Totally out of context quote #6

March 31, 2007.

“…roughly 650,000 soldiers.”

Context: This is the number of troops that the Soviet General Staff estimated would be required for a successful occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviet Politburo put a cap on troop levels at 115,000. You can read about the Soviet troop levels in this article in pdf.

Ahmed Rashid Versus the Uzbeks

March 29, 2007.

You’ve read Taliban, the influential book by superstar reporter and author, right? Of course you have, everybody has. And everybody seems to have it on their bookshelf, displayed prominently as proof of their interest and expertise in Afghanistan.

Rashid taliban

Here’s a fun game to play when you see said book:

1) Pick up book and say “Oooh! What an interesting book! Do you recommend it?” To which the book’s owner says “Of course! It is indispensable.”

2) Go to page 56 and 57, as well as page 149 and read out loud (in a fake Oxbridge British accent) the passages about the Uzbeks.

3) Watch the owner of the book squirm in front of the other people present and hear him/her claim to have missed those parts.

So what do those passages contain? Here’s a sample:

“The Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all the Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging - a hangover from their origins as part of Genghis Khan’s hordes…”

“Uzbek clan history is a long litany of blood feuds, revenge killings, power struggles, loot and plunder and disputes over women.”

“Mahmud ibn Wali, a 16th century historian, described the early Uzbeks as ‘famed for their bad nature, swiftness, audacity and boldness’ and revelling in their outlaw image. Little has changed in the Uzbek desire for power and influence since then.”

Well, that was informative. Thanks Ahmed. Any other ethnic prejudices that you would like to share with us? Perhaps you were beaten by Uzbeks when you were a kid? Did they steal your lunch money? Do they secretly control the world? Do you have any other poorly researched books full of shaky anecdotes that are available? Oh yeah, Jihad.


I don’t have enough time to explain how bad Jihad is. But I will say the worst is when Rashid says that the Kyrgyz were selling Uzbek baby meat in the bazaar. Good to know that Ahmed thinks the Kyrgyz are the cannibals and not the Uzbeks. [Note added: The baby meat anecdote is from Rashid’s earlier book The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? But Jihad is still bad.]


Photo: Watch out Ahmed! I think I see an Uzbek behind you. I’ve heard all about how dangerous they are…………from you.

The “Moral Incoherence” of Afghanistan

March 26, 2007.

What is to blame for the persistent conflict that Afghanistan has faced throughout its history? The most popular explanations are foreign invasions and interference, imported religious and political ideologies, economic and social underdevelopment, incompetent rulers and unruly citizens. But what else? Other countries have faced similar hardships and overcome similar difficulties. Why not Afghanistan? Are there other factors? David B. Edwards may have an answer to that question.

In David B Edwards’ book Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier (University of California Press, 1996), he puts forth what counted as quite an original idea when nearly everybody else was pointing their fingers at the usual suspects listed above. Edwards’ argument is that, among Pashtuns (or Pakhtuns), the moral authority of their tribal code of honour, of Islam, and of state governance are in a three way battle of incompatibility. Basically, what he is saying is that the tribe, the state and religion have not been able to be reconciled in Afghanistan. This incoherence of moral authority has prevented the emergence of a stable social order and allowed conflict to prosper.

Anyways, the book is one of the best available on Afghanistan (but not in a Kiterunner sort of way). If you want to better understand the contradictions of differing systems of authority among the Pashtuns, I suggest you get your hands on this book. It’s actually quite readable. Edwards demonstrates his thesis by analysing the texts and oral histories relating to Amir Abdur Rahman, to the son of a tribal notable who was murdered, and to the Mullah of Hadda (AKA “The Mad Mullah”).

The book is an eye-opener for sure. And the best part is that there are quite a few cheap used copies available online. I think some anthropology professors assigned the book for reading and then at the end of the semester the anthro undergrads sold off their books in order to buy marijuana or whatever else it is the anthro kids are doing these days.

Afghanistan Blogs

March 23, 2007.

I have been negligent this week and have not written a new entry on Afghanistanica. That is because I have been busy working on a blog index for The Afghanistan Analyst ( In their errant judgement, the powers that be at that website (which is an incomplete working version at the moment) have allowed me to create a comprehensive list of Afghanistan-related blogs. That index took a long, long time. There was some serious googling and technorati action going on (on dial-up). Anyways, I created it since there is no decent comprehensive up-to-date list of Afghanistan blogs on the internet.

And a warning to Afghanistan bloggers: The Afghanistan Analyst will be undergoing a large update with much new content. When that is complete within about ten days the website will send out a notice over a number of listservs/email lists that focus on Afghanistan. Anyways, the people on these lists are academics, researchers, students, ngo workers, government types, etc… Hopefully, they will check out the blog index. So be on your best behaviour. No drunk or crazy-angry blogging this week. Inshallah, the Afghanistan blogosphere can make a good impression on these people.

CIA Officer Operated Without Fact-checker for Book on Afghanistan

March 18, 2007.

