Warlord Coasters and the Pitfalls of Armchair Statesmanship

Warlords of Afghanistan

Warlords for Hire

Here is an innovative and unprecedented use of Afghanistan’s “Warlords”: hire them to keep your coffee table clean and spotless. Of course you cannot afford to do this in real life (and even if you could, you would not want such unseemly and dangerous types around your house,) so you need the help of the illustrator and self-proclaimed “armchair statesman” Matt Weems of http://www.warlordsofafghanistan.com

Thanks to Mr. Weems, now you can pick your coffee mug or your cup of fine Alokozay tea right from atop Rashid Dostum’s muscular chest, or Abdul Ali Mazari’s galloping Mongolian horse or of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s torso which has been rendered by Mr. Weems into that of a mythical creature half-man and half-lion.

Armed with a robust reading list of such writers as Gary Schroen and Robin Moore (though to be fair, he does say that Robin Moore is a “simple soul”) among others, and “worried by the ignorance of the general public, including myself…and the administration” Mr. Weems set out on a mission to teach himself (and presumably others) “to see.”

In the process, he has stumbled upon a rather creative and profitable means of doing so: capture the attention of the captive audience around America’s coffee tables. Yes, what better way to inform and enlighten Americans than to put images and histories of Afghanistan’s various villains and myriad ethnic groups right in front of them and, unavoidably, under their mugs of Maxwell House. Who wants to pick that copy of Country Living or Home and Garden when you can look at Hekmatyar’s head on an Eagle and read about his exploits, and all in such simple and black and white terms that Americans can relate to: “In a Hollywood movie Hekmatyar would be the evil foil to the heroic Masud.”

The Pitfalls of Armchair Statesmanship

are many, as a brief glance into Mr. Weem’s version of Afghanistan’s history and lack of cultural sensitivity would sufficiently demonstrate.

For the most part, however, armchair punditry is innocent. It makes for good dinner conversation and does little or no harm to the subject matter.

The danger is that while ordinary armchair pundits and statesmen have limited audiences for disseminating their views that are invariably solipsist, selective, at times ill-informed, and most of the times full of biases that often the speakers themselves are not aware of, an “armchair statesman and illustrator” on the other hand is armed with the power of both images and markets, and so bears a greater responsibility on his shoulders to fact-check and research before sharing of his wisdom.

Even more so because most people will not take the time to read the few good books that are out there on Afghanistan (I frankly gave up trying to find a link on Amazon to a good reading list on Afghanistan) and will find in Mr. Weems’ coasters a quick and dirty guide to Afghanistan. This is why it is all the more unfortunate that Mr. Weems has not done his homework on Afghanistan, even as a hasty glance at his work would reveal.

Just to point at a few, Mr. Weems in turn:

Overly romanticizes Afghanistan’s warlords:

As for the warlords themselves, they are a glimpse into another age… They are amazingly resilient, lurking in the hills when defeated, waiting for a chance to come back. They are also cruel and brave and crazy with conviction. They live large and die violent, self-pitying deaths.

Presents the height of solipsism:

The warlords are a fascinating contrast; contemporary versions of Robert Guiscard, Jesse James, Al Capone, and many other freebooting scallywags from our own past.

…and Eurocentrism:

In the 1880s an Afghan in the model of Edward Long-Shanks arrived and forged a nation. Abdur Rahman, the Iron Amir…

Dabbles in Orientalism:

In Afghanistan looking different can be dangerous. Bushy beards are a masculine and pious display amongst Pashtuns, so lacking them is a social handicap…

…and other kinds of Essentialism:

Mazari’s beard was pretty substantial for a Hazara; most look Asiatic, with sparse facial hair and cowboy eyes…. Pashtuns…learned to live with unrelated neighbors, which requires a dilution of the independence and ferocity of the Pashtunwali.

Is occasionally ill-informed:

According to most authoritative sources, the Pashtu language’s two dialects are Eastern and Western. Hazaras are not the remnants of Genghis’s armies, or his direct descendants, or even entirely Mongol in their ethnic roots.

Could be seen as culturally insensitive:

While the illustrator may think he has “lionized” Massoud, a drawing of Massoud’s head on a lion’s body would raise eyebrows in Afghanistan and draw the ire of Massoud’s supporters.

