Sympathy for the White Land Rover Mafia

It's a little too easy to blame the expat mafia.

It’s been a while since someone wrote an essay-length comment on one of my posts to scold me for things I never actually wrote, so I’m going to reply in full-post form to the comment Farah from Steal This Hijab left on ‘Is it safe?’ (You might want to read my  original post now, if you haven’t already.)

Here’s what Farah wrote:

Interesting to get the perspective of another aid worker in Afghanistan, however, I must disagree with some of the premises of your safety advice. I think aid workers here really need to acknowledge that the majority of people killed either by suicide bombers, armed groups, or military (international and national) are Afghans. Afghanistan is by far most dangerous for the Afghans themselves – not for the aid workers.

Has Farah read anything else on my blog? Both here and at UN Dispatch, I have written extensively about the dangers faced by ordinary Afghan civilians and by Afghan aid workers. And how does dispensing common sense safety advice to other expats demean the sacrifices or diminish the suffering of Afghans? This type of comment falls into category of: ‘You wrote about one thing. I wanted you to write about this other thing. I demand gratification.’

Further, there is a notion that aid workers in this country are people who are interested in noble work for the betterment of humankind – that they are here for selfless reasons, because they believe in democracy, progress, equality, etc. I think this could really not be further from the truth. I think that the vast majority of aid workers are here for career advancement and monetary gains, and thus are willing to take the “risk” of working in Afghanistan.

Farah is either reading lines I never wrote (my post doesn’t discuss motivations for working in Afghanistan), or she’s implying that we’re all so mercenary that, hey, maybe those of us who return home in coffins are getting what we deserve for being greedy careerists. If it’s the latter case, she needs to seriously re-examine her own moral code.

Also, these same workers are treated like elites – getting driven around everywhere, their homes cleaned, their clothes washed, their meals cooked – all expenses paid.

Not every expat lives like this. Many do, sure, but many others do not –or didn’t until recently. I spent my first full year in Afghanistan living in mud houses with only intermittent water and electricity, sleeping on a taushak, cooking my own food and walking to the bazaar by myself. None of my expenses were paid by my employer. I supported myself on a salary roughly equivalent to what I would have made back in the United States. My housemates and most of my expat friends shared in that lifestyle. We refused to live within the Archipelago of Fear.

During my second year in Kabul, walking the streets became more difficult. Men threw large stones at me when I refused to answer their catcalls. Teenage boys surrounded me, groped me, and called me vulgar names in Dari. The police began stopping me more and more often just to stare at my passport picture and pass it around to their buddies, humiliating me in front of my Afghan friends and drawing unwanted attention from passersby.

Then came the Taliban’s summer offensive, with its midnight gunfire symphonies and suicide bombing assassination campaign. My Afghan friends worried I would be kidnapped, so they advised me to take a taxi whenever I needed to leave my home. I still didn’t have a guard or driver, but I began planning my movements more carefully and carrying a switchblade.

There is also the unspoken way expats are engaged with, as if they are the most important people in any situation – their treatment of workers whether they are house cleaners, food delivery workers, drivers, security personal is appalling and would undoubtably be considered racist in their home countries. Whilst I also think that this attitude is really a reflection of the systematic and discriminatory power relations rampant in this country, and reinforced by the international community. Sometimes it feels that the lessons learned by the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles the world over seem lost on otherwise intelligent, educated “aid workers”, who take no responsibility for their behavior or the elitist treatment they receive citing “security needs” or “that’s just how it is.” Whilst, I am also an aid worker, and also receive this treatment I do my utmost to challenge these norms as much as possible. I also break away from my security “requirements” whenever possible so that I might have a better idea of what this country is like for the majority of its people. I think there needs to be a major change in the attitudes and perceptions of Afghans. International security premises its policies on this idea that every Afghan is a potential threat, which is a really impoverished way to approach the immensely important work and potential present here. I think aid workers should reassess why they are in Afghanistan, and structure their lives/work not around their personal security – but around the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of a people who have suffered 30 years of war. Perhaps, this is best done first by listening.

No, I really don’t think Farah has read much of my blog, because I have addressed these issues and Farah and I are generally on the same page when it comes to security theater and the odiousness of ‘Afghan-Free Zones.’

That said, the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere is very bad now, and worsening by the week. That’s not Chicken Little squawking — that’s an irrefutable fact.

