Afghanistan Diskurs: gibts den noch?

Anlässlich einer sehr guten Tagung in Berlin habe ich mich an ein Thema herangemacht, das mich seit Jahren beschäftigt, den Afghanistan Diskurs in Deutschland. Thomas Ruttig, Lutz Rzehak, Michael Semple habe sehr politik- und wirklichkeitsnahe Vorträge gehalten, die kann man dazu natürlich bestens lesen, wenn sie veröffentlicht sind. weitere Information unter

Das ist kein tiefschürfender Text, die Literaturangaben weisen nur darauf hin, was und wo man weiterführendes entdecken kann.

ICD International Symposium  “Cultural Diplomacy in a New Cold War Era”

“Understanding Afghanistan”

Berlin, 7 – 8 June, 2019

Michael Daxner

Afghanistan as a Place for diverse Imaginations


After the conference

The respective contributions had not been concerted in advance but may well have been so. Rarely had the presentation of ideas and analyses helped to save Afghanistan from obliviousness; in a country that has been so deeply involved  in the preliminaries of and consequences from an intervention that lasted form 2002 until 2014, and still is not concluded, this is not a minor affair. Germany in Afghanistan, Afghans likewise in Germany – both dimensions are not really in the mainstream of public awareness. And when experts discuss the Afghan-German relations, this is not necessarily a public affair.

There is some temptation to refer in detail to the anthropological and linguistic description a habitus varieties as presented by Lutz Rzehak; there is a strong attraction to in-depth analysis of Thomas Ruttig’s observations on the marginalization of democracy in post-9/11 Afghanistan, because I myself have been taught to reduce my hopes for rapid democratic development during and after the Golden Hour 2002-2005; for many years I had wished that political negotiations would tend to follow Michael Semples’ ideas on bringing the Taliban to the table. When I read my paper on 7 June, all three presentations were still in the future. And, of course, I do not restructure this paper just to include all associations and nods brought to life by the three colleagues. But as a quartet, there might be a critical score become one of the results of this good opportunity to strengthen critical awareness about what has happened to Afghanistan and what is likely to happen soon.

  1. Introduction

Where is Afghanistan, what is Afghanistan? If these questions were trivial or meaningless, we would not have experienced so many misunderstandings, and worse, miscalculations in politics and communication. I am going to take a German initial point. If there is something like a special discourse on Afghanistan within broader intervention and securitization discourses in Germany, it is certainly neither popular nor impactful.

The images of a country, far away in the depth of Central Asia, were more concrete than the picturesque but realistic reports from the battlegrounds and the few hard facts that arrived at a limited public since the Great Game. That is nothing new in the history of ancient kingdoms and landscapes. However, it is a useful exercise to look at the diverse narratives that are coating the images. Germany is deeply involved in the history and development of Afghanistan since 100 years, not as long the British, and in a permanent juxtaposition. This is real, but the images in the perception of most people are not.

There are different modes reflecting a real or imagined “country”. The easiest example is the mapping view. When you name a country, many people start their mapping neurons and identify the territory in question by a certain form and color and its positions related to neighbors. The same happens, when the image is not a two-dimensional map, but a picturesque portrait of a landscape, sometimes with significant forms as a guide for orientation, like a characteristic peak or a famous building (the Matterhorn for the Swiss Alps, Empire State Building for New York, etc.). The narratives are more complex than that, at least in most cases. They do not only cover a certain space, but they include times past and present, sometimes even visions of times future; and they operate with significant points linking the person’s knowledge, memories, ideas – and imaginations to the empirical basis of a certain map; thus, a vivid image of a country in context is being created by the narrative. The context is structured according to interests, experience, accurate or general predilections or prejudices of the person, sometimes also narrowed by orders and pressure. The implicit maps of Afghanistan in German brains are not evident or on the surface. Please, share with me a few approaches to deconstruct the subtexts.

