Category Archives: Afghanistan

#AfghanWomeratti – Afghan women leaders on Twitter

This list of Afghan women tweeps came about after I realized not a single Afghan woman appeared on @FP_Magazine’s #Twitterati100, or even the #FPWomeratti (as of June 19). I thought I’d try and share with the world the wonderful work Afghan women do everyday, often in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, or even a representative one – many excellent Afghan women leaders are not on Twitter.

If you’ve got suggestions, feel free to comment below.

Last updated: July 20, 2012. Help expand the list. Add more names here.

Activists/civil society
@FroghWazhma – Afghan Women’s Network
@Orzala – Orzala Ashraf Nemat, civil society and women’s rights activist
@NoorAkbar – Noorjahan Akbar, co-founder of @YWCAfghanistan (Young Women for Change Afghanistan)
@fatoomrabbani – Fatima Rabbani, political and women’s rights activist; daughter of the late Burhanuddin Rabbani

Think tank/journalists/writers
@FaribaNawa, author of Opium Nation, former correspondent for The Telegraph and others
@NNushin – Nushin Arbabzadah, cultural commentator, frequent contributor to PBS and Guardian Comment is Free, former BBC journalist
@PariNazary, Center for International Cooperation at New York University
@MalaliBashir, journalist with RFE/RL’s @GandharaRFE
@ZohraSaed, indy publisher, author and lecturer
@AtiaAbawi, NBC correspondent, formerly with CNN in Afghanistan
@WasHasNaz – Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi, journalist and editor at Deutsche Welle
@ShaistaLameh – Shaista Sadat Lameh, journalist and anchor for VOA
@ZheelaJ – Zheela Noori, broadcaster and video journalist at VOA’s Ashna TV
@sanaaa1 – Sana Safi, Afghan journalist with BBC World Service; fiction writer.
@awolasmal – Ayesha Wolasmal, freelance journalist.

Politicians/International Organizations


@RaihanaAzad – Raihana Azad, member of the lower house of parliament; sits on the Civil Society, Human Rights and Women’s Affairs Committee

@DrMobarez – Dr. Nilab Mobarez, national spokeswoman for UNAMA in Afghanistan
@chadari – Farkhonda Zahra Naderi, member of parliament and women’s rights activist

All-round wonderwomen
@ArianaDelawari, musician
@Swaay03 – Suhaila Aziz, with the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund
@MariamAtashNawa- Mariam Atash Nawabi, attorney, human rights activist, and entrepreneur
@ArzoWardak, Afghan-American blogger, social entrepreneur, Activist; student at Harvard
@Naseri_Huma – Huma Naseri, Student of IR and Political Science
@PeymanaWalizai, MA student at Kings College London; working with @afghanadvocacy.
@AzitaGhanizada, actor, artist, model

LA Times photos: the world is still getting it wrong

For the UN Dispatch, I write about the latest controversy involving US soldiers in Afghanistan: a series of photos published by the Los Angeles Times depicting US (and Afghan) soldiers taking pictures with the dead body of a Taliban bomber.

Here is the gist:

The photos are, more than anything, about the United States, its (rightful) concerns about the troops’ professional conduct and its obsession, as it would appear to Afghans, with trivial moral matters.

The bigger question that no one seems to focus on is the mentoring faux pas of US forces, who started the photo session as Afghan soldiers watched nearby. The Afghan soldiers were later included in the shoot. [Addendum: The US soldiers set a pretty bad example of professional soldierly behavior in a war zone. The only silver lining is that most Afghan troops don't have digital cameras and/or access to the internet.]

An even bigger question is the systemic issues in the US military that continue to allow for humiliating and dehumanizing incidents to occur. Incidents such as the Haditha massacre, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, theUS soldiers’ Kill Team, the Marine urination video, the Daniel Chen case, the Kandahar massacre of villagers, the Quran burning, etc. point to systemic loose ends. Unfortunately, the US looks into each incident individually and has not yet indicated that it is taking the whole-of-the-system approach to tackle these incidents, which continue to occur at great cost to the the US and the communities where they happen.

I have highlighted this last point a few times before (here and here – audio), but it bears repeating unfotunately. Read the full article here.


I am dedicating this entire post to Elizabeth Flock’s Washington Post blog entry about the aftermath of the Kandahar massacre. While I am flattered that my tweet is featured in such a prestigious newspaper, I feel compelled to explain what … Continue reading

Are we learning the right lesson from the Kandahar killings?

It’s barely two days after the Kandahar massacres and, although the full facts are not yet clear, there are various calls from a number of quarters about what the unfortunate incident actually means.