When I read former CIA officer Gary Schroen’s book First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan, I was looking for a level of accuracy and incisiveness regarding Afghanistan that one should expect from an intelligence officer who, on September 11, 2001, was the deputy chief on the Near East and South Asia Division of the Directorate of Operations in the CIA, a position of enormous importance. Schroen first arrived in Islamabad in 1978 and later moved to the Kabul bureau and stayed until it was closed in 1988. From there he returned to Islamabad until 1990 and then moved up the ranks in the Near East Bureau (which includes Afghanistan) of the CIA before returning to Islamabad in 1996 and taking control of responsibilities for the Bureau there and coordinating all Pak-Afghan issues. He even made numerous trips into Afghanistan during this time.

What I found inside the book confirmed the worst stereotype of the CIA as a blind and ignorant organization staffed by people who know nothing about the regions and people that they are assigned to. Perhaps Schroen sub-contracted portions of the book to be ghost written, or perhaps he made numerous innocent errors and failed to read the final manuscript. But you be the judge. I’ll list his errors and suspect analysis:

#1. “…Dr. Burrudin Rabbani and his Tajik-based Hezb-e Islami political party…” (page 48)

#2. “…Hezb-e Islami leader Burrudin Rabbani…” (page 51)

I do believe Schroen meant Jamiat-e Islami, not Hezb. There is an enormous difference.

#3. “…Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was serving as foreign minister of the new Afghan government…” (page 52)

This is really news to me and everybody else. Here I was thinking that Ghafurzai was the Foreign Minister back then.

#4. “…Sayyaf…a graduate of Al-Ansar University in Cairo…” (page 115)

Sayyaf went to Al-Azhar University. If you are wondering, he has no affiliation with the terrorist groups Ansar al-Islam and Ansar Al-Sunnah. I know of no Al-Ansar University.

#5. “With several hundred U.S.-manufactured Stinger shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles in the hands of the Taliban forces…” (page 165)

Really? Schroen is referring to October 2001 here. This is hilariously wrong. Especially since this book was published in 2005. There were as many stingers in Afghanistan in 2001 as there were WMDs in Iraq in 2003.

#6. “…the Mazar-e Sharif area, a region of traditional Tajik control.” (page 219)

Traditional Tajik control? Not at all. But there are a lot of Tajiks living there who were, during the history of the modern Afghan state, “controlled” by Pashtuns and local Uzbek Khans and then later by Dostum, an Uzbek. The history here is one of a “passive” Tajik population being ruled by Turco-Mongol and Turkic rulers and then later by Pashtuns.

#7. On pages 281-284 Schroen encourages the ridiculous myth that Chechens are crawling all over Afghanistan.

#8. “…the U.S. Special Forces base at Karshi Khanabad, about a hundred miles north of Tashkent…” (page 320)

Your directions put you in Kazakhstan. K2 is/was in southern Uzbekistan.

#9. Schroen’s treatment of Rashid Dostum is ill-informed and quite incorrect. But not surprising since his contacts seem to have always been with Massoud or Pashtuns. Furthermore, Schroen was stationed in the Panjshir valley, which is without a local chapter of the General Abdurrashid Dostum fan club.

#10. “[for several years leading up to late 2001]…. CIA efforts to develop close, professional contracts in Tajikistan had floundered, because the level of lawlessness and street violence in Dushanbe was simply too great to allow our officers to visit there for more than a day or two at the time.” (page 26)

Wrong again. The late 1990s in Dushanbe were very quiet. State Department employees, NGO workers, various Euro-Foreign Ministry employees, foreign students, etc… were able to walk the “lawless and violent streets” safely during this time. But not CIA officers?

#11. Schroen portrays General Fahim as a very incapable wartime military leader. But it’s doubtful that Massoud would have had him as second-in-command if he was not up to the task. Especially since Fahim earned his position through merit, not family or connections.

#12. Schroen writes that Dostum’s core group of troops were only assembled in “the past four or five days” (page 247). Dostum had actually been reconstituting a group of loyal fighters since April 2001.

#13. On page 250-251 Schroen repeats discarded American Cold War rhetoric about the semi-autonomous militias that controlled much of northern Afghanistan.

#14. “…Marshal Fahim and his Panjshiri tribals.” (page 357)

There are no tribes in the Panjshir or in any Tajik population.

#15. “The Afghan Interim Government, headed by Dr. Rabbani, was the legitimate government of Afghanistan.” (page 62)

Legitimate? That’s debatable.

Anyways, this is getting boring. I’ll not mention the other mistakes I found. And I’ll skip the mistranslations and cultural misinterpretations that I found throughout the book. You surely have the idea by now. Trust me, I take no joy in pointing out how ill informed portions of this book are. It would be nice if the United States had a competent foreign intelligence agency with knowledgeable employees who would learn the local languages. Especially in regards to parts of the world that hold enormous importance for American foreign policy, security and the economy. This would save the Americans and others much in money and lives. But on an upbeat note, Gary Schroen has retired.

