Lida Abdul Is Too Post-Modern For Me

July 29, 2007.

Being an uncouth troglodyte, I am sometimes confused by art. I’m especially confused by the artwork of Afghan artist Lida Abdul.

However, I like this lady’s video art nonetheless. I found a few stills of her video installations or whatever they call them.

In the still below, Lida paints a ruined house white.

Lida now does the same for a wrecked car.

Now, I’m confused by this video art of Afghan men trying to pull in vain against a half-ruined structure. But I’m sure the men she hired are even more confused.

Now this Afghan dude must be confused beyond all bounds of comprehension.

Lida pulls a mini-house on wheels around some wharehouse district in Los Angeles. Got it?

Anyways, teasing aside, I like her artwork. I don’t find it necessary to understand art in order to like it. She is quite interesting to say the least.

She is also intereviewed in an art magazine by someone more informed on art matters than I.

Totally out of context quote #13

July 26, 2007.

“During my last trip to Afghanistan I’d met a guy in the hospital’s psychiatric ward who was concerned that he had no shadow. He proved to me, by means of excellent logic, that a man without a shadow cannot - and must not - live. He tried to commit suicide several times. I was reminded of this incident in Moscow when Zhenya Raevsky, an afghantsi [Afghan War veteran] and student at Moscow State University, shared with me his idea for a screenplay; his main characters were going to be Afghanistan veterans who’d returned home from the war. What makes them different from all other people, Raevsky told me, was that they had no shadows. Some hideous meaning was buried there, inaccessible to the sober mind.”

Context: Russian journalist Artyom Borovik ponders the meaning of shadows in The Hidden War, his book on the Soviet-Afghan War.

Pic (by a friend): A monument in Kygyzstan for Soviet veterans of the Afghan War, casting a shadow.

A Quick And Brutal Retaliation For My Soviet Counter-Insurgency Post

July 25, 2007.

The Afghan-American blogger Ronin over at Looking at the World Through Slanted Eyes, who is apparently an admiral in the Afghan Navy’s Pacific Fleet, took exception to my post on the insurgency tactics of a certain Soviet Captain Zakharov. In response he swiped the picture from my profile and added a few elements:

Ochen khorosho!

Ronin didn’t even have time to let me put up my planned post on the worst Soviet officer in Afghanistan. But to show that I am no lover of Bolsheviks, I submit to you a picture of myself in my full Hizb-i Islami glory:

And yes, we Hizbis do like hanging out with Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders when we are not rocketing Kabul or slitting the throats of Soviet conscripts.

If you wish to see this horrible defamation of my unimpeachable character in the original context, go read the post at Looking at the World Through Slanted Eyes. I should’ve just sent you over to his post without reposting the photo on my blog. However, the internets recently deleted all of Ronin’s photos on his blog. I don’t want to lose that picture.

Captain Zakharov: A COIN All-Star in Afghanistan

July 24, 2007.

While the Soviet-Afghan War more often than not provides the NATO/US forces with lessons on what not to do, occasionally it provides an excellent example of counter-insurgency skill.

I came across a few pages in the late Russian journalist Artyom Borovik’s book The Hidden War about a young Soviet officer who gained a reputation as a COIN specialist:

His name is known in every kishlak [village] in the province of Kunduz. Zakharov is a legend. […] Zakharov, who turned twenty-eight on May 27, came to Afghanistan a year ago. He spent the first four months exploring the territory and learning the customs and traditions of the local peasants. It’s impossible to fight the dukhi [literally: ghosts] successfully without such knowledge. [page 29-30]

Captain Zakharov’s relations with the locals was surprisingly good. Zakharov shared supplies and fuel with them from resources that were meant for his unit. Unlike Soviet forces elsewhere, he refused to mine the trails and small roads that are used to reinforce the mujahideen for fear of killing or wounding non-combatants. He checked with local farmers regarding planting and harvesting schedules so that his combat operations did not interfere with their livelihood. And his refusal to engage the local mujahideen commander Gayur under certain circumstances was remarkable. Zakharov commented on this strategy when Gayur intentionally tried to bring about civilian casualties:

“Then the rascal thought of something else. As a way of forcing the peasants [who were friendly with Zakharov] to leave Afghanistan, he began to fire at my position straight from the neighboring kishlaks [villages] in an effort to draw our return fire. The provocations were repeated every day, but our guns remained silent. I refused to fire on peaceful civilians.” [page 30-31]

