Journalism

Learn all the districts of Afghanistan with Anki!

A friend was asking about using Anki to learn to recognise the districts of Afghanistan so I made her a deck that provides tests in the following way;

On the front of the card the question is presented along with a computer-generated audio pronunciation of the district name:

Then if you know it, you'll answer Badakhshan and then you'll click/tap through to the next screen to see if you got it right. You'll see this:

 
 

Then you can mark whether you got it right or not. There are around 400 districts to learn, so if you learn 13-15 new cards each day you'll finish the whole lot in a month.

Why learn all the districts of Afghanistan? Sometimes you'll hear someone talking about a particular place or part of the country, and without knowing which province they're talking about you might not understand the context or the conversation. Plus, a little bit of geography never hurt anyone.

Give it a try. And let me know if you manage to complete the deck. You can download the full Anki file here. Enjoy!

On Untangling Syria's Socially Mediated War

 
 Some old photos from when I used to live in Damascus

Some old photos from when I used to live in Damascus

fountains.jpg

How do we figure out what is going on in a country like Syria, when journalists, researchers and civilians alike are targeted with frustrating ease? Is it enough to track what is being posted on social media outlets? These two questions are at the core of a fascinating recent(ish) study published by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP).

Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War – by Marc Lynch, Deen Freelon and Sean Aday – came out in January 2014 and analyses an Arabic-and-English-language data set spanning a few years. It offers a useful overview of the social media trends as they relate to the ongoing conflict in Syria. It is especially relevant for those of us who aren’t inside Syria right now, and who are trying to understand things at one remove, whether that is through following social media output or talking to those who have left the country. (This means journalists, researchers and the like.)

Some stark conclusions emerge from the report. The ones I’m choosing to highlight here relate to how international media and research outlets have often been blind to structural issues that obscure their ability to understand Syria from outside the country.

“Social media create a dangerous illusion of unmediated information flows.” [5]

The role of translation or the importance of having research teams that are competent in both English and Arabic comes out very strongly from the research.

“The rapid growth in Arabic social media use poses serious problems for any research that draws only on English-language sources.” [page 3]

The report details how tweets about Syria in Arabic and English came to be different universes, how the discourse rarely overlapped between the two and that to monitor one was to have no idea of what was going on in the other:

“Arabic-language tweets quickly came to dominate the online discourse. Early in the Arab Spring, English-language social media played a crucial role in transmitting the regional uprisings to a Western audience. By June 2011, Arabic had overtaken English as the dominant language, and social media increasingly focused inward on local and identity-based communities. Studies using English-only datasets can no longer be considered acceptable.” [6]

Also:

“The English-language Twitter conversation about Syria is particularly insular and increasingly interacts only with itself, creating a badly skewed impression of the broader Arabic discourse. It focused on different topics, emphasized different themes, and circulated different imagery. This has important implications for understanding mainstream media’s limitations in covering Syria and other non-Western foreign crises and raises troubling questions about the skewed image that coverage might be presenting to audiences.” [6]

Also:

“researchers using only English-language tweets would be significantly misreading the content and nature of the online Twitter discourse.” [17]

And:

“These findings demonstrate once again the insularity of English-language journalists and the rapid growth of the Arabic- speaking networks. Both findings are potentially troubling for at least two reasons. First, they imply a journalistic community whose coverage may be influenced more by its cultural and professional biases than by the myriad constituencies within Syria and across the region. Second, they point to the power of social media to draw people into like-minded networks that interpret the news through the prism of their own information bubbles.” [26]

The general ideas in here won’t necessarily come as a surprise but I found it instructive to see just how different those two discourse universes are in the report.

In a separate but not-unrelated note, I have been thinking of ways that I can stay engaged in what’s going on in Syria beyond just consuming reports at one step removed. I’m working with a beta-testing team using a piece of software called Bridge – made by the lovely team at Meedan – which allows for the translation of social media and the use of those translations as part of an embedded presentation online. I will be translating strands and snippets from certain parts of Syria’s social media universe in Arabic. More on this soon, I hope.

Taliban public punishments, 1996–2001

 

Executions are a recurrent motif in how historians, journalists and analysts have chosen to write about the Afghan Taliban. See the opening to Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War as one example, or this Reuters piece from May 1999. I wanted to study the role of executions and public punishments in the Taliban’s government for a while, but lacked data to place the anecdotes into some sort of context.

