Afghanistan: Independence Day & Elections Eve

August 22, 2009

[cross-posted at]

Today Afghanistan marks the occasion of its 90th independence anniversary from Great Britain after the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war.
We are nearing the centennial celebrations -now a mere decade away. One hopes that everyone will take this as a challenge, a deadline. That Afghanistan’s 100th independence anniversary will be meaningful, and befitting of a centennial celebration. So that when we do celebrate, there won’t be that nagging hollow feeling in our collective hearts that is there now.

Today streets of Kabul are relatively calm on account of elections tomorrow. Like the proverbial calm before the storm. One senses anticipation in the air all over the place; both of elections -what it really means for all of us, what will it bring about- and of some looming prospect of possible insecurity. Nobody believes it will all be safe and eventless, at the same time as everyone hopes it will be. Security, however, is not the biggest variable in the average voter’s calculus of whether he or she will go to vote. Apathy will be the undoing of voter turnout, me says.

The road to Kandahar and onwards to Quetta in Pakistan is arguably one of the most unsafe, going through Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, Kandahar and beyond -a kind of highway to certain death by the Taliban if you may. And yet i know people who travel the road regularly to go to Ghazni, Kandahar, Pakistan, and even Herat -the latter requiring them to cross Helmand and Nimroz too. The average person has a mental index of insecurity and a sharp sense of what the tolerable quotient of insecurity is, and within that tolerable quotient, life goes on for most of the people.

The odds, and hence the quotient of insecurity and violent disruption of voting in the 6,000 plus voting stations is pretty low for a lot of people. That’s why security won’t have a major impact on whether most people vote or not. The key variables are whether they care, and whether they think that their act of voting -which as any self-respecting economist of rational self interest school of thought would tell you, is one of the most senseless things to do- will make a real difference. Another key consideration might be how many other people vote so that the average voter in question will be pressured to go along -the herd mentality often is the key driver of a lot of decisions. And of course whether the person is paid enough, or is made to swear on the holy book, etc. Not security though.

Another thing that is made quite a meal out of in the international media over the last week or so and which does not figure as prominently in the average person’s list of worries here is vote rigging and electoral fraud. The BBC, which particularly after its sensationalist coverage of Iranian election’s fallout seems to specialize in blowing these things out of proportion, is already reporting on how many voter’s registration cards its local fixers have been able to buy. This is all a bit nonsensical for the average person here. Draw, if you will, a kind of a mental Maslow’s pyramid of “political” concerns in you mind. For the Iranian electorate, election rigging was a major concern because they are in an altogether different stage of political maturity and the prime concerns, the fundamental political debate fell right on the conservative-liberal fault line in the Iranian polity. Here in Afghanistan, as evidenced by one presidential debate after another, that level of discord and disagreement is nonexistent. Everybody is agreed on the fundamentals -security, economic development, and what will be done with the Taliban. Understandably the question of election fraud is a major thing for the political elite and certain of the contenders who have a lot at stake, which is why certain presidential contenders have gone to the brink of losing their bearings trying to warn against rigging of votes and even threatening riots. The average person, however, could care less as long as it all does not go horribly wrong. This is why a lot of people need to just chill out on this matter. We know we cannot make this one hundred percent clean. That sort of thing still proves elusive even in the us especially with the mechanical fiascos and debold machines that seem to crop up at every election season. Why, then, subject this country to the most zealot standards? Especially when such zealotry can cost the rest of us so much? Chill people, chill. Bigger things are at stake than to be jeopardized by such trifles.

And finally, voter 003907269 -yours truly, that is- is fully intending to exercise his right to vote tomorrow. I can’t quite say why except that i really, deeply want to do this; that i have felt a pang of envy every time i have seen others do it in their countries, and perhaps, because, we need to move on and become a normal country for lack of a better word, even if at the beginning it requires us going through the forms for the heck of it.

voter card and election posters

[cross-posted at]

Residents of Kabul Protest Government’s Inaction on Behsud – UPDATES

July 23, 2008

Some updates about yesterday’s demonstrations here against government’s inaction on the Behsud conflict -now that the dust (of the demonstrations, not yet of the conflict itself) has somewhat settled:

Pictures of demonstration via BBC

Kot-i Sangi to Deh-Mazang

According to reports and eyewitness accounts, the demonstrations started in Dasht-e-Barchi area but it was only in Kot-i Sangi that the numbers really began to swell. People in a giant human wave in thousands joined the rally that stretched unbroken between Kot-i Sangi and Deh-Mazang, with the entire avenue clogged (one source put it at 300,000 strong.) In what is surely an unprecedented practice in Afghan public and political culture, the thousands-strong rally proceeded and concluded without incidents. One of the organizers told me that there were around 5,000 women in attendance in yesterday’s rally. An eyewitness recounted that women were leading the demonstrations. Besides the IDPs and former residents of Behsud/Behsood -who were present in the largest numbers- people originating from several other provinces also joined the rally. The constituency, however, is reported to have been primarily Hazara.

Halt at Deh-Mazang

By mid-morning the rally had arrived in Deh-Mazang on its way towards the center of the city and offices of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. And then it stopped.
There are varying and conflict accounts of why the rally stopped. I will list all of the accounts that I have heard- many of which cannot be substantiated:

1. The president personally ordered the rally to be stopped, calling on all of the government’s security forces (including the ANA) to halt the progress of the march in Deh-Mazang. Based on yesterday’s presidential order calling on the Kochis to temporarily evacuate Behsud, and indications of compliance from the Kochis, the government had earlier asked for the rally to be cancelled, and when this was not done, it took measures to stop it before it reached the city center. Security and peace in the city was cited as one of the reasons for the rally to stop.

2. The leaders of the demonstrated struck a deal with the government and called off the demonstrations. Again unconfirmed, this is a variant on version # 1 above, albeit this one implies that the government offered some sort of deal or was able to persuasively sell its solution of temporary evacuation of Kuchis out of Behsud to the leaders of the rally. Other variations of this account go further and blame the demonstrations organizers and leaders as having been “bought off” and co-opted and thereafter calling upon the people to go home. The leaders spoke to the rally and invited them to stop the march, stating that should the government not keep its promises or continue its policy of inaction in Behsud, a bigger rally will be organized in the future and that will go onwards towards the city center to make its demands heard.

3. According to an unconfirmed report by ANSO (Afghan NGOs Security Office), when the demonstrators arrived at Deh-Mazang area and close to the Kabul Zoo, ‘violence’ and ‘armed demonstrators’ were reported. ANSO: “There are various unconfirmed incidents of violence being reported, including a report of armed demonstrators in the area of the Kabul Zoo. NGO should suspend all movement in the city.” I have not been able to corroborate reports of violence or armed demonstrators through any other sources and all of the media (TV, radio, print -including even the BBC Persian Webpage which has finally decided to break its implicit gag-rule over the matter) are unanimous on the non-occurence of any incidents in yesterday’s rally.

Besides the 3rd account which is unlikely in view of the media reporting of the event, it is likely that a combination of 1 and 2 was at play in halting the rally at Deh-Mazang -a carrot and stick approach, if you may.

(More to come on yesterday’s demonstrations.)

For now, here are links to pictures of the event and some reporting:

1. Exclusive pictures from the demonstrations

2. After Progress in Talks, Mohaqiq Ends Hunger Strike, Calls Protesters Back Amid Emotional Scenes

Article in the National Geographic about the Hazaras of Afghanistan

February 1, 2008

National Geographic magazine has dedicated this month’s feature to a comprehensive article about the Hazaras of Afghanistan by Phil Zabriskie. Here is the link.

cover hazaras NGM

I have not read the article yet, but am a little skeptical about the title: “The Outsiders: Afghanistan’s Hazaras.” I hope Mr. Zabriskie has taken his time to do justice to the subject matter and study well the Hazaras and the many complexities that they offer for serious scholars, anthropologists and political scientists, and that the title is not too telling of the content.
The article devotes a good many paragraphs on how the Hazaras fared under the Taliban -a serious topic which has not been explored in ample detail yet- and how they have fared since.
The article also features Steve McCurry, back in Afghanistan with his camera and deliverying a delightful series of photos. (The reader would recognize McCurry as the photographer responsible for those famously haunting eyes of Sharbat Gula, a photograph titled simply “Afghan Girl” that was named the most recognized photo in the history of National Geographic magazine.)
Maybe I will do a post on the article once I have read it.

