Various externally sanctioned projects of modernity to “improve” the Afghan ‘social condition’, ranging from those of land reforms and nationalisation, to neoliberalism and microfinance, and to ‘Islamic salvation’ and ‘anti-imperialism’, have unanimously killed, maimed and pursued their respective delusions in Afghanistan. Bearing these facts in mind and with an intent to address a broad domestic audience, this article makes three interrelated points.
First, what we see today with respect to our national discourse on Afghanistan, tells us more about certain features of our modality of nationalism. Second, because we underestimate and misunderstand ‘imperialism’, we incorrectly see the Taliban victory as “anti-imperialism” and the defeat of NATO as a defeat for all of the empire’s designs and its beneficiaries. Third, and alarmingly so, when we highlight only the sins of the empire, without acknowledging where we went wrong as well, we create various binaries of the “us vs. them” variety. We see no middle ground or a ‘third pole’.
Certain privilege-ridden analyses that masquerade as dispassionate expertise these days, have no problem in finding their own divisive, antagonistic and ahistorical narratives, in terms no different from the empire’s. They have no time for reference to the local’s history or its sensitivity and refuse to think outside a very narrow conception of national interest.
But doing so will also lead us collectively to yet another ‘murder of history’ – this time not only our own, but also of a neighbouring country and its people.
Is the violence of our discourses (be they orientalist and western or Pakistan-centric-nationalist), entirely separate from and not enabling of the physical violence that so many have perpetuated here?
Parallel to the often-critiqued orientalist discourse in the west regarding Afghanistan and Afghan history is also an equally insidious and self-sabotaging Pakistan-centric-nationalist discourse about the same. I only aim to address the latter here.
The discourse based on binaries that only emphasises the sins of some outsider has today achieved its most developed stage in our Afghanistan discourse. It has brought together the worst aspects of our nationalism and is ‘hegemonic’ as well – elite and non-elite societal voices consent to it every day.
Our initial contact with the Afghan Islamists pre-dates direct imperial interventionism in Afghanistan. We established contact with the likes of Hekmatyar, Rabbani and Masood in the mid-1970s when we helped launch a failed attack against Daud Khan
Sadly, we stood here once before as well. When the Soviets left, our diplomats were negotiating in Geneva and the powers-to-be coerced factions of the mujahedeen into launching attacks on Jalalabad and Kandahar, nullifying the possibility of a negotiated “political solution” with Najibullah’s regime. Some mujahedeen leaders even resisted. But that was just the beginning. More blood got spilt in what followed. Our prior favourite and disproportionally beneficial recipient of US/Saudi/global “aid”, a certain Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, got himself branded the ‘butcher of Kabul’. The ‘soldiers of God’ (and of liberal-democratic-capitalist U.S., of al-Azhar University, of theocratic Sunni Saudi Arabia, of theocratic Shi’a Iran, of theocratically-communist-opposed Pakistan) in their bids to take Kabul, caused almost as much havoc as the Soviets. The death toll from the shelling of Kabul, and adjoining areas, averaged 150 dead per day for certain weeks, according to HRW reports.
Even if that is not the case this time, one thing is for sure: for all the talk of facilitating a peace deal, a power-sharing agreement, hosting meetings– admittedly, all difficult tasks – we have been lied to – again. Corrupt, evil, violent, as it was, the ‘warlord dominated’, ‘foreign backed’ government in Kabul did not necessitate the brain drain comprising journalists, doctors, technocrats, among others, that we saw at Kabul airport. There was always only one actor that could have made a middle-ground settlement with Kabul happen in a practically realisable manner. That is simply a fact for anyone, with any semblance, of any kind, with a history from below of this war. It is not scapegoating – it simply is not – whether the empire uses it as an excuse now or some more “compassionate” voices from within seek deeper reflection later.
