Letter from Kabul – An Autobiography of Karzai

November 22, 2006

Judging from the way the media dolls him, universities shower honorary degrees, politicians vie for photo-ops, and policy institutes don’t miss opportunities to have him speak when he is in town, Karzai is already a bestseller brand in America.

This is why an autobiography of Karzai would be an instant bestseller and a profitable idea.

That idea happened to longtime Karzai acquaintance and journalism professor at Boston University, Nick Mills, who decided to ghost-write an autobiography of the Afghan president. Professor Mills even took a leave of absence from his job to spend a few months with Karzai in Kabul, resulting in Letter from Kabulto be released next fall.

This summer, however, Karzai -who is famously tactful and reserved in expressing his views particularly towards those he would gladly do without- backtracked on the earlier arrangement of being credited as an author of the book. The book will still be published, but it is now credited solely to Professor Mill and is no longer a first person account. The loss of a more personal style of narrative is bound to take something away from the book.

What I am wondering about is this: could somebody as politic and reserved as Karzai have said anything of substance while still sitting in office? Being honest about history is not a luxury many people afford, especially sitting presidents. That is usually the reserved department of former presidents writing revealing memoirs. Honesty about Afghan history of all things would prove singularly thorny and step on many a friend and foe’s toes alike, something Mr. Karzai has gone out of his way to avoid in the past. By contast, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is by many degrees of contrast more brash than Karzai, and even his memoirs read like a lullaby tale of childhood memories and adventuresome youth save for a few comments (famously the “bomb Pakistan back to Stone Age” line attributed to former State Department official Dick Armitage.) Despite this suspicion that the book will not amount to more than a high-profile version of a consensus, uncontroversial view of events, I do hope the reason Mr. Karzai has pulled out of the deal is because it is revealing and controversial in some way.  To see that, we have another year of waiting until Fall 2008.

For now, here is a glimpse into the contents of the book (an earlier version, before Karzai’s retreat):

Table of Contents for Letter from Kabul/Hamid Karzai; with Nick Mills.
A Brief History of Afghanistan
A Few Facts About Afghanistan
1 Growing up Afghan in a Changing World
2 The End of Monarchy, the Beginning of Jihad
3 Defeating a Superpower
4 Losing the Peace ? As the World Withdraws
5 The Rise of the Taliban
6 September 11, 2001 ? The War On Terror Begins in Afghanistan
7 The Fall of the Taliban ? A New Beginning for Afghanistan
8 Building a New Afghanistan
9 Progress, Promise and Problems ? The Road Ahead

A Call for Help

November 21, 2006

Not for me, for Dr. Ramazan Bashardost.

As a former cabinet minister and presidential candidate and current MP from Kabul (elected with most votes), Dr. Bashardost is that rarity in Afghanistan: a career politician, and one with a conscience. He has clearly devoted his life to the public and is bent on raising important issues for national debate. This is reflected in his numerous tirades in the parliament against corrupt and incapable officials and the government. One could argue that he is playing the role of a legislator meant to balance the excesses of the executive most dutifully. While many people feel that he is too argumentative and tactless, I rarely see this as a shortcoming. Beyond the possibility that it may cost him dearly in terms of personal safety, what he is doing is a challenging the political culture in Afghanistan of appearances, falsities, and niceties, and debating important issues.

However, he has some real difficulty in raising his voice of dissent. He has been educated in France and his knowledge of English is wanting. Consider the following taken from a letter entitled “Letter of Dr. Bashardost to the Position of the Best Justice,” on his website:

It is a law full and nation that attribution job of home sick Afghan.

I proud that this formal document of ministry of ruler and rehabilitation development put authority as lawful position that follow the crime and violation.

