One Voter’s 1st Person Account of Afghanistan’s Elections

August 22, 2009

[cross posted at hamesha.wordpress.com]

voter reg card election day

I waited until mid-day before I went off to cast my vote. Partly because yesterday -voting day- was a day off and I could use the extra sleep, but also partly because I -like many others- wanted to see how things would unfold and whether the grand apocalypse that the international media had cooked up will indeed be happening.

It did not.

I went to this station housed in a certain government ministry near my house. I drove there. My car was one of the few on the streets. Dark green ford rangers belonging to the national police were driving at maniac speeds up and down this big thoroughfare I had to cross to get to the station. At the station, there were more international observers than voters, but that might have to do with the fact that I went right at lunchtime and that -as people later told me- this certain area was riddled with voting stations. There were other parts of Kabul where reportedly up to a hundred people stood in lines in the morning to cast their votes. The soldier at the door did an unusually thorough body search and then pointed me to the booth. There were two -one filled with a bunch of lady voting officers in their white IEC vests, and the other, a bit to the left, the male one.

I walked in to a small room with three cardboard box booths at the far end, a table with two persons to my right, and two ballot boxes with five people sitting behind them to my left. I was one of 3 voters there at the time, and two more walked in as I was casting my vote. Unsure of what to do next, I raised my voter’s registration card and said I wanted to vote. I was dressed rather formally for a TV interview and so the elections officers for a minute thought I was one of the observers or officials. It took an awkward split second before one of the seated officers to my right asked for my card, checked my finger, took a pair of scissors and made a triangle cut on the edge of my card (apparently a large number of the punch hole machines were out of order yesterday) and had me dip my finger in the famous purple ink, and told me to blow on it. Then I went over to the next officer who tore two ballots, one for the president, the other for the provincial council member, folded and stamped them, and sent me behind one of the cardboard box booths.

The presidential ballot was one page full color print of 41 candidates (oddly enough including those who had dropped out of the race in favor of others -I had thought their mugs would have been removed). It was easy enough to spot the candidate of choice, circle, and fold again. I sort of had made up my mind about my choice for the president, but there was still some last minute hesitation. In the end I marked the box of the candidate that I would not have voted for on a brighter, sunnier day. But since scary clouds were gathered up on the horizon, I thought I made the choice that would serve us all well at this juncture. These choices are never perfect, one learns. One learns too, that the quest for the perfect, the ideal -as I. Berlin would tell you- is one of the most wrong-headed and dangerous of quests ever.

Then came the four pages, 530-plus provincial council candidate ballot. What a confused mess. I knew the person I was voting for, but had forgotten her ballot number. It took me a good five minutes to look through the four pages and find her picture and name. I made a ’swad sahih’ -tick mark- and folded this too. Then I went over and dropped these in the two designated ballot boxes indicated by green and orange sign papers.
There were some tense looking people sitting on chairs a distance away from the ballot boxes. I told myself these could only be volunteer observers working for one of the campaigns. Everyone looked less excited than I had thought, but I was filled with a mix of indescribable feelings -some of them having to do with the choices I had made, others with the fact of having had the opportunity, finally, to be part of it all. I bid everyone farewell and walked out into the blinding mid-day sun, and instantly started rubbing the ink off my finger. The ink, faint and almost unrecognizable earlier, had congealed into a black purple and was impossible to remove.


Afghanistan: Independence Day & Elections Eve

August 22, 2009

[cross-posted at hamesha.wordpress.com]

Today Afghanistan marks the occasion of its 90th independence anniversary from Great Britain after the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war.
We are nearing the centennial celebrations -now a mere decade away. One hopes that everyone will take this as a challenge, a deadline. That Afghanistan’s 100th independence anniversary will be meaningful, and befitting of a centennial celebration. So that when we do celebrate, there won’t be that nagging hollow feeling in our collective hearts that is there now.

Today streets of Kabul are relatively calm on account of elections tomorrow. Like the proverbial calm before the storm. One senses anticipation in the air all over the place; both of elections -what it really means for all of us, what will it bring about- and of some looming prospect of possible insecurity. Nobody believes it will all be safe and eventless, at the same time as everyone hopes it will be. Security, however, is not the biggest variable in the average voter’s calculus of whether he or she will go to vote. Apathy will be the undoing of voter turnout, me says.

The road to Kandahar and onwards to Quetta in Pakistan is arguably one of the most unsafe, going through Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, Kandahar and beyond -a kind of highway to certain death by the Taliban if you may. And yet i know people who travel the road regularly to go to Ghazni, Kandahar, Pakistan, and even Herat -the latter requiring them to cross Helmand and Nimroz too. The average person has a mental index of insecurity and a sharp sense of what the tolerable quotient of insecurity is, and within that tolerable quotient, life goes on for most of the people.

