Orientalizing Afghanistan

November 27, 2006

Ever since reading the late Edward Said’s oeuvre Orientalism (essential reading for every student of social sciences and areas studies), it is as if I have found a language to express my frustrations about the nonesense that not infrequently comes out of academia and the media about Afghanistan and the Muslim world at large.

The crucial thing about orientalism is not so much that it misunderstands or misrepresents ‘the other,’ but rather that such representations serve an agenda that bases itself on the “nexus of knowledge and power.” In other words, using certain imagery and words to represent the other is not purely scientific and innocuous, but rather a highly political enterprise, and one that is not inconsequential for both the observer and the one represented. More importantly, in the long term the represented comes to see himself in terms that are used to represent him, he finds his history and identity in the orientalist discourse.

Nearly everything about discussions of Afghanitan reeks of such orientalist stench. Frequently we see the media as well as serious scholars essentialize Afghanis as this or that – and as I have pointed out in an earlier post, not infrequently Afghans fall for this and try to seek out their own true essence in a purported “Afghaniyat” attributed to them. Such discussions are always essentialist, fatalist, and contribute to the misunderstanding of Afghanistan’s problems by both Afghanistan’s people as well as outsiders. There would be a hope for all of this to stop, were it not for the fact that they are also most of the time easy to comprehend than reality (which is far more complex), and they are somehow exotic and attractive – in one word, sexy- to the outside observer. It satisfies some urge for the exotic in the outside observer to see Afghanistan as brave, or fearless, or violent, or devoutly religious, “friecely indepdendent and individualist,” or this or that.

So you can imagine how my Afghaniyat(!) boils over in anger when I read something like this: Afghanistan’s National Pastime, a reporter for time magazine describing how watching a game of Buzkashi helped him make sense of Afghan politics.

Oxfam Issues Urgent Call on Drought in Central Afghanistan

November 26, 2006

For the second time in less than a decade Afghanistan is hit with a chronic drought. Once again the worst affected areas lie in central highlands of Hazarajat, across an area that became famous as the “Hunger Belt” during the 2001-2002 drought.

Oxfam warns that as many as 2.5 million face “chronic food shortage,” and that the need for assistance is urgent, as most of the worst affected areas become inaccessible with the onsen of the winter. I was forwarded a message from Oxfam wherein they requested maximum media exposure, and I hope somebody will take notice -TV, print news, anyone. See what you can do to make that happen (a PDF copy of the release available here.)

Exposure and international attention is crucial, because, assuming that the Afghan government had the willingness to respond to an emergency in this part of the country, it does not have the capacity and the means to do so. The international community saved the day in the case of 2001-2 drought when donors tripled food aid to the region in one year, it needs to do so again to save lives.

Here are some chilling excerpts from Oxfam’s Press Release:

“International aid agency Oxfam warns today that many villages in central
Afghanistan have become populated entirely by women as drought forces
men to migrate in search of work in order to survive. Now these women and
their families are beginning to abandon their homes because there is no food
left in the villages.”

“Oxfam has found that with almost a 50% fall in harvests of wheat and fodder
this year, half of the population in one of the worst affected regions, Hazarajat
will not have enough food this winter.”

“For Oxfam it is a race against time before the winter sets in over the next
month and villages become inaccessible.”

Weekly Alert – II

November 25, 2006

~ Recommended Readings, Viewings, and Events ~

(Note: I have decided to change the format of the Weekend Reading posts (started last week) to include not only recommended readings, but also viewing recommendations and event alerts.)

Here is the second Weekly Alert:

  • Article: “NATO’s Future” – The Economist reports on how NATO came to embody the Destiny’s Child hit “I’m a Survivor!”
  • Map: “Situation Map of Afghan Floods” – A map of the affected districts in Western Afghanistan and emergency responses, created by ReliefWeb.
  • Event: “Afghan Perspectives on Afghanistan’s Transition” – A panel discussion and presentation organized by the Conflict Resolution Forum at Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University -for those of you who live close enough in the area to make it (yours truly is one of the four panelists discussing Afghan perspectives of the recent developments.)

