Afghanistanica joins group blog

I, Afghanistanica, have joined a group blog titled Exploring the Heart of Asia. The blog is a new creation and consists of myself, long time Afghanistan blogger Safrang and the super Afghanistan femme blogger Home in Kabul. So that is where you will find all my blogging these days.

However, the amount of blogging at Exploring the Heart of Asia that I dedicate to conflict issues is going to be small. If you are looking for Afghanistan conflict/war/military-related issues I suggest these blogs:

  • Registan:
  • [My] State Failure Blog:
  • Ghosts of Alexander:

List of Afghanistan Blogs

Many people have contacted me and asked for suggestions for other Afghanistan blogs to read. There is a comprehensive list of Afghanistan-related blogs at:

OK, this is definitely the last post ever.

Afghanistanica Retraction #986

March 7, 2008.

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Back in September I wrote about the firing of governor Murad of Kapisa, which the BBC wrote was in retaliation for his criticism of the central government. Apparently there is much more to the story and no journalists picked that up (in English at least). I should quit parroting journalists.

There is a lot about the inner workings of the Afghan government that never makes it out into the press. The full story on governor Murad is one of those things.

So technically speaking, I was wrong.

Afghan Communism: Made in America

March 6, 2008.

All those Afghan communists were educated in the Soviet Union, right? Nope. Wrong answer. Actually, many of them were indoctrinated in the United States. Louis Dupree noted back in 1979 that, of the 14 civilians in the first Afghan communist government cabinet, exactly zero had been educated in the Soviet Union. Where were they educated? Here’s a breakdown:

  • Egypt: 2
  • Western Europe: 2
  • Afghanistan: 4
  • United States: 10

Martin Ewans wondered aloud whether the policies of these cabinet members would have been different if they “had the privilege of an education at Lumumba University in the USSR” (Source: Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and Politics.

American Communist flag

Outside of the cabinet, in the highest office in the land we have, for a time, the enthusiastic communist Hafizullah Amin. Amin earned his MA at Columbia University, dropped out of a PhD program there and then later earned a spot on a list of “Columbia’s 10 worst Alumni.” His short reign of stupidity and brutality was put to an end by members of the KBG’s Alpha Group, who whacked him two days after Christmas 1979.

Afghan communist

I tell you, the good old days of militant leftists marching on campus and waving the hammer and sickle is long gone. I only met one crazy leftist in my undergrad and MA phase, and that person was harmless. Of course, there are still crazy people on campus of various persuasions.

Anyways, back to my analysisizing. Communists who were educated in the Soviet Union were, after a certain date, given pragmatic views on how to develop a socialist paradise. The Afghan communists, deprived of that education, tried to create a paradise on some insane time scale, going against what the Soviets advised. The Soviets cautioned against repeating the mistakes they had made and cautioned that Afghanistan was not ready for many communist initiatives. The Afghan communists ignored this advice and went on the alienate/enrage as much of the country as they possibly could.

Pic: In Amin’s defense, he may have joined the communist party just for the parties. Sort of like joining a frat house.

Communist party

You gotta love that American “can-do” spirit that was instilled into these Afghan communists.

The problem with graduates of American universities is that, from my experience, they are both some of the smartest and dumbest (sometimes at the same time) people you will ever meet. And more than a few of them have no real life experience and are ready to buy into some soon-to-fail spectacularly (or already failed) ideology of the left or right, or of elsewhere. And, fortunately and/or unfortunately, the graduates these days are generally more into apathy than ideology.

PhD students? The are, without a doubt, the finest embodiment of reason, logic, sage advice and wise leadership.

Afghans Defeat Wahhabism By Worshipping Wahhabis

March 3, 2008.

You may have heard that some small number of Afghans are worshipping at a cemetery in Kandahar where Arab Al Qaeda fighters are buried. Or not perhaps “worshipping” them, but asking them for some divine intervention for healing purposes. Check out this Al-Jazeera English news report:

This may seem like some sort of “victory in death” for the Arabs buried in this cemetery. But it is actually a defeat of their ideas. The Wahhabi strand of Islam that these particular Arab Muwahiddun adhered to would abhor the practises that these Afghans have brought to this cemetery. Wahhabism wants to purge Islam of shrines, saints, grave visits and any practise that is likely pre-Islamic or resulting from an fusion of Islam with local pagan practices.

Pic: For example, the Sufi Muslim shrine of Duzgunbaba in Turkey. It was formerly a “sacred place of the Hurrian/Hittite storm god Teshub” before the arrival of Islam.

Sufi Shrine

You may recall anecdotes of Arab fighters actually destroying Afghan cemeteries because of the decorations and non-austere headstones. The locals responded with a vengeance.

