Imagining Afghanistan

Quite a number of books have followed in the tradition of Edward Said, critiquing and contesting the manufacturing of narratives. Nivi Manchanda's "Imagining Afghanistan" The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge" (2020) provides a deep dive into those narratives of Afghanistan. Chapters of the book explore the use of "tribe" and "tribalism", the colonial construction of narratives, the American military deployment of narratives, the portrayal of "warlords" and women in Afghan society, as well as masculinity and sexuality. For anyone interest in this topic, this is a rich book of details. In the specific, readers familiar with this tradition of writing will find a similar meta-narrative. A few notes:

The book: "partakes in the effervescent conversation about social science's implication in empire, both past and present, and brings to the table a rather peculiar example of this implication. This is the story of imperialism in Afghanistan, a story which is perhaps best designated as that which is the 'same but different'. It is the 'same' in that it displays, even exemplifies, a steady, if not quite consistent, lineage of colonial thinking about the Other." (p. 5-6)

As reported elsewhere, but in more detail here: "What the exhibition and its curators fail to mention is how these textbooks came into being. During the mid 1980s, a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) printed millions of textbooks in Peshawar that were distributed to schoolchildren across Afghanistan. The textbooks were designed to indoctrinate Afghans against the evils of the Soviet Union and made for immensely powerful propaganda. Specialists from the Afghanistan Center at the University of Nebraska Omaha received $51 million to develop a curriculum, which glorified jihad, celebrated martyrdom and dehumanised foreign invaders. Published in Dari and Pashto, these schoolbooks taught the alphabet through Kalashnikovs and counting through guns and bullets, and had elaborate mathematical questions which drew on conflict scenarios, deploying various firearms in inventive ways, for more advanced pupils. One example read: 'A Kalashnikov bullet travels at 800 meters per second. A mujahid has the forehead of a Russian in his sights 3,200 meters away. How many seconds will it take the bullet to hit the Russian's forehead?' Although USAID funding for the project stopped in 1994, multiple copies of the texts remained in circulation in the 1990s and into the 2000s." (p 2-3)

Continues later: "… Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, founded in 1972, is still the world's only permanent research and training centre devoted solely to the study of Afghanistan.24 Set up to counterbalance the Soviets, following a lull in the 1990s, it found a renewed sense of purpose after 9/11. The centre has since provided 'training on Afghan history, culture, and language to U.S. Army Human Terrain System teams that were departing for Afghanistan'. It has trained over 600 military and civilian personnel to prepare them for service in Afghanistan. It also helped 'professionalize' members of the Afghan National Army between 2008 and 2010.25 Similarly, Indiana University recently inaugurated a National Resource Center for creating Pashto-language materials, focusing on providing 'key training for U.S. forces in Afghanistan'. Gene Coyle, a retired CIA officer, who has never worked in Afghanistan, serves as director…" (p. 9) 

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The Afghanistan File

Walking around a bookshop that largely carried children's materials, I came across an interesting (and out of place) book: "The Afghanistan File" written by Prince Turki AlFaisal Al Saud, the Director of the General Intelligence Directorate (1977-2001) in Saudi Arabia. It seems the book was dictated by Prince Turki, written by Michael Field, and published in 2021. The book is published by Arabian Publishing, so it might not have made its way around the typical networks. For those interested in Afghanistan, or Saudi, this is an interesting addition to the dialogue. A few notes:

"In spite of his reservations Brzezinski recommended 'more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and some technical advice'. 'It is essential that Afghanistani resistance continues,' he wrote. 'To make [this] possible we must both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels … We should concert with Islamic countries both in a propaganda campaign and in a covert action campaign…' This memorandum led to another Presidential 'Finding' at the end of December, which permitted the CIA to send weapons secretly to the Mujahideen. The purpose was to make the Soviet intervention as costly as possible to get the USSR 'bogged down', as Brzezinski put it later, and to discourage other military interventions." (p. 9-10)

"The purchasing of weapons and ammunition was managed mainly by the CIA, and at the start it was agreed among us, the Pakistanis and the Americans that supplies would be of Warsaw Pact origin so that it would appear to the Russians that the Mujahideen had captured them or bought them from the Afghan army. Alternatively they could be of old western manufacture, the sort of material that the Mujahideen might have bought on the international arms market or in the frontier region. At all costs we wanted to avoid showing that our three countries were involved as suppliers." (p. 42)

