Category Archives: Afghanistan

Russia trains Iran-sponsored Shia militias in Syria

Iran’s intervention on behalf of Assad has brought a slew of Shia militia forces from around the world to Syria. While the Lebanese Hezabollah fighters receive the most attention, there are an estimated tens of thousands of Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan. And now evidence is emerging that they may be training in Russia.

The Afghan militia, known as the Fatemiyoun Brigade, are mostly Shia refugees and immigrations living in Iran. Iran’s Qods Force — the foreign military operations wing of the Revolutionary Guards — uses a mix of monetary incentives, promises of residency and coercion to recruit. This has led to human rights violations, including recruitment of children as young as 14.

The Fatimyoun Brigade was upgraded from a regiment of approximately 2,000-5,000 fighters to a brigade, consisting of roughly 10,000-20,000 fighters. But as their numbers have grown over the years, so has their military training.

Former Fatemiyoun fighters told this blog that they were offered a hasty three-week training inside Iran before deployment in Syria. That made sense given the canon-fodder status of the Fatemiyoun fighters who take on the toughest ground engagements against ISIS to save Assad’s army the worst of the grinding battle. If they were disposable fighters, their training could just be basic.

But it appears that Gen. Qasim Soleimani, who spends time on the frontlines with Fatemiyoun fighters and visits the families of the dead, has been busy upgrading their training program.

Earlier this year, we learned that Hezbollah fighters had started training Fatemiyoun snipers in Hama province:

This skills-transfer from a militia outfit with decades of experience to a nascent one was perhaps unsurprising. There is always an osmosis of skills and tactics between likeminded jihadist and militant groups in the region.

But now, Fatemiyoun fighters — who post to social media from their phones like soldiers elsewhere — are talking about their training courses outside Syria. In this case, the fighter is updating his followers in a public Facebook post about a training course on BMP amphibious infantry carriers in Russia prior to deployment to fight in Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria.

Iran's Afghan proxy fighters in Syria have been training in Russia

Iran’s Afghan proxy fighters in Syria have been training in Russia

The post, made in late September, came when the various Iran-backed Shia outfits like the Fatemiyoun, Zeinabiyoun and Hezbollah (along with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces) were engaged in intense battles against ISIS in Deir Ezzor. Those battles have largely ended after most of Deir Ezzor was retaken from ISIS. But this post remains significant because it unveils a new aspect of Russian involvement in Syria.

We already knew that Russia offered air support to Fatemiyoun fighters in important battles such as the retaking of Paylmira. But offering technical training to Iran-sponsored, pro-Assad Shia militia from Afghanistan in Russia indicates a deeper level of Russian synergy with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s proxy project.

(Fatemiyoun propaganda video shows Afghan ground troops supported by Russian air power in Palmyra)

The true scale of the Russian training operation is not known, but for Putin to train another nation’s Islamist proxy forces on his own soil shows his comfort in the military cooperation with the Qods Force.

The revelation also indicates that Iran was investing in advanced capacity development for the Fatemiyoun perhaps partly because it wanted to make the Afghan militia units more independent of the Qods, whose personnel not only manage Fatemiyoun strategy but also operate the more sophisticated weaponry — like the BMPs, tanks and ballistics. In the process, the Qods forces also took increasing casualties, which remain unpopular in Iran because the Syria involvement is seen as an unnecessary and costly military adventure.

But on November 21, Iran declared victory against ISIS in Syria and proclaimed that the group no longer posed a threat to Shia holy Shrines in Syria, which was the original raison d’être for the Fatemiyoun. That Iran and Russia were investing in sophisticated training for the Fatemiyoun even as victory was imminent raises questions about Iran’s future plans for the Fatemiyoun: where will the battle-hardened, highly trained  Shia militia force go next?

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Against Afghan forces, Taliban may be deadlier than the anti-Soviet Mujahideen were

There was a time when some pundits liked to call Afghanistan “America’s next Vietnam.” The thought was that the superpower was going to be bogged down for years in a foreign land, suffering mounting casualties and mission creep with no end in sight. Now that the US combat mission in Afghanistan has officially ended, it is the Afghans who are doing the fighting.

