Archive for March, 2009

Waiting for Common Sense on Afghanistan

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Nearly every day’s news now brings another “fresh approach” to Afghanistan. It’s good that President Obama has decided to send 4,000 additional trainers for the crucial task of shoring up the Afghan National Army rather than dumping combat troops into a situation where more combat isn’t a major part of the answer. But many of the ideas floated by the Obama administration for strengthening Afghan governance show an abysmal lack of common sense and specific knowledge of the country.

This week UPI, citing outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood, reported that the U.S. might be willing to allow a Taliban political party, as long as it respected the Afghan constitution. Responding to the story in an e-mail, policy expert Jeff Bliss commented, “Funny, I don’t remember the Nazis being able to restart their party after World War II.” Indeed. The Taliban didn’t exactly run a multi-party state, and their “ideology” consists of murdering those who don’t live exactly like they do.

Leaving aside its morality, this dumb idea gets the facts on the ground dead wrong. First, the insurgency isn’t primarily ideological, and bringing Taliban-like strictures to Afghanistan wouldn’t end it. The insurgency is first and foremost an intra-Pashtun power struggle. As Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason ably pointed out in the journal Orbis in 2007, Mullah Omar and most of the Taliban leadership are of the Hotaki Ghilzai tribal group. Almost all Taliban are members of the Ghilzai confederation. The Ghilzai and the Durranis–the tribal confederation to which the King and President Hamid Karzai belong–have been bitter rivals for hundreds of years, with the Ghilzais being odd man out for most of that time. Even now, they are poorly represented in Karzai’s cabinet and in governorships in the Pashtun provinces. (A free download of Johnson’s excellent article “Understanding the Taliban and Insurgency in Afghanistan” can be found here.) (more…)

History in Stone: the untapped riches of Afghanistan

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

03/23/2009, Volume 014, Issue 26

I turned carefully to scan the horizon. Nearby, French archeologists had recently uncovered 40 stupas and three Buddhist monasteries, but I couldn’t see them. With just a foot of crumbling mud brick separating me from a 60-foot fall, I didn’t push my luck.

I was on top of the Minar-i-Zadyan, Afghanistan’s oldest minaret, also known as the Minaret of Daulatabad, 20 miles from Balkh. I’d allowed my Afghan friends’ kids to climb the dark, steep internal stairway with me and a voluble young Afghan archaeology buff, Reza Hossaini. But the minaret is missing as much as a third of its original height, coming to an end in broken masonry rather than a platform from which the call to prayer would have sounded. I was worried that seven-year-old Leeza, who has no fear of heights, would lose her balance as she shifted around to examine the view.

Although it was first documented in 1938 by the Western researcher Eric Schroeder, the minaret was not surveyed until 1952 and is not described in any of the classic travel books on Afghanistan, not even in Nancy Hatch Dupree’s comprehensive 1977 guide. The only web reference is on the site of a preservation organization Dupree founded in 1994, the Society for the Preservation of Afghan Cultural Heritage (SPACH).

The obscurity of the minaret is explained by the fact that, until recently, getting there from Balkh took three hours on an appalling road, enough to deter all but the most fanatic devotees of medieval Islamic architecture. It was only a year ago that a spanking new asphalt road reduced the travel time between Balkh and Daulatabad, 27.5 kilometers away, from more than two hours to 10 minutes.

A further half-hour over 14 kilometers of dirt road, winding around storybook mud brick Turkmen villages, brings you to Zadyan, the village that contains the minaret. The men and women who live in the surrounding villages still wear the striking national dress–pointed hats with headscarves for the women, vibrantly colored handwoven caps for the men and boys–and weave carpets for a living. If you don’t look too hard, it can seem as though time stopped here when the minaret was built–around 1108-09, according to the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan. (more…)