"During the war the amounts of money going into the pipeline increased enormously. In 1980 Saudi Arabia and America together put in $300,000, though at this stage there were various other direct payments made, including the $2 million we sent in cash with Ahmad Badeeb in January that year. In 1981 the two countries put in $60 million, by 1984 the figure had reached $400 million and by the end of the Soviet occupation it was running at around $1 billion. The actual movement of the Saudi contribution was into a Swiss account of the CIA." (p. 48)

"In his book The Hidden War: A Russian Journalists Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, published in 1990 during the time of glasnost, Artyom Borovik wrote that the Soviet Union at the beginning was 'obsessed with our own messianic mission and blinded by arrogance… [W]e rarely stopped to think how Afghanistan would influence us… In Afghanistan we bombed not only the detachments of rebels and their caravans, but our own ideals as well… In Afghanistan the policies of the government became utterly incompatible with the inherent morality of our nation. things could not continue in the same vein.'" (p. 98) 

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America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

Anand Gopal was a Pulitzer finalist and won the Ridenhour Prize for "No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes" (2014). For those interested in Afghanistan, I've covered books by Ahmed Rashid, William Dalrymple and Stephen Saideman elsewhere. Gopal's book is an excellent read and presents the counter-narrative to Saideman - rather than the foreign experience, this is Afghan experience. This is not an academic text, as Dalrymple's is, but offers a wealth of insight. The New York Times Book Review described Gopal's book as "essential reading for anyone concerned about how American got Afghanistan so wrong". I could not agree more. Some notes:

  • Given the recent shift to talk with the Taliban, history shows how other paths were available. Before the war, the "Taliban agreed to place bin Laden on trial, but Washington, not trusting the impartiality of Afghan courts, demanded his extradition to US soil. The Taliban, for their part, doubted the objectivity of the American legal system. They agreed to hand him over only to a neutral Islamic country for trial, which Washington rejected." (p. 12)
  • The shallow vision of the socio-political context resulted in tremendous errors: "Karzai understood what his American friends did not yet grasp: not only individuals but entire tribal communities were winners and losers in the invasion. Time would reveal this in a most painful way." (p. 44)
  • Finger pointing often means four fingers pointing at oneself, and one at the other: "Looking to keep the war fueled, Washington - where the prevailing ethos was to bleed the Russians until the last Afghan - financed textbooks for schoolchildren in refugee camps that were festooned with illustrations of Kalashnikovs, swords, and overturned tanks." (p. 56)
  • The (short-term) consequentialist thinking driving decision making, disregarding the lives lost in the means taken: "when Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as national security advisor to President Carter helped to initiate Washington's anti-Soviet mujahedeen policies, was asked in the late 1990s whether he had any regrets, he replied: "What is more important in the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" (p. 67)
  • The cold reality: "Save for a few lone wolf attacks, US forces in Kandahar in 2002 faced no resistance at all. The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet US special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism. How do you fight a war without an adversary? Enter Gul Agha Sherzai - and men like him around the country. Eager to survive and prosper, he and his commanders followed the logic of the American presence to its obvious conclusion. They would create enemies where there were none, exploiting the perverse incentive mechanism that the Americans - without them realizing it - had put in place. Sherzai's enemies became American enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as "counterterrorism," his business interests as Washington's. And where rivalries did not do the trick, the prospect of further profits did." (p. 109)
  • Creating enemies: "They were forced to kneel there for hours, their hands bound behind them. Some passed out from the pain. Some lost sensation in their hands and feet. Then they were marched into a room and made to strip and stand in front of American soldiers for inspection, inspiring a humiliation that, in the Pashtun ethos, was difficult to even imagine. "When they made us walk naked in front of all those Americans," captive Abdul Wahid later told a reporter, "I was praying to God to let me die. If someone could have sold me a poisoned tablet for $100,000, I would have bought it." In a final act of emasculation, soldiers appeared with clippers. One by one the captives beards were shorn off, and many of them broke down in tears. Some, for resisting, had their eyebrows removed as well... After five days they were brought to Kandahar's soccer stadium and released [finding them to have supported the US]. A crowd of thousands, who had made the trip from Maiwand, was there to greet them. A few months earlier many of these farmers had packed the stadium seats waving the new Afghan flag and chanting in favor of the coming loya jirga. Now, for the first time, anti-American slogans filled the air." (p. 110-111)
  • "Reading the official list of charges against the rest gives a sense of the farce the system had become. One inmate was accused, among other crimes, of supporting the political organization of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the pro-Western Northern Alliance leader murdered by al-Qaeda. Another was alleged to have been a member of Herakat-i-Inquilabi—an anti-Soviet mujahedeen group, backed by the United States, that had been defunct since the mid-1990s. Inmate Muhammad Nasim arrived at Guantanamo accused of working as a deputy to Rashid Dostum, the pro-US warloard and former Gelam Jam militia leader who, prison authorities mistakenly believed, had "defected to the Taliban in 1998"—or so Nasim's classified filed stated. In fact, Dostum had been a member of the Northern Alliance and a staunch anti-Taliban fighter, even winding up on the CIA payroll during the 2001 invasion. Nasim was also accused of being the former Taliban deputy minister of education, even though records indicate there was no person by that name in that position. Abdullah Khan found himself in Guantanamo charged with being Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Taliban minister of the interior, which might have been more plausible—if Khairkhwa had not also been in Guantanamo at the time." (p. 144-145)
  • "Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, only 5.4 percent went to development or governance. The rest was mostly military expenditure, a significant chunk of which ended up in the coffers of regional strongmen like Jan Muhammad. In other words, while the United States paid nominal amounts to build the Afghan state, it fostered a stronger and more influential network of power outside the state." (p. 273)
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The Battle for Afghanistan

