The South Asia Channel

The Emperor’s New Clothes: Afghan Candidates Reshape Their Identities

Ever the theater of war, the show goes on in Kabul as candidates vie for the presidency. While their messages remain the same, the candidates' sudden costume change is a troubling indication of a future squarely stuck in repeating the past.

Dr. Ashraf Ghani, the leading contender, was lauded for his recent conversion from a suit and tie to a traditional tunic and pants (piran tumban). A Radio Free Europe article titled, "Ghani Hopes Makeover Leads to Afghan Election Victory," discussed the wardrobe change as a means to soften his image and increase his local appeal.  The point was to figuratively airbrush him as an ethnic Pashtun Afghan rather than a Western technocrat. Dr. Ghani has lived in the West for most of his life. With a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and an impressive professional record, Dr. Ghani's credentials as an influential thinker - and a ray of hope for Afghanistan - speak for themselves.

Dr. Ghani's public image improvements parallel those of President Hamid Karzai's years in office. Rewind to 2002. Karzai stepped out in dazzling hues and textures to represent Afghanistan's ethnic diversity. The lambskin karakul hat became synonymous with his image as the international media roared with applause. Glenn O'Brien, GQ's Style Guy, noted that it was "much more Brad Pitt than the Taliban." But more than anything, it was an ostentatious makeover to lend credibility to his platform as an Afghan leader. The patchwork accoutrements were intended to mollify ethnic tensions from the Mujahideen era, and to convey that he was a man of the people. But which people? To the communities in Afghanistan and abroad, the image was far less indigenous. It reflected the artificial designs of the West to downplay Karzai's international associations and use his ethnic and family heritage to curry favor among all Afghans. Karzai, the puppet, would dazzle the war-weary Afghans into believing in him - and more importantly, voting for him. But despite the Uzbek chapan draped over his shoulders, the strings were still conspicuous. It set the tone and the stage for the ever-unfolding drama between the West and Afghanistan.

The Great Game has transformed perversely into child's play. Much of the diplomacy that transpires between Afghanistan's leadership and the international community is analogous to a grown-up political performance of the children's game of "house."  The reality in Afghanistan has been predicated on the role of Karzai as a traditional Pashtun leader and the international community as patient mentors of a precarious state.  The paternalism of the international community and Afghanistan's inability to stand on its own two feet are mutually reinforcing. But they are not helped by the perception that Afghan leaders are Western puppets.

Candidates who choose to heighten the traditional, tribal, and/or ethnic dimensions of their identity risk appearing disingenuous and opportunistic- traits for which Afghan leaders have been faulted over the past decade. The Radio Free Europe article observed that Dr. Ghani "now appears to have embraced Afghanistan's traditional ethnicity-based political system, built on patronage networks and tribal loyalty." Identity politics in Afghanistan is a delicate matter, but where can an ordinary Afghan voter draw the line between a chapan-clad leader and a wolf in sheep's clothing?

Not only are the candidates' political makeovers surprising, but so is the international community's unequivocal acceptance of such conduct. Would it be acceptable to Americans if a presidential candidate donned a pair of overalls and a pitchfork and talked about his affinity for the common American man? Would Americans not readily reproach such a superficial, essentialist attempt at building rapport with the public?

Unsurprisingly, in 2010, the New York Times reported that the karakul hat - and therefore Karzai - was quickly losing resonance among local Afghans.  The trendy overtures to "tradition" were not only inconsistent with Afghan perceptions of identity, but also with Afghanistan's political history.  Prior to the civil war of the 1990s, none of Afghanistan's leaders had worn traditional dress to office. Afghanistan's national leaders wore suits or military uniforms as a function of holding rank and office; their piran tumban reserved, like many Afghans, for home and holidays.  For Afghanistan's political leaders to assume that political authority can be legitimated by dressing the part and proclaiming new-found allegiance to archaic traditions ironically renders them out of touch with societal norms. Worse still, it presupposes a degree of naiveté and ignorance on behalf of their constituents. With the elections breaking upon the horizon, it is a risky approach by any candidate.

Morwari Zafar currently pursuing her PhD in anthropology from the University of Oxford.