Local culture can often be a difficult thing to change. Especially if you want to replace it with some no-fun brand of Islam from Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon’s “Pashtunwali” Payments

February 29, 2008.

The issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is a highly contentious issue, and for good reason. In an opinion poll commissioned by the BBC, 29% of Afghans said the international troops were doing a bad job. The number one reason given (at 39%) was civilian casualties.

What I’ll analyze today is the issue of compensation. But first some quantitative analysis: According to Human Rights Watch, in 2006 there were approximately 1200 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, of which as many as 300 could be blamed on international forces (and if the increased coverage of civilian casualties in the press accurately reflects what’s happening on the ground, I’m assuming 2007 will prove to be significantly higher).

Pic: Anger over the killing of Afghan civilians in March 2007.

Afghan protest

The paper trail on US compensation for civilian casualties in Afghanistan is a little slim, amounting to only 17 claims that the ACLU obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. But other incidents of compensation have been discussed in the media, such as the compensation payed out after Marines killed uninvolved bystanders after a suicide bomber attack in Jalalabad. Various amounts have been discussed, and I’ve usually heard figures in the $2000 dollar range. The ACLU report noted that payments for a life lost is capped at $2500.

Other payments are made as well. For example, since 2005 the US government has paid out about $40 million for property damage, personal injury and loss of life in Iraq. However, I couldn’t find any total for what is being paid out in Afghanistan. So what I’ll focus on is the compensation for loss of life and that $2500 figure. I’m not going to go searching for quotes, but I recall terms used for this level of compensation such as “arbitrary,” “shameful,” and various words to indicate that the commentator sees this compensation as grossly insufficient.

Pic: Karzai has angrily complained of civilian casualties numerous times (in Dari and Pashto).

Hamid Karzai

A $2500 payment for the loss of a human life is many things, but surprisingly it may not be completely arbitrary. I don’t know how the Pentagon came up with this figure. It may indeed be arbitrary, but it is (at worst) actually about half of what was determined to be the value of a human life in the traditional Pashtun version of civil court (using a rather confusing economic comparison). To support this point, I’ll refer to Alef Shah Zadran’s 1977 PhD dissertation Socio-economic and legal-political processes in a Pashtun village, southeastern Afghanistan.

I became aware of this dissertation a while back while reading a working paper that said “Do Not Cite” on it. So I’ll work only from the sections that refer to Zadran’s dissertation. And yes, I know the problems of trying to apply one case study for a village in Paktia to all Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. But there are strong similarities between the various rural Pashtun areas. And indeed, the Pashtun tsali (practise) set amounts for the value of damages to body and for loss of life. Zadran (page 264) showed these tsali figures:

Bodily Injury Compensation Schedule in Afghanis: body part injured level of compensation. 1970’s: 1$=50 afghani.

  • Right eye 7,500 afs
  • Left eye 7,500 afs
  • Right ear 5,000 afs
  • Left ear 5,000 afs
  • Nose 30,000 afs
  • Middle incisor 5,000 afs
  • Side incisor 5,000 afs
  • Canine 2,500 afs
  • Premolar 2,000 afs
  • Molar 1,000 afs
  • Hands 15,000 afs
  • Right hand 10,000 afs
  • Left hand 5,000 afs
  • thumb 3,750 afs
  • index finger 2,500 afs
  • middle finger 2,000 afs
  • ring 1,500 afs
  • pinky 1,000 afs
  • Feet 15,000 afs
  • Right foot 7,500 afs
  • Left foot 7,500 afs
  • Amputation of foot 30,000 afs
  • Fingernails or toenails (visible) 150 afs
  • Fingernails or toenails (not visible) 100 afs

In the case of murder, a maraka (sort of an ad hoc but formalized arbitration court that fits within the Pashtunwali “code”) will be convened. In mid-1970’s currency, the blood-price (nake or khun) was set at $1200 (60,000 Afghanis). I stuck this in an inflation converter and came up with a figure of about $5000. But that’s using an American scale. I honestly have no idea of what 60,000 Afghanis ($1200) in rural eastern Afghanistan would be equivalent to today. But Zadran makes the point that this figure was still the standard in the 1970s, despite the perception by some that it was too low.

Pic: Probably no compensation for this.

Afghan village

In the case of murder, it was also common for the arbitration to include an unmarried girl to be given to the victims family in order to tie the families together and prevent future fighting (Jenna Bush to wed in Paktia Province?). But using American legal terms, we’re not talking murder in the vast majority of civilian casualty cases, we’re dealing with manslaughter or negligent homicide. And we’re talking about this in the context of war. Indeed, NATO has no rules in Afghanistan about compensation for civilian casualties, letting individual countries, such as Denmark, set their own rules.

