Category Archives: Pakistan

Wardak No-Man’s-Land, 2009

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 235-236:

The summer of 2009 saw an increase in infighting among Wardak’s Taliban, and growing tensions with their co-insurgent allies in Hekmatyar’s faction. At the same time, because the Taliban leadership paid units a “bonus” for outstanding attacks, the number of fake assaults, staged for video, surged. Akbar Gul played the game as well as anyone, but as the days went on he slid into despair. He hated those men in Quetta, he hated the ISI, and, most of all, he hated Ghulam Ali and his success. But he kept it all to himself. It was a dangerous new world, and you couldn’t trust anyone, even your own allies.

Countrywide, his movement was losing steam. The Taliban were now responsible for more civilian deaths than were the Americans. In some communities, roadside bombs, assassinations, and summary executions had come to take their place alongside Guantanamo and the door-kicking night raids of US troops in the pantheon of fears that kept villagers awake at night. Meanwhile, the insurgency was spreading from marginalized, cut-off communities into those that had fared better in the post-2001 years, whether it was welcome there or not.

In Chak, many of the commanders Akbar Gul knew had been killed in night raids, leaving Ghulam Ali’s crew and a smattering of independents, most younger than he, with no memories of the old Taliban days. It became increasingly difficult to defend their actions—which included, in one case, beheading a schoolteacher—to the village elders. He turned inward, planning operations on his own, without other commanders, and keeping away from Pakistan. Then, one day, he received a surprising phone call. It was the government’s new chief of police for Chak, an old war buddy from his Hizb-i-Islami days. They had ended up on opposite sides through chance more than anything else. The man spoke of a government program that invited fighters to switch sides in return for money and a guaranteed job. Akbar Gul listened and wondered where such a program had been years earlier, when he would have given anything for a normal life. But things were different now, more complicated. He realized that it had been a long while since the Taliban meant anything to him. But he couldn’t imagine himself openly joining forces with the government either. In fact, he knew that friends who’d gone down that route were languishing in a dangerous political no-man’s-land: Karzai’s government had not fulfilled its promises, and for the Taliban they were now marked men.

“What are you fighting for? The Americans are going to leave anyway,” the police chief said. “We are building Afghanistan.” The Taliban, he added, were terrorists, enemies of the country, stooges of Pakistan.

Akbar Gul was unmoved. “There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead,” he replied, reiterating one of his favorite Pashtun proverbs. This war had left no group, Afghan or foreign, with clean hands. You had to be careful to survive. Today, the government said the Taliban were terrorists—but what about tomorrow? Would the Taliban be venerated, as the mujahedeen were now venerated? Would the Americans change their allegiances, as it seemed they had done after the 1980s, and brand the Karzai government as their enemy? It was too much for Akbar Gul to grapple with just then. He knew only that to trust the categories put forth by the Americans or the government was to go down the road to ruin.

He told the police chief that he wasn’t interested. He said he was satisfied with his life as it was, thanked him for his call, and hung up.

The next morning, with new presidential elections looming, with American patrols crawling here and there, with Taliban groups erecting their usual checkpoints to hunt for spies and possible kidnap targets, he hopped on his motorcycle, headed for the low hills behind the village, and began another day of [resistance] work.

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Early Origins of the Taliban in Kandahar

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 79-80:

Most writing on the Taliban assumes that they originated in extremist Pakistani madrassas in the 1980s. In fact, the group’s origins lie much deeper in the Afghan past. Visiting Paktika in 2010, I came upon a small hilltop village where locals had gathered around a silent, downcast man. Nearby, a young herder paced back and forth, watching him intently, and, off to a side, tribal graybeards stood conferring. One of them approached, pushing his way through the scrum, and announced a verdict: for killing Rahim Gul’s cow, Moheb Jan was to pay him two sheep and twenty days’ worth of labor. Afterward, I sat down with the elder, who explained that each transgression in his community carried a fixed fine. Break someone’s nose in a fight, and you gave him a chicken. Break a bone, and you surrendered a sheep or goat. Murder, depending on the circumstances, could cost you a piece of land, your house, or even one of your women, who would go to the victim’s family in marriage.

