A Recipe for Losing Afghanistan

October 31, 2006

And we are back from the commercial break! Thanks for staying with us for Part-II of “How Best to Lose Afghanistan”- the delicacy you are just about to savor. Where were we?

Ah, yes! So you have the dish with various ingredients in it (Warlords – dozen of, cleaned up and debearded, mixed together; Drugs – a goodly few thousand tonnes of, processed or otherwise; Slow/ineffective reconstruction – five years of; and Corruption – per taste, no need to be tight-fisted with this ingredient) at the ready.

Let this simmer for some five years (during which period you can go away and busy yourself with some sort of distraction… like Iraq) and then come back and add the following to get the desired delicacy (about which, mind you, nothing is really delicate : a monumental collapse and implosion, a likely humanitarian catastrophe, and inevitable far-reaching fallouts.)

Additional ingredients:

1. Shady Deals with the Taliban: This one is essential to get just the right kind of tang. Start making deals with Taliban remnants and gradually pull back from the areas that you leave in their trust. This ingredient will work its magic of extremism, anachronism, male-chauvinism, wahhabism, and other quite potent -isms.

2. Civilian Casualties: liberally bombard the dish with every seasoning at your disposal. The desired effect is total alienation of the hearts and minds that will work in collusion with the additional ingredient #1 and contribute to the final pate.

3. Re-legitimize Gulbuddin and Mullah Omar: By making overtures that they, quite sadly, might reject at first. Realize that you are the one who is at their mercy at this point, so you have to swallow your pride. Their role in completing your concoction is quite essential.

4. More Alienation: Of hearts and minds in other regions, by narrowly focusing all your attention to a certain part of the dish. Make sure the other areas understand this.

5. Lastly, and most importantly, keep listening to me -I am your advisor -think-tank -study group -working paper -white paper -expert- observer-consultant-…, and I have spent my entire life studying the dish, so you can be certain I know its ins and outs. In one word, I am your gourmet chef and you need me to get this delicious disaster just right.

Now sit back, engage in some other failed diversion (you always have another episode of Axis of Evil to busy yourself with) and wait.

Give it no more than two years at most, and enjoy!


Thank Your Government for Neglect

October 31, 2006

I was recently at a gathering on Afghanistan held at a DC think-tank. Much of the discussion was understandably focused around the two themes of “what went wrong?” and “what now?”. During the Q&A session somebody asked whether there were any plans to tackle the lack of electricity in most of the country and its unreliability in the capital. One of the panelists, a journalist who had recently travelled to Afghanistan, shared this intereting anecdote:

“In western parts of Kabul and many parts of the Central Highlands region, members of the Hazara ethnic community have started self-sufficient, micro-level electricity generation schemes. These are highly successful models of community participatory development that have taken place largely outside the purview of the government and the NGOs. In many of these areas, power availability is much more reliable when compared even with the capital region. Already a well-developed system of billing is in place whereby those moneyed businessmen who capitalize on the generators and their fuel collect money from the people in return for the service.”

I can personally corroborate this with anecdotes of my travels to Jaghori district of Ghazni province last summer, where many houses used electricity for lighting, and some even had televisions and satellite dishes. (In fact, I remember the bizzare episode of watching on CNN International the announcement of justice O’Conner’s resignation. I had to explain the reason for my sudden excitement.)

It would be nice to leave it at this. A nice and happy little success story. But I am itching to go on and put this in a historical context for further clarification. And because I am feeling mean and bitter tonight (which is when things suddenly begin to make a lot of sense.)

Let’s start with this bit: “These efforts have taken place largely outside the purview of the government and…”

But of course they are outside the purview of the government! In fact, they have sprung up because of government neglect -and centuries of it- and not despite of it. It is when people are subjected to long periods of systematic neglect, discrimination, and socio-economic marginalization that they learn to fend for themselves. For certain sectors of Afghanistan’s population, to the extent that there has ever existed a central state, its principal raison d’etre and functionality has remained limited to alternating bouts of exorbitant taxation and genocidal warmaking. Effective administration, development, and provision of services has never been a priority in these areas. (To be fair, these have not been much of a priority elsewhere either, but we are speaking in comparative terms here -so don’t pretend like you don’t see my point.)

