Scenes from Jalalabad Road

Driving between Kabul and J-bad.

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“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

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.

Wherein I admit to going on a YA fiction binge

I’m back in Kabul now, after spending several blissful weeks in the US with my family and friends. During my vacation, I went on a YA fcition binge and finished Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

A few (hopefully spoiler-free) thoughts on that:

  • I highly recommend it.
  • Yes, the violence is excessive, unrelenting and nauseating to the point of exhausting the reader, but that’s intentional.
  • Katniss Everdeen is quite possibly the most complex teen YA fiction teen heroine ever.
  • There is no way a faithful screen adaptation of the books will not get an R rating.
  • Book three, Mockingjay, turns into Battlestar Galactica about half way through –but in a good way.
  • As the trilogy careens toward its conclusion, Collins deftly raises uncomfortable questions about the ethics of taking human life (one’s own and those of others) in a wide variety of situations, justice and vengeance in the wake of mass atrocities, and the challenges of moving a society from war to peace when both the victors and the vanquished have innocent blood on their hands.
  • Collins’ ending is a powerful meditation on how survival doesn’t automatically mean “happily ever after.”

How prey feels

From the early fall of last year:

The city is quiet, sleeping.

When it’s quiet, I hear more. Every now and then, the water tank on my roof rattles. My ears pick up something far away and strain to catch the sound. Gunfire or my imagination? The wind blows gently through the alley in my compound as I bring the laundry in. My neighbor’s baby wails and then goes silent.

Eid is over. Kabul is resting. But this calm will be, like everything here, short-lived. Somewhere in this vast and dusty city of 5 million there are young men plotting under bare fluorescent light bulbs while their sleeping comrades smile unconsciously through dreams of mass murder yet to be enacted in the real world.

Staying connected: Internet connections, mobile phones and data service in Afghanistan

Part III of my ‘Freewheeling Expat’s Guide to Kabul’ series.

Advice to help Kabul expat newcomers stave off email and social media withdrawal:

An internet connection for your house.

I generally discourage people from trying to get a “house” connection. They’re not worth the cost. A satellite or DSL connection from one of the dozen or so private ICT firms in Kabul will run you between $800 and several thousand dollars per month. Installation fees can be as high as $2,000. Ridiculous, but true. And even the most expensive Kabul connections (my office had one that cost $5,000 per month at one point!) are too slow to play streaming videos or upload/download photos and audio files quickly. All of them experience frequent outages. That’s just the way it is.

Afghan Telecom, the state-owned internet provider, offers cheaper DSL connections ranging in price from around $120 per month to a few hundred dollars per month, but Afghan Telecom’s staff don’t always know what they are and aren’t allowed to do. I’ve heard stories of expats being turned down for service by confused Afghan Telecom employees. Also, Afghan Telecom uses a filtering system that blocks sites flagged as containing objectionable content; you won’t be able to browse for swimsuits or research breast cancer on an state-owned connection.

Advice: Avoid Rana Telecom. Ask around for the best deal. Consult other expats before you sign a contract. Play hardball with your ISP if you’re being overcharged or billed for a service you didn’t use. If opting for Afghan Telecom, ask an Afghan friend or colleague to help you sort out the paperwork and installation process.

Data cards.

This is your best bet. When I moved into my second house in Kabul, I needed an internet connection but couldn’t afford to shell out hundreds of dollars every month for one. So, I asked around and a colleague suggested I get a data card from Afghan Telecom. For me, this was the perfect solution. Now, I pay 2,000 afs per month (about $60) for a slow but mostly reliable connection via a USB modem that I purchased at the Afghan Telecom central office for $170. I used a CD to install the dial-up program on my laptop, and now I have (slow) internet service almost everywhere in the country. The device is small and pack it in my laptop bag. The best part? As long as my laptop is charged, I can get online, even if the power is out in my section of the city (as it frequently is). Roshan, AWCC and Etisalat also offer data card plans.

Advice: Avail of this option. The only major downside is having to buy the recharge cards every month. Afghan Telecom only has three offices in Kabul, so, taking traffic into account, you’ll need to block off an hour or two every month for getting to and from the vendor.

Mobile phones and iPads.

