Dr. Andreas Wilde is an analyst specializing in Central Asian affairs, including Afghanistan, and has studied cultural roots of the Afghanistan as a transportation path in the Crossroad Asia project and is quite competent in analyzing the identity changes of the people of Central Asia and Afghanistan.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Andreas Wilde,
Assistant Professor at the Chair of Iranian Studies, University of Bamberg, Germany
You have carried out studies on Mahdism in the post-Mongolian Iran. What stages has this concept gone through throughout the history?
I think this is a great misunderstanding. I only chose this topic for the defense of my dissertation, which is in itself not on Mahdism. I just gave a short talk on the circumstances on the Iranian plateau (mainly Jibāl) in the post-Mongol period. This short presentation of twenty minutes had an outspoken historical focus and does not make me an expert on Mahdism.
What has caused to the revival of Mahdism in Iran?
Several factors can be counted here: a) the Mongol invasion and the large-scale destruction and loss of human life; b) the turmoil following the end of Il-khanid rule with a quick succession of dynasties and military campaigns (Timurids, Aq Quyunlu and Qara Quyunlu) that deepened the feel of fear, destruction and insecurity among the local population and gave rise to eschatological hopes and beliefs – we can also call it an “apocalyptic experience” (a general doomsday mood – in German Endzeitstimmung); c) the establishment of the Safavids as a new dynasty with Qizilbash support after 1501.
How different is Mahdism viewed by Central Asian countries from Iran?
I have never talked with Central Asian people about this subject. I can only say that it does not play a decisive role, first because of the Sunni dominance and second the Soviet legacy that confined Islam to the private sphere.
What ups and downs has Iran’s policy toward Central Asian countries experienced in the contemporary history?
Please note, I am not a political scientist but a social historian working on the Persianate realm!! What I have published regarding Iranian-Afghan/Iranian-Central Asian relations is based on my observations as an outsider with interest in both countries. The articles also represent a state of knowledge derived from an overview of the secondary literature, news media etc.
Since the Central Asian countries came into existence as independent nation state after 1991, one can only speak of the time after the fall of the Iron Curtain. If we look at the states north of the Amu Darya, I would not speak about ups and downs but rather term it a consistent process driven by Iran’s endeavor to establish friendly relations with the Central Asian republics. Accordingly, those relations are based on political cooperation, mutual respect and economic exchange. If one sees Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, it is certainly a different thing. When it comes to Afghanistan there are ups and downs not so much in diplomatic relations but in mutual perceptions and the broad framework of political means chosen by the Iranian government: two “ups” – meaning phases of mutual trust and collaboration in a number of fields (culture, economy, education, infrastructure) can be observed in modern Iranian-Afghan relations: the pre-1978 era and the post-Taliban time. In both “up-phases” Iran viewed Afghanistan as a partner and a bridgehead toward South and Central Asia. Theses phases are largely seen in positive terms also by many Afghans. What I term the “down-phase” may be a bit judgmental, but it reflects a decades-long change or break in Iran’s policy and the views held by many Afghan citizens toward Iran. This “down-period” (1980–2001) lent itself to the developments at regional and global level, which were problematic for both countries. It stands for a drastic choice of new means (Iranian proxies and clients among Afghan Shiite movements) that were seen critically by Western researchers and Afghans alike.
How has the ideological rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia affected the developments of Central Asia?
Again, if Central Asia exclusively means the former Soviet republics not much can be said about the impact of Iranian-Saudi competition since the religious sphere is under strict state surveillance. Even though Riadh has devoted enormous funds to strengthen his influence, for example by providing the means for religious education or the expansion of the religious infrastructure (construction and renovation of mosques), many Central Asians are not inclined toward Saudi Arabia. If we consider Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, I have to say that the influence of the ideological rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s has been overemphasized by Western Media and researchers. The common picture is that of a proxy-war between pro-Iranian and pro-Saudi Afghan militias (Shiite Hazara dominated Hizb-i Wahdat and the Wahhabi-oriented Ittihad-i Islami) in Kabul in the mid- and early 1990s, but in fact both Iran and Saudi Arabia had less influence on their so-perceived clients than one may think at first glance. Today Iranian-Saudi relations have no significant impact on current developments in Afghanistan.
How do you evaluate the role of Saudi Arabia in building the identity of Afghanistan and also in its domestic policies?
Saudi Arabia has almost no influence on identity formation in Afghanistan. It is, culturally speaking, distant and lacks a common language and close historical ties. Wahhabism is not traditionally routed in the religious thoughts and feelings of the Afghan majority population. In domestic policies it has a certain impact due to the ideological proximity to a number of rebel movements (Taliban-factions, Daʿish/Islamic State, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan etc.) and Sayyaf’s Ittihad, which does not oppose the current government. However, it is difficult to assess whether the Saudi government actively supports those organizations or not. A large number of well-to-do Saudis and Emiratis financially support the insurgents (Taliban & Co.), which are unpopular with many Afghans, particularly in the cities (Herat, Kabul, Mazar-i Sharif) and the northern and central provinces.
Can Wahhabism become a dominant school of thought in Afghanistan one day?
