Ashgabat, 10 October 2016 (nCa) — Surely, the destiny of a country is the joint responsibility of the nation. Everyone is a partner in the success or failure of their nation. However, the extent of responsibility of each member of the nation depends on their relative position in the society, their power and influence, their wealth and education and a number of other factors.
Since Afghanistan is a country where the overwhelming majority professes to be Muslim, we must see as to how does Islam grade people when they are aware that a wrongdoing is taking place?
According to the principle accepted by all branches of Islam, there are three degrees of faith – Iman. The highest degree is when you use your authority, influence or physical power to oppose and undo a wrongdoing, a crime, an act of injustice. The second degree is when you vocally (by word of mouth or by any other means of expression) oppose the wrongdoing. And the last degree is when you cannot even raise your voice against a wrongdoing but feel bad about it in your heart. And this last degree is the weakest state of faith.
Using he institution of Ijtihad – the independent interpretation based on the accepted tenets of Islam – the corollary would be like this: Those who support a wrongdoing with their authority, influence or physical power are to be bracketed with the perpetrators of that wrongdoing. Those who lend moral support by their word of mouth or any other means of expression are lesser partners in the crime, but they are partners nevertheless. And those who don’t feel bad about that wrongdoing are still a part of that group though their degree of culpability is diminished compared to the other two groups.
The purpose of bringing up this argument here is that a religion is not just a set of rituals; it is a way of life. In this role, the religion shapes its followers. It establishes the perimeters of good and bad. It creates the environment and tools for the psychological conditioning of the people. In doing so, it encourages its followers to acquire certain perceptions.
It is relevant to remind that the present series is an attempt to fashion a corrective lens to look at Afghanistan. This is necessary because, as said earlier, a problem cannot be solved unless we understand it correctly; treatment must not begin without proper diagnosis of the ailment.
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It was perhaps in 2002 that I received an invitation to join an Internet group. It was a group of highly educated people who were either Afghans or interested in the well-being of Afghanistan. What was common among them was that none of them were residing inside Afghanistan.
They were a high-power group – there were some members of the royal family of Afghanistan, some relatives of the rulers of Afghanistan (2002 till now), some professors who later returned to Afghanistan to take up positions of authority and planning, some businessmen and technocrats who brought their capital and know-how to Afghanistan, and many others.
The sad thing is that quite a few of them have returned back to the western countries where they were living before the fall of the Taliban. They went to Afghanistan with starry-eyed hope, great dreams. They returned with shattered expectations. The main baggage they brought back from Afghanistan was disillusionment.
I am still in touch with some of them, a few who are still in Afghanistan and several who are back to the west.
In a group discussion, I asked them as to why did they leave Afghanistan.
Two of them cited the same principle I mentioned earlier here i.e. if you cannot stop a wrongdoing, at least feel bad about it, and detach yourself from it. Don’t be even a passive part of a wrongdoing.
I asked them, what is wrong with Afghanistan, considering that it has received unprecedented amount of foreign aid, in cash and kind, and it had the most qualified people willing to serve it in whatever capacity. There was no dearth of goodwill from around the world and there was abundance of everything that is necessary to rebuild a country.
They said, the easier to answer question would be, what is right with Afghanistan.
A witty professor said, I will give you mushtay az kharwar – a fistful from the load. Just observe Gul Agha Sherzai and you will find what is wrong with Afghanistan.
This discussion took place in 2014, just around the presidential elections in Afghanistan. Sherzai was one of the candidates. I began looking at Sherzai.
Gul Agha Sherzai, also known as Bulldozer, is a politician, former governor of Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces, and presidential candidate in the elections of 2014. He is also a warlord, a drug baron, a contractor with shady practices and widely believed to have committed atrocities against innocent people.
He was born in 1954 and belongs to the Barakzai tribe, which is the tribe that produced the rulers of Afghanistan for several centuries. The last kind – Zahir Shah – was from the same tribe.
The Taliban had effectively eradicated poppy cultivation from Afghanistan but with their fall the crop bounced back to record level. Sherzai was believed to be one of the drug barons.
