Coming Back to Kabul

Sunday, 15 April 2007 / yakshanbeh, 26 hamal 1386 (Hijra Solar)

Introduction: A Semi-Blog

Many of my friends in California have asked me to keep in touch and to write about my experience of being in Kabul. Rather than set up an email list, I will post reflections on this website. Partly this is so you can check back in whenever you like. But posting on an openly available page is also a statement about how knowledge is produced and shared. Many of the Afghans I will be working with and studying will also be able to read this site. Since we all make sense of the world by retelling our experiences as a set of stories, imagining our audience is an act of placing ourselves in the world; declaring how we exist.

Tapa-e salaam

Kuh-e Asmayi (TV Mountain) in the background.

So here I am in Kabul; a city which evokes great speculation and imaginative projection among Westerners. Of late, a city of rather critical geopolitical importance: an epicenter in a struggle with military, economic, and ideological consequences. What do we call this strugggle? In academia we use the term “Clash of Civilizations” as a straw-man, to dismiss dangerously simplistic conservative interpretations of this conflict. But I also argue against a better-informed theory, of modern versus anti-modern. The Taliban, for instance, have origins in neoliberalism, an ideology of political economy that only gained traction in the 1970s and became dominant in the UK and US with the elections of Thatcher (1979) and Reagan (1980). So even Tariq Ali’s sarcastic leftist rebuttal, the “Clash of Fundamentalisms” does not explain what is a very real conflict. As Ali himself explains, there are religious and political-economic fundamentalists on both sides driving this conflict-without-a-proper-name.
Even the idea of “sides” is a problem because the US was deeply involved in the creation of its current opponents in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We also played a major role in producing long-term political, economic, and ideological regimes that are now funding, arming, and indoctrinating opponents of the US all across the world.

Arnold is popular here

Part of a former industrial complex is now being rented by a gym.

There is a whole industry of books that explain how the US is experiencing blowback from having supported too many dictatorships and theocracies. This includes some pretty conservative authors who dislike how the US has compromised its own long-term security for the sake of short-term political expediency. Much as it tempts me to blame the leader as we endure the worst US president since Andrew Johnson (or maybe ever), I am mindful of how much collective responsibility Americans have for this mess. We exert an extraordinary amount of influence on worldwide political economy and cultural production. We could throw the bums out if they are bad; so says our ur-text, the Declaration of Independence. But will the next one be better? or just a reflection of his or her support staff, background knowledge and understanding?
Americans represent almost forty people when we vote for the world leadership. That would drop to twenty if all eligible Americans voted; an improvement, but it underscores the inequity of the global political economy. We have a rare enfranchisement, a privilege for which we will be judged in the future by how well we choose, and how well we back our leaders with the numerous decisions of an informed body-politic.
Which brings me back to Kabul. Americans don’t know squat about Afghanistan. We don’t know squat about most of the world, and the rule-by-fear policy of Bush aggravates this horribly. It even restricts the ability of Americans to conduct basic social research abroad. Fine, most of us are too busy trying to make ends meet; indeed we are too busy to even question why it is so much harder to make ends meet than it was forty years ago (and I think that is a related issue). And yes, when I started compiling a map of historic Central Asia I admit I enjoyed being seen as eccentric and obscure. But the US has occupied Afghanistan for five years now and–not to put too sharp a point on it–we know about as much about Afghanistan as we did about Viet Nam in, say, 1967.

The stereotypical street...

Mom bringing home bread.

For me this is a rare opportunity to promote some understanding of Afghanistan. But I am mindful of the unfortunate fact that this opportunity was created by a conflict which we cannot really name, cannot quite identify, I suspect because its geography spans across the world in a general sense, and our hearts and minds in the most intimate sense. So in addition to my academic work, I am going to try to post an essay each week on my own experience in Kabul. I hope you enjoy them. Most will be much more impressionistic than this introductory manifesto.

Now, about that audience: if any of you have questions you would like answered, please email me! It may prod me to write on a particular topic for a whole essay, or I may build a customized FAQ about Afghanistan. I will not use your name, even if I use your question; because Protection of Human Subjects Protocol prohibits me from revealing the identity of all but elected officials in anything other than ‘nominal’ behavior (more on this later). Hopefully that also makes this a safe space in which to do a little work dissolving socially-constructed boundaries and assumptions about difference.

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