This was how the hillspeople had learned to live with each other in a world without a state or police or judicial system. Each tribe had its own set of intricate rules, decided by elders elected by the clan’s entire male population. The elders derived their status from experience and the respect traditionally accorded to the aged. No man, however, outranked another in rights, and it was rare for one family to possess significantly more than any other. For men, at least, a deep egalitarian ethos ran through the tribal system.

For a long time, most of the Pashtun belt had functioned this way. Eventually, however, when some tribes moved down from the mountains into agricultural settlements, certain enterprising individuals developed ties with distant state authorities, and soon hierarchies sprang up. In eighteenth-century Kandahar, for example, the Safavid Empire of Persia had established suzerainty, incorporating tribal figures of their liking into their military or using them as intermediaries in dealing with the native population. The egalitarian system of the mountains slowly gave way to one dominated by tribal strongmen, and decisions were increasingly made not through traditional tribal law but on the whims and biases of a small clique of notables. It was not long before Kandahari tribes were the most thoroughly hierarchical in the country.

As a consequence, a different form of justice grew in popularity as an alternative to the tribal system: religious law, or sharia. Like tribal law, religious law expressed itself in a detailed set of punishments and restitutions for particular crimes. Its main practitioners were mullahs, who led Friday sermons and could adjudicate disputes. To become a mullah, you studied for up to twelve years in a madrassa, where you learned the intricacies of Islamic law, along with history, philosophy, and logic. In Pashto, such students were called taliban. Because a mullah was guaranteed employment for life, this was a course of study particularly well suited to those from the humblest backgrounds. It was in greater Kandahar, where tribal structures were the weakest, that the taliban were most fully integrated into social life.

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Foreigners in Muscat

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 31-33:

There were nearly as many foreigners as Arabs in Muscat, and probably more in Mattrah, which was the commercial capital: Hindu and Persian merchants and shopkeepers predominated in the suks, where each trade tended to monopolize a particular street or quarter of the bazaar; there would be a ‘street of the silversmiths’, a ‘street of the spice-sellers’, a weavers’ and a shoemakers’ quarter. Indian paper rupees were the currency in Muscat and Matrah, but in the interior only silver Maria Theresa dollars — in which we paid our troops — or gold were acceptable. Baluchis, too, were numerous in the town, their wives and daughters colourful in bright red, blue or green, with smiling, uncovered faces, in happy contrast to the veiled, black-draped Arab women.

Black features and colouring were not uncommon among the inhabitants, usually a legacy from the slave trade. Although, as I have mentioned, there were still slaves in the bodyguards and households of the Sultan and nobility, they were well-treated — unless they ran away and were caught, in which case they might be whipped or put in shackles — and many were freed by their masters and rose to be rich, or even powerful; at least one of the Sultan’s walis had started life as a slave. Under a curious survival from one of the earlier treaties, if a runaway slave could reach the British Consulate and clasp the flagpole in the courtyard, he became free. My most accomplished bugler was one of these; a bewildered Consul General had turned him over to me, and he served us well and cheerfully for several years until one day he deserted — to turn up later as the leading trumpeter in the Bahrain Police Band, at a much higher rate of pay.

Although both Muscat and Mattrah were good deep-water anchorages, neither had dock facilities or even a pier where ships could unload; liners and cargo boats had to stand out in the bay, while their passengers and freight came ashore in lighters. The little ports teemed with sailing craft of all sizes, from the hollowed-out tree trunks known as ‘houris’ to the ponderous ‘booms’ and ‘sambuks’ that plied up and down the coast; there were the fleets of dhows which traded with Zanzibar, waiting for the seasonal wind to blow them down to Africa, where they would remain until it changed to blow them back again. Once a week a big British India liner would call on its way between Karachi and Basra; this was an important social occasion, as were the visits we received from frigates of the Royal Navy, whose officers would come ashore in smart pinnaces to see the town and drive out to lunch with us at Beit al Falaj. The floor of the harbour at Muscat was littered with old Portuguese cannon, clearly visible through the crystal water — dumped there perhaps by the last garrison before they surrendered in 1660. Another chapter of history stared at us from a cliff face near the harbour entrance, on which were painted in huge white lettering the names of warships and merchantmen which had visited the port since the latter years of the eighteenth century. ‘My visitors’ book,’ the Sultan would call it, boasting to the few Englishmen who were ever allowed to meet him that Mr Midshipman Nelson had commanded a painting party on that cliff when his ship, Seahorse, had called at Muscat in 1775.

