Greetings to all viewers and listeners of the Sheesha Media podcast. In this episode, we are joined by Ostad Shahrani, a distinguished native anthropologist of Afghanistan. Today, we aim to gain insights from Professor Shahrani’s expertise and learn more about ourselves as global citizens. We hope to discover ways to actively contribute to a better understanding of the world in which we live and work to improve our relationships and behaviors by leaving a better legacy for future generations.
Sheesha Media: Hello, Ostad. Welcome. We are delighted to have you on our program. Can you tell us where in which year and in which family you were born?
Nazif Shahrani: In the name of God, the Bestower of Life and Intellect. Greetings to you and all the viewers of Sheesha Media. I was born in a small village in Badakhshan province in northeastern Afghanistan. The village was small at my birth, but it has since grown and expanded, reflecting the changes and growth in our society over the past several decades.
Our village was called Shahran-e-Khash. Shahran is the village’s name, and Khash is the name of the valley in which it is located. This valley was part of the Jirm District (wuluswali) but has been promoted to a district since the Mujahedin rule. My last name, Shahrani, is derived from this village.
In the countryside, where people were primarily illiterate, no one cared much about the date of birth, and birth certificates were unknown. However, I was issued a national ID card with my name in 1325H (solar calendar). In this document issued during the month of Saur (April-May), in place of date of birth, it was written “newly born”, meaning less than a year old.
Sheesha Media: Regarding social status, what was your parents’ position, and in which social class did they belong?
Nazif Shahrani: My family was a typical, ordinary rural farming people. They were not wealthy but had some farmland and animals such as goats, sheep, and cattle. Our region was not overly poor or rich, and our family was considered part of the middle class. They made a living by working the land, planting and harvesting crops, and looking after their animals. This is how they met their basic subsistence needs.
Sheesha Media: How were the relationships between the khans and peasants in your region? Were any individuals or groups with more power and influence than others similar to other areas of the country?
Nazif Shahrani: Not really, because Badakhshan is a mountainous area with limited land and agriculture. When I was young, landowners only had enough land to meet their own needs, and no one was so wealthy that they owned substantial plots of land, and others were their peasants or workers.
Sheesha Media: Who were the individuals or groups that had influence in the region, settled disputes among the people, or had connections to the government?
Nazif Shahrani: There were two types of people with social influence in our community. One group was those who had connections to the government, usually brokers who did not have much respect among the people, but due to their government ties, they had some power. The other group was those who did not like to have relations with the government and had their power and authority, like a parallel local government.
These individuals had a solid social base, and people often turned to them for assistance and advice. They were typically older men with white beards. They did not like to have connections to the government, as governments were often autocratic and oppressive and did not look after their interests. Those who cooperated with the government were considered Arbab or the official village headman. At the same time, those who had honor and respect among the people did not want to become Arbab as that sallied their reputation.
At one point, people wanted to choose one of my uncles as their Arbab, but neither he nor our family agreed, as we did not want to be seen as the government agents in the village. My family members preferred to be ordinary people and help others when they could. This is why people came to them to solve their problems. This was due to the political situation in our country at the time. Whenever there has been war and conflict in Afghanistan, those serving as government agents (Arbabs) have typically aligned themselves with the governments, regardless of their impact on the villagers. They allied themselves with groups like Khalqis, and Parchemis, against the Mujahideen and later with Mujahideen during the fratricidal wars among them.
Sheesha Media: What was the role of religious leaders and mullahs among the people? Did they have any influence on society?
Nazif Shahrani: In general, in Badakhshan and the other northern provinces of Afghanistan, mullahs, maulavis, and those whom we once called “Domulla” (people who studied in Samarkand and Bukhara madrassas before the Russian Bolsheviks rule in Central Asia), were respected individuals who were also appreciated by the people. This is because they typically stayed away from issues of lordship and power. If a mullah became an Arbab or government agent, their respect among the people would disappear. Regarding respect and having a social base among the people, there was a big difference between those who were aligned with the government and those who were not.
Sheesha Media: What was the overall living situation of the people during that time? As someone from the middle class, did you notice poverty and hunger around you?
Nazif Shahrani: Sometimes, during late winter and early spring, people suffered from food shortages. I remember that sometimes my father used to go to Wakhan to bring wheat, as he had served during his military service there and had connections with some people who knew the area. This food shortage was also because people consumed their reserves in autumn and winter and sometimes ran out of food. However, this time was also when wild edible vegetables became available in the early spring, so people used them. The good thing was that there was a lot of milk in early spring, and people used these wild vegetables with milk. In general, the famine problem was not very severe in Badakhshan, where I grew up. People cooperated and shared what they had; I don’t remember anyone dying of hunger.
Sheesha Media: Before we continue our discussion, I would like to know about the origins of the name of your village, Shahran.
Nazif Shahrani: There are several stories about this. Six brothers from Ferghana, specifically from the city of Andijan, came to Badakhshan and founded the Qeshlaq (village) that would later be known as Shahran. There is a town twenty kilometers west of Andijan called “Shahr-e-Khan,” which still exists, and I have also been there. Likely, these brothers did not come from Andijan but from Shahr-e-Khan; over time, our village of “Shahr-e-Khan” may have become Shahran. Our ancestors are undoubtedly from the Andijan area; our accent and way of speaking in the Uzbek language are very close to the people of Andijan.
It is likely that these six brothers also came to Badakhshan with Zaheeruddin Mohammad Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur was driven out of his birthplace, Andijan, by his uncle and cousins due to family rivalry, and he first came to Badakhshan. He stayed in Badakhshan for three years, during which he organized forces and built an army before conquering Kabul. Probably, these six brothers were among those who remained in Shahran and Wadi of Khash to protect it.
After ten years in Kabul, Babur invaded India, and in 1526, he established the Mughal Empire in Delhi. Then, the whole region continued to be under the influence and domination of the Turkic speakers. There was a lot of travel and exchange between Central Asia and modern-day Afghanistan and the subcontinent, which is why the Uzbeks have more than a hundred named tribal groups. For example, we call ourselves “Kaltatai” in Badakhshan. This name is derived from a reference to a type of horse. The Kaltatai horse is a short-statured breed of horse with a particular type of gallop. The names of Uzbek tribes are many and different, like Barlas, Qarluq, Chung, Darkhan, and…
Sheesha Media: You’ve discussed this briefly before, but can you elaborate on the language differences between people in Badakhshan and other parts of Afghanistan, such as Takhar, Jawzjan, and Faryab? Is there a difference, and if so, is it just in accent, or are there also differences in vocabulary?
Nazif Shahrani: In the Wadi Khash, we have a village called “Tajik-ha”, and another Qeshlaq called “Mughul-ha”, the Mongols”. The dialect of the people living in the village is named Mongol. Their dialect is slightly different from ours. “Yuz Namat” and “Dar Khan” are all Turki names. There are Turki-speaking people who speak to each other with slightly different accents and sometimes sound shifts.
We have other villages near the town of Jirm called “Chunglar or Chung-ha” or Chung in Turki means great or big. People whose accent is slightly different from ours and with a sound shift. For example, they say “Joq” and “Jol”, and we say “Yoq” and “Yol” which means “no” or “way”. Differences in accents are widespread in Badakhshan and the old Qataghan region, another Uzbek tribal name. But in the 1964 constitution of Afghanistan, Qataghan was divided into several provinces (Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan, etc.), and the name Qataghan is no longer in use.
We are demographically mixed with Tajiks. This is the case in Badakhshan and many other places. However, we did not know that we were Uzbeks until after 1925 when Stalin’s infamous “Nationalities policies” created Uzbekistan and labeled us as Uzbeks. We believed our language was Turki or Turk Teli (the language of Turks or Turkish), and we referred to the books we read as children as “Turki Kitab or Turkish books”. Everything was considered Turki until finally when Stalin decided to divide the Turkestan region based on language. He declared that this part should be Uzbekistan, and that part should be Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, etc. Thus, we also became Uzbeks after that time. Before that, our region was Turkestan, and we were Turks or Tajiks.
Sheesha Media: Is the language people use in daily conversations and interactions exclusively Uzbek, or do you also speak Farsi?
