Succession Sagas: Daddy Is a Warlord, Junior Has a Foreign Degree

Here we go again.

The international press never fails to get excited by political scions, dynastic heirs, princelings, or mujahedin hatchlings with foreign degrees.

The storyline never changes: A powerful Daddy in some distant, exotic land dispatches junior to a foreign land to earn a fancy foreign degree from as fancy a foreign university as the family hoard can afford.

The little political scion now proceeds to “engage in debates” on “Plato, Hobbes, Locke and other major Western thinkers” - until it’s time to go home.

But once back in his or her ancient land, junior dumps whatever lessons he or she may have picked up at school. Political mantles are taken up as sundry deputies, advisors and other old-guard figures are dislodged. It’s now business as usual with an inexperienced, but Western-educated leader at the helm.

The latest glowing succession saga - titled Afghan Princelings: Are the Children of the Mujahedin Ready to Rule? -  was published in Time magazine earlier this week.   

Remember those Afghan mujahedin who fought the Soviets with US and Saudi funds before proceeding to fight each other and pummel their benighted homeland?

Well, now their kids are taking over, armed with degrees from “some of the best schools in the world”. That preposterous line about engaging in debates on Plato, Hobbes et alia is not mine. I picked it from the Time piece, which is surprisingly long on commendation and short on condemnation.

Sixty-five years of India’s first family

The article opens with a 26-year-old Afghan mujahedin princeling returning home after studying at an Indian university.

Well, I thought, India’s not a bad place to learn lessons on political entitlement. One damn family - the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty - has dominated politics in the world’s largest democracy since the country gained independence exactly 65 years ago on Aug. 15.

The succession saga is so surreal that journalist Sadanand Dhume, in his biting Foreign Policy article, The House of Nehru-Gandhi, calls for lèse-majesté laws to cover India’s first family.

Fathers, sons and daughters – for the record

The South Asian region is choking with political scions with international degrees that send frissons of excitement down foreign editors’ spines. I can’t tell you the number of times editors have helpfully inserted the words “Harvard-educated” in my pieces on former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

I’ve had this argument so many times, I think it best that I simply list the foreign alma maters and track records of various South Asian scions – for the record.

Let’s start with Benazir Bhutto. Alma maters: Harvard University, Oxford University. Track record: zero on the Kashmir crisis, zero on scrapping reactionary hudood laws that discriminate against women, early supporter of the Taliban.

When she was assassinated in December 2007, Benazir’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, was promptly flown in from Oxford to be named co-chairman of the party his grandfather founded.

His mother’s imperial family name was smoothly slipped into his name. He’s now Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. If you think this is a progressive step toward a matrilineal system in patriarchal Pakistan, you’re wrong.

Next, Nepali Crown Prince Dipendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. Alma mater: Eton College. Track record: Killed nine royal family members – including his father, King Birendra, and mother, Queen Aishwarya, in the June 1, 2001, royal massacre.

Shortly after the royal massacre, I was chatting with a friend who was in the same class as Crown Prince Dipendra at Eton. When I asked him about the massacre, my Etonian friend insisted Crown Prince Dipendra didn’t do it. How are you so sure? I asked. “Because he’s an Etonian,” came the prompt reply.

May be in the old days, the old boy network protected these patricidal/fratricidal/suicidal escapades, but not anymore. Try telling that to an Etonian today, though.

But let’s move on to former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Lineage: Father and mother served, at different times, as prime minister. Education: The prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) in Paris. Track record: Scrapped parliament after her prime minister and political opponent, Ranil Wickremasinghe, attempted to negotiate with the Tamil Tigers. She did this while Wickremasinghe was on a visit to the US.

These are just the most notable ones, but you get the picture.

School in the US, summers with the mujahedin

You can argue that politics in these parts is a nasty business and anyone entering the fray is susceptible to playing dirty.

But it hardly sends the right message to the region’s striving billions that privileged birth – or sycophancy toward people of privileged birth – is what it takes to make it in this day and age.

You can also argue that the Bhuttos of Pakistan, the Gandhis of India and the Kumaratungas of Sri Lanka have faced – in some shape or form – an electorate that, for whatever reason, can’t seem to get enough of these entitled families.

But the sons of Afghan warlords (yes, warlords - don’t let that mujahedin euphemism fool you) returning to save Afghanistan is taking things too far, even by South Asian standards.

In his Time magazine piece, Mujib Mashal notes that Batur Dostum, son of controversial Uzbek strongman Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, has returned from his Turkish schooling to set up…of all things…the Dostum Foundation.

Gen. Dostum’s son returns to set up the Dostum Foundation?! Why don’t we just invite the descendants of the Vandals and the Huns to swoop down on Afghanistan via the Central Asian plains?

The basic problem with junior warlords taking over the reins is that they’re obviously blind to the fact that their fathers are responsible for the mess their country is in.

I’ve had several conversations with several such kids in the US. They all blame the USA for Afghanistan’s problems. I’ve never heard one of them blame Daddy. That’s not the best way to get to the root of a country’s problems.

Kids who have spent their childhood scuttling between school terms in a foreign land and summers with the mujahedin in Afghanistan, toting oversized rifles on horseback, are not likely to question their families’ resistance hero status.

You may have a degree from Harvard, Oxford, Columbia or a university in India or Turkey and may fancy yourself a future leader of Afghanistan. But if hero uncle or cousin or Daddy risked his life fighting the Godless Soviets, are you really going to debate whether resisting the Soviets – with the ensuing package of secular education, women’s rights, industrialization and development - was a historic mistake?

You may have a degree from Harvard, Oxford, Columbia or a university in India or Turkey. But if you’re too chicken to publicly question why your country needs to be an Islamic republic, or take a page from the chapter on say, how Europe crushed the power of the Church, who cares if you’re debating Plato, Hobbes or Locke in school?

Blood  runs thicker than Plato, Hobbes or Locke

Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself was educated in India and frequently cites Indian nationalist figures Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi as his heroes.

But Gandhi took on the caste system that dogged Hinduism. Nehru (who welcomed Soviet assistance) was a staunch defender of women’s rights. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, went on to become India’s prime minister.

If you think Karzai is about to take on religion, or stick his neck out for women’s rights, I don’t know what you’re smoking.

If you think the current crop of warlord princelings are about to implement the Hobbes-Locke-Rousseau package in their homeland, you’re probably smoking the best Afghan opium on the market.

I’ll end with a quote by University of London-educated Fatima Rabbani, daughter of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Here’s what Fatima Rabbani had to say about her brother Salahuddin taking over her father’s party, Jamiat: “I don’t see why it should have been a surprise for anybody,” she told Time magazine. “My father had worked for Jamiat most of his life. It is only natural for his son to take it up. Who else should have taken over Jamiat, if not his own blood?”

Blood, it seems, runs thicker than Plato, Hobbes or Locke. If this is the crop that plans to carry the baton after the 2014 NATO troop withdrawal, I don’t see any Afghan Renaissance or Reformation on the horizon.

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Indeed Asia is driving at full speed into economic modernity with a spirit resolutly set into traditionalism (bordering on reactionnary conservatism). Europe and North America slowly stepped into modernity, with a not so gentle rise of the modern nation-state. This created an environment where the rule of law slowly became the norm and where the rule of blood (the supremacy of the familly as a the main social unit) started operating within the framework of the rule of law. In Asia the familly is sacro-saint, nothing is more important and more central to people's understanding of society. In Europe we see the achievments of one individual, in Asia the same is seen as the rise of a familly. So what bother us as European, familly passing on power over several generations, is actually seen as a quality, the strength of a familly and by extension its ability to lead succesful economic development.

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