During my 27 years of work for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I lived in many countries and they all became special to me. But some places like Afghanistan mean more. I was told at our headquarters in Geneva that people from abroad working in Afghanistan would either love being in Afghanistan or hate it, and that was indeed the case. Nobody remained indifferent.
The UNHCR returned to Afghanistan in 2002 when the Taliban were overthrown. The UNHCR’s main task was to help return Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran. Over the years more than 5 million Afghans returned to their country. By the time I started working in western Afghanistan in the city of Herat, the number of returnees from Iran was dwindling because of the worsening security situation in the country.
Despite the presence of International Security Assistance Force, the situation got worse over the years. The responsibility for fighting the Taliban was placed more and more on the Afghan National Security Forces. They did not defeat the Taliban and the Taliban caused further population displacements. In order to encourage people to stay, UNHCR was assisting people who had been displaced within Afghanistan. Often they were people who moved from insecure rural areas to the towns and cities.
In Herat, we created resettlement sites for people who had returned from Iran but could not go back to their original homes. We provided support for people who had managed to find themselves a new place to live and who needed help in rebuilding their lives. My photos are of people settled in Pashtun Zarghun, a district in central Herat Province in the valley of the Hari River.
The Italian NGO, Gruppo Volontariato Civile, met with people in several hamlets in Pashtun Zarghun and developed with them a project proposal to provide them with seeds, tools, six goats each and veterinary support. As head of a UNHCR branch office, I went visited the communities that we supported.
In July 2012 I went to Pashtun Zarghun to attend a meeting with the villagers. Some of the men and boys were waiting for us outside and they took us into their community hall, where we had a discussion.
After the meeting, they showed us around in the village and introduced us to some women, children and elderly in the village. Although I was invited into several houses, most of my photos were taken outside because of the lack of light inside the Afghan homes.
In the next village, the men were also waiting for us and after another discussion, they also showed us their houses and water well and introduced us to their families.
I was struck by people’s dignity. They were proud of their way of life, though they lived under such harsh conditions. After being displaced, they had managed to build new houses and, thanks to the water from the Hari River, they could grow the food they needed. They were displaced together as a community, and that gave them more resilience and independence.
How orderly and organised most houses were inside! Two months after this first visit, the Italian NGO was ready to distribute goats to the families in Pashtun Zarghun.
The way the logistics were managed was impressive. The goats were sent off the truck into a big open space. All beneficiaries received a registration card and they waited their turn to register. I asked one by one the men to come forward to sign the book, receive their 6 goats and they took them home.
It was a great occasion for the people and there was a positive vibe in the air, which the children also also felt. This project in Pashtun Zarghun will always stay in my mind. These beautiful and welcoming Afghan people had accepted their fate with pride and they showed such fortitude and spirit under difficult circumstances.
In Afghanistan, while girls have their right to education stripped from them, boys at schools in the countryside are victims of harsh treatment and abuse. Asad Karimi writes about his experience.
When I was in Afghanistan and I was six or seven years old, I didn’t like going to school. I hated it. I loathed it. I couldn’t stand it. The teachers, all men, didn’t help the students; they were not polite to them or nice to them in any way. On the contrary.
I was feeling excited about going to school. My Mother and my family wanted me to go because they wanted me to learn something and for me to become a doctor or engineer. Ha!
They spent their precious money and paid for my fees and for the books and for the uniform and they thought that the teachers would look after us. But I couldn’t learn anything at school because of the violence of the teachers.
They beat you with a long wooden pole when you were two minutes late. They beat you when you made a mistake. They hit you very hard on the stomach, everywhere, and the teachers humiliated you in front of the class. You felt so embarrassed.
While I was trying to write, they hit me on my back. When I spoke aloud as I wrote, they hit me with force. Even now, I tremble sometimes when I pick up a pen and lean over a notepad. I am still scared that a heavy stick will come down.
They wouldn’t even let you write unless they told you to; they would assume you were drawing or doing something wrong. To put your pen to paper when you were not told to was considered playing. I still feel sorry when I think of my schooling in Afghanistan. By now, I would be in a much better position in life were it not for that school in Afghanistan.
Obviously, you were scared and in pain when they were beating you and sometimes the children were so frightened that they peed themselves. It’s hard to believe that this is true. That teachers can be like this.
I hated the role of school in Afghanistan. It is just a way of forcing you to learn religion. The Koran is fine to learn, but they didn’t teach any other useful things, except for some maths.
I was in trouble all the time when my family sent me to school. I decided not to go back. They thought I was at school, but at eight I was running away and I was meeting my friends and we shot catapults into the sky. We built home-made parachutes, and sometimes we just played football in the dust in our school shoes, with a small ball.
But everyday, if you leave school and have nothing to do and you can’t go to school and you can’t go home, it is as if you are in a strange empty place, nowhere; until the school bell goes and you can go home.
