Few ideas are so dangerous as this one. Few highlight the desperation of the international community and the Afghan government so well. And, unfortunately, few other ideas gain the traction and generate the momentum that this one has recently. We are talking about the ill-thought plan to re-arm illiterate, undisciplined tribal militias in the proximity of the capital to engage in the so called ‘self-defence’ and protection of the communities, all of this while up until recently one of the key challenges cited was the problem of illegal armed groups and the hundreds of thousands of AK47s spread all over the country. The Human Security Report Project has a dedicated page that traces how this idea went from a bad one, to a not necessarily bad one, to a secretly OK one, to an OK one, and is well on the way of becoming official policy and being implemented.
So asks Thomas Schweich, for years the lead US official on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, and answers not so favorably for either the US or the Afghan governments. As close to the horse’s mouth as you would get it on CN policy. A definite must-read for those interested in the subject, and a piece that is sure to raise eyebrows -or hell- both in DC and Kabul.
Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?
(New York Times Magazine)
I know this is no proper way to resume blogging after a months long hiatus -by a mere links referral- but there has been some excited developments in Afghanistan as of late (including the touchdown of Sen. Obama an hour or so ago here) and I just did not want to miss on that opportunity to do a post.
> 1. Obama Lands in Afghanistan
Of course Senator Obama has his own reasons for visiting Afghanistan and much of it has to do with the allegations made by the Republicans back home about his lack of experience on foreign policy. All the same, one hopes that upon his visit to a country whose fate is so intertwined with the US elections he will get an opportunity to assess things close up and perhaps, just as he had done on a number of critical issues of domestic policy in the US, be able to present some real alternatives and innovative ideas -because, as is increasingly clear, the present course is a road to nowhere.
Bloggingheads: Obama and Afghanistan
Robert Wright of Bloggingheads.tv and Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network debate the politics of the war in Afghanistan.
> 2. Rebuilding Afghanistan, One Book at a Time
Nancy Dupree, an old and celebrated hand in the Afghanistan Aid community laments the debilitating shortage of books and access to information in Afghanistan
> 3. And on the lighter side: Karzai has a lover
I love how the wapo has spotted this.
”honey, let me get those for you”, says the woman and sails across the room to her husband who is struggling to button his french cuffs. it’s always been a struggle. the damn slits never seem to line up and are always stubborn in allowing the studs to penetrate. the man sighs and lets her button them. afterwards, she straightens the knot on his striped tie and leans in on him and tells him how nice he smells. they kiss, he takes one last look at the mirror, and starts to leave. looking at just another day’s work ahead of him. he climbs down the stairs, puts on his shoes, and then hears her yell something from upstairs. he cannot hear it distinctly.
“chi gufti azizem?” (what’s that honey?)
this time she puts her head out of the bedroom door and repeats:
”I said… be careful…just be careful..”
he yells a “Kho” back, walks to his car and is suddenly reminded of that timeless phrase by Hannah Arendt: “the banality of evil.”
it’s just another ordinary day, another day in kabul, a sunny -albeit cold one- and the radio is pumping music from the latest episode of the afghan star. the man starts the car and waits for the engine to warm up. minutes later, he gets out of a side street and is driving on the main street, on the taimani road. on the rearview mirror he sees an army bus speeding and steers out of the way. there is a young man waiting by the side of the road bundled up and with a scarf around his head.
she is burqa clad, and lets off a faint petroleum smell. the male guards of the courtroom notice this, but do not suspect anything. afterall, she is a woman, and here the woman’s abode is the kitchen. she can’t be expected to smell of anything but benzene and smoke and perhaps the occasional whiff of the greasy meal she made last night. they let her in. people are coming and going, entering and leaving the dilapidated, muddy building. nobody takes note of the woman. she, however, is self-conscious and her palms are sweaty -the handle of the bottle is slippery and she realizes that the fingers of her other hand are wrapped unusually tightly around the lighter she is holding.
she admonishes herself for being so nervous and tries to ease up. but it is hard to do. burns are painful, she knows this from her own experience of minor burns in the kitchen, and from her cousin who burnt herself over a boy and ended up bedridden for months and hated even more than before. but she is determined. “not another day with him” she whispers repeatedly. she has heard people say that the court won’t approve of her divorce -her divorce- from her husband. the man must agree -it is his prerogative.
