Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rubin: A Tribe Apart -- Afghanistan's Elites

Above is a photo (click on image for full photo) of a mosque built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan (who also built the Taj Mahal) in the memory of his grandfather, Babur, founder of the dynasty. The mosque (now restored from war damage) stands on the slope of Bagh-i Babur, the formal garden built by Babur in his beloved city of Kabul.

This garden is the setting for several of the scenes described in an essay I have just published in the Boston Review, "A Tribe Apart: Afghan Elites Confront a Corrosive Past." An excerpt, set in the garden:

After we told the boys we knew [Amrullah] Saleh [head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency], one of them, a blue-eyed tough wearing a black and white kafiya tied as a scarf, stepped forward as the group’s spokesman. He began telling us how the garden was destroyed. “The mujahidin were up there,” he said, pointing to the bomb-wracked heights above the garden, “and Hizb-i Islami was down there.” He pointed to the ruined houses below. Malikyar and I looked at each other: only Massoud’s forces were “mujahidin”? Hizb-i Islami, the Islamic Party, was one of the several officially recognized mujahidin parties, but its leader was Massoud’s main rival in the anti-Soviet resistance, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar—the favorite of the Pakistani intelligence agency. “Mujahidin,” once a near-sacred term, had become a another factional category.

Far below, on the road at the foot of the ruined garden, several Kamaz trucks rumbled past, their ancient diesel motors grinding. “Those are Russian trucks,” the boy said. “Rus khub mardum hastand,” “Russians are good people.” Malikyar was taken aback: “What kind of mujahid are you, praising the Russians?” Russia, together with Iran, had supported Massoud in the fight against the Taliban.

He paused and looked [Helena] Malikyar in the eye. “Do you know why the Americans can’t find Osama Bin Laden?” he asked. We had some idea, but wanted to hear his view. “Because Bin Laden is sitting safely in America. The Americans sent Arabs to kill our King (padishah-i ma), because they knew that if Massoud was alive, they could never enter Afghanistan.”

The essay is organized aroudn a memoir of my first visit back to Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban, in March 2002, but it reaches back in history and returns to the present to show some of the informal sources of understanding on which I base my analyses.

Below: a gardener at work
(click on image for full photo) .


Anonymous said...

Very informative, thanks!

"While the British in neighboring India were glad to see the back of Amanullah Khan, they wanted a reliable Pashtun dynasty in Kabul, not Habibullah or any other Tajik guerrilla. While they no longer controlled Afghanistan’s foreign relations, they still considered Afghanistan a key part of the strategic defense of the British Empire. They seized an opportunity to support a contender who could stabilize the country, especially the Pashtun areas bordering on India, which were in a state of turmoil."
Tariq Ali writes:

"In 1928, when a 17-year-old Akbar Jehan had left school and was back in Lahore, a senior figure in British Military Intelligence checked in to the Nedous Hotel on the Upper Mall. Colonel T.E. Lawrence, complete with Valentino-style headgear, had just spent a gruelling few weeks in Afghanistan destabilising the radical, modernising and anti-British regime of King Amanullah.

Disguised as ‘Karam Shah’, a visiting Arab cleric, he had organised a black propaganda campaign designed to stoke the religious fervour of the more reactionary tribes and thus provoke a civil war. His mission accomplished, he left for Lahore. Akbar Jehan must have met him at her father’s hotel. A flirtation began and got out of control. Her father insisted that they get married immediately; which they did. Three months later, in January 1929, Amanullah was toppled and replaced by a pro-British ruler. On 12 January, Kipling’s old newspaper in Lahore, the imperialist Civil and Military Gazette, published comparative profiles of Lawrence and ‘Karam Shah’ to reinforce the impression that they were two different people. Several weeks later, the Calcutta newspaper Liberty reported that ‘Karam Shah’ was indeed the ‘British spy Lawrence’ and gave a detailed account of his activities in Waziristan on the Afghan frontier. Lawrence was becoming a liability and the authorities told him to return to Britain. ‘Karam Shah’ was never seen again. Nedous insisted on a divorce for his daughter and again Lawrence obliged. Four years later, Sheikh Abdullah and Akbar Jehan were married in Srinagar. The fact of her previous marriage and divorce was never a secret: only the real name of her first husband was hidden."
(end quote)
If one looks at the list of what Amanullah Khan had planned for Afghanistan in the 1920s (and what is being attempted there today), by helping topple Amanullah Khan, Britain set back Afghanistan's transition to modernity by 80 whole years.

