All Afghans Have Guns?

“No,” I retorted, “they need licenses to have guns here.”
Everyone in the car laughed.
“This is Afghanistan. They don’t need a license,” my colleague exclaimed.
“Well, let’s ask who in the office carries guns,” I meekly defended my position.
“Edmund, they’ve been at war for the past 33 years. Everyone here has guns.” They laughed again. It was the kind of sniggle that made me feel small. Naïve. And stupid.

I kept quiet for the rest of the car journey, not sure how I should react to this embarrassing, yet humiliating, encounter with my expatriate colleagues. This topic arose because this morning (27 January 2013) at 8.15am, it was reported that a foreigner from an NGO had been abducted on his way to work. He was in his car when another car careened and blocked its way. The assailants came out, pointed guns at him and his driver, and then kidnapped him in broad daylight, in the peak hours of the morning. The frightening thing was that it happened on the same street where we live – and that was exactly the time we left our guesthouse for work today. Basically, it could have been us!

It was yet another one of those close shaves in my neighbourhood. 2 weeks ago, another colleague – a local Afghan – was robbed along the same street on the way to our guesthouse. Today, a kidnap took place, and so emotions were rather tense in the car.

Like a nagging parrot, the phrase “Everyone here has guns” kept squawking in my mind.

Everyone here has guns.
Everyone here has guns.
Everyone here has guns.

Really?

In my limited experience so far with local Afghans, I have been told – and seen – only four acquaintances who actually possessed firearms and/or had a personal security guard at his disposal. The rest behaved somewhat like the rest of us, unarmed but not unfettered by the happenings in the city.

Everyone here has guns.

I could be wrong – and I hope I am – but it appears that this presupposition that every Afghan carries guns is a dangerous position to start from. Just because they don’t abide by laws does not make them a gun-wielding generation. And just because the country has been at war for the last 33 years does not mean everyone possesses an AK-47. Warlords in the rural villages probably have them, but a commoner with limited access to land, finance and resources probably cannot afford one. So by logical deduction, to assume that every Afghan here has a gun is to conclude that every Afghan is dangerous – which is malicious, inaccurate, and untrue.

What is dangerous, in my opinion, is the bigoted assumption that stems from the mouths of the international community, these expatriates who sometimes behave as if they know better. That, to me, is the more dangerous game. It is the game that continues to produce the violation and violence inflicted upon the Afghan community. “Everyone here has guns” is a performative. It performs an illocutionary and perlocutionary function, in John Austin’s terms. It brings into reality what had been absent, and thus formulates a stereotype. Not only did my colleague’s speech act instil fear (where there was supposedly none) by projecting Afghans as lawless citizens, but it also projects all Afghans as violent perpetrators. When a lack of respect for the law conjoins a prejudiced view of a hostile mechanism built into and embodied by the Afghan musculature, lies are proliferated.

Furthermore, it also creates an unequal relationship between “us” and “them”. Who is, then, the victim of this violence? The international community cries wolf.  But why enter the lion’s lair in the first place? While all my expat colleagues have shown compassion and commitment to a great cause to the peace and development work of our NGO, I fear deep inside their psyche lies an unquestioned bias.

Everyone here has guns.

I really don’t know. I could be stupid and naïve. But I don’t want to make overgeneralisations that violate and breach the trust that I have built with my Afghan friends. They have been incredibly generous towards me (read my blog on Omar who showed sacrificial love, or Farhad’s protection at a police checkpoint, or a home dinner at a friend’s). But is naivety an adequate response in the face of a looming threat to our security? Shouldn’t we be more proactive to secure our safety and, of course, our lives?

Everyone here has guns.

As a person who lives in Kabul in uncertain times, being naïve does not prepare one for the worst. As a researcher, however, being naïve is the goal of critical inquiry. I am not so much interested in the actual question if Afghans really carried guns, but the presupposition that my foreign colleagues carried with them as they unknowingly mocked my stupidity and insulted our Afghan friends, especially exacerbating and recycling the fear factor.

While I belong to the international community, I am after all Asian, a non-White tag I have been closely affiliated with – and have been warmly embraced by the locals. Not because I look like a Hazara (which I do). Not because I have studied in Western countries. But because I am a Singaporean, surprisingly. I am Asian and I think that made the difference between the white expat community and me, an Asian foreigner.

Everyone here has guns.

The reasons attributed to this presupposition are (i) the 33-year-old war Afghanistan has been waging; and (ii) that this is Afghanistan and Afghans do not need licenses (read: they do not abide by laws). These reasons, I believe, are fallacious.

Afghan With Guns

Howard S. Becker, a social scientist, wrote in Tricks of the Trade: How To Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (1998):

Social scientists like to think, and to say, that something “causes” something else. The imagery of causality, and the logic it implies, is very tangled philosophically, at least (to my meager knowledge) since Hume, and it is especially hard to separate from the simple fact of sequence, of one thing following another. Billiard ball A hits billiard ball B. Billiard ball B moves. Did A’s hitting B “cause” it to move? […] For all the reasons that Thomas Kuhn (1962) pointed out, these paradigmatic  ideas are double-edged.  Without them we can’t get anything done. But they never really do what they say they do. They leave terrible anomalies in the wake of their use. They have terrible flaws in their supporting logic. They are thus always vulnerable to attack, to being shown to be and do less than they pretend. (p.63)

The ‘why’ is connected to the ‘how’. According to David Kilcullen in The Accidental Guerrilla (2009), he recounts four basic strategies used by the Al Qa’ida (although it can be easily transposed as the Taliban in our context):

(i)            Provocation

Insurgents throughout history have committed atrocities, carrying out extremely provocative events to prompt their opponents to react (or over-react) in ways that harm their interests. This may involve provoking government forces into repressive actions that alienate the population or provoking one tribal, religious, ethnic, or community group into attacking one another in order to create and exploit instability. (p.30)

(ii)          Intimidation

Insurgents seek to prevent local populations from cooperating with governments or coalition forces by publicly killing those who collaborate , intimidating others who might seek to work with the government, and co-opting others. (p.30)

(iii)         Protraction

Insurgents seek to prolong the conflict in order to exhaust their opponents’ resources, erode the government’s political will, sap public support for the conflict, and avoid losses. Typically, insurgents react to government countermeasures by going quiet (reducing activity and hiding in inaccessible terrain or within sympathetic or intimidated population groups) when pressure becomes too severe. They then emerge later to fight on. This is one reason why an enemy-centric approach to counterinsurgency is often counterproductive: it tends to alienate and harm the innocent population, who become caught up in the fighting or suffer “collateral” damage, but does little harm to the enemy, who simply melt away when pressure becomes too great. (pp.31-32)

(iv)         Exhaustion

[E]xhaustion is an insurgent tactic that seeks to impose costs on the opponent government, overstress its support system, tire its troops, and impose costs in terms of lives, resources, and political capital, in order to convince that government that continuing the war is not worth the cost. (p.32)

Everyone here has guns?

Even if that were true (which I know for a fact that it is not, even in my ignorance and stupid naivety), I have to remind the international community that the weapons brandished by the locals (if any at all) are mostly inherited from the Russians. Indeed, these weapons may cause death to the lives of people (mainly expatriates), but the tongues wagged by white supremacists incite fear, inject stereotypes, and cause a symbolic death not to individuals, but to the entire nation. Like a disease brought in from the outside world, the festering of unsubstantiated views must stop.

No wonder a minority of Afghans would rather take matters into their own hands. With or without guns. Because with our uncritical stance, we have become their enemies when we make them enemies first in our minds.

 

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