Another Prisoner Exchange Deal?

April 16, 2007

Moi Aussi!

A few days ago this blog asked whether the French government will follow suit and try to pressure the Karzai government -like the Italian government did earlier- into arranging a prisoner exchange deal. That deal led to the release of Italian journalist Daniel Mastrogiacomo, but only after the death of his Afghan driver, the release of five ranking T-word commanders (bear with me for a few more days), and was followed by the tragic death of his Afghan colleague Ajmal Naqshbandi, the imprisonment of the person who arranged the deal -Rahmatullah Henefi, an Afghan staff of the Italian aid group Emergency-, and the pulling out of Emergency from Afghanistan.

So far, France’s answer the the question above seems to be an unqualified Oui.

Chirac Sweet Surrender - courtesy of politicalhumor

All jokes about French and their penchant for quick surrender aside, French president Jacques Chirac has reportedly appealed to president Karzai over a telephone conversation to “demand his support” for the release of two French aid workers held hostage for some two weeks now (the French aid workers are identified as Celine and Eric.) After the flak that the Afghan and Italian governments caught for negotiating with terrorists the first time around, and especially after the political fallout from Ajmal Naqshbandi’s death, president Karzai ruled out any future such deals. Against this backdrop, the “demand his support” clause from the French president can only mean one thing: just this one more time, please!

Who are you betting on?

Regardless of whether the deal goes through or not, the fact that both the Italian and French governments have so readily contemplated negotiating with the enemy and releasing dangerous prisoners begs one question: between the beleaguered government of Hamid Karzai and the resurgent terrorists in the south of Afghanistan, on whom are NATO’s European members placing their bets? If the answer is -as it seems to be on the surface- that they are standing by the government in Kabul, then the costs are clear. It may entail the deaths of even more hostages, and more troops on the ground. If, on the other hand, their faith in the Karzai government is faltering -as it seems to be in the case of the German Social Democrat leader Kurt Beck, for instance- then the doors are thrown open for negotiating with leaders of the extremist group that ruled Afghanistan until October 2001, embracing them, and bringing them into the fold of the Afghan government -an outcome that will mark the height of cynicism on part of the Afghan government and its international allies, and at the expense of the people of Afghanistan. This is the reality of the choice that faces the Afghan government and all its international allies in Afghanistan, and it is no easy choice. It is a choice about the life and deaths of the hostages currently held, and many more who will undoubtedly follow.

Domestic Political Vulnerabilities

Meanwhile, an Op-Ed in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal pointed to the political costs of “negotiating with extremists” for both the Italian and the British governments (and here you have to forgive WSJ for its stretched version of how the Brits “negotiated” with the “extremists” that are the Iranian government.) It is clear that many European governments who were persuaded one way or another by the Bush administration to join the fight in Afghanistan are politically vulnerable at home, and the extremists in Afghanistan, well cognizant of this vulnerability, are doing everything to exploit it.

Diverging Attitudes Within Afghan Government

Evidence also suggests rifts within the Afghan government over this issue, between those who deem the extremists as oh-not-so-terrible-after-all, and those who adopt a more uncompromising stance, ruling out all negotiations and opposing bringing them into the fold. While in a recent press briefly president Karzai openly admitted having spoken with leaders of the extremists (and there are still those in the government who think that Karzai is not being flexible enough on the subject), Foreign Minister Spanta reflected a different line of thinking in his complete rejection of talks with the extremists (saying that there are no “moderate” and “non-moderate” extremists, and that such distinction reveals ignorance about the reality in Afghanistan), and pledged an end to all hostage negotiations.

Continuing the Discussion on “Warlords of Afghanistan”

April 16, 2007

[Note: Initially I posted this in the comments section here in response to comments made by Matt Weems of Warlords of Afghanistan and other readers, but seeing that it clarifies my position on a number of important topics, and more importantly, that writing it ate up almost all of my "blogging time" for today, I will put it here as another post. To those who visit ُSafrang for fresh commentary on current happenings in Afghanistan and will feel shortchanged by this: put up with it -it is, after all, my blog!]

I would like to thank Shaharzad, Ronin, and Jay for their input to this conversation. I especially appreciate the comments from Ronin, whose balanced tone we would all do well to try to emulate.

I would hate to disappoint, but this is not going to be another lengthy response (that is, if I can help it… after all, as Mr. Weems has figured it out about me, as just another Afghan I am sure to follow a similar line of ethnocentrist thinking as those who comment on his website’s forum and engage in name-calling and ethnic slurring against other groups!)

I think 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 misleading. All I have done since is to try to substantiate the critiques in my initial post with evidence from his website, and not to backtrack, or as Mr. Weems suggests in his last comment above, to “take it back.”

However, it seems that Mr. Weems subscribes to the preferred mode of discourse in some American circles who view inflexibility -even in the face of truth- as a virtue, and view any changes of position or qualifications of initial statements as weak, or at best, flip-flopping. If you think I am being unfair, please refer to Mr. Weem’s comment above (first paragraph) where he says about the passage in his website: “…it says what it says and doesn’t then back track, apologize or qualify.” I am aware that this this biting statement is at least partly directed at me for the largely tonal qualifications I made in my follow-up post, and for conceding to two of his criticisms (which I will point out below.) This does not bother me at all, because I view myself as a gladly spineless follower of Gandhi and Mahmoud Dervish, who also took delight in the way their thoughts fluttered freely the more they learned the truth -in Dervish’s words, as if a leaf flutters with the wind.

To this end, and because of my commitment to truth and to civility in discourse, I have conceded that my initial statement was harshly critical without sufficient specific citations from the source I was critiquing, and that I was unfair to single out two of the poorest sources on Mr. Weem’s reading list. Similarly I would have gladly backtracked and taken back my criticism -even if it is on the web for all to see- had I had found evidence that, for instance, Hazaras are exclusively or predominantly Mongol in their ethnic make-up; that they are all Shi’a (and unlike Mr. Weems I tend to think that such nuances are important to point out -after all, most of the biographical and other sketches on just about every other group and “warlord” on Mr. Weem’s website -including the ones on Jezail and the Burqa- are lengthier: surely a few crucial qualifications would have not rendered his three paragraphs about the Hazara too long for what I assume to be coasters of similar dimensions); or that Hazaras have historically enjoyed the friendship and military support of the Persians and continue to do so today; or that as Shi’as, the Hazaras are seen as heretics by other Sunni Afghanistan; or that all other ethnic groups in Afghanistan despise the Hazaras; or…

While we are on that note, I would encourage Mr. Weems to think deep and hard about his own sentiments about race relations in the US and his perceptions of his African-American compatriots, because, notwithstanding issues of structural discrimination or incidents of racial slurring such as the recent one with Don Imus, African-Americans are not “despised” by ordinary people of other races in the US, and one might risk giving away one’s own deeply-held prejudices by insisting that they are.