How are they doing? The Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been looking into that question recently. The answers are contained in a report (PDF) that talks about an alarming loss of territory and men (Reuters coverage here).

NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan stopped publishing Afghan troops’ casualty figures in 2013. The Afghan ministry of defense followed suit soon after, citing troop morale. Implicit in these decisions was the idea that the casualty figures were too high for comfort, a point that was sometimes even conceded publicly.

NATO’s decision not to publish the figures didn’t mean it would also stop compiling them. This was how SIGAR dug into the statistics and found that in the first 10 months of 2016, Afghan forces lost a staggering 6,785 soldiers (army and police), with another 11,777 wounded. These fatalities are about three times the number of American troop deaths in Afghanistan throughout the entire war (2,392, according to iCasualties.org tracking website).

The figures are alarming for the human tragedy that they represent. But they’re also concerning in another way. The last time an Afghan government fought an insurgency and suffered similarly high casualties, it ultimately faced defeat. Reliable figures are lost in the mist of history, but various sources cite the number of Afghan communist soldier deaths to be at about 18,000 in the fighting between 1979-89 when the Soviets withdrew. In other words, the current government’s fatalities in 10 months are one-third of what the Afghan communist regime suffered in ten years. And these figures don’t include the casualties suffered by the irregular pro-government forces such as the Afghan Local Police, citizen defense forces and local uprising forces.

Does this mean that the anti-American Taliban are deadlier on the battlefield than their anti-Soviet Mujahideen predecessors were?

Of course, this comparison of raw numbers is crude on many levels. Some of the deadliest fighting between the Mujahideen and the communist forces actually happened after the Soviet withdrawal of ’89. The Mujahideen became better organized, better trained and better equipped in the subsequent years, enjoying the support and camaraderie of a greater contingent of Arab fellow holy warriors flocking from across the Middle East.

Compared to their Mujahideen predecessors, however, Taliban insurgents have built upon the old guerilla tactics with their decades of additional experience, employing more modern tools and tactics such as IEDs and suicide attacks against an army that, unlike the communist army, doesn’t even have a proper air force.

But the comparison, however crude, does offer a valuable insight. The last time government forces suffered such high casualty levels, desertions rose, defections became legendary and the government lost — and that was a government with universal conscription. (Gen. Dostum, former communist general and current vice president; Shahnawaz Tanai, former army chief; and Juma Achak, former general, were some of the renowned defectors who helped tilt the balance of the war).

This is not to say that the Taliban, who are suffering casualties and political problems of their own, will necessarily prevail. But the current Afghan casualty levels are difficult to sustain, with or without conscription.

The Last Thousand chooses education a thousand times over

The Last Thousand - bookSeptember 11, 2001 was a turning point for Americans and Afghans alike. America started the global war on terror and gave Afghanistan regime change, which was a boon for many Afghans, particularly the ethnic Hazaras whose long history of persecution is documented in English literature by Khaled Hosseini and Lillias Hamilton.

Jeffrey E. Stern’s upcoming non-fiction book, The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War, picks up the story of the Hazaras from where The Kite Runner left off: a people rising from the smoldering ravages of the Taliban, eagerly flocking in their thousands to schools with a sense of making up for the opportunity cost of their underdog’s history.

 

The book tells the story of one such school, Marefat, built by a former holy warrior who teaches his students, especially girls, to be outspoken, independent thinkers. Marefat embodies what’s possible in the civic space that emerged in the wake of American bombs and the Taliban.

This book is about the building of a school, but it’s not another stones-into-schools narrative; it is about sustaining the school’s social mission in the face of, among other things, an angry mob hurling rocks at the school where girls learn to take a stand against misogyny. (“Marefat” is Dari for knowledge, wisdom, awareness.)

Stern has lived a portion of the school’s journey, so he tells the story with intimate familiarity and subtlety. Stern’s years-long association with Marefat and its tenacious founder-principal, Aziz Royesh, enables him to write with human empathy even as he appears at times to grapple with his sympathies for the school: Stern is so close to Marefat and Teacher Aziz that he readily finds a unique place for them in contemporary history. Marefat’s art, music and civic education program and the school’s success – compared to what? by what metrics? – emerge as evidence. But the smart, articulate students appearing throughout the book offer enough endorsement to help the narrative withstand inquiry.

