The Rocky Road to Ankara

April 26, 2007

If I was an easily excitable octogenarian news junkie, this is the sort of stuff that would send me licking my chops and saying “Oh boy!” As it is, I just get excited and start twitching under the left eye. Why? Because the upcoming Karzai-Musharraf meeting in Ankara is shaping up to be even more interesting than I had predicted. Even the American president failed to have the two shake hands at a White House dinner aimed exclusively at conciliation; perhaps Prime Minister Erdogan should opt for plastic cutlery instead of silverware.

While Karzai has yet to find the platform and the choice words to give his own steamy retort to Musharraf’s comments earlier this month that he is “indeed very angry” at his Afghan partner, and that Karzai’s claims that the Taliban are in Pakistan are “absolute nonesense”, Musharraf scores yet again with yet another western audience.

In an interview published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais today, Musharraf said: “The ones who do nothing against terrorism, like Karzai, are those who criticize those who fight, like us.”

Correct me if I am wrong, but sometimes I get the feeling that having a Western audience who feel oh, all so honored to recieve such dignitaries and who gawk and gloat at the two, just invigorates these men and makes them say things that are not really in their interests, and that they invariably regret later on.

Speaking to an audience of students about Islam and the West, the self-styled enlightened tyrant and benevolent dictator also claimed that both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban “were imported from Afganistan…We in Pakistan are victims.” While I would like to think of myself as separate from the horde that is Musharraf-bashing Afghans, and while I do think that Musharraf is concerned about the ill effects of Islamism of Pakistani society and politics and sincerely wants to tackle it, these claims by the General are factually wrong, and outrageous. Enough evidence exists to show that former Pakistani governments (especially that of the other enligthened Pakistani democrat, Benazir Bhutto) all but gave birth to the Taliban phenomenon.

Now the proverbial ball is in president Karzai’s court. I hope that he refrains from the norm and remains aloof -thus capturing the moral high ground and keeping a modicum of civility at least for the upcoming Ankara meeting. But a devious part of me also wants him to let out in a big way, again. Dammit, it has been so long since the two men’s fall tour of the US news studios.

(For a more detailed commentary and some backdrop about the upcoming meeting in Ankara on April 29, and how Turkey is best placed to host it -owing to historical ties to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the US- read Looking for Love in Ankara)


Watch it, BBC!

April 26, 2007

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:

Freedom of the Press in Afghanistan: A Little Bit Pregnant

The Fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan

Incident at Tolo TV Offices Marks Setback for Press Freedom


Safrang Reaches Farsang*

April 26, 2007

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.


Dr. Abdullah and the Return of the Ousted

April 26, 2007

Ever since being dropped from president Karzai’s cabinet as a result of the 2004 reshuffle, former Afghan minister of foreign affairs Dr. Abdullah has been uncharacteristically acquiescent. Uncharacteristically, I say, given the context of Afghanistan and third world politics. Usually in these settings such high profile dropouts are problematic, and the fact that Dr. Abdullah (and likewise his comrade in arms Marshall Fahim) have proved unwilling (or unable) to be more vocal or active in their opposition to the government only bears good tiding for the country, and bodes well for its political future.

Whether by the force of the circumstances (read American military force) or by the dictate of their own good senses, those who have been sidelined by president Karzai have chosen to abandon the age-old cycle of Afghan politics, and have actually stayed on the sidelines. Further, thanks to president Karzai’s famous personal distaste for sidelining others and his open embrace of assorted rivals and revolutionaries, including not a few undesirables, there are not many who have lost out, thus the absence of a ‘critical mass’ of powerful losers who could turn on the government. (Of course here we are talking about those in the broadly defined political mainstream of Afghanistan, and not the Taliban or those associated with Hekmatyar.)

