Friday, February 26, 2010

An amazing view of Kabul

From the Big Picture.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Religious development is not just a matter of chronology

Kamal Al-Solaylee's Yemeni family is a lot more conservative now than it was in 1975, when the picture above was taken. Al-Solaylee talks about this in a Globe and Mail article.

Isn't this about the time a teenaged Osama bin Laden was touring Sweden?

Juan Cole has an interesting post
on outright radicalization, namely the radicalization of Humam al-Balaw, the double agent who killed a number of CIA operatives in Afghanistan. No surprise to me that a figure with his background -- educated Jordanian-Palestinian -- would be hostile to American policy. Quotation from Cole (bold is my emphasis):

What is fascinating is the way al-Balawi's grievances tie together the Iraq War, the ongoing Gaza atrocity, and the Western military presence in the Pushtun regions-- the geography of the Bush 'war on terror' was inscribed on his tortured mind.

Morally speaking, al-Qaeda is twisted and evil, and has committed mass murder. Neither the US nor Israel is morally responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots. Al-Qaeda or a Taliban affiliate turned al-Balawi to the dark side. Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us the proper response to social injustice (and it should not be forgotten that Gandhi had a significant following among the Pashtuns). But from a social science, explanatory point of view, what we have to remember is that there can be a handful of al-Balawis, or there can be thousands or hundreds of thousands. It depends on how many Abu Ghraibs, Fallujahs, Lebanons and Gazas the United States initiates or supports to the hilt. Unjust wars and occupations radicalize people. The American Right wing secretly knows this, but likes the vicious circle it produces. Wars make profits for the military-industrial complex, and the resulting terrorism terrifies the clueless US public and helps hawks win elections, allowing them to pursue further wars. And so it goes, until the Republic is bankrupted and in ruins and its unemployed have to live in tent cities.

So, yes, this al-Balawi person was going to help Jordan and the US find al-Qaeda leaders Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sure he was. Walmart does better background checks on its store clerks than the CIA and Jordanian intelligence did on this guy.

You also may want to read the comments to that post.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

More Buzkashi for the New Year

The Big Picture provides us with this great pic of the classic Afghan game, here being played near Kabul on December 9, 2009. Think William Marshal's 12th century melee tournaments.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Re-creating a lost art on Facebook

A long time ago, not quite so far back as Plato's time, but before Google, there was a particular kind of conversation that intelligent people would enter into. They would be sitting around drinking coffee or beer, at a party or at work, and stumble onto some interesting subject. Someone would ask a question and no one would know the answer. Since the people involved were intelligent and well-informed, they would attempt usually in a good-natured way, to figure it out.

I have been half jokingly saying for months now that this kind of conversation is obsolete. The answer to all of these interesting and obscure questions seems to be "look it up!" ( Meaning on the Internet, probably using Google.) At least for people temporarily isolated from the net, an art was dead or maybe just dying.

I discovered over the last week that I was too pessimistic. Subject of some significance came up in a post to Facebook: have the Afghans beaten every army of invasion which ever tried to take the country? Including Alexander the Great?

This precis of Afghan history has become a great cliché for obvious reasons, and I am not sure I believe it. I drew the line at Alexander. The person who raised the issue this time is an intelligent military historian so I engaged in the conversation. And so did several other people. It was really neat. And the issue remains unresolved. As so often in the old days.

What this proves to me is that there is always room for intelligent conversation that goes beyond the mechanics of "looking it up." I you really want to discuss the fortunes of empires in what is now Afghanistan, you are going to need a good library and a convincing argument. Wikipedia is not good enough.

an ancient Greek symposium.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Foreign forces in Afghanistan

Here's a map from the BBC that would be far more useful if it didn't divide foreign troops into only two groups -- US and NATO -- which means for instance that we can't see where Canadians are or were (they've been reassigned). Even so, it is good to have.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Watching the chapandaz

The chapandaz are the players of buzkashi, or according to this Big Picture photo feature, "Only the best players, [who] get close to the carcass in the competition." This rider is watching the action -- will he dive into the melee?

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Something fun from Afghanistan

Truthfully, there is very little cheerful news out of Afghanistan, and I fear that if Obama goes ahead with the war there, it will ruin the American economy and destroy the American Constitution. More on that later.

However, I am a fan of the medieval tournament, and Afghans like some other Central Asians preserve a sport that must be a lot like the old melee combats of medieval Europe: buzkashi or (outside Afghanistan) kok-boru. Any good article about buzkashi will catch my attention and probably find its way into this blog.

When I was staying at an American hotel last week, I got a free copy of USA Today every weekday morning, and to my astonishment I found that it is better than it used to be, by a lot. The editors no longer seem to be completely allergic to substantial journalism. One of the more solid articles was this piece on buzkashi. A website called Newser ran an excerpt and added some new pictures.