Others have amply made it clear why Mr. Weem’s statement that “surely it is better that the public learn something about Afghans rather than nothing?” is problematic. I should just point out that what is at issue here is precisely falsity and misinformation. My qualification that “Where I did not find any concrete proofs of falsity…” comes after the sentences preceding it, that “reading the website led me to question the accuracy and factuality of some of the statements in it.” It is entirely possible that my failings as a non-native English speaker might have led Mr. Weems to read other interpretations into this (and with many other statements on my blog -where, at times, he has extracted far-fletched “insinuations” from my writing) but it seems to me that in the first sentence I have made it clear that some statements on Mr. Weems website are subject to question on grounds of factuality and accuracy; and then after that, and separately, I point out that where factuality is not at issue, some statements are questionable for their certitude in tone even though they are not backed-up. And because in such cases counter-factuality is also not possible, I have inserted the qualification that Mr. Weems singles out, i.e. “where I have not found concrete proofs of falsity…”

All in all, I feel dragged into the kind of out-of-context and selective quoting and point-scoring that, as I pointed out earlier, gives the air of electoral politics and election-cycle partisanship. Had I been less patient with such debates, or had I been insecure in my claims and sources, I would have shied away from participating in it. But as it is, I welcome it. In the spirit of my two gurus, Edward Said and Michel Foucault, I embrace the task of challenging the inherent authority of authorship on behalf of people on the periphery, and say that: Beware! the native has started to speak out!
Of course I am aware that I am flattering both myself and Mr. Weems with such sloganeering, but let there be no doubt that I view the task quite seriously and see Safrang as a small start, and my career as focused around this goal (forget for the moment the fact that I am intern and consultant with DC think-tanks; or if you can’t ignore it, bill it as “working from the inside!”)

Last but not least, I find Mr. Weems insinuations that the reason that I have devoted time and energy to writing such lengthy response about the “Hazara” segment of his website unfair -especially after I have painstakingly explained that:

1. I have chosen the topic precisely because, for both personal and academic reasons, I know more about than other topics on his website (and as a general rule, I prefer to talk about that which I know a thing or two about – incidentally a trait that I find desirable in others as well),
2. that as a personal value I shun irredentism, ethno-nationalism, and tribalism of the sort that has so plagued Afghanistan, and the evidence of which can be found aplenty on Mr. Weems website’s forum.

I see myself as one among the vanguards of a generation that is ready to do away with the poisonous discourse of tribal nationalism, ethno-linguistic supremacy, and other such thinking that is based on hatred and xenophobia. As such, I would appreciate it if Mr. Weems did not make such insinuations in the future. Had I been any less secure in my patriotism and my sentiments on this topic, I would have been far more outraged. But as it is, I am solidly grounded in my beliefs, and it takes a lot more to disturb my tranquility.

Lastly, below I will post the complete text of the passage in question on Mr. Weem’s website, i.e. “Hazara – The Bottom Rung” (as available on 04/16/2007) as a backdrop for the exchange:

With the Asian eye fold and sparse beards, the Hazara are Turkic in origin like the Uzbeks, but they speak a Persian dialect and are Shiite Muslims. About 10% of the overall population, the Hazara live in the mountains and valleys of Bamiyan Province, central Afghanistan. Many also live in the cities, especially Kabul and Mazar. The Hazara are supposed to be Mongols left in Baiman after Ghengis Khan had it depopulated. Once thought to be mythology, genetic studies show that a quarter of all Hazara are descended from Ghengis Khan, confirming the story.

The Hazara once controlled much more of Afghanistan. In the 1880s they revolted against the Pashtun Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan, and he destroyed them. He massacred thousands, enslaved thousands more, and punished the rest with high taxes. Twenty years later the slavery was ended, but they remained lodged at the very bottom of the Afghan social ladder, despised by Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbek alike. As such they are free game for abuse, their women are not respected and they frequently are employed in jobs that resemble their former slavery. To make matters worse, Hazara are Shiite, which makes them heretics in the eyes of other Afghans.

The Hazara have only one friend in the world, the Persians. Because they speak a Persian dialect, and especially because they are Shiite, Persians resent it when Sunni murder them. When the Afghan state broke down and the Soviets arrived, the Persians helped the Hazara arm, organize and throw the Pashtuns out of Bamiyan. Hazara in the cities had a more difficult time, but they did manage arm themselves and cause enough mayhem that they can no longer be treated as slaves.

Occasion for an Afghani Meltdown?

April 14, 2007

So yes, I was talking about meltdowns… A couple of days ago this writer had a meltdown of his own while thinking out loud in response to a post by Joshua Faust on Registan. (That comment concluded with: sorry, I am pissed tonight.)
The occasion for my Afghani meltdown then was a nagging feeling that Afghanistan was, yet again, being ignored by the big media in the US. If not for the aggregated stories that I receive through Barney Rubin’s listserve and the good fight that the blogger community puts up against relegating Afghanistan to the dustbin of oblivion, by relying only upon print medium (not to mention television) one cannot hear much about Afghanistan these days. Most Americans are at a serious risk of forgetting such hard-to-learn but pleasant-to-pronounce lilting place names as Jalalabad and Tora Bora.

Here is one more cause for concern: Time Magazine follows in the footsteps of Newsweek earlier to keep its audience in oblivion about Afghanistan. Read the story on Huffington Post’s Eat the Press. While the Time Magazine’s Asia, Europe, and South Pacific editions carry a cover story about Talibanisation, the American edition carries a cover story about, ahem, The Bible.

Time Afghanistan

Musharraf’s Meltdown: “Yes, Indeed. Very Angry”

April 14, 2007

We live in tense times. It does not take a lot nowadays for tempers to flare high and expletives to fly. From foreign correspondents to military dictators, people in positions that are usually associated with civility and decorum are finding it easy to lose their temper and let forth volleys of emotion and abuse. These are the days of raw nerves.

The other day Afghanistanica quoted from a post by the journalist Jeane MacKenzie who had a “Khareji Meltdown” earlier after being told by a Mullah on a local radio station in Helmand that she, an American woman, is too old for marriage. Her retort, just before a storming out and a slamming of the door, came in this form:

“I hate this country and every single person in it. Including you.”

Musharraf Meltdown

Now we learn that the Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf had a meltdown of his own on an American television program, lashing out at president Karzai for his Afghan counterpart’s continued criticism of Pakistan’s lack of cooperation in the war against the T-word (moratorium still in effect.) In a sweeping neglect of all the diplomatic niceties that usually exist between heads of state (though not so much between these two) Musharraf said that he was “yes indeed, very angry” at the Afghan president, that Karzai’s claims that Mullah Omar was in Pakistan were “absolute nonsense,” and accused Karzai of “total lack of understanding” about what was going on.

If similar exchanges in the past are any indication, we are awaiting an ever more colorful retort from president Karzai within the week. Late last year both leaders found themselves on American television programs, and prodded on by their hosts, let forth generously with mutual allegations and criticisms. Once, in a particular show of bravado during a speech in Afghanistan, president Karzai quoted a Farsi poem* inviting his Pakistani counterpart to meet him “on the battleground” so that he may experience true Afghan Ghairat and bravery for himself.

Needless to say such exchanges, besides revealing the sophomorish attitudes of both these political upstarts, do no good to the two countries’ national interests and their fight against a common enemy.

گر ندانی غیرت افغانی ام
چون به میدان آمدی میدانی ام

My Reply to Matt Weems, Or a 30-Chapter Treatise on Afghanistan as a Victim of Orientalism, Problems of Scholarship and Sourcing in Afghanistan Studies, the Destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan, and How Don Imus’s “Nappy-Headed Hoes” Comment Relates to Afghanistan

April 13, 2007

Chapter-I. Prologue – Discovering Warlords of Afghanistan:

A few days ago, following a link from AfghanistanWatch, I discovered the website Warlords of Afghanistan. In general, I found the website and its premise interesting. There are not many websites that are dedicated to illustrations and biographical sketches of “warlords” of Afghanistan. The website is maintained by Matt Weems, who is also the author of all material therein, including the illustrations.