Another troubling thing with the Warlord Coasters is that it is not clear whether they are satirical or serious. Sayyaf’s beard flowing from the barrel of Saudi oil could be great political cartoon, but then again you get that uneasy feeling that it is not meant so – that it poses as serious commentary. Ditto his depiction of Mazari’s purported Genghis-like leadership of the Hazaras, his lionizing of Massoud, etc. Flip the coaster and you have quite serious but ill-informed pontification about each of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups (and lets stop calling them tribes) and “warlords”. I do not doubt Mr. Weems intentions for a second, it is his methodology and his sources that trouble me. He is as much an unwitting victim of his work as would be his unsuspecting clients/readers.

On a broader note, the use of the phrase “warlord” in the context of Afghanistan is troubling. In other words, Afghanistan’s warlords are not your daddy’s warlords – the ones that swarmed in Chinese countryside before the communist revolution, for instance, or the ones in Somalia today and elsewhere. The usage of “warlord” terminology in Afghanistan sprang up sometimes in the late 1990s all for lack of a better term and for the perennial tendency on part of the Western journalists to mold reality into something readily understandable and familiar to their readers. In the strictest definition of the word “warlord” very few if any of the figures associated with the name in Afghanistan meet the criteria.

Lastly, Mr. Weems’s website has a forum for feedback, but as is the tradition with most discussion forums on Afghanistan, most of the discussions threads are about whether Massoud or Mazari was the worse, or whether the Pashtun or the Hazara are the truer Afghans, etc.

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10 Responses to Warlord Coasters and the Pitfalls of Armchair Statesmanship

  1. Matt Weems says:

    I’m responding to your criticism, but in general I have to thank you for reading at least part of the website before venturing your opinion – most people rant but don’t read.

    To start with I read much more than ex-cia and loopy seniors like Schroen and Moore – I read Rubin, Coll and Ahmed Rashid. You said you want a list of good books on Afghanistan? Look at my links page – at the top are 11 of the most prominent. The one I really want to read but it costs over $200 for a copy is Rhaman’s memoirs.

    The coasters are not profitable – at least not yet. The only people who order them are State Dept, NGO people, Afghans in exile and journalists. The number of people interested in the subject is small, and civil war is too much a downer for people to want it on their table. If making money was my object I would make coasters of NASCAR drivers.

    As I suspect you know already “armchair statesman” is an ironic term that owns up to my limits – but the site is well researched – I think there is one factual mistake in there I know of now – The Jezail’s curved butt was designed to allow easy firing from horseback, not so it can be braced under the armpit. Everything else is checked as much as facts can in Afghanistan, which is not a document rich nation.

    The Warlords are adventure story type figures, but if you think I romanticize them you missed this comment:

    “Without the traditional checks which had mitigated the authority of the Khans, warlords routinely abused their power. War bands were guilty of torture, rape, murder, and theft.”

    Comparing the warlords to western figures is not Eurocentric at all; I say at the start my aim is to educate the US public a little, I need to compare Afghan warlords to figures they might know about.

    Hazara do in fact have less facial hair than Pashtuns. They are at least %50 racially Asiatic. And the Taliban made it a law that a man must have a beard longer than a clenched fist under his chin.

    The Hazara are, in fact, descended in part from the Mongols. I also thought this was a charming fairy tale – but a genetic study has supported the Hazara folk history on this. How they then ended up speaking a Persian dialect I do not know – but that had to be acquired whether they are of Mongol descent or of some other Turkish stock – so that has no bearing. This may still be disputed – I may be on the wrong side of the argument even – but I have done the reading and made an informed judgement. Look here: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_6_163/ai_97997816

    The coasters are insensitive. Not culturally though – mostly people get angry at the pictures, which are cartoons after all. Look at the images of Rummy, Bush, Idema, Lindh and Brezhnev. My insensitivity is for all cultures.

    Of course the coasters are sytirical and serious at the same time. Why you picked Sayyaf as the example I can’t figure. The oil pipeline is supposed to refer to his financial support from the Saudis, without which he would have been a much smaller player. Personally I think the Mazari as Mongol was taking the easy way out for his cartoon. It helps readers remember who the Hazara are, but his identity as a leader would be better characterized as a martyr in the style of Ali, which would then connect him to the Hazara’s Shi’a faith. But I am not comfortable drawing cartoons of other people’s religious figures, a caution that has been justified since.

    I know enough to call the ethnic groups ethnic groups, tribe means something else.

    I think calling these men warlords is justified in most cases. Few would be important leaders without the decades of fighting. The challenge Afghanistan faces now is bringing men accustomed to expressing power with fighting to learn politics.

