History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings
Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
Recently I’ve had a lt of requests from cullies and shipmates to write up a list of recommended books. These are a bunch of really good books I’d recommend. It’s just a start, I’ll add to the list as I thjink of more books InshaAllah Taala
Africa: A Modern History. Guy Arnold, 2005. This is over a thousand pages long in fairly small print, yet I’ve hardly read a book that flies by so quickly. The reason is the style of the writer—a longtime British observer of Africa with rather postcolonial sympathies—which is flexible, fast, discussing things from thematic to specific, from economy to wars and coups. He is especially hard, happily, on Western colonialism and condescension towards Africa, but he doesn’t hesitate to give other forms of domination as well as hypocritical dictators who use West-bashing (e.g., Qaddafi) a hard word too. I do disagree with some of his analysis, at least semantically, but I appreciate the effort and it’s a good, honest, and for the most part comprehensive look by a wellwisher of the continent and its folks.
From Saladin to the Mongols. Stephen Humphreys, 1977. This is my favourite history book, not only because I like the subject, but the ease, keen observation, and combination of fluency and precision that marks Stephen Humphreys’ work. I haven’t seen a combined political-military-social analysis quite to match it in historical work, and I really, really recommend it—not only is it clinical, but at times—such as the section of the Mongol invasions—it’s downright lyrical at times. I nearly shed a tear at the disastrous, humiliating end of Nasir Yusuf b. Muhammad, the final Ayyubid sultan at Syria. A really solid piece of work
Empires of Mud. Antonio Giustozzi, 2009. A superb analytical work on the political economy and history of Afghanistan’s military barons, with a special but not exclusive focus on Abdul-Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan. A groundbreaking book with deep detail unmatched, as far as I know, in English language at any rate. Villainous mercenaries, tub-thumping adventurers, destructive barons and conniving commanders, wily feudalism and autocratic centralism–it’s superbly and scientifically dissected herein (see also next three books).
Revolution Unending. Gilles Dorronsoro, 2005. There are a number of excellent books about Afghanistan (few of which, unfortunately, are famous outside of academia) but the most clinical, comprehensive so far is this thoughtful, balanced book. One minor critique I have is the author’s tendency to over-categorize things such as ideology or social background, which in a fluid conflict zone is a problematic exercise. Nonetheless, that’s a minor quibble. A highly recommended book—if there’s a single book you read on Afghanistan, this is it.
Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond. Abdulkader Sinno, 2007. Before 2009-10, the vast majority of literature on post-Russian Afghanistan was written in a rather double-standarded ideological manner—see, for instance, anything written by the loathsome William Maley. Sinno’s excellent book, which dissects the organizational differences between various non-state groups in Afghanistan, thrusts a fair number of cliches aside as well as provide a solid academic comparison of various groups, from the highly centralized Hizb-i-Islami 1 group captained by Gulbadin Hikmatyar to the completely decentralized Harakat-i-Inqilabi group founded by Mohammad-Nabi Mohammadi. Variables including foreign sponsorship, diplomacy, internal revenues and different structures each come under consideration. I actually wrote a school paper recently on the same subject, but I didn’t come across this excellent book till I had nearly finished.
An Intimate War. Mike Martin, 2014. This is a remarkable, blow-by-blow and terrifically detailed work on Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province, whose twists and turns can—as Mike Martin, who formerly worked alongside a British garrison of whose viewpoint and methodology he emerges very critical, shows—fill an entire book. A truly remarkable, nearly ethnographic book based partly on a huge number of interviews from a number of primary actors and a critical analysis of their account. When something is this well-detailed, you can read it nearly like a novel. Real life is far more interesting than fiction, and this history laden thick with conflict and deception is as enjoyable for the intrigue as it is for analysis.
Republican Iraq. Majid Khadduri, 1969. It’s easy to forget the decade of republican military rule that Iraq experienced in between its monarchy and the notorious Baath regime. Nowhere is this fascinating period chronicled, again in great detail and with thoughtful analysis, better than in Majid Khadduri’s book written a mere year after the Baath takeover. I confess it rather saddens me too—quite a few of the book’s characters, including dictators Abdul-Karim Qasim and Arif brothers Abdul-Rahman and Abdul-Salam—strike me as basically decent, well-meant folk who collided unnecessarily and catastrophically over very avoidable disputes. Alack, such are politics during military rule. It makes for woeful reflection, but terrific reading.
Sovereign Creations. Malik Mufti, 1996. Though the idea of a pan-Islamic union is rather popular—an idea I have no problems in admitting my attraction towards—it’s easy to forget that the postcolonial Arab regimes in the Middle East attempted a number of such mergers during the 1950s and 1960s. The longest-lasting, unfortunately, was a mere three years: the shortlived 1958-61 United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria. This book focuses on internal disputes within Iraq, which long mulled the idea of a merger, and Syria while also examining out the intentions and calculations of their regional neighbours and the colonial powers. It does a fine job in an easy-paced, fluent style.
Mongols and Mamluks. Reuben Amitai-Preiss, 1995. During the thirteenth-century the Mongol khanate swept across Eurasia, flooring in its path the regimes of China, Central Asia, Anatolia, Khurasan, virtually all of what is now Russia, and Iraq–including the Abbasid caliphate. The juggernaut finally screeched to a halt at “Goliath’s Spring”, Ayn Jalut, where a Mamluk army largely comprised of similar steppe cavalry (“for every pestilence,” quoth a Muslim panegyrist who saw little difference between Mamluk Turks and Mongols, “there is a cure of its kind”) set up the start of a twenty-year campaign where it eventually won out to carve an extraordinary slave-elite military state in Egypt and Syria. A remarkably clinical, if ruthless, state founded by Zahir Rukanuddin Baybars and Saifuddin Mansur Qalawoun receives a comprehensive overview in this book. Perhaps because the Mamluks, at least initially, took this conflict far more seriously than the Mongols, who had plenty of land to fall back on, they seem to have made some extraordinary adjustments, of which their highly advanced political-military system and in particular their espionage apparatus is especially fascinating.
ISIL, Concubines, and the Ideology of Impunity
A shocking story that the self-styled caliphate that spans the Iraq and Syria borderland has recently launched a “theology of rape” has sent a wave of hysteria across the internet. News that ISIL or Dawlah, as I’d rather call them since the “Dawlah” or state is the focus of their ideology, have captured and raped sex slaves as a matter of doctrine has drawn horror. As usually happens when rando Muslims do something vile, we’ve had Muslims in the West flock to condemn the atrocity while analysts have focused on Dawlah’s ideology. I would argue, however, that Dawlah’s rapine has nearly nothing to do with doctrine or scripture and everything to do with the control mechanics of wartime rape.
A disclaimer: this isn’t an attempt to entirely wipe out ideological lens. Nor is it an attempt that Dawlah are “selective” Muslims who use Islam as they see fit; there are plenty of those, both in extremist militancy and in some governments. Too often people claim that extremism has “nothing to do” with Islam but avoid the fact that it often does tangentially. For example, Al-Qaeda’s list of atrocities aimed at Western civilians in particular is quite clearly a contravention of Islamic legalism; there are more or less broadly-agreed-upon and fairly restrained codes of conduct for jihad (which is not to say they haven’t been violated at different stages in history), but Al-Qaeda contravene them by attempting, in very modern terms and with modern justifications usually predicated on the need to use every tool at their disposal against a more militarily powerful opponent, a total war. But the overall premise that Al-Qaeda give—that the Muslim world needs to be freed from foreign subjugation—is widely shared by a not insignificant number of Muslims, both laymen and scholars; it is the murderous means, of terrorism and civilian-aimed attacks, that Al-Qaeda use that the vast majority of Muslims reject out of hand. So Al-Qaeda proper’s ideology can be said to have at least tenuous links with certain aspects of Islam, even if it ignores inconvenient restrictions and caveats; it is, after all, not alone in that respect and arguably many Muslim governments and militants juggle their conveniences with Islamic jurisdiction to various extents, though rarely to the same extent on so grave a matter as violence.(1)
Another disclaimer: this is not an Islamic scholarly rebuttal; I have no qualifications in Islamic jurisprudence or theology. Rather it is an attempt to analyze Dawlah from a political viewpoint against its own ideological evolution.
By contrast to what can be argued as a “selective” interpretation of Islam on other groups’ part, Dawlah rejects any sort of traditional Islamic legalism whatsoever. This is not simply pick-and-choose from the tradition; rejection of compromise with any party, including the tradition, is an active part of its dogma as it stands. Rather, whatever benefits the Dawlah is seen as legitimate, and whatever inconveniences the Dawlah, including the restraints of Islamic legalism, is brushed aside with contempt (Dawlah’s online ideologues—a heady range including “Ghazi Shami”, “Marwan Tounisi”, and “Shami Witness”—like to refer to this as “coconut” Islam, a pejorative is usually applied to anything that doesn’t endorse their Dawlah outright).
This can be seen as similar to “selective” Islam in the sense that it picks and chooses Islamic jurisdiction based on its conveniences, and indeed there is an arguable if indirect link; Dawlah propaganda claims, after all, that their Dawlah state, as a self-styled caliphate, is the greatest tool to fulfill the needs of the Muslim world. But increasingly with time, the Dawlah has gone from becoming a “tool” to an end unto itself; now, particularly with so much of the Muslim world, including hardline Islamists, pitted against it, the “state’s” ideologues predicate Islam itself upon loyalty to the Dawlah. This goes beyond mere opportunism: it makes the state not a tool, but a determinant, of Islam. Over time its thugs’ warcry of “Baqiyaaaa”—“forever”, claiming that the State will live on till endtimes—has become nearly a dogma in its insistence and vigour. The State no longer simply serves Islam, as was the overall role of historical Islamic caliphates and their offshoots: the State is made out to have embodied Islam in totality; opposition to the State has been turned into “apostasy”, while anything that advances the State—no matter how contrary to Islamic laws—is endorsed.
There are various reasons that can be put forward for this. One of them is somewhat ideological, which is that Dawlah neatly claimed, without any agreement from the wider Muslim ummah whatsoever, the much-vaunted post of “caliphate”; millions of Muslims, and not just old-fashioned ideologues or young hotheads, recall the perceived glory days of Islam. Particularly the age of Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and the Rashidoun Caliphs who succeeded in the seventh-century, are seen as ages of superb governance, which is an uncontroversial position with Muslims. A subsequent millennium of monarchic caliphates, ending with the Ottoman Sultanate that spanned six centuries, is widely and uncontroversially seen as an imperfect but nonetheless strong, relatively fair and desirable stronghold of Islam that embodied some semblance of Islamic unity, dignity and values. The subsequent divisions, weaknesses, and uncertainty of the Muslim world has also led to a yearning for the return of the caliphs: prior to the twentieth century, the shortest period without a caliphate was a couple of years after the 1258 Mongol conquest of Baghdad, and even that was lamented by chroniclers. Most Muslims nowadays at least yearn for aspects if not the body of the historical caliphate, and some groups—most notably the controversial Hizb-ul-Tahrir party, a pacifist but ambitious party that has some currency in the West—have placed enormous emphasis on its restoration.
Dawlah’s unilateral claim to have restored the caliphate in the summer of 2014 was a gamble at winning over the Muslim world. By and large—largely because of Dawlah’s brutality, particularly its gratuitously thuggish and wildly broadcast executions as well as its attacks on minorities and other sects, but also because of its unilateral self-declaration—this was widely rejected by a large body that included Islamists such as Dawlah’s opponents in Syria, as well as more importantly scholars from various backgrounds. After more than a year Dawlah has managed to attract a bare handful of ideologues, few of them even scholars by any traditional mark, to its banner, and this is a sticking point that has repeatedly hurt them.
The State did attract hundreds of largely identity-stricken youths from the West to fight for the “Caliphate”, and it also has key support from various Iraqi Sunni factions driven to desperation by a decade of insurgency and repression under a spiteful Baghdad regime. Rarely are such fighters persuaded by rigorous scholarship and Islamic legalism; it is more their identity as Muslims and the labels, not substance, of the self-professed “Islamic State” that draws such youths. But its theological and scholarly limits were immediately clear; as Abu Abdulmalek, the top shariah scholar of the Ahrar-ul-Sham Islamist faction in Syria, stated in a Jul 2014 public notice, the Caliphate was meant to be a government that could serve the Muslim Ummah, not a totalist utopia built largely exclusively on the corpses of Muslims. Even fellow “jihadi” scholars, including the controversial Palestinians Abu Qatada Umar Uthman and Abu Muhammad Isam Tahir—Uthman having controversially supported a similarly rejectionist group in Algeria during the 1990s, even earning criticism from other “jihadis” for it, and Tahir having known, though rejected, the original founder of what became ISIL, Abu Musab Zarqawi—rejected the “Dawlah” outright. Its gamble at Islamic legitimacy had failed.
It is for this reason—the absence of support by any notable body of scholars—that I would pose is one reason that Dawlah have not become simply “selective” in their interpretation of Islam but outright rejectionists against anything perceived as traditionalism or “mainstream”. Early on, especially during the summer of 2014, Dawlah had tried to present themselves as at least somewhat legitimate with occasional handouts on film and periodic festivals to whip up both internal morale as well as external legitimacy as “acceptable” Muslims. They had, of course, always choreographed grisly executions of captives—dating back to Abu Musab’s wildest days in 2004—but shortly after declaring their “caliphate” they did briefly try to present themselves as theologically viable candidates. However, it soon became clear that no validation was forthcoming; rare ideologues, like the Australian preacher Musa Cerantonio and the Jamaican-British preacher Abdullah Faisal, were trumpeted from the rooftops in Dawlah propaganda, but no scholars of any weight or authority, even jihadis, had any sympathy. Even when the United States and a gaggle of other, most anxious Gulf, countries bombarded Syria and Iraq, there was little sympathy for Dawlah even as there was some outrage in the Muslim world at the bombardment itself. (2)
Particularly over the winter of 2014-15, therefore, Dawlah abandoned much of their attempts at ideological veneer and it was here that they claimed exclusivist membership of and support of their State as a determinant of Islam, and therefore a shroud of impunity to any member of the State. No longer did Dawlah propaganda try to wheedle Muslims into their arms, but instead tried to justify itself to its existant followers; now, grisly executions were not only broadcast but justified energetically on the grounds that some Muslim in history had once done it, so it could not be illegal even if that Muslim had done it illegally. Even massive disapproval by Muslims was taken as a justification: this only proved, according to Dawlah’s propagandists, that most Muslims were nonbelievers and that Dawlah’s flimsy numbers were a proof of its uniquely virtuous nature. Opposition by Muslims and Islamic law was no longer a source of dismay; it became a propaganda tool to convince millennarian followers that they, and they alone, were on the right path. (This is not to deny the “sincerity”, which is impossible for us to calculate, that IS fighters have; however, their interpretation of Islam is a retroactive and self-serving one, even if subconscious and not intended)
Dawlah’s glossy but substantially hollow magazine, Dabiq—breathlessly followed by Western analysts as a key insight into terrorism ideology—revealed more about their modus operandi in carving out a new ideology, one based entirely around the State. As long as it called itself Islamic and adopted Islamic rhetoric, the State—and, more importantly, its followers, who were given a rationale of utter impunity quite different to the traditional code of conduct for jihad in Islam—could violate as much Islamic doctrine as it needed.
Perhaps the most telling example of this came in a recent Dabiq issue, which urged women—including married women—to “migrate” to the Dawlah and abscond with its “mujahideen”. The pesky matter of that well-known Islamic injunction on adultery as a major sin punishable by death? No matter, Dabiq announced airily; because it deemed non-loyalists of the Dawlah to be non-Muslims, the women’s husbands were “non-Muslims” and that made their marriages illegal (3). This sort of retroactive justification, flying in the face of both Islamic law and procedure, is characteristic of Dawlah’s propaganda: as long as it’s rhetorically done in God’s path, Dawlah can blatantly any of God’s commands and perform feats of self-serving justification after the fact. It is a sort of “reformism” in its own right, similar in attitude ironically to the same sort of state-driven “Muslim reformism” so beloved of certain Western regimes. The ends, as determined by the state, justify any means, even the most unambiguously unIslamic ones.
Insofar as it is influenced in any way by the Islamic tradition, the Dawlah ideology now seeks to aggressively pick out keywords from history, never mind their status under Islam. The case of concubines is an example. Historically, concubines were a feature in many cultures and in wartime, Islam permitted this practice amid captives albeit with injunctions as to their treatment, their status and their rights, much as it had permitted slavery with very tight regulations and caveats not present in other traditions. Against the abolitionist pressure of the 1800s as well as its own push at modernization, the Ottoman Sultanate—not without controversy—abolished the slave trade, though it continued unabated in some parts of the world well into the twentieth century. Much as they had unilaterally declared themselves a caliphate and the arbiters of Islam, Dawlah unilaterally declared the reimposition of the slave trade, and—presumably in part because enough women weren’t absconding from the West to join the thirsty “mujahideen”—also, apparently, of concubines.
