US Government 1
US Government 1
Repeating History: Parallels between Mujahidin Tactics and Afghanistan’s Current Insurgency

Originally posted December 2009

Since 1747, all of the invaders or occupiers of Afghanistan have made almost the same mistakes. All were obliged to leave Afghanistan, resulting in the downfall or demise of their empires. In general, Afghans are independent thinkers and believe their own way of life to be the best. Interfering in their day-to-day affairs brings animosity and hatred against their would-be rulers, occupiers, and invaders. Nor do Afghans accept the imposition of rulers or types of government which would clash with their basic values.

Unfortunately, most rulers and outsiders have tried, and failed, to bring changes in Afghanistan from Kabul; that is, they have assumed that the values and ways of life that prevail in the capital or the few other major cities are shared throughout the country. In reality, urban life is totally different from that in the atraf (rural areas) of Afghanistan. In most cases, Afghans from rural areas do not feel at home in cities. Afghans from rural areas who immigrated to Pakistan, Iran, and other parts of the world have tried to maintain their traditional ways of life even in other countries, at least for the first generation. The differences between urban and atraf life in Afghanistan is depicted quite well in the 1980s Pakhto/Pashto film Da Kundai Zoy [Son of a Widow]. The protagonist, Mr. Maqsudi, alias Shadgul, is a widow’s son who leaves his village to seek a new life in Kabul. In his native village, he had heard many tales of city life (e.g., meeting girls, drinking alcohol, etc.). Struggling unsuccessfully to adjust to city life, Shadgul ends up in the ‘Ali Abad psychiatric hospital in Kabul.

Outsiders always installed weak allies to achieve their goals. The British Empire supported a weak member of the royal family, Shah Shuja, who didn’t have sufficient public support to rule Afghanistan. In the end, the Afghans defeated the British army and killed Shah Shuja. Even though the British had a relatively good understanding of the Afghan polity, especially the Pakhtun/Pashtun tribes with whom they had dealt on the frontier, their policy in Afghanistan and in the region generally was based on the principle of “divide and rule.” It became difficult for them to please every tribe or individual, and their alliances with various tribes shifted quite regularly. A tribe or an elder was pro-British one day, but anti-British the next. Eventually, the British gave up their efforts to control Afghanistan and accepted it as a buffer zone between British India and the Czarist Russian Empire, until Afghanistan finally achieved its independence from British influence in 1919. Thereafter, the British didn’t support the popular and progressive government of King Amanullah Khan, which they deemed a threat to British India. Instead, they supported weak and divisive allies and helped spread propaganda through local mullahs that King Amanullah had become an infidel, which eventually led to his being toppled and seeking asylum in Europe.

After the Communist coup in 1978, the Soviet Union repeated the British mistakes, supporting a group loyal to them who did not respect local values and tried to impose Marxist principles on the people. This practice produced one failed puppet government after another, culminating in the collapse of Dr. Najibullah’s government in 1992.

From 1992 until 2001, Afghanistan’s neighbors also tried to support puppet governments in Afghanistan; however, their policies, too, failed. The Afghan people cautiously accepted the Bonn Agreement of 2001, regarding it as a starting point for establishing an inclusive government that would respect Afghan values. Yet their hopes proved misplaced. The Afghan government and the international community were more effective in deploying hollow slogans than in delivering upon their promises to help bring about prosperity, justice and democracy. Meanwhile, warlords, organized criminal networks, and human rights violators gained political and economic power. On a cultural level, if we look at the programs broadcast by Afghanistan’s television networks, we find Hindi, Iranian, Pakistani, and English dramas, songs, and serials — which are far from embodying traditional Afghan values and indeed provide ready ammunition for religious groups that oppose the government. Even the Ministry of Information and Culture and the Afghan Parliament tried to ban some of these programs, but have not been able to do so. Consequently, people in rural areas see the government of Afghanistan not as representing their concerns, but as being manipulated by outsiders. The government encourages this idea by painting itself as helpless and blaming the international community for most of the country’s problems.

