Dispatches from AfPak: Death Isn’t Tragic, It’s Neutral

by Joshua Foust on 7/23/2010 · 4 comments

Naheed Mustafa is a Canadian freelance broadcast and print journalist. She’s currently on a reporting trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan and will be posting dispatches from her trip.

“They believe killing ordinary people is mubah.” The statement came from a Kandahari veteran of the 80s Jihad. I was sitting with him in his house in Kabul, politely trying to drink, without heaving, the Red Bull I was served. He counts leaders of the current insurgency among his friends and former comrades. We were talking about the Taliban.

I wondered how the leaders who take pride in modeling themselves after the jihadi archetype of warrior by day and scholar by night, justified killing innocents. And there it was: killing the people in the course of war was “mubah“—morally neutral. The declaration made collateral damage, shariah-compliant.

“I have never heard this term used before.” When the Kandahari mujahid was a fighter, every death was mourned, he said; dead innocents were seen as heroes deserving of Paradise, he said. Fighters in his day were called ghazi or shaheed, not ten-dollar-a-day foot soldiers or the aggrieved.

Ultimately, maybe it’s irrelevant how Taliban leaders justify killing ordinary Afghans. Dead is dead. But it makes a difference to their supporters. Justifying in Islamic terms the killing of the innocent is necessary. It goes a long way toward maintaining the myth that the Taliban, like the Mujahideen, are fighting the good fight.

The Islamic warriors, then and now, have no shortage of helpful PR. I have perfectly sweet aunts in Pakistan—lovely women who knit sweaters and make halva—who defend the Taliban with the ferocity of a mongoose fighting off a cobra. Mention the Mujahideen and perfectly reasonable people will matter-of-factly retell stories of angels dressed in green fighting alongside outnumbered fighters and defeating legions of Soviet troops.

The clichés and tropes westerners use to talk about Afghanistan have their counterparts in the Muslim world too. My own preoccupation with Afghanistan stemmed partly from an ethnic connection but also partly—maybe mostly—from the stories I grew up hearing about the purity of the Jihad against the Soviets. Cousins and neighbours in Pakistan fought and died in the war and listening to the tales of our fierce and formidable brethren taking on the Soviet juggernaut armed with nothing but a Kalishnikov and the kalima helped seal the narrative.

Everyone needs a myth; it’s the only way to sleep at night. But behind the myths in Afghanistan, the warriors from then and from now are just broken men, continuously looking for opportunities to perpetuate their own hype and stay relevant because without the fight, what are they? Behind the myth, ordinary people are profoundly weary and untrusting. They relive their worst moments nightly each time they close their eyes.

My Kandahari host told me there was a time when he embraced death. He went to every funeral, looked at every dead body or its remnants. “I can’t do it anymore. I’m tired. I’m tired of the death. When I dream I see only limbs and blood and hear the screams of the people.”

Later, in the car, my fixer—and friend—some 20 years younger than the man I just interviewed stared at the now-closed gate and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, “the Kandahari and me, we have the same dreams.”


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

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 }

MILNEWS.ca July 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Well said

Abdullah July 25, 2010 at 12:38 pm

“Justifying in Islamic terms the killing of the innocent is necessary.” Can someone give evidence (daleel) for this as necessary or otherwise? Also, How would one define “innocent” from an Islamic perspective?

Naheed July 25, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Abdullah, that line is connected to the line that comes after: it is necessary in order to perpetuate the myth. I’m not speaking from a Shariah perspective, I’m not a scholar. Also, I’m clearly using “innocent” in a conventional manner as in bystander or non-participant.

MM July 26, 2010 at 12:51 pm

What an old, old story connected somewhere deep in us to the first ethics and morality our evolutionary ancestors conceived. The hand that rocks the cradle to make them manifest is often war.

The most slippery slope of all is to ask “who is innocent?” Careful with that one. Were the Germans who watched the rail cars taking their fellow citizens to the camps innocent because they were just “bystanders?” Were the American settlers and cowboys and nation builders of the American foundation myths, who came to empty land in the West, innocent because they were “just watching” as their army had killed and removed the Indians to make their “building of a nation” myth possible?

The problem is how to deal with Afghanistan and all the surrounding nuclear and wannabe nuclear around it in July 2010. It will require dealing with the very reality you speak of in the heads of people living there and how to change it into something less destructive.

The great game of civilization. It is good for us to be reminded every now and then that it never ends.

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