The odds, and hence the quotient of insecurity and violent disruption of voting in the 6,000 plus voting stations is pretty low for a lot of people. That’s why security won’t have a major impact on whether most people vote or not. The key variables are whether they care, and whether they think that their act of voting -which as any self-respecting economist of rational self interest school of thought would tell you, is one of the most senseless things to do- will make a real difference. Another key consideration might be how many other people vote so that the average voter in question will be pressured to go along -the herd mentality often is the key driver of a lot of decisions. And of course whether the person is paid enough, or is made to swear on the holy book, etc. Not security though.

Another thing that is made quite a meal out of in the international media over the last week or so and which does not figure as prominently in the average person’s list of worries here is vote rigging and electoral fraud. The BBC, which particularly after its sensationalist coverage of Iranian election’s fallout seems to specialize in blowing these things out of proportion, is already reporting on how many voter’s registration cards its local fixers have been able to buy. This is all a bit nonsensical for the average person here. Draw, if you will, a kind of a mental Maslow’s pyramid of “political” concerns in you mind. For the Iranian electorate, election rigging was a major concern because they are in an altogether different stage of political maturity and the prime concerns, the fundamental political debate fell right on the conservative-liberal fault line in the Iranian polity. Here in Afghanistan, as evidenced by one presidential debate after another, that level of discord and disagreement is nonexistent. Everybody is agreed on the fundamentals -security, economic development, and what will be done with the Taliban. Understandably the question of election fraud is a major thing for the political elite and certain of the contenders who have a lot at stake, which is why certain presidential contenders have gone to the brink of losing their bearings trying to warn against rigging of votes and even threatening riots. The average person, however, could care less as long as it all does not go horribly wrong. This is why a lot of people need to just chill out on this matter. We know we cannot make this one hundred percent clean. That sort of thing still proves elusive even in the us especially with the mechanical fiascos and debold machines that seem to crop up at every election season. Why, then, subject this country to the most zealot standards? Especially when such zealotry can cost the rest of us so much? Chill people, chill. Bigger things are at stake than to be jeopardized by such trifles.

And finally, voter 003907269 -yours truly, that is- is fully intending to exercise his right to vote tomorrow. I can’t quite say why except that i really, deeply want to do this; that i have felt a pang of envy every time i have seen others do it in their countries, and perhaps, because, we need to move on and become a normal country for lack of a better word, even if at the beginning it requires us going through the forms for the heck of it.

voter card and election posters

[cross-posted at hamesha.wordpress.com]


Afghanistan’s Televised Presidential Debates

August 22, 2009

My two and a half cents on the Afghanistan presidential debates of last night, for whoever’s interested:

afghanistan presidential debates

You know, of course, that last night the national TV (RTA) and radio RFE/RL held what was probably the most landmark debate of this election season and the most significant event of its type in the history of this country, with an incumbent sitting president standing next to two contenders who right there and then in front of him questioned his record and criticized him publicly. And to top it all off, an exceptionally audacious moderator who, even when the president pleaded for extra time to finish his thought, stopped him and said that the allotted time for that question has run out, Mr. Karzai, and that if you are interested you can take time in another question to return to this subject matter, and who asked him some rather uncomfortable questions, including what he had to say in his defense to those who accused him of being overly conciliatory and a wheeler dealer. Sort of thing unheard of -unthought-of – in places like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, central Asia, the Arab world, this entire neighborhood in fact.

And that, and the fact of the debates in itself, was probably the most astounding thing for us Afghans to behold. Basically, think of it as the climax of a long process of paradigm shift in Afghanistan politics that began years and years ago with the breakdown of institutions and structures of power (a kind of creative destruction, i submit) and then the shaky process of reconstruction and institution-building that has followed, and which culminated in this symbolic event of last night. A sitting president having to fight for his post with facts, figures, ideas and appeal to the masses who sat there in the hall like the jury and in their homes listening to their radios and TVs, and out there in the street in the front of the shop where a bunch of people were gathered to watch the debates with such enthusiasm it filled your heart with hope and good things. We are, hopefully, in the upswing of the process of creative destruction of structures of power, and at the tail end of the j-curve of this process in Afghanistan. The question is whether the curve will continue climbing, and the hope is that it will.

Beyond the striking fact of the debates itself, the obvious question of “who won” which usually follows such occasions:

Putting my spin-doctor’s hat on, my thoughts are that at the level of ideas, plans, ten and twenty year plans, bullet points, flow of ideas and organization of thoughts, it was dr. Ashraf Ghani’s game. To nearly every question he responded with his clearly set formula of where this government has failed, and how he would do different; first, second, third, etc. A bit too cold and far too detached for the afghan taste, if i may say so.

At the level of rhetoric, populism, and mass-appeal it was Bashardost who stole the show with his maverick, down to earth, and occasionally vitriolic rhetoric and appealing to the masses, placing the people above all, and referring over and again to their empty pockets, empty tables, empty stomachs and blaming the government for it all. He did confirm that he lives in a tent, has refused to drink coca cola (not when the elections started, but since the day he learnt in France that the soviets had invaded Afghanistan and that people were not well off) and that he distributed his salaries to pay for lunches of his staff during his days as the ministry of planning. He took quite a few pot-shots at both Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, sometimes obtuse and indirect, at others quite direct.

