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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.‎


How’s this for an inspiring story?

August 29, 2007

I know this is no substitute for serious blogging/commentary on the situation here, but someone just forwarded this link to me and I felt a wee bit proud and wanted to share it with whoever still visits Safrang -at the risk of being accused of shameless self-promotion. (Also because it is a change –however small– from what you get to read about Afghanistan nowadays on blogs – which is mostly doom and gloom.)

Afghanistan Scholarship Rugs

rugs

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In a few days I will be travelling north on business. Hopefully that will give me the right impetus to start blogging again. Life –so much has happened in the intervening period– and work in Kabul have joined forces and leave me little time for “informed commentary.”


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.)

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(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.)