That is, until recently. The formation of the United National Front (UNF) is a clear sign that those on the sidelines would like to be part of the action. Similarly, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, whose name has not been explicitly mentioned as part of the UNF line-up, has been making pronouncements about the state of Afghan affairs as of late. In fact, in a recent interview Dr. Abdullah raised important and barely veiled concerns about the current government’s performance, the “deteriorating security situation in an ethnically diverse country,” and what he called the government’s “shortcomings in strategic vision.” (Though when asked what he meant by lack of strategic vision, the answer was a muddled tautological mess.)

The recent surge in criticism and political posturing, coincide as it does with the rising tide of insecurity and other travails for the government, goes to show that the initial acquiescence of those who were ousted and marginalized, though partly inevitable in the face of American backing of the Karzai administration, has also been due in part to the fact that the government of Afghanistan was going through its probationary period. Now that its mettle has been tested, and by many an observer’s standards, it has not passed the test, the marginalized few see a clear opportunity in criticizing the government and posturing as an alternative leadership.

If these lines read like an accusation of opportunism, they are not. Quite the contrary: this is a welcome note.

Concerted political opposition is one of the few mechanisms by which democratic governments are held accountable. Even if election season is still far away; even if the current government has the wholesome political, military, and economic backing of the world’s sole hyper-power (and the few who are reluctantly going along, mainly to save face); even if political parties are so nascent in Afghanistan that they have not a hope or a prayer of winning nation-wide, cross-ethnic elections anytime soon; and even if there are far too many bad memories attached to the names of those who currently pose as alternatives; even so, the mere consciousness of an alternative, and a political opposition increases the ‘supply’ in the ‘marketplace’ that is a democratic polity, and is bound to have a positive impact on the government’s performance. This is why political opposition -granted that it remains in the mainstream of national political discourse, eschews extremism, and does not resort to violence- is indispensable to the democratic process in Afghanistan and should be welcomed. This is also the spirit, incidentally, in which the criticisms put forth by the UNF leadership and by Dr. Abdullah more recently have to be used by the government as a laundry-list of its own failings to be addressed.


In the Balance: The Fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan

April 25, 2007

After addressing just about every other issue of urgent national priority, Afghanistan’s fledging parliament has now turned its attention to the nation’s media. We are surprised the body has not picked on this topic sooner. In a country where the political culture is still void of such concepts as accountability and transparency, and where political intrigue and back-room deals are the preferred modus operandi for the most consequential of decisions and policies, the media has played a most important role to date.

From shedding light on official corruption, to turning the camera on the snoring parliamentarians, Afghanistan’s budding print and media outlets have proven surprisingly daring and resilient. Such daring has not come at no cost: under the Shinwari Supreme Court two newspaper editors were sacked, sentenced, and subsequently forced to flee or exiled. The tragic death of Ajmal Naqshbandi was the latest in a long string of abductions and executions of journalists by the Taliban. And more recently, others have taken it in their own hands to rectify the media’s behavior, even if through unconstitutional and extra-legal measures.

Now, the fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan hangs in the balance. The parliament is close to passing a bill that will further erode what little freedom the media enjoys. News of this impending doom has worried all those who have worked to advance the cause of an open society in Afghanistan, as it should worry all those who desire to see an open society take root in Afghanistan.

Report: Media at risk under new Afghan law


At Long Last

April 23, 2007

Via Xinhua/People’s Daily Online:

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.

Source: Xinhua

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.)


Of Hostages and Candidates: Taliban Time Demands with French Elections

April 20, 2007

Royale Sarkozy - Candidates
Socialist Ségolène Royal and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy – Front runners in Sunday’s French presidential elections
Celine Eric - Hostages
Celine and Eric – French aid workers held hostage by the Taliban since April 3, 2007 (along with three Afghan colleagues)

In a rare show of prescience, we had suggested earlier on Safrang that the Taliban will time their hostage demands to coincide with domestic political excitement in France. (Alright, everyone had a similar feeling.)

