Saturday, February 24, 2018

iran: a colonial power

Street protests have erupted in some middle eastern countries in January of this year, particularly in many Iranian cities, and in Sudan, Algeria, and Tunisia as well, where the protests have been the longest and most tenacious thus far. Though the protests were diverse, a common cause was attributed to the high prices for basic daily-needed commodities (beginning with bread), unemployment (particularly among the youth), and disappointing economies stagnating with hyperinflation. However, Iran’s protests, even though they may not be unique, are special due to the country’s rising political and military stardom in the region. In the last decade, particularly since the American withdrawal from Iraq in December 2010, the Arab uprisings in 2011–12, the Syrian civil war since March 2011, and the failure of the Afghani government to stop the expansion of the Taliban, have all contributed, among others, to the rise of Iran’s might in the middle east. From Afghanistan, to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Iran was able to construct a geo-military and political “alliance” of sorts, one that has made it a mini-colonial power in the region. It remains to be seen whether such alliance would produce any economic benefits to the concerned populations, particularly to “middle classes” that are more tuned to consumerism than political adventurism. In common jargon, the Iranian geo-military loose “alliance” is described as a Shiʿi consolidation against the political hegemony of Sunni Islam, one that is presumably led by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the former derives its wealth predominantly from oil rent, while the second is over-populated and labor abundant. Upon a closer examination, however, what is routinely dubbed as a “Shiʿi alliance” turns out a vague term for a hodgepodge of “Shiʿisms” that by and large are historically unrelated and belong to different social and economic configurations. Iran itself belongs to a majority brand of Shiʿism, that of the Twelver Imamis, and to a social and economic formation that heavily depends on oil rent and its distribution among classes and ethnicities. Like any developing country, Iran is plagued by class inequalities created by rapid and uneven development, particularly touching on the commercialization of land and what is left of traditional agriculture, hence the importance of oil rent in conjunction with political adventurism. Its ethnic composition, by far the most complex in the region, combines under one state the Farsi Twelver Imami majority with Arabs, Kurds, Azeris, Armenians, Turkmen, and Baloch. In Iraq by contrast, the Shiʿi majority, which comes at around 65 percent, and which has been historically dominated by the Arab Sunni minority (20 percent), has been in power only recently thanks to the American occupation in 2003–2010. The Syrian ʿAlawi minority, which has been in power since 1970, could also be looked upon as another brand of Shiʿism, but its social and economic base is very different from the other Shiʿisms in the region and along the Eastern Mediterranean. So is Lebanese Shiʿism, which since the end of the civil war (1975–1990) has been associated with the radical paramilitary Hezbollah organization, which acts as a state within a state. In short, the Iranian political genius consists at bringing different social and economic formations under one informal geo-strategic alliance. But what for exactly? Perhaps one question that begs itself in this regard, in particular in light of the January street protests, is whether the costs of such an Iranian-led informal alliance would pay the bills.

The last big anti-government protests in Iran came in the wake of the disputed reelection of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in summer 2009. According to opposition records, more than 73 people were killed back then and over 4,000 were arrested. There are a few major differences this time. The Green Movement in 2009 was led by reform-minded intelligentsia and educated middle class and was concentrated in the streets of Iran’s capital city. This one has been led by mostly working-class young men; there are far fewer people rallying, yet the protests are more widespread across the country. In 2009, the protests were about empowering the reformists. This time, they look and feel anti-establishment, hence against the whole Islamic Republic. Somehow the cost of the informal Shiʿi alliance, constructed in the last decades with paramilitary civil war strategies that involved the best trained Iranian special and intelligence military personnel, are turning against the very foundations of the Islamic Republic itself. What the young men and women were questioning this time in the streets of many Iranian cities is the “usefulness” of what their country has been doing inside and outside Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Is the sacrifice worth the economic misery of a large part of the Iranian populace? Should the Republic maintain its moribund paramilitary alliance while people are suffering at home? But if the questioning seems radical, it is nevertheless extremely fragile, as there already are state attempts at the highest level to suffocate it through the services of the Revolutionary Guard and other special paramilitary forces which have become the hallmark of the Republic since the Revolution. Iran has been able to forge its alliance thanks to a country-by-country civil war strategy, betting on all kinds of structural weaknesses among the rogue countries, while avoiding civil war at home. Perhaps the time has come to look inside.

Perhaps the lesson to learn in this regard is that countries like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon cannot be “on their own” anymore, as autonomous political units, assuming they ever did, and that they can only be governed through the kind of rough “alliance” that the Iranians are proposing, and to which Russia would serve as a political umbrella. This is a new reshaping of the middle east, an unexpected outcome of the street revolts, in which everyone is learning that states cannot be sovereign anymore. The obsession with state security, which has been nurtured by the likes of Nasser and Saddam Hussein, and which meant playing on the weaknesses of other states and societies, while raising the flag of civil war, now gets another turn. Now state security implies a process of collaboration between states, where a regional power like Iran would monitor the process on the ground with experts all over but in small numbers, which makes cost redundant the notion of a full-fledged occupation as was Iraq and as is Afghanistan now under American occupation. Russians and Iranians come in small numbers, bring their experts and mercenaries, impose themselves on the ground, and end up more cost-effective than the traditional colonial powers which have shaped the future of the middle east since Sykes–Picot in 1916.

