Here you can find a selection of valuable links to organizations and websites on Afghanistan.
:: Afghanistan Analysts Network
:: Arbeitsgemeinschaft Afghanistan
:: Afghanistan Institut
:: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit
:: Help Committee Schaffhausen
:: UNDP Afghanistan
George MacDonald Fraser (Hg.): Der Husar der Königin. Flashmans Abenteuer in Afghanistan. Gütersloh 1973: Reinhard Mohn [Originalausgabe: Flashman – From the Flashman Papers 1839 – 1842, London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd.]
This book was hailed as a new star in the sky of adventure literature in the early 1970s, a time when Afghanistan was still closely associated with a hippie paradise. It is based on autobiographical notes by a highly decorated British officer, which he wrote down in his old age and which focus primarily on his early period of active military service – the so-called Flashman Papers. In my view, the question of whether all this is authentic is of much less interest for the sociological perspective represented here (in contrast to military history, for example) than, on the one hand, the way in which these memoirs describe the people living in the areas of present-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan occupied by the British colonial empire. And on the other hand, as a contrasting foil, the consistent self-description of Harry Flashman, who is after all described as a “dubious hero” (blurb). The dubious hero introduces himself in the first pages as a drunkard, a cheat, and a womanizer who finds himself in India as a British officer-India is introduced as a country where the “natives” are introduced as an extraordinarily “docile, subservient slave people” (p. 85). Flashman meets General Elphinstone in Calcutta, who sends him as an aide-de-camp to Kabul, a country described as “one of the vilest countries on the globe” (p. 99). In the other 250 or so pages, Flashman euphemistically presents himself as the bare opposite of a gentleman – he cheats, he betrays, he rapes, he murders – he definitely would not make a good Karl May hero. At the same time, the Afghans are described throughout as people who cannot be trusted for a second, to whom human life is worth nothing and means nothing, as people without reliable honor and as savages. The remarkable thing about these juxtapositions that run through the book is that, in a pure form rarely so clearly depicted, it is an ontological setting of difference between a British officer and the Afghans. Ontological means it cannot be shaken by empirical behaviors – honor, enlightenment, rationality, and dignity are on the side of the British officer, despite any violations of a military code of honor that is only imagined. The savage Afghans, completely independent of their respective actions, are by definition incapable of leaving the status of savages. This is therefore a rather exciting documentation of an Orientalist pattern of thought because, unlike, for example, Edward Said’s seminal reference study “Orientalism” or Stuart Hall’s hardly less impressive essay “The West and the Rest,” it works with descriptions of behavior on both sides. The massive constructional character of the dualism between enlighteners and barbarians thus becomes – nolens volens – particularly vivid. Against this theoretical background, the new star in the sky of adventurer literature is an exciting literature for a possible understanding of postcolonial perspectives that strive to overcome this dualism.
Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, March 2019
Ganser, Daniele (2016): The Illegal War on Afghanistan 2001. in Ders: Illegal Wars. How NATO countries sabotage the UN. A chronicle from Cuba to Syria. Zurich: Orell Füssli-Verlag, pp. 187-205.
Daniele Ganser is a remarkable and very brave man. He takes up the fight against a formidable discourse power and analyzes a large number of military or paramilitary interventions – (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Egypt 1956, Cuba 1961, Vietnam 1964, Nicaragua 1981, Serbia 1999; Iraq 2003, Libya 2011, Ukraine 2014, Yemen 2015, Syria ongoing), including a nearly twenty-page chapter on the 2001 war against Afghanistan.
Ganser calmly brings together facts and contradictions that cast strong doubt on the official reading of a NATO military operation against Afghanistan following the events of September 11, 2001, that was covered by UN resolutions and thus legitimized. In the style of Noam Chomsky, Ganser poses questions that shake up the official version, which is still held in Germany.
