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.

————————————

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

*
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.)

———–

(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.)


At Long Last

April 23, 2007

Via Xinhua/People’s Daily Online:

UNFPA to help Afghan gov’t launch national census

The UN Agency for Population Fund ( UNFPA) would support the government of Afghanistan to launch a national census, Executive Director of the agency Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said Monday.

“UNFPA is supporting the government to conduct its first full national census. The result will help determine the approaches needed to address Afghanistan’s most pressing social and economic development needs,” she told newsmen at a press conference after arriving in Kabul.

The project would be launched in 2008 while a pilot census will begin by July this year.

No complete census has taken place in Afghanistan over the past 30 years.

The project for national census would cost around 60 million U. S. dollars, Obaid’s colleague and Regional Director to Asia- Pacific Sultan Aziz said.

Source: Xinhua

All we can say is: about time.

It is striking that more than five years after the collapse of Taliban, and about 30 years after the last national census was held in Afghanistan, finally some attention being paid to this important, baseline national indicator that figures prominently in discussions about national identity and political representation as well as in reconstruction and macro-economic policymaking (workforce data, unemployment rate, social security and retirement benefits, etc.)

There are those who have questioned the accuracy of the last national census (1981?) in debates about, you got it right, ethnic composition of Afghanistan. Hopefully the upcoming survey in 2008 will put these speculations to rest once and for good. Also, a few days ago here on Safrang we had our own little discussion related to this topic. The episode revealed to me the inherent difficulty of not having reliable statistical data to fall back on (and no, CIA Factbook does not meet those standards.)


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.


Congressional Forum on Afghanistan

April 17, 2007

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

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

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


Fresh for the Plucking?

March 27, 2007

If the Taliban were to launch an ambitious recruiting campaign across Afghanistan in the next few weeks, odds are they will find hundreds if not thousands of despairing young men who have been turned down by the handful institutions of higher learning in the country and face grim and unknown futures. These are members of the post-Taliban generation of high school graduates who have long dreamed of gaining a university education -as evidenced by their widespread participation in the university entry exams- and are suddenly finding out that those dreams are shattered -and all for no fault of theirs.

Afghanistan’s few universities are already operating above capacity, and now for another consecutive year university officials have had to turn down some 38,000 candidates who participated in the matriculation exams -a figure nearly double that of last year’s, and representing nearly two thirds of this year’s university hopefuls.

According to a BBC Persian report by journalist Dawood Naji from Kabul, as more and more students graduate from high schools across the country and a greater number of these decide to take part in the university entry exams, authorities will have to refuse entry to an ever increasing number of students. The report cites an estimate by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Learning that in 10 years the number of university candidates will reach a million students per year while the capacity of Afghanistan’s universities will peak at merely 100,000 – only one in ten students will have the opporturnity to attend university. Already the issue is spoken of as “Afghanistan’s crisis of higher education.”

It is easy to foresee where all of this is headed for: The end of the Taliban era was marked by an explosion in primary school enrollments (approximately 4 million for each of the past two years.) As this boom generation reaches high school and later graduates, competition will worsen and universities will be overwhelmed. Just as investment in higher education will ensure a future generation of educated citizens and skilled workers for the country’s reconstruction, neglecting to address this mounting crisis will spawn hundreds of thousands of young people who are too educated and ambitious to settle for the traditional farming and labor employments, and too unprepared and unskilled to fill jobs in the public and private sectors that demand specific skills and a university degree – such a generation of ambitious discontents is sure to provide extremist and irredentist causes with fresh recruits thirsty for a certain future and a sense of meaning and belonging.


REPORT: “Breaking Point: Measuring Progress in Afghanistan”

March 12, 2007

PCR Project commented:

Dear Safrang, Given your interest in Afghanistan, we thought you might be interested in our latest report, Breaking Point: Measuring Progress in Afghanistan. The PCR Project is a part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank located in Washington, DC. Much more on Afghanistan and Pakistan can be found at www.pcrproject.com.
Best,
PCR Project.

Thanks PCR Project for bringing the omission to my attention. I am remiss not to have posted a link here, especially that I contributed to the report. (Safrang is a pseudonym and no reference to it can be found in the acknowledgements.)