An article in the New American Media says:
“The new Hamid Karzai regime introduced a token ban on production [of poppy] in January. But lacking effective means of enforcing its decrees, the central government has enforced the ban only selectively. It has also been forced to accept the influence of local drug-tainted warlords, such as Hazrat Ali in Nangarhar, and Gul Agha Sherzai, appointed governor of Kandahar province.
“The London Observer reported recently that, in order to stave off rebellion against the weak central government, both Hazrat Ali and Gul Agha, along with other warlords, “have been ‘bought off’ with millions of dollars in deals brokered by U.S. and British intelligence.””
Poppy Paradox – U.S. War in Afghanistan Boosts Terror Funds – http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/mobile_cats.php?view=article&article_id=825
An article by Asad Ismi in Policy Alternatives says:
“The main warlords are Mohammed Qasim Fahim in Kabul (leader of the Northern Alliance); Gul Agha Sherzai, who rules Kandahar province; Hazrat Ali, who rules Nangarhar province; Ismail Khan in Heart, and Abdul Rashid Dostum in Mazar-i-Sharif. Together, they command about 200,000 armed militia.”
Drug Trafficking In Afghanistan – https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/september-2004-drug-trafficking-afghanistan
Here is a long passage from Excerpted from ‘No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes’ a book by Anand Gopal, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC:
“Mr. Sherzai had admitted to receiving $1-million a week from his share of import duties and from the opium trade, and was considered violent and dangerous.
“[After removal from governorship of Kandahar province] He was immediately made governor of U.S.-led Nangarhar province in the east, where U.S. officials say he has been a useful ally in ending opium-poppy production and establishing law and order. U.S. officials said that they believe he has a net worth of $300-million from his time running Kandahar, but that his level of corruption is fairly minor now. Nevertheless, they hope to see him gone some day.”
In the book ‘The World Heroin Market: Can Supply Be Cut?’ by Letizia Paoli, Victoria A. Greenfield, Peter Reute: “Gul Agha Sherzai was first appointed the governor of Qandahar, a manor southern opium producing region next to Helmand, and the urban development minister in the Karzai administration despite his known involvement in the opiate trade. As a western diplomat stated, “It’s inconceivable that warlords like Hazrat Ali and Gul Agha Sherzai are not profiting handsomely from the drug production and trafficking taking place right under their noses.””
Here is a long passage from an article by Anand Gopal in The Nation:
“In December 2001, an American Special Operations Forces unit pulled into an old Soviet airbase on the outskirts of Kandahar city. They were accompanied by a team of Afghan militiamen and their commander, a gregarious, grizzly bear of a man named Gul Agha Sherzai. An anti-Taliban warlord, Sherzai had shot to notoriety in the 1990s following the death of his illustrious father, Hajji Latif, a onetime bandit turned mujahed known as “the Lion of Kandahar.” (Upon assuming his father’s mantle, Gul Agha had rechristened himself Sherzai, Son of the Lion. His first name, incidentally, roughly translates as “Respected Mr. Flower.”) With American backing, Sherzai seized the airfield, then in ruins, and subsequently installed himself in the local governor’s mansion—a move that incensed many, Hamid Karzai among them. Nonetheless, Sherzai brought a certain flair to the office, quickly catching notice for his fist-pounding speeches, tearful soliloquies, and outbursts of uncontrollable laughter, sometimes all in a single conversation.
“Sherzai may not have had much experience in government, except a brief tenure as Kandahar’s “governor” during the anarchic mid-1990s, but he knew a good business opportunity when he saw one. The airbase where the Americans were encamped was derelict and weedy, strewn with smashed furniture and seeded with land mines from the Soviet era. Early on, one of Sherzai’s lieutenants met Master Sergeant Perry Toomer, a U.S. officer in charge of logistics and contracting. “I started talking to him,” Toomer said, “and found out that they had a knowledge of how to get this place started.” After touring the facilities, the Americans placed their first order: $325 in cash for a pair of Honda water pumps.
