by Magnus Marsden
The brutal killing of up to 140 Afghan Army soldiers on April 22nd at an army base located near the city of Mazar-i Sharif in the north of Afghanistan raises profoundly troubling questions about the state of the country and wider region. The killings in Mazar come shortly after an attack (claimed by ISIS) on a military hospital in Kabul, as well a series of bomb blasts in the country’s capital. They have been followed by fierce fighting between militants and government forces across Afghanistan. As the summer beckons and the so-called ‘fighting season’ comes once again into full force, there are few prospects of good news in Afghanistan this year.
There is something intrinsically chilling about the recent attacks, both in Mazar-i Sharif and Kabul, even against the backdrop of violence people in the country have seen in the aftermath of the U.S.-led intervention in 2001. As has been widely discussed in Afghanistan’s media, the attacks in Mazar-i Sharif were carried out on Afghan Army soldiers at prayer and simultaneously against further soldiers who were taking their meal on the sacred day of Friday. The hideous nature of this attack, alongside the killings in the military hospital earlier in the year, have resulted in widespread condemnation of the Taliban. Even the leader of Afghanistan’s Hezb-e-Islami party, Engineer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—who returned to public view in Afghanistan on April 29th after years of hiding and being on a U.S. list of terror suspects—described the Taliban’s actions as evil.
The desperate nature of the way in which the men killed on the base died needs to be placed in the context of the broader political situation in the country. Afghanistan’s media outlets have reported that most of the victims of the attacks were from two provinces in Northern Afghanistan—Takhar and Badakhshan—and the eastern province of Ningahar. Three years ago, these provinces were counted amongst Afghanistan’s most stable regions.
Badakhshan was lauded as a potential tourist draw by former president Hamid Karzai in the early 2000s; a decade later it was thought to be be a part of Afghanistan that would benefit from the forms of connectivity glossed by Hillary Clinton as the ‘New Silk Road.’ Yet instead of a emerging as a lucrative trading route, over the past five years the political dynamics of both Takhar and Badakhshan have become progressively more violent and polarised—forces loyal to the government and the Taliban have fought one another over the control of the region’s resource-rich and, given their proximity to both Pakistan and Tajikistan, strategically significant valleys. Afghanistan’s media covered the country’s security forces retaking the district Ishkashim from militants after two weeks of intensive fighting: until months ago, Ishkashim was one of Afghanistan’s most stable regions. The district shares a border with Tajikistan and is home to substantial populations of Shi’a Ismai’li Muslims—a confessional group that has much to fear in Afghanistan about the expansion of Taliban influence into regions of the country where they constitute a significant population. Meanwhile, Ningahar, a wealthy and agriculturally fertile province located on Afghanistan’s most lucrative trade routes to South Asia, was the province on which the Trump administration dropped the so-called ‘Mother of all Bombs.’
A train line connecting the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu with the dry port of Hairatan in Mazar-i Sharif was launched in the autumn of 2016 as part of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy. The current situation in northern and eastern Afghanistan suggests however that without a substantial transformation of local and regional political dynamics there are precious few prospects of people benefiting from the type of infrastructural development programmes and the types of trading opportunities they are envisioned to unleash.
It is important to remember that Afghanistan’s merchants have proven themselves apt at dealing with a profoundly insecure region. Yet the difficulties of not only working but also living in the country today for such people are growing ever-more difficult to negotiate. In the 2010s, Western journalists felt comfortable in referring to the city of Mazar-i Sharif as a bustling and prosperous Central Asian city. During my last visit to Mazar in November 2016, merchants told me they rarely left their homes for fear of bringing themselves to the attention of organised criminal groups, willing to either kidnap them or their children for ransom. In the mid-2000s these same merchants would drive me to surrounding districts and villages in order to picnic and visit sites of historic significance. It is hardly surprising that Afghanistan’s resourceful traders are increasingly moving their families and resources out of the country.