afghanistan & iran

Afghanistan is America’s longest war ever—sixteen years in the making since the invasion of the country by a US led coalition in 2001–2002 and the help of conspicuous Afghani warlords—an operation whose estimated cost has neared a trillion dollars, with an annual budget of $40 billion. Originally designed as an operation that would oust the Taliban and the Qāʿida as organizations of terror, the Afghani war soon turned into an ambitious “nation-building” and the restructuring of Afghanistan into a modern state. At the beginning, in 2002–2003, the optimism was fueled by the ousting of the Taliban and the drafting of a new constitution that would establish a new division of powers and the eligibility for political representation. As the Bush Administration declared that the Taliban had been “defeated,” “universal suffrage” was introduced as the cornerstone of a political system of representation; women had a right to vote and go to school. But what does “defeat” mean when the “enemy” has no visible face or hierarchy, and when it is fighting an asymmetrical war of attrition with no end in sight. Time is one the side of the Taliban but not in favor of the US and its Kabul sponsored Pashtun-dominated government. Afghanistan’s problems are numerous, beginning with a strong tribal multi-ethnic “society” with a poor infrastructure, not to mention the constant intrusions of neighbors: Pakistan, India, and now Iran. The Taliban gradually took hold of power and the capital Kabul in the 1990s amid the end of the guerrilla-cum-tribal war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. As tribal factions turn against one another once the war with the external “enemy” is over, the Taliban came to the rescue as a de facto, if not de jure, organizational power. Their rule was harsh and unforgivable, as women were taken out of schools and sanctions were imposed on individual freedoms. But the last ten years have witnessed a coming back of the Taliban to the point that they are now controlling many provinces and US and Afghani security forces find themselves on the defensive. Amid the breakdown of Iraq—another prematurely failed nation-building project—and the expansion of the Taliban, president Obama decided to “postpone” the final withdrawal hastily scheduled for 2016. President Trump will in all likelihood increase US troops by 4,000, but to what end exactly? The US has developed the habit of coming with grandiose “democratic” nation-building projects, only to leave them in a state of anxiety and no return. Other local and regional actors, states or well-grounded paramilitary groups (the two categories are often blurred), would come to the rescue. In particular that, as the article below points out, one of Afghanistan’s most ambitious regional border neighbors, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has knotted ties with its old foe the Taliban (a group which in itself is far from homogeneous, but nevertheless manages to control the bulk of opium trade in the region), in an extremely intrusive and ambitious strategy of destabilizing the Kabul government and US presence. Iran aims at “ethnic links” from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq up to Afghanistan. But what is it that hold such “societies” and “states” together in the first place? Could it be a delusional “ethnic identity” that would fail where the US and its allies had already failed? Perhaps president Trump can learn something from the failed legacy of his predecessor.

The legacy in Afghanistan, like Obama’s foreign policy record as a whole, was troubled at best. At points he had the elements of the right approach—more troops, more reconstruction assistance, and a counterinsurgency strategy—but he never gave them the time and resources to succeed. Obama came into office rightly arguing that the war was important but had been sidelined, and promised to set it aright. Yet Obama’s choices since 2009 reflected a more conflicted stance, and it is not clear he ever settled on a coherent strategy. He deployed more troops than needed for a narrow counterterrorism operation, but not enough for a broader counterinsurgency campaign. He initially increased reconstruction funding because he believed, rightly, that effective Afghan governance was an essential condition for victory, but quickly second-guessed himself and subsequently reduced civilian aid every year thereafter. Most damagingly, Obama insisted on the public issuance of a withdrawal deadline for US troops, undermining his own surge—which eventually became so obvious that he finally reversed himself. Obama’s belated decision to sustain a small force of some 5,500 troops in Afghanistan beyond his term in office is likely to keep the Afghan army in the field and the Taliban from outright victory—but this is at low bar compared to what Obama once hoped to achieve there.

Could the new (chaotic) administration do any better?

In Afghanistan, U.S. Exits, and Iran Comes In
A version of this article appears in print on August 6, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition of the New York Times with the headline: Iran Flexes in Afghanistan As U.S. Presence Wanes.

