‘Humanitarianism is as culpable as war’

In October 2001, when bombs started dropping in Afghanistan, the military also dropped aid packages, and humanitarianism as a concept died during that mash-up between aid and the military, says anthropologist Anila Daulatzai

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:38 pm IST

Published - January 10, 2014 02:34 am IST

‘Neo-liberal agendas are fundamentally changing what it means to be a widow.’ Afghan widows wait for rations at an international food distribution centre in Kabul.

‘Neo-liberal agendas are fundamentally changing what it means to be a widow.’ Afghan widows wait for rations at an international food distribution centre in Kabul.

AnthropologistAnila Daulatzaidid research, as part of her doctoral training at Johns Hopkins University, on the “Ethnography of Widowhood and Care in Kabul.” She is currently writing a book based on her doctoral dissertation: “War and What Remains: Everyday Life in Contemporary Kabul, Afghanistan.” Here are excerpts from an interview given toMeena Menonon her work, life in Kabul, the lives of Afghans disrupted by serial wars, occupations, and foreign-funded, agenda-driven aid programmes.

What made you choose Afghanistan as a research site?

I wanted to understand and carefully document what serial war had done to Afghans. I felt the discipline of anthropology was the most suitable for this task. I was born and raised in the U.S. and my family hails from Pakistan. These two countries have systematically created the conditions that constitute, and destroyed, contemporary Afghanistan. I thought that I should systematically study war and the work of war. The first time I went to Afghanistan to conduct anthropological research was in 2003. I went back in 2006 and stayed (off and on) until 2011, which required me to change my entire life, really.

How did you go about your research, and what were your experiences in Kabul?

I first thought of the daily life of Afghans, what they do, where they go and where I would find a lot of widows congregating. I heard of a widow bakery project run by the World Food Programme. I wanted to work there. It took about six months to get permissions. They asked me, “so you are going to be like these embedded reporters in war zones?” They didn’t know what an anthropologist was. They knew aid workers and journalists. With the widows I worked with, it also took me some time to explain that I was not part of the international aid industry.

Apart from the bakery, there were several sites where I met widows. One was on the streets — women claiming that they are widows and asking for alms. I would be chasing cars in the main streets of Kabul asking people why they gave. People would say, “she’s a widow, it’s not my duty to find out if she really is, but if she claims that, it is our Islamic duty to give.” I found in Kabul that widowhood has a certain social currency because people understand that there are so many of them, and the state has not been able to provide for them. Even some women who weren’t widows had a reason for wanting to present themselves as widows. I also did participant observation at the monthly distribution sites of rations for widows.

Why were widows your main focus and what did you find or learn, and how did it epitomise the war experience?

I wanted to trace what war had done to the Afghan family by studying widows. Customarily, they would be remarried to a brother-in-law — but that is rare now. Families no longer have the means to fulfil such obligations. I found many widows living by themselves, and houses where several lived together. There is even a place in Kabul known by name as the place women, mostly widows, live there.

Also, I focussed on widows because you can’t talk about the war without investigating humanitarian practices in Afghanistan. You bomb a country, make many widows and then you take care of them — this is what renowned anthropologist Talal Asad describes as the cruelty and compassion of the liberal state.

What surprised you in your research?

In October 2001, when bombs started dropping, the military also dropped aid packages. Humanitarianism as a concept died during that mash-up between aid and the military. The military builds schools so they look like humanitarians. Meanwhile, humanitarian organisations were more interested in keeping the donor money flowing than serving the Afghan people, though there were some exceptions.

I came to realise to what extent neo-liberal agendas are part of the aid industry, and thus also of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Neo-liberal agendas are fundamentally changing what it means to be a widow. Afghans would suddenly say things to widows like, “why don’t they go and work?” I had never seen this before in Afghanistan. It is because programmes for gender-mainstreaming were focussed on jobs. The only concept of helping widows was making them work. Of course there were widows who wanted to work, saying it kept them busy, etc. But if this is the only form of care you are going to get, it fundamentally alters so much, and it’s ultimately a neo-liberal, neoconservative agenda — while social institutions like Islamic charity are being rendered irrelevant and/or suspect. In America, it’s greatly problematic and everywhere else too, but here is a country that has been subjected to serial war. There are ultimately very few programmes that reflect any understanding of how to implement projects to people who have been subjected to serial war, and that coincide with sensibilities of people who consider themselves to be Muslims.

Donors insist that in order to improve the country, Afghans need to be productive in a market economy — but wouldn’t it be more productive if there was no war? You are telling Afghans to be productive as if they wouldn’t know how to. They have survived and managed against all odds, which I would certainly consider productive (many people in other parts of the world would not be able to manage or even relate to this).

Aid workers are implementing a five-million dollar gender programme but unable to meet Afghan women — other than the woman who serves tea, due to security protocols. Many international aid organisations wanted to primarily employ women, even if less qualified, to encourage gender equality. Yet, for an Afghan woman to work in an office staffed with males sparked suspicion and created tensions in many families. People who make these programmes are clueless about the dynamics in Afghan families — many brothers are suspicious as only their sisters are “targeted” for employment by international gender equality initiatives. Donors are only interested in the numbers of women employed, little else.

How has the war impacted society in Afghanistan?

Serial war created suspicion — everyone is suspicious of everyone. Many activists were tempted by attractive international salaries, and work according to the agenda of the occupation. I don’t blame them, but there is no indigenous Afghan feminist movement any more. Similar with the few academics (Afghans and otherwise), anthropologists are working for the U.S. state, and others, as policymakers. The money is certainly lucrative but Afghanistan lost its scholars, and there is little to no effort to produce more. It certainly is overwhelming. Liberal humanitarianism exists in the form of Fulbright scholarships to talented Afghans and supports study in the U.S., yet it creates more neo-liberal policy bureaucrats. They will not be Afghan intellectuals, they will be neo-liberal bureaucrats.

How do you see the future of Afghanistan and the role of the Taliban?

The U.S. military will still be present, aid will be reduced. When the U.S. symbolically leaves, any violence will be termed “civil war.” I don’t agree with the term “civil war” as applied to Afghanistan (for the 1990s, or as used now for post-2014), as the term fails to capture the international culpability and the role of foreign powers in arming and funding their strategic partners in Afghanistan. I anticipate Mr. Obama’s administration, and others, claiming that everything was done to bring stability to the country and then summon an old cliché: Afghans are only at peace when they are at war. I hope I am wrong, though.

The Taliban make a point to show themselves as present even in their absence, because of the fear of who they are and what they have come to represent — the spectre of the inhumane. We can bomb and occupy Afghanistan (and now Pakistan) because of this inhumanity, we can commit the most inhuman acts ourselves, paradoxically, but legitimately in the eyes of the international community, through drones, and other violence in Afghanistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Profound acts of violence are committed and justified to rid this region of non-state actors who commit profound acts of violence. Violence as a cure for violence. Now, everything is about security, global security, yet the security of Afghans was never at stake. It was always about the security of the U.S. or elsewhere. The security of Afghans never fit into anyone’s calculations, really.


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