Different Kinds of Climbing

This past week I went with my niece to a climbing hall (and trampolining centre) in Kuwait. You can see photos of the walls here and here. The whole experience was designed to encourage play and fun, naturally, rather than for some kind of skill-building. There weren’t any other adults climbing; just children with a throw-yourself-at-it mentality that was infectious.

The routes themselves weren’t particularly difficult, but it was harder trying to ascend without climbing shoes and hindered by the world’s most uncomfortable harness. The walls weren’t that high, and this seemed to reward a sprint-like style of climbing. Speed was more important than technique or form. This was climbing as challenge, as a way to enjoy scrambling up and leaping off the top, rather than anything else. (The centre uses auto-belay devices that stop you from falling all the way down to the bottom).

The experience — mine, and watching that of the children 10–20 years younger than me — reinforced the conclusion that has been steadily growing in my mind over time. Climbing is not really about strength; fear and the mental battles are the biggest things holding the beginner climbing back.

I’ll have to still bash my head against the wall for a while longer before I fully absorb and believe this lesson, but the sooner I do, the sooner I’ll be able to advance onwards to the next level of challenge.

UPDATED: An Appeal

It’s easy to talk in the abstract about war. The dead become numbers, the displaced are statistics, and slowly we begin to forget about the people who live through it all. Afghanistan is a case in point. Tens of thousands of words of commentary are written every day, but very few of these seem to accurately bring these day-to-day particulars across. Earlier this month, I read an article by Josh Partlow in the Washington Post on the situation for those who have fled the conflict in Helmand -- U.N.-speak = IDPs -- for an area near Kabul City. It was a detailed, movingly-described account of some of these ‘particulars’ of their lives:

“For those who have escaped Afghanistan’s worst violence, some things are hard to forget: the sight of a woman’s hair entangled in the mulberry branches, her legs strewn far away in the dirt. Or the sounds they heard as they hid in an underground hole, counting the bombs to pass the time, praying the American troops would leave. Some of those Afghans have tiptoed in the footsteps of neighbors to avoid the mines. They’ve been hit with shrapnel and tied with flex cuffs, threatened by the Taliban and frightened by the coalition, seen relatives shot and homes destroyed. And so they left Helmand province and made their way to this dirt lot on the outskirts of Kabul, where month by month the settlement expands with those who have come to wait out the war. “In a situation like this,” said Sayid Mohammad, a Helmand native who has spent the past year at the refugee camp, “how could I ever go home?”” [Read the full article here]

There’s nothing new or particularly special about this group of refugees from Helmand, but for some reason this piece said something to me. It’s easy to become passive consumers of the news coming out of Afghanistan, particularly when it’s often so frustrating to read. I first read the article in London, a place where everything is taken for granted: warmth, walking on the snow, heating in the house, electricity, water, you name it. But if you allow your imagination to drift, imagine living away from home, in a place far colder than what you’re used to, in tents and makeshift huts on account of a war taking place in the villages, one that you have seen sweep through with random but seeming deathly certainty and claim your friends and family. For another account of life in the camp, watch the documentary account made by Alberto Arce here.

So I decided together with a long-standing Afghan friend and respected NGO-practitioner -- she used to run HAWCA -- to try to find some way to contribute to bettering the lives of these refugees at the camp. Orzala explains more:

“We contacted the UNHCR office to find out about the numbers of refugees and how we can make sure that our possible help is going to reach the neediest. Their formal response was, it can happen through government or NGOs working with refugees. A good friend who also is part of an international organisation involved in the field advised small scale donations and funds to go through private initiatives rather than the formal ones. Additionally with my experience in the past, I believe the winter will be over if we follow the lengthy procedures. I visited the site itself a couple of days ago to talk with those living there and also to get a realistic sense of how many people were living there. A representative stated that there were 870 families living there at the moment, and we got an idea of what other organisations were working there as well (Aschiana, the World Health Organization, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health along with Welt Hunger Hilfe). It seems, however, that there is a shortfall in terms of the amount of assistance being provided, as well as the speed that this is happening.”

So in the short-term what we want to do is -- at the suggestion of those from the camp, but also an idea Orzala had had beforehand -- to raise some money to provide charcoal. People are accustomed to using this in the winter; and it’s neither heavy nor particularly expensive. 50 kilograms of charcoal costs about $20 and so to be able to provide around 20 kg of charcoal to everyone will cost just under $7000. I know it’s easy to just close this page and move on to something different, but I hope you’ll be able to donate something -- perhaps $10 or $15 -- via the paypal button below so that we can try to ensure that this group of people have at least some warmth to rely on when the snows come in Kabul.


Since the donate button doesn't display a running total, I'll do that myself here on the blog, and will of course keep you all updated with how things go once we have raised our target amount.

Final total raised: $9,118 from 124 people.

Presenting Mullah Zaeef

Felix and I are busy putting together presentations for the UK and USA at the moment. In case any of you are in either of those countries, please see the list of presentations below. I'll try to keep it updated, but in any case the most up-to-date list will always be on the book's website itself -- here.