The way war is waged has significantly changed since the 1800s. One might assume the lessons for contemporary times from such a period would be limited as a result. William Dalrymple's telling of the British attempt to conquer Afghanistan in 1839-1842 convincingly show the opposite. In "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan" (2013), Dalrymple tells the stories of battles long past in an engaging way, while also drawing allusions to present efforts of conquest in the country. The 567 page book tells the history of how the British army was devastated, and then their response following defeat – to toss away their own moral positions and engage in what we would today classify as crimes against humanity. In this post I focus on the linkages Dalrymple makes to the present, and have not attempted a summary on the attempted conquest itself. For those interested in Afghanistan, and conflict generally, this is essentially reading.

"I asked if they saw any parallels with the current situation. 'It is exactly the same,' said Jagdalak. 'Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say "We are your friends, we want to help." But they are lying' (p. 485). In a conversation with elders, Dalrymple recounts: one explaining "some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, "Why do you hate us?" I replied, "Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time."' (p. 487). The author recounts a visit to the "the Herat Museum of the Jihad: a collection of objects left behind by the various foreigners who have foolishly tried to conquer Afghanistan, ranging from British cannon from the First Afghan War through to Russian tanks, jets and helicopter gunships. It won't be long, one can be certain, before a few shot-up American Humvees and British Land-Rovers are added to the collection" (p. xxxvi).

Much like the Canadians, Afghanistan was an arena engaged not for its own sake, but for other self-serving military and political reasons. The British effort of the 1800s was similar: "it was also clear from this attempt to reach out to the Afghans that the British were not interested in cultivating Shah Shuja's friendship for its own sake, but were concerned only to outflank their imperial rivals: the Afghans were perceived as mere pawns on the chessboard of western diplomacy, to be engaged or sacrificed at will. It was a precedent that was to be followed many other times, by several different powers, over the years and decades to come; and each time the Afghans would show themselves capable of defending their inhospitable terrain far more effectively than any of their would-be manipulators could possibly have suspected" (p. 8). So too would the hypocritical rhetoric about independence, freedom and justice – applied as a means to promote agendas when in fact the actors themselves were often worse perpetrators of what was apparently the reason to go to war against another (see p. 77). Justifications would be supported with what Dalrymple describes as "doctored intelligence" (p. 490) with exaggerated threats "manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks" (p. 490).

Much like the Americans, victory was declare prematurely, and new wars were started, resulting in weakened efforts to hold territory in Afghanistan: "rather than concentrating on consolidating Shah Shuja's fragile rule in Afghanistan, and providing the resources needed to make the occupation viable and secure, Lord Auckland – like more recent invaders – instead took the premature view that the conquest was already complete and so allowed himself to be distracted by launching another war of aggression in a different theatre" (p. 220). Dalrymple makes this point: "in 2001, the British and American troops arrived in Afghanistan where they proceeded to begin losing what was, in Britain's case, its fourth war in that country. As before, in the end, despite all the billions of dollars handed out, the training of an entire army of Afghan troops and the infinitely superior weaponry of the occupiers, the Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit. In both cases the occupying troops lost the will to continue fighting at such a cost and with so little gain." (p. 482).

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