Afghanistan Film Preview: Journey to Kafiristan

March 16, 2007.

I thought that I would start to preview (or review) films about Afghanistan. Generally, I won’t make any strong recommendations about whether or not you should see the movies I mention since everybody has different tastes. For example, some people thought Kandahar was brilliant in its subtlety while others thought it was the most painfully boring movie ever. I generally ignore movie reviews and make a decision based on the movie trailer (see trailer below). But let’s get to today’s preview of Journey to Kafiristan (2001).

Hmmm…. That lady is dressed sort of boyishly (I love the hairstyle. It’s cute!). But more on that later. First of all, Kafiristan (Land of the Infidels/Unbelievers) is the old imposed name for Nuristan, before Amir Abdur Rahman of Afghanistan “gently persuaded” the people there to convert to Islam little more than 100 years ago. The new name, Nuristan, means “Land of the Enlightened,” but is sometimes translated as “Land of Light.” The “Enlightened” is a reference to the animist/pagan people there being enlightened by their conversion to Islam. OK, enough with the history lesson. Here’s what the moviemakers’ plot synopsis is:

“In 1939, the author Annemarie Schwarzenbach and the ethnologist Ella Maillart travel together by car to Kabul, but each is in pursuit of her own project. Annemarie Schwarzenbach, is searching for a place of refuge in the Near East to discover her own self. Ella Maillart justifies her restlessness, her need for movement and travel, with a scientific pretext: she would like to explore the mysterious Kafiristan Valley and make a name for herself with publications on the archaic life of the nomads living there. Both women are on the run, but political developments and their own biographies catch up with them again and again. Their mutual journey through the outside world, which runs from Geneva via the Balkans and Turkey to Persia, is compounded by the inner world of emotions with a tender love story.”

Aaaah! 1939. The good old days when a couple of bi-curious intellectual European women could drive their car from Geneva to Kabul on the clichéd dual-meaning “journey of discovery.” Don’t get your hopes up boys. If you are looking for lesbian soft-core porn this movie is apparently not it. How about a movie trailer?

Well, that was interesting/titillating. Judging by the scenery, I would say they took a wrong turn and ended up in Jordan. But asking for a movie of that sort to be filmed on location in Afghanistan is a little unreasonable.

Yes, this based-on-a-true-story movie does seem very artsy and Euro-filmy. And it is subtitled from German. But I’m sure watching this movie won’t hurt you (or me). There are so few films made about Afghanistan that you (or I) shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to see any of them. I shall order it online ASAP and put it on my shelf between Kandahar and Rambo III.

A Job in Afghanistan for a Person Who Does Not Exist

March 15, 2007.

What is this cute little Nuristani girl laughing at? I think she is laughing at the job advertised by an American Department of Defense private contractor.

When I saw this job announcement 2 years ago I actually laughed out loud. A government contractor thinks that it can find someone who can speak “Nuristani.” Well, Kati actually, and there is no indication as to whether it is Eastern or Western Kati (or even Mumviri possibly). The requirements, that the linguist be an American citizen, narrows the prospects down to one person; Richard Strand. And I’m pretty sure he could not get a secret clearance based on his travel history. Not that he is looking for a job or anything.

If you are an American who speaks “Nuristani” fluently, are able to get a secret security clearance (if you know anybody named Muhammad or anybody from China you’re screwed), you like being located at a Forward Operating Base that gets attacked regularly, you like working 60 hour weeks, you enjoy the company of American soldiers (nice Midwestern boys! They love civilians who get paid 5 times what they make and never leave the base), and you want to work for a company that promises you $120,000 per year and pays $60,000 then you should definitely apply.

If the U.S government actually listened to its own soldiers it would find out that Pashto and Dari are the lingua francas of Nuristan, depending on the location. There is no need for a “Nuristani” linguist. The military can rely on its local Dari and Pashto translators...

This shows one of the serious problems for the Americans and others in Afghanistan. Do you think that a presence in Afghanistan for 5 years would lead to having a bunch of foreigners who are fluent linguists and translators? That’s wishful thinking. Former military linguists seem a little bit bitter. Who wouldn’t want to have sub-par language training, be deployed with people who don’t respect you and your quirky intellect, and then be paid 20% of what you could make in the private sector? I guess the locals will all have to learn how to speak American.

Totally out of context quote #5

March 13, 2007.

“I often hear the Afghans designated as cowards…..and I can only suppose it arises from the British idea among civilised people that assassination is a cowardly act. The Afghans never [hesistate] to use their long knives for that purpose, ergo they are cowards; but they show no cowardice in standing as they do against guns without using any themselves, and in escalading and taking forts which we cannot retake.”

Context: Lady Florentia Sale, wife of a British officer and one of the few members of the British expeditionary force to survive, comments on the bravery of the Afghans. Quote taken from her book Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan 1841-2. (Published in numerous versions by various publishers.)

