Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

AAN’s most-read dispatches in 2020: Cannabis, Bollywood, Bride Prices… and War

Kate Clark 7 min

2020 was a year when our readers wanted to read about the war and efforts to find peace and Afghanistan’s culture and history. Reports scrutinising the Doha talks and mapping the conflict appeared in our twenty most-read publications last year, along with others looking at Afghanistan’s history, its relationship with Bollywood and practices around getting married and the public naming of women. Meanwhile, readers of AAN’s Dari/Pashto site were reading about war and peace in 2020 as well, but also efforts to win and keep rights and freedoms. AAN’s Kate Clark has been taking a closer look at what AAN readers were most interested in during the year just gone. She also reveals some of our research plans – and sends all good wishes for a happy and peaceful 2021 from the AAN team to readers.

Farming cannabis in Baharak district, Badakshan. Photo: David Gill, 2010

What interested AAN’s English-language readers in 2020?

2020 was a year when, after almost two decades of fighting, the United States and Taleban signed a historic agreement, with the US promising to withdraw its troops and the Taleban to sit down in talks with Kabul. We followed the diplomatic and political twists and turns related to the talks and what was happening back to the war in Afghanistan. More than a third of all our publications in 2020 dealt with war and peace. Seven reports from this category also featured in our 20 most-read reports. They included two in-depth looks at the negotiations and five reports tracking how, after the February agreement, the Afghan conflict morphed and ultimately escalated. We tried to tell this story not just with statistics, but also the stories of people’s lives.

War and Peace is one of eight thematic categories that we use to make sure we cover a broad range of topics in our research. Almost as popular for our readers in 2020 were reports from the Context and Culture category, which include Afghanistan’s history, arts, literature, culture, society and wildlife. Among our most popular reads for 2020 were three dealing with Afghan history – the last Anglo-Afghan war, the ancient Buddhist civilisation, and a look at how Bollywood was treating King Ahmad Shah Durrani. Among our top twenty publications are two others in this category from 2019 looking at cannabis cultivation and use in Afghanistan. They also featured in our most-read reports from 2019. It seems we have reached a new audience, with readers not only from among those interested in Afghanistan but also those wanting to know more about the cultural history of narcotics in general. 

Among our other top reads were a mix of reports on the presidential elections and their aftermath, international engagement – what policy on Afghanistan will soon-to-be US President Biden pursue? – a 2016 report on whether ‘Chechens’ reported to be fighting with the Taleban are actually Chechen, and the taboo on Afghan women being named in public. There was also an introduction to a special report which tried to answer the paradox of why, when vast sums of money have flowed into Afghanistan since 2001, spent by foreign armies and aid, inequality and poverty have worsened and democracy languished. 

Reports in English published and most-read, in 2020, by thematic category.

What’s on the AAN research menu in 2021?

One of the most-read of AAN’s reports from 2020 was a study of what it is like to live under Taleban rule in the Andar district of Ghazni. Two more reports from our ‘Living with the Taleban’ series are due to be published in the coming weeks, one on Nad Ali in Helmand and the other from Dasht-e Archi in Kunduz. We are also due to publish a special report on what rural women in Afghanistan think about peace and war. 

Other planned research includes two related to health: a scrutiny of polio vaccinations in areas of conflict and how well women in rural areas can access healthcare. We also plan to update our 2016 special report on Afghans who are/were held in Guantanamo. We will continue to track violence in Afghanistan, efforts to find peace, the ups, downs and machinations of domestic politics, US engagement and the struggles to defend and, where possible, deepen rights and freedoms. We will surely also write on what can add context, helping to understand everything else –­ the cultural, historical and social. 

A young rubbish collector looks on from a landfill in Herat, the image which illustrated “The Cost of Support to Afghanistan: New special report considers the causes of inequality, poverty and a failing democracy” Photo: Aref Karimi AFP, 2012

The 20 most-read English language reports from AAN in 2020

1. The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (1): A cultural history of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Afghanistan

Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica, 7 January 2019, Culture and Context

2. The Bride Price: The Afghan tradition of paying for wives

Fazl Rahman Muzhary, 25 October 2016, Culture and Context

3. Taleban Opportunism and ANSF Frustration: How the Afghan conflict has changed since the Doha agreement

Andrew Quilty, 12 October 2020, War and Peace

4. The Cost of Support to Afghanistan: New special report considers the causes of inequality, poverty and a failing democracy

Kate Clark, 29 May 2020, Economy, Development and the Environment, 

5. Living with the Taleban (1): Local experiences in Andar district, Ghazni province

Sahil Afghan, 19 October 2020, War and Peace

6. War in Afghanistan in 2020: Just as much violence, but no one wants to talk about it

Kate Clark, 16 August 2020, War and Peace

7. Bollywood’s ‘Great Betrayal’ of Afghanistan: “Panipat” and the cost of vilifying Ahmad Shah Durrani

Fabrizio Foschini, 9 March 2020, Culture and Context

8. The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (2): The cultural history of hashish consumption in Afghanistan

