Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ tag
Very please to see the New York Times article this morning on the use of child soldiers in Afghanistan’s security services. Read it here. Above is a photo I took back in February 2008 in Kandahar after the death of Abdul Hakim Jan. The boy said he was 19 years old.
Photo: © Philip Poupin
Thanks to the many kind donations of over a hundred readers of this blog, twitter followers and others, we completed the distribution of materials to those living in two camps in Kabul on January 18th and 20th. By the time we stopped taking donations, we’d raised $9118 from 124 individuals (see at the bottom of the post for a full list).
It’s easiest if I simply give the floor to Orzala, who organised the distribution with help from her brother, Sohrab:
“The story begins with me sitting at the library busy with my studies, while part of me is still thinking about home, people, news and everything else that is happening back at home. Alex sends me a report with some pictures published in a newspaper about the life of internally displaced people coming from southern Afghanistan and living in Kabul …
Staying in the UK for the last 4-5 months, Helmand has become a place I hear the most about, from politicians. I hear most often, success stories and how wonderfully everything works out there. From journalists I hear about war and their pictures of the UK forces in the field, yet the least can be found about the voices of people…. This story struck me in two ways: 1) I found a voice which I could identify with, given my own life experiences as a refugee running away from violence and war, so I couldn’t be passive about them. 2) I thought, I am in danger of being ‘spoiled’, living a comfortable life, warm heated, good shoes, good living conditions and everything I want available for me here, while I just read news about others in challenge and that I have become a typical ‘consumer’ of the news and information.
So I got back to Alex and told him, I am ready to help, if he is to support too, because of all deadlines and too many other priorities on my list. So the idea develops, I start contacting with various friends and organizations dealing with refugees etc. to get a picture about their numbers and also on what organizations are involved for assistance, as usual, the official response is bureaucratic, while a personal response recommends the best option as simply going there and doing it on our own.
I visited Kabul for a short time (even shorter because I was delayed in London for three days on account of the snow!) and most of you will have read my account of a visit to the first camp at Char Rahi Qanbar.
Just a day before leaving Kabul, I learnt that there is another camp, with refugees from (mainly) Helmand and also other southern provinces, around 300 families living in a far more desperate situation, as they get much less attention than the bigger camp in Charai Qanbar. Perhaps so far no report or anything is being published about this other part. I found the situation in some ways harder for them. With conversations I’ve had with around 10-15 men from village, some young, middle aged and some elderly, they all shared their sufferings and why/how they made it to Kabul…
I had to explain who I was and what brought me to see them. I’ve told them about the newspaper and the fact that some of the people who came visited them, read about their situation on the newspapers, decided to provide an urgent assistance, which is only for one time and is meant to at least keep them warm for part of winter if not for whole winter. They were very friendly and said thanks to anyone who is ready to support them in this hard time. One of them told me, we are not used to beg, if people come and help us, we’re grateful, otherwise, we just sit here. Another shared what I exactly also hear in camp one. ‘They are not giving us jobs here [he meant job as in daily labor], they say we look like Taliban’ he smiles. ‘It is not my fault to have the same clothes as the Taliban’!
The wakeel [elder] of the camp provided us with a list, he says there were 250 families before, now another 50 have joined very recently. They are all coming from areas where the military operations are going on. We write up the names of the additional 50 families, the names are given by 5 men who represent the families.
Choosing what to distribute:
The original appeal asked for charcoal, because some of the residents of the first camp mentioned this, and I too was thinking this is the best option working to keep tents warm. However, we faced some challenges: the challenge was the much larger number of refugees in camp one: 870 families in camp one and 300 in camp two. This meant our only charcoal option could not work for mainly financial reasons. We’d have needed at least $2000 to provide them with 50 kgs. On the other hand, we also realised that camp one is already receiving this package of winter assistance from a German NGO which also includes wood as part of that support. Residents and elders of camp two said they had not received this help so far. On the day I visited them, I saw bags of wheat being off-loaded in the camp; we could not 100% verify who brought it (some said it was the Afghan Ministry of refugees, others said it was Aschiana), but I observed they did have wheat for all families.
