War of Words in Kabul

Bitter rivalry between pro-westerners and mujahedin spilling over on to the pages of the capital’s newspapers.

War of Words in Kabul

Bitter rivalry between pro-westerners and mujahedin spilling over on to the pages of the capital’s newspapers.

Open warfare has broken out in Kabul - but for now, the battle is being waged with the typewriter, not the gun.


Kabulis call it the fight between the pakool and the necktie. The former, a traditional, flat hat worn most famously by slain leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, is a symbol of the Northern Alliance mujahideen. The latter symbolises the western-allied progressives and intellectuals.


It is a political division that runs more deeply in Afghanistan today than the ethnic conflicts between Tajik, Pashtun and Hazara.


The fighting intensified in recent weeks, following President Karzai’s appointment of a new, progressive interior minister, replacing a former Northern Alliance commander.


The cannon blast was an article earlier this month in the Mujahed weekly newspaper, affiliated with Jamiat-e-Islami party. The party, led by former president Rabbani since 1971, was one of the largest and best organised of the guerrilla groups during the war against the Soviets, and took over the government in 1992.


Rabbani fled to Mazar-e-Sharif and then Badakhshan when the Taleban took control, but returned to Kabul after the fall of the student militia.


Headlined “Pro-westerns following in the footsteps of the Amanullah Khan and the communist regime”, the mujahed article carries the byline Abu Zaid Balkhi - likely a pseudonym, as the name is unknown in political and journalistic circles.


The article attacks Afghans who have returned from the United States or European countries and are holding posts in government offices in Kabul.


It reads, “The people who have returned from the West lack Afghan pride, bravery and honor, and don’t esteem mujahedin. They consider themselves safe because of the existence of foreign forces and B-52 warplanes. Ninety-five per cent of the foreign assistance is spent on their salaries and travel expenses, that’s why their bad activities have caused another battle.”


The author continues with an Afghan parable, “Once upon a time, there was a goat standing on a roof and mocking a lion standing on the ground. The lion said to the goat, ‘It is this roof that has given you the courage to abuse me. If you come down you won’t be able to’.” Without the support of international forces, the pro-western Afghans wouldn’t have the nerve to do what they’re doing.”


Abdul Hamid Mubarez, publications official at the information and culture ministry, wrote a response on behalf of those who, like him, returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban to rebuild the country. Entitled, “Returnees from the West are the true sons of this country”, his response was published in five successive issues of Anees newspaper, a government daily.


“The people who have returned from Pakistan and other countries have brought knowledge, rather than checkpoints, theft, and destruction, to the country,” Mubarez wrote, making the point that many Afghans who were refugees in Pakistan are also pro-democracy.


“We are trying to rehabilitate the museum and public library as well as the country which the chief editor of Mujahed weekly has destroyed. We are faced with the smuggling, killing and stealing of culture. We have brought in the Bonn peace, which was sabotaged inside the country.”


In another issue, Mubarez wrote, “The people of whom thousands of questions are being asked should not show the way to others or should not impose their thoughts on others. They have already announced that battle between the pakool and the necktie has begun. …In the past money would be kept by Rabbani himself instead of going to the national treasury, but now there are the governor of the central bank and the minister of finance to keep money controlled and well-managed.”


Mubarez told IWPR that he felt it was time to publicly stand up for the people who are rebuilding Afghanistan.


“They are making baseless allegations,” he said of the pakool faction. “I expressed my beliefs in order to strengthen the culture of knowledge and peace over the culture of their machine gun, and to solve all the internal issues through speech, thus strengthening the freedom of speech and the media as well.”


However, as the mujahed article indicates, sheer resentment is also part of the political undercurrent, as “necktie” Afghans working for western non-governmental organisations, NGOs, earn 10 to 20 times as much as an average worker.


The economic division also reflects an educational difference, since those who stayed in Afghanistan had little real schooling during the years of civil war. Those who went to Pakistan and overseas earned advanced degrees as well as learning English and computer skills, prerequisites for the high-paying jobs.


Their exposure to the western world and a broader range of ideas and lifestyles tended to make them more supportive of women’s rights and tolerant of individual differences - and more moderate in their practice of Islam.


The opening salvo in the media fight was last month, between Mohammad Ali Qayam, an Anees journalist, and Fazal Ahmad Manawee, the deputy justice at the supreme court, over control of cable TV.


Mohammad Ali Qayam’s article, “Culture from the culture minister’s point of view”, praised Information and Culture Minister Dr Sayed Makhdoom Raheen for his defence of freedom of information, and criticised the supreme court for imposing a ban on cable TV in an illogical and “non-Islamic” way.


Manawee fired back with an article, “Crocodile Tears”, calling Qayam an infidel and challenging him to a duel. Qayam responded with a piece elaborating his own stance and calling on Manawee to have reasoned discussion rather than name-calling and resorting to violence.


Defence Minister Marshal Fahim, a former Northern Alliance commander and leading conservative, avoided siding with either faction at a press conference on February 24, in which he said the public quarreling was a sign of growing media freedom.


But he formally distanced himself from the mujahed newspaper, saying the Balkhi article was “his personal opinion” and not that of mujahedin leaders. Fahim has been the power behind the conservatives in government.


Kabulis fear that the battle in the media is an indicator of a growing threat to the Karzai government. Rumors are flying that a coup is planned by an alliance of the pakool and the turban, symbol of the Taleban.


Rahimullah Samander is an IWPR staff editor and reporter in Kabul.


Pakistan, Afghanistan
Support our journalists