Gulbuddin Hekmatyar runs the worst high school in the world

Newsweek just published an incredible story about teenage Afghan refugees in Pakistan being recruited to join seemingly immortal terrorist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s fighters across the border. According to the article, goading poor adolescents to run off to Afghanistan for weapons training is just another part of the curriculum at the almost comically over-the-top boy’s high school/militant recruiting center in the Shamshatoo refugee camp.

Asking to be called Wahid Khan, the boy fondly recalls the early-morning assemblies where teachers praised the glories of jihad and recounted Afghanistan’s long history of resistance to foreign occupiers. And he remembers the messages scrawled on the blackboards of the upper-grade classrooms: “To Join the Jihad, the Order of Almighty Allah, Call This Number” and “Those Who Want to Repay Their Debt to God, Take This Number.”

Wahid, who ran away to an insurgent training camp “deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan” the summer after he completed 10th grade, is pissed that his dad withdrew him from the Shamshatoo school and placed him in a school where his classmates don’t daydream about bombings.

The young Afghan hates his new school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. “My classmates only talk about girls and movies,” he complains.

Unfortunately, it’s probably safe to say Shamshatoo made a lasting impression on Wahid.

As soon as this school year ends, he’s planning to head back to Afghanistan to complete his training for the war against the Americans. “My parents only live to survive,” the boy says. “My aim is to live honorably in the eyes of God—and that means jihad.”

The notorious refugee camp itself is a kind of Hezb-i-Islami ministate, complete with anti-everything-fun laws and its own secret police.

Over the past three decades the camp has become a small city of more than 64,000 inhabitants, with mosques, madrassas, high schools, a university, a hospital, and even two local newspapers—both trumpeting Hekmatyar’s Islamist line. Unlike many of his Taliban partners in jihad, he supports education for girls. But he nevertheless requires women in the camp to wear burqas, and they’re forbidden to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. Playing music in public—even the ringtone on a mobile phone—is banned, as are satellite dishes. And no one is safe from the camp’s informers and enforcers. “You can’t say anything against Hekmatyar or this destructive game in Afghanistan,” says one former resident. “His men are everywhere.” The man moved his family to Peshawar two years ago, fearing that if they stayed in Shamshatoo his two sons would be recruited. “I was worried they’d be brainwashed and disappear,” he says.

When Shamshatoo boys do disappear, they come back spoiling for a fight, preferably with foreigners, but they’ll settle for relatives and household appliances if that doesn’t work out.

An Afghan engineer with a USAID project in Kabul recently had to save his 15-year-old nephew from Shamshatoo. The boy had enrolled at a madrassa in the camp, and his behavior had changed radically. He ranted to his parents about Afghan women being molested by infidels. He trashed the family’s television set, saying it was haram—forbidden—and castigated his mother and sisters for having the nerve to laugh while people in Afghanistan were suffering. “He was completely brainwashed,” the engineer says. “The mullahs were looking for the opportunity to take him to Afghanistan to fight.”

In desperation the family finally sent him to live with his uncle in Kabul. The boy still refuses to talk about his time in the madrassa, the engineer says, but lately he has become a new kid, learning quickly, watching Afghan television (mainly soap operas), and even laughing aloud at times. “He’s very young, so it’s easier for him to change,” the engineer says. “I think he’s happier here than in Shamshatoo.”

Over at Registan, Josh Foust writes:

No, what bugs the hell out of me here is that training camp, which is either really near the busiest border crossing in the region or close enough to where a Peshawari can go, train for a month, and come back in a reasonably short period of time. That really narrows down where it could be (seriously), and I’m a bit confused as to why it’s allowed to either continue operating, or, if so, why there seems to be so little movement against it.

Any of you have other thoughts?

One of the most disturbing aspects of this story is contrast between the extremism of the teenage boys and the relative moderation of their parents and extended families. Much is made of how controlling Afghan families can be, but the Shamshatoo crisis (and yeah, I’d call hundreds of minors running off to war a crisis) underscores how far the conflict has eroded traditional social norms in all the wrong ways.

Tomorrow never comes*

I am not feeling positive about Afghanistan at this moment. Ok, that is a massive understatement.

If you pay attention to development news, you already know that CBS has exposed what appears to be massive fraud and waste at the Central Asia Institute of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ fame.