Taking this situation into account, we decided to provide the families of camp one with 5 kgs of cooking oil, which is one of the top two priorities for food right after wheat, and provide the residents of camp two with 25 kg of charcoal each. The goal for us was to contribute to every family at both camps. The whole decision on what to distribute is result of discussions among the camp residents, men and women whom I visited and spoke with.
Organizing the distribution:
My absence from Kabul made it bit challenging to organize the distribution, but nevertheless, thanks to my brother (the co-founder of Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan’s first indie rock band) who agreed to take the responsibility, it all went smoothly.
Our photographer friend, Philip Poupin, had kindly agreed to be present there as witness and also take photographs of the whole process so that it is documented. Also, Abaceen Nasimi, Alex’s friend, was there to observe the distribution.
Although initially I was thinking to put together a team of volunteers who could help with the distribution (as I had done in previous distributions of this sort), in the process, we found that it would be easier to involve the people themselves. One day before the distribution, Siddique visited both camps, verified the lists for final and identified all representatives for distribution. In camp one they have been pretty well-organized in this way: for the entire camp there were two wakeels. Each wakeel, then, has 10-15 representatives who each represents 5-10 families. The fact that in both camps refugees themselves volunteered to help with distribution confirmed my old message once again: people in difficult situations should not be seen as subjects, or helpless victims; if you give them hope and an opportunity to act, they can be active agents for a better life. This is far too small an example, but it can perhaps lead into a big one, some day!
Similarly, in camp two, people were far more organized than camp one. There were literate men among these refugees who had prepared a much better organized list of all families in the camp. Each 5-10 families (mostly related) were represented by one slightly elderly man. These representatives all gathered and identified how many families they represented. Based on this list the charcoal sacks were distributed among the representatives who would immediately carry them to the tents. If we (I mean myself here) were to organize this distribution, it would take us weeks and we would still miss some families. In a lucky coincidence, some people from the Ministry of Finance had gathered money and bought rice, grains and cooking oil that was being distributed among the families in camp two on the same day after our charcoal distribution was done.
One challenge as it seems was the fact that among distributors no woman was involved, so there may not be pictures of women from the camp. It is simply something we are not supposed to push for, given that most of the refugees are coming from areas where women are still covered and it is a sensitive matter. And women themselves prefer not to be in pictures either.
We would like to thank you all for being so generous in supporting this very important cause. This assistance maybe be too little to be sustainable or help the refugees, but at least a message is conveyed there that not all outsiders agree with the bombings and killings of civilians; not all outsiders are passive readers of the news and looking at their situations and… so, THANK YOU ALL who contributed to this little mission to be a success. We tried our best to make sure that each can of oil and each bag of charcoal entered into each family tent, and that’s best we could do. Our hope is to see them one day back into their fields, orchards and their own little houses.”
And I would like to add my own heartfelt appreciation for all those who donated and helped out in various ways with this appeal. I must admit I was initially skeptical that we would be able to raise the money; I had assumed others were as weary with the progress of the war as I am and that such a small effort, reaching relatively few people, would find little traction. As it turns out, we raised considerably more than our original target and were thus able to contribute in a more extensive way than originally imagined. We all need hope in these difficult times; the generosity of strangers demonstrated here fulfils our need.
[Update/Edit: It occurred to me (and I had some emails) that people might not want their names displayed here, so I took the list of donors down.]
You can read more about An Enemy We Created on the book’s website. It went online tonight and contains an outline of the argument along with advance praise from several analysts and scholars of the region. This is the book Felix Kuehn and I spent the past year working on. Go take a look:
It’s the end of the year again — so fast! — and I thought it’d be worth taking a moment to reflect on what I’d read over the past year. I also managed to rope in a few friends in to provide their own roundups for the sake of variety.