In a prior article I opined that given which of the Taliban leaders got jailed or released from our prisons and when, or who suddenly ended up dead or ‘missing’ after factional arrangements were agreed to with Kabul at the local level, or who got angry and started opening up to Iran, there was a clear trend. The most powerful factions of the Taliban movement (i.e., the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network or “Miranshah” Shura – who happen to be those closest to us) and our state authorities, did not seem to want a negotiated settlement with Kabul. With the escalation of our COIN in FATA since 2013-14, violence and ‘unclaimed attacks’ went up inside Afghanistan, while the central leadership of the movement moved to better centralise and institutionalise its operations – not to better implement an eventual peace deal, but instead in preparation of a full takeover. But we do not appreciate what the local can tell us. We want to stake claims instead on what the already powerful say instead.
We forget also that historically neither did Deobandi Islam have any great deal of family resemblance with historically local cultures of Islam in these regions, nor did the Deobandi movement itself originate here and nor was it initially welcomed here
Take the case of Mullah Baradar, who we are told by many seemingly “balanced” voices was generously released only at the urging of the U.S. to facilitate the “peace process”. A history from below suggests a different interpretation. The empire lost on the battlefield a long time ago and was going to depart anyway, and no peace deal was ever reached with Kabul. Baradar was instead arrested by our authorities in 2010 when – without our blessing – he opened a channel of communication for purposes of negotiating with Hamid Karzai’s brother and as released after he came around to a different vision in 2018.
The irony only becomes more pronounced as we switch lenses to analyse domestic politics: our elites and the institutions they command are often cast as our oppressors. How is this elite and its friends “their” saviours, while simultaneously “our” oppressors?
And relatedly, there is still a much longer history to all this that is already well documented. In this respect, two points are particularly worth noting for the attempt to emphasise the history of the local here. First, our initial contact with the Afghan Islamists and dive into armed client politics, pre-dates direct imperial interventionism in Afghanistan. We established contact with the likes of Hekmatyar, Rabbani and Masood in the mid 1970s when we helped launch a failed attack against Daud Khan in response to his accentuation of rhetoric regarding Pashtunistan. By way of public admissions of sources from within the cadre tasked in the mid-1970s, this war began before Daud fell to the communist PDPA, before the Soviets subsequently intervened, and was “….not America’s war, but always Pakistan’s war…”. Maybe this outright breach of a neighbouring country’s sovereignty by means of arming its opposition to carry out a coup against its leader can still be forgiven, given how events of 1971 must have added to the paranoia of the Bhutto regime and the military at the time.
Second, when the PDPA did come to power and the Soviets did intervene, it is vital to recall the plurality of ideological and sectarian affiliations in the initial mobilisation against them. The initial mobilisations comprised a host of Sunni Islamist factions (ranging from the Naqshbandi orders to the likes of urban-transnational-conservative political Islamists such as Hekmatyar-Rabbani-Masood, and rural mullahs such as Maulvi Younis Khalis). It also comprised eight Shi’a parties (eventually brought together by Iran under “Hizb-i-Wahdat”), more political-nationalist oriented elements of Daud Khan and Zahir Shah’s royalists, and Pashtun nationalist groups. Again, by way of admissions in Brigadier Yousaf’s own book, we mattered because we predominantly monopolised channels of disbursement and had a great deal to do with how factions that were militarily more proficient and ideologically most conservative and closer to the Zia regime (as opposed to politically better grounded within Afghanistan), ended up becoming much more well-endowed than others. A ‘civil war’ later was rather inevitable.
We deny, otherise and implicate voices like the PTM that seem like they must be emanating out of nowhere except from foreign intrigue because we have never been told better
Further, even if these histories only partially explain why many Afghans dislike us today, there were – and still are – much more accessible voices and histories that are denied daily and emanate from spaces and people much closer to us. We deny, otherise and implicate voices like the PTM that seem like they must be emanating out of nowhere except from foreign intrigue because we have never been told better. Instead, if one adopts a more locally grounded and long durée point of view, looking outwards from the periphery, it reveals that these voices are nothing but the aggregate representation of numerous (pre-PTM and either unreported or ignored) rallies, protests, sit-ins outside various PA offices across FATA, outside Peshawar Press Club, the anti-Taliban lashkars raised to protect life and livelihood – only to be let down by a state and forgotten by its beneficiaries as they signed peace deals and extended pardons to their oppressors. And as if that was not enough, we also quite simply deny all legitimacy of opinion/voice to even the elected officials of the region or the numbers at PTM rallies, just as we make promises of having “incorporated” them into “normal” forms of governance. Most depressingly however, we still seem to prefer the armed politics of the Taliban who play victim while this “foreign-funded”, “anti-state” PTM, that needs to “calm down”, only responds with still a patient and non-violent movement.