Nazif Shahrani: Our people are bilingual and grew up speaking both Uzbek and Tajiki/Farsi. For example, in the village where I grew up, one of my paternal grandmothers always spook in the Tajik language, and we called her Tajik Mama (grandmother). She was married to a Tajik Mir in the Kuran and Munjan (in Yumgan valley) regions, in a Qeshlaq (village) named ” Gharmi”. The Mir and his family had been forcibly moved from their territory to Kabul (presumably for security reasons!) during the time of Amir Abdul Rahman (r1880-1901) and his son Amir Habibullah Khan (r1901-1919). For this reason, my grandmother lived in the Kolola Pushta area in Kabul. My grandmother’s first husband had died in Kabul, and she had returned to our village, Shahran, and married my paternal grandfather, who had been a widower then.
When we were children, we always spoke Tajiki with my grandmother and an aunt, but Uzbek with all the family. The situation in the entire Qeshlaq (village) was almost the same. Our school language of instruction was also Tajiki or Persian. At that time, the conditions were such that if the Director of Education in Badakhshan was a Persian speaker, everything in our school would be taught in Persian. If he was a Pashtun, everything would be conducted in Pashto. They told us that since we were Uzbeks, we should learn the national language. When I was studying in elementary school, they changed textbooks twice.
Who were the “Badakhshani Foes” of Amir Abd al-Rahman, “the Iron Amir”?
Sheesha Media: In his book “Taj al-Tawarikh“, Amir Abd al-Rahman talks about “the Badakhshani Foes” of him in a general way. The question is, who were the resistance forces that were present in Badakhshan at that time? Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Mongols?
Nazif Shahrani: Abdul Rahman Khan was familiar with Badakhshan. He came to Afghanistan from Samarkand through Badakhshan. At that time, “mirs” (local leaders) were very popular. For example, in Darvaz, Sheghnan, along the Oxus/Amu River, and in Faizabad, “Mir-ha” ruled the region. Abdul Rahman knew them, especially those whom he did not trust. The resistance forces in Badakhshan were likely a mix of ethnic groups, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and possibly others. They may have been united in their resistance against the rule of Abdul Rahman Khan and his government.
Look, Abd al-Rahman Khan lived in Samarkand for almost ten years under the “Tsarist” colonial rule. He became intellectually more familiar with “Peter the Great” during the time of Tsarist Russia. Peter the Great was a very harsh cannibalistic figure. His method was to destroy anyone he suspected of challenging him in his domain.
Abdul Rahman Khan was inspired by Peter the Great, and when he came to Afghanistan, he tried to act like his role model Peter the Great. He targeted anyone thought to be able to fight or create problems for him, regardless of ethnicity or background. Abd al-Rahman destroyed people because he focused only on protecting himself and his power.
Sheesha Media: Did Abdurrahman Khan focus on repressing all Mirs in Badakhshan, or were particular Mirs targeted for suppression in that region?
Nazif Shahrani: During that time, most of the Mirs were Tajiks. However, the Mirs of Qatghan, including Kunduz and other regions, were mainly Turkic speakers. These Mirs had a history of conflicts with one another. For example, the people of Qatghan would attack the Mirs of Badakhshan, and demand tribute and ransom, such as horses, wheat, and even girls. Abdurrahman was aware of these issues and took measures to suppress them, regardless of their language or region.
It’s important to note that in Taj al-Tawarikh, the issues in Badakhshan were not the only ones addressed, there were also issues with the Qatghanis, and Abdul Rahman dealt with them harshly, as if they were dogs. He said he blow-up his enemies in the region with cannons and fed their flesh to his camp dogs.
Sheesha Media: The question is about the population structure in Badakhshan at that time. Who did Abd al-Rahman side with? Were the “Badakhshani Foe” mostly Tajik Mirs or Uzbek Mirs, or were they mixed?
Nazif Shahrani: There were more Tajiks in Badakhshan, while Qatgan had a majority of Turkic people, now referred to as Uzbeks.
Sheesha Media: If you recall, did people talk about the terror of Abdul Rahman during your childhood?
Nazif Shahrani: I was not living during Abdur Rahman’s time. My grandmother used to tell stories about that era, which were more about Habibullah Khan’s age but not as early as Abd al-Rahman’s time. In the 1940s and 1950s, when I was a child, the main issue was Nader Khan 9(r1929-1933) and the oppression he committed by bringing Iljaris (tribal militia) from the Pashtun east and south of Afghanistan to Qatghan and Badakhshan. The Iljaris were brought in to fight against the Central Asian resistance fighters against the Russian Bolsheviks, a group the Russians called “Basmachis,” many of whom were Mujahideen from Central Asia, particularly associated with Amir Alem Khan, the dislodged ruler of Bukhara Khanate. The stories of that time were mostly about how much our villages were looted, and they even scared some of us with a remarkable footprint called “Payzar” and said if you don’t calm down, I will call the Afghans (Afghans=Pashtuns) to come and punish you. These fears were more related to Nader Khan’s era atrocities.
Sheesha Media: Were the Basmechis you mentioned the ones who came to the region to loot it?
Nazif Shahrani: No, the Basmechis were not looters. They were people from tribal territories who had taken refuge from the areas north of the Amu River, occupied by the Russian Communists. They spoke the same local languages as in Qataghan and Badakhshan. The situation was similar to the 1980s when numerous Pashtun Tribesmen from southern provinces of Afghanistan along the Pakistan borders took refuge in Pashtunistan (now renamed Pahtunkhaw or the old NWFP of Pakistan) during the Jihad against Soviet Russians intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Locals in Qataghan and Badakhshan believed Central Asian Uzbeks and Tajiks were waging jihad against the Communist Russian occupiers and had no problem with them.
Sheesha Media: Why did Nader Khan bring his tribal militia forces to that area to fight and suppress the Basmachis?
Nazif Shahrani: The story of this issue was written in great detail in 1990 by a young journalist whose name I have forgotten. But, he might be Ibrahim Afifiy. He noted that Iljaris were brought to the north from the east and south to fight against the Basmechi forces at the request of the Soviet government from Nader Khan. The militias were told that if they got the head of a “Kosa”, they would be rewarded with a specific amount of cash. It is known that Turks and Hazaras do not usually have thick beards. The Iljaris were also told that whatever they obtained from locals’ properties was theirs. This same pattern was repeated several times in the north. The same was carried out in Badakhshan, particularly in its central parts. Because of this, people were still afraid and even scared their children about this issue.
I would like to add that the word “Basmachi” does not have a nice meaning in Turkish. It refers to those who force themselves upon others through violence, plunder, and brutality for extortion. The Russians gave this name to the mujahideen of Central Asia. During the Afghan Mujahideen, the communists had chosen similarly obnoxious characters for them, but the people rejected them. Unfortunately, the Russians’ term of reference for the Central Asian Mujahideen, the Basmachi, was accepted and is still used in the literature.
People’s relationships and social relations
Sheesha Media: How were people’s relations with each other then? Did people’s transactions go on usually or not? Especially when the Iljaris came from the south and settled in the north, how much did they change the population structure, and how much did they affect the people’s behavior patterns, relationships, and relations?
Nazif Shahrani: The Tajiks and Turks had no problems with each other. They would intermarry and collaborate. But when the Naqilin, or New Settlers, came to the north beginning in 1884, during the era of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, the problems started.
A British intelligence officer named Colonel Yate published much about Afghanistan. He played a significant role in the markings of the northern borders of Afghanistan with the Russian Tsarist colonial empire of that time and with Iran. In 1884, marking the boundaries of Afghanistan was one of the responsibilities of Colonel Yate. He reportedly advised Amir Abdul Rahman Khan that his northern borders could not protect against the Russians with the local people who lived in this area.
Hence Yate proposed to the British that Amir Abd al-Rahman should be helped financially to resettle some of his people, namely the Pashtun tribesmen from the south, to the recently demarcated border areas and replace the local Uzbeks and Tajiks by his own trusted tribesmen to ensure that the boundaries of Afghanistan would be protected against the Russians.
Indeed, the British suggested giving the money for the resettlement costs to Amir Abd al-Rahman to bring about two hundred to three hundred thousand Pashtun tribesmen from among Kandahari and Ghiljai/Ghilzai nomadic herders to the north. The Kandaharis were rewarded with free land and opportunities in return for their support and loyalty as his own Durrani tribal members. As such, it was a mutually utilitarian move.
The Gheljais, in eastern and southern Afghanistan, had rebelled against Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan, and in this sense, he wanted to banish them from their territories. Once the Ghiljais were in the north, Amir Abd al-Rahman protected them and offered them productive and fertile lands belonging to the region’s local Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik inhabitants. For this reason, today, in the areas of Ghor, Ghorat, Maimana, and Faryab, along the borders and the other regions, the Pashtun Naqilin relocated from the south. These communities have been there for several generations now.
