Category Archives: Afghanistan

Book review: A Fort of Nine Towers and a tale of two books

This is the first book review on this blog, and it is admittedly too late for a book that was published last year. But I have long wanted to write something about English-language books written by Afghan authors; this is my opportunity.

A Fort of Nine Towers

A Fort of Nine Towers is an autobiographical novel about Qais Akbar Omar’s life from age 11 until adulthood, or roughly the time when his aunt started finding matches for him.

The narrative arc spans the breadth of Afghanistan’s contemporary history, beginning with the jihad against the Soviet-backed regime and ending with the ouster of the Taliban. Within this vignette, the family’s fortunes change dramatically as they experience loss, dehumanizing cruelty and heartwarming acts of kindness from perfect strangers. The plot revolves around the family’s coming to terms with the necessity of fleeing the country they love and their ironclad resolve and disappointing setbacks towards this goal.

The prose initially is very simple and becomes increasingly sophisticated as the protagonist grows up. But even as a child, the prose is omniscient and the author demonstrates an understanding of events and their context beyond his age, partly perhaps due to the benefit of writing in hindsight.

The book is a rare and invaluable contribution in the English language from an Afghan who grew up in the country and experienced the history firsthand.  This is the book Khaled Hosseini may have written if he had grown up in Afghanistan.

But Omar’s book shares a lot more in common with Hosseini’s than is first apparent. For one, there seems to be a narrative theme in English-language Afghan literature that is a nostalgia for bygone privilege. If we take the analogy of Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, it is the privileged Amir who tells the story, even the parts about the lowly Hassan. In A Fort of Nine Towers, Omar’s narrative is also exactly this: a young child whose grandfather is a well-to-do banker and respected elder, whose father is a well-known boxer and respected teacher, and whose family friends are rich carpet sellers. Granted, Omar and his family go through a period of profound loss when the Taliban take over, just as Amir’s family does when the Soviets invade Afghanistan,  but privilege and nostalgia for the loss of this privilege are strong elements of the narratives.

Qais Akbar Omar

Qais Akbar Omar, author

Omar’s general narrative approach also overlaps Hosseini’s in other aspects. In Omar, almost every side of the Afghan war of the last three decades has its good and bad guys, even the Taliban. Many are redeemed to some degree before the novel ends, and it ends well if not exactly in a beautiful ever-after.

This humanizing approach to literature is important, but it is also politically correct. By the mere act of putting pen to paper, Omar and Hosseini are inevitably doing more than just telling stories – they’re penning a national narrative of the last three decades and helping make sense of a complex and controversial history that has been expunged from Afghan textbooks. Observing such history is not a neutral act, surviving to write about it less so. It is OK for some bad characters to remain bad without redemption, and for some of the survivors’ visceral emotions to remain raw and unsanitized instead of studiously journalistic.

Omar’s story is his recounting of a childhood that retains its capacity to be imaginative and magical even in the throes of war and destitution. For example, he makes the friendship of a Buddhist monk in the caves surrounding the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and absorbs his wisdom. He also meets a Turkman woman who is part master carpet weaver and part mystic revered for her personal sanctity — qualities rarely associated with women in popular literature about Afghanistan. Omar learns more than the art of carpet weaving from his teacher; he also learns the guiding principle of life.

Omar struggles to incorporate the Afghan lyrical aesthetic in the phraseology of the story, so his characters appear to be English-speaking. For example, he uses “north” and “south” to describe the dimensions of his house, terminology that Afghans rarely use. He also uses shalwar kamiz instead of peran tunban, Aaron and Solomon instead of Haroon and Sulaiman, and maulvi instead of mawlawi. This is perhaps why one is hard pressed to find in Omar the equivalent of Hosseini’s memorable “for you, a thousand times.”

Nonetheless, the strength and grace found in the characters of Omar’s book is simply amazing. Any shortcomings of the book are more than compensated by the euphoric crescendo of the last chapter describing music as the first act of defiance that brought life back to the streets of Kabul as the Taliban were going out. And like the last remaining tower of their fort that survived the jihad, the civil war and the Taliban, the Omar family remained standing, spirit unbroken.

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Bonus: select quotes from A Fort of Nine Towers:

“Now we began the time of pretending. The signs of war were all around us, but we pretended that we did not see them.”

“We finished the rituals and and put the body in the grave…we left him with strangers in a small, old cemetery called Nawabad that was protected from the snipers by the spur of a low, steep hill.”

“For whole days and weeks we sat at the corner of the room, murmuring our prayers and waiting for a rocket to kill us all together. One night when the noise of the exploding rockets was too loud to let me sleep, I climbed up on the roof of the old fort and sat near the one remaining tower. I watched one rocket after another fall on the flat-land neighborhoods in front of me. Each time when a rocket whistled overhead, I was momentarily surprised that it had not killed me. But a part of me no longer cared.”