Karzai, to the eyes of the public, arguably was the poorest of the debaters. He was obviously coached by someone who clearly understands the American presidential debates and how it plays out, and the importance of facts, figures, and data. But that does not play well in Afghanistan – not yet at least. The result was that the president, usually flowing, grand, flourishing, and even sentimental came across as overly stiff, structured, note-card-bound, and given to sensory and statistical overload. He should have instead been the person he has always been, and let himself free from the shackles of his mentors to talk to the people and not his note cards.

Dr. Abdullah, widely regarded as the runner up to Karzai did not show up for this round of debates. He was busy getting in the last messages, speeches, campaigning before the clock runs out and there is a 48-hr moratorium on campaigning just ahead of the elections.

[cross-posted over at hamesha.wordpress.com]


The Case for Staying the Course in Afghanistan

March 28, 2009

The revised US policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is made public after what seems to have been a long and thorough process of revision, consultations and analysis. Here is a link to President Obama’s statement laying out the key elements of the policy, and here is a link to the white-paper of the new policy:

White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan

The new policy is categorical on the need for continued US and international committment to the effort in Afghanistan. This is a welcome development, because in recent times there have been troubling signs of wavering public opinion in support of the effort in Afghanistan, and let’s face it, because historically there have not been many positive precedents for democratic administrations continuing an overseas war in the presence of economic hardships and a public mandate that demands more introspective policymaking and focus on domestic issues.

gallup on afghanistan war

From the new policy white-paper’s conclusion:

There are no quick fixes to achieve U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The danger of failure is real and the implications are grave. In 2009-2010 the Taliban’s momentum must be reversed in Afghanistan and the international community must work with Pakistan to disrupt the threats to security along Pakistan’s western border.
This new strategy of focusing on our core goal – to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually destroy extremists and their safe havens within both nations, although with different tactics – will require immediate action, sustained commitment, and substantial resources. The United States is committed to working with our partners in the region and the international community to address this challenging but essential security goal.

NY Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks returns from a recent trip to Afghanistan to say that now, after having made a number of terrible mistakes in the past few years, is not the time to leave Afghanistan. Rather, with those experiences under the belt, this is the time to learn from them and to commit to Afghanistan in a more serious way because finally everyone is focused on the real issues, finally the institutions are beginning to show signs of progress, finally the US is taking Afghanistan seriously, finally a regional dimension to the problem is being addressed, and because, ultimately, Afghan people are such a nice people (nicer than the Iraqis, Brooks quotes US servicemen who have worked in both countries) and they have embraced the democratic process enthusiastically.

I came to Afghanistan skeptical of American efforts to transform this country.
Every element of my skepticism was reinforced during a six-day tour of the country. Yet the people who work here make an overwhelming case that Afghanistan can become a functional, terror-fighting society and that it is worth sending our sons and daughters into danger to achieve this.
The Winnable War

Terrorism expert Peter Bergen strikes a similar chord as he challenges the “graveyard myth” that has been so openly embraced by the defeatist discourse in the US and writes that:

What Afghans want is for international forces to do what they should have been doing all along — provide them the security they need to get on with making a living.
Afghanistan is no longer the graveyard of any empire. Rather, it just might become the model of a somewhat stable Central Asian state.
Graveyard Myths

Bergen also cites poll after poll that indicate how public opinion in Afghanistan to this day remains solidly in favor of US and international presence and against the Taliban. This is the voice of the otherwise “silent majority” of the Afghans, who by dent of their being silent are implicitly in approval of the international engagement in Afghanistan. Tragically, it has been the vocal minority (with the sounds in most cases provided by roadside bombs and suicide attacks) that are dominating the discourse, and contributing to the slide of public opinion against the Afghan effort in western capitals. This has made for the curious situation where the Afghan people, including in the South and East, are noticing the defeatism of some in the international community and telling them to take heart and that this war is winnable.

Kandahar, Afghanistan
“DONT worry, we are not going to lose this war.”
These were the parting words to us from Brig. Gen. Sher Muhammad Zazai, commander of the 205th Corps of the Afghan National Army in Kandahar. He was echoing the sentiments of a group of village elders we had met days before in Khost Province, who assured us that they would never allow the Taliban to come back.
It is odd that the Afghans felt it necessary to reassure American visitors that all was far from lost. It reflected the fact that even in a country where electricity and running water are scarce, word of the defeatist hysteria now gripping some in the American political elite has spread.
How to Surge the Taliban

The silent majority in Afghanistan is in favor of continuing this joint enterprise, albeit with some modifications. The silent majority has bought into the new process. (There was a recent flare-up about the elections, and amazingly enough, everyone of every political shade -from the president to the legislature and the opposition- referred to the constitution of Afghanistan as the document that contained the solution. That is no simple fact -it shows that the society as well as the political elite have bought into the new process and take its various manifestations -such as the constitution- seriously. And as Charles Krauthammer rightly points out, this is not short of miraculous in Afghanistan with little precedent of that sort of thing.) And, lastly, the silent majority is still fiercely opposed to the oppressive rule of the Taliban, and still think that the international community came to their help in 2001 -although we know that the international community came for its revenge.