The book is a great critique of the incompetent and arrogant officers who led the expedition in the First Anglo-Afghan War. Some officers brought as many as 40 servants for a total of 38,000 servants for half as many soldiers, one brigadier had 60 camels to carry his belongings, one general had 260 camels for his necessities, one officer brought two camels to carry his cigar collection, one brigade brought their foxhounds, and Lady Sale cut back her entourage to 45 servants.

The military and political errors that followed inside Afghanistan secured the destruction of the British forces.

Conflict or Culture? Which Factor is More Important in the Denial of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan?

March 11, 2007.

At the center of journalists’ attempts at analyzing social issues in Afghanistan is often the subject of gender and women’s rights. And usually, journalists go for the tabloid-type stories of pre-pubescent girls being sold into marriage to some old white-beard while pretty much ignoring stories such as the one where a man journeyed across the country searching for his missing daughter. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t object to the media running stories like the one where a girl in northern Afghanistan was traded for a fighting dog. I object to the media portraying Afghans as being OK with this kind of treatment of women.

Stories like the man searching for his daughter show that there is not a monolithic social norm regarding women in Afghanistan. In fact, there are thousands of Afghan men who know that their daughter, sister or wife was raped. In some cases they were forced to watch at gunpoint. And yet extremely few have killed their loved ones in order to “regain their family’s honour” as the sensationalist western media suggest they are compelled to do in accordance with their “cultural traditions.”

Furthermore, the media never look at all the variables when analyzing gender and women’s rights in Afghanistan: Rural or urban? Nomadic or Sedentary? Sufi/Hanafi or Deobandi influenced or Hazara Shia or Ismaili or etc…? Pashtun or Hazara or Tajik or Uzbek or etc….? Educated or uneducated? Grew up in Pakistani refugee camp or in Kabul? The variables go on and on. Yet the media seldom mentions them.

So what’s my point? That the news media is sensationalist and inaccurate? Everybody knows that. I’m concerned that the news media encourages westerners’ perception that whenever a female is treated horribly in Afghanistan it is just a manifestation of normal Afghan social rules for women. This viewpoint plays into the hands of the Taliban and their ideological fellow travelers. Journalists may occasionally acknowledge that conflict and insecurity have exacerbated the situation, but I believe they still put too much emphasis on culture.

Anyways, the gist of the journalist’s argument is that the people of Afghanistan have, as one of their primary concerns, usually superficial yet symbolically important traditional social restrictions in regards to women. But I doubt that Afghans are going to rebel against the current administration if women start driving around in cars and Tehrani-style Hijab coverings. As for the burning of girl’s schools, they are simply an easy target and a symbol of the government. The Taliban also destroy bridges. Are they anti-bridge as well? Women’s education is not the reason for the Taliban/anti-government element’s continued resistance to the Afghan government and the foreign troops.

So, how do I back up my argument? Well, the factors that are uniformly ignored are the historical precedents for an attempt at liberalizing society’s restrictions on women. During the rule of Amanullah in the 1920s there was an attempt at a Turkish style campaign of social reform. In regards to women, Amanullah intended to encourage women’s education, loosen the rules of purdah, allow western style dress in Kabul, introduce a minimum age for marriage and eliminate polygamy for government employees. And most shocking of all, Queen Soraya was photographed in a scandalous state of undress. Yikes!

Queen Soroya

This of course led to an angry population eliminating Amanullah, right? Well, the Pashtun Shinwari tribe rebelled and took Jalalabad, which was followed by a Tajik by the name of Habibullah (AKA “the water carrier’s son”) capturing Kabul. In a panic, Amanullah jumped in his Rolls Royce and escaped Indiana Jones-style with Kohistani horsemen pursuing close behind his car. But did all this resistance arise from his attempts at women’s social reforms? Not really. I would advise reading Leon Poullada’s book Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929. (Cornell University Press, 1973). In this book you will get a sense of the full range of policy changes (primarily economic and power structure changes) that angered the local power elite. An increase in land taxes is what actually caused the first incident of rebellion. I have no survey data from late 1928 but I’m quite confident that the battle cry was not “No to women’s rights!”

What am I getting at? Educating women is not going to cause a revolt against the Karzai government. Women driving cars in Kabul is not going to lead to a riot. Nobody attacks NATO soldiers in order to keep their women in purdah. The whole alleged controversy over women’s rights is just a peripheral add-on for militants. Their core grievances lay elsewhere. (It’s the “because they hate our freedom” argument extrapolated onto Afghanistan) So if you are a journalist, maybe you should quit writing that Afghans are being angered over a “forced imposition” of women’s rights. Maybe a small minority is, but don’t present this argument as a uniform social fact.

Need more facts? Try this article: Zulfacar, Maliha. ‘The Pendulum of Gender Politics in Afghanistan’, Central Asian Survey, Volume 25, Number 1-2: pages 27-59. (March-June 2006).