This has, of course, aroused shock and horror. Rukmini Callimachi, a dubious NYT reporter (and a writer with a long history of hyperbolic articles that usually exaggerate the threat—and therefore, to potential recruits, appeal—that Dawlah poses, and in my opinion indirectly if unknowingly helped boost its recruitment)(4) took care to emphasize the fact that certain Dawlah fighters prayed before raping their victims, with the implication that their prayers made it ritualistic and therefore somehow bound to Islam. Western Muslims have, understandably but perhaps unnecessarily, reacted with speedy denials about the legitimacy of such acts. Some have declared it a time to introspect and perhaps revise the Islamic tradition.
There are several problems with this. A major problem, as has been noted above, is that Islamic tradition as it stands is not only irrelevant but actively loathed by Dawlah. They rhetorically claim inheritance of Islamic law and values, yet they have not only shunned it but made it a point to do so precisely because, according to their rhetoric, it has failed to give what they—and therefore, since they have appointed themselves Islam’s guard, in their view Islam—want. In this sense, Dawlah are very much revisionists of convenience ironically not dissimilar to the same pro-Western “reformers” pushed by certain Western governments. That makes them far, far different from traditional Islamic scholarship as well as most Islamist groups—from the Ahrar-ul-Sham of Syria and Taliban of Afghanistan to Hamas of Palestine and Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, each of which Dawlah has categorically shunned—who are for the most part, though not spotlessly, sticklers for Islamic procedure to the extent of being labelled “fundamentalists”. There is a reason that for the better part of a century no other Islamist group, however hardline, attempted to revive such institutions as slavery; such a unilateral declaration goes precisely against the consensus-based jurisdiction of traditional Islam, and fits very much into Dawlah’s worldview. Orthodox or traditional scholars are the last people Dawlah are likely to heed.
The second problem is that it assumes Dawlah are driven towards rape by theology and ideology. As has also been noted, Dawlah have a consistent track record of appropriating and revising ideology to fit their attendant conveniences. Much as a mass-decapitation-by-explosives—what one Islamist critic online sarcastically called the minhaj, or methodology, of gore entertainment franchises—was justified because it could serve the Dawlah’s psychological warfare needs, and much as adultery and retroactive takfir against the cheated-on spouse was justified because it could serve Dawlah’s plethora of lusty single fighters, so too has the collection of concubines. Moreover, given Dawlah’s history of nearly always justifying such stances after the fact, it is nearly certain that the “ideological” aspect was taken as an afterthought, to assure thirsty young rapists that their rape was not a crime and could be continued—rather than serving as an original ideological bedrock to commit crime.
This is further strengthened when one considers the historical use of rape as a weapon of war, in particular but hardly exclusively by non-state militias. Mass rape, in particular, assures the psychological breakdown of communities, particularly in villages and small towns. It traumatizes, sometimes beyond recovery, the victim and renders their family and community in a state of shock. Though perhaps the first to justify it by claiming to represent Islam, Dawlah are hardly alone in this. From militias, like Dawlah, alone—never mind state armies which themselves have a terrible record—recent systemic rapists include various militias in Congo’s bloody war, Serbian militias in the 1990s Balkans, shabiha paramilitaries in Syria, the Interehamwe genocidaires of Rwanda, the millennarians in Uganda’s LRA, together with others.
An example perhaps more resonant with Dawlah than any other comes from central Afghanistan during the 1990s, where opposed Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat and Pakhtoun Ittihad-e-Islami militias systematically raped each other’s civilians as a means of cleansing and terror. The reason it resonates is that, like Dawlah, both groups portrayed an exclusivist self-image as mujahidin and often labelled their opponents as nonbelievers. Not as systematically extreme as Dawlah—indeed, they eventually coalesced around the Northern Front to fight the Taliban advance and now ironically act as members of the Afghanistan regime under the occupation—their opportunistic exclusivism and communalism was a smaller, temporary version of what Dawlah has now made infamous.
Nor is this an exclusively Muslim issue, far from it. Serb militias in the Balkans, fighting for the unity of Yugoslavia against purported foreign subversion; Russian soldiers in Chechnya, fighting to retrieve their country’s glory after the humiliation of 1990; Kivu militants in the Congo, purporting to defend Tutsi rights after the Rwanda genocide; Indian soldiers in Kashmir, fighting to crush a vilified insurgency; Colombian soldiers and paramilitaries against socialist guerrillas; each have used mass rape systemically and justified it as necessary for whatever cause they claim to support. With arms and assured impunity, extremists can act like animals. In Congo, for instance, the notorious militia commander Bosco Ntaganda assured his (largely underage) fighters that their weapons and status as “soldiers” was enough for them to do anything, including mass murder, rape and displacement, a near-identical method to Dabiq’s howls. The common factor linking such groups is the heady intoxication of self-proclaimed impunity—a very different tune to the constant introspection and discipline of any orthodox Islamic stance, and most Islamist political groups.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State is not a fundamentalist symptom of a hijacked tradition that requires ideological reform of Islam; indeed, it is quite the opposite: a brazenly modern, rejectionist and post-traditionist militia that has made a point of rejecting orthodox Islamic views even as it appropriates their title. To focus on ideology on what is a brash but not unfamiliar militia group of thugs is to miss the point and, therefore, bungle the diagnosis.
1) I would add that the Nusrah Front in Syria has been Al-Qaeda’s first “guerrilla militia” affiliate to attempt to govern any sort of territory, rather than the transnational terrorism that made their name, and if it succeeds there Al-Qaeda may transform in some respects to a conventional sort of warfare without dropping their hostility outright; this seems, however, unlikely to happen with the major stakes in Syria and Nusrah’s rare propensity for making unnecessary enemies. UPDATE NOTE: It has been pointed out that AQ’s eventual gameplan was indeed to control territory much as Nusrah does. But it was the pre-“militia” role that AQ espoused–attacks, for instance, against civilian centres such as most infamously the WTC and also the East Africa embassies–that were mostly condemned by Muslims, including those who may have sympathized with AQ’s stated anticolonial aims. It is also probably for this reason, combined with Nusrah’s military value and mixed-to-positive reputation within Syria’s opposition, that it has been seen as less controversial than AQ proper or other AQ affiliates
2) Dawlah’s links with the old Iraq Baath party, while occasionally oversimplified and exaggerated, also can have done little to help.
3) The “adultery” case reminds me of a bizarre incident from the 1980s in eastern Afghanistan, referenced in David Edwards’ Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad. It refers to a hardline young woman who warned her husband not to join the Khalqi communist army of the time, and that she would consider him a disbeliever and their marriage would be annulled automatically. The husband paid no heed and went to the army. Claiming her marriage invalid, the woman then absconded with an unmarried youth. By Islamic law, of course, despite her claims (and presumable conviction) to Islamic righteousness, her marriage was still intact; joining the communist army did not annull one’s Islam. The region, then under mujahidin control and officially Islamic law, therefore executed the woman even as she taunted them for cowardice and lack of faith. The woman’s lover managed to slip away. This story was narrated to Edwards by Samiullah Wakil, a mujahid field officer who sympathized with the woman.
4) It is also worth noting that Callimachi has supported the same self-styled Muslim reformists, such as Asra Nomani, who gleefully exploit Dawlah’s opportunistic revisionism to push their own, more conveniently pro-Western, opportunistic revisionism
Note: I originally wrote this for a publication on a news site, but they rejected it “for policy reasons”. I thought I’d best print it afore it becomes outdated.
Afghanistan: Lessons from the Past, Implications for the Future
2015 Copyright etc
With the eventual drawdown of the United States and NATO, the Afghan regime that rode to power on their backs in 2001 finds itself in a difficult position not dissimilar to that of the former USSR-imposed regime of Najibullah Ahmadzai after its patrons withdrew; as then-opposition leader Burhanuddin Rabbani remarked of Najibullah, Kabul’s regime is “like a suspended teardrop, about to fall.”
Yet Najibullah hung on to power surprisingly long after the Russians withdrew in 1989; it wasn’t until Apr 1992 that he was eventually ousted, bringing into place a dysfunctional “Islamic State of Afghanistan” officially under Burhanuddin’s leadership that from the outset was imperilled by vast mistrust between the commanders and leaders that had brought about Najibullah’s downfall. One important measure that Najibullah had taken in this respect was to encourage mistrust and divisions among his opponents, primarily by using a “carrot and stick” approach, offering amnesty to some mujahidin defectors while officially cutting back his regime’s notorious abuses, as well as his secret service playing off commanders against one another.
This was not, of course, simply Najibullah’s doing: a variation of competing sponsors—from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to Iran and the United States—as well as competition over finances, clans, ideology or simply ambitions meant that the mujahidin had, from the late 1980s onwards, begun to seriously fight amongst themselves. The longest-lasting such enmity emerged between Gulbadin Hekmatyar and Shah Massoud, who had already fought each other in northern Afghanistan well before Massoud marched into Kabul in Apr 1992, prompting a ferocious battle between the pair and their respective supporters that claimed thousands of lives.
That conflict, and the splintered Afghanistan that emerged, offers lessons for both today’s Kabul regime and the Taliban insurgency as well as their respective supporters. Kabul has, of course, long tried to wheedle away Taliban fighters from the front: former president Hamid Karzai famously called them his “brothers” and he tried to promise some amnesty; additionally, the United States and NATO—rather ironically given the tens of thousands of troops they maintained to prop up the Kabul regime—tried to portray the Taliban movement as simply an agent of Pakistan, downplaying the considerable support it enjoyed at rural Afghanistan and especially in the south and east. The links that the Taliban undoubtedly enjoyed with Pakistan’s army and intelligence were always equivocal, and based more on mutual interest and a common narrative of Islamic jihad against invaders rather than control by one party over the other.
In this respect the TTP insurgency that mushroomed in Pakistan from 2007 was an unlikely boon for the Kabul regime and its backers, and there is some evidence of links between Afghanistan’s secret service and members of the TTP insurgency, such as former TTP third-in-command Latifullah Mehsud (the enemy of my enemy, and so on). Pakistan, for its part, had overplayed its hand under Pervez Musharraf’s regime in trying to simultaenously satisfy and outsmart the United States: repeated incursions into the historically autonomous FATA northlands, which were meant to appease the United States’ calls to “do more” and which agitated more locals than they were worth, only galvanized the TTP narrative that Pakistan was an agent of the United States, killing FATA locals, and helped draw people towards the TTP, who quite ironically ignored the repeated orders of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, to whom they claimed to answer, to focus on the invasion of Afghanistan. Not until Pakistan tried its own “carrot and stick” approach, drawing such commanders as Khalid Sajna away from the TTP’s hardline commanders Fazlullah Hayat and Abdul-Wali Omar, did the TTP begin to fragment.
For their part, the Taliban leadership want to avoid the same sort of splits in their ranks, especially as much of Afghanistan has come under their control. The belated exposure that their respected founder Mohammad Omar had passed away—perhaps as early as Apr 2013—was a potent attack at any faultlines. Omar’s eventual successor and confidante, Akhtar Mansoor, long faced accusations of ambition, especially by Taliban commanders who felt that his Ishaqzai clan was overrepresented in the leadership. One of these dissidents, former Kabul corps commander Abdul-Rauf Khadim, eventually split from the Taliban and this year joined the extremist group, self-styled “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant”, who have attemped to open a franchise in Afghanistan and wipe out the Taliban insurgency. It is quite likely that Khadim did this more over his dispute with the Ishaqzai leaders, especially Mansoor, than any ideological relation with ISIL, who have managed to alienate an impressive number of Islamic groups from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Chechnya as well as Afghanistan.
But even apart from defectors, there has been disquiet at Mansoor’s ascent. There has long been dispute, most notably with famous field commander Abdul-Qayum Zakir, over Mansoor’s proximity to Omar. Though Zakir promised to be “the most obedient Taliban” member if Mansoor was properly picked as leader, a number of Taliban officers have tried to push Omar’s eldest son Mohammad Yaaqub as successor. Yaaqub’s supporters criticized the selection process and claimed that many officers had simply not attended the shura where Mansoor had been picked. The discord appears serious enough for Omar’s brother, Abdul-Mannan Houtak, to publicly request a peaceful mediation.
Nonetheless, the fissure should not be overestimated. Tensions are not a novelty to the Taliban leadership—its founder, Omar, was reported to have had considerable differences with his second-in-command Mohammad Rabbani, while many prominent Taliban commanders conflicted during the 2000s—but a strength that they have traditionally shown is to overcome or suppress such rifts. One of the causes d’etre of the Taliban foundation had been to quell the autonomy of powerful commanders, so that even at the height of the tensions between Zakir and Mansoor the campaign continued largely unabated. The fact that Mansoor’s second-in-command was named Sirajuddin Haqqani, the aggressive Zadran commander whose father Jalaluddin Haqqani had been a formidable commander of both insurgencies against Russia and the United States and a pragmatist leader with experience of the mujahidin rifts in the 1990s, should probably help, as should the support of another prominent eastern commander, Abdul-Latif Mansoor. The fact that, unlike the competing sponsors of the mujahidin against Russia, the Taliban’s jihad has only a handful of foreign sponsors, particularly Pakistan, should also help.
However, Kabul is not out of cards. One chip is the strength of largely autonomous militias, especially that of Abdul-Rashid Dostum, whose appointment as Ghani’s vicepresident underscores the Afghan regime’s reliance on strongarm fighters. An infamously brutal predator, Dostum nonetheless has experience as a hefty paramilitary commander since he fought for the Russian occupation during the 1980s. During the 1990s he effectively ruled northern Afghanistan as an autonomous state separate from the rest, with its own currency and airlines, trading independently with the Central Asian states. The Junbash militias he commanded received the support of Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov with whom Dostum shares ethnicity, and it is clear that Ghani needs Dostum’s muscle more than vice versa.
Tajik-dominated former mujahidin militias have also proven hardened opponents against the Taliban advance. The most formidable such leader, arguably, is Ismail Khan, who unlike many such militia leaders seems to command genuine local support after decades as Herat’s effective ruler, without the reputation for gratutious violence than some others. Though Ismail’s tendency towards autocracy has provoked some dissent, as has a troubled relationship with Kabul, it is difficult to find another commander with a similar level of local legitimacy. Finally, a number of minority militias are likely to remain embittered opponents to the Taliban advance, with memories of a scorched-earth campaign in the Hazara-dominated Bamyan region. Again, the price for Kabul’s survival seems to be the return of often exceptionally vicious militias over a state army, many of them also favoured by the United States for their uncomplicated ruthlessness.
This runs the additional risk of an ethnicization and communalization of the conflict as occurred in the 1990s—though there are some Tajiks and Uzbeks in the Taliban army’s ranks, the vast majority remain Pashtun fighters and that is unlikely to change. Pro-regime Pashtuns, such as southern leader Gulagha Sherzai, have been widely loathed for thuggery; many of Sherzai’s abuses were responsible for provoking surrendered Taliban officers, including current leader Akhtar Mansoor and former commander Abdul-Ghani Baradar, back into the insurgency. Furthermore, Taliban commanders like Abdul-Majeed Nurzai and Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim enjoy strong roots and considerable respect in such regions, as do Haqqanis, Mansoors and other mujahidin veterans in the east.
Another important card in Kabul’s pack is the occupation itself as a diplomatic tool and military force. Unlike the Russian withdrawal, done with overwhelming foreign pressure, NATO and the United States are likely to have a considerable residue in Afghanistan for several years. Having officially withdrawn in 2014, the United States nonetheless maintains a garrison of some ten thousand troops. Effectively, the Kabul regime has been forced into dependency on external benefactors—something that jars a considerable number of traditionally autonomous Afghans, even those opposed to the Taliban insurgency—but it remains an important chip.
It has been in an effort to prolong this occupation that Kabul has attempted to play up the threat of a Taliban alliance with the bloodthirsty ISIL group; an article published by the sympathetic RFERL website drew nearly exclusively on Afghan security officials to construct the case of such a partnership. In fact, quite the opposite has taken place: whatever ISIL recruits in Afghanistan have fought fiercely versus the Taliban fighters especially in the eastern province of Nangarhar. ISIL has been particularly bitter towards the Taliban movement because Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahiri, proclaimed his allegiance to Mohammad Omar, “Commander of the Faithful”; news of Omar’s death was met with gleeful derision by ISIL ideologues online, who accused Zawahiri of either dishonesty or allegiance to a corpse.
Perversely, therefore, the prospect of an ISIL outgrowth chimes in with two of Kabul’s short-term objectives. Firstly, ISIL are a direct challenge to the Taliban. Secondly, the longer ISIL stays the more inclined the United States and NATO will be to extend their stay in Afghanistan and thereby protect Kabul’s embattled regime. How much influence ISIL have is unclear; they have attracted headlines and a number of recruits, most notably the dissident commander Abdul-Rauf Khadim and the former TTP commander Saeed Khan-Orakzai, but their success on the battlefield has been minimal and, as elsewhere, enormously exaggerated by their active media efforts.
Whether or not ISIL present another significant force on the scene, however, the Afghan landscape has already become extremely complicated. What Afghanistan needs more than ever, is a decrease in equivocal external interference—most obviously the occupation itself, which is increasingly unpopular within the countries that constitute it, but also Pakistan’s support of the Taliban rebels and the support given by Iran, the United States and the Central Asian dictatorships for various pro-regime militias—and thereafter a reconciliation between the various groups. Thirty-six years of nearly endless conflict has exhausted the people, and reconciliation between enemies has a long tradition in Afghanistan. But the calculations and objectives of various actors have made the possibility of a reconciliation as unlikely as it is necessary.