This short overview is a compilation of sources relating to the Taliban’s public punishments, 1996–2001. It is compiled from publicly available sources as well as from the materials gathered as part of the Taliban Sources Project. I think it is as complete an overview as is possible to get from these public sources, given that the Taliban weren’t shy about publicising their ‘public justice project’ – indeed, for them, the publicity was the point – and that we have multiple complete newspaper runs for the time they were in power. This was collated and triangulated with sources from Associated Press, Agence France Presse, BBC Monitoring and the Afghan Islamic Press news agency.

As a brief summary, I was able to find 101 incidents in total that chronicled the deaths of 119 individuals. I included some instances of public punishment not resulting in death, but this wasn’t really the focus of my search so their numbers may be underrepresented in the list. As another caveat, I was of course only looking at public executions, not anything that went on in secret as part of intelligence or domestic security operations and so on. Kabul, Kandahar and Herat were the most prominent locations for incidents and executions, with over half the total numbers coming from those three provinces alone. (Note that this may reflect a bias in whether incidents were reported from the provinces or not).

In any case, I wanted to present the raw data here alongside a timeline and another chart or two in case this is useful for other researchers/analysts. If you find I’ve missed an event, please drop me a line via email or on twitter and I’ll be sure to add it to the database.

Now head over here for an interactive timeline, charts and the raw data...

AFP covers the Taliban Sources Project

 

A few years back I put out a call (together with Felix Kuehn and Anand Gopal) for translators to work on a new project I was trying to get off the ground. Thankfully, that project is coming to a close, but as you can read in this article, we've had some bumps along the way.

Academics have criticised the British government for creating a "climate of fear" after the national library declined to store the world's biggest collection of Taliban-related documents over concerns it could be prosecuted under terrorism laws.

A group of international researchers spent years putting together a trove of documents related to the Afghan Taliban, including official newspapers from their time in power, poems, maps, radio broadcasts, and several volumes of laws and edicts -- digitising the estimated two-three million words and translating everything into English.

It was hoped the project, which was launched in 2012 and included members of the British Library on its advisory board, would prove an unprecedented resource for academics and officials trying to understand the movement and the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan.

But despite hopes that the library would host a master copy of the digital collection, it got cold feet at the last minute, telling the project's organisers that they feared they could be in breach of Britain's increasingly stringent counter-terrorism laws. (LINK)

(Read the rest of the article by clicking the link above)

The project has been a digitisation and translation of the world's largest archive of (Afghan) Taliban documents (dating back to the 1980s). We hope to present this in the coming months to researchers and the general public alike.

The AFP's article on the British Library's refusal to host the project has been met with incredulity by other scholars and researchers whose work often sees them dealing with primary sources:

Thomas Hegghammer (Director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI)):

Aaron Zelin (Richard Borow Fellow @WashInstitute, Rena and Sami David Fellow @ICSR_Centre, PhD candidate @KingsCollegeLon, Founder of @Jihadology_Net and @JihadPod):

Chris Woods (journalist / researcher):

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (working with primary sources in the Middle East and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum):

Graeme Smith (Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan):

The Guardian newspaper (UK) has a story out as well covering the reasoning behind our disappointment with the decision.

The New York Times (USA) also published a story with some really interesting comments on the legal aspects of the case:

"David Anderson, the independent reviewer for Britain’s antiterrorism laws, said Friday that the Terrorism Act was a broad law that could be even more broadly interpreted “by police and lawyers who want to give cautious advice.” Such interpretations could easily impinge on academic freedom, he warned.
“If this law were interpreted to prevent researchers from accessing Taliban-related material that would impact their academic work, it would be very regrettable,” he said. “That’s not how academics work.”

Al-Jazeera have followed up with a story including comments from Dr Rizwaan Sabir, an academic at Liverpool John Moores University:

"The decision of the British Library may seem far-fetched to some but the law is clear...it says that sharing information that encourages or is useful for terrorism is a criminal offence," Sabir told Al Jazeera.
"Simply holding or sharing the information is a criminal offence that can carry a prison sentence...such laws have a deeply damaging effect on the freedom of scholars to research.
"Where such offences exist, a climate of fear and self-censorship becomes inevitable, and free scholarly inquiry becomes next to impossible."
Sabir was himself arrested in 2008 while conducting research on terrorism for downloading an al-Qaeda training manual from the US Department of Justice website. In 2011, he won compensation and an apology from the British police for false impirsonment.

And two pieces in Arabic. Click here for al-Sharq al-Awsat's writeup, and click here for an article over on BBC Arabic.