Here's a taste of the USA Today piece:

Is the world ready for a sport played with a headless goat carcass?

Haji Abdul Rashid thinks it is and has big plans: corporate sponsors, television rights and beyond.

"We want it to become an Olympic sport," says Rashid, who heads the Buzkashi Federation.

To understand how ambitious — even crazy — this is, consider the game. Buzkashi, which means "goat grabbing," is a violent sport with virtually no rules. Players, called chapandaz, gallop at breakneck speed over a dusty field, fighting over a dead animal without a head.

Buzkashi is undergoing a renaissance in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was ousted from power by U.S. forces in 2001. There are more games, players and spectators than ever before. Rashid says he has already contacted some Olympic officials.

Once dominated by powerful warlords or tribal leaders, buzkashi is attracting a new generation of businessmen who are using the game to meet contacts and get clients, explains Said Maqsud, who owns a Kabul-based security company that employs more than 1,000 people.

"That is a new concept," Maqsud says. "Now businessmen like me can be involved."

Rashid knows the game needs to be standardized to export the sport, played principally in Afghanistan and some Central Asian countries. Previous efforts to impose consistent rules have gone nowhere.

The game has no rounds or time limits. Galloping horses regularly spill off the field, sending terrified spectators running for safety. Some games are played with 12-man teams; others are scored individually with hundreds of horses careening around the field.

"It's very violent," says Maqsud, who also has seven buzkashi horses. "Animal rights activists wouldn't like it."

A spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, Mark Adams, said he was not aware of any overtures from buzkashi officials. He said there might be concerns that the sport is not widely known and has no governing body that regulates it.

"I'm not sure it's a universal sport," Adams said.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Afghanistan's local elections: a measure of success

That's the conclusion of a 30-page report (Voting Together by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson) for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, which describes itself thus:
AREU is an independent research organisation based in Kabul. AREU’s mission is to conduct high-quality research that informs and influences policy and practice. AREU also actively promotes a culture of research and learning by strengthening analytical capacity in Afghanistan and facilitating reflection and debate.
Here's the key passage, I think:

There has been intense criticism of the August 2009 elections by international and Afghan commentators alike. But were they actually a failure? Most estimates are that around US$300 million was spent carrying out these elections in a “free and fair” manner. During campaigning and on election day, thousands of monitors came to the polls and four provincial council candidates lost their lives. Despite this, this research shows that Afghans have amalgamated existing structures of political activity with the newly-introduced SNTV system to create a hybrid, nontransparent and often fraudulent electoral system.

Yet at the same time, the primary purpose of elections is to renegotiate power between key political groups in a non-violent manner. Some power has exchanged hands in these elections, with certain winners, such as the Hazara, gaining some power in the provincial council in the study area and through presidential bargaining, and losers, most notably the Panjshiri Tajiks, losing some power in both of these areas. This transition has remained relatively free of violence thus far, particularly considering the fact that Afghanistan is still a country at war, with over 80,000 international troops currently in the country, and is experiencing the most intense fighting since the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. During the election all major political groups engaged in the process of negotiating the structure of the Afghan government, even if not in a typical Western way envisioned by the international community. On a local level this study demonstrates that elders, commanders, religious figures and ordinary voters in Kabul Province entered into conversations about the issues that matter most to them, particularly when discussing provincial council candidates.


It is evident that international expectations concerning the 2009 elections in Afghanistan were vastly unrealistic. Democratic institutions such as elections do not function independently from their political and cultural settings. In a context in which an ongoing insurgency meant that much of the country was seriously underrepresented at the polls, and in the light of a flawed voter registration process that has been a poor substitute for a valid census, it was misguided to expect the 2009 elections to be a test of “democracy” in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the pervasion of “corrupt” practices in daily political life at a national and local level in Afghanistan
makes the levels of electoral fraud unsurprising.

From this factor alone it is clear that elections are a product of and inextricably linked to the society of which they are a part. As demonstrated by this report, political power is still very much based on highly localised political groups. Therefore, the fact that most candidates did not have developed platforms and that debates between candidates were generally not substantive is also logical given that gaining votes is still primarily a question of using personal appeals and material incentives to secure voting blocs. For this reason, the few attempts that have been made by international actors to develop a political culture among candidates, for example by encouraging the formation of issues-based blocs and party platforms, have met with limited success. Similarly, initiatives to develop and encourage “civil society” in Afghanistan have had little effect, since strong tribe- and kin-based political blocs already exist, fulfilling a function very similar to that of civil society in Western societies.

When thinking about the future of Afghanistan, how 2009’s elections continue to play out politically, and particularly the upcoming Wolesi Jirga elections, the international community could gain much by reshaping their expectations and considering many of their goals more realistically within the Afghan context.
[A number of concrete proposals follow.]

