Posted by: Christian | March 18, 2008

What’s in a (Warlord’s) Name?

First of all, I think only Chinese historians should use the term “warlord.” It is a grossly misleading term that in no way can convey what various roles the sub-state actors known by the epithetical description “warlord” perform. And trying to describe them as actors who have military power but no political legitimacy leaves open the obvious question: is that de facto or de jure legitimacy? It is used mostly as an insult and/or an attempt to frame a political/military opponent to the outside world. But it has entered the modern lexicon and the popular press nonetheless.

The Chinese variety, creatively rendered:

I’ll leave that discussion for another day. What I want to do is superficially survey “warlord’s” noms de guerre. And I promise no more pretentious uses of Latin or French. I will use Dari, Uzbek and Pashto though.

For the bizarre variety we look to Africa, specifically Liberia. Here you will find “General Butt Naked,” “Bad Boy,” and “General Peanut Butter.” Joshua Milton Blahyi (AKA General Butt Naked) is pictured below, fully clothed. Interestingly he has now become an Evangelical Christian preacher, giving up his self-confessed habit of going into battle totally naked and eating people’s hearts. Which is good since the only thing worse than a cannibal is a naked cannibal.

Moving closer to Afghanistan we find the Austrian-influenced warlord-naming industry in full swing in Tajikistan. One commander by the name of Rahmon Sanginov earned the name…, well the quote below from a local Tajik will provide that information:

“HITLER IS a good man,” said Toshi Rajabov as we drove east out of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. “He is popular here. Everybody likes him.”

According to this article, young Rahmon played Hitler at a school play celebrating the victory over fascism and the name stuck. Hitler survived to be one of the last significant independent commanders of Tajikistan’s civil war before being killed in 2001 by government forces. I believe it had something to do with the kidnapping of German agricultural NGO workers. That’s not a joke.

And on a related Austrian theme, there was another Tajik commander named “Schwarzenegger.” I can’t find the specific reference to him in my files. But I recall from some forgotten book that he wasn’t exactly the biggest player in the Tajikistan civil war.

In Afghanistan there is no such much less creative naming. I’m not saying that Afghans aren’t creative when it comes to naming themselves. It’s just usually something predictable like everybody from powerful faction leaders sticking honorifics on their name to poor laborers sticking “Amir,” “Shah” or “Khan” to their name. It usually has an aspirational quality. For example, Ustad Atta Muhammad Nur:

That’s him scaring the living daylights out of a kid named Zachary at an elementary school in Seattle (again, not a joke. Read the article). What did he used to look like? Click here. Now that would really scare the kid. Anyways, he used to be Atta Mohammad. Then he added Nur/Noor to his name. Nur means “light” and has the connotation of enlightenment. He then stuck on “Ustad” at some point. Ustad means professor and ideally you should have a doctorate to call yourself this. But that hasn’t stopped Atta Mohammad or Ustad Rasul Sayyaf (who has a lowly Master’s degree). Atta Mohammad has skillfully hung on and is now the governor of the northern Balkh province and the guy who sent Abdul Rashid Dostum fleeing back to his home province. Dostum/Dostam, by the way, mean “my friend” in Uzbek/Dari.

Rashid “Heavy-D” Dostum tests out a gift:

Another creative (or rather “flowerful”) name belongs to Gul Agha Sherzai. Like many Afghans, he was born with just one name. It was Shafiq. But when he joined the mujahideen he took the name Gul Agha. And after his father was killed he added Sherzai. Gul = flower; Agha = used to address a male superior; Shirzai = son of a lion.

Who’s the saluting guy beside Sherzai? That’s General Dan McNeill. As Abu Muqawam noted, he has been assigned a nickname by his detractors: “Bomber Mcneill.” Apparently a google search of that name will provide you with some amusement. [Added later: I suppose I could have looked at his name tag and the Marines tag and seen it wasn’t McNeill.Thanks to Google image search for the wrong tag and thanks to Andy for pointing that out.]

This last picture has nothing to do with anything other than being what I consider an acceptable use of the term “warlord.”


  1. The picture of the saluting American is not “bomber” McNeil, but then US Marine BG Mattis. Given his rank and the fact he’s standing at the Kandahar airport in that photo, it likely dates from late 2001 or early 2002.

  2. Andy,

    Thanks for pointing that out. His name tag clearly doesn’t say “McNeill.” I was tricked by Google image search.

  3. You haven’t been around very long, have you?

    Afghanistan had/has some interesting characters:
    – Mullah Rockety (don’t know his exact name, but he apparently liked to rocket things)
    – Khirs (bear) – didn’t like to take a bath or change his clothes.
    – Looch (naked) – used to show up in fire fights naked (and high as a lark).

  4. RE: “You haven’t been around very long, have you?”

    Not long enough to know that Afghanistan had their own naked commander. It must be due to a drawback in my class selection during my undergrad days. I would have taken “AF101: Introduction to Afghan Warlord Onomastics.” However, it conflicted with a freshman sociology seminar on the role of sports in northern South Dakota that I had my heart set on.

    Though of course I know of Mullah Rocketi.

  5. Trivia: That’s Jet Li in the middle (without a hat) in the “Chinese warlords” pic.

  6. Rubin says Massoud, Karmal, and Majrooh are all takhallus, not their birth names. Edwards (I believe) confirms the Majrooh gave himself or was given the name.


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