Recalling the mujahidin uprising against the Communist regime in 1978 and comparing it with the current situation, it is clear that the insurgents are using the same tactics. In the earlier case, the mujahidin tried to discredit the government by calling it an infidel regime supported by the Soviet Union, thereby dissociating the government from the people. The mujahidin would attack government posts or targets and take shelter in the villages. Then, the government and the Soviet forces would target the villages to punish them for cooperating with the mujahidin. The latter used traditional folklore songs and distributed audio tapes to incite people against the Communist regimes.[1] One such folkloric poet in eastern Afghanistan, Rafiq Jan, would record his songs on audio cassettes and distribute them to the mujahidin to take to the front. The Taliban and Afghanistan Government Enemies (AGEs) today are using these same tactics. They retreat to the villages, which leads to counter-attacks that cause civilian casualties. The more civilians die, the easier it is for insurgents to recruit. The Taliban also use the same kind of folkloric songs as the mujahidin did, though they have access to cell phone networks and distribute these folkloric songs with videos of fighting scenes.

Just recently, I saw a clip of these songs on the phone of a local person in Kunar province. Even though such people are uneducated, they know how to transfer these songs from one phone to another through Bluetooth technology. Thanks to China, these phones are cheap enough that even relatively poor people can afford them.

The following poem entitled Pat or Ezat (honor), which was composed and sung by someone who calls himself “Watanmal” (Patriotic), and accompanied by visual combat scenes, is instructive. This kind of poetry, sung without musical instruments, was allowed during the Taliban regime. The poem professes that death is better than living without honor:[2]

I would prefer death rather than living with humiliation,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

If I do not have honor, I denounce (such life),
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I would prefer death rather than living with humiliation,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

If people call me a puppet, I denounce it,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I denounce such chapan (long coat), waskat (vest) and qara qul (skin cap),[3]
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I would prefer death rather than living with humiliation,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

If someone is against my beloved Islam, I denounce it,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I denounce disobedience to my religion,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I would prefer death to living with humiliation,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

If men and women are sitting together, I denounce it,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I denounce such kind of law, republic and democracy,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I would prefer death to living with humiliation,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

If they call my women (tor sari) to go out (of the country), I denounce it,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I denounce such kind of hopes and wishes,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I would prefer death to living with humiliation,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

If there is no pious Talib (in power), I denounce it,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I denounce saluting those who obey strangers (foreigners),
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I would prefer death to living with humiliation,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I denounce such a kingdom that I am begging,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

Oh Watanmal, I denounce such a humiliating life,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

I would prefer death to living with humiliation,
I denounce slavery, I denounce it.

Strikingly, AGE’s use of this poem to incite people has been more effective than the heavily funded strategic communications efforts of coalition forces to “win hearts and minds.”

Conclusion

Notwithstanding their ideological and other differences, both the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and 1980s and the US-led, primarily Western, coalition since the 2001 military intervention followed similar policies. These policies were, and are, based on the false assumption that prevailing attitudes and behaviors in urban areas are uniformly shared in rural parts of the country. These policies supported individual rights against the traditional communal values of Afghans. The US and its coalition partners would do well to ensure, albeit belatedly, that their policies are mindful of, and attuned to, these transcendent values of family, personal relationships, and honor. Failing to do so will lead them to defeat, as it did Britain and the Soviet Union, and will perpetuate the tragedy of Afghanistan.

 


[1]. For further reference, see David Edwards, Before Taliban: Genealogy of the Afghan Jihad (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

[2]. For further information on Pakhtunwali and honor, see Shahmahmood Miakhel, “The Importance of Tribal Structures and Pakhtunwali in Afghanistan: Their Role in Security and Governance,” in Arpita Basu Roy, ed., Challenges and Dilemmas of State-building in Afghanistan: Report of a Study Trip to Kabul (Shipra Publications, 2008), pp. 97-110.

[3]. The references connect the poem to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who wore these items of clothing to create a symbolic connection to different ethnic groups.

 

[M]ost rulers and outsiders have tried, and failed, to bring changes in Afghanistan from Kabul.

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