As for the US, did they actually inquire in Afghanistan as to what would be the traditional level of compensation for loss of life and take that $1200/60,000 Afghanis figure as an approximate guide? Again I don’t know. But the point is that by traditional Afghan standards, it is at worst only half of what the level of compensation ideally is in rural Afghanistan. [Again I offer the caveat that taking a figure from 1970s Afghanistan and coming up with an amount for 2008 is a job for some sort of economist detective, which I'm not].

Personally, I think that the Pentagon should play it safe and go double the rate of that I came up with using the US inflation rate and make the compensation $10,000 rather than capping it at $2500. And yes, they should come up with a system of standards to govern the process. I recall a TV (or newspaper) report from Iraq that featured some beleaguered American officer inundated with locals demanding compensation for their imaginary livestock that the Americans has viciously massacred the previous week. If someone starts handing out compensation payments without doing much investigating, he will soon have a very long line of people forming outside his tent. And that applies whether the tent is located in Kansas City or Spin Boldak.

But at the moment there is that $2500 cap and the lack of clear guidelines. Or as Zalmay Khalilzad said in a different manner, American officers on the ground have “flexibility” in regards to compensation payments. And importantly, it seems that many incidents have occurred without compensation being granted. It does not seem that the quick delivery of compensation in wake of the US Marines killings of civilians in Jalalabad is the model for other incidents where US forces killed innocent bystanders (is this the “flexibility” that Khalilzad is referring to?).

Pic: A civilian killed by US Marines in Jalalabad.

Afghanistan civilian casualties

The other issue is that of going beyond compensatory damages. In an American civil court damages are awarded as compensatory and punitive. The punitive damages are meant to punish the negligent/guilty party. This is where you see damages against large corporations going into the 100s of millions. Personally, I don’t support punitive damages against governments for incidences that occur during war (but I’m fine with compensatory damages).

Of course, it is not the issue of compensation that is the real problem here, it is the issue of the casualties themselves. Barnett Rubin’s quote reflects my position on the issue:

“What really hurts is the civilian casualties, at least when there are civilian casualties, there should be a mechanism for redressing those grievances. The civilian casualties and the apparent impunity of coalition and NATO forces — and also I should add, of private security contractors — is a big issue in the minds of Afghans. So if [compensation] can help address that, then that would [help] to some extent. But of course, it would be more important to eliminate civilian casualties.”

Some final extra, additional caveats: this blog entry is more to get people to think about the issue of compensation. I’m not offering my musings as a strong suggestion for determining compensation rates. That job should be left to some independent lawyer economist type who’s on the ground. And yes, I realize I used a rural case study and then showed pictures of the city of Jalalabad, that’s all I could find in the way of imagery.

New Afghanistan Bibliography Download

February 26, 2008.

It’s the moment you may or may not have been anxiously waiting for: the release of the new up-to-date Afghanistan Bibliography. Download the pdf here:

Afghanistan Bibliography

Here’s a sneak peak at the table of contents, minus the page numbers:

1. Ethnic Groups.

2. Conflict and Mobilization: War, Ethnicity, Jihad, Government, Factions, “Warlords,” Etc.

3. Islam, Political Islam, Jihad, Sects.

4. The International Community, Reconstruction, Security, Economy, Government, Conflict, and Development.

5. Opium cultivation, drug use and trafficking.

6. Environmental, Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

7. Human rights violations.

8. Women, Gender and Family.

9. Civil-Military Relations, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), Counterinsurgency and Military Issues.

10. Refugees, Internal Displacement, Migration and Diaspora Issues.

11. Macro and Micro Economics.

12. Opinion Polls, Interviews, Study Groups and Surveys.

Colonel Antonenko: A COIN No-Star in Afghanistan

February 10, 2008.

About 6 months ago, when few people read Afghanistanica, I wrote an entry titled Captain Zakharov: A COIN All-Star in Afghanistan. The blog entry gave an example of counter insurgency strategy that few thought the Soviets conducted in Afghanistan. Zakharov did everything that contemporary counterinsurgents are now being taught to do. Colonel Sergei Antonenko, however, serves up the stereotype of the brutal and unsuccessful counterinsurgent.

Pic: Colonel Antonenko, growling for the camera.


My analysis of Zakharov and Antonenko are both based on Artyom Borovik’s book The Hidden War. If you are skeptical of an account by a Soviet journalist, just read what I wrote about Borovik in the account of Zakharov.

First I will introduce the man pictured above. Colonel Antonenko served in Afghanistan for two years, with his last assignment being a zone of responsibility on the southern approach to the Salang Pass (Ahmad Shah Massoud area of operations), an area that he “knew like the back of his own hand,” according to Borovik. An admirer in the military said that he was a officer that “the whole army should take after.”