FARAH, Afghanistan — A police officer guarding the outskirts of this city remembers the call from his commander, warning that hundreds of Taliban fighters were headed his way.
“Within half an hour, they attacked,” recalled Officer Najibullah Amiri, 35. The Taliban swarmed the farmlands surrounding his post and seized the western riverbank here in Farah, the capital of the province by the same name.
It was the start of a three-week siege in October, and only after American air support was called in to end it and the smoke cleared did Afghan security officials realize who was behind the lightning strike: Iran.
Four senior Iranian commandos were among the scores of dead, Afghan intelligence officials said, noting their funerals in Iran. Many of the Taliban dead and wounded were also taken back across the nearby border with Iran, where the insurgents had been recruited and trained, village elders told Afghan provincial officials.
The assault, coordinated with attacks on several other cities, was part of the Taliban’s most ambitious attempt since 2001 to retake power. But it was also a piece of an accelerating Iranian campaign to step into a vacuum left by departing American forces — Iran’s biggest push into Afghanistan in decades.
President Trump recently lamented that the United States was losing its 16-year war in Afghanistan, and threatened to fire the American generals in charge.
There is no doubt that as the United States winds down the Afghan war — the longest in American history, and one that has cost half a trillion dollars and more than 150,000 lives on all sides — regional adversaries are muscling in.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remain the dominant players. But Iran is also making a bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor.
Over the past decade and a half, the United States has taken out Iran’s chief enemies on two of its borders, the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iran has used that to its advantage, working quietly and relentlessly to spread its influence.
In Iraq, it has exploited a chaotic civil war and the American withdrawal to create a virtual satellite state. In Afghanistan, Iran aims to make sure that foreign forces leave eventually, and that any government that prevails will at least not threaten its interests, and at best be friendly or aligned with them.
One way to do that, Afghans said, is for Iran to aid its onetime enemies, the Taliban, to ensure a loyal proxy and also to keep the country destabilized, without tipping it over. That is especially true along their shared border of more than 500 miles.
But fielding an insurgent force to seize control of a province shows a significant — and risky — escalation in Iran’s effort.
“Iran does not want stability here,” Naser Herati, one of the police officers guarding the post outside Farah, said angrily. “People here hate the Iranian flag. They would burn it.”
Iran has conducted an intensifying covert intervention, much of which is only now coming to light. It is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.
“The regional politics have changed,” said Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, a senior intelligence official who recently took over as the governor of Farah Province. “The strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.”
Iran and the Taliban — longtime rivals, one Shiite and the other Sunni — would seem to be unlikely bedfellows.
Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban when their militias notoriously killed 11 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian government journalist in fighting in 1998.
After that, Iran supported the anti-Taliban opposition — and it initially cooperated with the American intervention in Afghanistan that drove the Taliban from power.
But as the NATO mission in Afghanistan expanded, the Iranians quietly began supporting the Taliban to bleed the Americans and their allies by raising the cost of the intervention so that they would leave.
Iran has come to see the Taliban not only as the lesser of its enemies but also as a useful proxy force. The more recent introduction of the Islamic State, which carried out a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament this year, into Afghanistan has only added to the Taliban’s appeal.
In the empty marble halls of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, the ambassador, denied that Iran was supporting the Taliban, and emphasized the more than $400 million Iran has invested to help Afghanistan access ports on the Persian Gulf.
“We are responsible,” he said in an interview last year. “A strong accountable government in Afghanistan has more advantages for strengthening our relations than anything.”
But Iran’s Foreign Ministry and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps act as complementary arms of policy — the first openly sowing economic and cultural influence, and the second aggressively exerting subversive force behind the scenes.
Iran has sent squads of assassins, secretly nurtured spies and infiltrated police ranks and government departments, especially in western provinces, Afghan officials say.
Even NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan at the time, Gen. Sir David Richards of Britain, discovered that Iran had recruited his interpreter, Cpl. Daniel James, a British-Iranian citizen. Corporal James was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending coded messages to the Iranian military attaché in Kabul during a tour of duty in 2006.
More recently, Iran has moved so aggressively in bulking up the Taliban insurgency that American forces rushed to Farah Province a second time in January to stave off a Taliban attack.
“The Iranian game is very complicated,” said Javed Kohistani, a military analyst based in Kabul.
Having American forces fight long and costly wars that unseated Iran’s primary enemies has served Tehran’s interests just fine. But by now, the Americans and their allies have outlasted their usefulness, and Iran is pursuing a strategy of death by a thousand cuts “to drain them and cost them a lot.”
An Ambitious Expansion
The depth of Iran’s ties to the Taliban burst unexpectedly into view last year. An American drone struck a taxi on a desert road in southwestern Pakistan, killing the driver and his single customer.
The passenger was none other than the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. A wanted terrorist with an American bounty on his head who had been on the United Nations sanctions list since before 2001, Mullah Mansour was traveling without guards or weapons, confident and quite at home in Pakistan.
The strike exposed for the second time since the discovery of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani hill town of Abbottabad the level of Pakistan’s complicity with wanted terrorists. It was the first time the United States had conducted a drone attack in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, a longtime sanctuary for the Taliban but until then off limits for American drones because of Pakistani protests.
Yet even more momentous was that Mullah Mansour was returning from a trip to Iran, where he had been meeting Iranian security officials and, through Iran, with Russian officials.
Afghan officials, Western diplomats and security analysts, and a former Taliban commander familiar with Mullah Mansour’s inner circle confirmed details of the meetings.
Both Russia and Iran have acknowledged that they have held meetings with the Taliban but maintain that they are only for information purposes.
That the Taliban leader was personally developing ties with both Iran and Russia signaled a stunning shift in alliance for the fundamentalist Taliban movement, which had always been supported by the Sunni powers among the Arab gulf states and Pakistan.
But times were changing with the American drawdown in Afghanistan, and Mullah Mansour had been seeking to diversify his sources of money and weapons since taking over the Taliban leadership in 2013. He had made 13 trips to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and one to Bahrain, his passport showed, but also at least two visits to Iran.
Set on expanding the Taliban’s sway in Afghanistan, he was also preparing to negotiate an end to the war, playing all sides on his terms, according to both Afghan officials with close knowledge of the Taliban and the former Taliban commander close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.
It was that ambitious expansionism that probably got him killed, they said.
“Mansour was a shrewd politician and businessman and had a broader ambition to widen his appeal to other countries,” said Timor Sharan, a former senior analyst of the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan who has since joined the Afghan government.
Mullah Mansour had been tight with the Iranians since his time in the Taliban government in the 1990s, according to Mr. Kohistani, the military analyst. Their interests, he and other analysts and Afghan officials say, overlapped in opium. Afghanistan is the world’s largest source of the drug, and Iran the main conduit to get it out.
Iran’s border guards have long fought drug traffickers crossing from Afghanistan, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Taliban have both benefited from the illicit trade, exacting dues from traffickers.
The main purpose of Mullah Mansour’s trips to Iran was tactical coordination, according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. At the time, in 2016, the Taliban were gearing up for offensives across eight Afghan provinces. Farah was seen as particularly ripe fruit.
Iran facilitated a meeting between Mullah Mansour and Russian officials, Afghan officials said, securing funds and weapons from Moscow for the insurgents.
Mullah Mansour’s cultivation of Iran for weapons was done with the full knowledge of Pakistan, said the former Taliban commander, who did not want to be identified since he had recently defected from the Taliban.
“He convinced the Pakistanis that he wanted to go there and get weapons, but he convinced the Pakistanis that he would not come under their influence and accept their orders,” he said.
Pakistan had also been eager to spread the political and financial burden of supporting the Taliban and had encouraged the Taliban’s ties with Iran, said Haji Agha Lalai, a presidential adviser and the deputy governor of Kandahar Province.
On his last visit, Mullah Mansour traveled to the Iranian capital, Tehran, to meet someone very important — possibly Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the former Taliban commander, who said he had gleaned the information from members of Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.
Mullah Mansour stayed for a week, also meeting with a senior Russian official in the town of Zahedan, said Mr. Lalai, who spoke with relatives of the Taliban leader.
He was almost certainly negotiating an escalation in Iranian and Russian assistance before his death, Mr. Lalai and other Afghan officials said, pointing to the increase in Iranian support for the Taliban during his leadership and since.
But the meeting with the Russians was apparently a step too far, Afghan officials say. His relations with Iran and Russia had expanded to the point that they threatened Pakistan’s control over the insurgency.
The United States had been aware of Mullah Mansour’s movements, including his ventures into Iran, for some time before the strike and had been sharing information with Pakistan, said Seth G. Jones, associate director at the RAND Corporation. Pakistan had also provided helpful information, he added. “They were partly supportive of targeting Mansour.”
Gen. John Nicholson, the United States commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said President Barack Obama had approved the strike after Mullah Mansour failed to join peace talks being organized in Pakistan.
Col. Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Afghan military attaché in London, said he believed that the American military had been making a point by striking Mullah Mansour on his return from Iran.
