Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama's Afghan policy -- nuts?

Dan Froomkin, one of the few sensible voices at the Washington Post, had a good column today on Obama's Afghanistan pronouncement. Froomkin often counterposes critical voices in the media to the news of the day, and today he did so with good effect, showing that Obama's so-to-speak policy in Afghanistan can't stand up to the critique that Sen. Obama made of George W. Bush's Iraq policy a few years ago: what if it doesn't work? What's the exit strategy?

Just as worthwhile as the Froomkin column are the comments by readers that follow. They are very instructive, mixing the usual fantasyland hawkish overconfidence with some reality-based criticism.

I wonder if any of my students who are now reading David Edwards' Before Taliban think that Obama's plan has any chance at all?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A new blog on Before Taliban

My students in HIST 3805, History of Islamic Civilization, may be interested to know that I have started a new blog in which I will discuss the book Before Taliban with the purpose of helping members of the class choose a fruitful and interesting approach to writing on it. Since this is likely to be a very challenging assignment, I think it only fair to throw out ideas and questions that may help you with your initial planning. The blog is called Before Taliban, and is already running. here is a direct link to the introduction.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Preparing for Before Taliban: some online reading

Students in my History of Islamic Civilization course are finishing their second major essay, based on Daughter of Persia, an autobiography of an Iranian woman of great interest. The next assignment will be an essay on a quite different book, David B. Edwards' Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan jihad. The title is accurate: it concerns how a variety of the Afghan people experienced the complex politics of pre-Taliban Afghanistan. It's going to take some work to come to grips with this material and so here I suggest some reading from online sources.

Just last Sunday, Juan Cole published along piece at his blog Informed Comment on the challenges of the situation. He has quite pessimistic view of the possibilities for the success of Western intervention. But he just doesn't assert an opinion, he supplies some interesting material through his links and I strongly suggest you take advantage of them.

After that, maybe you would like to meet the new generation of Taliban, the current batch of fighters, a generation or more removed from the people you'll be reading about Edwards' book. The Globe and Mail back in March had a feature called Talking to the Taliban, in which an Afghan correspondent spoke to various insurgents about what was important to them. It might be worth your while to see this, since it is your taxes and neighbors who are being devoted to defeating these people.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The 60s and 70s at Kabul University and elsewhere

I am still reading David B. Edwards' Before Taliban and am more impressed all the time. Particularly I like the fact that Edwards goes into specifically Afghan phenomena in great detail yet does not push the reader towards a false Orientalism, a conviction that this distant country is impossibly exotic, beyond "Western" understanding. I was struck by this explanation of how the environment of Kabul University in the late 60s and early 70s helped create both Marxist factions and Islamic parties. From pp. 220-1:

Kabul University offered a context for youthful political zeal different from any that had existed before; it is probably not an exaggeration to state that at no other time or place was such a diverse group of young Afghans able to meet together and formulate its own ideas, rules of order, and plans for the future without any interference from those older than themselves. Some of the senior members of the Muslim Youth did have connections with faculty mentors [but those faculty were reticent because they were afraid to lose their jobs]. This reticence severely restricted their influence and also meant that as the confrontations on campus heated up, no moderating influence was available to push compromise or reconciliation. In certain respects, this was a liberating one, and it alllowed new winds to blow into the ossified culture of Afghan politics. However, unhinged from traditional patterns of association, the student political parties were ultimately a disaster for Afghanistan, for as they were cut off from the past, living entirely in the cauldron of compus provocations and assaults, student radicals developed a political culture of self-righteous militancy untempered by crosscutting ties of kinship, cooperation, and respect that elsewhere kept political animosities in check.

The Muslim Youth, like their contemporaries in the leftist parties, abandoned (at least for a time) the ancient allegiances of tribe, ethnicity, language and sect on which Afghan politics perennially had rested. In their place, young people took on new allegiances, professing adherence to ideological principles they had encountered only weeks or months before and swearing oaths of undying fealty to students a year or two older than themselves. These loyalties were kept alive through a paranoid fear of subversion. Only other members could be trusted; every other person was a potential spy, an enemy out to destroy the one true party of the faithful. Marxists and Muslims were tied together in ways they did not recognize at the time. Sworn enemies, they also needed -- and ultimately came to be mirror images of -- one another, linked together by their tactics, their fears, their confrontations, and their self-righteousness. Each believed that their enemies were wrong, that they alone held the key to Afghanistan's future. Each side also believed that violence in advancement and defense of a cause such as theirs was appropriate and ultimately necessary.
I was an undergraduate in North America at this same time, and though there were big differences, and I was never a campus radical, I recognize a lot of this. It wasn't just Afghanistan that then saw a wave of young students flood into newly expanded universities during a time of crisis, all of them wanting to belong to something. It's hard to imagine a country of that period that didn't have these things, actually.

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