The Afghan state's successful reconstruction requires a complete and honest reckoning not just of internal Afghan elite's rivalries but also of foreign powers' sustained complicity in destroying the state.

Anonymous said...

PS: Another reference to the role of Lawrence in inciting rebellion in Waziristan in 1928 from
'Self and Sovereignty, Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850', Ayesha Jalal:

[In response to publication of the Nehru Report 1928 outling a constitutional scheme for India]:
"For instance in Amritsar city, internal rivalries resulted in two different Khilafat committees. The immediate reason for the break was Bacha-i-Saquo's revolt against Amanullah in Afghanistan. Many Punjabi Muslims suspected a British hand in Saquo's fitna, who in turn was believed to be influenced by Pir Karam Dad. Sheikh Hissamuddin, [a] future Ahrar leader, told the meeting of the old Khilafat committee that the new Khilafat Committee was a creature of the pir who was 'neither Muhammedan nor Indian' but of 'Lawrence of Arabia fame'. Backed by the British, he had worked to heighten divisions in Afghanistan, especially among Shias and Sunnis. Not to be done in by this low-lying attack, the new Khilafat Committee passed a resolution supporting Amanullah's restoration to the throne..."

Anonymous said...

contd"Sayyid Habib of the Siyasat defended the new khilafat committee in the city on the grounds that the old one 'had supported the Congress and not followed the principles of Islam'.."

Anand said...

Valuable article. I would notice that many Afghans think we Americans back the Taliban and Al Qaeda because of our association with Pakistan. The Tajik Rubin was talking to alleged the same thing.

Negotiating with the 'Taliban' is very dangerous for NATO. Most Afghans hate and distrust the Taliban, and if not handled delicately negotiations with the Taliban could fuel anti NATO sentiment in Afghanistan. This said, we should try to convince some Pashtu tribes allied with the Taliban to switch sides; but try with great sophistication and care . . . seeking buy in from as many Afghans as possible throughout the negotiating process.

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Ian said...

Negotiating with the 'Taliban' is very dangerous for NATO. Most Afghans hate and distrust the Taliban,

i dont claim to know much but i read somewhere that the people of afghanistan trust the northern alliance warlords much less than taliban, and than when the taliban came to power ousting the warlords that the country of afghanistan supported this? maybe you can point me in the direction to read more from what you argue?

Anand said...

There have been many public opinion polls of Afghans. The Taliban is consistently strongly disliked by the vast majority of Afghans.

In the last public opinion poll I saw was:

By far the most popular and respected institution among Afghans is the Afghan National Army. 87% of Afghans backed their army. And for good reason. The ANA usually slams the Taliban they fight 10 to 1 or better. Recently, however, Haqqani Network fighters ('Punjabi Taliban' and Pakistani Pashtu) have performed far better against the ANA and NATO forces.

The Northern Alliance was a disparate loose alliance of many different war lords and factions. Some like Massood were respected by most Afghans and loved by the Tajiks. Others were scoundrels that no sensible person would support.

Without a doubt "SOME" of the Northern Alliance associated war lords were very unpopular.

The Taliban couldn't have come to power in 1994-1996 without substantial support from the ISI directorate (which means the Pakistani Army) and substantial funding (from the Gulf.)

Today the Taliban and AQ linked networks are getting substantial funding from Opium and non Afghan sources. I think you know the non Afghan sources being referred to.

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