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.


Letter from Kabul – An Autobiography of Karzai

November 22, 2006

Judging from the way the media dolls him, universities shower honorary degrees, politicians vie for photo-ops, and policy institutes don’t miss opportunities to have him speak when he is in town, Karzai is already a bestseller brand in America.

This is why an autobiography of Karzai would be an instant bestseller and a profitable idea.

That idea happened to longtime Karzai acquaintance and journalism professor at Boston University, Nick Mills, who decided to ghost-write an autobiography of the Afghan president. Professor Mills even took a leave of absence from his job to spend a few months with Karzai in Kabul, resulting in Letter from Kabulto be released next fall.

This summer, however, Karzai -who is famously tactful and reserved in expressing his views particularly towards those he would gladly do without- backtracked on the earlier arrangement of being credited as an author of the book. The book will still be published, but it is now credited solely to Professor Mill and is no longer a first person account. The loss of a more personal style of narrative is bound to take something away from the book.

What I am wondering about is this: could somebody as politic and reserved as Karzai have said anything of substance while still sitting in office? Being honest about history is not a luxury many people afford, especially sitting presidents. That is usually the reserved department of former presidents writing revealing memoirs. Honesty about Afghan history of all things would prove singularly thorny and step on many a friend and foe’s toes alike, something Mr. Karzai has gone out of his way to avoid in the past. By contast, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is by many degrees of contrast more brash than Karzai, and even his memoirs read like a lullaby tale of childhood memories and adventuresome youth save for a few comments (famously the “bomb Pakistan back to Stone Age” line attributed to former State Department official Dick Armitage.) Despite this suspicion that the book will not amount to more than a high-profile version of a consensus, uncontroversial view of events, I do hope the reason Mr. Karzai has pulled out of the deal is because it is revealing and controversial in some way.  To see that, we have another year of waiting until Fall 2008.

For now, here is a glimpse into the contents of the book (an earlier version, before Karzai’s retreat):

Table of Contents for Letter from Kabul/Hamid Karzai; with Nick Mills.
A Brief History of Afghanistan
A Few Facts About Afghanistan
1 Growing up Afghan in a Changing World
2 The End of Monarchy, the Beginning of Jihad
3 Defeating a Superpower
4 Losing the Peace ? As the World Withdraws
5 The Rise of the Taliban
6 September 11, 2001 ? The War On Terror Begins in Afghanistan
7 The Fall of the Taliban ? A New Beginning for Afghanistan
8 Building a New Afghanistan
9 Progress, Promise and Problems ? The Road Ahead

A Call for Help

November 21, 2006

Not for me, for Dr. Ramazan Bashardost.

As a former cabinet minister and presidential candidate and current MP from Kabul (elected with most votes), Dr. Bashardost is that rarity in Afghanistan: a career politician, and one with a conscience. He has clearly devoted his life to the public and is bent on raising important issues for national debate. This is reflected in his numerous tirades in the parliament against corrupt and incapable officials and the government. One could argue that he is playing the role of a legislator meant to balance the excesses of the executive most dutifully. While many people feel that he is too argumentative and tactless, I rarely see this as a shortcoming. Beyond the possibility that it may cost him dearly in terms of personal safety, what he is doing is a challenging the political culture in Afghanistan of appearances, falsities, and niceties, and debating important issues.

However, he has some real difficulty in raising his voice of dissent. He has been educated in France and his knowledge of English is wanting. Consider the following taken from a letter entitled “Letter of Dr. Bashardost to the Position of the Best Justice,” on his website:

It is a law full and nation that attribution job of home sick Afghan.

I proud that this formal document of ministry of ruler and rehabilitation development put authority as lawful position that follow the crime and violation.

Ministery ruler and rehabilitation development that in the end of year 1382their minister made a consensus financially to worth of more than 300 million USD they resaved from this money missionary 64 million in year 1382 spend to the project of development. In the report of Miss Noorzai consistory document number 227 Date 1383/10/17 question is this where is remind money? It means where is 236 million USD ministery ruler and rehabilitation development is count high than low they didn’t help whit control and chin of the Best Justice document (No27Date 83/5/11 No 28 Date of 83/7/10 No 32 Date of 84/10/12 No 46 Date of 83/12 and No 47 Date of 83/10/7).”

The letter concludes:

“I aspect from position of Best low should follow this document serums sin document (2272) date 84/10/7 Mrs. Noorza’s cohistang the chief of improve of capacity.”