“When they target people like this, they follow them for months,” he said. “It was smart to do it to cast suspicions on Iran. They were trying to create a gap between Iran and the Taliban.”
But if that was the intention, Mr. Lalai said, it has not succeeded, judging by the way the new Taliban leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has picked up his predecessor’s work.
“I don’t think the contact is broken,” he said. “Haibatullah is still reaching out to Iran. They are desperately looking for more money if they want to extend the fight.”
Intrigue in ‘Little Iran’
There is no place in Afghanistan where Iran’s influence is more deeply felt than the western city of Herat, nearly in sight of the Iranian border.
Two million Afghans took refuge in Iran during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Three million live and work in Iran today. Herat, sometimes called “Little Iran,” is their main gateway between the countries.
People in Herat speak with Iranian accents. Iranian schools, colleges and bookshops line the streets. Women wear the head-to-foot black chador favored in Iran. Shops are full of Iranian sweets and produce.
But even as the city is one of Afghanistan’s most decorous and peaceful, an air of intrigue infuses Herat.
The city is filled with Iranian spies, secret agents and hit squads, local officials say, and it has been plagued by multiple assassinations and kidnappings in recent years. The police say Iran is funding militant groups and criminal gangs. A former mayor says it is sponsoring terrorism.
Iran is constantly working in the shadows. The goal, Afghan officials say, is to stoke and tip local power struggles in its favor, whether through bribery, infiltration or violence.
One day in January, Herat’s counterterrorism police deployed undercover officers to stake out the house of one of their own men. Two strangers on a motorbike seemed to be spying on the house, so secret agents were sent out to spy on the spies.
Within hours, the police had detained the men and blown their cover: They were Iranian assassins, according to the Afghans. The passenger was armed with two pistols.
Forensics tests later found that one of the guns had been used in the murder of an Iranian citizen in Herat 10 months earlier, police officials said.
The two Iranians are still in Afghan custody and have yet to be charged. They have become a source of contention between Iran and Afghanistan.
Iran disowned them, pointing to their Afghan identity cards, but Afghan officials paraded them on television, saying they were carrying false papers and had admitted to being sent by Iran as a hit squad.
The Afghan police say they have arrested 2,000 people in counterterrorism operations in Herat over the last three years. Many of them, they say, are armed insurgents and criminals who reside with their families in Iran and enter Afghanistan to conduct dozens of attacks on police or government officials.
Iran is set on undermining the Afghan government and its security forces, and the entire United States mission, and maintaining leverage over Afghanistan by making it weak and dependent, Afghan officials say.
“We caught a terrorist who killed five people with an I.E.D.,” a senior police officer said, referring to a roadside bomb. “We released a boy who was kidnapped. We defused an I.E.D. in the city.”
Flicking through photographs on his phone, he pointed to one of a man in a mauve shirt. “He was convicted of kidnapping five people.” Much of the kidnapping is criminal, for ransom, but at least some of it is politically motivated, he added.
The 33-year-old, English-speaking Farhad Niayesh, a former mayor of Herat, is even more blunt, and exasperated. He says the Iranians use their consulate in the city as a base for propaganda and “devising terrorist activities.”
“Iran has an important role in terrorist attacks in Herat,” Mr. Niayesh said. “Three or four Iranians were captured. They had a plan against government officials who were not working in their interest.”
Members of Parliament and security officials say Iran bribes local and central government officials to work for it, offering them 10 to 15 Iranian visas per week to give to friends and associates. Afghans visit to conduct business, receive medical care and see family.
The Afghan police have uncovered cases of even deeper infiltration, too. A female member of the Afghan police service was sentenced to death, accused of being a secret Iranian agent, after fatally shooting an American trainer in the Kabul Police Headquarters in 2012.
“Our western neighbor is working very seriously,” said the senior Afghan police official in Herat who requested anonymity because of the nature of his work. “ We have even found heavy artillery to be used against the city.”
Iran is supporting multiple anti-government militant groups in half a dozen western provinces, he said. The Afghan police, despite a lack of resources, are working to dismantle them.
“The same sort of people are still in the city,” he added. “They are doing their work, and we are doing our work.”
Double-Edged Soft Power
Afghans dream of restoring their landlocked, war-torn country to the rich trading center it was in days of old, when caravans carried goods along the Silk Road from China to Europe, and people and ideas traveled along the same route.
If Tehran has its way, the modern Silk Road will once again run across Afghanistan’s western border, and proceed through Iran. At least that is the ambition.
On one side of the Afghan border, India has been building a road through southwestern Afghanistan to allow traders to bypass Pakistan, which has long restricted the transit of Afghan goods.
Tehran’s goal is to join that route on the Iranian side of the border with road and rail links ending at the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf.
“We said that Afghanistan would not be landlocked anymore and we would be at Afghanistan’s disposal,” said Mr. Bahrami, the Iranian ambassador in Kabul, stressing that Iran’s contribution to the Afghan road was not stalled even by its economic difficulties under sanctions.
But Iran’s economic leverage comes at a price.
Afghan officials say Iran’s support of the Taliban is aimed in part at disrupting development projects that might threaten its dominance. The Iranian goal, they contend, is to keep Afghanistan supplicant.
The biggest competition is for water, and Afghans have every suspicion that Iran is working to subvert plans in Afghanistan for upstream dams that could threaten its water supply.
Iran has raised the issue of the dams in bilateral meetings, and President Hassan Rouhani recently criticized the projects as damaging to the environment.
With the upheaval of 40 years of coups and wars in Afghanistan, large-scale development plans, like hydroelectric projects, have largely been stalled since the 1970s. Even after international assistance poured into Afghanistan after 2001, internal and external politics often got in the way.
But President Ashraf Ghani, determined to generate economic growth, made a priority of completing the Salma dam in Herat Province, and has ordered work on another dam at Bakhshabad, to irrigate the vast western province of Farah.
In Farah, despite the two calamitous Taliban offensives on the provincial capital in October and January, the Bakhshabad dam is the first thing everyone mentions.
“We don’t want help from nongovernmental organizations or from the government,” said Mohammed Amin, who owns a flourishing vegetable farm, growing cucumbers and tomatoes under rows of plastic greenhouses. “We in Farah don’t want anything. Just Bakhshabad.”
Afghanistan’s lack of irrigation makes it impossible to compete with Iranian produce prices, something Bakhshabad could solve, he said.
The project is still only in the planning stage. But the dam, with its promise of irrigation and hydroelectricity for a population lacking both, is a powerful dream — if Iran does not thwart it.
“The most important issue is water,” Mr. Lalai, the presidential adviser, said of relations with Iran. “Most of our water goes to our neighbors. If we are prosperous, we might give them less.”
Peace or Proxy War?
The death of Mullah Mansour removed Iran’s crucial link to the Taliban. But it has also fractured the Taliban, spurring a number of high-level defections and opening opportunities for others, including Iran, to meddle.
An overwhelming majority of Taliban blame Pakistan for Mullah Mansour’s death. The strike deepened disillusionment with their longtime Pakistani sponsors.
About two dozen Taliban commanders, among them senior leaders who had been close to Mullah Mansour, have since left their former bases in Pakistan.
They have moved quietly into southern Afghanistan, settling back in their home villages, under protection of local Afghan security officials who hope to encourage a larger shift by insurgents to reconcile with the government.
Those with family still in Pakistan live under close surveillance and control by Pakistani intelligence, said the former Taliban commander, who recently abandoned the fight and moved his family into Afghanistan to escape reprisals.
He said he had become increasingly disaffected by Pakistan’s highhanded direction of the war. “We all know this is Pakistan’s war, not Afghanistan’s war,” he said. “Pakistan never wanted Afghanistan to be at peace.”
The question now: Does Iran?
Citing the threat from the Islamic State as an excuse, Iran may choose, with Russian help, to deepen a proxy war in Afghanistan that could undermine an already struggling unity government.
Or it could encourage peace, as it did in the first years after 2001, for the sake of stability on at least one of its borders, prospering with Afghanistan.
For now, Iran and Russia have found common cause similar to their partnership in Syria, senior Afghan officials and others warn.
Emboldened by their experience in Syria, they seem to be building on their partnership to hurt America in Afghanistan, cautioned the political analyst Mr. Sharan.
As American forces draw down in Afghanistan, jockeying for influence over the Taliban is only intensifying.
“Pakistan is helping the Taliban straightforwardly,” said Mr. Jehan, the former Afghan intelligence official who is now governor of Farah. “Russia and Iran are indirectly helping the Taliban. We might come to the point that they interfere overtly.
“I think we should not give them this chance,” he added. “Otherwise, Afghanistan will be given up to the open rivalry of these countries.”
The former Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, warned that the country risked being pulled into the larger struggle between Sunni powers from the Persian Gulf and Shiite Iran.
“Afghanistan should keep out the rivalry of the regional powers,” he said. “We are vulnerable.”
Some officials are optimistic that Iran is not an enemy of Afghanistan, but the outlook is mixed.
“There is a good level of understanding,” Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government’s chief executive, said of relations with Iran.
“What we hear is that contacts with the Taliban are to encourage them to pursue peace rather than military activities,” he said.
Mohammad Asif Rahimi, the governor of Herat, warned that if Farah had fallen to the Taliban, the entire western region would have been laid open for the insurgents.
Iran’s meddling has now grown to the extent that it puts the whole country at risk of a Taliban takeover, not just his province, he said.
But it could have been prevented, in the view of Mr. Sharan.
“The fact is that America created this void,” he said. “This vacuum encouraged countries to get involved. The Syria issue gave confidence to Iran and Russia, and now that confidence is playing out in Afghanistan.”
Ruhullah Khapalwak contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
A version of this article appears in print on August 6, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Iran Flexes in Afghanistan As U.S. Presence Wanes.