In his view, the NATO-led military operation in Afghanistan is an illegal war that is by no means covered by UN resolutions and whose perpetrators must therefore answer to the International Criminal Court. At the same time, Ganser makes it equally clear that the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the ten-year occupation of Afghanistan must also be considered illegal war. But there is precisely no difference between these two external acts of military violence, that one war is more legitimate than the other.
On the one hand, Ganser argues that there has been “no clean investigation” (p. 193) of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that for this reason alone a deduction of the legitimacy of the subsequent military mission stands on shaky ground. On the other hand, Ganser argues that the U.S. attack on Afghanistan “did not have a solid UN Security Council resolution and therefore must be classified as an illegal war.” (p. 198) In this context, the support of NATO allies often does not play a decisive role militarily – in the case of Poland, Norway or even Germany, however, it must be understood as an independent goal to present itself as a reliable NATO ally – in a Norwegian evaluation report, this is also stated quite openly; in Germany, this position is much more coy.
Finally, Ganser also mentions the drone missions that run counter to any human rights standards (such as on a fair trial or on a waiver of the death penalty), in which, according to Ganser, about 6,000 people were killed between 2001 and 2016, including 3,000 on Afghan and 3,000 on Pakistani territory. By 2016, the death toll on Pakistani (80,000) and Afghan (220,000) soil is reported to be 300,000 from this war. In any case, Ganser is to be agreed that this (and not only this) NATO war against Afghanistan is unjustifiable and he is to be greatly thanked for writing this book.
Ganser, Daniele (2016): The Illegal War on Afghanistan 2001. in Ders: Illegal Wars. How NATO countries sabotage the UN. A chronicle from Cuba to Syria. Zurich: Orell Füssli-Verlag, pp. 187-205.
Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, December 2020
Bibliotheca Afghanica, based in Liestal, Switzerland, and founded by the couple Paul and Veronika Bucherer-Dietschi, is the focus of this anthology. It is a commemorative publication for the fortieth anniversary of the Bibliotheca Afghanica. And at the same time it is a book that directly contributes much to the recent history of Afghanistan. The perspective that is brought to bear throughout could be described as actor- or person-oriented. It is, in a sense, a counterweight or counter-model to large-scale theoretical underpinnings such as those present with functionalism, historical lateralism, or intentionalism. This perspective is most readily associated with Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge because it documents things that, to a large extent, occur beyond mass media attention and yet are often at the core of events surrounding Afghan history.
Documented in the carefully edited book are many smaller texts by Paul Bucherer and a large number of other companions who have been involved with the Bibliotheca Afghanica over the course of four decades. The less lurid title of the anthology is, in a way, programmatic. The reader will learn in an unexciting way that Paul Bucherer from Liestal is connected with Afghan history and has had some visible “impact”. The Bibliotheca Afghanica itself was founded as a documentation center after two research trips by the Bucherer-Dietschi couple in the early 1970s. In the wake of the Soviet occupation, the Bibliotheca Afghanica provided the UN Special Rapporteur Felix Ermacora on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan with the material to make visible the human rights situation under Soyvet rule. This report was never published, but: “In October 1986, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Professor Ermacora, proposed by Moscow, was reached in New York: a publication of the results of the investigation, which were devastating for the Soviet Union, was renounced, in exchange for Moscow’s promise to immediately renounce certain forms of warfare which were particularly harmful to the civilian population. According to expert estimates, civilian casualties were significantly reduced in this way and possibly up to 100,000 lives were saved.” (Seidt, Koellreuter, p. 19) In the 1990s, Paul Bucherer was directly involved in peace efforts and mediation attempts between royalists, socialists, mujahideen of the Northern Alliance and later the Taleban, for example in 1998 to explore the chances of a federal Swiss solution for Afghanistan (p. 21). On the initiative of Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the Northern Alliance, and later also at the request of Qodratullah Jamal, culture minister of the Taleban, an Afghanistan museum was established in exile in 2000 and – a rather rare lesson in avoiding looted art – transferred back to Kabul in spring 2007. Finally, the more recent projects Towers of Knowledge and Phototeca Afghanica are worth noting. The Towers of Knowledge, which were also set up at the Freiburg University of Education in 2015, comprise images and text panels on Afghan history, designed as a traveling exhibition to bring children, young people, but also adults closer to the history of Afghanistan and in this way contribute to strengthening a national consciousness. Phototheca archives and documents historical and contemporary photographs from Afghanistan in order to best represent the recent pictorial history of Afghanistan (see Wirz et al. 2018 for a detailed discussion).
