Joe Emersberger and I discuss some questions about Afghanistan after the Taliban take over the country and the US leaves. Was this really a defeat or a controlled handover for the US? What is Pakistan’s role? China’s? What is with the mystique around the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose UK-trained son is now claiming to lead the #Resistance? And a few other questions.
Another episode of Kung Fu Yoga with Carl Zha, where we talk about the Indian and Chinese angles on world events. With the US withdrawing from Afghanistan like thieves in the night, the greatest agent of chaos may be gone (or mostly gone, for now) and country’s neighbours (Iran, Russia, the Central Asian republics, Pakistan, India, and China) will be playing a bigger role in the future, and so, evidently, will the Taliban. We talk about the differences we see between the Taliban of today and the Taliban of 2001 in terms of the movement’s apparent support in rural areas and ability to win many of them over without fighting; in terms of the Taliban’s perhaps independence from Pakistan; and in terms of the Taliban’s diplomatic agenda in the region. With the US panic about China taking up where the US left off, we consider China’s relationship with Pakistan (eg., the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and whether that has any insight to offer about what the China-Afghanistan relationship might look like in terms of priorities like infrastructure, the Belt & Road initiative, and China’s concerns with stability and terrorism on the border with Xinjiang. As well as India’s seeming irrelevance to the situation.
A strategically bankrupt expedition by a vindictive, racist, imperialist power to conduct a series of genocidal atrocities on a Muslim population solely because they dared to fight back. And no, we aren’t talking about last week – we conclude the Islam & Imperialism segment of Civilizations with the Anglo-Afghan wars starting with the Army of Revenge in 1842 and going down to the fixing of the Durand Line. What could go wrong?
The British imperialists made much of the bad experiences they had invading and pillaging Afghanistan beginning in 1839, coining terms like the “Graveyard of Empires” and inspiring racist poets like Kipling. We tell the story straight – a bloody imperialist aggression designed to set back Afghan society. Still, the story has some unforgettable characters – from Shah Shuja to Dost Mohamed, from McNaghten and Burnes to Mohan Lal Kashmiri. The crimes, the atrocities, the massacres, the racism and the foolishness of the imperialists and the calculations on the Afghan side, in this long instalment in the Islam & Imperialism series of Civilizations. This is a long one, and we didn’t quite get to the end of the first war!
I’m joined by the Anti-Empire Project’s special correspondent for Pakistan, Saadia Toor, professor at CSI CUNY and author of the State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. Saadia gives us a quick sweep of Pakistan’s history including the key role of the left in the many twists and turns. We get caught up all the way to Imran Khan’s hybrid civil-military regime and the inspiring youth-led Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).
There’s a phrase that keeps popping up in discussions of Syria. It’s a string of words that always appear together, without variation, which is a tell for propaganda phrases and talking points. In the context of Libya, there was a line about “African Mercenaries”. The one I keep hearing about Syria is that Assad has “Afghan Shia militias” fighting for him.
The phrase caught my attention, because when I heard it used, it was by people who don’t know Afghanistan. The country has sectarian and linguistic differences: there are two official languages (Dari and Pashto), there are different self-identified ethnic groups (Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara), there are rural-urban differences, and there are differences of sect within the main religion (Sunni and Shia Islam). For the first few centuries of its existence, including the first several decades of the 20th century, Afghanistan’s leaders tried to create a nationalism that transcended these differences. Then came the war and the foreign interventions that played the differences up for short-term gain, destroying the country so thoroughly that it now sits near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index.
The phrase “Afghan Shia” doesn’t mean much in Afghanistan. There are rare exceptions, but if you are talking about “Afghan Shia”, you are probably talking about the Hazara, a group of people traditionally oppressed along caste and ethnic lines. The one book many Westerners have read about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, prominently features the oppression and violence against a Hazara boy, a friend of the protagonist. During the Afghan wars, sectarian warlords and the Taliban singled Hazara communities out for massacres and atrocities. Millions of Afghans fled to Iran during these wars — many of them Hazara – and were mistreated there, often charged with trumped-up crimes and even executed en masse. Nonetheless, there is a long-term community of Afghans living in Iran, many of whom are Hazara.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban, there have developed in Afghanistan armed Hazara groups, even Hazara warlords. These groups are mainly preoccupied with self-defense and survival: against the Taliban, other sectarian warlords, and now even ISIS in Afghanistan, which was why I was suspicious of the claims of “Afghan Shia Militia” fighting in Syria. I asked friends in the Afghan diaspora if they thought it was possible. Some thought yes, though none had heard of the phenomenon from the Afghan media or community.
