Kabul: City Number One - Part 8

Monday 5 April 2010, 20:12

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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THE WEIRD WORLD OF WAZIRISTAN

There is a growing sense in the West that we no longer know what we are fighting for in Afghanistan. The question that is almost never asked is what they are fighting for? What do the Taliban want?

We are told that we are fighting to prevent terrorist attacks in Europe and America. But the reality is that the Taliban have no interest in attacking the West. In the public imagination and in much journalism the Taliban are seen as exactly the same as political Islamists such as bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. The truth is that they are the very opposite of each other.

The radical Islamists see themselves as modern revolutionaries. They want to reshape Islam and fuse it with the modern world of science, technology and mass politics to create a new kind of society. The Taliban rose up because they thought the Islamists had failed to do this. And instead the Taliban decided to go back into the past and try and reinvent an old world.

Seen from this perspective the Taliban aren't for anything. They are a conservative reaction against the failure of a grand revolutionary project begun 60 years ago in Egypt. They tried to force the Afghan people to behave like they imagined good Muslims behaved hundreds of years ago. Other than that they had no idea of the sort of society or institutions they wanted to create.

And when their neo-fundamentalism was rejected by the Afghans, the Taliban were left with nothing. The truth is that we may be fighting an enemy in Helmand - and soon in Kandahar too - that also no longer knows what it is fighting for. Both sides are locked together in a nihilistic war.

But the fascinating thing is that we, the British, have been through all this before in Afghanistan.

In 1919 there was a grand attempt to create a modern Islamist state in Afghanistan. But it collapsed into civil war and horror and led to the resurgence of old Islam coupled with the most traditional and reactionary forces in the country. And the Royal Air Force and British army was left fighting a futile, pointless war in the mountains of Waziristan.

It began when the British refused to allow Afghanistan to attend the Versailles Peace Conference in 1918 as an independent nation. The Afghan king was killed by an unknown assassin, and his son Amanullah took power promising to free Afghanistan from Britain's control.

Here is a picture of Amanullah

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Then the British played into his hands. In May 1919 our army, led by Brigadier-General Dyer, massacred hundreds of civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab province over the border from Afghanistan. It was a defining moment for the British Empire. The harsh reality of Britain's dominating will smashed through the liberal fantasy of working in partnership with the new nationalism that had risen up in India.

Here is a section from a series made in the 1970s about the British Empire. It tells what happened at Amritsar. And I have put with it an interview with Pandit Nehru's sister - shot in the 1960s - about the reaction of Indian nationalists to the massacre.

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King Amanullah seized the opportunity. As the Punjab was rocked by protests and insurrections he announced that he was going to war with Britain. He instructed the Afghan army to invade India across the Khyber Pass. At the same time he had done deal with the tribes of Waziristan on the North West Frontier Province - the Wazirs and the Mehsuds. He promised them money and arms - and asked them to back his invasion. He was hoping to ignite a vast tribal uprising.

Here is a wonderful photograph of the moment when King Amanullah announced the jihad to a crowd in a Kabul street. Amanullah has his back to the camera. It is from the Williams Afghan Media Project - at Williams College in Massachusets. The project is an amazing and brilliant historical collection created by David Edwards and his colleagues. The project is collecting photographs and film and video from Afghanistan over the past 120 years. Here is a link to it

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And amazingly Amanullah got what he wanted. Within a month he had fought the British to a draw. A ceasefire was called and at the Treaty of Rawalpindi the British gave Afghanistan its independence - promising never to meddle with it or try and control its foreign policy again.

Amanullah was a hero. But he was driven by more than just the dream of Afghan independence. He had been inspired by the ideas of one of the most fascinating figures in Afghan history - Mahmud Tarzi.

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Mahmud Tarzi was a journalist and intellectual who believed that the modern revolution Amanullah had begun could lead to a pan-Islamic state running from Pakistan to Syria. Tarzi had begun writing for a Kabul newspaper called Seraj-al-Akhbar - the Torch of News. He used the paper to put forward his argument that Muslim countries would only liberate themselves if they could fuse Islam with the modern world that had been created by the Western powers.

