Can Cities Save Afghanistan?

From the article:

Contrary to many other developing countries, where a few people control vast areas of land, the majority of the agricultural lands in Afghanistan are small family plots. However, due to the recent population growth, these plots are increasingly divided into smaller pieces among the heirs, making it even harder for families to live off of them. Plus, the un-mechanized mode of production continues to be a challenge for Afghan agriculture yields. If Afghan leaders want to root out the endemic poverty and malnutrition in the country, they need to focus on city-based economic sectors instead of the underwhelming agricultural one.

Read the full text in Foreign Policy. Or in The Kabul Times, where they’ve reprinted it with no mention of my name.


Christians of Kabul (new article in Persian)

Afghanistan’s new first lady, Rula Ghani, is a Christian woman from Lebanon. Contrary to the popular belief, she is not the first Christian first lady of Afghanistan. In a new piece for Hasht-e Subh daily in Kabul, I’ve written bout the Christian wife of Amir Mohammad Azam Khan, an Afghan king in the mid-19th century and the small group of Armenian Christians in Kabul who lived there mostly as wine makers. In addition, I have discussed the long tradition of religious tolerance in Afghanistan arguing that the followers of Abrahamic religions have always been living peacefully together in the region and the hateful rhetoric promoted by extremist groups these days is a new phenomenon—at least in South Asia.

The full text is available on Hasht-e Subh’s website and also on the Republic of Silence [both in Persian.]

New article on census politics in Afghanistan

A short article of mine, “Afghanistan’s Demographic Drought,” was recently published in Foreign Policy‘s South Asia Channel. Please click here to read the full text.

Update: the Persian translation of the piece appeared in the daily Etilaat Roz (October 25, 2014) in Kabul. You can read it on their website.

The Poster Boys of Kabul

Massoud supporters in Kabul. Photo: M. Kakar

Massoud supporters in Kabul. Photo: M. Kakar

[Originally published on OpenDemocracy’s Cities in Conflict section.]

Each year, for one week in September, Kabulis celebrate Martyrs Week. The image war which ensues on the streets, buildings and public spaces of the city is highly political, and has in recent years become increasingly violent.

In 2002 Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) declared the 9th-15th of September a “Week of Martyrs” in honour of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a mujahedeen leader assassinated in a suicide attack on September 9, 2001. Each year, the Martyrs Week ceremonies unearth the same debate amongst city-residents: who really is a martyr, and who a war criminal? To which there is little agreement, one ethnic group’s martyr is another’s war criminal. The disparate meanings of martyr, this perpetual debate, are typically expressed on the streets of Kabul in a form of ‘image war’, a war which over the past two years, has taken a particularly violent turn.

The man on the car window

Each year on the Week of Martyrs, streets, squares and public buildings in Kabul are adourned with posters of men killed in one of the many wars Afghanistan has experienced over the past 40 years. Typically the week provokes groups of men, occasionally armed, to take to the streets with big portraits of their favoured martyr, driving recklessly in SUVs to attract public attention. Since the week coincides with the anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death, his supporters, the Tajiks, tend to dominant the streets. Their ceremonial parades create fear in the city and usually end in bouts of sporadic violence. Last year, these poster-carrying convoys caused a dozen injuries and at least two deaths after armed conflict in the Hazara neighbourhood of West Kabul[1].

This year, according to Afghan news sources and social media, the caravans of cars belonging to Tajiks, careered through the dusty streets of Kabul in belligerent fashion, carrying pictures of their slain leader and the official flags of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (1992-2001), the Mujahedeen government. In addition to some traffic incidents on several spots in the city, they also physically confronted groups of Pashtuns the natural advsersart of their “National Hero”.

The Massoud supporters also attacked Zhwandoon, a Pashtun TV station in Kabul which has recently broadcast documentary videos from the civil war accusing Massoud of committing war crimes during the 1992-1995 conflicts in the capital. According to TV officials, the Tajik men tried to install posters of Massoud on the office building of Zhwandoon TV, coming into conflict with the TV station’s security guards. The conflict was broadcast immediately on TV and showed a loud crowd quarrelling amid the sound of arm fires[2]. The broadcast provoked further conflicts, as a group of young Pashtuns attacked the cars carrying posters of Massoud in the city[3] and began installing pictures of Amanulla Khan, a Pashtun king who was dethroned by Tajik villagers in 1929, on public places.

A country of martyrs

Afghanistan has, at least since 1979, experienced near ongoing war under different regimes, the country’s war victims and criminals are both high in number, and diverse in background. Afghanistan, like many post-conflict countries, has failed to implement a transitional justice mechanism to put try war criminals, or at least, seek some sort of reconciliation. Many of the former communist, Mujahedeen and even Taliban officials remain in power in the current government and some were even elected as members of parliament.