Noah Coburn has a forthcoming dissertation entitled Potters and Warlords in an Afghan Bazaar: Political Mobilization, Masterly Inactivity and Violence in Post-Taliban Afghanistan (Boston University).

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Friday, November 06, 2009

A meditation on the British cemetary in Kabul

From the At War blog of the New York Times. This of course is what caught my attention:
A Canadian television journalist who was in the graveyard the same afternoon I was there was struck by something closer to her home. On the walls surrounding the cemetery are lists of the dead since 2001. Plaques for the fallen British; for Americans; a few for Germans and for Canadians. The plaque for the Canadian dead with the country’s emblem, the maple leaf, etched in the middle, lists only those who had died through the end of 2006 as if Canadians soldiers had not died after that. The 30 Canadian troops killed in 2007, the 32 killed in 2008 and the 27 killed so far this year have no marker of their passing. She turned and said, “I called our embassy, it’s terrible; they haven’t added any names since 2006.” She wasn’t a journalist at that moment; she was a Canadian on foreign soil. We are most patriotic when we are far from home; the possibility of our own mortality, most present.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

An opinion on the Afghan war

I found this here, in comments:

Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald:

"McChrystal, I fear, has arrived too late – for Afghanistan and for Washington. He is asking for a huge act of faith on two fronts – first, by the international community; and second by the Afghan people. But after almost a decade of these constituencies having their trust abused, the miracle promised by McChrystal is a mirage, an ephemeral outcome that even with inevitable, subsequent requests for thousands more troops and billions more in reconstruction dollars likely will not eventuate. The general wants a blank cheque for a jalopy on which he offers no warranty."

Then there is this (from Thomas Ricks' main post):

Dave Lamborn emphasized that we can't help give the Afghans stability unless we have better continuity between American units deployed there:

"We have been in Afghanistan for 8 years now, but ... information is not being captured and passed along for each locality. In many cases each commander has to start from scratch, which is not only inefficient, but is also downright counterproductive. The locals get sick of having a new guy researching his backyard every year, he gets sick of having to adapt to a brand new personality, and he gets sick of seeing the new rookie commander kill innocent civilians or make other rookie mistakes. So it is natural that so many Afghans are currently ripe for the political plucking of the Taliban or Mujahadeeb."

Scary, yes?

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More on the war

Yes, there's a war on -- more than one!

Juan Cole at his most optimistic has an article in Salon,
Obama's foreign policy report card.

Matthew Hoh, an American official and ex-Marine with extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigns. Why? The war in Afghanistan makes no sense. See
his letter of resignation and the Washington Post article describing his background.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

I'm shocked! Shocked!

From the New York Times Magazine:

Worse yet, for all of America’s time in Afghanistan — for all the money and all the blood — the lack of accomplishment is manifest wherever you go. In Garmsir, there is nothing remotely resembling a modern state that could take over if America and its NATO allies left. Tour the country with a general, and you will see very quickly how vast and forbidding this country is and how paltry the effort has been.

And finally, there is the government in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, once the darling of the West, rose to the top of nationwide elections in August on what appears to be a tide of fraud. The Americans and their NATO allies are confronting the possibility that the government they are supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell.
Come on now, possibility? These people should be old enough to remember the Vietnam War.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Scenes from the last Afghan war

...done in ballpoint pen by a Russian soldier. From English Russia.

Russian soldier in Afghanistan draws pictures

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Then there is this...

Behind the Veil, a video report on women in Kandahar from the Globe and Mail.

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Meet the Afghan Army: Is It a Figment of Washington's Imagination?

This is one title of an article by Ann Jones in and the Huffington Post that simply must be read. Will any Canadian MP have the guts to ask the Government where the Afghan Army is?

The killer excerpt (lots more, it's a long and detailed article):

The Invisible Men

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to "operate independently," but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn't come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It's not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it's himself as well.


Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post that the Taliban now regularly use very sophisticated military techniques -- "as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army's Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments." Of course, some of them have attended training sessions which teach them to fight in "austere environments," probably time and time again. If you were a Talib, wouldn't you scout the training being offered to Afghans on the other side? And wouldn't you do it more than once if you could get well paid every time?

Have a cheery day!

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Afghans speak about the Afghan election

In an amazing good piece from the New York Times' blog At War, Afghans (men, no women) express their various opinions about the recent election and the country's situation in general. And various those opinions are. If your country has troops in Afghanistan, you owe it to yourself and them to read this relatively short account.

One thing that really caught my eye were the differing evaluations that two interviewees expressed on elections themselves. Have a look at this:

Sardar Mohammad
Aged 31, from Helmand Province.

Did you vote? “No. There is no security. In fact the election is not being held there. There are Taliban, they don’t let the polling boxes reach there.”