The power of the imperialists came, Tarzi said, from their science and technologies and from the new kinds of socal organizations that their economies demanded. But the imperialists were also corrupt and violent. The solution was to reform Islam and take it away from the dead hand of the traditional Ulema. The modernised Islam could then be used as the guiding principle for the new scientific and technical society, and its new economy. It would also be a moral guide for the new political class running the state.

All this should be done by a new vanguard - the rawshanfikran - of enlightened intellectuals (like Mahmud Tarzi) whose ambition should be to educate the masses. As opposed to the old Afghan elitist concept of knowledge only being suitable for 'noble' brains - a idea that had been ruthlessly used by stupid Ulema to hang on to power.

In this Tarzi is very close to the thinking of Sayyid Qutb - whose ideas for an enlightened vanguard developing a modernised Islam was to inspire the Mulslim Brotherhood in the 1950s.

Here is a picture of Tarzi discussing the editorial content of his newspaper. And another of him at the centre of the king's group of advisers discussing the plans for a new kind of society. The king is at the back of shot.

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King Amanullah was captivated by Tarzi's ideas - and he set out to build the new modernised Islamist society. In 1923 he created a new Afghan constitution which introduced modernist reforms including new systems of education for both boys and girls, equal rights, and it overturned the strict dress codes for women.

Amanullah's wife, Queen Soraya, was Mahmud Tarzi's daughter. At a vast public meeting in 1923, Soray got up in front of a thousand people, tore off her veil and ripped it to shreds. It was a dramatic symbol of the new society.

Here is a beautiful photograph of Amanullah and Soraya.

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For a brief period this new modernised but Islamist society flourished in Kabul. Despite protests and rebellions in the countryside the ideas of Tarzi took hold in Afghanistan. The world around King Amanullah's court became an interweaving of western dress and manners and a reformed Islam.

Amanullah's older brother - Enayatullah - was an avid photographer. In the early 1920s he recorded this world in thousands of photographs. For decades they were lost, but in the 1970s Nancy Hatch Dupree - who is a brilliant chronicler of Afghan history - discovered them. She printed rough thumbnails of many of them. Here are a few. In their faded photocopy quality they give a strange, ghostly glimpse of the moment when a modern reformist movement flourished in the heart of Kabul.

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But it didn't last. At the end of 1927 Amanullah went on a tour of Europe. When he came back in July 1928 he faced a full blown rebellion.

To challenge the traditional power of the Ulema Amanullah was asserting the power of the centralised state. In doing this he was also taking powers away from the local headmen - the maliks. Up till now the local village structure had been the power centre of most of Afghan daily life. But now the maliks found themslves marginalised - so they allied themselves with the mullahs, and a mass movement rose up to overthrow Amanullah.

The rebels put out propaganda to turn the people against the King. Here is a poem about what his modernization was leading to.

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Then an armed revolt began. There were risings across the country and they developed into a vicious civil war. Amanullah fled to Kandahar. He knew that his attempt at modernization had failed and to save himself he tried to prove that in reality he was a traditional Islamic monarch. He did it in a final dramatic gesture.

Amanullah went to the Shrine of the Holy Cloak in the centre of Kandahar. He opened up the brass bound chest where the cloak which was reputed to have been the Prophet's had lain for over a 100 years.

Amanullah lifted it above his head and demanded of the mullahs in front of him whether Allah would allow a heretic or an apostate to perform such a sacred act.

Knowing they had won, the mullahs put forward their main demand. The King must get rid of his idea that religious scholars need to be educated. Instead any mullah could become a teacher without producing any qualifications

And all girls sent to Turkey for education should be recalled.

The King agreed. But it was too late to save his regime. At the end of 1929 the British sent a plane to rescue him and his family. Mahmud Tarzi also fled. But here is a strange photograph of the remnants of Amanullah's regime waiting to be executed.

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It was all over.

Except in Waziristan. Everyone had forgotten about it - but the revolt that Amanullah had deliberately started against the British ten years before had never stopped. For ten years it had rumbled on. Now, suddenly it exploded.