This is reflected even today, for instance, in the staggering figures for infant and maternal mortality rates in the neglected Badakhshan province in the northeast, and official footdragging with the construction of a vital highway to the central province of Bamiyan -three years after the Italian government has pledged the funds specifically for the project! (I travelled along this road last year, and let’s just thank the Japanese for their dogged Land Cruisers. Even so, it is a bone-crushing experience. If anybody out there is thinking of it, I would caution and recommend the presidential means of transport- helicopter yourself to Bamiyan, or the breathe-taking Band-i Amir, or wherever else you want to sightsee for a day or two and campaign and make promises and out you go.)

So let’s not credit the Hazaras too much for their resourcefulness and self-reliance. They have had centuries to learn that -in the immortal word of the king of pop- : “They don’t really care about us.”

(Incidentally, this same hard-won lesson may place them in an advantageous position in an era where statist models are giving way to social entrepreneurship and civil society -driven growth… or am I getting ahead of myself talking about Afghanistan?)


Political Correctness and Muslims

October 30, 2006

YagShemash!

Borat is the talk of the town nowadays. The biting satire of middle America’s parochialism and its inexplicable, long-cherished, and perfectly healthy tradition of vehement anti-semitism is about to be released this weekend.

I eagerly anticipating to latest of import from glorious nation Kazakhstan.

But I am here not to speak the Borat talk and tell you about movies. There is something more serious at issue here, and thanks to my incisive insight, you are soon going to be privy to it too.
The question at hand is, how did the creator of the character Borat, and its equally popular and imaginative Ali G, get to be so “massiv”?

For context to the discussion below, you may want to watch this documentary on youtube: Ali G Before He Was Massiv. (You can skip to 6:40 to see what has really gotten all up in my kool-aid)

And the answer is, the Western world’s magnanimity and kindness towards Islam. It seems that besides other requisites of the trade (wit and talent, looks and luck, and connections), the comedian Baron Sacha Cohen also has his fictional Muslim identity to thank for his success. Or at least the kindness and condescension that most of the guests in his interviews (that include some high profile names such as the former FBI director, a NASA shuttle commander, Ralph Nader, Jenna Jameson, Gore Vidal, and…) exhibit towards him as a purported Muslim.

These are the words of the show’s producer:

“…I was a bit worried that he’ll be challenged… and I thought that well, if he sounds Muslim people are not going to challenge him. So that’s why he’s called Ali…”

Yes, my friends, you can get away with anything, including stupidity, insult, and offensive behavior nowadays, thanks to the political correctness that is magnanimously showered on Islam. Because (and this is the premise that I think reveals the true genious of the character’s producers), after all, what can a self-respecting person in the West expect from a Muslim?

On the one hand -and this happens to be more common nowadays- a largely medieval and unenlightened mindset, a curious predisposition to wanton violence, and an inexplicable hatred of Americans and their liberties. On the other hand, and diametrically opposite of the first group, are those that have succeeded to cleanse themselves of all vestiges of this medieval cult and are on the road to joining the modern world. In short, those that have been successfully de-Islamified and as “moderate Muslims” (be sure to check out Ali Eteraz’s rendition of this category) constitute the future hope of all currently Muslim peoples around the world. This latter group needs our (the West’s) support, and for that, they should be forgiven minor excursions of behavior such as the character Ali G perpetrates on his respectable interviewees.

Now some might say that this is not true. If anything, there is need for greater political correctness and “tolerance” (which is itself another euphemism for forced acceptance on grounds of political correctness) in the West towards Muslims. What about racial profilings? Suspension of civil liberties? Detensions without trial? Surely hamesha you must have lost your mind to suggest that Muslims in the West suffer from an excess of kindness and tolerance!

