“Going Native” In Afghanistan

June 30, 2007.

Americans and Europeans who venture into Afghanistan as civilians usually have several barriers between themselves and the locals. These include body guards, security problems, lack of language skills, translators between the Westerner and the locals, segregated housing, lack of understanding regarding local culture, etc… And yes, I know not everybody hides behind their security guard in Shahr-i Naw. I’m sure some NGO folks feel quite proud that they went to some local’s house and had chai. It’s really cool; you take a bunch of pictures on your digital camera as proof of how you are “getting down” with the locals.

But is anybody from the West “going native” in Afghanistan? But first a definition of “going native:”

“The term ‘going native’ is employed to refer to the trepidation felt by the European colonizers in Africa that they may become desecrated by being assimilated into the culture and customs of the indigenous peoples. In today’s liberal and anti-racist society, ‘going native’ is understandably considered a derogatory and offensive term.”

Totally out of context quote #12

June 29, 2007.

“Who the bloody hell told you that?”

Context: The well-known journalist and author of Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, lets Barnett Rubin know that rumours of his death in Spain while celebrating his birthday have been greatly fabricated. He confirmed that he is alive and well and visiting Norway, a rather safe place. The rumour starters at The Far Eastern Economic Review defended themselves by stating that there are number of high profile “Ahmed Rashids:” 1) a best-selling author named Ahmed Rashid, 2) a former writer for The Far Eastern Economic Review, 3) a commmentator for the BBC, and 4) a blogger for the Washington Post. And perchance one of them died?

I checked out each one individually. They all sort of look and sound the same, in addition to having identical bios. But I understand if, as a journalist, you have a “scoop” and don’t have time to attempt a confirmation.

If you want accurate information I suggest signing up for Dr. Rubin’s excellent listserv.

Pashtuns Must Have Their Revenge! Sometimes!

June 27, 2007.

With wonderful Rudyard Kiplingesque hyperbole the journalists and commentators of the West write about the Pashtun code of honour, or Pashtunwali, that requires family members to seek revenge for relatives that are killed. The concept of Badal, or revenge, means that every Pashtun who has lost a family member is on the warpath, bent on revenge.

[Insert obligatory image of scary, hairy Pashtun man.]

Pashtun dude

So then how does Afghanistan function at all? What Pashtun hasn’t violently lost a relative? Is it possible that not every Pashtun male is lurking in the darkness, sharpening his knife or loading his AK-47 with fresh ammo? Do Pashtuns actually go on with their life without taking revenge? Has the media been exaggerating alleged aspects of Pashtun culture? Do I ask too many rhetorical questions?

I would venture a guess that if it was possible to do a quantitative analysis of revenge in Afghanistan, a researcher would find that few Pashtuns actually attempt revenge and even fewer attain it. But damn it, that whole Pashtunwali thing makes for an interesting article. And never mind that it is a wee bit Orientalist and sensationalist; Whatsisname at that there newspaper wants to tell you that Pashtuns are an unthinking bunch of maniacs bent on revenge, guided only by their basest emotions and incapable of logic, reason, forgiveness or pragmatism. I’m not going to cite any articles because there are so many to choose from, and not just from second-rate rags like [insert name of any newspaper in the world], but in quality sources such as The Economist and The Christian Science Monitor.

What those journalists are leaving out are the concepts of Nanawatay, Rogha, Nagha and Jirga. All these concepts are, in some form or another, tools for reconciliation, forgiveness, compensation, punishment or justice. And guess what? They are included in Pashtunwali along with Badal. So journalists have been a little bit selective in highlighting one particular part of the Pashtun honour code. And my God, are standards ever low for journalism these days (have they ever been high?) I would look to social scientists for a more thorough and honest view of Pashtun culture.

Pashtuns […] who moved to large cities were even farther removed from the values of the Pashtunwali because there they were enmeshed in state systems of government that restricted autonomy and cash economies that valued money more than honor. [….] It is for this reason that examples of customary law as a living tradition are found mainly in the marginal areas of rural Afghanistan even though the ethos of the Pashtunwali is common to all rural Pashtuns.

