History Informs Us

by Joshua Foust on 4/20/2008 · 4 comments

Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan journalism student sentenced to death for “questioning Islam,” or some such, remains on death row—a death row that has crested 100 confirmed intentions to execute. While Kambaksh’s case seems open-and-shut in the West, where religious plurality is normal skepticism generally considered healthy, in Afghanistan it isn’t anything of the sort. Sure, many educated Afghans are aghast at the idea, and they are absolutely right to be (this is one of those cases where I’m okay being culturally imperialistic and support abolishing the death penalty for supposed apostasy). But Afghanistan has a long tradition of harshly punishing such crimes amongst its population—and I don’t mean an ancient one.

A large number of Afghanistan’s fresh-faced, white-skinned advocates that emerged in either the late 1990’s or after September 11, 2001, don’t like acknowledging a rather uncomfortable fact: the men we teamed up with to remove the Taliban were, in many ways, not noticeably superior in a moral sense to their Taliban enemies. After it was outlawed under Daoud, Berhanuddin Rabbani, the President of the Mujahideen Government in the mid-90’s and Ahmed Shah Massoud’s superior in Jamiat-i Islami, reinstituted the ancient tribal practice of purdah, or the forced segregation of the sexes. In practical terms, it meant the burqa was enforced in Kabul long before the arrival of the Taliban—and the restrictions imposed by the warring factions made the arrival of the Taliban a celebratory event until they imposed their even harsher ideas of morality. There are other warlords in the Afghan government, like Abdulrashid Dostum, whose brutality and harsh penal codes were similarly only slightly less bad than the Taliban’s shari’a.

That is why concerns over the anti-music/dancing/bracelets bill wending its way through Parliament are a bit overblown. Not only is it highly unlikely to make it past the Jaargah Mardumi or Hamid Karzai’s desk, it is not that terribly out of step with the reality of modern day Afghanistan. Yes, it jumps over the line, but its intentions are not as recidivist as much media hand-wringing makes it out to be—that is: foreign media hang-wringing—most media outlets in the U.S. have a hard time admitting Afghanistan even exists anymore. Much of Afghanistan remains conservative to a degree many in the West would consider shockingly primitive. Those silent blue ghosts—women—that float through almost all towns and villages remain as closed off and segregated and, to many feminists, abused, as ever before.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 4 comments }

RYP April 24, 2008 at 7:10 pm

“like Abdulrashid Dostum, whose brutality and harsh penal codes were similarly only slightly less bad than the Taliban’s shari’a.”

where the hell did you get this from? The Talib version of sharia is a mixture of pashtun tribalism and the koran, Dostum neither instituted penal codes nor wrote law but functioned as the head of a political party, the communist era military and the Karzai mlitary (as an advisor) and with the full support of the US military. He neither makes or enforces laws and definately is one of the more liberal and progressive officials in the area of media (he owns a TV station), women’s rights and moves towards secularism.

If you are going to write fiction, label it as such.

Joshua Foust April 24, 2008 at 7:20 pm

Not fictions. Dostum is by no means an Islamic fundamentalist, but he was just as brutal and capricious as Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He could never choose sides, always hitching his wagon to whichever faction seemed to be winning at the time—from Najibullah to Rabbani to Hekmatyar—that the only “side” he ever believed in was his own lust for power. When he swept through Kabul in the mid-90s he and his men were absolutely reprehensible, looting shops, destroying homes, and raping women. When he ruled Mazar-i Sharif, he publicly executed “criminals” for minor crimes by dragging them behind and underneath tanks.

So yes, he certainly was no woman or liquor-hating Taliban. But the man was no hero, and he deserves no praise. He is a monster, and I refuse to white wash that.

RYP April 25, 2008 at 6:08 pm

you have your facts wrong.

the tank story was invented by Ahmed Rashid in his book The Taliban. (Its was Qali I Jangi not Mazar) who when confronted admited that he heard it second hand and apologized.

Dostum has changed sides to the winning side. Funny about that. and finally off all the warlords of the mid 90’s (all of whom could be tryed on war crimes for what their commanders did in Kabul) Dostum was the one that left to return to the north when he saw what a debacle it was.

Its sad to see this mythology being carried into today’s Afghanistan. Still fighting old wars while there is perfectly good war to fight today. You show your lack of knowledge on the region by not pointing out that it was Dostum that negotiated a surrender of the taliban and it was Dostum who did much of the fighting that led to that surrender.

His time in history is over and if he has done one thing is show that Afghans can change, live in peace and modernize without sacrificing what makes Afghanistan unique.

Ian April 25, 2008 at 6:47 pm

RYP’s other writings on Dostum leave me with the impression that either a) he is on Dostum’s payroll directly, or b) he allowed himself to be completely convinced by a very charismatic personality (which does not rule out monsterdom, and is in fact a prerequisite for being a warlord in Afghanistan). That needs to be kept in mind by folks reading the comments to this post.

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