II. A Quick and Easy Read:

I am fascinated by outside perceptions of Afghanistan, and Mr. Weems should be credited for the simplicity and ease of reading of his website. I read most of the pages in one sitting. Most of the biographical and historical sketches are brief and interesting. The picture that Mr. Weems offers of Afghanistan is a straightforward one, though this by no means implies that he evades the complexities of Afghanistan’s history and politics. Therefore even those who know very little about Afghanistan can find the website interesting and easy to understand. In other words, it is “armchair statesmanship” at its best -a term the author himself employs (the irony of which is not entirely lost on me.)

III. My History with Orientalism:

Besides being fascinated by outside perceptions of Afghanistan, I am also very interested in how people here in the “West” perceive the rest of the world, especially the “Muslim World.” This interest has driven me to taking classes on the subject and developing a keen interest in critiques of Orientalist thought and scholarship. My reading of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, for instance, has left a deep mark on the way I view Area Studies and scholarship in the American academia about the rest of the world (though it must be said that the discipline of Area Studies in America is by no means a match for its European counterpart of the colonial era in its Eurocentrist conception of the world, and its attendant distortions of historical and other facts to match that frame of thinking.) Therefore, it is fair to say that I have grown somewhat of an allergy to all things that bear even a distant aroma of Orientalism and Eurocentrism, or those that tend to generalize and essentialize entire peoples.

IV: My Critique of Warlords of Afghanistan:

Reading some of Mr. Weems’ writing seems to have touched this “anti-orientalist” nerve in me. I should point out immediately that his website is not the only one I have had such a reaction to -incidentally, it seems that Mr. Weems and I agree about some of the things that other outside authors have written about Afghanistan- and it is not by far the worst example. All the same, reading the website led me to question the accuracy and factuality of some of the statements in it. Where I did not find any concrete proofs of falsity, I was taken aback by the certainty with which Mr. Weems advanced his claims. This led me to critique Mr. Weems’ work in an earlier post here. My criticisms fell into three categories: 1. claiming that the writing was solipsist and Orientalist (and Eurocentrist and essentialist), 2. claiming that some of the information were false and the website was ill-informed, and 3. that it was culturally insensitive. I also said that the idea of warlord coasters was a profitable one (though I did not mean this as a criticism,) unfairly singled out two of the authors on Mr. Weems’ reading list, and said that he has romanticized the warlords of Afghanistan, an impression that anybody will get after reading some of the writing.

V. Mr. Weems Replies:

Within a day of writing that initial post, I received a response from Mr. Weems himself who thanked me for having read the website before criticizing it, and responded to all of my criticisms point by point. For the most part, Mr. Weems agreed with the points I had raised about his writings, but pointed out that my problem was that I had taken them in the wrong spirit. He explained that: solipsism would help Americans understand Afghanistan better by drawing analogies from their own national history, the coasters are meant to be insensitive but not to any particular culture, the coasters were not profitable -yet, and the warlords were in fact “adventure story types” -albeit villainous ones. He also corrected me by saying that his reading list was more extensive and credible than I had made it out to be -to which I concede. However, when it came to my criticism that his website was “ill-informed” Mr. Weems found my criticism baseless, and demanded further explanation.

VI: A Disclaimer of Sorts -Before We Begin:

Let it be known that I do not know Mr. Weems personally, and had never heard of him before stumbling onto his website. As such, my initial remarks on his work were made in the spirit of advancing the cause of truth about a subject matter that means a great deal to me, and that I know comparatively more about than other subjects. I am also not under any illusions and am well aware that the bearing of this cross -working to advance the cause of truth- does not win one any friends. For a number of reasons that I will enumerate subsequently, I feel that it is particularly important to raise the standards for research, scholarship, and armchair statesmanship about Afghanistan and its people. I do not claim to be up to this task, and am only doing my small part through this blog. And I feel exhilarated when some of those I critique actually notice. O’ Shall I see the day when Carlotta Gall writes to admonish me? (Well, there are also those who I hope won’t notice – which means I will have to play it as safe as I can by writing only in English.)

VII. And One More:

It is my firm belief that a majority of the problems faced by Afghanistan today are rooted in extremism, tribalism, irredentism, narrow-mindedness, and lack of tolerance for diversity, including diversity of ideas. Therefore, as a personal value, I eschew all such unpleasant isms and tendencies, both in my personal life and my work. It is important to point this out because the particular topic in Mr. Weems’ website that I am about to address concerns my ethnicity. In the context of Afghanistan, because the national discourse is so plagued by some of the above tendencies, it is normal to be skeptical of a person’s real motives.

VIII. A Personal Mea Culpa:

In his latest comment in answer to the same post, Mr. Weems has also claimed that he has read some of my other posts critical of others and feels that I “make scathing comments a little too easily, and fail to give others the credit they do deserve.” I appreciate this critique and will watch this tendency in my future writing. I should also reply to more comments and more promptly. The handful of readers who comment on this blog know that I rarely reply to comments. But this one commenter has proved a resilient one and has vowed to take me to task for “spouting off” without back-up. Indeed, I should thank Mr. Weems for providing me with the occasion to spout off even more about an important topic. As the frustrated reader has no doubt already found out, I am using this but as an excuse to write my views about the subject. I plead guilty to the charge, with the explanation that the topic is an important one and warrants the seeming digressions and extraneous comments. Last but not least, I also have a ton of work to do and find writing this the most perfect of escapes. Yes, this is my idea of fun. On a Friday afternoon no less.

IX: A Preambulatory Note -Before We Begin, Really:

Because of limitations of space and time (as if this perfunctory excuse is believable anymore) I will limit my response to the topic of Hazaras. More accurately, because I am a Hazara myself, and because I have devoted a research paper or two to the study of Hazara history and society, I am less ignorant about this topic than I am about others. A survey of Mr. Weems’ website might reveal to others more familiar with Afghanistan’s history, the history of its many ethnic and linguistic groups, and with the personal and political histories of its dominant political players in recent years that my remarks about this single topic is but a sample of the rest of Mr. Weems’ works, and that in turn, Mr. Weems’ writing is but only a sample of a wider problem that exists with regard to reporting and research on Afghanistan. Or, it might not. At any rate, the Page that I am about to comment on is “Hazara – The Bottom Rung”.

X: A “Document-Poor” Nation, a “Least-Studied” People:

The problem starts with sources and documentation. As Mr. Weems has pointed out, there are simply not many of them around to begin with. Afghanistan is a “document-poor” country. This is particularly severe with regards to the Hazaras of Afghanistan, a people that according to Dr. Askar Mousavi, formerly of Oxford University, are the least studied people of Afghanistan. This problem is further compounded by the peculiar nature of ethnic and power relations in Afghanistan, and the particular experience of the Hazara people.

XI. The Nexus of Knowledge and Power:

The late Edward Said points out in his book that more problematic than the distorting tendencies of Orientalism is the “nexus of knowledge and power,” and the way facts -in this case the distortions of facts as filtered by the prism of Orientalism- find their way into policymaking. The old adage says that knowledge is power. This statement holds more wisdom in it than can be gleaned from it superficially. The relationship between knowledge and power is in fact two-way, and more complex. It is a promiscuous and intimate relationship. Power enables knowledge, and knowledge enables and shapes the exercise of power. Another interpretation of the same saying is found in the statement “history is written by victors,”: power creates knowledge.