Facing the waterfront, which was only a few hundred yards long, were the British Consulate, the Customs building, and the square palace of the Sultan, which he never visited in my time, preferring the cool ocean breezes of Salalah, some 600 miles down the coast — one of his gravest mistakes and probably his costliest. This palace, according to legend, was built on top of the old Portuguese cathedral, whose vaulted columns form part of its foundations. These fine buildings, gleaming white above the deep blue harbour, were overlooked on either side by two great stone forts — Mirani on the north, Jalali on the south — both built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

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Pakistan: From Haven to Citadel

From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 112-113:

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims on the Indian subcontinent, born out of the partition of India, but it was also a home for many minorities. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the nation, was a secular Shia who nominated other Shias and an Ahmadi Muslim to his cabinet. His first law minister was a Hindu, to make clear that laws were to be written by secular jurists, not clerics and theologians. In his first presidential address marking the birth of the nation, at midnight on August 11, 1947, Jinnah told his new compatriots “you are free to go to your temples, free to go to your mosques, or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or case or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Jinnah had spelled out a vision for religious pluralism in a secular Muslim-majority democracy, where Muslims and non-Muslims were equal citizens. He did not speak of an Islamic state, not even of an Islamic republic. But his vision for tolerant diversity was never fulfilled. He died a year later, and though his successors tried to uphold this nuanced narrative, they soon fell back on the more straightforward raison d’être of the country: Islam.

Pakistan was born amid horrendous violence and indescribable dislocation—around 6.5 million Muslims moved from India to Pakistan, while 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs left for India. Activist, revivalist Islam had grown in British India in part as a reaction to colonial rule, but also in opposition to Hindus, the majority. The name Pakistan was an acronym combining the first letters of the different provinces that made up the new country. But in Urdu, the language of the new nation, it also means “the land of the pure,” and there were many who wanted to purify it further. In 1956, Pakistan’s constitution declared the country an Islamic republic and prohibited non-Muslims from holding the office of head of state. In the 1960s, military dictators used religion as a rallying cry against India, feeding further intolerance against Hindus and appeasing Islamists. Social and cultural life continued unperturbed, but some now brandished Pakistan as a citadel of Islam.

The architect of that citadel would be Abu A’la al-Mawdudi, the man who had inspired Qutb in Egypt and Khomeini in Iran. Mawdudi had not always been a religious fundamentalist. Born in 1903 in British India, he was a journalist, a poet, and newspaper editor whose intellectual, mystical, theological journey made him the twentieth century’s greatest revivalist Islamic thinker.

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Rising Intolerance Since 1979

From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 2-3:

The year 1979 and the four decades that followed are the story at the heart of this book. The Saudi-Iran rivalry went beyond geopolitics, descending into an ever-greater competition for Islamic legitimacy through religious and cultural domination, changing societies from within—not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but throughout the region. While many books explore the Iranian Revolution, few look at how it rippled out, how the Arab and Sunni world reacted and interacted with the momentous event. All the way to Pakistan, the ripples of the rivalry reengineered vibrant, pluralistic countries and unleashed sectarian identities and killings that had never defined us in the past. While Pakistan is geographically located on the Indian subcontinent, its modern history is closely linked to the trends that unfolded in the Middle East, and the country features prominently in this narrative. Across this Greater Middle East, the rise of militancy and the rise of cultural intolerance happened in parallel and often fed into each other.

