Category Archives: Afghanistan

Thought of the day

It doesn't look that complicated, does it?

I have an Afhgan friend here in Cairo. He’s a brilliant guy, who is both endlessly proud of and frustrated with his country and he loves to give me history lessons. Recently, he brought two fascinating facts to my attention.

First, he boldly asserted over dinner the other day that every single “white” country in the world has invaded Afghanistan. Putting aside the problem of what “white” is–according to the US census Arabs fall under that category—he is pretty much right. Every Eastern European country contributed to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which lasted from 1979 to 1989. So that knocks out a good bunch of “white” countries.

But what about the American-led occupation? Has every single country in Europe and North America contributed troops? Surely, I thought, Sweden doesn’t have soldiers in Afghanistan. I was wrong. Iceland? They do. Macedonia? Yeah. New Zealand? Check.

The second thing he told me, just a few days later, was that Afghanistan is the only Muslim majority country that hasn’t been colonized. This is a little more complicated. Turkey has always been independent. Iran was never formally colonized, but lost half of its territory to to Russia during a war in the Nineteenth Century. Modren day Saudi Arabia was never conquered by an empire, but, as my friend pointed out, all of the strategic positions on the Arabian Peninsula—the coastal parts that would later become the Gulf countries and Yemen—actually were colonized.

The reset of the Muslim world is pretty easy. Name a Muslim-majority country and its former colonial ruler is easy. Egypt? Britain. Azerbaijan? Soviet Union. Comoros? France. Indonesia? The Netherlands.

These facts might sound like trivia, but I think they’re they are telling. I hope they made it into a briefing memo in Washington at some point.

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AfPak always reminded me of Aflac

Remember those commercials with the duck?

Anyway, point is, the Obama Administration is dropping the term AfPak. Josh Rogin writes on his blog at Foreign Policy. They’re getting rid of it because–surprise!–it “does not please people in Pakistan.”

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the term. Washington people liked it because it’s catchy and it summed up their thinking that Pakistan and Afghanistan are closely connected issues. Whatever. Plus, it works well on Twitter.

But when you think about how it sounds to the outside world, it’s probably not a good PR move. When government officials use the term all the time, it sounds like they don’t realize that Afghanistan and Pakistan are two different places. Or they don’t care. It is, as Richard Holbrooke admitted, “understandable” that Pakistanis don’t like the phrase.

On a side note:

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Filed under Afghanistan, American Politics, Diplomacy, Pakistan

Early talk on the Helmand assault

When the new Obama Pentagon launches its first major operation in its new counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan, as it did today with a massive assault in southern Afghanistan, there are a few bloggers I turn to immediately.

Ghosts of Alexander, one of the best blogs on Afghanistan, was silent today.  Not sure what to make of that.

Abu Muqawama, the blogging godfather of the counterinsurgency-scholar community, was also unusually quiet.  A post by Ibn Muqawama draws attention to some potentially troubling signs as reported in the Washington Post:

“The Marines have also been vexed by a lack of Afghan security forces and a near-total absence of additional U.S. civilian reconstruction personnel. Nicholson had hoped that his brigade, which has about 11,000 Marines and sailors, would be able to conduct operations with a similar number of Afghan soldiers. But thus far, the Marines have been allotted only about 500 Afghan soldiers, which he deems “a critical vulnerability.”…Despite commitments from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development that they would send additional personnel to help the new forces in southern Afghanistan with reconstruction and governance development, State has added only two officers in Helmand since the Marines arrived. State has promised to have a dozen more diplomats and reconstruction experts working with the Marines, but only by the end of the summer.”

I’ll just repeat my earlier suggestion that the Administration ensure it has all the resources it needs if it intends to carry out population-centric counterinsurgency in southern Afghanistan (or anywhere else).  The lack of Afghan government forces and civilian reconstruction experts doesn’t bode particularly well for any lasting effect from this operation, and it’s deeply disappointing that we’ve known about these shortfalls for so long and still can’t seem to do much about them.

So that’s something to keep an eye on.  Meanwhile, Spencer Ackerman, who I also look to at times like these is writing, is looking into the same problem:

The two State Department and USAID officials now in Helmand have been there for two years, so they’re not starting from scratch in terms of understanding the area, which is a necessary trade-off of a so-called civilian surge into Afghanistan. This weekend, another USAID stabilization expert arrives in Helmand, with three more to follow in the coming weeks, and two other USAID employees will accompany Marine maneuver units this weekend. A USAID development adviser is scheduled to arrive on July 7.  By the end of the month there should be 20 new USAID employees in Helmand and Kandahar, though I don’t have a breakdown of who’s going where or doing what.