After a year my family found out that I was not going to school and hadn’t learned anything and they were upset and angry with me for a while until and I told them the truth that I didn’t like going because I was beaten constantly by the teachers and I was scared. They understood me. My father said:
What are you going to do in the future? Be a tramp? He was worried about me.
I wish one day to go back to Afghanistan and help the children there and give strong advice to the teacher and the community. My advice would be:
Make sure children learn many things, not just religion.
Do not beat children in school, not even a little bit.
Let children feel free in school and happy.
Have more activities at school don’t keep children stuck to their desks.
Make sure boys and girls can study together. There is no problem with this.
Eliminate tribalism between Tajik, Pashtun and Harzara at school. Encourage tolerance.
Train all teachers to behave professionally and in a kind way towards the children.
Help the schools with money. Children are the future and they must be helped.
When I came to UK I thought it was going to be the same as Afghanistan and I was afraid, but they told me not to be worried about going to school here. That the teachers were nice and that they would help me and I would have fun and make friends.
I got excited and overcame my fear.
Now when I call my father from England and I tell him I am at college, he is so happy, and he says with great emotion and pride:
Asad, don’t leave your education until you finish.
And he tells all his friends about me in the coffee shop and everyone knows I am here and studying and I hope the son-of-a-bitch teachers who beat me know too.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the collapse of the American-backed Afghan government has revived fears that we are in the midst of a monumental clash of civilisations between the West and Islam. In this extract from his book Islam for the Politically Incorrect, Khaled Diab shows how this presumed civilisational conflict bears little resemblance to historical or present reality.
Many people are convinced that we are in the throes of a monumental war between the West, or Christendom, if you prefer, and Islam – and advocates of this idea on both sides believe they are not only in the right but also on the defensive in this confrontation between “good” and “evil”, or more accurately, us and them.
For many in the West, the rise of ISIS, al-Qaeda, homegrown Islamic extremism and, above all, the 9/11 attacks, in their monstrous audacity and nihilistic novelty, are the smoking gun that Muslims are out to destroy the West because they hate our freedoms. “This is not a grievance-based conflict. This is a clash of civilisations, for they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East,” opined Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio, in November 2015, following the multiple terrorist attacks which struck Paris, claiming the lives of 130 people. “They hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive.”
Many Muslims disagree and see the clash as very much “grievance-based”, as well as civilisational. They regard the West’s cultural, political and economic hegemony, its support of some of the most repressive and tyrannical leaders in the Muslim world and its invasion and occupation of Muslim-majority countries, such as the “shock and awe” wholesale destruction of Iraq at the hands of the United States and Britain, founded on “sexed up” claims of weapons of mass destruction and imaginary links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, as crystal clear evidence that the West wishes to wipe Islam off the face of the Earth. For instance, Osama bin Laden, while not taking direct responsibility for 9/11, claimed that the atrocities committed, were in “self-defence”. “This is something we have agitated for before, as a matter of self-defence, in defence of our brothers and sons in Palestine, and to liberate our sacred religious sites,” the al-Qaeda founder told Al Jazeera in October 2001. “If inciting people to do that is terrorism, and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists.”
This apparent clash was given intellectual and academic expression by the American political scientist Samuel P Huntington, who published an incredibly influential essay on the “clash of civilisations” in 1993 – which he later expanded into a book. Although he did not single out Islam and the West as being the only protagonists in this cultural collision, Huntington argued that “the fundamental source of conflict” in the post-Cold War era would be not ideological or economic but “cultural” wars between civilisations – as if culture were somehow distinct from ideology and not interrelated and intertwined, or that civilisations could somehow be separated from their economic underpinnings and interests. “The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future,” the Harvard professor argued. Huntington divided the world into some half a dozen major civilisational groups which, he posited, would clash at two levels: local “fault line conflicts” where civilisations overlap and “core state conflicts” between the major states of different civilisations.
Huntington gave the “fault line” between Islam and the West special historical prominence. “Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilisations has been going on for 1,300 years. This centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent,” he wrote. “On both sides the interaction between Islam and the West is seen as a clash of civilisations.” Referring to the Muslim world’s fault lines, or frontiers, with other cultures, Huntington concludes that: “Islam has bloody borders,” as though there were a civilisation or nation in the world whose boundaries – both internal and external – are not blood-soaked.
