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Shooting Afghanistan: Beyond the Conflict (I)

How accurate is the conventional view of Afghanistan as a unique location of conflict and disorder?

May 12, 2008

How accurate is the conventional view of Afghanistan as a unique location of conflict and disorder?

Editor’s Note:

Many social scientists do research, and some do actual field research — but very few have the courage and determination to take their field research to truly treacherous territory. Michael Bhatia was such a social scientist — one who found his calling in taking a very close look at some of the toughest challenges of our time.

Michael was the author of a brilliant, three-part photo essay published on The Globalist in August 2007. We say “was,” because tragically he died on May 7, 2008 after having returned to Afghanistan to continue his field research in September 2007.

To celebrate his life and his calling, we are re-presenting his essay series. It is a vivid testament, for all to see, to the futility of destruction — and the nobility of those who seek to make a difference on those difficult terrains, even if it costs them their own lives.

Desperate milestone

Afghanistan has reached a desperate milestone — the 30th anniversary of ongoing conflict.

Although the first local rebellions occurred in 1975, it was the overthrow of the Daoud government by the Communist Khalqi party in 1978 that sparked a violent cataclysm from which Afghanistan apparently cannot escape.

War-torn country

The war has been described in many different ways — a tribal war, a holy war, a civil war, an ethnic war and an opium war. Local tribal rebellions against the Communist government evolved into a mass rebellion against the Soviet invasion forces.

The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 surprisingly marked an acceleration of the conflict between the state and competing political-military parties. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government violently heightened intra-Mujahideen competition and enhanced the power of armed strongmen.

Next, the rise of the Taliban in 1994 brought peace to the south but ethnic persecution to the Hazaras. Operation Enduring Freedom expelled the Taliban, but is not able to defeat the insurgency or reduce poppy production. Nor has it secured the majority of the population from warlords, insurgents or criminals — both inside and outside the government.

Outside interests

Local armed actors have espoused a range of ideologies, involving multiple interpretations of both Islamism (within both the Shi’a and Sunni populations) and Marxism-Maoism.

The conflict was significantly fuelled by outside powers and interests. At least $15 billion worth of weapons and financial assistance was provided to the armed parties in Afghanistan between 1983 until 1992 by both neighbors (Iran, Pakistan, China, the states of Central Asia) and other regional actors (Turkey, the various Gulf states and Saudi Arabia).

Destruction of a way of life

The war destroyed livelihoods, created the world’s largest refugee population and undermined community conflict resolution mechanisms and resource management practices.

And it instilled inter-village distrust and ethnic violence, empowered armed strongmen at the expense of community elders — and radicalized displaced youth.

Even after a presidential and parliamentary election, Afghans experience little peace. The Taliban and their network of allies have graphically escalated a campaign of suicide bombings against both NATO and government forces, while assassinating prominent Pashtun tribal and religious leaders and school teachers.

Continuing tensions

President Karzai continues to protest the death of Afghan civilians due to Coalition air strikes — as well as the incommunicado detention of citizens acquired through search and seizure operations.

Meanwhile, there are profound tensions between the assertion by ex-Mujahideen commanders of a “right to rule” and the continued empowerment of armed groups for use against the Taliban versus democratization, liberalization and human rights agendas.

Mistaken identity

The renewed insurgency has only fortified a belief in the West that war is an intrinsic part of Afghan culture. The image of the Afghan is commonly that of a refugee child, a woman in the burqa or a Mujahideen with the Kalashnikov.

A century earlier, British lithographs commonly depicted the turbaned Afghan on a mountain perch in flowing robes, with his jezail aimed at a British convoy marching below, and with a long knife tucked into his waistband. While the technology had changed, the core themes are strikingly similar.

And so, our first ideas of Afghanistan are of warfare, desolate rural villages, destroyed urban centers — and of squalid refugee camps. And of suffering, oppression, conflict and fanaticism.

A violent people?

Ideas of the old affect the interpretation of the recent. The Taliban resurgence in the summer of 2006 prompted commentators and journalists to seek out core Afghan truths from the three Anglo-Afghan wars of the past century — and from Alexander’s invasion in 300 BC.

Accordingly, Afghanistan is proposed as a location of chronic violence and treachery — a country determined less by its centuries as a flourishing cultural crossroads than by those short periods of invasion and conquest by the Persians, Macedonians, Mongols, Mughals, British, Soviets and now the United States, NATO and its allies.

Incorrect portrayal

These associations partly descend from authorial and journalistic self-aggrandizement. A discussion of past explorers, campaigns and conquests and of current dangers fortifies a writer’s status, providing him/her with the authority of “being there” and the romance of ancient association.

To challenge this fixed concept of Afghanistan, I would like to explore dilemmas by delving into popular images and photography. There are, in fact, many different Afghanistans.

These Afghanistans exist both distinct from, intertwined with, and near the war. And though I have spent the majority of my time there researching the wars and those involved in it, conflict is not my primary memory and way of knowing that country.

Setting the record straight

As one ex-Mujahideen told me in 2005: “Afghans are not aliens to this world — supernatural creatures — but we do have specific characteristics…that make us different.”

I am compelled to write about experiences and ideas that cannot be placed into analytical paradigms, which do not speak to theories of war or peace, to destruction or to reconstruction, but instead to daily interactions that occurred in the course of research.

These stories and interactions do not fit into academic accounts or into a journalism that focuses first on war and suffering. For the individual, these experiences are typically partly remembered rather than diligently recorded.

I feature photographs that are not placed on the front pages of newspapers or books — but which reflect the pace and constitution of daily life. The sequence of this photo essay is deliberate. Beginning with the most common images of the Afghan — the combatant — the photo essay progresses to contain alternative images of Afghans at worship and at work.

Editor’s Note: Read Part II here.