“We entered a time of waiting. The fighting would end, we said, if we waited. Our lives would come back to us, if we waited. Or we would find a way out, if we waited.”

“The bombing had been going on for more than a month by then. As we sat down near the one last remaining tower, we started hearing music. Real music, not the Taliban’s tuneless singing. It was coming from the house of our neighbor…we looked at one another with puzzled smiles. [Our neighbor] had been brutalized by the Taliban several times because he was rich. Now his sons had placed very large speakers in their windows and music was pouring into the street. ‘Have the Taliban finally gone?’ my uncle asked, his voice and eyes full of expectation. We could not answer.”

“I was nineteen years old and had never danced; I had always wanted to, even thought I worried that I would look like a sheep if I tried. Another part of me, though, was like my father: I could not celebrate until I knew more about these people dropping bombs on my country.”

Lessons learned: a very brief post-mortem of the 2014 elections

Inside the voting booth in Afghanistan

Inside the voting booth in Afghanistan

Regular readers of this blog realize that I almost completely refrained from election-related analysis here. This was partly because it is very difficult to predict Afghan elections, especially a field as wide open as this one. But after the announcement of the full preliminary results of the first round of the presidential election, we have enough information to do a post-mortem of some of the assumptions and the facts held to be common knowledge during the campaign period.

We can also add to the things we learned and list the new trends we observed this cycle. We still don’t have the full data about the election – turnout and voting behavior by various demographic cross-sections, for example – but we have enough to draw some lessons. Some of these lessons are classics in electoral politics, but in Afghanistan’s short-lived exercise with democracy, we are just learning them.

This list is not exhaustive, of course, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

  • Marital status and the spouse’s religion don’t matter. Certain media outlets predicted that voters would be turned off by Zalmai Rassoul’s bachelor status or by Ashraf Ghani’s Christian wife of Lebanese origin. Pre-election polls never revealed these to be voters’ top priorities, which means they were largely made into campaign issues by the media and the punditocracy. Post-election results show no demonstrable impact of these factors on the candidates’ performance – Ghani and Rassoul came in second and third, respectively.
  • Money can buy votes, but only for the right candidate. IEC’s records show that the top-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah spent AFN10.02 million, which was almost double the second-place finisher Ashraf Ghani’s AFN5.6 million. This bought Abdullah 13 points…which is what we know to be true from Obama’s epic $760 million to McCain’s $358 million in 2008. But Zalmai Rassoul found that his AFN9.8 million didn’t win him as many votes as he would have liked, putting him 20 points behind Ghani – which is what Megan Whitman ($177 million) learned running against Jerry Brown ($36 million) for California governor in 2010. Of course, there’s no comparison between the campaign finance regulatory enforcement between the two countries and as the IEC admits a lot went unreported, partly because of an unrealistically low campaign spending cap. But in the 2009 election when there was no cap, Karzai spent a whopping AFN98 million, besting Abdullah’s AFN23 million.* The results speak for themselves.
  • Opinion polls have predictive value. The amount of doubt raised about opinion polls was almost equal to the coverage they received, which was ad nauseam. The campaigns that performed badly in the polls said they were inaccurate, the President banned opinion polling alleging they unduly influenced the electorate, and analysts said polls didn’t account for the expected widespread fraud. But most polls accurately predicted the order of the top three finishers - though the polls lacked the hair-width accuracy people have come to expect from polls in established democracies. The final opinion poll, released just days before election day, showed a difference of less than three percentage points between Abdullah and Ghani, but actual results show a whopping 13-point difference. Still, polls have a margin to improve their accuracy and a lot of potential for use by future campaigns, political parties and the citizenry.
Voters on election day