Afghanistan has taught me that the field of international development includes no heroes –but has no shortage of villains– and that development successes are the rare exception. Nightmarish, humiliating failures predominate and even those efforts that appear to have met or exceeded expectations often morph into something dark and twisted over time, calling into question their benefit to society.

Media development is one example of this phenomenon. Afghanistan went from having no media outlets except the Taliban regime’s scolding Voice of Sharia radio station in 2001 to dozens of private television channels and radio stations less than a decade later. But the media boom was not accompanied by the development of capable regulatory institutions or a culture of ethical journalism. Today, extremist broadcasters incite violence against women and stoke ethnic and sectarian grievances with near-total impunity. Freedom of speech has become synonymous with the ability to provoke divisive rage and instill fear.

Other much-hyped “successes” are eventually exposed as being too frail to last without drastic reforms –reforms the responsible parties are almost never willing to make. The most devastating, morale-stomping example I can think of is girls’ education.

For years, Western and Afghan politicians touted the expansion of education to school-age girls as one of the greatest accomplishments of the international mission in Afghanistan. Repeatedly, they stated that the post-Taliban increase in female school enrollment was proof that the blood spilled and the billions of aid dollars spent in Afghanistan since 2001 were not in vain.

But, like every other Afghanistan “success” I can think of, the celebrated gains were hollow. Improvements in education ran out of steam years ago and the quality of education available to most girls is abysmally low. The average rural girl is still forced into marriage and motherhood when she is still a child, without ever seeing the inside of a schoolhouse.

Thinking about the future is painful.

All over Kabul, high-rise apartment blocks are going up at a dizzying pace. Most of these developments are being constructed with frighteningly shoddy supplies and none of the safety measures even other very poor countries mandate. Bribes from the powerful construction mafias ensure the government stays quiet. Everyone knows what is happening, yet the urban middle class still flocks to the dream of apartment life, itself synonymous with modernization and progress.

When the next big earthquake hits quake-prone Kabul, the lethal new skyline will come tumbling down, wiping out a vast swath of the educated class in a few violent shakes.

If the entire paradigm here does not drastically shift —politically, economically, socially and environmentally— everything sacrificed for and hoped for in this country will be subsumed under a tidal wave of blood, greed and fecklessness. Even the small, precious victories won at great cost to all involved will be washed away.

Time is running out, if it has not already run out.

*My taxi ride anthem of the moment.

Payback

A few days ago, I wrote at UN Dispatch that:

The intervening parties in Libya should make it clear to the rebels that no amount of revenge violence against civilian supporters of the Gaddafi regime, or loyalist tribes, or foreign migrant workers or any other group will be tolerated.

Likewise, the international community should be absolutely clear that it expects prisoners of war to be treated humanely, in accordance with international law, regardless of which side they fought for.

Now, here’s the LA Times today:

Rebel forces are detaining anyone suspected of serving or assisting the Kadafi regime, locking them up in the same prisons once used to detain and torture Kadafi’s opponents.

For a month, gangs of young gunmen have roamed the city, rousting Libyan blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa from their homes and holding them for interrogation as suspected mercenaries or government spies.

Over the last several days, the opposition has begun rounding up men accused of fighting as mercenaries for Kadafi’s militias as government forces pushed toward Benghazi. It has launched nightly manhunts for about 8,000 people named as government operatives in secret police files seized after internal security operatives fled in the face of the rebellion that ended Kadafi’s control of eastern Libya last month.

These are profoundly ominous developments.

So, here’s me warmongering out of control

Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece that’s been showing up in my facebook feed for the past couple of days. Greenwald opposes the intervention in Libya, but not for any reasons that hold water.

Advocating for the U.S.’s military action in Libya, The New Republic‘s John Judis lays out the argument which many of his fellow war advocates are making: that those who oppose the intervention are guilty of indifference to the plight of the rebels and to Gadaffi’s tyranny:

[…] in Judis’ moral world, there are only two possibilities: one can either support the American military action in Libya or be guilty of a “who cares?” attitude toward Gadaffi’s butchery. At least as far as this specific line of pro-war argumentation goes, this is just 2003 all over again. Back then, those opposed to the war in Iraq were deemed pro-Saddam: indifferent to the repression and brutalities suffered by the Iraqi people at his hands and willing to protect his power. Now, those opposed to U.S. involvement in the civil war in Libya are deemed indifferent to the repression and brutalities suffered by the Libyan people from Gadaffi and willing to protect his power. This rationale is as flawed logically as it is morally.