AFP reports today that the group has demanded the withdrawal of the 1000-strong French contingent within the week and the release of more Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government. The demands come just two days ahead of the presidential elections in France. Although it is not clear how the news will figure into the French elections now that all the campaigning and debates are over, the French have predictably kicked into action, sending an envoy to Kabul to do everything it can to bring the hostages home including, presumably, an Italian-style prisoner swap with the Taliban.

The Afghan government, for its part, is in dire straits. After the Mastrogiacomo-Naqshbandi fiasco that ended in the death of the Afghan journalist, the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans cannot withstand a similar blow. In the aftermath of that episode, president Karzai made it clear that the quid-pro-quo was an exception, and ruled out all future such deals.

At the time, however, the Afghan government was only trying to cover its political rear and did not know that soon it will have to deal with an even richer, more powerful Western European nation with its own history of cohabitational politics and whose presence and friendship it badly needs.


Earliest Islamic Building in Afghanistan

April 20, 2007

Haji Payindi / No Gunbad Mosque
Haji Payinda Mosque (also known as Masjid-i Nou Gunbad), Balkh, Afghanistan.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Volker Thewalt. For more of Dr. Thewalt’s photos of Afghanistan’s historic monuments -taken during the years 1969 thru 1974- visit http://www.bamiyan.de)

The World Monuments Watch recently added Haji Payinda mosque to its list of 100 most endangered sites around the world. Following is a brief description given on WMW’s website about the historic and architectural significance the site, and what is being done to preserve it:

Thought to be the earliest Islamic building in Afghanistan—and one of the earliest structures in the eastern Islamic world—the Mosque of Haji Piyada at Balkh was built in the ninth century, only 200 years after the birth of Islam and shortly after its introduction into Central Asia.

A square mosque measuring 20 by 20 meters, Haji Piyada is also known as the Mosque of Noh Gumbad, for the nine cupolas that once covered its sanctuary. Although the cupolas have long since collapsed, the arches that once supported them still stand, albeit precariously. The arches, like much of the remaining interior surfaces if the mosque, are covered with exquisite, deeply carved stucco designs that exhibit a unique blend of imported Abbasid artistic elements and local traditional styles.

Of unmatched art historical value, the Mosque of Haji Piyada is threatened by looting, high humidity, and erosion, which are taking their toll what has survived. Urgently needed measures to safeguard the site against further damage include the construction of a fence around its perimeter to prevent illicit excavations and the consolidation of surrounding walls to protect against harsh weather conditions.

Decades of war and civil unrest in Afghanistan have made maintenance of the site all but impossible and have stripped the country of the capacity to carry out even basic conservation projects. It is hoped that Watch listing will not only highlight the need to preserve this extraordinary building, but also provide a laboratory for training a new generation of Afghan conservators.


“A Tale of Two Journalists”

April 20, 2007

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.”

Click to continue reading Gregory Warner’s piece on Slate


Afghanistan Congressional Forum Highlights

April 19, 2007

Here is a shot at summarizing what went down at the Afghanistan forum yesterday. I am relying on hastily written notes and residual and highly selective memory, and therefore have no claims to providing a comprehensive summary. Further, I am a shameless name-dropper and am as liable to talk about people as about ideas- so consider yourself warned.
That said, here are a few things I found interesting.

First off, the group Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (with whom this writer worked all too briefly last year – honestly where in Washington’s Afghanistan-related groups has this writer not worked at for at least some time?) should be credited for organization and level of access. Gathering people like a senior Afghan cabinet minister, two top-level US State Department officials, and two prominent American scholars of Afghanistan all under one roof (the US Senate’s at that) needs heck of a lot of reliable networking, good coordination, and legwork.

My only disappointment as far as those present at the event is that only one member of US Congress showed up, and though there was word that Senator Boxer of California might join in, it seems she changed her mind at the last minute or found better things to attend to. That left the Republican Congressman from California Dana Rohrabacher the only representative of US legislature – a body that makes a lot of big decisions on Afghanistan and that therefore ought to take a keener interest in the subject (especially that the event was right at their own doorsteps.)