Voters on election day

  • We know how heavy the heavy hitters can really hit. Sayyaf and Ismail Khan, the Karzai family and Hizb-e-Islami all performed less well than expected. The Sayyaf-Ismail Khan duo only got 7% of the votes, with Khan failing to win more than 15% in any of the southwest provinces  expected to turn out for him. Karzai’s supposedly favorite candidate only won one province, and the Hizb-e-Islami candidate won none. Dostum only delivered Jawzjan for Ghani. On the other hand, Mohaqeq bagged the Hazara votes for Abdullah. He delivered Bamiyan and Daikundi and was behind Abdullah’s strong showing in Ghazni, Kabul, Ghor, Samangan, Wardak and Balkh.
  • Electoral politics have setbacks, and setbacks are recoverable. Lest we mistake Sayyaf’s 7% votes for his real influence, we should remember that Abdullah was the runner-up and Ghani placed fourth in 2009. The turn in Abdullah’s and Ghani’s fortunes shows that the electorate is open to persuasion, or somewhat more optimistically, the electoral institutions are capable of reflecting the will of the voters, or even more optimistically, that Afghanistan’s democracy actually kind of works despite the criticism.
  • Money mattered, but did Big Money? Abdullah outspent Ghani and ultimately outperformed him. One would imagine that with a campaign spending cap as low as AFN10 million, there wouldn’t be much space for giant donors, and this is borne out in the campaign contribution reports. My quick glance through all candidates’ reported incoming contributions showed that corporate donations were roughly around the half-million range (see example). In fact, the only million afghani-plus contribution to a campaign was AFN1.1 million by Helal to his own campaign (Ghani spent AFN2.3 million of his own money, but it wasn’t reported as a contribution to the campaign). All of this raises the question: where were the Fortune 500 of the Afghan corporate sector that bankrolled Karzai’s 2009 campaign and invested in Abdullah’s? It is not possible that all of them chose to sit on the sidelines and not contribute this year. A plausible answer is that the unrealistically low campaign spending cap just meant that 1. campaigns under-reported their spending to keep them within margins, so they didn’t report major contributions, and 2. the lion’s share of campaign-related spending didn’t occur through campaigns themselves. For example, the IEC admits that several candidates didn’t include expenses incurred in staging huge rallies in multiple provinces because those rallies were paid for directly by supporters and not through the campaign.** This unregulated and potentially unlimited money sloshing about the campaign trail is reminiscent of super PACs in American politics, with the major difference being that the Afghan super PACs are not formally recognized and can coordinate with campaigns on spending and messaging.
  • The “battleground” provinces didn’t decide the election. There were only four provinces where the top two candidates were within a five-point margin. They are Farah (Abdullah 35, Ghani 31), Nimroz (Ghani 30, Rassoul 33), Uruzgan (Ghani 27, Abdullah 23) and Helmand (Ghani 32, Rassoul 27). The vote in other provinces was so decisively in favor of one candidate or the other – exclusively between Ghani and Abdullah, except Kandahar – that if we take these neck-and-neck races out, the overall results would remain almost exactly the same.
  • The campaigning wasn’t ethnic but the voting was. None of the major candidates openly presented themselves as representatives of their respective ethnic base on national media. This was good in a deeply divided country. But it didn’t matter how they presented themselves, it mattered how voters saw them – which is why Ghani and Rassoul won in Pashtun provinces, Abdullah won in Tajik provinces, Dostum delivered Jawzjan and Mohaqeq delivered Bamiyan and Daikundi. If we take out Jawzjan, the vote was very clearly along north-south lines, just as it was in 2009.

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References:

* Data pulled from table 6 of this IFES paper on the 2009 elections.

** The IEC website has a pretty useful report, in Dari, about the reporting of campaign contribution and spending, and the challenges and recommendations.

Note: Any views expressed in this post are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.

Afghanistan as explained by Yeats’s poetry

A certain national narrative has taken shape around the events of the last decade in Afghanistan. The sentiments surrounding this narrative are expressed in familiar phrases in conversations by taxi drivers, day laborers, civil servants and civil society activists. These sentiments are about the Afghan sense of self and the delights and disappointments that Afghans have experienced over the last decade of statehood.

Living a full century in the past and half a world away, Yeats was surrounded by similar sentiments. He was an Irish nationalist and served two terms as an Irish senator. Among his poems – both political and non-political – one can find snippets that are apt commentary on Afghanistan today.

This is not least because, much like Afghanistan, his country, Ireland, also plunged into civil war right after gaining independence from British rule – and his people, the Irish, have a tough, warlike reputation, much like Afghans. This, and the two nations’ long and shared experience of violence, makes his poetry strikingly relevant to contemporary Afghanistan…and the seemingly timeless nature of his writings is a reminder that the literature of hope and despair and violence and war are more or less universal and timeless.

I am not a scholar of literature, but in this admittedly crude study, I list an expression of Afghan sentiment and then post an excerpt from Yeats’s poetry or prose that seems to address that sentiment.

Enjoy (and feel free to make your own contributions or corrections in the comments).

2014: the worst-case scenario

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

-’The Second Coming’ was written right after World War I but still describes the sense of impending doom in Afghanistan.

And this:

…many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it…

-’Cathleen Ni Houlihan,’ the play from 1922 about the bloody Irish rebellion of 1798 against British rule. This passage could describe the displacement (internal and external) of Afghans due to violence, capital flight before 2014, and the government’s seemingly ill-fated plans to fix things.

The educated but indifferent younger generation crowded out by the older set of leaders who have questionable pasts

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

-The Second Coming

On the essence of the Afghan sense of self

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

-Quote frequently attributed to Yeats, but I couldn’t find the parent work that it is part of.

And:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.

-’Remorse for Intemperate Speech,’ a poem which, according to this book on Yeats’s poetry, “ascribes the ‘fanatic heart’ to the peculiarities of Ireland…[taking] account of Ireland’s furious politics and perennial land agitation” – two phenomenon not unknown in Afghanistan.