I came across two sources about these Afghan Shia Militia in the footnotes of Christopher Phillips’s book, The Battle for Syria. One, an article from May 11, 2015 in Der Speigel by Christoph Reuter, is titled “The Afghans Fighting Assad’s War“. It is hard to tell whether the fact that Germany hosts a big Afghan refugee and diaspora community (or whether racist resentment against Muslim refugees in Germany is often focused on the Afghan community) played a helpful role in finding the hook for this one, but its dubious analysis is on display more clearly in other ways. After an evocative scene with “Murad”, cowering in a pile of Syrian rubble having followed his Iranian officer’s orders, Reuter provides some paragraphs of context.
“The Assad family dictatorship is running out of soldiers and is becoming increasingly reliant on mercenaries. Indeed, from the very beginning the Assad regime had an opponent that it could never really defeat: Syria’s demography.
“In order to prevent the collapse of Syrian government forces, experienced units from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah began fighting for Assad as early as 2012. Later, they were joined by Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis — Shiites from all over, on whom the regime is increasingly dependent. But the longer the war continues without victory, the more difficult it has become for Assad’s allies to justify the growing body count.”
Of course, “Syria’s demography” is only an unbeatable enemy if the demographer is a devoted sectarian who assumes that all Sunni Syrians are against Assad and all Shia, Alawi, or Christian Syrians are for Assad. Such a demographer would be at home in ISIS, in al Qaeda, or in the Saudi Kingdom and if that demographer were correct, yes, because Sunni Syrians are the majority, demography wins. But a full sectarian split in Syria remains an aspiration of ISIS and al-Qaeda, not a reality, despite what Reuter writes.
As for Reuter’s picture of “Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis – Shiites from all over”, this is a distorted mirror image of the reality, which is that foreign fighters “from all over” have come to Syria to join ISIS and fight against the Syrian government. Drinking in the sectarianism of Wahhabi clerics from the Saudi Kingdom, they hate the Shia and find religious rationales for every manner of atrocity against them. On the other side, Shia militias from Iraq are well-documented in Syria, and given the geography and the connections between the two countries (and the fact that their enemy, ISIS, operates in both countries), it makes sense. So, too, does the involvement of Hizbollah of Lebanon. But the recruitment of sectarian fighters “from all over”? That’s an ISIS/al-Qaeda cause, not a Shia one.
It is not until a few paragraphs later, though, that Reuter gets into some really ugly imagery.
“Up to 2 million Hazara live in Iran, most of them as illegal immigrants. It is an inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate, from which the Pasdars — as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are called — have recruited thousands for the war in Syria over the last year and a half.”
An “inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate”! By that logic, surely Iran’s population of 79 million would be even more inexhaustible! Some of these millions might be children, elderly, not military-aged, but no matter. Might Iran, whose interest is for Assad to actually win the war, be interested in sending some of its own half-million strong military with some training, equipment, maybe even language skills, rather than recruiting from Afghan refugee camps? Obviously not, for in Reuter’s world, the only qualification is desperation.
Reuter then returns to Murad’s story – a refugee arrested for a petty crime in Iran and offered amnesty if he would serve as cannon fodder in Syria. He then repeats the description of an anonymous Syrian rebel, who says the Afghans are “incredibly tenacious, run faster than we do and keep shooting even after they have been surrounded” – like machines, Reuter adds for colour. He outlines what happened to Murad for him to end up under rubble and how he wants to go back to Afghanistan, “to the misery he once tried to escape.” As he hangs out with the rebel commanders who are trying to arrange prisoner exchanges – rebels for Afghan prisoners — Reuter hears that the Syrian government officer Colonel Suhail al-Hassan, aka the Tiger, says “You can kill them, they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them.” An interesting response indeed for a commander whose army is “running out of soldiers”.
In the end, Reuter’s sole sources are anonymous rebels and “Murad”, whose story can’t be checked. The rest is bald assertion and “the Shia are coming” fear-mongering.
Another source is a report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which Israel Lobby scholar Stephen M. Walt has called” a key organization in the Israel Lobby”. This report, “Iran’s Afghan Shiite Fighters in Syria”, is written by Phillip Smyth, who also writes a blog called Hizballah Cavalcade “which focuses on Shiite Islamist militarism in the Middle East”; and author of another monograph called “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects”. In other words, expect fair and balanced on this one.