The Case of Perwiz Kambakhsh and Afghanistan’s Ongoing Culture Wars

January 30, 2008

There has been another very disturbing development in the case of Parwiz Kambakhsh, the young Afghan student of journalism who has been sentenced to death by a primary court in Northern Afghanistan for the crime of propagating “blasphemous” literature: the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament has just delcared its decision to uphold the death sentence. The case will continue on its way through the labyrinth of more courts and legislative bodies, until one of these days it finally finds itself on the president’s desk. Most likely, every court along the way will try their best not to be seen as the one that finally overturned the decision, and hence somehow supported Kambakhsh’s anti-Islamic stance.

By now the justice system here has become myopically focused on the vitriolic content of the distributed literature that was written years ago by an Iranian dissident writer and was put on the internet -it was not even written by Kambakhsh, who is himself a student and an aspiring journalist. Apparently other considerations, such as the very constitutionality of the decision to even try somebody for their opinion is out the window. Afghanistan’s constitution, which was really a craft of compromise when it was agreed upon, makes half-hearted nods both to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at the same time to a vague and amorphouse category of Islamic principles and values. Now, one of these would have Perwiz Kambakhsh killed, and the other would respect his right to free thought and expression. And this is not even the first of it -soon after the constitution was ratified two journalists were dragged to the courts on similarly drummed up charges of blaspheming and insulting Islam -and it is bound to be not the last of them; unless of course journalists learn their lessons and define their own boundaries of what is allowed and what not, i.e. self-censorship. (Then it will be the turn for bloggers who have been rash enough to abandon anonymity in an environment like this. Maybe some people are already talking about learning them computer heads a good lesson as well -there is already the internet link in Kambakhsh’s case.)

But really, the equivocality of the constitution and the daily barrage on the media and the journalists is symptomatic of a more fundamental fact of the Afghan society: there is an ongoing culture war in Afghanistan. This is the same non-ending culture war that first reached tipping point in 1912 and became a warm war (the spark then was the lovely Queen Suraya’s bare arms in a western dress, and pictures of young Afghan girls in skirts and hats studying abroad in Turkey.) The same ongoing culture war has influenced the course of Afghan political history over the last century. Kambakhsh and other journalists are all victims of this war. In reality, everyone, including those who vye for his blood, know deep down that his transgressions are not grave enough to warrant the death penalty. But what these people also know is that there is more at stake than merely the neck of one or two young journalist (especially that they do not enjoy the same immunities that many other journalists in Afghanistan do, i.e. back-up of their embassies, etc.) So in effect these people are telling the likes of Perwiz Kambakhsh:
“Sorry pal, we know it is a bit extreme to put the hangman’s noose around your neck (figure of speech, in actuality we would prefer for you to be stoned to death) for this – distributing stuff that you did not write and may not even fully endorse, or even understand. You did not even publish it, and it is not proven that you held secret group meetings to proselytize and discuss it. And we are not particularly opposed to Will Durant -whose book is a key incriminating evidence in your case- either. But times are tough and we are in a war. Your death is a small price to be paid for what this will teach others. Next thing and we might even allow the elected MP Malalay Joya back into the parliament, and allow Tolo TV to air Shakira concerts. Now that would be a slippery slope we cannot allow this nation to go down, wouldn’t it? So we hope you will try to understand. And if you don’t, well, too bad.”

For some of these people, it is even a win-win situation whether Kambakhsh dies or lives. If he dies, well, lesson learnt, victory achieved, Islam saved, and journalists harnessed for good. If he lives, it will likely be the president who pardons him- the sentence will likely be upheld in a landslide vote in the lower house, and the supreme court’s only concern would be whether the sentence is harsh enough. Unless and until his legal advisors find a loophole (and one that is acceptible to the clergy too) on the grounds of which they can send the case back down, the president is facing a serious headache. He is damned if he signs off on the death sentence of a young journalist, and he is damned if he does not. In Afghanistan we call that being sandwiched between the two stones of a mill – or a rock and a hard place.

Last day in Herat

September 5, 2007

Last day in Herat. After a long day’s work, went to the shrine of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. Was taken by the meditative peace of the place and the confluence of giant white turbans. Remembered verses from Khwaja’s “Munajat Naama.” Held up my hands, touched the discolored marbles, then put both my hands to my face.
In and out. It was getting dark.
Entered the Friday mosque and saw the rows already formed. Shoes in hand, ran across the tiles and took my place in the last row. Prayed in my own heretical and syncretic way – with hands now open on my sides, now over-lapped.
In and out. Late for a dinner.
Have an ealy flight tomorrow. But have not yet examined the citadel up close. Having read Peter Hopkirk’s “The Great Game,” cannot leave Herat without visiting the citadel. So got to get up very early. Hence the shorthands.