It is clear beyond doubt that Dr. Bashardost has something important to say. It is far from clear, however, that anyone can understand the incoherent English that his views are conveyed in. I am not sure whether he is writing the statements on his website on himself or employing the assistance of an aide with little knowledge of English.

It is important that these views make their way into policy discussions and debates on Afghanistan. Dissent, debate, and argumentation is the essence of democracy, and “The Argumentative Mr. Bashardost” (borrowing a phrase from Amartya Sen) embodies that in Afghanistan. I hope he finds somebody to help get his voice of dissent out. Anyone interested can find Dr. Bashardost’s contact on his website.

(Note: It should be made clear that I am not writing this blog entry on behalf of Dr. Bashardost. I was reading his website and felt the English language deficient, hence this post.)

UCLA Incident Update – III

November 21, 2006

As promised, an update on the Mostafa Tabatabainejad taser incident at a UCLA library.

  • For a balancing view, read these two: UCLA/UCPD statement on the incident, and CAIR’s Campus Martyr.
  • Some people feel that there has been a rush to judgement that this is an incidence of “police brutality.” While it is clear from the video that excessive use of force occurs, apparently there are strict technicalities for what constitutes excessive use of force and police brutality. Until the outside investigation reaches a definitive conclusion on the matter, the word to use is “incidence.”
  • Many feel that the issues has been politicized. Such issues usually are, and now in the era of YouTube and personal blogs like this, that likelihood only increases. For some, this is an automatically bad development -“politicized” is ia dirty word, almost like “perverted” or “contaminated.” While I do not agree that issue politicizations of all sorts are necessarily bad, there is a chance that the issue will become fodder for those who want to feed their narrow political agendas. The statement from Iranian Foreign Ministry comes to mind, for instance. It is important to be careful that these narrow politicizations do no happen. The Rosa Parks bus incidence was clearly politicized, and it provided the spark for a much needed debate on civil rights. That is the right sort of issue politicization, and the sort that is needed now when it comes to treatment of Muslims in the West (I would still argue that the treatment of Muslims in the US is far superior to that in Western Europe.)
  • The student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, has hired a lawyer and is planning to file a lawsuit (federal civil rights court) against the police on grounds of excessive use of force and false arrest.

A Survey of the Afghan People

November 21, 2006

Asia Foundation has just released its survey of Afghanistan titled “Afghanistan in 2006: A Survey of the Afghan People.”

The survey is touted as “the single-largest, most comprehensive public opinion poll ever conducted in Afghanistan,” and captures public opinion on issues of security, democracy, poppy cultivation, the media, the economy, the roles of Islam and women in society, the parliamentary elections, as well as attitudes towards governing institutions.

The methodology used is in-person interviews with more than 6,200 men and women across ethnic, regional, and socio-economic lines.

Comments on Methodology

It is important to point out that this methodology (in-person interviews) suffers from shortcomings that are widely acknowledged by most researchers. Regardless of how random the sampling, and how big the sample size, these confounding issues remain. This is why most polls, interviews, and other surveys of public opinion should not be relied on exclusively as the basis of research. However, where there are few other means of gathering information on a subject, surveys like this see wide usage. I am afraid this is common practice when it comes to Afghanistan. (There are however notable exceptions to this where the biases and margins of error that plague most surveys are countered by using other methods. One such exception is the “Measures of Progress” report on Afghanistan put out by CSIS’s Post Conflict Reconstruction project. They produced their first “Measures of Progress” report last year, and a follow-up is expected this year. I will post it on this blog when it is available.)

Surprise Findings

> A whopping 77% of the respondents felt satisfied with the working of democracy in Afghanistan.

> Large majorities (above 85%) of the respondents said that they trusted the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. (This is counter to what the recent report on the state of the Afghan National Police would have suggested.)

> Attitudes towards gender were surprisingly liberal as well (at least for this writer.) A majority of respondents agreed with “equal rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religion.”

These findings amount to much-needed positive PR for both the governments of Afghanistan and the US.

And then there are not so surprising findings. Perceptions of corruption are widespread. 75% felt that the government did not care about their opinion. Poverty and a poor economy are cited as top concerns.

A Word of Caution

Overall the survey’s findings are positive. People are optimistic, they are satisfied with the process of democratization, and their identification of problems and issues are reasonable.

However, consider the following finding:

“Although, as a principle, 84 percent of the respondents felt that the overnment should allow peaceful opposition, on a personal level 63 ercent said they would not allow political parties they disliked to hold meetings in their area.”