XII. A Pervasive Historical Fiction:

It is only against this background that one of the grandest and most pervasive historical fictions of our time, invariably parading as historical truth, that Hazaras are the remnants of Mongol armies has been created and sustained. It is also only by resorting to the same revisionist and doubt-casting framework that this myth can can be understood and debunked. For centuries, from the earliest days of the British colonizing of India to this date, it has been taken for granted that the historic origins of Hazaras in Afghanistan go back to the Mongol invasions. According to Mr. Weems:

“The Hazara are supposed to be Mongols left in Baiman (sic) after Ghengis Khan (sic) had it depopulated.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

XIII. The Late-Mongol Origin Theory and My Claims to Mongol Principality:

There are many variations of the theory of Mongol origin of Hazaras. The most extreme of these portray the Hazara as an essentially martial race descended directly from Genghis himself – all of the four million or so odd Hazaras. We will call this the theory of the late-Mongol origins of Hazaras (to distinguish it from those that allow that Hazaras are partially Mongol, but that these Mongol roots date back to long before Genghis and his armies arrived in the region.) As will become clear, the theory of the late-Mongol origins is really a myth. Incidentally, this myth is also actively promoted by some among the Hazara themselves who, perhaps, find the the tendency to valorize their ethnic origins too overwhelming. (This also entails the clear benefit of endowing one with the grand and honorific surname of “Changizi” – not uncommon among the Hazara of Quetta.) There is an annex at the end of in Dr. Askar Mousavi’s book The Hazaras of Afghanistan where a Hazara cleric residing in Quetta, Pakistan has drawn up an elaborate genealogical chart tracing the roots of all Hazara people everywhere back to the four sons of Genghis, and ultimately to Genghis himself. (I should report that the name Zeerak is also not withheld this distinct honor, thus making me a potential heir, and a Mongol prince of imperial blood. To paraphrase Phantom Planet: Ulan Bator here I come, right back where we started from.)

XIV. The Late but No-Direct-Descent Theory:

Another, less extreme version of the late-origins theory has it that the Hazaras are direct descendants of the garrisons of Genghis’ troops that were left behind in modern day central Afghanistan (but not of Genghis himself) and who intermarried with the local population and gave rise to the modern Hazara. This idea is further adorned with etymological and philological explanations, including one that states that the name “Hazara” (meaning thousand in Farsi) is clear evidence of the divisional structure of Genghis’ army. Never mind the fact that Genghis armies encountered fierce resistance by the local population in central Afghanistan who bore clear Asiatic and Turko-Mongol features. (see Bacon and Timorkhanov as cited in Mousavi, S.A. The Hazaras of Afghanistan)

XV. The Dead Prince and the Disloyal Princess:

According to one locally popular tradition cited by a number of authors, the grandson of Genghis, named Motochin, was killed in the battle for one of the forts in modern day Bamiyan province. I visited this place 2005. It is now a high mound of earth atop a hill with crumbling walls and and outposts and clear signs of military defenses. The locals refer to it as Shahr-i Ghulghula (the City of Wailing) and say that it was razed to the ground on Genghis’ orders. In yet another tradition, cited by Nanci Dupree among others, the daughter of one of the local Khans in Bamiyan betrays the location of the source of water -and the city’s only vulnerability- to the Mongol armies laying siege to it. Upon surrender, Genghis orders all the inhabitants killed and metes out a particularly brutal form of punishment for the disloyal daughter. I will not inundate the reader with citations -which can be found in abundance in Dr. Mousavi’s footnotes- but by a consensus of historians and anthropologists (including the Russian Timorkhanov who has arguably done the most extensive anthropological studies of the Hazara people) all these pre-Mongol invasion and pre-Genghis local people were the ancestors of modern days Hazaras. They had Asiatic features – as evidenced by the many Buddha statues in Bamiyan that far predated, and occasionally suffered destruction, as the hands of the Mongol armies.

XVI. So Why Did the Death-Eaters Really Destroy the Buddhas?

Some people believe that the Turbaned T-Word’s (I am avoiding that name – see previous post) destruction of the Buddha’s of Bamiyan follow a similar pattern, albeit it has a more sinister motive. Save for those who are intimately familiar with Afghanistan’s history, others are not aware that the Terrible Terrorist’s final destruction of the statues in Bamiyan in early 2001 was not the first of such attempts. Attempts at destruction and particularly at defacement of the statues have been made by various rulers of Afghanistan in the past, albeit with cruder instruments -hence the failure to entirely obliterate the earthen giants. One motive behind all these efforts -in addition to objections of nudity used by earlier rulers and the idol-worship story that the Tentacled Taranchulas successfully fed to the rest of the world, and that could not be taken seriously because their were no Buddhists or other Buddha-worshiping people in Bamiyan at the time- was that the millennia old statues with their overt Asiatic features and what Mr. Weems has called the distinctive “Mongol eye fold” were a firm stake in the ground affixing the Hazaras as native to the region long before the Mongol armies descended on the region.

XVII. The Late-Mongol Origins Theory in Literature Inside Afghanistan:

The debate about late-Mongol origins of Hazaras is far from settled among local scholars too. One instance of the debate about this theory pitted two preeminent scholars of Afghan history against each other – with Dr. Hassan Kakar on one side (supporting the theory) and famous Afghan historian and writer of the grand 3-volume “Afghanistan in the Last Five Centuries” (Farsi) M.S. Farhang on the other. The exchanges between the two scholars on this subject were part of Kakar’s wider criticism of Farhang’s history, and are published as an annex to the latest edition of Farhang’s magnum opus that was published in Virginia. Unfortunately no English translations of this work exists so far. Aside from Mousavi’s book, the exchange in Farhang’s history, and and wealth of sources each cite, there are several other good sources in literature that challenge the theory of Mongol origins, including a recent book that seems to be well-researched and is published in Iran that I have pointed to in this post. In the past this theory used to hold a wider sway over academic and historic discussions in Afghanistan. However for some time now, as more research is done on the subject and as scholarship and research is relatively decentralized and is not subject to the pressures that it once was, the theory of Mongol origins not taken as seriously anymore, and is commonly viewed to be historically falsifiable.

XVIII. Hazaras as a Turco-Mongol People:

Of course the demise of the late-Mongol origins theory does not rule out the fact that elements of the invading Mongol forces may have settled in the area and intermarried with the local Hazara population (just as Alexander’s troops did in other parts of Afghanistan) and that there is some late Mongol admixture (late as in circa Mongol invasion) in the Hazara ethnic makeup. The genetic evidence that has recently come to light (and which Mr. Weems has pointed to) therefore seems to support this theory. This also makes sense in the context of the modern and most widely accepted ethnic categorization and nomenclature of Hazaras as a “Turco-Mongol” people, and not exclusively Mongol and descended directly from Genghis or his armies. Still, the internet and other undocumented writing by western journalists remain the last strongholds of the urban legend about the Genghis roots of Hazaras, a story that if not for its poverty of truth, satisfies just about everything else one would want to believe about a remote and exotic people whose ancestor once terrorized and conquered the known world and who have fallen upon hard times more recently.

XIX. Why the Resiliency of the Late-Mongol Origins Theory?

If the theory of late Mongol origins of Hazaras is false, why is it so widely held? Certainly there must be compelling reasons to believe that the Hazaras are in fact descendants of Genghis, or else so many people would not subscribe to the idea.
To answer this question, it is important to remember that these debates are not merely a matter of historical or scientific-anthropological interest in Afghanistan. Indeed, such debates are not about “facts for the sake of facts” anywhere. The old dog of history rears its head often in debates about national identity and national politics even in the most advanced of nations with the most tranquil national discourses. Especially in multi-ethnic societies with recent histories of internecine conflict, such as Afghanistan, such debates often makes their way directly into policymaking: representation at the national level, discourses on identity, cultural and educational policies, resource allocation, entitlement, etc.