The whole gesture of the anthology fits well with Paul Bucherer-Dietschi’s appearances, which are always accompanied by great modesty. It is somewhat unfortunate that Veronika Bucherer-Dietschi remains in the shadows throughout the book-her role would certainly be noteworthy as well. However, it remains a book that deserves more than just cantonal attention.
Wirz, Dominic; Schürer-Ries, Anke; Bucherer-Dietschi, Paul (2018): The Visual Heritage of Afghanistan. Photographic Testimonials between Destruction, Decay and Oblivion. In: Bittlingmayer, Uwe H.; Grundmeier, Anne-Marie; Kößler, Reinhart; Sahrai, Fereschta; Sahrai, Diana (eds.): Education and Development in Afghanistan. Challenges and Prospects. Bielefeld: transcript – Reihe Global Studies, S. 281-292.
Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, November 2019
Thomas Loy & Olaf Günther (Hrsg.), 2015, Begegnungen am Hindukusch. Reihe radikal narrativ / einfach erzählen, hrsg. v. Thomas Loy und Olaf Günther. Berlin: edition tethys.
Founded in 2015 and edited by Thomas Loy and Olaf Günther, the book series radikal narrativ / einfach erzählen (radically narrative / simply telling) departs pleasantly from the standard production of scientific knowledge. Following the increasing industrialization of the social sciences and humanities as well, scholarly demands in the high-end international peer-reviewed journal Contributions lag far behind the current career-related requirements of long publication lists and profit-oriented publishing. This is especially true for Afghanistan (and a number of other countries in the Global South), which can only be squeezed into the standard 30,000 to 50,000-character format of a paper with great difficulty. The idea of the book series is therefore consistently different and is described as knowledge production through documentary storytelling, “without providing answers to complex questions too quickly” (Loy & Günther, p. 6).
The anthology, which will be briefly introduced here, effortlessly fulfills the series’ claim. At first glance, the anthology Begegnungen am Hindukusch appears to present a simple collection of travel narratives drawn from different regions of Afghanistan and, in two cases, Pakistan. These narratives read quite innocuously but come from (some very) proven connoisseurs and (only two) connoisseurs (Ingeborg Baldauf and Ayfer Durdu) of Afghanistan. This leads to the fact that the reader receives, so to speak incidentally, one or the other information, which allows differentiating the general image of Afghanistan and the Afghans prevailing in Germany.