  1. Afghanistan

This introduction is important to me. I have known few Afghans, when I was in high school – they were the offspring of affluent urban middle-class parents in the 1960s, one became a famous pianist. But whether they were “Afghans” or not, did not make any difference. Otherwise, I did not know anything about the country, because they did not tell much. The next encounter was already part of a narration: some student colleagues have returned from station car trips to India and Afghanistan, describing their experiences with marihuana, bazaars and a colorful, strange culture (Here – There, We – They). Still, I did not know anything about the country, because I was interested in other regions of the earth; and I was traveling myself. The first “real” encounter with the country took place, when we learned that the Soviet Union had invaded the country in 1979; that means, we had to learn at least basics about the history and the position of the country,  if we decided to be interested. And then, the Cold War, the degenerate opposition between the “West” (Capitalism) and the “East” (then Communism) did show strange, yet unknown features.

For the purpose of this meeting of ICD, “Cultural Diplomacy in a New Cold War Era”, I shall refrain from my subjective learning process or too many anecdotes. Since 9/11, and personally since 2003, I have been permanently engaged with Afghanistan, traveling back and forth, concentrating on conflicts, politics, higher education, culture and the specific narratives that are forming the German images of Afghanistan till today. I shall present a few narratives for diverse imaginations, some of them connected, others contingent.

I shall give titles to each narrative section. They are provisional. A short description and some examples should be sufficient for understanding my main hypothesis: The German discourse on Afghanistan relies more on imagination and related narratives than on knowledge. Of course, there are experts for some fields or segments of several kinds of “Afghanology”, but they support indirectly my assumption, because their expertise has not yet really trickled down into the broader public – or it is not effective. The order of my examples is not normative, but each narrative can change positions related to its position in the discourse.

  1. The subjective Ethnologist

Annemarie Schwarzenbach was a pioneer exploring Afghanistan. But without knowing her social and cultural background, one has difficulties to understand the nuances of her early travel experiences 1939/40 (Schwarzenbach 2001, Quest 2006). All at once, the extravagant tmrip of a young lady from a rich, right wing Swiss background becomes highly political – and remains rather personal. There are a few stories about early exploration of this strange country (Bouvier 2004), but most travel guides do not reflect early encounters by Western voyagers with Afghanistan. Only the generation of 1968 has fabricated a rather subjective and impressionist narrative about Afghanistan, without sustained effect. Smoking red or black Afghan also added to the image of Afghanistan, which was in a way incredibly naïve – romantic? A very subjective private ethnology that is far from pure individualism is Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindukush”, where the uneasy legacy of former Afghan-British confrontations are mildly echoed and rarely made explicit (Newby 1958). This narrative is important in a time of real-time subjective communication: each impression is shared through social media and becomes more real with each click…On the other hand, private ethnology plays an important role in unofficial or clandestine military operations and their interplay with official politics ((cf. Gant 2009, Tyson 2014). Sometimes, such narrations remind us of famous models such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It took me quite many such narratives: private ethnology often replaces political  analysis.

  1. Afghanistan – focus of Germany’s development aid after the World War: The Good Germans?

Some experts and development specialists understand that Afghanistan has been, together with Egypt, India and other countries, a special focus of the renovated foreign policy after World War II. This fact did never really trickle down into public perception, not least, because Germans normally don’t know anything about the German-Afghan relations since 1914 and the reasons, why Germany is in such high esteem with the Afghan elites. A few examples shed a significant light on selected liaisons: e.g. in post-war industry (Kreutzmann 2014) or in the history of some  elite schools in Kabul (cf. For the narrative it is important that the frame of the school must be considered as to understand its contrasting with other externally founded schools, like the French; and why this type of school plays little role in both the general history of education and the contemporary efforts to improve massified school education. And then the question: why Germany? Why did Germany invest in Afghanistan, and why did education play such a big role? The answer is rather complex. It merges with other narratives (cf. 3 below), and it reflects a certain depoliticized approach that seemed appropriate for post-war West Germany, which was not popular in business or geopolitical fields at the time.

  1. The Evergood friend narrative

Since the early days of World War I, there were special relations between Afghanistan and (Aljets, Biegler et al. 2012)Germany (Adamec: 1967, Von Hentig 2003); sometimes also with Austria, whose prisoners fled from Tsarist Russia to Afghanistan.