2012 will be my third year in Afghanistan, and almost certainly my last. I won’t be able to live my freewheeling lifestyle anymore. My days of picnics in Kapisa and damboora nights at Qargha are over. This year, I will have to live in a formal guesthouse with a guard, or in a hotel. I won’t be doing much walking outside, if any at all, and I certainly won’t go strolling alone, even in the Kabul neighborhoods I’ve come to know so well I could navigate them with my eyes closed.

I’ll continue taking the roads in civilian vehicles as long as I can, because the fear I feel clawing into my ribs when I’m winding my way through the narrow valley highway between Kabul and Jalalabad keeps me honest, connects me to my colleagues, and saves thousands of dollars that could be –and are– better spent on project beneficiaries.

But going “low profile” and eschewing the typical security measures of armored cars and chartered flights between cities is not risk-free, cost-free or always the more ethical choice. If I take the roads, even while hidden under a burqa, I risk the lives of the Afghans traveling with me. If we are stopped at a Taliban checkpoint and my identity is revealed, I’ll mostly likely be kidnapped, but the Afghans with me will be summarily executed. If I live in an ordinary house in an Afghan neighborhood, instead of an expat compound, I plant a target in my innocent neighbors’ midst. With my mere presence, I knowingly run the chance of drawing evil men onto the streets where their children fly kites.

In a morally muddled conflict like Afghanistan’s, the ‘right thing’ is seldom obvious, and, in my experience, expats –aid workers and others– are usually left with no truly good options.

1998

The year Iran almost invaded Afghanistan. From the New York Times on September 17, 1998:

To American eyes, the clerical dictatorships of Iran and Afghanistan can seem variations on the same Islamic fundamentalist theme. But relations between the two neighboring countries are now at a flash point. Ethnic, political and religious tensions have been exacerbated by the recent killings of at least eight Iranian diplomats by Afghan Taliban fighters. Iran is now assembling some 250,000 troops along the Afghan border and threatens military action unless its demands for amends are met.

I wonder how the history of the past thirteen years would have been different if Iran had sent a quarter of a million soldiers into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban in the fall of 1998.

Recent writing, mostly about horrible things

Tweeting the war:

The crowdsourcing of war reporting in Kabul is sort of  like a running version of the Red Balloon Challenge, only with explosives instead of balloons.

Two and a half years on from the first documented use of Twitter to crowdsource information about an attack in Kabul, no new platform has replaced Twitter for this purpose among Afghan and foreign journalists and aid workers.

If you want to follow the war in real time, follow its most prolific Twitter users.

Why Afghanistan’s dangerous political crisis is about power, not ethnic grievances:

Ethnicity matters among Afghan politicians, but it is not a reliable indicator of political affiliation or loyalty. Even party affiliation isn’t a reliable indicator of where an individual legislator will come down on a nationally controversial issue, because Afghanistan’s party system is weak and party discipline within the parliament is almost non-existent.

The rise of Afghanistan’s next generation of feminists and their campaign against street harassment:

A generation of Afghan feminists who came of age in the years following the fall of the Taliban regime is rising to challenge their country’s harmful traditions and attitudes more loudly than ever before. Unwilling to compromise with conservatives and disappointed with the pace of reform over the past decade, a group of these women in Kabul formed Young Women for Change in 2011.

Led by feminist activist and Dickinson College sophomore Noorjahan Akbar, the group aims to fight the deep-seated beliefs that underpin the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Its members aren’t content with gender quotas in government and progress on paper. They want to see progress on the streets, in the rulings of the courts and in the behavior of the police.

The undeclared and escalating border war between Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Tribal leaders in Nangarhar and Kunar rallied around Amarkhel and urged him to stay in his position. They also promised to send their own militia fighters to support the Border Police in any confrontation with Pakistani forces, according to a local researcher who attended several tribal large tribal gatherings in Nangarhar in the past few days.

Describing the affected villages he visited in Kunar, the researcher, who requested anonymity because he often travels to Taliban-controlled areas, told me, “The whole place really looks like a war zone. The artillery shells have destroyed the compounds. Animals are dead and many people have left. The UN has not been able to get into the area, although some people who have moved [away from the border] have been helped by UNHCR.”

Taking drastic measures to protect Afghanistan’s mobile phone networks during the drawdown of international forces:

No one should confuse the planned shadow network with development. It is not development, or even emergency aid. It is a  short-term communication fail-safe for a country where a simple text message –’shooting on road to town, turn back!’– can draw the line between life and death.