The first contribution comes from Reinhard Schlagintweit, a well-known German diplomat and German ambassador to Afghanistan between 1958 and 1961, who reports on a trip to the Sistan region (today’s Nimroz province) in 1960. Already in this report from more than 60 years ago, water plays an important role in the narrative. Schlagintweit provides another post scriptum from 2010, fifty years after his trip – and here, too, the reference to water, this time to lack due to devastating droughts, is central, but just without being a treatise on water in Afghanistan. It simply becomes apparent en passant how ubiquitous the water issue is already in 1960 and all the more pressing fifty years later. The short contribution by Manfred Lorenz, who has written a relevant introduction to the Pashtun language, known to be extremely difficult, provides a brief insight into Afghanistan’s multilingualism (Karl Wutt’s contribution is omitted here and his book Afghanistan. At Second Glance discussed instead). In the narrative by Ingeborg Baldauf, motifs such as food, hospitality, politics, and gender relations are closely intertwined and instructively linked with her own observations from the perspective of a field researcher. Jürgen Wasim Frembgen’s brief contribution on Pakistani barbershops provides a perceptive ethnological description of a Pakistani barbershop, and one learns in passing that the barbers (at least in Karachi) “are overwhelmingly followers of Shiite Islam.” (p. 87) Under the perhaps somewhat too lurid title “Unter Taleban” Andreas Dürr presents experiences that can contribute a little to the demonization of an “Islamist student milieu” in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Olaf Günther reports briefly but impressively on his encounter with a malang, an Afghan dervish, and provides insights into the magical everyday life of religious itinerant preachers. In the text “The Street,” Ali Karimi reports on the Hazara ethnic minority and its connection to the rapidly growing capital Kabul, whose growth is based not least on the massive influx of Hazara, at least until 2020. The geographic focus is the Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood. Karimi shows rapid social change in Afghanistan through the social mobility of the Hazara, who can be described as profiteers of the social structures established by NATO and “the West”. Thomas Loy also recounts his visit to Kabul’s Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood, but uses his encounter with a local bookseller and publisher as a framing device for the presentation of a book recommended by the bookseller. This is the memoir of Afghan poet Abdulqahhar Asi, which relates to the last phase of the communist regime under Najibullah and the takeover of Kabul by the mujahideen in 1992. According to Loy, although close to the communist movement, Asi wrote poetry critical of the government as early as the 1980s and was killed in a rocket attack in Kabul in 1994 (pp. 130-131). Loy reports reading impressions, translates passages of the book and in this way describes Asi’s disappointment after the end of communist rule, caused by the atrocities committed by the mujahideen, which Asi also recorded as a contemporary witness. The well-known Afghanistan expert Lutz Rzehak also contributes observations from the nobler district of Wazir Akbar Khan, “which in a sense can be considered the Zehlendorf of Kabul.” (p. 138) With Rzehak, too, one learns quite a bit about gender relations, which certainly become much more reflexive in foreign observation than in the everyday cultural practices of Afghans themselves. His description of mujahideen/warlords and Thai prostitutes accompanying them (at least that is Rzehak’s assessment; pp. 141-143), patrons of a posh Iranian restaurant in the neighborhood, does not quite fit the usual media-mediated notions of Afghanistan, not even Kabul. Rzehak’s description of parasitic NGOs that misappropriated funds provided for the reconstruction of Afghanistan during the war does (pp. 138-139). In just a few pages, Hermann Kreutzmann gives an impressively nuanced picture of the early German operational area in Faizabad. Ayfer Durdu reports on the opportunity to attend a Turkmen wedding in northern Afghanistan and describes her impressions. A large part of the text, which is well worth reading, is devoted to the experience of moving safely and inconspicuously under a burqa. Thomas Ruttig, probably Germany’s best-known expert on Afghanistan at the moment, provides the final point of the anthology by comparing two visits to Kabul in 2011 and 2014. His usual differentiated and critical report, especially on the situation in 2014, more than clearly indicates already seven years before the Taleban took power that the whole war is extremely questionable and has failed, measured against the lofty, Western-defined goals.
The book, strongly compiled by Thomas Loy and Olaf Günther, does not provide a well-rounded picture, a common narrative of Afghanistan, but an exciting mosaic of different regions, occasions, and perspectives. This makes it all the more valuable and still very much worth reading seven years after its publication.
Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, June 2022
Craig Naumann (2011): Modernizing Education in Afghanistan. Cycles of Expansion and Contraction in Historical Perspective. Lisbon: Periploi. Craig Naumann (2012): Books, Bullets, and Burqas. Anatomy of a Crisis – Educational Development, Society, and the State in Afghanistan. Münster, New York: Lit Verlag.