Sheesha Media: The Naqilin were about two hundred thousand people in number. Considering the population of Afghanistan at that time, they must have changed the demographic structure a lot.
Nazif Shahrani: The permanent resettlement of Pashtun did not happen in Badakhshan. Instead, the Kandahari pastoral nomads were given huge pasturelands for their yaylaq (summer grazing in Shiwa and Dashti Riwat plateaus). They also brought many Pashtun to Faizabad to work, run the government administration, and protect the government interests in these places. Also, for those who had served the government as officers in the border areas, for example, in Wakhan, when they retired, they were given land in Badakhshan to settle there, but their numbers were not very large in Badakhshan. The most significant numbers of Naqilin, changing the local demographic composition, were in the northwest (i.e., Turkistan area).
Sheesha Media: So, the 200,000 figure you mentioned isn’t just for Badakhshan, correct?
Nazif Shahrani: Yes, that’s correct. The figure isn’t just for Badakhshan. It’s for the province of Turkestan. Until 1964, there was a province called Turkestan, which today is divided into provinces of Faryab, Maimana, Shaberghan, Samangan, and others. Most of the Naqilin moved to these areas. The Naqilin project continued in the area. For example, Pashtun people were moved to Hajdah Nahr (18 Canals) areas or between Mazar Sharif and Sheberghan, which were related to new infrastructure projects, reclaiming irrigated land. In other words, additional land that was brought under irrigation was generally given to the Naqilin.
Sheesha Media: We’ll discuss this issue further in future opportunities.
Nazif Shahrani: Fine. We can talk about this in the future, but this issue is critical in terms of governments’ plans and programs in Afghanistan.
School and university days
Sheesha Media: Let’s go back to your personal life for now. Did you complete your primary education in your local area?
Nazif Shahrani: Yes, I attended a school called “Ma’roof” in Shahran-e Khash for my primary education.
Sheesha Media: And where did you go for middle and high school?
Nazif Shahrani: In the 1950s, the central government had a policy of not having many secondary and high schools in the provinces. Instead, they built dormitories in Kabul and increased the number of middle and high schools in the capital to bring rural youth to these schools. So, when I finished sixth grade, I was selected for a scholarship along with six other students from my school who were at the top of the class ranks. We went to Ibn Sina Secondary School in Kabul, located in Dehburi, across from the campus of Kabul University. It was later upgraded to a high school but only had three classes: 7th, 8th and 9th grades. We lived in dormitories where our food included a substantial amount of potatoes. So the Kabulis used to call us “Kachalu Khura” (Potatoe Eaters). When we completed 9th grade, we were given five options only for vocational high schools. We could attend Dar al-Mulammin (Teachers Training High School) in Kabul, Paghman’s Shara’iyat High School, Agriculture High School, Technical High School, or Sana’i (Arts and Crafts) School. We had to study in these schools and then return to our regions, become teachers, or do other jobs. I chose Dar al-Mulammin high school.
Sheesha Media: Seven of your classmates came to Ibn Sina’s school. What happened to the rest?
Nazif Shahrani: The rest stayed in the Qeshlaq.
Sheesha Media: Does that mean their education stopped?
Nazif Shahrani: Yes, their education stopped, or they later were recruited for some short training courses such as the Malaria eradication program or for becoming Kampoder (low-level medical personnel, etc. A number of them became low-ranking government officials.
Sheesha Media: At that time, was education only for boys, or were girls also able to study?
Nazif Shahrani: At that time, there were no schools for girls in rural areas, and all the school students were boys. Another interesting thing was that we were not allowed to attend Harbiyeh (Military) High School, and no one from our region was accepted to Harbiyeh High School. After I graduated from sixth grade and joined Ibn Sina’s school, Sardar Dawood Khan, then the Prime Minster, started to allow the recruitment of students from the region to the Military High School.
Sheesha Media: Was the restriction you’re talking about legal and officially announced, or was it applied at the local level customarily?
Nazif Shahrani: We did not see such a thing in written laws, but in regions like Badakhshan, Qataghan, Turkestan, and Hazarajat, no one was admitted to be trained as a military officer in the military school. But after the year I graduated, this issue disappeared, and they started to attract people from Badakhshan. One of my dreams was to go to Harbiya school, but I did not have the chance. There are young people from our school who attended the Maktabi Harbiya, and some of them became generals.
I studied at Dar al-Mulammin until the twelfth grade. An exciting story is that I was a sluggish student at that time. I did not focus on my school subjects and assignments, and I was not very interested in them. I thought I would go to Dar al-Mulammin, become a teacher, buy a bicycle, get a wife, and stay in the Qeshlaq for the rest of my life. But then, my great aunt’s son, Dr. Enayatullah Shahrani, who was in College, did something that jerked me regarding our homeland and yours. One day we walked together in the streets near Ibn Sina’s school. At that time, he was studying at the Faculty of Education. He flattered me and said why do you think you are smart and not paying attention to your studies and are lazy and useless? That day, I promised him I would start studying from that moment, and that year I will get the top of my class in all the 10th-grade sections in the Dar al-Mulammin school. I began to study seriously, which was also interesting for my classmates, and everyone said, ‘See that Nazif studies to become Awal Numra—the top student in the class. In the same year, during the mid-terms, I got the highest grade; but I failed in English because I had ignored English.
Sheesha Media: We have fascinating paradoxes. Anyway, maybe one of the positive outcomes of that deprivation was that one of our potential soldiers became a scholar and scientist.
Nazif Shahrani: It may be so. In the same year, I got to be Awal Numra (number one) in all the 10th-grade sections in the entire school. After that, my life changed, and my goal was not to become a teacher. My goal was to study abroad.
Sheesha Media: When you came to Kabul from Badakhshan, it coincided with the peak of the time when the city was rapidly modernizing, and there were events like the drafting of the constitution. As someone who came to the town from Qeshlaq, how did you react to these events then?
Nazif Shahrani: This is a crucial question. You see, when we were at Darul Moalimin school, Mr. Hafizullah Amin (later Khalq Communist Party leader) was the principal of our school. Issues like nationalism and these things were very much alive. He was very nationalist at that time. In our school, they used to bring movies made in the Soviet Union. The films inspired the Russians’ success and the Germans’ failure to the viewer. Hitler and the Germans’ losses in the battles were frequent. Still, when the Germans won, we were happy and unconsciously became their supporters and cheered for them, as Afghans took pride in being members of the Aryan race claimed by Germans then.
At that time, the issue of nationalism had become very acute. For example, on Thursdays, all the school’s students would be gathered, and some would read poems praising Dawood Khan and Hafizullah Amin as Afghan/Pashtun nationalists, and we had to clap. These issues created a series of emotions among the youth that did not exist before.
Sheesha Media: There is a fascinating point here. When you saw the film, you were cheering for the Germans’ victory and the Russians’ defeat!
Nazif Shahrani: Yes, the problem was the issue of Aryanism since Afghans claimed to be the purist of the Aryan race!
Sheesha Media: What was your reaction to these ideas?
Nazif Shahrani: Well, it is natural that this issue was painful for us. It was painful for us to experience racial prejudice in school. Differences in class matters such as grades, teacher-student interaction, or student relationships were also influenced. That’s why I wanted to go abroad to study if there was a way.
At that time, the Americans had just built the Faculty of Education at Kabul University. When the Faculty of Education began, at the end of the first year, the Americans sent the top three students to study at the American University of Beirut (AUB) as a reward. In the second year, they sent the first and second position holders. In the third year, only the first was given a scholarship. In the fourth year, when I had just entered the Faculty of Education, the scholarships were awarded to the first graduates of the Faculty of Education to go to AUB to pursue their MA degrees. Hence, the practice of sending the leading students from the freshman class abroad was ended, so I did not succeed in my goal.
Sheesha Media: When you were in school, what connections did you have outside of it? For example, at that time, Tahir Badakhshi was very prominent. He raised the issue of racial/ethnic differences and discrimination. What was your reaction then to the points that Badakhshi spoke about, and were you in contact with him?
Nazif Shahrani: I was very young then, but I had a relationship with Taher Badakhshi. He was admired by many, and we were students in middle school or high school. We were also in contact with Ustad Rabbani, who was in the Faculty of Shara’iyat. I also had a relationship with Professor Nematullah Shahrani, one of my maternal cousins. I must say that our relationship was mainly with Ustad Rabbani. Before I went to America, I leaned toward supporting Islamist movements rather than being leftist. Sometimes we were with Tahir Badakhshi in some gatherings, but at that time, as I said, I had an Islamic tendency, not the left.