A young Wazir tribesman called Sayid Amir Noor Ali Shah from the village of Jhandu Khel fell in love with a Hindu girl - an heiress called Ram Kori - from Bannu. He persuaded her to run away with him, become a Muslim and marry him. The Hindus were furious and complained to the British authorities. The British sent soldiers to kidnap the girl and bring her back.

The Wazir tribe was furious, and a local hermit from the village of Ipi persuaded them to rise up in rebellion. He was known as the Faqir of Ipi and he used his charisma and religious reputation to unite the Wazir and the Mehsud tribes in a full-blown war against the British.

These were the two most reactionary forces - local maliks and the rural mullahs uniting together to try and force the British out. They had no other aim or vision. The British responded brutally - through what thay called "Air Control" - bombing the Waziristan villages.

In 1935 Group Captain Robert Lister of the RAF was sent out to fight in Waziristan. Lister was a keen amateur movie-maker. Home movie-making was just begining as a leisure activity and he had the most modern equipment available. He decided to take his camera and lots of film with him so that he could film the whole campaign including the bombing raids.

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Here is part of a programme made with Group Captain Lister in 1980. It interviews him and shows sections of his film. It is absolutely fascinating. It is not only an extraordinary record of a forgotten war - but as you watch Lister talk about bombing villages you can't help thinking about today.

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In 1989 the Soviet forces finally left Afghanistan.

And a revolutionionary movement emerged led by radicals who wanted to transform Afghanistan into a new kind of society.

The two most important leaders were the commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Both were political islamists. And both been radicalised as students in Kabul by ideas that came from Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although they were far more violent, both Massoud and even Hekmatyar - despite his conservative elements - were in the same tradition of modernised political Islam as Mahmud Tarzi seventy years before. They were both modern and forward-looking. They were anti-imperialists who, like Tarzi, believed that the only way to free Muslim countries from the west was to create a new kind of revolutionary society in which Islam was fused with the science, technology and economies of the modern world.

And that is what they set out to try and create in Afghanistan

But they failed - because like King Amanullah before them they challenged the local power of both the mullahs and the maliks. During the Soviet occupation local Mujaheddin commanders had come together against a common enemy. But now they fragmented. Hekmatyar's group Hizb-i-Islami tried to unify the groups but was rejected because of its idea of central control. Massoud's army was always at heart an ethnic group of Tajiks. Plus the two men had hated each other since university.

Out of this came a brutal civil war which dragged Afghanistan into chaos.

And the response to that failure was the Taliban. It is important to realise how opposed the Taliban were to the modern revolutionary ideas of people like bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. Far from being modernising Islamists the Taliban were the inheritors of the reactionary ideas that had driven the backlash against King Amanullah back in 1929.

And the roots of the Taliban lie in a Pakistani political party that sees radical Islamism as a rival. It is called Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam - JUI for short. Its aim is not to modernise - but to enforce a rigid and traditional interpretation of Islam. During the 1980s the JUI set up literally thousands of schools - madrassas - in the Pashtun belt running down from Waziristan to Baluchistan. Their aim was to educate young Afghan refugees in traditional interpretations of Islam and Islamic society.

Most of the madrassas were in rural areas and the students were taught by semi-educated mullahs whose interpretation of Sharia was rooted in Pashtunwai, the tribal code of the Pashtuns. The students were taken back into a rigid localised world view of Islam and Afghanistan very similar to the Waziristan the British met in 1919.

In the early 90s the students returned to Afghanistan and set up the Taliban - to cleanse the country of a revolution that had gone wrong, compromised by the futile idea of modernising Islam. And in April 1996 Mullah Omar went to the Shrine of the Holy Cloak. He took out the cloak for the first time in 60 years and waved it from the roof - just as Amanullah had in 1929 - and announced a jihad against the Islamist factions in Kabul.

The BBC producer Tom Giles and John Simpson were in Kandahar that day - and they captured this extraordinary moment on video.