Ministery ruler and rehabilitation development that in the end of year 1382their minister made a consensus financially to worth of more than 300 million USD they resaved from this money missionary 64 million in year 1382 spend to the project of development. In the report of Miss Noorzai consistory document number 227 Date 1383/10/17 question is this where is remind money? It means where is 236 million USD ministery ruler and rehabilitation development is count high than low they didn’t help whit control and chin of the Best Justice document (No27Date 83/5/11 No 28 Date of 83/7/10 No 32 Date of 84/10/12 No 46 Date of 83/12 and No 47 Date of 83/10/7).”

The letter concludes:

“I aspect from position of Best low should follow this document serums sin document (2272) date 84/10/7 Mrs. Noorza’s cohistang the chief of improve of capacity.”

It is clear beyond doubt that Dr. Bashardost has something important to say. It is far from clear, however, that anyone can understand the incoherent English that his views are conveyed in. I am not sure whether he is writing the statements on his website on himself or employing the assistance of an aide with little knowledge of English.

It is important that these views make their way into policy discussions and debates on Afghanistan. Dissent, debate, and argumentation is the essence of democracy, and “The Argumentative Mr. Bashardost” (borrowing a phrase from Amartya Sen) embodies that in Afghanistan. I hope he finds somebody to help get his voice of dissent out. Anyone interested can find Dr. Bashardost’s contact on his website.

(Note: It should be made clear that I am not writing this blog entry on behalf of Dr. Bashardost. I was reading his website and felt the English language deficient, hence this post.)

UCLA Incident Update – III

November 21, 2006

As promised, an update on the Mostafa Tabatabainejad taser incident at a UCLA library.

  • For a balancing view, read these two: UCLA/UCPD statement on the incident, and CAIR’s Campus Martyr.
  • Some people feel that there has been a rush to judgement that this is an incidence of “police brutality.” While it is clear from the video that excessive use of force occurs, apparently there are strict technicalities for what constitutes excessive use of force and police brutality. Until the outside investigation reaches a definitive conclusion on the matter, the word to use is “incidence.”
  • Many feel that the issues has been politicized. Such issues usually are, and now in the era of YouTube and personal blogs like this, that likelihood only increases. For some, this is an automatically bad development -“politicized” is ia dirty word, almost like “perverted” or “contaminated.” While I do not agree that issue politicizations of all sorts are necessarily bad, there is a chance that the issue will become fodder for those who want to feed their narrow political agendas. The statement from Iranian Foreign Ministry comes to mind, for instance. It is important to be careful that these narrow politicizations do no happen. The Rosa Parks bus incidence was clearly politicized, and it provided the spark for a much needed debate on civil rights. That is the right sort of issue politicization, and the sort that is needed now when it comes to treatment of Muslims in the West (I would still argue that the treatment of Muslims in the US is far superior to that in Western Europe.)
  • The student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, has hired a lawyer and is planning to file a lawsuit (federal civil rights court) against the police on grounds of excessive use of force and false arrest.

A Survey of the Afghan People

November 21, 2006

Asia Foundation has just released its survey of Afghanistan titled “Afghanistan in 2006: A Survey of the Afghan People.”

The survey is touted as “the single-largest, most comprehensive public opinion poll ever conducted in Afghanistan,” and captures public opinion on issues of security, democracy, poppy cultivation, the media, the economy, the roles of Islam and women in society, the parliamentary elections, as well as attitudes towards governing institutions.

The methodology used is in-person interviews with more than 6,200 men and women across ethnic, regional, and socio-economic lines.

Comments on Methodology

It is important to point out that this methodology (in-person interviews) suffers from shortcomings that are widely acknowledged by most researchers. Regardless of how random the sampling, and how big the sample size, these confounding issues remain. This is why most polls, interviews, and other surveys of public opinion should not be relied on exclusively as the basis of research. However, where there are few other means of gathering information on a subject, surveys like this see wide usage. I am afraid this is common practice when it comes to Afghanistan. (There are however notable exceptions to this where the biases and margins of error that plague most surveys are countered by using other methods. One such exception is the “Measures of Progress” report on Afghanistan put out by CSIS’s Post Conflict Reconstruction project. They produced their first “Measures of Progress” report last year, and a follow-up is expected this year. I will post it on this blog when it is available.)