The real concern of the Iran deal: Not Israel, not even close.
The finalization of the nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran at Vienna in Jul 2015 has provoked a number of contrasting reactions. On the one hand, Israel’s radical and increasingly buffoonish premier Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly sunk into the depths of comic-book despair: this is a historic surrender, he and his minions warn, a surrender of the West to the monolithic terrorism of the East: fervent nods of agreement come from his far-right constituency, both in Tel Aviv and Washington DC. On the other hand, advocates of the policy—themselves nearly as uncritical of its signatories as their opponents across the aisle are of Netanyahu—have cheered a historic win that ends a 36-year public impasse between Washington and Tehran. Both camps, focused on the personas of their leaders and the historical implications of imaginary civilizational clashes and imaginary legacies of peace, are utterly disconnected with the actual losers of the policy.
First, let us turn to the winners. Iran, whose foreign minister Javad Zarif has long been a shrewd and measured diplomat through the peaks and troughs of his country’s recent foreign relations, can certainly celebrate. Not because, as the grandiloquent cynic of a leader Ali Khamenei has often cynically boasted to his own gallery, Iran has somehow stuck a defiant finger against the forces of imperialism—indeed, the likeliness of an Iran-US deal has increased steadily under Khamenei’s publicly defiant, privately shrewd leadership. The two countries have faced a number of mutual enemies—as different as the thuggish Baath regime of Iraq and the severe Taliban regime of Afghanistan, and a number of regional movements including, most notably in recent times, the Syrian opposition to Iran-backed dictator Bashar Assad; in Syria, the United States’ policy shifted dramatically from initial lukewarm rhetorical support to bombing their fortifications in Idlib last autumn under the guise of hunting the entirely separate cast of fanatics in the self-styled Daulah caliphate. Long before the nuclear deal, Iran and the United States had uncertainly but increasingly firmly clasped hands behind closed doors even as the conservative Arab monarchies to whom the United States has long been affixed howled in indignation outside.
The real winners are Iran’s people, subject to cruel and pointless sanctions for a generation that subjected them to intense economic uncertainty under a cynical but basically remarkably functional regime. To the injury was added the sort of insult that makes one wonder what Iranians did to deserve such treatment: Iranians, regardless of politics, are an intensely proud people, yet for the better part of this generation they became caricature fanatics, terrorists, and extremists completely out of sync with reality in considerable sections of the global media (see Betty Mahmoody’s bilious memoirs for just one instance); the alternative view of the “good Iranian”—see celebrity Reza Farahan, who in a particularly heartfelt moment last year urged the United States to attack his country—was hardly more representative, and odiously similar to the treacherous Cuban exiles who have spent a lifetime urging the invasion of their own country.
For Iran’s people, this is a triumph, and so Zarif can be said to have done his duty as a representative. For Israel, despite the astoundingly tone-deaf propaganda filtering out of Netanyahu’s office, this is not exactly a disaster. Iran has never posed any sort of threat to Israel, except perhaps indirectly during the 2000s when they capitalized on Palestinian guerrillas’ desperation to play the generous donor—that relation, too, has expired once it was no longer needed and once Palestine’s dominant Hamas guerrillas proved far too close to the Syrian guerrillas Iran’s state media was castigating, Netanyahu-style, as homogenously evil terrorists. But for Israel, the only threat Iran poses is that of a competitor, another nuclear power in the region, and more than anything else it is fear of competition, not conquest, that has led Netanyahu to shriek monotously on about civilizational wars and terrorism for over twenty years, prior to which the governments of Israel and Iran had held their noses long enough to conspire, rhetoric never ceasing, against Iraq during the 1980-88 Gulf conflict. No, Israel and Iran have never posed any mutual threat, no matter how many Israeli politicians try to pose as betrayed victims. Neither the regimes of Iran nor Israel, opportunistic politicians both, has shied from rhetoric, and so we can expect a cacophony of white noise even now that may convince irregular observers of a mutual antipathy.
The real losers of the deal are the people of Syria, Iraq, and less directly but still considerably Yemen. Their oppressors’ backer now has nuclear capability, andW though it is unlikely to use it that does add definite clout to its bargaining ability. On the residents of Iraq and Syria, and to a large extent Yemen, Iran’s policy has been no less imperialistic and predatory than the regimes Khamenei so cynically condemns. Like Tel Aviv, Tehran has reduced the people of the region to a caricature of sectarian barbarians, in need of foreign domination to set them straight. Iranian attitudes towards Syrians (and, increasingly, those Palestinians such as Hamas not prudent enough to goose-step to its Syrian policy) are scarcely different to Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians: simply switch Israel’s “barbarian Arab” spectre for Iran’s “sectarian Wahhabi” spectre. As the bloody conflicts of the past four to five years have shown, it is not only Palestine but Syria and Iraq as well that have groaned under foreign assaults by, now, two nuclear powers.
The fact that the reportedly tough negotiations at Vienna had no reference to any withdrawal of support for the increased desperate and hated Assad, shoul hammer the final nail in the coffin of the canard that the United States supports Syria’s opposition. Faced by a pharaonic dictator at one side and gleefully gory fanatics on the other, both of which complement one another remarkably, the people of Syria will have a difficult time reminding anybody of their plight. This also holds for Iraq and Yemen, to varying degrees, where several millions of people have been basically wiped off considerations because of the purportedly greater relevance of the Iran deal and of the wildly overblown Daulah fanatics, who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with a largely alarmist and hysterical media that can’t get enough of their carefully broadcast atrocities. Again such a backdrop, millions of Middle Easterners, mostly Sunni Arab biut also including other denominations, are, to a geopolitical scene dominated by rhetoric and propaganda more than facts, irrelevant in the scheme of things. They now face two contemptuous, expansionist and imperialist nuclear powers in the region in addition to their own brutal regimes.
One last word, since the Sunni Arabs have come up. With two nuclear bullies—Israel and Iran—on the scene—it would be remiss not to mention the third, non-nuclear bully that has squandered away any advantage it may have had through clumsy politics and a desperation to control power and wealth. That is, of course, the range of Arab monarchies and those in between (with the qualified exception of Qatar, whose foreign policy and maneouvres have largely been better), who protested so volubly against Iran’s nuclear deal and effectively cut themselves out of any influence in the process; who put more energy into overthrowing a legitimate government in Egypt and financing its thuggish replacement than they ever did, rhetoric aside, for their brothers in Syria and Iraq; who bought millions of dollars of arms but have proven exceptionally clumsy at their usage, save bombarding the same spots in Yemen for a season to make a point against a Houthi threat their own policies helped spawn. Iran and Israel, contemptibly contemptuous of as they are, have and claim no formal obligations towards Arabs; nor does the United States, as tempting as it is to blame Barack Obama for the betrayal of millions of people from Egypt to Syria. The Arab monarchies at least claim leadership, and they have through a mixture of selfishness, short-sightedness and greed failed. This month Saudi Arabia’s veteran foreign minister, Saud Faisal, whose father Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz enjoyed a rare reputation in the Muslim world, passed away. On recent evidence—unlike Zarif and even the colourless John Kerry, both of whom at least served their constituencies if at the expense of others—Saud cannot be said to have done his job.
FRAGMENTATION AND RESTORATION IN THE EARLY ANDALUS STATE
The Umayyad conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century swept in another eight centuries of consolidated Muslim rule in the region. Given the lasting legacy of Muslim Andalusia it is surprising that early Muslim Andalusia was fraught with divisions between tribes, ethnicities, and political competitors. The roughly forty years of Umayyad caliphal rule in Andalus were marked by a tumultous, unpredictable political environment that eventually broke away from the central Islamic world.
Though conquest continued nearly unabated, with the exception of some isolated resistance in mountainous Asturias and the Pyrenees, and on the whole the Andalusian province contained many of the socioeconomic hallmarks—broad tolerance and coexistence and a fairly robust economy—of its more stable successors, the political leadership was prone to dramatic and often stark changes. In the 730s, the Umayyads reached the peak of their incursions into Europe; in the 740s, the province fell prey to revolts and eventual secession, while the 750s were marked by an ongoing struggle between various emirs for control that finally resulted in the reemergence of the Umayyad family at the helm of an emirate.
Part of the cause of this political instability lay in the diverse geography and makeup of Iberia, with mountains, plains, forests, deserts, rivers and valleys ensconced each with its own complex environment and inhabitants. Similarly, the heterogenous nature of the Iberian populace—which included Visigoths, Jews, Basques, Christians, and with the advent of the Umayyad conquest Arabs, Berbers, and Muslims thrown into the mix—lent itself to difficulty maintaining a consolidated central rule in the area.
But there was also instability inherent in the Umayyad caliphate and its various agents. The Umayyad caliphate had, controversially and rather bloodily, been established as a dynastic regime under the control of the Umayyad family in the second half of the seventh century1. Quite distinct from the idealized “Rightly Guided” caliphal age that preceded it, the Umayyad regime was therefore based around the Umayyad family and its dependents and supporters, who rose to an elite position often at the expense of other constituencies2.
With a few exceptions, such as the much admired caliph Umar b. Abdulaziz b. Marwan whose short rule included a sweeping number of reforms that were posthumously shelved, the Umayyad caliphate’s ruling family and its supporters and dependents, such as the Makhzoumis of Arabia, constituted the cream of the elite. On a lower scale were the tangential affiliates, dependents and allies of this elite—usually tribal confederations affiliated with the dominant rulers—and on the next scale other Arab confederations less reliable to the rulers. Respected Arab families who had once opposed or still posed a threat to the Umayyads, such as the families of the popular anti-Umayyad rebels Husain b. Ali b. Abi Talib and Abdullah b. Zubair b. Awwam, were systematically excluded from power and influence, though they were usually given token favours as a conciliatory gesture of caliphal generosity3.
On the next rung of the hierarchy were the non-Arab mawali, or clientele, of Arab conquerors who had been taken in, so to speak, by Arab tribes upon their conversion to Islam and at least officially affiliated with these families: they were either freeborn converts or freedmen: relevant to our study in particular are the Berbers, one of the first non-Arab peoples to accept Islam on a wide basis and a dominant force in the conquest of Iberia as well as the native populace of the Maghrib just a stone’s throw across the Gibraltar Straits. The rights of these mawali were officially to be respected as equal Muslims, but the Umayyad Caliphate’s care to look after its own affiliates tended to marginalize them at various junctures in its history. Concurrently, complaints about unfair treatment of fellow Muslims often underpinned rebel activity and would eventually help to bring about the downfall of the Umayyads in the mid-eighth century.
These dynamics played out in the conquest of Iberia and in the consequent power struggle. The conquest had been pioneered at the behest of Musa b. Nusair, an ambitious and influential governor of Maghrib of fairly obscure roots. A member of the Yamani confederacy’s Lakhmi tribe, Musa’s rapid promotion to the governorate of the Maghrib had been done at the exclusive behest of the Umayyad governor of Egypt, Abdulaziz b. Marwan b. Hakam, a brother of the caliph Abdulmalik. It was not without controversy; Musa’s predecessor, Hasan b. Nauman, had ably managed to quell a longstanding Berber revolt by a careful policy of Berber inclusion in the Umayyad army and government4.
Nonetheless, Musa b. Nusair continued and enhanced this same policy on unprecedented levels. More than any governor of the Maghrib, Musa encouraged proselytization of Islam and inclusion of Berbers in the Umayyad setup. Musa had a wide array of Berber mawalis who he appointed to important positions: most notable here was Tariq b. Ziad, the Berber commander of the army that attacked Iberia in 711. This may have been a byproduct of Musa’s own rather humble origins and an attempt to foster a power base independent of the traditional Umayyad elite in North Africa; in any case, when he armed and equipped Tariq’s Berber-dominated army for the expedition across the Gibraltar Straits, it was an unprecedented act in the Umayyad caliphate in that a non-Arab mawali population had its own effective army.5
This leap of faith, and the inevitable hostility it aroused from the entrenched Arab-dominant Umayyad army, may help to explain Musa b. Nusair’s less than appropriate response to Tariq b. Ziad’s decisive defeat of the Visigoth armies; according to reports the Maghribi governor belaboured and perhaps even lashed his triumphant officer with a whip6. Apparently Tariq had been sent as a vanguard commander, and his initiative in taking the Visigoths full-on and vanquishing them was not only a risk but also hurt Musa’s standing with the established elite. Given Musa’s ambitious plans of using Andalus as a springboard to attack the Byzantine Empire from the west7, he could not afford such a risk.
Though they proceeded quite cohesively thereon to conquer much of the peninsula thereon, there are numerous reports of tension between Musa b. Nusair and Tariq b. Ziad, some of which—like the tale of Prophet Solomon’s fabled table, the ownership over which they apparently quarrelled8—need not be taken literally so much as an example of this tension. Eventually both were recalled to Syria and consigned unkindly to the margins by the recently installed caliph, Sulaiman b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan, a less than fitting reward for the pair’s yeoman service9.
The animosity directed towards Musa b. Nusair by the nobility was now transferred towards his successor, Abdulaziz b. Musa b. Nusair. By most standards Abdulaziz had been remarkably successful; he completed the conquest of the peninsula, set up a system whereby Christians and Jews could practice their faith and customs under Muslim rule with a minor jizya tax in accordance with Islamic law10, and managed through skilful diplomacy to quell a revolt by a Visigothic commander, Theodemir (Toudmir in Arabic sources).11
This did not impress, and likely appeared to threaten, other leaders in the Muslim army, led once again by the Fihri commander Habib b. Abi Ubaidah b. Uqba. Complaining to the caliph, they raised the rather dubious claim that Abdulaziz b. Musa b. Nusair had come under the influence of his Christian wife, Egilon, widow of the last Visigothic leader Roderick, and that he was cultivating dangerous sympathies with the locals and entertaining royal ambitions. At length they convinced Sulaiman b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan into permitting the murder and replacement of Abdulaziz, done by Habib in 716.12 The popularity of Musa b. Nusair’s family was such among the mawali that Muslim chronicler Muhammad Ibn Qutia credits the Berbers explicitly with the appointment of Abdulaziz’s cousin, Ayub b. Habib, whose rule was shortlived13; it was caliph Sulaiman, Ibn Qutia writes and who we may safely assume had the support of Habib’s Arab faction, who sacked both the North African governor—Abdulaziz’s brother Abdullah b. Musa b. Nusair, also killed by Habib—and Ayub, thereby permanently seizing power from Musa’s family.14
The positions of the Arab nobility in the west rested largely on the uncertainty of the administrative structure in the western provinces of the Umayyad Caliphate. Unlike nearby Egypt, Iraq and Arabia, the administration of the western provinces was never stable. Initially North Africa, the first appendage, had been governed via the governor of Egypt, and then made a separate province through which Iberia was also governed. This helped the emirs in the Maghrib, particularly long-established families such as the Fihris, develop into a ruling class of their own with a fairly confrontational policy towards the locals and little oversight from the central Umayyad regime as to their activity. Though ambitious expeditions in the way of jihad continued, the burden of their expenses was levied on the non-Arab population, both Muslims and otherwise, who were subject to extortionate taxation. A particular complaint among fast-growing Berber Muslim communities was that despite their conversion and enrollment in the army, they were still often required to pay the jizya tax meant for non-Muslims, thereby giving them the burdens of both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.15
An outstanding exception were the reforms of a shortlived but dynamic caliph, Umar b. Abdulaziz b. Marwan, who upon his instatement instituted a wide set of reforms that were seen as more authentically in line with Islamic law and fairer towards the Umayyads’ subjects16. When Umar took over the Maghrib and Andalus were in a state of flux; the unpopular Maghribi governor Muhammad b. Yazid had installed harsh taxation to pay for ambitious but largely unsuccessful northward campaigns in Spain by his Andalusian deputy Hurr b. Abdurrahman17. Umar instilled two important changes, making both Andalus and the Maghrib separate provinces with separate governments directly overseen by the central regime, and appointing to their respective posts a pair of handpicked reformers, Samh b. Malik and Ismail b. Abdullah b. Dinar, both of whom earned widespread respect for their proselytization and outreach to the Berber mawali populace, the abolition of unpopular taxation, and competent administration.
