How the Hippies destroyed Afghanistan

February 27, 2007.

OK, maybe the title of this post is a little bit of an exaggeration. However, one author, Martin Ewans, argues that the Taliban were motivated partially by a strong disdain for the morals of the west, and that the foundations of this disdain may be traced back to the hippie tourists who passed through Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s. The Afghans showed these hippies their trademark pre-conflict hospitality and the hippies, for their part, smoked a lot of dope and did unmentionable things with each other in public. Ewans dedicates less than a page to the issue that can be summed up by this passage:

“…Afghans were deeply shocked at the visitors’ nihilism and irresponsibility, as well as at the loose morals that many of them, and women in particular, displayed. Their conclusion was that if this was how Westerners behaved, Afghanistan wanted no part of it.”

Martin Ewans is no sociologist or anthropologist (in fact he is a former diplomat) and he is not a fan of footnotes or citing sources, so you can take what he says with a grain of salt. However, this does raise this issue of Afghans’ perception of western morals. Personally, I doubt that the Euro-Americano-hippies’ reputation for unspeakable debauchery traveled far from Kabul. And around this time western films and magazines were surely making their way to this part of the world, adding another variable to destroy the reputation of western morals in the eyes of Afghans.

What of the current effect of western pop-culture? Well, Hollywood and other entertainment entities do a good job of portraying Americans and Europeans as grossly sexually promiscuous, nihilistic, violent, greedy, etc… While some educated Afghans may be aware that there is a debate in the west over the perversion of reality that the entertainment industry serves up, I’m sure many Afghans imagine American and Europeans cavorting sexually with random strangers whenever they feel like it. I doubt most Afghans are aware that many in the west, from religious conservatives to feminists, debate the effect of what is statistically proven to be a gross distortion of what actually happens in society, from the advertising industry’s shameful sexualization of ever-younger girls to the violent, nihilistic and narcissistic paradise that is Hollywood.

At this point, it goes beyond the risqué wall poster of whatever starlet is displaying her assets for profit at the moment. Now a young Afghan man can go buy a cheap pirated porno DVD down at the bazaar and see exactly what Christian men do with their women. The result will likely be disgust…………and jealousy. Time to go out for Chinese food, if you know what I mean.

Note: You can find almost one page (pg 269-70) dedicated to hippies in Martin Ewans book “Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics” (Perrenial, 2002). I’m sure if you dig elsewhere you can find other references to the “hippie trail” that went from Turkey to India, wreaking havoc with the west’s reputation along the way.

Public Relations in Afghanistan: Warlords versus Heroes?

In the years preceding September 11, and for a couple years after, it was clear that one group had mastered public relations while all others has neglected it completely, or at least failed in their attempts. Thanks to its charismatic and articulate spokesmen, the Shura-yi Nazar of Ahmed Shah Massoud became the darling of the western press. These spokesmen, Massoud Khalili and Dr. Abdullah, were, and still are, cosmopolitan, stylishly dressed, intelligent, skilled at speaking to Europeans, and fluent in English. Khalili and Abdullah were quite comfortable in any capital of Europe or in Washington, DC. They could argue their case in a passionate and persuasive manner. While they were unsuccessful in securing any significant assistance from western government, they did manage to generate sympathetic and positive coverage by the media.

More significantly, Shura-yi Nazar invited reporters and authors to their base in Afghanistan. Reporters and others were welcomed in the Panjshir Valley, where they would find a dedicated guesthouse ready for them. Here they could meet with Khalili and Abdullah, and of course with Ahmed Shah Massoud himself. So here reporters would find themselves in a beautiful, scenic valley dotted with idyllic villagers full of people who revere Massoud. Most importantly for the reporter, they could converse in English or French. And Massoud was always up to the challenge of arguing his case. By all accounts he was charismatic, brave, stoic and articulate. And whether talking to a reporter of some unknown European newspaper or to the French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, he was ready to make a good impression.