There is no NDS anymore, but these sentiments remain. What more will come from their denial, except an accentuation of our own divisions? What more will come from another murder of history than what came from others that have led us to where we are today?
No one has benefitted more from this most recent spell of imperial exuberance than the already-blessed and the Taliban movement itself. The latter is today bigger, stronger and perceived more legitimate globally than it was before 2001. The varying shades of the ‘already-blessed’ that have benefitted anew include the empire’s own elite, some of its institutions and some of its children. It also includes our country’s elite, some of its institutions and some of its children. And it also includes the co-opted Afghan warlords and veterans of this decades old conflict that have maintained their positions through many a changing backdrop. All this invalidates our celebratory “us vs. them” “anti-imperialism” discourse.
The colloquial and impoverished binary reading of imperialism as only a repressive, western and violent phenomenon, that benefits all within empire uniformly, just as it uniformly represses a passive and non-agential, non-west, fundamentally misunderstands it (historically and in its present form). It also occludes any reparative possibilities between “their” (Afghan or the empire’s own) oppressed and “ours”. Be these for purposes of analyses or activism. Two basic historical features must be kept in mind relatedly. First, the nature of colonial or imperial domination has most often been of the ‘indirect’ variety as it has worked to co-opt native elites and institutions and found abroad fixes for its own stagnating economies. This is important because for the all the talk of empire’s ‘bloody nose’, there is more nuance associated with recent outcomes if one looks a little closer. Second, the US is a settler-colonial state within the territorial bounds of its own existence – and that history and its legacies predate its imperialism abroad and simultaneously feature in contemporary predicaments.
The imperial actor, back home, also has a state and a society. It has its excluded, its raced, its exploited and, it also has its blessed and domineering “elite”. If this elite and the state institutions it commands are racist, violent and profit driven in their approaches to foreign policy, they are only partially different within the realm of domestic politics – and still only so in self-interested ways. Briefly, and running the risk of over-simplification, it can be argued that this imperial ‘elite’ sent to Afghanistan, its poor to kill (the even poorer ‘global poor’) and get killed; its networks and assemblages of military and economic sector interests to develop warfare and surveillance technologies, both of which were later to be used to surveille upon, incarcerate and kill black and immigrant populations at home; and its over-accumulated and hence unprofitable ‘surplus capital’ to re-circulate via the ‘contractor system’ creating jobs for the already-blessed and highly-skilled within the pipeline.
It must be noted that the development sector comprising private firms based within empire and INGOs, working through the neo-liberal ‘contractor system’, and the separate, yet inter-related growth of the neo-colonial knowledge economy, particularly benefitted the empire’s elites, and educated (predominantly white) upper-middle classes. First, exorbitant wages of INGO workers, ‘administrative costs’ from allocations to projects, the enhancement of perverse incentives as copious amounts of money were thrown at problems, and the ensuing corruption, meant that very little actually benefited the alleged recipients. Instead, a lot quite simply found its way back or into the pockets of already relatively well-to-do Afghan intermediaries or prior beneficiaries of the war economy. Even the Taliban movement profited. To take one example, in 2010/11, an internal US-based Financial Action Task Force, concluded regarding the disbursement of certain project funds, that “…25% of $106 billion went directly to…insurgency and transnational crime…including Taliban, Haqqanis and other insurgent groups…”, while another 15% went to more direct government corruption. Second, and despite all its wastefulness, this still helped ward off the empire’s own problems of unemployment and unprofitable overaccumulation by providing jobs for its graduates of elitist educational institutions, while the same institutions became increasingly unaffordable for its own poor. Third, and relatedly, we must remember that ‘late’ colonial rule was particularly heavily predicated on a knowledge economy that (directly or indirectly) helped empire’s interests by claims of having produced authentic cultural knowledge about native societies, elites and institutions and having found ways of better governing them or improving their lowly social condition through ‘indirect’ means. The contemporary regurgitation of this ‘imperial militarist anthropology’ is most clearly evident in the birth of new disciplines – akin to many prior colonial modes of knowledge production about native societies, such as security studies, and in the metastasising think tank sector working on “security”, “counterterrorism” or the “Middle East” in general.