Fighting the Good Fight: Abdul Jabbar Sabit as Afghanistan’s Elliot Spitzer

November 25, 2006

Afghanistan’s new Attorney General Abdul Jabbart Sabit views his mission as a Jihad against corruption, and so far, he is making both progress and enemies aplenty.

Hearing pleas and grievances from the visiting public in his office (often in person,) he is becoming a one-man institution of transitional justice -the kind of justice that Afghanistan so badly needed post-Taliban, the kind of justice that Afghanistan did not get, because its new leaders were too willing to cut deals with warlords and criminals left and right.

The least that these cynical leaders -with little moral courage to stand up to corruption on their own- can do now, is to stand behind the man who has the moral fortitude to do it for them: Abdul Jabbar Sabit, Afghanistan’s Elliot Spitzer. (Mr. Spitzer is New York State’s Attorney General and a lightning rod against corporate corruption and white-collar crime.)

The good news is, so far Mr. Sabit has won many supporters: from the general populace who see in him a man with the moral rectitude and the courage to stand up to powerful people, and from a good number of MPs. (This, despite rumors and suggestions about his own shady political/Hezbi associations in the past.) But in a place like Afghanistan, where politics can often be a dirty and amoral affair -where it isn’t?-, he faces a particularly tough battle. The hard work lying ahead of this veritable Mujahid, and the need for people to stand behind him, is epitomized in this quote from Shukria Barakzai, an MP from Kabul:

“He is wonderful, and we all need to support his reforms, or he will be a lonely person facing many difficulties… People are really thirsty for justice, but Dr. Sabit is in such a hurry, and he has opened so many lines of battle, that he is taking many risks.” (Read Top Prosecutor Targets Afghanistan’s Once-Untouchable Bosses.)

While Mr. Sabit’s earlier ventures to Herat and Balkh faced resistance (from officials higher up, who saved the corrupt officials Mr. Sabit was bringing to justice) his recent trip to eastern regions has proved more successful. He has rellied popular support, and counting on the goodwill of the people towards his cause, he recently said that “People will not support corrupt officials… I am convinced that Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat like situation will not be created here.” So far, he has ordered the arrest of 11 allegedly corrupt officials, four of whome have reportedly fled to escape arrest.

With the danger that widespread corruption and impunity throughout all the levels of the current government poses to the future of Afghanistan, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Abdul Jabbar Sabit is fighting the most important of battles (at least as important as the military campaigns against the insurgents) for Afghanistan. He needs all of our support, now.

(Note: For a highly expository interview with Mr. Sabit (in Farsi), follow the link from Warlordish blog here.) 

State Failure vs. State Collapse

November 24, 2006

A UN Security Council fact-finding mission has concluded its trip to Afghanistan and found that without sustained support the country may “slide back into conflict and a failed state again.”

If this statement is not a gross distortion of facts, then it certainly shows a profound misunderstanding of them. Despite its decidedly alarmist tone, the mission’s report paints a picture far prettier than reality: the reality that Afghanistan is already a failing state, and a state in conflict.

Despite the media and politicians’ rather open-minded approach to the use of terms “state failure” and “state collapse”, in serious scholarship and the literature on state failure and collapse, these phrases have precise and exacting meanings.

On last year’s Failed States Index (compiled by Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine) Afghanistan ranked #10 out of a total of 146 countries. While the ranking was comprehensive and also included countries such as Norway at 146th place and the US at 128th place (clearly strong states), it does say something about Afghanistan at 10th place, in the same neighborhood as Liberia, Haiti, Somalia, and Guinea. (Read my “A Failing State in a State of Denial” on Pakistan’s surprising rank at 9th place ahead of Afghanistan published at South Asian portal chowk.com) That ranking placed Afghanistan among clearly failing states, and the fact that since the index’s release the situation has deteriorated should only move Afghanistan higher in the ladder of failing states.