Though one of very few people in the US House of Representatives who has taken a keen interest in Afghanistan over a long period of time (in itself a frightening fact, and indicative of the American legislature’s lack of interest in the country) I have never been impressed by Congressman Rohrabacher’s record, or his public pronouncements, on the Afghanistan. I think for him, like for many other people, the wellbeing of Afghanistan’s people is not so much an end in itself as it is a piece of a bigger puzzle. In the case of Congressman Rohrabacher, who is famously big on defense, his interest in Afghanistan dates back to the anti-Soviet fight there. Had the interest stemmed from genuine concern for the Afghan people, I am sure he would have found the time and ample reasons to raise the issue throughout the 1990s, during which time the Republicans were in fact controlling the congress. Now that we all live in post-9/11 world, Afghanistan has again resurfaced as a subject of interest for some of the same people only as part of a bigger picture of war on terror, and equally frighteningly, of war on drugs.

This was all too clear from the brief statement given by the congressman -which, if you could get beneath its veneer of humanitarianism and heartfelt sympathy for the sick children of Afghanistan, and the general air of a stump-speech normally given on the campaign trail at the backwoods of Iowa and not to an audience in Washington that is relatively well-informed about Afghanistan- you could see his real lack of interest beyond the two topics of Taliban/Al-Qaeda and Narcotics. The highlight of the congressman’s talk was what he called a “Grand Deal” in which he in effect offered the people of Afghanistan to eradicate narcotics from their country in return for US-provided health-care for the children of Afghanistan. Go figure. To my dismay, Minister Ahadi not only chose to comment on the congressman’s speech, he even found the deal acceptable to the people of Afghanistan.
But then again I know far too little, am famously reactive to paternalism and condescension, and have never really owed anything, at least directly, to Washington’s power politics.

Though I have never been able to hold Professor Barnett Rubin’s attention (in high demand in Afghanistan circles) for more than a couple of minutes on three different occasions -two of which he has cordially terminated by giving me his business card- or to make any substantial conversation with him on Afghanistan, I admire his knowledge of Afghanistan, his relative familiarity with the many nuances of this nuance-riddled topic, and more importantly, his ability to successfully straddle the policy-academia chasm.
Afghanistan in the 1990s was a boring topic for many Americans – and yet Professor Rubin wrote two of his books (that I know of) on Afghanistan during this period, both of which, I should admit, I relied on heavily to learn and write about Afghanistan in my undergrad years, and to use as bibliographies for further research. Lastly, while he has continually talked to both policy and academic worlds about Afghanistan, he has consistently refused to get in bed with the government -or at least with the US government (but then again that could be more due to Professor Rubin’s personal politics: he regularly laments the current administration’s policies over at DailyKos, and both phases of US government’s intensive involvement in Afghanistan happened during Republican administrations.)

I know I am digressing (and yes part of the reason for all this praise is the hope that Professor Rubin will read it and be more willing to talk next time we meet) but the point is that his comments yesterday followed a similar trend and he held fast on many topics that he differed with the US government. He was highly critical of the US government’s food aid policy in Afghanistan and said that it constituted a “pro-narcotics” policy, in that much of the food aid was purchased outside Afghanistan and then distributed there. This is in effect like “dumping” in foreign trade, and upsets supply and demand chains for locally grown staple crops (wheat) and favors drug-cultivation by the farmers who get a better deal out of growing poppies than wheat. I can hardly see how a reasonable person can disagree with this.