your honor enters pompously, the valet announces, all stand up from the old, expensive mahogany chairs of the court, and the courtroom falls silent. your honor, the presiding judge, is obscenely obese. his white wig is too small for his head -it sits like a jewish skullcap atop his massive head. your honor sits down and moves your honor’s ass around the uncomfortable wooden chair for it to settle in perfectly snug. loose flesh protrudes from amid the wooden bars of the chair and your honor is finally comfortable. he puts on his glasses and suddenly looks up.
”are you CRAZY woman?”
the young girl is ablaze in front of your honor, twisting violently and screaming with the agony of a shot gazelle.
he storms out of the the room and slams the door. the old wooden door springs back and hurts his ankle. his father yells angry words after him. he is red with anger and shame and picks his way across the vines to the stream. he settles under the pomogranate trees and splashes water on his face. he takes out his wallet and looks at her picture. again that annoying little thought enters his mind that her mascara might be a bit overdone. but oh god, she is so beautiful. and in his cousin’s wedding she simply looked divine. they had stolen looks at each other and he had felt what it feels like to be a man when, conscious of her looks, he had fired off his cousin’s klashnikov several times in the air. tak tak tak tkkkkkkkka. the water keeps flowing and as he remembers an old pashto landay, he begins to hum it.
he hears footsteps drawing near. a big group of men are coming. he quickly hides the photo and gets up. it’s the man in the black turban who never speaks, and his group of men. some of these he knows -and knows well. his cousin, for example, who is proudly slinging the klashnikov he had lent him to fire in his wedding. their eyes meet, and he feels inferior. he has always felt inferior to his bully of a cousin. that guy is never shy, and he is among the charismatic black-turban’s closest men. now, too, he teasingly looks at him and begins: “so… have you made your mind yet sweatheart?” god! he wishes he could punch the teeth out of his mouth. instead, he just slaps the dust from his clothes and begins to mumble. this is simply not the right time for his cousin’s grand ideas and eulogies for those dead in the way of god. he would rather be dead in the way of her. black turban interrupts his thoughts -by extending his hand, pressing his, and looking a most genuine look into his eyes. there is such sincerity in those large, dark eyes that no words can deliver. this man, he thinks, knows love. he knows life. he is sympathetic and perhaps even knows failure in love. without ever knowing him, he knows his pain. his cousin begins to taunt him again, but the man in black turban lifts up his left hand, and his cousin shuts up.
the next time black turban presses his hand and gives him that genuine look, he is no more the young and shy boy under the pomogranate trees by the stream. he is a broken man. after she sat herself on fire, his fate was sealed too. he had heard that in protest over her father’s arrangement to marry her off with the same man who had married her cousin, one night, after everyone was asleep, she went to the kitchen, doused herself in kerosene, and lit a single stick of match. her cousin had told her that though she loved her ever since they had been little children and played panjaq in the dust together, she would hate her for the rest of her life and could not live with her under the same roof and sharing the same man. she felt the same -and anyways, her cousin told horror stories about her husband.
for the last time he shakes hands with everyone, except for his cousin who still has that smug look in his eyes, and starts off. two months later, on a cold winter morning, he takes one last look at her picture, by now a pale shade of its former self. with time, though, the mascara has worn off and is now just perfect. he throws it into the bukhari -let it burn as she had burnt, and with it, all that he had ever cared for. he wants to cry, for his home, for her, for his stupid old father who never understood, for the pomogranate trees and the stream, but he remembers black turban and stops himself. god he hates and respects the black turbans so much -how do some men get to be so larger than life without ever jeopardizing their lives? his sleep-deprived mind is too messy for such thoughts right now, he must focus, he is on a mission. he goes to the promised place.
now, he is standing by the taimani road with a scarf wrapped around his head. he sees the target approaching fast, and then he sees a red corolla getting out of the way, coming towards his side of the road. he sees the man behind the wheel in a striped tie and begins to hesitate, and then he remembers black turban again.
okay. let me explain. a confluence of events gave rise to this post.