And:

There was a man whom Sorrow named his Friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming Sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend…

-’The Sad Shepherd,’ describing the essential sadness of the Afghan heart, beset by tragedies and sorrows of generational violence.

And:

Having inherited a vigorous mind
From my old fathers, I must nourish dreams
And leave a woman and a man behind
As vigorous of mind, and yet it seems
Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind,

-’My Descendants,’ the fourth meditation in ‘Meditations in Times of Civil War,’ speaks to the Afghan sense of inherited vigor and martial prowess…which can sometimes get lost between generations, effecting a generation of loose conviction and weak attachment to country and honor.

On the security industry: the policemen, soldiers, private guards and other gunmen that proliferate a poor nation at war:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds

-’An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,’ written in 1919 about his friend who was an aviator fighting on the side of the British even as the Irish were fighting a war of independence against them. Kiltartan Cross may well be Kabul City, and his friend may well be an Afghan policeman who joined the force not out of conviction to protect or avenge but of the obligation to put food on the table for his family.

On Afghans being fed up with war and violence, and longing for peace and normalcy

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?

-’Easter, 1916′ is a poem describing Yeats’s sentiments about the failed Irish uprising that took place that day against British rule. It speaks to the common Afghan sentiment about the toll and futility of continued violence.

On the human toll of Afghanistan being the ‘graveyard of empires’

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; …

-’The Stare’s Nest by My Window’ is the sixth meditation in ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ and describes the Irish civil war that broke out right after Ireland became independent from British rule. This poem speaks to the Afghan sentiment that the narrative of Afghans being a martial and fiercely independent race has been too costly to them.

The electorate is confused and the field is wide open

Image

The election season’s first public opinion poll results were released yesterday by TOLO News/ATR, with the headline that ‘initial election polling reveals three favorites.’ Those favorites are Dr. Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Qayum Karzai, respectively.  This is fascinating insight for Afghanistan, because popular punditry also had Zalmai Rasoul, Sayyaf, Gen. Wardak and Gul Agha Sherzai as among the top favorites, but they barely even registered (Sayyaf, for example, was the highest at 3.4%).

But the headline buried the lead, because 50% of the respondents to the survey said they do not have any favorites or have not decided whom to vote for, suggesting that the field is wide open. This means that even Gen. Wardak’s 0.8% could theoretically go up to 50.8%, making him president.

There are many reasons to take these results with a pinch of salt,* but the poll results show that the electorate is open to being wooed, that ethnicity will matter less and platforms will matter more. Unlike previous elections when ethnic blocks were represented by one premier ticket, this time those ethnic blocks are fractured — the Tajiks, Hazaras and Pashtuns all have more than one prominent person running.

In the absence of an optimal ethnic ticket, the so-called vote banks cannot vote based on their habitual reflexes but have to choose between several tickets. If voters were shoppers, and their trusted brand of toothpaste is on longer available, they are now searching for a good new alternative. A significant portion of the electorate is open to being influenced, and the ticket that most appeals to the voters and reflects what they want has a greater chance of winning.

This does not mean that ethnicity does not matter anymore, but it does mean that it matters less than in previous elections. A shrewd ticket would capitalize on that and instead of focusing on getting the best combination of warlords on the ticket, it would work on developing a platform and an effective campaign message.

The question then becomes about what the voters want. We have a fairly good idea of what they want for the country, which is security, economic development, reduced corruption, electricity and education, justice, etc. But there is a dearth of hard data on what the electorate wants in a candidate. We know that Afghans have always wanted peace but they have reliably voted for warlords; they have always wanted economic development but they have been swayed by candidates with religious credentials; they have wanted education but they have voted for conservative mujahids.

But people with technocratic reputations – Ashraf Ghani, Rasoul, Qayum Karzai, Abdullah and Wardak – dominate this field, and ethnic tickets are multipolar. The voters have to develop new calculations about what they want in a vote-worthy ticket, what factors matter more than others, and what attributes could replace or proxy for traditional ones such as ethnicity, religious and jihadi credentials, etc.

That could perhaps be the subject of the next TOLO News/ATR poll.

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* Reasons to take the poll with a pinch of salt:

  • Opinion polls are untested in Afghanistan, so we don’t know how well polls reflect actual voting patterns
  • It is still too early: tickets will change, alliances will shift, people will get disqualified
  • Opinion polls may not reflect who will vote and who will get to vote -  the Ministry of Interior says more than half of the polling stations are in insecure areas, and the Taliban say they will target anyone who becomes a candidate or votes
  • Opinion polls cannot factor in the amount of fraud/irregularity that is likely to occur
  • Two-thirds of respondents are in urban areas, which does not reflect Afghanistan’s actual population spread
  • Et cetera.

Note: I have expressed a lot of views in this post. The views are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.

A late-night rendezvous with Afghan police

Kabul residents know better than to frolic about the streets and cafes until late at night and then hop into a random cab to go home. It’s simply too dangerous for that. But the danger is not because of threats specific to the war, such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the warlords. The danger has nothing to do with that.