Even if we are to ignore the silent majority, let’s not mistake the fact that the vocal minority of extremists will, if given the opportunity, once again strike at the west. This, if nothing else, should be the imperative from which the need for continued American and international committment to Afghanistan flows. And this is what the new US policy for Afghanistan seems to have understood, taken into account, and is premised on.


US Afghan tribe plan ‘is risky’

January 16, 2009

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7828611.stm
By Martin Vennard
BBC News

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, Said Jawad, has said a US-backed plan to form local tribal groups to help combat the insurgency is very risky.

The US hopes groups similar to those that have had success in Iraq will counter the growing insurgency and the lack of security forces.

But Mr Jawad told the BBC the plan could backfire.

He said it could undermine state institutions and actually strengthen warlords and criminals.

Weapons

Mr Jawad is the latest Afghan official to publicly raise concerns about the US-backed plan.

“In order to gain a short-term term victory we might be in danger of losing the long-term objective of building state institutions,” he said.

Mr Jawad said that Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structures had been undermined by three decades of conflict.

He said if the plan was not properly managed it could strengthen the warlords and criminals.

The plan has revived memories of the militias formed in the 1980s by Afghanistan’s Communist government. They later became involved in factional warfare.

But the US ambassador to Kabul, William Wood, said the plan, which is due to be tried out in Wardak province near Kabul, was not a re-creation of those tribal militias.

He said the groups would not be armed by the Americans, but receive training, clothing and military back-up.

The governor of Wardak says the plan is still being discussed and the groups will be involved in things such a reconstruction as well as security.

But critics say the groups will have to have weapons to be effective and are wondering where those arms will come from.


Talking to the Taliban is Foolish

August 7, 2008

Finally, a voice of reason in the “let’s negotiate with the Taliban” hysteria. From Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director of International Crisis Group:

Talking to the Taliban is foolish
By Samina Ahmed
Financial Times
Published: July 24 2008

As the insurgency ramps up, support for “talking to the Taliban” in Afghanistan is increasing. Voices in the United Nations and in Europe favour a new set of negotiations between civil society, political parties and the insurgents, and it is a natural reflex to seek a way out of a seemingly intractable conflict by exploring all available political solutions. But while negotiations are credible and acceptable if they help resolve conflict and save lives, that will not be the case in Afghanistan’s current environment.

The problems begin with identifying those who would be involved in a “new dialogue process”. Afghan civil society is weak at best, and political parties, which have been completely undermined by lack of domestic and international support, are in no position to lobby or feed constructively into national policy formation. And who would represent “the Taliban”? The UN Security Council has formally castigated Mullah Omar and most of his Kandahari leadership, and removing them from the list will not happen quickly. The US, at least, is unlikely to play ball.

The British have suggested talking with mid-level commanders, but it is hard to see how that would address the threats the insurgency poses to Afghan citizens and the state. The likely result would in fact resemble the Musa Qala disaster, a temporary truce UK forces made with the Taliban that strengthened the Taliban’s position by providing them space to regroup and attack again. A “new dialogue process” would offer them this on a national scale. If the British have not learnt much from Musa Qala, neither it seems has the UN.

Nor would such a dialogue address the cross-border aspects of the violence and Pakistan’s formal or informal role in supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Without stemming this, the chances are even greater that an agreement would be a temporary refuelling exercise for the Taliban.

It is far from clear, moreover, that the Afghan government, which cannot survive without substantial international military backing, could implement an accord on its own, provided one is reached at all. And if the outside world has to oversee implementation and enforcement anyway, this hardly meshes with the belief that Afghan patience with international military forces is exhausted – one of the driving ideas behind the talk of a “new dialogue process” – let alone the fact that the Taliban’s primary goal is to oust the international presence entirely.

Most importantly, however, is the basic nature of the enemy some would do a deal with. The Taliban thoroughly reject all the work the international community has done in Afghanistan since the end of 2001. At present, the Taliban top leadership appears to have little interest in negotiations other than on its terms, which include the withdrawal of foreign troops and the re-creation of a Taliban-style “Islamic” state. Would the international community stand by as the Taliban deprived Afghan women and girls of even the basic rights they have acquired since the Taliban’s ousting?

Yet another concern is that negotiations with the Taliban from the internationals’ and Kabul’s current position of weakness would resemble the Pakistani military’s counter-insurgency approach: short-sighted accords that concede territory and political authority to militants. These accords have only undermined the writ of the state and empowered insurgents.

Yes, military force alone is clearly insufficient. And yes, negotiations take time and must begin somewhere. But it is wishful thinking to assume that negotiating with insurgents from a position of weakness would stabilise Afghanistan. Obviously, the international community wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, but this is no way to go about it.

Instead of seeking quick fixes, international attention should focus on a comprehensive strategy with broad-based nation-building at its core. Instead of seeking exit strategies, international troops should remain so long as Afghan security forces, civilian and military, are incapable of protecting the lives of citizens and the security of the state. A new robust military commitment – not just in terms of numbers but also appropriate force structures, configurations and mandates – is the way to go.