According to my experience gained in years of field work and life in this country, I do not think that Wahhabism will dominate the religious scene in Afghanistan, although puritan thinking and interpretations of the Koran are certainly gaining ground at the expense of the Sufic influence. I guess that certain phenomena routed in local popular piety will probably never vanish, for example, the holy shrines, which are extremely popular and frequented. Even the Taliban, though tending more towards the puritan strand of Sunni Islam, never closed or destructed Sufi shrines. I really wonder if such measures were intended by them since this would have provoked an outcry throughout Afghanistan! Another example is the graves of Taliban martyrs in the eastern provinces, where they are now visited by many people, who invoke their blessings and intercession while enlisting the help of the Almighty.
How do you analyze the process of Salafism gaining more strength in Afghanistan’s future?
Similar to the previous question, I would wonder if Salafism will gain ground. After experiencing the civil war and Taliban rule, it is difficult to recruit supporters for any movement building its arguments primarily on religion. Just the Taliban, who are not Salafists, are different and ideologically ambiguous.
You have analyzed Iran’s current policy toward Afghanistan as soft power and hard measures. Would you explain about that?
Soft power means the abandonment of military, financial and even moral support for any Afghan insurgency movement or faction that could potentially support or serve Iranian national interests in Afghanistan. Soft power means that Iran makes its influence felt in a number of non-military fields. It achieves its goals through financial and particularly development aid to the Afghan government to underline its potential and status as a regional power. Iran is one of the most important donors there, a fact that is ignored by Western journalists and policy makers. Iran also builds its policy on cooperation in the fields of economy (direct investments, Iranian companies, increasing exports to the Afghan market, improvement of the local infrastructure), culture (Iranian-Afghan book fairs, support of book production and printing, export of Iranian movies and serials, emphasis on the common Persian literary heritage) and education (support of the Afghan education system through provision of curricula and school books).
You have also done researches in Herat. What image has the cultural similarity between Herat and Iran given to the people of Afghanistan?
Although there is a certain tendency or wish to distance oneself from Iran and strengthen instead the Afghan cultural heritage among the Heratis, the cultural similarities between Iran and Herat are widely acknowledged. The image of one common Persianate culture harks back to the Timurid era when the territories of the present-day nation states were ruled by one dynasty. This glorious image is based on the notion of a capital city or metropolis and a time when Herat and the region of Khurāsān formed the core of the Timurid Empire. Usually, people invoke this image and proudly speak of Herat as “shahr-i ʿilm wa farhang” – a cradle of high and sophisticated culture with an enormous output in terms of literature, architecture and the fine arts. Yet behind closed doors, many people admit that nothing has been left of the former splendor. In spite of this, the glorious image still plays a role in feeding the Herati self-esteem vis-à-vis other regions and cities in the country.
How successful has the process of forming a government been in Afghanistan after Taliban was deposed? What challenges might it face?
It would go far beyond the limits of an interview to assess the success or failure of the state-building venture in Afghanistan after 2001. But in general, it is far from being a success story. The government is still weak and in many provinces the Afghan state does virtually not exist! The Afghan government faces several challenges: A) the military threat posed by the rebel movement(s) is severe. B) a monopoly of force does not exist on the side of the Afghan state which is also threatened by hundreds of local armed militias (arbakis, jebhes, milishes, junds etc.) and commanders. D) the government is crippled by the stalemate between President Ashraf Ghani and the “managing deputy of the government” Abdullah Abdullah. E) the Afghan government also faces financial challenges as the state totally depends on foreign development aid. These funds will dry up as the international community, especially the US and Europe, lose patience and interest in Afghanistan. F) Since many European countries, including Germany, are trying to solve the partly self-induced current refugee crisis by deporting young Afghan male refugees, the Afghan government is in urgent need of a strategy to create jobs and adopt a new labor policy. Otherwise movements like the Taliban and Daʿish may welcome hundreds if not thousands of new recruits. At least this is the scenario one fears when checking the social media.
How do you assess the process of the materialization of the local social order in Afghanistan?
