In War-Torn Nations

Understanding, hope and courage allow Aisha Ahmad to conduct her research in failed states, and maybe help change them for the better

Cynthia MacDonald
Image of Aisha Ahmad lecturing to a class

Prof. Aisha Ahmad has always wanted to change the world. Now she's doing it.

It is all too easy to shut our eyes against the terrible cost of war; to take comfort when, by virtue of distance, it appears not to affect our lives.

Aisha Ahmad takes no such comfort. As a small child visiting relatives in the border city of Peshawar, Pakistan, she witnessed changes wrought by the Soviet-Afghan conflict first-hand. Her grandfather came from a long line of ethnic Pashtun traders who routinely travelled the Silk Road of Central Asia by camel caravan, selling textiles and spices. But war transformed the local economy; instead of bolts of silk, such traders soon found themselves selling powerful guns.

“The images of the arms bazaars are burned very deeply into my mind,” says Ahmad. “I remember seeing the biggest mujahideen commanders come to my grandfather’s courtyard house with AK-47s, doing business not with briefcases but suitcases full of cash.”

Experiences like this shaped the course of Ahmad’s life. Now an assistant professor in UTSC’s Department of Political Science, she has become an expert on how business is conducted in war-torn nations. Her courageous journeys through Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan have led her to some firm conclusions: she has seen how people in failed states can be attracted to extremism, and how well-meaning aid organizations often harm people instead of helping them. Along the way, she has also learned much about the hatred war can breed, and the importance of forgiveness.

“One thing Aisha certainly brings to this department is a sense of engagement in the issues themselves,” says Paul Kingston, who oversees her work for UTSC in his role as director of the Centre for Critical Development Studies. “Most of us are interested, but she’s actually engaged at a real-life level. She brings to the table a wealth of insight about the practical manifestations of Islam at both domestic and international levels that is sorely needed within the academy. And she’s a fantastic role model.”

After graduating with a degree in political science from U of T, Ahmad completed her PhD at McGill and then worked as a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. She currently teaches a course in international security at UTSC.

Her 2012 PhD thesis, which she hopes to publish commercially, is entitled Between the Mosque and the Market: An Economic Explanation of State Failure and State Formation in the Modern Muslim World. To say its writing involved extensive, challenging field research is an understatement. But this arduous undertaking had very deep roots.

A lifetime of war

“For the entire time I’ve been on this earth, there has been a war in Afghanistan. I was three years old when I knew that this was something that I needed to work on,” recalls the soft-spoken but intensely focused young academic.

Indeed, the 10-year Soviet war in Afghanistan began a year before Ahmad’s birth in 1980. It was followed by a protracted civil war that resulted in the Taliban’s rise, and later by the American-led conflict that began in 2001. “We are now looking down at the horizon of 2014, and the pending failure of the international mission,” she says. “With this comes the possibility of renewed civil war.”

Ahmad was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Toronto, the daughter of a botanist and a schoolteacher. She is grateful for the first-rate education they provided, and mindful that many Pashtun girls have not been as lucky. “I’ve always known that the difference between me and any of those girls is a bit of luck, and many blessings. I’m in an incredibly privileged position. And with that comes an enormous amount of responsibility.”

So it is that travelling through war zones has become part of Ahmad’s life as a teacher, writer and activist. While there, she has spoken with business people, military personnel, intelligence officers and warlords. She has trekked through mountains and deserts and battled dysentery and punishing climates; before embarking on a trip, she usually spends five days a week training in a boxing gym. But one might assume her biggest challenge would be gaining access to her interview subjects. Not so, says Ahmad.

“I never do anything that would cause my hosts to be jeopardized in any way,” she says. “Modesty in my methods and objectives is really important.” As a result, she is always invited where she wants to go, whether to a mob boss’s office or a warlord’s apartment. “I don’t need security as a result, because I am there as a guest. And once invited, my job is to be a good and respectful guest.”

A woman’s field

Security is traditionally a male-dominated field. But Ahmad says many of today’s most sophisticated experts in the field are actually young women. “We have found that we have better access than the men,” she says. “There are a number of advantages we have. First, we’re not perceived as combatants...we are less of a threat to men who are participating in armed struggle than other men would be.”

