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 Apparently, throughout Chinese history, the dynasties have, as a matter of course, destroyed the historical documents of the previous dynasty, and rewritten the history to place the current dynasty in the best possible light.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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No Fly Zones

I’m reasonably ashamed to admit that most Sundays I buy a copy of the Sunday Express (a conservative British newspaper, only slightly less right wing than the Daily Mail). Although I only buy it for the general knowledge crossword (if anyone can suggest a less inflammatory newspaper from which I might procure an hour or so of entertainment on a Sunday morning, I’d be grateful) I had a flick through the paper itself. There was a cartoon that made me chuckle.

It is entitled “No Fly-Zone” and features David Cameron holding a can of “United Nations Approved” fly spray and a fly swat chasing off a disgruntled, winged Gaddaffi. It made me laugh because it so clearly depicted how easy Western powers thought defeating Gaddaffi would be.

I think it’s best summed up, in this instant, by Think Strat’s Facebook status from a few days ago, which reads:

So, our strategy seems to be: 1) Pass a UNSC resolution > 2) ? > 3) Gaddafi gone! A new Libya!

That seems to sum up the thinking. But, the last time that NATO forces tried to win a war by bombing was in the Balkans, and even there success (defined by long-term stability) has been patchy.

Just Once, Let’s Know How We’re Getting Out, Before We Get In.

I was in a seminar a week or so ago, when the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya had just been “put on the table.” One of the main arguments against the NFZ in the seminar was that, it should not be imposed until the rebels come up with a viable alternative. At present, it seems that Think Strat’s assessment (see above) still holds. We know that we the Libyan people don’t want Gaddaffi in power any more, but (to the best of my knowledge, which is limited) we don’t know what they want instead.

I have never advocated it and, in fact, agree wholeheartedly with Patrick Porter’s assessment of 9th, March. Namely, “[a] widely touted no-fly zone over Libya would probably not be a surgical intervention that would trigger the overthrow of Gaddafi, but the first step towards entanglement, further escalation, and deeper conflict.”

So the question remains: Where does this end? And I don’t mean that it a crazy conspiracy theorist kind of sense. Rather, I mean, how do we know when we can stop bombing Benghazi, and lift the no-fly zone?

Answers on a postcard (or, if you’d prefer, in the comments), please.

Seven PMCs Are Going Home

I don’t claim to be an expert on, well, anything, but particularly Private Military Companies (PMCs).

However, this piece from the Associated Press made me think very good thoughts. Firstly, they have a patchy reputation. Think Blackwater, the PMC that just won’t go away. There are apparently links between Raymond Davis and Blackwater/Xe. PMCs also have a reputation for being trigger happy.

But secondly, and more importantly, this is a great day for wider Afghan development. The article makes reference to Hamid Karzai’s desire to take control of the situation. Karzai “charges that they slow down the development of Afghanistan’s own security forces,” which is probably quite true.

Think about it this way: You are trying to learn a new skill and every time you get to an impasse, someone is there saying “that part’s a bit tricky, let me take care of that for you, I’ll give it back when it’s done.”

And also, it’s allowing the Afghan government to further “our commitment to transparency and the rule of law.”

As a first civilian step in demobilizing foreign forces in Afghanistan, I can only see this as a good thing. It will force the Afghan police to step up and take responsibility, knowing, I think, that if bad things start happening, there’ll be a foreigner there, with his foot up someone’s backside, telling him to get it together.

What are your thoughts?

Complexity, Confusion and Frustration

Ok, so there’s something that I need to get out, before I can get back to my ‘manuscript’:

I don’t have a clue what is going on!

There, I said it.

Every time I read something, there is something (a paper, a blog post, a photo essay, a news article, a book, the list is endless), somewhere else with a different, equally valid view, an equally valid opinion. And at that moment, all progress on the work that I am trying to complete grinds to a halt.

There is no right answer. But I feel like, to admit that in a Master’s thesis (or a Ph.D., if this thing doesn’t drive me bonkers) is to loose some credibility as an academic. After all, we’re prized and praised for stoic defenses of this position or that. But when it comes down to it, no one knows the right way to do things. There is no way to account for everything.

But back to my original question: How do you reconcile all these different points of view?


There are roughly 200 succinct(-ish) words of procrastination. I think that they neatly sum up the final conclusion of this New Yorker piece on a new book, The Thief of Time, about procrastination:

In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

Perhaps now I can get back to work.