Afghanistan Totally Defeated At CNN Debate

November 30, 2007.

The CNN Youtube debate has come and gone. Afghanistan was deemed not very relevant. Anderson Cooper giggled like a Japanese schoolgirl high on sugar, the candidates all made sweet, tender love to industrial agricultural subsidies, and the Boston Redsox baseball team was given at least three minutes worth of fondling by Giuliani and Romney.

The name of the country came up three times but only when mentioned along with a laundry list of other items. There was no discussion about Afghanistan. But in all fairness, Afghanistan did not win the World Series of baseball this year.

Squeaky wheel gets the grease. I guess a lot more troops and civilians will have to die before the (Republican) candidates notice Afghanistan and recognize it as an issue of some importance. Not that Democrats are much better on articulating a plan for Afghanistan.

So hang in there Afghanistan. In just a couple of years you can reach 30 years in a row of war. Won’t that be cool?

Website Announcements

November 27, 2007.

First of all, I’ve been given full funding to get my PhD. Yay for me. That means that I should be able to continue with this blog while pretending to do PhD research.

Secondly, I am traveling around long distances visiting family and taking care of all sorts of business so there will be a decrease in both the quality and quantity of blog entries until the beginning of March. I have to borrow family members laptops and I don’t have access to my books. That’s my excuse for the blogging to come. It will be erratic.

Thirdly, Canada was somehow mentioned two times in a row in the preceding two blog entries in three out the last four blog entries. That’s so weird.

Fourthly, to the person who owns this computer: I’m sorry about the websites in the browser history and in the cache. Reading about Afghanistan online can take you to some weird places. But I promise you that http://abumuqawama.blogspot.com is not a terrorist website even though the url probably seems like one to the average American. Abu Muqawama is not a terrorist and his collaborator Charlie is probably not Viet Cong. And they write about Afghanistan more than once in a while.

End transmission. I’m sure that was all very interesting for all of you.

Afghan Knights

November 27, 2007.

Oh geez. Another Afghanistan related movie being mentioned on Afghanistanica? But wait. This one is especially atrocious. Here is the synopsis:

Haunted by the fact that he left a man behind in Afghanistan, an ex Navy SEAL puts together a special task force to endure one last mission to save his comrade. But now his team has become victims to fallen Genghis Khan warriors from an ancient time. It’s ancient Mongol warfare against the most highly trained U.S. soldiers of fortune in a paranormal fight for survival.

Ha ha ha ha ha! That is the synopsis of a straight-to-video B-movie if I ever saw one. The subtitle should be Blackwater Versus Genghis Khan. How about a movie poster?

You like that? Pretty hot stuff I say. And it is filmed on location near exotic Kamloops, British Columbia, which has a pretty decent junior hockey team and may still have a pulp mill operating. Sadly, as of publication time, the despotic Mayor Terry Lake is still ruling with an iron fist. But the land there is semi-arid steppe so that can sorta pass for parts of Afghanistan. [PS: British Columbia is a place in Canada, if you believe wikipedia.]

You wanna see a trailer? Of course you do.

Oh, are you still reading? Good for you. In all seriousness I plan on going to the video store and renting this movie. It might be so bad that it is good.

Totally out of context quote #21

November 26, 2007.

“Intuitively when you ask Canadians, ‘Do you think we should commit forces to the UN “peacekeeping force” that would go to Darfur?’ people answer ‘yes.’ The next comment is, ‘Well, Canadian soldiers will take casualties were they to go to Darfur.’ You have fighting among tribes, you have fighting between the government and tribes, you have civilians that are targets, you have a very complex mission without clear lines of command, without clear rules of engagement. This is the future.”

Janice Gross Stein, in a roundabout manner, answers the Canadians who want out of Afghanistan and into Darfur. The answer is part of a full Q&A in Embassy about the book she and Eugene Lang authored, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar.

Janice Gross Stein’s point of argument has been on my mind regarding Americans’ attitudes towards Darfur. I see kids on campus with signs and petitions for Darfur, I see hundreds of questions about Darfur submitted for the CNN Youtube debate, I see Darfur being put up by certain people as the moral issue of the day.

That’s fine. The dreadful situation in Darfur needs a response. Preferably a reasonable one that takes into account China’s energy concerns. Remember what happened the last time oil was cut off to a rising East Asian power?

Regarding those people demanding that a serious engagement in Darfur be undertaken, they need to understand that nothing will change without “boots on the ground.” And since the countries that usually provide serious “peacekeeping” forces are already overextended, perhaps they could sign up for the Army or Marines and go infantry in order to free up some troop capacity?