Sheesha Media: What was your perception and image of Tahir Badakhshi then? In retrospect and as a flashback, how do you evaluate Taher Badakhshi as a living personality and a figure who was active and influential among people?
Nazif Shahrani: At that time, I saw Tahir Badakhshi as a friend of Haji Rahman Qul Khan, the Khan of the Pamir Kirghiz. During my Ph.D. dissertation research in the Pamirs, I came to Kabul with Rahman Qul Khan of Pamir in the winter of 1973. I was interested in learning about the Khan’s interactions and connections in Kabul. Whom did he work with, and how did he sell his herds of animals, his purchase while in Kabul, etc.? This was part of my ethnographic research as a student of anthropology.
In the research that I was doing, I saw Haji Rahman Qul Khan and his companions regularly in a Saray (compound) near Pulakhshti Kabul, which belonged to the Independent Directorate of Borders Affairs—i.e., used as a guesthouse, but mainly for the use of Pashtun tribesmen along the Pakistan frontiers, from both sides. The Saray was for the use of tribal people, and those from Pamir were also accommodated there. At that time, we called Tahir Badakhshi Tahir Jan. Tahir Jan used to come to see Rahman Qul Khan regularly during his stay in Kabul, in this place.
One day I invited Tahir Badakhshi to Ustad Shahrani’s house in Deh Bori. In this meeting, Tahirjan was interested in knowing more about my studies in the US. He was also curious whether Marxism was discussed during studies in America and what my understanding of Marx and others was. I showed him many color slides I had taken from Pamir, depicting the Wakhi and Kirghiz lives and my research objectives. I also explained that in graduate school, I had to talk about the three volumes of Marx’s The Capital in a graduate seminar. I told him that in the US educational system, people consider Marx as a social scientist and social theorist, not as revolutionary. He was surprised by my perspective, and we had a good conversation.
That day I had a very enlightening discussion with Tahir Badakhshi, and I told him my perspective and understanding of social philosophers like Marx, Lenin, and Hegel. I told him their works are studied in American universities as theoreticians, not as revolutionaries. He was surprised to listen to my words. I told him that my professor (mentor) was someone who specialized in the study of Buddhism in Thailand but was a reputable scholar and an anthropologist.
I also explained to him that my background in anthropology and my studies in America had exposed me to different ways of understanding and analyzing social issues. I had no specific training in Middle East or Central Asian studies. I explained that my professors were specialists in Africa and Southeast Asia, which gave me a different perspective on the issues facing Afghanistan and our region.
Sheesha Media: What surprised Tahir Badakhshi when he heard your words?
Nazif Shahrani: Tahir was surprised to learn that Americans are well-versed in various ideas and familiar with multiple issues. He had previously thought Americans might hold negative views toward figures such as Marx, Lenin, and Hegel, but this was not the case.
Sheesha Media: There seemed to be an ideological divide in his mind, where he viewed those who held different beliefs as enemies, and all their approaches were antagonistic.
Nazif Shahrani: I explained to Tahirjan that the academic community in America is a free and open, and accessible environment where all ideas are welcome and thoroughly examined and discussed.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us more about your perception of Tahir, specifically from his school days?
Nazif Shahrani: I knew two versions of Tahirjan. When we first arrived in Kabul, he was a student at Habibiya High School. At that time, he was very traditional and strongly connected to his Badakhshan heritage, including his clothing and the fact that he did not drink tea. His tea was Zeera (cumin) from Badakhshan, and his clothes were woven cotton cloth from Badakhshan. He was concerned about the local self-sufficiency of the country and non-dependency on foreign trade goods. He was a religious man who prayed and was in his conduct. He was viewed as a Sufi of sorts.
Later, Tahir changed significantly and became more engaged with the broader world and ideas. He had a strong sense of ethnic identity and examined the government’s treatment of different ethnic groups. I greatly respect Tahir as a curious, thoughtful, wise, and perceptive individual. Still, I did not believe his approach to Marxism and leftist ideology would benefit Afghanistan. Sometimes I wish things had been different, with Ustad Rabbani on the left and Tahir on the right. Tahirjan, I believe, would have been more effective if he had focused on the Islamic approach to addressing the nation’s problems. I regret that he was influenced by a more superficial Marxist understanding of religion, calling deen, or ‘faith, as the opiate of the masses’.
Sheesha Media: At the time, Tahir was facing two different fronts. On one side, some founded the People’s Democratic Party and followed a leftist and Marxist ideology, and wanted to solve Afghanistan’s problems through socialist internationalism. Taher, though initially a founding member of the party, soon separated from them and raised the issue of national oppression, which aimed to address oppression and ethnic discrimination in Afghanistan – a problem that was different from the internationalism of Khalqis. On the other side, Tahir faced Islamists with a more global perspective on Islam and paid less attention to ethnic issues.
From your perspective as an anthropologist, how do you see Taher Badakhshi’s influence on people? Do you think he left a lasting impact on communities such as Uzbeks and Tajiks in northern Afghanistan, or do you feel that it fueled more division and dispersion?
Nazif Shahrani: No doubt, Tahir has influenced the thinking of young people in the north. Initially, Tahir was an idealist and believed that the leftist ideas he had read about in books could be applied in society and that if people in a different ethnic community followed these ideas, their problems would be solved. This is because everyone would be focused on one universal idea and not on ethnic and linguistic issues. However, he later learned that ethnic diversity was being exploited in Afghanistan. Instead of reducing ethnic problems, it increased them. This is why there was ethnic prejudice even in the Communist Party.
Tahir understood these issues early on and realized this road was the so-called way leading to Turkestan and was not the solution. He initially thought that an ultra-Pashtun nationalist like Hafizullah Amin and his ilk would support him, but this was not the case.
Sheesha Media: To evaluate Tahir Badakhshi’s position as an influential thinker in society, how would you rate him? How do you think his ideas were? Do you see indications of a person who thinks differently and presents his thoughts in a unique format in his works? How do you compare him to other thinkers and intellectuals in different societies, and as an anthropologist, what score would you give him?
Nazif Shahrani: Unfortunately, Tahir had a short time to live. He was removed from the scene early. He was a man who learned through experience. At first, he started very idealistically, but later, he changed direction from his one kind of idealism to another. He thought a fascist group might be abusing the Marxist ideas for their vested interests, so he went on another path.
On the other hand, he felt that more non-Pashtuns would hear his voice, but it was found that there was not much difference [on the Parchami’s] side either. After the time of the Saur Revolution and at the beginning of the communist Coup, Tahir was killed. In later times, especially when Tahir was in prison before his demise, he gradually understood that the leftist ideology was not the solution to Afghanistan’s problem.
Sheesha Media: Have you come across any work by Tahir Badakhshi demonstrating this intellectual transformation, where he starts with leftist ideas and realizes that the leftist ideology is not the solution?
Nazif Shahrani: Unfortunately, Tahir Badakhshi did not publish his writings in an organized manner, and his works do not have the order in which he wrote them. For example, it is unclear where he started and where he ended up, and when he changed his direction, it is unclear why?
We have some of his thoughts through his short writings. Some of those writings have been preserved, and some issues are still available in verbal form and audio recordings that can be found on some websites, but most of the works about him and his works seem to be based on the experiences of those who knew him closely and were with him. Unfortunately, I was mainly outside the country during his later life. My relationship with Tahirjan would have been very close intellectually if I had been inside. Still, I believe that for Tahir Badakhshi, there was a possibility of a more workable path to change than religion.
Sheesha Media: One aspect of Tahir Badakhshi’s legacy is that he introduced the idea of organized and partisan work among Uzbeks and Northern Tajiks, particularly in Badakhshan. Although this movement started from the People’s Democratic Party, he made people understand the importance of organization in achieving goals.
How do you view Tahir’s role as a pragmatist in terms of organization? Would you say he was a skilled strategist, planner, and organizer?
Nazif Shahrani: I believe that his belief in organized work and those around him who continued to carry on is a positive thing. However, the circumstances of the time did not allow him to achieve more. It is important to note that success is not guaranteed in any situation. I believe that Tahir faced many challenges and could not bring his organization to an effective position and utilize the possibilities of the time. However, as you mentioned, having an organization in itself was a constructive step.