Although the clash of civilisations theory has become associated with Samuel Huntington, he was not the first to posit it, nor did he coin the term. A few years before him, the prominent British-American historian and scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis wrote an essay in which he foresaw a far more specific clash of civilisations, namely between the West and Islam. “It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” Lewis, the historian of choice for the neo-conservative movement, wrote in 1990, in what has proved to be one of the most influential essays of recent decades. “This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”
Unlike Christian fundamentalists, the far right and the alt-right, Bernard Lewis was an accomplished and knowledgeable scholar of Islamic culture. One may disagree with the conclusions he draws from the historical and political evidence, with his clear political bias, especially in later years, and with the omissions he makes, but one cannot doubt his profound understanding of the subject upon which he pens his polemics, especially in his earlier scholarship. This is evident in his urging of caution and sensitivity in his 1990 essay. “We must take great care on all sides to avoid the danger of a new era of religious wars,” he counselled. “To this end we must strive to achieve a better appreciation of other religious and political cultures, through the study of their history, their literature, and their achievements. At the same time, we may hope that they will try to achieve a better understanding of ours.”
Clash of values or clash of value?
Although Lewis and Huntington gave us the modern term’s current ideological contours, the notion of a “clash of civilisations” between those two age-old rivals, Islam and Christendom, has ancient pedigree, stretching back centuries, as far back as the very birth of Islam, when the nascent religion established itself as a direct rival to Christendom in both the celestial and secular, i.e. temporal or worldly, spheres. Examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of “civilisation” versus “barbarity” espoused by dominant powers and influential voices on both sides throughout the centuries.
This would seem to be corroborated by the early history of Islam, when it swept like wildfire through the Christianised Greco-Roman and the Zoroastrian Persian worlds, both of which had been severely depleted due to the endless internecine Byzantine-Sasanian wars, the last of which, in 602-628, left the two empires weak and impoverished, paving the way to the “human tsunami” of the Arab conquests.
When the Muslim armies landed on the shores of Europe, their legendary commander Tariq ibn Ziyad, who gave his name to Gibraltar (a bastardisation of Jabal Tariq), the rock separating Iberia from North Africa, reportedly after warning his troops that “Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy,” urged them on with this pledge: “The one fruit which [the Commander of True Believers, Alwalid, son of Abdalmelik] desires to obtain from your bravery is that the word of God shall be exalted in this country, and that the true religion shall be established here.”
Each crusade launched against Islam and the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula was also framed in such overtly religious terms. “Freshly quickened by the divine correction, you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them,” urged Pope Urban II in 1095, paving the way for what would become known as the First Crusade. “On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends.”
With this long history to draw on, it is, therefore, unsurprising that when former US president George W Bush likened his “war on terrorism” to a “crusade” and claimed that he was on a “mission from God” when he invaded Iraq, many took it to mean that a centuries-old religious war had resumed. Bush’s arch-enemy Osama bin Laden – who had earlier been an ally of the Reagan-Bush Snr administration against their common enemy, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – concurred about the religious dimensions of the emerging conflict. “This battle is not between al-Qaeda and the US. This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders,” the Al Qaeda chief said in an October 2001 interview, in a desperate bid to internationalise his disparate movement and fringe ideology.
But are Bush, bin Laden, Huntington, Lewis and others right? Is there really a clash of civilisations in motion or are we simply witnessing a more mundane clash of geopolitical and economic interests – not so much a clash of values but a clash of value – be it manifest in the form of resources, export markets or control over territories of geostrategic importance?
Although culture and ideology can, on some occasions, lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts for other reasons, foremost among them are avarice and the pursuit of perceived strategic interests. For instance, to motivate his own troops, the vast majority of whom were, like him, not Arabs but Berbers, and were recent converts to Islam, Tariq ibn Ziyad informed his men that if they conquered Iberia: “The Commander of True Believers, Alwalid, son of Abdalmelik… promises that you shall become his comrades and shall hold the rank of kings in this country.” This hints at how, even at times when ideology and faith are supposedly at the forefront, material interests and greed are not far from the surface – in this case, the promise of loot and positions of authority as a reward for conquest. In most cases, it would seem that booty trumps belief.
Critics of Huntington’s clash of civilisations, like the dissident American scholar Noam Chomsky, see the theory as simply the symptom of the avarice of an empire, i.e. Pax Americana, in search of another justification for its imperial and economic aspirations after the Cold War paradigm fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and Jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism, which it exports, with dire consequences, around the region and the world, and is the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 11 September 2001 attacks – not to mention the long-standing allegations that members of the Saudi government and royal family supported the 9/11 plot.
Even the most fanatical and ideologically driven groups and nations can be motivated by realpolitik. For example, following the November 2015 Paris attacks, ISIS released a statement sprinkled with references to “a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate” who attacked “crusaders” in Paris, a city described as the “the carrier of the banner of the Cross”. However, buried amid its jihadist rhetoric of fighting the “infidel” was a clear indication that the choice of Paris as a target was not coincidental and was largely motivated by France’s military involvement against ISIS in Syria. “The smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign… and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes,” the statement asserted. Civilisational lines in the sand.