Just kidding. We all know that they are as unlikely to serve in the military as are the children of those conservatives demanding that Iran get its ass kicked.

The other option is that those European and Canadian troops that may pull out of Afghanistan in the future just fly straight to Darfur instead of going home. Or perhaps Kosovo will be back in action by that time?

I think Afghanistan is worth not abandoning. And I hope that European and Canadian governments, facing significant public pressure, do not choose the option of slipping out the back door like some deadbeat dad. Afghanistan is not “Bush’s War.” It’s a moral commitment to the overwhelming majority of Afghans who want international forces to stay.

And happy Thanksgiving Day (it’s like the opposite of Nauruz, if any Afghans ask. They say please at the beginning of Spring and we say thanks at the end of Fall).

I Wanna Be In Dostum’s Cavalry (Sing It!)

November 22, 2007.

Lyrics from “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier,” a song on Corb Lund’s new album:

  • Today I ride with special forces on those wily Afghan horses,
  • Dostum’s Northern Alliance gives their thanks.

Jonbesh-i Melli actually. But I’m sure Dostum will be OK with the Northern Alliance designation. Why? Because he just got his first, and probably last, mention in a country music song. Seriously. The lyrics for the song include references from many famous cavalry battles, and Dostum apparently had the most recent, unless you believe Janjaweed murdering Darfuri villagers to count as a cavalry battle.

Who’s Corb Lund? He sounds sort of like Johnny Horton meets Dwight Yoakam meets Tom Connors. And he’s from Alberta, which I believe is still part of Canada. Alright, I think about 98% of my readers have quit reading. So for all of you in fly-over country, here’s a video for Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier. It’s sung in Raleigh, North Carolina and played in honor of a soldier killed in Afghanistan:

Charlie Wilson’s War In Afghanistan

November 18, 2007.

Afghanistan is popular this coming winter movie season. The Kite Runner, Lions For Lambs, and now Charlie Wilson’s War. And unlike the first two, Charlie Wilson’s War is based on a true story (the book was published years ago). The trailer explains all:

Yeah, I remember when Texas used to send Democrats to Washington.

More info at the www.charliewilsonswar.net.

Theorizing Conflict In Afghanistan

November 17, 2007.

Funny story: A while ago I was sitting in Starbucks making my $2 coffee last 4 hours while I did some reading. On the table I had a print-out of a UCLA PhD dissertation:

Sinno, Abdulkader H. 2002. Organizing to Win in Afghanistan and Beyond: How Organizational Structure Affects the Outcome of Strategic Interaction in Politicized Group Conflicts. Ph.D. Dissertation in Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles.

A guy walked by to sit at a table nearby when the title page of the dissertation caught his eye. He asked what I was reading and seemed quite interested. I told him all about the dissertation and how great it was. He seemed amused and then introduced himself as Abdulkader Sinno (good thing I gave the dissertation a good review). He told me that he was working on a book based on the dissertation and that many changes and improvements had been made. He was quite curious as to how I got my hands on an electronic copy of his dissertation (I got it from someone who got it from someone who got it from Sinno). He told me to stop by his office any time to pick up an updated version or chat about Afghanistan.

I skipped town soon after and was unable to take him up on his offer. But I stopped by his website recently and found out that his book is to be published by Cornell University Press in January 2008.

Here is Professor Sinno’s description of the book project:

Is it possible to explain the evolution and to predict the outcomes of conflicts as complicated as those that afflicted post-1979 Afghanistan? Is it possible to use a common analytical tool to explain the results of ethnic, religious, revolutionary, secessionist, and liberation conflicts despite their treatment by scholars as distinct categories? This book makes the case that this could be accomplished by developing a new perspective and theory premised on the understanding that societal groups, civilizations, classes, religions and nations do not engage in conflict or strategic interaction — organizations do. To engage in conflict means to perform a number of complex processes—formulation and execution of strategy, coordination, mobilization, etc—and amorphous entities such as classes, civilizations or people cannot do such things. To assert that a given conflict pits a politicized group against another is to use shorthand to indicate that organizations that recruit among those groups are engaged in conflict. Words influence where we look for answers, and such generally accepted but distracting linguistic constructs have limited the ability of social scientists to develop useful and powerful analytical tools to better understand complex conflicts.

