Fresh for the Plucking?

March 27, 2007

If the Taliban were to launch an ambitious recruiting campaign across Afghanistan in the next few weeks, odds are they will find hundreds if not thousands of despairing young men who have been turned down by the handful institutions of higher learning in the country and face grim and unknown futures. These are members of the post-Taliban generation of high school graduates who have long dreamed of gaining a university education -as evidenced by their widespread participation in the university entry exams- and are suddenly finding out that those dreams are shattered -and all for no fault of theirs.

Afghanistan’s few universities are already operating above capacity, and now for another consecutive year university officials have had to turn down some 38,000 candidates who participated in the matriculation exams -a figure nearly double that of last year’s, and representing nearly two thirds of this year’s university hopefuls.

According to a BBC Persian report by journalist Dawood Naji from Kabul, as more and more students graduate from high schools across the country and a greater number of these decide to take part in the university entry exams, authorities will have to refuse entry to an ever increasing number of students. The report cites an estimate by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Learning that in 10 years the number of university candidates will reach a million students per year while the capacity of Afghanistan’s universities will peak at merely 100,000 – only one in ten students will have the opporturnity to attend university. Already the issue is spoken of as “Afghanistan’s crisis of higher education.”

It is easy to foresee where all of this is headed for: The end of the Taliban era was marked by an explosion in primary school enrollments (approximately 4 million for each of the past two years.) As this boom generation reaches high school and later graduates, competition will worsen and universities will be overwhelmed. Just as investment in higher education will ensure a future generation of educated citizens and skilled workers for the country’s reconstruction, neglecting to address this mounting crisis will spawn hundreds of thousands of young people who are too educated and ambitious to settle for the traditional farming and labor employments, and too unprepared and unskilled to fill jobs in the public and private sectors that demand specific skills and a university degree – such a generation of ambitious discontents is sure to provide extremist and irredentist causes with fresh recruits thirsty for a certain future and a sense of meaning and belonging.

Let Us Go to Mazaar, O’ Mullah!

March 21, 2007

(photo by safrang)

It’s Nowrouz today: the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, the beginning of the solar calendar, and the occasion for one of the most syncretic of festivals in the world: a cheerful amalgamation of Islam and Zoroastrianism, pagan rite and religious ritual, red tulip and the holy book.

This spirit of joyful syncretism is captured best in one of the oldest folk tunes in Afghanistan- one that goes through everyone’s mind at this time of the year- where a certain good-natured and blithe Mullah is urged to come partake in the festivities of Nowrouz.

Because in recent times spring in Afghanistan has come to be associated with the thaw that brings on the “spring offensive”, and because the spirit of the joyful Mullah Mamad jan has long died in Afghanistan and is replaced with the haunting spectre of another Mullah, we take the liberty to modify the old tune and urge the latter Mullah to forget the offensive and join in the festive:

Let us go to Mazaar, Mullah Omar jan!



(Thanks to Hatif’s comment admonishing me not to invite the Mullah to Mazaar -and by historic precedence I should know why that would be a terrible idea- I stand corrected. The line above was meant to imply:

Let the rest of us go to Mazaar, O’ Mullah!

Not that the mad Mullah is prepared to listen to either interpretation…)

Yes, Who the Hell Pays These People to Write?

March 18, 2007

Joshua Faust of the indomitable Registan asks “Who the hell pays these people to write?” in relation to a recent UPI commentary about Afghanistan. In a nod to Registan and all the serious blogging that goes on there on Afghanistan, and in furtherance to Joshua’s pet-peeves about the UPI commentary, I have decided to add a few of my own to the seemingly interminable list of factual and other infractions that the commentary perpetrates.

