The occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States is not only based on misguided policies, denials of truth and glaring political realities, it is also guided by ignorance and profoundly distorted notions of the cultural foundations and social complexities of these devastated countries. The poverty of the framework of the administration’s policies and behavior is clearly available in the publicly expressed views and writings of Zalmay Khalilzad, who has served as a major cultural and scholarly authority on Afghanistan and Iraq for the US policy making apparatus. Khalilzad’s thinking and the neo-con passions to which he subscribes are the seed bed on which the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan is sown.
The former American Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq and currently the nominee as UN ambassador has profoundly distorted and deficient knowledge about societies and cultures of the Middle East, specifically Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, if his public pronouncements are any measure of his knowledge, he possesses a novel understanding of the basic principles of the structure and dynamics of human society. In his August 23, 2005 appearance on the PBS NewsHour NewsMaker segment Khalilzad made the astonishing claim that “compromise does not come easy in this part of the world, that the word compromise does not exist in the Arabic language, and when I served in Afghanistan, the same problem existed there as well. The word compromise did not exist in the Afghan language as well”. It is shocking for a US ambassador to such vitally important posts, to speak and think like this.
Ambassador Khalilzad’s condemnation of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq to compromise-deficiency is starkly contradicted by extensive cultural, linguistic, and ethnographic evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The cognitive and behavioral ability for compromise exists in all corners of human communities. Social life, as we know it, would be virtually impossible without the flexibility which the universal intellectual ability and practice of compromise offers.
Arabic is not the only language spoken in Iraq and at least six languages are spoken in Afghanistan. Dictionaries of Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Paxtu, Baluchi and other languages in the region contain elaborate linguistic labels and cultural constructs for the equivalent of the English concept of “compromise”—a settlement of differences in which each side makes concessions. The extensive ethnographic record about the Middle East, Central and South Asia is replete with unambiguous evidence for not only the existence of the concept “compromise” in the cultures of these regions but also for the creative and varied application of this vital intellectual construct (and ways in which it facilitates consensus) in the social, political, and economic lives of the people in these regions. These culture areas contain rich traditions for peaceful disagreement, dialogue, compromise, concord and consensus. In fact, no other region of the world has more elaborate and complex procedures, tactics, strategies, and rituals for bargaining and compromise than the organized cultural and social spaces in the countries stretching from Morocco to the Indus and on to Southeast Asia.
Claiming that the people of Afghanistan and Iraq lack the intellectual and behavioral capacities to produce compromise is all the more disturbing since Mr. Khalilzad has been hired by the Bush administration as the chief scholarly authority on the peoples and cultures of the Middle East and the frontline political operative in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has played central roles in the planning and implementation of the destabilization and attempted reconstruction of the two countries. Khalilzad played a major role in the production and management of the mujahidin terrorists who caused the collapse of the state infra-structure of Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban movement. During the 1990s he negotiated on behalf of UNOCAL with the Taliban regime and openly recommended its recognition by the United States. But when UNOCAL decided not to pursue its involvement in Afghanistan, Khalilzad changed his mind and announced his opposition to the Taliban regime.
Ambassador Khalilzad’s distorted understandings of the countries in which he has represented the United States contradicts everything we have been told about his educational and cultural background by his employer, the media, and the public record that he has created for himself over the past twenty eight years. Khalilzad’s orientation maybe rooted in the debilitating effect of the American neoconservative ideology that has infested his mind, conscience, and soul. He may very well be engaged in a kind of wishful thinking that produces the imaginings of the non-existence of the ability for compromise among the people of Afghanistan and Iraq because the political and ideological interests he so loyally serves thrive on distortion, division, and disunity as their major weapon for control and domination. Indeed, if Khalilzad and those who depend on his knowledge and counsel were to unintentionally succeed in facilitating a united Afghanistan and Iraq through the production and application of home grown compromise (and consensus) the Ambassador will have to look for another line of work.
But despite Zalmay Khalilzad’s defective knowledge and understanding of the cultural and social complexities of Afghanistan and Iraq the media (and politicians in Washington) continue to market his “Afghan birth”, that he “is well versed in negotiating tribal and ethnic divisions”, and that he speaks Afghanistan’s “two main languages—Pashto and Dari” (Andrew North, BBC News, February 2006). Khalilzad’s published writings dealing with Afghanistan and South Asia are framed by explicit American Cold War ideology and are mostly based on anecdotal data and information. His published work is uninformed by the cultural, ethnographic, and historical realities of the country he claims as the place of his birth.
Zalmay Khalilzad is on record for gleefully acknowledging the destruction of the state of Afghanistan as a “worthwhile” price for American “strategic” interests: “The gains we made as a result of the struggle in Afghanistan, even with the problems we have had since, I think from the American strategic point of view, it was very much a worthwhile investment” (“CNN Presents: ‘Cold War’” TV broadcast, March 7, 1999).
