Afghan Ambassador Jawad Speaks

October 11, 2007.

As far as his diplomatic communication skills go, the Afghan Ambassador to the U.S., Said T. Jawad, is the equal of any ambassador posted in Washington. In a live chat with readers of the Huffington Post he answered many hard questions from those Americans who are actually concerned about Afghanistan.

Here are a sampling of some of the better questions (taking into account the format):

  • Would you please elaborate on the progress being made on the training of Afghan security forces?
  • What, in your honest opinion, is the single greatest mistake the US has made since driving out the Taliban 6 years ago?
  • Quite simply — how can we turn things around in Afghanistan?
  • How can your government justify asking the Taliban to join Mr. Karzai’s government? Don’t you believe this is an insult to all the Americans and Afghanis that have lost their lives at the hands of the Taliban? Knowing the Taliban’s human rights record and the damage they inflicted in the population of Afghanistan and their support for Al-Qaida, what kind of role will they be playing in your country’s government?
  • Do you believe that the current rise is violence in your country is directly attributable to the shifting of American forces from Afghanistan to Iraq when Iraq was invaded? If so can you help to bring that to the attention both the American public and the international community?
  • The position of women in your Afghanistan has not improved even without the Taliban in government. The president of Afghanistan has said that members of the Taliban who say they will no longer fight the government and commit violence can have positions in your government. How does this make the women of Afghanistan as well as anyone who was victimized by the Taliban feel safe?
  • Is the Iranian Government helping in the reconstruction and security of Afghanistan? If they are what are they doing? If they are and it is a good thing for the Afghan nation will you report it to the world?
  • The Policy of hiring private contractors to rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure has been a controversial issue in our country. Do you think Afghanistan has the skilled labor and capability to rebuild itself if it were given the resources to do so. If our policy were changed to hire Afghan firms for reconstruction of schools, highways, and utilities, wouldn’t that enable the country to create jobs and become self sufficient more efficiently? What do you think?

Ambassador Jawad deftly handles the above questions. Though I can’t say I was in 100% agreement with all of his answers. He’s a diplomat for Afghanistan, and to a certain extent this constrains him regarding the answers he can provide. But as good a communicator as Jawad is, there is no good answer for the question below:

  • I am an active-duty naval officer who recently returned from a one-year tour with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Asadabad (Kunar province). In my twelve months in Kunar & Nuristan provinces I saw many things - and not much to give me any lasting hope. We provided some help and implemented some improvements in the infrastructure (mostly roads and bridges), but much of what we did I would classify under the heading of ‘Too Little - Too Late’. The province is still as dangerous and deadly as it was several years ago; the daily lives of most of the citizens aren’t appreciably improved, and our efforts (PRT, DOS, USAID, etc.) still run up against the almost-immovable object of local, provincial and national corruption and inefficiencies. I am saddened when I think of what could have been accomplished in Afghanistan - had we not been sidetracked in an unnecessary and wasteful war in Iraq. All that national fortune, energy and manpower, were it spent where it was needed, would have made Afghanistan a much different - and successful - country and society than it is today. What are our plans now? How will we reach a critical mass of goodwill and assistance (indeed, can we?) to counteract the policy failures, especially the opium problem, that have led to the worsening of the political situation given that the American public’s fund of patience and forbearance won’t last much longer?

Actually, there is a good answer to this question. But Ambassador Jawad is too diplomatic to give that answer. The questioner should really direct his question to the American government (though the Afghan government does share the blame on the corruption issue).

It is an open format and not all the questions are from informed people so a few are sort of stupid (plus one indignant question from a Pakistani).

Ambassador Jawad also does well in front of a camera. Here is a recent interview with Foreign Policy TV.

Totally out of context quote #20

October 20, 2007.

“Today even the scarf is being left at home and miniskirts, worn by pert school girls, blossom on the streets of Kabul and on the Kabul University campus.”

Context: The good old days. Anthropologist and Afghanistan super-duper-expert Louis Dupree (deceased) writing in his 1973 book Afghanistan (page 247).

