Tag Archives: Kabul

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.

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.

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.

What the photographers saw at Kabul’s Ashura blast

Several eyewitness accounts have emerged describing the moments immediately following the horrific explosion in Kabul. Here are three accounts.

Najibullah Musafer, veteran Afghan photographer

Yesterday, Muharram 10, I was barely 15 to 20 meters away from the suicide bomber. I was busy photographing mourners who had come from Khushi, Logar [Province]. The nauha reciters had been singing in Pashto and Dari and the mourners had been self-flagellating for about 20 minutes when the heart-wrenching sound of an explosion suddenly arose. Just three or four minutes ago I was taking pictures of mourners right where the explosion took place. After the explosion some of the mourners and the people around them were hit by shrapnel; they were lying on the ground. Some, who hadn’t been hit, were running away; others were lying low, expecting another blast. I was dazed for a few seconds, but then I realized that I was fine and started taking pictures. Some mourners who had been away from the blast were coming to help the victims. Cries of men, women and children could be heard — that was very moving for me. I was especially moved by [the sight] of a mother holding two of her children — all three of them dead. I was photographing these scenes for the history of Afghanistan and humanity and documenting [violations of] human rights when an emotionally charged young man started kicking and punching me to prevent me from taking pictures. Some people who knew me took this idiotic young man, who was apparently a mourner, away from me. Then I also left the scene. I couldn’t sleep until very late that night. I wasn’t afraid, but each time I remembered the mother and her two children – all of whom had been martyred – I felt shaken and a very strange feeling took over me. My father, mother, sister and brother would come to my mind. My wife, son and daughter would come to my mind. Undoubtedly, those who were martyred yesterday were [like] our father, mother, sister, brother, wife, daughter and son. We are all like a family under Afghanistan’s roof. Every year mourners converge from all nooks and corners of Kabul and some surrounding provinces to mourn for the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussain, at the Abulfazl al-Abbas shrine in an organized manner. But this year, the enemies of Islam created an incident.

Massoud Hossaini, Afghan photograher working for AFP

“I was taking pictures and I did want to help,” he said. “But I just saw that the bodies were completely destroyed and I said, ‘O.K. I can’t do anything for them, so I have to wait for whoever comes.’”


One of the women who was holding a baby, called out for help — her other child had died. Another man lifted the child from the ground. But blood was pouring from its head. The man placed the child back on the ground and walked away.

More about Massoud and the story behind his iconic photo that landed on the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times is here.

John Wendle, Time Magazine photographer
Vodpod videos no longer available.

If the embed above doesn’t work, you can watch the video on the CNN website.

Update: Independent photojournalist Joel van Houdt, who was also at the scene, has this account of the events for the Wall Street Journal.

Kabul, Mazar blasts on Ashura – initial thoughts

Update: An expanded, updated version of this article is now up on UN Dispatch.

Reports are still trickling in, but at least one attack has occurred in a dense public gathering in Kabul marking the Shiite occasion of Ashura. Two consecutive bombs have gone off in Mazar. These are my initial thoughts based on incomplete information about a rapidly evolving situation.

  • Reports are emerging that today’s incidents will touch off a cycle of sectarian violence. Well, they won’t. DDR and DIAG were very effective in disarming all armed groups except the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Launching a cycle of sectarian violence requires arms, experience and organization. No Shiite group has any of these three things at the present time, rendering them ineffective at feeding into the organized and sustained violence, at least in the short term. Having said that, various outside states — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc. — could potentially work the sectarian angle.
  • The attacks mark Afghanistan’s first sectarian suicide attack, setting of a terrifying precedent in a country that has not seen sustained, organized sectarian violence in more than a century. The last large-scale, organized episodes of sectarian violence occurred under Amir Abdul Rahman who, in his quest to establish control over certain regions of the country, decreed that Shiites be considered infidels.
  • The attacks are not sectarian only. It is important to keep in mind that, although it is easy and tempting to mark off the attacks as sectarian, they are not. At least not purely sectarian. First, the victims are overwhelmingly not only Shiite but also of a certain ethnic group. Besides, eyewitness accounts have it that mourners at the scene of the blast were chanting anti-Pakistan, anti-America slogans, demonstrating that at least some people perceived the attacks as more than just sectarian. Therefore, although the attackers might have intended the attacks to send a sectarian note, the message was lost one some people along the way. And it’s often more important how an attack is perceived than the damage it does or the message it intends to send.
  • None of Afghanistan’s known insurgent or terrorist groups have a history of sectarian suicide attacks, making Gen. Allen’s statement denouncing “the insurgents” a bit off. However, that is not to say that the attacks couldn’t potentially be their doing. Ashura processions are very easy, very vulnerable targets, especially if the insurgent groups need to send a message after the feel-good soundbites and photo-ops coming out of Bonn II. Additionally, all of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups stand to gain from such an attack in various ways, not the least of which is to spread further disenchantment with the government’s ability to safeguard religious practice, stoke communal distrust and overshadow the transition process.
  • I am watching for how Karzai responds to this attack, especially following the Bonn II conference and all the promises/rhetoric coming out of it. Today could well be the bloodiest in years. Will Karzai cut his trip short, return home and thus overshadow Bonn? It’d also be interesting to see how his deputies — especially Khalili, a Hazara and a Shiite cleric — handle the situation.

Twitter wars: NATO and Taliban clash through tweets

We know that politicians and journalists have tweeted their way to their own demise, and we know that others also have gotten themselves in real trouble on Twitter.

But apparently, ISAF and the Taliban are also taking their war to the cutting edge — by fighting in cyberspace, on social media.  (Before I get into the details, a few credits: Kudos to @Transitionland for spotting the encounter. And admittedly, the best home for something like this is BoomTweet, but I just can’t resist posting it here.)

It all began with ISAF tweeting the following about the horrific Kabul attacks that lasted more than 20 hours:

Re: Taliban spox on #Kabul attack: the outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorist put innocent Afghans in harm’s way?Wed Sep 14 04:18:29 via HootSuite

To which @ABalkhi, thought to be a Taliban spokesperson, slapped back a response within minutes:

@ISAFmedia i dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n ‘harm’s way’ fr da pst 10 yrs.Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout ‘harm’s way’Wed Sep 14 05:06:21 via web

To which @ISAFmedia retorted by citing UN statistics about civilian casualties to prove that the Taliban are, indeed, the bad guys:

Really, @abalkhi? UNAMA reported 80% of civilians causalities are caused by insurgent (your) activities http://t.co/3LiZWa5Wed Sep 14 05:15:56 via HootSuite


The sarcasm of the question isn’t lost on @ABalkhi, who replies with his own interrogative — and it’s not supposed to be a trick question:

@ISAFmedia UNAMA is an entity of whom? mine or yours?Wed Sep 14 05:22:00 via web


Update (11:38 a.m. EST): But later, @ISAFmedia came back taunting @alemarahweb — thought to be another one of the several Taliban Twitter accounts — by posting a video of Gen. John Allen visiting his soldiers after the attack.


This parallels — and dare I say, surpasses — the drama of the Tea Party Republican debates that occupy my TV screen nowadays. But beyond the entertainment value, the added advantage is that no-one has to lose their life in this battle. It’s like two elephants fighting and the grass remaining unharmed.

PS: Unlike previous encounters, these two elephants are fairly evenly matched.