The fact that clashes of interest trump clashes of culture more often than not is reflected in the counter-intuitive alliances that cut across civilisational lines and which have been commonplace since the very dawn of Islam – as they have been in many other contexts. For instance, Tariq ibn Ziyad, capable military commander that he was, did not conquer Andalusia by himself. He had the help of the very Christian Julian of Septem (Ceuta) and some Visigothic opponents of Roderick, who was the unpopular ruler of most of Spain. It even appears that the overstretched Arabs were not interested at that point in crossing the Straits of Gibraltor and it was Roderick’s Christian opponents who persuaded them that it would be a cakewalk and provided them with vital intelligence and logistical support. And this was to be no exception. The subsequent history of medieval Spain was replete with shifting alliances, across highly permeable ideological lines, between its various Muslim and Christian rulers, often guided by little more than the expediency of the moment.
Perhaps the most remarkable medieval alliance of all was what modern-day historians call the Abbasid–Carolingian alliance, which was a spectacular example of the tired adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The common Muslim enemy was the Umayyads, the remnants of whom had fled their capital Damascus after the Abbasid revolt and set up a rival, if weaker, caliphate in Iberia, which was a political threat to the Abbasids and a territorial threat to the Carolingians. The common Christian enemy was the Byzantine empire, which was a political rival to the Carolingians for leadership of the Christian world and a territorial rival to the Abbasids. As part of this multi-generational alliance, two legendary leaders of Islam and Christendom, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who is credited with having halted Islam’s northward advance in Europe, and Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid dynasty’s most famous monarch, sent each other several embassies in the mid-eighth century. In a bid to demonstrate the importance they attached to this relationship, as well as their own prestige and might, the two rulers exchanged lavish gifts, with the caliph once dispatching a huge shipment of luxury perfumes, spices, rich fabrics, a chessboard, a clock and an elephant called Abu al-Abbas. This diplomatic relationship was underpinned by a massive, two-way flow of trade, which saw the reverse of today’s roles, with Charlemagne’s Europe importing luxury goods from Harun al-Rashid’s Middle East and exporting various raw materials and primary goods in return. In addition, there was a military component. Charlemagne allied himself with pro-Abbasid rulers in Iberia and ventured on an unsuccessful expedition to take Zaragoza, which failed partly because of the forces sent by the caliph did not reach and aid the Holy Roman Emperor’s troops.
More modern examples include the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, the Muslim Leagues alliance with the British Raj in India, Pakistan’s later alliance with America against the USSR, Nasser’s Egypt in the non-aligned camp of Nehru’s India against pro-Western Pakistan, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans against the British, French and Russians during World War I, sitting out World War II and joining US-led NATO thereafter. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman empire built alliances with various Christian European states, including France, Poland, Elizabethan England and modern Germany. The Ottoman empire even sought to exploit the schism brought about by the Reformation in Europe by allying itself with the Protestant movement. For their part, though they had a dim view of Islam, Dutch Protestants were willing to collaborate with the Turks in their battle against the church and the Habsburgs, employing the derogatory slogan “Liever Turksch dan Paus” (“Rather Turkish than Pope”). Europeans also sought to exploit the fault lines and schisms in the Ottoman empire. The first to try this was Napoleon Bonaparte, when he assured Egyptians upon his arrival in their land: “They have told you that I come to destroy your religion, but do not believe it… I come to restore your rights, punish the usurpers and that I respect God, his prophet and the Quran more than the Mamluks.” During his disastrous sojourn in Egypt, the eccentric French general tried to convince a sceptical Egyptian population that he was a Muslim (of sorts) and that the French republic and its revolutionary ethos reflected the true spirit of Islam (of sorts). He even did his utmost to recruit the ulema, or clerical, class to his cause, setting up a special diwan (council), for the purpose. But his project failed and Napoleon, the de facto sultan of Egypt, returned to France to become its emperor, while the Ottomans and Egypt’s Mamluks, with British help, survived for a while longer.
The fact that Turkey’s relationship with the European Union is now perhaps at its worst since the European integration project began in the 1950s, not to mention the escalating dispute between Turkey and its long-standing ally, Germany, with Berlin accusing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime of “intolerable” levels of spying on Turks in Germany and human rights abuses. But it would be a mistake to view this through a civilisational prism, since Angela Merkel’s government, to its credit, has been critical about the rise of ultra-nationalism and fascism in Europe and the United States. Some will point, as proof of a civilisational clash, the numerous rebuffs Turkey has received over the decades to Ankara’s ambition to become a full member of the EU, which have often been framed in civilisational terms, such as the regular references to the “Gates of Vienna” and the controversy unleashed over whether the EU was a “Christian club” during the drafting of the so-called Lisbon Treaty, which was led by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who believed Turkey’s entry would spell the “end of Europe”. Although numerous people believe this rhetoric, it is also an emotive mask for calculated political manoeuvring. Beyond the appeals to identity lies a home truth troubling the Union’s big hitters: if Turkey were to become a full member, with its current population only second to Germany’s, it would rapidly become the largest country in the EU, in light of its higher population growth.