“Except when Spanta forced me to say thank you”

Some subtle passive aggression in this New York Times article about Karzai announcing that the United States is talking to the Taliban and then going on a long rant wherein he blamed foreigners for Afghanistan’s environmental problems:

Much of Mr. Karzai’s speech, an address to the Afghanistan Youth International Conference, was devoted to broad criticisms of coalition forces in Afghanistan, saying their motives were suspect and their weapons were polluting his country.

“You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help; every minute we were thanking them,” he said. “Now I have stopped saying that, except when Spanta forced me to say thank you,” referring to his national security adviser, Rangin Spanta, who was present.

[...] “There are 140 countries here in our country,” he said. “They’re using different explosive materials, chemical materials and all these things. We will talk to them and ask them about all these things, because this has a negative impact on our environment, our animals, our people, so we will ask them about this. They should not think we are uneducated and do not know anything.”

There are actually 48 NATO and allied countries with forces in Afghanistan.

 

We can’t be friends

American and Afghan soldiers (via Dion at the Wall Street Journal):

In 68 focus groups involving 613 Afghan police and soldiers throughout three provinces, some Afghans praised their American colleagues. But many, when asked what criticisms they had of the Americans, described American troops as “violent, reckless, intrusive, arrogant, self-serving, profane, infidel bullies hiding behind high technology,” the report said.

In an accompanying survey of about 100 U.S. troops, soldiers uniformly gave their Afghan partners poor marks. In a series of focus groups with about 130 Americans in total, the soldiers, asked about their complaints, described the Afghan service members as “cowardly, incompetent, obtuse, thieving, complacent, lazy, pot-smoking, treacherous and murderous radicals,” according to the report.

The president and the parliamentarians (via Martine at the Afghansistan Analysts Network):

Afghanistan’s MPs have been in strike action that is unusual for a parliament: Since more than a week they refuse to debate. They sit still in the house and only from time to time let steam out by banging their desks, giving them some fun in a frustrating situation. The reason: They want to show their indignation to the President that he still has not made good of his promise to introduce the remaining seven ministers for a vote of confidence and force him to finally oblige (see an earlier blog on these developments here). In order to show that they are serious, they even had not gone into their summer recess which had actually started on 5 June. Now it is almost over without having ever started and the President is still ignoring them. He even chose to travel to Kazakhstan, instead, to participate as a guest in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit.

Afghanistan and Pakistan (via Josh at Registan.net):

Afghanistan and Pakistan have made a habit of engaging in combat with each other over the last few years. I wrote about it earlier this year for AfPak Channel, and later noted an even bigger engagement than had previously been reported. But things have found a way to get even worse.

Militants in Afghanistan launched an attack onto Pakistani forces in Bajaur earlier this week [map]. In response, the Pakistani military moved in force into the area, and destroyed a few bomb factories.

Further south, the Pakistani military got into a scuffle with Pashtuns at the Chaman border crossing who resented being treated like insurgents during a search. A few hundred Balochi tribesman came out to protest the harassment, and managed to block the crossing for several hours until Pakistani troops fired into the crowd to disperse it, wounding eight people. Then, this morning the fighting inside Pakistan resulted in a stray rocket crossing the border and killing four Afghan children.

About Kandahar’s new top cop

On April 15, the relentless Taliban assassination campaign in Kandahar claimed the life of Kandahar’s provincial police chief, Khan Mohammad Mujahid. Two days ago, Mujahid’s replacement was named: Colonel Abdul Razziq, the commander of the Afghan Border Police in the 404 Maiwand Zone.

Reading this news, it occurred to me that there could be only one explanation for the choice: a list of the worst people in Kandahar was drawn up and the new police chief was picked from that list.

You see, Razziq is more robber than cop, a nasty truth that annoyingly good journalist Matthieu Aikins brought attention to in his 2009 piece ‘The Master of Spin Boldak.’

[Former counter-narcotics officer] Lalai estimated that Razik pulls in between $5 million and $6 million per month in revenues, money he has invested in properties in Kabul and Kandahar and also abroad, in Dubai and Tajikistan. The racket itself is run directly by a select group of his commanders, who facilitate drug shipments and collect payment from the smugglers. Lalai showed me a list with their names—Janan was among them—and the names of the five biggest drug dealers in Spin Boldak. He said that Razik’s men also had imported shipping containers full of acetic anhydride, a chemical used in heroin manufacturing, from China.