This rather complex situation has turned Afghanistan’s recent history into a taboo. Last year, the Ministry of Education decided to stop teaching Afghanistan’s post-1973 history to school children. In new school books there is no mention of Soviet invasion, communist rule, Taliban brutalities, NATO occupation, nor the millions of war victims and refugees, . Such forgetting of Afghanistan’s recent violent history has served to exacerbate this martyr/criminal complex; such is likely the case for any country with such a great number of ‘martyrs’.

September’s events were just one indication of how this war-weary city is divided on the basis of ethnic and religious grounds. It is not only on occasions like the Week of Martyrs, however, that the city’s hidden tensions surface on the streets. Image war is a permanent in Kabul city.

On the streets of the Afghan capital, it is all too common to see cars decorated with images of different ethnic and ideological icons, such as slain Islamic fighters, Ahmad Shah Massoud (Tajik), Abdul Ali Mazari (Hazara), Haji Qadir (Pashtun) and of course the living powerful such as President Hamid Karzai and his two vice presidents. One interesting trend in car window propaganda is the sight of forbidden faces such as Dr. Najib (1987-1992) murderd by the Taliban in 1996, the last president of the communist regime and once director of its notorious intelligence agency. Seemingly, it is no longer a taboo to show public sympathy for communist ‘martyrs’. Daud Khan (1973-1978) the first president, a Pashtun nationalist who was assassinated by communists in 1978 coup is also a widely visible face on cars, so is his nephew, Mohammad Zahir (1933-1973), Afghanistan’s last king who was dethroned by Daud Khan’s own coup.

The martyrs are alive

Cars have thus become a mobile and emergent means of propaganda, political expression via windshield. However, these car posters have other important functions too: they are used as a pass. In the diplomatic zone of downtown Kabul, most streets are only open to vehicles belonging to high level officials, others are stopped by the Afghan security. In order to pass through the check points, some people who own expensive cars, decorate their vehicles with images of ethnic heroes to indicate they belong to a powerful man or significant political party. There have been a great number of incidents wherein police officers, in attempting to stop these kinds of vehicles, have been physically assaulted by armed men within the cars.

As the international security forces are packing up to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the country is getting prepared for the next year’s presidential elections, deep-seated ethnic rivalries are on the rise again. The pre-election political coalitions so far seem to be clearly formed on ethnic and linguistic lines. The men displayed on Kabul cars, though long dead, are well alive in Afghanistan’s collective conscience and political scene. They still structure the political organisation of the country. The Quran’s poetic metaphor “martyrs are alive” (2:154), is best applicable to these living martyrs on the streets of Kabul. They are the poster boys for a multi-layered conflict which continues to haunt the country.

“Important Robbery”


An interesting local news from Siraj al-Akhabr newspaper,  Vol. 3, Issue 11, February 11, 1914:

Important Robbery: A few days ago, in Chindawul area of Kabul, a group of burglars broke into the house of Mirza Mohammad Sharif Khan, a custom official in Dhaka border. They stole two-three hundred thousand rupees in cash, jewellery and other precious items. Mirza’s salary is 150 Kabuli rupees in a month!

And you still think that it was Karzai who invented corruption in Afghanistan?

Thirsty for Knowledge: Student Hunger Strike in Kabul


Female students too taking part in protests and hunger strike


Hunger strike under the sun.


About 70 students in hunger strike.


After the today rain in Kabul, students are coverd under a plastic.

A large group of male and female students from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Kabul University have been in hunger strike and in a sit-in protest near the parliament building since May 20. They number around 70 and all of them are Hazaras. So far, about 30 of them have been  hospitalized.  Not only the international media has ignored the event, even the non- Hazara Afghan media, in particular Tolo and Ariana TVs have turned a blind eye on the ongoing protest which has been the central topic in Afghan blogsphere and social networking sites for the last week (interestingly, the owners of both TV stations are Shia, but they are very cautious to keep away from anything related to the Hazaras).

The students protest against ethnic discrimination, corruption and the “illiteracy” of the teaching staff in the faculty, and in particular, they demand the removal of Farouq Abdulla the dean (the same guy who physically assaulted a Hazara female student in 2011) and Faisal Amin one of the faculty members from the university. It’s the first time that a student protest is centered on the reformation of universities rather than on political or religious issues which have been more common in the past.

Unlike other faculties at KU, about 80 percent of the students at Social Science faculty (who got admissions through a national entrance exam, Konkor) are Hazaras. This faculty which houses the departments of Philosophy and Sociology, Archeology and History, has been the main destination for many Hazrara students who come mostly from central provinces.