These U.S. development experts are supplemented by contract and international partners. Between the British, the Danes and the Estonians, there are about 50 diplomatic and development officials in Helmand. USAID programs also employ what I’m told, according to a fact sheet that was emailed to me, are “30 expatriate technical advisors and 500 Afghan technical staff.”

Attackerman doesn’t think that sounds like enough civilian support and, though my COIN ear is completely untrained, I’m inclined to agree.  The New York Times is reporting that hostility toward American troops is growing in southern Afghanistan.  (That shouldn’t come as a surprise.)

Let’s hope that the Obama Administration isn’t repeating Bush’s Iraq mistakes in Afghanistan.

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American liberals talking about women and Islam

One of my favorite photos ever from the new york times

One of my favorite photos ever from the New York Times

There is an great, wide-ranging discussion about The Weight of a Mustard Seed on the New Yorker’s website.  (The Way of the Mustard Seed sounds like a great book; I look forward to reading it.  Here is George Packer’s review in The National. It’s a narrative non-fiction book that focuses on the life of Saddam-era general Kamel Sachet.) The discussion takes place between war correspondents George Packer and Jon Lee Anderson and New Yorker editor Amy Davidson.  Part three (of the three part discussion) deals with gender in the Muslim world.

The three participants sound like thoughtful liberals.  They speak from a distinctly Western perspective, but they remain fully aware of that fact.  It’s a really interesting conversation.  Here’s an excerpt:

Davidson: Jon Lee, George, how have each of you, reporting as men in countries where women lead, in some sense, separate lives, dealt with that? Were you ever frustrated by your inability to interview women, or to get their real perspective? And without those voices, did you ever feel that the stories you told were in some way incomplete?

Anderson: Wars tend to be men’s domains. Not exclusively, of course. But men do tend to be the primary actors, the perpetrators, as well as the decision-makers. Yes, there are frustrations to be found operating in different cultural environments. The barriers to gaining access to women in the Muslim world are real, but, on the other hand, because I had spent so much time in Iraq, gotten to know people, and was accepted into their homes, I usually found women to speak to when I needed. I wasn’t conscious of it as a limitation.

In my last assignment in Iraq, in fact, a woman named Um Jafar played an important part, by helping to confirm for me that her son, whom I called Amar in the story, was indeed—as he had told me—taking revenge for the recent murder of his brother Jafar, her eldest son. As his revenge, Amar had sworn to kill a hundred men connected to the militia that had taken Jafar’s life. At the time we spoke, he had killed around twenty. Um Jafar confirmed this and her own complicity in the murder-revenge spree, explaining it to me from a grieving Iraqi mother’s point of view.

George Packer: The separateness of men and women is always the thing that strikes me, and disturbs me, most deeply about working in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Nothing else about the conservative Muslim world comes close to providing such a stark contrast with the modern West, such an undeniable demonstration of cultural and political difference. I must say that it always feels like an entirely negative contrast. The muffling or outright sequestration of half the population drains the variety and vibrancy from public life, makes men less interesting and sometimes less sensitive, removes from the visible scene and the field of journalism one of the crucial aspects of human life.

I might struggle briefly with an attempt at anthropological relativism, but I soon give in and admit that the drastic limits imposed on women in public—I was just in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the limits are almost total—seem like a confession of some cultural failure, perhaps even the failure, the heart of the reason that war and oppression and intolerance are daily afflictions and, therefore, that I and other journalists keep visiting.

I’ve never gotten used to this fact of daily life; though I keep my thoughts mainly to myself, I think about it constantly. And though I don’t agree with the French and Turkish policies of forbidding the hijab in certain areas like schools or government jobs, I can’t help seeing it as an instrument of oppression, rightly or wrongly—even when it’s the voluntary and self-imposed kind. Watching a woman at the airport in Jakarta trying to drink coffee under the veil of her niqab, an act that required all of her focus and dexterity and was almost impossible to do without spilling, reminded me of the images I saw as a child of Chinese women with tiny, bound feet.

This separation inevitably affects the work. I spent enough time in Iraq, and the country still has enough of a hangover from its period of modernization, that it wasn’t difficult for me to talk to women, especially ones over thirty or forty. What we could talk about—that’s another matter. I’m certain that colleagues who are women got a lot closer to the truth in matters of the body and the heart. And because war and politics are the magnets that draw my reporting in these countries, my notebooks overflow with the words of men; women’s voices are much harder to hear.

Packer’s discourse–whether he realizes it or not, I have no idea–smacks of postcolonial theory and–dare I say it–postmodernism, at least of the kind espoused by Richard Rorty. (Read one of my earlier posts about Rorty here.)  This indicates that Packer is a thoughtful journalist (and human being), the kind of writer we are only lucky enough to encounter every once in a while these days.