َA summary of the report is available on the PCR Blog, and you can also download the full report there. According to the summary, the report’s key findings are:

  • Afghans are losing trust in their government because of an escalation in violence;
  • Public expectations are neither being met nor managed;
  • Conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated in all key areas targeted for development, except for the economy and women’s rights.

Of course I am not biased in saying that the report (a follow-up to a baseline report published a year earlier) is one of the most insightful qualitative measures of progress in Afghanistan in recent times, both for its extensive data collection and the unique methodology.

It should be said, however, that the period covered in the report (July 2005 through Oct 2006) leaves out a number of key developments that have happened in the past few months and that could bear heavily on some of the trends captured in the report. The anticipation of these emerging developments makes the report all the more poignant.

Also of note is the telltale title of the report. Last year’s baseline report was titled “In the Balance” – this, at a time when most people had already billed Afghanistan as a success story. That fragile balance was tipped in 2006. This year, the ominous title reads: “Breaking Point”. Judging from the positive reception of the report, it seems that a lot of people are listening.


8th March and the State of Afghan Women

March 9, 2007

On the eve of another International Women’s Day the lot of Afghan women has not improved considerably since the fall of the Taliban. That is the unanimous verdict from the UN, AIHRC (Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission) and a number of other organizations and reports in the media. Domestic violence, forced marriages, lack of access to health services (and of lesser immediate concern, to education) remain alarmingly high.

According to AIHRC, only in the south-western province of Farah (home to Malalai Joya – vocal woman parliamentarian) self-burning has increased by a whopping 80% over the course of the past year. Other provinces in the same zone have also seen significant rise in self-burning by women victims of domestic violence and forced marriages.

The extreme phenomenon of “burning brides” -as once reported in the West, with flagrant romantic and orientalist overtones- is immensely tragic and existentially fascinating in equal measures; and while we hope the practice itself and the circumstances that lead to it come to an end, it calls for a serious cross-cutting psychological-anthropological-philosophical treatment in the future.

Even with the stigma that is associated with breaching family confidence and reporting abuse, AIHRC documented 1650 cases of violence against women in 2006. The commission also reported 120 cases of death by suicide (self-burning and OD’ing on painkillers) for 2006. No less shocking, IRIN reports that every 30 minutes an Afghan woman dies during childbirth, and the average life expectancy for Afghan women is 44 years. According to UNIFEM (UN Dev. Fund for Women), about 90% of Afghan women are illiterate. (more)

All of this however does not mean that revolutions of a cosmetic nature are not taking place. Afghan women are among the most talked-about women in the world today (right up there with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears), and the focus of a global circle of bleeding-heart sympathy that translates to photo-ops, quick-fix projects, conferences, and start-up non-profits. Yesterday, two Kabul newspapers’ editorials duly blasted these as mere talk and repetitious stage shows that do very little to tangibly change the status of women of Afghanistan. (The dailies are Wisa and Anis – at least once of which primarily targets a women readership)

To mark the occassion the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice awarded “International Women of Courage” awards to a group of women from around the world that included two women from Afghanistan; the Canadian Governor-General made a surprise visit to Afghanistan; UNDP announced a $10 million grant to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs over the next two years; and Afghanistan’s Supreme Court and the aid group Medica Mondiale announced a joint initiative to register marriages in an effort to cut down on forced marriages. Pojhwak news also reported the opening of a small hospital in Kabul for women narcotics addicts.

——

[See related post on Safrang: The Abominable Everywomen]


“Silent Death in Central Afghanistan”

March 7, 2007

The daily Iqtidar-e-Milli in Kabul carried the above headline today, writing about areas in central Afghanistan that are virtually cut off from the outside world due to heavy snowfall. The newspaper laments the fact that more than five years after the process of reconstruction has began in Afghanistan, in certain parts of the country things have not changed at all. According to the report, lack of access to such basic needs as “health facilities, roads, and safe drinking water” has frustrated the local population and is eroding their faith in the new government.

Time to think seriously about the Kabul-Bamiyan-Cheghcharan-Herat highway? If and when completed by a confluence of miracles, unlikely political will, and generous international aid, the project is bound to lift the standard of living in much of central Afghanistan including Hazarajat from stone age levels, and cut down on precious east-west transit time that otherwise has to skirt around the country.

Separately, BBC reports casualties due to heavy snowfall in Western province of Herat. Even prayers are answered with a twist here.