Craig Naumann, who worked for many years in Afghanistan for the Ministry of Education in Kabul and completed his doctorate with Books, Bullets, and Burqas under Christian Sigrist, presents with these two books an extremely concise and differentiated overview of the history of educational expansion in Afghanistan up to 2010. Naumann’s claim is comparatively high: “I intend to develop the first comprehensive take of the post-Taliban education system and its historical predecessors and roots” (2012, p. 4). Compared to many other accounts of the current and historical education situation, the figures presented in both books are comparatively solid and valid. What is special about the preparation of the data is the degree of differentiation, for example, in the school attendance rate. Here, Naumann not only provides the more frequently encountered gender-differentiated distribution of school attendance rates, but also always provides the massive regional differences that pervade Afghanistan. Looking at the regional differences, it quickly becomes clear that generalizing statements about the educational situation in Afghanistan are problematic. In 2005, for example, there were a number of provinces with a Pashtun majority in which significantly fewer girls were enrolled in school than boys (e.g., Helmand, Kandahar or Khost), but there were also provinces with a Pashtun majority in which there were significantly fewer gender disparities (Nanghahar, Laghman). Even though Naumann locates his theoretical framing more in the state-critical social anthropological school, his two studies can be read as successful examples of intersectional analyses in the dimensions of education, gender, and space.
In both books, Naumann shows that there have been phases of educational expansion in Afghanistan, but also phases of educational contraction. Thus, it is not a simple linear success story leading to successively greater educational participation of ever larger proportions of the population. For example, there is a large consensus in the literature that during the Soviet occupation there was a massive expansion of education-including and especially in the tertiary sector and especially for girls-that was then significantly scaled back again during the 1992-1996 civil war and during Taleban rule. Naumann is able to show convincingly and on the basis of differentiated figures how – obviously to this day – education and educational expansion in Afghanistan are contested. One of his strengths is that he consistently relates the struggle for educational participation and expansion to the traditional line of conflict in Afghanistan between the center and the periphery-particularly between a stronger or weaker central government in Kabul and the southern provinces with a Pashtun majority-and thus provides a sociological analysis of the question of education and educational participation. State-initiated pushes and political programs to expand educational participation must always be understood in the context of planned modernization pushes to better anchor the idea of a central government in more remote areas of the state. This is done, for example, through the standardization of curricula, such as history classes, and through the introduction of one or two standard languages (in this case Pashtu and Dari), which hardly do justice to the enormous linguistic diversity in Afghanistan (the literature contains widely varying information on this, but realistically there are probably up to 30 different languages). The direct link between state action, modernization intentions intended to cement a central government’s claim to rule, and investment in education and educational institutions plays a central role in Naumann’s studies. Even if the numerical material is now out of date, the theoretical frameworks certainly still are, and no effort to address education in Afghanistan can afford not to take note of Craig Naumann’s studies.
Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, November 2019
Said Musa Samimy (2016): Afghanistan. Chronicle of a failed state. Berlin: Edition Avra.
Said Musa Samimy has written a number of books on Afghanistan since the 1980s. He studied economics in Kabul and was friends with ethnosociologist/ethnologist and sociologist (and Afghanistan expert) Christian Sigrist. Forced to flee in the wake of the Saur Revolution, he returned to Germany and for three decades was editor and then head of the Afghanistan desk of Deutsche Welle’s Asia program in Cologne. The last circumstance justifies why this book on Afghanistan is remarkable in my view. Samimy has closely followed developments in Afghanistan for decades as a journalist and publicist, and he is able to demonstrate that the current assessment of Afghanistan as a failed state can be traced back to reasons and complexes of causes that go back much further than those connected with the military invasion by NATO-led coalition forces that has been going on for 18 years now. This position, that the very basic idea of creating a nation-state out of Afghanistan along Western lines must fail for historical and for socio-cultural reasons, is slowly gaining a clearer hearing (see, among others, O.-K. Sahrai 2018; Murtazashvili 2019). The so-called Swiss solution is gaining more and more charm-at least in academic circles and often formulated in exile. As early as 2001, Samimy farsightedly formulates, “Only a loose federal structure of the country can ensure peaceful coexistence of all tribes in the Hindu Kush in the long run.” (S. 125)
In its layout, then, the book initially easily fulfills the proclaimed claim of a chronicle, because it documents a “selection of reports, analyses, and commentaries” (p. 7) that stretch back over a total of four decades. In a readable first overview chapter, not only is chronic instability attested to in the multiethnic state of Afghanistan, but a clear counter-image is also drawn against the frequently encountered glorification of pre-Soviet feudalism (pp. 15ff.). Samimy is quite clear in both Zaher Shah’s (pp. 32ff.) and Daud Khan’s work, for example: “The April Revolution of April 27, 1978, ended the rule of Sardar Mohammad Daud and Sardar Mohammad Naim, two brothers who regarded Afghanistan as their own property and determined the fate of the people at their own discretion. […] Daud was an autocratic politician whose authoritarian way of thinking, whose false assessment of the political development inside the country and whose deficient foreign policy ultimately ruined the country in the Hindu Kush in the long run” (p. 39). Samimy’s remarks on the Soviet role in Afghanistan are comparatively brief, but they are sufficient to absolve Samimy of any suspicion of glorifying the Soviet intervention (pp. 42ff.).