Pert?

pert (pûrt)
adjective pert·er, pert·est

  1. Trim and stylish in appearance; jaunty.
  2. High-spirited; vivacious.
  3. Impudently bold; saucy.

Saucy!

At War in Afghanistan

October 9, 2007.

Two new documentaries on Afghanistan have caught my attention in the last week. The first one is At War. This documentary will feel familiar to many people because of the man who shot the video footage: Scott Kesterson. Scott, a former soldier and now a combat reporter, started to get attention when his short http://youtube.com/watch?v=qaC-w2dIxZc off an ambush got a huge number of viewers on various video sites. The footage went on to be included in features by Frontline and by the Canadian channel that shows all the hockey games.

Fortunately, Kesterson has much more video footage that he has accumulated from his work in Afghanistan. He has, together with his production partner David Leeson, worked all his video footage into a documentary. Based on the trailers, it seems to be a combat documentary first and foremost.

There are two trailers; one emo and one aggro. This is the emo trailer:

And this is the aggro trailer:

More information can be had by visiting the At War website.

And if At War is not exactly to your tastes, then perhaps Dateline Afghanistan: Reporting The Forgotten War is.

This is a clip from the documentary.

Dateline Afghanistan has the feel of an educational tool and I’m sure it would be a great documentary to show to journalism students.

Hazara Kite Runner Riots?

October 8, 2007.

I usually don’t blog about issues that are being blogged to death on the internet. Nevertheless, I think it is time for me to weigh in on The Kite Runner controversy. My qualifications to do so rest solely on my status as an online purveyor of unsolicited analysis on Afghanistan.

Have I read The Kite Runner? No, not per se. I haven’t read fiction in more than ten years. But I have seen the trailer for the movie and glanced at a few articles about the book. Some kids fly kites and then something bad happens to one of them. And then something about making amends, or atonement or something along those lines. OK, maybe I actually know a lot more about the book than that.

Pic: “Dude, I’m Hazara and you’re Pashtun. I understand that. But I don’t understand why we are surrounded by Uyghurs.”

As far as the controversy about the rape scene as described in this New York Times article, one of the parties is lying. And if the liars are the parents of the kid actors then I don’t really care. Good for them. They feel threatened and fear for the safety of their children. So they took their case to the media. Paramount movies studios should be able to spare a few dollars to get them set up in Dubai.

The movie’s release has now been delayed in order for the movie studio to safely get the kid actors out of Kabul “in response to fears that they could be attacked for their enactment of a culturally inflammatory rape scene.” Furthermore, NYT said that “warnings have been relayed to the studio from Afghan and American officials and aid workers that the movie could aggravate simmering enmities between the politically dominant Pashtun and the long-oppressed Hazara.”

NYT also quoted a local human rights activist:

Hangama Anwari, the child-rights commissioner for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said on Monday that she had urged Paramount’s counterterrorism consultant to get Ahmad Khan out of the country, at least until after the movie is released. “They should not play around with the lives and security of people,” she said of the filmmakers. “The Hazara people will take it as an insult.”

But then the scary prognosticating goes into to full swing:

A specialist on Islam at the State Department nearly wept envisioning a “Danish-cartoons situation.”

An Afghan literature professor […] said Paramount was “willing to burn an already scorched nation for a fistful of dollars.”

The head of an Afghan political party said the movie would energize the Taliban.

And a Hazara member of Parliament warned that Pashtun and Hazara “would be killing each other every night” in response to the film’s depiction of them.

But of course, as noted by the NYT, none of the interviewees had seen the movie. Also, the interviewees are full of…..hyperbole. While I am not an expert on cinematically induced riots among Hazaras, I think I can safely predict that The Kite Runner will not cause Hazaras to go crazy and start randomly killing Pashtuns, or vice versa.