What?! Rural and urban Pashtuns are different? What a revelation! [Sarcasm alert]. And Badal, that whole revenge thing, has a caveat:

Revenge (badal) is the means of enforcement by which an individual seeks personal justice for wrongs done against him or his kin group. It is this right and expectation of retaliation that lies at the heart of the Pashtunwali as a non-state legal system. Kill one of our people and we will kill one of yours; hit me and I will hit you back. While the community may recognize that acts such as theft, homicide or rape are wrong, it does not take collective responsibility for judging or punishing people who commit such acts. This is a right reserved to the victims. However, the Pashtunwali, local tradition, and public opinion do play a large role in structuring how, on whom, and where one may take revenge legitimately. It also lays out mechanisms for resolving such disputes through mediation or arbitration. Although lacking the power of adjudication that states take for granted, local communities can use social pressure to push for resolution of disruptive disputes, particularly in blood feuds where successive cycles of revenge attacks can only be brought to an end by the intervention of outside intermediaries.

State law codes depend on fines paid to the state and imprisonment to punish wrongdoers while Pashtun customary law is more concerned with questions of restitution. At a minimum this includes the return of goods stolen or their cash value in cases of theft, payments for wounds inflicted, or even arranging a marriage settlement and blood money in the case of a revenge killing. If a family is too poor or politically weak to carry out revenge on its own it may also seek community arbitration to end the conflict, though this may involve a loss of face. In either the case a maraka is held in which the judges set a blood price (nake or khun), traditionally 60,000 afs or about $1200. This money is paid to the victim’s family by the murderer’s family along with two sheep as a shame payment and an apology. In addition the victim’s family is receives an unmarried girl in marriage. Giving a girl in marriage serves two purposes: it provides a replacement for the life lost and binds the two families with a marital alliance that should act as a barrier to further hostilities.

Did I say caveat? I meant multiple significant caveats. So yes, the Pashtuns, being of the species Homo sapiens, actually have a complicated decision-making process that takes into consideration multiple factors. They are not robots programmed with Pashtunwali. They are capable of forgiveness and pragmatism.

The way in which Western journalists invoke Pashtunwali is usually in the context of civilian casualties. I don’t have that big of a problem with this. Civilian casualties alienate and anger the local population and make counterinsurgency that much more difficult. The journalists may be exaggerating the threat of every male relative of each victim taking revenge, but at least I’m on the same page as them. Oh yeah, and its not nice to have innocent people killed (I love the passive voice).

My problem is when people reference Pashtunwali in a manner which frames Pashtuns as murderous savages beyond redemption, doomed to be forever backwards in their miserable reactionary villages (i.e., “Let’s just pack up and leave this country to its own devices”). It is essentially a tactic of vilifying Pashtuns and putting them outside the pale in order to justify a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan (AKA “Abandonment”). It’s easier to abandon people when you see them as the savage “other.”

Who Will Be Afghanistan’s Next President?

June 24, 2007.

Speculating about future Presidential candidates in the USA seems to be somewhat of a national sport in which political commentators embarass themselves by making horribly incorrect predictions as much as four years in advance. So, instead of sharing with you a prediction that will surely turn out to be horribly incorrect, I will offer my opinion on what makes for an electable candidate in Afghanistan.

With a limit of two five-year terms Karzai can be re-elected and serve until 2014. And even with his popularity slipping, the last comprehensive polls late last year showed his approval rating at levels that Euro or American leaders would be quite satified with. The World Public Opinion poll gave Karzai a 55% “very favourable” rating while the BBC/ABC poll showed Karzai at 68% of Afghans giving Karzai a “good” or “excellent” rating.

Karzai Prez

So Karzai is still electable in the next election, especially considering the dearth of viable alternative candidates. The other well-known politicians are unelectable for a number of reasons. These include:

#1. Unelectable ethnic minority status. These would be the obvious people such as the Hazara leaders Khalili and Mohaqeq, the Uzbeks Dostum and Shahrani, etc…

#2. Afghans who are way too American. I’m thinking Ali Ahmed Jalali and Zalmay Khalilzad.

#3. Discredited Jihadis with very narrow support bases that do not extend beyond certain Tajik sub-groups. Rabbani is prime among this group that would include Yunus Qanuni, Ismael Khan, Ahmed Zia Massoud, etc…

#4. Any Pashtun without some sort of academic, professional or business credentials. Afghans are not going to elect some guy based only on ethnic affiliation and tribal status.

#5. Any Pashtun with too much historical affiliation with the Communist government or Hizb-i Islami.