Antonenko spoke of the mujahideen he was up against and had this to say:

“You could say that we’re best friends, but you can’t count on that. The East is a dark and cunning business. They say one thing, think another, and do something else entirely. [...]“

At the time Antonenko was interviewed, the war was winding down and withdrawal was imminent. Antonenko remarked:

“If you can guarantee that we can safely withdraw our troops through the Salang Tunnel, I told them, we won’t fortify the road. I even suggested that we sign a treaty: they would promise to guard the road from other rebel detachments and to let the columns of regular Afghan troops travel through, and we would refrain from combat. But they refused, saying that a Muslim’s spoken word is law. At any rate, we’ll have to see.”

Regarding his main opponent, Antonenko said:

“He’s a wise man, that Basir [Bashir], the local folks love him and respect him, of course. He always wears an American army jacket and dark sunglasses. He knows everything about the Soviet Union.”

At this point, we are given a view of Antonenko as a reasonable man with a healthy respect and skepticism of his enemy. But when Borovik interview other Soviet officers and enlisted men a different picture formed. The story of Antonenko’s falling out with Lieutenant Colonel Ushakov forms this view. After a Soviet operation the two became quite hostile to each other over their different views on tactics, namely the treatment of non-combatants. Antonenko seemed to have no problem killing them all to achieve his objective.

hidden war

Ushakov’s approach was obviously quite different. Two APC gunners explained that they were under orders from Lieutenant Colonel Ushakov to fire only at mujahideen and not villagers. Adliukov, another officer under Ushakov, explained the falling out between the two. Antonenko paid a visit to Ushakov’s battalion and gave these simple orders to Adliukov regarding civilians who were in the way (certain types of mujahideen used non-combatants as cover regularly):

“Kill them all.”

Adliukov went on:

“During the fighting Antonenko personally shot several dozen civilians, even though he was responsible only for being in charge. Shooting at people with a submachine gun wasn’t part of his job.”

And then numerous witnesses backed up the story of when Antonenko gunned down a group of women, kids and old men who were walking down a road near where Soviet troops were gathering. This was too much even for a political officer, Captain Morozov, who was attached to the unit:

“…Captain Morosov, ran up to him, screaming ‘Comrade Colonel, Why the women and children?’ Antonenko apparently pushed him aside and snapped, ‘What about Urasov? Did they spare Urasov? Why should I spare them now?”

The earlier killing of Major Urasov by mujahideen using villagers as human shields (Urasov had ordered his men not to fire on the villagers who were being pushed in front of a group of mujahideen) seem to have pushed Antonenko to an entirely new level of disdain for civilians. They were now included in a monolithic group with the mujahideen. “They” meant every Afghan, combatant or not.

Pic by Mikhail Evstafiev: Soviet soldier, 1988.

Soviet soldier afghanistan

Antonenko eventually confronted Ushakov over his refusal to follow orders:

“Why did you fail to comply with your orders? Why were the kishlaki [villages] barely damaged, not entirely destroyed, in the zone that your battalion was responsible for?”

Ushakov, a stutterer, gave a lengthy reply:

“[...] Yes it’s true that there was no butchery or unnecessary destruction in the zone that my battalion was responsible for. We fired only to the extent that it was called for. We didn’t erase a single kishlak [village] from the face of the earth; we saw n-n-no need for it. We were firing only at the spots where the band leaders were hiding and at the ammunition depots. [...]“

“[...] I tried to avoid unnecessary casualties among the civilian population. [...]“

Pic: Lt. Col. Ushakov.

Soviet Officer Afghanistan

Antonenko was clearly unimpressed, as you can see by how he replied:

“I’m tired of talking to weak-minded imbeciles.”

Ushakov, then responded in a way that insured he would be formally “written up:”

“And I’m tired of having fools as my superiors.”

Ushakov was later warned by other officers that Antonenko had political connections and there was nothing hat could be done about him. But that did not stop Ushakov from registering complaints with four different political officers and superiors. Ushakov, clearly greatly frustrated, remarked to his friends:

“Antonenko is covered in blood up to his elbows. He won’t be able to get away with it. I w-w-will not allow it. He’s up for a decoration; they’re pushing him into the General Staff Academy. If people like him will be in charge, it would be better to have the whole army disbanded.”

Pic by Mikhail Evstafiev: ANA troops pass Soviet troops.

Soviet Afghan APC

The relationship continually worsened. Antonenko later showed up in Ushakov’s quarters with some friends, including a lady, laid down on Ushakov’s cot and ordered him to go make tea for him. Ushakov replied by accusing Antonenko of selling weapons to the mujahideen, a common occurrence in the Soviet-Afghan war.