Four Things I Love about Herat

September 3, 2007

Plans changed, and instead of going up north I am in the west – in Herat. All the happier for it too. I have always wanted to come to Herat, and here I am, blogging from Herat, listening to the Doors, nibbling on the season’s finest grapes, and with a breath-taking view of the Herati skyline dominated by the Friday mosque out in the distance.


The first thing that catches the attention of a newcomer to the city is the broad, well-paved and preserved, and tree-lined streets of Herat. At least that is what caught my attention coming from Kabul with its permanently congested and pot-holed roads as our noisy convoy with its escorts zipped through the long drive from the airport into the city via Injeel district. For all his faults, the former Emir has done admirable work with the streets of Herat. His forced destruction of multi-story buildings that were built too close to the road and his broadening of the city’s main streets into 60-meters-wide thoroughfares bring to mind the same serious-minded implementation of “imminent domain” that is so needed in Kabul’s alleyways. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons why some here tend to wax nostalgically about the Emir.


Then it is the history. It is there in the huge citadel, the magnificent Friday mosque, the strikingly beautiful Minarets that are all in such heartbreaking state of disrepair, the tombs of Gawhar Shaad and Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, the historic four gates of the city, the square with a Soviet tank and statues in memory of the brave Heratis of the 24th of Hoot all over it, and on and on…

When a city has been around since 2,500 before common era, it is fair to say that it collects quite a bit of history’s dust on it. And while it is tragic that the historic sites here are falling apart and see little efforts at preservation, this poverty actually adds to their magnificence and grandeur.
Tall, unpretentious, humble and yet humbling, unadorned, un-ticketed, aloof -and around for only a short while more. Like heroes. Like beauty.

I had tears in my eyes when I saw the minarets. I imagined them as five tall and beautiful goddesses all condemned to gradual death by an angry Zeus. Seeing them, one is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, this is the first time you have seen them, and you must take a picture with them while they are still there. On the other hand, damn you if you dare to take out your nifty digital camera and affix your ugly mug in the foreground of that azul sky and the beautiful goddesses.


Third comes the wind. No, the famous story about the wind of a hundred and twenty days is not some fairy tale. The gales here are strong enough to push you off the rooftop of your hotel. This is why the moment you step out of your vehicle you see why it is that all the trees here appear like little green leaning towers of Pisa. Eating on a rooftop last night I could not help but laugh at the way the wind-inflated thighs of my Khareji colleague’s trousers appeared like those of a Sumo wrestler – he was wearing a ‘Peran Tambon’ (and yes that is the proper name for it; forget Shalwar Qameez.) The wind is enlivening here. It invigorates you. And unlike Kabul’s afternoon winds, the wind here does not bring along with it vast quantities of dust.


After the streets and the history and the wind, it is the Heratis that make Herat great. Their endearingly idiosyncratic Farsi accents, their Persian features and polite manners, their relative cosmopolitanism, their industrious and entrepreneurial spirit, their love of and patronizing of arts and literature (evident in their frequent use of poetry in speech), and the fact that until things got really bad with security here, the city’s parks were filled with families out picnicing at night! I seriously like that.

I arrived here yesterday morning, and spent most of yesterday outside the city and in the countryside. Speaking with people. One old man had served in the Afghan national army with people from Jaghori, the district where I come from, back in the day – perhaps 1950s. He showed me an ancient “Hawz,” an ancient domed structure where water collected from streams was kept for drinking. The structure was falling apart. It had been around for 300 years, around the same length of time that 6 generations ago his great grandfathers had moved into Herat from one of the “Mashriqi” (eastern) provinces. He also showed me ancient houses bombed to rubble by the Soviets.

He walked around his village with me and talked at length about why it was so important for people of my generation to join hands together and to rebuild the country. And then he invited me to be his “Mehman” with such genuine sincerity that I felt bad for having to refuse.


I will be in Herat until Thursday. From tomorrow on things are going to be rather busy. This is why I will go out and absorb more of Herat this very afternoon. Till another post.