The abstract of Maliha Zulfacar’s article is extremely illuminating:

“In the 1920s women appeared in French style attire on the streets. In the 1930s, women were prohibited to appear unveiled. In the 1950s, to appear unveiled became a choice and education was co-ed. In the 1960s and 1970s, some women worked with men, drove cars and sported mini-skirts. In the 1980s, some women danced in clubs, some worked in factories and the dowry was outlawed. In the 1990s, women were forced to take refuge in the veil from rival ethnic attacks. Thousands of women were abused and raped. For their ‘protection’, in the late 1990s, the Taliban outlawed the public appearance of women and prohibited them from participation in every aspect of public life. In 2003, female students again may appear unveiled on the university campus, but remain veiled out of campus for security concerns. Over all of these years, gender policies have swung like a pendulum, oscillating between the moderate and the extreme. Furthermore, all of the above were taking place in Kabul only—other conditions prevailed elsewhere in Afghanistan.”

Oh my God! Are the greatest restrictions on women primarily a response to conflict and insecurity? It appears that this may be true (Yes, I’m aware of the situation in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Iran the poor status of women is due to rule by an extremist minority that hijacked a popular revolution. As for Saudi Arabia, well, I really don’t have the time or energy to discuss that one. But I’d start with how the first Saudi King made a deal with a bunch of fringe Wahhabi clerics and allowed them to control education and religious doctrine). I don’t deny that women in Afghanistan have been brutalized in the last 30 years. I deny that the brutalization and oppression of women is an unavoidable, unchangeable Afghan/Muslim social practice.

If a person wishes to argue that the restrictions implemented by the Taliban on women are consistent with Afghan/Pashtun rural culture then I suggest that person take into consideration William Maley’s refutation of that belief. He stated that what many people see as conservative Pashtun tribal cultural is actually the Taliban’s warped and uninformed view of village life. In Maley’s chapter of a book that he edited [Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. New York University Press, 1998] he says these beliefs are…

“…not the values of the village, but the values of the village as interpreted by refugee camp dwellers or madrassa students, most of whom have never known ordinary village life…” (pages 21-22).

I strongly believe if NATO and the Afghan government make a stronger commitment to security, many (but not all) social restrictions on women will be lifted voluntarily by the population of Afghanistan in most areas. And don’t be expecting an anti-government revolt in response to this allegedly neo-colonial “social change.” I recognize the importance of culture, but I also recognize when the importance of culture is exaggerated and distorted.

Disclaimer: The subject of women in Afghanistan could only be adequately analyzed if one dedicated at least 20 pages to the subject. This blog entry does not do the issue justice and I acknowledge that fact. For example, I do realize what’s good for Kabul and Mazar is not always good for Helmand, etc…

Note: Related arguments elsewhere include Douglas Northrop’s excellent analysis of how women in Samarqand and Bukhara adopted much more restrictive veiling in response to the Tsarist invasion and the arrival of lonely Russian soldiers and later as a symbol of resistance to Bolshevik reforms in the early part of Soviet rule. Or as one could paraphrase, they first veiled because of insecurity and then as a symbol of resistance. Check out Douglas Northrop’s book Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia. (Cornell University Press, 2004).

American Soldiers Winning Hearts and Minds With Dance. Seriously.

March 9, 2007.

I usually use this blog space for frivolous musings and barely relevant ramblings concerning the goings-on in Afghanistan. But today I shall do some serious analytical work. The conundrum that is on everybody’s mind, from Mazar-i Sharif to Billings, Montana is this: Can American soldiers dance? And will their dancing win over the people of Afghanistan? A lot is at stake. Previous foreign armies have arrived in Afghanistan with sub-par dancing skills, and we’ve all seen what happened to them (I’m looking in your direction, British Army of the Indus, circa 1839. Tsk, tsk!).

If you doubt the power of dance, you’ve clearly never seen movies such as “Footloose,” “Dirty Dancing,” or any Bollywood film ever made. The Soviets never saw those movies. And just look what happened to them.

So, what of the current situation? How are American soldiers faring in “The Great American-Afghan Dance-off?” (That phrase is henceforth copyrighted and has no relation whatsoever to “The Great Game”). I’ll evaluate the situation by employing an ultra-secret source that I’ll refer to as “Youtube.” Now performing: Team America.

Well, what can I say about the preceding video? The Americans cheated all over the place by trying to dress like Afghans while dancing. They also used monkeys, cute kids and dogs-in-people-clothing as illegal props. Additionally, one Ferangi fraudulently posed as a Jedi Knight. And they even brought out a secret weapon: a girl! Is that allowed? As we speak, local scholars in Asadabad are consulting the Hadith. Possibly, through the powers of ijtihad, these scholars will find that a hijab-less female American soldier may dance publicly in Kunar if, and only if, she wears a sports bra while dancing,……..inshallah.

But the bottom line is that the American officer, who was so brazen as to not even try to disguise himself, totally sunk the American’s efforts with dancing that Mormons would consider stiff. Realizing that their efforts were doomed, the Americans ended the video by binding and torturing on of their own soldiers as a scapegoat.

But don’t worry, Team America, help is on the way. Field testing of a new kind of soldier is underway. So without further ado, the USA gives you the mechanical dancing soldier.