The caution stems from hazards specific to any unstable, post-conflict country that’s struggling with poverty and the rule of law. The popular fear is that taxi drivers might turn out to be kidnappers or criminals preying on unsuspecting passengers late at night. (As a parallel, taxis that run at night are also afraid of the random passenger who might have criminal intentions.)

But your humble blogger has been unwisely and habitually flouting the rules of caution: He’s been hopping on taxis at 9, 10, 11 p.m. or even later (No, he’s never drunk). Most taxi drivers have been incredibly nice people and good conversationalists. They’re out there to make a living, not kidnap people.

One recent night, I approached a taxi, haggled with the driver to settle the fare and hopped on. He turned up the car’s heater and we settled into a warm conversation. Along the way, we spotted a group of four young men standing on the street hailing our cab. The driver was slowing to pick them up when I sounded a note of alarm.

Me: Be careful, ustad, a group of young people like that can be trouble this late at night.

Him: No, don’t worry. I’m in the police and on patrol right now.

He might have spotted the incredulous look on my face despite the darkness. He tried to reassure me and proceeded to dig out his radio phone from his jacket pocket and placed it on the dashboard, next to his police hat, which I then noticed. I also noticed his uniform under his thick jacket. He produced his police ID for my inspection. His name on the card was, simply, Aimal.

Sergeant Aimal said he had spent four years in the police academy and boasted that he was one of the most qualified cops in town. He repeated that he’s on patrol as we speak, this time adding somewhat apologetically that it is hard even for qualified cops to make ends meet because of the low salaries.

Sergeant Aimal was working as a taxi driver while on duty as a policeman. He wasn’t patrolling in the police truck but in a cab, not chasing a particular route but going where the passenger was headed.

I asked if he owned the car (plenty of taxi drivers who don’t have their own vehicles pay a portion of their daily earnings as “rent” to vehicle owners). Sergeant Aimal tried to dodge the question by saying something about his brother’s Corolla.

The car clearly wasn’t his. But could it be some poor taxi driver’s car held at the police station for an investigation? Was Sergeant Aimal trying to earn extra money while on duty by spiriting away a car confiscated for criminal investigation?

I didn’t press him on these questions, of course, but I knew the common complaint about low wages for most government employees.

President Karzai has said several times that foreigners are to blame for corruption in Afghanistan. But could it be that his government is incentivizing widespread corruption by offering pitifully low wages to its employees? Some foreign observers point out that corruption is endemic in Afghanistan because the country is awash in foreign aid. But would Sergeant Aimal skip patrol, steal a car and drive people around town at midnight if he were paid adequately? The international community pledged tens of billions of dollars in continued aid for the decade after 2014, with particular emphasis on the security forces. Is that an effective strategy when the ministries of defense and interior (which oversees the police) fail to implement most of their budgets while their soldiers are forced to get into bizarre financial arrangements to make ends meet?

There are other ministries that regularly fail to execute enormous chunks of their annual budgets because of a lack of capacity, inferior management, security concerns, bad planning and other systemic inefficiencies.

A recent visit to the ministry of education, which regularly fails to execute its budget, illustrated the problems perfectly. The deputy minister said they had recently implemented pay reforms that resulted in a raise for everyone. But the deputy minister’s assistant later told me that some of the clerks receive as low as AFN6,000 ($120) a month. That’s an impossible wage to live on, especially if it has to feed an average Afghan family with five kids. Clerks have the option to work over-time to boost their income to AFN8,000, but most clerks supposedly working overtime are not even at work. They arrange for someone else to clock them in, a favor for which the accomplice might sometimes get a little something.

Hundreds of millions of dollars go unspent each year, yet hundreds of millions of dollars keep flowing into the government coffers as aid, while tens of thousands of government employees are forced to become corrupt.

But whereas some of the corruption by foreigners and domestic fat cats is for greed, the corruption pervading the government ranks is often for survival. This corruption is systemic and therefore largely avoidable. But as long as we keep pointing fingers at foreigners or attribute corruption to too much aid, we’ll either evade making real policy changes, or we’ll make the wrong ones.

In either case things won’t change for the likes of Sergeant Aimal.

Watching ‘The Patience Stone’ in Kabul

The cold Friday night was well suited for landi – the dried, preserved meat dish – most commonly served in the winter. Someone from my extended network of cousins had somehow procured an illegal copy of the movie on his thumb drive. So there was the landi delicacy, the movie, cards to play and an unceasing flow of green and black tea. The night was set.

The French-made film started with a deceptive simplicity, a calm that is so at odds with the typical Hollywood movie that aims to dazzle with action, graphics, sound, movement or a combination thereof. As the film went on, it was interspersed with scenes of war and destruction, but the screen adaptation of the book fell somewhere short of being impressive.