#6. Any Pashtun who scares the non-Pashtuns. You need to break the 50% barrier to become president. Pashtuns are somewhere around 40% of the population (probably, maybe, debateably), so a winning candidate who is Pashtun would need to reach out Karzai-style to a number of non-Pashtun voters.

#7. Women.

#8. Any Afghan who is usually given a thug, warlord, criminal, or friend-of-the-Taliban designation.

#9. Anybody who was in the Western diaspora for too long. Living comfortably in California for more than a decade would probably give you an Ahmed Chalabi level of popularity and legitimacy.

But with this being said, politics can be quite unpredictable and Afghanistan is even more so unpredictable. Karzai could quit, he could commit some major blunder that would delegitimize him, and of course he could be assassinated. However, I still see him as reelectable in 2009. Karzai’s popularity may be sliding but so is every other leader’s approval ratings ( no, I can’t quantify this at the moment). Come 2009, Hamid Karzai could be seen as the lesser of the Afghan evils (the least worst candidate).


If there is someone out there who can be elected in 2014 or beat Karzai and become President in 2009, he is an ethnic Pashtun moderate with a respectable education, profession or business. Furthermore, he should be able to point to his (or his father’s) struggle against the Soviets and or Taliban (a struggle that did not include cashing cheques written by Hekmatyar). Also, he will have to make strategic promises of cabinet positions and patronage in order to secure the endorsement of some non-Pashtun leaders. And don’t expect a first round win by anyone but Karzai, he did it last time with 55.4% of the vote and 21 of 34 provinces. With his present approval rating he could probably do that again.

American Intelligence Community Horror Story #4786

June 22, 2007.

Not enough experts, hmm? Nobody can speak the languages? The government needs people with area knowledge? Well, of course they do. And there is of course a shortage of available people with the required skill set. So why are so many experts being turned down for employment? You can find this debate discussed ad nauseum elsewhere. Instead I will share a little story about an acquaintance who was turned away by the bureaucracy of the United States government.

The person in question is at the same intensive language program I am in and agreed to have their Q&A session put on Afghanistanica after being allowed to edit the text. So here it is:

Q: What’s up? Why are you not in Afghanistan?

A: I failed the security clearance process. The “SF” in SF-86 [the security clearance form] stood for “Seriously F***ed” in my case.

Q: OK. Back up a little. Describe your “skill set.”

A: I have a Master’s degree in an area studies program that includes Afghanistan. My thesis was on Afghanistan. I have three years of classroom study in one language of Afghanistan, and two years each in two other regional languages. I’m currently working on a second language of Afghanistan.

Q: What jobs did you consider in the past?

A: I had two different Department of Defense contractors contact me through a mutual friend and offer me jobs as a linguist. The first one offered me $125,000 per year for a job located in northern Virginia. The second one offered me $85,000 and all living expenses covered to work at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan. I turned both of them down. In all honesty I thought it would be immoral to make that kind of money when my brother was being paid chicken-shit to fight in Al Anbar [Iraq].

A little later the CIA [Directorate of Intelligence] asked if I was interested in starting the clearance process to join them. But the bureaucratic tribalism in that organization scared me. I consider CIA employees to be patriotic as individuals but when it comes to their Group Think and turf wars they are near-treasonous in their actions. Most of them are cowards who don’t want to rock the boat. That might cost them their job. They’ll just wait until they retire to write a critical book. The guy who was trying to recruit me gave up after three telephone conversations. I told him I was enlisting in the Army.

Q: Enlisting? In intel?

A: Yes. As a 96b [intelligence analyst]. I had failed the medical before college and was rejected for enlistment. They lowered the enlistment standards so I was technically qualified after college. I tried a second time and was failed by MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station] for the same reason despite the rules having been changed. It was obvious that they made a mistake so they sent my file to some Army doctor in Kentucky who rejected the waiver request for a condition that was not even disqualifying anymore. So I sent letters to three different Senators and 6 months later my waiver mysteriously appeared in a manner which my recruiter could not explain. So I went back into MEPS with a waiver and a maximum score on [the aptitude test]. I was qualified for every single MOS in every branch of the military. I signed a contract for 96b and was given a guaranteed date at Ft. Leonard Wood and at intel school in Ft. Huachuca.

Q: So what happened?