Hmmmm. I don’t know. The cyborg in this video doesn’t seem very lifelike. It’s so robotic and so 1983. I wouldn’t suggest deploying it on a wider scale quite yet. In the meantime, maybe the good ol’ American military should consider lifting the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The new recruits that this policy change would attract could solve the dance-skill deficit in a heartbeat.

Totally out of context quote #4

March 8, 2007.

“They came, they uprooted, they burned, they killed, they plundered, they left.”

Context: I’m 98% sure that this quote is from the writings of the 14th century Persian poet and scholar Hafez. That’s all the context I have. Sadly, this quote seems like a description of the last 30 years of history in Afghanistan.

Why No Ethnic Separatist Movements in Afghanistan?

March 7, 2007.

Yeah! Why no ethnic or sectarian separatist movements in Afghanistan? Everybody else has them! Why not Afghanistan? What factors are depriving Afghanistan from enjoying some sort of separatist related violence? I’m sure you are dying to know why so I’ll put forward a number of reasons. I’m not putting them out there as my concrete beliefs, I’d just like to get people to think about the reasons and maybe come up with some not listed here. Some factors given are original thoughts and others I have stolen from a number of eminent scholars (most of whom get some sort of credit at the bottom of this blog entry).

The opportunity for separatism clearly existed from the Soviet withdrawal until September 11 of a certain year. Yet nobody took this wonderful opportunity. Without further ado, the reasons:

#1 Separatism could mean joining another country; such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen joining Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and an insane asylum, respectively. But really, who wants to be a small fish in another country? During the 1990s, if Rashid Dostum had taken the Uzbek areas and joined Uzbekistan, he would go from being the überlord of northwestern Afghanistan to being a backwater Hokim (governor) in the most backward administrative district in Uzbekistan. And this would only last until the Jizzak-Samarkand government mafia arranged an “unfortunate accident” for him. Plus, everybody would have to learn the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, plus the Russian language, even when speaking Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen. Cross border ethnic groups are not exactly very close. It would be like meeting your weird cousins from the outback. Note: Dostum did once threaten to create the “Republic of South Turkestan.” However, this was likely just a bargaining tactic.

#2 Afghanistan staying together means having a better chance at collective defense. If groups were all separate they could more easily be picked off on at a time. Just ask the American Indians or the Celts all about being picked off one at a time.

#3 Nobody wants a piece of Afghanistan. And not in the metaphorical sense. Would you want, for your country, a warring chunk of land full of dudes with beards and guns? It would be like getting Kentucky minus Louisville and Lexington and the part where Sheik Mohammad has all his million dollar horses. [Disclaimer: I occasionally live in a community full of dudes with beards and guns. I use the term affectionately. But I also realize that the good, clean shaven folks in Boston, Tehran, Tashkent and Moscow do not want people like us.]

#4 Afghanistan needs to stay together for economic reasons. Would more borders help trade? Probably not (so says the European Union). Ideally, an intact Afghanistan means you can drive your jingle truck full of jingle truck ornaments to and from the borders of Pakistan, Iran or the former Soviet ‘stans (I stress “ideally” here).

#5 The international system is pro-state. Nobody is looking to encourage separatists, especially China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Spain, Canada… (just keep reciting names of countries).

#6 This leads to another reason; the lack of support from outside Afghanistan for any sort of separatist sentiments. And I’m not just talking foreign governments. Diaspora communities support, or have supported, separatist groups (i.e., Tamils, Kurds, Eritreans, etc…). But the Afghan diaspora doesn’t seem to be concerned with funding any sort of ethno-nationalist separatist movement. They are more likely to fund kick-ass new rims for their Audi……or donate to an Afghan charity.

#7 As for Pashtuns, they would never be separatists since most of them believe that Afghanistan is the “land of the Pashtuns.” In fact, many are irredentist, meaning that they want a piece of another country joined to Afghanistan. That piece would be the Pashtun tribal areas belonging to Pakistan, plus maybe a big chunk of some Baluch areas since access to the ocean is totally in vogue this year. But mostly that is just a Pashtun fantasy….for now.

#8 There started, during the Soviet-Afghan war, a new sense of an Afghanistan national identity that never existed before. A good comparison would be the increase in the number of Central Asians becoming proud of their “Soviet” identity after fighting the Nazis during the “Great Patriotic War.” For Afghanistanis, this is especially true in the refugee camps and in the diaspora communities.

#9 Separating is hard to do without clear ethno-geographical boundaries. The ethnic themed maps of Afghanistan show the areas in which a particular ethnic group dominates, not the area that is exclusive to it. Visit northern Afghanistan and you will see the exact meaning of this. If any group separated and took a part of the country with it, it would find all sorts of other ethnic groups scattered throughout its new territory.

#10 For the Hazaras, separation would mean being surrounded like one of those countries surrounded by South Africa. And many Hazaras need to trade in or go to work in Kabul, Herat, Mazar, Iran and Pakistan. The Hazarajat is not exactly an economic dynamo that would thrive on its own. And separatism is extra hard for the Hazaras since they are the only ethnic group without indigenous ethnic kin in a neighbouring country.