You’ll need a frequency 900 compatible GSM phone for Afghanistan. You can buy a new, unlocked Android phone in Dubai International Airport for as little as $200 –less than half the price you’ll pay in Kabul. If you decide to bring a phone from the US, you’ll need to get it unlocked in Kabul. Unlocking costs around $20 for most smart phones and around $35 for Blackberries, Androids and iPhones.

First generation iPads can be unlocked for $50 to $100. Don’t bring an iPad 2 with you to Afghanistan.

Advice: The most skilled phone “unlockers”  in Kabul are found at Tamim Mobile in the Gulbahar Centre mall, City Centre and at the mobile phone store at the entrance to Chicken Street. Always ask for the price before you hand over your device.

Data service for your phone.

All of Afghanistan’s telecoms offer data service at this point. I pay 1,000 afs per month (about $25) for unlimited use through AWCC. The service is slow, but I can use Twitter, Facebook and Gmail without too much difficulty most days.

Advice: To sign up, you’ll need to bring a passport style photo and a copy of your passport or other official photo I.D. (such as an ISAF card or UN I.D.) to the mobile phone store in order to register for a SIM card. (If you don’t sign up with all the requisite identification, your service will be cut after 30 days. This is to discourage the use of SIM cards in IED detonators. No joke.)  After your SIM card is activated, you can use a data recharge scratch card to activate your mobile web service. This usually takes 24 hours from the time you register. To keep your account charged, make sure your account is recharged to at least 1,000 afs every 30 days. Mark  “recharge day” on your calendar.

The right thing: Protection for Syrians, Libyans and Yemenis in the US

Imagine for a moment that you are a 25 year old Syrian.

You’ve just earned your Master’s degree in the United States. After two years, it’s time for you to go home. But the home you left isn’t the one you’ll be returning to. Everything has changed. Instead of happiness at your impending departure from the US, you feel fear, because you will be returning to a country in turmoil and a regime that will stop short of nothing –not even torturing and killing children— to put down a popular, pro-democracy uprising. Will the things you wrote about Syrian politics while living in America be held against you by the government? Will the mere fact that you studied in America mark you as a potential dissident and earn you harassment by the security forces? If you keep quiet and stay away from the protests, will you be caught in the crossfire anyway?

Please take a moment to add your voice to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants‘ appeal for temporary protected status (TPS) for Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis in the United States. TPS isn’t the same thing as asylum. People with TPS can’t stay indefinitely, but they are protected until it’s safe for them to return to their countries of origin.

So far, more than 450 letters were sent urging President Barack Obama and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Libyans, Syrians, and Yemenis who are presently in the United States.

The more letters we send, the more likely our voices will be heard.  If you haven’t already, please ask our President and the Secretary of Homeland Security to protect the nationals of these countries in turmoil by allowing eligible individuals to remain in the United States legally until the violence and conflict in their home countries have subsided.  Click here to take action now >> 

TPS allows those who qualify to live, work, and study in the United States during the period of designation.  This temporary immigration status does not lead to permanent residency.  TPS may be granted in situations where there are extraordinary and temporary conditions, such as war or natural disaster, in the home country that prevent nationals from returning safely.

Please take action on behalf of Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni nationals today >> 

Urge our policy makers to do the humane thing and grant TPS to Libyans, Yemenis, and Syrians.

Scenes from a more innocent time

I find it hard to believe these photos were taken not much more than a year ago. Kabul is a different place now.

Afghan housemate during a night on the town (Kabul). March 2010.


Forcing Zaman onto a horse at Qargha. April 2010.


Podcasting and smoking shisha on the roof of the old Kabul Inn. I don't remember exactly when this was taken or by whom.

The fruits of war

From Jalalagood, my friend Peretz’s kickass Afghanistan travel blog, which you should definitely be reading.

Two representative symbols of Afghanistan, grenades and pomegranates, come from the same etymological root. We discovered yesterday that the word “grenade” is taken from the French “pome-grenate.” French soldiers gave the handheld explosives their name because they looked like the seeded fruits, both in their round shape topped with a crown, and in their inner workings consisting of lots of small seeds, prepped for activation.  We keep a stock of both at the Taj.

Last summer, I ate pomegranates from trees in Kabul whenever I got the chance. My friends found this disgusting. “But…those are urban pomegranates!” the Citizen Reporter exclaimed. “Their roots extend into the sewer drains.”

I shrugged and popped more tart, blood-colored seeds into my mouth.

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.