Everywhere I went to conduct interviews for this book, from Cairo to Baghdad, from Tehran to Islamabad, I was met with a flood of emotions when I asked people about the impact the year 1979 had on their lives. I felt I was conducting national or regional therapy, sitting in people’s living rooms and studies: everyone had a story about how 1979 had wrecked their lives, their marriage, their education, including those born after that year. Although this is neither a work of historical scholarship nor an academic study, it is more than a reported narrative: I dug deep into archives, pored over thousands of newspapers, interviewed dozens of people, and built a virtual library of the history of those four decades. The result is a new reading of known events, some forgotten, some overlooked, most heretofore seen in isolation. Brought together, spanning four decades of history and seven countries, they shatter many accepted truths about the region and shed an unprecedented light on how the Saudi-Iran rivalry evolved and mutated over time, with consequences no one could have foreseen in 1979.

Although geopolitical events provide the backdrop and stage for Black Wave, this is not a book about terrorism or al-Qaeda or even ISIS, nor is it about the Sunni-Shia split or the dangers that violent fundamentalists pose for the West. This has been the almost obsessive focus of the headlines in the West. Instead, these pages bring the untold story of those—and they are many—who fought and continue to fight against the intellectual and cultural darkness that slowly engulfed their countries in the decades following the fateful year of 1979. Intellectuals, poets, lawyers, television anchors, young clerics, novelists; men and women; Arab, Iranian, and Pakistani; Sunni and Shia; most devout, some secular, but all progressive thinkers who represent the vibrant, pluralistic world that persists beneath the black wave. They are the silenced majority, who have suffered immensely at the hands of those who are relentlessly intolerant of others, whether wielding political power or a gun.

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1857: The Sepoy Jihad

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 22-23:

For many the appeal of the Mughal Emperor was as much religious as political. As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion, and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination. The Great Mutiny has usually been presented by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British social and economic policies, as both urban revolution and a peasants’ revolt sparked off by loss of land rights and employment opportunities as much as anything else. All this certainly played a part. Yet when the Indian participants of the Uprising articulate the reason for their revolt—as they do with great frequency and at some length in the Mutiny Papers—they invariably state that they were above all resisting a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India—something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating.

As the sepoys told Zafar on 11 May 1857, “we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith.” Later they stood in the Chandni Chowk, the main street of Delhi, and asked people: “Brothers: are you with those of the faith?” British men and women who had converted to Islam—and there were a surprising number of those in Delhi—were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down immediately. As late as 6 September, when calling the people of Delhi to rally against the coming assault by the British, a proclamation issued in the name of Zafar spelled out very plainly “that this is a religious war, and is being prosecuted on account of the faith, and it behoves all Hindus and Musalman residents of the imperial city, or of the villages in the country…to continue true to their faith and creeds.” Even if one accepts that the word “religion” (for Muslims din) is often being used in the very general and non-sectarian sense of dharma (or duty, righteousness)—so that when the sepoys say they are rising to defend their dharma, they mean as much their way of life as their sectarian religious identity—it is still highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of “suicide ghazis” from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, “for those who have come to die have no need for food.” One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that “the British had closed the madrasas.” These were words that had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, they are phrases we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.

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Afghan National Budget Sources

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 311-312:

Despite Afghanistan’s well-deserved reputation for independence, no government there was ever stable without access to foreign sources of revenue. While such income took many different forms, obtaining it remained a high priority for every Afghan regime. Ahmad Shah Durrani mounted raids on India and took tribute from there in the eighteenth century. Nineteenth-century rulers made peace deals with the British raj in exchange for substantial subsidies and access to modern weapons. The Musahiban rulers of Afghanistan exploited the cold war rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States to modernize Afghanistan’s military and develop its economy. The PDPA was entirely dependent on resources from the Soviet Union to keep it afloat. The Karzai government was equally dependent on the United States and other Western countries.