Anyway, check out the discussion.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Iraq, Media, Postmodernism

America’s refugees

Via Spencer Ackerman I found this post by Asawin Suebsaeng at TAPPED.  Suebsaeng brings our attention to a recent UN report about refugees:

According to an annual U.N. report, Global Trends, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq produced nearly half of the world’s refugees and dispossessed people in 2008. The U.N. refugee agency also reported that developing nations carry the greatest burden, hosting an estimated four-fifths of all worldwide refugees.

Last July, then-Sen. and presumptive nominee Barack Obama wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times that his administration would “commit $2 billion to a new international effort to support Iraq’s refugees.” Under the previous administration, the United States accepted about 13,000 Iraqi refugees, with the vast majority given entrance during Bush’s final year in office. This year alone, the goal is to accept close to 17,000 Iraqis.

Half of all the world’s refugees were displaced by the United States? I doubt very much that most Americans are aware of how destructive those two wars have been.  I knew that the war in Iraq displaced a huge number of people, but had no idea it produced a plurality of the world’s refugees.

Of course what this means is that the United States is responsible for these people.  Let’s hope that the Obama Administration, unlike the Bush Administration, accepts some responsibility and attempts to right our country’s wrongs.

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Taliban’s PR

Is the Taliban on a PR offensive? Based on interviews given to CNN and the New York Times, it seems as though they might be.

CNN’s intrepid Nic Robertson, a quintessential war correspondent, sat down with Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid for a short interview. Mujahid is clear that the Taliban remains strong and will continue to battle American forces and try to destabilize Hamid Karzai’s government.  Here’s the video:

<script src=”http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/.element/js/2.0/video/evp/module.js?loc=dom&vid=/video/world/2009/05/05/intv.afghan.taliban.cnn&#8221; type=”text/javascript”></script><noscript>Embedded video from <a href=”http://www.cnn.com/video”>CNN Video</a></noscript>

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on its conversation with a Taliban leader:

One Pakistani logistics tactician for the Taliban, a 28-year-old from the country’s tribal areas, in interviews with The New York Times, described a Taliban strategy that relied on free movement over the border and in and around Pakistan, ready recruitment of Pakistani men and sustained cooperation of sympathetic Afghan villagers.

His account provided a keyhole view of the opponent the Americans and their NATO allies are up against, as well as the workings and ambitions of the Taliban as they prepared to meet the influx of American troops.

It also illustrated how the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of many brands of jihadist fighters backed by Al Qaeda, are spearheading wars on both sides of the border in what for them is a seamless conflict.

The tactician wears a thick but carefully shaped black beard and a well-trimmed shock of black hair, a look cultivated to allow him to move easily all over Pakistan. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by his fellow Taliban members.

The Times’ anonymous Pakistani Taliban source echoes Mujahid’s (sort of) on-camera statements to CNN, the point being that the Taliban will remain strong and continue fighting the Americans, Pakistanis and Afghanis who oppose them.

The Taliban’s PR machine seems to be going in full gear, despite obvious fears of being assassinated.  I suspect–but could be completely wrong since I have never been to Afghanistan, never spoken with the Taliban, and generally don’t know all that much about the situation there–that this is their response to President Obama’s plan to gain control of Afghanistan and the Pakistani border area.  They want Americans to know that this war will not be easy so they should give up now.  That’s why they go for CNN and the New York Times.  As much as I may dislike the Taliban, I don’t think that they are stupid.  And it seems like they are waging a pretty effective public relations campaign.

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Not the Audubon Zoo

Afghans look at a domestic pig at Kabuls zoo during the Eid Al-Fitr festival, December 6, 2002.  REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

Afghans look at a domestic pig at Kabul's zoo during the Eid Al-Fitr festival, December 6, 2002. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

According to Reuters, there is only one pig in Afghanistan.  He is in the Kabul Zoo.  Due to fears of H1N1/swine flu, said pig has been placed in quarantine.  Obviously this is ridiculous, though not as tragic as the misguided Egyptian attempt to protect their country from the flu by slaughtering over 3000 pigs.  But whatever.  There is a lot of hysteria.

The craziest part of the piece about the Afghan pig comes at the end of the article:

Shabby and rundown, Kabul Zoo is a far cry from zoos in the developed world, but has nevertheless come a long way since it suffered on the front line of Afghanistan’s 1992-4 civil war.

Mujahideen fighters then ate the deer and rabbits and shot dead the zoo’s sole elephant. Shells shattered the aquarium.

One fighter climbed into the lion enclosure but was immediately killed by Marjan, the zoo’s most famous inhabitant. The man’s brother returned the next day and lobbed a hand grenade at the lion leaving him toothless and blind.

What the hell?  Man, Afghanistan has a fucked up history.

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