So the movie is now going to be released on December 14th. Add about a week for pirated copies to get to Afghanistan. And then, round about Christmas time, a “Danish-cartoons situation/burning of an already scorched nation/Hollywood infused energizing of the Taliban/plus Pashtuns and Hazaras killing each other every night?” No. Perhaps a demonstration on the scale of the reaction to the movie Kabul Express (in which a character trash talked the Hazaras).

But if any of the above dire predictions come true then I will eat this blog post (metaphorically).

Yawn. This is boring. Here, watch the trailer for The Kite Runner.

Koran, Kalashnikov And Laptop

October 5, 2007.

I’ve said it before: Antonio Giustozzi is one of the best and most productive analysts writing about conflict in Afghanistan at the moment. So go buy his newly published book. Note that I have only recommended three books thus far.

Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-7 is definitely going to be a permanent fixture on my bookshelf.

An impressive lists of publications by Giustozzi, an expert on warlordism and insurgency at The London School of Economics, can be found here: http://www.lse.ac.uk/people/a.Giustozzi@lse.ac.uk/publications.htm.

And if you don’t believe me, then here is some advance praise:

“This book fills the gap in the current scholarship on the neo-Taliban. It benefits from the author’s entertainment of deep thinking and cross-analyses of facts and figures. While ambitious, by strictly confining himself to developments occurring between 2002 and 2007, Antonio Giustiozzi has succeeded in providing a valid framework for exploration of the nature of the political in Afghanistan in general and the resurgent Taliban in particular.”
—Amalendu Misra, author of Afghanistan: The Labyrinth of Violence

Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop provides a balanced, objective, and unsensationalized consideration of the emergence of the neo-Taliban, taking on board the many perspectives and insights provided by numerous actors and analysts while also drawing on the author’s own conclusions. In so doing, it covers new and important ground in research on Afghanistan.”
—Peter Marsden, author of The Taliban: War, Religion, and the New Order in Afghanistan

Lion of Panjshir

October 4, 2007.

Lion of Panjshir is brilliant.

They’re just like the original Lion of the Panjshir, except that: (a) they play psychedelic folk rock infused with Afghan elements and (b) they have not fought the Soviet Red Army.

The band is Ariana Delawari, Max Guirand and Paloma Udovic.

Visit http://www.myspace.com/lionofpanjshir to listen to their music. “San Francisco” is an excellent track and if you don’t listen to their reinterpretation of “Chesme siah daree” then you are a bad person. A bad person. Or at the very least you only read this website for conflict and security related issues.

Lyrics from “Chesme siah daree”:

oh you hold a thousand years
the truth of what’s to come
so far but oh so simple
this could be the one
and i knew when i saw those faces
i would be the one to trace it
a map to gather all the tribes to live as one

I imagine Ariana’s dad was able to summon up quite a formidable security detail for his girl and her friends while they were in Afghanistan.

So go to http://www.myspace.com/lionofpanjshir and listen to “Chesme siah daree” (and don’t complain to me about their transliteration).

No commentary on Massoud today. Maybe some other time.

Random Photo Commentary #2

October 3, 2007.

James Nachtwey’s description of this 1996 photo merely states that this woman is at the grave of her brother who was killed in a Taliban rocket attack.

Nachtwey has managed to do something remarkable here. He has found a way to strongly convey emotion in a photo of a woman wearing a burqa. As the burqa hides the face and most of the body, reading emotion can be next to impossible. Other “burqa” photos are almost dehumanizing: the representation of an anonymous, faceless uniformity and a seemingly emotionless nonentity.

But underneath is a human being. And under the most difficult circumstances for a photgrapher Nachtwey has shown that this is true.

And 11 years later…

Al Jazeera “Embeds” With Americans

October 2, 2007.

Al Jazeera English hangs out with American soldiers and at least one contractor (PMC?) at the KOP in the Korengal Valley of Kunar (50K from the Pakistani border) before moving to Outpost Vegas. What’s the message of this report? I presume it’s much more subtle than their Arabic fare. Despite the subtlety the report is very dramatic; the screams of “Medic!” come about half-way in.