In contrast to many foreign observers and even Afghans, I do not see the circumstances in Afghanistan as disorderly or disordered. The question is how and why the last decades saw a range of actors and elites but also interventionist forces coming and going, but the rules of the political game remained essentially the same? My answer depends on social order, which is firstly an analytical approach, opting for a change of perspective, and secondly represents an empirical fact. Of course, if one likes to adopt the perspective of a European state like Germany or France, Afghanistan seems to be sunk in chaos. Even many Afghans would certainly agree to this image, which is not very helpful as an epistemic tool for analyzing the way Afghan politics work. The concept I have in mind acknowledges various forms and frameworks of order and ordering. Statehood is only one of them, and in many contexts and periods of history it was not the decisive one. In Afghanistan social order materialized and still materializes not as a classical state, resting on a territory, a monopoly of force or an administrative apparatus, but in personalized networks and patterned relationships of authority, usually exchange-based patron-client ties and related institutions such as mediation, intercession, kinship and so on. All these relations and practices make up a different order, which should be described in terms of a fluid process (of networking and repeated rounds of conflict) rather than as an object. So far the theory but let me give an example from the metal level of Afghan politics to make the concept understood: In the mid-nineteenth century, the British invaded Afghanistan, expelled the Afghan ruler Dost Muhammad Khan and installed a new ruler. But to protect their clients, they had to stay and were quickly drawn into a devastating war. Jumping to the year 1978-9, we see a similar situation under preconditions that differed from the Anglo-Afghan encounters. That year Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, ousted the Afghan president Hafizullah Amin and installed Babrak Karmal but had to maintain their presence to protect the new government. Jumping to 2001, we see the Americans and their allies who ousted the Taliban and enabled the Northern Alliance to capture Kabul. Afterward, they brought in Hamid Karzai who was their first choice as new president. We all know the end; the Western alliance remained for fourteen painful years and fought a hopeless war but finally withdrew. How can we ignore these obvious patterns and term it then an Afghan chaos? Even in the civil war of the 1990s, we see such power driven processes, albeit working in favor of centrifugal forces: local power turned Afghanistan in a field of tension by supporting a range of proxies. If we go to a conventional Afghan village today, we may observe similar mechanisms imbued with power just in a very small local context.
How has Afghanistan’s cultural heritage been influenced by the great civilizations that live around it?
Although Afghans tend to view their home country as an ancient and distinct polity, it is still a relatively young state that came into being in the course of the nineteenth century. Its culture has been influenced by two factors and processes: a) the geographic position at the interface between Persia, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent; and b) military conquest and waves of migration, especially from Persia and Central Asia.
Let me explain these two factors: What is now called Afghanistan always formed a kind of transit zone that was left to its own fate by conquerors who soon moved on and transferred their capitals to other areas like central and eastern Iran or northern India. Crisscrossed by ancient caravan routes, this intermediate space is nowadays often called an Asian crossroads or highway of conquest, a space connecting Iran, India and Central Asia. There were no physical obstacles inhibiting the flows of people, caravans, ideas, goods and objects. Transportation was facilitated through a network of trade routes and mountain passages. Afghanistan’s geographical position and its unique socio-cultural diversity is also reflected by the fact that Ahmad Shah Durrani’s empire was not called Afghanistan but the kingdom of Iran, Hindustan and Turkistan (mamlakat-i Iran wa Hindustan wa Turkistan). Thus Afghan culture can be described as hybrid as it unites Iranian, Indian and Central Asian elements that mixed in the course of migration processes and conflicts. The formation of Afghan culture was highly influenced and promoted by military, partly nomadic conquests, the objective of which was not Afghanistan but the areas beyond its frontiers, particularly India. These processes coincided with successive waves of migration contributing to cross-cultural encounters along the trade routes. Migration was carried by nomads, merchants, adventurers, and those who fled the vicissitudes of the past and took refuge in the mountains and oases on the Hindukush.
What categories/groups can Afghanistan divide into in terms of its culture?
I know it is very common to culturally divide Afghanistan into three cultural zones like a pieces of cake: first, the north, with strong Central Asian (Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen) influence; second, the west around Herat, which orients toward Iran; and third, the east and south with the Pashtuns moving and looking toward India and Pakistan. But this is a stereotypical and even wrong way of viewing Afghanistan, which I must reject! One can of course divide Afghans into different ethnic, language and confessional groups which really exist. But these groups and their boundaries and identity markers are highly constructed if not saying artificial. I personally think as an outsider or non-Afghan, neither do I have the right to answer such a question nor do I deem it a good idea.
Can the Silk Road be revitalized once again?
I think it depends on the political circumstances at the regional and global level. But in my opinion this process is already underway as it is part of the globalization. The connections already exist (diaspora community, trade flows, exchange of information through the social media), we just need to open our eyes and recognize them. Yet under the present circumstances, only a few people benefit from the nodes, networks, flows and connections in a more direct way.
In the case of revitalizing the Silk Road, how would it affect the political geography of the region?
This also depends on the circumstances and the politicians. In general I guess economic exchange and cooperation already exists but could be improved. In such a case, it would have a very positive (stabilizing) impact on the entire region.
You have worked with the Crossroads Asia project. What purposes is this project designed to serve? What was your role in it?
The Crossroads Asia project is framed as a competence network uniting different scholars who work in interdisciplinary work packages and groups like mobility and migration, conflict, development. The project aims to open future perspectives for area studies in Germany. This means that some of the network members are engaged in conceptual and theoretical work to further develop this field. One of the major achievements is the abandonment of conventional ideas of areas as spatially bounded containers, which are essentially and somewhat arbitrarily predefined by Western researchers concerned with specific areas of interest (Iran, Africa, Southeast Asia or Latin America). The consequent application of new research paradigms (Crossroads Studies focusing on networks, exchange-generated flows, conflicts, migration etc.) enable us to reframe contemporary area studies. My role in the network was confined to a historical study on networks of slave trade. Meanwhile I slightly changed my topic and am currently working on transoceanic maritime networks of slave and pearl trade between the Persian Gulf (Southern Iran, Oman and the Trucial Coast) on the one hand, and East and Central Africa on the other. The links to India and Europe also play a role in it.