Warlord Coasters and the Pitfalls of Armchair Statesmanship

April 4, 2007

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.