About Washington’s narcotics policy in Afghanistan Professor Rubin favored greater emphasis on alternative livelihood development, but criticized the way this was currently done: almost 100 million dollars earmarked for alternative livelihood development in Southern Afghanistan has been channeled to one consulting firm in Washington (I think I know which one) and in turn, they have nothing to show for it on the ground. Asked about the level of aid to Afghanistan, he said that Afghanistan was shortchanged compared to other “post-devastation” countries – a term he borrowed from Ajmal Ghani, the AACC head and panel moderator. On Taliban he was predictably critical of Pakistan’s role, but also said that the US government should not fear democratization in Pakistan as a destabilizing force -in effect disagreeing with Washington’s post-9/11 mentality of either Musharraf or Islamist chaos. He also an impressive pitch in the beginning about the incident at Tolo TV offices in Afghanistan and hoped that the government will address the matter properly.

For Finance Minister Ahadi’s views I recommend you glance at Joshua Faust’s summary of a recent event at Brookings Institution here. Though given at a different event and on a different topic, some of the same sentiments came up in his remarks yesterday: the debilitating complexity of the “Afghanistan project”, the difficulty in prioritizing needs, the need to channel more aid through the Afghan government, and a marked reluctance to mention Pakistan by name as a sanctuary for the Taliban. I have a generally low opinion of people in politics (particularly those in Afghan politics,) so when I see somebody who is relatively well-spoken, and who quotes from Hannah Arendt, I am all the more enamored by them. This is what happened yesterday. Dr. Ahadi has been a lifelong academic, and though I have disagreed with some of his earlier writings -in particular an early paper in a peer-reviewed academic journal in the US on the place of ethnicities in the history of state-building in Afghanistan- nonetheless I hold him in high esteem.

Still I have to say I was rather discouraged by his answer to an impassioned question by a Moby Media representative about the arrest of Tolo TV staff in Kabul he expressed his hope that “civil society and the international community would raise their concern” and that “Afghanistan is a young democracy…and incidents like this should not discourage us.” Needless to say, the burden of investigation and prosecution in this matter rests squarely on the government of Afghanistan and not on civil society or the international community; and that the excuse of young democracy is no way to sidestep tough decision-making, and it could still be used ten years from now. In answer to the moderator’s question whether the aid to Afghan government was enough, Dr. Ahadi thought that compared with the monumental task of “return to normalcy” it was far from it.

While busily wording a question about joint war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan and the feasibility of “decoupling” the two (which I am glad to report I got to ask from Undersecretary of State Nick Burns, with a built-in condolence regarding Monday’s shootings at Virginia Tech no less) I missed an interesting exchange between John Gastright of State Department vs. Dr. Marvin Weinbaum and Professor Barnett Rubin as representatives of what Mr. Gastright termed “Washington thinking.” I caught the end tail of the exchange when Professor Rubin extracted a rare laugh from the audience saying: “I am not sure what Mr. Gastright is referring to by ‘Washington thinking’ – I come from New York.”

That difference could have resulted from any number of issues: from the US government’s emphasis on eradication while many in the policy analysis community emphasize alternative livelihood to the US government’s consistent use of subcontractors for project implementation while one study after another finds them wasteful and lacking effectiveness, there remain a wide range of areas where the gulf between policymaking and policy analysis remains wide open, and conversations such as yesterday’s are bound to contribute a great deal to bridging it.


Incident at Tolo TV Offices Marks Setback for Press Freedom

April 18, 2007

Yesterday’s incident at Tolo TV offices in Kabul (details below) marks another major setback for freedom of press in Afghanistan.

I hope to write a longer opinion piece about this later here on Safrang. For now here is a link to my earlier piece on freedom of press (or more appropriately lack thereof) in Afghanistan:

“Press Freedom in Afghanistan: A Little Bit Pregnant”

It is a critique of overly optimistic assessments of freedom of press in Afghanistan that others had offered earlier. I was hoping otherwise, but looks like I have been proven right.

I had the chance to speak with a representative of Moby Media Group (Tolo TV’s parent company) in today’s forum on Capitol Hill (which I will write about in more detail tomorrow) and he expressed his organization’s frustration with this and many other incidents of intimidation faced by press in Afghanistan.
It bears noting that this is not the first of Tolo’s run-ins with the law in Afghanistan. Willing to always push the envelope, the television was first criticized by the Supreme Court in 2003 for airing videos of women artists, and later a female VJ/host of its popular music program “Hop” was first dropped and later dead under mysterious circumstances.

