After 7 years worth of field research and work in Central Asia, I’ve decided that this NGO in southern Tajikistan has by far the most efficient, beneficial and useful programmes: The SWORDE-Teppa English & Education Centre.


The school was profiled recently in The Guardian, and they only mentioned about half of the reasons why this place is so great.

I have met many kids in southern Tajikistan who are suffering. Since my first visit in 2009 there have been so many times where I meet local teens and children who smile broadly and who are so happy to meet you. They are kind and generous with what little they and their families have. But when you get to know them, you realise the scale of their problems in what is the poorest region of the poorest former Soviet state. There was a civil war here that nobody knows about. Little of the Soviet social support system still operates. So many of the young men here are depressed. Most of them express a complete sense of hopelessness. Young children have the worst health in the former Soviet Union. The young women have so few opportunities. My old friends from this area are mostly in Russia, struggling on some construction site or in a kitchen of a restaurant.

The SWORDE-Teppa library:

So much need to be done here to help these kids (especially with regards to education). But I keep seeing hugely expensive “humanitarian aid” and “poverty reduction” programmes in Tajikistan that just funnel money to foreign experts or into wasteful bureaucracy. In 2014 I sat in on a Skype call with an NGO in a rich western capital city demanding at least $1,000,000 of a local project in Tajikistan go to their home headquarters. If I could have given it all to SWORDE-Teppa, I would have.

A Fun Day for the youngest kids:


This non-profit education centre has done so much for the local youth. I see kids learning English and then earning foreign scholarships based on that skill, I see regular sports programmes keeping the kids active, I see health and ecology programmes improving their lives. But SWORDE-Teppa never seems to be eligible for larger grants or funding schemes. So now the school and its programmes are now suffering. They do so much with so little here. I see the director Paul Marchant regularly. He lives on cheap instant noodles and black tea. He has no salary. He hasn’t visited home in 8 years (plane tickets are expensive). His tiny per diem goes towards food for himself and doggie snacks for the 6 dogs.

A student sketches in the Ecology Lab:

Staying open here is a struggle, and it’s not just the money. But at the moment, money is what is needed. So if you can, please donate:

They do so much with so little here at SWORDE-Teppa.

If you missed it, you can find the school profiled in The Guardian.

My new co-authored report was recently published. You can download a copy here:

‘Between Co-operation and Insulation: Afghanistan’s Relations with the Central Asian Republics,’ Report co-authored with Reza Kazemi. The Afghanistan Analysts Network (June 2014). Download PDF.

The report covers drug trafficking, border security, economic relations, diplomatic ties, cultural connections, and the danger (or lack thereof) presented by Islamist/insurgent groups. All 5 former Soviet Republics in Central Asia are covered: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The role of Russia and the United States in the region is also analyzed.

Photo by author: The river border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.



Posted by: Christian | October 8, 2013

Publication of my book on Tajikistan (finally)

The book on Tajikistan that I co-authored with Kirill Nourzhanov has been published. Please do not buy a copy, rather you should download a free PDF, Kindle or other ebook version at this link (bottom of page).

Direct download links here: PDF (5.5MB), ePub (5.4MB), MOBI (3.3MB).

Here’s a description from the book publisher:

This book is a historical study of the Tajiks in Central Asia from the ancient times to the post-Soviet period. For millennia, these descendants of the original Aryan settlers were part of many different empires set up by Greek, Arab, Turkic and Russian invaders, as well as their own, most notably during the Middle Ages. The emergence of the modern state of Tajikistan began after 1917 under Soviet rule, and culminated in the promulgation of independence from the moribund USSR in 1991. In the subsequent civil war that raged between 1992 and 1997, Tajikistan came close to becoming a failed state. The legacy of that internal conflict remains critical to understanding politics in Tajikistan a generation later.

Exploring the patterns of ethnic identity and the exigencies of state formation, the book argues that despite a strong sense of belonging underpinned by shared history, mythology and cultural traits, the Tajiks have not succeeded in forming a consolidated nation. The politics of the Russian colonial administration, the national-territorial delimitation under Stalin, and the Soviet strategy of socio-economic modernisation contributed to the preservation and reification of sub-ethnic cleavages and regional identities. The book demonstrates the impact of region-based elite clans on Tajikistan’s political trajectory in the twilight years of the Soviet era, and identifies objective and subjective factors that led to the civil war. It concludes with a survey of the process of national reconciliation after 1997, and the formal and informal political actors, including Islamist groups, who compete for influence in Tajik society.

Posted by: Christian | January 17, 2013

Research and Publications Update

The blog has slowed down to a dead stop. Blogging about the issues that most interest me is inadvisable for a number of reasons while I live here in Central Asia.

Moving along…My research for most of this last year (and the second half of 2011) has been on the connections between Afghanistan and the countries of post-Soviet Central Asia (security mostly). Apparently that was not the best choice for a postdoctoral career trajectory. None of my postdoctoral fellowship applications were successful so I have been cast out of academia to wander Central Asia. I am currently unemployed in Tajikistan, which is actually OK since the locals understand the plight of the unemployed quite well.