just before i left home this morning, a colleague called and said that there had been a suicide attack on an army bus near taimani, a section of kabul. some civilians had been injured. the way i did not give this news any second thoughts and went right back to struggling with my french cuffs gave me a pause, and made me think how banal evil and violence can become, and how the shock-effect of these events wear off as one lives in the midst of it. later, when i asked the driver about it, he shrugged casually and said “it was just an explosion and it’s finished” -something that reflects the outlook of most people in this city on explosions that take the lives of ordinary people. of course serena bombing was a whole different affair: “Foreigners in Kabul still shaken”.
then i saw the news about a young woman of 25 who burnt herself in a courtroom in laghman province, because the court had apparently not allowed her a divorce.
lastly, when i checked the comments on previous posts, i saw that wolf club chronicler is finally back (hence the literary/fictional tone -he knows what i mean). so i had to sit and let this flow out of me.
it is, as i hope the reader realizes, a mostly fictional piece written in “stream of consciousness” style. the characters are all fictional. and yet those characters stand in for real life people in real life situations, whose lives are affected by black turbans and white wigs on a daily basis. to those this piece is dedicated, with a hope that it puts a human face on the statistics: the woman who sat herself on fire, the young man whose biggest disappointment in life has nothing to do with the promised 72 virgins, and those who will not return home because they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. all these, and others like the charming arab in a black turban, have substitutes in real life. i am not so sure about your honor in white wigs though. even i would admit that’s a bit surreal for a courtroom in laghman.
originally written for and cross-posted at ‘hamesha-the vignettes’, filed under “dreamscapes”, “madness”, “stream of consciousness”, and “melancholia”.
Since just about everybody concerned about matters Afghanistan-related has by now heard of the Afghanistan Study Group Report and its ominous “failed state” and “forgotten war” forebodings, and is scouring the internet for the report PDF file, here it is:
The report is in reality a compilation of three studies commissioned by the Afghanistan Study Group (itself modeled on the Iraq Study Group) headed by a high-powered duo (former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired General James Jones) and backed by a number of illustrous DC think-tanks (CSIS and the Atlantic Council among them).
No promises, but I may do a post about the report contents and recommendations once I have gone through it myself.
There seems to be a flurry of exchanges and posts and calls ahead of the next JCMB meeting in Tokyo (with counter-narcotics dominating the agenda) to prove that the poor farmers in Hilmand are driven to poppy cultivation by poverty, and those who have it so well in the north, center and elsewhere don’t really have to grow poppy. Case in point, the latest posts on ICGA Blog by the political scientist and ‘super-academic’ Barnett R. Rubin. The cynic in me always manages to be alarmed by such heightened activity just as many a predator in the wild would by sudden movements. So here it goes…
First, all this talk about poverty and poppy just makes me think of a common anecdote in the south that someone recently related to me that goes something like this: Upon being asked how much he earned from his opium crops the previous year, an illiterate Hilmand farmer said, after a long pause: “I dunno the rest of it but I know that I bought 160 Sarachas among other things…” (Saracha is the name in Afghanistan of a station-wagon like vehicle commonly used for passenger transport and as taxicab)
Now this may well be an exaggerated number, not least because who in the world needs 160 vehicles unless they want to open a full fleet limousine service for the drug barons of the south, but it goes to show the extent in the popular imagination of the wealth associated with narcotics. And not to say that all farmers have an equal access to that wealth, in fact I agree that the farmers get the smallest of the dividends from opium cultivation, but the externalities from opium cultivation, and the ripple effects and the multiplier effects (on consumption, for instance) of the opium wealth cannot but have an impact on the overall welfare of the residents of Hilmand.
I agree with Mr. Rubin that UNODC is wrong if it says that poverty does not have anything to do with poppy cultivation – but UNODC has never said such a thing. In fact, what they have said could be interpreted more closely to mean that poverty is no more primarily associated with poppy cultivation in Hilmand –the province that produces more drugs than the rest of the world put together, including all of Afghanistan’s provinces with the exception of Hilmand itself- and that is an assertion that I am comfortable with, especially if it is backed up with evidence from the field and research, as UNODC claims it to be. Of course nobody, not Mr. Rubin, not the UNODC is claiming that poverty is the only driver of opium cultivation, and neither is anyone saying that poverty is not a factor in poppy cultivation at all. I think nobody can make such over-generalized assertions with certainty and authority about any social and economic phenomenon anywhere, not least in the muddle and shady enterprise that is the poppy world of Afghanistan.