The Organizational Theory of Group Conflict avoids misleading linguistic constructs by focusing on that which truly explains the evolution and outcome of conflicts: the ability of politicized organizations to outperform their rivals. Successful overall performance results from the execution of a number of essential organizational processes such as efficient mobilization, strategy execution, coordination, the management of factionalism, and the processing of information. An organization’s ability to execute these processes depends on how its structure fits with its ability to keep its rivals at bay from a sheltered space.

A sheltered space is a portion of the contested territory where an organization’s rivals can not intervene with enough force to perturb its operations. Centralized organizations are generally more effective than non-centralized ones, but are more vulnerable to the attempts of rivals to disturb their operations because of their dependence on coordination among their different specialized branches. An organization—such as the state, an occupier, or a strong insurgent group—which controls a sheltered space that protects it from the easy disturbance of its operations by rivals must therefore adopt a highly centralized and specialized structure. Organizations that don’t have such a space must adopt a non-centralized structure to increase their odds of outlasting their rivals. To have a sheltered space is not essential to win the conflict, what is essential for the organization is to organize properly based on whether it has such a space. An organization that suddenly gains control of a sheltered space must therefore transform itself into a more centralized and differentiated structure or risk dissipating its resources.

The Organizational Theory explains otherwise puzzling behavior or developments one normally encounters in politicized group conflicts, such as the longevity of many unpopular regimes, the surprising demise of some popular movements, why some seemingly advantageous strategies are never adopted, and why some who share a common cause are often more concerned with undermining their ideological kin than their ideological enemies.

I test the theory by applying it to successive Afghan conflicts after 1979 and then to a larger (42 conflicts and 134 organizations) statistical sample, both of which confirm its predictive and explicative power. Afghan conflicts are particularly conducive to test the Organizational Theory because they feature a wide array of organizations with broad variation in structure that facilitate the conduct of revealing critical tests that hold most other variables constant. The Organizational Theory convincingly explains 1) the resilience of the Afghan resistance and the failure of both the Soviets and the Kabul regime to overcome the mujahideen, 2) why the Najib regime survived well beyond everyone’s expectations after the 1989 withdrawal of its Soviet sponsors and the suddenness of its ultimate demise in 1992, 3) why only two centralized mujahideen organizations tried to upstage each other while others largely disintegrated afterwards, and 4) the post-1994 dramatic rise of the Taliban that left all observers baffled. I use evidence from my own field research and from primary and secondary sources. The last chapter argues that the Organizational Theory is useful to analyze conflicts beyond Afghanistan by verifying its predictive ability on a large sample of conflicts—all ethnic, revolutionary and secessionist conflicts that lasted longer than three years in post-WWII North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The epilogue also explains initial U.S. military successes in Afghanistan following the September 11 events, and argues that current American efforts at “state building” in this country are likely to fail.

I’m cautiously skeptical of most, but not all, PoliSci theory. Afghanistan has the quirky quality of destroying theories that works elsewhere. And if you need a lot of data you probably can not test your theory. But Sinno has been working on this for a long time (PhD dissertations are not completed overnight), I would guess about 10 years. So if anyone could make theory work in Afghanistan, it would be Sinno.

I’ll write a review when I get my hands on the book. In the mean time you can visit www.sinno.com.

Lonely Planet Afghanistan

November 17, 2007.

Sorry for the lack of updates, I’ve been very busy. Anyways, look below at the cover of the book I just bought. No, it’s not fake, Lonely Planet really did publish a travel book on Afghanistan this September. So there you have it; a travel book full of pictures of smiling people. Pack your bags and start your Afghan vacation!

I consider this book as a public service by Lonely Planet. I doubt the Afghanistan guide will be a big money-maker like their guides to France, USA, Spain, etc… So it’s nice of them to put this book out.

The strengths of this book are the logistical details it provides on hotels, restaurants, transportation, where to find an internet café in Shiberghan, and the exact degree of disdain that the Pamir Club Hotel staff show their guests, for example. This sort of information will be updated on the Lonely Planet website as information from travelers come in. So if one of the cheap hotels they list is actually a brothel then send Lonely Planet an email telling them so.

As far as destinations go, there is nothing that will be a revelation to someone who is familiar with Afghanistan (through travel or just by reading). Although I must admit I had no idea that the Shah-i Doh Shamshira mosque existed. Check it out on page 180. It really is fascinating.