Friday, January 12, 2018

letter to a bureaucrat

It is ironic that I receive your end-of-year comments on my “performance” at the same time that I received a 25-year service thank-you note from Loyola, with a Seiko watch as present. I thank you and the administration for the 100-dollar Seiko watch (Amazon's price).
You really think that you’ll “improve” my “performance” by letting me teach five days a week at 8:00 and by having “colleagues” attend my courses? You’ve already unfairly increased my load, rejected my promotion, and froze my salary to an associate professor level. Why not treat people with dignity, and tell them we don’t want you with us anymore? Why this stupid game of forcing someone to quit by pushing him to unbearable working conditions? You call that a “plan”? Let’s think of it as a deathtrap.
You must be thinking that people have no dignity, that they could be pushed around and humiliated no matter what their core beliefs are.
My core beliefs have been clearly stated since I joined Loyola 25 years ago in every page that I’ve written for my students and to the outside world, and in every photograph that I did. I received my tenure in 1998 based on those principles.
I wonder whether Loyola has core beliefs that it is defending. If a university respects itself it will not appoint a professor on tenure when he is unable to teach, write, and publish. Moreover, the university only insults itself when it tells that same professor, a couple of years before retirement, that you cannot teach, write, and publish, and your colleagues will teach you. A university must be clueless when it tells a professor right before retirement that we’ll teach you how to teach, and that your students will tell you how to teach, and whether you teach well. Have you thought of grade inflation before you get me into one of your sinister “plans”? Maybe this professor has become the objet petit a of the university, or its dark consciousness. You’ll have to convince a judge in a court of law that, mutatis mutandis, you’ve kept a professor for 25 years in service “in spite” of poor performance. Or maybe because of it? Maybe the judge will tell you that it must be the university’s performance that has been going downhill! The Wall Street Journal had us ranked at 194 in 2017. We’ve always been low, but not that low!
The department must have a copy of every syllabus I taught since 1992. Read them and let me know if my teaching has degraded. Samples of those syllabi are posted on my private website and are available for the world at large. I do not usually receive from readers comments on “incompetence,” but more of the kind, I’m surprised you can do all this in a university like that!
If I cannot “do all this” anymore it’s because the working conditions at Loyola have degraded, at least since 2013. It has become difficult to even get the minimum required enrollment of 12 for most of those syllabi. Out of the five yearly courses, four are core, and the core is not a core anymore—more like a Persian bazaar with a hodgepodge of incompatible courses. Even a bazaar has more coherence, personality, and decency than anything we call core at Loyola. We’ve never had the luxury conditions of our friends in Hyde Park, but at least the room was open for experimentation. We’re now into a sinister machinery called the Core—with a capital C! I’m sure Loyola is making more pennies, and the WSJ will have us lower in 2018!
I find it wicked that you’re trying to “improve” my performance by assigning me five times a week at 8:00—when I expressly told you and David that I cannot teach that early, because never in 25 years did I teach that early, and because I work late at night and suffer from certain health conditions, which is not unusual at my age.
With the Syrian wars, I am under lots of pressure. I want to produce a book that matches the gravity of the conflict. Thank you for worrying about my Regenstein hours, but I need something more than your prayers: a good night sleep, the ability to work and concentrate, and days where I stay at home to write.
Rather than give me lessons of “ethics,” I want you to question your ethical line, assuming you have one: Are the 8:00am assignments really there to “improve” my teaching, or are they an overt attempt to make my working conditions unbearable? Is there any consciousness left in you?