By the way, none of this is to support eradication-only policies or to negate the importance of building alternative livelihoods in order to wean farmers in the south off opium. It is just another voice calling for moderation on both sides, on part of those who have taken it upon themselves to defend the honest, poor, and never greedy poppy farmers of Hilmand (and where does this motto come from: “greed is good” and that it is part of the human nature, and that those idiot Marxists failed because they neglected this simple fact of the human nature?), and those on the other side who are allegedly insisting that poppy and poverty are not related at all.
The danger in trying to associate poppy primarily with poverty in the south is to give the wrong impression that because poppy cultivation is largely a southern problem, then by logical inference poverty must also be a major problem only in the south, unlike those other provinces that are relatively or completely poppy free, and hence better off. That would have tragic policy implications in a land already mired by social justice issues and with just about everybody crying out foul over the way aid money and development budget is allocated by provinces.
By the same token, of course it would be wrong to completely dissociate poppy from poverty -that would in effect turn on its head the difficultly-achieved consensus on the importance of alternative livelihoods.
Let’s just say that poppy and poverty and politics are somehow linked together and that the Raison d’être of this sinister ménage à trois has to do with more than the simple fact they all share the beginning two letters of their names in the English language -and leave it at that. I for the life of me can’t seem to get my head around the many nuances of it, or the fact that the problem that everyone is trying to address seems to be growing exponentially as the years go by, and as more money is spent on putting an end to it.
There you have it, my lowly two cents added to the billion dollar argument about a multi-billion dollar industry.
Since Afghanistanica has taken to shamelessly stealing my blog posts, and since it has become blindingly clear that I cannot continue to rant as prolifically as I used to (in one notable instance replying a comment with a 30-chapter treatise), I have decided to steal one of Afghanistanica’s ingenious techniques for getting out of serious and effort-demanding blogging: Random Photo commentary (the other is the TOOCQ method which I shall appropriate in due time.)
Here on Safrang, the rules applying to the “From Afghanistan with Love” series are that the photos will come from my flickr photo stream and will all be taken by me, and save for the instances when I decide to post bad-hair day photos or of colleagues behaving badly, the photos will all have some sort of relevance to the “situation” in Afghanistan (I love how certain words in the English language quickly adapt to become shorthands and codes and save you paragraphs of description.)
We will begin the series with a photo of Baba-i Za’faran, with the attendant commentary appearing below the image.
It is not everyday that I get emails addressed “Dear Editor,” imploring me to use my large readership to spread the word about a new film. So when I got an email from WMM about Eva Mulvad’s film “The Enemies of Happiness,” and thought about the possible royalties that could flow from rendering similar services for studios and publishing houses, I decided to do this post.
Hear ye! Hear all ye left-leaning American voters with loose purse strings and heart strings:
The National Broadcast Premiere of “A Woman Among Warlords” based on “Enemies of Happiness: The True Story of A Young Woman Fighting for Changes in Afghanistan” will be aired on PBS at 9PM on September 11th.
For more information, visit WMM website.
On a housekeeping matter, this first ad will be done on a pro bono basis, because I recall having praised Ms. Joya as “a fearless voice” earlier on this blog. Potential advertisers may contact the sales and advertisement division of Safrang. Also, a review of the film is forthcoming on Afghanistanica.
While it has become fashionable among respectable and otherwise self-restrained bloggers -Farsi and English alike- who do not usually make it their business to approve or disapprove of other people’s behavior to write admonishingly of Malalai Joya, I am not hesitant to put myself down as one of her admirers. Mind you, I take this stance without necessarily approving of her methods, or those of her handlers. All the same, as I have said before, what she is doing now -regardless of her methods, and perhaps because of them- is “cathartic for our national soul.” I thought so before the French Elle Magazine got ahold of Ms. Joya, and before she was airbrushed and pampered and made presentable into the rather good-looking and chic freedom fighter that she is now, and I still think so.
