In Which I Take a First Stab at Explaining Cultural Relativity

Cultural relativity is a heinously difficult concept to fully comprehend. I want to say: “Look, there are some cultures where they do certain things that ‘we’ find abhorrent. But that’s the way their world works.” Yet in the same breath, I have to say, “Yes, it’s probably not desirable in the long run, but it’s still just the way some people live.” The two are parallel, in the purely geometric sense of the word—they run alongside each other, ‘and never the twain shall meet’. When they do, we inevitably find conflict. 

The inspiration for this post came from an NPR story, by Quil Lawrence and Ahmad Shafi, about an Afghan girl sentenced to death for possessing a mobile phone, and allegedly using it talking to a (presumably non-related) boy. To ‘Western’ sensibilities, such a sentence seems repugnant. But in a culture where strict delineation of the sexes is observed throughout all spheres of life, it is at least comprehensible.

What is interesting about this report to me, in terms of my Ph.D. research, is the predicament in which places the American soldiers. The girl came to a US army base seeking refuge. It was duly provided. But the soldiers in the base—trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local population—will be making no friends by sheltering this girl from the punishment which her culture has deemed appropriate.

It’s a deadly Catch-22. If they let the girl return to her family, she will most likely be killed. If she stays on the base, what little local support the Americans in the area have gathered in the years they have been there. The point that Quil and Shafi raise is, in a counterinsurgency environment:

When she came to an American military base pleading for help, U.S. officials had to figure out how to save her life without enraging the local community.

This is an extremely difficult question to answer. Part of my purpose with the dissertation is to develop metaphors to help us understand these cultural differences, and to accommodate as many of them as possible. It is not my intention here, or anywhere else, to ‘draw lines’ around what is acceptable and what is not. But I will write more on the ways in which these different cultures might not see eye to eye.

As an example of why the cultural differences are so important, consider the following observation from the historian and anthropologist, Thomas Barfield. We must consider the ‘perceptions’ of the girl’s presence on the base. As a matter of honour for her family, this could legitimately be considered a grave undermining of her male relatives’ authority. As Barfield points out: “Because honor itself [is] judged in the theoretical realm, perception [is] more important than reality.”1 The majority of Afghans, whether or not they are Pashtun by descent, follow the precepts of pashtunwali: “a code of principles thoroughly rooted in the primacy of maintaining honor and reputation.”2 In Afghan culture, it is vital to the integrity of the family that these principles be upheld.

The necessity to uphold honour is so important that, as Quil and Shafi point out:

This is where the story in Afghanistan often ends: The woman is sent home, and later killed by her family to cleanse the dishonor.

In this case the story ended more happily. From the point of view of this post, however, the comments of the girl’s Marine caretaker is more telling:

There are so many women who have this issue. It would be nice if there was something we could do that was tangible, but I don’t know what that thing is.

I’m going to keep searching for something. But it will be a long and difficult struggle to find a way to reconcile to very different cultures. And these cultural differences don’t make the delicate matters of counterinsurgency any easier.


1. Barfield, Afghanistan, 185.

2. Barfield, Afghanistan, 59.

Organizational Structures (M-Form and U-Form)

This Yesterday morning (still working on being actually efficient) I read about organizational structures in the context of insurgencies. (Hat tip to Sam for providing me with some papers on the subject.) I first got wind of scholarship on the interaction between organizational theory and insurgency from Seth Jones’ book, In the Graveyard of Empires. In the book, Jones describes al-Qaeda as a ‘complex adaptive network’ (Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires, 224-227). Such networks are flexible and ‘adaptive’. This flexibility gives that group, and others based on similar setups, a great deal of robustness. It is able to cope effectively with seemingly ‘catastrophic’ losses.

Patrick Johnston’s 2008 paper, “The Geography of Insurgent Organizations and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone,” discusses two main organizational principles for insurgencies: U-form and M-form. (U-form designates groups with ‘U’nitary leadership; M-form applies to groups with ‘M’ultidivisional leadership.)