The book is paced appropriately as Stern tells the story of the months leading up to the end of American combat mission in Afghanistan. In this sense, the book is also about what happens to a historically oppressed minority after the protective foreign power with which it has sided is gone. This is where Afghan and American histories begin to diverge as neatly as they converged on 9/11: On December 31, 2014, America’s war officially ended in Afghanistan, but the battle was only beginning for Teacher Aziz, Marefat and Afghanistan.

The Last Thousand is a timely exploration of the question “what happens when the Americans leave?” and its corollary, “how will the Afghans manage to wean themselves off foreign support?”

And sure enough, as the Americans leave, the Taliban creep back and regressive forces become more assertive. To push back, the Teacher becomes involved in politics – and radically modifies his civic teaching.

“When the pressure is coming from different sides, you feel yourself unsafe or unprotected, you feel it more with your subconscious,” he decides. “Now we have to take ourselves two or three feet back. Just to remain alive….For the time being we should shut our voice.”

This lesson is not received quietly by Marefat students who have learned to think for themselves and question authority.

The book’s other contribution – documenting America’s earliest missteps in Afghanistan – is easily overlooked in the broader narrative.  In the absence of an overall policy, the military gained primacy over diplomacy, which undercut America’s natural allies in Afghan society and eroded support for the mission – a process that started before the oft-cited 2003 divergence to Iraq.

And so Stern offers a more nuanced narrative of American involvement in Afghanistan and how it changed the Afghans who lived through it. He writes with honesty and manages to craft an uplifting narrative without making the story saccharine.

The book is recommended for those interested in the Afghan experience of what Americans call their longest war.

***

The Last Thousand comes out on January 26 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Book review: A Fort of Nine Towers and a tale of two books

This is the first book review on this blog, and it is admittedly too late for a book that was published last year. But I have long wanted to write something about English-language books written by Afghan authors; this is my opportunity.

A Fort of Nine Towers

A Fort of Nine Towers is an autobiographical novel about Qais Akbar Omar’s life from age 11 until adulthood, or roughly the time when his aunt started finding matches for him.

The narrative arc spans the breadth of Afghanistan’s contemporary history, beginning with the jihad against the Soviet-backed regime and ending with the ouster of the Taliban. Within this vignette, the family’s fortunes change dramatically as they experience loss, dehumanizing cruelty and heartwarming acts of kindness from perfect strangers. The plot revolves around the family’s coming to terms with the necessity of fleeing the country they love and their ironclad resolve and disappointing setbacks towards this goal.

The prose initially is very simple and becomes increasingly sophisticated as the protagonist grows up. But even as a child, the prose is omniscient and the author demonstrates an understanding of events and their context beyond his age, partly perhaps due to the benefit of writing in hindsight.

The book is a rare and invaluable contribution in the English language from an Afghan who grew up in the country and experienced the history firsthand.  This is the book Khaled Hosseini may have written if he had grown up in Afghanistan.

But Omar’s book shares a lot more in common with Hosseini’s than is first apparent. For one, there seems to be a narrative theme in English-language Afghan literature that is a nostalgia for bygone privilege. If we take the analogy of Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, it is the privileged Amir who tells the story, even the parts about the lowly Hassan. In A Fort of Nine Towers, Omar’s narrative is also exactly this: a young child whose grandfather is a well-to-do banker and respected elder, whose father is a well-known boxer and respected teacher, and whose family friends are rich carpet sellers. Granted, Omar and his family go through a period of profound loss when the Taliban take over, just as Amir’s family does when the Soviets invade Afghanistan,  but privilege and nostalgia for the loss of this privilege are strong elements of the narratives.

Qais Akbar Omar

Qais Akbar Omar, author

Omar’s general narrative approach also overlaps Hosseini’s in other aspects. In Omar, almost every side of the Afghan war of the last three decades has its good and bad guys, even the Taliban. Many are redeemed to some degree before the novel ends, and it ends well if not exactly in a beautiful ever-after.