So let’s come to business, which is what Loyola likes doing most, albeit clumsily.
I cannot accept any 8:00am assignments. You can do whatever you want with the two h104 sections, but I won’t be able to teach them myself. Let’s not waste time on this. Unless I’m brought back to the fall MWF 2017 schedule, I will only attend the course on the modern middle east in fall 2018.
I only accept my students to attend my courses, and will not approve anyone else attending, certainly not Stasi "agents" planted by the department to write dubious spying "reports." Let them work on improving their own courses. My syllabi are public on my personal website, and anyone can comment. Syllabi are too important to be disparaged by the macabre reclusiveness of academics.

My conditions are final and nonnegotiable. You can do whatever you want with me—that’s the sinister aspect of clueless bureaucracies—but you won’t be able to harm my dignity.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

sharīʿa scripts

Brink Messick’s long-awaited Sharīʿa Scripts is finally out at Columbia University Press:

Multi-century approaches of the sharīʿa have regrettably transformed law into a banal history of ideas without much connection to practice. Messick’s Sharīʿa Scripts takes the sharīʿa right from the economy of the local, that of central Yemen, and places research at a micro level. Historical anthropology makes possible the tracing of genealogical lines of power relations, and the depiction of narratives and discourses in relation to local practices. This book, which takes the logic of texts and their practices to new heights, stands out as a masterful contribution to sharīʿa studies worldwide.

Brink Messick’s book-manuscript on sharia discourses in modern Yemen comes as a welcome change to a literature predominated by studies of long durations of “Islamic law” and the sharia. Messick’s main contention that the sharia is only meaningful as a “local enterprise” (212) in the space and time of a particular territory and political economy is a major endeavor to understand the sharia in all its concreteness as a discursive reality within a régime of truth. Thanks to Columbia University Press for publishing the manuscript in its integrity, without major cuts or changes. This is a much needed book that will open sharia studies to new horizons, and would serve as reference for scholars and students. Even though Messick’s preoccupation centers on “legal” practices and discourses, the book could nevertheless serve as a template for an understanding of Islamicate societies in terms of micro-discursive genealogies of power and régimes of truth.

For years I have been using Messick’s Calligraphic State in my seminars as a must-read reference to understand how sharia texts in all their diversity are constructed in a space and time of competing discourses—Bakhtin’s chronotope model of a space-time configuration of competing pretenders. Messick’s present book provides an even more refined optic for reading texts as x-rays of the power-relations in the archival layers of historical formations to which they belong. This new optic of reading texts in their space and time dimensions demands refined micro-hermeneutical techniques for the power relations to come fully to light, as neither space nor time as categories of knowledge are privileged, since they are utterly interdependent.

Most studies of Islamic law take as their point of departure the postulate that the sharia binds together fifteen centuries of rules and regulations for the societies that are governed under such precepts. In this multi-century approach what is favored, besides the overall coherence of the enterprise of the fiqh (the interpretations of the sharia, which are distributed into a multitude of madhāhib, or law schools), is discourse over practice, or theory over the contingencies of the terrains that are governed by sharia law. Such approaches, which predominate the research in Arab and Islamicate societies and in the West as well, leave us with all kinds of problems and unsolved issues. First of all, they assume that our understanding of sharia law is limited to (or predominated by) the doctrinal level, that is, the discourses that are generated in the libraries of the fiqh manuals across centuries, which in their totality have a level of coherence that cannot be achieved in practice. Second of all, the archival material, whenever available (in particular for the Ottoman centuries), is supposed to be an application of the grand theory as generated by the various madhāhib. There is thus undeniably a “precedence” of the doctrinal over the archival, in the same way that there is a “precedence” of the written text over the oral, or what is said over the seen.

Brink Messick’s book on Yemen in its pre-Republican period comes as a much needed enterprise that challenges the precedence of the doctrinal over the archival, or the library of the fiqh over the archive, or the universal concept over the regional. This is a rare and sophisticated endeavor which points at how much work and patience are needed once we move from the macro to the micro-historical in all its textual complexities (322). Messick has already outlined his method in his Calligraphic State, published in 1993, and if the present manuscript on sharia scripts in Yemen took so much time to materialize it is because micro analysis is more demanding in its execution than anything that the multi-century approach would dare to accomplish.

To begin with, Messick operates within a broad division that places the fiqh manuals in a “library” framework, which stands on its own in the face of the various “archival” materials. The latter are comprised for the most part of the texts produced by the sharia courts and what the parties in conflict or in a notarial act keep in private in the sanctity of their own homes as evidence that a transaction has been accomplished. Such documents therefore “register” the contractual act that the parties must attend to.

However, Messick is not satisfied with such broad division of “library” and “archive” on its own. Following Mikhail Bakhtin he conceptualizes three levels of textual practices (or discursive practices). There is one that is “primary” and which consists of all those document-texts that are kept in the “privacy” of their holders, followed by the “secondary” material of the sharia courts and other “public” instances, and, finally, the “tertiary” level (sphere) of the fiqh manuals in their various genres (tafsīr, shurūṭ, and fatāwa). Those various levels are obviously not separate, they are mutually interdependent, and rely on each other’s existence for their overall organization. Thus, the “library” is the “tertiary” sphere following Bakhtin’s classification, while the “archive” is formed by the “primary” and “secondary” texts, or the “private” and “public,” following a modern civil-law classification. There is no “primacy,” however, of one level over the other. Thus, if the fiqh happens to be the “tertiary” textual discursive level (312), the implication here is that it does not necessarily feeds itself on the practices of the courts, nor are the courts obligated to use the “upper” doctrinal corpus as their framework of reference; what they in fact do in most instances is allude to the doctrinal works rather than cite them directly, even though this possibility is, of course, not to be excluded. For example, when it comes to the practice of writing fatwas, which is commonly assumed to be the most “practical” aspect of sharia law, “there is no such direct connection between local fatwā-giving and court processes” (159). Yet, the fatwas are somehow “needed,” a need that remains elusive at best, particularly in pre-Republican imamic Yemen where the presence of an interpreting imam roots the fatwa in a régime of truth—and provides it with a much needed legitimacy—though of a much higher symbolic authority than that of the mufti in Sunni Islam.