Why didn’t this same moral calculus justify the attack on Iraq? Saddam Hussein really was a murderous, repressive monster: at least Gadaffi’s equal when it came to psychotic blood-spilling. Those who favored regime change there made exactly the same arguments as Judis (and many others) make now for Libya: it’s humane and noble to topple a brutal dictator; using force is the only way to protect parts of the population from slaughter (in Iraq, the Kurds and Shiites; in Libya, the rebels); it’s not in America’s interests to allow a deranged despot (or his deranged sons) to control a vital oil-rich nation; and removing the tyrant will aid the spread of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Why does that reasoning justify war in Libya but not Iraq?

Because there was no imminent massacre looming in Iraq in 2003. The no fly zone over northern Iraq, imposed at the end of the first Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds, had been effective. The rest of the country was hushed in fear by a totalitarian state and choked economically by international sanctions, but Saddam Hussein was not threatening to send his soldiers into a population center and carry out a house-by-house slaughter in March 2003. Gaddafi, in contrast, had promised to do just that. And not only had he promised a massacre, he’d also very nearly delivered on that promise.

Even after Western air strikes began, Libyan troops entered Benghazi, killing scores of people and sending thousands fleeing eastward. (Two of my journalist friends were among those who believed they would surely die if they did not get away from the city.)

In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt argues that “liberal interventionists” and neocons share most of the same premises about America’s foreign policy and its role in the world, with the sole exception being that the former seek to act through international institutions to legitimize their military actions while the latter don’t. Strongly bolstering Walt’s view is this morning’s pro-war New York Times Editorial, which ends this way:

Libya is a specific case: Muammar el-Qaddafi is erratic, widely reviled, armed with mustard gas and has a history of supporting terrorism. If he is allowed to crush the opposition, it would chill pro-democracy movements across the Arab world.

Wasn’t all of that at least as true of Saddam Hussein?

Well, no, because, in addition to the reasons I mentioned above, there was no Arab Spring to chill in 2003.

Wasn’t that exactly the “humanitarian” case made to justify that invasion? And wasn’t that exactly the basis for the accusation against Iraq war opponents that they were indifferent to Saddam’s tyranny — i.e., if you oppose the war to remove Saddam, it means you are ensuring that he and his sons will stay in power, which in turn means you are indifferent to his rape rooms and mass graves and are willing to stand by while the Iraqi people suffer under his despotism? How can the “indifference-to-suffering” accusation be fair when made against opponents of the Libya war but not when made against Iraq war opponents?

UNSCR 1973 authorizes the use of force to protect civilians. It was passed in response to the imminent threat of mass killing, not the mere existence of a repressive and often violence regime. The world has no shortage of cruel governments, but instances of regimes planning or carrying out large-scale slaughters of their own people are mercifully rare.

If the lesson the international community took away from the shame of Rwanda was not to wring its hands while the graves overflow, the lesson of Iraq was to not rush into illegal military boondoggles. Both lessons seem to have been applied to Libya.  Action was not taken until the last possible moment and not until it had been sanctioned by a multilateral authority.

But my real question for Judis (and those who voice the same accusations against Libya intervention opponents) is this: do you support military intervention to protect protesters in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies from suppression, or to stop the still-horrendous suffering in the Sudan, or to prevent the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast? Did you advocate military intervention to protect protesters in Iran and Egypt, or to stop the Israeli slaughter of hundreds of trapped innocent civilians in Gaza and Lebanon or its brutal and growing occupation of the West Bank?

The only situation among the many mentioned here that comes anywhere close to the magnitude of Libya is the Ivory Coast. It looks increasingly possible that civilians there might soon face the same terrible prospects civilians in Libya are facing now –or worse. If the Ivory Coast appears to be on the verge of a bloodbath, and force is the last option left untried to prevent the unthinkable, then yes, shit, I guess I would support some kind of intervention in the Ivory Coast.

If not, doesn’t that necessarily mean — using this same reasoning — that you’re indifferent to the suffering of all of those people, willing to stand idly by while innocents are slaughtered, to leave in place brutal tyrants who terrorize their own population or those in neighboring countries? Or, in those instances where you oppose military intervention despite widespread suffering, do you grant yourself the prerogative of weighing other factors: such as the finitude of resources, doubt about whether U.S. military action will hurt rather than help the situation, cynicism about the true motives of the U.S. government in intervening, how intervention will affect other priorities, the civilian deaths that will inevitably occur at our hands, the precedents that such intervention will set for future crises, and the moral justification of invading foreign countries? For those places where you know there is widespread violence and suffering yet do not advocate for U.S. military action to stop it, is it fair to assume that you are simply indifferent to the suffering you refuse to act to prevent, or do you recognize there might be other reasons why you oppose the intervention?