Lalai was the only person I found who would openly accuse Razik of drug smuggling. The conjoined mention of “Abdul Razik” and “drug smuggling” by a Western journalist in Kandahar was enough to cast a chill over most interviews. But on condition of anonymity, two other Kandahari politicians—Achakzai tribal elders with clean reputations and who were widely respected—made similar assertions to me about Razik’s involvement in drug smuggling, his private prisons, his vast wealth, and his entanglement in a network of corrupt high officials and major drug smugglers. An official at the Kandahar office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, who asked not to be named, agreed that Razik was operating his own prisons and conducting extrajudicial executions.

I also spoke to one of Razik’s current commanders, who was initially extremely reluctant and agreed to meet only on the basis of absolute anonymity—Razik would kill him if he knew he was talking, he said. Still, he came forward because he felt that the corruption had swelled to monstrous proportions, and he was anguished about the worsening security situation that was costing the lives of more and more of his men. He said that even as the commander of a company-sized force in a volatile border zone, he was powerless to stop the convoys of drug smugglers that ran through his area. Not only were they better armed than he and his men; some smugglers had shown him letters of protection signed by Razik himself. Many of these convoys, the commander said, were in fact made up of green Border Police pickup trucks headed for the heroin laboratories in Helmand Province’s Taliban-controlled areas. Others were unmarked Land Cruisers headed south into Baluchistan.

“These men are destroying our country,” he said.

Razik’s clandestine smuggling operations have spilled over into the allied fight against the Taliban, thereby bolstering the widely held perception that the ISAF and the central government are favoring certain tribes and marginalizing others. Soon after he assumed power at the border, Razik began to feud with elements of the Noorzai tribe, particularly the Sultanzai, a rival smuggling clan spread between Spin Boldak and Chaman. One notorious incident took place during the summer of 2006 in Panjwaii District, a volatile area just west of Kandahar city. A predominantly Noorzai district, Panjwaii is a lush river valley crisscrossed by thick orchards and mud-walled compounds, and it provides an excellent springboard for attacks on Kandahar city. During the course of the summer, Taliban fighters had infiltrated the valley, and eventually the district governor, an Achakzai, called in Abdul Razik’s border force.

What followed was a debacle. The Noorzais, fearing their tribal enemies, rose up and joined forces with the Taliban. Razik and his men responded to the unexpected resistance with brutality. “They were killing women and children,” said Ustaz Abdul Halim, a Noorzai and former mujahideen commander who lives in Kandahar city. “After that, everyone was with the Taliban.”

But that’s not all! The multi-talented Razziq is also into election fraud.

Observers [during the 2010 elections] were anticipating extreme fraud in Kandahar, where what little security exists is dependent on strongmen. The most notable of these is the young Border Police colonel Abdul Raziq, who commands a large, mostly Achekzai militia based out of the key border town of Spin Boldak. In the 2009 presidential elections, Raziq proved that he could deliver vote counts through his commander network that extends through the districts of Maruf, Arghestan, Spin Boldak, Reg, Shorawak, and Daman. This year, he seems to have been elevated, in some respects, to a role in the elections equal to Ahmed Wali Karzai’s.

Amir Lalai, an incumbent who came in sixth, is a Popolzai jihadi commander with a strong presence in Shah Wali Kot, who reportedly patched things up with the Karzais after falling out during the presidential elections in 2009. Toran Abdul Khaliq Bala Karzai, the number two candidate, is a popular jihadi commander and minor political figure from Bala Karz, in Dand District, with close ties to Ahmed Wali. Fariba Kakar and Abdul Rahim Ayubi can also be considered ‘Karzai-friendly’ candidates.

However, Ahmed Wali Karzai and Raziq’s influence on the list of leading candidates has so far been less than might have been anticipated. Mohammed Ayub “Pahlawan,” a Spin Boldak Achekzai supported by Raziq, has not made that list. And the election, with high vote counts, of Hashmat Karzai and Hamidzai Lalai, two marginal players who are outside of the Ahmed Wali/Raziq nexus, is quite interesting and suggests that some sort of free market — for those with the cash and armed muscle — still exists in Kandahari politics.

In summary: there’s a reason –actually, many reasons– why my Afghan human rights activist friends refer to Razziq as “that assassin.”  But apparently none of those things matter (fuck vetting, right? yeah, fuck that squishy rule of law shit). Now, the drug-trafficking, election-rigging, rival-killing Razziq not only gets to be Kandahar’s police chief, he also gets to keep his old job as Maiwand 404 commander. He’s been promoted from rising thug to arguably the most powerful person in southern Afghanistan. How awesome is that?

Good luck, Kandaharis. I’m sorry you’ve been forced to live in a bad joke that never ends.