A: Well, you have to get by the civilian who does the security clearances. I need a top secret clearance. I was totally clean but I was not born in the United States and I technically have dual citizenship with [a friendly NATO country]. So the security clearance person rejected me on the spot. I offered to renounce my citizenship in exchange for the clearance. But it was like “You failed. Go home.” The funny part is my brother is in the same situation as me and he has a top secret clearance. I even met a fellow dual-citizen from the same country recently who was in Army intel until last year. So much for consistency.

Q: Can you do any other jobs for the US government?

A: No. I’m disqualified security clearance-wise from working for the military, CIA, NSA, FBI, State Department and Department of Defense contractors.

Q: What are you going to do?

A: I really don’t know. I have no NGO experience and all their jobs require field experience or a technical skill, not an in depth area knowledge.

Q: So you are f**cked?

A: Yes. But wallowing in self-pity is not going to pay back $85,000 in student loans. Maybe I’ll go back to school.

Q: Speaking of school, I hear that a lot of people in your program have failed their background checks. True?

A: Yes. From the time I started until now 11 people I know were offered jobs requiring security clearances. Nine of them failed. Only one of them deserved to fail. It’s pure insanity.

Q: So what were all those people doing? Snorting cocaine off a toilet seat in a brothel before the first of their five daily prayers in the general direction of bin Laden?

A: [Laughs]. Yeah, I actually did that this morning before heading into the language lab. No, actually they don’t always tell you why you fail. We can only guess the reasons such as foreign travel, foreign friends and good times with Lebanese girls.

Q: OK, this Q&A is now firmly in the gutter. I’ll see you later.

A: Yeah, I’ll meet you at the Al Qaeda club house. Allahu Akbar.

Afghan-American Blogger Starts Mini-Controversy

June 20, 2007.

People actually care what bloggers write about Afghanistan? Apparently yes. Mohammed Fahim Khairy, a Hazara [note added: he is obviously not Pashtun but he does not identify his ethnicity. I just assumed] living in Arizona, wrote about recent Kuchi attacks on Hazara villages in the Hazarajat. Many parts of this opinion piece, despite its inflammatory title, are actually quite accurate. Though it is problematic in parts (i.e., calling Kuchis the “richest people in Afghanistan”).

The Pashtun nomads known as Kuchis have been in conflict with the sedenatary Hazara population on and off for quite some time. It is a classic nomad-sedentary conflict with Pashtun herders wanting to bring their animals up into the Hazarajat to graze on land that the Hazaras need for their own animals and crops. Whenever the Kuchis find the opportunity (i.e., Taliban era, Abdur Rahman era, etc…) they do their best to displace Hazaras. And when Hazaras find the opportunity, they chase out the Kuchis. It is basically two groups of impoverished people fighting over grass in order to survive.

So on to the controversy. The super-academic Barnett Rubin decided to put it out over his listserv clearly marked as a “Point of View” article. And then the sheep dung hit the fan. A number of people were very upset that this blogger’s opinions were sent out over this very influential listserv. Dr. Rubin then had to circulate an announcement about how these were not his personal views. Here is an excerpt:

The day before yesterday I forwarded to the group an article about the Hazara-Kuchi conflict in Behsud that used some inflammatory language and criticized certain individuals, mainly on the basis of their political or tribal-ethnic affiliation, not any specific action. One reader wrote to protest that I had circulated a note with inflammatory language and that was unfair. I sent out a note to the group saying that I had thought the article would help readers understand the ethnic situation in Afghanistan, but that I regretted that the language was inflammatory.

Rubin then sent out another disclaimer:

When I sent out the note about “ethno-fascists” it never occurred to me that anyone might think I was giving credibility to the charges in it. When I started this list, it was for me and my friends, all of us foreigners outside of Afghanistan, and no one involved in Afghan politics ever saw it. Of course now the situation has completely changed, and I have to bear in mind that it goes to a very large number of people, many of them Afghans in Afghanistan and elsewhere. For observers of Afghan politics it is useful to see even the most inflammatory and defamatory statements in order to understand the thoughts and emotions of the participants. But, like it or not, we foreigners have now become participants, not just observers, and because of this we have to be careful about what we say. Therefore I apologize to anyone who felt that by circulating this note I was endorsing ethnic attacks against any group or tribe or attacks against any individuals, including the two named in the last sentence of the note, Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. This certainly was never my intention, and I repudiate any attempt to use my name to endorse such positions or charges. If anyone hears of any such attempt, please bring it to my attention immediately.

