The Libya conversation

Gaddafi’s forces are continuing retake ground from the rebels in eastern Libya, and only one town now stands between Gaddafi and the rebel stronghold Benghazi.

Over the past week, Libya has been the main conversation topic among my expat friends here in Kabul. Our conversations have gone something like this:

“Damn. It looks like Gaddafi is going to win.”

“That madman is going to make good on his promises to slaughter the opposition. There’s going to be a bloodbath. The international community needs to immediately impose a no fly zone.”

“But a no fly zone is unlikely to do much good at this point, because Gaddafi is relying more heavily on tanks and artillery.”

“Well, we should amend the arms embargo, so the rebels can buy better weapons.”

“Even if that were easy — it’s not– the rebels are mostly ordinary young people. They’re having trouble using anything more complicated than a Kalashnikov, and friendly fire injuries are rife in the hospitals in Libya’s east. Bigger, more powerful weapons aren’t going to help. “

“I guess we’re back to a no fly zone!”

“Except that imposing a no fly zone won’t do much, and inherently begs the question ‘what next?’”

“So… we should consider the possibility of sending troops?”

“No, because the Libyan rebels and the rest of the Arab publics are firmly against that.  The deployment of Western troops to any Arab country is going to evoke painful memories of Iraq, and popular rage against the United States and its allies.”

“But the rebels are already mad at the West for NOT doing more to help them.”

“True.”

“If the Libyan revolution is brutally crushed, the pro-democracy movements in the rest of the region will be halted and the narrative will be ‘The brave Libyan youth were massacred as the West stood idly by.’”

“The US and NATO cannot be the perpetual fail-safe. The Arab League and the African Union need to take some responsibility.”

“Oh yeah, like the Arab League or the AU will do anything but talk. Gimme a break. Their member governments are watching Al Jazeera and sweating.”

There are non-military steps the rest of the world can take to support the rebels. Governments can recognize the rebels’ council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of  Libya and isolate Gaddafi.

Gaddafi won’t care. It’s not like he’s ever going to be attending swanky trade summits after this, no matter what he does now.

“I need another drink.”

Sliding

Herat Citadel. September 2010. A bombing in Herat killed 3 civilians today.

My worldview, if one can call it that, hews to the famous M.L.K  quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I am trying –hard– not to lose sight of that.

Being here continuously (read: no R&R) since the beginning of the year has been physically and emotionally grueling. It has been one of the hardest and at times most painful experiences of my life, and also one of the most formative. Thrown into situations I don’t know how to even begin describing, and for which nothing in my previous life prepared me, I’ve shed many old beliefs and sharpened others to points fine enough to pierce steel.

The war in Afghanistan is worsening in ways that are tangible. Places that were safe when I arrived last winter, places I traveled with no fear, have since slipped into violence and become “no-go” zones. Taliban control is expanding in the north of the country.  The parliamentary campaign season was bloody and frightening. Every few days now, I hear of another kidnapping or another assassination. In the south, suicide bombings have become as ordinary as car accidents. And now the air war is back.

Over dinner a few nights ago, a friend asked me where I think all this is going. I answered honestly: I don’t know. I wish I did, but I have no idea what Kabul city, let alone Afghanistan, will look or feel like two months from now, six months from now, a year from now. Karzai is calling the talks with insurgent groups a “peace process.” Yet, we, politically informed expats and Afghans, still have very little idea what’s actually on the negotiating table or how any sort of political deal might work.

Meanwhile, it is obvious that most of the international community has given up on values: anti-corruption, human rights,  justice, democratization –those have been discarded. All the internationals seem to be working and hoping for at this late hour is some vague concept of stability, the aversion of all-out disaster just long enough to allow their soldiers a dignified exit.

Afghanistan is sliding, and no one knows how to put the brakes on.

None of this is revelatory, but I felt the need to write it anyway, to get it out of myself so I can get back to work.

“That is why you are here”

AREU just released a new report on the Shia Personal Status Law (previously known in the Western press as the Shia Family Law), and it is one hell of a report –fifty one pages long and illustrative of how the international community interacts with the Afghan government and Afghan civil society. I’m making my way through it now. When I’m done, I hope I’ll have time to post something on it. Until then, here’s a telling snippet:

The Afghan organisations interviewed reported being consistently told that this was an internal issue of the Afghan state and it was outside of the role of international institutions to interfere. UNAMA was singled out for particular criticism for their inaction. Civil society had higher expectations of UNAMA’s role in speaking out on human rights, gender and political development issues. One MP remarked on UNAMA’s cumbersome bureaucracy, slow reactions and the institution perceiving itself as always having its hands tied.