So if Massoud and Shura-yi Nazar were the masters of public relations, who were, and in some cases still are, the epitome of the public relations disaster in the pre-September 11 era? That would be pretty much everybody else, aside from a few irrelevant royalists. You may have noted that nearly every commander in Afghanistan is described as a “Warlord.” But not Massoud. He usually gets adjectives affixed to his name, usually “heroic,” “legendary,” etc…

It would take all day to describe all the big players in Afghanistan, so I’ll stick to one commander who has attracted a significant amount of negative press: General Rashid Dostum. Dostum is handicapped from the start by his status as a former communist general. Additionally, many people in Kabul do not remember him fondly from the early civil war years. Many reporters and authors frame him as a leader who is always changing alliances and betraying his allies. The adjectives usually attached to Dostum are “brutal,” “bear-like,” “treacherous,” etc…

Unlike Massoud, Dostum never had, and to the best of my knowledge, does not currently have a spokesman as skilled as Abdullah and Khalili. There were no English-speaking representatives to send to the west and Dostum apparently didn’t have reporters knocking on his door to interview him. Even if he had courted the western media, the reporter who showed up would have found a no-nonsense blue-collar type of guy. He wouldn’t be reading Persian poetry or opining on philosophical conundrums. It would be more likely that, as a former plumber/pipe-fitter, he would be busy lecturing a mechanic for replacing a water pump in an armored personnel carrier without checking for a faulty thermostat first.

By default, Dostum allowed his rivals and enemies to define him. Perhaps if there was an ethnic Uzbek-Afghan Diaspora in the west on the scale of the Tajik and Pashtun Diaspora, Dostum may have had somebody to defend him. The only well-known Afghan-Uzbek in the west is Indiana University’s Nazif Shahrani. But he is dedicated to teaching anthropology, not engaging in Afghan politics [note: his brother Neamatullah is Minister of Religious Affairs]. And Bloomington, Indiana is not exactly just down the street from New York and DC media headquarters.

Could an effective spokesman have effectively defended Dostum? The answer is yes. A quantitative and qualitative analysis of human rights abuses committed by his troops does not put him in the lead as top bad guy in Afghanistan. As for his changing alliances, it can be soundly argued that he did not betray his allies, but that his allies progressively marginalized him to the point that he would be subordinate to his “ally.” This was done by both Najibullah and Massoud/Rabbani. In regards to his communist past, it would seem a logical choice for a member of an ethnic group that was systematically discriminated against in the modern Afghan state to join a group that held out the promise of equality.

Aside from defending Dostum from the usual allegations, an effective public relations spokesman could note that the city of Mazar-i Sharif and the parts of the north under his control during the communist era, and until Dostum’s defeat by the Taliban, were effectively administered and he was regarded as a legitimate leader (Most “warlords” have a certain level of popularity in their home region).

Without any public relations effort there was no defense against the many reporters who selectively quoted from Ahmed Rashid’s book “Taliban,” or who used Tajiks and Pashtuns as their sources on Dostum.

It is certain that Dostum is no angel. You don’t hold territory in 1980s and 1990s Afghanistan by being a nice guy. He probably did knock off his Uzbek rival Rasul Pahlavan and he probably did have a thief run over with a tank right before Ahmed Rashid showed up for a short interview. And his troops committed atrocities for sure. Human Rights Watch has listed the latter crimes. However, it should be noted he is listed as one of many human rights abusers, right alongside Jamiat and Shura-yi Nazar leaders. But my main point is that Dostum, and others like him, never had a chance in the arena of public relations due to circumstance beyond their control and outside their attention.