Smyth begins citing the WSJ (May 22/14) that Iran was recruiting “Afghan Shiite refugees to fight in Syria” with promises of Iranian residency and $500 per month. In 2012, Smyth continues, the Free Syrian Army posted on YouTube videos of interrogations of “Afghan Shiite fighter” Mortada Hussein; in 2013, “opposition and regime social media ciriculated undconfirmed images of uniformed Afghans posing together and holding weapons. In many cases, their faces – which tended to be ethnically distinct – were clearly shown… Yet these fallen Afghans were never named.”
Despite the lack of names, Smyth has more than a few “ethnically distinct faces” to show. He cites Afghan writer Ahmad Shuja, who had written about a small refugee community of Afghans (mainly Hazara) who had been living in Syria before the conflict broke out. “Their migration to Syria occurred in several small waves,” Shuja wrote, “with most fleeing Afghanistan to escape ethno-religious persecution and a few settling in the country after their pilgrimage to the holy Shiite sites in the country.” Shuja’s article describes the dire humanitarian situation of these Afghan refugees who were displaced from their neighbourhood of Syeda Zainab in 2012, “easily identifiable by their Asiatic features and foreign accents, making them easy targets for attacks by all sides.” Shuja quotes from a letter from an Afghan refugee reporting that “Afghan Refugees are victimized of torture and they have been threatened just because they are different and they believe in a religion as called ‘Shiite’.” Based on this piece by Shuja, Smyth makes the following suggestion (my emphasis): Fighters from this refugee population appear to have followed an organizational model similar to Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), the main pro-regime Shiite brigade in Syria. What follows in Smyth’s piece is a description of LAFA, which it turns out comprises Iraqis, not Afghans.
Another source, Smyth says, is what Reuter called the “inexhaustible reserves of the desperate” – the Afghan refugee population in Iran. For this claim, Smyth cites “Iranian government-backed newspapers and Afghan Shiite sources”. And “a third and more debatable source of Afghan Shiite fighters is refugee populations in countries other than Iran and Syria”, but “real evidence of direct recruitment in Afghanistan has yet to surface.“
The rest of the article is mainly speculation of what Iran could be thinking by using these fighters. There is mention of Afghans captured by Syrian rebels. Three names are offered: Reza Ismail, who “had attended Iran’s University of Mashhad” and was “beheaded by Sunni jihadist rebels”, Ali Saleihi, an Afghan refugee in Syria who joined the fight and was killed around Damascus, and the aforementioned Mortada Hossein. In other words, the report is a mix of rebel videos, rebel testimonies, mention of “Iranian newspapers and Afghan Shiite sources”, and speculation.
By 2016, some amazing numbers are being bandied around. An Iranian foreign legion apparently includes 20,000 “Afghan Shia fighters”, according to Al Jazeera. The source? Anas al-Abdah, “the secretary of the opposition Syrian Coalition’s political committee.” A Guardian report from June 2016, like many others, cites “a senior Iranian official” saying that Iran’s “Foreign Legion”, called the Fatimeyoun, has 18,000 Afghans fighting in Syria. The report acknowledges that the number could be “exaggerated” and cites “an independent Iran analyst” who thinks there are “a couple of thousand” Afghans fighting in Syria.
Maybe. But it remains impossible to get verifiable information from rebel held areas, as Patrick Cockburn wrote last year. As for the broken telephone that led a “senior Iranian official” to report tens of thousands of Afghan fighters operating in Syria and that getting reported in Western outlets like the Guardian and Gulf-Western outlets like Al-Jazeera? Again, maybe. But the certainty with which these speculations are discussed and the ready quality of the phrase, “Afghan Shia Militias”, suggests some other function at work.
The Hazara of Afghanistan are discriminated against in their country, as Hazara. They are attacked by the Taliban, massacred by ISIS, and embattled by other sectarian warlords as Shia. They are discriminated against in Iran as Afghans. They are mistreated and oppressed in Europe and North America as migrants, as refugees, and as Muslims. It seems to me that the phrase “Afghan Shia Militias” is actually about rubbing some of that racial stigma off on the Syrian government and its supporters. In that sense, the “Afghan Shia Militias” play a similar symbolic role to the myth of the “African Mercenaries” that was used to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya. Patrick Cockburn wrote about this at the time:
“The killing of so-called mercenaries in Tripoli is a case in point. Since February, the insurgents, often supported by foreign powers, claimed that the battle was between Gaddafi and his family on the one side and the Libyan people on the other. Their explanation for the large pro-Gaddafi forces was that they were all mercenaries, mostly from black Africa, whose only motive was money. In the early days of the conflict, some captured Gaddafi soldiers were shown off at press conferences as mercenaries. Amnesty International investigators discovered that all had subsequently been quietly freed since they were, in fact, undocumented labourers from Chad, Mali and West Africa. But the effect of this propaganda has been to put in danger many African migrants and dark-coloured Libyans.”