In the very same Editorial where it advocates for the Libya intervention on the grounds of stopping government violence and tyranny, The New York Times acknowledges about its pro-intervention view: “not in Bahrain or Yemen, even though we condemn the violence against protesters in both countries.” Are those who merely “condemn” the violence by those two U.S. allies but who do not want to intervene to stop it guilty of indifference to the killings there? What rationale is there for intervening in Libya but not in those places?

[...]

Gaddafi is crazy and evil; obviously, he wasn’t going to listen to our advice about democracy. The world would be fortunate to be rid of him. But war in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standard we set for defiant ones. If not, then please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We’ll know this isn’t about justice, it’s about power.

[...]

But what I cannot understand at all is how people are willing to believe that the U.S. Government is deploying its military and fighting this war because, out of abundant humanitarianism, it simply cannot abide internal repression, tyranny and violence against one’s own citizens. This is the same government that enthusiastically supports and props up regimes around the world that do exactly that, and that have done exactly that for decades.

Greenwald could have gone on and made the point that the European countries involved in the Libya war have even nastier histories in the Arab world than the United States. All that and more would have been true. But this line of reasoning assumes that countries can never learn from their past mistakes and do better.

No UN Army exists. The Security Council is composed of member states and its writ under Chapter Seven is carried out by the militaries of member states. There are no angelic countries and only a handful capable of employing force thousands of miles from their own borders. At the top of that list is the United States, for better or worse.

By all accounts, one of the prime administration advocates for this war was Hillary Clinton; she’s the same person who, just two years ago, said this about the torture-loving Egyptian dictator: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” They’re the same people overseeing multiple wars that routinely result in all sorts of atrocities. They are winking and nodding to their Yemeni, Bahrani and Saudi friends who are doing very similar things to what Gadaffi is doing, albeit (for now) on a smaller scale. They just all suddenly woke up one day and decided to wage war in an oil-rich Muslim nation because they just can’t stand idly by and tolerate internal repression and violence against civilians? Please.

Clinton’s remarks about Mubarak, and the longstanding policies they represented, are repellent. The US should not be propping up oppressive regimes in the Middle East or anywhere else. At the same time, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not currently planning any massacres (that we’re aware of) or employing violence on the scale as Gaddafi’s military. And scale should matter when the decision is made to intervene militarily.

For the reasons I identified the other day, there are major differences between the military actions in Iraq and Libya. But what is true of both — as is true for most wars — is that each will spawn suffering for some people even if they alleviate it for others. Dropping lots of American bombs on a country tends to kill a lot of innocent people. For that reason, indifference to suffering is often what war proponents — not war opponents — are guilty of.

That’s why military interventions like the one in Libya should be limited in scope, based on a well-informed calculation that they will result in fewer deaths than inaction, and adhere to international humanitarian law. As I wrote the other day, protecting civilians must be the only objective, even if that one day means protecting them from anti-Gaddafi forces.

But whatever else is true, the notion that opposing a war is evidence of indifference to tyranny and suffering is equally simple-minded, propagandistic, manipulative and intellectually bankrupt in both the Iraq and Libya contexts. And, in particular, those who opposed or still oppose intervention in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, the Sudan, against Israel, in the Ivory Coast — and/or any other similar places where there is widespread human-caused suffering — have no business advancing that argument.

I wonder if, as Bosnia descended into mayhem, Greenwald argued that the international community would be hypocritical to act there because it wasn’t stopping tandem mass killings of civilians in Chechnya, Burma, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

I have lived in Bosnia and Afghanistan. I know people from both countries who collected their neighbors’ body parts from the sidewalks and watched their capital cities blown to pieces. I do not think the international community’s limited intervention in Bosnia was made immoral by the fact that it showed indifference to Afghanistan’s ruinous civil war until that war indirectly led to the deaths of thousands of Americans.

Endgame taking shape in Libya

Although I have a ton of work to do, I. cannot. pull. myself. away from Libya news. The latest whoa nuggets:

- Last night, the Libyan military sent text messages to Benghazi residents telling them the city would come under assault today.

