Conferences and Workshops Organized

Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Past, Present, and Future of Afghanistan (September 22-23, 2022)

One year after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, 2021, questions abide about the experience of state-building and nation-building in Afghanistan. The 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan drafted in the wake of the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 turned the country into one of the most centralized states in the world. This represented a continuation of the political and administrative system, the foundations of which were laid in 1920s, during King Amanullah, despite the fact that the limits of the system starkly emerged in 1980s and 1990s. The sine qua non of this mode was the denial of the diversity and pluralism of the peoples of Afghanistan. An impulse toward homogenizing the country drove the country’s institutional structure. Western statesmen took for granted the need to have a Durrani Pashtun—Hamid Karzai—lead this highly centralized system.

Over the next two decades, observers warned that this centralised system created a back door for Pashtun nationalist parties like Afghan Mellat to advance ideologies of ethnic supremacy that would sunder Afghanistan’s cultural mosaic and marginalize non-Pashtun communities. These warnings proved right. In other words, the highly centralised political and administrative system made the state-building and nation- building endeavour the locus of Afghan Mellat project. Perhaps for this reason, whereas the Soviet-backed regime Najibullah regime survived for three years following the departure of the Soviet Army, Ashraf Ghani’s technocratic dream palace collapsed before American forces left the country.

But what were the alternatives to centralization? During negotiations over the 2004 Constitution, experts worked on the assumption that federalization would inexorably accelerate the “fragmentation” or “Balkanization” of Afghanistan. Actors such as Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States’ top Afghanistan envoy, stoked these fears to forge the centralized Afghan state of 2004, one that allowed Karzai and Ghani to weaponize the state against their non-Pashtun rivals, most notably the Tajiks and other non-Pashtun ethnic communities. Although Tajiks dominated Afghanistan’s military and intelligence apparatus in the early years of the new government, events like the contested 2009, 2014 and 2019 Presidential elections, as well as the policies of Karzai’s successor, Ashraf Ghani, did little to expand the number of non-Pashtun stakeholders who had an interest in the government’s success.

Whether in 2004 or later, alternative models for governing Afghanistan were ignored. Among these was the political legacy of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud (1953-2001), the most outstanding face of the anti-Communist resistance in the 1980s and the anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s. For almost a decade until the early 1990s, he governed northeastern Afghanistan through the “Supervisory Council” (Shura-yi Nizar), itself a form of bottom-up decentralized governance. The council identified and reinforced the functions of informal village organisation and connected them to the district and province levels. The Council linked together scores of districts across the north and east, where each district was led by local notables. The Council and district leaders collected taxes, supplied administration and governance, and essential services like education for boys and girls. They convened courts of justice and equity. Before his assassination by al-Qaeda two days before 9/11, Massoud was the most prestigious non-Pashtun figure in the country and would have been a natural choice as the leader of a post-Taliban Afghanistan. His commitment to a national, nonethnic plural identity and his scepticism toward centralized systems of governance as well as his firm stance against extremist interpretations of Islam and Islamic extremist movements such as the Taliban and its partners like Al-Qa’ida or ETIM leaves open the question of ‘alternatives’ to the post-2001 settlement.

“Cold War Islamisms,” Freie Universität Berlin (March 15-16, 2019)

Ideas of pan-Islamism and calls for an “Islamic government” predated the Cold War, but the emergence of a global competition between the United States of America and the Soviet Union changed the terms on which Islamist intellectuals had to justify themselves. The nature of imperialist competition had shifted from one of territorial annexation by European empires to a Cold War marked by the competition of ideologies and the threat of nuclear war. More than that, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and decolonization created an international system in which ideas of Islamic unity had to contend with various nationalisms in Muslim-majority societies, “pan” movements like pan-Arabism and Ba’athism, and secular internationalisms like Non-Alignment or Afro-Asianism. Further, when Islamist actors did break through onto the international stage, they did so in countries like Shi’a-majority Iran or Afghanistan that were themselves objects of superpower interventions from the United States and the Soviet Union. The emergence of political Islam on the world stage in 1978-1979 (the Iranian Revolution, the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, and indeed the seizure of the Great Mosque of Mecca by Saudi radicals) thus not only altered the battleground of the global Cold War but had also been shaped by it, too.

Despite the intuition among historians that the “career” of Islamism was both shaped by the Cold War and shaped its ending, however, few works engage in the empirical work to understand the relationship between the two. The last several years has seen an efflorescence of works on Islamism and pan-Islamism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Similarly, the last decade and a half has seen the publication of works in “new Cold War history” that decenter the conflict from Washington and Moscow and explore themes like Sino-Soviet or Sino-American competition. This workshop will draw on both of these communities of scholarship to reveal the interactions between Islamist actors and the international system of the Cold War from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

“Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development,” Freie Universität Berlin (November 15-16, 2018)

A small gathering of the new Editorial Collective of Humanity, this event offered a chance to discuss ongoing projects related to the themes of human rights, humanitarianism and development from historical and anthropological perspectives. Some of the papers discussed focused on conscientious objection and humanitarian aid; human rights and neoliberalism during the age of decolonization; and the transformation of European anti-colonial groups to humanitarian interventionists in the 1970s.

Toward an International History of the Middle East in the 1980s,” Freie Universität Berlin (July 30, 2018)

How ought we to write the history of the Middle East in the 1980s? The decade began with such spectacular events as the Iranian Revolution, the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yet whether a decadological approach even really applies to the region is debatable, and in some ways the region stood abreast from the dramatic events that ended the Cold War in Europe. Even as many new sources are available and transnational and “trans-regional” turns in scholarship allow for exciting new work, we still arguably lack for frameworks to make sense of the region and its place in the world since the 1970s onward. This event brought together leading early-career scholars of Middle Eastern history and international history to showcase and workshop their ongoing work related to these questions. Some topics covered included the reception of the Iranian Revolution in the Islamic world; Iranian and Iraqi war literature produced during the war between those two countries; and American reactions to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.