“It would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership. With Sherzai’s services, the cracked and cratered airstrip blossomed into a massive, sprawling military base, home to one of the world’s busiest airports. Kandahar Airfield would grow into a key hub in Washington’s global war on terror, housing top-secret black-ops command rooms and large wire-mesh cages for terror suspects en route to the American prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“For Sherzai, KAF would be only the beginning. In a few swift strokes, he made the desert bloom with American installations — and turned an extravagant profit in the process. He swiped land and rented it to U.S. forces to the tune of millions of dollars. Amid the ensuing construction boom, he seized gravel quarries, charging as much as $100 a load for what would normally have been an $8-a-load job. He furnished American troops with fuel for their trucks and workers for their projects, raking in commissions while functioning as an informal temp agency for his tribesmen.
“With this windfall, he diversified into gasoline and water distribution, real estate, taxi services, mining, and, most lucrative of all, opium. No longer a mere governor, he was now one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan. Every morning, lines of supplicants would curl out of the governor’s mansion.
“As his web of patronage grew, he began providing the Americans with hired guns, usually from his own Barakzai tribe—making him, in essence, a private security contractor, an Afghan Blackwater. And like the employees of that notorious American firm, Sherzai’s gunmen lived largely outside the jurisdiction of any government. Even as Washington pumped in funds to create a national Afghan army and police, the U.S. military subsidized Sherzai’s mercenaries, who owed their loyalty to the governor and the special forces alone. Some of his units could even be seen garbed in U.S. uniforms, driving heavily armed flatbed trucks through the streets of Kandahar.
“How to Fight the War on Terror Without an Adversary
“Of course, even in the new Afghanistan there was no such thing as a free lunch. In return for privileged access to American dollars, Sherzai delivered the one thing U.S. forces felt they needed most: intelligence. His men became the Americans’ eyes and ears in their drive to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Kandahar.
“Yet here lay the contradiction. Following the Taliban’s collapse, al-Qaeda had fled the country, resettling in the tribal regions of Pakistan and in Iran. By April 2002, the group could no longer be found in Kandahar — or anywhere else in Afghanistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, had ceased to exist, its members having retired to their homes and surrendered their weapons. Save for a few lone wolf attacks, U.S. forces in Kandahar in 2002 faced no resistance at all. The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet U.S. special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism.
“How do you fight a war without an adversary? Enter Gul Agha Sherzai—and men like him around the country. Eager to survive and prosper, he and his commanders followed the logic of the American presence to its obvious conclusion. They would create enemies where there were none, exploiting the perverse incentive mechanism that the Americans — without even realizing it — had put in place.
“Sherzai’s enemies became America’s enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as “counterterrorism,” his business interests as Washington’s. And where rivalries did not do the trick, the prospect of further profits did. (One American leaflet dropped by plane in the area read: “Get Wealth and Power Beyond Your Dreams. Help Anti-Taliban Forces Rid Afghanistan of Murderers and Terrorists.”)
“For several hours a day in a small Kandahar office, special forces and CIA officers pored over intelligence reports from the field, almost all of them originating from Sherzai’s network. They worked closely with the head of the local spy agency, a Sherzai crony named Hajji Gulalai. An ex-mujahed, he had been tortured so badly by the Communists that he had acquired a skin condition for which an aide had to constantly scratch and massage his back.
“With such a history, your list of enemies ran long, and the Americans knew it. According to former special forces soldiers, the two sides had an informal pact. “He’d give us intel,” explained one, “and then we’d let him do whatever he wanted.” A group of soldiers in a special forces detachment wrote in a collective memoir that on operations, Gulalai’s men “could get into places and exact payback for something that had nothing to do with their mission.” They added, “It happened a few times. The detachment had a deal with him.”
“Whatever they had been before, Sherzai and his men were now creatures of a world where, as the Bush administration had proclaimed, you were either with us or against us. Sherzai’s network fed intelligence — which in the absence of an actual enemy was almost all false — to the Americans, and reaped the rewards: a business empire strung across the desert, garish villas abroad, and unfettered control of southern Afghan politics. The Americans, in turn, carried out raids against a phantom enemy, happily fulfilling their mandate from Washington.
“Amid this bounty, Sherzai’s operatives homed in on one place in particular: a district not far from Kandahar city that they nicknamed “Dubai,” a reference to the port metropolis of shopping malls and palm trees that represented, for Kandaharis, an oasis of unbridled wealth and opportunity. For Sherzai’s men, their new land of opportunity, their new Dubai, was none other than the impoverished desert district of Maiwand.