XX. An Alien Race:

For a long time the theory of late-Mongol origins of Hazaras was actively promulgated as a state policy with the aim of somehow proving that the Hazara people were not native to Afghanistan, but were rather an alien race. One can imagine the ramifications of this on national discourse. Who is the truer Afghan or Afghanistani can become (and has become during tumultuous periods of our history) as much a contentious and bloody question as the question of who is a true Iraqi, and how much of Iraq is Shia or Sunni or Kurd -and further, what this should mean in real political-material terms- has become today. Sometimes, they can be used as a justification for ethnic cleansing and genocide. (Luckily, three knocks on wood, it seems that we in Afghanistan are beginning to regain our senses about this as of late.)

XXI. The Numbers Game:
For much the same reasons, the lack of proper census data and statistics about demographic and ethnic make-up of a country, and the unreliable conduct of such censuses is a problematic issue. In his website, Mr. Weems states that Hazaras constitute:

“About 10% of the overall population…”
-M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

While the figure of 9-10% seems to have effectively taken hold on the internet (largely because of the CIA Factbook on Afghanistan and thereby the Wikipedia) a wide array of other sources and books put the figure much higher, including most commonly at 19%, and sometimes at 24% or close to a quarter of Afghanistan’s population. Because of lack of reliable census data, and for the reasons stated above, and until such a time as concrete and reliable statistics become available, it is important that all of these figures should be read skeptically and cited as a range figure.

The above conclude the key things I wanted to say on the subject of the origins and numbers of Hazaras, and why it is important to get the facts right especially in these two areas. Below I will comment more briefly on a few other statements found on the same page on Mr. Weems’ website.

XXII. Where Do the Hazara Live?

“The Hazara live in the mountains and valleys of Bamiyan Province, central Afghanistan. Many also live in the cities, especially Kabul and Mazar.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

While Bamiyan is most commonly thought to be the only place where Hazaras live (inside Afghanistan,) in fact, it is not the only province where they live, and it is not the only Hazara-majority province either. In addition to Bamiyan and in cities, Hazaras live in a number of other provinces geographically concentrated in central Afghanistan. This is the area known as Hazarajat which is gerrymandered into several administrative divisions for reasons similar to why districts in Texas and New Jersey are often divided up in odd shapes and slivers -political reason. Bamiyan is not synonymous with Hazarajat. Outside Bamiyan and the urban areas, Hazaras also live in large numbers in Uruzgan, Ghor, Zabol, Dai Kundi, Ghazni, Wardak, Logar, Sar i Pol, Balkh, Parwan, Herat, Kunduz, Samangan, Baghlan, and in cities in Kandahar and Helmand.

XXIII. A Despised People?

Mr. Weems says that the Hazaras are:

“…despised by Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbek alike. As such they (the Hazara) are free game for abuse, their women are not respected and they frequently are employed in jobs that resemble their former slavery.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

It is one thing to be historically marginalized, quite another to be widely despised by all. This statement is as erroneous as it is offensive (and not only to Hazaras but also to Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks.) Perhaps it will help Mr. Weems to make another of his American analogies: Blacks in the United States have been historically enslaved and marginalized by Whites. The recent Don Imus incident and issues of structural discrimination (e.g. homelessness and death-row statistics) present further evidence that racism in America is far from over and that African Americans remain a marginalized and disadvantaged race. Would it be fair then, in view of the history and the prevailing mentality, to say that blacks are “despised” by all other races in the US, and that they are “free game” for, let’s say the law enforcement community, and that their women “are not respected” by, oh say, talk radio show hosts? Notwithstanding all the evidence, I would find such a characterization in the case of the United States unfair, as I am sure would Mr. Weems.

XXIV. Revolt Against the Iron Amir:

“In the 1880s they revolted against the Pashtun Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan, and he destroyed them.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

Once again facts are not so straightforward about this dark period of Afghanistan and Hazaras’ history. Abdul Rahman Khan wanted to consolidate a country, and the Hazara people of central Afghanistan who had enjoyed virtual autonomy for centuries regardless of what went on at the border regions of Afghanistan to the South and the North with, respectively, British India and Tsarist Russia. The Hazara Mirs and Khans were a thorn at the Amir of Kabul’s side, and a challenge to his sovereignty. Mass mobilization in the name of Jihad against the Shi’a heretics, population movements (of the rival Ghilzais from Kandahar to Hazara-populated areas in Urozgan, for instance) and the round-up and mass killing of Hazara political leaders, and the subsequent house-arrest of the rest in Kabul by Abdul Rahman Kahn prompted the Hazara rebellions of late 19th century that led to further massacres, enslavements, and the eventual conquest of these areas.

XXV. The Shi’a Heretics:

“Hazara are Shiite, which makes them heretics in the eyes of other Afghans.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

While a majority of the Hazara are Shi’a, there are also vast numbers of Hazaras who are Ismaili (which some have said are a branch of Shi’a, but others, including some among the Ismaili beg to differ) and yet other not insignificant numbers are Sunni. Furthermore, saying that being Shi’a makes Hazaras heretics in the eyes of other Afghanistan is symptomatic of very shallow understanding of Afghanistan and its people. Relations between Shi’a and Sunni have been particularly tranquil throughout Afghanistan’s history (unlike Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and most everywhere else where the two exist in large enough numbers) except for when such differences are used for political purposes. Ordinary people of Afghanistan do not view Shi’as as heretics, and often cross theological borders on occasions such as Ashura and Muharram (open season for truck-bombing Shi’a mosques in, say, Iraq or Pakistan) to commemorate these important Shi’a religious ceremonies. Religion in Afghanistan, especially before the recent episodes, was highly infused with local cultures and was a syncretic blend of schools -before turbaned Mullahs became determined to bring in the correct, bookish Islam from Egypt to Afghanistan.

XXVI. The Persian Connection:

“The Hazara have only one friend in the world, the Persians. Because they speak a Persian dialect, and especially because they are Shiite, Persians resent it when Sunni murder them. When the Afghan state broke down and the Soviets arrived, the Persians helped the Hazara arm, organize and throw the Pashtuns out of Bamiyan.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

Contrary to popular belief, the Persians are not all that sympathetic to the children of Genghis! (This is the mistaken way that a lot of Iranians do in fact view the Hazara today.) If anything, the unmistakable “Asian eye-fold” gives them away as remnants of the same scourge of god that destroyed Iran. The abuses that any Hazara in diaspora in Iran would be more than glad to tell you about and their treatment in Iran as aliens and guest workers (or as prisoners in border dungeons like Tal-i Siyah or Sang-i Safid -the modern Gulags that the world failed to see and where many died and many more became mentally ill) is symptomatic of this way of thinking. In reality, geopolitical alignments in the region are quite different today than what they used to be- and when it comes to Iran’s policies towards Afghanistan, they are along cultural, linguistic, and racial-ethnic lines rather than religious ones – all three of which places them closer to the Tajik people of Afghanistan.

As to Hazaras throwing the Pashtuns out of Bamiyan -with Persians’ help- around the time of the Soviet invasion, this could not have happened, because Pashtuns were not in Bamiyan.