This humanizing approach to literature is important, but it is also politically correct. By the mere act of putting pen to paper, Omar and Hosseini are inevitably doing more than just telling stories — they’re penning a national narrative of the last three decades and helping make sense of a complex and controversial history that has been expunged from Afghan textbooks. Observing such history is not a neutral act, surviving to write about it less so. It is OK for some bad characters to remain bad without redemption, and for some of the survivors’ visceral emotions to remain raw and unsanitized instead of studiously journalistic.

Omar’s story is his recounting of a childhood that retains its capacity to be imaginative and magical even in the throes of war and destitution. For example, he makes the friendship of a Buddhist monk in the caves surrounding the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and absorbs his wisdom. He also meets a Turkman woman who is part master carpet weaver and part mystic revered for her personal sanctity — qualities rarely associated with women in popular literature about Afghanistan. Omar learns more than the art of carpet weaving from his teacher; he also learns the guiding principle of life.

Omar struggles to incorporate the Afghan lyrical aesthetic in the phraseology of the story, so his characters appear to be English-speaking. For example, he uses “north” and “south” to describe the dimensions of his house, terminology that Afghans rarely use. He also uses shalwar kamiz instead of peran tunban, Aaron and Solomon instead of Haroon and Sulaiman, and maulvi instead of mawlawi. This is perhaps why one is hard pressed to find in Omar the equivalent of Hosseini’s memorable “for you, a thousand times.”

Nonetheless, the strength and grace found in the characters of Omar’s book is simply amazing. Any shortcomings of the book are more than compensated by the euphoric crescendo of the last chapter describing music as the first act of defiance that brought life back to the streets of Kabul as the Taliban were going out. And like the last remaining tower of their fort that survived the jihad, the civil war and the Taliban, the Omar family remained standing, spirit unbroken.

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Bonus: select quotes from A Fort of Nine Towers:

“Now we began the time of pretending. The signs of war were all around us, but we pretended that we did not see them.”

“We finished the rituals and and put the body in the grave…we left him with strangers in a small, old cemetery called Nawabad that was protected from the snipers by the spur of a low, steep hill.”

“For whole days and weeks we sat at the corner of the room, murmuring our prayers and waiting for a rocket to kill us all together. One night when the noise of the exploding rockets was too loud to let me sleep, I climbed up on the roof of the old fort and sat near the one remaining tower. I watched one rocket after another fall on the flat-land neighborhoods in front of me. Each time when a rocket whistled overhead, I was momentarily surprised that it had not killed me. But a part of me no longer cared.”

“We entered a time of waiting. The fighting would end, we said, if we waited. Our lives would come back to us, if we waited. Or we would find a way out, if we waited.”

“The bombing had been going on for more than a month by then. As we sat down near the one last remaining tower, we started hearing music. Real music, not the Taliban’s tuneless singing. It was coming from the house of our neighbor…we looked at one another with puzzled smiles. [Our neighbor] had been brutalized by the Taliban several times because he was rich. Now his sons had placed very large speakers in their windows and music was pouring into the street. ‘Have the Taliban finally gone?’ my uncle asked, his voice and eyes full of expectation. We could not answer.”

“I was nineteen years old and had never danced; I had always wanted to, even thought I worried that I would look like a sheep if I tried. Another part of me, though, was like my father: I could not celebrate until I knew more about these people dropping bombs on my country.”

Lessons learned: a very brief post-mortem of the 2014 elections

Inside the voting booth in Afghanistan

Inside the voting booth in Afghanistan

Regular readers of this blog realize that I almost completely refrained from election-related analysis here. This was partly because it is very difficult to predict Afghan elections, especially a field as wide open as this one. But after the announcement of the full preliminary results of the first round of the presidential election, we have enough information to do a post-mortem of some of the assumptions and the facts held to be common knowledge during the campaign period.

We can also add to the things we learned and list the new trends we observed this cycle. We still don’t have the full data about the election – turnout and voting behavior by various demographic cross-sections, for example – but we have enough to draw some lessons. Some of these lessons are classics in electoral politics, but in Afghanistan’s short-lived exercise with democracy, we are just learning them.