Aside from putting a large price on Zakharov’s head and failing to bribe Zakharov himself, Gayur also attempts to feed Zakharov malicious intel through his agents. Zakharov thanks these “well-wishers” for their very valuable information and then checks with his own sources:

“I checked the information quickly through other channels. I have many friends among the local population, so there are people to ask. I get along well with the peasants who live in the kishlaks here. Never do I deceive them…” [page 28]

Zakharov was kept quite busy since his post was on both a strategic northern transport corridor for weapons from Pakistan and on a gas pipeline from the USSR. However, Zakharov met every challenge from the mujahideen thanks to his intel and counter-intel capabilities. One one occasion false intel was provided to Zakharov about a convoy of weapons that would be passing 5Ks from his position. Zakharov vetted this intel with the locals and found it to be false. So at dawn his sent out his main force to ambush the non-existent convoy. And then under cover of darkness the men from the ambush force returned to base. Of course a large force of 600 mujahideen attacked the base expecting to find very few men left behind. Zakharov’s full force met them head-on and forced Gayur to retreat all the way to Baghlan.

Gayur then retried the same tactic in reverse, feeding intel to Zakharov about an imminent attack on the base. But instead of sitting and waiting for a non-existent attack, Zakharov went out with his main force and destroyed a Mujahideen weapons convoy that included about a hundred pack animals and a dozen Toyotas.

When Artyom Borovik left Zakharov’s base Zakharov was contemplating a strategy to counter Gayur’s tactic of punching holes in the pipeline and lighting it up:

“Now its been done for sure. They hope to divert my forces into distinguishing the fires while they try to lead another caravan to Gayur. So let’s postpone our talk…” [page 31]

The Soviets later inflict heavy casualties on Gayur’s forces. Gayur then spreads false rumours of his own death. And so on and so forth…..

My comments: You may be skeptical of an account by a Soviet journalist. However, Artyom Borovik is no blind follower and almost the rest of the book is severely critical of Soviet tactics and strategy. He seems to give credit were credit is due and he certainly does not seem like someone who can be manipulated by any one source or entity.

Obviously there are major differences between the Soviets fighting mujahideen (I’m guessing Hizb-i Islami) in Kunduz in the later 1980s and US/NATO fighting the Taliban in the South and East now. So a direct comparison is not totally fair. However, Zakharov’s intel and counter-intel capabilities, particularly his relations with local sources and his cultural awareness, seem to provide a model that many engaged in COIN should aspire to.

Further reading can be had in the Russian army’s self-critique that was translated into The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan or in the description of mujahideen tactics in The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet Afghan War.

Threats to Afghans Studying Abroad

July 19, 2007.

Very few Afghans returning to Afghanistan are provided with bodyguards and an armoured American SUV. For almost all Afghans there is no such comparable security blanket. Obviously there are many dimensions to the security problem. I will only discuss one aspect of this: online anonymity.

You will notice that Afghan bloggers are almost all anonymous, especially if they live in Afghanistan or travel there at all. If you are a regular reader of Afghan blogs then you likely noticed that an excellent blog by an non-anonymous Afghan-American disappeared before he headed to Afghanistan. And you may remember the threats that Nasim Fekrat was receiving a couple of years ago (allegedly from a local BBC employee). But bloggers are generally savvy about this. It’s not an big problem in my opinion.

However, if you are an Afghan studying in the West or an Afghan expatriate there are additional precautions you should take. If you can find yourself on google then so can “they.” One Afghan student who returned has been receiving very specific death threats (i.e., you studied in America, we know who you are and where you work, we are going to get you). The only reason that he was singled out was an article about he and his fellow students in an American newspaper that appeared online. As a result, the program that he participated in does not exist online: there are no references to it anywhere on any site. The names of the students in the program are now protected.

I don’t want to seem paranoid as these threats may not be serious. But who would want to receive regular death threats that name you and provide your location and job title?

The same goes for me despite my khareji status. Inshallah, I will be on an extended research trip some time in the near future. I won’t be behind a high wall or with guards. And many people I meet or who know of me will be capable of googling me. It will be somewhat reassuring that they won’t be able to go straight to a blog where I mock the local big-man.

Aya ta pa pakhto khabarey kawalai shey?

