Conspiracy theories flourish all over the world but in some countries they appear to be more popular than in others. And in Afghanistan, says the BBC’s Auliya Atrafi, they often feature sinister foreign powers – first and foremost, the British…
I grew up with conspiracy theories. Some of them very bizarre.
Bruce Lee was poisoned by his wife, I was told, and when he sensed what she’d done, he tore her apart with his bare hands.
I was also told that he could fly.
And that Hitler was still alive – having escaped the Allies in a Jeep that transformed into a plane then a boat then a submarine, from which he was still sending the occasional message, declaring: “I will be back!”
One theory, however, was particularly persistent – that the hand of the British was behind every evil in Afghanistan.
As a child I wondered why this was, but after I moved to the UK in my 20s, I learned there were some good reasons for the suspicion.
For centuries Afghanistan had been a buffer zone between the Russian and British empires. The two superpowers played out their Great Game of espionage and intrigue in this no man’s land. When the map of modern Afghanistan was drawn, it is said, the Afghan King’s opinion was hardly a consideration. Three Anglo-Afghan wars were fought before Afghanistan announced its independence in 1919 and the British left for good.
Or did they?
In the Afghan psyche, the British were still lurking in the shadows, spying on them, plotting, and still managing to manipulate their affairs for the worse. There were tales of secret agents disguised as imams misleading the pious, others posing as fortune tellers, of treasures hidden in shrines and guarded by men pretending to be beggars.
This national obsession with conspiracy theories is not unique. A Kurdish friend told me that his mother would blame the British if a wall collapsed in their neighbourhood after a rainy night. Iranians had a character in a long-running soap opera, always paranoid that the British were plotting something. If you act too shrewdly in Bangladesh, my friends told me, people will call you English. In Kabul, we have a word for that too: Chucha E englis – malign English blood.
However, since the beginning of the Afghan civil war in the 1980s our list of conspirators has expanded, and now includes Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and of course the Americans.
Repeated foreign interventions only made us more inventive.
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An Afghan taxi driver in London once complained that foreigners wanted to steal our oil and smuggle it out on passenger planes. For others it’s uranium the foreigners are after. A judge in Afghanistan told me that Bin Laden was an American spy and was eventually killed because he knew too much. Others believe he is still alive on an idyllic island somewhere in America.
Afghan generals talk of Nato supporting the Taliban with cash and guns – even claiming that translators who dare to talk of this are thrown from helicopters. There are tales of Nato forces buying drugs from Afghan smugglers and transporting them to the West in the bellies of dead soldiers – apparently a lucrative business for whole range of Western profiteers, including the British royal family.
Last year I went to see a friend. His father is an old khan, a tribal chief from the east. After we drank green tea and exchanged pleasantries, I made the mistake of asking him about the presence of the so-called Islamic State group in their area. The khan recited a long speech, which I’d heard a million times before: “It’s all a game between the ISI, the Americans and the British. And Afghans are paying the price,” he asserted confidently.
Rather puzzled, I asked: “But what will they gain from it all?”
“They plan 50 years ahead, and we are not meant to understand”, he insisted.
“If it was that simple, then they would be stupid. We see signs of it, nonetheless, you know – the new blocs forming between Russia, Pakistan and China.
“Think about it. In one week, the Americans were able to destroy the Taliban government – how is it that they can’t get rid of the few insurgents hiding in the mountains?”
Obviously thinking the argument was won, he looked away towards Mecca and started praying.
There’s always some outsider to blame. Recently, I was finishing my Friday prayers in Kabul with some other reporters when we got a message that a suicide bomber had targeted a Shia mosque.
“Is it the work of IS?” I asked.
“Or perhaps the work of Jews and Christians,” another journalist suggested.
I knew it was futile, but I asked anyway: “What good would that bring them?”
“Two things,” he said, this time sounding more assured. “Such acts would distance the believers from the places of worship… And also divide the Muslims.”
As we walked the badly paved roads inside the green zone, with our trousers rolled up after prayers and our prayer mats tucked under our arms, I was hit by a thought. That for a country so divided by languages, ethnicities and ideologies, there is still one thing that unites all Afghans – distrust of foreigners.