If we let Afghanistan sink now, the revitalised Taliban will only come to dominate the country, bringing back all the problems that forced the international community to get involved in the first place.

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As the blog ThePolitic put it a while ago, why not simply ask the question like this:

“Negotiate with theocracy that seeks to keep women subservient to men and uneducated, and kill anyone who converts to another religion?”

And then some; i.e. engage in ethnic cleansing, undo virtually all the progressive clauses of the constitution, and marginalize all minorities.

My advice is, get real, people. You may be fooling yourselves, but you ain’t fooling neither the Taliban nor the majority of the people of Afghanistan. Maybe you can appease the Taliban, but that comes at the cost of a fatal blow to the nascent and fledgling democracy in Afghanistan and the alienation of more than half of the country. What then? re-negotiate with them? I mean I am all for inclusion and widening the political spectrum -but consider how would a proposition like this would offend the liberal sensibilities of those who are currently beating the drums of negotiation the hardest: in the aftermath of WWII, what the Germans and the Allies should have done is to have negotiated with the remnants of the Nazis and the fascists instead of trying them in Nuremberg. What all these talking heads are proposing in Afghanistan is no less.


“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


Residents of Kabul Protest Government’s Inaction on Behsud – UPDATES

July 23, 2008

Some updates about yesterday’s demonstrations here against government’s inaction on the Behsud conflict -now that the dust (of the demonstrations, not yet of the conflict itself) has somewhat settled:

Pictures of demonstration via BBC

Kot-i Sangi to Deh-Mazang

According to reports and eyewitness accounts, the demonstrations started in Dasht-e-Barchi area but it was only in Kot-i Sangi that the numbers really began to swell. People in a giant human wave in thousands joined the rally that stretched unbroken between Kot-i Sangi and Deh-Mazang, with the entire avenue clogged (one source put it at 300,000 strong.) In what is surely an unprecedented practice in Afghan public and political culture, the thousands-strong rally proceeded and concluded without incidents. One of the organizers told me that there were around 5,000 women in attendance in yesterday’s rally. An eyewitness recounted that women were leading the demonstrations. Besides the IDPs and former residents of Behsud/Behsood -who were present in the largest numbers- people originating from several other provinces also joined the rally. The constituency, however, is reported to have been primarily Hazara.

Halt at Deh-Mazang

By mid-morning the rally had arrived in Deh-Mazang on its way towards the center of the city and offices of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. And then it stopped.
There are varying and conflict accounts of why the rally stopped. I will list all of the accounts that I have heard- many of which cannot be substantiated:

1. The president personally ordered the rally to be stopped, calling on all of the government’s security forces (including the ANA) to halt the progress of the march in Deh-Mazang. Based on yesterday’s presidential order calling on the Kochis to temporarily evacuate Behsud, and indications of compliance from the Kochis, the government had earlier asked for the rally to be cancelled, and when this was not done, it took measures to stop it before it reached the city center. Security and peace in the city was cited as one of the reasons for the rally to stop.

2. The leaders of the demonstrated struck a deal with the government and called off the demonstrations. Again unconfirmed, this is a variant on version # 1 above, albeit this one implies that the government offered some sort of deal or was able to persuasively sell its solution of temporary evacuation of Kuchis out of Behsud to the leaders of the rally. Other variations of this account go further and blame the demonstrations organizers and leaders as having been “bought off” and co-opted and thereafter calling upon the people to go home. The leaders spoke to the rally and invited them to stop the march, stating that should the government not keep its promises or continue its policy of inaction in Behsud, a bigger rally will be organized in the future and that will go onwards towards the city center to make its demands heard.

3. According to an unconfirmed report by ANSO (Afghan NGOs Security Office), when the demonstrators arrived at Deh-Mazang area and close to the Kabul Zoo, ‘violence’ and ‘armed demonstrators’ were reported. ANSO: “There are various unconfirmed incidents of violence being reported, including a report of armed demonstrators in the area of the Kabul Zoo. NGO should suspend all movement in the city.” I have not been able to corroborate reports of violence or armed demonstrators through any other sources and all of the media (TV, radio, print -including even the BBC Persian Webpage which has finally decided to break its implicit gag-rule over the matter) are unanimous on the non-occurence of any incidents in yesterday’s rally.

Besides the 3rd account which is unlikely in view of the media reporting of the event, it is likely that a combination of 1 and 2 was at play in halting the rally at Deh-Mazang -a carrot and stick approach, if you may.

(More to come on yesterday’s demonstrations.)

For now, here are links to pictures of the event and some reporting:

1. Exclusive pictures from the demonstrations

2. After Progress in Talks, Mohaqiq Ends Hunger Strike, Calls Protesters Back Amid Emotional Scenes


Residents of Kabul Protest Government’s Inaction on Behsud

July 22, 2008

Today thousands of residents of Kabul engaged in a peaceful demonstration to protest the Karzai government’s inaction on the conflict in Behsud.