Was it a free and fair election? “No, no, no. It is to benefit America’s private interests. They have captured the whole country. America came to capture Afghanistan to oppress Afghans.”

Would you have voted if you had the chance? “No, never. Islam doesn’t accept the infidel’s democracy, Islam has its own law, God’s book.”
And then at this:

Abdul Khalil
Teacher. Aged 60.

Was it a free and fair election? “It was not a good election. There was fraud in this election, and it was not a fair or good election because there was low turnout. A lot of people did not go to vote. Firstly, because of the Taliban, and secondly, because of our traditions many Afghan women could not go out to vote. Our tradition is that our women never go to vote, men go but not women.

“This is not a good tradition, in my opinion, but for us Afghans this tradition has been laid down for us by our fathers and grandfathers, so we have just continued living like this.

“In the last election there was fraud, and this time also. I heard it on the media, and everyone knows it is true. It is clear that there was fraud. The last time when [Yunous] Qanooni was a candidate, there was fraud. He couldn’t win the election, and this time as well.”

As he spoke his, pro-Karzai, fellow Pashtuns heckled him for being a dissenter, shouting “he’s crazy.”

Sardar Mohammed from war-torn, Taliban-influenced Helmand province appears to have bought into a fairly common Islamist meme; but Abdul Khalil (from Jalalabad? Kabul?) see things differently. He believes that there has been a tradition of elections in the country where men voted and women didn't (a bad tradition, he thinks). What elections does he mean? I can think of only three national elections in Afghanistan, two since the invasion and one in the 1960s. Does he also count some kind of local elections? Have there been a number of separate provincial elections? Anyone who knows more about this than I do, please chime in.

Image: Abdul Khalil.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

A depressing but detailed British evaluation of the situation in Afghanistan...

...from Prospect Magazine.

It's like the Vietnam war -- either one of them -- never happened.

An excerpt:
Britain’s new Afghan war began shortly after 9/11, with the deployment of special force units to support the US campaign against al Qaeda. But it was a Nato plan to extend the writ of the Kabul government across the country that brought Britain to Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, in April 2006. Bloody as it was to be, the mission was defined initially in benign terms. John Reid, then defence secretary, emphasised reconstruction and a “development zone” in the centre of the province, with the 3,300 troops deployed to provide basic security. A commander from those early days told me that the British came equipped for defence, not attack. But from the start, the mission crept forward with dangerous confusion to include fighting terrorism, defeating an insurgency, rebuilding an economy, supporting the government and suppressing illegal drugs.

In spring 2006, a revolt was already underway across Helmand by those seemingly loyal to the former Taliban government. Though the rebellion was poorly understood, the imperative to defeat it pushed all other objectives to one side. Under Afghan political pressure, Britain’s limited combat strength was deployed to establish so-called “platoon houses”—defensive positions in towns across northern Helmand and around the Kajaki dam. It seemed, at the time, that unless the government was defended the rebellion could sweep across the entire south of the country. But this came at a cost. Under siege that first summer, the British defended their ramparts with heavy weapons and air power. The fighting reduced parts of Sangin to rubble, destroyed Musa Qala’s mosque, and drove the population out of other towns. Almost no meaningful reconstruction was carried out. The base at Musa Qala was eventually abandoned in a truce with the Taliban, but during the winter of 2006-07 the British clung on elsewhere. General David Richards, then Nato commander in Kabul (and now incoming head of the army), later told me that hanging on to these outposts had little strategic impact beyond helping to save face with the Afghans.

Then there is this piece of black humor:
Beyond our strategic interest in stability there also remains a moral case for the fight. Achieving a modicum of stability in Afghanistan would give meaning to all that loss of life. We cannot in good conscience abandon the place to anarchy. And Britain can still do good if it learns deeper lessons from its campaign.


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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Robot in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Memories of Catal Huyuk

Not very much like it, but this does make me think of the Neolithic city. And reminds me of Dave Nichols.

It's actually a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kandahar.

From the Big Picture, In Afghanistan, Part Two. Don't miss Part One.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Why helicopters -- and other things -- often break and crash in Afghanistan

Fortunately for those aboard, this Chinook just redistributed the dust.

From the Big Picture's In Afghanistan, Part Two.

And Part One is here.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mapping the conflict in NW Pakistan

Besides this map, the BBC provides details on the various districts involved in the current conflict.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

I have just finished reading this highly-acclaimed novel of the recent Afghan and Afghan-American experience. I recommend it if you can bear to read a novel that the Observer's reviewer called "shattering... devastating" and which features a lot of brutality towards children. I think, however, that I will be reading Hosseini's second novel.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

News from Kaffiristan

The Big Picture
has a portfolio of pictures from Afghanistan, including a number from Nuristan (formerly Kaffiristan). Lots of poppy fields, Canadian troops, and debris from explosions.