Surprise Findings

> A whopping 77% of the respondents felt satisfied with the working of democracy in Afghanistan.

> Large majorities (above 85%) of the respondents said that they trusted the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. (This is counter to what the recent report on the state of the Afghan National Police would have suggested.)

> Attitudes towards gender were surprisingly liberal as well (at least for this writer.) A majority of respondents agreed with “equal rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religion.”

These findings amount to much-needed positive PR for both the governments of Afghanistan and the US.

And then there are not so surprising findings. Perceptions of corruption are widespread. 75% felt that the government did not care about their opinion. Poverty and a poor economy are cited as top concerns.

A Word of Caution

Overall the survey’s findings are positive. People are optimistic, they are satisfied with the process of democratization, and their identification of problems and issues are reasonable.

However, consider the following finding:

“Although, as a principle, 84 percent of the respondents felt that the overnment should allow peaceful opposition, on a personal level 63 ercent said they would not allow political parties they disliked to hold meetings in their area.”

What this points to is a clear dichotomy between “in principal” and “in action” in the mind of the respondents. It shows that there is not a necessary continuity between the views that people profess and what they really believe in (as demonstrated by their willingness to act on their beliefs.) For instance, while attitudes towards political opposition are liberal, most respondents said that they would not tolerate meetings of those they do not agree with. One can imagine how such “in principal” professions such as “equal rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religion” would not necessarily carry over when it comes to action.

Link to the Survey

A PDF copy of the survey is available here.

Weekend Reading 1

November 18, 2006

Starting with this weekend, I will try to post two or three “recommended readings” every Friday. The theme will reflect that of this blog’s, that is to say there will be no particular theme. Just stuff from all over the place that I have read and liked (I will not recommend something I have not read myself.) These will be essays/articles/poems/blog entries that have struck my own idiosyncratic fancy and you are at liberty to read them or not -they do come highly recommended however.

So how is this any different from my usual posts (that mostly bear links to other readings too)? The answer is, they will not be accompanied by my usually excessive and long-winded extrapolation and commentary. Just for you to read. Maybe through the comments section you can share your thoughts, though with so many lurkers I highly doubt that.

So on to the first weekend’s readings:


Update on UCLA Police Brutality

November 18, 2006

Power to the People! Thanks to YouTube!

Thanks also to a crude cell-phone video of the incident of police brutality against an Iranian student on UCLA campus (see my earlier post) the issue has received much attention.

  • For the third day in a row the video is the most linked-to video on Technorati, prompting this insightful post (Candid Cameras) from Dan Glaister on Guardian’s blog Comment is Free. Consider posting a link to the video from your blog.
  • UCLA officials has taken notice and have ordered an independent investigation into the case. (This was recommended by CAIR-LA earlier.)
  • More interestingly, the government of the Islamic Republic has sent its two cents on the matter: In a statement issues Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry has said that the incident has “hurt the feelings of the Iranian nation.” (It strikes me that the government of Iran lacks the credibility to defend students and to debate brutality against them.

I will fallow this issue over the next few days and report any further developments. It is important that his incident not go unnoticed, and if proven to be motivated by religious or racial intolerance, it should provide the starting point for a long-awaited debate on the matter.

Afghanistan’s Katrina

November 18, 2006

AFP reports: “More than 50 people have been killed and another 100 are missing in western Afghanistan after the worst flooding in years.”Unfortunately the toll is bound to rise -missing usually means dead here. I just think they put the toll lower to get the public used to the idea -the principal of gradualism at work.

The government and the international aid agencies say relief is on the way. What stands between now and this becoming Afghanistan’s Katrina is how they will deliver on that promise. (The comparison is intended only to contrast official attitude and reaction to the catastrophe and not to compare death tolls and loss of property.)