Furthermore, two aspects are central here from an overarching perspective: First, Samimy postulates that in Afghanistan – traditionally and currently – there is an intersectional mishmash of feudal relations, pre-feudal relations, “archaic,” and capitalist-influenced spheres (p. 21 and p. 41). From the outset, this makes the determination of relations of domination a necessarily complex undertaking. Second, based on his analyses, Samimy arrives at a rather gloomy, but certainly not unrealistic, contemporary diagnostic assessment: “The country will not be able to free itself from the shackles of comprehensive dependence on the West and the strategic arbitrariness of neighboring states without a paradigm shift; for a number of reasons, the new oligarchy is neither willing nor able to do so. As a result, the country will remain stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and structural crisis for the foreseeable future.” (S. 31)
The next three hundred-plus pages are then followed by highly readable and precise commentaries on the respective situation in Afghanistan up to 2016, on the basis of which Samimy does justice to the sometimes difficult role of a chronicler. Experts and non-experts alike learn a great deal about the decades-long internal conflicts between different ruling groups and also about the fact that some dimensions of the current situation show astonishing parallels with earlier assessments. For example, in a 1993 commentary, Samimy writes, “Afghanistan’s ongoing crisis is a political indictment of the Afghan Islamists” (p. 78) or in a 2000 commentary, “(…) the presumption of the leadership of the radical Islamic Taliban militias to single-handedly determine the fate of the multi-ethnic state allowed the bloody civil war to degenerate into an open ‘ethnic conflict’.” (p. 111) Although these assessments of course no longer fully describe the current situation, they do provide valuable insights into how long important conflict dimensions have already persisted.
The years following the fall of the Taliban are then described in comparatively close detail, during which Samimy, in his capacity as radio editor, was certainly a weighty voice in the German-language discourse on Afghanistan (chap. V to chap. VIII). Here, the commentaries follow one another more closely and are in some cases more closely related to daily political events. Samimy provides a large number of aspects here, describing, for example, the difficult relationship between the appointed Karzai government and the invading forces, phenomena such as the establishment of a professional “kidnapping industry,” the independence and enrichment of war profiteers, or the misdirection of development assistance
Certainly worthy of discussion and controversial in the Afghanistan literature is the definition of the Taliban group, its genesis and its relationship to Pakistan. What is likely to be most controversial is the extent to which the Taliban can actually be understood as a more or less fully instrumentalized group controlled by Pakistani intelligence-as Samimy suggests throughout (a different perspective is presented by O.-K. Sahrai 2018, for example). Nevertheless, from my perspective, the book is worth reading and certainly an asset for anyone interested in the (recent) history, economics, and political science of Afghanistan.
Murtazashvili, Jennifer (2019): Pathologies of Centralized State Building. In: Prism 8, No. 2, S. 55-67.
Sahrai, Omar-Kahled (2018): Ethnizität, Widerstand und politische Legitimität in pashtunischen Stammesgebieten Afghanistans und Pakistans, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, January 2020
Craig Whitlock (2021): The Afghanistan Papers. The insider’s account of secrets, lies, and 20 years of war. Berlin: Econ.