According to the students, the professors have been systematically trying to fail the Hazara students en mass and repeatedly so, in order to make them drop the university. The majority of teachers don’t have a degree higher than a BA from KU, therefore, their knowledge of the subjects they teach is extremely limited. They use failing grades as a weapon against students who appear to know more than themselves.

This kind of corruption is a common issue in all the 14 faculties of KU, but the students at Social Sciences are naturally more vocal, as they are (supposed to be) the future philosophers and social thinkers of this country, for whom, reasoning and questioning would be part of their job description.

According to sources close to Arg, Hamid Karzai has summoned Osman Baburi the deputy Minister of Higher Education for an explanation. Baburi who is a notorious anti-Hazara figure from Herat,  accused the students of being dishonest and took side with the university’s corrupt profs and administrators. Karzai, apparently believed him.

Authorities from Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee have visited the protestors and have shared the findings of their investigation about Kabul University, confirming that ethnic discrimination is a widespread issue there and profs tend to grade the students based on ethnic, linguistic and religious affiliation.

Different groups of politicians and activists from every ethnic group have given the students a visit for solidarity, among them, the speaker and many members of parliament, community activists from NGOs and some journalists. A group of musicians and poets even organised a nuit blanche on Thursday night at the site of the protest.

According to recent news, groups of students in Daikundi and Herat have organised rallies in support of the Kabul students. This is becoming a national issue.

It seems that a new and genuine grassroots movement is taking shape directly in response to the everyday problems of the ordinary people. Unlike most of other rallies in Kabul, they are not funded by foreign NGOs and they don’t care about fancy slogans attractive for international media. Their demands are simple and real: knowledge and the equal opportunity for everyone to pursue it.


All photos from the official Facebook page of the student protest.

I wish there was a hell

I don’t know what to say.  In this past week, the Taliban has beheaded 27 people in Afghanistan: 17 people for attending “a mixed-gender party in the southern Helmand province“, another 8 people in Ghor and Wardak provinces and most disgusting ones, a 7 year old girl in Kapisa and a 12 year old boy in Kandahar. The last victim was beheaded because his brother was serving in the police. I can’t even imagine what the families of these victims are going through.

More dreading is the silence of the people in Afghanistan. No one is protesting, the government is not even releasing an statement condemning the actions. All the Karzai circle is doing is trying to justify these brutalities and blaming it on “foreign terrorists” in order to win the support of  the international community for bringing the Taliban into power. Taliban, however, is keep saying that there is no foreign terrorists, these are all their own accomplishments.

I’m sad and hopeless. It’s one of those times that I wish the hell and heaven story was true, especially the hell one … but sadly it’s not.

AFP report on Hazara-Kuchi conflict

Finally, the Hazara-Kuchi conflict got some visibility on mainstream international media. Each year, the Pashton nomads known as Kuchis have been invading the Hazara villages in central Afghanistan, at least, for the past one and half centuries. Once I blogged about this issue two years ago.

This year, according to this AFP report, the Kuchis being “armed with machine guns and rocket launchers” have caused several casualties and a lot destructions. Thanks to the writer Joris Fioriti and photographer Massoud Husseini, who have given voice to the voiceless. You can read the report and see the photos here. This gives you almost a full picture of what is going  on in Hazarajat.

No Afghans allowed in Iranian park

The Municipality of Isfahan in Iran has announced that Afghan residents of the city are not allowed to enter Suffa, a famous public park on the day of “13 Badar”, or the 13th day of spring when everybody in Iran gets out of their homes for camping and picnicking in green areas like parks and mountain sides. Yesterday was 13 Badar, but the Afghan community in Isfahan was not able to celebrate this ancient holiday which is popular among Iranian and Turkic peoples of the region. The municipality cited “the security of families” for imposing the ban.

The news which was released on the municipality’s website caused widespread anger in social media both among Afghans and some Iranians. You can see BBC Persian’s report about this issue here.

This unbelievably racist move, reminded me of Hong Kong during the British colonial rule where there was a sign in the city’s parks saying: “No Dogs and Chinese Allowed”.

Many forms of racist segregations are practiced in Iran. The Iranian systematic racist discrimination against the Afghan residents has a shameful and disgusting history. Even there is a law that says no organ transplant is allowed from an Iranian body to an Afghan body.

There are about three million Afghans living in Iran, the majority as undocumented people who are deprived of basic human rights, like access to education, healthcare, or labor rights.

The sign in the picture above reads: “Afghans Not Allowed Entering this Swimming Pool”.