Sheesha Media: From this perspective, many political and ideological pragmatists worked to bring change to Afghanistan, similar to Tahir Badakhshi. For example, individuals from both factions of the People’s Democratic Party, the activists of Sholeh Javid and Islamists, were prominent figures during that time. How do you compare Tahir Badakhshi’s influence on society to that of his contemporaries, such as Akram Yari, Babrak Carmel, Mir Akbar Khyber, Burhanuddin Rabbani, or members of Hizb-e-Islami?
Nazif Shahrani: I believe that if Tahir Badakhshi had lived as long as Ustad Rabbani, his place in the history of Afghanistan would be pretty different. He pioneered addressing issues of differences, discrimination, and oppression. He laid the foundation for it.
Sheesha Media: When we look at the development of civil society in Afghanistan, Tahir Badakhshi did not have a long life. The initial seeds of political and intellectual movements in Afghanistan began in the 1340s. They slowly grew until the coup of the People’s Democratic Party and the subsequent changes, which were only a period of 14 or 15 years. Despite this, these individuals influenced subsequent developments. Many view them as nostalgic role models and wish they had stayed. As an anthropologist, if you look back at the past, how has Afghanistan changed in terms of development in every field, and what differences have arisen in the socio-demographic reality that interests you as an anthropologist?
Nazif Shahrani: During the time of Tahir Badakhshi and his contemporaries, one of the main problems in Afghanistan was the lack of a vibrant group of young thinkers, or at least youth familiar with different ideas. The difference from then to now is that today we have a large group of promising young people who are familiar with varying schools of thought and can be critical of any idea. During Tahir Badakhshi, access to new and fresh schools of thought was minimal. For example, many people did not know English. The books they read were mainly translated by Iranians— from the Tudeh Party of Iran. They did not even know Russian, and later, the situation changed. Many went to Russia and saw everything closely.
But Tahir had never seen Russia and had never been outside of Afghanistan. If Tahir had gone to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, or Moscow, he might have seen a different world. In major bringing substantial change, there must be a critical mass of people to do it with. You cannot make a significant change with one person or ten people. He led a movement with the limitations of that time. At that time, another issue, what the Soviets stood for, was significant, promising, and seemed lasting. At that time, no one thought that the Soviet Union would not exist after 1989. But the subject changed over time, and what they had learned about capitalism and how it responded to changes completely changed and were evolving.
These changes in the capitalist West affected many things regarding jobs and employment, social services, and other societal issues. In the end, what the Soviet Union did for its people was very little compared to what other countries could provide.
How much has society changed?
Sheesha Media: One aspect you mentioned earlier was the limitations, such as access to information or the possibilities of a better understanding of the world for people. Forty years later, do you think Afghanistan has changed regarding facilities and access to information and how these have affected people’s thinking and behavior patterns?
Nazif Shahrani: Afghan Society has experienced many new things unimaginable in the past 40 years when we were young, and Tahir was alive. One of them was the imposed war, which caused many Afghans to be displaced in mass, something that did not exist before. For example, many people from our villages, apart from Pushki, had never traveled outside or seen any other place. Pushki (serving two years of military draft service) was a great experience. I have often heard stories from my uncles about what a particular officer did and what they saw and experienced with fascination.
Sheesha Media: Can you tell us more about where Pushki is located? Was it a district that you were talking about?
Nazif Shahrani: No, Pushki refers to the two-year military service period. Those who turned 20 years old had to be drafted for military service for two years.
Sheesha Media: Pushki is a beautiful term we are just learning about. Do you mean the two-year military service period?
Nazif Shahrani: Yes, we used to refer to the military service as Pushki, and typically people from Badakhshan would go to Pushki for two years. In 1988, after the communist coup, around eight million people left Afghanistan, primarily for Pakistan and Iran but some to the West. Another two million people were internally displaced from rural areas to cities. In my opinion, this created a significant social shift that persisted after that, and different segments of society gained external experiences. We can say that more than half of Afghanistan’s population was displaced, which is a significant experience for the people. Of course, this experience isn’t always positive, but it does have positive aspects. This is why the experience of the migration period, particularly during the past twenty years, has been outstanding compared to any other time in Afghanistan’s history. Likewise, in the past 20 years, schools have increased in numbers. I acknowledge that there were problems, such as a lack of books, good teachers, and insufficient instructional time due to crowding, but still, a group of our youth was educated. Schools and universities were established. Although the quality of teachers and lessons was not as good as it should have been, it is still better compared to the past.
Many of our young people went abroad to study in countries like the former USSR, India, Pakistan, Iran, and other places using scholarships. In my opinion, the experience of our immigrants in Iran was very constructive. As a result, we now have a different society compared to the past.
Sheesha Media: One of the points you mentioned earlier is the issue of education, specifically modern education, that has become more prevalent in society. One of the effects of modern education is its emphasis on individualization. Perhaps the most individualizing activity that people engage in is education. A student who starts in the first grade receives their scores and builds connections until university, ultimately becoming an individual. When society becomes more individualistic, all the relationships between people in the community are transformed, and a person’s role in the group becomes less significant. How much do you feel that this transformation of society towards individualization through education has affected people’s behavior patterns, for example, in the violence field? People tend to take fewer risks when society becomes more individualistic and engage in less group-like violent behavior. Do you think that education in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2022 has been able to lower the rate of violence, or has it increased?
Nazif Shahrani: Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s experience is unique compared to other societies. In the past forty years, our community has been living with violence. There has always been violence, and we have never been away from it. Whether it was the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, or 2021, our youth in society has grown up with violence.
Those of our age may remember a period as a golden age. But it was not an age of growth and progress. It was more like a golden prison. But there was little violence. There is usually little violence in prisons. We now remember that era with nostalgia, thinking that the Shahi (monarchy) era was better. In contrast, it was the same era that caused the subsequent events in the country.
We are indeed individualistic at the political level, meaning all our political issues revolve around blaming/praising individuals, which is a terrible regression in politics. We always expect individuals to solve our problems.
Sheesha Media: Ustad, my point is that when we talk about individualism at the elite level, it often refers to personal privilege and a concentration of power. However, at the general level of society, individualism refers to fundamental human rights for citizens and all individuals. Do you believe that after 40 years, Afghan society has progressed to a point where those at the bottom can challenge those at the top who have traditionally prioritized their interests over those of the collective?
The current crisis in our society has created a paradox: On the one hand, we have a community in which people are educated and enlightened about their rights and actively working to improve themselves, but on the other hand, we have individuals who continue to violate the rights of others. Has Afghan society reached a balance where it can move past this stage and create a new political system based on the rights of its citizens and respect for human rights? Or do you believe that this capacity has not yet been fully developed in Afghan society due to ongoing education and training?
Nazif Shahrani: Conditions have improved, but they are not yet ideal. The issue is with the system. Citizens cannot be adequately established until the systems are correctly calibrated. In Afghanistan, there are no actual citizens yet. We still live in a way that is akin to serfdom or slavery. However, the freedoms gained in the past 20 years have given us the sense that we have rights and become citizens, even though we have not yet become citizens politically. You see, our entire political culture is based on the personal desires of those in power and wishes to be in full control. This is why they never serve the people. Governance in Afghanistan has always been controlled by individuals supported from outside the country, who are given money and weapons used against the people to impose their will on society. This is, in my view, a fundamental problem in our community.
Sheesha Media: On the one hand, we have individuals with a strong desire to accumulate power. On the other hand, regional or international authorities appear to be content with allowing these influential individuals to rule over the people. In recent years, education and access to information have played a role in creating a sense of citizenship and awareness of rights among the general population. However, while people are now aware of their rights, we lack a system to protect them. From an anthropological perspective, what is the difference between the growing awareness of rights among the general population and the influential individuals who continue to use traditional methods to deny these rights? And how can this be overcome?
Nazif Shahrani: Unfortunately, the gap remains the same as in the past. Those who come to power are still financed by foreign money and arms. The Taliban in Afghanistan is the most recent example of a government that does not care about the rights of its people. Recently, I was in Ankara and met with a Turkish scholar. He shared that just a few days ago, the Minister of Higher Education of the Taliban administration was in the same chair where I was sitting. This Turkish scholar’s impression of the Taliban was that they believe they have freed Afghanistan from the enemies, and as such, the country is their ghaneema, their war “booty,” with which they can do as they please. He also stated that the Taliban do not care about the rights of the people, and the opinions and acceptance of the people hold no value for them.
This person, Professor Dr. Mohammad Gormez, now the head of the Islamic Studies Institute of Turkey, shared that he had interactions with the Taliban when he was the head of the Turkish Diyanat (religious affairs ministry) n in 1990. According to him, the Taliban have not changed as he expected since then. And if anything changed, they have worsened in the past twenty years. Professor Gormez told me they had hoped the Taliban may have changed for the better, but unfortunately, this has not been the case.