The principal actors, mostly Iranians, failed despite their best efforts to mimic the Dari accent. The screenwriters – I don’t know who they are – failed despite their best efforts to produce a genuine Dari screenplay. The use of Karzai-era Afghani in a scene supposedly depicting Jihad-era Afghanistan was a subtle but obvious indicator of how disconnected the filmmakers are from Afghanistan. The random kid with the kite – obligatory in most Afghan-themed films after The Kite Runner – was cliché and unconvincing.

I was focused on these details, but my cousins had other things to focus about the movie. It was raunchy, but everyone kind of knew to expect (and enjoy) that.

In one scene, the female lead’s soliloquy discusses Prophet Muhammad and his relationship with his beloved wife, Ayesha. This is where the first critical note came from the group. Someone said the filmmaker shouldn’t have gone there; it’s sacred space after all. Someone else retorted that the story wouldn’t have won any wards had it not been deliberately provocative.

In that way, the film had the typical European artistic irreverence to it. This “irreverent” attitude could not only offend Muslim sensibilities but also thoroughly anger Afghans because it appears to them as though the artist deliberately sets out to offend an entire people.

The female lead seems connected with her sexuality and is vocal about it in a way that’s taboo for Afghans to imagine – much less talk about or depict on screen. At one point, she reveals that her brother- and father-in-law forced themselves on her regularly when her husband was away on jihad; she also engages in sex for money with a young jihadi fighter and initiates him in the ways of love. She connects with her aunt, a prostitute, and reveals how she, an “infertile” woman, supposedly conceived her two daughters through sex with a “healer” in a dark room. At one point she asks her husband, who is in a vegetative state, what God has done for him after all the years of fighting for His sake?

Afghan familial relations are governed by a sense of pious honor. It should come as no surprise, then, that the movie’s rancid depiction of the family could elicit indignation and vehement protest once it premiers in Afghanistan (if it ever does). There’s no lack of constituency that the movie could offend: the mujahideen, the mullahs, the religious Afghans or, at the very least, the manly Afghan man who prides himself on the sacredness of the Afghan family and the superior purity of the Afghan society.

Protests against films and subsequent bans on those films are not new in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The precedent began with the Bollywood production, Kabul Express, which was banned after protests from Hazaras who felt offended by its portrayal of the ethnic group.

But perhaps because The Patience Stone does not have a cohesive ethnic or linguistic constituency, it will be met only with scoffs and righteous indignation. (The book is set “somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” but the movie doesn’t make that clear.)

None of the people in the audience with me seemed much troubled by the provocative aspect of the movie.

An interesting comment came from a wholly unexpected quarter. One of my cousins, in his 40s, had been a village mullah in the late 90s and early 2000s. Mullahs are expected to lead their congregations toward goodness and away from sin. This cousin launched into a think-out-loud session that yielded some interesting remarks.

“When I was a mullah, I condemned – or if within my powers, prohibited – people from watching things that even portrayed women without a headscarf. But now it has all become so common that any such objection from me will make very little sense,” he said.

“Maybe because uncovered female hair and other things are so common now, people don’t feel carnal pleasure seeing them on TV,” he continued.

“And maybe because people don’t derive pleasure, it’s not a sin to watch these things.”

He was a mullah when the Taliban were in power (he didn’t have any connections with them). With these comments, he was stepping well beyond the limits of what is proper for mullahs and adopts views that are openly contrarian and blasphemous by the standards of the conservative religious orthodoxy.

Afghans and some foreign observers claim that Afghanistan is a vastly different country now than it was under the Taliban. Few of these observers can tangibly explain exactly what they mean by this change apart from pointing to the number of students in school, the proliferation of TV channels and the improved road networks.

But, as this mullah’s comments indicate, it’s the evolution in thinking and expectations that has made Afghanistan such a different place now than it was a mere 10 years ago.

And that is a truly sustainable development that will outlast the international community.

Everything you need to know about Afghanistan in one anecdote

For those who’ve followed my Twitter feed (@AhmadShuja), I tend to decry pundits or parachute humanitarians/journalists who write about Afghanistan in broad, general strokes. I’m particularly wary of the pervasive tactic of using one interaction or episode in their time here to explain “Afghanistan.”

Today I’ll break my own taboo and relate this short but illustrative anecdote.

The story revolves around two little girls in a Kabul neighborhood. I found them involved in a heated exchange one cold morning about a subject I couldn’t figure out. But their dialogue was fascinating and particularly telling of who they were and what they valued. I walked past them just in time to catch the following bit of exchange:

Little Girl #1: Your mom’s never been to school, she doesn’t even know her ABC’s.

Little Girl #2: YOU have been to school and know school things, but not the Qur’an.

These kids were not making Yo Mama jokes. They were in quite a serious argument, hurling insults at each other right and left. In their own little way, their quarrel is indicative of Afghan society today — the value of education alongside the value of religion, the progressive and the religious, the sources of shame and pride.