Because in the interplay between writing and the oral and aural, there is no primacy or formal hierarchy (hence an absence of logocentrism which would have pleased Jacques Derrida), “documentary evidence does not stand by itself” (134). Presenting a document as evidence is a complex program of “inscribed writing” (144), which goes through the various stages of dictation (imlāʾ), witnessing, oral reading, prior to creating an authoritative form of oral and aural transmission (130). For instance, dictation involves on its own, first, a retention of the dictated text in memory, and, second, the inscription of a transformed version in writing, both of which constitute a form of “knowledge.” What is therefore at stake in oral reading and dictation is memory, the material trace, and expression (133). I look at the latter as various topoi of practice, which bypass the rigidity of formal hierarchies, and which make the analysis of discourse possible. The traditional macro studies of the fiqh corpuses, which tend to bracket practice (which by definition operates at a micro level in relation to a territory and political economy), are unable to analyze the fiqh texts as discourses—the latter would eo ipso assume their operation only in relation to certain practices.

We thus have a multitude of juxtaposed texts and archival formats operating at different discursive levels with no primacy as such, which makes Bakhtin’s classification of primary, secondary, and tertiary, which in this instance translates as notarial documents, courts processes, and fiqh doctrinal corpus, a bit problematic, even though it serves at delineating discursive series that could be viewed as autonomous in their own right. What in effect Messick is attempting is a direct immersion in practice, without the need to make false delineations like theory versus practice, or the doctrinal versus the court practices. For example, when in Chapter 10 contracts are examined, the question of contact-law versus contract is not portrayed as operating within a formal hierarchy, say, that a contract drafted in court must obey clauses of contract-law. The reason for this absence of a formal hierarchy is that once we establish practice—hence discursive practices—as our main entry into the system, the traditional hierarchies, which generations of scholars have been operating with, receive a new meaning, if at all. We may also not need them at all. For example, when it comes to contracts and the laws derived from the fiqh, Messick avoids the rigid dualism and operates instead in terms of composition, modeling, and models (340). Practice here means “understanding the textual properties” (299) of a text which could be a document emanating from a sharia court, a Zaydī fiqh manual, or an official bureaucratic document. Moreover, this approach has to account for evidential texts that could be written or spoken. What is crucial here, when it comes to the written and spoken, is, again, there is no primacy of one over the other. The same could be said about the spoken and the seen: the say is not to see, parler n’est pas voir, as Foucault would say, following Maurice Blanchot.

By taking practices and their discourses as his entry point, Messick is able to extract from the various discursive layers under analysis themes (or topoi) that may not have been apparent at face value. Of particular importance in this regard is the theme of custom (understood as ʿāda or ʿurf), which traditionally receives the treatment of an “outside” to written law, that is to say, how much of the latter has been “affected” by, or acknowledged as, custom or customary law? What kind of margin does written law tolerate within its corpus as far as custom is concerned? Messick’s approach in contrast looks at the place of custom “not outside, but inside such textual formation” (240), which implies an attentiveness to the “internal duration to the act” of drafting documents. To elaborate, in the grand division between the abstract non-historical “model” texts which serve as ready-made templates, on the one hand, and the historical documents which have been drafted by notaries, judges and their scribes on the other, it is indeed custom that plays on that internal duration to the act of writing (which in turn is an outcome of the oral and aural); hence it is custom that configures the historicity of a document (361).

The immersion into practice is demanding, first of all because it operates primarily and makes sense at a micro-level, and second, because a genealogy of texts is necessary. In other words, unlike the multi-century-macro approach which is historicist, in the sense that it is a general history of ideas that sees each text the product of its own period (even though the roots to this period in relation to practice remains by and large unexplored), genealogy in contrast goes further than that, as it looks at texts as operating in clusters. In the case of the Zaydī fiqh, for example, the late fourteenth-century Book of Flowers was still operative in the pre-Republican period, thanks in part to the interpretations and commentaries in the 1930s and 1940s, of what became The Gilded Crown, with the nineteenth-century interlude of the predominantly critical work of the “Sunni” Shawkānī in between the original matn text (which represented the condensation of the views of the five early imams) and the subsequent tafsīr and sharḥ.

What is crucial here is the awareness that a twentieth-century work like The Gilded Crown is itself a work of previous centuries—a product of archeological layers under different historical formations. The other side of genealogy is an attention to the author–writer paradigm, which Messick borrows from Foucault.

14–15: Where library discourse embodied a set of culturally and historically specific “author-functions,” archival discourse, in contrast, comprised distinct writer-functions. I adopt the plural both for Foucault’s well-known term and for my proposed archival counterpart to account for the distinct genres that existed within both the library and the archive. Following Foucault, both conceptions should be understood as defining functions that provide a basis for what he termed “a typology of discourse.” In this discursive sense, but in different genres, it was possible for the same individual to be both an author and a writer.

I want to question the author-function which is attributed to the library discourse (the fiqh doctrinal manuals). The assumption here is that both library and archive are practices and discourses (or discursive practices): should we then limit the archive to a writer-function, while the library is endowed with the “privilege” of the author?

There are all kinds of writing roles in those texts, the library and archival material: that of author, writer, editor, narrator, signatory, but they are not all present in one text. For example, a contract has a guarantor, but not an author; a letter has a signatory, but not necessarily an author. But a letter drafted by a Zaydī imam has an author, because it could be inscribed within a broader corpus, hence could be disseminated and quoted on the basis of its authorship, due to the status that this particular imam enjoys within the community of scholars. The idea here is that for a text to have an author it must be inscribed within a broader corpus, say, the œuvre of a particular author as the totality of his works. A court verdict signed and sealed by a judge has a writer but does not have an author on the basis that the judge cannot attach his text to a broader “work” of his own making. In Islamic courts verdicts do not serve as precedent as they do in common law, hence a decision by a judge remains localized without authorship. Doctrinal texts in contrast have that authorial quality, because each work is attributed to an author who is more than the writer of the text. Moreover, besides being attached to an author, say, a Zaydī imam, a fiqh manual is part of a larger ensemble of texts belonging to tradition. Messick is right when he traces the genealogy of the “texts that matter” in pre-Republican Yemen to their fourteenth- and nineteenth-century roots: it is such genealogy that makes both discourse and authorship possible. What is probably unique about this kind of authorship where the “school” (madhhab) is predominant is the system of cross-referencing among the “authorities” of the madhhab which spans across many centuries. In the scientific and literary European genealogies analyzed by Foucault, the discovery of common discursive layers is much harder, due primarily to an absence of direct cross-referencing.