“Hajji Burget Khan and the other captives were brought to KAF and deposited in metal cages stacked side by side in the open air and flooded by bright white lights. They were forced to kneel there for hours, their hands bound behind them. Some passed out from the pain. Some lost sensation in their hands and feet. Then they were marched into a room and made to strip and stand in front of American soldiers for inspection, inspiring a humiliation that, in the Pashtun ethos, was difficult to even imagine.
““When they made us walk naked in front of all those Americans,” captive Abdul Wahid later told a reporter, “I was praying to God to let me die. If someone could have sold me a poisoned tablet for $100,000, I would have bought it.”
“In a final act of emasculation, soldiers appeared with clippers. One by one the captives’ beards were shorn off, and many of them broke down in tears. Some, for resisting, had their eyebrows removed as well.
“Hajji Burget Khan, tribal leader and war hero, would not be seen alive again. The truth of what happened in his final hours may never be known. One account has it that he died en route to KAF from his gunshot wound. Another version, a confidential dispatch from the Canadian Joint Task Force 2, part of the special forces team that carried out the raid, states that “an elderly father died while in custody” at Kandahar Airfield, “reportedly from a butt stroke to the head, which has caused much grief/anguish in the village.”
“For days, the prisoners were questioned. “We don’t know who we have, but we hope we got some senior Taliban or at least some Taliban folks in there,” Lieutenant Colonel Jim Yonts, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, told reporters. Yet it soon became apparent that the captives had all followed Burget Khan in embracing the new American order. After five days, they were brought to Kandahar’s soccer stadium and released. A crowd of thousands, who had made the trip from Maiwand, was there to greet them. A few months earlier many of these farmers had packed the stadium seats waving the new Afghan flag and chanting in favor of the coming loya jirga. Now, for the first time, anti-American slogans filled the air.
““If we did any crime, they must punish us,” shouted Amir Sayed Wali, a villager elder. “If we are innocent, we will take our revenge for this insult.” Tribal elder Lala Khan asked, “Is there any law? Any accountability? Who are our leaders? The elders, or the Americans?”
“The raid would leave lasting marks on a number of levels. “If they touch our women again, we must ask ourselves why we are alive,” declared villager Sher Muhammad Ustad. “We will have no choice but to fight.” Back in the village, one woman was heard shouting at her male relatives, “You people have big turbans on your heads”—the quintessential accoutrement of Pashtun manhood—“but what have you done? You are cowards! You can’t even protect us. You call yourselves men?”
“Hajji Burget Khan’s son, wounded in the raid, was left wheelchair-bound. Burget Khan’s close friend Tor Khan, who had been shot four times, died a slow, agonizing death. Villagers did not take him to the hospital for nearly 24 hours, fearing that the Americans would find him and finish the job. Six-year-old Zarghuna, fast asleep when the soldiers arrived, awoke in a panic and, searching for her parents, fell into a well shaft. It took hours for her parents to find the body. “She was the laughter of the house,” her mother said.
“American officials declared the mission “definitely a success.” As Major A.C. Roper explained, “It’s all a coalition effort to help rid this country of people that stand against peace and stability.” Roper’s confidence was grounded in intelligence indicating that Hajji Burget Khan had been meeting with senior Taliban leaders. That charge, it turned out, was true, but only in the most literal sense: he had been trying to convince the Talibs to support the Karzai government. The brief against him had been written almost entirely from the accusations of Sherzai and his allies. “Burget Khan was too independent,” said Hajji Ehsan, a member of the Kandahar government. “He was independently popular and Sherzai saw him as a threat.”
“In the weeks following the killing, Ishaqzai tribespeople from around the country descended on Maiwand to pay their respects. The large Ishaqzai community in Pakistan staged angry protests. In the years to come thousands would be killed on all sides, but it would be the memory of Hajji Burget Khan’s murder that villagers would never relinquish.