To which I say, you are right, and these suggestions do not preclude my earlier categorization of Muslims the West in the aforementioned taxonomic units. The moderates are friends of the West and surely have no qualms about temporary suspension of civil liberties and other breaches of their constitutional rights. After all, they know best that such times call for stringent measures. Everyone else constitutes a grave and present danger to the national security -and in the long term, to our collective human-historical-civilizational security- and should be dealt with accordingly.

But back to Ali G. Ever since discovering the comedy on YouTube a few months back, I was wondering whether he was of Pakistani/South Asian origin. Unbeknownst to me that the obviously Muslim name was given to the character to immunize his obviously outlandish and irrational behavior against logical challenges. Confronted with a Muslim host, many guests chose self-deprecation over rational, critical reasoning and played along, with an attitude that is often blatantly condescending and maddeningly kind. More from the show’s producer:

“You can see some of them (interviewees) going: ‘this guy isnt for real…’ You could see it in their eyes. But they dont dare, they never dare, and I am sure part of that is because he is called Ali…”

I had a political science professor in college who once complained to me that he felt a pressure to be soft on Islam when discussing it in the classroom, partly because of a sizeable number of other Muslim students who may take offense. I told him that to those who get it, there is nothing more offensive than precisely this kind of kindness and tolerance. Intolerance on grounds of ignorance can be offensive and unpleasant, but I have greater hopes that an ignorant Islamophobe will turn around and learn to coexist with Muslims after learning about them, than a politically correct liberal who chooses not to challenge (and hence not learn about) Islam becuase it is not nice or acceptable to do so. And besides, let’s be frank, there are certain things that need to be challenged about Islam, certain things that are medieval about it and should go away, and it is thanks in part to political correctness that they still rest on their hollowed pedestals of dogma.

In fact, I would advise most of my non-Muslim acquaintances to err on the side of political incorrectness (ok, when it is not very costly to do so), because that probably brings up some misunderstanding on their part, or some real inconsistency within Islam -either way a good opportunity to try to discuss and understand it.


And I thought I was in denial…

October 30, 2006

Watch O’Reilly try to debunk the “myth of Taliban resurgence” in Afghanistan in this video courtesy of Think Progress.

While I do think that much of the talk on Afghanistan’s slipping back into chaos is myopically focused on security and the southern parts of the country (at the expense of hearts and minds in the central and northern regions and among other vital constituencies,) only somebody like O’Reilly can have the kind of pig-headed audacity to deny reality as he does.

Here is an excerpt:
SEWALL: Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s going backwards.

O’REILLY: That’s a myth.

SEWALL: — which I think speaks –

O’REILLY: That’s a myth.

SEWALL: — to part of the problem with the focus of effort on Iraq. We risked losing the progress that has been made in Afghanistan.

O’REILLY: Now you’re just – that’s not true. There’s always going to be a Taliban insurrection.

SEWALL: It is true.

O’REILLY: As long as they have mountain – now it’s not. Every military analyst working for our team says most of that country is pacified.

SEWALL: Maybe you should be talking to the people on the ground –

O’REILLY: I talked to everybody.


“How We Might Lose Afghanistan”

October 30, 2006

Bear with my whinery on Afghanistan (previous post.) Admittedly it is agonizing to see things falling apart in your country. Especially when you still have many family and friends and a whole childhood’s worth of happy and sad memories buried there -not to mention a painfully maintained resolve to return there after finishing school. So yes,  I am going to be writing on Afghanistan.
Kevin Newman (blog) is an award-winning Canadian journalist and anchor of Global National TV program there (apparently Canada’s Nightline.) He was recently in Afghanistan covering “Operation Medusa.” This is the joint ANA/ISAF/NATO military offensive in the south that was led by Canadian forces aimed at ousting the Taliban from Panjwayi district and the Arghandab valley area of Kandahar. The operation has been one of the bloodiest both in terms of military (coalition and insurgents) and civilian losses of life. Reports of scores of civilians killed by in the various battles during and after the end of the offensive recently prompted an investigation into the civilian deaths, and later an apology from the NATO commander in Afghanistan. More on this later.