Sheesha Media: Indeed, the Taliban serve as a prime example of how a government that is not elected by the people and does not have their support is not accountable to them.
Nazif Shahrani: Unfortunately, accountability is not considered in this system, nor was it in previous systems. This is because the power source has always been external to Afghanistan rather than from within the society.
National Trust Movement
Sheesha Media: This is a fascinating point. Over the past few decades, during the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and in the past twenty years, we have had rulers who were brought to rule by external powers. However, these external powers brought with them values such as the constitution and emphasis on citizens’ rights. They promoted education at the public level, introduced a free press, created political parties, and established laws. These values came with the externally imposed power, and as a result, we have a generation of young people who comprise more than 68% of the population in Afghanistan and are under 24 years old. They grew up during these 20 years and now constitute the majority of society. They have become familiar with their rights and freedoms.
Now, with the arrival of the Taliban, this connection has been severed. We have people who understand their rights, but we have a system that does not belong to the people. From an anthropological perspective, is this stage of growth positive or negative? We had a military that was dependent on the outside but had a connection to the people at a low level. The level of growth and development was gradual and slow. With the arrival of the Taliban, this connection has been cut. Do you think this gap that has been created is a positive gap that promises us a good change, or is it a negative gap that will lead society to divide again?
Nazif Shahrani: First, let me say that the fundamental problem of our political culture is that we are not program-oriented but individual-oriented. We are not value-oriented and institutions and processes-oriented. Everything depends on individuals. Today, Mullah Haibatullah, or whoever is in power, makes decisions for society, the people, and everyone. Based on my understanding, our basic necessity is that we should be program-oriented. We should identify a series of values that should be adhered to and implemented in governance.
The youth, who comprise 68% of society, should come together around a program rather than individuals. This program has not been developed before, but I have shared with you the results of the efforts of a small group of us in charting a pathway for the country to be rescued. This is the first program we have proposed based on the pathology of the political culture in society, and we have also offered steps to overcome this stage.
Let me tell you a story about this proposal. I participated in the Herat Security Conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (November 29-30, 2022). Among the participants, there was Asad Durrani, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI and a strong supporter of the Taliban. One day, I think, after the conference, he came up to me and began speaking, saying that he found the plan I had proposed for Afghanistan to be interesting. So, I told him I would be happy to share a copy of it with him, and I emailed him a copy.
A day or two later, he sent me an email from Pakistan and wrote that he had read the program and expressed his wish that it could be implemented in Pakistan, but he said that the generals would not allow it.
A “Subject” is NOT a “Citizen”
Sheesha Media: One key aspect of this program is “national trust.” This keyword is significant. Returning to the second discussion, if we want to bring society together and build trust, there must be a central point, which we call the political system. A system can provide ‘trust’ within the community and support it. You can see how much your message will resonate with those affected by mistrust and absolute power so that this national trust grows, and we can create a political system based on national trust. For example, let’s establish a new social contract in which people are respected as individuals, and factors such as ethnicity, religion, language, etc., are not criteria for them. Do you believe your message has a ready and capable audience in today’s Afghan society?
Nazif Shahrani: This topic has more of an audience than ever before in the history of Afghanistan. As you mentioned, what can be a factor of unity in a multi-ethnic society like Afghanistan is the basic concept of citizenship, not ethnic politics. Unfortunately, over the past forty years, we have engaged in ethnic and identity politics, and outsiders have encouraged us to do so and denied us our citizenship. What I propose, and what our friends in the National Trust are working on, is citizenship. We must distance ourselves from the words commonly used by the Taliban, too, such as “taba’a” and “ra’yat” or subjects.
Being a citizen or a subject is a significant problem in our society. In our excellent constitution, there is a chapter called the rights of attaba’ (plural of taba’a). I have often repeated this incident. Once, I was accompanied by Professor Nematullah Shahrani, then the head of the Constitution Drafting Commission (of 2004), to the presidential palace in Kabul. I met President Karzai for the first and last time then. I told him that, Karzai sahib, here in the constitution, there is a chapter called ‘Rights of Attaba’, which is mistranslated in English. A person who is a taba’a or subject does not have any rights. It is like saying “Right of the Subject”, but Subjects are devoid of rights. The use of such a phrase is an oxymoron in the English language. But, in the Afghan Constitution, it is translated deceptively as the “Rights of the Citizen.”
Sheesha Media: You brought up a very intriguing point. I may have another question related to this topic. But for now, I would like to ask you another question. We had another individual who was also an anthropologist, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. He spoke extensively about the concept of attaba’ and citizens. In the manifesto we wrote for his 2016 election campaign, he argued that “citizen” only pertains to urban dwellers and excludes rural individuals, who constitute 70% of the country’s population. He was told that this understanding of the term “citizen” is inaccurate. A citizen is a person who owns their city, land, and life and has all of their rights regardless of whether they live in the mountains, a village, or a city. Ashraf Ghani had difficulty accepting this definition but ultimately included the term “citizen” in his election platform. This was because he believed it would make society more urban-centric.
For a while, the word “citizen” (shahrwand in Persian) was viewed with sensitivity due to its Iranian origins. It was believed to have originated from Iranian Persian and was not desired in Afghan society. Additionally, the term “attab’a” (subject) was perceived as reflective of the political system, which opposes the rights of citizens in Afghanistan.
This is why the “Right of Atb’aa” was emphasized rather than the “Right of Citizen”. In reality, we had the “Rights of Subjects”, meaning you have the right to speak and protest, but why do you speak and protest? If someone identified himself or herself as a citizen, they would be told that you are an Afghan attab’a.
As an anthropologist, I would like you to clarify this point further. To what degree does the national trust based on citizenship rights exist in Afghan society? Specifically, when looking at numbers, do you believe that compared to 2001 and earlier years, such as the 1990s and 1980s, when society was more closed and less advanced in terms of citizenship rights, there has been an increase in the ability to accept the national trust surrounding citizenship rights?
Nazif Shahrani: It’s good that you brought up the word citizen. In my conversation with President Karzai, I also mentioned this issue, suggesting the creation of an alternative term for citizens. He asked for an example, and I suggested Iranians use the word shahrwand for citizens. He said that it is a foreign word and not desirable. I then suggested creating a word in Pashto if they don’t like the Farsi word. But, it was dismissed.
The word ‘citizen’ may have a connotation of being related to the city, but it does not have a genuine association with it. I regret that Ashraf Ghani insisted that this word is tied to the city and other related ideas. Urbanites in Europe may have advocated for citizens’ rights. Still, the concept came to have a much broader meaning as anyone living in a nation that enjoys the right to participate in the political decision-making of their society at levels, local and national. Only citizens have a role in shaping the political direction of their country.
This distinction emerged after the Westphalia Conference in Europe, which marked a significant social change. Before this, the church’s clergy believed that God had granted them the authority to govern the political system of Europe. They claimed this right only for themselves and the church. However, the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1798, marked a shift where the ordinary people claimed their rights to make decisions instead of those rights being exclusively assigned to God and the Church.
Indeed, God grants the right to the people, who should have the power to make decisions on political and social issues. Unfortunately, some individuals, like Mullah Haibatullah, believe that this right belongs to him and the Taliban alone and not the people, which is unfortunate and unjust.
Government power should be distributed at the local level
Sheesha Media: This is a significant paradigm shift in perspective. We are moving towards a new relationship between the people and the government.
Nazif Shahrani: Yes, that is what I meant to convey. This difference is what occurred in Europe more than two hundred years ago. They established the right of the people to make political decisions as the principle of legitimacy and removed the influence of the church and religious leaders from politics. This is a major historical transition that has not yet occurred in Muslim societies.
In Muslim communities, those with the most potent claim complete control over making decisions for everyone. As an anthropologist familiar with Afghan society, I suggest that our community recognize and respect the rights and decisions of the people at the local level. As I previously mentioned, people often turn to respected figures, such as wise elders, to resolve their issues at the local level.
The government is perceived as an external force imposed on the people, and people tend to avoid it. My suggestion is that by utilizing local decision-making practices, and reforming and formalizing them horizontally, a vertical power structure in Afghanistan should be created for the ordinary people to become empowered citizens. Otherwise, it will not be possible.