Maximilien Forte, author of Slouching Towards Sirte, wrote about the “African Mercenaries” of Libya in 2011 as well:
“The “African mercenary” myth continues to be one of the most vicious of all the myths, and the most racist. Even in recent days, newspapers such as the Boston Globe uncritically and unquestioningly show photographs of black victims or black detainees with the immediate assertion that they must be mercenaries, despite the absence of any evidence. Instead we are usually provided with casual assertions that Gaddafi is “known to have” recruited Africans from other nations in the past, without even bothering to find out if those shown in the photos are black Libyans. The lynching of both black Libyans and Sub-Saharan African migrant workers has been continuous, and has neither received any expression of even nominal concern by the U.S. and NATO members, nor has it aroused the interest of the so-called “International Criminal Court”.”
Yesterday’s “African Mercenaries”, today’s “Afghan Shiite Militias”. The subtext is the same as it was with Gaddafi: if Assad has “Afghan Shiite Militias” fighting for him, what atrocity is he incapable of?
The truth is a casualty of war. Propaganda operations are some of modern warfare’s most important strategies and no rebellion could afford to neglect them. The phrase “Afghan Shiite Militias” is a tool of the war, and it is no mystery why the Gulf monarchies and the rebels they sponsor would use it. What is harder to stomach is when people who have never met an “Afghan Shiite” and have no knowledge of Afghanistan repeat the phrase.
First published on TeleSUR on May 18, 2017: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-Afghans-Are-Coming-20170518-0011.html
Kabul is Afghanistan’s capital, a city of over five million people that has transformed completely since 2001. Kandahar was, and remains, a stronghold of the Taliban. The highway between Kabul and Kandahar, which passes through Wardak, Ghazni, and Zabul, is sometimes called the Highway of Death. One British journalist, writing in 2012, called it a “bomb-cratered, 300-mile long shooting gallery”. Most Afghans have no option but to travel along it. Tens of people are killed taking the highway each year.
In early 2015, survivors of the highway told journalist Samad Ali Nawazesh about the pattern of attack:“When we go off the Kabul-Kandahar highway towards Jaghoori we are accosted by many types of robbers and armed individuals. They search the passengers, rob and release some. Sometimes they behead passengers”.
Before that, in 2014, the Kabul-Behsud highway (that intersects the Kabul-Kandahar highway) had become famous as a “Death Road” where Afghanistan’s minority Hazara were specifically targeted for murder by the Taliban. The Hazara are a traditionally oppressed minority. In recent decades, they have begun a resurgence, attaining opportunities in education and employment that had traditionally been closed to them. The Taliban’s persecution of them has been partly sectarian (Hazara are Shia, while the Taliban are Sunni), partly traditional oppression (trying to keep the Hazara in their lower-status place through terror). Many factions in the civil wars Afghanistan has suffered since 1979 have targeted Hazara civilians with a particular ferocity.
So, when, a few months ago, a group of Hazara civilians – four men, two women, and a child – were abducted on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, held for a month, probably by ISIS-Afghanistan (a split from the Taliban), and then beheaded, the authors of the atrocity, as well as the country’s government, may have expected the same kind of terrorized response that they have grown accustomed to.
The response was not what they expected. The families of the victims refused to bury the bodies. They marched with the coffins in Kabul.
Writing in the Swedish Feministiskt Perspektiv, Dr. Farooq Sulehria, a journalist with extensive experience in Afghanistan, described the mass protest of November 11, in which Kabul “erupted” on a scale seen “for the first time in three decades”, with a “30,000-strong rally” that “stretched over 15 kilometres.” The protest was remarkable not solely for its size: “While Hazara dominate numerically, every ethnicity is visible in the rally... Women in their thousands, sometimes carrying coffins on their shoulders, are marching at the vanguard.” The protests, Sulehria writes, sidelined the traditional Hazara leadership. “Muhammad Mohaqiq, a warlord and second deputy to CEO, as well as Karim Khalili, former vice president, were not spotted at the rally.” The Afghan diaspora also mobilized, with rallies in many cities at Afghan embassies all over the world. Among the chants there was one notable for its simplicity: “death to the Islamic State”.
