Trying to Make Sense of Afghanistan

If you read the newspapers regularly, you’ll have noted that Afghanistan is in the news, again. I’d written two blog posts about Afghanistan last year, before the Covid madness started in right earnest.

Here’s the first of those, and here is the second. Here are other posts on EFE where Afghanistan has been mentioned.

Why are we talking about Afghanistan again? Because, well, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

With the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) — a US-dominated support force — planning to complete the withdrawal process by September 11, another chapter in Afghanistan’s political journey is set to begin.

As always, read the whole thing, please. But the point that I take away, more than any other, is that the last twenty years has mostly been about the Taliban biding its time. And Afghans have been biding their time, in one way or another for a very long time now:

It has customs, and it has traditions, but it doesn’t have rules, and good luck trying to impose them. The British tried (thrice) as did the Russians and now the Americans, but Afghanistan has proven to be the better of all of them.

Splainer had a feature on this yesterday, and just in case you’re not subscribers, I’ll share here some of the links from their write-up about Afghanistan yesterday (and please do consider subscribing, it’s well worth the money!)

That last link, the paper from Carnegie, really is a very good read:

Lastly, John Lewis Gaddis’s warning about history—that it has a “habit of making bad prophets out of both those who make and those who chronicle it”—remains equally true in contemporary times. This paper is based on the premise that the United States will withdraw troops from Afghanistan at some point in the next two years and that the Taliban or parts of the movement, in some form or shape, will be politically represented in Kabul or, at the very least, be more involved than it is at present in Afghanistan’s democratic politics as the troop drawdown is completed. These are the foundational assumptions of our observations and analysis. Should they be wrong, we must be and are prepared to be called poor prophets.

Pretty good propheteering, if you ask me.1

Also, a quote that I liked enough to record in my notes separately:

Assessing risks is a risky business

But outside of all of those links, there is something else that I read today that I wanted to share with you today. This essay/article came out in the Times of India yesterday, and it is an absolute must read:

All such data help ask relevant questions, whose answers can mostly be found through the old-school forms of immersive reporting and fieldwork, neither of which happens much. There is no substitute for the insights one gains from spending time on the ground, talking to voters, to party workers, to local observers and journalists, listening to their woes and views.
This requires greater engagement than asking generic questions at tea stalls or speaking to party spokespersons. Ideally, data work and fieldwork should go hand in hand, as no ground investigation can provide the larger picture without the backing of empirical evidence. Instead of doing that, we move from one election to the next without paying attention to what happens between them.

Again, read the whole thing, but the reason I put this up here is because what Gilles Verniers is speaking about over here can also apply to Afghanistan. Replace the word “election” with “war”, and I argue that is mostly the same story.

Which brings me to my last link for the day:

In the tiny village of Pigish, inhabited by peaceful Shia Ismaili farmers, five busy water mills hum through the autumn harvest season. Just as in medieval Europe, each mill is taxed by the government, and each mill is family owned. Milling is a time-honored profession, passed down through bloodlines for decades, centuries. The farmers push their sacks of wheat to the mills in wheelbarrows. These barrows are often made of rough planks. The people of the Wakhan also construct their own mud-brick houses, hew their own poplar roof beams, stitch their own burlap donkey saddles, braid their own yak hair ropes, carve their own wooden shovels, and build their own stone aqueducts. These handmade surfaces of life make the Wakhan Corridor a pleasure to walk through. Lay your palms on the skin-polished grip of a willow ax handle: The body remembers.

It is one thing to read about the wars in Afghanistan, and the strategies, the geopolitics and all of that. But every now and then, it makes sense to also get a sense of the lives of the people of Afghanistan. Not just this article, please read the entire series of articles based on Afghanistan.

And then the rest of the series, of course. Paul Salopek does truly remarkable work, and no matter how anybody phrases it, that would still be an understatement.

  1. I plan to restrict myself to one bad pun every week. Or try to, at any rate.[]