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When King Amanullah had held the cloak above his head in 1929 it symbolised the end of his dreams of creating a modern world in Afghanistan. Now - in 1996 - Omar was saying the same thing - forget the future, listen to the ghosts of your past - and follow their rules.

Here are some clips I have cut together - some to music.

It begins with a live outside broadcast from Kabul TV - of a parade for the Afghan leader the Soviets left behind - President Najibullah. The Afghan TV people had been taught by the Soviets how to film parades just like they did in Red Square.

Then there are some bits from a very good documentary made in 1996 about the Taliban It starts in the key madrassa where the Taliban were formed. It then follows a group of Talibs as they go over the border into Afghanistan to fight. You get a very good sense of how they have no idea of the society they are trying to create - they are just the forces of reaction to a failed revolution.

And then there is a bit of John Simpson walking through the ruins of the Royal Palace in Kabul.

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But before we in the West criticise the Afghans too much for their failure to uproot the forces of reaction, we should remember that in our own society we have also been unable to eradicate powerful forces of tradition and reaction. In 1997 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Amritsar.

Months before the Indian government asked them not to visit the city. But they did. Indian newspapers reported that most of the population were indifferent. The Queen gave a quick bow - but no apology. And then the Duke caused a terrible row. He found a noticeboard at the site of the massacre which said that 2000 people were martyred that day in 1919. He said that this was wrong and the Indians were exaggerating.

The figures of those killed and wounded have always been disputed. When the Duke was asked how he knew it was wrong he said that General Dyer's son had told him so when they met on a ship once.

Here is the news report - Royal visits to far flung parts of the old empire loyally reported as always by the BBC - the Duke's indelicate comments hardly mentioned.

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To be continued

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    Comment number 1.

    General Election

    Their has been speculation that the prime minister shall see the Queen tomarrow (6 April) and then he shall announce the date for the general election. However we have received today our election cards (polling cards) stating 6 May as the date for the election.

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    Comment number 2.

    On behalf of a grateful nation, Adam, thank you. Your Kabul series is without a doubt the most substantive discussion of Afghanistan's history available to your nation's imperial heirs here in the States...which should tell you just about everything you need to know about our not-so-little war.

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    Comment number 3.

    Thank you Adam. Brilliant as always.

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    Comment number 4.

    Good stuff, and I look foward to this continuing story.

    Re: to the West's possible motivations, I thought we were there to "promote" democracy? I'm not saying it's right, but it seems to me that many of those that support the war see it that way. There was an interesting piece by Hillary Clinton in the Times not so long ago that basically laid it out like that, although she couched her support in humanitarian terms, talking about the support the West gives to vulnerable women in Afghanistan. And there are certain commentators, you know who I'm talking about ;), that seek to justify the war in Afghanistan as part of a wider project that will create a more democratic Middles East. And of course there's the idea that we are protecting our citizens by being there, and often those two ideas are conflated and are presented as one and the same.

    But I wonder if this "nihislitic" war, as you call it, has come about due to the inherent contradiction in its stated aims. As you say, the Taliban are not the same as the neo-Islamic fundamentalists that have carried out attacks in the West, and futhermore we support a political leader in Afghanistan who is corrupt to the core (the recent comments made recently by Karzai were fun to watch).

    Besides all that, I would love to know your thoughts on the current situation in Iraq. It's been 5 years since "The Power of Nightmares" came out, and I'm curious to know if your thinking regarding the situation there has changed in way. I'd love to see blog post by you on Iraq done in the same style as your Afghan series sometime soon.

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    Comment number 5.

    Hi Adam, as fascinating and insightful as ever. The cinefilm taken by Group Captain Lister is amazing.
    I wondered if you had seen John D McHugh's photos with commentary from Kabul that were featured on the BBC homepage a couple of weeks ago?
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8589535.stm
    This was the first place I had heard about King Amanullah and Queen Soraya and thought it was only a matter of time before they would crop up in your story.
    On a separate note, I hope you'll be putting up more during the election campaign like the Joseph Strick heckling film. I think we're all too easily swept up in the mundane day-to-day political narrative rather than looking at things from a broader historical perspective. Please keep up the good work.

 

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