So, in lieu of an informative blog post I will provide an update on my publications. First of all, my book on Tajikistan should be out early this year. It’s co-authored with someone smarter than me and it should help to fill a few holes in the scholarship on Tajikistan. Unless the title gets vetoed, it will be published as “Tajikistan: A Social and Political History.” We are not fans of clever titles.

Next up is a journal publication:

‘Muslim Soldiers in Non-Muslim Militaries at War in Muslim Lands: The Soviet, American and Indian Experience,’ Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 32, No. 4 (2012).

If you have an institutional subscription, you can get a copy here. If not, send me an email and I will reply with a PDF of the article.

If and when I return to wherever it is that is home, expect the blogging and critical commentary to resume.

Here’s a picture of some Tajik snow (and my future home if I don’t find work soon):


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Posted by: Christian | May 21, 2012

Tajikistan Scholars

For the last year there has been a “Tajikistan Scholars” group that has been meeting regularly in Dushanbe. I’ve been to the last couple of meetings, which are great little informal affairs where ideas are discussed and connections are made, etc… If you are a grad student, PhD candidate or professor, you may find membership useful. There is now a private wiki for members. Here’s some information:

The Tajikistan Scholars Wiki is a space for scholars and researchers of Tajikistan, both within and outside of the country, to come together and share ideas on research, resources, events and other noteworthy items in order to create a community of people interested in the country. Generally, members are at the Master’s, PhD, postdoc and professor level.

This private wiki, besides being a forum to connect researchers online, is also used to bring together researchers in-country. As such, there have been meetings arranged in Dushanbe and there are plans to continue doing so in the future. Previous meeting were a success and proved an excellent forum for members to exchange research ideas and offer each other advice.

If you are a grad student or professor who does research on Tajikistan you may find membership quite useful. Information on joining can be found here.

Posted by: Christian | May 16, 2012

Tajikistan Research Bibliography

My long-term goal of being unemployed and living in Tajikistan has finally come to fruition. This gives me plenty of time to research whatever I please, and to finish up old projects. One of those projects is a Tajikistan bibliography. Here it is, free for all as per usual:

Tajikistan Research Bibliography 2012 (PDF)

In other news, I haven’t been blogging very much. This pattern will continue as long as I am in Tajikistan. Please accept this photo of a tree on the shores of Iskandarkul as compensation:

A short paper I’ve written about Tajikistan has been published:

“Instability in Tajikistan? The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Afghanistan Factor,” OSCE Academy – GCSP International Security Programme Central Asia Security Policy Briefs #7. Download PDF.

Earlier papers in this series can be found here.

Posted by: Christian | February 6, 2012

New Afghanistan Conflict Bibliography

I have compiled a new Afghanistan bibliography. It is, however, not a comprehensive bibliography like the usual one that I publish. This bibliography can best be described as a shortened version that is focused on politics, power, conflict and violence:

The Afghanistan Analyst Conflict Bibliography (February 2012). Download PDF.

The relevant sections of the bibliography have been updated since the last regular version was released. There is a full description in the introduction to the bibliography.

Posted by: Christian | January 11, 2012

Soviet Lessons for America in Afghanistan

Artemy M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal From Afghanistan (Harvard University Press, 2011)

Artemy Kalinovsky has worked his LSE dissertation on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan into a book that is both very readable and a valuable scholarly contribution to the literature on Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and International Relations. The book’s focus – the decision-making process behind the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan – is obviously relevant to the contemporary situation in Afghanistan as the American leadership decides how to attempt to manage its exit. Kalinovsky’s research question is stated clearly:

“Why did it take the Soviet Union so long to bring its troops home? After all, shortly after the invasion Soviet leaders realized that the intervention was becoming a quagmire, with serious costs for their relationship with the rest of the world.”

Kalinovsky helpfully, and honestly, describes the limited scope of his book at the very beginning. He states that A Long Goodbye is “first and foremost a study of Soviet decision making.” So if you are looking for a book on the mujahideen, the effect of the war on Afghan society, Soviet counter-insurgency, or on American and Pakistani military and covert involvement, then you will need to look elsewhere. These subjects are of course discussed, but not with the level of detail as is dedicated to the analysis on Soviet decision making.

Moving back to the book’s thesis, Kalinovsky writes that

“The single most important reason that Soviet leaders delayed the decision to withdraw for as long as they did is that they continued to believe the USSR could help stabilize Afghanistan, build up the Afghan armed forces, and make the Kabul government more acceptable to the people. This is hardly the only reason, however. Soviet leaders found it difficult to disengage from the Afghan conflict because they feared undermining Moscow’s status as a defender of Third World countries against encroaching neo-colonialism.”

Making comparisons to America’s present engagement with Afghanistan is far too easy, with just some alteration of the last sentence to replace “Third World” and “neo-colonialism” with the administration’s favored terms – perhaps “democratic” and “terrorism,” respectively.

