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.

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.

ANSO asks aid community to accept Taliban authority in some areas

The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) is asking aid workers to face grim facts: the Afghan government has lost control over large swaths of its territory and the Taliban will hold at least part of the country well into the foreseeable future. If NGOs want to protect their staff and keep saving lives, they’ll have to accept the Taliban as the official authority in areas currently under Taliban control.

Aid workers should seek permission from the Taliban to operate in areas they control, a leading NGO says today.

In a gloomy assessment of the current security situation, the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (Anso) says the Taliban are “anticipating authority”, even to the extent of developing a foreign policy.

“The sum of their activity presents the image of a movement anticipating authority and one which has already obtained a complex momentum that Nato will be incapable of reversing,” it warns.

More on this at UN Dispatch soon.


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.

Investigation into Linda Norgrove’s death launched

From the New York Times:

Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday that a British aid worker killed in an American rescue raid in Afghanistan last week may have been killed by a grenade detonated by a United States special forces unit — not by her Taliban captors, as the American command in Afghanistan originally announced.

A grim-faced Mr. Cameron appeared at a news conference at 10 Downing Street to say he had learned of “this deeply distressing development” when the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus, contacted his office early Monday. “General Petraeus has since told me,” the prime minister said, that an American-led review of the raid to rescue Linda Norgrove, 36, “has revealed evidence to indicate that Linda may not have died at the hands of her captors as originally believed.”

He added: “That evidence and subsequent interviews with the personnel involved” — believed to have included a Navy Seals unit specializing in hostage rescues that that has participated in numerous special forces raids in Afghanistan — “suggest that Linda could have died as a result of a grenade detonated by the task force during the assault. However, this is not certain and a full U.S./U.K. investigation will now be launched.”

As I wrote before, ultimate responsibility for Norgrove’s death rests with the men who kidnapped her. But emerging evidence that American soldiers might have accidentally killed the woman they were trying to rescue just lends more credibility to the argument that armed rescues in Afghanistan are likely to end in tragedy.

Kidnappings are an evil. They foist wrenching choices onto those who care about the victim, even when armed rescue isn’t a possibility.

The realtors who helped me find my current house were kidnapped by the Taliban in Ghazni and tortured for two months. The abuse inflicted on them was obvious even months later. One realtor limped from having his feet smashed, and both were partially deaf from beatings and missing most of their teeth. They were freed when their families paid a staggering, ruinous sum to the kidnappers. The payment of that ransom saved two lives, but undoubtedly encouraged subsequent kidnappings in the same area, many of which have ended with bodies dumped in ditches.

Foreign involvement in Afghanistan: can we stop pretending Afghan opinions are unknown/unknowable?

The civil society response to last month’s London conference on Afghanistan represented both Afghan and international organizations. However, the Afghan Women’s Network issued its own response to the conference communique. Re-posted below.

Reaction from Afghan Women Civil Society Leaders to the Communiqué of the London Conference on Afghanistan

By Afghan Women’s Network

Date: 29 January 2010

Occasion: Following the London Conference on Afghanistan, 28 January 2010.

The following statement was prepared and released by the Afghan Women’s Network following the London Conference on Afghanistan on 28 January 2010.

Background to Women’s Engagement in the London Conference on Afghanistan

The London Conference on Afghanistan on January 28th on security, governance, and regional cooperation concluded with important decisions on how to resolve Afghanistan’s conflict and governance challenges. Women of Afghanistan will be profoundly affected by these decisions, yet Afghan women were provided no official designation to feed into decisions nor negotiate conclusions In an event that spanned an entire day and included more than 70 countries, only a single Afghan woman was included to speak as part of the official agenda, co-presenting the concerns of Afghan civil society. Only through the help of BAAG in coordination with ACBAR, was she provided a few extra moments to also present a distinct message from the women of Afghanistan on their priorities for the future of the country to the assembled foreign ministers, military representatives, and other participants.

Afghan women will not be silent nor made to be invisible.