Image: Doesn't this have an uncanny resemblance to Catal Huyuk?

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And then last night on CBC TV...

...Newsworld's Passionate Eye documentary program to be specific, I saw a show called
Pakistan's Taliban Generation. It was about how the Taliban are spreading their influence in Pakistan, and not just in the tribal areas. It was scary, in part because it was a no BS presentation. Unfortunately you cannot see this on the CBC Internet site, but you can read about it here, and perhaps hunt up another broadcast where you can see it.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama's Afghan policy -- nuts?

Dan Froomkin, one of the few sensible voices at the Washington Post, had a good column today on Obama's Afghanistan pronouncement. Froomkin often counterposes critical voices in the media to the news of the day, and today he did so with good effect, showing that Obama's so-to-speak policy in Afghanistan can't stand up to the critique that Sen. Obama made of George W. Bush's Iraq policy a few years ago: what if it doesn't work? What's the exit strategy?

Just as worthwhile as the Froomkin column are the comments by readers that follow. They are very instructive, mixing the usual fantasyland hawkish overconfidence with some reality-based criticism.

I wonder if any of my students who are now reading David Edwards' Before Taliban think that Obama's plan has any chance at all?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border

Click on the pic for the full effect. Makes you think, doesn't it?

See the Pakistan portfolio at the Big Picture.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Laura Rozen's War and Piece put me on to this article in Foreign Policy: Panic in Kabul, is Islamabad next? and it led me to a recent publication by the same author, Shuja Nawaz, on the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Image: Kabul.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Preparing for Before Taliban: some online reading

Students in my History of Islamic Civilization course are finishing their second major essay, based on Daughter of Persia, an autobiography of an Iranian woman of great interest. The next assignment will be an essay on a quite different book, David B. Edwards' Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan jihad. The title is accurate: it concerns how a variety of the Afghan people experienced the complex politics of pre-Taliban Afghanistan. It's going to take some work to come to grips with this material and so here I suggest some reading from online sources.

Just last Sunday, Juan Cole published along piece at his blog Informed Comment on the challenges of the situation. He has quite pessimistic view of the possibilities for the success of Western intervention. But he just doesn't assert an opinion, he supplies some interesting material through his links and I strongly suggest you take advantage of them.

After that, maybe you would like to meet the new generation of Taliban, the current batch of fighters, a generation or more removed from the people you'll be reading about Edwards' book. The Globe and Mail back in March had a feature called Talking to the Taliban, in which an Afghan correspondent spoke to various insurgents about what was important to them. It might be worth your while to see this, since it is your taxes and neighbors who are being devoted to defeating these people.

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The 300 Spartans (1962) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007): two historical movies

Last night I took it easy and watched two movies: The 300 Spartans, the 60s film that inspired the Frank Miller graphic novel and the recent movie The 300, and the much more recent Charlie Wilson's War, which tells the story of a Texas congressman who took the initiative in financing covert operations to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with, as IMDB says, unexpected consequences. They really provided an interesting contrast in filmic style.

I saw The 300 about a year ago and enjoyed it, though I did not think it was a particularly serious movie. Lots of perhaps unintentional laughs in that treatment of the battle of Thermopylae. Certainly in decades to come, people will kill themselves laughing at the cultural hangups revealed in the movie. But it was enjoyable. At least once.

Like Frank Miller, I saw the older movie treatment as a child and I wondered how the previous film would hold up. The answer is, not very well at all. It had its virtues: Greek landscapes, reasonably good depiction of military operations, some good sets (for instance, Xerxes' royal pavilions). The story, however, was slow and plodding and really not very much truer to the real situation than the Frank Miller version. It was a movie made up of old Hollywood clichés of character, and if you have seen enough old movies you could've written it yourself. My guess is that very few people today would write something similar from scratch. The year 1962 as seen through this particular lens, seemed a long way back.

I am not familiar enough with the small details of US policy towards the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to critique Charlie Wilson's War as a depiction of history, but it certainly is a modern movie. Movies go a lot faster now, they are much more efficient in setting the scene and characters and establishing plot points. Of course this movie was produced by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin, who are consummate pros, but what they are professional at is noteworthy.

Interestingly enough, this weekend I also saw the classic British flick Darling (1965), when Julie Christie burst upon the film scene and won an Academy award for one of her first roles. She was fabulous but so was everything else. It had that same efficiency of pacing that I noted in Charlie Wilson's War. Perhaps someone better acquainted with the history of film could tell me how unusual those qualities were when they appeared in Darling.