At the risk of turning this post into a don’t-abandon-Afghanistan polemic, let me also say that this is indicative of what has been gained in the last decade at the cost of billions of foreign dollars and tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign lives. Barely 5 or 6, these girls are products of the post-Taliban generation of Afghans. Education is available to them, but that they find the illiteracy of their mothers a source of shame (and therefore an insult) is telling about what they, as the next generation of Afghan women, value.

One might argue that I may have read too much into what might have just been an innocent fight between two little girls. That’s a genuine possibility, in which case I give you this:

Books on a Kabul bookstore shelf. Pictured are Mein Kampf, Khayyam, Hafiz.

The picture is from an open-air Kabul bookstore in the center of the city. Thousands of people walk past these books everyday in illiterate oblivion, others might cast a glance and carry on, a few might even purchase them. It is these purchasers who form the messy nuances and contradictions of Afghanistan.

In the bottom-center of the picture sits the Mein Kampf. To its right is a book by Afghan sufi saint Khwaja Abdullah Ansari and a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; to its left is Hafiz; on top is a book on Nelson Mandela (and Fidel Castro).

So, next time someone makes a sweeping statement like “Afghanistan is…,” don’t believe them. It’s far more nuanced, messy and full of contradictions, like any nation of 30 million people should be. But pay attention to the little girls, their little chatters, their arguments and values. They are the future and their collective chatters are the public opinion.

What is the Camp Bastion attack really about?

The September 14 attack on the heavily fortified Camp Bastion complex that houses more than 20,000 US, British and other coalition troops was repelled with minimal coalition casualties. The “well-coordinated attack” involving 15 “well equipped, trained” insurgents resulted in the deaths of two US Marines.

The Bastion attack would seem like a terrible bargain for the Taliban, who lost 14 of the attackers (the 15th is injured). But like much of the war in Afghanistan, if we focus on the wrong metric, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

From the Taliban perspective, the Camp Bastion attack was not about producing coalition casualties, taking over the base or regaining ground lost in the 2009 Marja offensive. It was, however, about producing maximum hardware damage.

Take, for example, the ISAF press release, which explains the attack thus:

Dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers and suicide vests, the insurgents attacked Coalition fixed and rotary wing aircraft parked on the flight line, aircraft hangars and other buildings. [Emphasis mine]

When they breached the base, they didn’t go for human targets, just straight at the airplanes. What was the result?

Six Coalition AV-8B Harrier jets were destroyed and two were significantly damaged.  Three Coalition refueling stations were also destroyed.  Six soft-skin aircraft hangars were damaged to some degree.

I’m not an aviation hardware expert, but it’s reasonable to conclude the damage was significant if not cripplingly extensive. It is also reasonable to conclude that the damage will significantly affect the activities at Camp Bastion — one of the busiest military airbases in the world — that sustains tens of thousands of coalition troops by transporting soldiers, food, military equipment, medical supplies, etc.

CNN’s Barbara Starr asks an interesting question that helps put into perspective the extent of the Camp Bastion damage:

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Another important aspect of the attack is the 15 insurgents wearing US military uniforms: All previous “insider attacks” have soldiers in Afghan army or police uniforms.  That a group of 15 insurgents used US military uniforms to attack the base will certainly add to the complexity surrounding “insider attacks.” It will also take a psychological toll on coalition soldiers. My friend and US Air Force veteran Fred Wellman of ScoutCommsUSA puts it succinctly:

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Also disturbing is that the insurgents are using tactics that have been used by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistani militants have launched similar attacks on sensitive Pakistani bases on at least two occasions, the latest being this last August. Let’s compare the attacks’ anatomy. First the PNS Mehran attack last year:

On Sunday evening at 2230 (1730 GMT), militants stormed three hangars housing aircraft at the Mehran naval aviation base, according to officials.

However, eyewitnesses say the attackers were dressed as naval officials and were aware of the security protocol at the base and carried themselves like soldiers.

Their first targets were aircraft parked on the tarmac and equipment in nearby hangers, says the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan at the scene.

The militants used rocket-propelled grenades to damage and destroy several warplanes, witnesses said. These included the Pakistan navy’s premier anti-submarine and marine surveillance aircraft – the US-made P-3C Orion.

Now, the attack from August:

One security official was killed and a plane damaged in the pre-dawn assault at PAF Base Minhas.

The Air Force said seven to eight attackers with rocket propelled-grenades and suicide vests attacked the base, home to to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex that assembles Mirage and JF-17 fighter jets, at 2:00 am (2100 GMT Wednesday).

That gunmen disguised themselves in uniforms and got inside the facility just 60 kilometres (37 miles) northwest of Islamabad will renew questions about security, particularly at a base which has been attacked twice before.