July 18, 2007.

ايا ته په پښتو خبرې کولى شې؟

No? Well neither can I. But if you are learning Pashto, or want to find info on how, you could start at this Pashto Language Blog. It has lessons and info posted blog-style. It also includes many useful links. Don’t be intimidated by the alphabet. It is actually very easy and much more consistent than what the English-speaking world uses. You could also check out the quicky language media available on Amazon.com.

And not related to the above blog, I received some new language learning materials the other day and found this page below included in it. Somebody should really psychoanalyze the naughty monkeys in the illustration. I believe that the peeled bananas signify the [fill in this space with Freudian pop-psycho babble, etc…].

Or maybe the illustrator was just trying to make it interesting for kids and didn’t realize that dirty old grad students would be using this textbook.

Back to the serious discussion above; give the Pashto blog a visit. This blog seems like it will be a great supplement for those who may have just started studying Pashto. You could also check out the The Unheard Voice, an Afghanistan blog by the same author.

Afghans Versus Diet Coke

July 14, 2007.

My brain hurts from the sheer amount of language being shoved into my short-term memory. Hopefully it will migrate into my long-term memory. Inshallah. Since I really have nothing to post due to my general business (which will persist until the end of August), I will share a second-hand anecdote. It is a conversation between an Afghan in America and a local.

Afghan: This Coke you are drinking is different?

American: Yes. It is a Diet Coke.

Afghan: Ummm…..

American: It has no sugar in it.

Afghan: It has honey in it maybe?

American: No. There is no sweetener.

Afghan: Ummm…

American: In koka-kola shirin nest.

Afghan: OK, OK. So you put in your own sugar?

American: No. You drink it the way it is.

Afghan: It is much less expansive?

American: Expansive?

Afghan: Yes, less expansive.

American: You mean arzontar?

Afghan: Yes.

American: You mean less expensive.

Afghan: Yes. Less expansive. Cheaper.

American: No. It is the same price. It has no sweetness. It is is for people who want to lose weight.

Afghan: But you are not fat.

American: It is also for people who don’t want to gain more weight.

Afghan: Why not?

American: I don’t want to become fat.

Afghan: Aha, OK. Is the flavour good?

American: No, not really. But this one has lime flavour added.

Afghan: But limes are not very sweet.

American: Yes. That is the point.

Afghan: Ummm….

The conversation just goes in circles from this point. I’ll just be an insensitive orientalist and say that diet products are just beyond the comprehension of your average Afghan. It would be like trying to make an old Frechman understand the Atkins Diet (no bread or pasta). My friend added to this an anecdote about living in Uzbekistan. He was poured a glass of regular coke, which is OK. But then his host handed him a sugar bowl so he could sweeten it further. Yuk.

I’m pretty sure this quote is an original of mine:

“East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Particularly in regards to diet cola.”

Two New Academically Inclined Afghanistan Blogs

July 9, 2007.

The quality and frequency of blogging here at Afghanistanica will continue to suffer through August as I am being kept quite busy by my Farsi-Dari-Tajiki language learnification process. But help is on the way……elsewhere. Two new blogs related to Afghanistan have popped up recently.

The first is a group blog that includes Barnett Rubin (who reveals in his first post that he is technically not a professor, which is good because with all his work I’m sure the burden of undergrads would kill him). Anyways, the blog is Informed Comment on Global Affairs. Go check it out. But be warned that it includes topics other than Afghanistan. Here is Dr.

The second blog is by a “historian in training” who seems to have a thing for Afghanistan. I also have a thing for Afghanistan so I understand. The blog is titled In Transit to Afghanistan.

That is all.

An American Democrat President and Afghanistan

July 8, 2007.

Although the Republican and Democrat candidates’ debates have been dominated by Iraq, there was some mention of Afghanistan in the Democrats’ debate. Basically, the serious Democrat candidates have been framing Afghanistan as the “good war” and Iraq as the place America should leave ASAP. Now, assuming all the candidates on each side will keep their campaign promises [pause for laughter], this means that a Republican president will keep the troops in Iraq and a Democrat will shift the focus to Afghanistan.