Obaid Ali, Jelena Bjelica and Fabrizio Foschini, 10 January 2019, Culture and Context

9. The Largest Standing Stupa in Afghanistan: A short history of the Buddhist site at Topdara

Jelena Bjelica, 8 January 2020, Culture and Context

10. From Parallel Governments to a New Form of Power-Sharing? Afghanistan’s ongoing post-election crisis

Ali Yawar Adili, 7 May 2020, Political Landscape

11. Looking ahead to Intra-Afghan Negotiations: A scrutiny of different political groups’ plans for peace

Ali Yawar Adili and Khadija Hossaini, 30 April 2020, War and Peace

12. Static War: Helmand after the US Marines’ return

Andrew Quilty, 23 April 2020, War and Peace

13. Chechens in Afghanistan 1: A Battlefield Myth That Will Not Die

Christian Bleuer, 27 June 2016, Regional Relations

14. Two Parties Too Wary for Peace? Central questions for talks with the Taleban in Doha

Christine Roehrs, Ali Yawar Adili and Sayed Asadullah Sadat 11 September 2020, War and Peace

15. Afghan War Crimes Trials in The Netherlands: Who are the suspects and what have been the outcomes?

Ehsan Qaane, 25 March 2020, Rights and Freedoms

16. The Biden Presidency: What choices for Afghan policy remain?

Kate Clark, 12 November 2020, International Engagement

17. Behind the Statistics: Drop in civilian casualties masks increased Taleban violence

Kate Clark, 27 October 2020, War and Peace

18. The 1919 War of Independence (or third Anglo-Afghan War): a conflict the Afghans started (and ended)

Fabrizio Foschini, 21 September 2019, Culture and Context

19. End of the Post-Election Impasse? Ghani and Abdullah’s new power-sharing formula

Ali Yawar Adili, 20 May 2020, Political Landscape

20. What is in a Woman’s name: No name, no public persona 

Rohullah Sorush, 8 March 2019, Rights and Freedoms 

What interested AAN’s Dari and Pashto readers in 2020?

Our readers in Dari and Pashto also wanted to read about the war and efforts to end it, but almost as popular were reports dealing with rights and freedoms: accessing legal aid, whether Afghan women should be named and the sexual harassment of women. Topping the list as it did last year was an important – and rare – look at how Afghanistan’s Uzbeks  are denigrated in western writing. All of the top ten were published before 2020, with several also featuring in the previous two years’ most-read reports – those looking at the portrayal of Afghan Uzbeks, legal aid and sexual harassment: are they finding their way onto university reading lists, maybe? The table below shows a breakdown of the most-read Dari/Pashto reports by thematic category.

Reports in Dari or Pashto published and most-read, in 2020, by thematic category

The ten most-read AAN reports in Dari and Pashto in 2020, with link to the English version of each report

1. From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in western writing

Christian Bleuer, 17 October 2014, Culture and Context

2. Women and Afghan peace talks: ‘Peace Consensus’ gathering left Afghan women without assurance

Thomas Ruttig, 15 April 2019, War and Peace 

3. Afghanistan’s 2019 Elections (2): Who is running to become the next president?

Ali Yawar Adili, 11 February 2019, Political Landscape 

4. What is in a Woman’s name: No name, no public persona  

Rohullah Sorush, 8 March 2019, Rights and Freedoms 

5. What other peace process can teach Afghanistan (1): Colombia’s agreement with FARC

Martine van Bijlert, 13 December 2018, War and Peace 

6. Harassment of women in Afghanistan: A hidden phenomenon addressed in too many laws

Ehsan Qaane, 2 April 2017, Rights and Freedoms 

7. How to end the Afghan war: A new publication on peace reviewed

Kate Clark, 2 June 2018, War and Peace 

8. A tomb in Kabul: The fate of the last Amir of Bukhara and his country’s relations with Afghanistan

Thomas Ruttig and Vladimir N Plastun, 27 December 2018, Regional Relations 

9. AAN Q&A: What came out of the Doha intra-Afghan conference?

Thomas Ruttig, 11 July 2019, War and Peace

10. Legal Aid in Afghanistan: History, challenges and the future  

Sarah Han, 6 February 2012, Rights and Freedoms 

Our 2014 report on how Afghan Uzbeks are written about in the West keeps being read. The photo accompanying the report shows Uzbek emissary Mirza Faiz (left), representing the northern Uzbek Khan Mir Wali, meets with a representative of Afghan ruler Shah Shuja in September 1840. The lithograph by James Rattray is via the British Library