Not only do these entities serve the empire’s political interests in various ways and provide employment, but they also have less obvious and seemingly more benign, yet equally dangerous externalities. For one, they teach our policymakers and policy analysts a language that aspires to secure “national security interest” before social justice. In the process, a bewildering amount of discursive violence that conceals more than it reveals, accompanies the use of a specialised language derived from security studies, development theory and sprinkled with odes to management consultancy. These allow for our analysts to be convinced of their righteousness as they similarly orientalise, otherise and provide diagnosis for what ‘must be done’ next in Afghanistan or what their ‘normal’ is, or of what their history really is. For much like the colonialist, we too claim to understand the histories and interests of Afghans better than they ever did or ever can.
The instrumentalisation of numbers in our discourses to vindicate all else, such as that of the millions of refugees we have taken in, is more important than the reality of their existence amongst us. None of these refugees have the means to become security-policy experts by way of foreign degrees and none of the refugee camps are housed on the streets or in the neighbourhoods from which our security policy experts hail. Few have even visited any, but they are useful tools in social-media, point-scoring, feel-good, battlefields where these experts spend most their time. In fact, an aggregated best-outcome for the Afghan refugee is that they clean the offices and prepare the tea for the same security policy experts as they descend to analyse the former’s interests and histories without indulging them.
The Pakistani elite and Pakistani society have relatedly had different outcomes as a result of this war – and this is starkest in the very regions where all this is a lived reality. What must the postcolonial state and the postcolonial elite that rules over it or benefits from it, look like if you stood in Parachinar? Few have ever sincerely asked that question. From that vantage, the victims are many and mostly do not have, nor have historically had, equitable access to state power. Afterall, the FCR was also a gift of empire. But since we became – to whatever extent – ‘masters of our domain’ following decolonisation, we continued, re-produced, altered for our purposes, and instrumentalised these arrangements.
We prescribed, legitimised and executed collective punishment and destruction of entire markets in the 21st century. The empire provided us with the institutional means, but the rest is our agency. The choices to instrumentalise these arrangements in the name of “native tradition”, served similarly to the benefit of those in parts of our country that already inherited from the British colonial empire relative prosperity, better access to state resources and means to control or dominate the periphery. Whether it was the British backed native elites that we had sought arrangements with early on, or the ideologically more pliant friends we found later, the relationship of this society to the postcolonial state appears as nothing but a mutated form of colonial ‘indirect rule’.
In the process and benefitting from the anomalous nature of the discourse on the ‘war on terror’ (or that of the ‘Cold War’), much like the imperial state did, our state also acquired new means of surveillance, repression, erasure and silencing. It put in place new laws to incriminate alternate opinions and invested ever more heavily in defense, all at the expense of society. Its technologies and techniques of warfare, violence and repression became more sophisticated (and more violent) – as did those of its purported adversaries. Is it in fact not true to say that we made these gains (entirely, or even partially) due to indulgence in the empire’s prior plans or through more direct interaction in the name of ‘military-to-military’ relations comprising everything from training to sharing of technological expertise?