Considering insurgent groups from an organizational theory point of view is helpful, because it allows us to differentiate between types of insurgent groups, and—more importantly—to be more specific when discussing the aims and objectives, activities and operations of different groups, and how they change over time (See Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies”). In 1997, Kristian Berg Harpviken published a similar study of some of the main groups operating in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s, called “Trascending Traditionalism”. Three groups come under scrutiny: the Pashtuns, the Hazaras and the Taliban. He suggests that the Pashtun tribes were slow to react to the Soviet invasion: “The Islamist activists who triggered early uproar elsewhere were lacking in the tribal areas.” (Berg, “Transcending Traditionalism,” 276)

Berg points out that different organizational structures ‘defined’ different groups. This led to them pursuing and achieving different ends, employing different means. They were unable to work together. They were divergent. (Berg, “Transcending Traditionalism.”) Sanín and Guistozzi argue that, leaders of rebel groups “have to decide which organizational techniques they will utilize” (Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies,” 849). However, these choices are not conscious; Mullah Omar did not sit down and decide to create an ‘M-form’ movement. By a process of co-evolution, based on rules of thumb and responses to outside pressures, the Taliban movement developed into an ‘M-form’ institution, with its own benefits and drawbacks. Despite this caveat, Sanín and Guistozzi also argue that “organizational trajectories strongly ‘trap’ and ‘enable’ actors that operate within them” (Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies,” 850). This suggestion implies that, once an organization makes the ‘choice’ to be either M-form or U-form, certain fundamental emergent principles of those forms ‘guide’ and ‘constrain’ those actors.

(At the risk of over-extension, we might also posit this as a reason why democracies function in the way they do. A strongly ‘U-form’ structure, coupled with—in most cases—decent government ‘penetration’, endears democratic states to certain courses of action.)

Another weakness of M-form organizations is that they are prone to opportunism. Their dispersed nature—in which information is necessarily atomized and not available to all members of the group (importantly the leaders) at all time—creates “[a]gents who enjoy greater autonomy from leadership and are [thus] able to pursue private objectives, often diverting the organization’s resources from their intended uses for their own.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 114, emphasis added) Problems also arise in terms of cooperation with ‘bandits’ and groups which, if the leadership had more direct control, would not be permitted to access the Movement. Because the Taliban is an M-form organization, local commanders (who may not have the same standards as the main leadership) are charged with recruitment, and thus, “there has been some contamination of the Taliban by bandit groups.” (Guistozzi and Gutiérrez Sanín, “Networks and Armies,” 847)

Johnston closes his paper with the notion that “[n]egotiations involving M-form organizations [are] likely to fail because the nature of M-form hierarchy makes it very difficult for top-level commanders to affect compliance from mid- and low-level subordinates.” (Johnston, “Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 136) This has serious implications for the recent peace talks in which ‘the Taliban’ has been engaged. The sheer chaos of Afghanistan makes it unamenable to that sort of organization. As Johnston points out of Liberia under the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the early 1990s, Liberians living under Charles Taylor’s regime complained of “decrepit infrastructure and communications technology” that allowed Taylor’s “mid-level commanders to operate relatively autonomously from those in the Gbarnga capital.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 122)

Johnston posits the hypothesis that “insurgent groups that are ethnically homogeneous will be more effective.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 118) This was a key strength of the Taliban in their early days. Their ability to mobilize the Pashtuns is what set them apart from other, better equipped, better organized, more coherent resistance groups in the early 1990s.* A big-picture view of Johnston’s thesis presents more evidence that (modern) insurgent groups are rarely homogeneous. Often divisions fall along ethnic or tribal lines.

In terms of notes for the future, I’m now looking into the Taliban’s organizational structure and how it has changed over time. I also need to start looking for information about how the drug trafficking groups are organized. I think I’ll re-read Seeds of Terror (although I’ll be a little more skeptical this time round).



* See Sinno, “The Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” in Crews and Tarzi (eds), The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, 59-89; also Harpviken, “Transcending Traditionalism,” Journal of Peace Research, 34 (1997): 271-287.

Works Cited

Harpviken, Kristian Berg. “Trascending Traditionalism: The Emergence of Non-State Military Formations in Afghanistan.” Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 34 (1997): 271-287.

Sanín, Francisco Gutiérrez, and Antonio Guistozzi. “Networks and Armies: Structuring Rebellipn in Colombia and Afghanistan.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Vol. 33, No. 9 (2010): 836-853.

Johnston, Patrick. “The Geography of Insurgent Organizations and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone.” Security Studies. Vol. 17, No. 1 (2008): 107-137.

Jones, Seth G. In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. np: Norton, 2009.

Sinno, Abdulkader. “Explaining The Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” in Crews, Robert D. and Amin Tarzi (eds). The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2008. 59-89.

Here We Go Again


I stopped blogging a while ago. The last post here was the one about that talk I went to about the Uighers. I’m not going to go into the wherefores of that here. What I’m going to talk about is why I am going to start writing here again. The reason is two-fold. First, as a place to enhance (or create) a status for myself as an academic (whatever one of those is). Second, I’m going to use it as a place to put all of the research that I find mind-bogglingly interesting into one place, so that I can come back to it again, and so that it doesn’t end up in my dissertation, adding fluff to an already-unbearably-cute thesis.