Representatives from UN agencies as well as western embassies were also reportedly present in the parliamentary gallery when the bill was being discussed and did not raise the issue as a concern with their own governments at that time, to the consternation of MPs alarmed at the bill’s contents and the lack of debate. During a meeting hosted by a UN agency between Afghan women activists, MPs, UNAMA and several embassies, one Afghan woman stated, “We understand if the embassies have to work behind the scenes. But they should be working, you know? And it is UNAMA’s job to be interfering, to speak up on human rights issues. That is why you are here.”

The same old canard

From the comments section of Aid Watch, emphasis mine:

Lure D. Lou:

Transitionland says that immediately tackling corruption could go far to reversing this. What I would say is that one man’s corruption is another man’s way of life…as long as you have great disparities in wealth, a non-democratic power allocation, and fortunes to be made from drugs and weapons you will get nowhere in tackling corruption. Corruption is endemic to even the most advanced societies…just look at New Jersey politics…what you need are alternative structures that aren’t corrupt that will hopefully draw enough people away and give them enough incentives to stay on the straight and narrow. This is not going to happen any time soon in Afghanistan, Nigeria, or even New Jersey. The focus on corruption is a waste of time…better to use the corrupt system than to try to change it…but goodie-two shoes Americans are unlikely to want to go there…we want to save souls while allowing our contractors to rake in the dough and our NGO legions to pad their ‘conflict zone’ resumes…the Great Game of neo-colonialism continues.

Good governance NGOs in places like Afghanistan make me laugh.

A few things:

1) When I mentioned corruption, I was referring to corruption by aid agencies and their contractors. If corruption in the aid world is, as Lure D. Lou argues, a “way of life,” it is not one I want any part of.  We condemn and punish corruption in the for-profit sector (or should); there’s no reason we should apply a different set of principles to non-profits, including aid agencies.

2) New Jersey is corrupt. Comically so. But its corruption is, for the most part, the non-lethal variety, and it is mitigated (though not always successfully) by strong rule of law. Comparing Afghanistan to New Jersey is absurd. Afghanistan won’t reach New Jersey’s level of governance development for a very, very long time (I’m pretty confident I will be long dead by the time it does), but that doesn’t mean Afghanistan can’t do better, or shouldn’t. Corruption in poor societies steals food from the mouths of the poor, deprives people of basic necessities of life, walks hand in hand with human rights abuse, kills. If you don’t have an ethical problem with that, you’re an asshole.

3) It’s “better to use a corrupt system than try to change it”? Use it for what exactly?

Lou’s muddled argument seems to be that corruption is hardwired into human nature, but some humans (read: people from the developing world) are slightly more prone to corrupt behavior than others.  Lovely.

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Another prize-winning comment:

Justin Kraus:

Transitionland,

I for one wish there were more people like Lure D. Lou in development work, at least he is thinking outside the box a little bit. Your own approach, and that of most development agencies, strikes me as arrogant and patronizing. Talking about how the “international community,” which if it exists at all in any meaningful sense, is surely the most hypocritical entity on this planet, should “hold the Afghan government to its commitments” as if they were somehow freely made in the first place (how many troops do “we” have in that country?), and as if it were completely unproblematic for “us” to be telling them how to run their country. What we call vetting, they call western imperialist encroachment. Why not “allow” them to choose their leaders as they see fit? We don’t go waltzing into Japan which, even with the recent election, doesn’t have a “true” democracy in any western sense of the word?

And then you take this patroninizing protective posture over the Afghan people by stating that Mr. Lure is “dangerous” to the people that you are (supposedly) “helping.” Who is the best judge of what is and what is not help? From the looks of it most Afghanis are rejecting Western “help.”

Perhaps we should be humble enough to take a step back and stop trying to impose our “help” on a people who clearly prefer to manage themselves in ways very different from “our” own.

