Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Hirsh Sawhney interview of Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra returns to form in this interview with Hirsh Sawhney (though this is a 2007 interview). I say return to form because Mishra has published some very dull essays in the last couple of years - long, meandering polemics on capitalism and globalization. His views remain the same, but his take on Afghanistan, his contempt for the term “war or terror”, and most insightful of all, his thoughts on how institutions of powerful nation states keep conflicts and hypocrisies going – all come together cohesively in his responses to Hirsh Sawhney's questions, and reveal a complex picture. Indian bloggers regularly lampoon Mishra – with good reason – but I think there’s good reason also to stop and listen to what he says, especially when he is in his element.

Here are Mishra's views on Afghanistan's recent history , and why things turned out the way they did there. This to me was one of the best parts of the interview:
"When you look at the recent history of Afghanistan there is, other than the Taliban, no force there trying to unify the country or to create a nation out of its patchwork of ethnic communities. Why did they emerge when they did in the mid-1990s? To ask that question we must look very closely at how Afghanistan has been dealt this terrible hand by the Soviet Union, the United States and its immediate neighbor, Pakistan. The country consisted of various tribes, a subsistence economy, agricultural communities and herders. A small educated number of people started fantasizing about modernisation. Of course, this being part of the Cold War era, they had to take sides, and they ended up siding with the Soviet Union. There were splits within the communist party in Afghanistan. Eventually, the Soviet Union intervened. Then they pushed through this very badly-conceived, oppressive programme of modernisation, put all the girls in schools and killed all the Muslims who protested. So you had a mini-genocide which is hardly ever talked about. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were killed during that first process of Soviet-led modernisation. Then, of course, you had resentment within these traditional tribal communities, and they threw up their own commanders and Mujahadeen leaders. The Americans, in their wisdom, decided to support these groups—the more radical ones among them. At that time radical Islam was not a threat; it was actually an ally against the Soviet Union. And then the Saudis joined in, and they had their own agenda. They wanted to be the leaders of the Islamic world, and they were feeling insecure after Khomeini had come to power in Iran. They wanted to run down Iran. So there was a confluence of interests in this thus far neglected part of the world, and what it ended up creating was a massive, amazing mess that the Taliban was left to sort out.


There was a need for the Taliban in Afghanistan at that particular moment. This has always been something we forget when we talk about anachronistic medieval eruptions. Afghans felt that they’d gone too far down the road of chaos, mayhem and random violence, and that they needed to restore some order back into the country. And that’s why the Taliban emerged, became rapidly popular and cut across ethnic loyalties. Of course, there was real oppression under the Taliban, so there was a degree of popular support when the Americans first bombed them. Forces like the Taliban are products of certain political processes set in motion by the West. Processes that create chaos and poverty instead of development, growth and progress—processes of the Cold War.


You had a pre-modern community of tribal societies, and then you had some of the most modern weapons technology available, first through the Soviet Union, and then through the Americans. I think perhaps the fact that these worlds are so fundamentally incompatible at one level, that when they clash as they did in Afghanistan, they could only have produced a 9/11. The fact that Afghanistan did not have a significant intellectual class meant that there were no mediators in the encounter between this pre-modern world and this very aggressive modern world. It was just a head-on collision, which then produced this radical Islamist ideology. Before this, people didn’t really have ideologies. People were loyal to their tribe and their regional communities, but they didn’t have these kinds of overarching ideologies that were introduced into Afghanistan by the Saudis working with the Pakistanis. So the way in which ideologies also became globalized during this period and assumed these political forms has something to do with it. I think radical Islam assumed its most political form in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s, which then attracted people like Bin Laden to it. It then became this very powerful ideology."

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