In an effort to tighten up the thesis, improve my writing, and not have to worry about not telling people about the awesome stuff I’m finding out, I’ll use the blog to write about things that are not directly relevant, but still seriously interesting. There are many of these things. In meetings with my supervisor, he describes me as a distracted (and distractable) puppy, constantly rushing off to the next thing. So, this blog is going to be a place for me to “hide the crazy”. I will keep it reasonably formal, because, really that’s the only way I know to write. (Even when I try fiction it ends up with academic-style introductions: “This story will tell you this, and this and this.” Maybe it’s just my style.)

For instance, yesterday, I was reading about veils. (Part of my thesis is concerned with appreciating cultural differences.) And I learned something fascinating from Aisha Lee Fox Shaheed’s chapter “Dress Codes and Modes,” in Jennifer Heath’s book The Veil. Shaheed makes the point that differences in dress codes have always shocked those not used to them. In British colonial times, when English ladies saw Indian women with bare feet and midriffs (even at the dinner table) they were offended. In the same way, as the clothing restrictions on women lifted after the Victorian era, British women’s décolletages and bare ankles upset the Indian ladies.*

That’s basically the crux of what I want to get at with my discussion of cultural differences. There are differences between cultures, but that doesn’t mean that one culture is ‘better’ than another. It simply means that they are different. And isn’t it awesome that there is a difference! </puppydog>

I’ll now speak, poetically, if I may, to the first reason behind my ressurecting this old, well-dead horse for another flogging. In an age where publishing models are changing, it’s becoming important for academics (and those of us who aspire to a garret in an ivory tower) to think about their ‘impact’ in different ways. The internet has changed the way that people access, create and supply information, knowledge and creative ideas. That’s a given. What is not changing, are the institutions by which this information (particularly in the academic sphere) is being created.

Certainly there are exceptions to this, but it is by no means the rule. Take for example, the online journalzine, Infinity Journal. Personally, I’ve been subscribing to and reading this journal since its inception. In the latest issue, the editors described the dearth of useable material they had received. (On occasion I have considered submitting to Infinity Journal, but have yet to summon the courage (or to adequately prioritize it).)

However, a recent article on the excellent Kings of War blog has reignited my passion for sharing ideas, and, more specifically, for the ‘medium’ of blogging. So I’m going to give it another go.

Whether I actually keep this up is another matter. Only time, and structured learning (and structured, planned use of my own time) will tell. But I hope that you enjoy reading my diversions. And that they keep the dissertation itself on course.

* See, Fox Shaheed, “Dress Codes and Modes,” in Heath (ed), The Veil, 294.

To Be, Or Not To Be – A Question of Identity

I just got back from a talk by a PhD student at Swansea University. She was talking on the subject of Uighurs (pronounced wee-gers—finally I learn how to pronounce it!), and their subjugation in China. They are not officially acknowledged by the Chinese government. (Although the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not recognize ethnicity, as a rule.)

It was fascinating because a lot of the thesis, although it was principally concerned with abstract concepts of ‘securitization theory‘ (the point of which, frankly, I have never really understood), was concerned with the notion of Chinese Uighur identity. The thesis is particularly interested in the representations of identity within the diaspora. It is apparently difficult to establish a true identity for Uighurs. They define themselves mostly by what they are not, as opposed to what they are.

In the Q&A after the talk, the point was raised about the importance of a collected history in establishing an identity. Apparently, throughout Chinese history, the dynasties have, as a matter of course, destroyed the historical documents of the previous dynasty, and rewritten the history to place the current dynasty in the best possible light. This means that there is very little written history in existence about ancient China.

The Uighur have little to draw on in terms of history, then. So I made the point that, Uighurs defining themselves by what they are not, rather than what they are, is similar to the American approach to identity formation. There are few defining characteristics of American people. The culture might be defined in grandiose terms with words like freedom, equality, opportunity. (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” anyone?) But ask an American what an American is and, in my experience at least, you are likely to get something diametric.

    In the early twentieth century, it was American not Bolshevik.
    In the 1910s-1920s it was American not ‘European’ (later refined to not German (more precisely ‘the Hun’)).
    In the 1930s and early 1940s, it was American not Communist.

And so on.

Now, you’re American not a terrorist.

So Americans and Uighurs have little collective history from which to draw their identities. A Norwegian in the group pointed out that Norwegian identity was very much based on the Vikings, and Valhalla. I added something about British identity being loosely concerned with the Tudors and such. Point being, by and large, European cultures and societies have deeply rooted and strong identities, formed out of a sense of being; as opposed to non-being.