XXVII. Hazara Mayhem:

“Hazara in the cities had a more difficult time, but they did manage arm themselves and cause enough mayhem that they can no longer be treated as slaves.” -M.W., Warlords of Afghanistan

I don’t know why but I get the uncomfortable feeling that the clause “cause enough mayhem” (and its many attendant connotations) sounds far too reminiscent of some of the racist discourse in Afghanistan than to have come from a neutral outside observer who may not even be aware of those connotations. The statement has clearly made its way from an interested point of view from within Afghanistan and is reflect of deeply held biases against Hazaras. Mr. Weems might have as well gone to the gruesome details of such alleged “mayhem” -more to the liking of some people. It is true that some Hazaras took up arms during the years of civil war, and following the withdrawal of the Soviets and the subsequent fall of Kabul, widespread atrocities did take place at the hands of all paramilitary forces from all ethnic groups that were involved in that madness, and against civilians of all ethnic groups. But to say that the Hazara “caused” the mayhem in order that they may “no longer be treated as slaves” clearly reflects strong bias of the sort that the unsuspecting Mr. Weems may not be aware of when consulting such sources. In all fairness, this happens to be a perennial shortcoming of a lot of western commentators on Afghanistan, and it is only after the suspicious eyes of an Afghan falls upon such instances, the unmistakable evidence of bias becomes clear.

XXVIII. Conclusion – Problems of Sourcing and an Interested Point of View:

This brings my critique of just one page (three paragraphs) of Mr. Weem’s website “Hazara – the Bottom Rung” to an end. I have not commented on other pages, and though I have found some of the statements in them questionable as well, I am not in a position to comment on those. Perhaps in those other cases, the mistakes are not as consequential. They are in the case of “Hazara – the Bottom Rung,” and I hope that Mr. Weems will choose to correct them. I should point out that I am not alleging any ulterior motives on part of the author of Warlords of Afghanistan -in fact, reading many articles in the website one gets quite the opposite impression, as he has in fact raised points not often mentioned in official histories- but this does not preclude the fact that some of the statements, such as those pointed out above, may reflect the views of, or play into the hands of some entrenched points of view in Afghanistan who may have other interests at heart than the future harmony of inter-ethnic relations and the cause of national reconciliation in Afghanistan. Here is one more case where good intentions alone do not guarantee the best of outcomes.

XXIX. Acknowledgements:

Lastly, because this summary does no justice to the topic at hand, and because Mr. Weems had something to do with sparking the thoughts that I have expressed here, when in a few years’ time I write a book-length treatise that adequately treats subjects as diverse as Afghanistan as a victim of Orientalism, problems of scholarship and sourcing in Afghanistan studies, the destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan, and how Don Imus’s “nappy-headed hoes” comment relates to Afghanistan (though in all fairness I threw in this last one in the title to see how many more visitors I lure in,) I shall remember to acknowledge him.
I would also like to acknowledge my neighbor for the password-free wireless connection we seem to share, and the good residents of Bekaa Valley, Lebanon for their fine work in making this possible.

Chapter-XXX. The End.

I, too, like round numbers.

Day of Silence and Moratorium on the T-Word

April 12, 2007

To mark the barbaric beheading recently of Ajmal Naqshbandi, and because I have a blogger’s block today (ridiculous, I know, but a clear side-effect of taking this whole blogging thing too seriously,) I am announcing a day of silence on Safrang.

Further, in commiseration and solidarity with the journalists in Afghanistan who have called for a ban on reporting about you know who, I will stop using the reviled T-word from now on for a week.

Tomorrow I will be back with a long and long delayed response to Matt Weem’s comments about my earlier post about his work.


I just read that Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. Needless to say his passing away also has clear and direct implications on the subject matter of this blog (i.e. Afghanistan and the inexorable march of history), and so the day of silence applies to his memory as well.

Jabbar Sabit and the “Airport Mystery”

April 11, 2007

Attorney General Sabit in his office - courtesy of Skyreporter

Some time back this blog gave a ringing endorsement of Afghanistan’s Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabit and the job he was doing as the country’s anti-corruption czar. (see Fighting the Good Fight…)
In fact, carried away by the relative success of his methods (albeit rather extreme, but then again we are talking about Afghanistan where corruption has also hit extreme levels) the post likened him to the crusading NY Attorney General Elliot Spitzer.

Well, these are not good days to be an Attorney General anywhere.

In a revealing bit of investigative journalism, and against numerous and powerful obstacles (including high officials from a myriad of governments) SkyReporter’s Arthur Kent goes behind the scenes to ask some tough questions about Attorney General Sabit, his background as a key Hekmatyar ally, his recent decision to fire the head of Kabul Airport security, and his potential entanglement in a drug trafficking scandal.

While our endorsement of Jabbar Sabit stands as far as his much needed “jihad” against anti-corruption is concerned, for a balancing view read/watch SkyReporter’s Oh Canada! , True North , and Afghan Heroin Series.

Here are some excerpts:

…The scandal of heroin trafficking at Kabul Airport is a perfect example. As I’ve pieced the story together, it’s been remarkable how obstacle after obstacle looms on the horizon. Mysteriously, most of these investigative roadblocks aren’t thrown up by the drug gangs, but by the authorities. Not just by shadowy figures at the top of Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government, but by American and British officials, too….

Canadian officials are evading questions about the man at the centre of the Kabul Airport heroin trafficking scandal, Afghan Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet, who is also a resident of Montreal…

Last autumn Sabet suspended Amerkel from his post as police chief of Kabul Airport. Several law enforcement sources in the capital confirm that the flow of smuggled heroin increased after Amerkhel’s removal. (Please see the AFGHAN HEROIN series of film reports at

President Karzai’s shadowy, accident-prone Attorney General continues to wreak controversy with botched investigations, with alleged criminality by at least one of his senior appointees, and with his own failure to take on top-level abuses of power.


A Week in Afghanistan

April 10, 2007

Steven Ross of CSIS’s Post Conflict Reconstruction project writes his impressions of a week-long visit to Afghanistan: he is surprised -and no doubt grateful- for the feeling of safety, sees a “thriving” Kabul, and find road conditions “horrendous.”
I have thought long and hard about this last one and can only attribute the potholes to the lesser spring offensive that is the advent of mud on unpaved streets of Kabul after the thaw.

There are also some nice pictures from Steve’s visit posted over at PCR Blog in the form of an easily navigable photo essay.

Been there, bought naan at that bakery!

Photo Essayُ

Fallout From Ajmal Naqshbandi’s Death

April 10, 2007

Ajmal Naqshbandi


In the days and hours since the tragic death of Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi at the hands of his Taliban captors, there has been a flurry of reactions and condemnations from various corners. Most of these came from within Afghanistan and from a few vanguards of the journalistic guild in the outside world. The only other ‘outside world’ reaction that I am aware of came in the form of a long and anguished series of emails from the Afghan Fulbright students in the US who were also intent, as of this writing, to raise their concerns to officials in the Afghan government. For much of the rest of the world, the hostage saga was over with the safe return of Italian journalist Daniel Mastrogiacomo and the story’s newsworthiness receded abruptly.

Most of the condemnations are justly directed against the Taliban and their heinous murder of an innocent human being, a recently married young man expecting to be a father soon, and an enterprising Afghan journalist. The criticisms, however, do not stop at the Taliban.

The Afghan government has also received an unusual amount of criticism for its alleged mishandling of the situation. Many have taken it for granted that the government of Afghanistan had the capability and wherewithal to handle the situation better, and to bring about the desired outcome, i.e. the hostage’s safety and release. They see it as a sign of the government’s lack of political will, or its outright carelessness with the lives of its own citizens that Ajmal was murdered. Most of such vituperations do not fail to point out that the government went to extraordinary lengths to arrange the safe release of Ajmal’s colleague the Italian journalist Daniel Mastrogiacomo in return for the release from captivity of five high ranking Taliban.