A century ago, Germany became the first modern country to declare a global jihad against her enemies, and I am not speaking figuratively or actually mean crusade. During World War I, Germany entered into a military alliance with the Ottomans, despite Turkey’s chronic and perhaps terminal weakness, in order to get the Sultan, who was officially also caliph, to declare a pan-Islamic jihad which, the Germans calculated, would hurt its enemies, Britain, France and Russia, all of whom possessed vast Muslim territories and had hundreds of thousand of Muslim soldiers fighting on their side of the trenches. “In a great European war, especially if Turkey participates in it against England, one may certainly expect an overall revolt of the Muslims in the British colonies,” predicted the pioneering Arabist, historian, diplomat, archaeologist and German spy, Max von Oppenheim, in 1908. Oppenheim went on to lead the German pan-Islamic propaganda effort during the war which had almost no effect in inciting a mass Islamic uprising, something which, given Oppenheim’s profound and wide-ranging knowledge of Islamic history, he should have anticipated. If Muslims rulers have never successfully managed to launch a pan-Islamic jihad, how did the Germans expect to succeed?
But it was not just the Germans who wished to tether their imperial flag to the ship of jihad. However, the British were ultimately more successful. The use of jihad by the German-Ottoman alliance had its desired effect and set of alarm bells of panic in Britain and France, who did all they could to counter this, through such efforts as backing and provoking the revolt in Arabia, and promoting the Sharif of Mecca as a more legitimate heir to the title of caliphate than the Sultan in Istanbul. The British were more successful in their counter-jihad but they, too, overestimated its utility. “Perhaps there is a caution in this narrative,” Eugene Rogan, the prominent historian of the Middle East whose probing books include The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, warned western leaders in the 21st century. “When they overreact to the threat of religious war, they concede power to the very enemies they seek to overcome, with consequences impossible to predict.” The “impossible to predict” consequences of the Middle East theatre in World War I, during which religious, nationalistic and religio-nationalistic passions were unleashed, were the sudden and disruptive collapse of the Ottoman empire, and its final death as a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-confessional entity, the ramifications of which continue to this day. I once tried to imagine what would have happened if the Ottomans had not entered World War I and the empire had been given the time and space to crumble in peace, could we have ended up with a democratic superstate or confederation of autonomous peoples combining the benefits of a borderless empire with those of freedom and equality for all? We will never know.
Despite the repeated warnings from numerous intellectuals and dissidents over the decades, the major western powers have generally ignored the cautionary tale offered by World War I and have continued to exploit Islamic religious forces for the sake of short-term political expediency, without paying heed to the dangerous, formidable and cumulative blowback of such policies. This was especially the case during the secular post-colonial and Cold War era when Islamic fanatics were willing to play the role of western power brokers’ useful idiots – or whom had decided that their greater enemy were the “godless” in their midst rather than the “godless” in the West. The most unlikely current alliance is the long-standing Anglo-American relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has stood rock-solid since the 1915 Anglo-Saudi Treaty (Darin Treaty). In terms of values, culture, political philosophy and religious ideology, such an improbable union should not exist, and if it did, it should be a shortlived marriage of convenience, not an enduring alliance that has lasted for more than a century. The special relationship between Riyadh, London and later Washington has withstood two world wars, a cold war, the global exporting of Wahhabism, Western hegemony over the Middle East, 9/11, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen, the current mayhem in the region and even the rise of Donald Trump. After meeting with the famously Islamophobic US president, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who later became crown prince in a palace coup orchestrated by his father, made the unimaginable claim that Trump was a “true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim world in an unimaginable manner”. Verily, oil is thicker than blood, ideology and even deep-seated bigotry.
Khaled Diab is a veteran journalist and the author of two books: Intimate Enemies (2014) and Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017). His website is http://www.chronikler.com and his Twitter profile @DiabolicalIdea
We crossed the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan in 1976. The names of British soldiers were set into the rock of the pass in brass plaques. Churchill, the aristocrat who hid under a commoner’s name, when he was a young subaltern, a lieutenant in India, said of the Afghans – before running away from them:
“The danger and difficulty of attacking these active fierce hill men is extreme. They can get up in the hills twice as fast as we can, and shoot wonderfully well with Martini Henry rifles. It is a war without quarter. They kill and mutilate everyone they catch and we do not hesitate to finish their wounded off. I have seen several things which have not been very pretty since I have been up here.”
We were the fighters, a former Afghan Mujahadin told me, who centuries before slaughtered our wives and children before going off to fight the Golden Horde; there was nothing left for us to lose. We are the men who defeated the USSR’s elite fighting force, the SpetsNats, the best in the world.