After Ushakov left, Antonenko replied with possibly the worst defense he could think of. He invoked the court marshaled US Army Lieutentant William Calley of My Lai massacre infamy:

“You see, certain crazies, like this battalion commander [Ushakov], are trying to make me into a scapegoat - a kind of Soviet Lieutenant Calley. Calley is no criminal! In wartime you either kill or get killed. Those are the only alternatives.”

Borovik let these exchanges he observed speak for themselves, there was no need for commentary.

Pic: Artyom Borovik, ten years and many pounds later.


Antonenko then freely admitted to killing the civilians, using an incoherent list of justifications. Borovik then wrote:

“I looked deep into Antonenko’s eyes. He was sheltered securely beneath the invincible armor of good intentions.”

Antonenko then showed Borovik a portrait of his family, who Borovik described as “exceptionally beautiful.” Antonenko disappears from the narrative at this point. But the effect he made on his area of control put the final exclamation point on the Soviet-Afghan War.

As the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan Lt. Col. Ushakov, the last Soviet officer on the Salang Pass, told a soldier to stick the Soviet flag up his ass and then hinted to the Soviet political deputy who objected that he would mount his head on the armored personel carrier so that the Soviet journalists at the border could get a good look at him. So basically, it was an average day for the Soviet army. But then the troops passed through the village of Kalatak, where Antonenko had massacred the civilians.

One of the Soviet vehicles broke down as the troops passed through Kalatak. A soldier by the name of Igor Liakhovich left his armored personnel carrier to assist. He was shot at from a post near the road. A bullet entered his neck and exited the back of his head.

The Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was a very non-violent affair. The mujahideen generally kept their distance, not wanting to engage a retreating army. But here, in the village of Kalatak, a Soviet officer by the name of Colonel Sergei Antonenko had sown hatred. And so the last Soviet soldier to die in Afghanistan would be killed in Antoneko’s zone of responsibility.

Antonenko had two years in Afghanistan and this is what he had to show for his “efforts.”

Pic: The body of Igor LiakhovichLiakhovich

Go West, Young Durand Line, Go West

January 30, 2008.

The Durand Line, for those of you not in the know, is the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Funnily enough, it seems to be moving westward. Kip, a new blogger over at Abu Muqawama, discusses the amazing mobile border:

Over the course of a decade, Pakistan has moved that border westward (also discussed by Ahmed Rashid as part of Pakistan’s pursuit of strategic depth). What defines the border now is no artificial Durand line but rather high ground and “key terrain,” all held, of course, by Pakistani forces. The response of Coalition countries has been to ignore this and tell the Afghan government to stop complaining about Pakistan and focus on its own problems. Tactically, however, this has made it even more difficult for the Afghan National Army, the Afghan Border Police, and Coalition Forces to prevent massive insurgent infiltration into Afghanistan.

Pic: The Durand Line is now somewhere on this map, moving around in a Manifest Destiny manner.

Durand Line

Of course, many Afghans are quite unhappy about this:

Moreover, the illegal seizure of Afghan territory (technically, by the way, an act of war) prevents more effective cooperation between Afghan and Pakistani forces as the premise for discussing cooperation from the Pakistani side rests on the border “as is” rather than “as it is marked on the map.” No good Afghan officer is going to cede Afghanistan’s territory to promote better communication, a fence here or there, and perhaps a little combined patrolling.

What does this mean for counterinsurgency efforts?

Pakistan’s illegal seizure of Afghan land ensures ease-of-access from Pakistan-based, militant safe havens. This ensures a near-continuous supply of foreign and Pashtun fighters from the madrassas and both tribal and Al Qaeda networks to fuel the insurgency and kill Americans. Congress got upset enough about Musharraf’s anti-democracy crackdown that they almost, sort-of threatened to withhold money from Pakistan. Perhaps the next time we are going to give Musharraf untold amounts of money to spend on building defenses against India in support of anti-terrorism efforts, would it be too much to ask for our Pakistani “allies” to move to their side of the border in order to get access to some of that money?

“Kip,” a US Army officer who has served extensively in Afghanistan, writes about this issue within the broader context.

So the big bully Pakistan is taking land from poor, peace-loving Afghanistan? Well, sort of. It’s complicated. What’s worth mentioning is that the are more than a few Pashtun nationalists in Afghanistan who hope for a united Pashtunistan, if they can just take all that Pashtun land from Pakistan.

Pic: This is Pashtunistan. I hope the Baluchis, Nuristanis, Pashai and Dardic people do not see this.