This list is not exhaustive, of course, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

  • Marital status and the spouse’s religion don’t matter. Certain media outlets predicted that voters would be turned off by Zalmai Rassoul’s bachelor status or by Ashraf Ghani’s Christian wife of Lebanese origin. Pre-election polls never revealed these to be voters’ top priorities, which means they were largely made into campaign issues by the media and the punditocracy. Post-election results show no demonstrable impact of these factors on the candidates’ performance – Ghani and Rassoul came in second and third, respectively.
  • Money can buy votes, but only for the right candidate. IEC’s records show that the top-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah spent AFN10.02 million, which was almost double the second-place finisher Ashraf Ghani’s AFN5.6 million. This bought Abdullah 13 points…which is what we know to be true from Obama’s epic $760 million to McCain’s $358 million in 2008. But Zalmai Rassoul found that his AFN9.8 million didn’t win him as many votes as he would have liked, putting him 20 points behind Ghani – which is what Megan Whitman ($177 million) learned running against Jerry Brown ($36 million) for California governor in 2010. Of course, there’s no comparison between the campaign finance regulatory enforcement between the two countries and as the IEC admits a lot went unreported, partly because of an unrealistically low campaign spending cap. But in the 2009 election when there was no cap, Karzai spent a whopping AFN98 million, besting Abdullah’s AFN23 million.* The results speak for themselves.
  • Opinion polls have predictive value. The amount of doubt raised about opinion polls was almost equal to the coverage they received, which was ad nauseam. The campaigns that performed badly in the polls said they were inaccurate, the President banned opinion polling alleging they unduly influenced the electorate, and analysts said polls didn’t account for the expected widespread fraud. But most polls accurately predicted the order of the top three finishers – though the polls lacked the hair-width accuracy people have come to expect from polls in established democracies. The final opinion poll, released just days before election day, showed a difference of less than three percentage points between Abdullah and Ghani, but actual results show a whopping 13-point difference. Still, polls have a margin to improve their accuracy and a lot of potential for use by future campaigns, political parties and the citizenry.
Voters on election day

Voters on election day

  • We know how heavy the heavy hitters can really hit. Sayyaf and Ismail Khan, the Karzai family and Hizb-e-Islami all performed less well than expected. The Sayyaf-Ismail Khan duo only got 7% of the votes, with Khan failing to win more than 15% in any of the southwest provinces  expected to turn out for him. Karzai’s supposedly favorite candidate only won one province, and the Hizb-e-Islami candidate won none. Dostum only delivered Jawzjan for Ghani. On the other hand, Mohaqeq bagged the Hazara votes for Abdullah. He delivered Bamiyan and Daikundi and was behind Abdullah’s strong showing in Ghazni, Kabul, Ghor, Samangan, Wardak and Balkh.
  • Electoral politics have setbacks, and setbacks are recoverable. Lest we mistake Sayyaf’s 7% votes for his real influence, we should remember that Abdullah was the runner-up and Ghani placed fourth in 2009. The turn in Abdullah’s and Ghani’s fortunes shows that the electorate is open to persuasion, or somewhat more optimistically, the electoral institutions are capable of reflecting the will of the voters, or even more optimistically, that Afghanistan’s democracy actually kind of works despite the criticism.
  • Money mattered, but did Big Money? Abdullah outspent Ghani and ultimately outperformed him. One would imagine that with a campaign spending cap as low as AFN10 million, there wouldn’t be much space for giant donors, and this is borne out in the campaign contribution reports. My quick glance through all candidates’ reported incoming contributions showed that corporate donations were roughly around the half-million range (see example). In fact, the only million afghani-plus contribution to a campaign was AFN1.1 million by Helal to his own campaign (Ghani spent AFN2.3 million of his own money, but it wasn’t reported as a contribution to the campaign). All of this raises the question: where were the Fortune 500 of the Afghan corporate sector that bankrolled Karzai’s 2009 campaign and invested in Abdullah’s? It is not possible that all of them chose to sit on the sidelines and not contribute this year. A plausible answer is that the unrealistically low campaign spending cap just meant that 1. campaigns under-reported their spending to keep them within margins, so they didn’t report major contributions, and 2. the lion’s share of campaign-related spending didn’t occur through campaigns themselves. For example, the IEC admits that several candidates didn’t include expenses incurred in staging huge rallies in multiple provinces because those rallies were paid for directly by supporters and not through the campaign.** This unregulated and potentially unlimited money sloshing about the campaign trail is reminiscent of super PACs in American politics, with the major difference being that the Afghan super PACs are not formally recognized and can coordinate with campaigns on spending and messaging.
  • The “battleground” provinces didn’t decide the election. There were only four provinces where the top two candidates were within a five-point margin. They are Farah (Abdullah 35, Ghani 31), Nimroz (Ghani 30, Rassoul 33), Uruzgan (Ghani 27, Abdullah 23) and Helmand (Ghani 32, Rassoul 27). The vote in other provinces was so decisively in favor of one candidate or the other – exclusively between Ghani and Abdullah, except Kandahar – that if we take these neck-and-neck races out, the overall results would remain almost exactly the same.
  • The campaigning wasn’t ethnic but the voting was. None of the major candidates openly presented themselves as representatives of their respective ethnic base on national media. This was good in a deeply divided country. But it didn’t matter how they presented themselves, it mattered how voters saw them – which is why Ghani and Rassoul won in Pashtun provinces, Abdullah won in Tajik provinces, Dostum delivered Jawzjan and Mohaqeq delivered Bamiyan and Daikundi. If we take out Jawzjan, the vote was very clearly along north-south lines, just as it was in 2009.