The bulk of the analysis focuses on Gorbachev’s attempts during the latter part of the 1980s to secure an agreement on the terms of withdrawal from the United States and Pakistan. Of course, America was playing hardball with a force they knew was going to withdraw anyways, and Pakistan was Pakistan (e.g., “Pakistan refused to admit that it was responsible for any interference.”). Eventually Gorbachev had to settle for an agreement in the framework of the Geneva Accords of April 1988 wherein he did not get the hoped-for concession from America to stop supplying the mujahideen and acquiesce to an Afghan government run by the current President Najibullah. Pakistan did agree to stop delivering weaponry to the mujahideen, but it soon became clear that the Accords were just a piece of paper to the relevant forces inside Pakistan. Islamabad of course did not stop the “flow of arms.” For Gorbachev, “the blatant violation of the accords by Pakistan was an embarrassment, since it revealed that the accords were really little more than a fig leaf.”

And what of America’s future fig leaf? What is remarkable about the current situation is the inability of the US to find anyone to negotiate with. The Soviets were able to talk to people who they knew were in charge, whether it be Pakistani leaders, American diplomats, CIA officers or envoys, or even forces on the ground such as Ahmed Shah Massoud. The US has no such luxury today and instead scrambles for contacts with mid-level envoys of the major insurgent groups that may represent only themselves and, in one notorious case, may be an outright fraud (e.g., the “Quetta Shopkeeper”). Also a major difference is that the Soviet Union was able to negotiate with the funders and supporters of the insurgency. The US and Afghanistan have clearly been unable to find negotiating partners. And even if they could, funding for the insurgency comes from so many diverse sources including, as Hillary Clinton testified to the US Senate in December 2009, US Department of Defense contracts. For the United States, there is no guarantor partner that could stop funding from reaching the insurgency.

A further comparative analysis of failures can be extracted from Kalinovsky’s description of the Soviet management of their war in Afghanistan. He notes the failure of the Soviet troop surge of 1985 and of an attempt at “reconciliation” with the insurgents in 1987, failures with parallels to current trends too obvious to merit further mention. More importantly, he asks “How did those who came to dominate decision making on Afghanistan reach their individual conclusions about what policy should be followed in that country?” He finds several factors, including “Unjustifiably positive reporting was a problem in many areas of Soviet bureaucracy, and it almost certainly contributed to Soviet leaders’ misunderstanding of the situation in Afghanistan.” The result was that leaders from 1980 until well into the second half of the decade admitted that there were problems but claimed that progress was being made overall. Furthermore, he finds that interagency rivalry in Soviet organs resulted in opposed proxies in Afghanistan, with groups like the KGB supporting their own proxy in KhAD (the Afghan intelligence agency) even if it was not in the best interests of the USSR. Added to this were the calculations by members of the Soviet Politburo. Potential successors for various positions did not want to admit failure as they would then take the blame in any power struggle.

“Unjustifiably positive reporting?” Sounds familiar. Interagency rivalry and the backing of different proxies? The US has definitely done that by backing various power-brokers who are themselves opposed to the Kabul government or whose works degrades its authority and legitimacy. And while the acknowledgment of failure may not hurt US leaders in any Soviet-style politburo wrangling, Obama surely wants to defer the most obvious failure (i.e., a withdrawal that could well be viewed as an American failure) further into the future with presidential elections in mind.

Despite the parallels between the Soviet and American experience, the Soviet decision-making process was driven by much different factors. The Soviet Union was being pushed by its leadership towards an improved relationship with the West, and the war in Afghanistan was seen as an obstacle to that. For the United States, a withdrawal from Afghanistan does not hold the promise of an immediate improvement in relations with any entity as significant as it was for the Soviets. As Kalinovsky argues, the withdrawal was not just about the state of the war in Afghanistan. It was rather more so about a desire for reaping benefits from engagement with the US (e.g., the all-important nuclear weapons issue). Yet the war that Gorbachev called, in February 1986, a “Bleeding Wound,” would involve Soviet troops for another three years. Of course, as Kalinovsky notes, the belief by Gorbachev that he could both withdraw Soviet troops and salvage the friendly Soviet-supported government in Kabul is what caused him to drag out the final decision to withdraw for so long after coming to office in 1985. The second half of the 1980s saw drawn out attempts to negotiate at two levels: on with the US and Pakistan, and at a lower level with the “National Reconciliation” program closer to the grassroots level in Afghanistan. To a certain extent Gorbachev was successful. Soviet forces withdrew in February 1989 and the Afghan government of President Najibullah lasted until April 1992 – outliving the Soviet Union itself.

Kalinovsky’s book is quite readable. Kalinovsky does not burden the reader with obscure academic jargon or with thinly disguised op-ed style writing. In addition, Kalinovsky’s fluency in Russian and his academic training allows him to get deep into Russian archives, memoirs and secondary sources in a way that few other authors could. As a result we now have a much clearer view of Soviet decision-making and a better insight into the current dilemmas faced in Afghanistan. Kalinovsky’s book should be mandatory reading for students, scholars and practitioners who focus on Afghanistan, Soviet diplomatic/military history, American foreign policy, or even on International Relations in general.

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