One of the things that Pakistan wants is for Afghanistan to recognize the Durand Line. Afghanistan has, throughout history, refused to do so. This habit has continued into the Karzai administration. So you can see why Pakistan, which is under some debatable threat of state failure and disintegration, is so sensitive about the issue. And more than a few non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan are not to psyched about the prospect of being in a state with 11 million additional Pashtuns. In fact, the newly formed United National Front (not just another lame-o new political party) has called for official recognition of the border.

Pic: The United National Front, as caricatured by Matt Weems. The guy holding the handle bars is Rabbani, Qanuni is above him, Dostum is on the top left reaching his hand out to smack someone (or high-five), bottom right is Ismael Khan, above him is Gulabzoy (rocking the Commie hat) and the late Mustafa Kazemi (who was killed in the Baghlan suicide bombing) is on the bottom left.

United National front

Anyways, I promise to fully analyze the Pashtunistan/Durand Line issue at some time in the future instead of just stealing stuff from Abu Muqawama.

Ink Blot Counterinsurgency and Civil-Military Relations: State Building or Crisis Management?

January 14, 2008.

Péter Marton and Péter Wagner have written a policy paper about the ongoing counterinsurgency and state-building efforts in Afghanistan. As case studies they have used the Dutch efforts in Uruzgan and the Hungarian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghlan.

After downloading and reading the paper I reached the conclusion that probably all men from Hungary are named Péter.

Pic: “Hi! We are Péter. Have you read our policy paper?”

Hungarian CowboyHungarian Cowboy

It is possible to find analysis on Afghanistan all over the place. However, most of that analysis is at the macro-level and very rarely goes into details such as this policy paper does. What Péters have provided are two valuable case studies that help to better understand what is happening on the ground. Having access to an analysis of localized problems can then help to better understand the issue at the macro-level.

Dissertations and Theses on Afghanistan

January 12, 2008.

The Afghanistan Analyst website has just compiled a list of doctoral dissertations and master’s theses written on Afghanistan. There are over 600 currently listed. And some are even available to be downloaded.

Afghanistan Analyst Dissertation Page:

Theses and Dissertations available for download:

If you know of any theses or dissertations that are not listed then send the info to the The Afghanistan Analyst. The website will even host theses and dissertations for download.

To Understand Afghanistan You Must Know Pakistan

January 10, 2008.

And I will admit that I am not the best person to go to for analysis on Pakistan. My knowledge of Pakistan does not extend beyond The Economist, The New York Times and the three books on Pakistan that are on my shelf. So I defer to others who can speak with some authority on the byzantine mess that is the state of Pakistan. And to understand what is happening in Afghanistan you must know Pakistan.

I could link to a comprehensive bibliography or suggest you pursue an MA in South Asian studies. But you probably only have a few minutes to spare at the moment. And I have found the place to spend those few minutes. The anthropologist Robert Canfield has listed the 17 fundamental contradictions of Pakistan with a quick analysis of each contradiction. It’s a very handy list. Here’s a sample:

Fundamental contradiction #17: Pakistan needs Afghanistan to be friendly – and dependent
Pakistan’s need for connections into Central Asia turn Afghanistan into a critical corridor for the transport of goods. Afghanistan is critical to Pakistan’s future, which means that the Afghanistan government must be won over – which is unlikely – or must be made subservient – which is even more unlikely. It is hard to guess what this will mean for Pakistani–Afghan relations, but historically they have never been good.

Professor Canfield welcomes comments, advice and corrections. He also writes about Afghanistan (and has been for almost 50 years).

Timberlords and the Deforestation of Afghanistan

January 5, 2008.

It’s an understatement to say that Afghanistan has more than a few problems. If the security, governance and drug problems disappeared overnight there would obviously remain many difficult issues. One of the problems that has received very little attention is environmental issues. Pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, health issues, lack of clean water, overgrazing and deforestation are usually put forward as the most pressing of these issues. In order not to overwhelm myself trying to fit all this issues into one entry I will focus only on deforestation, especially in the east.

Pic: Deforestation in Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan provinces between 1977 and 2002. The dark green signifies land with over 40% tree cover.

Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar

The 2002 UNEP analysis found that:

Nangarhar province has been the hardest hit, with a 71 per cent decrease in forest cover. Meanwhile, forest cover in Nuristan has decreased by 53 per cent, and Kunar by 29 per cent. Residents predict similar losses for the forested regions in the provinces of Paktya, Khost and Paktika.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) notes that the deforestation in Kunar and Nuristan began in the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore, a 2002 report by IWPR claims that the rate of deforestation in this area increased dramatically with the fall of the communist government in Kabul. And what of the Taliban government’s forest policy?

