“Is Afghanistan A Narco-State?”

July 24, 2008

So asks Thomas Schweich, for years the lead US official on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, and answers not so favorably for either the US or the Afghan governments. As close to the horse’s mouth as you would get it on CN policy. A definite must-read for those interested in the subject, and a piece that is sure to raise eyebrows -or hell- both in DC and Kabul.

Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?
(New York Times Magazine)

poppy


This is Farshid

January 22, 2008

When I sat to write this last night, just home from a quick trip to the bazaar, I was not ‎planning to put it on Safrang. Its form and content are out of step with Safrang –self-serious, ‎presumptuous political bliggity bloggery, pseudo-intellectual scholarship, and polemical pamphleteering. I wanted to put it ‎on my other blog –more heart and hedonism stuff. Now that I am done with it, I think I ‎will put it here, a belated second episode in the series: ‎
From Afghanistan with Love.

————————————

Farshid

Meet Farshid. ‎

Farshid is nine years old. Maybe ten, or even eight –hard to tell anyone’s age here. He is ‎in the second grade. Of course schools in Kabul are out in the winter, so Farshid spends ‎most of his time outdoors, working. ‎

Farshid is cold –Very cold. Right now, he is standing near a fish-seller’s stall –keeping ‎warm in the heat of the gas stove. The water in the stream in front of the shop is frozen ‎solid. Last night they announced the highest and lowest temperatures for Kabul on the ‎TV. The lowest would be -10 ºC tonight. Weathermen being liars everywhere, I feel it is well ‎past that already.‎

Farshid’s voice shakes when he answers me. His little body, wrapped in old and torn ‎layers scavenged from Lilami shakes alongside. I get the impression that speaking is a ‎labor –it is too cold, and any amount of energy and warm breathe is precious. The boy ‎next to him in earmuffs and a hoodie does most of the talking. ‎

This boy tells me: “Farshid has been told to come home tonight with a hundred ‎Afghanis” –two dollars. How much has Farshid worked so far? “30 Afghanis.” It is ‎‎6:00pm now –already dark. And did I say it was cold? ‎

How did Farshid earn this money, and how is he planning to make another 70? Farshid ‎produces a dirty rag from his right pocket, and the boy next to him supplies the words: ‎‎“Motar Safi Mikona.” The word choice is important –he did not say “washing” cars, or ‎‎“Motar Mishoya” –but only cleaning them. It is cold, and soon as the water touches the ‎body of the car, it freezes. Farshid’s clients do not like frozen water on their windshields. ‎It creates distortions and aberrations in the glass and one cannot see the road ahead ‎clearly. Farshid, of course, would be glad to wash the cars should his clients please –for ‎him, it is part of the job. No matter what little games the water and the cold will play with ‎his tiny, chapped hands. ‎

What does Farshid want to become when he finishes school bakhair? I regret having ‎asked the question the moment it leaves my lips. This is a cruel question. There is no ‎finishing school, and there is no bakhair. The dignified, no-nonsense look in Farshid’s ‎eyes answers me, and it is telling me: “You may delude yourself pal, but I am not going ‎to. I am more worried about finishing the day’s work and going home –bakhair.” ‎

I think to myself: come on, it isn’t my fault I asked a senseless question. This little boy is ‎making me uncomfortable. I regret having come to this fish stall today. I like my ‎secluded life and do not even have to be in these situations. My appetite is gone. I hate ‎the cold. I am ashamed of my coat. I am ashamed of my car. I am ashamed of my fancy ‎camera –and the fact that I have brought it out with me. What was I thinking? I am ‎uncomfortable and ashamed and cannot bear the silence that somehow has developed and ‎become unbearably awkward and inconvenient for me over the past five minutes I have ‎been listening to Farshid’s story. I am speaking just to kill time, to engage him, to fill the ‎air -until my fish is done and I get the hell out of here. ‎

Again, just to kill time, I ask Farshid another senseless question. (And what, beg tell, ‎would be a more sensible question? Does he like the snow? His thoughts on the recent Serena bombing? Does he prefer Arsenal or ‎Man United? Grape soda or plain old Coke? Those marks around his eyes –what ‎precisely are those? Is global warming on his list of concerns for the world? Or, as many ‎Khareji in Kabul would itch to ask (just before engaging in their self-soothing “random ‎act of kindness” stuff procured via two crisp dollar bills) –does Farshid like kite-flying, ‎kite-running –the whole kite enterprise? His views on the progress of the mission in ‎Afghanistan? What about his opinions on the foreign troops’ presence in his country? Did ‎Farshid eat today?) ‎

Instead, my question is: where does he live? It’s a common enough question in a society ‎where identity is closely interwoven with geography. The boy standing next to Farshid ‎seems to have fallen comfortably into his spokesperson’s role, because he again ‎volunteers the answer. He is himself mildly intrigued at the interest this naïve stranger ‎has taken in Farshid, but then so many naïve and disgustingly sympathetic Afghans and ‎Kharejis do the same, so, no big deal. He answers: “Darul Aman.” “Which part?” I ‎press on. I know the area well -its a good 15 minutes drive from here. I work near it, and I have gone there several times to ‎photograph the ruins of the palace nearby.‎
‎ ‎
This time Farshid takes a jab, just so briefly: “Qasr.”
He lives in the palace! ‎