A Little Orientalism

The Uighurs have staged four major protests in recent years. One in 1990, and three more recently still. The first three were not covered by Western media, because the Chinese banned reportage. The most recent protest, in 2009, was the first that Western journalist were allowed to cover.

However, the event was stage-managed. The journalists were shepherded from a hotel, onto a bus, and were being taken to the ‘site’ of the protests. What happened next was that “a group of 100 or so Uighurs came round the corner” and a picture was taken. This picture:

Image from

This was held up by Western media as representative of the ‘type’ of people protesting—i.e. “Muslims”. (The Uighurs are predominantly Muslim. In fact that is one of their key ‘outward’ defining traits, which is to say: a trait that is not reliant on others.)

The speaker suggested, however, that in her discussions with Uighurs, both ex-pats in the diaspora, and officials in the region, that another picture represented, to the Uighur themselves, the ‘type’ of people in the protest. That was this picture:

Image from The Jakarta Post

This picture clearly shows a young woman who, from her dress, one would be hard pressed not to consider ‘Western’. And this is the picture with which the Uighur predominantly tend to relate. To me, as a student of Afghanistan, and learning more about Pashtunwali, some of the precepts of which are entirely alien to Western thought, I was struck by the West’s continuing inability to assess the feelings of other nations.

Perhaps that’s going to come across as a little harsh on “the West” (check me out, getting all Sam Huntington up in here (and a little Gsgbf over there!)). What I mean is, it’s difficult to envision a wider ‘spreading of democracy’ when ‘we’ get simple things like the portrayal of the people of other nations so wrong. In this instance, the Uighur woman in the first picture does little more than perpetuate stereotypes (or worse, create false ideas) about foreign groups, which Outsiders then carry forward. Really, the picture we should be painting is one of the progressiveness of the young Uighur woman. Someone who represents to the Uighur a collective identity, which is something they have been denied by history. In the words of one Uighur official, “Save our Identity.”

Petraeus is the New King of CIA

I’m loathe to make predictions about the future, but one that I might stick my neck out for is to suggest that the CIA might change quite significantly with General Petraeus at the helm. Stephen Walt might not think so, but where are we if we can’t disagree once in a while.

My thinking is that, throughout its history, the CIA has ignored significant wrongs in order to advance a specific short term goal. This has led to (sometimes unintended) longer term (negative) consequences.

They have word for it. They call it “blowback”. It nicely euphemizes the situations they create.

For example:

Take the current on-going war in Afghanistan. The country has been in a state of conflict, more or less, since 1979, when the Soviets invaded and proceeded to occupy, and hurriedly install a weak, fragile puppet state that collapsed on their leaving (notice a pattern?).

During that conflict, the CIA (tacitly) condoned the mujahideen‘s growing of opium. This was on the understanding that the Afghans would use the profits from the opium trade to fight the Soviets, stemming the red tide. They subverted a long term goal of limiting and controlling the flow of illicit drugs for a short term goal of defeating Stalin.

Ultimately, the Soviets decided Afghanistan was not really a fun place to hang out. (The locals have never taken kindly to being told what to do. Especially not by Outsiders—to wit: the Anglo-Afghan wars.)

This reliance on opium, developed during the 1980s, has led Afghanistan to become addicted to opium ever since. It’s not as simple as just saying that opium is a high-value crop, or any of that. (There are other, more wholesome, more valuable, and more easily cultivated alternatives.)

Long story short: the CIA is in a small way responsible for the opium situation in Afghanistan at present. (There, of course, many other factors, not least the weather!)

Enter David Petraeus

So what difference will Petraeus make?

I think that he has a more realistic view. In redrafting the American counterinsurgency rule book, he drew heavily on classical ideas that worked. While there is little evidence to demonstrate the success of the Field Manual, especially in Afghanistan*, Petraeus is someone who is not afraid of shaking up ideas.

The Field Manual was a radical departure from previous American thinking on counterinsurgency and counter-revolutionary war (that phrase was quashed by the CIA in the 1970s when they were supporting revolutionaries in South and Central America). It advocates a population-centric approach to matters.

Some have said that this is perhaps too focused on talking to locals. Spencer Ackerman half-joked recently that said that “the man who drinks the most tea with the most villagers will earn the most goodwill.” However, it is right, especially in Afghanistan*, that a more population-centric approach is necessary.

What’s vital about Petraeus is that he appears to be far more focused on the long-term, and the bigger picture.

That can only be a good thing.

Of course, it remains to be seen.

*This is as a result of (among other things) the field manual being too heavily predicated on evidence from Iraq.