When we passed through Afghanistan in 1976, it was still part of the hippy trail. I remember its fast, clear, pebbly rivers. I remember beautiful, unveiled women. As a joke, a young soldier at a petrol station pretended to run me through with his bayonet.
After the Second World War, Afghanistan was gradually pulled into the orbit of the Soviet Union. After all, Afghanistan was on its border. The idea was to ‘bring it along’, as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were brought along.
From the late 50s onwards, the former Soviet Union positively indulged regional identities, and, at the same time in its clunky and unsubtle way, unenhanced by the exquisite weaponry of PR, the USSR encouraged equality of opportunity for women, secularism, public works, and the rest of what was commonly and clumsily associated with progressive society.
The world in 1970 was going into the last phase of a long period of standoff, if not balance, between post-colonial, state mediated capitalism, and giant state socialism. The Soviets had a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. The USA, on the other hand, developed an interest in its instability.
Afghanistan was trying to play regional Soviet involvement off the long distance strategic opportunism of US foreign policy. Half the highway we drove over, the one that crossed the country, was paved by the Soviets and the other half was paved by the United States government. You could actually see the join. The different types of road surface met in the middle of the country.
The bellicose US agent in the region was Pakistan and, with its help, the US plan was to first destabilise Afghanistan and India and then use any opportunity that arose to try to bring both countries into the western sphere of influence, out of the semi-neutrality they had enjoyed until then.
In 1976, there was no war in Afghanistan and all the women did not wear hijabs. Kabul was a nice peaceful city. The western flower children, in search of enlightenment in India, passed through Afghanistan on their way. They read in Lonely Planet that the Afghans were so hospitable that they would look after foreign guests for weeks expecting nothing in return. Some hippies stayed for months. Still, in their hospitable fashion, the poor Afghan farmers hosted them.
I am “not a capitalist. But I also don’t want socialism. I don’t want socialism that would bring about the kind of situation [that exists] in Czechoslovakia. I don’t want us to become the servants of Russia or China or the servant of any other place.
But land reform was important to farmers and there was no sign of it. The king was removed in 1973 in a coup by his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan. Still no land reform came.
In April 1978, according to John Ryan, the army intervened after demonstrations. The Afghan government stood down and the army took power. Noor Mohammed Taraki, a Marxist university professor, became president. This, even the CIA has admitted, was without the involvement of the USSR. The vital point, however, is to remember that the Marxist government in April 78 came about through a totally indigenous change, that good things happened under Taraki’s leadership, and that, for most Afghan people, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
Although the takeover was not part of a democratic process,John Ryan, a retired professor of geography and senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg who was in Kabul in 1978, wrote:
it is important to understand that if the U.S. had left the Marxist Taraki government alone there would have been no army of Mujahideen.
In an article written in 2006, Ryan, describes how he perceived the popularity of the new Marxist government:
Labour unions were legalized, a minimum wage was established, a progressive income tax was introduced, men and women were given equal rights, and girls were encouraged to go to school. On September 1, 1978, there was an abolition of all debts owed by farmers. A program was being developed for major land reform, and it was expected that all farm families (including landlords) would be given the equivalent of equal amounts of land.
The immediate response of the USA was to oppose the new Afghan government, and it started training conservative Muslim opponents to the regime, bringing into the fight the USA’s Muslim Arab allies from the Gulf region to participate in the process of the destabilisation and Islamisation. This was a terrible mistake. The USA should have pushed for a democratic election and not immediately tried to organise a coup d’etat.
Story after story in the western media, on the TV channels, on the covers of Time and Newsweek, throughout the whole of the establishment press, commended the brave mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet-backed regime.
Afghanistan had been turned by the USA from a relatively secular country where women had some freedom and the right to an education, into a misogynistic, warring hellhole.
In the second half of the 70s, capitalist exploitation and speculation, and religious extremism, were operating globally, feeding off each other – with socialism so left out, and secular nationalism so constantly slapped down that almost the entire geo-political stage was taken up by two mad, ungovernable forces pitted against each other. Criminal Lunacy Sans Frontieres.
The key to the US strategy of destabilisation was to plant an agent provocateur in the Afghan government. That agent provocateur, according to Afghan Marxists, was Hafizullah Amin who had been, allegedly, recruited by the CIA when he visited the USA. He was given the job of working inside the Afghan government to alienate Afghan society and, especially, the traditional minded Muslims in Afghanistan. He became the defense minister. He had Taraki killed in September 1979 and Amin rooted out Taraki’s supporters.
The Soviets were invited in by Babrak Karmal in 1979 to get rid of Hafizullah Amin. The involvement of the USSR was a desperate and ill advised measure. They engaged in an unwinnable war of attrition. The Soviets were unlikely to succeed in the face of the 40 billion funding organised by the Pentagon and with the participation of 30,000 non-Afghan fighters joining a global jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Perhaps Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, Brzezinski, was inspired by John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle, to harness Islam as a political force. In doing so, he released a terrible Djinn that still haunts the world.