At the very least it humanizes the soldiers.

But yeah, I have to go to Al Jazeera, Canadian or British TV to get regular TV reports on Afghanistan. That’s sad. At the moment CNN is reporting the serious news: The Britney Spears child custody scandal. This reminds me of a certain photo:

Villagers and Distrust of Government and NGO Development Projects

October 2, 2007.

The following was written about Afghan villagers by a former American Airborne soldier from North Carolina:

Local and foreign experts cannot really be blamed for being duped by villagers, who, over many generations, have developed excellent defensive mechanisms to protect themselves from the outside world. For example, villagers willingly accept any and all suggestions for technological change, because they realize that the sooner they accept, the sooner the “developers” will leave. […]

The village builds a “mud curtain” around itself for protection against the outside world, which has often come to the village in the past. Sustained relations with the outside world has seldom been pleasant, for outsiders usually come to extract from, not bring anything into, the village. […] As a consequence, most villagers simply cannot believe that central governments, provincial governments, or individual local or foreign technicians want to introduce permanent reforms. Previous attempts have generally been short of duration and abortive, for once the “modernization” teams leave, the villagers patch up the breaks in the “mud curtain” and revert to their old, group-reinforcing patterns. […]

In addition, an outsider seldom meets the true power elite of as village unless he remains for an extended period. When outsiders approach, the village leaders disappear behind mud walls, and the first line of defense (second line of power) come forward to greet the strangers with formalized hospitality, which surprisingly, enough also serves as a defensive technique. If the central government identifies the village or tribal elite, control becomes easier […].

Contrary to popular belief, villagers are fundamentally non-cooperative creatures outside their kin group, and not communally oriented. […] Seldom can villagers be persuaded to work for (to them) an abstract, distantly (for the benefit of future generation) achieved common goal. The villager wants to benefit now. […]

The introduction to the passage neglected to mention that this was written in 1973. The Airborne soldier mentioned as author earned his PhD in anthropology from Harvard University before becoming somewhat of an institution in Afghanistan studies and in the country itself (prominent enough for the Communists to throw him in jail before expelling him from Afghanistan). When he died one month after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan the New York Times published his obituary and a tribute to him was read on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The passage is from page 248-251 of his 804-page book Afghanistan.

Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton University Press. (1973). Most recent edition (2002) is published by Oxford University Press.

David B Edward’s write up of Dupree can be read here: http://www.iranica.com/articles/v7/v7f6/v7f632.html.

Dupree’s book is a general introduction to Afghanistan, not a guide to development work in that country. The questions that this passage raises are:

1. What has changed in the way of village attitudes with the passage of over 30 years (i.e., changes in communication and media) and many years of war (i.e., spending time in a foreign refugee camp)?

2. How has the change in the market system in (some of) Afghanistan’s rural areas affected village attitudes?

3. What differences are their between villagers of different ethnicities?

4. Do more economically successful villagers have different attitudes?

5. What differences can be seen between villagers who live near urban areas and/or major transportation routes and those isolated villagers?

6. Are the new breed of outsiders viewed differently?

7. Are Afghan villagers more desperate than they were when this passage was written (and therefor more open to outside “assistance”)?

8. Do villagers who are from a group favoured by the government hold different views?

9. Are any of these views just plain incorrect?

10. Despite spending half his time outside of Kabul, are Dupree’s views too heavily influenced by educated urban Afghans?

11. What do dissenters have to say about the above excerpt?

12. Etc…

For some this passage may answer questions. While it does the same for me, it also raises the above questions (in addition to those questions I can’t think of at the moment). Works as old as Dupree’s usually have a long list of detractors. There are two reviews of his book in two different academic journals. However, they want you to pay about $30 each to read their reviews. For that price you can buy a used copy of Afghanistan online.

Totally out of context quote #19

October 1, 2007.