I allowed myself to include long-form journalism as well as books, since this year saw two really fantastic examples of that; of course there were many, many more, but the two below really stood out.
For non-fiction, I came to Noah Feldman’s Fall and Rise of the Islamic State a few years after it was published, but found it both interesting and lucidly written, as fine an example for how to explore these issues of ideology and political aspiration in Islam as I know. Students and scholars of political Islam take note.
Matt Aikins notes how a new round of Iraq memoirs are being released, and at the top of these (although it’s only half-memoir) must be Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed. She tells Iraq’s story through the voice and life of a relatively senior figure from within Saddam’s armed forces, interspersing it with her own efforts to to research that same story. It’s beautifully written — like her previous book on Georgia — and, along with Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near, is always something I recommend to people on Iraq. David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers tells the story of the American military’s struggles post-2003, again powerfully written.
From Afghanistan, Elizabeth Rubin’s New York Times Magazine profile of President Karzai was simply one of the most compelling and interesting pieces of writing that I’ve read from the post-2001 period. You must read this if you haven’t already. Looking across the border, Jane Mayer wrote an absolutely devastating New Yorker piece on the drone strike campaign in Pakistan. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention. If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing; print it out and make time.
Reconciliation has been one of the most misused buzzwords of 2010. For a different perspective, look no further than Ed Moloney’s Voices from the Grave. This is an edited/commentary-rich oral history of two figures from Northern Ireland, published earlier this year now that both voices have died. It shows the inner machinations going on behind the scenes — including some amazing accounts of prison dynamics and the hunger strikes — and every pundit and politician seeking to involve themselves somehow in the debate must read this book as a historical and contextual corrective.
I didn’t get the chance to read much fiction this year on account of work, but Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story (reviewed in the New Yorker here) was definitely the most memorable. Time will tell whether it will last, but my sense is that this was something special.
There were countless numbers of books that I wanted to read but didn’t find the time. They will be priorities in 2011:
– Alice Munro’s short-story collection, Too Much Happiness
– Priya Satia’s Spies in Arabia (described to me by Matt Aikins as follows: “It’s about the cultural environment of Edwardian-era British secret agents in Arabia – their dissatisfaction with Western modernity, their search for some pre-modern, inscrutable purity in the ‘vast desert’ with its ‘timeless inhabitants’, the intuitionist methodologies they developed in response to a ‘mysterious Orient’ that scientific empiricism could not fathom, their cultivated literary mystique and ambitions, their habits of dressing in Arab garb and living so as to ‘become one with them’ – and the complex relationship this had to the military and political imperatives of empire and war.”) Who wouldn’t want to read that?
– Nir Rosen’s Aftermath (although I’ll have to read his earlier Iraq book first…)
– Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, an account of the killings and deaths in central and eastern Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.
– Mary Kaldor’s The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon
– Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, on the financial crisis and how it happened
– and (although I reckon this’ll keep me going into 2012) Richard Taruskin’s magisterial Oxford History of Western Music. It’s five volumes, but Taruskin is one of the truly great living musicologists and cultural scholars of our day. It’s been out for a while but Oxford University Press have recently issued a paperback version selling at just under £60 on Amazon. That’s a bargain if ever there was one.
Here are some selections from Matt Aikins, intrepid journalist and the talent behind Harper’s profile of General Razziq, The Master of Spin Boldak:
Every year it seems as if there are more good books being published and less time to read any of them. 2010 was no exception. There is a sort of ‘second wave’ of in-depth reporting coming out of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. Joshua E. S. Phillips’ chronicle of torture by US soldiers in Iraq, None of Us Were Like This Before, is among the best. It’s unflinching in every sense of the word: neither from incendiary portrayals of the depravities US military might inflicted on innocent Iraqis, nor from a nuanced and empathetic understanding of the torturers themselves, in many cases ordinary Americans who found themselves swept up, beyond morality, by forces within and without that they could hardly comprehend. Finally, two of my favorite reads from 2010 were not actually published in 2010. Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side is astonishing not only for its comprehensive indictment of the expansion of executive power under Bush, but for how well-written and engrossing it is. And Out of Afghanistan, Diego Cordovez and Selig Harrison’s out-of-print account of almost a decade of negotiations leading to the Geneva Accords, (which paved the way from Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan) should truly be a must-read for every Afghanistan expert. It’s extremely relevant right now.