As for yesterday's two films as historical films, let me quote something that a friend of mine posted at her blog two days ago. Sandra Dodd said:
So I'm sewing and watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a movie [about St. Francis and St. Clare -- SM] I will love for life despite that criticism of those who can't appreciate religious-art in the form of a movie. Had it been a painting with discrepancies from the historical record, or a sculpture, or a medal, no one would care. But make it HUGE, with real scenery and real medieval buildings and costumes and music, and people say "the armor is crap" and "Clare wasn't that age," and blah blah. ART. Art.
You know, I hear a lot of that, too, and I too get impatient.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Meanwhile in that other war

In Afghanistan, a scenario somewhat familiar to readers of Napoleon's Egypt.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The mess in the Middle East: it's our war, too

We Canadians can congratulate ourselves that our soldiers are not dying in Iraq, but they are dying in Afghanistan, and the whole region is really one big political and military mess. Want to know how big? See what Juan Cole had to say the other day. Highly recommended for students in my Islamic Civilization class. We will be getting there by the end of the school year.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

The last lecture in this year's Islamic Civilization class -- April 2009

I'm referring to Andrew J. Bacevich's column in the Washington Post, He Told Us to Go Shopping. Now the Bill Is Due, and I'm exaggerating, because the focus is firmly on the United States. But some of this will undoubtedly be reflected in what I do say in April:

It's widely thought that the biggest gamble President Bush ever took was deciding to invade Iraq in 2003. It wasn't. His riskiest move was actually one made right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he chose not to mobilize the country or summon his fellow citizens to any wartime economic sacrifice. Bush tried to remake the world on the cheap, and as the bill grew larger, he still refused to ask Americans to pay up. During this past week, that gamble collapsed, leaving the rest of us to sort through the wreckage. ...

The "go to Disney World" approach to waging war has produced large, unanticipated consequences. When the American people, as instructed, turned their attention back to enjoying life, their hankering for prosperity without pain deprived the administration of the wherewithal needed over the long haul to achieve some truly ambitious ends.

Even today, the scope of those ambitions is not widely understood, in part due to the administration's own obfuscations. After September 2001, senior officials described U.S. objectives as merely defensive, designed to prevent further terrorist attacks. Or they wrapped America's purposes in the gauze of ideology, saying that our aim was to spread freedom and eliminate tyranny. But in reality, the Bush strategy conceived after 9/11 was expansionist, shaped above all by geopolitical considerations. The central purpose was to secure U.S. preeminence across the strategically critical and unstable greater Middle East. Securing preeminence didn't necessarily imply conquering and occupying this vast region, but it did require changing it -- comprehensively and irrevocably. This was not some fantasy nursed by neoconservatives at the Weekly Standard or the American Enterprise Institute. Rather, it was the central pillar of the misnamed enterprise that we persist in calling the "global war on terror."

At a Pentagon press conference on Sept. 18, 2001, then-defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld let the cat out of the bag: "We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter." This was not some slip of the tongue. The United States was now out to change the way "they" -- i.e., hundreds of millions of Muslims living in the Middle East -- live. Senior officials did not shrink from -- perhaps even relished -- the magnitude of the challenges that lay ahead. The idea, wrote chief Pentagon strategist Douglas J. Feith in a May 2004 memo, was to "transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam generally."

But if the administration's goals were grandiose, its means were modest. The administration's governing assumption was that the U.S. military, as constituted in late 2001, ought to suffice to transform the Middle East. Bush could afford to tell the American people to go on holiday and head back to the mall because the indomitable American soldier could be counted on to liberate (and thereby pacify) the Muslim world....

...the primary lesson of the Iraq war remains this one: To imagine that the United States can easily and cheaply invade, occupy and redeem any country in the Muslim world is sheer folly.

This WP column has some good thoughts, too: 9/11 Was Big. This Is Bigger.

Of course, anyone with an Internet connection, some time on their hands, and an ounce of mental flexibility could have found such analyses on the Web any time in the last five years or so, written by private citizens with no special qualifications; my colleagues who run our pension investments were doing their best to protect them some months ago.

What's worth noting is that a certain degree of reality has finally penetrated to Official Washington, of which the Washington Post is a branch.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Memories of Rome (President's Choice?)

At home, Americans are arguing over whether the financial system will collapse or whether the rich will be allowed to turn everyone else into debt slaves. Meanwhile, in South Asia, American forces have been crossing the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and Pakistan has been shooting down American drone airplanes. And no one much seems to be paying attention to the second. Or the fact that the Pakistani government almost almost got blown up en masse a few days ago.

This reminds me of those good old Roman days when the entire provinces might rise in revolt because of senatorial money lending practices, and when the senators involved were forced to commit suicide, it was in regards to some entirely unconnected matter, like pure imperial animus.

Image: the death of Seneca, whom Abelard and Eloise thought was a great philosopher, but whose moneylending contributed to the great British revolt against Rome. I wonder if A and E knew about that? I doubt it. Painting by Gerrit von Honthorst.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Al Qaeda: defeated?