Ismail b. Abdullah b. Dinar’s appointment in the Maghrib would have particularly rankled the former ruling class; his grandfather, Abu Muhajir Dinar, had been a freedman from the mawali and both a colleague and longtime opponent of the Fihri conqueror Uqba b. Nafi18. Uqba’s descendants the Fihri family, as well as others, had hitherto benefited directly from their implementation of a confrontational policy largely tolerated by former caliphs, but this must have alienated the non-Arab mawalis and probably contributed to tensions within the army. Notably, despite the decrease in tax revenues, the Umayyad army’s performance actually improved during the shortlived regime of Umar b. Abdulaziz b. Marwan; by 721, Samh b. Malik had established a foothold in Septimania and conducted a siege against the Frankish duke Odo at Toulouse, where he was killed19. By now Umar had also expired—popularly suspected of poison at the behest of the embittered nobility20—and the policy did not long outlive him. The incoming caliph, Yazid II b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan, quickly put Andalus back under North African control, appointing his own governor, Bishar b. Safwan, who in turn appointed Anbasa b. Suhaim as governor of Andalus.21
Anbasa b. Suhaim adopted a novel policy of revenue collection, not from Muslim mawalis this time–presumably more watchful over their rights now–but the seizure of property and land from Christians and Jews, or at least those in Septimania where the campaigns continued22. Anbasa faced a challenge not from aggrieved Muslim soldiers but from a Christian rebel named Pelagius, sheltered in the highlands of Asturias. Setting up a small principality there, Pelagius managed to defeat several Umayyad expeditions and the government eventually appears to have assumed it was not worthwhile to pursue further conflict in difficult terrain, tending to leave him alone.23
It is difficult to ascertain whether Pelagius’ exploits enjoyed any sympathy amid the Christians under Umayyad rule, though he certainly later became legendary as a champion of Christendom24, but in any case Anbasa b. Suhaim’s policy was controversial enough that his successor, Yahya b. Salamah, immediately reversed it and restored the property and rights of the non-Muslims25. This in turn probably antagonized the Muslims, particularly the frontier troops, and a flurry of shortlived governors followed Yahya in the late 720s until the appointment of a respected commander, Abdurrahman b. Abdullah. Abdurrahman, formerly a second-in-command to Samh b. Malik, enjoyed a reputation for competence and fairness26. But nonetheless Abdurrahman too faced a number of challenges, and much emphasis has been laid on the caliphal certificate he carried to leverage his leadership with the competing factions27.
The most immediate challenge was that of a rebel Berber secessionist, Uthman b. Nisa, usually known as Munuza in Spanish chronicles. It is unclear if Uthman enjoyed wide support among the Berbers of Andalus or if he represented only himself and his faction, but in any case he seems to have been a longtime upstart who has tentatively been linked with Pelagius’ Asturias revolt28. Based in Catalonia, Uthman linked with the ruler of Aquitaine, Odo, who wanted autonomy from the Merovingian regime that had been coopted by the upstart Charles Martel29. Common interest against larger neighbours appears to have bound the pair more than anything else, but in 731 Abdurrahman b. Abdullah led a huge army—which indicates both Berber and Arab participation—to kill Uthman.
Having disposed of the rebels, Abdurrahman b. Abdullah continued northwards, defeating Odo’s advance force—“only God knows the number of the slain,” Isidorus Pacensis lamented30. Circumstances forcecd Odo, already a survivor of the siege of Toulouse ten years earlier, to appeal to his former enemy Charles Martel, who seized the opportunity to boost his prestige as a defender of Christendom. Charles famously routed the Umayyad army at Tours, propelling him to this status in what has been one of the more exaggerated military results in history. The indiscipline of the Umayyad army also contributed—when the Franks slew commander Abdurrahman, they fell into squabbles about the replacement as well as the share of spoils from the campaign31, further helping Charles to scatter them back south. While by no means as cataclysmic an event as has been popularly rendered32, the battle marked the northernmost penetration of the Umayyads into Europe and, more relevant to this study, exposed again the fragmentation within the Umayyads’ ranks.
The next governor, Abdulmalik b. Qatan b. Isma of the Fihri clan, emerged as a key player in the fragmentation of Umayyad Andalus from the caliphate. Though abruptly stripped of his post and arrested after another failed foray across the Pyrenees33, Abdulmalik craftily played different sides of the Muslim rule in Andalus against one another. As a longtime campaigner Abdulmalik apparently had more of an ear to other factions’ dissatisfactions than previous leaders from the Fihri family, and stinging from his summary dismissal he briefly managed to manipulate them to seize power again.
Abdulmalik b. Qatan b. Isma’s replacement, Uqba b. Hajjaj, was an energetic campaigner but had, importantly, been appointed by the unpopular governor of North Africa, Ubaidullah b. Habhab, the latest in a series of inflammatory governors. Perhaps conscious of his own mawali ancestry, Ubaidullah had fattened the ruling class significantly at the expense of the Maghribi mawali, levying extortionate taxation and undoing many of the tentative reforms pursued earlier. This provoked a massive revolt by the Berbers, only exacerbated by a ruthless and indiscriminate crackdown34, in North Africa from 740. The rebels were rather unconvincingly termed as fanatic kharijis, after the breakaway sect in Islam’s first internal conflict, but as Khalid Blankinship demonstrates this was probably a convenient term to tar any dissidents with, since many of the rebels appear to have been perfectly orthodox Muslims with political grievances35. In any case, the rebellion quickly swept the Maghrib, forcing the embattled caliph Hisham b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan to send a massive influx of Syrian troopers into the fray.
The revolt in North Africa forced Uqba b. Hajjaj to depart to help put it down, and in his absence Abdulmalik b. Qatan b. Isma helped instigate another revolt in Andalus. This shows that there continued to be underlying tensions and probably some cross-Gibraltar solidarity between the Berbers of Andalus and the Berbers in the Maghrib. More cogently, however, Abdulmalik exploited the sudden influx of Syrians into North Africa as a threat to both the Berbers and the Arabs, mostly from the opposed Yamani background, in Andalus, so while the revolt was led by Berbers it was a joint effort to safeguard their perceived interests36. So committed was Abdulmalik to this policy that he rebuffed a desperate plea for assistance from the besieged Syrian commander in Tangiers, Balj b. Bishar, and even publicly tortured to death a merchant named Zaid b. Amr, who had violated his embargo by sending supplies to Tangiers37.
But the tenuousness of Abdulmalik b. Qatan b. Isma’s own links with the Andalusian Berbers was abruptly shown when in 743 the Berbers promptly rebelled against him, swiftly turning the tables and showing that perhaps they did not equate their interests with the interests of the Arab leaders in Andalus. The North African revolt having by now been quelled with enormous difficulty, Balj b. Bishar—now appointed an interim governor for Andalus—crossed the channel. Balj routed Abdulmalik and publicly executed him at Cordoba.38
This dizzying array of events show that by now, the 740s, the protagonists in Andalus appear to have taken on three broad categories, constantly shifting. The first constituted the newly arrived Syrians, whose perceived haughtiness and strain on resources made them unwelcome. The second was the settled Arab population of Andalus, which was largely of Qahtanite Yemeni stock and which took, notably, to calling itself baladis, roughly translatable in this context to people of the land39, who had been consigned to the same status as the non-Arab mawalis while the Syrians took over the top rung. The third were the Berbers, constantly in flux, but apparently more disposed towards the familiar settled Arabs than the newcomers. Muhammad Ibn Qutia unites these last two factions despite their shaky history; according to this account, this coalition informed the Syrians: “Our country is too small, even for us—get out!”40
The settled Arabs having been replaced by Balj b. Bishar, Abdulmalik b. Qatan’s family revolted in the north, led by the frontier commander Abdurrahman b. Alqama. A sharpshooter with the bow, Abdurrahman reportedly personally shot dead Balj in their confrontation at Huelva41. The Umayyads now settled for a more palatable replacement, Thaalabah b. Salamah, a reliable second-in-command to Balj b. Bishar who nonetheless came of the Yemeni stock to which many baladis belonged. This did not, however, appease the rebels.
Eventually, the caliph Hisham b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan appointed a pair of capable and evenhanded Yemenis, to the Maghrib Hanzala b. Safwan—a veteran of the difficult conflict against the Berber rebels, who had tried to reform the Maghribi government similarly to Musa b. Nusair a generation earlier—and to Andalus Husam b. Darrar. In Andalus, Husam saw off his predecessors and assigned the newcomers to specific parts of Andalus—the Damascene Syrians to Elvira for instance—in order to overcome their disputes; the settlement was paid by the jizya revenues in order to relieve any of the quarrelling factions.42
The new arrangements, which restored temporary order, did not last long, however. The last major enduring prejudice of the Umayyad caliphate, the conflict between the clan confederations of Mudar and Yaman, came back to remove the last vestiges of caliphal rule in Andalus. This conflict had underpinned many of the feuds between the tribes. In northern Spain, the Mudari partisan Sumail b. Hatim urged a revolt with a figurehead from the Fihri family, Yusuf b. Abdurrahman b. Abi Ubaidah43. This coincided with a coup in North Africa led by another Fihri leader, Habib b. Abi Ubaidah b. Uqba’s son Abdurrahman, but the Fihri revolts appear not to have been coordinated or related except in that Abdurrahman b. Habib b. Abi Ubaidah’s revolt threw off the last North African jurisdiction over Andalus44. Sumail executed Husam b. Darrar and installed Yusuf, a leader not without redemptive qualities but with a shaky hold on power largely dependent on the sufferance of Sumail’s Mudari kinsmen.
Yusuf b. Abdurrahman b. Abi Ubaidah’s Cordoban state was officially autonomous by 750, by when the Umayyad caliphate had itself bloodily collapsed and its scions massacred45. But the Andalusian ruler’s vindictive right-hand man Sumail b. Hatim quickly alienated various factions who found an alternative leader in Abdurrahman b. Muawiah b. Hisham, a grandson of caliph Hisham b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan. This daring young survivor of the Umayyads’ purge soon posed an unexpected threat that eventually eclipsed the longer-established leadership in Andalus. Abdurrahman, whose mother was a Berber and who had had help in his flight from Syria by Berbers in North Africa46, managed to draw in the support of Berbers, Yemeni partisans and even some Mudari partisans, such as Husain b. Dujann, who were opposed to Sumail and Yusuf’s rule47. They also included important army commanders linked with the Umayyad family—Yusuf b. Bakht, Abdullah b. Khalid and Ubaidullah b. Uthman—whose defections proved important for Abdurrahman to defeat Yusuf48. Abdurrahman eventually established his own family’s dynasty in a thirty-year period, but the difficulty involved therein indicates that even such a talented politician would have immense trouble unifying the diverse stretches of Muslim Andalus.
The struggles in early Muslim Andalus under the Umayyad Caliphate rose from several factors. These included Andalus’ typically subservient role as an appendage of the Maghrib province, the typical unaccountability that prevailed in its ruling class, the privileges of Arabs over non-Arabs intrinsic to the Umayyad system and the struggles between Arabs of various clans. Only under specific governors were polarizing policies reformed, but it could occur only on the sufferance of powerful settler families such as the Fihris who tended to prioritize their own privileges. The resultant confusion threw the politics of Umayyad Andalus into turbulence, and it was not until the Umayyad emirate, independent of the caliphate, that these divisions were finally navigated in order to set up an independent and strong principality.
Abdurrahman b. Abdulhakam, The History of the Conquests of Egypt, North Africa, and Spain, tr. Torrey, C. (1901), Yale University Press.
Abun-Nasr, J. (1987), A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, Melbourne: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.
Batran, A. (1984). Islam and revolution in Africa (1st ed.). Amana Books.
Blankinship, K. (1994), The End of the Jihad State, New York: State University of New York Press.
Chalmeta, P., “An Approximate Picture of the Economy of Andalus,” ed. S. Jayyusi (1992), The Legacy of Muslim Spain (p. 747), Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Christys, A,, “The History of ‘Ibn Habib’ and Ethnogenesis in Al-Andalus,” ed. Reimitz, Helmut (2003). The Construction of Communities in the Early Middle Ages: Texts, Resources and Artefacts, Netherlands: Brill.
Creasy, E. (1852). The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo, London: Bradbury and Evans Publishers.
Filios, D. “Medieval Encounters”, ed. Corfis, I. (2009), Al-Andalus, Sephard and Medieval Iberia: Cultural Contact and Diffusion, Leiden: Brill.
Grieve, P. (2009), The Eve of Spain: Myths of Origins in the History of Christian, Muslim and Jewish Conflict, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
Kennedy, H. (1996). Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of Al-Andalus. New York: Routledge.
Lewis, D. (2008), God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe 570-1215, New York, W.W. Norton & Company Limited.
Najeebabadi, A. The History of Islam, Vol. 3, tr. Mujahid, A. (2001), Lebanon: Darussalam.
Qureshi, M. (2012), Muslim Rule in Spain, Muslim Rule in India, Memories of Two Failures, Britain: Author House Limited.
Muhammad Ibn Qutia, The History of Ibn Qutia, tr. James, D. (2009), Early Islamic Spain: The History of Ibn Al-Qutiyah. New York: Routledge.
Raisuddin, A. (1993, p. 33), Spanish Contribution to the Study of Hadith Literature, Royal Book Company
Riche, P. (1983), The Carolingians: A Family who Forged Europe, tr. Allen, M. (1993), University of Pennsylvania Press.
Safran, J. (2000), The Second Umayyad Caliphate: The Articulation of Caliphal Legitimacy in Al Andalus, Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
Siyal, V. (2000). The magnificent power potential of Pakistan, al-Faisal.
Tabari, Muhammad. Tarikh-ul-Rusal-wal-Muluk, tr. State University of New York Press.
Vol. 19. The Caliphate of Yazid b. Mu’awiyah, tr. Howard, I. (1990).
Vol. 23. The Zenith of the Marwanid House, tr. Hinds, M. (1990)
Vol. 24. The Empire in Transition, tr. Powers, S. (1989).
Vol. 27: The Abbasid Revolution, tr. J. Williams (1990).
Note: I have yet to update the citations, they will follow shortly InshaAllah.
2015 Copyright etc
The rapid rise of the fanatical Islamic State in 2014 to control a broad, oil-rich region in the heart of the north-central Jazira has provoked serious shifts. A weakened Iraqi regime largely propped up by Iran and the United States has seen a change of face, with the suave Haider Abadi replacing his divisive predecessor Nouri Maliki, even as many Maliki-age policies continue unabated. Iraqi Kurdistan, practically independent, has expanded to engulf its prize of Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern town long coveted by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. An effort to reconcile publicly with Iran, long a sparring partner who shares a number of common enemies, by the United States has come just as a number of fiercely anti-Iran Iraqi Sunnis have gathered under the Islamic State’s banner.
This last development has been especially surprising considering the short-lived but much-publicized American thaw with sections of the predominantly Sunni Iraqi insurgents in 2006-08, which has been credited with marginalizing Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia—the Islamic State’s previous title. Even Sunni Arab leaders “vetted” by the United States, including longtime Iraqi deputy leader Tariq Hashimi—hounded into a Turkish exile as soon as the Americans officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011—and Riyad Asaad, the founder and former commander of the Free Syria Army, have publicly claimed that the Islamic State, despite its well-known fanaticism and moral absolutism, is a better option than having to live under a purportedly sectarian, Iranian-controlled Iraqi state. In return, conservative American hawks like John McCain have asserted that the 2011 American withdrawal exposed the Sunnis to a vindictive Shia regime.
McCain’s line of reasoning is typical of the mentality that marked American beltway talk in 2007-08, when the much-celebrated but highly dubious general David Petraeus successfully called for a “surge” that was mildly successful in the short term but hailed by a virtual industry of sycophantic hangers-on in the press as a roaring success that rescued the American occupation from the brink of failure. The logic behind the “surge” tried to reconcile both leftist critiques of the war and rightist support by arguing that, while the rightists had been correct to remove Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, they handled the subsequent occupation badly and alienated Iraqis partly because of insufficient troop levels, an argument that had been posed prior to the war by ostensible critic, the army’s deputy leader Eric Shinseki. The invocation of Shinseki and the idea that Iraqis wanted the Americans to stay—also pushed by largely unrepresentative Iraqi puppets whose very positions depended on American support and who thereby had a very clear but undeclared vested interest in their stance—convinced liberals that the surge was the correct path, and its myth endured so long that it was subsequently transferred, completely unsuccessfully, to Afghanistan.
McCain and other hawks argue that the Americans did not sufficiently guard against Iranian intrigue to assure the Sunni Arabs, who then went over to join the Islamic State. There is some truth here, but highly manipulated and selective. It is certainly true that Iranian influence in the Iraqi government, particularly epitomized by the utterly callous Badr Corps that dominated the interior ministry, was a bane for most Sunni Arabs. But the idea that American surges could somehow help amend the situation is also highly questionable. History shows not that America was a safeguard versus sectarianism in the Iraqi regime, but to the contrary that the Americans pioneered and fostered sectarianism, under the guise of counterinsurgency, as much as Iran.
Rewind to 2003. When the American army, abetted significantly by the British army, invaded Iraq, law and order broke down completely. This was particularly exacerbated by the ignorant, stubborn American viceroy Paul Bremer III, a Bush lackey who immediately fired the entire half-a-million-man Iraqi army in a provocative move that saw the insurgency arise. Over the next year Bremer outsourced security and military operations to a number of callous and unaccountable mercenary conglomerates like Blackwater, who operated far more thuggishly than the official army and were widely resented. Meanwhile, the blanket privatization of Iraq’s long-state-dominated economy saw infrastructure collapse. By the time he scurried out of Iraq in the summer of 2004, Bremer had managed to alienate nearly everybody both in Iraq and large segments of the United States regime.