This announcement will come as no surprise to those who have been reading these notes for a while. The past couple of posts must have seemed, well, a bit different.
Yes, drastic changes are afoot, and against all expectations -including those of my own- I will be blogging less of the negatives and more of the positives. I know -shocking. This rarely sounds like “the belly of the beast.”
The hard and unavoidable fact is that this blog is well-known all over the world for its bitter sarcasm (and for the self-deprecating humor and the humility of its author.)
Enough of sarcasm and bitterness. Enough of negativity. No more!
Back in the US, I would hear of all that was ‘wrong’ with Afghanistan and write about it. Here, the ‘wrong’ assaults your senses. Invades your world. Shrinks your horizon. And gets you down – down, down, down with itself into the abyss. And as someone very dear to me once said, “if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss will look back at you.” And so here you have to look for what is remaining that is good and right – and grab onto it for dear life. To remain floating and sane. That, henceforth, will be the stuff of “Safrang” and commentary on this blog.
(But that may as well be Herat, which utterly confuses and makes a ‘pessoptimist’ of everyone!)
I know this is no substitute for serious blogging/commentary on the situation here, but someone just forwarded this link to me and I felt a wee bit proud and wanted to share it with whoever still visits Safrang -at the risk of being accused of shameless self-promotion. (Also because it is a change –however small– from what you get to read about Afghanistan nowadays on blogs – which is mostly doom and gloom.)
In a few days I will be travelling north on business. Hopefully that will give me the right impetus to start blogging again. Life –so much has happened in the intervening period– and work in Kabul have joined forces and leave me little time for “informed commentary.”
If you have set your homepage to BBC Persian’s Afghanistan page and hit refresh with a frequency that makes you wonder if you suffer from OCD, then you know what I am talking about.
Early yesterday morning, the page carried this headline:
“Parliament Votes to Grant Independence to Radio Television Afghanistan”
Within an hour of my first visit, the same story was titled differently:
“Radio Television Afghanistan Will Continue to Function As a Government Agency”
Substantively, the article had not changed all that much.
Both versions said, in essence, that as a result of a vote in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of Afghan parliament) the state-run RTA will be granted functional autonomy and freed from the shackles of the Ministry of Culture (MoC) while at the same time continuing to be funded and run as a government agency.
All the same the change of title and tone is telling. One wonders whether the gestapoesque writ of the MoC and of Attorney General Sabit extend over the British Broadcasting Corporation as well. More than likely it does not, which is why BBC of all outlets should salvage some dignity and spine.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
On a related note, the parliament’s symbolic granting of functional autonomy to RTA and its separation from MoC, while at the same time debating how best to cut back on freedom of the press, amounts to “one step forward, two steps back.” As a continuing state-run agency, one cannot be too hopeful for a radical overhaul in RTA’s management or content. Privately-owned television stations like Tolo TV and Aina TV present the best hope for the future of media in Afghanistan. With the expected passing of the new media law by the parliament, however, even these independent outlets will be subjected to newer and certainly more draconian restrictions.
Related on Safrang:
When I set out about six months ago with a renewed zeal and a shiny, new WordPress template to do my part in “filling the void of… serious English language blogs on Afghanistan reflecting the national perspective,” I knew I was embarking on what would be a quixotic journey.
Today, the battle against blogger apathy and editorial neglect of Afghanistan is still as uphill. Good thing a hopeless romantic like me would have nothing less.
Still, even a hopeless romantic cannot help being overjoyed when coming across things like this:
Overnight I have learned about two noteworthy incoming links to Safrang: first, a wholesome endorsement from Eteraz.org‘s Eterazi-in-Chief (citing Safrang as “an excellent blog about Afghanistan”); and this morning, an email announcing that Safrang’s feed will be regularly included in the Washington Post-Newsweek’s blog PostGlobal as part of its daily “This Just In” feature. My heart beats like a dhol, like a dhol… dum dum dum.
The links are set to take Safrang breezing past the 10,000 visitors mark by the end of the day -a milestone.