I was not going to post on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, since I had nothing unique or new to say.

I still don't, but I just got around to reading Juan Cole's post for today at his blog Informed Comment. Cole is an expert on Shiism, speaks and reads Arabic, and is a strong critic of the destructive Bush-Cheney policies, so when he says that the original Al Qaeda has been defeated, and surveys the state of terrorist organizations in the Middle East to prove his point, he's worth listening to.

Canadians will be interested in what he has to say about Afghanistan.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Iraq, Afghanistan, Islamic extremism, your time is up!

No longer are you the key battlegrounds for the future, or the greatest threat to the free people of the world.

Indeed, just like all those people in Washington, I can hardly remember when or why you were important. The big bad bear is back!

Another example of brilliant political insight.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Rule of law and human rights -- only when convenient?

On my way home last night I heard on CBC Radio One that Senator Romeo Dallaire, famous in Canada as the commander of the failed UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda and ever since a strong proponent of human rights and international enforcement, bravely criticized the Canadian government for not insisting that Omar Khadar, captured in Afghanistan in 2001, be treated as the child soldier he is by international agreement. Khader, the son of an undoubted Al Qaeda supporter, was 15 years old when he was captured by American forces. Since then, he has been tortured and interrogated at Guantánamo Bay and is still held there. Although he is a Canadian citizen, and nothing has been proved against him in a court of law, and he falls into the child soldier category, a category recognized by Canada in its operations in Afghanistan, neither this government nor its predecessor has lifted a finger to obtain lawful treatment for Omar Khader. Once again, human rights we as Canadians supposedly stand for -- and claim to be fighting for in Afghanistan -- are tossed out the window when they are inconvenient, or may prove offensive to some powerful interest.

I've known this for a while and have been quite angry about Canada's unwillingness to stand up for decent treatment for all Canadians. What really offended me this time was the fact that the Liberal party leadership in parliament seems reluctant to stand up for Dallaire, a widely-admired man who knows from personal experience how the young and powerless are kicked around in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan. (Indeed, if they are only kicked around in such places...) . Dallaire said:

"The minute you start playing with human rights, with conventions, with civil liberties, in order to say that you're doing it to protect yourself and you are going against those rights and conventions, you are no better than the guy who doesn't believe in them at all.''
This comparison between Canadian delinquency and terrorist practice offended the Tory MP Jason Kenney. I'm not surprised; but I am disappointed that the Liberal leader in the House of Commons, Stéphane Dion, allowed the Tories to make Dallaire the issue. According to CTV, Dion said, "he disagreed with Dallaire's choice of words, and hinted the senator could be disciplined."

The Vanity Press has the appropriate response to Dion's remarks. He should have spoken harder truths: Canada is disgraced by this unprincipled behavior. And it doesn't matter who did it first (the Liberals did), it should stop now. Just because someone has a "dangerous sounding" Islamic name doesn't mean the rule of law does not apply in his or her case. And what is outside the rule of law? Lawlessness.

Image: the world's most dangerous Canadian teenager, before he was imprisoned and tortured.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Canada is at war

Canada is at war, and has been for a long time. Like a lot of people, perhaps, I have had a hard time coming to grips with this. In my case, I've been distracted by the rolling catastrophe in Iraq, and in the United States.

Today I came to grips with my "Afghanistan War avoidance syndrome" and started looking at something that's been staring me in the face for days, every time I've gone to the Globe and Mail site. There you and I can find the results of an astonishing journalistic project, especially astonishing in this era where a mostly corrupt and stupid US press sets the tone.

The project is called Talking to the Taliban, and that title describes it well. Reporter Graeme Smith commissioned an unnamed interviewer to put a list of 20 standardized questions to 42 Taliban fighters. As Smith says, not all of the individual answers are very enlightening, but the procedure had the advantage of being an effort to create a systematic picture. People who call themselves "oral historians" do things like this, but journalists?

I'm impressed. My reactions to the content later.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The 60s and 70s at Kabul University and elsewhere

I am still reading David B. Edwards' Before Taliban and am more impressed all the time. Particularly I like the fact that Edwards goes into specifically Afghan phenomena in great detail yet does not push the reader towards a false Orientalism, a conviction that this distant country is impossibly exotic, beyond "Western" understanding. I was struck by this explanation of how the environment of Kabul University in the late 60s and early 70s helped create both Marxist factions and Islamic parties. From pp. 220-1:

Kabul University offered a context for youthful political zeal different from any that had existed before; it is probably not an exaggeration to state that at no other time or place was such a diverse group of young Afghans able to meet together and formulate its own ideas, rules of order, and plans for the future without any interference from those older than themselves. Some of the senior members of the Muslim Youth did have connections with faculty mentors [but those faculty were reticent because they were afraid to lose their jobs]. This reticence severely restricted their influence and also meant that as the confrontations on campus heated up, no moderating influence was available to push compromise or reconciliation. In certain respects, this was a liberating one, and it alllowed new winds to blow into the ossified culture of Afghan politics. However, unhinged from traditional patterns of association, the student political parties were ultimately a disaster for Afghanistan, for as they were cut off from the past, living entirely in the cauldron of compus provocations and assaults, student radicals developed a political culture of self-righteous militancy untempered by crosscutting ties of kinship, cooperation, and respect that elsewhere kept political animosities in check.

