop bombs from planes. But these people in Phnom Penh and Battambong, with their TVs and cars, who were either complicit in the overthrow of King Sihanuok or did nothing to stop it, must be in some way connected to the people dropping the bombs. It wasn’t a hard sell.
If I know this, then the people in the US State Department and the CIA, who are paid to understand this sort of thing, also knew it. But they will act like they made a blunder, and no one could have foreseen this happening. There is no way to defeat someone defending their homeland in their homeland, because they will never give up.
Have they learned their lesson?
Afghanistan has a 26.7% urbanization rate (173rd out of 199) in 2015. This is after Kabul’s population has more than quadrupled since the US invasion. It was estimated at around 1 million in 2001 and is now around 4.6 million.
The Taliban never enjoyed large support in Kabul. Prior to 2001, it was a majority Tajik city. Tajiks and Uzbeks formed the Northern Alliance, which was the de facto government in the northern third of the country during the five years that the Taliban controlled the country from Kandahar.
The vast majority of Taliban members are ethnic Pashtuns. Many Pashtuns adopted a Takfiri ideology during the Saudi-funded clerical and militant Mujahedin movement that was part of the cold-war hysteria I mentioned briefly in The Reagan Years.
Pashtuns mostly occupy the rural mountainous area in the southeast of the country. They are very uneducated and know little of what goes on outside their region. But they will defend their homeland if it is invaded, as is human nature.
The impetus for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was 9/11. But according to a poll taken in provinces where US troops and the Taliban are active, only 8% of Afghans have heard of 9/11. Here is a video of a guy going around and showing pictures of the Twin Towers burning and asking locals if they’ve ever heard of 9/11. They asked dozens of people, young and old, including police officers and translators, and only one person, a police district chief, had ever heard of the event. Keep in mind that this is an area that has been occupied by the US for more than a decade, and the people there don’t know what originally caused the US to come. They didn’t interview Taliban members, but I’d be willing to bet the results would be similar. They are simple people defending their homeland against foreign invaders. In fact, many Afghans think that the American troops and the Russians that invaded in the 80s are the same people.
The US’s stated goals when going into Afghanistan long ago were removing the Taliban from power and purging Al Qaeda from the country. Both of these goals were accomplished. Yet the US remains. This disproves any bullshit excuse they might give us for the reasons for the invasion. The real reason is to protect the opium trade and guard against Chinese influence in this strategically important region, the crossroads between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.
Urbanized countries tend to be the most stable. They don’t suffer from the same regional tribalism and systemic educational deficiencies that less urbanized countries do. But internal division between urban and rural exists in every society.
I think people make a big deal out of regional differences in the US, especially between north and south. But I think this is over-stated and not nearly as important as the rural-urban divide. People like to use terms like ‘red state’ and ‘blue state,’ but it is difficult to find a state that is fully red or blue. It’s more interesting to look at it by county.
Even blue states like Oregon and New York are mostly red, at least by land area. But almost all the major cities are blue.
This is certainly not unique to America. You can find a similar map for nearly every country in the world, with the ‘left’ of that country’s spectrum winning in the cities and the ‘right’ winning in the countryside.
I’m no sociologist, so I don’t feel qualified to speak on why this is. But I’ll give my two cents anyways. I think it mostly comes down to a sense of community. If you know the people living around you, you will be more likely to acquiesce to the cultural norms of that society, and if any progressive attitudes about how things could be improved float into your mind, they can be expelled by the thought of what the neighbors would think.