In 2010 we finally saw some quality Af-Pak books hit the shelves, three of which are indispensable. Antonio Giustozzi’s Decoding the Taliban: Insights From the Field contains selections from some of the most careful and learned observers of the Afghan insurgency; if you don’t have time for the whole book, read Tom Coghlan’s take on Helmand. Giustozzi’s other release this year, Empires of Mud, is a fascinating study of warlordism in Afghanistan, a much-abused term that warranted the close attention. My Life in the Taliban by Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef provides a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban figure. In particular, the descriptions of life during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Kandahar are an important contribution to our understanding of the country’s history. Outside of the South Asia field, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks gives a compelling look at the intersection between genetics, medical research, race and class. It traces the story of a poor, cancer-ridden African American woman and her unlikely (and unknowing) contribution to medical science: a cell sample that has been used to study cancer for decades. Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom looks at Bush-era American suburbia. I don’t think it quite lived up to its hype, but it is an important and enjoyable read nonetheless. Finally, for the mathematically inclined, I recommend Oded Goldreich’s P, NP and NP-completeness: The Basis of Complexity Theory, which gives of a good overview of the P-NP problem in computer science, which made the news this year for almost getting solved.
And these from Naheed Mustafa, a friend and journalist who is hopefully soon starting work on a great project she has up her sleeve:
I always feel like I’m six months to a year behind in my reading. I end up doing so much reading for work that I can’t get around to reading the things I want. But certainly there are worse problems one can have. I do read a lot of long form journalism and some of the pieces I especially enjoyed have already been mentioned above (Elizabeth Rubin’s profile of Hamid Karzai) and Jane Mayer’s drone piece. Daniyal Moinuddin’s collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was compelling and on the whole I thought it was an eloquent presentation of the fading of the traditional landowning class in Pakistan’s Punjab. The other two books I finally got around to reading and am happy that I did: Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill – both Canadian writers. Neither was published in 2010 but, like I said, I’m always behind. There are several long form pieces I’d suggest as well. Two from Basharat Peer who I think is one of the most phenomenal journalists of our time and has an eloquent, literary style of writing: Kashmir’s Forever War in Granta 112: Pakistan and The Road Back from Ayodhya in The Caravan. The third is an astonishing portrait of Roger Ebert written by Chris Jones for Esquire entitled The Essential Man. Jones’ attention to detail and the tiny cues he picks up are brilliant. Roger Ebert wrote a response to Jones’ profile (on the whole positive) that you may want to read to get some sense of the process (I’m obsessed with “process”). Also, another Esquire piece called Eleven Lives by Tom Junod about the oil workers who were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion back in April of this year. My last recommendation is actually a short excerpt from a memoir my dear and lovely friend Rahat Kurd is writing. It’s about growing up Muslim in Canada. The essay was printed in Maisonneuve magazine: Things That Make Us Muslim.
Your suggestions and recommendations are welcome in the comments below.
After a slow beginning, the open letter to President Obama that I co-signed has finally started to get some media coverage and blogger/commentator reaction. I’m listing here all the different places it’s shown up so far, and I’ll try to keep it as up-to-date as possible.
Note, too, that the list of those who have signed continues to grow as word about the letter spreads. We are now over 50 names.