- NYT journalists Lynsey Addario, Anthony Shadid, Tyler Hicks, and Stephen Farrell have been missing for two days and were last heard from just before the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya fell to Gaddafi’s forces. On facebook, my Benghazi-based friend Louis described the disappearances as a “gut check.”

- Human Rights Watch wants to be really damn clear about where things stand.

“What everybody is focused on is drawing a line, literally in the sand, around Benghazi, to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from capturing the city and staging a bloodbath,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “If Qaddafi wins, it could kill the moment in the entire Middle East.”

- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) moved its staff from Benghazi and Ajdabiya to Tobruk, farther from Gaddafi’s onslaught.

- Guy Verhofstadt, a member of the European Parliament and former Belgian prime minister railed against EU inaction [also from the Al Jazeera March 16 live blog].

“This makes me sick of the EU. We have learnt nothing at all of  history. When Gaddafi is back shall we say business as usual? Are we going to close our eyes again? Will we add one black page more to European history?”

- The International Crisis Group says a no-fly zone won’t help at this stage, and is advocating instead for an immediate ceasefire backed up by the credible threat of military intervention, a peace process for political transition, and an Arab and African-led peacekeeping mission.

- The UN Security Council is expected to come to a decision regarding Libya on Thursday morning EST.

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.”

My friend Louis at Libya’s ‘Revolution Media Center’

My friends Louis Abelman and Brian Conley are in Libya working on a crisis mapping project for their innovative new media company Small World News. Louis tweeted this badass photo from the media center of the rebel headquarters in Benghazi.

Louis, man, you're too fuckin' cool.

By the way, I just wrote a piece for UN Dispatch about what might prompt a foreign military intervention in Libya.

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Springtime sunshine, wind, and warplanes

After a few weeks, Kabul begins to fray my nerves. My head pounds from the pollution and the hours I have to spend in traffic every day, and playing the “what will be bombed next?” guessing game gets old quickly. So, I was relieved when I headed out into the countryside with a few friends last weekend.

We piled into an SUV and drove to a fishing village in Kapisa province, about two and a half hours from Kabul. There, we ambled atop stone walls running alongside a river. Local boys followed us on horseback and teenage girls in brightly-colored dresses watched us inquisitively while weeding fields. At one point, I pulled a Girl Scout move and carried a toddler across the shallow river and handed her to her laughing, surprised dad on the opposite shore. The little girl wore a sequined purple dress and her big green eyes were thickly lined with kohl. She grabbed my sweater in her tiny fists as I clomped and splashed across the river in knee-high rainboots I purchased with my mother in Boulder last December.

My friends and I inhaled deeply as we walked. No diesel fumes here. No sewer stench. The air was clean and smelled of the cold beginning of spring in Central Asia. One member of our party sang little English folk songs as she walked. I picked a thorny branch and teased my friends with it.

The war was still with us, though, even in that place, and it demanded recognition. Every fifteen minutes or so, American warplanes screamed high overhead, their sleek, black forms briefly visible through breaks in the clouds. Later, when my party sat to eat some local fried, spiced fish on a wooden platform over the river, two loud noises shook the hills behind us and made us sit up straight. I didn’t recognize the sounds, but my more munitions-savvy friend Erin thought they were mortars being fired. Sunburned farm girls who had been aggressively hawking cornbread to us stopped giggling and coaxing for a moment, but only a moment.

On the way home, we drove through the vast, still-fallow fields of the Shamali plain and passed NATO vehicles parked on the side of the road. The turret gunners swiveled and looked into our car through their sunglasses as we drove by. Soldiers always find it strange to see foreign civilians moving about with neither weapons nor armor.

Kapisa gave way to Parwan and Parwan to Kabul. We drove in silence. Gazing out the window, I noticed Peshawari-style apartment complexes and office buildings, half-finished, standing in the middle of otherwise timeless fields and mud villages. None of these new buildings appeared to be connected to the power grid. I wondered who built them, and for what purpose. I tried to imagine what the farmers of the area thought of the Corinthian columns, mirror glass and whimsical purple umbrellas in their midst.

As we drew closer to the Kabul gate, one of my friends talked about moving his family from Kabul and Kandahar to Dubai. He wants to work on political reform here, but he’s realistic about the violent days to come, and he wants his loved ones to sleep safely at night, even if that means living apart from them.