Initially dismissed as Baathist “deadenders” by the hawkish American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld, the insurgency was actually dominated by a mishmash of mostly but not exclusively Sunnis, many of them sidelined by the occupation, many of them former army men and many of them Islamists of various stripes from both within and without Iraq. By late 2003 the public focus had shifted from the shrinking Baath role to the founder of what would become the Islamic State, a shadowy Jordanian militant named Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi. A lifelong troublemaker who had taken advantage of Jordanian ruler Abdallah II’s amnesty in 1999 to travel to Afghanistan, Nazzal had in fact been turned down by Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which suspected him as a Jordanian mole and were also unsympathetic to his virulent hatred of Shias. Like many conservative Sunnis, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri considered Shias a deviant misguided sect, but they did not share Nazzal’s fanatical hatred of Shias; they had contacts with Iran like Mustafa Hamid, for instance, and their primary focus was to attack the United States. By contrast, Nazzal’s ideology focused overwhelmingly on purging what he considered a cowardly, treacherous fifth column from the Muslim world.
Banished to the western Afghan town of Herat, Nazzal escaped after a brief struggle when the United States invaded, and—apparently via Iran, ironically—entered northern Iraq, where a small but ferocious Islamist Kurd militia called Ansar-ul-Islam, which had cordial informal relations with Al-Qaeda but no operational coordination, was fighting on the eastern border against the secular Kurd parties that had set up an autonomous, pro-Western region there. Though Ansar-ul-Islam welcomed support, they—even more so than Al-Qaeda—had cordial relations by necessity if nothing else with an Iranian state just across the border, and fairly soon Nazzal and a coterie of like-minded militants had formed a separate militia that was virtually unknown outside their small circle.
More than anything, it was media coverage and official American policy that sent this tiny militia catapulting into stardom. In his Feb 2003 address to the United Nations Security Council, American state minister Colin Powell erroneously marked out Abu Musab Nazzal as the missing link between Iraq’s Baath regime and Al-Qaeda, neither of which had actually accepted Nazzal at the time. Nonetheless, Nazzal’s profile shot up as a result and he soon displayed a talent for headline-seizing stunts that has carried on to his successors in the current Islamic State. A series of bombs in Baghdad, one of which killed the capable ambassador United Nations ambassador Sergio Vieiro, late in the 2003 summer were claimed by Nazzal. In 2004, Nazzal abducted an American journalist, Nicholas Berg, in Mosul—nothing new in itself, except that Nazzal gruesomely decapitated him on tape in another trademark of the Islamic State. The American army and the media, thirsty for an identifiable and sinister enemy, quickly latched onto Nazzal as their target.
Throughout 2004 and 2005, a dizzying number of captured Iraqi insurgents—ranging from Ansar-ul-Islam and Ansar-ul-Sunnah to Islamic Army of Iraq and Army of Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His prophet)—were captured and publicly identified by the occupation as “lieutenants of Zarqawi”. For the occupation and its shaky client regime, the attribution to Zarqawi aimed at both Iraqi and American audiences: firstly, it could discredit the entire Iraqi insurgency as a product of foreign sectarian fanatics, and secondly, it could point to the apparent domination of brutal fanatics as a sign that Iraq was, no matter the existence of “weapons of mass destructions”, now a major arena in the “war on terror”.
Many insurgents would themselves express surprise and even doubt at the apparent preponderance of Zarqawi. A Baathist leader, Majid Qaoud, scoffed, “Does it not occur to you that he might be a convenient invention? The embodiment of evil, one of those things of which the Americans are so fond?” Qaoud, a sheikh from the insurgent hotbed of Rimadi, declared, “Neither I nor my relatives have ever seen this al-Zarqawi fellow.” Even years later, Sahwa leaders—Sunni tribesmen who switched sides—would pose the question to their new American patrons, though in more discreet, roundabout matter. As late as 2005, the Shia dissident leader Muqtada Sadr proclaimed that Zarqawi was an American fiction designed to sow roots in the insurgency.
There is no evidence to credence these claims, but it is certainly true that nearly every move the Americans made in the early years of the insurgency benefited Abu Musab Nazzal, and that the idea of the murderous Jordanian leader’s domination of . Even as they cracked down on separate Islamists and tribesmen in Mosul, Rimadi, Fallujah and Samarra, the Americans officially claimed that the majority of their targets were Zarqawi’s men.
In the summer of 2004, the situation was especially stark. A broad coalition of insurgents seized the town of Fallujah; their official leaders were Abdullah Jannabi, Zafar Ubaidi and Omar Hadid: Abdullah and Zafar were local Islamic preachers while Hadid shared a strikingly similar background—petty criminal turned born-again Muslim and influential Islamist commander—but no concrete links of any sort with Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi. There was an important supporter of Nazzal—Omar Jumaa, a severe ideologue who had helped found the tiny militia—in Fallujah, but this was not unusual in the pell-mell early years of the insurgency, and at any rate an airstrike would take out Jumaa in Sept 2004.
On its own, the American army had few qualms about attacking Fallujah. But they also faced another public crisis further south: the town of Najaf, one of the most important sites for Shias, had been taken over by Muqtada Sadr. While most Shia clerics like Abdul-Aziz Hakim and Ali Sistani had prudently tried not to appear overly sympathetic to the United States that had bombarded their oppressor out of power, Sadr was unusual in that—as a scruffy, angry young man whose apparent courage and dedication inspired hundreds of followers—he was totally opposed to the occupation, and he had an important sympathizer in the regime, national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie.
In that early stage, too, Sadr expressed solidarity with his “Sunni brothers”—a line he would later withdraw when sectarianism grew rampant—and at least some Sunni insurgents sympathized with him. Unnamed secularists declared in a 2004 interview, “Contrary to what you imagine in the West, there is no fratricide war in Iraq…the young Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr…is, likely ourselves, in favour of the unity of the Iraqi people….We support him from a tactical and a logisticial perspective.” Nor was this an exclusively secularist perspective. Two other notable Sunni Islamists of the ultraorthodox Sunni Salafist school, which is often very suspicious of Shias, Najamuddin Krakar—formerly head of the Ansar-ul-Islam Kurds but then in Norway—and Mahdi Sumaidai, a Mosul Islamic preacher, also avowed their solidarity with Shias who rebelled. The top American commander in Iraq at the time, Ricardo Sanchez, believed, “There is a linkage that may be occurring at the lowest levels between the Sunni and the Shia. We have to work very hard to ensure that it remains at the lowest level.” Quite contrary to official rhetoric that branded America as a bulwark against sectarianism, in 2004 it utterly suited the Americans to drive a wedge between at least the dissident sections of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities. Not only was it desirable, at the time the survival of the American enterprise in Iraq depended on it.
The Americans did withstand the 2004 crisis; influential cleric Ali Sistani persuaded Muqtada Sadr to back off from a potentially devastating confrontation, and the army then turned its focus fully on the Sunni-majority insurgency. Fallujah was flattened in the winter of 2004, while the revolts in Rimadi, Mosul and especially Samarra were also forcibly crushed. At the end of 2004, Al-Qaeda’s leadership in South Asia—desperate for a proxy on the ground in the most publicized war versus the Americans—swallowed their pride and accepted Abu Musab Nazzal as their viceroy in Iraq; a major turnaround for the once ragtag outcast, whose militia would henceforth be known as Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, posthumously, as Islamic State in Iraq. By 2006 what began as an insurgency had evolved into a vicious sectarian civil war that gave the resourceful, media-savvy American commander David Petraeus a solid casus belle to remain in Iraq in the unlikely role of arbiter. By this time, a solidly pro-Iranian Islamist party, the Daawah party, had come into power, and the pro-American Daawah contender Adel Mahdi-Muntafiqi narrowly beaten by the decidedly more lukewarm Ibrahim Jaafari as the candidate for premier. Sectarianism in the security services, which the Daawah Partys political ally the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraqs military arm the Badr Corps controlled, was rife and sectarian cleansing had begun. In 2006-07, the intrepid American reporter Martin Smith compiled a report for PBS on the militias’ dominance in the Iraqi security services; he gave the Badr commander assigned to interior minister, Bayan Jabr, an especially tough grill. There was also a more sympathetic interview with Jabr’s predecessor Faleh Naqib, who claimed—correctly—that Jabr had overseen the targeting of the security services towards the Sunni population. In essence, the blame for Shia sectarianism was placed entirely on Iran.
But there is a gaping hole in this argument, and that is to ignore entirely the precedent set by the Americans long before Daawah took over. Certainly Bayan Jabr deserves no sympathy; as interior minister he oversaw and whitewashed blatantly sectarian and abusive persecution of Sunnis who, despite his insistence of non-partisanship, were classified and persecuted as “terrorists” with minimal accountability (tellingly, Jabr also cited American conduct in its “war on terror” as a precedent). But he had simply followed, and Iranified, a process that the Americans and their favoured candidate, Falah Naqib—the same man who now accused Jabr—had set in motion in 2004-05.
Naqib, interior minister from mid-2004 to early 2005, belonged to an officially secular party that—unlike the early occupation—incorporated Iraqi, often Sunni Arab, military men who had fled under Saddam Hussein’s rule. The party leader was a secular Shia, formerly Baathist, named Ayad Allawi. Less infamous than his notoriously corrupt and treacherous cousin Ahmed Chalabi—who had charmed the neoconservatives in the American regime as well as the American media into the invasion of Iraq but who also had close ties with their official enemy in Iran’s regime—Allawi, unlike Chalabi, remained an asset to the CIA, who found his claims against Saddam Hussein’s regime less exaggerated than Chalabi’s fanciful, shameless lies. After the utter failure of Chalabi and Paul Bremer had propelled Iraq into disaster, Allawi, with a significant Sunni constituency as well, became the new favourite candidate to lead Iraq and took over as interim premier to succeed Bremer in the summer of 2004.
Importantly, Ayad Allawi’s conscious image was as that of a strongman who could do what was required to return Iraq to stability. In Jul 2004, the premier was widely reported to have personally shot a string of captured prisoners in Baghdad’s Amiriah police station; interior minister Faleh Naqib, also attendant, congratulated Allawi and the local sheriff, Raad Abdullah, ordered his officers not to report the matter. But rather than hurt him, the idea of a tough sheriff appealed to both many Iraqi citizens (the leakers indeed saw Allawi’s action as entirely justified and a positive indication) and, especially, to a flustered American occupation. Iraqis had suffered under the widespread abuse and torture of Paul Bremer and Ricardo Sanchez’s regime, and they would suffer under the same under the pro-Iranian regimes of Ibrahim Jaafari and Nouri Maliki. In between, however, was an oft-overlooked period under Ayad Allawi that connected both of these.
Given a license to kill, Falah Naqib employed his uncle, a thuggish former army commander named Adnan Thabit, as leader of a new homegrown police commando division. Thabit also belonged to the corps of officers who had been imprisoned for attempting to dislodge Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and apparently he suffered torture and brutality there. This would further translate into his leadership of this gendarmerie.
Officially, the police commandos were portrayed as a positive development: an indigenous unit that, with American support, could retrieve security for Iraqis. David Petraeus, one of the few early American commanders who had tried to coopt Sunni Arabs with mixed success, enthusiastically promoted the commandos, who assisted the American army over the autumn of 2004 in their assaults on Mosul and Samarra. The commandos’ operations occurred under the eye of Jim Coffman, a lieutenant of Petraeus, and a shadowy figure named Jim Steele. A ruthless efficient commander who had headed America’s “drug wars” in Latin America by employing merciless government militias to smash the anti-American guerrillas, Steele’s focus on human intelligence revolved largely around the coercion of information out of captives via cruel methods, including systemic torture.
Jim Steele’s role has since been critiqued extensively in a 2013 documentary, Searching for Steele, produced by Mona Mahmood, from which much of this section stems. At the time, however, the United States regime—whose vicious vice-president Dick Cheney and defence minister Donald Rumsfeld both personally knew and patronized Steele—enthusiastically promoted the programme and enthusiastic press coverage was nearly exclusively effusive—the exception being a journalist named Peter Maas who presented a more balanced, holistic and critical analysis that was largely lost at the time.
From the American army, David Petraeus and Jim Coffman both uttered paeans to the “brotherhood of the close fight” that had grown between the Iraqi commandos and their American handlers. Another shadowy paramilitary long fostered by the CIA, called the Scorpion Unit, also operated with impunity. The Americans could not, after the 2003-04 Abu Ghraib torture scandal, personally torture prisoners: they could, however, watch as Iraqi clients did the dirty work for them and plausibly deny contact later, as at least Petraeus has successfully done. Armed with a conglomerate of admirers such as Tom Ricks, Linda Robinson and his future mistress Paula Broadwell—as well as adoring journalists like Michael Gordon and John Burns of the New York Times, Petraeus would progress to build a self-image as an imaginative commander who could gel with the natives and rescue America from the precipice. What was essentially an outsource of abuse to unaccountable local clients became portrayed as a bond between the Americans and Iraqis.
Though officially non-confessional at the time, and led by token Sunnis like Falah Naqib and Adnan Thabit, the American-backed commandos would lay the ground that would be exploited and enhanced by Iran-backed militias. With the campaign against Muqtada Sadr having reached détente, the commandos’ debut in the autumn of 2004 at Samarra and Mosul was organized exclusively versus Sunnis; like Bayan Jabr, Thabit justified his actions versus “the terrorists”, for whom “all kinds of means” were needed to force out confessions. The neoconservatives in the American regime, always sympathetic to the idea that Arabs understood only force, warmed to a missive related by their counterterrorism czar in Baghdad, Hank Crumpton, entitled “Fight Terror with Terror”, which quoted Thabit as explaining the necessity of impunity for his forces thus: “It is necessary that their forces be feared, as this was what was required in Iraqi society to command respect.”
Indeed, despite its official non-sectarianism, the police commando division focused nearly entirely on Sunni Arabs in a way that would be replicated by the Iran-backed force shortly afterward. There were direct links: one of the most feared Shia sectarian militias, the Wolf Brigade, morphed from a battalion in the commandos and clearly shared the systemic sadism. Even the hardhearted Jim Steele viewed the Wolf Brigade commander, Abu Walid Qurashi, as a thug; Abu Walid would quickly transfer from American-backed fealty to Iranian-backed fealty and he would serve as an especially prominent paramilitary commander under Nouri Maliki before he was captured and executed by Islamic State at Mosul in 2014. Thabits top officer, Rasheed Fulaih, was a close coordinate of the Shia militias and remains an influential officer now leader of an army division in the conflict.
Most striking was an attempt to win “hearts and minds” by giving the triumphant commandos their own special television programme, regularly broadcast in 2004-05; according to a glowing History Channel report (Insurgency and Counterinsurgency), “Terrorists in the Grip of Justice” became Iraq’s most popular programme. A brainchild of Mosul sheriff Ahmed Khalaf, another Sunni Arab with little compunction about crushing other Sunnis, the programme featured blindfolded prisoners from 2004 raids who were forced to confess to crimes they may or may not have committed. An aged captive, wheezing creakily with age and clearly in considerable pain, confessed to the unlikely charge of having killed thirty people. Another prisoner was accused of homosexuality with his purported accomplices on the hallowed grounds of a masjid, an utterly merciless accusation; asked if he had any shame for his crimes, the prisoner seems to have thought the matter over for a few seconds—a confession would destroy his reputation, as well as that of the insurgency that he may or may not have supported, but his captors had him by the throat—before reluctantly answering in the affirmative. More unlikely information would follow; another insurgent commander, a former army officer turned Islamist leader Muayyad Nasiri, publicly confessed to having received support from nearly every conceivable enemy: Iran, Al-Qaeda, Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi, Syria, Baath, most of them almost certainly untrue. It was the sort of forced “justice” that had been rife in Baath-age Iraq and indeed a tactic employed by Saddam Hussein against his opponents: now it was rife, indeed approved, under an apparently democratic regime.
Within months, when the Iran-friendly Shia Daawah Party won an election overwhelmingly boycotted by Sunni Arabs, the process pioneered under Falah Naqib would now go overwhelmingly to Shia militias, particularly in the powerful Badr Corps but also homegrown sectarian vigilantes. To many Iraqi Sunnis, long suspicious of Persian designs both real and imagined, this confirmed American-Iranian collusion. The insurgency took on a more sectarian role increasingly dominated by Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, especially because in 2005-06 most of his Islamist competitors had been wiped out by the occupation.
And as bizarre as Sunni suspicions of a joint Iranian-American conspiracy may seem considering the longtime political sabre-rattling between the United States and Iran, on the subject of Iraq they were not far wrong. In Iraq, Iran and the United States may have vied for control. But when it came to Sunni areas in the north and west, it was simply a competition for which country could control the persecution.
By 2006, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia had enough dominance in the insurgency to spread into the urban centres formerly controlled by other Islamists. AQI’s wanton brutality and their attempt to break the back of a traditional tribal structure that they incorrectly accused of incompatibility with Islamic shariah soon alienated enough Sunni tribesmen for the Americans to find an opening; in 2006-07, Petraeus and his lieutenants, such as John Allen and Jim Kelly, began to entice Anbari sheikhs onto their side long enough to present a case to extend an overwhelmingly unpopular war as the unlikely “saviours” of Sunnis and defenders against nefarious sectarianism. AQI continued, wittingly or otherwise, to play into their hands: in Feb 2006, the AQI commander Haitham Badri bombed the Shia Askari shrine at Samarra, triggering a year of ferocious sectarian warfare that provided the Americans with an ideal casus belle to remain in Iraq. So complete was the myth that ironically, formerly powerful career hawks like the ruthless American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld, now advocating a quick withdrawal, were brushed aside in the urge for this “surge”.
If Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi had been credited for the Sunni insurgency, on the Shia part—rather than indict an increasingly vicious government, both America and Iran found a convenient scapegoat in the hotheaded upstart Muqtada Sadr. Sadr, a largely indigenous dissident leader who received minor and strictly qualified support from Iran, was blamed entirely for the sectarian mess on the Shias’ part; the Americans would, incorrectly, point him out as an Iran plant and the cause of Sunni resentment, pointing to the fact that his militia—increasingly slipping out of his control and into the Iranian sphere—was increasingly resented. Iran, for its part, played up accusations of Sadr, ensuring that the United States would reactively entrench the Daawah-led government of Nouri Maliki and play into its hands; they also cultivated extreme defectors from Sadr’s militia like the Khazali brothers Laith, Qais and Ali, responsible for mass sectarian cleansing against Sunnis. So complete was the deception that in 2008, when the Badr Corps and Maliki regime drove Sadr out of Basra, the Americans officially celebrated what they thought was a blow to Iran’s domination in Iraq. In actual fact, it was quite the opposite.
By 2010, a mixture of American collusion and Sahwa collusion had provided Nouri Maliki’s regime with enough respite to swing fully into the Iranian orbit. In the towns, where Maliki had indirectly overseen a sectarian cleanse to drive Sunnis into Sahwa-controlled tribelands, urban Sahwa commanders like Raad Hassan and Adil Mashhadani were suddenly arrested—in fairness, quite a few of them had unsavoury backgrounds, though no more than their arresters—and in some cases executed. The Americans, now committed to a withdrawal, mounted a few symbolic protests, but it was hardly an unavoidable scenario.
It had, after all, been American intervention that had rescued Maliki from an election he had lost (ironically, against a party now headed by former American client Ayad Allawi and allied with longtime American irritant Muqtada Sadr), and the Americans were still trying to woo the regime into their corner rather than the Iranians. Indignant Sahwa leaders, feeling betrayed, would soon rejoin the insurgency, this time willing to tolerate an Islamic State that had gradually grown more discreet after Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi was slain in 2006, and that under its latest leader—Abu Dua Badri-Baghdadi, who would later declare himself caliph—would focus entirely on non-Sunnis and “apostates” rather than Iraqi Sunni competitors. Opponents of the Islamic State in Iraq—both secularist Kurds and Shia Arabs—would increasingly grow hostile to Sunni Arabs as inevitable “terrorists”, and even now both sets are, backed by both Iran’s military support and American airpower, fulfilling an agenda against Sunni Arabs that serves only to drive them into the Islamic State’s camp. In Syria, meanwhile, the Islamic State followed its Iraqi model—infiltrating and initially supporting the insurgency before, like a parasite, expanding to annex and actively fight it.
These concerning developments make it more necessary than ever to understand and duly learn from history, rather than the self-serving narratives promoted by various sides. Neither sectarian extremism nor polarization are inevitable; both have fairly recent roots. Authoritarianism and brutality, often sanctioned from abroad, have threatened to rip the region asunder. And it is not only Iran but, as this article hopes to show, the United States whose military adventures in Iraq have brought the situation to such a critical point
“The blood has not dried, nor the children buried, yet people are already using today’s senseless slaughter for their own political endgames.” – Harry Shotton, 16 December 2014
It takes a remarkable sickness of mind to try and appropriate a mass murder for one’s own political ends. And if the reaction by politicians and reporters to the TTP’s mass slaughter in Peshawar—where nearly 150 people in an army-run school, the vast majority of them children, were butchered by six militants—is anything to go by, the world has a remarkably sick elite indeed.
There are a number of varying, sometimes competing and sometimes collaborating, narratives whose ideologues immediately tried to appropriate the massacre.
The first is that of the Pakistan army and intelligence, who were quite frankly caught napping in a security breach so enormous it could spawn its own falseflag conspiracy genre. Yet rather than display any contrition for having permitted six barely disguised militants to swagger into a military-run school, the army and its assorted hangers-on—people like Zaid Hamid, for whom the army can do no wrong, or social media accounts with lame “Khaki” names—sprang to cover the blunder with a clever steam of heady outrage that, while no doubt genuine, also masked the serious security blunder. Even former commanders have not been spared, with Hamid rhetorically wondering what price former army head Ashfaq Kayani—a far sharper leader than incumbent Raheel Sharif by any measurable yardstick—should pay for having postponed this operation. Ironically—already lambasted by his own boss, Pervez Musharraf, and spokesperson Athar Abbas—Kayani has now turned scapegoat for insufficient hawkishness, never mind that his carefully balanced stance between Western pressure and Pakistan’s longtime strategy had never yielded the levels of failure over seven years that have occurred within a year under Raheel.
The drumbeat—optimistically referred to as a “consensus” in the media that has stoked it—has only one aim: war, war, and more war till terrorism (apparently a finite unchanging apparition) is stamped out. Never mind that the army and security failed to nab an obvious assortment of dodgy extremists in heavily manned Peshawar; this was a result of not letting the army go after the terrorists. Never mind, either, that a full-fledged assault against the TTP has been ongoing for six months in Waziristan against a media blackout; this was a result of not letting the army go after the terrorists. Never mind that initially reluctant parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Tehreek-e-Insaf have had to bear the brunt of the massive refugee swathe that that same unchecked, clumsily planned operation has spawned; this was the result of not letting the army go after the terrorists. The army has, of course, been going after the terrorists unchecked for half a year by now. But spokespeople and hangers-on must keep up a heavy wave of outrage, because if the steam clears they will have been caught, as in the Karachi airport attack this past summer that provoked the operation, with their khaki pants dropped at the ankles.
It is, of course, a fact as the Pakistan army has taken pains to note that TTP leadership, particularly Fazlullah Hayat, has enjoyed a safe haven in eastern Afghanistan, and has tangible links to the Kabul regime’s secret service. But it is cynical to point fingers solely at Kabul. The reason a shaky, corrupt and unpopular Kabul regime imposed on Afghanistan by NATO has survived is the supply route that goes through Pakistan. Surely the first step to stop the TTP’s backers in the Afghan secret service is to shut down that supply line and leave the Kabul regime to the mercy of its people, thereby cutting off the TTP’s backers as well as ending a key rhetorical factor that draws in their recruits? But no. Pakistan can never negotiate with the TTP, no sir, but we can quite happily negotiate with the Americans whose invasion and occupation of our neighbour has spawned and, directly or otherwise, sustained this menace.
But at least the army has done something, half-cock and contradictory though the strategy may be. The same cannot be said of its present cheerleaders in Pakistan’s self-styled “liberal” circles. The same people who, on issues from Afghanistan and Balochistan to Kashmir and India, have never missed an opportunity to castigate the army for harbouring Islamists or being insufficiently committed to foreign interests, have now quite ironically turned into the military’s biggest cheerleaders. “Kill terrorism,” suggests the once-respectable Dawn with a none-too-subtle picture of a noose to drive home the point for the inferentially challenged. On cue, two notorious extremist leaders—Arshad Mahmood, who plotted one of several assassination attempts on then-dictator Pervez Musharraf in 2003, and Aqeel Usman, whose record includes the 2009 attacks on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore and on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi—have been given the ole “phansi”. In this writer’s opinion, executions of convicted serious criminals are in themselves not a particularly troublesome issue, but how exactly does hanging long-captured militants in the wake of an attack to which they have no links solve anything? If it’s to make a point or to intimidate the TTP—Khaki social media claims that a soldier in Peshawar, Abid Zaman, who killed three of the assailants at the school, had suggested it as a “deterrence”—then it’s woefully thought out. TTP has drawn plenty of recruits on the promise of martyrdom for murder: from the army to various militias and, more broadly, Muslims across the world regardless of extremism, martyrdom is a spectacular honour; rather than dealing with their current militants, we’ve handed them two long-inactive martyrs on a plate.
Never mind. Crush terrorism, the opportunists bawl; kick out completely unrelated, blameless Afghan refugees, they scream; shut down madrassas, they howl, or at least reform them. The focus on madrassas is particularly peculiar if unfortunately familiar; these ramshackle seminaries are a makeshift solution, albeit a flawed solution, to a serious societal vacuum largely accentuated by the lack of alternative education, particularly in poor areas. Nor, indeed, do most of them advocate anything near the heinous takfiri ideology adhered to by the TTP’s leadership. But don’t let nuances spoil this rant. Pakistan’s unrepresentative, self-satisfied, hypocritical secularists have never missed an opportunity to stab at any representation of Islam in public and in politics; now, neatly taking the TTP’s own claims to monopolize Islam, they want the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Tehreek-e-Insaf, the Jamaat-e-Ulema. (On a side note, the castigation of Tehreek-e-Insaf, who have finally shut off their unfocused but militarily unobtrusive months-long marches, is especially strange, but it appears to be a staple scapegoat not only for politicians but for journalists from Geo to Dawn to Reuters.) Rarely will they get an opportunity like this. Because no matter outrage they may genuinely feel, that’s what the blood of the Peshawar martyrs is for such vultures: an opportunity.
As psychotic as such viewpoints may be, they can only compete with those who try to justify the Peshawar attack with feeble rejoinders of “But drones…” or “But Pakistan army…”. As unjustifiable as the drone bombardment of the FATA region and the heavy-handed, completely blacked out army assault has been, it is absolutely no justification for what was an unambiguous act of terrorism. To try and justify it by pointing out that the school was a military school is as twisted as justifying dronestrikes on the basis of “militant-aged males” (which, of course, has been done if less so over the past couple of years); it is not a novel phenomenon to the TTP, who attacked a masjid in Rawalpindi five years ago because it was frequented by army officers (several, including commander Bilal Omer, immediately martyred together with plenty of civilians). The vast majority of victims were children, and the entirety of them civilians with no crime. The TTP has, in a stroke of Pentagon-esque plausible denialism, claimed that the attackers were ordered not to kill children—who else did they think would frequent a school?
Even worse is to use genuine grievances as an excuse for this butchery. It may true that Pakistan’s army assault in Waziristan, a traditionally indirectly governed region with a history as a valuable, loyal but autonomous vanguard, is both brutal and hamfisted while producing a shocking refugee crisis that has barely been dealt with (and is utterly ignored by the proponents of that assault). It is also true that the people of FATA and northwestern Pakistan as a whole have suffered enormous brutalities from both army and insurgency in an American-provoked conflict, and that the TTP relies heavily on the propaganda of ejecting what it calls an American client army that has clumsily raided there again and again, in contravention of the understanding laid down at Pakistan’s foundation, since the days of Pervez Musharraf. But the TTP didn’t hit fighting soldiers who could hit back. To “punish” the army, they hit a school full of kids, for which there is absolutely no justification and which as a crime dwarfs even the most vicious assaults on FATA. The solution to the butchery and displacement of civilians in Waziristan is not, has never been and will never be the butchery of civilians in Peshawar or elsewhere in Pakistan.
I won’t waste too much space on this nihilistic, tit-for-tat justification that apparently sees TTP murder as more legitimate than murder by other actors. But it is entirely possibly to argue for the demilitarization of the region without assorting to mealy-mouthed justifications for an unambiguously vicious act of vendetta aimed at innocent children.
More galling than any Pakistani response, no matter how thoughtless or reactive, to the Peshawar massacre is the victim-blaming faux-sympathy that has poured out from governments and been faithfully aped by media worldwide, particularly in the West and in India. They have long wanted Pakistan to crack down not only on the TTP—a genuine security threat—but on their own enemies, most pressingly longtime Islamist militant factions based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This site has already drawn some attention to this phenomenon: that when the TTP commit an atrocity, the West and India, as well as their media sycophants, latch onto an opportunity to blame the victim, Pakistan, by instead attacking Pakistani support for entirely unrelated Islamist militias such as the Afghanistan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others. There is, perhaps, a moral argument to be made about the drawbacks of Pakistan support for Muhammad Saeed or Jalaluddin Haqqani, but it has next to nothing to do with the TTP. Saeed, for instance, has been an enthusiastic proponent for the army’s crackdown on the TTP, while Haqqanis, Gul Bahadur, and the majority of the Afghan Taliban enjoy a longtime relationship with Pakistan’s army and populace, both logistically and in some cases ideologically, that indeed limited the TTP’s efforts to mount an anti-Pakistan insurgency in the long-embattled FATA region.
This makes no difference, of course, to Western and Indian analysts. Like Pakistan’s “liberals”, they know an opportunity when they see it, and the TTP insurgency has been one giant opportunity to push their interests. And so an entire phalanx of commentators from government officials to uncritical media lackeys has lined up to convey sneering criticism thinly veiled as concern. Anybody who has examined the news in recent days knows the drill, from Downing Street to Fleet Street and from Wall Street to the White House: what a terrible tragedy in Pakistan; they must educate their children and fight terror after years of spawning it. This is not sympathy or sorrow. This is an attempt to appropriate the victims’ grief and use it against them. The only solution is increased Pakistani enlightenment—because it is, apparently, Pakistani barbarism that is to blame for the massacre of Pakistanis—and increased Western militarism. Especially with an unsuccessful conflict in Afghanistan dying down, some outlets (basically any three-letter acronym in cable media) have even sought to portray the attack as a case for more invasion; the argument goes that because the Pakistani Taliban attacked Pakistan, we must blame their namesakes the Afghan Taliban and can only be stopped by occupying, raiding and attacking Afghanistan awhile longer. Such an approach has, unfortunately, long been a staple in policy—to play off Pakistan and Afghanistan’s lives against one another, with a foreign occupation and bombardment—the root of the problem, both in the Soviet days and now—presented as a necessary referee between them. Whether Pakistani or Afghan, local dynamics are shown as inherently barbaric and can be saved only by well-meaning, earnest foreign intervention from the very powers that spawned the catastrophic conflict in the region.
In a typical remark, Britain’s cautiously neoconservative premier David Cameron put on a clinic in condescenscion disguised as sympathy: “it’s horrifying,” he wrote, presumably horrified, “that children are being killed simply for going to school”—a bald lie, but one that he had to make in order to justify his own army’s involvement in the region as a “civilizing” force against thugs who apparently hate education and can only be bombed out of their ignorance. A particularly sharp reply on social media by one Ayesha Durrani (who I assume, perhaps incorrectly, is the same as another Ayesha Durrani closely associated with a military family) read:
“No Sir, these children were not killed for going to school. They were killed for being children of army officers—army officers who got dragged into your conflict, to fight enemies you and your friends created, to bear the revenge of the adrenaline surges and ego boosts that you and your friends enjoyed for a decade. But Of Course Sir, getting the facts straight does not matter to you, for lives in our part of the world will n will never be as valuable as the ones in your part of the world.”
It is a sentiment shared by many, perhaps (hopefully) most, locals who know the dynamics of the conflict. And it’s a damn shame that, in the flushed aftermath of the atrocity, our media, political and even usually sharper military elite have so gratefully swallowed the British premier’s narrative of education and civilizational conflict between good and evil.
KOBANE, THE KURDS AND THE POLITICS OF PERPETUAL VICTIMHOOD
A note: too often the large and fairly diverse population of Kurdistan, flung across Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, is referred to as a homogenous group that shares nothing or little in common with its neighbours. For instance, despite the not insignificant minority of fragmented tribal and Islamist political and militant factions, Kurdistan is nearly always identified and referred to by the politics and political language of its secular nationalist dominators and its diaspora. I find this trend deeply problematic but I have yet to discover another brief term, so to clarify when I refer to “Kurds” as a whole in the following article I refer to the dominant elite who have defined their national movement both in terms of politics and Western media focus, rather than the more diverse people.
The twentieth century for the Kurds—the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, an ancient people spread across four countries at the junction between Central Asia and the Middle East—was a horrific one, even more so than for the world at large1. Attacked with poisonous chemical weapons by two of the century’s most domineering leaders, Winston Churchill2 and Saddam Hussein, and attacked on every side by ethnonationalist supremacist Turks, Arabs, and Iranians, the Kurds understandably have adopted a pragmatic, survivalist policy that banks more on ethnic solidarity than abiding alliances with any group—so that during the Cold War, various Kurd guerrillas hedged their bets with both the United States and the Soviet Union, Iraq and Iran, adopting both tribal conservatism and progressive radicalism as ideologies. This earned them a rather unfair reputation for cunning and unreliability by some of their opponents, but the Kurds could just as easily retort by pointing out the number of times their perceived friends had betrayed them, where the United States is usually taken as a case in point.
In the backdrop of near-extermination by ethnonationalists—from Kemalist Turks to Baathist Arabs and, to lesser extents, both royalist and Islamist Iranians—it is understandable for Kurds to take a pragmatic stance, which has been criticized as cynical. Had not Kemalist Turkey, and even its less rigidly nationalist successor of the late twentieth century, adopted a blatantly racist programme towards the Kurds, whom the “great modernizer” of Turkey and his junta viewed as backward shaykhs and aghas unworthy of a modern, forward-looking people?3 (As a yardstick, Tevfik Rusdi, a liberal member of Kemal Ataturk’s ultraracist cabinet, had helpfully pointed out that there was no need for Turkey to exterminate the Kurds as their inherent backwardness would do that by itself). Did not Iraq’s Baath and even their more reconcilable republican predecessors repeatedly made a mockery of their claims of brotherhood with the Kurds, culminating in the infamous slaughter of 1988?4
Even the notion of Muslim camaraderie, long a rare bind between the autonomous Kurds of premodern history and their neighbours5, has become viewed with skepticisim if not outright hostility by more radical modern Kurds though thankfully they remain a fringe6. Considering how both Islamist Iran and Baathist Iraq frequently abused their Islamic universalism and heritage respectively as a tool to crack down on the Kurds during the 1980-88 Gulf Conflict—best summarized by the Islamic “Anfal” title given to Saddam Hussein’s spectacularly unIslamic campaign of extermination in 1988—even religiously observant Kurds, who constitute a majority in Kurdistan itself, have some cause for caution when their neighbours invoke Muslim solidarity.