Reprints of the Letter
The Guardian @ Comment is Free
Jean Guisnel translates the letter into French
‘War in Context’ blog republishes part of the letter
The official Afghanistan Operation blog of the British Ministry of Defence reprints part of the letter and links to the Daily Telegraph reprint
The UK’s Stop the War Coalition reprints the full letter
Anthony Loewenstein reprints the full letter
E-Ariana (a news wire service) reprints the full letter
Comment and Explanation from those who signed
Gerard Russell explains why he signed over on his personal blog
Four of those who signed answer some questions posed to us by a blogger/journalist
Gilles Dorronsoro was on BBC World Service Radio (no link available)
Daniel Korski explains why he signed (on his blog at The Spectator)
Joshua Foust explains why he signed (and why he’s changed his mind on negotiations) over at registan.net
I explain on BBC World Service a bit about the context of the open letter (44:23mins in)
“US surge in Afghanistan ‘not working’” – The Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Afghan insurgents kill six foreign soldiers” – AFP posted on Khaleej Times
“Obama “Must Talk to Afghan Taliban”” – Asharq al-Awsat (reposting AFP)
“Des experts internationaux appellent Obama à négocier avec les talibans” – AFP posted on Le Monde website (in French)
“Obama must talk to Afghan Taliban, experts say” – AFP published on Emirates 24/7
“Academics, experts appeal to Obama to back Taliban talks” – Myra MacDonald writes a piece for Reuters about the letter, quoting extensively.
“6 Nato soldiers killed” – The Morning Star Online
“Letter to Obama calls for change in Afghan strategy” – Daily Times (Pakistan)
“Pak intelligentsia urges Obama to change Afghan strategy” – AfghanistanNews.net (needless to say, we are not the ‘Pak intelligentsia’)
Allvoices runs a news piece on the letter
Pakistan Today, a newspaper, outlines the main points of the letter
The Century Foundation feature Praveen’s critique of the letter on their Afghanistan page
Dawn newspaper (Pakistan) features the letter
France 24 cover the letter on their website news wire
Blogging and Analysis
Malou Innocent mentions the letter and part-quotes it in a piece entitled “Spinning Us to Death” – The National Interest
Max Boot strongly disagrees
“Commentary: Vietnam syndrome?” – Arnaud de Borchgrave comments (mostly sympathetically) for UPI.com
Christian Bleuer mentions the letter, but declines to comment
Ann Marlowe sees an opportunity for satire in the open letter
Paul Pillar cites the open letter in the context of the strategic review and wonders why there hasn’t been more criticism
Tea and Politics cites the letter and equates talks in Afghanistan to ‘negotiation with the Nazis’
Robert Naiman suggests the ‘progress’ cited in the strategic review may not be all it seems, citing the open letter (@ the Huffington Post)
The ‘Obama Blog’ suggests the US president is ignoring the ‘Afghanistan-Pakistan reality’
‘The Lift’ blog on ‘legal issues in the fight against terrorism’ cites the letter in a post
Jason Ditz of antiwar.com cites the letter in a post about ‘bleak metrics’
Hugh Pope updates a post about Deedee Derksen’s new book ‘Tea with the Taliban’ and cites the letter
The Council on Foreign Relations cite the letter in an analysis brief looking at the post-Holbrooke strategy
Compatible Creatures blog cites the letter in a discussion of Holbrooke’s alleged last words
Jayshree Bajoria (Council on Foreign Relations) cites the letter in a post on her Huffington Post blog
Small Wars Journal’s forum (Small Wars Council) mentions the letter and kicks off a very frank discussion
Praveen Swami (The Daily Telegraph) disagrees with the suggestions contained the letter
Columbia University Press’ blog cites the letter
‘American Everyman’ cites the letter
Dr Mohammad Taqi (Daily Times, Pakistan) cites the letter and suggests both it and the strategic review misconceive the environment
‘Rehmat’s World’ cites and quotes part of the letter
KabulPress.org disagrees with the letter (in Dari, and interesting as one of the few Afghan reactions so far — aside from those Afghans who have already signed the letter)
8am or Hasht-e Sobh daily newspaper also disagrees with the premise of the article (also in Dari)
I’m very privileged to be able to add my name to this letter — signed by some very smart people who’ve been working in and around Afghanistan for many years.