Heavily armed militants dressed in military uniforms attack a base, directly targeting military hardware instead of military personnel — the signature of these three attacks is similar enough to indicate a cross-pollination of ideas between both countries’ militants. The groups are highly adaptable and the osmosis of fighters, literature and propaganda material among them is strong enough to indicate the Afghan insurgents are learning from the TTP’s attacks. But the coordination might be stronger than just Afghan insurgents copying Pakistani militants; it might also involve Pakistanis training Afghans, but we have not direct evidence in this case.

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For the Afghan insurgents, this attack represents a qualitative leap, a significant change in tactics. Like most large coalition bases, Camp Bastion routinely comes under random, haphazard rocket attacks that usually does little to no damage. This is the first highly sophisticated attack of its kind on an airbase that has strategically steered clear of producing casualties, instead focusing on inflicting hardware damage. In a sense, that’s very uncharacteristic of the Afghan Taliban, who have mostly focused on IED attacks and ambushes designed to kill coalition troops.

The Bastion attack, then, represents the latest step in the Taliban’s tactical evolution — from IED attacks to Afghan ‘infiltrators’ to American ‘infiltrators’ destroying military hardware. Deaths from IED attacks are down, signifying their reduced utility for the Taliban. And just as serious efforts are underway to contain green-on-blue attacks, the Taliban introduce this new tactic.

Ultimately, that’s what it’s about — a highly adaptable insurgency, trying to be a step ahead of ISAF and always keeping the latter on its toes.

Washington pundits get it wrong. Again.

Last week, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election. I wrote a critique of his piece and, as a sequel, proposed a list of five things the US should do instead of pre-determining the next Afghan president.

But now, Max Boot says Michael O’Hanlon “is absolutely right” to call for the US to pick the next Afghan president.

Boot is a senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations and, according to his bio, “one of the leading military historians and foreign policy analysts.” In short, a lot of people listen when he talks. Or writes.

While I generally agree with some of Boot’s ideas — like his call for more training, equipment and support for Afghan forces — I think his suggestion that the US install the next Afghan leader is wrong for two reasons: 1. it is predicated on faulty reasoning, and 2. it makes for bad, incoherent policy.

My critique of Boot is over at my UN Dispatch blog, but I hope to write a more comprehensive piece outlining my own ideas about the subject. As the election date draws nearer, the Washington debate about the subject will likely intensify.

As is usual in this town, I fear there won’t be many Afghan voices to counter the noise in the policy circles. The piece will up against those odds, but it’ll be a modest attempt hopefully to inject a degree of sanity in a debate that can sometimes be characterized by partisan slant and, honestly, skullduggery.

We’ll see.

5 things America should do instead of picking the winner – a note to O’Hanlon

This post is my second response to Michael O’Hanlon’s op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US to pick the winner of Afghanistan’s next presidential election. My first response attempts to rebut O’Hanlon’s arguments, but this one seeks to set out alternatives the US should pursue instead of installing another dictator-president.

First off, let’s be clear: there are exceedingly important issues that the United States should expend time, treasure and effort on. These include working for the rights of women, children and minorities; managing the economic transition; tackling the crisis-level condition of the Afghan higher education; kick-starting the non-existent transitional justice process, etc.

In an attempt to remain fair and germane to O’Hanlon, this post focuses on issues relevant to the election. So, here goes…

  1. Protect, preserve and defend democracy by working to make sure the elections are fair, transparent…and logistically feasible and financially possible. This entails supporting the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission, offering technical and logistical support during the elections, providing security to the voting population, etc.
  2. Offer adequate support to the next (democratically elected) president of Afghanistan so they can steer Afghanistan out of the dire straits of collapse while juggling the neighbors, the bureaucratic inefficiency, tackling corruption, managing to offer a modicum of services to the citizens, etc.
  3. Support and nurture the formation of political parties. History has shown that supporting individuals over institutions may have short-term benefits but it always has long-term costs. In this case, a robust political party system will keep the whims of Afghanistan’s president-cum-czar in check. And that’s in addition to the regular benefits of parties.
  4. Nurture the rule of law to help the next democratically elected president restore Afghans’ faith in their government and in democracy by promoting justice, equality and fairness, and eliminating arbitrary and summary justice, graft, nepotism, bribery and immunity for the powerful. These are the real issues that make life extremely difficult for Afghans; these issues also also have immeasurable social and economic costs for the country.
  5. Do minimal harm during the transition. These are fragile times, and there are more ways things could go wrong than vice versa. If things go wrong, there’s little room for repair; there’s certainly no time or energy for grand new plans. All actors are operating in this narrow strategic scope, and it’s exceedingly important to remain cautious and cognizant. Upsetting the political balance in Afghanistan by choosing winners is one way to get it wrong, so the US should avoid it at all costs.

Most of these steps are interconnected and some of them require investing resources, but they all function to consolidate and perpetuate the gains of the last decade — one of America’s key objectives and Afghans’ main desires.