The title of this nonfiction book is lofty; it is meant to recall the major revelations and subsequent debates that, in the wake of the Pentagon Papers, for example, revealed the extent of the systematic deception of the U.S. public during the Vietnam War. Another obvious association is the Panama Papers, which exposed the legal and illegal practices of digital capitalism and its system of tax-avoiding offshore companies. The elusive systematic surveillance practices of U.S. intelligence agencies made public by Edward Snowden (see Greenwald 2014) and the Afghan and Iraqi war diaries based on information passed on by Chelsea Manning painted a brutal (just realistic!) picture of the Afghan and Iraq wars, including covered-up killings of Afghan and Iraqi civilians, also come to mind with this title. But there is a key difference between the examples of bold and risky public disclosures just mentioned and the book Whitlock has written, Afghanistan Papers: most of the material has been known for a long time, at least to those who have been studying Afghanistan for a bit longer. The astonishment that in the context of such a war, which was financed with public money of democratic states, lies and deception are systematically practiced, that published figures on enrollment rates, area control, health care are systematically glossed over, etc., is not surprising. (see chapter 16 in the book for more on this; for criticism of the figures presented, see also Naumann 2011). The title is thus more of a marketing strategy and, in view of the self-applied implicit standard of comparison of the “papers,” hardly covered in terms of content.
This does not make the book any less worth reading, but reading it should be accompanied by a certain amount of expectation management from the outset. It is certainly no surprise, for example, that the U.S. and its allies have lacked a clear strategy, an exit plan, and medium-term goals and that all four presidents involved (Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden) have failed. Even high-ranking U.S. generals in charge, as well as American soldiers, freely admit to having had no idea of the war’s objectives and to not having known until the very end exactly what the war effort was for after the Taleban had been driven out within a very short time. The USA is not alone in this – of course, this also applies to its allies. Norway, one of the few countries to have quietly evaluated participation in the Afghanistan war, has cynically pointed out as the only goal achieved that Norway has, after all, been able to present itself as a reliable NATO ally. It is also common sense that the U.S. has overstretched itself through the two parallel wars against Afghanistan and against Iraq and has contributed significantly to regional destabilization.
But there are also intriguing details that are rarely addressed with such candor. For example, Whitlock analyzes the fact that the U.S. (and other allies such as Germany, Japan, and Italy) have themselves contributed significantly to systemic corruption in Afghanistan by pumping a disproportionate amount of money, often unchecked, into the country, much more than Afghanistan could reasonably handle in terms of its own economic strength. Also particularly piquant in this context is that, according to Whitlock’s sources, a significant portion of the money used went directly to the Taleban: “Gert Berthold, a white-collar crime expert, was a member of a military white-collar crime task force at the height of the war from 2010 to 2012 that used analysis of 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion to determine who had profited from the contracts. The task force found that about 18 percent of the money went to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.” (p. 246) The disproportionality of the funds used is also documented by another example. For training Afghan forces and police, the U.S. provided “nearly $11 billion in military and security assistance in 2011 alone – more than $3 billion more than neighboring Pakistan, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons and a far more capable armed force, estimates for its total military budget.” (S. 283/284)
Also fascinating are details of a completely futile, very costly attempt to curtail drug cultivation and get it under control (see ch. 11). On the contrary, due to the close interconnections between opium cultivation and political spheres of influence, the opium extermination campaigns that were carried out brought about unintended side effects. “The opium extermination campaign primarily affected poor peasants who had no political connections and could not raise bribes. Left alone and destitute, they became perfect recruits for the Taleban.” (S. 179)
Finally, to take one last example, it is worth noting Whitlock’s argument that the U.S. played a significant role in Hamid Karzai’s turn to Afghanistan’s hated so-called warlords, Mohammed Qasim Farhim Khan and Abdul Rashid Dostum, and later Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. By undermining Karzai’s standing and popularity before re-election and openly supporting Karzai’s rivals, the U.S. sought to close ranks with the previously outlawed and sidelined warlords Qasim Fahim Khan and Abdul Rashid Dostum. Whitlock quotes a Norwegian diplomat who judged this – unofficially – as blatant U.S. foreign interference in the Afghan elections (pp. 227/228).