And even though since November there have been more abductions of Hazaras along the highways and more people found beheaded, there are signs that the protests may have shaken both perpetrators and the government. To date, no one has taken responsibility for the murders, even though everyone holds ISIS-Afghanistan responsible.
The scale of the protests took the Afghan authorities by surprise. The protests had several new features: solidarity across Afghanistan’s Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups; their grassroots nature, sidelining the traditional warlord-type authorities; and their militancy. After a long period of official silence, Afghanistan’s president promised to take action.
Afghanistan has many traditions. Yes, some of these are conservative and religious. But one that is rarely remembered is the tradition of nationalism that united the country’s ethnic groups in the struggle for sovereignty and development – there were many mass protests on that basis in the 1970s.
Another tradition that is rarely remembered is the tradition of women’s struggles. In the spring, I wrote about the massive outpouring of rage and protest after the murder of a woman named Farkhunda outside of a mosque in Kabul. That outpouring, which also surprised both the murderers and the authorities, forced the government to act to arrest and jail some of the perpetrators.
It is too early to know if the protests of 2015 are the beginning of something bigger in Afghanistan. But there is certainly potential. Maybe enough potential to scare those who are most comfortable terrorizing others. Large numbers of people that are militant, hard to scare, and hard to divide on sectarian lines are a formidable force, one Afghanistan may see more of in 2016.
First published on TeleSUR English December 23, 2015
Just a few days before the 14th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, U.S. planes bombed a hospital run by the extremely credible, competent international organization, Medicins Sans Frontieres, in the country’s north, in the city of Kunduz. The bombing was, apparently, requested by the Afghan government, who had lost the city to the Taliban and whose initial counterattack had failed.
Fourteen years before, the U.S. invasion of 2001 had the explicit goal of regime change, of getting rid of the Taliban. Fourteen years and thousands of lives later, the Taliban are still here, and are still able to take a city well outside of their traditional zone of influence in the south. There are many causes for this failure. Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book “Descent into Chaos” about “Operation Evil Airlift,” in which the Taliban’s Pakistani patrons were allowed to escape to Pakistan in 2001. The people running the Taliban went back to Pakistan, while thousands of civilians perished under the bombs.
But more important than the fact that the Taliban dispersed to Pakistan to return and fight another day was the fact that when NATO ousted the Taliban, they installed their opponents: warlords who were as misogynist and violent as the Taliban were. That reality has only slowly and partially changed despite several elections since 2001: senior posts and elected offices are still populated by the warlords, and the occupation-created Afghan army apparently shares many of the problems of corruption with the Iraqi army created by the U.S. around the same time and in approximately the same way. It is an army more efficient at enriching commanders than defending the country’s sovereignty.
2001, the year the U.S. invaded, is a key year for Afghanistan, but it was not the beginning of the horrors Afghanistan had been living. The wars of the 1980s, as the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan coalition poured ever more investment into groups of fighters who were fighting against a Russian-backed regime, were decisive. Once those fighters succeeded in regime change in 1992, they spent the next decade fighting one another and completing the destruction of the country. The Taliban had established a shaky control over most of the country when the U.S. invaded in 2001.
Today, the U.S., Israel, the Saudi Kingdom, Turkey, and a few other countries are similarly pouring ever more investment into groups of fighters (some of the same groups as fought in Afghanistan, including al-Qaida) trying to change a regime in Syria. There is every reason to believe that if regime change succeeds, the winners will be al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Whether they then fight among themselves as the Afghan mujahadeen did, or consolidate an Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond, they, too, will complete the destruction of their country. In a few decades, we will be looking at pictures of Syria in the 1990s and early 2000s that will be completely unrecognizable as Syria, like the 1960s and 1970s photos of Afghanistan are unrecognizable today.
Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the New York Times famously called global public opinion the “second superpower”. But the anti-war movement failed and has not recovered. Anti-war principle has weakened among progressives, replaced by limited support for limited Western intervention in specific cases, where bombs might be able to do some good. Numerous progressive voices that might have been expected to take an anti-war stance supported bombing and regime change in Libya in 2011 and continue to support regime change in Syria today. Some even cite Libya as a success story.
I have seen writers who I respect arguing or retweeting that because Syria has had many more deaths and refugees than Libya since 2011, overthrowing Assad (the “how” of this overthrow remains unspecified) would have prevented the refugee crisis. The counterfactual is also presented: that without regime change in Libya in 2011, Libya would have produced a refugee crisis of the same magnitude as Syria had.