#11 Separatism would mean more conflict. And word on the street is that the people of Afghanistan are a little tired of conflict.

#12 There is no modern ethnic nationalism in Afghanistan. Ethnic identity is not always a person’s primary identity. Additionally, identity in Afghanistan is flexible depending on the situation. Regional, tribal, qawm, pir, and village identities have a great deal of importance.

#13 During the 1980s and 1990s many regional groups already had de facto autonomy, why bother trying to make it de jure? Kabul is a long ways away and usually exerts little influence in the regions.

#14 The central government, during much of modern Afghan history, supplied aid to local rulers, making them loyal out of greed. Kind of like Alaska, Quebec, Southern Italy, etc…

#15 There is no serious fear of other ethnic groups. OK, maybe a little. But not like Rwanda or Yugoslavia.

#16 The people of Afghanistan mostly want to farm, work, study, trade and have tea with their homeboys. Separatism and ethnic nationalism are for people who sit around with lots of spare time to think about whatever sort of utopia must be created. I’m talking about you, you dilettante intellectual. [I’m just a plain dilettante for now, I’m working on the intellectual part] As for the relevant intellectuals, most Afghan intellectuals live in America, Canada, Europe, Pakistan, etc… Their views are not always relevant to local affairs in Afghanistan.

#17 Although Jamiat/Shura Nazar and Junbesh were (and are) dominated by a particular ethnic group, their leaders never implemented any sort of ethnic nationalist ideology. Even the Pashtun dominated Hizb-i Islami recruited from minorities in the north-east. Hizb-i Wahdat was the closest thing to an ethnic nationalist party, but….see Hazaras above.

And moving along to the post-9-11 era.....

#18 Can you separate from Afghanistan now that Karzai can call in NATO? I don’t think so. I think the opportunity is lost as long as NATO is in Afghanistan.

#19 The Karzai government can control some of the resources that are delivered to the regions.

The two factors above mean that you should play nice and sign up for some honorific government position and lay low…*cough!*Dostum.*cough!*.

Disclaimers: I know that comparing ethnic groups and their motivations in Afghanistan is like comparing apples to oranges to pomegranates. But some generalizations can be made. Also, I wrote this in about 2 hours, mostly steam of consciousness (is that the right term?) based partially on earlier research I’ve done. Anyways, some ideas are original while some are blatantly stolen from men and women of greater talents than I. So I have to give props to my peeps (do people still say that?). Check out these articles and books below for a more in depth discussion:

Barfield, Thomas. (2005) ‘Afghanistan is Not the Balkans: Ethnicity and its Political Consequences from a Central Asian Perspective’, Central Eurasian Studies Review, Volume 4, Number 1 (Winter 2005), pages 2-8. [Available online somewhere]

Canfield, Robert L. (1986) ‘Ethnic, Regional, and Sectarian Alignments in Afghanistan’ in “The State, Religion, and Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.” Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner (Eds.) Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Centlivres, Pierre and Micheline Centlivres-Demont. (2000) ‘State, National Awareness and Levels of Identity in Afghanistan from Monarchy to Islamic State’, in Central Asian Survey, Vol.19, No. 3/4. (2000), pages 419-428.

Dorronsoro, Gilles. (2005) “Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present.” New York: Columbia University Press.

Glatzer, Bernt. (1998) ‘Is Afghanistan on the Brink of Ethnic and Tribal Disintegration?’, in William Maley (editor) “Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban.” New York: New York University Press.

Hyman, Anthony. (2002) ‘Nationalism in Afghanistan’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 34, pages. 299-315.

Rais, Rasul Bakhsh. (1999) ‘Conflict in Afghanistan: Ethnicity, Religion and Neighbours’, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1999), pages 1-12.

Schetter, Conrad. (2005) ‘Ethnoscapes, National Territorialisation, and the Afghan War’, Geopolitics, Vol. 10, pages 50-75.

If you’ve read this entire post plus the bibliography then you are surely a superstar.

Totally out of context quote #3

March 5, 2007.

“The worst is behind us. The traitors have betrayed. The corrupt have led their war of corruption. A purified army remains. A fine army that will now mount a counter-attack. I promise you.”

Context: Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the anti-Taliban Shura-yi Nazar, speaking in 1998 to village elders in the Panjshir valley. Quote taken from page 332 of Bernard-Henri Levy’s book “War, Evil, and the End of History.” (Melville House Publishing, 2004).

The Power(lessness) of Today’s Riots in Jalalabad

March 4, 2007.

If you conscientiously follow the stream of good news coming out of Afghanistan then you have definitely heard about the riot in Jalalabad (affectionately called “J-Bad” by the troops). And even if you only occasionally tune into news from Afghanistan you can’t miss hearing about the incident since it is the lead story in the western media at the moment. The coverage is, as usual, poor and incomplete. The sketchy details so far are this: minibus bomb and ambush targeting American patrol in city of Jalalabad turns into 8 civilians being shot and killed by US soldiers. And, as one can predict, angry locals take to the streets for the ritual of anger.