This is the text of a press release by Moby Media group regarding yesterday’s incident. It is clear that the measures taken were extra-legal and in contravention of all applicable media laws and of Afghanistan’s constitution.

Tonight at about 7pm Kabul time, more than 50 armed men from the 10th District Police, under direct orders from the Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabet, surrounded the offices of Tolo TV in Wazir Akbar Khan in Kabul Afghanistan. The Police physically entered Tolo TV premises and violently attacked staff of Tolo TV, taking three staff members of Tolo TV with them. The Tolo TV staff members, were taken directly to the Attorney General’s Office and detained.

Earlier at about 6.20pm tonight, the Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabet, had complained of a news clip on the 6pm Tolo TV news, which he claimed was inaccurate or misrepresented the Attorney General’s comments at an earlier press conference today. After investigating the complaint, Tolo TV management found the complaint to be invalid. The Tolo TV news clip broadcast was accurate and representative of what the Attorney General had said at the press conference.

At the time that the District 10 Police came to Tolo TV offices, they sought the detention of Hamed Haidary, who was the journalist covering the news clip mentioned above, and the “person responsible” for Tolo TV. The Police did not have any legal documentation. When asked to produce such documentation, the Deputy Commander of District 10 Police, wrote on a piece of paper the following:

To the administration of Tolo TV
In accordance with the order of the Attorney General, the responsible person for Tolo TV, and Hamed Haidary, the reporter, are required to appear at the 10th District Police Office.

Signed on behalf of the Commander of the 10th Police District, Mohammad Qasim Aminzoi

The above document was handed to Tolo TV staff, but was not accepted by legal advisors to Tolo TV as it is not valid in Law. Under the Constitution of Afghanistan, Article 38 states as follows:

Residences shall be immune from trespassing.

No one, including the state, shall have the right to enter a residence or search it without the owners permission or by order of an authoritative court, except in situations
and methods delineated by law.

In case of an evident crime, the responsible official shall enter or search a residence without prior court order. The aforementioned official, shall, after entrance or completion of search, obtain a court order within the time limit set by law.

No arrest warrants, Court orders, or other legal or written documents were produced by the 10th District Police (other than as noted above). They advised that the Attorney General had verbally ordered them to detain Tolo TV staff. When Tolo TV staff, including Tolo TV legal advisor, Mohammad Abdullah, Tolo TV Administration Manager, Siddiq Ahmadzada and Tolo TV Security Manager, Lal Mohammad, tried to reason with the Police they were physically assaulted and then dragged into Police vehicles. These three Tolo TV staff members were taken to the Attorney General’s office (not the 10th District Police Office), where they were held until public pressure forced the Attorney General to release the Tolo TV staff after about 1 hour. A number of other journalists, including 4 staff members of Associated Press who were covering the incident, were also detained without charge and allegedly assaulted and their footage allegedly confiscated.

It should also be noted that under the Media Laws of Afghanistan, all complaints about the media should, at first instance, be directed towards the Media Investigation Commission which is tasked with investigating such complaints. This Commission is then able to refer the matter to the Attorney General’s office if warranted. This procedure was not followed in this instance.

We hereby state as follows:

– the actions of the District 10 Police and the Attorney General’s office, including the Attorney General, Abdul Jabar Sabet, were a complete violation of the Constitution of Afghanistan
– the manner in which Tolo TV were physically abused and detained was completely unacceptable and against the law
– the physical transgression into Tolo TV offices is against the Constitution and the laws of Afghanistan
– the taking of Tolo TV staff to the Attorney General’s office was against the law
– the direct ordering of District Police by the Attorney General’s office is against the law
– these actions of the Attorney General’s office and the District 10 Police are not only against the rights of media enshrined in the Constitution, but also against the principles of democracy and against the national interest of Afghanistan