1) Putting international community in snark quotes is lame. Everyone knows what it means, or should anyway. It’s a convenient shorthand for a collection of governments and IOs working together. In Bosnia, it’s the OSCE, EU, UN, and United States. In Afghanistan, UNAMA, ISAF, donor agencies, NGOs, and foreign governments. No one is going to write all that out. You find international community an obnoxious phrase? Too bad. Get over it already.

2) Holding the Afghan Government to its own constitution and to international law is not disrespectful, but the opposite would be. “You must do better” implies “and we know you can.”

3) As for “telling them how to run their country” — well, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Are we shoving an unsuitable form of government and set of ideals down the throats of unwilling Afghans?

We are, if you count only those  who gain personal benefit from anarchy, corruption, and misgovernment. These are the people who, in every transitional society, are first to invoke “cultural differences” when the existence of said differences would oh-so-conveniently allow them to gain or retain power.

Afghan public opinion on many things  –that is, what ordinary women and men think– matches closely the more principled goals of the international community in Afghanistan. If anything, Afghans have actually expressed stronger desire for good governance, rule of law, and transitional justice than many expats.

4) “What we call vetting, they call imperialist encroachment.” Um, no. That’s just factually untrue.

From page 28 of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission report, A Call for Justice:

Many people who participated in our study forcefully made the point that human rights violations continue in Afghanistan today and that abusers remain in power. The vast majority of respondents who participated in the survey wished to see those who committed human rights abuses removed from their posts. Ninety percent of respondents indicated a desire to see the removal of perpetrators from their posts. The results of the survey were reflected in the sentiments expressed in the focus groups. Most participants wished to see the exclusion of human rights abusers from public office in order to prevent the reoccurrence of injustice. In particular they wanted to prevent perpetrators from gaining political power in the future.

Some “Western encroachment” that is.

5) “Why not ‘allow’ them to choose their leaders as they see fit?” That’s a great idea. Only, slightly difficult in practice at the moment for two reasons: some of those in power will do almost anything, including defraud, intimidate and kill, to hang on to it. And the international community is not doing enough to protect the right of ordinary Afghans to freely and fairly choose their own leaders.

6) Afghans (Afghani is a unit of currency, like dollar or Euro) aren’t “rejecting Western ‘help’” –they are rejecting our hypocrisy, laziness, corruption, insufficient respect for Afghan lives on the military side of things, and unwillingness to listen to Afghans who actually want the best for their country. That’s a different animal entirely.

Election day in Kandahar

What I’m reading right now.

The young woman from Kandahar sat with me in the office of an independent monitoring group two days before Afghanistan’s August 20th presidential election. Halima had defied her family and threats from neighbors in the tumultuous southern region to work as an election observer and to vote. “It’s in our destiny to take our rights,” she said. “We should not be scared of anything.”

There was, unfortunately, a lot to be scared of on election day in Afghanistan’s south, as the rest of this HRW article details.

How can we ever know what Afghans want?

For starters, we can pay attention when they spell it out.

On elections and economic development:

Millions like Mubaruz Khan stayed home on Aug. 20, a sharp contrast to 2004, when Afghans jammed polling stations to give President Hamid Karzai his first term. Ominous warnings from the Taliban suppressed turnout, but some Afghans said they were also discouraged by the government’s failure to halt endemic corruption, spiraling unemployment and crumbling security.

“We want peace. We want security. We want job opportunities,” the 55-year-old Khan said Monday. “Otherwise, the democracy and the elections that they are all shouting about every day mean nothing to us.”

On women’s human rights and political inclusion:

“In the beginning we were a priority, and efforts were made to have the active participation of women in public life. Now we are no longer on the agenda of the government and international community,” said [Meshrano Jirga MP] Shinkai Karokhail. “We are not being consulted on any major decisions. We are not being consulted on talks with the Taliban. There is a fear in our heart that the politicians will compromise our rights.”

Afghanistan goes to the polls

There is much foreign cynicism surrounding this election, and some Afghan cynicism too. But, in our clever and easy dismissals of the entire process as window dressing, we lose sight of the fact that Afghans care. Afghans care enough to walk long distances and risk bullets and suicide bombs to vote in this election.

Maybe the outcome is a forgone conclusion. Maybe it’s not. We will have to wait and see. In the mean time, my thoughts will be with those casting votes, those running and monitoring polling stations in far-flung towns and villages, and those, like the good folks at Pajhwok, bringing us armchair observers news of the election at great personal risk.