There was—rightly and understandably in this writer’s opinion—considerable outrage among Muslims and particularly Arabs at the pro-Israel tilt of some Kurds like Dawood Baghistani7, who founded the first pro-Israel paper in Iraq—how could an oppressed people reach out to another oppressor?—and yet in the Muslim world, the twentieth-century plight of the Kurds, perpetrated mostly by Muslims, has yet to be fully realized and condemned in similar vein8. By contrast, since the 1990s most Western observers—both “alternative media” pundits, who appreciated the Kurds’ revolutionary struggle, and establishment figures for whom the Kurds’ plight has presented an easy appropriation to further geopolitical aims such as the attack on Iraq—have recognized the Kurds’ difficulty and continue to sympathetically view the Kurds as regional actors.
VICTIMS NO MORE
Nonetheless, the twenty-first century’s first decade saw the scales tilt dramatically in the favour of the Kurds. The United States’ attack on a mutual enemy, Iraq’s Baathist regime, received the support of the Kurds’ peshmergas9; having already spent the better part of a decade in autonomy, Iraqi Kurdistan now presents the first autonomous region under Kurdish rule since the shortlived Mahabad Republic of the 1940s. Despite a longrunning feud with Iraq’s new regime, the sectarian Shia-dominated Baghdad regime headed formerly by Nouri Maliki and now Haidar Abadi, Kurdistan remained relatively secure and prosperous in Iraq, with its head Massoud Barzani inching it towards autonomy. An intelligent and prudent leader who (like his longtime rival for the Kurds’ leadership, the then-instated Iraqi ruler Jalal Talabani) has sought to mend old rivalries in the region, Massoud oversaw the healing of ties with Turkey’s Islamist regime—to the extent that both cooperated in smuggling Iraq’s Sunni deputy ruler Tariq Hashimi to safety from Maliki’s vindictive clutches in 2012-1310—as well as balancing ties between a number of varying actors, as different as Iran, the Gulf states, America and Israel.
The upshot of this—coupled with the total breakdown of the region’s non-Kurd populations into internecine conflict—is that in relative terms, the Kurds of the 2000s for the most part are no longer the region’s persecuted, feisty underdogs or the betrayed, tragic victims. And yet their spokespeople and supporters, as well as the vast majority of the world’s media, continue to act as if they are. Any story about the Kurds’ suffering, their resilience in the face of danger and their pluck, receives much more attention than does that of their neighbours even when dwarfed in proportion (as if human sympathy is a zero-sum phenomenon), and is often completely swallowed without question by reporters who should know better.
A case in point is July’s siege of the Yazidi minority—a tiny syncretic group that Daash and other hardliners accuse of devil worship—in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. There was absolutely no question that the Daash siege was brutal, or that it was an emergency that required urgent humanitarian assistance11. Instead, it resulted in yet another United States bombardment of Iraq, which gave Daash a brief setback without eradicating that far-too-convenient threat, and which was exploited both by the Kurds’ peshmerga and Shia militias to root out longstanding rivals from the area under the pretext of fighting Daash12.
Once the smoke had cleared, however, it became clear that the initial reports, many of them by Kurdish media outlets, had been wildly exaggerated. The number of Yazidis purportedly crowded and starved on a mountain had been inflated by tens, and some of them had actually been residents, not refugees, of the area. Stories of sexual jihad and genocide by voracious Daash thugs ran riot—many quite unnecessary fabrications, since Daash quite proudly advertise their brutality. In one of the most ludicrous cases, one media outlet that has never been a bastion of integrity reported that Yazidi parents were feeding children blood to survive, or pushing them off the mountain to their deaths as an apparently more dignified route to the afterlife13; there was, unsurprisingly, no corroboration for this spectacularly unlikely claim, but the press ran with it, amid a backdrop of diaspora Kurds wailing that nobody was heeding their suffering even as a very dodgy bombardment was predicated on it14.
Another case, which has prompted this article, is the current siege of the mostly Kurd-populated Kobane (or Ain-ul-Arab), which apparently to be hurtling towards a Daash triumph after months of conflict. Before discussing the current siege, however, it is necessary to note the background.
This mostly Kurd-populated town, on northern Syria’s border, has been controlled by Salih Moslem’s leftwing Democratic Union with considerable competence for the duration of the Syrian conflict. Moslem’s faction has been closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey, which fought a bitter war with Turkey’s then-nationalist regime in the late 1990s. Formerly a radical communist guerrilla, the Workers’ Party head Apo Ocalan underwent something of a transformation in custody, and now advocates a gradualized autonomy for the Kurds that—rather than totally removing the traditional status quo of Kurdish community, such as tribal and religious aspects—seeks instead to accommodate and supplant them in a leftist framework (though himself an atheist, it is notable that Ocalan has in the past tried to woo observant Muslim factions among the Kurds15). The outbreak of conflict in Syria gave Moslem’s Democratic Union faction an opportunity to put Ocalan’s theories into practice, resulting briefly in one of the very few functional secular movements in the current Muslim world.16
It’s understandable that like many of his predecessors, Moslem chose to distance himself from either party—the Damascus regime or its opponents—during Syria’s conflict; he wanted to guard this newfound autonomy (which, a cynic may argue, may have benefited from the conflict’s perpetuation), so long coveted by the Kurds. Despite the claims of both the secular regime and its largely Islamist opponents, there was no guarantee that either would, or could, guarantee Syria’s Kurds their aims of autonomy and self-governance (though several Kurds, such as Mishal Tamo who was tortured to death a few days back by the regime, and Abdullah and Ahmed Kurdy, who form a brigade in the Islam Front, did take sides). So Moslem, the dominant leader of Syria’s Kurds, initially hedged his bets, politely refusing to cooperate either with the regime or the insurgents, except where their interests coincided—such as in the case of Nusra Front, with whom the Kurds fought a series of fierce skirmishes last year in northeastern Syria17.
The rise of Daash, which formally broke away from the insurgency in a whirl of ferocious confrontation over this past 2013-14 winter18, saw the insurgents appeal again to the Kurds; fighting on two fronts, versus both the extremists and the regime, and virtually isolated despite some empty gestures of support abroad, the insurgents badly needed whatever help they could get19. But the Syrian Kurds again opted to hedge their bets, and wait. Indeed, Salih Moslem himself tilted publicly towards the Syrian regime, arguing that Assad—easily the prime villain in a conflict riddled with villains—needed a spot at the negotiations table and repeatedly rebuffing insurgent appeals for unity20. (Moslem’s stance by no means accounts for the entirety of even the leftist Kurds in Syria: less prominent rivals, Abdul-Basit Saida and Nasruddin Ibrahim, have backed the insurgency with some reservation, but their groups are relatively insignificant in size and influence).
It wasn’t until Daash’s stunning conquest along the Iraq-Syria border this summer, which included attacks on both Iraq’s and Syria’s Kurds, that Salih Moslem reconsidered the stance. While Iraq, with its far greater oil supplies and greater accessibility to the United States after a decade of occupation, received immediate assistance, Syria’s Kurds—besieged in their eastern stronghold of Kobane—complained of insufficient attention, with their commander Sipan Himo repeatedly asking for a seat at the United States’ proxy table21. So far, despite a campaign of largely indiscriminate airstrikes with its Gulf clients that has decimated large swathes of the insurgency22, the United States has yet to publicly comply.
This left the frustrated Syrian Kurds in search of other partners. In late summer, they finally assented to the Free Syria Army’s offers of unification, with the respected FS northern commander Abduljabbar Uqaidi, a straightlaced officer who has tried to bridge as many gaps as possible during this conflict, sending reinforcements to Kobane23. But the Free Syria Army, never an especially cogent unit, is incapable of substantial support after attacks on literally every possible front. Now that Kobane is falling, old enmities and suspicions have reignited and the bulk of the Kurds’ ire has been directed not at its indecisive leadership or at the Western regimes it hopes yet to win over, but at a “perfect enemy”—Turkey.
A PERFECT ENEMY
Nearly every player in this conflict has Turkey’s regime, an Islamist-oriented government headed by the ambitious Recep Erdogun and his reliable lieutenant Ahmet Davutoglu, in its gunsights. Erdogun’s authoritarian streak, though wildly overblown home and away, has not helped24, but his foreign policy, a dramatic change from the past (in this writer’s opinion, a change for the much, much better), has been a key issue. Though the Turkish regime of the 2000s has been far more accomodating and open to the Kurds than its predecessors, who as late as 1999 under the “moderate” Bulent Ecevit were quietly massacring Kurds wholesale in the east, its other policies (usually matched, interestingly, by an otherwise conservative Qatar monarchy) have come under fierce criticism from various sides—ranging from the United States and Israel to the royalist Gulf regimes to Iran’s bloc.
In Afghanistan—despite a deployment of non-combat soldiers (the only popular NATO troops there25)—Turkey has been at the forefront of trying to reconcile the Afghan regime with the Taliban insurgency and its Pakistani neighbour26. In Egypt, Turkey opposed the United States and the Gulf regimes, most notably Saudi Arabia, in backing the ousted Islamist president Muhammad Morsi after Abdel-Fattah Sisi’s bloody 2013 coup27. Since 2011, when relations between Hamas and its former patron Iran (which had itself replaced Saudi Arabia in this role during the “war on terror”’s early years28) cooled because of differences over Syria29, Turkey has taken over as Hamas’ sponsor30. This, coupled with the bubbling hostility between Erdogun and Israel’s brutal ruler Benjamin Netanyahu which invariably goes down well in the Muslim world, has alienated Western support; but the fact that Turkey has backed the revolution in Syria against Russian-Iranian client Bashar Assad means that the anti-Western, self-described “anti-imperialist” bloc of Russia and Iran have also attacked the Turkish regime.
Since the Syrian conflict started, Turkey has played a leading role both in militarizing the opposition into an insurgency, as well as shouldering the brunt of refugees from Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey, which easily holds the world’s biggest Syrian refugee population. Not coincidentally, the Free Syria Army was founded, and rather awkwardly headed, from Turkey by Riyad Asaad, while Islamist leaders also set up stations there31. A porous border saw massive movements to either side—refugees out, arms and militants in. At the United Nation, Turkey argued for a no-fly zone—a far more reasonable check than the blanket American and Gulf bombardment—only for Russia and China to veto it repeatedly, while other countries such as the United States steadily distanced themselves from an insurgency they had once publicly welcomed32. In April a tape caught Turkey’s then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, increasingly anxious to remove Assad, with army vicecommander Yasar Guler, intelligence head Hakan Fidan and diplomat Feridun Hadi, discussing contriving a pretext to attack Syria directly. It was desperate, but given the ignored crimes of the Syrian regime and the near-global deafness to an increasing din hardly unconscionable33.
These developments, which for the most part should be welcomed, have instead become a convenient stick for critics to attack Turkey. Russia and Iran, rather than explaining their unconscionable backing of a vicious regime, have shouted imperialism; the United States and its Gulf clients, seeking to pressure Turkey out of its support for Islamist factions, have shouted treachery (the Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain has an excellent article on a Gulf lobby, particularly from the United Arab Emirates, that has sought to vilify Islamist-supportive regimes such as Qatar and Turkey34).
An open border policy, which let militants in and out of Turkey without discretion, has been redefined as Turkish state support for Daash, even though Daash is one of many armed groups who have exploited it together with some of their stiffest opponents who have been conveniently lumped with them as manic Islamists despite immense ideological, political and operational differences (there are striking parallels between the Daash relationship with the insurgency and Turkey and the TTP relationship with the Taliban insurgency and Pakistan, which I have outlined in a previous article; they are not the only similarities between Syria-Turkey and Afghanistan-Pakistan35). But nobody has cried blue murder quite like Syria’s Kurds and their diaspora.
Drawing on a completely caricature of the Turkish regime as continuing the murderously anti-Kurd policy of its twentieth-century antecedents, this theory selectively redraws Turkey’s role in Syria as a giant conspiracy to wipe out the Kurds. It claims, with no substantiation, that Turkey has spawned Daash as a proxy to remove the leftist Kurd movements in Syria and Turkey (the fact that Daash loathes Turkey to an only slightly lesser extent is usually brushed aside as the politics of shared hatred for the Kurds). Having once attacked Turkey for using the Syrian conflict as an excuse to invade Syria and wipe out the Kurds36, it now blames Turkey for not doing precisely that and for letting Kobane burn by not invading Turkey37.
Western and anti-Western outlets alike have snatched onto this narrative with glee, wagging stern fingers as they put this imagined scenario down to apparent eternal Turkish hatred for the Kurds (the cordial relation between Turkey and regime of Iraqi Kurdistan in recent years is left ignored). Westerners like the United States can play, as they always do, the concerned humanitarians mediating between ancient hatreds; non-Westerners like Russia and Iran can play the anti-imperialist trying to rescue an embattled minority from a vicious NATO affiliate.
The problem is that this narrative, so consistently spun across the airwaves regardless of ideology, also flies in the face of the facts. Turkey’s open border has let not only Daash but militants of every stripe, including secular Kurds, pass; most of these militants, contrary to the “every Muslamist is a terrorist” angle played by Bashar Assad, have exhausted themselves in the thousands of lives fighting Daash for nearly a year38.
Nor did Turkey, however suspect its motives, seek to stamp out the autonomous Syrian Kurds; the majority of the insurgents who unsuccessfully sued repeatedly for collaboration with Salih Moslem had been from the Free Syria Army or Islam Front, both backed by Turkey. And the airstrikes from the United States and its Gulf clients that, to the undisguised glee of the purportedly “anti-imperialist” guardian of Syrian sovereignty Bashar Assad, have wiped out swathes of the insurgency under the pretext of removing Daash and vague “imminent dangers to the homeland”, had been fully supported by the Kurds, even as, like Assad’s airforce, it decimated civilians. There is tremendous hypocrisy to go around regardless of affiliations with regards to international positions on Daash, but for a long-persecuted minority to ignore the massacre between other groups and then cry foul when it spreads their way ranks up there.
Like their eventual unification with Free Syria Army battalions, Salih Moslem’s Kurds in Syria and their counterparts in Turkey—who have now begun a campaign of violence in mostly Kurdish towns in Turkey to express that disapproval39—only started to care about the fire when it threatened them and it was too late; now that that policy has backfired, they and their supporters in the media have excavated an outdated, anti-Kurd Turkish bogey as a perfect scapegoat to blame. Like the majority of the region’s actors who blame the insurgency and its Turkish backers rather than far more glaring problems, this stance is both factually incorrect and, after their silence on the massacre of Syria, morally empty.
I haven’t posted here awhile, mainly because of work and study commitments. Given the Pakistan army’s attack yesterday on its Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, however, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts. I don’t normally write off-the-cuff posts like this without citation or arrangement, but this seems important and it IS a blog
1) This appears to have been basically inevitable at one level. Not only did the TTP launch a rather horrendous assault on Karachi’s airport last week, but the militants that claimed responsibility were Uzbek and Central Asian Turks who have been earmarked as a major threat by Pakistan’s most powerful and reliable partner, China. Given this, it was inevitable that these militants–a collection of Central Asian Islamist groups, most notoriously the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan under Usman Ghazi, who have sheltered in Pakistan for the past decade or so–would be attacked. The unwelcome attention also drew attention from other, more Pakistan-friendly Islamist commanders in North Waziristan, Gul Bahadur and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who have not only cooperated closely with the Pakistan army and intelligence but also fear unwelcome attention that both draws from their anti-US jihad in Afghanistan and their autonomy.
2) It is also fairly clear, or should be, that the eradication of the TTP is not, as the group and its supporters have declared, an American war but very much a Pakistani concern. Though the arrival of the TTP in 2007 was boosted by American-pushed military attacks in a sensitive tribal region, since then the group itself has only ever pursued its stated goal of jihad rhetorically; though its leaders repeatedly claim to be fighting against the occupation of Afghanistan, the group itself has exclusively attacked mostly fellow Muslim Pakistanis. Not only did the Afghan Taliban and even Al-Qaeda distance themselves from the TTP’s strategy and tactics respectively, but the Mehsud tribesmen under Khalid Sajna–among the group’s most accomplished commanders–also split away. Though Sajna’s differences with the hardline TTP leader Fazlullah Hayat and his Mehsud lieutenant Sheharyar Shahbaz seem to rise more from personal ambition than necessarily ideology, the TTP’s core local support has stemmed from the Mehsuds. There is also increasing evidence, echoed by Sajna’s supporter Raees Tariq (no matter how cynically, considering his own long history with the TTP), that Fazlullah is heavily funded by the Afghan intelligence agency, which contrasts sharply with the TTP’s rhetoric about liberating Afghanistn.