Khalilzad has cleverly manipulated his ethnic and national background by portraying himself to his employer as a member of the numerically dominant Paxtun group in Afghanistan. In practice he has no meaningful competence in the language and culture of Paxtuns or, for that matter, any other ethnic group in that country. He speaks rudimentary Farsi but it is not known whether he can read and write it. There is no public record of Khalilzad ever speaking in coherent Paxtu, language of the Paxtuns. Anyone with adequate personal and/or scholarly ethnographic familiarity with Afghanistan would know that no Paxtun would have a (self-selected or assigned by one’s family) name that ends with the suffix “zad”. “Zad” is a Persian word that means nativity or descent and it is used as a suffix in last names among non-Paxtun Kabuli Afghans. Its Paxtu equivalent is “zai” (e. g. achakzai, ahmadzai, ‘abd al-rahimzai, noorzai, etc.). Some knowledgeable Afghans have suggested that Mr. Khalizad’s parents were members of the peripatetic jat or qawal ethnic groups.
From the beginning of his years in the United States, Zalmay Khalilzad has been involved in American right-wing politics. He holds a doctoral degree in political science from the University of Chicago (1979) where he was heavily influenced by the anti-communists Leo Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter. His doctoral thesis, framed by American neoconservative ideology and Cold War anxieties, was titled “The political, economic and military implications of nuclear electricity: the case of the Northern Tier”—reference to the Middle Eastern countries (including Iran) bordering the former Soviet Union. When the Afghan monarchy was overthrown in 1978, Khalilzad published several anti-communist articles under the pseudonym “Hannah Negaran”. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (and during the Taleban regime) Khalilzad wrote (now under his real name) numerous anti-communist and anti-Afghan government pieces in various right-wing outlets. He has also stated these views in several appearances before congressional committees during the 1990s. The circulation of anti-communist views helped him find his way to closer association with the neoconservative cliques that have currently penetrated the military and foreign policy machineries of the government of the United States. This band of neoconservative ideologues includes Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton, Elliot Abrams, David Wurmser, Douglas Feith, and Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Khalilzad and his neo-con colleagues share strong anti-communist orientations: Rice’s 1981 Cold War inspired doctoral thesis in political science “The politics of client command: party-military relations in Czechoslovakia: 1948-1975” at the University of Denver was directed by the Zionist Jonathan R. Adelman. Wolfowitz’ 1972 pro-Israeli and anti-communist doctoral thesis in political science titled “Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East: the politics and economics of proposals for desalting” at the University of Chicago was written under the direction of Albert Wohlstetter.
Ambassador Khalilzad played a major role in putting together the government of Kabul after the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States in 2001. As in other post-1920 governments of Afghanistan, Khalilzad invoked and manipulated the so called “Loya Jerga” (Paxtu, grand assembly, council) as the legitimizing mechanism for the Kabul government. Conceived after the Paxtun tribal sodality of Jerga (assembly, council) for the resolution of conflict, the Loya Jerga was invented by the rulers of Afghanistan as a hegemonic device for the domination of Afghan civil society not a democratic framework for popular participation and representation. Passing themselves as Paxtuns these non-Paxtun rulers manipulated the myth of the numerical majority of Paxtuns in Afghanistan and their concept of Jerga to legitimize their rule. (See my article “Editing the Past: Colonial Production of Hegemony Through the ‘Loya Jerga’ in Afghanistan”. Iranian Studies, vol.37, no. 2, 2004). In reality the Paxtun numerical majority in Afghanistan is a mere speculation and the use of the Loya Jerga by Khalizad has denied the people of Afghanistan a genuine framework in which to build the foundation for democratic political institutions.
Khalilzad is known in Washington as the one who thinks of “security to the exclusion of everything else. He tends to look at military solutions as the first, not the last policy option” (Washington Report on the Middle East, April 2003, p. 12). As the official leading authority on the Middle East, Central, and South Asia in the Bush administration, Mr. Kalilzad’s defective understanding of Afghanistan and Iraq has produced results that do not bode well for the rehabilitation and future stability of these beleaguered countries and the security interests of the United States. Hundreds of billions of American tax dollars have been wastefully spent in Afghanistan and Iraq on neocolonial projects in which the “blind lead the blind”. This sightless enterprise foretells calamitous prospects for international security and global peace. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost in Afghanistan and Iraq because of the implementation of uninformed and ill-fated American policies in which Ambassador Khalilzad continues to play a central role. In both countries, one man’s neoconservative blinders and distorted understanding of local cultures have produced results to the detriment of stability, peace and security. Ambassador Khalizad’s neoconservative ideological blinders and misunderstanding of the cultural, political, and social complexities of Afghanistan and Iraq have brought these countries to the brink of disintegration. The policies and practices that have unleashed the American government’s destructive rage in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced a bottomless well of anti-American intellectual and emotional energy. The first step towards rescuing the political rehabilitation and integrity of the states of Afghanistan and Iraq and the neutralization of this massive reservoir of disrespect, contempt, and hatred towards the United States is an informed and genuinely even-handed policy in the Middle East. This requires the disinfestations of the American government’s policy making machinery from the neo-conservative zeal that has captured the imagination of Zalmay Khalilzad and his neo-con friends. In moving from Baghdad to the United Nations Khalilzad will become Iraq’s gain and America’s loss.
M. Jamil Hanifi, Ph. D. is an Independent Scholar of Anthropology and the History of Afghanistan
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