What this points to is a clear dichotomy between “in principal” and “in action” in the mind of the respondents. It shows that there is not a necessary continuity between the views that people profess and what they really believe in (as demonstrated by their willingness to act on their beliefs.) For instance, while attitudes towards political opposition are liberal, most respondents said that they would not tolerate meetings of those they do not agree with. One can imagine how such “in principal” professions such as “equal rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religion” would not necessarily carry over when it comes to action.

Link to the Survey

A PDF copy of the survey is available here.

Weekend Reading 1

November 18, 2006

Starting with this weekend, I will try to post two or three “recommended readings” every Friday. The theme will reflect that of this blog’s, that is to say there will be no particular theme. Just stuff from all over the place that I have read and liked (I will not recommend something I have not read myself.) These will be essays/articles/poems/blog entries that have struck my own idiosyncratic fancy and you are at liberty to read them or not -they do come highly recommended however.

So how is this any different from my usual posts (that mostly bear links to other readings too)? The answer is, they will not be accompanied by my usually excessive and long-winded extrapolation and commentary. Just for you to read. Maybe through the comments section you can share your thoughts, though with so many lurkers I highly doubt that.

So on to the first weekend’s readings:


Update on UCLA Police Brutality

November 18, 2006

Power to the People! Thanks to YouTube!

Thanks also to a crude cell-phone video of the incident of police brutality against an Iranian student on UCLA campus (see my earlier post) the issue has received much attention.

  • For the third day in a row the video is the most linked-to video on Technorati, prompting this insightful post (Candid Cameras) from Dan Glaister on Guardian’s blog Comment is Free. Consider posting a link to the video from your blog.
  • UCLA officials has taken notice and have ordered an independent investigation into the case. (This was recommended by CAIR-LA earlier.)
  • More interestingly, the government of the Islamic Republic has sent its two cents on the matter: In a statement issues Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry has said that the incident has “hurt the feelings of the Iranian nation.” (It strikes me that the government of Iran lacks the credibility to defend students and to debate brutality against them.

I will fallow this issue over the next few days and report any further developments. It is important that his incident not go unnoticed, and if proven to be motivated by religious or racial intolerance, it should provide the starting point for a long-awaited debate on the matter.

Afghanistan’s Katrina

November 18, 2006

AFP reports: “More than 50 people have been killed and another 100 are missing in western Afghanistan after the worst flooding in years.”Unfortunately the toll is bound to rise -missing usually means dead here. I just think they put the toll lower to get the public used to the idea -the principal of gradualism at work.

The government and the international aid agencies say relief is on the way. What stands between now and this becoming Afghanistan’s Katrina is how they will deliver on that promise. (The comparison is intended only to contrast official attitude and reaction to the catastrophe and not to compare death tolls and loss of property.)

It’s All About Kaching!

November 18, 2006

The Channel 4 News crew wrap up a week of live broadcast from Afghanistan with this report on doing business in Afghanistan. The team interviews one of the country’s emerging tycoons Azmarai Kamgar, the owner of Kam Air and a handful of other enterprises. Mr. Kamgar is forthright in saying that regardless of who is in power (the Communists, the Mujahideen, Taliban, Karzai, or “someone else tomorrow” -he leaves it open) he is ready to deal with them and not betroth himself too loyally to any particular ideology. In the best tradition of successful businessmen everywhere, he complains about government and accuses it of trying to “destroy” the business community in Afghanistan. With his money he plans to break into the energy sector -but only after he builds himself a “Neverland” in Mazar-i Sharif. (Read Alex Thomson’s blog entry The Easyjet of Afghanistan.)

Also in the report we hear some hair-raising premonitions from former Minister of Planning and current MP Mr. Ramazan Bashardost about a secretive “mafia” that runs Afghanistan from “behind closed doors,” and whose members include top government officials and a few international players. Although Mr. Bashardost is not taken too seriously in Afghanistan these days, all the same with the levels of corruption as rampant as it is in Afghanistan, he can only be right. What I am uncertain about is whether the “mafia” that he speaks of real or imaginary/metaphorical. He seems to use the word literally, and that is no cause for comfort. Separately, I have observed disturbing signs elsewhere that indicate the existence of if not an outright mafia, at least an implicit “understanding” between various vested business interests, none of which coincide too closely with the public’s interest in Afghanistan. I shall purposefully remain vague for now.

(To see videos of the week’s Channel 4 reporting from Afghanistan and to read their news blog visit News from Afghanistan.)