Earliest Islamic Building in Afghanistan

April 20, 2007

Haji Payindi / No Gunbad Mosque
Haji Payinda Mosque (also known as Masjid-i Nou Gunbad), Balkh, Afghanistan.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Volker Thewalt. For more of Dr. Thewalt’s photos of Afghanistan’s historic monuments -taken during the years 1969 thru 1974- visit

The World Monuments Watch recently added Haji Payinda mosque to its list of 100 most endangered sites around the world. Following is a brief description given on WMW’s website about the historic and architectural significance the site, and what is being done to preserve it:

Thought to be the earliest Islamic building in Afghanistan—and one of the earliest structures in the eastern Islamic world—the Mosque of Haji Piyada at Balkh was built in the ninth century, only 200 years after the birth of Islam and shortly after its introduction into Central Asia.

A square mosque measuring 20 by 20 meters, Haji Piyada is also known as the Mosque of Noh Gumbad, for the nine cupolas that once covered its sanctuary. Although the cupolas have long since collapsed, the arches that once supported them still stand, albeit precariously. The arches, like much of the remaining interior surfaces if the mosque, are covered with exquisite, deeply carved stucco designs that exhibit a unique blend of imported Abbasid artistic elements and local traditional styles.

Of unmatched art historical value, the Mosque of Haji Piyada is threatened by looting, high humidity, and erosion, which are taking their toll what has survived. Urgently needed measures to safeguard the site against further damage include the construction of a fence around its perimeter to prevent illicit excavations and the consolidation of surrounding walls to protect against harsh weather conditions.

Decades of war and civil unrest in Afghanistan have made maintenance of the site all but impossible and have stripped the country of the capacity to carry out even basic conservation projects. It is hoped that Watch listing will not only highlight the need to preserve this extraordinary building, but also provide a laboratory for training a new generation of Afghan conservators.

Looking for Love in Ankara

April 17, 2007

AFP and the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman have confirmed earlier reports about a summit to be hosted by Ankara between Afghan and Pakistani presidents sometimes in early May this year.

Before anything else I am reminded of the White House dinner last year during which president Bush hosted the two leaders in a famously frigid atmosphere. Fresh from the sets of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room, where they had been mutually generous with criticisms and accusations of incapacity, the two leaders reportedly shook hands with their host before the dinner, but not with each other. (Unknown sources quoted a White House valet -who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the incident- noticing the two guests periodically kicking each other “in the shin” under the table.)

All in all, that dinner in Washington did little to bring a thaw in the relations between the two leaders, as evidenced most recently with this week’s remarks by President Musharraf on American TV. Asked how he felt about President Karzai’s critique of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, and his accusation that Mullah Omar was hiding out in Pakistan, Musharraf said that he is “very angry” with Karzai, and that Karzai’s continued insistence that Omar was in Pakistan is “absolute nonsense.” Surprisingly there has been no rhetorical tit-for-tat from the Afghan president so far, and there are subtle indications that at least some people in the government of Afghanistan are toning down their usually harsh and explicit criticism of Pakistan. Especially now that both leaders have agreed “in principal” with a meeting in Ankara, it is unlikely that the rhetorical altercation will worsen.

It is hard not to suspect Washington’s hand in arranging the Ankara talk. There are no reports to the effect, and I have heard nothing so far from any officials in the American government, but it is clear that aside from the largely symbolic place that the common religion of Islam holds in the relations between the three countries, the real common denominator for all three countries can be found in the three capital letters: U.S.A.

Both Ankara and Islamabad (incidentally also sister cities) are longtime US and NATO allies, and both played front and center roles during the Cold War against the Soviet Union: Izmir was the site of US Jupiter IRBM nuclear warheads that was used as a justification by the Soviets for deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba -triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis– and Pakistan was instrumental in channeling American money to the Mujahideen in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The US also continues to enthusiastically back Turkey’s membership into EU, an issue that probably tops Turkey’s list of foreign policy priorities and concerns.