The Soviet withdrawal, when it came, was greeted with great cheers by the Western media. But there were no cheers when the USA’s chickens came home to roost and extremists took over the capital three years after the Soviet withdrawal. The mujahadeenwon out and conquered Kabul in 1992, killing the Afghanistan president, Mohammad Najibullah, horribly. torturing him to death and castrating him and hanging his body from a lamp post. The Taliban gained ascendency in 1996.
However, the fact that it took the Taliban so long to overturn the government, in the end, is testimony to the fact that there was still strong opposition to them.
We know what happened next. The most misogynistic government in modern times took over. There are so many horror stories about Taliban rule, but I remember one story in particular. A young Afghan refugee told me that she and her whole family were in their house in Kabul and that the bullets were whizzing through the mud walls. Her aunt was nine months pregnant. They couldn’t take her to hospital because the Taliban were outside. The aunt died in agony in childbirth. The young woman swore at that moment that she would become a doctor and she told me that she now hated all men, and in particular, bearded men. She was as good as her word.
Afghanistan had been turned by the USA from a relatively secular country where women had some freedom and the right to an education, into a misogynistic, warring hellhole.
The strategists in Chief in President Carter’s government were Holbrooke and Brzezinski
Question: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?
Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.
Question: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?
Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Question: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
In terms of responsibility for the outcome of the situation in Afghanistan, Zbigniew Brzezinski was the secretary of state but Richard Holdbrooke was the Assistant secretary of state. Zbigniew was the self proclaimed ‘Architect’ of the policy designed to support the Mujahidin and put the Soviet Union under pressure but Holbrooke was the constructor. The builder, the doer. He probably built the key alliances. Later Holbrooke was hired by Obama to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq.
The effect of 9/11
In the second week of September, 2001, large numbers of innocent occupants were killed in the bombing of big city buildings in New York at the instigation of Islamist terror groups run and financed by Arab Muslims.
Responding to a wave of anger and revulsion, staring at the prospect of a centre that could not hold, of a state no longer able to protect its citizens, the President of the USA ordered his armed forces to move in and to bomb and blast the perceived source of the terror located in Afghanistan.
NATO, a cold war organisation well past its sell by date after the fall of the Soviet Union, intervened in Afghanistan in the wake of the US decision to attack. The Tony Blair and George W. Bush governments bypassed the UN and ignored the wishes of Germany and France. Was this the opportunity for a reset? Would the USA be able to make up for the past and, finally, establish a legitimate democracy and help an Afghan government defend the rights of women?
I taught a woman in the government of Muhammad Karzai in who was in charge of the social programme and had a huge budget in 2005. Her remit was to focus particularly on helping boost income generation for Afghan women. Most of the money came from the US but it was guaranteed by the world bank. She was hopeful. She was working as hard as she could to bring about change and making some headway despite resistance from the extremists. This was in 2005.
Growing nationalism in Afghanistan
Butwhat also seems to be ignored and revised now that it is no longer part of Holbrooke-think, is the extent to which the rejection of the Soviets created a legitimate sense of nationalism. Is nationalism under-estimated as a force in Afghanistan and Islam overestimated. Who were the nationalists?
There can be no such thing as Afghan nationalism, it doesn’t exist, sputter the left-liberal historians, look, there are many tribes in Afghanistan and they occupy different areas of a so-called country and they have been at each others throats since time immemorial with the Pashtuns as the dominant tribe. The Americans are trying to create a nation that never existed. So called Afghan nationalism is Pashtun nationalism.
Warning bells ring. The influential historian Ernst Gellner oversimplifies when he defines the formation of national identity and emphasises different kinds of homogeneity. The consequences of this analysis have been disastrous in places like Yugoslavia, justifying the splintering of countries into component parts by meddling outside forces.
Nationalism, not just religion, drives the forces currently arrayed against the US and the Afghan government.
On close examination, Gellner’s approach is laughable. Look at countries like India and China. They are not homogeneous, they shouldn’t exist. Was the Soviet Union a country? If it wasn’t a country, then why is China considered to be a country? Why can’t different groups of Afghans see themselves not only as members of a tribe, but as members of a nation, too.
One of my students, an Afghan in his 20s, said that he was a follower of Sha Massood. Ahmed Sha Masood had been instrumental winning the cruel war of attrition against Soviet Forces. He had been an ally of the United States in the late seventies and 80s. He was assassinated by Al Qaeda on September the 9th 2001. This former supporter of Sha Masood, remarked that, with the presence of US forces and the failure of the government they supported, the issue was rapidly transforming into a nationalist war against a foreign invader. The Taliban were not the main problem now. He said, the USA should leave. Nationalism, not just religion, drives the forces currently arrayed against the US and the Afghan government.