This is not to say the work is safe or easy for women either. Accidents can happen in a country at war; sentiments can be inflamed. And extremism, says Ahmad, has often proven to be an appealing option when a population finds itself desperate for some kind of stability.

While Ahmad’s work in Afghanistan was born of her childhood experience and ties to family, her attraction to Somalia came later. But it is, perhaps, no less powerful: that country is even more economically fraught than Afghanistan, having been in a state of civil war for 22 years.

“The Pashtuns of Africa”

Nine years ago, Ahmad went to Nairobi for an internship with the Africa Peace Forum. Ahmad’s Somali colleagues there invited her to an energetic and informative iftar dinner, a tradition that breaks the day’s fast during Ramadan.

“I immediately felt a great love for the Somali people—they were like the Pashtuns of Africa! I mean, we had so much in common. The business world was very similar; once the state fell, trade was like a casino capitalist environment, which reminded me of my grandfather’s old house. And the relationship between insecurity and tribalism was very similar to the ethnic conflict that dominated the Afghan civil war,” she says.

For two years, Ahmad served as chief operating officer of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF), a locally organized and operated Somali relief organization based in Mogadishu. Ahmad believes that local groups, rather than international ones, are best-positioned to play an essential role in the economic rehabilitation of all failed states.

More harm than good

Ahmad is especially critical of what she calls “the aid industry,” since she thinks its interventions often do more harm than good. She has seen first-hand how food shipments in Somalia, destined for the poor, are routinely stolen by criminals who then establish partnerships with warlords to sell them, helping to finance their own—sometimes genocidal—interests.

It’s a stance that threatens a certain number of Western jobs, to be sure. But Ahmad believes that large-scale international food aid programs should be held responsible for their role in perpetuating civil war in Somalia. And she is not the only one who thinks so.

“The UN Monitoring Group has called it out. Their job was to track guns—but now they’re tracking aid diversion because it’s so related to the guns.”

Ahmad realizes that donors to international aid programs have excellent intentions. She believes that, while real change must take place at the system level, donors should educate themselves so their donations are well placed. Giving directly to local groups such as DHAF is one solution, though such groups suffer from low profiles. “That’s often why partnerships with large organizations work,” she says. “Some large organizations do that really well.” She cites War Child (in Canada) and Vital Voices (in the United States) as two groups ensuring that citizens receive ‘a hand up, not a handout.’

Ahmad speaks openly of the emotional toll the work takes on her, and of her need to restore herself upon return. A recent hike in Algonquin Park—and seeing a beautiful forest growing on the floor of a meteor crater, a site of violent impact—was inspirational. “It made me think of us as a species; the extent of the violence we’ve inflicted on each other and the hope that comes from seeing the survival.”

Forgiveness in war

Such graceful metaphors come easily to Ahmad, and her well-received TEDx talk at U of T last spring was especially moving. Such talks deal in ideas. But for this speech, Ahmad realized that her subject matter—forgiveness in war—demanded a certain degree of emotional vulnerability.

In the 17-minute address, she describes a field of blown-out tanks that she came across in a valley off the Salang Pass in northern Afghanistan. Children were playing there “like it was a jungle gym,” she says. Devastated by the admixture of innocence and loss, she says she experienced an epiphany—that her work should be as non-partisan as possible: benefiting all, not just some, of the Afghan people.

Ahmad has known brutal anger too, especially when a close friend was kidnapped and executed in Pakistan. She underlines the need to monitor shifting emotions in wartime. “We know that in the cessation of war, a lot of the time dealing with fear is the most intractable thing to resolve,” she says. “Fear, particularly the perception that the person on the other side of the table is going to harm you, can actually interrupt or impede the negotiation process from even starting.”

The grim socio-economic prospects of failed states can certainly lead to another emotion: despair. Even if one of the wars she studies ended today, Ahmad says, reconstruction would still be a 30-year process. Is it even worth contemplating?

“If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t do this,” she says simply. “It would be too heartbreaking. So I think it is doable, and worth my labour, and my energy. You just keep pushing forward, because you’ve seen the faces of the people who are affected. That’s more than enough motivation to keep going.”