I have read other progressive writers arguing that the “world’s powers” should have set a “red line” for Assad much sooner than they did, and if they had done so, again, the Syria crisis would have been averted.
The trouble with this analysis is the assumption that Syria’s regime existed at the whim of the “world’s powers” – that these “world’s powers” could, once the “red line” was set, press a button and exchange Assad for a democratic regime that respects human rights. It is this flawed assumption that leads to magical thinking about what the West can do in countries that it bombs.
Vijay Prashad has argued that the Libyan regime was already collapsing when NATO’s bombs arrived to finish it off. The Libyan armed groups, for which NATO provided the air force, committed massacres after their victories in Sirte and elsewhere. These armed groups are still an ongoing concern, as the U.S. knows. And there were many local and international consequences of what happened in Libya in 2011. One of these was that powers outside of the West, especially Russia, saw how seamlessly Western support for “moderate rebels” led to regime change.
Syria’s regime was not collapsing when the West started backing the rebellions there. Syria is, evidently, not Libya. But not for lack of trying by the West, and its Saudi, Israeli, and Turkish allies. Regime change has been the goal, but only chaos has been the result. There is a lesson to be learned from these decades of regime change. Twelve years since the invasion of Iraq, 25 since the first U.S. war on Iraq. Fourteen years since the invasion of Afghanistan, 35 since the Western backing of the Afghan mujahadeen. The outcomes: the Islamic State group and the Taliban ruling over de-developed, devastated areas, corrupt governments extracting wealth from the rest of the country, with the U.S. occasionally flying over and bombing something – a wedding here, a hospital there. If Libya looks different from this in a decade or two – and that is far from certain – it will be in spite of NATO’s bombs, not because of them.
People who don’t like these outcomes should not put faith in these means. The West’s bombs are instruments of chaos.
First published on TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Syria-and-Afghanistan-The-Limits-of-Bombing-20151019-0013.html
On March 19, a 27-year old woman named Farkhunda was leaving the Shah-e Doshamshira mosque, the shrine of the King of Two Swords, in Kabul. The shrine is a place where people all over Kabul, and indeed Afghanistan, go to make wishes, to ask the saint, who is said to have brought Islam to Afghanistan, for favour.
Farkhunda was a religious studies student and taught at the mosque. She was there as part of a religious ritual common in Kabul (though not necessarily common elsewhere the Islamic world) where the mullah would sell charms, sometimes including bits of text from the Quran written on paper and folded tightly. People could take the charms for good luck, protection, or making a wish. Some say that she was upset because the charms had not worked for her. She may have told others to stop buying the charms – a source of business for the mullah and for men who hung around outside the shrine (1).
An argument started with the mullah. The mullah, rather than taking this up as a matter of discussion, decided to incite a crowd of men outside the mosque by telling them that Farkhunda burned the Quran. The crowd formed a mob, who killed Farkhunda horribly over a period of minutes, in a scene captured on numerous cell phone video cameras and uploaded to the web. Police were on the scene – the shrine is a site of importance in Kabul – and did not intervene to save her.
Up to this point, the story is one of religious conservatism, misogyny, mob hatred, incitement, police inaction, and it might be explained away as an eternal problem of Islam, or of Afghanistan, or both.
But the popular reaction to Farkhunda’s murder does not fit into these frames. Instead, what occurred was a sustained mobilization exponentially larger and more powerful than the gang of misogynists who murdered her.
It was quickly explained by her family and widely understood after her murder that Farkhunda was religious and would never have burned the Quran. But, while many protesters chanted slogans about Farkhunda’s innocence, others were saying things like “so what if she burned the Quran?” And while there were those who tried to protect the mullah and the killers, the movement was using the cell phone videos and social media to track down each of the people in the mob who played a role in her death.
The Afghan authorities were forced to move. The police were suspended, many of the killers arrested. Islamic scholars publicly repudiated the attack. Those religious leaders and government leaders who defended Farkhunda’s murder if she had in fact burned a Quran found themselves facing the wrath of the movement as well, and quickly backed down (2).
A two-day long trial in May brought death sentences for four of the accused, eight were sentenced to 16 years in prison, and 18 were acquitted. 19 police officers are still on trial for neglect of duty (3). The Farkhunda movement was unsatisfied, as were her family, that some of those who desecrated Farkhunda’s body after her murder and others who stood by and did nothing were acquitted.