A few months ago I had written an article in Pashto about media progress in Afghanistan. A survey report of Reporters without Borders was quoted in the article but unfortunately the name of the organization was misprinted when the article published in a local newspaper. In Pashto the organization is called ‘Da Besarhada Zhornalistano Tolana.’ But it printed ‘Da Besara’ which means Reporters without Brains.

Context: Abdulhadi Hairan, writing in http://iwrotethis.wordpress.com/2007/09/19/reporters-for-dollars/, points out a misprint in one of his published articles. He then goes onto to link to his article wherein he discusses warlord journalists.

As much as this was an innocent mistake, I’m sure we could all think of a few reporters without brains.

Reporters Without Borders? www.rsf.org

Sloppy Reporting From Afghanistan

October 1, 2007.

In March of this year American Marines in Nangarhar used completely excessive force in response to a suicide car bomb attack. The bomb killed 6 people while the Marines shot and killed 6 civilians as they sped away. I briefly commented on the incident at the time and made a very safe and obvious prediction.

By the standards of media reporting on Afghanistan it was a big story. And reporters love a big story. Especially if your name is Noor Mohhamad Sherzai and you are a bored stringer for Reuters sitting around Nangarhar. So what to do? How about rush out a story without doing the things that journalists are supposed to do? Yeah, let’s do that. Who will notice? Nangarhar is so far away.

Journalists are often accused of shoddy reporting and lazy writing. But sometimes they go completely overboard and completely fabricate or grossly exaggerate an incident. It usually ends with them being exposed, humiliated and fired from their job. Why do they keep doing it? It can be explained either by their ideological or political biases or by their desire to report something important (even if it is imaginary) to boost their career.

And who is doing the busting these days? More often than not bloggers of course. These people generally have little to do except sit at their computer and dig. Bloggers have piled up an impressive list of hoaxes and lies perpetrated in the mainstream media. These reporters should know that there are some rather motivated bloggers on both side of the political spectrum who are watching and waiting for them to screw up.

On the left you will find many folks who pile up evidence to contradict Fox News and others of that persuasion. And on the right you have many ‘mericans who have an eye on everything that rubs them the wrong way in the media. And it is the right of center hawkish bloggers who provide us with today’s entertainment, albeit on not such a grand scale as described above.

The blogger known as Jammie Wearing Fool (jammie=pajamas) noticed that the Reuters reporter Noor Mohhamad Sherzai quoted himself in his own story titled “U.S. fire scatters crowd after Afghan bomb: witness.” This link is to the “updated” version of the story, meaning the version that is not as bad as the first one. Unfortunately for Reuters and Sherzai, the original version lives on through search engines caches, newsites that picked up the original story, and copy and paste.

The witness to this incident? His name is Noor Mohhamad Sherzai:

A fire brigade vehicle arriving at speed at the scene then suffered brake failure and rammed into the U.S. vehicles. Troops inside then opened fire, wounding a number of bystanders.

“I saw everything,” said Reuters correspondent Noor Mohammad Sherzai. “I saw the suicide bomb attack …

“I saw the fire brigade vehicle rushing to the area at top speed, somehow its brakes failed and hit one police vehicle and coalition vehicles, then the Americans started firing at the people and everyone lay flat on the ground and then fled the area.”

Sherzai said a number of people had been wounded in the attack, but he did not know how many. “I ran away to save my own life.”

Sherzai and other reporters at the scene said many shots were fired and Afghan police were among those fleeing the scene.

“I was running away as fast as I could, but some of the police overtook me,” Sherzai said. The police, he said, “were very angry because the Americans were shooting and wanted to shoot back but others stopped them.”

The mockery by conservative bloggers started to roll when A Blog For All picked up Jammie’s story: http://lawhawk.blogspot.com/2007/09/echo-chamber.html and http://lawhawk.blogspot.com/2007/09/reporter-quote-thyself.html. Others such as Newsbusters, The Jawa Report, and Hot Air picked up the story and poke fun at Sherzai while asking some good questions about Sherzai’s account of this incident.