OK, I’m sure this is all very fascinating to you. So I’ll get to the point: a blogger was able to bring a higher level of attention to an ongoing ethnic conflict in Afghanistan. Mohammad Fahim Khairy may be biased but he represents a view held by many people in Afghanistan. Points of view like this should be heard, even if they are “inflammatory.”

Pashto Language Education in the United States

June 18, 2007.

My spy has reported to me that there are 9 people in the introductory level Pashto language class at Indiana University’s summer language program. And by “spy,” I mean one of the students who was coming out of the Pashto class at the end of the day. This is a great improvement over last year when there were 2 students, and two years ago when the Pashto class was cancelled because only one serious candidate applied for Pashto. The situation the last two years was especially sad due to the fact that there were unused scholarships for Pashto. So you can’t totally blame the government when there is no interest in even getting paid to study Pashto. It’s as if there needs to be further incentives to get more than nine people to study Pashto.

So basically, you have Pashto at the government’s Defense Language Institute, Indiana University (year round) and occasionally at the University of Pennsylvania.

I’ve heard much anecdotal evidence that the military is not doing enough to encourage its members to learn and maintain a language. And as for civilians, there appear to be under 15 students of Pashto this year in the entire United States (my guesstimate). What this tells me is that people believe that Pashto has value only as a short term security/military related language and will be of no use in the near future. Farsi, Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, Russian, etc… seem to offer more benefits if you are looking at your career in the long term. The lack of interest in Pashto is therefore logical; Pashto speakers are going to get dumped by the US government at some debatable point in the future (if you look at past behaviour of the US government and use that as your guide). I’ve seen the government kick the legs out from under strategic language funding before and they will do it again.

This whole situation really sucks. That’s my informed, professional opinion. And I consider myself to be an optimist.

Note added June 20: I’ve revised my guesstimate of 15 civilians studying Pashto this year in the United States to around half that number. Based on haircuts, I would say many of those in Pashto are ROTC (US military officer college program).

Two Week Writing Break

June 3, 2007.

Afghanistanica will be inactive for about two weeks I while travel to the location of my intensive language program. I received academic welfare funding to study a certain Southwestern Iranian language for eight weeks (No, I’m not studying Khuzestani, Luri or Judeo-Tat). Once I get adjusted to the program and find some sort of internet access I will start writing again, albeit at a less frequent rate since I will be spending a lot of time studying, inshallah.

Tourism in Nuristan: Book Your Trip Now!

June 2, 2007.

Recently Bonnie Boyd took a look at tourism in Turkmenistan. So I thought, why not Nuristan? What is the potential for tourism there? The governor of Nuristan, whose name of course is Nuristani, had this to say to some French journalist on that subject:

It’s paradise. You can go hiking, fishing, rafting, birdwatching … in winter you can ski…

Birdwatching hmm? Yes, I do so want to check off Apache, A-10 Warthog, Chinook and Predator Drone from my birder check-list. But other than watching the large mechanized birds full of Americans and the above mentioned activities, what is there for a tourist to do in Nuristan? I investigated and I found that tourists are practically crawling all over Nuristan.

Here’s photographic proof, courtesy of Ranger 9865, who I assume is some sort of tour operator:

Horse-back riding!

Horse Nuristan

Sledding in the snow!

Soldiers playing

Musical Entertainment!

music nuristan

Fine dining!

food nuristan

World-class golf courses! (OK, I cheated. This is just downriver in Kunar, which has a cricket team by the way.)

afghanistan golfing

So you get the idea. Vacationing in Nuristan is feasible if you and 100 or so of your elite airborne soldier friends wish do do so. For everybody else, the transportation problems, security issues and general lack of amenities means that you’ll have to wait for at least a few more seasons before you go to Nuristan.

The Slow Death of Hizb-i Islami and the Lameness of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

June 1, 2007.

I was working half-heartedly on an assessment of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the various remnants of Hizb-i Islami. But then I came across this fine article by Matt Dupee at Afgha.com. Matt’s assessment is very close to where I was heading. My argument was going to be that Hekmatyar is overrated and mostly “out of the game.” But Matt’s article is good enough for me.

And yes, I did recently make fun of Hekmatyar and then wonder why all his old buddies are dropping dead. I think I have reached my Hekmatyar quota for the year.