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.

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.


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