First, highlights from Registan about the commentary:

  • Kabul has about 3.5 million, not 2 million residents. Most live in unregistered housing built outside government control. Also, Iran helped us invade and topple the Taliban—it’s natural for them to maintain a presence there.
  • I guess people don’t fear American bombers anymore, despite the random mis-targeting that has recently killed entire families.
  • I guess, despite all published economic data to the contrary, the opium economy is 2/3 of Afghanistan’s total economy, not the 1/3 commonly cited by the national government, IFIs, and NATO.
  • “An estimated $8 billion a year is needed to dig Afghanistan out of its narco-state status. But the funds aren’t available.” So, did President Bush not just pledge $8.6 billion in aid this year?
  • “The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan throughout the 1990s and killed thousands of Afghans in a vain attempt to establish its dominion.” Wrong decade, wrong numbers (approximately one millions Afghans died during the invasion, most from Soviet/Najibullah massacres).
  • We should send aid through hawala, even though in the following sentence the author says, “it wouldn’t take long to co-opt or silence government hawala circuits.” What?

Committing any of these mistakes would warrant next-day corrections and possibly a rebuke of the writer. That the piece contains so many of them (and that is just the beginning of it) is a testament on how subsidizing papers with a view to making them mouthpieces for a certain agenda is a bad idea.

To answer Joshua’s question about who the hell pays these people – well, let’s just say that the paper’s backers tend to view themselves closer to the opposite heavenly abode, i.e. heaven. UPI is owned by New World Communications, which is in turn owned by the Unification Church. Over the years, Reverand Moon who heads the Unification Church has subsidized the Washington Times, the flagship publication of New World Communications at a loss of approximately $1 billion. He has declared: “The Washington Times will become the instrument in spreading the truth about God to the world.”

Back to the commentary, published twice, first under the title Afghanistan’s Opium Tango March 14th on UPI, and later under Broken Afghan Consensus March 17th, Washtington Times. Add to the list of error’s cited by Registan the following:

  • The writer claims The Shia suburbs of Kabul are now under the control of Iranian or pro-Iranian agents. This is an outrageous claim. While it is true that Iran has been attempting to make inroads among Afghanistan’s Shi’a community (largely the Hazara) to claim that their agents “control” suburbs of Kabul is stretching the truth. If anything, new political leadership among the Hazara are generaly suspicious of Iranian support. The Hazara association with Iran in the chaotic decade of 1990s, while low on substantial material/political support, was high on rhetoric and revolutionary spirit. This brought the Hazara widespread rebuke and isolation and the label of “Iranian agents” while in reality it did little to improve their lot. More importantly, there has been a substantial change in how Iran channels its support in Afghanistan. Instead of the initial “Shi’a solidarity” model, it is increasingly chosing to patronize groups along ethno-linguistic and cultural affinity lines. This is why Iran’s presence is far more visible in western Afghanistan and in particular in and around the city of Herat than in central Afghanistan and the Hazarajat.
  • “The U.S. is hoping to diversify Afghanistan’s regional relationships by coaxing Gulf states to become stakeholders;” I suppose the writer means to wean Afghanistan off reliance on neighboring countries, but what is this going to accomplish? I seriously doubt if the US is pursuing such a policy. Instead, I think people are far more worried about managing current relationships vis-a-vis Pakistan and other regional neighbors. Diversifying regional relationships suggests that Pakistan is somehow dispensible in the process – which is simply not true. And it is not like Afghanistan has no bilateral relations with the “Gulfies” and is relying on the US to mend those ties. It is just that the Gulf States are not as crucial and as involved in Afghanistan as its immediate neighbors are. At any rate, the language here seems reminiscent of mutual funds lingo and Wall Street talk than international relations.
  • And today’s Afghanistan is totally insecure, so much so that it has already been promoted to the ranks of failed states…” We assume the author is referring to the annual Failed States Index compiled by Foreign Policy magazine and Fund for Peace. I don’t remember Afghanistan ever being off the list for it now to be “promoted to the ranks” as the commentary says. And anyways, no country is off the list: besides Afghanistan and Sudan, both the US and Norway are on the list too. Technically, all countries are on the “ranks of failed states”, what is important is their position on that list. If anything, inthe most recent ranking Afghanistan enjoyed a better position than before (to the outrage of Pakistan whose ranking was higher than that of Afghanistan), so if anything, Afghanistan was demoted on the ranking.
  • “…except for an all-pervasive opium culture that keeps Afghanistan from sinking into total chaos.” An “all-pervasive opium culture” saving the day in Afghanistan- enough said. And “opium culture” sounds just too intriguing to not wonder what the author exactly means by it- to my knowledge it is the production and not the consumption of opium in Afghanistan that is the principle concern right now, and suggesting the existence of an “opium culture” clearly bears exotic connotations that have to do with consumption. 
  • “Moscow says it still has many friends in the former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance that resisted Talibanization in the northeastern part of the country…” Priceless! To imagine that those among the former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance elements with weaker moral fibers would give in and be Talibanized! This is a prospect that only somebody with the most opaque notion of ethnic relations and political alignments in Afghanistan can contemplate. It is clear that Taliban were primarily Pashtun and aside from the Islamist aspect of their ideology, harbored strong ethno-natioalist sentiments. Suggesting that the Northern Alliance could potentially be Talibanized is absurd.
  • The author cites the recent CSIS report Breaking Point: Measuring Progress in Afghanistan and although quoting the principal findings of the report verbatim, decides to leave out a crucial qualification in the third and last finding. The original line in the report reads: “Conditions have deteriorated in all key areas targeted for development except for the economy and women’s rights.” With a penchant for hyperboly, the writer scissors the sentence selectively and cuts out the part about improvement of economy and women’s rights. This is intentionally misleading (unlike the other mistakes that are driven more by ignorance.)
  • Volunteers from all over the world have been killed and injured by Taliban guerrillas and pro-Taliban civilians.” I can think of quite a few of my Pashtun compatriots who would boil over in anger with this characterization. Those whom the writer calls “pro-Taliban civilians” responsible for the death of aid workers (and they are hardly volunteers in many cases – most of the time, they are paid quite lavishly by contractors) are Taliban who dissolve into civilian life after the day’s job of being a Talib is over. It is true that civilians in some areas do harbor pro-Taliban sentiments, but I have not heard of mobs of such civilians killing aid workers – and that too on such routine basis as to dissuade them from working. The real work of killing and suicide-bombing and blowing up people and schools is done by bona fide Taliban who when need ariseth, fade into civilian life.
  • “Meanwhile, Taliban’s much-touted spring offensive is only days away.” Ahh.. the spring offensive! What would western journalist do without this sujet? The notorious spring offensive has kept talking heads and writing hands busy for months to the degree that I seriously think everyone is simply playing into Taliban hands. Also, I did not know that the spring offensive’s date coincided precisely with the new year Nowrouz, now “only days away.” By all accounts, the offensive is not such a precisely scheduled affair and has been underway for weeks now.
  • “Democratic judicial structures are also stillborn, stifled by criminal networks and bribes, or camouflaged to practice sharia (Islamic) law.” Shariah law constitutes an important and a constitutional source of law in Afghanistan and hardly needs to be “camouflaged.” That the law be inspired and derived from Shariah was overtly decided and is not a secretive affair. 
  • “Mighty Germany won’t let its Afghan contingent do any fighting.” Factually correct – still I found the characterization “Mighty Germany” rather quaint and amusing. 

True, things don’t look their best in Afghanistan, but that should hardly be occasion for journalism to languish accordingly when it comes to writing on Afghanistan. For some time now I have read accounts in papers that have disturbed me in their inaccuracy or for the fact that they have clearly fallen into the political trap of whoever it was that facilitated the journalist’s trip or access to information or translation. This is irresponsible when it comes to the sensitivity of the situation in Afghanistan and the power that the media exerts on opinions and ultimately on decision making in the US, now the largest outside stakeholder in Afghanistan. I hope to muckrake further such eggregious reporting on Afghanistan in the future on Safrang.

Update on New Front + Evolving Hazara Leadership

March 16, 2007

Here is a bit of correction and an update on the previous post about the formation of the new political front by discontents from among Afghanistan’s old pro-communist and Jihadi figures:

According to Pajhwok Afghan News reports, the front, officially called the “United National Front” does include some “warlord”-designates such as former Herat governor and current Energy minister Ismail Khan, Uzbek strongman and advisor to Karzai on security matters Rashid Dustum, and current speaker of Wulusi Jirga (lower house of Afghan parliament) Yunus Qanooni.