The problem for Afghan rulers was that under ordinary circumstances, there was little incentive for foreign governments to provide the assistance that was vital for their regimes’ survival. The only way to overcome this obstacle was to make Afghanistan seem important (or dangerous) enough to justify these payments. But here Afghan rulers were faced with a difficult task. They were acutely aware that they lived in a world where their country’s primary interests were always at the bottom of someone else’s agenda. Even taking the country seriously earned the rebuke of critics in nineteenth-century Britain; they coined the term “Afghanistanism” for those who exaggerated the significance of events in distant and obscure places. Yet time and time again, Afghanistan returned to the world stage with an importance that always belied this gloss and generated the revenue it was seeking. In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan’s successful resistance against the British gave it a central place as the frontier of the raj—negatively as a potential threat to India’s NWFP, and positively as a barrier to Russian expansion. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and the United States each feared “losing Afghanistan” to the other. This gave a country with no developed resources or vital strategic location a remarkably crucial significance until the cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It recovered that position when Islamic terrorism became a new world security issue and keeping Afghanistan free of it an international priority.

The U.S. invasion that expelled the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan created an odd circumstance in its wake. The usual priority among the Afghans of expelling foreign invaders was replaced by a tacit strategy of keeping them there to guarantee security and finance the development of the country. This was because the Afghan population was looking for stability after decades of war and protection against predation by factions within Afghanistan as well as from neighbors seeking to exploit its weaknesses. But accepting such assistance needed to be carefully balanced: a Kabul government that was dependent on it could be labeled a puppet regime unless it proved itself independent enough to protect Afghan interests and values. It was also dangerous to assume that the initial willingness of the Afghan people to accept foreign intervention had no expiration date. To be successful, foreign military assistance to the Afghan state needed to be self-liquidating, and foreign economic assistance needed to improve ordinary lives.

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Crucible of the Taliban

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The Taliban was a cross-border movement led by Afghan Pashtuns trained in Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan. Its ideological roots lay there, and its Afghan leaders had close ties with religious parties in Pakistan. The madrasas had grown at a tremendous rate in Pakistan under Zia al Haq, attracting a large number of Afghan refugee boys by offering free room and board along with education. During the Soviet war, the schools’ graduates joined the mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan in defense of Islam through the existing Peshawar party structure. But because the civil war now pitted Muslim against Muslim, the Taliban movement’s goal shifted to ending the disorder while also reforming Afghanistan’s religious and cultural practices by creating a pure Islamic state along Salafist lines. This ambition was shared by the religious parties within Pakistan, but the disorder in Afghanistan gave the Taliban a better chance of achieving it.

The Taliban was unlike other Afghan political movements not only in the exclusively clerical origin of its leaders but in the refugee origins of its followers too. The Soviet war lasted for so long and the refugee flow into neighboring countries was so great that over time they created a new class of people: refugee Afghans born in Pakistan who had never seen the country or experienced life there. Refugee camps are notorious hotbeds for radical movements of all types because they are generally poor, provide few opportunities for young people, and are under the control of political factions that manipulate their populations. The hope of recovering a lost homeland is a particularly powerful ideal, but as time passes the view of this homeland becomes more and more mythical because refugee children know of it only by hearsay. The past is idealized because the present is so miserable and the future is so uncertain. Groups with extreme messages, whether their ideologies are political, ethnic, or religious, galvanize their followers not only with the visions of reclaiming a lost homeland but also of then transforming it. Refugees in Afghanistan did better than most. They experienced a tactical victory when the Soviets withdrew and in theory could return to their homeland.

But the fighting among the mujahideen foreclosed that option for most. Even when the refugees did return, their homeland was not what they had known when they left it. Although poor before the war, the Afghan economy at least functioned, and there was general security for life and property. Now there was none. The mujahideen, who had been heroes in the anti-Soviet jihad, lost respect when they became mere factions engaged in self-interested and violent struggles for power with other similar groups. The Taliban drew on this discontent in two ways. First, they recruited men who had been too young to participate in the anti-Soviet war and gave them a chance to participate in a new type of jihad—one that would bring a “truer version” of Islam to Afghanistan. Jihad had been the focal experience for young men throughout the Soviet war, and a new generation of refugee youths was looking for a goal that was equally as idealistic. That the Taliban’s view of Islam was far more radically reactionary than any existing in Afghanistan previously meant little to people who had nothing to compare it with. For them it was far easier to imagine an ideal Afghan way of life, and to enforce it on others, because they drew their lessons from religious schools rather than the give-and-take of everyday life. Their hostility toward women may well have stemmed from being removed from their families and female relations at an early age to grow up in all-male religious schools. Second, the Taliban drew on the discontent of the population living in areas where chaos prevailed. For them, any ideology or regime that could bring about stability was preferable to the status quo.