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References:

* Data pulled from table 6 of this IFES paper on the 2009 elections.

** The IEC website has a pretty useful report, in Dari, about the reporting of campaign contribution and spending, and the challenges and recommendations.

Note: Any views expressed in this post are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.

Afghanistan as explained by Yeats’s poetry

A certain national narrative has taken shape around the events of the last decade in Afghanistan. The sentiments surrounding this narrative are expressed in familiar phrases in conversations by taxi drivers, day laborers, civil servants and civil society activists. These sentiments are about the Afghan sense of self and the delights and disappointments that Afghans have experienced over the last decade of statehood.

Living a full century in the past and half a world away, Yeats was surrounded by similar sentiments. He was an Irish nationalist and served two terms as an Irish senator. Among his poems – both political and non-political – one can find snippets that are apt commentary on Afghanistan today.

This is not least because, much like Afghanistan, his country, Ireland, also plunged into civil war right after gaining independence from British rule – and his people, the Irish, have a tough, warlike reputation, much like Afghans. This, and the two nations’ long and shared experience of violence, makes his poetry strikingly relevant to contemporary Afghanistan…and the seemingly timeless nature of his writings is a reminder that the literature of hope and despair and violence and war are more or less universal and timeless.

I am not a scholar of literature, but in this admittedly crude study, I list an expression of Afghan sentiment and then post an excerpt from Yeats’s poetry or prose that seems to address that sentiment.

Enjoy (and feel free to make your own contributions or corrections in the comments).

2014: the worst-case scenario

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

-‘The Second Coming’ was written right after World War I but still describes the sense of impending doom in Afghanistan.

And this:

…many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it…

-‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan,’ the play from 1922 about the bloody Irish rebellion of 1798 against British rule. This passage could describe the displacement (internal and external) of Afghans due to violence, capital flight before 2014, and the government’s seemingly ill-fated plans to fix things.

The educated but indifferent younger generation crowded out by the older set of leaders who have questionable pasts

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The Second Coming

On the essence of the Afghan sense of self

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

-Quote frequently attributed to Yeats, but I couldn’t find the parent work that it is part of.

And:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.

-‘Remorse for Intemperate Speech,’ a poem which, according to this book on Yeats’s poetry, “ascribes the ‘fanatic heart’ to the peculiarities of Ireland…[taking] account of Ireland’s furious politics and perennial land agitation” – two phenomenon not unknown in Afghanistan.

And:

There was a man whom Sorrow named his Friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming Sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend…

-‘The Sad Shepherd,’ describing the essential sadness of the Afghan heart, beset by tragedies and sorrows of generational violence.

And:

Having inherited a vigorous mind
From my old fathers, I must nourish dreams
And leave a woman and a man behind
As vigorous of mind, and yet it seems
Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind,

-‘My Descendants,’ the fourth meditation in ‘Meditations in Times of Civil War,’ speaks to the Afghan sense of inherited vigor and martial prowess…which can sometimes get lost between generations, effecting a generation of loose conviction and weak attachment to country and honor.