“The men of Band-i-Timor were no strangers to tragedy, and as the summer came they returned to their fields, gathering at the mosque on Fridays to talk about the work and the rains and the future. Then, one morning in August, three months after the death of Burget Khan, they learned that U.S. forces had raided Maiwand again, this time arresting the entire police force—95 officers—in one precinct. The government announced that the captives were “al Qaeda-Taliban.”
“Locals were mystified. “They were part of the government,” said the police chief of a nearby station. “The government paid for their salaries and food. I don’t understand how they could do this.” The policemen had, in fact, been appointed by Hajji Bashar, the Noorzai elder who had worked so assiduously to win support for the new government. Within days of the arrests, a new police unit took over the precinct—all of them Sherzai’s men. Meanwhile, the captured policemen in U.S. custody were beaten, some of them suffering broken ribs, and stripped of their possessions, only to be released eventually, with the government spokesman admitting that officials “never had hard evidence” of a connection to militants. Instead, the spokesman acknowledged that “these people were all tribesmen of Hajji Bashar and very loyal to him.”
“The mood in Band-i-Timor continued to harden. If the government could do this “to their own people,” said Amanullah, a storeowner, “then there is no guarantee they won’t come after regular people. No one is safe from this.” Some weeks later, U.S. forces stormed Band-i-Timor once again, this time detaining Hajji Nasro, a local leader and supporter of Hajji Bashar who had also allied with the new government.
“The noose was tightening around Hajji Bashar himself. At first he had met regularly with U.S. military and intelligence officials. The goal, he later told a reporter, “was to make the situation in Afghanistan stable and also to help the Americans negotiate with moderate members of the Taliban to reconcile with the government.” But now the writing was on the wall: the Americans were not fighting a war on terror at all, they were simply targeting those who were not part of the Sherzai and Karzai networks. Bashar fled with his family to Pakistan to wait for the dust to settle.
“Bashar’s story might have ended there, if not for his unquenchable ambition to land a position in the Afghan government. By 2005 he would rekindle contacts with the Americans, this time through a private company working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Over tea in a series of meetings in Dubai and Pakistan, he opened up about some of his business activities in hopes of winning Western backing for his political aspirations.
“U.S. officials, however, had other plans. Bush administration officials had drawn up a list of the most wanted international drug barons who posed a threat to U.S. interests. When Assistant Secretary of State Bobby Charles saw it, he asked, “Why don’t we have any Afghan drug lords on the list?” This was, in fact, a thorny problem, because some of the biggest Afghan narcotics kingpins—Gul Agha Sherzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, chief among them—were allied with Washington, and in some cases even paid by the Americans. Finally, U.S. officials settled on a name: Hajji Bashar. He was a small-time player on a list of heavyweights, and potentially valuable to Washington as a peace broker, but political expediency sealed his fate.
“Bashar was lured to an Embassy Suites hotel in New York City. For days he spoke with officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on intelligence matters, sharing meals and tea. When they finished, he was—to his astonishment—handcuffed and read his rights. A trial on drug charges followed, and he is now serving a life sentence at Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center.
“The Noorzais and Ishaqzais, the two largest tribal populations of Maiwand, had lost key leaders, both of them bridges to the Americans, and now the communities felt cut adrift. “We felt decapitated,” said elder Kala Khan. “How could we convince our people that the Americans were our allies after this?”
“As the seasons turned, the raids continued. Band-i-Timor was also the home of Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, former head of the Taliban air force, who had retired and offered his backing to the new government. Watching the violence unfold, he repeatedly approached government officials, pledging his support to anyone who would listen. Finally, learning that he was on the American target list, he, too, fled to Pakistan. Unlike Hajji Bashar, however, he abandoned reconciliation. Years later, he would become one of the leaders of the Taliban insurgency.
“To the Americans, Sherzai’s “intelligence” rang true because the tribes populating Maiwand had supported the Taliban when the movement first appeared. But the exigencies of the war on terror meant that U.S. forces were unable to recognize when those same tribes switched allegiances in 2001 — which is precisely what made Maiwand so lucrative in Sherzai’s eyes. There were weapons to be requisitioned, tribal elders to be shaken down, reward money to be collected—boundless profits to be made. For Sherzai and his allies, it was indeed the New Dubai.