Further, we demand as follows:

– the immediate suspension from duty of all persons involved in this incident including the Attorney General, the Commander of the 10th District of Police and the Deputy Commander of the 10th District Police
– the creation of a commission who will be tasked with investigating this incident, to be comprised of members acceptable to the media
– the dismissal of all those found to have had any involvement in this incident which is against the laws of Afghanistan
– the prosecution to the full extent of the law of all of those found to have committed any crime

Further, Tolo TV Management would like to thank all of those people who have indicated their support for Tolo TV, including all other media organisations of Afghanistan and international organisations who have covered this event, human rights organisations, members of Parliament, unions representing journalists, the staff of Tolo TV, Lemar TV and Arman FM, all other organisations who have expressed their public support, and most of all the public of Afghanistan who have been unswerving in their support.


Congressional Forum on Afghanistan

April 17, 2007

Tomorrow morning I will be attending this event on Afghanistan on Capitol Hill. Organized by AACC (Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce), the stated goal of the congressional forum is to “reassess priorities for US funding in Afghanistan.” The event features an impressive list of panelists including US Undersecretary of State Nick Burns (whom I admire for his eloquence and the suave way he handles media,) Prof. Barney Rubin, Afghan Minister of Finance Ahadi and others. Also in attendance will be people from non-profit, think-tank, and corporate sectors as well as government officials (US and Afghan), US House and Senate members, and academic types. Who knows maybe I will even run into some fellow bloggers who write on Afghanistan (yes Registan and AfghanistanWatch, that means you!)

I will try to do a post on Safrang afterwards with a summary and highlights from the event.

Besides the obvious (that is, I don’t have a life and attend these events for the sheer fun of it) the other reason I am attending is because I would like to get some “face time” with people that may prove helpful in my frantic search for a job in Afghanistan over the coming months.
Yes, readers, I will be leaving for Watan soon, and I know you can’t wait to read my posts straight from the belly of the beast.


No They Don’t.

April 17, 2007

Ever since reading this piece last week by Chris Sands of UK’s The Independent (“We want the Taliban back, say ordinary Afghans”) I have been meaning to write something long and insightful and engage in more shameless pedantry.
But then again there is little that even as insightful and erudite of a person as myself can write that could reveal the true extent of Taliban’s brutality and moral depravity as would a brief glance at their list of recent accomplishments. So I will just offer this cursory and hastily put together list, rest my case, and briefly say: No They Don’t, for Taliban’s…

> Brutally slaughtering Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi after releasing his Italian colleague in a deal that the government maintains also included Ajmal’s safe release (thus also proving to be a dishonorable group of bandits.)

> Murdering schoolchildren.

> Burning at least 130 schools during 2006 and murdering at least 20 teachers in the same period.

> Blowing up a UN vehicle and killing four Nepali and one Afghan staff of a UN agency in Kandahar.

> Murdering defenseless women and children.

> And the list goes on: introducing suicide bombing to Afghanistan and employing it indiscriminately in cities and public places, kidnappings, beheadings…

All these things considered, one either has to stretch, shrink, or otherwise modify the meaning of “ordinary Afghans” or that of the “Taliban”, or that of “want back” to be able to come up with a story like the one in The Independent UK.
We Want the Taliban Back, Say Ordinary Afghans? The ordinary Afghans that I know would say by an overwhelming majority that: No thanks, we don’t.


Looking for Love in Ankara

April 17, 2007

AFP and the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman have confirmed earlier reports about a summit to be hosted by Ankara between Afghan and Pakistani presidents sometimes in early May this year.

Before anything else I am reminded of the White House dinner last year during which president Bush hosted the two leaders in a famously frigid atmosphere. Fresh from the sets of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room, where they had been mutually generous with criticisms and accusations of incapacity, the two leaders reportedly shook hands with their host before the dinner, but not with each other. (Unknown sources quoted a White House valet -who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the incident- noticing the two guests periodically kicking each other “in the shin” under the table.)

