Blurred Edges

This weekend as part of the extended Eid festivities I decided to go on a trip.  With some friends and a warm patu, we drove all the way down to the south of Dand district, to the point where the flat plains and cultivatable land meets the desert.  You can see where I went on this map:

ibrmap.JPGWe arrived early in the afternoon, when people hadn’t begun to arrive.  It was just us, the desert, and a few camels along the way.  In Ghorabad, we visited the shrine of Hajji Latif, known in the west as ‘the lion of kandahar’, but who was also ‘king’ of the so-called paylouch, a secretive Kandahari group who valued honour above all and didn’t take insults lightly.  Gilles Dorronsoro describes:

“[The Paylouch] (the shoeless ones) … [were] under the leadership of Abdul Latif, an innkeeper before the war but now [their] leader. […] Their distinguishing signs of membership were a large knife, a yellow robe and distinctive slippers.  The paylouch were obliged to observe a code of honour and solidarity among members. […] They organised dogfights near a ziarat close to the town and smoked quantities of hashish.”

The shrine itself was white, and during the summer you can find thousands lounging in the gardens, swimming in the pools provided inside the shrine compound, or just enjoying the sun and picnicking with friends.

IMG_1891.JPGBack out in the desert, people started to arrive as word had spread that some musicians had come to perform at Ibrahim Khalifa Baba, the shrine of an old ‘saint’.  I sat next to the head of one of Kandahar’s government administrations, who had also come out to the shrine.  He received a call from one of the police checkpoints further north of where we were.

“I have 8 Taliban with weapons in a car who say that they want to come to Ibrahim Khalifa Baba.  What should we do with them?” the policeman asked.  “Let them come!” my friend replied.  “They’re probably just coming to enjoy the music.  Who are we to stop them?”

And so they came.  The reader should note at this point that nobody sitting out there in the desert was worried.  In Kandahar, the Taliban are a fact of life; not necessarily liked, but there nonetheless.  The traditional Pashtun recourse to healthy dollops of pragmatism means that a government official can enjoy live music at a shrine just as much as a Talib can, and in fact they do it both knowing who the other is.  Here you can see all the people gathered around the performers:

IMG_1905.JPGIn Kandahar there are blurred edges and shifting tectonics almost wherever you go.  The government is apparently fighting against ‘the Taliban’, this amorphous opposition force that everybody seems to have so much trouble defining, but there’s also place for them to enjoy music together.  Or to move further up the chain of command, previous governors of Kandahar have often talked with their Taliban counterparts (‘shadow governor’ etc) over the phone on a regular basis.

This lack of boundaries and seeming indiscretion on the part of the government can be held alongside efforts made by journalists to ‘talk to the Taliban’.  The indefatigable Graeme Smith’s Talking to the Taliban report made the point well enough that journalists find it relatively easy to communicate and exchange information with members of ‘the Taliban’, while sometimes government member are less successful.

After the prison break from Kandahar’s Sarpoza jail earlier this year – in which hundreds of prisoners, criminals and Taliban alike, were set free – the government held up its hands in frustration at ‘not being able’ to capture any of the escaped prisoners.  At the same time, journalists were able to speak to tens of the prisoners on phones for stories that they were writing.  One friend of mine was able to put together a lost containing dozens of the names of escapees along with their phone numbers.

This was meant to be a short piece, but I seem to have got swept away.  All I meant to say is that any assumption that puts the Taliban and the government on opposing sides in southern Afghanistan has something wrong with it.

Be sure to check out William Easterly in the New York Review of Books writing about the politicisation and militarisation of aid and Sanjar writing about Kabul.

Oh, and here are the camels…