They are right to be disappointed and angry, but they also should not forget that their mobilization in Farkhunda’s name has brought about such justice as there has been. In the process, they have sent a message that Afghanistan has changed, and that the Afghan people won’t allow men to murder a woman in broad daylight without consequences. They forced a response from official Afghanistan, forced the justice system to arrest, try, and sentence the killers according to the law. They forced the system to censure (and possibly punish) the police for inaction. They forced the mullahs who defended murder to back off. These are remarkable achievements for a spontaneous organization in one of the most conservative societies in the world. For those outside Afghanistan who are willing to listen, the movement should challenge the view of Afghans as trapped in an eternally conservative, misogynist interpretation of Islam.
To reiterate this point: Farkhunda’s killers were Muslim. Farkhunda was a Muslim. The people fighting to bring Farkhunda’s killers to justice are Muslim, the judge that sentenced the killers is Muslim. The stereotyped view of Muslim societies propounded in the West cannot accommodate the idea that there are struggles within Muslim societies. But there are.
Afghanistan has not always been legendary for its conservatism. This whole incident would not have occurred at all in the Kabul of the 1960s or 1970s. The decades of war starting at the end of the 1970s brought Islamists into power whose narrow, violent interpretation of religion came from Saudi Arabia via Pakistan with US sponsorship. These Islamists, the mujahadeen, were followed in power by the Taliban (who had the same Pakistan and Saudi sponsors), and then, when the US and NATO took over in 2001, they brought the mujahadeen back. At that time, US commentators talked about the need to invade Afghanistan to save Afghan women from the Taliban. The invasion and occupation didn’t save Farkhunda. If women are saved in Afghanistan in the future, it will be by Afghans and led by women, like those who have mobilized in her name.
Originally published at TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/We-Are-All-Farkhunda—-20150513-0031.html
(1) Mughda Variyar, International Business Times, March 24, 2015. “Was Farkhunda Killed for Standing Up to Mullah? Lynching Shows Fate of Afghan Women Who Speak Out”. http://www.ibtimes.co.in/was-farkhunda-killed-standing-mullah-lynching-shows-fate-afghan-women-who-speak-out-627098
(2) Sayed Jawad, Khaama Press, March 22, 2015. “Kabul cleric under fire for endorsing murder and burning of woman”. http://www.khaama.com/kabul-cleric-under-fire-for-endorsing-murder-and-burning-of-woman-9956
(3) Sune Engel Rasmussen, UK Guardian, May 6, 2015. “Farkhunda murder: Afghan judge sentences four to death over mob killing”. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/06/farkhunda-afghan-judge-sentences-four-to-death-over-mob-killing
Written for TeleSUR English
In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore were the winner and loser in a very close US presidential election, with Gore getting 48.4% and Bush getting 47.9% of the vote amid irregularities and fraud. The issue was ultimately decided not by recounting the votes, but by a decision of the US Supreme Court not to count the votes. This was irregular, bizarre, and made a mockery of the election. But the recent Afghan election was worse.
Take all of the despair of those who realized their votes didn’t count, all the disillusionment in a nontransparent electoral system that came about in the US in 2000, and imagine a few changes. Imagine a foreign country, say the UK, coming to broker a power-sharing deal between Gore and Bush. Imagine the deal involving making emergency changes to the US constitution in order to accommodate the ambitions of both the winner and the loser in the contest. Imagine the loser of the contest insisting not only on the nullification of the electoral outcome, but also that the outcome never be made public. That gets us closer – but the recent Afghan election was still worse.
Some background: In October of 2001, the declared winner of the US election, George W. Bush, sent troops to invade Afghanistan and bring about a regime change in Kabul. Most of Afghanistan had, from 1996-2001, been under the control of the Taliban, a Pakistan-sponsored group that was battling for control of Afghanistan’s territory and resources. The Taliban’s opponents were a coalition of commanders, who combined military, territorial, and business power, and legal and illegal activity, in a way that got them characterized as ‘warlords’. The warlords had ruled in Kabul, destroyed and plundered their parts of Afghanistan from 1992-1996, and still held parts of Afghanistan in 2001. Bush’s invasion sent the Taliban into retreat and the warlords back to power. The Taliban went first across the border into Pakistan and then, years later, returned to fight the Afghan government and the US from base areas in southern Afghanistan.
From the US invasion in 2001 until now, Afghanistan has been ruled by a different kind of coalition. The warlords were back. The US-created Afghan government, led by President Karzai, tried to absorb the warlords into it, with some success. The US oversaw the appointment of the warlords to the government, the writing of the constitution, and two electoral exercises that brought those warlords into the legislature, with Karzai at its helm. Military force was supplied by the US military (and its US, Canadian, and other partners), which fought the Taliban from its own fortified military bases and conducted air strikes throughout southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s border areas. The economy was also organized by the US and NATO partners, who channeled funds on a neoliberal, charity-driven model favoring nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over government programs. The Afghan government was simultaneously supported by the West militarily and economically and also derided as being corrupt and ineffective.