Some are approaching it from an instinct of fear and worry about the potential “backlash” from the “Afghan anger.” As I have described this elsewhere, this is exactly the wrong approach because it ignores the pain and grief felt by many Afghans after this horrendous incident, casting them as potential aggressors instead of the victims that they are.

But then there is the other camp, including Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who are calling for a quick, complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. They argue that incidents like this create a clear imperative for the US to get out because it “can’t fix” Afghanistan. Gingrich and company do not realize is that these events demonstrate, even more urgently, the need to take immediate and appropriate measures to prevent similar incidents in the future — in Afghanistan and beyond. That there have been so many of them in Iraq, Gitmo and Afghanistan means the systemic loose ends must be tied to minimize the likelihood of similar incidents from happening.

Proponents of this view also fail to understand that the United States is already withdrawing fairly precipitously. President Obama has hastened the already-short 2014 timeframe to include an acceleration of drawdown by mid-2013. Then there’s the logistical challenge: you can’t plop 80,000 troops and millions of tons of weapons and equipment back into the US — the process requires negotiation of withdrawal routes, fees and other arrangements with difficult partners such as Pakistan, Russia and its Central Asian neighborhood.

From the Afghan perspective, a precipitous withdrawal could be disastrous. I was asked on the BBC today (video forthcoming) what achievements ISAF has had in Afghanistan and I listed, in the little time I had, the assertive women’s movement, increased rights for minorities, education for girls. The interview was short and ended before I could add the caveat about ISAF’s failures, but the point about those achievements stands. The withdrawal is already threatening those gains which, without an appropriate settlement with the Taliban or other safety measures, would be significantly reversed.

So, in short, the lessons from the Kandahar massacre are numerous but we need to identify them accurately. More on this subject later.

Update (March 13): My post on UN Dispatch dealing with this subject in greater depth.

Two important things the world is ignoring about the Kandahar massacre

Immediately after the incident in Kandahar involving a US soldier that killed 16 unarmed Afghan civilians, we heard concerns about “Afghan anger” and “backlash.” This approach, emanating from an instinct fear, is precisely the wrong one because it ignores two things:

  • The grief and pain experienced by the Afghans who have lost, among others, 9 children, and;
  • The tremendous restraint exhibited by Afghans in the face of repeated incidents of civilian deaths, including the infamous Kill Team and other occasions of aerial strikes targeting the wrong people.

The fear-of-backlash approach dehumanizes the people who have been affected by this incident and paints them not as victims but as potential aggressors. This approach, coming from the ISAF troops sent in to protect the civilians, is regrettable at the least and prevents effective interaction with the population. Further, it ignores all historical precedent of how civilians have reacted to such incidents, which is with much restraint.

I am going to write more about this for the UN Dispatch, but for a more expanded version of the above, listen to my interview from earlier today on The Kojo Show.

Update (March 13): My post on UN Dispatch dealing with this subject in greater depth.

English translation of Ulema Council’s declaration about women

Here’s a rush translation of the controversial declaration from Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, a religious advisory body comprised of the country’s leading clerics. The three-page declaration talks about an array of subjects under five bullet points, but the fifth and longest one is about women.

The Ulema first spell out the rights women enjoy under Islam and then explain the responsibilities of women. There is no official English translation (yet), and the translation here is my own work. It’s a controversial subject and translation work is extremely tricky, so I don’t claim this is a perfect work. In addition, the following disclaimer applies:

  • I have tried to stay loyal to the original text. And since the Dari text has florid language, you will see the same complex sentence structure in the translation. This is to give non-Dari speakers a flavor of the original text, which can be found on President Karzai’s website. In case you choose to use the translation for an article or a soundbite, you might want to paraphrase as you see fit.
  • Again, I don’t claim this translation is perfect; no translation is, for that matter. If you have suggestions to improve this translation, please feel free to add them in the comment section or email them to me.
Update (March 12): Portions of this translation have been quoted in the AfPak Channel/Foreign Policy Magazine, The Guardian, the Associated Press, RFE/RL, the Wall Street Journal and maybe more; I haven’t actively kept track.

Having said that, here’s the translation:

5.       Unlike other civilizations and societies of the present and the past, the sacred religion of Islam – in recognition of the fundamental role of women in nurturing the society – offers women many civil and social rights, and human dignity and honor.