All in all, that dinner in Washington did little to bring a thaw in the relations between the two leaders, as evidenced most recently with this week’s remarks by President Musharraf on American TV. Asked how he felt about President Karzai’s critique of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, and his accusation that Mullah Omar was hiding out in Pakistan, Musharraf said that he is “very angry” with Karzai, and that Karzai’s continued insistence that Omar was in Pakistan is “absolute nonsense.” Surprisingly there has been no rhetorical tit-for-tat from the Afghan president so far, and there are subtle indications that at least some people in the government of Afghanistan are toning down their usually harsh and explicit criticism of Pakistan. Especially now that both leaders have agreed “in principal” with a meeting in Ankara, it is unlikely that the rhetorical altercation will worsen.

It is hard not to suspect Washington’s hand in arranging the Ankara talk. There are no reports to the effect, and I have heard nothing so far from any officials in the American government, but it is clear that aside from the largely symbolic place that the common religion of Islam holds in the relations between the three countries, the real common denominator for all three countries can be found in the three capital letters: U.S.A.

Both Ankara and Islamabad (incidentally also sister cities) are longtime US and NATO allies, and both played front and center roles during the Cold War against the Soviet Union: Izmir was the site of US Jupiter IRBM nuclear warheads that was used as a justification by the Soviets for deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba -triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis– and Pakistan was instrumental in channeling American money to the Mujahideen in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The US also continues to enthusiastically back Turkey’s membership into EU, an issue that probably tops Turkey’s list of foreign policy priorities and concerns.

Separately, Turkey and Pakistan have celebrated their common cultural links and economic as well as strategic interests in the form of such regional organizations as ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization), and according to his memoirs In the Line of Fire, the Pakistani president has spent part of his childhood growing up in Turkey, and is clearly inspired and enamored in his thinking by Turkey’s secular and modernizing leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For its part, while Turkey has not been as proactive as Pakistan during the civil war in Afghanistan, it is clear that it has not sat on the sidelines either. Turkey supported, and at times hosted, prominent Uzbek warlord and Northern Alliance commander Rashid Dostum during the civil war and later in the fight with the fundamentalist T. regime. More recently, Turkey has supported the US-led struggle in Afghanistan and has contributed troops to the security umbrella ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, and a Turkish general has previously led the outfit.

Now, these good offices are called upon to perform a difficult task of monumental consequences: thaw the little ice age that has suddenly descended between Kabul and Islamabad.

Update:
Regardless of how the summit turns out for Karzai and Musharraf, the host (Turkish Prime Minister Recep Teyeb Erdogan) could use some distraction from the recent public opposition to his candidacy for Turkey’s presidency.


AC 360° Live in Afghanistan!

April 16, 2007

CNN AC360

CNN anchor and host of the popular show AC 360° Andersoon Cooper is in Afghanistan and will report from there for the week of April 16th, in an effort to “bring attention to this often overlooked war.”

According to unsubstantiated speculations, Mr. Cooper traveled to Afghanistan yesterday shortly after reading this post on Safrang lamenting American negligence of the struggle in Afghanistan. As a reminder of how bad things are, upon landing his team was was greeted by an IED explosion in Kabul. Anderson Cooper is joined in Kabul by his colleague Nic Robertson (normally based in Islamabad) and CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen.

Tune in to AC 360° this week (10pm to midnight ET, M-F) and follow AC 360° blog -already there is a post there by Anderson Cooper about the growth of kidnapping in Afghanistan.

Update:
According to AC 360° Blog, tonight’s show (Monday) will focus on coverage of the shooting incident on the campus of Virginia Tech. As an international student who spent four years on an American college campus I was shocked by the incident and anguished by the loss of life.
I am not aware of AC 360°’s new programming and whether they will continue their reporting from Afghanistan. I will try to post another update here if that is the case.