The Muslim Youth, like their contemporaries in the leftist parties, abandoned (at least for a time) the ancient allegiances of tribe, ethnicity, language and sect on which Afghan politics perennially had rested. In their place, young people took on new allegiances, professing adherence to ideological principles they had encountered only weeks or months before and swearing oaths of undying fealty to students a year or two older than themselves. These loyalties were kept alive through a paranoid fear of subversion. Only other members could be trusted; every other person was a potential spy, an enemy out to destroy the one true party of the faithful. Marxists and Muslims were tied together in ways they did not recognize at the time. Sworn enemies, they also needed -- and ultimately came to be mirror images of -- one another, linked together by their tactics, their fears, their confrontations, and their self-righteousness. Each believed that their enemies were wrong, that they alone held the key to Afghanistan's future. Each side also believed that violence in advancement and defense of a cause such as theirs was appropriate and ultimately necessary.
I was an undergraduate in North America at this same time, and though there were big differences, and I was never a campus radical, I recognize a lot of this. It wasn't just Afghanistan that then saw a wave of young students flood into newly expanded universities during a time of crisis, all of them wanting to belong to something. It's hard to imagine a country of that period that didn't have these things, actually.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Afghan values

I am currently reading David Edwards' Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad, which seeks to understand the politics of Afghanistan in the 1970s through 90s by following a number of individuals and analyzing how they expressed themselves and how effective their language was. I still haven't made up my mind about this book, but it has already given me much to think about.

Note Edwards' discussion of communist efforts to rally poor farmers and workers to the cause through marches and demonstrations (p. 70):

...when recalling marches at which people were encouraged to shout such phrases as "Death to the Feudals" and "Death to American Imperialism," one should keep in mind the difference between the rhetoric of Marxist opposition and the dynamics of tribal opposition that heretofore had held sway through much of Afghanistan. In tribal culture, to boast that you intend to kill someone places you under the burden of that claim. Utterances have consequences, and for one to publicly promise to do that which one does not intend ultimately to do or which cannot be done makes one appear foolish and dishonorable. That is to say, if people do not realize that words have weight and use them carelessly, then they cannot be trusted, for they are clearly unaware of the implications of honor and, as such, are a danger to themselves and others.

Edwards, p. 71:

Another issue to consider is the government rallies themselves as a form of public performance... Most newspaper photographs of these events show groups of newly enfranchised farmers carrying shiny shovels and slogan-covered placards while standing or marching in parade-ground formation. However the government intended these performances to be perceived, local people generally viewed them as an embarrassment and a disgrace...such stock performance devices as the unison shouting of praise for the revolutionary party while marching in formation were viewed by people as acts of public humiliation that violated their sense of individual initiative and control.

Reading this material in the week when the Canadian parliament renewed its commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, this not only made me more pessimistic about that mission, but made me wonder if there is going to be an Afghan mission to the rest of the world to spread some Afghan values. Any informed person can recite a list of unappealing aspects of Afghan society, but on some issues they may have a thing or two to teach others.

Further, this book makes the rinky-dink communist movement of the 1970s look contemptible and ridiculous (see photo on p. 73 and the accompanying explanation), except of course for all the damage it did. In the last quarter of the 20th century, poor countries around the world were afflicted with movements and egomaniacal leaders like Afghanistan's Tariki and Amin, all determined to make the population march with shiny shovels and chant in unison, and who was better off for it all? How long was the casualty list?

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

War -- huh -- what is it good for?


World War II
$3.2 trillion
Iraq and Afghanistan To Date$695.7 billion
Vietnam War$670 billion
World War I$364 billion
Korean War$295 billion
Persian Gulf War$94 billion
Civil War (both Union and Confederate costs) $81 billion
Spanish-American War$7 billion
American Revolution$4 billion
Mexican War $2 billion
War of 1812 $1 billion

The source is the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, via Daily Kos.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Afghanistan and Iraq: the cost of war

Phil Paine writes on Canada in Afghanistan, asking how much is it costing, and for what?

And on the American front, suicide...

Image: A two-time attempter (see the Washington Post article).

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Canadian government complicit in Afghan torture, and ministers lied to cover up