Such details, the book’s easy readability, and the well-compiled material make the Afghanistan Papers worth reading. However, there is also a systematic blind spot that Whitlock himself probably does not notice. In many places, despite all the revelatory rhetoric, the book reproduces a logic and mindset that can probably only be described with the somewhat antiquated term Western imperialism and which can no longer be justified in times of postcolonial (and decolonial) discourses and positions (still groundbreaking is Stuart Hall’s analysis “The West and the Rest” – see Hall 1994).
The description of Afghans reminds – though, of course, not so drastically – of MacDonald Fraser’s descriptions of the Queen’s Hussar (see the literature review on this homepage). Again and again, Afghans are implicitly associated with children in their behavior and characteristics – illiterate, unable to count, or unaware of how to use a toilet. In this narrative, Afghans are not yet fully civilized, sometimes irrational by Western standards, and need to be taught something. This perspective is poorly masked by references to cultural differences between the peoples. The following quote will suffice as an example:
“Major Charles Wagenblast, an Army reservist who was stationed for a year in eastern Afghanistan as an intelligence officer, said he had to learn the hard way that American logic did not always mesh with Afghan thinking. In the fall of 2010, he and other U.S. officers made the suggestion to their (sic!) Afghan soldiers to prepare for the approaching winter because some shelters did not have permanently installed heaters, for example. ‘In case it gets cold, have you guys thought about getting firewood from somewhere? Because that’s how we usually heat here. To which they replied, ‘No, it’s not cold at all yet.” ‘But it will get cold, for sure,’ Wagenblast replied. But the Afghan soldiers refused to believe his words that it would get cold. ‘And they answer, ‘Yes, but how do you know for sure?’ Wow, what to say then? ‘You need coats.’-‘But it’s not cold at all now. We’ll get coats when it’s cold.'” (S. 286/287)
Without wanting to go particularly deep into interpretation, the first thing to note is the categorical division into Afghan thinking and U.S., Western, etc., thinking, which remains implicit here but is obviously blessed with qualities such as forward-thinking, rationality, etc. Assuming that the conversation actually took place in this way, it is not without a certain comicality that a U.S. officer believes he has to explain to Afghan soldiers – in Afghanistan! – how cold the winter there will be and what they should do to prepare. This description implies that the average Afghan man/soldier is not thinking about the future but living in the here and now, perhaps too lazy to organize wood for preparedness, overall – as the bearer of “Afghan thinking” – just not looking ahead or acting rationally.
A second drastic skew in this book concerns the description of the casualties of this war. While each U.S. soldier killed is described as a person, leaving behind a specific age, occupation, in some cases wife/husband, and children, Afghan victims remain anonymous and without any characteristics. This asymmetry in the descriptions of people killed perpetuates the logic of different valences of human life; this is unacceptable, especially in a book that sees itself as investigative journalism.
The book thus provides both impressive sources and consistent analyses of the disastrous war in Afghanistan, evidence of the systematic but precisely unsurprising deception of the U.S. public and democratic bodies, and at the same time, a confirmation of Western superiority. This is an achievement in itself, given the simultaneous military defeat and the return of the Taleban.
Greenwald, Glenn (2014): Die globale Überwachung. Der Fall Snowden, die amerikanischen Geheimdienste und die Folgen. München: Droemer.
Hall, Stuart (1994): Der Westen und der Rest: Diskurs und Macht. In: Stuart Hall: Rassismus und kulturelle Identität. Ausgewählte Schriften 2. 1st ed. Hamburg: Argument Verlag, S. 137–179.
Naumann, Craig (2011): Modernizing Education in Afghanistan. Cycles of Expansion and Contraction in Historical Perspective. Lisbon: Periploi.
Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, June 2022