On the security industry: the policemen, soldiers, private guards and other gunmen that proliferate a poor nation at war:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds

-‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,’ written in 1919 about his friend who was an aviator fighting on the side of the British even as the Irish were fighting a war of independence against them. Kiltartan Cross may well be Kabul City, and his friend may well be an Afghan policeman who joined the force not out of conviction to protect or avenge but of the obligation to put food on the table for his family.

On Afghans being fed up with war and violence, and longing for peace and normalcy

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?

-‘Easter, 1916’ is a poem describing Yeats’s sentiments about the failed Irish uprising that took place that day against British rule. It speaks to the common Afghan sentiment about the toll and futility of continued violence.

On the human toll of Afghanistan being the ‘graveyard of empires’

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; …

-‘The Stare’s Nest by My Window’ is the sixth meditation in ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ and describes the Irish civil war that broke out right after Ireland became independent from British rule. This poem speaks to the Afghan sentiment that the narrative of Afghans being a martial and fiercely independent race has been too costly to them.

The electorate is confused and the field is wide open

Image

The election season’s first public opinion poll results were released yesterday by TOLO News/ATR, with the headline that ‘initial election polling reveals three favorites.’ Those favorites are Dr. Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Qayum Karzai, respectively.  This is fascinating insight for Afghanistan, because popular punditry also had Zalmai Rasoul, Sayyaf, Gen. Wardak and Gul Agha Sherzai as among the top favorites, but they barely even registered (Sayyaf, for example, was the highest at 3.4%).

But the headline buried the lead, because 50% of the respondents to the survey said they do not have any favorites or have not decided whom to vote for, suggesting that the field is wide open. This means that even Gen. Wardak’s 0.8% could theoretically go up to 50.8%, making him president.

There are many reasons to take these results with a pinch of salt,* but the poll results show that the electorate is open to being wooed, that ethnicity will matter less and platforms will matter more. Unlike previous elections when ethnic blocks were represented by one premier ticket, this time those ethnic blocks are fractured — the Tajiks, Hazaras and Pashtuns all have more than one prominent person running.

In the absence of an optimal ethnic ticket, the so-called vote banks cannot vote based on their habitual reflexes but have to choose between several tickets. If voters were shoppers, and their trusted brand of toothpaste is on longer available, they are now searching for a good new alternative. A significant portion of the electorate is open to being influenced, and the ticket that most appeals to the voters and reflects what they want has a greater chance of winning.

This does not mean that ethnicity does not matter anymore, but it does mean that it matters less than in previous elections. A shrewd ticket would capitalize on that and instead of focusing on getting the best combination of warlords on the ticket, it would work on developing a platform and an effective campaign message.

The question then becomes about what the voters want. We have a fairly good idea of what they want for the country, which is security, economic development, reduced corruption, electricity and education, justice, etc. But there is a dearth of hard data on what the electorate wants in a candidate. We know that Afghans have always wanted peace but they have reliably voted for warlords; they have always wanted economic development but they have been swayed by candidates with religious credentials; they have wanted education but they have voted for conservative mujahids.

But people with technocratic reputations – Ashraf Ghani, Rasoul, Qayum Karzai, Abdullah and Wardak – dominate this field, and ethnic tickets are multipolar. The voters have to develop new calculations about what they want in a vote-worthy ticket, what factors matter more than others, and what attributes could replace or proxy for traditional ones such as ethnicity, religious and jihadi credentials, etc.

That could perhaps be the subject of the next TOLO News/ATR poll.

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* Reasons to take the poll with a pinch of salt:

  • Opinion polls are untested in Afghanistan, so we don’t know how well polls reflect actual voting patterns
  • It is still too early: tickets will change, alliances will shift, people will get disqualified
  • Opinion polls may not reflect who will vote and who will get to vote –  the Ministry of Interior says more than half of the polling stations are in insecure areas, and the Taliban say they will target anyone who becomes a candidate or votes
  • Opinion polls cannot factor in the amount of fraud/irregularity that is likely to occur
  • Two-thirds of respondents are in urban areas, which does not reflect Afghanistan’s actual population spread
  • Et cetera.

Note: I have expressed a lot of views in this post. The views are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.