But for the circumstances I would have been amused by the absurdity. Farshid and his ‎family –his mother, his brother Jamshid, and I don’t know how many other people- live ‎in that dilapidated structure facing the ruins of the grand old palace. The one with red and ‎blue curtains for windowpanes and with a façade pockmarked with bullet holes. I would ‎love to ask more senseless questions. My voyeurism is not quenched yet –this poverty, ‎this misery is so obscene I cannot peel my eyes away. It is so pungent, so delicious, so ‎real life, so real time. I am already thinking out a blog post in my head. And I feel my ‎heart tightening, giving me that familiar old urge to cry, and at the same time, that other familiar old urge ‎to harden and to resist the first urge. ‎
What do they burn for heating fuel? I did not take a shower today because it was too cold, ‎when did Farshid wash last? He did not mention his father, what about him? And please ‎oh please: let it be Chelsea FC. ‎

But my fish is done. The man spices it generously, wraps it in an Urdu language ‎newspaper, counts the money with his oily hands, and apologizes for having taken too long. He ‎sees me lingering, glances at Farshid, coughs into his fist, and says: “yea farshid’s mum ‎hussaid he cant cumhome ‘nless he earns hisself a hundredAfghanis tonight.” ‎
Meanwhile, Farshid continues to shiver, and is silently taking all of this in –being ‎reminded of his duty, his looming deadline. The man goes on: “boy gohome boy you ‎won’tmake it to midnight in thiscold boy justgohome boy youwill freezetodeath boy did I ‎giveyourchange sir?”‎
‎ ‎
Farshid starts crossing the road reluctantly and I drive away with the uncomfortable ‎feeling that the man’s grave and hurried premonition might come true one of these dreary ‎cold nights. And no, you did not give me my change. I was waiting for it to give some money to Farshid to go home for the night. I look around, but Farshid is gone, and across the street in front of the shops with their iron shutters closed for the night and their lights out, children of Farshid’s age and height are playing with marbles. Gods of winter and cold and snow, show some mercy on the street children ‎of Kabul.‎


Unreconstructed-ii

August 8, 2007

US Funded Projects

This map leaves little room for doubt as to the “insurgency premium” reaped by the trouble(d) spots of the country. (Map taken from a guest post by Ambassador Thomas Schweich, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), US Department of State on CSIS PCR Project blog.)

Rory Stewart has got it right when he says in his new column that:

Projects in hostile areas, where the local population is not working with us and where a minority wants to attack us, are not a constructive use of our limited resources.

The column goes on to advocate for a peace and cooperation premium in areas hitherto neglected and unreconstructed:

We can do much more to show people the benefit of cooperating with the coalition… Our best hope is rather to focus on the many secure and welcoming parts of Afghanistan’s center and north. Efforts to jumpstart local economies led by members of those communities are more effective, more relevant and more sustainable than those dictated by outsiders. We have a great opportunity in the north, center and west of Afghanistan to lead development projects for which Afghans will still be grateful 50 years from now.

**

In other news, after an unannounced and inexcusable hiatus of almost two months to date, Safrang is back online – with the added benefit of now being posted live from the heat of the moment and the belly of the beast. Step aside Geraldo!

All ye thirsty beneficiaries of this infinite stream of wisdom rejoice!


Unreconstructed

May 7, 2007

Bamiyan continues to languish in its Stone Age state more than five years after the fall of the Taliban and the early promises of paving the roads leading to this keystone province, NPR reports.

Why?

Here is a hint: it ain’t got nothing to do with insecurity, lack of funds, lack of cooperation from the locals, or the capabilities of its pioneer woman governor Habiba Sarabi.

An Insurgency Premium?

Last summer when I was still an euphoric recent graduate and not yet the cynic that I am now, fully disenchanted by this town -Washington’s- ways and means, I used to attend talks and hearings with ritualistic regularity. In one such gathering I posed a question about the continuous neglect of some central and northern provinces, despite their relative security, the locals’ cooperation, and the ease of implementing reconstruction projects therein. By the way of illustration I singled out Bamiyan and Badakhshan, because I had witnessed for myself the awful road conditions and rampant joblessness in the former a year earlier, and had read about the horrific maternal mortality rates in the latter. Just as I had feared, my question produced only knowing glances that said “of course, another parochial Afghan making the expected partisan case for his ethnic group,” and no satisfactory answers.

After the meeting, a DoD official approached me and related a sardonic anecdote from when he had traveled to meet with elders in one of the central provinces. He said that at one of the meetings one of those present made a comment that raised wary laughter from the other participants. After asking the translator what the joke had been, the official told me, he found out that the man had said: “Maybe we should also blow up a few buildings and vehicles around here in order to get some attention.” He went on to say that the uneven distribution of reconstruction funds, reflected in the uneven development seen around the country, gave the people the wrong idea about an insurgency premium of sorts, while a more sensible policy would be to reward cooperation and security.

*

Kudos to NPR’s reporter Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson for taking the road literally less traveled by other reporters (who mostly follow in the footsteps of the military and the aid community.)

———–

(Thanks to readers who have commented and suggested writing about the Iranian government’s harsh rabid mistreatment and deportation of Afghan refugees. This is not a good time for me or I would have done this sooner, and also kept my earlier promise to writing about the Ankara summit. I hope to get around to these soon.)


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.