“People expected the Taleban to save the forests as it is a religious duty. But instead they actually made it easier (for the timber thieves) by opening up roads to the forest on the pretext of clearing old cut trees. It only cleared the way for locals to cut down even more trees and export the timber abroad.”

Sher Ahmedi, an Afghan environmental expert, explained how the Taliban made massive profits off the timber industry by closing the border in Nangarhar to the timberlords and forcing trucks to detour 800km to Kabul, then on to Kandahar before finally crossing at Chaman where the Taliban had a higher level of control and could extract maximum tariffs.

“The Taleban took 28,000 Pakistani rupees in duty (460 US dollars) from just one truck on the Chaman border near Khandahar. Three hundred trucks a day were making the same journey at that time.”

The fall of the Taliban ended this massive detour and the Timber barons were free to cross east of Jalalabad, greatly easing their transportation concerns and bringing them higher profits.

Pic by Martyn Murray: Timber smuggling in full force in 2002.

Timber truck afghanistan

Ahmedi expressed his frustration about the attitudes of the locals as well:

“We tried very hard to convince the local people that the forest is part of the national wealth but they won’t accept what we say. We complained to the agriculture ministry as well but they have no authority here. They keep talking aimlessly on the radio about the government of the nation. But in Kunar everyone is king and does whatever he wants.”

While the UNEP notes that thousands of locals depend on this trade for a living, the IWPR report notes that some people in the area were not happy about the trade. Said a tribal elder in Kunar:

“It is depressing to think of the Pakistani traders just buying all our forests. They get the advantage, not the Afghans.”

The UNEP agrees:

…many local communities have lost control over their resources and forests are being consumed for immediate profit by a very small minority. Warlords, ‘timber barons’ and traders from other countries have sought to make windfall profits from current export opportunities.

The UNEP (2002) figures confirm this when analyzing the prices for beams of Deodar cedar:

Cedar trees are typically cut into beams measuring 15 cm deep by 30 cm wide by 2.5 metres long (0.11 cubic metres per beam). Local communities obtain between US$3–5 dollars per beam. The same beam can be sold for US$50 in Afghan markets and up to US$85 in Pakistan.

Pic by Anthony Fitzherbert: $10 Mule ($170 mule in Pakistan).

mules in afghanistan

As result of this price discrepancy the Pakistan market offers the most logical place to sell one’s product:

Due to the high prices in Pakistan, local timber yards reported that for every 15 trucks of timber that transit through Jalalabad, 10 go to Pakistan, 3 continue to Kabul, and 2 remain in Jalalabad for local consumption. If this division is reflective of the regional situation, export markets in Pakistan could account for approximately 66 per cent of the timber cut.

In 2002 the number of trucks seen on Kunar roads varied between 25-50 per day. The UNEP listed some of the proposed remedies that included alternative livelihoods projects, an “Afghan Conservation Corps” to rehabilitate deforested areas, and enforcement in the form of a “Green Force.”

Pic: Arizona National Guard soldiers patrol Nuristan, minus trees.

Arizona Nationa Guard in Afghanistan

But this is all a description of the situation in 2002. A September 2005 article in The Independent serves as sort of an update. The article focuses on the work of the French NGO MADERA, a rather brave little outfit that works on rural projects in Kunar and Nuristan. One employee noted that difficulties still exist:

“We’ve been trying to explain to the people in Konar that cutting down the forest like this is not sustainable, but they just don’t see it that way. If they need wood, they cut down the first tree they see.”

A different employee then expresses some optimism about the neighboring Nuristan province:

“The Nuristanis look after the forest because they really understand that if the forest disappears, they will disappear with it.”

Pic By Saleem Nuristani: Parun, Nuristan, Afghanistan.

Parun (Paroon) Nuristan

I’m not in Nuristan, this French guy is/was. However, I refer to the satellite image of Nuristan that shows somebody in Nuristan is/was enthusiastic about cutting down trees.

The same Frenchman then discussed the Taliban and the Americans:

“The smugglers are not supporting the Taliban at all,” says Mr Alain de Bures, “but they’re not happy with the presence of the Americans because they can’t do the timber trade properly. The problem with the Americans is that they see everything in black and white.”

De Bures goes on to complain at length about the Americans, including the rather legitimate gripe about the Americans setting up shop next to the MADERA compound and drawing in rocket fire to the neighborhood. But then he makes a rather important concession:

There have been some benefits from the US presence in Konar, says Mr de Bures. Because the timber-smugglers use the same passes to cross the Pakistani border as the Taliban and foreign militants, US forces are now patrolling the entire border and stopping timber smugglers as well as insurgents.

Better still, Mr de Bures says, the new Governor of Konar province, Asadullah Waffa, has clamped down hard on the timber-smuggling and recently brought it to a virtual standstill.