To achieve it, the government should be decentralized. This is a significant issue. Our society already has this principle in place. In villages, mosques, neighborhoods, and elsewhere, people make decisions for their community, such as choosing their leaders or religious figures. However, the government has always hindered this process and has not allowed people to make decisions. The government often insists that everything must be done through official channels.
Let me tell you another story about the late Abdullah Nuristani, a classmate from Kabul University. A few years ago, as you may recall, Nuristan became a province, and a building was constructed in his district, along with an office for the district governor. It was inaugurated with funfair. However, no one came to the district governor after a few weeks. People did not bring their disputes to him, nor did they have any other business with him. Eventually, the district governor questioned why he was there if there was no work or issues to be resolved.
The district governor was informed that there were many problems and conflicts in Nuristan, but all of them were resolved by the local shura council. The district governor asked to bring the members of the Local Council to him. When they arrived, the district governor said that the country is now developed and accessible, the government has built a district government for you, and I am your district governor. Now all of your problems should be solved through government and district channels. One of the elder members of the local council stood up, expressing appreciation for the efforts, then telling him, “Sir, but we do not trust you. That is why the people do not bring their problems to you and resolve them with the council’s help.
Sheesha Media: In the last twenty years, our country has changed with the introduction of a new constitution and values. The traditional concept of power and its relationship to society has been disrupted. Theoretically, the idea of having a king as a representative of God on earth and the people being subjects of the king or being ruled by religious authorities has ended. To a certain extent, people have been helped to understand that they have a system in which they have the right to make decisions, elect their president, and choose their representatives.
When the new constitution and values were introduced, there was a disconnect between the traditional concept of power and the new system. Over the last twenty years, this shift has continued. Multiple elections have been held, which have had a significant impact. While society may not have been fond of the corrupt political system, they have understood the new power dynamics. People have realized that they can change power through their choices and that power is not concentrated in one person or location. For the first time, people saw that they could remove President Karzai from office through their votes.
People have become familiar with the mechanisms that can shift power away from the monopoly of certain groups and individuals. Now, the Taliban has created a new experience in Afghanistan. Do you think that this experience, given the current realities of the country, will lead Afghanistan to a dead end with no way out, or do you believe that this is the final experience or the last model of totalitarian governments that we can have in a society like Afghanistan and that the country will soon enter a different world where the rights of individuals and citizens are the prime issue?
Nazif Shahrani: I want to share two important points with you. One, it is true that we have a better constitution compared to the past, which emphasizes human rights, citizenship rights, individual rights, and gender rights. However, the weakness of this law is related to its administration and over-centralization, which is even worse than the period of the kingdom. This means that the rights of Afghan presidents are more than the rights that, for example, Zahir Shah had in the 1964 constitution.
The problem is that the law is not being implemented in practice. This is why we have not achieved what we hoped for in the last twenty years. This is because all decisions were made by one person, the president himself, with his small circle.
Citizen Politics instead of Ethnic Politics
Sheesha Media: We previously mentioned that during the republican period, we emphasized ethnic politics rather than citizenship politics within society. The Bonn Conference laid the foundation for an all-inclusive and democratic government, but it was based on Ethnic Politics rather than Citizenship Politics. Ethnic politics naturally leads to ethnic representation and privileges, contributing to the current crisis.
As an anthropologist, do you believe that if the constitution is used as a base document and amended, the people can come together around this law and use it as a document of their social contract? After the experience of the totalitarian and centralized governments of Ashraf Ghani and Karzai, nearly all members of the Afghan parliament, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, understand it. Even representatives of the Afghan parliament could not stand up to the president’s power, and their voices were not heard. There is a general understanding in society that centralized power, whether in the name of the nation, religion, or ideology, is not good. Everyone understands that power should belong to the people and that they should be able to hold those whom they bring to power accountable. How much do you think there is a desire among the elite in Afghanistan for power not to be concentrated in the hands of just one person?
Nazif Shahrani: The answer to this question is positive. It is possible. However, I want to point out two things. Firstly, if the current government continues to receive support from other countries and the international community, the people of Afghanistan will have no chance for positive change. Secondly, in regards to Asad Durrani’s statements, he told me that Pakistan and the Taliban would not allow the plan for a national trust government in Afghanistan to be implemented unless three conditions are met: firstly, the resistance becomes active, and the Taliban are removed from power by force, which will allow our plan to be implemented. Secondly, if there is a nationwide public uprising from within the society that will overthrow the Taliban, and after that, the national trust plan can be implemented. The third part is to pressure the international community to bring about a favorable change in the system.
Sheesha Media: Asad Durrani mentions the international aspect but also stresses the importance of a domestic alternative. The internal option occurs when the elite level agrees on creating a political system that is not focused on individuals and distributes power for the benefit of citizens. Now, I would like to ask again, do you believe that it is necessary to satisfy the international community, and is there a desire among the non-Taliban political elite in Afghanistan to break away from centralized power and change it for the cause of Citizens’ Power?
Nazif Shahrani: We still have two types of political elite: those who hold power, either brought in by foreigners or those who have been in the system for a long time but worked as the agents of foreigners. All these elites are known by the people—those who have done nothing for the country in the last twenty years. Therefore, we should not expect these people to be convinced; it is impossible for them to be satisfied.
What is the practical solution to get out of the crisis?
Sheesha Media: There are not many of them, Sir. Imagine that these people have enjoyed high-level privileges in the past 20 years and are now tired of the weight they have carried and are no longer willing to take risks. They are known as corrupt figures who have been tinted with political, moral, and financial corruption, and they no longer have a place in society.
Apart from this group, within our society these 20 years, another elite group has been running the vast majority of Afghanistan’s bureaucratic and administrative system. Some are newly educated and have a vision and professional competence to manage the country’s system. At what level do you see the possibility of mutual understanding between this group?
Nazif Shahrani: I wanted to address this. The second layer is our youth, the hardworking layer, the new generation familiar with new concepts in society and have work experience. But for them, a strategic plan and roadmaps are a necessity. We believe this program can be implemented if we create an international peace commission including representatives from the UN Security Council, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which are two different poles of power in the world today. In addition, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank should also be members of this commission.
But in addition to these members, we would like four or five Afghan experts to be included as advisors. Their task will be twofold:
First, to make the Taliban and the Taliban regime understand that they should allow for a fundamental and comprehensive societal transformation. I think they can do it; Because we have precedent in this field. In 1929, when Habibullah Kalkani came to power, no one recognized him, and he had no money. He held power only for nine months with the treasury he had gotten from Amanullah Khan. After that, the British sent another person named Nader Khan with guns and money, and Kalakani was removed from power.
The same problem exists in the current situation. But with one difference: no one has accepted the legitimacy of the Taliban regime for over a year and a half. This is the same situation as in 1929.
The second is that some foreign countries give money to the Taliban. The Americans pay more than forty million dollars to the Taliban every week. This money has been able to keep the Taliban in power until today. If the international community concludes that they will make the Taliban do what is good for the country and the peace and stability in the region if they stop the flow of this money for two months, the Taliban regime will fall apart.
Sheesha Media: Ustad, you mentioned a very delicate point. I hope you will not be interrupted. We’re addressing the missing circle in all previous attempts. If the international community wants to interfere in Afghanistan, the best example is the past twenty years when they had political, military, and economic interference. No country was accused. The vast burden was indeed on America. Now, if we ask the international community to intervene in Afghanistan, naturally, they will say with whom? For what?
Nazif Shahrani: This is not an easy task. But it is not impossible. See, the second task I propose for the International Peace Commission for Afghanistan is building an Afghan National Peace Committee. If possible, we should create the National Peace Committee through the International Peace Commission for Afghanistan. It is good.
I must emphasize that the Afghan Peace Committee should not be formed, as in the past, by foreigners but should be representative of the people of Afghanistan. According to the population, each province should nominate a few people to be members of the National Peace Committee. Afghans abroad and in countries like Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Europe, and America should nominate their representatives. This means we leave the decision to the people for the first time.
Sheesha Media: What is the mechanism for introducing people’s representatives to be members of this committee?
Nazif Shahrani: The International Commission can determine the best method. But the people of Afghanistan, via the representatives of Provinces should have the right to decide. They can do this through the selection of representatives in Provinces and districts.
Sheesha Media: Now all the provinces are under the control of the Taliban, who naturally do not allow this to happen.
Nazif Shahrani: Look, I said before that the Taliban should be convinced by the international community to agree to this plan so it can be implemented in the country. Otherwise, nothing can be done. I said that the first condition is the coordination of the International Commission with the Taliban, and the second condition is the formation of the National Peace Committee, whose technical issues can be easily managed by the International Peace Commission with the advice of Afghan experts.