The Afghan Women’s Network, supported extensive consultations with Afghan women leaders preceding the London Conference and then provided for four Afghan women civil society leaders to travel to London during the conference proceedings to present women’s perspectives on security, governance, and regional cooperation. The result was a package of concrete recommendations, presented as the statement to the London Conference.

This statement sets out Afghan women’s demand that the proposed reintegration process is not undertaken at the expense of women’s hard-won human rights. It stresses the need to ensure meaningful representation of women in any negotiations and in all governance reform initiatives. It underscores the centrality of women to deepening democracy, combating corruption, and brining peace and stability to the country.

While in London, the delegates used every possible opportunity to spread the message of Afghan women to official delegates to the conference, including foreign ministers, office of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, SRSG to Afghanistan Kai Eide, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai. Their message was picked up by media throughout the world. Personally invited to the press conference of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, they were singularly recognized at the event by the Secretary for their courage and commitment to human rights.

Reactions to the Final Outcome Communiqué of the London Conference

The final communiqué of the London Conference clearly reflects the advocacy efforts of the Afghan women who traveled to London, and the document includes central priorities of the women of Afghanistan they were charged to represent. This accomplishment is recognized not only for the commitment of Afghan women, but also that of the Afghan government and its international partners to ensure that human rights must be at the heart of any efforts to seek a political solution to the conflict through negotiations and incentive packages directed to the Taliban. The women of Afghanistan endorse this provision and strongly recommend a rigorous monitoring system accompany any reintegration scheme to ensure women’s rights are not violated and that any such violation are aggressively and swiftly addressed as a national security concern.

Also warmly welcomed in the communiqué is the commitment to fully implement the National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan and the newly signed Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. Additionally applauded is the renewal of the Government of Afghanistan’s commitment to strengthen the participation of women in all Afghan governance institutions, including elected and appointed bodies and the civil service, To make these promises reality, the women of Afghanistan call on public decision makers to immediately develop a concrete strategy with meaningful affirmative action policies. Our more specific reactions to the official communiqué include the following recommendations:

On Security

  • The phased growth and expansion of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police must be accompanied by efforts to ensure the security forces have the protection of women as one of their main functions. This can be enhanced through recruitment of more women in all security sectors, investment in Family Response Units, and training for the security forces and the justice sector on the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law.
  • The Government of Afghanistan’s commitment to continue development of a National Security Strategy must be consistent with UN Security Council resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889. A National Action Plan on Women peace and security should be integrated as a core element of the national security policy, and a quota of women’s representation in all peace and security deliberations be established.
  • Women should be consulted by and represented by the authorities developing the national Peace and Reintegration Programme. The proposed Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to finance the Afghan-led Peace and Reintegration Programme should ensure that a proportion of the financial incentives to communities to support reintegration are used to support women’s empowerment and development and the protection of their human rights through rigorous monitoring and redress.
  • A specific proportion of international donor assistance to be channeled through multi donor trust funds such as The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund and the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan should be devoted to addressing women’s specific needs in the areas of reconstruction, rule of law, and access to formal justice.

On Governance

  • Women should be engaged in consultation to develop an overall plan for more effective and accountable national civilian institutions, including the civil service and the police.
  • The training for 12,000 sub-national civil servants at the subnational levels should include skills building in analyzing and responding to women’s development and security needs. Affirmative action policies should be developed to ensure a significant portion of sub-national-level civil servants are women.
  • The proposals for a new national policy on relations between the formal justice system and traditional dispute resolution councils must be treated as an opportunity to ensure that women’s constitutional rights are protected in any judicial or dispute resolution systems with an emphasiz on investing funds on the formal justice system.
  • Women must be centrally involved in all anti-corruption efforts to ensure that the specific forms of corruption that afflict them are addressed.