Added to the miseries of people living in these regions has been a purported influx of foreign fighters who have fled operations conducted by the Pakistan Army in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It is sometimes suggested that the presence of such foreign fighters in Afghanistan is exaggerated by local officials, who believe that by playing up the presence of ideologically-motivated and internationally connected ISIS fighters in Afghanistan they will secure the long-term presence of the U.S. and their allies in the country. A further source of anxiety, especially in northern Afghanistan, concerns the role being played by the Russian Federation. Russians officials have openly admitted to having entered into communications with Taliban-aligned militants, most likely in an attempt to weaken ISIS’s influence in the region, as well as to ensure that Moscow has access to power holders in Afghanistan should Taliban leaders come to play a more active future role in governing the country. Regardless of the precise nature of the geopolitical strategies being currently played out in Kabul, such theories reveal the extent to which many of Afghanistan’s long-suffering people regard their government and a range of international actors active in the country with great cynicism.
In the light of these multiple forms of conflict, as well of the ways in which they are deployed in local, national and international strategies that appear very often to take for granted the lives of the country’s people, it is hardly surprising that young people have been fleeing Afghanistan in significant numbers. During the course of research in both Saudi Arabia and Turkey last year, I met dozens of young men from northern Afghanistan in their late teens and early twenties who had left their home villages in order to work as migrant labourers in Turkey and the Gulf. All of these men reported on the levels of instability in their home districts that made leading a decent life with their families impossible. At the same time, migration to neighbouring countries—especially Pakistan and Tajikistan—has become more and more difficult: Afghan refugees are rarely accorded the social respect or legal rights they once were, and sometimes treated with outright hostility. The repatriation from Germany of failed Afghan asylum seekers to Kabul further adds further salt to the wounds of people from these and other regions of Afghanistan. Indeed, this policy appears to be especially short-sighted given the intensity of pressures affecting the government in Kabul. Afghanistan is reeling under unprecedented levels of conflict and violence; in additional it must deal with refugees returning home not only from Central, South and West Asia, but also wealthy European and American nation-states. If there was one practical thing that the world could now do to assist Afghanistan, it would be to assure a safe and secure future outside of the country for the men and women who are feeling their war-torn home regions.
What of the future? The possibility of there being a negotiated settlement with the Taliban to bring at least a temporary end to the conflict appears to be an even more unlikely prospect now than at ever point since the official withdrawal of NATO forces from active combat in 2014. The fact that Afghanistan’s current political leadership appear to be concerned above all about gearing up for a future Presidential contest does not fill many people in the country with confidence.
Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s society has at its hands ample resources and personnel able to play a role in forging the types of social and political relationships on which future stability depends. In November 2016, I spent three days with a diverse group of men in Kabul—a Pashtun-speaker from Kunduz with Taliban-supporting inclinations, an ethnically Turkmen merchant from a town close to the border with Turkmenistan who has a studied history of political neutrality, and two Kabul residing Farsi-speakers who work in one or other of Afghanistan’s security agencies and were assisting the Turkmen trader locate a loan defaulter. There were moments of friction in the encounters that took place over the three days that the group assembled to discuss the progress of the case, mostly about the various languages they spoke and the extent to which these were accorded equal respect in Afghanistan. But there were also repeated expressions of solidarity—the Taliban-inclined Pashtun gave permission for the other men to partake of a glass or two of home brew spirit made from sugar cane while he relaxed and enjoyed a cigarette, for instance. At the end of the three days of detective work, which included several trips to a part of Kabul that foreigners based in the city purportedly referred to as Al Qaida central, and that were mixed with heavy doses of socialising, the men rose to bid farewell—only after, however, they had shared their telephone numbers with one another, remarking, ‘We can be of use to each other if we fall into the wrong hands.’
Encounters such as these are a recurrent feature of everyday life in Afghanistan. They are a critical reminder of the subtle ways in which Afghanistan’s people handle the ever-shifting divisions and conflicts that have ripped through the country over the past forty years. My friends’ ability to forge relations and think pragmatically about their identities in relationship to one another offers a rare ray of hope in an increasingly dark situation.
Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of the Sussex Asia Centre. He is currently the Principal Investigator of a research project (TRODITIES) funded by the European Research Council that focuses on the dynamics of the Yiwu and its connections to the rest of the world. His most recent book is Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants across Modern Frontiers, published in 2016 by Hurst.