(This post may come out of the blue for many readers abroad who are used to hearing about the Taliban and the conflict in the South of Afghanistan. I promise another post in the near future about the conflict between the settled people of Behsud in Central Afghanistan and the nomads that has been going on for the past many weeks.)

*
(I did not attend the demonstrations, but know many people who did, and hope to update with more accurate information as I speak to them. This initial post is based on anecdotal information, and what I have heard on the television -which, save for two TV channels out of 10: Farda TV and Ariana TV- has been surprisingly little.)

*

Photo of todays demonstration via Quqnoos.com

Photo of today's demonstration via Quqnoos.com

The Demonstration

The march started around 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning in Dasht-e-Barchi area of West of Kabul and proceeded towards the city center and the offices of the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. Several news agencies have put the number of demonstrators at “thousands”. By mid-day, Farda TV reported that the demonstrations were over and no incidents had taken place. Farda TV also aired footage of the demonstrations showing people in thousands marching in large thoroughfares of the city, advancing towards the center of the city.

Footage also showed police in riot gear standing around, and in some cases lining up on the main streets at a distance from the demonstrators, blocking their advance. Faced with the riot police, some among the demonstrators encouraged those at the head of the demonstrations to sit down and not advance any further, avoiding contact with the riot police and keeping a distance of 15 meters or so.

It was hard to read many of the placards and banners held up by demonstrators on TV screen. Those that I could read included:
“We oppose ethnic conflict and those who support/encourage it”
“The government should stand with defenseless civilians of Behsud”
“We want Justice”

White City

All expatriates and UN employees were told to stay put, with the UN offices announcing a “white city” -an oxymoronish term that says no UN vehicles (which are all white) are to be seen on the roads. Many embassies also followed suit, with employees in some cases working from home. Government offices, however, were open and working, along with most of the Afghan NGOs.

Suicide Bomb

Around 6:30 a.m. a suicide bomb went off near the Babur Gardens in Guzar-gah area which is close to the Deh-Mazang roundabout and the road that leads to the ruins of Darul Aman palace. All indications are that the incident was unrelated to the demonstrations, though it does ensure that the demonstrations are not the headline of the day, as no one was hurt or injured in the demonstrations, while the suicide attack took the life of the bomber and injured five three people. (By early afternoon the BBC English site for South Asia had reported the suicide bomb but had yet to do a story about the demonstrations -same with BBC Persian site). Tolo TV and Ariana TV reported that the bomb exploded when the attacker on foot was spotted by the police and he set off the bomb. At the time of the explosion the demonstrators had yet to reach the Deh-Mazang roundabout, and their advance was not interrupted by the incident.

Presidential Order

President Karzai reportedly signed an executive order yesterday to the effect that the Kochi nomads temporarily pull out of the Behsud area. I do not know yet whether the Kochi nomads have complied or not (see update 1 below). The order came after a full-scale armed conflict -with light and heavy weaponry in use- has been raging on in Behsud area for the past several weeks. Waves of IDPs -I have heard in hundreds- have descended on West Kabul and Dasht-e-Barchi area. (I will try to visit the area in the near future to conduct some first-person interviews with the IDPs and hear their stories.)

Following the order, a spokesperson for the Directorate of National Security came on TV this morning to announce that there was no more any reasons for the demonstrations to go on and that it should be cancelled. He also stated that the responsibility for any incidents that may interrupt the city’s calm and security will be borne by the organizers of the demonstrations.

Fact-finding Commission

Earlier the government had appointed a fact-finding commission to gather information and suggest workable solutions to the problem. The commission followed at least one previous such commission with the same mandate. Little is known about the results of the recent commission’s work, and there seems to be a consensus that it was a failure as it has not resulted in a peaceable solution to the conflict. A similar commission was appointed last year around the same time when the Kochi nomads entered settled areas inhabited by people of Behsud/Behsood. At the time last year UNAMA issued a statement and a bulleted list of solutions that both sides found unsatisfactory and one-sided.

Update 1

– According to Pajhwok news, following the presidential order of yesterday Kochis have began evacuating villages in the Behsud area. (link)

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Related News

1. Huge protests in Kabul by Hazara community

2. Returning Nomads to their Home

3. (Video) Behsoud people claim being attacked by Kuchis


Obama in Afghanistan, Books, and Karzai’s Secret Love Life

July 19, 2008

I know this is no proper way to resume blogging after a months long hiatus -by a mere links referral- but there has been some excited developments in Afghanistan as of late (including the touchdown of Sen. Obama an hour or so ago here) and I just did not want to miss on that opportunity to do a post.

> 1. Obama Lands in Afghanistan
Of course Senator Obama has his own reasons for visiting Afghanistan and much of it has to do with the allegations made by the Republicans back home about his lack of experience on foreign policy. All the same, one hopes that upon his visit to a country whose fate is so intertwined with the US elections he will get an opportunity to assess things close up and perhaps, just as he had done on a number of critical issues of domestic policy in the US, be able to present some real alternatives and innovative ideas -because, as is increasingly clear, the present course is a road to nowhere.

Bloggingheads: Obama and Afghanistan
Robert Wright of Bloggingheads.tv and Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network debate the politics of the war in Afghanistan.

