Graphics by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

Daniel Karell: Conflict, Aid and Nationalism in Afghanistan

The Research Desk at The Gazelle aims to increase awareness of academic research on campus through briefs of the latest work by professors, students ...

Sep 12, 2015

Graphics by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
Like with most people in my age group, Afghanistan burst into my awareness of the world with the September 11 attacks. That was registration day at my university, which at that time still meant forming a queue outside an administration building to sign some forms.
I remember that no one knew how to act while we waited in line. We were all excited to start a new year — I was a junior — but, at the same time, we had all just watched the World Trade Center towers collapse on live television, including live footage of people throwing themselves out of windows, an hour beforehand.
My older brother and some other friends who had already graduated responded to this traumatic event by volunteering to serve in the United States military. My brother eventually served two combat tours in southern Afghanistan, meaning that I, at this time in the midst of a doctoral program, came to understand the war through his experiences.
The primary lesson that I learned from him was that it was unclear to many of the western soldiers fighting in Afghanistan how the expenditure of massive amounts of human and financial resources was impacting Afghan society, if at all. This simple observation has motivated a couple of my current research projects, each based on general social science questions applied to Afghanistan.

Conflict and Development Aid

The first project centers on issues of conflict and development aid. A lot of research has investigated whether a state or incumbent force, such as the U.S. military in Iraq, can reduce insurgent activity by distributing aid during or after fighting.
The basic idea is that aid can hamper an insurgency by either providing the populace with typical employment opportunities or winning their hearts and minds, leading them to cooperate with state or incumbent actors rather than insurgents.
The results from studies on the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are mixed. Some find that under certain conditions aid does reduce insurgent activity, others find that aid has no effect on insurgency, and yet others conclude that aid actually increases violence.
[blockquote_image image=""]Rather than examine how aid affects violence, I study the impact of distributing tens of thousands—if not multiple millions—of dollars to local communities during times of war.[/blockquote_image]
In my work, I take a different tack. I explore what the distribution of aid actually does in a community. That is, rather than examine how aid affects violence, I study the impact of distributing tens of thousands, if not multiple millions, of dollars to local communities during times of war.
To do so, I conducted semi-structured interviews in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan and had some Afghan research assistants administer similar interviews in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. We were able to get a large amount of very rich, multifaceted data. One of the most interesting findings is that in some communities the distribution of aid completely reshaped the local power hierarchies.
Essentially, some people who were relatively less powerful in their communities took advantage of liaising with foreigners distributing aid to become more powerful. Even more interesting is that after the aid dissipated, following the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2014, these apparently new elites started extracting fees from their fellow community members for providing public goods that past elites had provided freely, such as dispute resolution.
[side-image image="" direction=left"]I came across this phenomenon of local elites extracting fees from their neighbors for what was once public service a few weeks after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
In Ferguson, residents were upset that local law enforcement and judicial officials were levying relatively small fines for a multitude of minor legal infractions to generate a revenue stream — this complaint has been largely verified by a U.S. Justice Department investigation.
The similarities, to me, were striking. They prompted me to start thinking about social predation, which is when some community members turn on their neighbors. Is social predation different from other types of exploitation, such as extracting taxes or mafia activity? If so, what are the conditions that encourage social predation?
This year I plan to explore these questions, and social predation more generally, both through experiments conducted with NYUAD colleagues and more fieldwork in Afghanistan.

Religion and Nationalist Discourse

My second ongoing project engages the notion of religious-nationalism. The term, religious-nationalism, describes an ideology maintaining that a nation is defined by religion, the nation is led by religious authorities and that this nation should have a self-determining state.
The last attribute is common across all types of nationalism. Some contemporary examples are the Islamic State and, closer to my case of interest, the Taliban.
Social scientists have long studied nationalism, but typically in terms of ethno-nationalism, the process by which ethnic groups seek self-governing nation states, instead of religious nationalism. This is partly because social scientists have often equated nationalism with modernity and, by extension, secularism.
In other words, religious-nationalism simply has not been considered as part of today’s world. Needless to say, a cursory glance at news headlines levels serious challenges to such an assumption.
I explore, then, how religious and nationalist discourses become aligned. To do so, I examine the discourses of mujahideen groups in Afghanistan. These are the groups of Afghan fighters that received support from the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet and communist Afghan government forces in the 1980s and early 1990s.
I found some of these groups’ propaganda magazines — with titles such as AFGHANews and Afghan Jehad — in a bookstore in Kabul last year. I purchased these magazines and brought them back to campus. So far, I have digitized the text for one year, 1992, and conducted the initial analysis.
I then use natural language processing of the corpus to break down the text into its principal elements; this is followed by employing computer analyses to find relationships between these elements in an effort to uncover discursive patterns that may not be obvious if one reads the text sentence by sentence.
At this early stage I have found evidence indicating that the groups that received less support from foreign states, such as the United States, developed a more abstracted religious discourse, focused on personal piety and spiritual matters, and interwove it with ideas of the Afghan nation.
In contrast, the groups that received greater support from foreign states maintained a steady level of politicized Islam discourse, or a discourse that espoused the idea of an Islamic Afghanistan but was largely concerned with the practical issues of governing.
These findings suggest that choices powerful states make during distant conflicts, such as when and how the United States decided to support mujahideen groups on the other side of the world, can have consequences for the discourses and ideologies that emerge from the conflict.
As I analyze the rest of the text — I have the magazines dating back to 1985 — I hope to gain greater insight into the complexities of this process.
[/big_image]Examples of magazines collected by Karell for research purposes. Photography by Sebastián Rojas Cabal/The Gazelle
Daniel Karell is a postdoctoral associate in Social Research and Public Policy at NYU Abu Dhabi. Cole Tanigawa-Lau and Sebastián Rojas Cabal are research editors. Email them at
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