The question is not whether Americans or British historians think that Afghan nationalism exists, or whether the concept, prior to their year zero strategy, was real enough. The question is do Afghans think there is such a thing as Afghanistan? Apparently they do!
The Taliban Cartel invokes nationalism and Islam
In addition to the nationalistic clarion call to get rid of the foreign invader, it became clear that another force was in play; the drug trade. The Afghan Chief of Intelligence, Amrullah Salah, was forced to resign by Hamid Karzai. The reason was he exposed a $500 million drugs deal that Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzaicarried out of Bagram airbase – with the approval and involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.
At that time Amrullah Salah, the chief of Afghan intelligence, was arguing for a greater US military aid and more constructive cooperation and engagement from the USA; more support in getting rid of the Taliban. His appeals were ignored.
Taliban drug lords travel to Dubai to live high on the hog.
A UN report that came out during that period explaining how the Taliban were now deeply embroiled in the drug trade. The stories go that Taliban drug lords travel to Dubai to live high on the hog; to gamble and sleep with women and men and luxuriate in all that sinful western consumer society has to offer, while their foot soldiers, peasant fighters, are duped into fighting a patriotic religious war.
Taliban foot soldiers are paid around $500 a month. This is a lot in a country with so much subsistence level poverty. A substantial part of what these foot soldiers do is protect the drugs and arms trade. Attempts by US strategists to find substitute crops like saffron for Afghan farmers, and replace poppies, have failed.
On the one hand, there is the legitimate nationalist yearning for Afghanistan to be free of foreign interference. On the other hand, the USA is facing an unwinnable war against an international drug cartel that hides behind the increasingly flimsy disguise of fundamentalist Islamic ideology.
This doesn’t harmonise with the simplisticclash of civilizations story that the BBC and other influential outlets rely on to explain the current situation and the reasons for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
There are other complicating factors. There is the problem of the ineffectiveness of US and Afghan government troops; a territorial army man, tall and fit, a family member, went to train the Afghan police. He pointed out when he went he witnessed drug taking in the British army. He said drug taking is a big problem in the US army and in the Afghan army, too. Drugs bring corruption.
Drugged up and disillusioned soldiers offer little resistance to a determined enemy, especially a determined enemy with both nationalism and Islam on its side and an enemy who pays ordinary Afghan farmers a good wage to fight.
Moreover, there are also bad, trigger-happy elements that discredit foreign involvement in Afghanistan, elements within the private military contractors – the companies which constantly change their names,
I met young European men about to go to Afghanistan in 2011 to fight. I asked them why. They told me.
In its desire to undermine the Soviet Union and get strategic control of Afghanistan, the USA shattered the country. Now, despite desperate pleas from the Afghan government – corrupt as it may be – after all the damage US foreign policy has caused that country, the USA is withdrawing its ineffectual troops and abdicating from its responsibility to clean up the mess it has created over decades. It has decided to leave Afghan women and Afghan secular society to the mercy of the Taliban.
Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.
Tony Hall initially worked as a reporter at the Johannesburg Star. He joined the Congress of Democrats after Sharpeville along with his wife Eve Hall. He interviewed Nelson Mandela in hiding. Tony Hall was the first journalist to be banned from a major newspaper in South Africa when, after interviewing Potlako Reballo on a forthcoming insurrection, he was questioned and refused to give information to police.
Tony went into exile in Kenya and worked on the Daily Nation. He wrote the column ‘On the Carpet. However, when Tony helped to drafted the platform of KANU his involvement with KANU was discovered, he was fired from his job as the communications officer for the East African Community, and he and his family were forced to leave the country.
In the United Kingdom Tony worked for Oxfam and then moved with his family to Tanzania to work as Training Editor for The Standard with Frene Ginwallah. From there Tony was appointed Oxfam information officer for East Africa and was the first to reveal to the world, the 1973 famine in Ethiopia. After Ethiopia Tony and Eve shared the job of Oxfam Information officers in India.
After India Tony Hall worked as an editor of international Newsmagazines focused on the Middle East for eight years. Then he left to join his wife in Somalia where he worked for UNDP starting IMR, a trade magazine. He trained a team of Somali journalists to run the magazine.
In the late 80s Tony and Eve were in Harare. Tony was Editing the Magazine Africa South and East under the aegis of editor-in-chief Govan Mbeki. It was at this time that Mandela was released and Tony and Eve were unbanned. Africa South and East moved its headquarters to Yeoville. When Allister Sparks resigned as head of Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, which he founded, Tony Hall was offered a senior management job at the institute, however, once again, he left to join Eve who was working in Addis Ababa. There Tony become the Communications Director of the Economic Commission for Africa, a branch of the UN.