There are also intrinsic assumptions – from mutual understanding to more precarious Aryan relationship. This is relatively innocent in Afghan contexts, but extremely sensitive in the German historical handling the Aryan myths of the Nazi period.  and there are extrinsic facts which have sunken into the subconscious and do further exist only in subtexts. The anti-British positioning of Germany plays an important role – from the beginning of the relationship and through the entire rule of reform king Amanullah Shah (cf. Rybitschka 1927) or the diverse inclinations of this ruler for Germany. This is very often considered as a serendipitous friendship, while the political context is not raised as a topic. Friendship as such is a treacherous category in political relationships, as are mutual interests or trust. Amanullah’s orientation on Turkey, France and Germany had very complex – and far-sighted – roots, which were not always reflected correctly in Germany.

  1. Unintended colonial attitudes – the narrative of marginalized colonial power.

In 1859, German famous author Theodor Fontane wrote a poem “Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan”, referring to the defeat of the British in the war of 1842-48. One cannot say that the ballad was “anti-British”, but full of realistic empathy with a military out of place. If Germany had been an important actor in Central Asia at the time, the story would have been different… Until today, there is broad colonial attitude towards a people that were never colonized by Germans (and only indirectly by other powers, mainly the British). In many media reports and in political statements likewise, some Germans assume Afghans as a lower or developing civilization compared to “our” Western, European, universalist cultural self-image. We can substantiate this statement by studies of the Homeland Discourse (Aljets, Biegler et al. 2012). When talking to Afghans, we may wonder how differentiated they feel about this prejudice. For them, the civilization of the West included the Soviets – Russia as a part of the West would dismantle many analogous prejudices against them by the same resentment. On the other side, I have heard Herati talk about the Pashtus as uncivilized, and Pashtus about the Tadjiks of having no sense for poetry etc.  But this not the same, though it nurtures another line of prejudice: Talks in Germany about a “tribal society” are misleading and add to the condescending attitude. It is no fun to meet spontaneous uninformed equations like Afghans = Pashtuns = Taliban, reflect an unintended spirit of superiority, that sometimes has a sharp edge in a real political controversy.

  1. Wishful thinking, official authorities – the narrative of understanding

Since 2010, the German Foreign Office has published “Progress Reports”. Later than other foreign actors in the intervention theatre, this type of reporting intends to influence public opinion about the German part in the intervention (Bundesregierung 2010, Bundesregierung 2014). Objective facts and dynamics from a German view should enable the parliament, the media and the alerted public to appreciate the role of Germany in military and civilian operations. These reports, alongside other special documents, produce a dangerous narrative of a semi-empirical, semi-realistic, semi-comprehensible policy. Only when ISAF was coming to an end, some self-critical tones could be perceived. There were almost no accounts about the objective role of Germany in the Afghan theatre. The initial motivation to participate in the intervention – protect Germany from terrorist attacks (Ruttig 2015) and promote human rights – easily changed into a framework of securitization that was designed and elaborated by the United States and left not much leeway for Germany. The official narrative is in stark contrast to both the findings of scientists and scholars and to the empirical perception of Afghanistan. This very short paragraph is just meant as an indicator for how important the deconstruction is of officialized narrations about a country of high political importance – or of decreasing importance? You can learn a lot from reading these reports – about Germany as well as about Afghanistan.

  1. Media, documentary, fiction – the politico-esthetic narratives

Journalists, documentary film-makers and docu-fiction writers contribute equally to a valuable and more realistic narrative of the intervention, or better, to competing narratives. Only few media, rather top quality papers, informed and commented the situation in a country of intervention (Daxner and Neumann 2012). After 2014, the interest in factual reporting decreased steadily. Most important remain just deadly attacks (terrorism discourse replacing the intervention and homeland discourses) and regular efforts to establish peace-talks.  While veteran documentary and fiction have begun to penetrate all sectors of Afghanistan perception, docu-fiction of quality remains rare (Kurbjuweit 2011). The homeland discourse easily entered entertainment feature, such as “Tatort” (e.g. Heimatfront 2011, Fette Hunde 2012, Unter Männern 2012 etc.  The thriller series is insofar significant, as it combines liberal political correctness with a critical view of the intervention. In recent years, the returnee narrative merges increasingly with the veteran discourse (Daxner, Näser-Lather et al. 2018), which plays an important role after the end of ISAF and the increasing number of German out-of-area missions. Documentary fiction is well received, e.g. Martin Gerner’s award winning film “Generation Kunduz” (2012). I call this entire narrative the realistic puzzle, because you need many of these specimens in order to get a realistic image of Afghanistan. In many cases, there is still an imaginary Afghanistan that is a place holder for a certain type of society or country under intervention.