Pic of soldier in Nuristan: “Put down the chainsaw and step away from the tree!”

US army Nuristan

So the Americans and an American backed governor have stopped the worse of the timber smuggling? That would be great news. Has the American presence plus the consolidation of a certain amount of power by Karzai-appointed governors in the area stopped the worse of the harvesting? If anybody has an update on this let me know. The latest news I have seen is of University Of British Columbia forestry professor Gary Bull’s forest management project for Nuristan, funded by USAID and in cooperation with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. The project is in the initial survey phase but seems quite interesting since it combines the science of forestry with the sorta science of sociology to come up with forest management solutions that conserve while not impacting locals in too negative a fashion.

Unfortunately, some areas are beyond needing enforcement because there are no trees left. Hopefully reforestation projects in these areas get the attention they deserve. The province of Badghis is a sad example of this.

Pic: Badghis province, 1977 and 2002. No need for enforcement on this side of Afghanistan.


It is possibly that the worst of the timber smuggling has ceased due to a combination of (a) shortage of easily accessible trees for the harvesters plus (b) American and Afghan government enforcement. But even presuming that is a fact, there still occurs deforestation due to overgrazing, local use of lumber and the burning of firewood. More problems within a problem within Afghanistan.

Further reading: The January 2003 United Nations Environmental Program post-conflict assessment for Afghanistan (pdf).

Pakistani Refugees Fleeing to Afghanistan

January 3, 2008.

According to a report from Bakhtar News Agency over 3000 Pakistani refugees from the Kurram Agency have arrived in Afghanistan over the last two days:

These people migrated to Afghanistan due to the worsening security situation and ongoing sectarian clashes in the agency.

Din Mohammad Darvesh spokesman of Paktia governor told on Tuesday some 500 families have migrated to these two districts of the province. Darvesh said the numbers of refugees were increasing day by day and they have stayed at barren land having no accessibility to basic facilities.

“Heaters, shawls and tents have been sent from Gardiz for the refugees but it does not cater to the needs of refugees”, he informed.

He said a number of refugees mostly women and children were suffering from various ailments due to the harsh winter here.

Pic from Paktia Province, Eastern Afghanistan.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of this first significant, and hopefully last, wave of refugees from Pakistan. Pashtuns on either side of the Afghan-Pak border don’t see the Durand Line as an absolute obstacle to their movement. But these refugees from the Kurram Agency wouldn’t leave their homes in the middle of winter unless they felt that their lives were at risk. [note: In April of last year conflict flared up in Kurram Agency. Wikipedia article on the Kurram Agency conflict seems a wee tad Shia-biased but it has many links to articles by reputable reporters and news outlets.] The Economist wrote up the conflict, among other crises, thusly:

In all the fuss, sectarian bloodletting last week in Kurram, another tribal agency, barely merited a mention in the nation’s press. Only 40 Sunnis and Shias were reported killed.

Kurram Agency

The most recent conflict in Kurram Agency started at the end of December, according to >Dawn. The basic facts, analysis free, are provided by the PakTribune.

One important claim is being made by a writer for the Daily Times who claims that the refugees fleeing Pakistan are originally from Afghanistan or are Kuchis (nomads). I’m not a Pakistan expert but I’m quite sure that people fleeing their homes (albeit possibly temporary) in winter for a refugee camp in another country is not a good sign.

I hope that this crisis eases and these people may return to their homes. And I hope that no further refugees need to flee Pakistan. But I also hope that those concerned parties come up with a contingency plan for large-scale refugee flows from Pakistan. I wrote about this “nightmare scenario” last April.

Update: Via, a Washington Times article from this morning gives more info on the refugee situation in Eastern Afghanistan, specifically Khost. US Army Colonel Schweitzer and Khost governor Arsallah Jamal held a joint video conference from Afghanistan with reporters at the Pentagon. The short version is that the refugees in Khost are returnees who once fled to Pakistan. They are staying with relatives, not in refugee camps. Colonel Schartz also points out that security in Khost was much improved in 2007 and that six times as much development aid made its way to Khost than in the previous year, perhaps facilitating the return of refugees from Pakistan. But the deteriorating situation in Pakistan was still cited as a motivating factor for the refugees. No word on Paktia though.

Update#2: Paktia governor Abdul Rahman Mangul says that of 480 families who have fled to Paktia, only 20-30 are Afghans.

Update#3: The situation seems to be getting the attention it deserves, according to a UN news agency. The UNHCR, The World Food Program and Afghan government officials at all levels of government are coordinating their efforts. 3000 refugees can likely be easily managed. But what number is beyond their capabilities with present resources? Hopefully we don’t have to find out the answer to that hypothetical question.