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Afghan Superiority

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle p. 42:

Few peoples in the world, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans. Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were nonbelievers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect. Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy central Asia for more than a century; Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pashtuns and Baluch excepted) that never should have become a nation; and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent. Convinced they are natural-born Muslims, Afghans cede precedence to no one in matters of religion. They refused to take doctrinal advice from foreign Salafis, who claimed they had a superior vision of Islam, coming as they did from the Islam’s Arabian heartland. Instead, even under the Taliban, Afghans continued to bedeck graves commemorating martyrs with poles and flags, tied cloth swatches to sacred trees, made pilgrimages to the shrines of saints reputed to cure illnesses or help women conceive, and placed magical charms on their children and valuable domestic animals to ward off the evil eye. Afghans responded to any criticism of these practices by arguing that since there are no purer or stronger believers in Islam than themselves, their customs must be consistent with Islam. Otherwise they would not practice them. Islamic Sufi orders (Nakhshbanidya and Chisti particularly) are also well established in the country and give a mystic turn to what sometimes appears to be an austere faith.

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How Afghanistan Became Ungovernable

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 6-7:

More than any other set of events, the Communist coup and Soviet invasion opened the question of political legitimacy in Afghanistan. The old dynastic tradition was in ruins, but there was nothing to replace it. This issue of who had the right to rule and on what basis was not resolved even after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and its client regime collapsed in 1992. Lacking any overarching political unity among themselves, the various mujahideen resistance factions led the country into civil war and lay the groundwork for the rise of the Taliban. These conflicts eviscerated the formal state structure they were fighting to control and engulfed an ever-larger part of the Afghan population into political struggles from which they had been previously isolated. All the ethnic and regional groups in Afghanistan became politically and militarily empowered, reversing the process of centralization that had been imposed by Abdur Rahman.

Unfortunately the successful resistance strategy of making the country ungovernable for the Soviet occupier also ended up making Afghanistan ungovernable for the Afghans themselves. While the Afghans had recovered from many earlier periods of state collapse, the body politic was now afflicted with an autoimmune disorder in which the antibodies of resistance threatened to destroy any state structure, regardless of who controlled it or its ideology. Compounding this problem was a centuries-old structural weakness: the dependency of all Afghan governments on outside aid for financial stability. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan found itself without world-power patrons for the first time in 150 years and hence had no significant sources of outside revenue with which to fund a central government. In the face of indifference and a lack of aid by the major foreign powers and the international community in general, the country could no longer right itself as it had done so many times in the past.

The stalemated mujahideen civil war opened the door to interference in Afghan affairs by neighboring states, strengthened regional ethnic power brokers, and facilitated the exploitation of Afghanistan’s weakness by foreign Islamist groups. At the forefront of these Islamist groups was the Afghan Taliban, which with the support of Pakistan and foreign jihadists, took power in Kabul in 1996. Although they justified their rule in Islamic terms, the Taliban were largely Pashtuns who saw all other ethnic groups as enemies. Even after they had conquered almost all the country, they never created a real government, and Afghanistan became a classic failed state. As an ally of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, the Taliban were the immediate target of U.S. retribution following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. The Taliban fell even more quickly than they rose: once it became clear that they would lose, every region of the country (including the Pashtun south) turned against them. Foreign troops were welcomed, against all expectations, because the Afghans saw them as a bulwark of protection against the very Afghan forces that had driven the country into ruin. More pragmatically it was equally clear that the Afghan government and economy could not be revived without massive infusions of foreign aid. If other wars had driven Afghans out of the country, the end of this one brought back about four million people, the largest repatriation of refugees ever seen (and one done largely by the Afghans themselves).

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