Follow @pajhwok on Twitter for real-time updates and reports from polling stations across the country.

Some stuff

First the good news.

Via Spencer Ackerman: the AP is reporting that the concrete barriers in Baghdad are coming down. It’s about time.

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Before catching my return bus last weekend, I used my sister’s Netflix account to re-watch the first half of The Edge of Heaven and was again reminded why Fatih Akin is the best thing in European cinema right now.

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Now, plunging into the crappy stuff.

Jill has a great post up about how the larger culture of misogyny and dehumanization of women enables men like George Sodini by legitimizing their view that women are things they are entitled to possess.

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“In Florida and Pennsylvania children as young as 7 can receive a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole.”

America’s justice system: made of FAIL.

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Hamesha writes from Kabul:

[...]one fears we have bitten off more than we can chew. we have dived headlong into constitutional liberal democracy, with the attendant outcome that we have none of the above: neither rule of law, nor true democracy, nor liberalism. and in the process the masses have come to abhor all of it, because it has not come at their pace, their comfort zone.

Some will say, well duh, this is a tired point, holding parliamentary elections in 2005 was sheer insanity. But if it is such a tired point, why do we always seem to screw up the sequencing of these things?

With no way to rewind history, the task ahead is that of filling Afghanistan’s hollow democratic order with something approximating the real thing. It will be slow-going and, I worry, increasingly dangerous in the near term.

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A few weeks ago I received an email from the refugee resettlement office, inviting me to watch Turtles Can Fly,  Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s critically-acclaimed 2005 film about orphans in Iraqi Kurdistan during the weeks leading up to the US invasion.

As much as I enjoy activist get-togethers, I passed on this one. Back in early college, I picked Turtles Can Fly out, pretty much randomly, from the foreign films rack at the video rental store near my sophomore residence hall. Without exaggeration, it was the single most upsetting film I have ever seen (followed closely by Lilja 4 Ever and Osama). Days afterward, I found myself breaking down in the shower.

American films, even pitch dark indie ones, generally shy away from portraying the world as a relentlessly violent and callous place to children.  If a child protagonist suffers it is never so much or so viscerally that the viewer feels the need to look away. Turtles Can Fly dispenses with all the sentimentality that surrounds children’s experiences in American cinema and goes well beyond where, say, Spanish cinema goes in this direction.

The film’s main protagonist, Satellite, is the shrewd thirteen year old leader of a tribe of orphans in an IDP camp near the Iraq-Turkey border. The children earn enough money to survive by clearing minefields and selling the unexploded mines. Satellite supplements their income by installing satellite dishes and translating English television news to villagers eager for information about the impending American invasion.

Ghobadi’s film overflows with imagery of bodily and social devastation; the deformed bodies of child victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks, a toddler’s chubby fingers grasping a razor wire fence, a  soldier shooting at the heels of Kurdish children from a sniper tower across the border. Even the sky is merciless. Day after day, it rains on the orphans’ meager existence, muddying their feet and dirtying their leaky tents.

Turtles Can Fly isn’t about underdogs making it against all odds (the title refers to the release of death). Instead, it’s about how even brave, smart, resourceful people get ground into the dust by historical events and material circumstances beyond their control. Ghobadi rejects the (largely American) idea that the human capacity to bounce back from tragedy and trauma is limitless. By subjecting the viewer to the fates of Satellite and the other children, he says don’t be so naive.

The take-away message of Turtles Can Fly is that respecting people like the film’s child protagonists requires a more sober understanding of where agency begins and ends.

It’s an important film, but once was enough for me.

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John le Carré is being put out of business by real life.

A former Blackwater employee and an ex-US Marine who has worked as a security operative for the company have made a series of explosive allegations in sworn statements filed on August 3 in federal court in Virginia. The two men claim that the company’s owner, Erik Prince, may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. The former employee also alleges that Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”

This is one of those stories for which “fucked the hell up” doesn’t even come close.

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Take a look at this.

The alterable future

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We have a strong civil society that could, in theory, overcome the entrenched interests of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. At this late date, however, it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption. Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.

-Chalmers Johnson in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

Blocking new funding for the F-22 was a start –a small and far from bold start, but a start nonetheless. Let’s keep Nemesis waiting.