Separately, Turkey and Pakistan have celebrated their common cultural links and economic as well as strategic interests in the form of such regional organizations as ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization), and according to his memoirs In the Line of Fire, the Pakistani president has spent part of his childhood growing up in Turkey, and is clearly inspired and enamored in his thinking by Turkey’s secular and modernizing leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For its part, while Turkey has not been as proactive as Pakistan during the civil war in Afghanistan, it is clear that it has not sat on the sidelines either. Turkey supported, and at times hosted, prominent Uzbek warlord and Northern Alliance commander Rashid Dostum during the civil war and later in the fight with the fundamentalist T. regime. More recently, Turkey has supported the US-led struggle in Afghanistan and has contributed troops to the security umbrella ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, and a Turkish general has previously led the outfit.

Now, these good offices are called upon to perform a difficult task of monumental consequences: thaw the little ice age that has suddenly descended between Kabul and Islamabad.

Regardless of how the summit turns out for Karzai and Musharraf, the host (Turkish Prime Minister Recep Teyeb Erdogan) could use some distraction from the recent public opposition to his candidacy for Turkey’s presidency.

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.

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.

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.

BOOK: “The Hazara People and Greater Khurasan”

March 12, 2007

Basir Ahmad Hussainzada reviews M. Taqi Khawari’s new book about the Hazara people for BBC Persian here.

The book, titled The Hazara People and Greater Khurasan seems to be the most comprehensive and serious scholarly study into the origins and the history of the Hazara people since the publication of Dr. Said Askar Mousavi’s The Hazara of Afghanistan a decade ago.

According to the review, in the section dealing with the origins of the Hazara people the author authoritatively rejects the widely held theory that Hazaras are primarily remnants of the marauding hordes (organized into “hazars” or thousands) of Genghis’s Mongol armies. According to the author, a glance into the intra-ethnic diversity within the Hazara people (divided into more than 700 different clans) reveals that not all the Hazaras descend from any single ancestral gene pool.

The books also deals extensively with the waves of Hazara migration out of Afghanistan. According to the sources cited by the author, the westward Hazara mass-migrations into Iran took place in three stages: “during the reign of Nadir Shah Afshar and that of Nasiruddin Shah Qajar, and after the massacres of Hazaras by Abdur Rahman Khan.”

Furthermore, the author gives a detailed account of the prevalence of Shi’a Islam among the Hazara people, who constitute the bulk of Shi’a Muslims in the otherwise Sunni-majority Afghanistan.

As far as one can tell from the review, the author’s research into the Hazara migrations specifically into Iran and their subsequent settlement and acculturation there is groundbreaking. Most of the other topics dealing with the origins and the history of the Hazara people in Afghanistan have been previousely written about.

All the same, the book is a welcome addition to the still sparse scholarship about the Hazara people. In the preface to his own book about the Hazaras of Afghanistan, Dr. Askar Mousavi claims that the Hazara people are the “least well-known ethnic group in Afghanistan.” Although the events of 9/11 and the subsequent US toppling of the Taliban focused the world’s attention on Afghanistan, and more importantly, despite the publication of the bestselling novel The Kiterunner, the Hazara people of Afghanistan remain one of the least known and studied ethnic groups (not that reading The Kiterunner in itself would be of any help in this regard, but the novel was the closest thing to a first encounter for many with the Hazara people.) Serious anthropological and ethnographic studies are particularly rare as most of new research and writing deal with such contemporary interests as their history and politics.

The Hazara People and Greater Khurasan will hopefully be translated into English and read by a wider audience. If in five years it is still not translated, this writer -hopefully out of school by then- will make a serious effort at obtaining the translation rights.

Karzai’s Choice*

March 2, 2007

President Karzai is famous for his penchant to sidestep thorny issues and controversial decisions. Whenever possible, the rule of the presidential thumb has been to leave alone those decisions that could potentially antagonize allies or enemies -or anybody under the sun. (Well, save for Pakistan.) Such enviable political savviness has endeared Mr. Karzai with a motley crew that includes a large, cross-ethnic mass of Afghanistan’s population, a divided West separated by a gulf as big as the Atlantic ocean, and Afghanistan’s worlords who were sworn enemies of each other just a few years back.

If Mr. Karzai were to have his own show on primetime television in America, it would be called “Everybody Loves Hamid.”

Alas, easy times always come to an end. And for Mr. Karzai, the time of reckoning seems to have arrived. After the infamous “Amnesty Bill” (officially christened the “National Reconciliation Law”) swept through both the lower and upper houses of Afghanistan’s parliament with uncharacteristic efficiency, the onus is now on the president to decide whether he signs the bill into law or not. And Mr. Karzai’s preferred course of action in matters as inflammatory as this (that is, to steer clear of the entire damn thing) seems just not to be an option here.

