By Ali M. Latifi / LATimes.com
They have referred to First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a feared former Afghan militia commander with a reputation for enjoying his alcohol, as the “Vodka General.”
They called Mohammad Mohaqeq, another ex-militia commander accused of human rights abuses during the civil war of the 1990s, the nation’s “fifth vice president.” It was a dig both at Mohaqeq — whose actual title is second deputy to the chief executive — and at the unwieldiness of Afghanistan’s unity government.
In little more than a month since its launch, the writers behind Afghan Onion, an English-language satirical website, have spared few of the country’s top political figures.
Political satire is nothing new in Afghanistan, especially as the flourishing of independent media has been seen as one of the more evident successes of the 14 years since the U.S.-led military invasion. Still, new spoof websites and social media accounts are coming up at a precarious time, with President Ashraf Ghani’s year-old administration battling both political dissent and the stubborn Taliban insurgency.
The catalyst for the Afghan Onion was last year’s highly divisive election. Tainted by widespread allegations of government-assisted fraud, the election finally ended with an internationally backed deal making Ghani president of a large unity government. Many Afghans, especially first-time voters, believe their ballots were nullified by the U.S.-brokered compromise.
“The election turned out to be a funny joke. It became a theater for foreign meddling,” one of the site’s two founders, who maintain anonymity because of the fear of retaliation, said in an interview in Kabul. The other founder is an Afghan living abroad.
“Deep down, Afghans were seething due to the mess, which left a void for satire, and thus we began to be comical for a much-needed respite amid the usual political tension.”
When they launched the site, the two young men, neither of whom had much experience in satire and comedy writing, looked for inspiration to the Onion, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and the Comedy Central show “Tosh.0.”
The writers say they have already received an “indirect threat” from Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi, the rotund former Kabul police chief, after tweeting a picture of him in a hospital bed with the message: “Thanks for all the warm wishes. It was a C-section. Both mother and baby are doing great. With love.”
The government’s Interior Ministry responded Wednesday on Twitter, saying it “strongly rejects a claim in @latimes that Gen Salangi … has indirectly threatened Afg Onion’s writer.”
Sites such as Afghan Onion and Kabul Taxi, a Dari-language Facebook page, are taking risks by poking fun at high-profile politicians and civil society leaders. In August, the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, called in the editor of a local newspaper for questioning, reportedly because of the belief that he is the writer behind Kabul Taxi.
The summons came after Kabul Taxi published a post about Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Ghani’s national security advisor, and what the site called his “kid” advisors. That’s a reference to the coterie of young men and women who work for Atmar and are widely seen as having secured their positions through family connections.
Although many defend Kabul Taxi’s right to free expression, others said Afghanistan is not yet ready for such heated political criticism when the stability of the government has been repeatedly called into question.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, eight journalists were killed last year, a 63% increase in such slayings.
“You have to take a certain risk to make your point,” the Kabul-based writer said.
Some critics have contended that the site is being funded by foreign governments, including Washington. The owners deny that.
With more than 11,380 likes on Facebook, the Afghan Onion has struck a nerve with Afghans and foreigners alike. India’s ambassador to Kabul, Amar Sinha, has praised the “unadulterated fun and great satire” of the site, which often targets New Delhi’s rival, Pakistan, long accused of aiding Afghan militant groups.
The Afghan Onion’s writers, who include a small cadre of volunteers, also have taken aim at the European Union, the British Embassy, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the former head of the Pakistani intelligence agency.
Even the Taliban is not safe from ridicule.
The Onion writers say they write primarily in English because they believe too much of the global narrative surrounding Afghanistan is shaped by foreign journalists based in Kabul.
They also criticized Afghan reporters who demanded access to the government’s security plans, calling them “Curious George.”
Yet they worry that even avid readers are afraid to share the site’s more controversial content. Their posts get relatively few retweets and Facebook “likes,” though in private, they say, many people are supportive.
“We’ve been in social settings where people bring up the Afghan Onion and their appreciation of it,” the Kabul-based writer said, “but it still seems like people are afraid to engage with our content in a manner that would be seen as too direct or supportive.”