Once the peoples’ nominees are made, whatever their numbers, the International Commission should vet them to ensure that there are no traitors, thieves, or corrupt people among them. In our proposal, we have made it clear that people from former parties, militia groups, and government institutions, including the Taliban, should not be members of this committee. The International Peace Commission should conduct the necessary investigations. Once this committee is created, its task is to establish an inclusive Transitional National Government for five years.
The duty of the National Committee for Peace is not to appoint presidents, ministers, and others to government positions. They should refer to people inside and outside the country to nominate those with the qualifications and competence for important positions of authority. The National Peace Committee should also vet these people so that there are no corrupt people among them. The government they form should be inclusive and professional. Those who are recruited to the national transitional government will be tasked with these duties:
First, to run the government and the country instead of the Taliban government. But, the Taliban can be members of the government. The second duty of the Transitional government officials is to amend the 2004 Constitution to decentralize the governance system. We have made some suggestions for how to enshrine the decentralization of powers in the Constitution. The duties of the central government in Kabul should be limited and clearly defined from the responsibilities of the elected local governments. The central and local governments should be integrated and fully collaborate.
Customarily, central governments have legislated and implemented the laws through their branches in the province and have oversight power on compliance. This scheme was filled with conflicts of interest. Instead, we propose that in the new Constitution, the central government should legislate all national laws through the parliament. Still, the enforcement of all laws should be carried out by local governments elected by the people. However, the monitoring of compliance with and implementation of laws should remain under the jurisdiction of the central government.
Our proposal is three-fold. First, the International Peace Commission forms the National Peace Committee, establishing the transitional inclusive national government for five years. The transitional government will then amend the 2004 Constitution or draft a new one and ratify it. Second, the transitional government will prepare and approve a new election law based on the new constitution, allowing for a decentralized government. Third, an election based on the new constitution to form a constitutionally mandated national inclusive elected government in Afghanistan. Once the newly elected government is in place, the role of the transitional government will end. But with an important condition: that members of the transitional government and those who held high-level positions within it are not eligible to be elected or recruited in the Afghanistan government for the next five years. This is to ensure that members of transitional government officials do not use their positions for personal gain or prolongation of their power, as happened after the Bonn Accord.
Sheesha Media: To see this more practically, our norm at Sheesha Media is to focus on the mental preparation of the Afghan people. The question is how we can find a consensus among the political elite on the crucial point that the concentration of power for the benefit of the group, the individual, or anything within the society is over.
We should not conceal the concentration of power in the nation, religion, or ideology. Instead, we should establish a structure in which citizens can enjoy their fundamental human rights as individuals. These rights include the protection of their right to life, dignity, and freedom so that individuals are not persecuted for their behavior. These are the bare minimum desires that a human being should be able to have.
If we can establish this consensus among the political and intellectual elite of the society, it will send a strong message to the global community and regional powers. From a practical standpoint, the Taliban is moving in a direction that is increasing the distance between them and the general population. The characteristics that Asad Durrani described can be seen in the Taliban. Their system cannot be reformed, nor their ideology, political character, or structure. As long as nothing is changed, the distance between the Taliban and the people will continue to grow. As this distance increases, the potential for a general uprising against the Taliban will also increase.
A regional example is Pakistan, which is currently stuck in a paradoxical situation with the Taliban. On the one hand, it has installed a government of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Still, on the other hand, the Taliban has gifted Pakistan their Emirati Islami, which is turned out to be a big problem.
When Asad Durrani believes that Pakistan is in this crisis, it is because they used Pakistan as support to establish the Taliban government and control Afghanistan. A policy that has now returned to their side.
Now, part of the international lobbying of powers like Pakistan should be that a democratic, stable, and peaceful Afghanistan is beneficial not only for Afghanistan but for the entire region. An unstable Afghanistan will ruin the situation in the area in every way. For this, it is crucial to reach a consensus among the elites of Afghanistan on this message, to deliver it to the world, regional powers, and especially to Pakistan.
Can you explain your current strategy for making this dialogue more public and moving away from traditional categorizations such as ethnicity, religion, language, and ideology to focus on political and human issues?
Nazif Shahrani: Our goal is to soon unveil the program through the National Trust. Our ideas and proposals for solving this prolonged national crisis are aimed at our youth, who comprise more than 68% of the population and have been affected. We believe that young people have different perspectives and do not carry the same historical baggage as older generations. We want to provide them a platform to organize and support this program, not us as individuals or a group. We are not asking them to join/follow us but to gather in support of the proposal and its implementation. That is to create locally organized horizontal power structures for supporting the proposed program. Then, we hope that we will be able to help create a vertical power structure nationally that can become a new political address and serve as an alternative to the Taliban regime.
Sheesha Media: This question is optional; you can answer it if you wish. Suppose you were to introduce the members of the National Trust. Give us some who you believe have the potential to effectively convey the movement’s message and presence in society. Who are these individuals?
Nazif Shahrani: Some are already known to your audience, and their names are prominent, but we are also inviting others. These individuals have read the program and are ready to support it. They have had conversations with us. However, we want to wait a few more days for them to publicly declare their intentions to support and promote the program and to encourage other young people to do the same. This support is for the program itself and not for any individual, as others in our core group, and I do not want to be the program’s focal point. Our proposal (tarh) should be the center of attention, and we invite our fellow citizens to support it. Suppose we can unite people in support of this program. In that case, I believe it will be a positive step towards a society that prioritizes the needs of its citizens by involving them in critical political decision-making regarding the nation.
Sheesha Media: Our conversation has come to an end. Your message is hopeful for us, but it poses a significant challenge for you. You have proposed a new plan, and I hope it will positively impact society in the future. We will have more conversations with you in the future. However, as an anthropologist, I would like to ask you one more time: Considering the dire situation that the people of Afghanistan are currently facing, where hope is almost lost, many believe that the only solution is to leave Afghanistan. As an anthropologist, what is your hopeful message if you want to change this situation in society through the National Trust and offer hope to the community? What do you want to say to society?
Nazif Shahrani: The most important message we can share with people is that our society has been categorized on ethnic lines since the time of Abdul Rahman Khan until today. Abdul Rahman Khan ranked tribal and ethnolinguistic groups—placing his own family on top of the pyramid, then the Sardars, then the rest of his Durrani tribe, and then the Ghiljais/Ghilzais. After his Pashtun community, he placed members of the Tajik community, the Turks, and the Hazaras. These conditions have changed. Uzbeks are now at the bottom of these rankings, and the Hazaras are one notch higher. We must eliminate this inherited evil from past regimes in our society.
The only way to do so is to advocate for the rights of citizenship for everyone. This can be done when the people have the right to elect their district governor, mayors, and provincial governors. They should also be able to select their district council, the governor, the provincial council, members of parliament, and the president. No government official (including the president) should have the power to appoint professional staff of various government units. All professional staff should be hired through recruitment committees of their peers. Our biggest problem in the past has been giving the presidents or their cronies the power to appoint all government officials, including the military and security apparatus, from Kabul to the lowest local levels. In their appointments, they began with their relatives first, then their comrades and friends, and then sold the offices for a price.
These practices were the most important causes of nepotism, favoritism, bribery, and corruption, and abuse of power while in office. They were also the primary causes of ethnic discrimination in society, which led to the politicization of ethnicity and the ethnicization of politics in Afghanistan. We must correct this through a decentralized political system based on elections and recruitment by committees of experts and professionals. For example, in agriculture, the recruitment committees should be professionals specializing in agriculture to fill the management positions in the ministries and directorates of agriculture in the provinces and district centers.
Similarly, judges in the judiciary should be selected by a commission from within their ranks. If we do this, we become citizens, regardless of whether we are Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, or anyone else. We have the same rights in society, and we can have the same privileges in the administration of our local and national governments.
In this way, issues of class and stratification will disappear. In the current Taliban system, those who rule are from one stratum, the stratum of mullahs and maulavis. This is not acceptable today, just as it was not acceptable in the past. We hope that they will accept the right of the people to make decisions. If we can establish this right to make societal decisions, I think this is the only way out of the current crises. We can encourage others in the international community to help the Afghans implement their homegrown plan. The global powers should no longer decide who will be our ruler. This time, we insist, the people should decide. Such international help will benefit the country, the region, and the world.
Sheesha Media: Thank you, Ustad, for your time.
Nazif Shahrani: Welcome.