This blog has not shied away from pointing out some of the Afghan government’s serious shortcomings. However, in keeping with the blog’s longstanding tradition of going against the grain and the prevalent mob mentality, we will try to dissect some of the criticisms hurled at the government and try to follow that old mantra in journalism (that I hope also applies to the pseudojournalism that is blogging) to “Follow the Money.” In other words, let’s try to figure out who benefits from Ajmal’s death the most, and maybe we can see that the government is not to blame so much for Ajmal’s death on the political will and caring-for-Afghan-lives grounds as it is on grounds of competency.

Following the Money Trail

Two groups benefit the most from the fallout from Ajmal’s death. The first are those who perpetrated the action with the precise calculation and expectation that such a fallout will ensue. For some time now the Taliban have shown that they are not the brash and blunt Taliban of yesteryear. They understand well from their experience at the helm of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that bad PR can be a costly thing, and that images of people hanging from posts and women beaten by black-clad bearded youth can invigorate pressure groups and lead to big changes. They are a media-savvy group with a keen understanding of the power of images, sound bites, pictures, YouTube, in short, the power of perceptions. They understand that a democratic government, or even one that purports to democracy and safeguarding civil liberties, is beholden to certain constraints and vulnerabilities when it comes to dealing with these perceptions.

It is against this background that the Mastrogiacomo/Naqshbandi hostage crisis was staged by the Taliban. Their release of the Italian journalist not only secured them five of the highest ranking Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government (including the brother of Mullah Dadullah, the de facto face of the Taliban to the world in recent times), but also set the stage for the gruesome sequel. The government of Afghanistan maintains to this day that Ajmal’s release was part of the exchange deal and that the Taliban broke their word and made new demands. Even so, the Ministry of Information and Culture has stated that it was surprised by the news of Ajmal’s death because at the time negotiations were underway to secure another deadline and buy more time. While none of this should be taken at face value, it is easy to see the Taliban’s motive for defaulting. This was evident from the Taliban spokesperson’s framing of their action as a response to the government’s not heeding the deadline and the demands made by the Taliban. One wonders whether even after the government had buckled under their demands for a second time and released more prisoners the Taliban would have stood by their words. After all, the Taliban had already secured the objective of portraying the government as weak and kowtowing – why not also show that it does not care about the lives of its own citizens as much as it does about foreigners. In retrospect, with accusations of “Khud Kush-i Bigana Parast” (self-hating, foreign-worshiping) coming from all corners, it seems the Taliban have succeeded in this objective as well.

Another group that could potentially exploit and benefit from the situation is the political opposition to the government that has in recent times crystallized in the form of an alliance so surreal that can only take shape in the context of Afghanistan (see here and here). In the days after Mastrogiacomo’s release and shortly before Ajmal’s murder by the Taliban, leaders of the newly formed UNF exploited the situation to fullest extent by stating that they would do more to secure Ajmal’s release and safe return, and that they would be willing to go to lengths that this government has not been able to in order to negotiate with the Taliban and curb violence. Employing demagoguery and the rhetoric of nationalism that so permeates the political discourse in Afghanistan, the new group harped on familiar strings citing the value of Afghan lives and its precedence over those of foreigners. It is clear that this tragic outcome, and the political fallout from it are open to spin and interpretation by some of the same people as signs of this government’s failure and the need for change.

The one constituency that stands to lose a great deal from Ajmal’s death, second in line of course to Ajmal himself and his family and circle of friends, is the government of Afghanistan. Even seen from the most cynical of points of view, the Afghan government would have done anything in its power, including another prisoner swap, to secure Ajmal’s release. This is why allegations of lack of political well and carelessness with Afghan lives simply do not stick in this case. Lack of competency, however, is another story. Hostage negotiations are notoriously difficult in all circumstances, including circumstances where the adversary is far more human and far less bloodthirsty than the Taliban. There are no shortage of incidents around the world where capable hostage negotiation teams have failed and many a hostage crisis has ended up ugly. It should come as no surprise then that with lack of capacity so endemic across all sectors of the Afghan government, their hostage negotiation team was not better prepared to deal with this situation.

Amjal’s death was a tragic loss of life and a major setback for the press in Afghanistan. He will be sorely missed by his young family, his many friends, and so many other people whose lives he had touched and was yet to touch in his young career. Out of reverence to him and the profession that he devoted his life to, and to its highest standards for truth, it only behoves the the rest of us to cultivate within ourselves more skepticism instead of cynicism.


Further evidence of the political fallout from Ajmal Naqshbandi’s death: the New York Times reports that the Italian government of Romano Prodi has come under fresh attacks from the opposition accusing it of not doing enough to secure the release of Daniel Mastrogiacomo’s Afghan translator (Ajmal Naqshbandi) and calling on him to resign. Prodi in turn has accused the opposition of using Ajmal’s death for political gain.

Karzai Criticizes New Front, Alleges Outside Backing

April 6, 2007


Since the announcement of its formation in mid-March, the United National Front has generated a lot of buzz. Thanks to early reports on BBC Persian and a few non-media sources here and there, this blog was one of the first to pick the story, and try to make sense of its oddball composition and line-up. (Read previous posts Old Guard Lining Up… and Update on New Front… )

Now, returning from his trip to New Delhi where he secured Afghanistan’s membership into SAARC, president Karzai has joined the fray. BBC Persian reporter Marzia Adeel reports that while the press conference was nominally held to mark the president’s trip to India and the regional summit, most of the journalists peppered him with questions about the new political front that has decidedly postured itself at odds with Karzai’s policies.

Responding to questions about the new front, the president was quick to accuse it of enjoying the backing of Afghanistan’s neighbors through their respective embassies in Kabul. While the president did not name any names or offer any evidence to back his claims (save for saying that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Directorate were investigating possible links), his comments are sure to bring the new group under scrutiny and perhaps even cost them politically. And for good reason: certain faces among the UNF’s leadership have well-established, time-tested, and undeniable links to regional stakeholders such as Iran, Pakistan, India, the Russian Federation, and some of the CIS nations.

The president also used some ‘spin’ in attacking one of UNF’s stated goals to instate gubernatorial elections for Afghanistan’s provinces, saying that such an arrangement would be tantamount to federalism (he did not explain how), and that that was not a route that the people of Afghanistan wanted to go down again (he did not say when they had done so before.) In regard to UNF’s other goal of changing the constitution in favor of a parliamentary system in Afghanistan, the president invoked the mandate of the people (an oft-invoked genie these days) in that their representatives voted in the constitutional Loyal Jirga in favor of a strong unitary and presidential form of government.

Furthermore the president choose the occasion to admit that members of his government have met with Taliban representatives and that he has had personal audiences with them. This is most certainly in response to another point on the UNF agenda, i.e. its stated willingness to negotiate with the Taliban. With the Taliban’s cycle of spring insurgency well underway and suicide bombings taking place at unprecedented frequency and proximity to the capital, UNF’s placatory moves could be seen as a more attractive alternative to the Karzai government’s failure to negotiate with the Taliban to curb violence.

So far so good. The president has done well in choosing to confront the reality of the new front and responding to their stated goals and criticisms of the government instead of ignoring it like he has been doing for the past couple of weeks. The cynical wheeler-dealers that constitute the new front bring to mind other such disastrous mass marriages of convenience during Afghanistan’s lost decade (1990s) i.e. the Islamabad and Mecca pacts. Then too leaders and figures who were sworn enemies of each other had come together by the force of circumstances and united by their common designs on the people of Afghanistan. Now, marginalized and confronted by new realities (read the frightening episode of “National Amnesty” debate where for a while it seemed likely that the bill would not go through and they would remain prone to accountability for their deeds) some of the very same figures have come together again. Lastly, the new group is aggressively promoting itself as a multi-ethnic and broadly representative grouping. In reality, this could be vacuous posturing as the UNF is not all that representative.