Did the empire not teach us ‘how to do’ counterinsurgency after our failures in the early 2000s? And is it not the children of this same state blessed ‘elite’ that today claim “grounded” expertise in their discourses? We seem either oblivious or purposefully ignorant of the fact that this very art of counterinsurgency and the roots of this ‘war on terror’ discourse, its dehumanising language, its categories and its ways of acting, were invented and perfected during the age of late colonial rule by the empire itself.
In the face of all this, the victimhood of APS, of our lower-class-lower-ranked soldiers killed on the frontlines, of mistaken air-strikes in FATA, of journalists killed, silenced or made jobless, of missing persons, of forgone opportunities for development and the continued reproduction of armed client politics, along with that of the poor, the dead and the dehumanised, are all continued losses of the least blessed segments of “our” society and also “theirs”.
This can also be seen as a version of the ‘development of underdevelopment’ where imperial interventionism over decades has produced perverse incentives among various local actors and damaging trajectories of development, the end of product of which is Taliban 2.0. It is no exaggeration to suggest that this movement with the humble origins that Ahmed Rashid once described, is nothing like it was back then and nor is it incorrect to suggest that its leadership is no longer the same poverty-stricken, isolated and maimed entity it was described as at its inception. In fact, it might not even be an exaggeration to suggest that the Taliban today is economically, militarily, diplomatically and politically way stronger than it was in the 1990s (or could ever hope to be) had the NATO intervention not happened.
The most obvious – although only partial – causes of this are the Taliban’s newfound legitimacy of having resisted foreign occupation (something it did not possess in the 1990s), and the sheer violence of the empire itself. This partial and historically abductive narrative has also grown in its appeal to our state and society. Most tragically though, and unlike ever before, a larger proportion of our youth today supports, or by way of histories denied demands that we at least “understand” the Taliban, in self-aggrandising and nationalist ways, as our answers to our own dilemmas of anti-Americanism or anti-imperialism.
Understand one must, but why not via a more honest historical reckoning? We ignore that this “Pashtun-Deobandi” movement has directly or indirectly eliminated alternative Pashtun sources of native authority – be it tribal elders, Pashtun nationalist political parties or simply non-violent voices such as those of the PTM. We forget also that historically neither did Deobandi Islam have any great deal of family resemblance with historically local cultures of Islam in these regions, nor did the Deobandi movement itself originate here and nor was it initially welcomed here. Ascriptions of such timeless and stable categories of identity, ideology and space, without a deeper historical look, again, conceal more than they reveal. They are also complicated by how political pragmatism and economic interest reign supreme and necessitate the former’s re-modulation, adaptation or by-passing for given periods of the Taliban’s own histories and policies. And as far as the dilemma of “rural support” for the movement is concerned, it has always been more pragmatic than ideological; how can a people pursue any higher goals than swift justice or physical security after half a century of violence?
Further, and as discussed earlier the movement itself has benefitted from leaks within the empire’s own aid system. Today this movement also controls parts of northern Afghanistan that it never did before. It has within its ranks representatives and commanders hailing from multiple ethnicities. It is friends with Shi’a Iran, with expanding capitalist (“communist”) China, and even the sins of Russia stand forgiven.
So do those of long-time ‘money-minded’ and violent CIA and subsequently Kabul government strongman Gul Agha Sherzai, or those of erstwhile enemy and long-time warlord Ismail Khan in Herat. But the sins of journalists that cover women protests in Kabul or those of the less blessed and lower tier local level policeman, district official or judge, or other strategically unimportant folk, cannot be forgiven. Lest we forget that now aid is also being demanded from the same US whose backing of the previous regime offended the movement and its supporters so much that even talking to that regime was not possible. But rest assured, this time this aid will be distributed more benevolently because only they had private interests and agendas that are entirely dissimilar from ones we have.
It seems as if this emergent regional order is predicated on the satiation of very specific economic and strategic interests of the already blessed – like the old order was, in a different context. Only this time, those involved present themselves as ‘not the west’ or as its enemy, or as emerging (still capitalist) global hegemons. We follow suit and pretend as if these entities are not imperial, extractive, violent or repressive to subjects within or outside their ambits – in ways not too different from the sins of “western imperialism”.