January 21st, 2010 -- Talk -- School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

10 Thornhaugh Street, London, WC1H 0XG -- 5.30-7pm.

February 1st, 2010 -- Talk -- International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

13–15 Arundel Street, Temple Place, London WC2R 3DX -- 12.30-1.30pm.

February 3rd, 2010 -- Talk -- London School of Economics (LSE)

Room U8, Tower 1, Clement’s Inn, London WC2A 2AD -- 12.30-2.00pm.

February 5th, 2010 -- Talk -- Chatham House

10 St James's Square, London SW1Y 4LE -- 1.30-2.30pm.

February 9th, 2010 -- Book Launch -- Frontline Club

13 Norfolk Place, London W2 1QJ -- 7-9pm


February 18th, 2010 -- Discussion Panel - “Talking with the Taliban” -- New York University (NYU)

Manhattan, New York, NY 10011 -- 6.30-8.30pm

February 26th, 2010 -- Talk -- Brookings Institution

1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC 20036 -- 2.30-3.30pm

March 2nd, 2010 -- Talk -- Middle East Institute (MEI)

1761 N Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20036-2882 -- 12-1pm

March 11th, 2010 -- Talk -- Carr Center, Harvard University

John F. Kennedy School of Government, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge MA 02138 -- 4-6pm

March 11th, 2010 -- Talk & Signing -- The COOP Bookstore, Harvard

1400 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138 -- 7-8.30pm

Staying Apart

Distance can be cruel. Separation may only be the beginning of our problems, but it is almost certainly the root. I don't believe in a 'clash of civilisations', except in the sense that we ourselves create similar dynamics with our actions.

This distance is easily found in Kandahar: Kabul is 305 miles away by road (that you can't take because it is too dangerous) or an hour by plane. The urgency of the situation in southern Afghanistan is not evident when you pass through government offices in Kabul, nor is it readily apparent in Kandahar itself. The main staging area for foreign troops in the south is Kandahar Airfield or KAF, itself some 11 miles away from Kandahar City. As you can see in the video above, there is also a separation on the roads, where convoys pass by local traffic as if from another planet.

Language is another problem: foreigners for the most part don't speak Pashtu, and I found that the Afghan translators employed by foreign troops aren't always Pashtu speakers either -- I went to Arghandab a few weeks ago and found only one translator who seemed to have a firm command; the rest knew a few words before lapsing into Dari.

Then when we talk about the Taliban, there are misunderstandings on both 'sides'. Obama's objectives -- despite all the drawn out policy reviews and speeches intended to delineate exactly these -- are opaque to almost everyone down here. Similarly when it is the turn of foreigners to look in and assess the long-term goals of 'the Taliban'.

Journalists themselves are separated from the people in Kandahar:

I'm worried Lang's death will lead to further scaling back of reporting from Afghanistan.

As it is, Canadians already get a limited view of Afghanistan. The handful of Canadian reporters who do cover the country are based at the NATO base at the Kandahar airfield and save occasional trips to Kabul, Canadian reporters are rarely assigned to cover stories outside the Canadian zone of operations.

[From Why reporters should stay in Afghanistan]

It was with these issues in mind that I travelled to Arghestan today. It's only two hours drive from Kandahar City to the district centre in Arghestan, but you'd be lucky to find someone who'll go with you. This is not to say that the district is dangerous -- far from it in fact -- but that the distances are an obstacle even for Afghans.

Arghestan district, Kandahar province

The road out to the district centre is newly-built and, according to the district chief, one of the main development projects which have been carried out in the district since he took over some three years ago. Only in a few areas did our driver have some worries about passing through safely; for most parts of the road we were completely undisturbed -- there was even very little traffic heading to and from Arghestan.

I'll save the details of this trip for a separate article I'm writing for publication elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Arghestan poses a number of interesting questions: why, in the first place, is the district one of the few places in Kandahar province where you can travel so freely? Is it indeed, as many allege, because the insurgency uses Arghestan as a pathway between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, transporting wounded fighters and other supplies, or because their is some sort of unspoken deal ('don't scratch my back and I won't scratch yours')? Is the almost complete absence of foreigners (and I imply money and development projects as part of this) a reason for the calmness in the district, or is the calmness a reason for the absence of foreigners and their money?

I certainly didn't come back from the brief trip with any firm answers on these questions. The district chief seems to be a good choice, doing useful work and liked by the people. Arghestan, we should remember, is Afghanistan's second biggest district by area, and for someone to be able to keep the lid on the situation (with only 80 policemen assigned to the district, reduced from 138 last year) is at least worthy of our attention and careful assessment.

Back in the City, people are depressed and seem to have lost any of the little hope they had a few months ago -- back when we were all waiting for a 'new' strategy that was actually 'new'; back when it seemed people had become serious about Afghanistan.

Recent weeks have brought their own changes and surprises: the head of the Mohammadzai tribal shura, a friend of Felix and I, was kidnapped just over a week ago from Ayno Meena, one of the safer areas around the City. A policeman was shot dead in Wesh, a residential area located close to Spin Boldak district centre, shattering illusions of what local people thought of as one of the last safe areas in Kandahar; people stopped going out at night for a week after the policeman was shot.

It seems nowhere is safe any more, least of all the city.