The idea of the ranking of failing states and the progressivity of state failure should suggest a terminal stage of sorts. This terminal stage is when it is said that a state has collapsed -as was the case in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.

Perhaps what the UNSC mission had in mind was this -that without sustained (or increased) support from the international community, the state in Afghanistan may collapse, because it is already a failing state.

Jirga Appeals to Pashtun Nationalism to Combat Talibanization

November 23, 2006

The much anticipated Jirga of Pashtun tribal leaders from both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is underway. For weeks president Karzai had promoted just such a gathering as a cure all for the transborder agitation and the infiltration of insurgents and weapons to Afghanistan, all the while drumming up Pakistan’s dishonesty in the war against the Taliban.

Read Ahmad Rashid’s account of the Jirga for the Daily Telegraph here. Here is an excerpt:

“Clean-shaven tribal chiefs with large turbans, religious scholars with long beards and young political activists sat together in a large hall in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar to demand that the peaceful traditions of the Pashtun tribes which ‘are being drowned out in a sea of blood’ be restored.”

Called by Karzai and organized by a prominent Pashtun secular political party in Pakistan (ANP) the Jirga is aimed at appealing to Pashtun nationalist sentiments to battle the “Talibanization” of the ethnic group.

This of course assumes that Talibanization itself is not a manifestation of Pashtun ethnic nationalism. For many in Afghanistan who see that Taliban have an exclusively Pashtun popular base, and certainly for many of the Taliban who see themselves as legitimate defenders of Pashtun ethnic interests, this separation is not so clear cut.

And then there is the question of to what extent can Pashtun ethno-nationalism be rallied before that in itself spirals out of control and becomes a threat. After all, the phrase unintended consequences has an all too familiar ring to it in recent Afghan history (e.g. rallying the faithful to Jihad with American money.)

An Update About Safrang

November 23, 2006

Safrang is not anymore a personal weblog – or at least it is not a weblog about a person anymore.

For those who think “Oh boy, here we go again!”, yes, this is another in a series of changes that Safrang has been going through since its inception. Now, however, it boasts of such grandoise things as “having found its niche” and hoping to play a part in “filling the void of serious English language blogs about Afghanistan that reflect the national perspective.”

(Visit About page.)

If there is anyone who has been visiting to read my thoughts and wanderings on disparate things and about life as a whole, I hope this does not prove too big of a disappointment. There are far superior personal weblogs out there that chronicle the daily musings of thousands. I am myself a regular consumer of these, and I have to admit that I will miss that aspect of Safrang the most -being able to vent and ramble and digress and tell the world about my feelings and insecurities.

However, it has come to my attention that there are very few English language blogs that engage in a serious discussion of current affairs in Afghanistan from an Afghanistani perspective. In fact, barring a few good Farsi blogs, there are few such blogs altogether. This is a big void, given that Afghanistan is in a critical stage in the inexorable march of history. Safrang aims to be a modest attempt in stepping up to this challenge and playing its small part in filling this void.

If I did not come across as unfair, I would identify the usual pitfalls of most Afghan blogs as these: lack of focus, long absences, irregular posting, and without exception the tendency of all of them to degenerate into tortured narratives of the existential crises of the authors. Safrang has also been guilty of this in the past, but is intent on rectifying itself. َIn addition, Safrang has often fallen into the trap of trying entertain and amuse rather than inform, a trap it hopes to avoid in the future. While topics such as Islam and the West, economics, and of course cinema and American pop culture remain close to my heart, for focus’s sake I will try my best to avoid wandering into these territories when unrelated to the central theme.

It bears emphasizing that despite these changes, Safrang will still strive to provide a fresh editorial perspective on current events from an Afghan perspective, and not merely become a directory of links to news articles about Afghanistan.

In keeping with this shift, the “categories” and “blogroll” sections will be reviewed to reflect the new theme of Safrang. For all other blogs that I visit regularly, please visit my del.icio.us bookmarks (linked under blogroll.)

Thank you for your continued reading and your comments.