For a neutral evaluation of Dostum see: Giustozzi, Antonio. (2005) ‘The Ethnicisation of an Afghan Faction: Junbesh-I-Milli from its Origins to the Presidential Elections’, Crisis States Programme Working Paper, No. 67. Crisis States Research Center (September 2005) Available online at: http://www.crisisstates.com/download/wp/WP67.pdf

For positive evaluations see: Marlowe, Anne. (2002). “Warlords and Leaders: The hidden agendas behind press coverage of the Afghan War,” Available at:
http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-marloweprint021802.html

Williams, Brian Glyn. (2005) ‘Target Dostum: The Campaign Against Northern Alliance Warlords’, Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 3, Issue 20. (October 21, 2005) Available online at: http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/uploads/ter_003_020.pdf

Salon.com has an interview where he comes across as reasonably articulate: dir.salon.com/story/people/feature/2002/01/08/dostum/index.html

For a negative evaluation of Dostum just look for his name in the index of whatever book on Afghanistan you have handy. Google also returns some very negative articles after the first page or so. Human Rights Watch lists numerous allegations against him at www.hrw.org

The Power(lessness) of the Mob in Afghanistan

In 1841, a mob formed outside the British mission in Kabul, leading to an enthusiastic mass stabbing of Alexander Burnes, a British political agent. The mission and a neighboring British officer’s house were stormed and all servants, women and children in those residences were killed. In 1979, a mob rose up in Herat and attacked the Soviet advisers assigned to the city. The decapitated heads of the Soviets and their families were mounted on sticks and marched around the city. In 1221, the people of Herat and Balkh rebelled against their new Mongol rulers. In the process the Mongol governor was killed. In 2006, a car crash involving American soldiers degenerated into an anti-western, anti-Karzai riot. UN and NGO offices, as well as private businesses were trashed and looted.

Obviously, all these incidents involve mob violence. What is significant is that the first two, against the British and the Soviets, emboldened Afghan tribesmen and soldiers, encouraging their active involvement in attacking the foreign presence. In 1841, after the riots in Kabul, Kohistani and Ghilzai troops decided it was time to attack. The result was the annihilation of the British forces in Afghanistan. In 1979 the Herat riot led to a revolt by the local Afghan Army troops. Of course, the Mongol response to the 1221 uprisings in Balkh and Herat was to massacre the entire population of both cities.

Thomas J. Barfield, an anthropologist and a legitimate expert on Afghanistan, briefly discussed historical riots by city dwellers in Central Asia and Afghanistan in an article titled “Problems in establishing legitimacy in Afghanistan” (Iranian Studies, Volume 37, Number 2, June 2004). Barfield notes that:

“While conquered cities often rebelled after a conquest, this was less a challenge to the legitimacy of its government than a test of its staying power. Populations were rarely punished for such acts beyond the execution of the ringleaders and confiscation of property.”

Barfield goes on to say that the Mongols clearly did not understand the “ritual nature of such challenges.” As for the British and the Soviets, they could never commit the sufficient level of troops to stabilize the country and the “Mongol option” was not available to them. Also, the British and the Soviets were attempting to bolster what were seen as gravely illegitimate governments, making their job especially hard.

So, on to the riots of 2006. The riots of 2006 had a very different outcome as Kabul police and ANA troops restored calm. The rioters were unable to overcome their narrow ethnic/regional base and the vast majority of Kabulis were in no mood to join in and give anarchy another go-around. Also, elections and various opinion surveys have shown that Karzai and the “international community” have a significant degree of popular support. This makes clear the distinction between earlier foreign occupiers and the current NATO/ISAF presence.

What does all this say about riots and mob violence in Afghanistan’s cities? In my opinion it shows that riots will only degenerate into open warfare when the occupiers are both weak and perceived as such. The weakness of the British response in 1841 encouraged ever-larger numbers of Kabulis, then Ghilizais and Kohistanis to get involved. Afghan Army troops in Herat reacted similarly after the Soviet advisers were wiped out. A weak or incompetent response in 2006 may have allowed the situation to degenerate into citywide riots, which would have had serious consequences for the reconstruction effort.

The failure of these riots may possibly have sent a message to the people of various Afghan cities that this government, having withstood the “ritual challenge,” is going to be around for a while.