From the Trenches of Jihad to the Halls of the White House

For most of their history, a vast majority of Afghans had never seen their rulers, nor heard them. I grew up under the Soviet occupation in a family that had TV. I saw and heard the regime's presidents but never saw or heard the voices of the opposition, the mujahedin leaders. Their messages came to us in Kabul through violence, and their reputation was built on rumor, hearsay and incredible stories that turned them into mythical figures of supra-natural powers. The stories were similar to the one attributed to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. In the most famous of these stories, Omar is supposed to have pulled out his own injured eye from his eye-socket. In a society where the supra-natural was a cultivated part of the nation's mental landscape, believing these stories took no effort. In fact, they made more sense to most people than the obscure, convoluted jargon of scientific socialism that the communist regime was using to explain itself.

The mythical figures of the past are now regular guests on TV shows. Brought down to the earth from the boundlessness of imagination, throughout the country a great number of Afghans can now watch them on TV in shops and restaurants, at home and in public and government offices. The new media has demystified Afghan politics, an important step that is often ignored. In fact, the only figure that has remained an illusive figure of imagination rather than every political reality is Mullah Omar himself. His power is in part drawn from the fact he is still invisible but makes his presence felt through the violence of his followers.

With such thoughts in mind, I watched Tolo TV's exclusive interviews with the four presidential candidates of 2014. Each interview started with a selection of photographs through which the candidates allowed viewers to gain a somewhat intimate insight into their life stories, complete with childhood photographs and pictures of youthful times. With the exception of Ashraf Ghani, all the other candidates had a series of pictures that showed them in two distinct but recurrent settings. The first setting was the rugged trenches of the 1980s jihad, showing a younger looking candidate posing with his comrades and arms. The inevitable follow up batch of pictures showed the same candidate, older looking and in the company of a U.S. president, sometimes George W. Bush, other times, Obama. It felt almost like the path of jihad in these candidates' lives had not led to god but straight to the White House. Such ironic notes aside, the photographs revealed two distinct sources of political legitimacy, the armed jihad against the Soviet occupation and the international backing of the U.S. superpower.

This model of legitimacy is a relatively new combination made up of an old and a new part. The precedent for the old part, jihad as a source of legitimacy to rule, was set in the early modern history. It's first instance was Amir Abdurrahman's internal jihad in against the Shi'ite Hazaras and the non-Muslims of Nuristan. In 1919, King Amanullah followed suit with his successful jihad in the third Anglo-Afghan war which resulted in Afghan independence. So far, so traditional. The new element, to boast of international backing of a superpower as a source of power that bestowed legitimacy, began with the Soviet occupation of 1979. The communist regimes of the 1980s regularly implied that the Soviet army was an extension of their own power as Afghan rulers with powerful, international military backing. The Soviets' arms and man power were indeed frequently used to fight the state side in war that had begun as an internal Afghan conflict. This new tradition continued during the jihad years and carried on through the early years of President Karzai. In the early years of his presidency, President Karzai famously drew upon his close friendship with George Bush as a source of power and hence, legitimacy. The combination of jihad with international backing as twin sources of political legitimacy have become so familiar that Afghans automatically associate their leaders with one of the various regional and international backers. Such affiliations receive a mixed reaction of suspicion, intimidation and admiration. But the fact remains that jihad alone is no longer a sufficient, stand alone, source of political legitimacy. If that were the case, there would be no need for the candidates not only to proudly display pictures taken of themselves with U.S. presidents, but also happily share them with Afghan TV viewers.

Of the four candidates, Ashraf Ghani stood out for the absence of jihad and White House memorabilia in his interview. Instead, he shared photographs of his illustrious ancestors who had served various Afghan governments of the past and suffered tragic consequences as result when volatile court politics kept turning allies into enemies. If Ghani is the one candidate that most Afghans, perhaps erroneously, assume to have the backing of the US, he was the only one who did not make conspicuous use of such connections to raise his profile. The irony that the one candidate who has an established profile as a global figure beyond the limited sphere of Afghan politics was also the one to play down his internationalism was hard to miss, given that everyone else, much more parochial and much less international in profile, were playing up such connections. Such observations made it clear to me that Afghans are truly a complex and contradictory people but the fact that we can see this clearly with our own eyes, we owe it to the media and their demystification of Afghan politics.