It is impossible to fully absorb this segment of the Afghan narration. Too many fragments from diverse arts, means of communication, digital networking etc. are floating in this discursive space. There is a link to Lutz Rzehak’s presentation: more often than not the individual observation leads towards a potential generalization that cannot be gained through constructivist methods or surveys that are too commonplace as to really tell anything of structural importance. Observation has its limits, though: it must be accompanied by solid knowledge, an impartial stance within communication and also some well-based intuition.

  1. Science and investigation

Many disciplines took part in intensive investigations of the intervention and its effects on the intervening actors and the society of the intervened (Daxner 2017). My own bibliography shows some 2000 related titles; AAN’s fabulous documentary gives a broads insight into what we could know about Afghanistan past and present, if we really would have a look ( (Christian Bleuer). Since 2007, and until 2017, Projects C1 and C9 of the Collaborative Research Center 700 at the Free University Berlin, investigated local structures of Afghan districts under the real-time circumstances of the intervention.( Especially Jan Koehler and Kristof Gosztonyi should be mentioned in their attempt to refine methodology and surveys, which of course, influence the respective narratives of looking into the Afghan society from below (cf. Koehler 2013). German scientific research is relatively far away from the narratives by the political authorities (cf. 5); it is better communicated within the international scientific community than in effective exchange with political actors; perhaps less so in the field of development cooperation. (This is different in the US, where SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) or CRS (Congressional Research Services) combine research and counselling in a more effective way than comparable German units). One could use this example for a more general debate about the diverse national character of political consulting, which creates different narratives.

  1. Many more narratives

Afghanistan is a construct, mounted from many imaginary pieces. In analyzing these narratives, we find that the interdependence between different images create a country, a people, a landscape, that has some similarity with a country that we can visit any time. But stop: even, if we can fly into Kabul or Herat, it is unlikely that we can experience more than another imaginary fragment of Afghanistan, because there are many places which have become inaccessible; there are many people, who would be most important resources, but live no longer in the country; many places of interest to us are now insecure, and if we go there, there will be some distorted impressions. This is normal with foreign societies and countries, but it is still extreme in Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan is, after Kosovo 2000, the second and certainly largest engagement of German military after World War II, the images play a special role for the homeland discourse: “Homeland discourse comprises all discursive practices and strategies that refer to the legitimacy, recognition,  and assessment of policies, and the engagement of troops out of the (national and alliance) area” (Daxner 2017, 50). So, indeed, when we are talking about Afghanistan, we are (also) speaking to ourselves and about ourselves. And, of course, we try to avoid all subtexts that bring us near to uneasy liabilities and responsibilities. Images, declared as truths, can help us for a while.

  1. Imaginary Afghanistan

There are many more narratives. We can easily make a mapping exercise and attribute these narratives to classes of imagination. Some of the would politically inspired, others more military or culture based. As I said earlier, many imaginations about Afghanistan create or follow narratives; these can be either defensive, or condescending, or empathetic. It is important to deal with them and to analyze them. Out of these narratives stem not only prejudices and petrified wrong ideas about another people and its society; they are also misguiding political decisions.

As much as I wish that scientific clarification would enter the political discourse, I must say that this is not the case. The labor ahead of us comprises also the deconstruction of imaginations, sometimes of “fake news”, sometimes of dangerous insights in our own defectiveness. Within the military narrative, the events in Kunduz on 4 September 2009 are a good example for this[1].

So far, this was an analysis in my view – a western, white person in the country of an intervening power. If we would turn the whole question about imagination and narratives upside down, we may be surprised: of course, Afghans have their imaginations, dreams and experiences about the intervention and with Germany or the West. Of course, their constructions echo the Western models, and are different at the same time. They know “us” as actors in an intervention and they have learned about us during this intervention, almost 20 years; before that, many of them had encountered other interventions, by the Soviet Union. Who are We, the Germans, NATO, the Westerners are liberators, occupants, foreigners, partners, …what have you?; but the imagination of what Germany may offer is also imaginary, if an Afghan person manages to get there – as an asylum seeker, as another type of refugee, as a member of the diaspora community in Germany etc. Diaspora research clearly indicates that many of the narratives described above are being reflected and repeated in the diaspora, all modifications under the permanent threat of the German authorities towards large groups of Afghan migrants who will not be granted asylum (Daxner and Nicola 2017). Both in their own country and in the diaspora, many Afghans know more about us than we about them. At least those, who consider leaving their country and coming to Germany. Thus, they nurture all prejudices, narratives and imaginations – sometimes even phantasies, a term that I had avoided so far. The “Us” vs. “They” confrontation is typical for imaginary constructions. Because it is not easy to bridge the gap between two contingent images of a respective other country or society.