I find a limit to this argument, in particular when it comes to the “library” of doctrinal texts. Not that there is anything wrong with attaching authors to such texts, but I question whether the fiqh manuals are intended to be referred to specific authors in the first place. Let us recall the tripartite division which is borrowed from Bakhtin, where “primary” and “secondary” coincide with the archival materials used by individuals and courts alike. Besides that such “archival” material is timely, it operates only by attaching names, signatures, and seals to a document. Moreover, the concerned parties and their witnesses are the names that matter, not the writer of the document. The library texts—the tertiary level—share an a-temporality which dissociates the text from its nominal writer-author.

15: Such usage separates a named author or writer from a discursive function, historical agency from textual form. For library texts, this is to distinguish attributions to (and also in-text citations of) specific authors from the patterned avoidance of the proper name. By the same token, the possibility of dating a book or an opinion is distinct from the a-temporal nature of its textual discourse. Among archival texts, in contrast, we enter a realm defined by identified handwriting and the signed name of the court or notarial writer and, in certain periods, a personal seal. Yet the discourse of the proper name that was characteristic of an archival text pertained not to such third-party secretaries or notaries, who in fact wrote and signed, but rather to the principal parties, the individuals who entered litigation or a contractual undertaking but who (usually) did not sign the resulting documentation.

What I find of value in this claim is the “separation” between author and discourse for the library doctrinal texts, but we need to find out why this is the case. The other matter of contention is whether between library and archive there is another “separation” regarding the proper name attached to the text.

Messick follows a close reading of Foucault on the notion of the author, but he misses a distinction that could be useful between statement (énoncé) and sentence (phrase). A text is obviously composed of sentences which refer explicitly or implicitly to a grammatical “I,” even if the text is drafted in a third-person mode. This “I” which stands on behalf of the writer, and could as well refer to an author, is what brings the text together. When a series of texts are juxtaposed together as belonging to a school of thought or way of thinking it is by virtue of their homogeneous nature. Because anyone can attach the grammatical “I” to a sentence, the claimed authorship is an external variable.

Foucault’s main contention is that statements are different in this regard. First of all, statements are rare because they straddle between several heterogeneous discursive layers. Statements make discourse possible precisely because they are based on intrinsic variables. If the phrase derives from a subject of enunciation (sujet d’énonciation), the subject that pronounces it, the statement by contrast does not derive from its subject: it is indeed the place of the subject that derives from the statement (le sujet de l’énoncé). The place of the subject is in turn an anonymous “we” (le “on” anonyme). In sum, we need to distinguish between a subject of enunciation for sentences and phrases, and a subject of the statement, which tends to be anonymous.

Which brings us back to the doctrinal fiqh manuals. There is a common perception that the fiqh manuals are only nominally authored, since they represent “compilations” (tajmīʿ) of well-known opinions from previous generations of scholars. Each generation compiles and re-arranges according to the relevant criteria of the period: one has to be faithful to the tradition of the madhhab, but at the same time one has to adapt to new situations, as new problems arise which would trigger the hermeneutical circle. The author-faqīh becomes therefore a “compiler” who re-interprets and re-organizes the old texts, which become “his” own, as well as belonging to the madhhab, based on the criteria needed for his period. The notion of “compilation” is at times looked upon condescendingly, as if it is uncreative, lacks authorship, leading to an infernal repetition of the same, hence to a disconnect with the social and economic reality of the time. This is particularly true, we are told, of the Ottoman period, as researchers typically shun the doctrinal manuals in favor of the more “real” sharia courts and other bureaucratic documents.

Messick’s book is a direct response to such condescending views: all discursive levels have realities of their own, and those realities overlap and share languages and grammars, albeit they play different roles. However, in light of the above proposals, we can reframe our take on the various discursive levels a bit differently. Compilations do not in their essence refer to an author or a subject of enunciation (sujet d’énonciation), but to a position of the subject (sujet de l’énoncé). They are therefore, together with the primary and secondary levels, embedded into an archive within a particular historical formation. The latter is inscribed within a diagram of power-relations which produces the institutional apparatuses of knowledge. Strictly speaking, therefore, I would argue that the primary, secondary, and tertiary discursive levels, in their institutionalized organization between library and archive, are all “archival,” whereby the “archive” is inscribed with stratified historical formations. They are all discursive practices with nominal authors and a collective “we” as reference.

Which brings me to my last point, regarding the presence (or lack) of a third-party adjudication in the Zaydī system and in the fiqh at large. By this I mean the presence of a universal process that would accommodate any person as member of the community (or “nation”) irrespective of religion, rank, and status. When the delivery of truth by any member of the community is accepted for what it is, seeing becomes of primordial importance in the process of verification and validation of witnessing. That’s the kind of transition that Yemen went through—a process that is by far from over—when the Zaydī imamate, as a polity, was over in 1962 and the country became a civil-law republic. In a civil-law political economy, where the reference to imamic traditions is not anymore the norm, labor becomes finite, as its reference is a competitive market economy where the traditional notions of equity and fairness are not normative, at least not predominantly so. The modes of truth that produce knowledge are based on a process of verification where the market economy serves a reference.

Even though Messick’s book is mostly devoted to pre-Republican Yemen, it nonetheless prepares us well for the transition that Yemen has been going through since the Zaydī imamate was lost. To wit, a hidden key notion in Messick’s analysis is the concept of governmentality, or gouvernementalité, understood as the “mindset” (mentalité) of “government”—not government in the strict Anglo–American sense of the term, but as the management of relations of truth and verification, and the power relations that they generate in the space of a political economy. Under the Zaydī imamate, and in contrast to the land tenure systems of the Ottomans, land was mostly private (milk), and the document of sale-purchase, known as baṣīra, was predominant (345). The wager here is to follow up such contracts under civil law when the régimes of truth and governmentality are altered. Maybe this could be the topic for another book which is already implied in this one.

Zouhair Ghazzal
Professor of history and social sciences
Loyola University, Chicago