After a Year of Setbacks Afghanistan Sees Renewed Committment

January 26, 2007

Not long after the start of the Iraq War the world became so embroiled with the many twists and turns of that fatal mistake that Afghanistan was relegated to the backburner -and soon came to be referred to as the “forgotten war.”

And forgotten it was. Since the fateful summer of 2003, with an initial euphoria and illusion of success in Afghanistan, the foreigners, ever so impatient to pack and leave the dusty country to its own instruments (as they had done before after the Soviet withdrawal) thought that the good work was once again done here.

Not so. As international committment waned (and the reconstruction that was promised came ever so slowly), the Taliban did not rest. They built up in weapons, troops, morale, and popular support (on both sides of Afghanistan-Pakistan border) and starting as early as the spring of 2005 made a comeback.

By 2006 the Taliban were stronger and in a better state to face international troops than they had been even as a regular army back in 2001. Over the years, the regular army of the Taliban diffused into the population and became a guerilla force -a nightmare for the state of Afghanistan and its international backers that had to hold, secure, and defend cities and villages across the country and face a mobile enemy. Add to this the novel reality of suicide bombing, and the losses of 2006 should not come as a shock.

Now, as Afghanistan begins its sixth year post-Bonn and awaits another fateful spring, there is a broad consensus that things must change. If there is a silver lining to the setbacks of 2006, it is this: Afghanistan’s Lost Year has served to catapult the forgotten war back into the front and center of world’s attention.

Here are some key recent developments that I think signal a revitalized US and international committment to the struggle in Afghanistan:

  • In today’s NATO foreign ministers’ summit in Brussels the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to announce increased US committment to Afghanistan and ask European NATO members to step up to the plate -both in terms of increased aid money and more troops.
  • After a US policy review of Afghanistan (studying the period starting with the protests of June 2006) found that the current resource levels are not sufficient to meet the reconstruction goals, the US administration is expected next month to appeal the US Congress for additional funds of as much as $10.4 billion (Washington Post reports the figure as $7-8 billion) to supplement the funds already earmarked for Afghanistan reconstruction.
  • While increasing troop levels may be out of the question for now (especially as the deteriorating situation in Iraq requires a more urgent surge in troops there), the US army has just announced that it will extend the tour of duty of 3000 soldiers of its 10th Mountain Division who are stationed in Afghanistan by 120 days. This comes at the same time as another influx of troops who are supposed to replace the departing soldiers also arrive in Afghanistan. In effect this amounts to a temporary surge of troops, calculated to last the period of the presumptive spring offensive of the Taliban.
  • While his State of the Union addresses was geared mostly towards domestic issues and as a sequel to the Iraq Policy Speech earlier and President Bush remained silent on Afghanistan but for an acknowledgement of the deteriorating situation there, in a nod to fresh US commitment to Afghanistan the American president did meet the US general (McNeil) who is to take over the command of the NATO troops there.
  • This one is a mixed bag of sorts and may not prove to be as effective as other policy shifts, but the US is also eager to fight the War on Drugs in Afghanistan more seriously: the appointment of its former ambassador to Colombia and a stated objective to employ Colombia-style tactics in the War on Drugs signals frustration with the prolonged drug cultivation and trafficking problem and its myriad complications with funding terrorism and insurgency. It was recently revealed that for months the government of Afghanistan has been under increasing “behind-closed-doors” pressure to allow aerial spraying and the use of herbicides and exfoliators in the Southern provinces.
  • While current NATO troop levels in Afghanistan are 20% short of committments made by member countries, another brigade is expected to arrive “shortly” (i.e. before the spring sets in,) “and more after that,” according to NATO commander Gen. David Richards.
  • For what it is worth, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO established a joint “intelligence hub” in Kabul. While the “hub” can hardly stand in for a much more serious settlement of differences and alignment of interests that is needed between Kabul and Islamabad, it is hoped that the move will serve to improve coordination and intelligence sharing

Whether the renewed US and international committment to Afghanistan is genuine and long-term, or just a bracing up for the anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban remains to be seen. In the latter case, the temporary build-up of troops will merely amount to a Maginot Line: the enemy will only delay its offensive enough that the eager foreigners tire and leave once again before the ANA is up to the challenge -as they have unfailingly done in the past. And then it will be groundhog day all over.