    You can’t blame me for the comments on the forum.

    If you think the site is ill-informed – tell me where. I will double check every fact you raise doubts about.

    Again – thanks for actually reading before ranting.

    Matt

  2. […] I will be back with a long and long delayed response to Matt Weem’s comments about my early posting on his […]

  3. Matt Weems says:

    Will you? Are you doing fact checking and wondering how you will get past not having them on your side?

    I just looked into pashtun dailects again -they are north and south.

  4. J.Z. says:

    I have just not gotten around to it. And yes, I will.
    Also, I would rather be on the facts’ side than having them on my side. As such, I will not need to do a lot of fact checking -like I did not need to when I first decided to write about this.
    Apropos, all this talk about having a side and lining up facts on your side makes me feel a little like I am running in an election in the US. That odd, uncomfortable, sleazy feeling of partisanship at any cost that I am just not used to. I would gladly and readily admit to facts regardless of whose side they are on.
    In fact, the topic I will choose to address as a sample -largely because I know most about it- has been one I have itched to talk about for a while, so I owe you thanks for giving me the excuse.

  5. Matt Weems says:

    I don’t mind you calling my work insensitive or Eurocentric – those are subjective judgments and readers can make their own choice. But I did a lot of research in very slippery and poorly documented subject matter to get as close to the truth as I could, so “ill-informed” bugs me a bit. In the last year readers have told me where they thought I got a fact or judgement wrong and when they were right I changed the text. The factual mistakes you pointed out I was correct on, though.

    You picked out two books I read and then generalized that my sources “trouble” you. Robin Moore’s book is more the fantasy of Jack Idema than a factual source, but this is exactly what makes it interesting. Gary Schroen has some bias as a CIA agent (a relative of Abdul Haq pointed out the bad blood between the CIA and Haq, who gets poor treatment in the book), but Schroen tells the story of dragging out the war in the North, hoping a Pashtun force could take Kabul before Fahim, from a position nobody else had. Pointing out mistakes is fair, but saying it has no value is a huge mistake.

    I read a whole lot of material that should not trouble you at all. Rubin’s Fragmentation of Afghanistan is the most respected source on recent Afghan history – suggested to me by Ahmed Rashid who I think has his biases but is as well informed as any journalist today on Afghanistan. You might have said something like
    “some of his sources are troubling” and been accurate. Also – if you know what the good books on Afghanistan are – maybe you could share those titles with us? It’s a good rule of thumb when saying something is inadequate to suggest something better.

    From your other reviews, I feel you make scathing comments a little too easily, and fail to give others the credit they do deserve.

  6. […] that I have done my best through a previous post to address all of Mr. Weem’s concerns about my initial post and to provide some backup for why I felt that some information on his website and products were […]

  7. TicAttaip says:

    oh yeah, one more thing Be good to my spotty clerk Good joke :) What is a zebra? 26 sizes larger than an “A” bra.

  8. Afghanistan Veteran says:

    Another little known gem of a book for people who really want to learn about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and more.

    http://www.iuniverse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000120904

    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbninquiry.asp?ean=9781440125621

    Memoirs of a Deployed Airman
    The Adventures, Exploits, & Travails of a Combat Security Assistance Officer; Kabul, Afghanistan
    By Patrick B. Monahan
    Also available as: E-Book
    Published: February, 2009
    Format: Perfect Bound Softcover
    Pages: 564
    Size: 7.5×9.25
    ISBN: 9781440125621

    An Honest & Unique View of Combat Duty by Freedom_Lover
    Reader Rating:
    See Detailed Ratings
    February 25, 2009: Maj Monahan provides the reader with a deeply personal experience of his year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan. Through his daily memoir recordings, we are able to see everything involved in deploying to a foreign combat zone. There is a human element to this military piece of literature which has rarely been captured in previous military history accounts. While there is plenty of action, courage under duress, success and failure in performance of duty; it is the raw emotion, psychological battles, and personal soliloquies that grab the reader. Additionally, we see an inner view of the Muslim world and the bonds formed between U.S. forces and people of Afghanistan which are truly mesmerizing. It is astounding to see just how powerful and lasting the relationships that have been formed–and how they transcend from the combat zone. Lastly, pictures are worth a thousand words and Maj Monahan has wonderfully illustrated life on the frontlines and life on the homefront. This is a must read book for deploying troops, military veterans, military enthusiasts, American patriots, and all who stand for freedom!!!

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