> 2. Rebuilding Afghanistan, One Book at a Time
Nancy Dupree, an old and celebrated hand in the Afghanistan Aid community laments the debilitating shortage of books and access to information in Afghanistan

> 3. And on the lighter side: Karzai has a lover
I love how the wapo has spotted this.


Article in the National Geographic about the Hazaras of Afghanistan

February 1, 2008

National Geographic magazine has dedicated this month’s feature to a comprehensive article about the Hazaras of Afghanistan by Phil Zabriskie. Here is the link.

cover hazaras NGM

I have not read the article yet, but am a little skeptical about the title: “The Outsiders: Afghanistan’s Hazaras.” I hope Mr. Zabriskie has taken his time to do justice to the subject matter and study well the Hazaras and the many complexities that they offer for serious scholars, anthropologists and political scientists, and that the title is not too telling of the content.
The article devotes a good many paragraphs on how the Hazaras fared under the Taliban -a serious topic which has not been explored in ample detail yet- and how they have fared since.
The article also features Steve McCurry, back in Afghanistan with his camera and deliverying a delightful series of photos. (The reader would recognize McCurry as the photographer responsible for those famously haunting eyes of Sharbat Gula, a photograph titled simply “Afghan Girl” that was named the most recognized photo in the history of National Geographic magazine.)
Maybe I will do a post on the article once I have read it.


Afghanistan Study Group Report

January 31, 2008

Since just about everybody concerned about matters Afghanistan-related has by now heard of the Afghanistan Study Group Report and its ominous “failed state” and “forgotten war” forebodings, and is scouring the internet for the report PDF file, here it is:

Afghanistan Study Group

The report is in reality a compilation of three studies commissioned by the Afghanistan Study Group (itself modeled on the Iraq Study Group) headed by a high-powered duo (former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired General James Jones) and backed by a number of illustrous DC think-tanks (CSIS and the Atlantic Council among them).

No promises, but I may do a post about the report contents and recommendations once I have gone through it myself.


The Case of Perwiz Kambakhsh and Afghanistan’s Ongoing Culture Wars

January 30, 2008

There has been another very disturbing development in the case of Parwiz Kambakhsh, the young Afghan student of journalism who has been sentenced to death by a primary court in Northern Afghanistan for the crime of propagating “blasphemous” literature: the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament has just delcared its decision to uphold the death sentence. The case will continue on its way through the labyrinth of more courts and legislative bodies, until one of these days it finally finds itself on the president’s desk. Most likely, every court along the way will try their best not to be seen as the one that finally overturned the decision, and hence somehow supported Kambakhsh’s anti-Islamic stance.

By now the justice system here has become myopically focused on the vitriolic content of the distributed literature that was written years ago by an Iranian dissident writer and was put on the internet -it was not even written by Kambakhsh, who is himself a student and an aspiring journalist. Apparently other considerations, such as the very constitutionality of the decision to even try somebody for their opinion is out the window. Afghanistan’s constitution, which was really a craft of compromise when it was agreed upon, makes half-hearted nods both to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at the same time to a vague and amorphouse category of Islamic principles and values. Now, one of these would have Perwiz Kambakhsh killed, and the other would respect his right to free thought and expression. And this is not even the first of it -soon after the constitution was ratified two journalists were dragged to the courts on similarly drummed up charges of blaspheming and insulting Islam -and it is bound to be not the last of them; unless of course journalists learn their lessons and define their own boundaries of what is allowed and what not, i.e. self-censorship. (Then it will be the turn for bloggers who have been rash enough to abandon anonymity in an environment like this. Maybe some people are already talking about learning them computer heads a good lesson as well -there is already the internet link in Kambakhsh’s case.)

But really, the equivocality of the constitution and the daily barrage on the media and the journalists is symptomatic of a more fundamental fact of the Afghan society: there is an ongoing culture war in Afghanistan. This is the same non-ending culture war that first reached tipping point in 1912 and became a warm war (the spark then was the lovely Queen Suraya’s bare arms in a western dress, and pictures of young Afghan girls in skirts and hats studying abroad in Turkey.) The same ongoing culture war has influenced the course of Afghan political history over the last century. Kambakhsh and other journalists are all victims of this war. In reality, everyone, including those who vye for his blood, know deep down that his transgressions are not grave enough to warrant the death penalty. But what these people also know is that there is more at stake than merely the neck of one or two young journalist (especially that they do not enjoy the same immunities that many other journalists in Afghanistan do, i.e. back-up of their embassies, etc.) So in effect these people are telling the likes of Perwiz Kambakhsh:
“Sorry pal, we know it is a bit extreme to put the hangman’s noose around your neck (figure of speech, in actuality we would prefer for you to be stoned to death) for this – distributing stuff that you did not write and may not even fully endorse, or even understand. You did not even publish it, and it is not proven that you held secret group meetings to proselytize and discuss it. And we are not particularly opposed to Will Durant -whose book is a key incriminating evidence in your case- either. But times are tough and we are in a war. Your death is a small price to be paid for what this will teach others. Next thing and we might even allow the elected MP Malalay Joya back into the parliament, and allow Tolo TV to air Shakira concerts. Now that would be a slippery slope we cannot allow this nation to go down, wouldn’t it? So we hope you will try to understand. And if you don’t, well, too bad.”