The US got its bases established in central Asia and assured influence in the region, but also lectured Afghanistan on how it would have to stand on its own feet eventually – standing, presumably, against the US ally, Pakistan, and the Taliban. 2014 was set as the date for the US withdrawal, and even though it would be a typically ambiguous withdrawal, with troops and bases remaining, it was a symbolic and important date, and the 2014 Afghan election was set to be an important one. If successful, it would be a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another. After 13 years of occupation, the US would be able to claim that it had successfully installed a democracy, at least in the most limited sense of a ‘democracy’ as a country that has one elected government succeeding another.
What Afghanistan got instead does not have a precise political science word, but there is no way that it could be called a democracy in any sense of the word.
The Taliban had threatened voters and attempted to disrupt the elections, but people voted anyway. According to the Afghan constitution, if a candidate does not get an absolute majority in the first round, there is a second round with the first and second place candidates on the ballot. In the first round of voting in April 2014, Abdallah Abdallah won 45% of the vote, Ashraf Ghani 31.56%.
Both leading candidates have connections to the warlords. Abdallah Abdallah was close to Ahmed Shah Masoud, who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban until his assassination just before 9/11, 2001, and campaigned on this proximity to the famous warlord. Ashraf Ghani has weaker ties to the warlords, but his party includes general Rashid Dostum, one of the longest-surviving and best-organized warlords (see Anthony Giustozzi’s book Empires of Mud for background on Dostum and other warlords). Ghani campaigned as a free-marketeer, close to the West, interested in economic development and anti-corruption. He even has a TED talk, a pretty solid pro-West credential (https://www.ted.com/talks/ashraf_ghani_on_rebuilding_broken_states).
It was the second round, in June, that things started to go wrong. It became clear early in the second round that Ghani was going to win. The preliminary results should have been announced in July, but they were delayed. When they were announced, with Ghani at 56.44% and Abdallah at 43.56%, Abdallah Abdallah said he would refuse to accept the result, claiming fraud. Given that Afghanistan’s new government would have to either fight or negotiate with the Taliban (most likely do both) and could ill afford an absolute opposition from a powerful faction, Abdallah Abdallah must have decided that he had enough power to dictate terms regardless of the electoral outcome. A UN-supervised audit of the votes was organized, and was completed in September.
What was the result of the UN-supervised audit of the votes? We may never know, because the US negotiated a power-sharing agreement, making Ghani President and creating a new post for Abdallah to fill called “Chief Executive Officer”. One of the clauses of the agreement, insisted on by Abdallah, was that the results of the recount not be made public. Not only do Afghan’s votes not count, the counts can’t even be known.
Some of the Western commentary has been as strange as the election itself. The NYT editorial on the topic (“A Shaky Step Forward in Afghanistan”, Sept 21/14) simultaneously praises Kerry for negotiating the deal while calling it “far from democratic” and noting that “at the end of the day, the millions of Afghan voters who defied Taliban threats to cast ballots are now left wondering if their votes counted.” A BBC commentator, David Loyn, decided to publish speculations he’s heard about the electoral outcome: “one source told me the margin of victory could be as close as 3% but other figures being quoted by Afghan officials say it’s more like 10%,” but then concluded that “nothing is certain unless or until Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission publishes the final result,” leaving readers to wonder why he threw the 3% and 10% figures out there (BBC News, Sept 21/14, “Afghan presidential contenders sign unity deal”). Western media have also noted that both Ghani and Abdallah are supportive of an agreement allowing US forces to stay on in Afghanistan. One way of summarizing these comments might be: We don’t really know or care how Afghans voted, but it seems that Western interests in Afghanistan will be protected by the deal the West brokered.
Among all the uncertainties about what happened, about the real and hidden agendas of the players, about whose votes were counted and whose ignored, that is the one constant: Western interests are taken care of. Western interests are why Afghans have been bombed, they are why Afghans have been presented with these candidates, they are why their votes were counted, and they are why their votes were ultimately ignored. Whether the deal holds or it doesn’t – and it probably won’t – Afghanistan is another example of how US invasions don’t bring democracy, even more than a decade later.
Justin Podur is based in Toronto and blogs at podur.org.