Dates (And Their Defence)

A lot of non-fiction books have dates in their titles. Most of the time they do this to confine the study. Because all things are connected; all events in history are causative and effective. Afghanistan is no different. Its history (depending on how you track it) goes back to 1880, 1747, the 15th century, or even further back. Louis Dupree says 3rd century Sasanians were talking about “Abgans.”

This history is fascinating, and I enjoyed writing about it. It’s vital for context. It’s vital for context. I am aware that I wrote that twice. Here it is again: History is vital for context. And context is king.

So I wrote a history of Afghanistan in 8,000 (ish) words so that the ten years or so I’ve chosen to talk about make more sense.

The dates I’ve picked are October 2001 – July 2011.

I don’t think I could get more current than that. To any Afghan scholar, those dates should be pretty well known. To an Outsider, however, they might be a little less so.

October, 2001

Seeing the date isolated like that, it should be easy to see. I’ve chosen this date because it marks the start of the American (and international) efforts in Afghanistan. The Americans invaded to oust the Taliban and destabilize al-Qaeda. It was in retaliation for 9/11.

July, 2011

This date might be less well-known to Outsiders. It’s the date that’s been earmarked for the start of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It’s in the future, but I’ll have most of the work done by the time it comes around. And there should be time for me to assess the differences (if there are any) in the situation before and after.

This is a bit of a nothing post, but I figured I’d put something up here, just so you know what’s going on.

At The Moment

… I’m working on models of international illicit markets, and how they operate. Why certain people choose to get involved and others don’t. How opium (and heroin—internationally) are traded, and the ways in which groups benefit is very important.

I also want to stress the importance of non-human factors. Two in particular: the markets and Mother Nature. These are two things that we like to think we can control, but really we can’t. I want to address the impact that natural causes have on the markets.

For instance, a drought in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s meant that a lot of opium production moved to the Golden Cresent. Opium produced in Afghanistan until then had been low scale, and consumed locally. At the same time, in Iran, the Ayatollah banned of the production but not consumption of opium. Suddenly Afghanistan’s opium had an international market, and demand that meant opium production massively increased.

That’s all for now. Reading to do.

Phase 2

So, yesterday the first chapter of the dissertation was ‘approved’ by my supervisor. A cursory history of Afghanistan. And I can safely say, what a basketcase. (Afghanistan, not me… Well, maybe not.)

It’s never really been ‘stable’. No one really knows when it all started. (Most people are all about 1747, but Louis Dupree reckons 1880.) I’m inclined to disagree with Dupree, even though his book ( is truly astonishing in scope. It has (separate) chapters on flora and fauna.

I really want to meet a Marco Polo sheep.

Marco Polo sheep

There was a brief period, in the middle of the twentieth century, when there was scope for long term stability, but then the Cold War happened. William Blum has my favourite summing-up of the Cold War:

The remarkable international good will and credibility enjoyed by the United States at the close of the Second World War was dissipated country by country, intervention by intervention. The opportunity to build the war-ravaged world anew, to lay foundations for peace, prosperity and justice, collapsed under the awful weight of anti-communism.

Blum, Killing Hope (, 7.

Onwards, Ever Onwards

And so, from the history, which stretches back to an ancient Sasanian word, “Abgan,” I’m moving into more modern times. Specifically, the period between the fall of the Taliban (or 9/11, or some other arbitrary date I can find a Best Defence for) and the “Drawdown” this July. I’m looking at the effect that the conflict has had on the opium trade. So I’ll be reading a lot of UNODC/CIA reports (yay!), and trying to formulate a thesis around that.

As for the process of history compiling, it was a lot of hard work, and spending a lot of time bogged down reading about things that I didn’t really need to know about. Trouble is, I’m interested in everything. So I spend a lot of time wandering down interesting, albeit unnecessary, rabbit holes.

But I now fully understand the importance of context and historical background. Not that I didn’t before, but, I guess it’s one of those things that you don’t really fully appreciate until you do it yourself.

An Evaluation

Mostly for me, by way of a “this went well, this didn’t,” type of exercise.

I spent too long reading about stuff that wasn’t specifically relevant, not enough time reading about stuff that was pertinent. (But that’s mostly to do with the failings of the library than anything else.)

In terms of things that went well, I was pleased with the writing and editing process. I only wrote twice as much as actually ended up in the manuscript. (I still remember the RMA essay. 12,000 (ish) words for a 2,500 essay. (Thanks, Rummy. :-p)

Working Hypothesis

My initial hypothesis would be that there has been very little impact, directly on farmers. But that is only really from the briefest of overviews. Feel free to brutally correct me, that’s partly why I’m writing this blog.

I enjoyed the process of compiling the history, and I think I’ll enjoy the project as a whole. I guess only time will tell.


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