In the centuries before Islam, and among human civilizations and nations, women were deprived of any kind of human and social rights. They were treated as cheap property and were even buried alive. But by the advent of the globe-illuminating sun [that was] the sacred religion of Islam, many rights were given to women according to nature, such as:

A.   The right to property, ownership and commerce

B.   The right to inheritance according to the principles of the sacred Shariah of Islam

C.   The right to mehr (very roughly, dower), which is exclusively the woman’s [property] and no one has the right to take it without her consent. All other practices known as toyana, shareeb, etc. do not have a basis in the Shariah.

D.   The right to choose a spouse according to her own will. Forcibly marrying an adult woman is not allowed, although consultation with the guardians – which is a religious rule – is practiced

E.   Women, like men, have dignity and are beings with freedom; therefore, exchanging a woman for someone’s blood (badal), or for [establishing] peace, or exchanging a woman for another’s dower are haram and prohibited under the Shariah.

F.   Women cannot be inherited. Similarly, there are many other rights, granted to a woman under the religion of Islam, which are observed. But, where a Muslim woman has many rights, [she also] has duties and obligations, such as:

    1. Adherence, in faith and action, to the orders and prohibitions of Islam’s sacred Shariah
    2. Complete adherence and observance of the hijab [according to the Shariah], which protects the dignity and personality of the woman
    3. Avoiding mingling with stranger men in various social situations, such as education, shopping, the office and other affairs of life
    4. In consideration of the clarity of verses 1 and 34 of Surah an-Nisa’ [of the Qur’an], men are fundamental and women are secondary; also, lineage is derived from the man. Therefore, the use of words and expressions that contradict the sacred verses must be strictly avoided.
    5. Respecting [the orders] about the multiplicity of wives (polygamy), which are in accordance with clear orders of the Qur’an
    6. Avoiding travel without a [Shariah-sanctioned] mahram (male companion)
    7. Adherence to the clear orders of Muhammad’s Shariah in case of divorce

It needs to be said that teasing, harassment and beating of women without a Shariah-compliant reason, as set forth clearly in the Glorious Qur’an, is prohibited. Afghanistan’s Ulema Council requests the judicial and law-enforcement organs of the country to punish, in accordance with Muhammad’s Shariah and national laws, the perpetrators of any kind of assault from persons against women.

A multitude of rights and responsibilities are set forth in the religious texts of Islam; they will be consulted as needed.

Kabul could learn a thing or two from Kandahar

A recent insurgent attack in Kandahar left several ANP soldiers and Afghans civilians dead and injured. The tragic incident was live-tweeted by the Kandahar Media and Information Office (@KandaharMediaOf), which provided to reporters details about the developing story.

But the process was not one-sided. The folks at KMIC also interacted with journalists, providing prompt replies to their questions and, in one case, setting the record straight.

This is the kind of timely, responsive and open government that journalists dream of and that a society like Afghanistan is better off with. The KMIC seems to have realized that it is no longer enough for a government to just throw information out at the world and expect its narrative to stick. Communication, especially on social media, is no longer unidimensional — it’s more than just a press release.

Let’s take a look at one of the KMIC’s exchanges.

The tweet above prompted a question from an Afghan journalist and an explanation from the KMIC:

And when the AP’s Afghanistan correspondent tweeted about their Kandahar office, the KMIC responded thus:

Journalists who have worked in Afghanistan realize how unique this operation is. Many journalists find the Taliban’s spokesmen and media operation more responsive and more prompt than Kabul’s Government Media and Information Center (@GMICafghanistan), which has had its social media difficulties. Here’s an excerpt from a previous piece I wrote on this subject:

BBC producer and reporter in Kabul Bilal Sarwary sounded off about GMIC’s lackluster performance, saying GMIC is “late by hours” compared to the Taliban in reporting “on news and events.”

In the guise of the KMIC, the Taliban seem to have met their match. And in that, there’s something for Kabul to learn from.

International experts have spent countless hours and millions of dollars to set up the GMIC and train its staff, but this is one lesson the GMIC could learn on its own, just by looking at Kandahar.

How best to ensure defeat in Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently made comments suggesting that U.S. combat role would end in Afghanistan by mid-2013. This came as a shocker to many. The U.S. had insisted – in fact, cajoled other NATO members – to contribute troops and resources to the Afghanistan war. Other U.S. officials tried to do damage control, but Panetta set the tone for the May Chicago conference, where  the final timetable of withdrawal will be decided.

These comments came just before the NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels, where discussions were supposed to be held on the future size of the Afghan national security forces (ANSF). NATO member countries are going through a tight financial squeeze, so the apatite for sustaining a a 350,000-strong security forces for Afghanistan – the current projection for Oct. 2012 – was not strong. France said it would be happy with a 230,000-strong force, while the U.S. preferred 227,000.