For now, I would like to call your attention to how Mr. Newman thinks “we might lose Afghanistan.”  (Needless to say, I strongly agree with him on this):

“…Which is rampant in Afghanistan. The Afghan police are especially corrupt. To leave Kabul we had to keep paying authorities to make it past impromptu checkpoints without incident. A Westerner I chatted with at the airport says the cost of getting through it is now around US$300 in bribes. Regular Afghans are fed-up. Western money is flowing into corrupt officials and everyday people are not seeing enough change for the better in their lives. That is how we might lose Afghanistan.”

For more insight and anecdotes of his visit to Kandahar, how the military base there is one of the largest in the country and a rather well-kept secret, and thoughts on a “ramp ceremony,” visit his blog.


On Afghanistan

October 28, 2006

No. I am not going to write about Afghanistan. Not now.
I am unable to bring myself to write on this subject. Especially these days it is a big wad of unpleasant news. And I am in denial.

What is there to write about that has not already been written, opined on anyways? It just seems like an old, tiring cycle -one that anybody with a cursory glance at our sorry history would know has been repeating itself for at least three centuries now. Especially the last few decades has been a nightmarish deja vu. And all the noise around leaves little appetite to add one’s own voice to the solemn chorus. You can’t get creative here. And creativity, experimenting with new ideas, is a big part of the blogging experience for me. Am I too selfish?

And let’s face it: when all you hear is Afghanistan, at work, in school, on your homepage of BBC Persian for Afghanistan, at lectures, in talks, in your conversations, it just becomes too much to handle. Remember, for me the major attraction of blogging is in it’s escapism.

And so, for those who come here for news and opinion on Afghanistan from an Afghanistani, well, sorry to disappoint. This one is just too tired of it all himself.

But then again you can always count on the regular occurence of one or another collossal adversity happening that wonderful country of mine, enough to leave me sad and stupefied enough to come here and want to share my thoughts on it with you.


On the Immediacy of Politics in the Third World -from an Actor?

October 28, 2006

This morning I was listening to an NPR interview with Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal. The Motorcycle Diaries is his only film I have seen to date (and for someone who has idolized Che since his early teens, the film trivialized his life and left me rather unsatisfied- but let’s not digress.)

In this interview, one gets a glimpse of the young actor’s mind -and it is a rich place. He speaks with the same intellectual cultivation and literary-philosophical sophistication as if he were a novelist and not an actor. Maybe his tone and lofty intellectualism is emblematic of most people associated with the “cinematic arts” in continental Europe (France) and much of the third world (places where cinema and film are still regarded as an art form and not yet an industry or “the showbiz”), and perhaps there is a tad of prentension in all of that. All the same, it is a big break from the intellectual vacuousness of Hollywood (not that I am a regular E! watcher, but it is so pervasive you just can’t help it.)

The respect that Mr. Garcia Bernal accords his profession (“the craft” as he calls it), the hindsight with which he recounts his early career (speaking of a “primal fuel” that all young and ambitious can identify with), and the way he regards the development of many of his characters as “an act of faith” and discovery is diameterically different from what we have come to expect of Hollywood. I can only describe the general direction of the American film industry as a race to the bottom- in its desdain for its audience’s intelligence, its dumbing down of everything, and in the infamous lasciviousness of most of the celebrities.*

Mr. Garcia Bernal also spoke about “owning” a language (in tones that reminded me of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s), and about the immediacy of politics in the developing world poor countries:

“It is very hard to exempt yourself from politics coming from a poor country, it is impossible, because everything you do has a much more …the complexity and the qualities of a political decision..whatever you do.. going out to the streets and deciding where to buy what you have to buy..it involves a politics decision everywhere else, but in poor countries you feel it even more closely…”

All in all, something you won’t hear in Hollywood (well, save for Maddonna’s attempt to rescue an African child by bringing him up in America.)

———-

*(“with a few notable exceptions” – I decided to add this as a disclaimer and a way out for when in the future I will take to praising some hollywood flick that I will inevitably watch and perhaps like.)