So yes, I endorse this book and encourage you to buy it. But I must point out some faults. If you are looking for a definitive account of Afghan history and politics, this book is not it (duh). This is a guide book and this sort of thing is to be expected. I found quite a few facts and analysis that were problematic or false. Some of the more noteworthy examples:

  • Tamerlane (Timur) is called an Uzbek (page 28). He was not, no matter what President Karimov may believe (or wish).
  • Bacha Saqao (Bacha-i Saqao or the “water carrier’s son”) had a name; Habibullah (Kalakani). (See page 33 and 45) Even bad guys deserve to be called by their real name. Some people (read: Pashtuns) love to point out how big of a failure Afghanistan’s first Tajik ruler was.
  • Parcham is called a mainly Pashtun party as opposed to Khalq (page 33). The reverse is true.
  • On page 35 the Shia Mujahideen are not mentioned, leaving one with the impression that the resistance to the Soviets was only a Sunni affair, rather than mostly Sunni.
  • The inset on page 35 says that Afghans look back on the “hippy period” as a “golden age.” This is true in the same way that some American white males can look back on the 1950s as a “golden age.” Life was very unhappy for many people in Afghanistan during this period. But yeah, life did get worse for most.
  • On page 36 the reader is given the impression that Hekmatyar and Hizb-i Islami spent more of their time killing Afghans than Soviet soldiers. This sounds like the talking points from the “Royalists” (AKA the “Gucci Muj” if you prefer the moniker some CIA operatives gave them) or from Jamiat/Shura-i Nazar. The Soviets will confirm that Hekmatyar did in fact kill a lot of them.
  • Page 39 lists Massoud’s group as the “Northern Alliance.” It was/is in fact Shura-i Nazar. Myself and others really should quit pointing this out. I would say this is a lost cause. Massoud’s group was the strongest element of the loose alliance dismissively termed the Northern Alliance by its detractors in Pakistan.
  • The sidebar on page 40 identifies The Mirage of Peace as the best book on post-Taliban Afghanistan. It is most definitely not. I’m sure the authors would confirm this.
  • Page 45 gives too much credence to the “Ghilzai factor,” especially regarding the Taliban.
  • Page 45 overstates the current power of “the Tajiks” in Afghanistan. The analysis sound a lot like a 2002 complaint by a Pashtun member of Mellat (not that there are any non-Pashtuns in Mellat).
  • Page 46: Can someone talk about Afghan-Uzbeks without mentioning Jonbesh chicanery? The other ethnic groups are listed without listing the human rights violations of a leader who happens to be of their ethnic group. And Uzbeks do look to leaders other than Dostum.
  • The description of Nuristanis on page 47 and 187 as “fair skinned and blue-eyed” and “frequently blonde or red-haired, with blue or green eyes” leaves out about 97% of Nuristanis (just a guesstimate).
  • The sidebar on page 64 translates Hindu Kush as “Killer of Indians.” I prefer “Headwaters of the Indus.”
  • The inset on page 116 says that the Hazaras are led by Karim Khalili. Some are. But many follow Muhammad Mohaqeq. And some might even prefer neither.
  • The inset boxes on page 145 and 186 on Dostum and Hekmatyar read as if they are written by an angry Kabuli. They are very tabloidish and problematic while being sprinkled with rumor for your reading entertainment. But to their credit, Massoud does not get a pass that is usually given by Westerners (see page 38 inset box).
  • And one last one: on page 205 Lonely Planet lets the gay and lesbian traveler know that Pashtuns, are like, totally gay and stuff. This is based on detailed quantitative and qualitative field research analyses of homosexuality in Pashtun populations, or maybe some Tajik guy just told them this. I say the stereotype comes about because some Pashtun men are just more open about it. Other ethnic groups are more likely to keep it on the down-low. That’s just my hypothesis. I’m not gonna field test it.

Wow. I apologize. I just critiqued a travel book. What can I say? I was delayed at an airport and then had to sit through a long flight. All I had was Lonely Planet Afghanistan. I got bored, so I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper.

I hope the Lonely Planet people don’t see this. They’ll just roll their eyes. I can’t say any of the above information I provided will be useful for the potential traveler.

Worst blog entry ever.

Afghan-American Marine Picks Up The Ball And Runs For A Touchdown

November 9, 2007.

A few weeks ago I embedded a video of an Afghan-American Marine who asked a question about Iran for the CNN Youtube debate. I hoped aloud that he would submit another question about Afghanistan. He has:

The question was not as erudite as if asked by a PhD and not as slick as if asked by a reporter. But it was authentic, something the CNN Youtube debate is supposed to be about. I hope CNN picks this question and give the Republicans an opportunity to show how knowledgeable (or ignorant) they are regarding Afghanistan.