I have been a longtime regular reader of both these websites, and highly recommend both to Safrang’s readers. (Both have been linked to in the links panel under “Other Links.”) I should also admit here and now that I have learned a thing or two from Eteraz about nonchalantly blogging about challenging issues, and writing about serious stuff without taking myself too seriously -all the while adding a tad of self-deprecation for good measure.
A word of welcome to the Eterazistanis and the readers of PostGlobal. Heartfelt thanks also to Safrang regulars who have stuck with this blog though hell and high water (notice no posts for the whole month of February? I promise such travesty shall not be repeated.)
Lastly, as a sign of coming attractions on Safrang, word to readers old and new alike: in a couple of months’ time, this blogger will journey 30,000 feet up and 10,000 miles eastwards to his native land. Stay tuned for Safrang from Afghanistan.
Safrang: Editorializing Afghanistan, Because the Wall Street Journal Does Not.
* Farsang: (Farsi) Milestone. Also an ancient Persian unit of distance.
UNFPA to help Afghan gov’t launch national census
The UN Agency for Population Fund ( UNFPA) would support the government of Afghanistan to launch a national census, Executive Director of the agency Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said Monday.
“UNFPA is supporting the government to conduct its first full national census. The result will help determine the approaches needed to address Afghanistan’s most pressing social and economic development needs,” she told newsmen at a press conference after arriving in Kabul.
The project would be launched in 2008 while a pilot census will begin by July this year.
No complete census has taken place in Afghanistan over the past 30 years.
The project for national census would cost around 60 million U. S. dollars, Obaid’s colleague and Regional Director to Asia- Pacific Sultan Aziz said.
All we can say is: about time.
It is striking that more than five years after the collapse of Taliban, and about 30 years after the last national census was held in Afghanistan, finally some attention being paid to this important, baseline national indicator that figures prominently in discussions about national identity and political representation as well as in reconstruction and macro-economic policymaking (workforce data, unemployment rate, social security and retirement benefits, etc.)
There are those who have questioned the accuracy of the last national census (1981?) in debates about, you got it right, ethnic composition of Afghanistan. Hopefully the upcoming survey in 2008 will put these speculations to rest once and for good. Also, a few days ago here on Safrang we had our own little discussion related to this topic. The episode revealed to me the inherent difficulty of not having reliable statistical data to fall back on (and no, CIA Factbook does not meet those standards.)
Gregory Warner writes for Slate explaining how the release of Daniele Mastrogiacomo and the subsequent death of Ajmal Naqshbandi played into the Taliban’s hands.
Earlier I had made a similar point here on Safrang with Fallout from Ajmal Naqshbandi’s Death, but Greg’s piece is far less speculative and more based on interviews (including with Afghan MPs and a Taliban spokesperson) -which is probably why it is published on Slate and not on some little known personal blog.
Here is an excerpt:
Inside Afghanistan, Naqshbandi’s death is seen as more than the unfortunate result of a poorly managed hostage crisis. It’s viewed as emblematic of an imbalanced system that freed one journalist but left his two Afghan staff—without the weight of a European government behind them—to die in the desert. “Why was the Afghan journalist forgotten?” asked Sayed Sancharaky, head of the Afghan National Journalists Union, which had organized protests for Naqshbandi’s release. “Are we firewood? Are only the foreign journalists human beings?”
The cry had resonance in a country increasingly frustrated by the international presence. “It’s crystal clear for everyone that the government has a two-faced policy,” said parliamentarian Habiba Danish. “Five Taliban are exchanged for one Italian journalist, and nothing is done to help an Afghan boy.”
Even Naqshbandi’s murderers joined the chorus. After Mastrogiacomo’s release, kidnapper Mullah Dadullah taunted Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Italian television, saying the fact that he still had Naqshbandi showed that the Afghan government was only interested in saving foreigners. “We want to prove that Karzai’s regime doesn’t care about Afghans,” added Mullah Ibrahim Hanifi, a Taliban commander and spokesman, explaining why they were holding onto Naqshbandi. He spoke to me just before Naqshbandi’s murder was announced, while his fate was still undecided. “Whatever happens to Ajmal, the government and the foreigners will take the blame, because they’re the ones in power now.”