“Once, when soldiers had come through Band-i-Timor, locals would smile and call out in greeting, but now they only watched in silence. People started carrying weapons again. The raids continued and villagers began fighting back, and that meant some people were caught in the middle. Soon, for many there was no choice but to leave.
Whole villages decamped to Pakistan, deserting their fields, returning to refugee camps. It was a development that officials in Kandahar city could not ignore, but they insisted that it was a necessary evil in the fight against terror. “Sometimes, the best way to catch a fish is to drain the pond,” said Khan Muhammad, a high-ranking security official.
What if, however, there were no fish to begin with?
How to create an Afghan Blackwater: https://www.thenation.com/article/how-create-afghan-blackwater/
Here is a quote from an article by Matthieu Aikins in The New Yorker:
“Hikmat’s entry into the trucking business brought him into competition with some of Kandahar’s most powerful men. Gul Agha Sherzai, the warlord who had retaken the province with the help of the C.I.A. and Special Forces, had been the governor; his brother Abdul Raziq was a general in the Afghan Army, in charge of the airport. The Sherzais also controlled lucrative contracts to supply gravel to the American base, and Raziq’s company, Sherzai Construction and Supply, provided trucks to the Americans. “We’ve had a friendship since 2001,” Raziq told me in his office on KAF. He had a framed photograph on his desk of himself with General John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “From that time, I’m their partner.”
“To many Afghans, warlords like the Sherzais were scarcely more legitimate than the Taliban. After the Communist government fell, in 1992, Gul Agha and his men had taken part in the civil war that pillaged Kandahar. Now, “with U.S. dollars,” Governor Sherzai “had constituted his own private militia,” Sarah Chayes, a journalist turned aid worker, writes, in “The Punishment of Virtue,” her 2006 account of life in Kandahar. But the Americans saw the political landscape in Afghanistan through the dichotomies of the war on terror, and in Kandahar they relied on the Sherzais to help identify the enemy. “Before long, the U.S. forces were helplessly wrapped inside the [Sherzais’] friendly bear hug,” Chayes continues. Bradley, who referred to the Taliban as “savages,” wrote, “Every day was like September 12, 2001.” Raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces, in conjunction with the Sherzais, compelled former Taliban leaders to move to Pakistan, where they began to revive the insurgency.
“As an interpreter, Hikmat had often been in meetings with the Sherzais, though they hardly noticed him in those days. “We wouldn’t even greet him, I remember,” Khalid Pashtoon, a member of the Afghan parliament who was then an aide to Gul Agha Sherzai, said. Hikmat told me that he understood why the Americans aligned themselves with people like the Sherzais against the Taliban. “There is bad and worse,” he said. “You would choose bad.”
“Now he was their rival in a more and more lucrative business. Unlike the Iraq war, in which international companies brought in supplies, in Afghanistan the military outsourced its overland-logistics chain to local contractors, whose jingle trucks, so called because of their colorful, tinkling metal decorations, hauled cargo to bases across the country’s remote and increasingly dangerous terrain. In the beginning, contractors like Hikmat were paid in cash by the U.S. military after missions were completed. Glad to have an alternative to the Sherzais, the Special Forces welcomed him. “I was never saying no to any job,” Hikmat said. “They want anything, anytime, and you have to be ready.”
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Gul Agha Sherzai lost the presidential elections by gaining just 2% of the cast votes in 2014. For the second round of the elections, contested by Ashraf Ghani, Sherzai joined the camp of Abdullah. Simply put, Sherzai is a partner of the Abdullah-Amrullah Saleh-Ustad Atta trio that is the biggest impediment against peace in Afghanistan.
Curiously, when Senator Barrack Obama was on his first visit to Afghanistan as a presidential candidate in July 2008, his first meeting was with Sherzai, not with President Karzai.
A Carnegie Paper ‘Warlords as Bureaucrats: The Afghan Experience’ by Dipali Mukhopadhyay sheds some more light on Sherzai: https://www.ciaonet.org/attachments/15191/uploads
As my professor friend said jokingly, Sherzai is mushtay az kharwar – just a fistful from the load.
To be continued . . .