From the various bloggers and commenters come these questions: How is it that Sherzai happened to be in Bati Kot (15 kilometers from Jalalabad) when a suicide bomber struck a moving convoy? Why did the first story get rushed out before the military had a chance to respond? Why did Sherzai quote himself when there were so many other people involved in the incident? He had time to find find out that the brakes on the Afghan firetruck failed before it collided with the American vehicles, but he had no time to ask other outstanding questions? Why is this Sherzai’s first and only English language article? Why did he say U.S. troops shot and wounded bystanders and then that allegation disappears in the new version? Why has the second version been toned down so much?

This is opening sentence of Sherzai’s first report:

U.S. troops opened fire on civilians near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Thursday after a failed suicide car attack on their convoy, a Reuters witness said.

And this is the updated version:

At least one U.S. soldier opened fire to scatter a crowd of civilians and police on Thursday after failed suicide bomb attacks on a U.S. military convoy, the U.S. military and witnesses said.

The original version:

A fire brigade vehicle arriving at speed at the scene then suffered brake failure and rammed into the U.S. vehicles. Troops inside then opened fire, wounding a number of bystanders.

The new version:

To add to the confusion, a fire brigade vehicle speeding to the scene rammed into the U.S. and Afghan vehicles.

“I saw the fire brigade vehicle rushing to the area at top speed. Somehow its brakes failed and hit one police vehicle and coalition vehicles, then the Americans started firing,” said Reuters correspondent Noor Mohammad Sherzai.

A spokesman for U.S.-led coalition forces said only one soldier had opened fire. “A U.S. servicemen fired two shots and those shots were away from the crowd and not directed toward the crowd,” said Major Joe Klopple.

The shots were fired to disperse the crowd out of concern for their safety because of what was thought to be another approaching suicide bomber, the U.S. statement said.

But the damage was already done as Reuters had already sent out the first version over the wires. An example of the new version with both sides of the story:

A spokesman for U.S.-led coalition forces said only one soldier had opened fire. “A U.S. servicemen fired two shots and those shots were away from the crowd and not directed toward the crowd,” said Major Joe Klopple.

Sherzai and other reporters at the scene said many shots were fired and Afghan police were among those fleeing the scene.

Remarkably Pajhwok has a completely different version:

“Three would-be suicide bombers killed in Nangarhar”

KABUL, Sept 27 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Three would-be suicide bombers were killed in Batikot district of the eastern Nangarhar province on Thursday, a gubernatorial spokesman claimed. A car was detonated in front of a police vehicle on the busy Jalalabad-Torkham Highway this morning, Noor Agha Zwak said, adding the incident took place in Barikab area of the district, where police were on a patrol. “The would-be suicide bomber came across the road and lost control and detonated the car,” said the spokesman said, claiming two suicide bombers died in the attack. Police cordoned off the area and arrested one suspect in police uniform. Zwak said police asked him to take off his clothes but he refused. The refusal prompted police to shoot him dead. Zwak continued. Explosives were found strapped to his body, according to the spokesman. Purported Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the attack was carried out across police academy and he was unaware of casualties.

OK, now I’m really confused. Americans aren’t even involved in this version. Same district at the same time or a different version of the same incident? I give up. Stuff like this makes me skeptical of everything.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has a training program for Afghan journalists. Perhaps Reuters can send Noor Mohhamad Sherzai to them for a quick refresher course in journalism. Or perhaps, as Jammie Wearing Fool suggested, Sherzai could read http://today.reuters.com/News/GlobalCoverage.aspx?type=handbook-accuracy&src=cms of Reuters handbook.

It’s a sad comment on Reuters journalistic standards when a blog titled Jammie Wearing Fool can pick apart their reporting.

In the meantime, I suggest being skeptical of military spokespersons, journalists, US government spokespersons, Afghan government spokesmen, Taliban spokesmen, advocates of various stripes and bloggers. And never unconditionally believe a story in the first 24 hours of a news cycle. It will probably change (sometimes dramatically).