For some of these people, it is even a win-win situation whether Kambakhsh dies or lives. If he dies, well, lesson learnt, victory achieved, Islam saved, and journalists harnessed for good. If he lives, it will likely be the president who pardons him- the sentence will likely be upheld in a landslide vote in the lower house, and the supreme court’s only concern would be whether the sentence is harsh enough. Unless and until his legal advisors find a loophole (and one that is acceptible to the clergy too) on the grounds of which they can send the case back down, the president is facing a serious headache. He is damned if he signs off on the death sentence of a young journalist, and he is damned if he does not. In Afghanistan we call that being sandwiched between the two stones of a mill – or a rock and a hard place.


Of poppies and poverties

January 26, 2008

There seems to be a flurry of exchanges and posts and calls ahead of the next JCMB meeting in Tokyo (with counter-narcotics dominating the agenda) to prove that the ‎poor farmers in Hilmand are driven to poppy cultivation by poverty, and those who have ‎it so well in the north, center and elsewhere don’t really have to grow poppy. Case in point, the latest posts on ICGA Blog by the political scientist and ‘super-academic’ Barnett R. Rubin. The cynic in me always manages to be alarmed by such heightened activity just as many a predator in the wild would by sudden movements. So here it goes…

First, all this talk about poverty and poppy just makes me think of ‎a common anecdote in the south that someone recently related to me that goes something ‎like this: Upon being asked how much he earned from his opium crops the previous year, ‎an illiterate Hilmand farmer said, after a long pause: “I dunno the rest of it but I know ‎that I bought 160 Sarachas among other things…” (Saracha is the name in Afghanistan of ‎a station-wagon like vehicle commonly used for passenger transport and as taxicab)

Now ‎this may well be an exaggerated number, not least because who in the world needs 160 ‎vehicles unless they want to open a full fleet limousine service for the drug barons of the south, but it goes to show the extent in the popular imagination of the wealth associated ‎with narcotics. And not to say that all farmers have an equal access to that wealth, in fact ‎I agree that the farmers get the smallest of the dividends from opium cultivation, but the ‎externalities from opium cultivation, and the ripple effects and the multiplier effects (on ‎consumption, for instance) of the opium wealth cannot but have an impact on the overall ‎welfare of the residents of Hilmand.

I agree with Mr. Rubin that UNODC is wrong if it ‎says that poverty does not have anything to do with poppy cultivation – but UNODC has ‎never said such a thing. In fact, what they have said could be interpreted more closely to ‎mean that poverty is no more primarily associated with poppy cultivation in Hilmand –‎the province that produces more drugs than the rest of the world put together, including ‎all of Afghanistan’s provinces with the exception of Hilmand itself- and that is an ‎assertion that I am comfortable with, especially if it is backed up with evidence from the ‎field and research, as UNODC claims it to be. Of course nobody, not Mr. Rubin, not the ‎UNODC is claiming that poverty is the only driver of opium cultivation, and neither is anyone saying that poverty is not a factor in poppy cultivation at all. I think nobody can make such over-‎generalized assertions with certainty and authority about any social and economic ‎phenomenon anywhere, not least in the muddle and shady enterprise that is the poppy ‎world of Afghanistan. ‎

By the way, none of this is to support eradication-only policies or to negate the importance of ‎building alternative livelihoods in order to wean farmers in the south off opium. It is just another ‎voice calling for moderation on both sides, on part of those who have taken it upon ‎themselves to defend the honest, poor, and never greedy poppy farmers of Hilmand (and ‎where does this motto come from: “greed is good” and that it is part of the human nature, ‎and that those idiot Marxists failed because they neglected this simple fact of the human nature?), and those on the ‎other side who are allegedly insisting that poppy and poverty are not related at all.

The danger in trying to associate poppy primarily with poverty in the south is to give the wrong impression that because poppy cultivation is largely a southern problem, then by logical inference poverty must also be a major problem only in the south, unlike those other provinces that are relatively or completely poppy free, and hence better off. That would have tragic policy implications in a land already mired by social justice issues and with just about everybody crying out foul over the way aid money and development budget is allocated by provinces.

By the same token, of course it would be wrong to completely dissociate poppy from poverty -that would in effect turn on its head the difficultly-achieved consensus on the importance of alternative livelihoods.

Let’s just say that poppy and poverty and politics are somehow linked together and that the Raison d’être of this sinister ménage à trois has to do with more than the simple fact they all share the beginning two letters of their names in the English language -and leave it at that. I for the life of me can’t seem to get my head around the many nuances of it, or the fact that the problem that everyone is trying to address seems to be growing exponentially as the years go by, and as more money is spent on putting an end to it.

There ‎you have it, my lowly two cents added to the billion dollar argument about a multi-billion ‎dollar industry.


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.