Either way, the cost factor was the most important in those calculations. It was less about how many troops would be necessary to defend Afghanistan against the insurgency, and more about how much money NATO can afford to give to sustain the Afghan forces. The discussion had shifted from a security policy perspective to a predominantly financial austerity perspective. To be sure, policymaking is always a balancing act between scarce resources and optimal policy outcomes, and mostly the outcomes are as important in final analysis as the money. But in this discussion, it was the other way around.

So, as the U.S. is cutting down its troops and further accelerating the drawdown, it is also pushing for a smaller ANSF. At the same time, American diplomats are trying hard to make the ongoing negotiation efforts with the Taliban work. If there is anything that screams “we’re negotiating from a position of weakness,” it would be this. ISAF is leaving Afghanistan and leaving behind a small and less capable force to fight the insurgency. Before they leave, they are attempting to dissuade the Taliban from violence and integrate them into the government — not as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan but as a smaller group that shares a fraction of power. That is impossible to do as long as the the Taliban remain more powerful vis-a-vis the ANSF.

This is a lose-lose proposition on many levels. First, U.S. negotiators will find it harder to argue for things that are not on the top of their national security agenda — important things like women’s rights, girl’s education, minority protection, human rights, etc. Second, the U.S. or its partner countries have not announced or debated any special increase in civilian aid as they have contemplated withdrawal and cutting ANSF funding. A funding shortfall in the face of a growing insurgent threat and a hostile neighborhood will inevitably force Afghanistan to prioritize defense over development. Third, the U.S. and its allies seem to be largely ignoring the concerns of the political opposition, which is growing increasingly paranoid as they see Afghanistan’s future direction being negotiated almost exclusively between the Taliban and the U.S. This does not bode well for any future negotiated settlement where the opposition’s demands are not factored in.

Amid fiscal belt tightening, growing war-weariness and election-year politics, the international community is pursuing the exact policy it should not. It is inevitable that Afghanistan’s security forces will have to be downsized, but that should only happen when the current heightened state of security threats has been addressed. It is also inevitable that the international community will stop funding Afghanistan’s forces, look for a solution other than protracted war and withdraw their own forces. But the current strategy – if it can be called that – doesn’t not constitute an optimal combination of these realities.

If anything, it seems like the best strategy for failure in Afghanistan.

Video: Afghanistan Analysis talks to the BBC on the Marine ‘urination’ story

I got the opportunity to speak with the BBC on this story yesterday. The interview was fairly soon after the story broke, so these are my initial thoughts. For more on this issue, see this earlier post.

Marine urination video: is the world missing the point?

I just got off the set at the BBC’s Washington studio where I spoke with Tim Wilcox on the BBC World News Today about the video allegedly showing four U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Video of the segment is forthcoming, but here are some of the points I tried to get across in the fast-paced news segment: Update: See video of the segment here.

  • The incident, which is the latest in a string of unfortunate events involving U.S. troops, is not likely to impact the negotiation efforts. The Taliban and President Karzai both said so.
  • It is unlikely that this incident will lead to mass demonstrations in Afghanistan involving burning of American flags, etc. This is not the Terry Jones case.
  • The incident will further damage America’s public perception in Afghanistan, but not uniformly across the country — the effect is going to be graver in parts already holding a stronger negative perception of the U.S.
  • But here’s the main point: The U.S. and the rest of the world seem more outraged about the acts per se and about the unprofessional conduct. But the less appreciated fact is that in Afghanistan, desecration/defiling of dead bodies and urinating on people are culturally very significant offenses. This is an important point to understand because it is central to the efforts of winning hearts and minds.

And here are a couple of points I didn’t get to make on the segment, and that no one seems to be talking about either:

  • After Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Bagram (here and here), the ‘kill team‘ and other incidents, the U.S. will need to seriously take notice of what is becoming a culture of gross abuse and misconduct in the military. Not everyone in the world shares the American perception that these are isolated acts from individual soldiers. The command and control structure seems to be failing, causing not only PR disasters for the U.S. but also human rights violations. All of this begs the question: Apart from ordering an investigation into this latest incident, what is the U.S. going to do to address what seems to be a larger scale institutional issue?
  • This incident gives the Taliban more PR ammo, but not in the way you might think: The Taliban like to circulate videos of their fighters ambushing foreign troops and blowing up their convoys; advertising the humiliation of Taliban jihadists doesn’t make great cell phone viral video. And it just doesn’t help with the recruitment drives. Having said that, the incident does give the Taliban more PR salvo in their attempts to portray U.S. troops in a bad light.