Not signing the bill into law would amount to, well, not signing the bill into law. However spun, the undeniable fact will remain that Mr. Karzai sided with the people against the warlords. And of all people, Mr. Karzai knows best that he owes the initial honeymoon period of his presidency to the appeased pacifism of his warlord friends. He knows better than to antagonize them now with the country already in bad shape for a number of other reasons.

On the other hand, the president cannot simply sign the bill into law either. I am tempted to say that it goes against his principles, but we all know that politicians and leaders rarely afford the luxury of keeping lofty principles. The more immediate concern is that it goes against his electorate’s preferences. Besides, while the West has been understanding in the past of Mr. Karzai’s wheeler-dealer politics and appeasement of the warlords, something this big cannot be simply swept under the rug.

The grapevine has it that Mr. Karzai has now tasked his team of legal aides to find technical grounds on which he could send the bill back to the parliament and thereby buy time. In the meantime, both proponents and opponents of the law have made their cases with demonstrations and rallies, most notably the recent commemoration of Afshar massacres of ’92 (which this writer and family barely escaped) and a subsequent rally under the Jihad banner in support of the warlords.

Damned if he does, damned if he does not, Mr. Karzai faces the most important decision of his term, and one that is bound leave a lasting impact on his legacy as a president, and on Afghanistan’s history.


Inspired by the title of William Styron’s novel “Sophie’s Choice,” now an idiom: “A ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is a tragic choice between two unbearable options.” (def. from Wikipedia)

After a Year of Setbacks Afghanistan Sees Renewed Committment

January 26, 2007

Not long after the start of the Iraq War the world became so embroiled with the many twists and turns of that fatal mistake that Afghanistan was relegated to the backburner -and soon came to be referred to as the “forgotten war.”

And forgotten it was. Since the fateful summer of 2003, with an initial euphoria and illusion of success in Afghanistan, the foreigners, ever so impatient to pack and leave the dusty country to its own instruments (as they had done before after the Soviet withdrawal) thought that the good work was once again done here.

Not so. As international committment waned (and the reconstruction that was promised came ever so slowly), the Taliban did not rest. They built up in weapons, troops, morale, and popular support (on both sides of Afghanistan-Pakistan border) and starting as early as the spring of 2005 made a comeback.

By 2006 the Taliban were stronger and in a better state to face international troops than they had been even as a regular army back in 2001. Over the years, the regular army of the Taliban diffused into the population and became a guerilla force -a nightmare for the state of Afghanistan and its international backers that had to hold, secure, and defend cities and villages across the country and face a mobile enemy. Add to this the novel reality of suicide bombing, and the losses of 2006 should not come as a shock.

Now, as Afghanistan begins its sixth year post-Bonn and awaits another fateful spring, there is a broad consensus that things must change. If there is a silver lining to the setbacks of 2006, it is this: Afghanistan’s Lost Year has served to catapult the forgotten war back into the front and center of world’s attention.

Here are some key recent developments that I think signal a revitalized US and international committment to the struggle in Afghanistan:

  • In today’s NATO foreign ministers’ summit in Brussels the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to announce increased US committment to Afghanistan and ask European NATO members to step up to the plate -both in terms of increased aid money and more troops.
  • After a US policy review of Afghanistan (studying the period starting with the protests of June 2006) found that the current resource levels are not sufficient to meet the reconstruction goals, the US administration is expected next month to appeal the US Congress for additional funds of as much as $10.4 billion (Washington Post reports the figure as $7-8 billion) to supplement the funds already earmarked for Afghanistan reconstruction.
  • While increasing troop levels may be out of the question for now (especially as the deteriorating situation in Iraq requires a more urgent surge in troops there), the US army has just announced that it will extend the tour of duty of 3000 soldiers of its 10th Mountain Division who are stationed in Afghanistan by 120 days. This comes at the same time as another influx of troops who are supposed to replace the departing soldiers also arrive in Afghanistan. In effect this amounts to a temporary surge of troops, calculated to last the period of the presumptive spring offensive of the Taliban.
  • While his State of the Union addresses was geared mostly towards domestic issues and as a sequel to the Iraq Policy Speech earlier and President Bush remained silent on Afghanistan but for an acknowledgement of the deteriorating situation there, in a nod to fresh US commitment to Afghanistan the American president did meet the US general (McNeil) who is to take over the command of the NATO troops there.
  • This one is a mixed bag of sorts and may not prove to be as effective as other policy shifts, but the US is also eager to fight the War on Drugs in Afghanistan more seriously: the appointment of its former ambassador to Colombia and a stated objective to employ Colombia-style tactics in the War on Drugs signals frustration with the prolonged drug cultivation and trafficking problem and its myriad complications with funding terrorism and insurgency. It was recently revealed that for months the government of Afghanistan has been under increasing “behind-closed-doors” pressure to allow aerial spraying and the use of herbicides and exfoliators in the Southern provinces.
  • While current NATO troop levels in Afghanistan are 20% short of committments made by member countries, another brigade is expected to arrive “shortly” (i.e. before the spring sets in,) “and more after that,” according to NATO commander Gen. David Richards.
  • For what it is worth, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO established a joint “intelligence hub” in Kabul. While the “hub” can hardly stand in for a much more serious settlement of differences and alignment of interests that is needed between Kabul and Islamabad, it is hoped that the move will serve to improve coordination and intelligence sharing