While the formation of new political parties is widely recognized as one of the most urgent needs of the political system in Afghanistan, the truth is that groups like UNF simply don’t cut it. Instead of such old-guard, top-down, wheeler-dealer line-ups, genuine efforts by civil society groups in Afghanistan should be encouraged.

Will the French Follow Suit?

April 6, 2007

Vive La France

The recent abduction of two French aid workers and their three Afghan staff in Nimroz has surely vindicated the forecasters of doom who announced that the Mastrogiacomo deal marks the beginning of Taliban’s “open season” for foreigners. One can imagine all the gleeful “toldjya!” being thrown left and right.

The question now remains whether the French will resort to quid pro quo too. It seems like they would have to. The truth is that after the Mastrogiacomo case they are not left with many options. Entering a deal however will certainly deteriorate the situation and further steepen this slippery slope.

The Mastrogiacomo deal came under rather exceptional circumstances. With the Italian government just recovering from the collapse it had suffered largely because of its Afghan policy, it could ill afford to let Mastrogiacomo be held any longer with the Italian public holding its breath, or for that matter, be murdered at the hands of the Taliban. This is why it mustered all the pressure and influence it could bear on the Karzai administration to work out a negotiated release.

While French domestic politics are nothing like that of Italy’s, one can see how a protracted hostage situation could figure into the country’s upcoming presidential elections. Although the elections are still some time off, the candidates are already posturing on crucial issues of domestic and foreign policy. It is easy to see how in a frenzy to appeal to the electorate, candidates will embark on a race to the bottom where the release of the hostages at any price comes to be seen as the prized position to argue from. This can only spell further doom for expatriate aid workers and foreign journalists in Afghanistan.

For some time now the Taliban have shown that they are abandoning the brashness of their heyday and are becoming a media-savvy group with a keen eye to the evolving international environment. Mullah Dadullah and others have regularly cited happenings in international politics as evidence of their victories or as justification for their actions. It is likely that the selective targeting of foreign nationals from countries with rocky domestic politics is yet another such smart tactic.

On a related note, the fate of Mastrogiacomo’s Afghan fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi remains unknown. The “double-standarding” has provoked much anger and debate across Afghanistan, especially as the Italian journalist’s Afghan driver suffered a gruesome death. It is possible that the Taliban are holding Naqshbandi hoping for another, albeit less lucrative exchange of prisoners. With the new detainees, however, one fears that the Taliban may use the killing of one or two of the Afghan staff as a tool to coerce the French and Afghan governments into entering a deal. Let’s hope that will not be the case.


April 5, 2007

How is the new theme/header image?

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

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.

Karzai Steps Down, Citing Frustration with Pakistan

April 3, 2007

For the full report, which I was regrettably too busy to post here when it was leaked out two days ago -as would have been more appropriate- please click here.


Pakistan, Pakistan:

Notwithstanding the veracity of the explosive news above (and remember, you read it first here on Safrang), or the fact that it is outdated by two days, in truth there seems to be apparently no end to the Afghan government’s litany of frustrations with Pakistan.

Yes, there is no denying the fact that Pakistan is -whether actively or passively- complicit in Afghanistan’s security travails. Yes, nobody can seriously question the fact that elements within Pakistan’s security and intelligence establishment have strong sympathies for, and time-tested ties with, the Taliban. Yes, it is true that Pakistan has lost significant ground in post-Taliban Afghanistan and does not enjoy the hegemony that it once did there. And yes, the anachronism of “strategic depth” has been relegated to the dustbin of history with the advent of a new government in Afghanistan that has aligned itself -both regionally and internationally- along lines that are less than beneficial to Pakistani national interests. (For a more detailed account of Pakistan-Afghanistan relationships read my earlier post here.)

All this and more is true of Pakistan, and to the extent that the Afghan government and its American allies pressure Pakistan for greater cooperation in these areas, they are correct.

But lately it is beginning seem like Pakistan is becoming the great scapegoat for all that is wrong with Afghanistan, whether or not they are related to the security situation, the Taliban insurgency, or Pakistan’s role in supporting named insurgency. Note, for instance, Nicholas Kristof’s recent interview with president Karzai. Virtually all of the questions and answers in the interview come down to one thing: Pakistan. Even where Nicholas Kristof tires of hearing about Pakistan and asks about Afghanistan’s economy and the Taliban’s treatment of women, the answers invariably go back to Pakistan’s role.

In one particularly interesting exchange, the president says that the Taliban’s treatment of women was motivated not by their religious conservatism, but was rather a calculated piece of Pakistani “colonial” policy that was aimed at breaking the will of Afghan men, and thereby of the Afghan nation, till they ultimately submitted to Pakistani rule. Continuing this thread, the president accuses Pakistan of continuing its “colonial” policies to date -ostensibly in the form of the insurgency- before retracting his statement on grounds that the upcoming Peace Jirga between the two countries is forthcoming and any such comments would further erode relations. All the same the president sticks to his line and goes on to say that Mullah Omar is in fact Pakistan’s colonial “stooge,” as opposed to a religious fundamentalist bent on establishing an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan and making Shariah the law of the land. At least for this writer such revisionism of recent history is new and amusing. One need not attribute to the Taliban outlandish motives in order to see that they were and are bad news for Afghanistan. Taliban’s treatment of women was wrong even on their professed religious premises, and should be confronted on those grounds – and not because it was -as the president claims- an effort by Pakistan to humiliate Afghan men and their Ghairat and honor.

The truth is that there are many things wrong with Afghanistan today, and not all of them are because of Pakistan. Corruption, for instance, and the fact that it is institutionalized and widely tolerated, is one among the many serious shortcomings of the current Afghan government and it is doing enormous damage to its legitimacy and capacity -perhaps more than the Taliban insurgency has done. Pakistan has nothing to do with official corruption in Afghanistan, and it is time the president and others at the highest levels of the Afghan government took responsibility for this problem and vowed to confront it. And yet all public pronouncements coming from the government, like the interview above, are centered on how Pakistan is to blame for the Afghan government’s failures.

While finding a perfect alibi and an excuse in Pakistan has helped the Afghan government not get much flack for its shortcomings and failures, the truth is that very soon Afghanistan will have far bigger problems on its hand, and it will not be because of Pakistan or the Taliban. Pakistan, while complicit and culpable in Afghanistan’s instability, should not become the center of Afghan government’s imagination. By limiting itself to holding Pakistan responsible, and -however sincerely- trying to set confront all of Afghanistan’s troubles by seeking their roots in Pakistan, the Afghan government suffers from extreme myopia and lack of imagination and is in fact searching for a silver bullet to Afghanistan’s problems – in the form of greater cooperation from Pakistan. Tragedy is, very soon Pakistan may hopefully succumb to international pressure and take tougher action against Al Qaeda and Taliban elements in its soil, and the Afghan government will then face a crisis of purpose, no longer having Pakistan to blame or combat.

[The link to Nicholas Kristof's interview with president Karzai above is to NY Times Select which you will need a subscription to access. The full interview is available on Barney Rubin's Afghanistan listserve, which if you have not already subscribed to, you should get out from under that rock and do now.]


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