Looking at the updated line-up of faces, it seems that the group takes in just about everyone of significance in Afghan politics who is not already co-opted by the government of president Karzai. Two conspicuous absences from the new front are Sayyaf and Muhaqiq, both with sticky ‘warlord’ epithets, and both powerful current MPs with illustrous Jihad credentials.

What explains these absences?

In the case of Sayyaf, he is already co-opted by the Karzai government and operates in locksteps with the administration, but serves his role more usefully if he is publicly seen as an independent MP.

As for Muhaqiq, well, his political career is in dire straits. He has offered himself many times over to the altar of Karzai, but has no takers. He has shown his willingness to gladly throw his lots with anybody (even bitter former enemies like Sayyaf with a long record of proven and documented atrocities against Muhaqiq’s hazara constituency), and at times, he has sought the graces of the government after being sacked from the cabinet as Karzai’s initial Minister of Planning. Owing to a number of miscalculations (most notably joining forces with Sayyaf in the parliament) Muhaqiq’s popularity among the Hazara people has been sliding.

It is against this backdrop that his absence from the United National Front can be explained: Mustafa Kazemi, the new front’s speaker and an instrumental figure in its founding, is styling himself as the unopposed leader of the “Shi’a” of Afghanistan, a dubious group designation that may work well in Iraq, but is virtually meaningless in Afghanistan. It is clear to one and all that politics in Afghanistan will continue to be driven along ethnic lines and not religious or ideological ones for a long time to come. While Mr. Kazemi is not an ethnic Hazara, he does share the Shi’a persuation of Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic community, and he is planning to capitalize on this common denominator to represent them under a new banner.

From the look of things, and from the record of Mr. Kazemi, he should not have any illusions about the Hazara people rallying to his banner. Not because the Hazara people have better alternatives for leadership (as stated above, both Muhaqiq and Khalili have virtually lost their popular support among the majority of Hazara people), but rather, because in what seems to be an interesting and rare social phenomenon in Afghanistan, the Hazara people as a whole are sliding away from personality-based leadership and what Max Weber would term “traditional” roots of legitimacy in their political thinking. Among the urban-dwelling Hazara for a long time, but increasingly also among other Hazara living in central regions, leadership models of yesteryear are eroding in allure and politics is becoming increasingly “issue-based.”(For statistical data on how political thinking has evolved among the Hazara and the very important role played by civil society groups in shaping this new thinking, refer to the Asia Foundation’s A Survey of the Afghan People 2006.)

Old Guard Lining Up to Form New “National Front”

March 15, 2007

BBC Persian reporter Dawood Naji writes from Kabul about the formation of a new political front that brings together what would otherwise be an unlikely cohort of yesteryear’s communist party ranking members (Khalqi and Parchami) and their later Jihadi successors.

The list of founding members features a motley crew composed of known faces from both extremes of the ideological spectrum in Afghanistan: deposed defense minister and the inheritor of Shura-y Nizar Marshall Fahim, comrade Gulabzoy (who has since prefixed his name with “Sayed Mohammad”), friend Nurulhaq Ulumi, former president and head of Jamiat-e-Islami Rabbani, and the group’s speaker Mustafa Kazemi with a dubious political pedigree of his own.

“The National Front,” as the group is called, clearly comprises a powerful bloc within both houses of the Afghan parliament. It is clear that the primary raison d’etre for the newfound unity (“brotherhood” or “camaraderie” take your pick) is the simple fact that within the new political configuration in Afghanistan, people of both above stripes see themselves increasingly marginalized.

Interestingly enough, the new grouping has decidedly shut out figures with the indisputable honorific “Warlord” such as Sayyaf, Muhaqiq, Dustum, and a few others. While the latter mostly sport longer beards and tightly wound turbans, and wear their Jihadi pride on their sleeves, Mustafa Kazemi and crew prefer to go with closer trims and more urbane styles. That in itself ought to place them ahead in the game as far as the American powerbrokers are concerned.