So why am I bringing this up when you can get the news anywhere? Well, last week I wrote about riots in Afghan cities in an entry titled “The Power(lessness) of the Mob in Afghanistan.”. This was not out of any sort of prescience, but rather a timely coincidence.

If todays riots follows the pattern of the Kabul riots of 2006 (or the “Newsweek Koran abuse” riots that occured in Jalalabad a couple of years ago), then you can expect the supposed “thousands” of demonstrators to go home after yelling “Death to Karzai! Death to America!” and throwing a few rocks. If I’m wrong and the riot escalates then I’ll eat this blog entry.

Totally out of context quote #2

March 3, 2007.

“One obedient uneducated person is better than 100 disobedient intellectuals.”

Context: Current Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Ismael Khan expressing his appreciation for educated Afghans while speaking to a reporter in October 2005. Quote taken from page 6 of Antonio Giustozzi’s report titled “Genesis of a ‘Prince’: The Rise of Ismail Khan in Western Afghanistan, 1979-1992.” Available online here in pdf.

The Deceptive Afghan Translator

March 2, 2007.

Almost all NGO workers, military personnel, foreign government representatives and journalists operating in Afghanistan have the same impediment: the language barrier. So everybody hires a translator. Without a translator the various members of the “international community” would be like a newly blinded person attempting to take a route never before traveled.

Translators do not just translate the language directly; they translate culture as well. They save their usually naïve and often ignorant employers from committing social faux pas and they often take much liberty with their translations. Translators often are given (or take) leeway to interpret situations for their employers as best as possible.

For example: NGO worker X tells their interpreter to ask a local government official if Valley Y is safe to travel in. The translator and the local then engage in a 3 minute long conversation that the translator translates with a simple “yes.” Another example: US Army Captain Z tells his interpreter to tell a village leader that, if the Taliban are given refuge in his village, the US Army will search every single house and male in the village. The translator then says to the village leader: “The American General says he knows that the people of this village are all good Muslims and that they have suffered much in the past years. He also says he knows that the people in this village are honest farmers, not Taliban supporters. But he has orders to search the houses here if the Taliban comes through again. This is for your protection. And he apologizes in advance for having to come in to your houses. We all want peace.” These conversations are fictional, but I believe they do represent the sort of translating that happens in Afghanistan.

While translators often use their own judgment wisely in order to save their employers difficulty, there is also the danger of a malicious translation. Your translator may decide to threaten someone in your name if he thinks that is what is required. Or he may have a hidden agenda. The agenda may be ethnic or socio-economic prejudice or some sort of private financial gain (i.e., bribery). He may also omit important information. In one incident in the month after September 11, CIA officer Gary Schroen made the United States’ terms very clear to Shura-yi Nazar General Fahim. The regular translator stood silent while Dr. Abdullah, a political leader and spokesman for Shura-yi Nazar, gave a very liberal translation to general Fahim, basically leaving out the CIA’s demands. And this wasn’t even the first attempt to manipulate one side in the translation process. About an earlier meeting, Schroen remarked:

“When he translated the comments he made in English to Fahim in Dari, Abdullah obfuscated what he had said. My impression was that although … Abdullah respected Fahim in the role of military leader of the Northern Alliance, at this time [he] was not comfortable with the general taking the lead in the political arena.”

Schroen knew that the translators were being deceptive only because he could understand a small amount of Dari. Which leads to an important point: why don’t foreigners learn the languages necessary to effectively operate in Afghanistan? There is the well-documented reason that people have the tendency not to be motivated to learn a language of a group that they consider to be cultural, socially or economically inferior. As for soldiers, they are only in Afghanistan for one tour of duty (ideally) and in some instances are isolated from the locals. Yes, the military does have a language school that allegedly produces linguists, but the output does not meet the need, in terms of quality or quantity. As for NGO workers, they have the tendency to bounce from one crisis zone to the next: from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan to wherever. Journalists? They’re worse than tourists. Sometimes it seems that anthropologists, evangelical missionaries and Chinese diplomats are the only types of people who are motivated to learn the local language.

For now the international community will have to rely on their translators. And I believe the vast majority of translators do a fine job. They want security and prosperity for their country just as much as the internationals want it. However, there may be a time when you desperately need to communicate and a good translator is nowhere to be found. Good luck.

Note: The CIA translator anecdotes are from pages 101 and 198 of Gary Schroen’s book “First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on terror in Afghanistan.” (Ballantine Books, 2005)

Totally out of context quote #1

March 1, 2007.

“In the Pakhtun [Pashtun] world, the rifle is the symbolic marker of a man’s identity as a man. To take away someone’s rifle is therefore extremely provocative; to do so in front of his wife is far worse, virtually a form of sexual assault which conveys the message that the wife is the assailant’s to possess.”

-Anthropologist David B. Edwards on page 74 of his book “Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier.” (University of California Press, 1996)