However, the elections are a long way away and things could change drastically. Perhaps by late 2008 the Republicans will also be advertising a pull-out from Iraq. But looking at just a Democrat president, what could he or she do for Afghanistan in the way of troop level increases? I see one great potential limitation to a troop level boost in Afghanistan. And that is the need to keep troops in the Persian Gulf area. Withdrawing from Iraq does not exactly mean withdrawing from the region. There will likely be the issue of refugee outflows, an aggressive and confident Iran, Turkey wishing to go after the PKK in northern Iraq, the safety of Kuwait, and the stability of places like Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. A Democrat will likely see enduring energy concerns, regional stability issues and a refugee problem.

I would like to think that more help in the form of more troops is on the way for Afghanistan. However, any president, Democrat or Republican, will still face numerous limitations.

American Independence Day: Afghan Edition

July 4, 2007.

After some linguistic confusion I took an Afghan friend to see the July 4th Independence Day fireworks last night. Earlier this week he had expressed his desire to “go to the olympics for some explosions.” He had meant “go to the picnic and fireworks.” The whole thing was much funnier than when I said had 4 fathers-in-law. I had meant to say I had 4 paternal uncles.

Ha ha. That’s all very funny but it is not the subject of this blog post. While we were sitting amongst the crowd waiting for the fireworks to start my friend told me a story that was a refreshing departure from the shallow and/or repetitive conversations that my grad student friends and I usually inflict upon each other.

I’ve cleaned up the halting English and removed the parts where we searched for the right English words. So here it is:

“All throughout my childhood I could remember a dream that I had as a child. In my dream my parents wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me that we are going to visit our cousins. My parents rush me out of our house and we move quickly through the darkness. I started to protest and I told them that we are going in the wrong direction, for our cousins’ house was in the opposite direction. But they tell me that we are going in the right direction.

Then at that moment the whole night became as day. It was if the sun had suddenly appeared. I looked up in the sky and I could see the brightest lights I had ever seen slowly floating down towards the earth. It was as if fire was coming down from the sky. And then we continued to travel for a long time.

That was all I could remember from the dream. It was my earliest memory I had from my childhood and I thought it wasn’t even a real memory. But then later when I was much older I saw the celebratory gunfire in the night sky as the Soviets left Afghanistan. People had loaded their Kalashnikovs with all tracer bullets and the sky was filled with the waving arcs of bright red lines.

I told my parents that this reminded me of a dream I had as a small child. I explained the dream to them and then they told me the truth: my dream had been real. They said that Soviet soldiers had been moving into our town at nightime and we were fleeing to the mountains. They had said that we were going to our cousins so I wouldn’t be scared. The bright lights in the sky were Soviet Red Army flares used to illuminate the ground ahead of the Soviet advance.”

And that was his story.

Afghan Celebrity Lookalikes

July 2, 2007.

From Afghanland.com comes this amusing comparison chart. Nader Shah really does look like a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Afghanlookalikes

If Karzai ever gets assassinated his life-story would make for a decent movie in a Shakespearian tragedy sort of way. I’ll agree with the above lookalikes and say that Kingsley would be perfect for the role.

And Khalilzad really was the “political Godfather” of Afghanistan for a time.

Massoud, Khalili, and Massoud Khalili: Three Different Guys

July 2, 2007.

Let’s just say that in 2001 my knowledge of the chicanery occuring inside Afghanistan was rather rudimentary. When the Arab suicide bombers blew themselves up in Massoud’s compound on September 9th, I knew exactly who Ahmed Shah Massoud was. However, I read that Massoud Khalili was injured very badly in the blast. That confused me a little. I wondered why the Hazara leader was hanging out with Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. Obviously, I had mistaken Ahmed Shah Massoud’s friend and adviser Massoud Khalili for the Hazara leader Karim Khalili. Whoops. I figured it out when his men captured Bamiyan in November 2001.

So let’s get this squared away:

This is Ahmed Shah Massoud.

masud

This is Massoud Khalili.

Massoud Khalili

This is Karim Khalili.

Karim Khalili

Boy, was I ever embarrassed. But at least I didn’t think that there was some guy in Afghanistan named Ahmed Shah Massoud Karim Khalili.

Video of Suicide Bomber Attack on Dostum (2005)

July 1, 2007.

This is a video of the suicide bomber assassination attempt on Rashid Dostum in 2005. I never knew that there was such a high-quality video of the attack. Be warned: it is (relatively) graphic towards the end.

That’s why when you go to public Friday prayers at large mosques you go unannounced like Karzai did recently.