The article in BBC Persian also points out that many of the figures in the new line-up of the “National Front” were disgruntled with the results of the constitutional Loya Jirga, and specifically with the strong presidency. To the end they fought for a parliamentary form of government and an office of the Prime Minister and were clearly unhappy when things turned otherwise. When asked whether the new front would struggle for such structural reforms as the shift to a parliamentary form of government, Mustafa Kazemi deferred to the constitution and change that would be consistent with the stipulations of the constitution. His comrades, however, strongly endorsed such structural reforms.

“Reconciliation and Accountability”

March 15, 2007

“Healing the wounds of the civil war requires both reconciliation and accountability.”

So argue J. Alexander Thier and Scott Worden of USIP in a recent article in CSMonitor.

The authors point out that “although President Hamid Karzai successfully negotiated a crucial amendment to protect the rights of victims of war crimes, the new amnesty law still favors the powerful warlords who sponsored the bill.”

In what seems to be an intentionally vague bit of phrasing, the new bill signed by the president attempts to appease the anxious MPs bent on self-forgiving while at the same time preserving the inalienable rights of the victims:

“The most controversial and confusing aspect of the bill remains its amnesty provisions. On one hand, the revised bill offers general amnesty from prosecution to all former combatants who agree to abide by the Constitution and laws of Afghanistan. However, a crucial clause restricts this reprieve, stating that the amnesty ‘shall not affect individuals’ … criminal or civil claims against persons with respect to individual crimes.'”

Reconciliation and accountability definitely sound great together. Like Khurma and Sawab. Question is, how can both of these be achieved in Afghanistan given the current alignment of powers?

Again the authors:

“The best way to ensure that the new bill becomes a force for reconciliation is to implement it within the framework of the Action Plan for Transitional Justice, enacted by Karzai last December. The plan sets up several mechanisms to foster forgiveness and accountability, such as a commission to vet high-level government officials and a program to build national monuments of remembrance for victims. But crucially, the plan states, ‘[T]here will [not be] amnesty for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations.'”

However, all indications seem to suggest that what initially catapulted the MPs into a frenzy of action that led to the drawing up of the amnesty bill in the first place was the announcement of the same Action Plan for Transitional Justice enacted by the president (which coincided rather ominously with the trials and executions of Saddam Hussain and his cohorts in Iraq.) It is not entirely clear how the stipulations of the Action Plan can be reconciled with the political contingencies of the day.

Reconciliation or Accountability?

March 15, 2007

“Reconciliation or accountability?”

It’s one of those choices that in ideality -as opposed to reality- no one should have to make.

Either the one, or the other. Trouble is, both look so damn pretty it’s hard to decide. Like the story of Buridan’s Ass that starved to death unable to decide between the bales of hay.


Here are a few other ones like it:

1. “Liberty or security?” (pops up regularly in post-9/11 US – and even in Europe!);

2. “Khurma or Sawab?” (Dari proverb meaning “Dates or deeds?”: otherwordly rewards, or instant gratification);

3. “Peace or justice?” (a common one, most commonly heard in relation to Israeli-Palestinian conflict);

4. “To be or, or not to be: that is the question.” (Shakespeare died trying to figure out what it would be like not to be in order to conclusively answer this.)



Title of Soren Kierkegaard’s book in which he refutes the either/or paradigm. It is a refutation of the dialectics of Hegel, who famously had an infectious fetish for either/or. The Victorious Hermit’s choice of the title was ironic, and some say even satirical.


The short, and correct answer to all of these questions is:

-“Both, please. At the same time.”


“Reconciliation or accountability?”

It’s one of those choices that in ideality (as opposed to reality) no one should have to make.

Unfortunately, it’s also a choice that confronts Afghanistan today. In all its harsh reality. And so much depends on it.


I understand the warlords – I do- and their ditch effort to just forgive themselves and be all lovey-dovey and peacey-reconciley.

But then what becomes of so much blood spelt, sons murdered, daughters raped, fathers imprisoned and lost, and mothers left alone and sad?

If something is not done about all so much wrong, the sky would -should- fall down. More realistically, the nation’s soul will be so unclean and tainted at the very moment of its new beginning that it will never be cleansed.

With no accountability, there will be no fresh start, no new beginning -of the kind that Afghanistan needs. With no reconciliation, the cycle will just go on.


So, reconciliation or accountability?

-“Both, please. At the same time.”