Whether the renewed US and international committment to Afghanistan is genuine and long-term, or just a bracing up for the anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban remains to be seen. In the latter case, the temporary build-up of troops will merely amount to a Maginot Line: the enemy will only delay its offensive enough that the eager foreigners tire and leave once again before the ANA is up to the challenge -as they have unfailingly done in the past. And then it will be groundhog day all over.

Shroud of Secrecy Covers the Resignation of Karzai Aide

January 20, 2007

With the Taliban spring offensive just over the horizon, the last thing that the fragile government of Afghanistan led by President Karzai needs is political infighting. And yet political infighting is precisely what has been rocking the budding government’s boat over the past few weeks, as evidenced this Thursday with the forced resignation of the Karzai administration’s long-time public face and recent chief of the presidential staff, Mr. Jawed Ludin. According to Ahmed Rashid writing in the Daily Telegraph:

Mr Ludin was forced to resign this morning, senior officials in the Afghan cabinet said. The move has shaken Western diplomats in Kabul and is seen as a sign that Mr Karzai is struggling to control the loyalty of his government.

Mystery surrounds the sudden resignation of Mr Ludin who first served Mr Karzai as press spokesman and then as chief of staff after graduating from a British university.

However the officials said the cause of the shake up was due to political infighting within the president’s staff. (continue)

The fact that this comes as a surprise is hardly surprising itself. In keeping with the historical tradition, the current government of Afghanistan keeps a tight lid on all matters internal and palace-related. Similar bouts of rumor surrounded the resignation in the fall of 2005 of then minister of interior, Mr. Ali Ahmad Jalali. (Mr. Jalali has since moved to the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. and his name of often mentioned -once again in rumors- as one of the likely candidates to succeed Karzai as president.) Similarly, the online magazine Kabul Press reported earlier that the government has been keeping the news of ex-King Zahir Shah’s death from the public, fearing the outfall: The honorary “father of the nation” commands much legitimacy among his fellow Pashtun in the country and to many among them, his standing by the Karzai government is the only attractive feature of the otherwise unpopular regime.

While no government in the world can be expected to disclose the most sensitive of issues to the public, it seems that the government of Afghanistan is still under the spell of the palace mentality of its predecessors and is in particular need of showing greater transparency. The citizens of the country have a right to the truth when it comes to issues of national importance and should not be deprived of it. More importantly, while the government may choose to keep all such news on the low-down, this will only invigorate the country’s proverbial rumor mills. The fact that the government refuses to disclose its own side of the story only worsens the situation as speculation abounds and conspiracy theories blow the story out of proportions.

This is what has been happening once again with Mr. Ludin’s resignation. While in reality the incident could have been prompted by political disagreements or even a regular cabinet reshuffle, rumors of a “coup” attempt have already surfaced. Such news is sure to put the government in a precarious position as its many rivals try to exploit the situation. Until a viable and responsible free press takes root in Afghanistan, the country’s rumor mills will continue to occupy the exalted and powerful position of the Fourth Estate. Afghanistan’s modern history reveals that governments have only neglected rumors at their own detriment. Let’s hope that the current government decides to learn from that history, becomes more transparent, and fights rumors will truth.