Bridging the gap is a challenge that we should accept.


Adamec:, L. W. (1967). Afghanistan 1900–1923. A Diplomatic History. Berkeley CA, University of California Press.

Aljets, J., A. Biegler and A.-L. Schulz (2012). Von „wilden Bergvölkern“ und „islamistischen Bazillen“ – Die Darstellung der Intervenierten In Afghanistan.

. Heimatdiskurs. Daxner/Neumann. Bielefeld, transcript: 93-135.

Bouvier, N. (2004). Die Erfahrung der Welt. Basel, Lenos Verlag.

Bundesregierung (2010). Fortschrittsbericht Afghanistan. Berlin.

Bundesregierung (2014). Fortschrittsbericht Afghanistan. Berlin.

Daxner, M. (2017). A Society of Intervention – An Essay on Conflicts in Afghanistan and other Military Interventions Oldenburg, BIS.

Daxner, M. and R. C. Mann (2016). „Veteranen – eine neue soziale Gruppe.“ Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift 54(5/2016): 624-633.

Daxner, M., M. Näser-Lather and S.-L. Nicola, Eds. (2018). Conflict Veterans. Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Daxner, M. and H. Neumann, Eds. (2012). Heimatdiskurs. Wie die Auslandseinsätze der Bundeswehr Deutschland verändern. Edition Politik. Bielefeld, transcript Verlag.

Daxner, M. and S. Nicola (2017). Mapping and report on the Afghan Diaspora in Germany. Berlin, GIZ/PME.

Gant, J. (2009) „One Tribe at a Time.“

Koehler, J. (2013). Institution-centred Conflict Research. The Methodology and its Application in Afghanistan. Summa cum laude, Free University.

Kreutzmann, H. (2014). Süße Intervention – Die Zuckerfabrik in Baghlan gestern und heute. Michael Daxner. Oldenburg, BIS: 25-38.

Kurbjuweit, D. (2011). Kriegsbraut. Berlin, Rowohlt.

Newby, E. (1958). A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Melbourne, Lonely Planet Publications.

Quest, E. (2006). Ein Portrait Annemarie Schwarzenbachs mit dem Schwerpunkt auf ihrer Reise nach Afghanistan 1939/40. Konfliktsoziologie Israel, Afghanistan, Balkan.

Ruttig, T. (2015) „Quellenarbeit: „Unsere Sicherheit wird … auch am Hindukusch verteidigt“ (Struck-Zitat).“ – Thomas Ruttig über Afghanistan.

Rybitschka, E. (1927). Im gottgegebenen Afghanistan. Leipzig, Brockhaus.

Schwarzenbach, A. (2001). Alle Wege sind offen

Basel, Lenos.

Tyson, A. S. (2014). American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant. New York, William Morrow.

Von Hentig, W. O. ( 2003). Von Kabul nach Shanghai. Bericht über die Afghanistan-Mission 1915/16 und die Rückkehr über das Dach der Welt und durch die Wüsten Chinas. Lengwil, Libelle.


[1] The Bundestag has installed an investigative panel:; there is a broad spectrum of references until today, but almost all of them make use of convenient imaginations to serve their purposes (military has failed – the commanders have not failed – the circumstances were clear/unclear etc.). But the banal truth that this was WAR has not really come to the discursive surface, and that even in war there is guilt, failure and innocence as in any other situation, has not openly become reflected. Cf.…/luftangriff-in-afghanistan-kundus-affaere-eine-chronik-… Veteran research opens the perspective on these constructions:Daxner, M. and R. C. Mann (2016). „Veteranen – eine neue soziale Gruppe.“ Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift 54(5/2016): 624-633.

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