3) That said, it is absolutely ridiculous to pretend, as some “more loyal than the army chief” keyboard soldiers have done, that a war between the Pakistan army and a Pakistan-based group is black-and-white. As ludicrous it is to pretend that eradicating the TTP is an American concern, not a Pakistani one, it is equally ridiculous to assert that those leaders, such as Tehreek-e-Insaf head Imran Khan and Jamaat-e-Islami emir Sirajul-Haq, are somehow sympathetic to the TTP because they have concerns about the fallout of a difficult operation. Too many self-proclaimed army loyalists are acting like a multifaceted, complex and difficult conflict is simply black-and-white, as that JI, PTI and others who raise valid concerns are traitors. Dissent is healthy, particularly in a conflict where every Pakistani, including the army, should want to limit unnecessary casualties to the bare minimum.
There is also a world of difference between registering valid concerns and caveats over the possible fallout of a tricky operation, as JI and PTI have done–and “opposing the army”–which is ironically what some of the loudest cheerleaders, such as pseudoliberals Nadeem Paracha, Umar Cheema, Omar Quraishi, and Abdul-Majeed Abid, have spent years and built careers doing. It’s odd to see these pseudoliberals settle into a marriage of convenience with pro-army analysts and even with ultra-conservative Islamists like Lashkar-e-Taiba head Muhammad Saeed; hopefully they can keep it up when the army turns against Balochistan’s separatists, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
4) This operation will be pointless, or at least left unfinished, as long as the NATO supply routes from Karachi remains intact. This has been the lifeline of NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan, among whose top beneficiaries is the Afghan secret service to which the TTP and other anti-Pakistan groups have been linked. The main reason that Fazlullah Hayat retains so much influence as a TTP hardliner is his enormous supply of cash and the strategic depth he can garner from the Afghan secret service. It’s pointless to argue for the elimination of the TTP and yet keep the occupation of Afghanistan–whose people deserve far better than a superficial, corrupt and brutal puppet regime–open; this is, both in terms of their propagation and resources, the TTP’s main lifeline. Again, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
5) Broadly speaking–regardless of whether one agrees with their strategy–the Pakistan army command has been impressively willing to put their “skin in the game” in recent times. It’s been well-circulated over the past couple of days that Khalid Rabbani, Peshawar corps commander, has also sent his son to the front. I have not yet seen confirmation of this, but it wouldn’t be unusual. The Karachi airport attack was personally countered by corps commander Sajjad Ghani, in a risky but daring performance; other commanders such as Haroon Aslam and Tariq Khan have personally led their troops in dozens of engagements. Masood Aslam, formerly Peshawar corps commander, lost his only son Hashim, also a soldier, in a 2009 Rawalpindi masjid attack, which also killed the high-ranked commander Bilal Omer, whom witnesses described as personally tackling the suicide bomber. Other commanders assassinated or slain in combat during the past decade include Sanaullah Niazi, Mushtaq Baig, Faisal Alvi, Haroon-ul-Islam, Anwarul-Haq Ramday, Mujahid Mirani, Safwat Ghayur, Usman Ali, and Waseem Aamer; the list is by no means exhaustive. Just as it is possible to disagree with JI and PTI without calling them “TTP sympathizers”, it is also possible to recognize without agreeing to their plans that the Pakistan army are not, as the TTP claim, “Western sellouts”, and have often displayed extraordinary leadership in this conflict.
6) The prominent Rawalpindi politician Sheikh Rasheed has called this a miniature military rule, with which I agree. Army head Raheel Sharif had been earmarked as a client of the prime minister Nawaz Sharif, but if anything it appears that Raheel wears the Sharif pants. As often happens in tense times and with a blatantly incompetent regime, the army’s popularity has also increased in recent months, but its own interests should prevent it from trying to seize power. As Ashfaq Kayani’s tenure showed, a quietly influential army behind the scenes is far better than a Pervez Musharraf-style military regime, which may yield short-term benefits but in the long run hurts both civic politics and military cohesion.
7) According to the army spokesperson Asim Bajwa–hardly a neutral source, of course–the Pakistan army and local government has done its best to minimize innocent casualties and to support displaced refugees. The very legitimate humanitarian concerns aside, this is to be fervently hoped for anyway, because the last thing Pakistan needs is the alienation of its frontier population, most of whom have been upstanding citizens but who would naturally resent a heavy-handed assault.
8) Interestingly, NATO’s client regime in Afghanistan has tried to portray itself as the saviour of the frontier people here; the Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, largely sympathetic to the occupation, posted a picture on social media of what he claimed were Pakistani refugees in Khost, which Pakistani analyst Arif Rafiq subsequently showed was a 2011 picture in northern Pakistan. It should be noted–and commended–that the Khost provincial governor, Abdul-Jabbar Fahimi, has accepted several hundreds of refugees, which underscores the historical bond between Afghans and Pakistanis. But it is interesting that an occupation-sympathetic journalist would feel the need to dig up fabricated photographs to prove this point; as NATO finally withdraws from Afghanistan, it appears that the pro-occupation press is whirring into overdrive.
(NOTE: This was a rebuttal I wrote to the patently misinformed and, I suspect, disingenuous article written by one Zmarak Yousefzai on Foreign Policy. I sent it to several other news outlets under a pen name, but unfortunately none saw fit to print it. There is also a very fine rebuttal by Zia Pacha Khan here http://pachanation.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/myths-and-more-myths-the-elusive-quest-for-peace-in-afghanistan-and-pakistan/comment-page-1/#comment-10. As I argued in my previous post here https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/when-the-story-gets-in-the-way-of-facts-afghanistan-pakistan-and-the-ahmed-rashid-syndrome/ , the Afghanistan conflict and its media coverage have been based off as much misinformation as the American/British/Australian invasion of 2003, and disingenuously and hypocritically presented as a “necessary” invasion)
The politicization of information in the Afghanistan conflict
Ibrahim Moiz (copyright etc, rights reserved)
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and nowhere are the stakes for dangerous things higher than in the explosive field of international relations. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the now notorious run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where bits of intelligence information, technically factual on their own, were wildly decontextualized and shaped to form a deliberately deceptive, contrived justification for the invasion, based on Saddam Hussein’s brutal record and his alleged, but now disproven, stock of weapons of mass destruction. This disinformation is not uncommon in wartime; most if not all modern wars involve some level of disinformation on all sides, usually to dehumanize the enemy and rationalize to an otherwise peaceable population the necessity of a bloody, costly war.
The American-headed NATO war in Afghanistan, now the longest in American history and, in this writer’s humble opinion, at least as criminally wasteful adventure as Iraq, generally received a warmer reception than did the obviously contrived Iraq venture. For one thing, it came in the aftermath of a terrible attack on New York by an extremist militant network hosted by a backward and repressive regime in Afghanistan. Nobody was going to question, in the wake of so shocking a tragedy, the wisdom or validity of this war, even though—as we now know—a number of the Taliban’s top command, including Mohammed Omar’s closest aide Abdul-Wakil Muttawakil and foreign officials Abdul-Jalil Akhtar, Abdul-Salam Zaeef and Mohammad Abdul-Kabir, had urged for Osama bin Laden’s extradition. Neither Omar’s second-in-command, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, or his predecessor Mohammad Rabbani had been in favour of Osama’s comfortable haven in Afghanistan, which had helped cause such alienation on the international stage.
The Taliban—even Omar, who felt that releasing the Saudi militant would cause him to lose face and a rare ally in a world that had long since denounced his government—had long tired of Al-Qaeda, whose presence had helped ostracize them; as Milton Bearden, the former CIA officer who supported the Afghan mujahedine in their 1980s fight against the Soviets, explained to almost no media reception just three weeks into the Afghan invasion, “We never heard what they were trying to say…We had no common language; ours was ‘Give bin Laden up’. They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’” For an impoverished (and inept) regime constantly at war with the Northern Alliance and in desperate need of any friends, it was hardly an unreasonable attitude. But Taliban offers of negotiation never made it to America’s public, which—like a wounded animal—were ready to lash out any which way. George Bush needed to be seen to act, no matter that his then lauded boldness would lead to a catastrophic series of events and the deaths of thousands and thousands of Americans and non-Americans alike. The Taliban’s unconscionable humans rights violations, and their destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, were added to spice up the narrative.
More and more justifications were piled on to portray what was definitely a “war of choice” into a “war of necessity”, so much so that even an Iraq-disillusioned American public accepted the claims of liberal hawks like Barack Obama that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, belonged to the latter category. There can, for instance, be no excuse for the Taliban’s cruelty towards minorities and women, but it could be pointed out that it was largely not the result of active malice but of a primitive wartime worldview of a generation whose entire lives had been steeped in war; even the notorious Taliban chief of moral police, Qalamuddin (now repatriated into the Afghan government), claimed that his regime would allow women to seek limited job and education opportunities once there was an infrastructure that would guarantee their segregation from men—an outlandish idea, certainly, but one formed in the worldview of a wartime generation who saw the only solution to the rapine and slaughter of the 1980s and 1990s in an ultraconservative, rigid interpretation of shariah. There was also minimal coverage of the equally atrocious, if officially unsanctioned, humans rights abuses of the US’ new partners, the Northern Alliance; it had, after all, been the wanton debauchery of militias under such non-Taliban leaders as Abdul-Rashid Dostum, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, and even the posthumously-eulogized and fairly fashionable Shah Massoud that had given rise to the Taliban movement in the early 1990s. Disinformation can be crippling, but it can be extremely valuable to sustain an otherwise unjustifiable war that now has as few as a sixth of American citizens’ support.
The list of disinformation on both sides, both pro-NATO and pro-Taliban, in this war could fill a book, but for now a quick rebuttal of Zmarak Yousefzai’s article in Foreign Policy (16/1/2014) should do. There is no doubt that there has been disinformation on the pro-Taliban side, but Yousefzai simply sets out a bizarre list of three apparently rife rumours that he then shoots down in classic strawman fashion. Firstly, he claims to debunk the claim that the CIA funded the Taliban in the 1980s, asserting instead that the Taliban fought the CIA-backed mujahedine.
This is, like the most dangerous bits of disinformation, partly true. Many of the Taliban’s rank-and-file, in particular, were enrolled in Pakistan’s controversial Haqqaniah madrassa at some point during the 1980s, often shuttling back and forth across the border, and the warlords they fought in the 1990s included many mujahedine. Yet to entirely separate them, in what I can only uncharitably assume to be a politicized rewrite of history designed to relieve the CIA of the blame, is untrue. Most of the Taliban’s leaders, in particular—Omar, Mohammad Rabbani, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, Ubaidullah Akhound, Abdullah Burjan, Abdul-Razzaq Akhoundzada and the like—were actively involved as relatively low-ranked officers in the anti-Soviet jihad, most of them under the leadership of Younas Khalis, whose son Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahid now fights in Afghanistan against the NATO occupation. Mohammad Rabbani, for instance, served as second-in-command to one mujahid army under an Abdul-Razaq in southern Afghanistan. The very Ahmed Rashid book, Taliban, that Yousefzai cites here has an appendix that includes the Taliban leaders’ anti-Soviet mujahedine factions: the most frequent loyalty was the Khalis mujahedine faction.
Conversely, the groups the Taliban fought during the 1990s included both mujahedine and anti-mujahedine. While anti-Taliban leaders Abdul-Haqq Humayun, Abdul-Rabb Sayyaf and Ismail Khan were indeed prominent mujahedine commanders (Abdul-Haqq, like most of the Taliban leadership, in Khalis’ group), many of them—including Abdul-Rashid Dostum, Abdul-Jabbar Qahraman and Ismatullah Muslim actively fought against the mujahedine in the 1980s on behalf of the communist government. As Antonio Giustozzi points out, the catastrophic civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal of 1989 was partly fueled by these commanders’ need to continue earning income off warfare off the militias they had founded in the Soviet period. Many prominent mujahedine commanders including Abdul-Salam Racketi, Gul Naqibullah and the infamous Jalaluddin Haqqani actually defected to the Taliban in the mid-1990s, though Racketi and Naqibullah defected back to the opposition camp during the 2001 NATO invasion. So whatever point Yousefzai has tried to make here is entirely contrived and only partially factual. And though he is correct is that the TTP, the Pakistan Taliban, are entirely divorced from the 1980s mujahedine, it should be pointed out that they share very few similarities with the Taliban in Afghanistan except in name: while the Afghan Taliban were raised under and are believed to still rely on covert backroom support from the Pakistan army and intelligence, the TTP have clashed head-on with their Afghan namesakes’ comrades.
A more obvious strawman then emerges when Yousefzai asserts that drone critics claim the Taliban are fighting an anti-drone war; he bases this, no doubt, on the recent deluge of anti-drone sentiment in literature and media alike, and points out that the Taliban existed well before drones. Yet just about every vaguely informed drone critic I have read or seen does not claim at all that the Taliban are a response to drone strikes: they claim, instead, that the Taliban purport to fight foreign occupation, and that drone strikes are one of the aggravating factors that provoke locals to join the Taliban. A study by RAND scholars that he cites is entirely against the grain of most evidence, and in any case is no more reliable than official accounts of who killed who and who did what; as Jeremy Scahill among others discovered, the official account is extremely unreliable and should not be taken at face value.
Yousefzai here offers the most inaccurate and yet most common fallacy yet; without warning, he switches from the Afghan Taliban to their Pakistani namesakes (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), and claims—rightly—that the Pakistani Taliban have targeted mainly local fellow Muslims or local minorities and displaced millions. This is true, but it bears no relevance to the Afghan Taliban who had hitherto been the subject of the article. To conflate them based on a shared name is as ridiculous as conflating the Republic of Ireland with the Republic of Iran. And yet it has been the most common fallacy in media coverage.
The Afghan Taliban were raised on official support, and probably still partly rely on private support from elements, from the Pakistani establishment; the TTP exclusively attacks the same Pakistani establishment. While the Afghan Taliban presents a frontal threat to the NATO-backed regime in Afghanistan, the TTP—as journalist Imtiaz Gul noted in The Most Dangerous Place—has almost exclusively targeted fellow Pakistanis; when asked to justify the killing of fellow Pakistanis in purported retaliation for an American occupation of Afghanistan, TTP leaders claimed that it would be more productive to kill fellow Muslims—so that everybody involved, killer and victim, would reach heaven as martyrs—rather than the American soldiers they were purporting to oppose. Gul’s appendices, which contain a valuable list and sketches of prominent leaders in the FATA region, also show how different most Pakistan Talibs’ backgrounds are from their Afghan namesakes.
The Afghan Taliban, in order to maintain its popular appearance in the border regions as a well-meant local insurgency, has repeatedly distanced itself from the TTP’s attacks on Pakistanis, though it avoids cutting ties outright. Even the infamous and successful one-legged Afghan Taliban commander, Daadullah Lang, who pioneered the use of civilian attacks before his death in 2007, was unceremoniously booted out of the Taliban a year before his death, according to Afghan Taliban Abdul-Jalil Akhtar, because his explosive statements and brutal actions were seen as depriving the Taliban of much-needed local sympathy. The Afghan Taliban are unlikely, thanks to an abysmal governing record and a far better capacity for fighting than ruling, to ever rule Afghanistan even if they do drive out NATO, certainly not without integrating into a decent political unit. But in wartime they have time and again proven remarkably versatile.
Even those FATA leaders such as Gul Bahadur and Nazeer Ahmed who opposed the Pakistan Taliban have been collectively branded “Taliban” because of their ties with the Afghan insurgency, with no distinction, thereby justifying attacks on them in the name of stamping out terrorism. When Nazeer, a partner of Pakistani forces in the FATA region who had long since severed ties with the TTP, was killed by a drone strike a year ago, he was posthumously declared a “Taliban commander” in many media outlets, in order to justify the strike against a local moderate who may have opposed the NATO occupation in Pakistan but certainly had nothing to do with terrorism. To foreign troops and civilians alike they may all seem similar: barbarous, perhaps, and certainly outlandish, yet the political reality is that these distinctions exist, and for pragmatic if no other purposes, need to be made.
Given the vast, destructive and indeed self-flagellating repercussions of politicized disinformation, why would thinktanks and pundits in Washington and elsewhere continue to peddle thinly veiled disinformation as fact and publish it in influential journals like Foreign Policy? The reason, as in no doubt the case on the other side, is pure propaganda and serves to perpetuate an otherwise costly and unjustifiable war. Since the vicious attack on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012, ordered by now-Pakistan Taliban leader Fazlullah Hayat, the media has time and again blamed the Taliban with no distinction between the two distinct Talib groups. This has, unwittingly or not, blamed the Afghan Taliban, NATO’s enemies in Afghanistan, for the attack instead of the Pakistan Taliban, and served subtly to justify the continuation of the war against the “Taliban”—no distinction and no explanation, because the war in Afghanistan has very little to do with the Pakistan Taliban except as a valuable propaganda tool. That disinformation wheeled out in the name of “myth-busting” can so easily penetrate the collective conscious is an indication that the media, in particularly but not exclusively American media, still has not learned the lessons of Iraq.