We have been engaged and working inside Afghanistan, some of us for decades, as academics, experts and members of non-governmental organizations. Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future. The cost of the war is now over $120 billion per year for the United States alone. This is unsustainable in the long run. In addition, human losses are increasing. Over 680 soldiers from the international coalition – along with hundreds of Afghans – have died this year in Afghanistan, and the year is not yet over. We appeal to you to use the unparalleled resources and influence which the United States now brings to bear in Afghanistan to achieve that longed-for peace.
Read the rest up at the website www.afghanistancalltoreason.com and note that the list of signatures is growing and being updated as more people learn about the letter. Please support this initiative by forwarding the text of the letter onwards.
One of the most difficult issues to navigate when discussing recent history with Taliban interviewees (especially those of a political bent) has always been the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Traditionally any attempt to suggest that Osama bin Laden was involved in the planning and funding of these attacks was met with skepticism as well as a statement along the lines of, “we don’t know, nor have we seen any convincing evidence and it could have been anyone who carried out and planned this attack.”
Now, though, in the first semi-official acknowledgement from a Talib — in this case the former Ambassador to Pakistan, Mawlawi Abdul Salam Zaeef — we have the following statement in an interview:
When asked for his opinion of Osama bin Laden and his relation with Mullah Omar following the events of 11 September, Zaeef said, “Following the September events, the Commander of the Faithful Mullah Omar met with Bin Laden in the presence of a large number of Taliban leaders and Al-Qaeda members, and asked him if they were behind the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon.
“Osama denied the allegations but I now believe that Bin Laden planned the attacks without informing the Commander of the Faithful and then lied to him by denying his involvement in the attacks after they took place,” he said.
This is maybe all we’re going to get for the moment, but this admission is a crucial first step in tackling the issue of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Let’s hope it’s part of a larger political development.
Not so much. Last weekend’s Sunday Times carried an article by Miles Amoore headlined, “Love drives repentant Taliban chief to defect.” It also includes the following:
Many fighters are thought to have mixed feelings about leaving [the Taliban]. “If I stop fighting, maybe the government will still persecute me as a Talib while the Taliban try to kill me,” said Rahman. “I am stuck in the middle.” The greater number of foreign fighters in the south and southeast — mainly from Pakistan and the Middle East — will make it even harder for foot soldiers there to defect.
I’d like to see some numbers on how many ‘foreign fighters’ — “greater” in number — there supposedly are down in southeastern Afghanistan, let alone in the south. Needless to say this is an exaggerated claim. Watch this space for more detail.
Analysis and commentary on Afghanistan is pretty frustrating at the moment, mostly since I’m out of the country, but all the fuss over Petraeus, the Lisbon meeting this weekend and the upcoming December Strategic Review in the US. Finally put some thoughts to paper on how I see it:
The problem with milestones is that there’s always another one a little further down the road. Last week we had the NATO meeting in Lisbon, to be followed soon after by the long-anticipated December Strategic Review. I can recall back in February this year when think-tank “lifers” in Washington told me to sit tight in anticipation of the “big review” coming up in December which would deliver some much-needed policy changes. Now that we’re here the view seems much less rosy:
Last week a team led by Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president’s Afghanistan adviser at the White House, returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan with data that will serve as a basis for Mr. Obama’s review of the war next month. General Petraeus is also assembling masses of data.
Those final five syllables should be enough to make even the most die-hard optimist take pause. Petraeus wants to present an empirically valid case for continuing along the current course — the so-called “default position” turbo-charged with all the money and weapons the heart could ever want. Petraeus wants to use all these “masses of data” to make you believe five things, all of which are also more problematic than he’d have you believe.
Read the rest over at Current Intelligence.