UPDATE: Was just on the BBC World Service's Newshour programme talking about all things TSP/British Library. Listen here:

UPDATE: Two analysis/comment pieces have also been released:

1. "Self-Censorship in Action: The British Library Rejects Taliban Archive" by Shaheed Fatima -- offer the legal case that probably supported / lead to the British Library's decision

2. "British Library Won’t Hold Taliban Documents for Researchers Due to Anti-Terror Laws" by Peter van Buren -- summarises some of the broad issues

UPDATE: Two further commentary pieces in NYU's School of Law web journal and forum Just Security:

1. "The British Library Did Not Need to Self-Censor" by Clive Walker

2. "The British Library and the Taliban Sources Project: A Short Reply to Professor Walker" by Shaheed Fatima

UPDATE: A long article summarising much of the above in conjunction with new interviews with Felix and Mike:

"British Library Declines Taliban Archive, New Hosts Step Up" by Lisa Peet

UPDATE: A reply from Clive Walker to Shaheed Fatima's post:

"A Short (Yet Still Forlorn) Reply in the Taliban Sources Project Debate" by Clive Walker

North Waziristan: A Reading List

 
 Technically, this is South Waziristan...  Photo credit: Drregor (via  Flickr )

Technically, this is South Waziristan... Photo credit: Drregor (via Flickr)

 

I've been doing a bit of reading about North Waziristan in the English-language sources that are available outside Pakistan. It took a bit of time to put together a decent collection that gave real information. By 'real information', I mean things that speak of names, dates, places and events. I wasn't really interested in analysis, though that forms part of what follows. I was interested in the basic factual building blocks that must precede any analysis or understanding of a place. (That, and actually going there yourself). Most of these sources have are filled with stories and little details, all of which need triangulating with one another and with interviews on the ground.

I can't vouch for the veracity of any of it -- my experience in Afghanistan has given me an innate distrust for anything I read in a report, particularly if it was assembled outside the country -- yet this is what we have. There are, of course, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of news articles in the databases of Pakistan's media outlets, but I didn't trawl those yet. Needless to say, this is a work in progress and I will continue to update as and when I read more. It seems the area is also missing a well-sourced chronology akin to something like what I did for Kandahar or for the Taliban/Al-Qaeda relationship. I don't have the time at the moment to do this myself, but perhaps someone will be inspired to work on it. If you have any suggestions for additions to this list, please let me know.

Books (Core)

Books (Supplementary / Tangential)

Reports

Articles

Websites

UPDATE: This continues to be added to as recommendations come in from various places here and there. (Last Update: January 3, 2015)

Two new co-authored reports on Afghanistan

21 Just a short post. Two reports that I co-authored have just been published. They were both finished a few months back, but they're not so time-sensitive that this will make much of a difference.

The first is for Chatham House, written together with Felix Kuehn. You can read the executive summary here, and download the full report here. The central point we were trying to get across is that a political settlement in Afghanistan must be about more than just 'talks with the Taliban'. That ship has sailed, and new realities mean it's important to bring all parties into a discussion about the future. I remain skeptical as to internal and external parties' ability to make this happen, but here's hoping...

The second report, much longer, was mainly an effort of Felix Kuehn and Leah Farrall but I contributed some things on the sidelines. This was expert witness testimony in the case of US vs. Talha Ahsan and US vs. Babar Ahmad. You can read some of the background to the case here and here. The report we were tasked with writing related to Talha and Babar's activities in Afghanistan during the 1990s, and the extent to which this equated with support for or 'membership' in al-Qaeda. Felix and I have already written a decent amount on the topic, but it was great to team up with Leah to dive into the foreign fighters' side a great deal more.

You can read our report here, starting on page 148. It's a long report, but there's a lot of new material in there which has never been published (as far as I'm aware).

I'd also recommend reading through the judge's statement Talha's sentencing memo. I don't quite understand why there hasn't been more media coverage of this trial, and how the government were more or less told their case was extremely rickety. Perhaps it's because of all the other things going on at the moment.

UPDATE: Edited on August 11 to reflect error in identifying the sentencing memo.

Taliban Time Travel, or How Our Understanding Is Almost Always Two Years Old

I've been noticing something on twitter and in the public debate surrounding the Afghan Taliban over the past few days. An interview of Motassim in the Guardian last week was shared widely online, and people particularly seemed to find his comments about Mullah Mohammad Omar's loss of control of the Taliban interesting. To those following the Taliban closely this isn't news. It's been the case for two or three years at least. What is interesting is that it has taken that long for that kind of analysis and comment to become accepted by mainstream commentators and to become part of the public debate on the Afghan Taliban.

My very unscientific guess is that there's usually a lag of 6-18 months from a trend starting to emerge within the Taliban to the point where those outside the movement start to notice it. And from there there's another 1-2 years before a particular feature or analytical point becomes accepted and part of public discourse.

Needless to say, this incredibly slow dispersal of understanding makes it hard for analysis and action to mesh together usefully.