Next Steps

A clear agenda was established at the London Conference, including the announcement of an Af-Pak Peace Jirga, a Loya Peace Jirga, and the Kabul Conference. Each of these events provides opportunity for the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners to demonstrate the commitment articulated at the London Conference that reconciliation and reintegration will not take place at the expense of human rights and that women are central to bringing peace and stability to their country. Women must be fully represented at every stage of planning for these events and must be included at decision-making levels at the events themselves. In the months ahead, the Afghan Women’s Network will hold national consultations to prepare the women to participate and to be sure their perspectives are adequately represented in any decisions. We, the women of Afghanistan, are committed to working alongside the Government of Afghanistan and the international community to bring peace and prosperity to our beloved country and all of its people. We stand as full partners for the future of Afghanistan.

We extend our deep gratitude to international supporters who made this opportunity possible for the women of Afghanistan, in particular the United Nations Development Fund for Women, the Initiative for Inclusive Security, BAAG and ACBAR.

Easterly’s pointless echo chamber

Maybe I’m being too harsh on professor Easterly. Wait, no I’m not. He becomes petulant when anyone from a fellow blogger to a large multilateral organization doesn’t immediately respond to his criticisms, yet he often ignores the most knowledgeable and thoughtful of his own critics.

Take his series of posts on the rights-based approach to development (or, you know, what Easterly imagines the rights-based approach to be). The professor didn’t even respond to the human rights professionals who commented on his posts. Matthias, one such commenter, repeatedly tried to engage Easterly (here, here, here and here), but to no avail. Finally, throwing in the towel, he wrote:

Unfortunately, neither Bill nor his supporters in this particular debate seem to adapt at all to contrary arguments: they don’t counter them, they don’t adjust their own arguments to take into consideration the counter-arguments, they just keep on building up straw men, and ripping them apart.

That about sums it up.

Alanna Shaikh’s fantastic writing is the only reason to keep Aid Watch in your RSS, and it deserves a much better showcase.

Bill Easterly’s cheap, ignorant Afghanistan snark

On his blog, Aid Watch, Bill Easterly spends an inordinate amount of time lambasting others for how they portray Africa. The targets of his ire include fellow bloggers and academics, writers and journalists, huge multilateral organizations, aid agencies, the US military, and even teenage celebrities on Twitter.  (I’m not kidding on that last one. He really wants Selena Gomez to know what an awful person she is.) He rails against those who write about specific African countries with what he views as shallow knowledge of those countries. He shrieks at writers who oversimplify complicated issues, or reinforce stereotypes.

Some of Easterly’s critiques are justified and well-reasoned, but most are cheap shots. Nevertheless, when it comes to Africa and macro-economics, it’s hard to disagree that Easterly knows his stuff.

However, Easterly has recently taken to writing about Afghanistan –a country he very obviously knows close to nothing about.

The good professor apparently believes it’s an offense worthy of relentless e-shaming for someone who isn’t an Africa expert (or, more precisely, an Africa expert who shares his economic views) to write about Africa, yet can’t understand why anyone would criticize him for posting his own deeply ignorant opinions about Afghanistan’s conflict and humanitarian response.

His most recent Afghanistan post is a good example of this hypocrisy in action. It  consists of the sarcastic title “What’s So Hard About Nation-Building?” and a New York Times graphic Josh Foust of Registan described as “so wrong it’s almost mendaciously misleading.”

The Times graphic purports to show “The Five Rungs of Afghanistan’s Traditional Tribal System,” and Easterly’s title is clearly intended to imply that “nation-building” in such a confusing tribal society is pointless and idiotic.

(Geewillakers that frame seems familiar!)

The problem is, as Josh pointed out in a post he linked to in Aid Watch’s comments, the graphic is flat-out wrong. Josh’s post de-bunking it is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s just a taste of what Easterly was too lazy and smug to spend 15 minutes researching.

It’s difficult to know where to begin, so we’ll start at the top. The first point the NYT makes—that Pashtuns make up only 38% or so of the population—is correct, but this graphic misses that the other 62% of the population is non tribal. So when they discuss “traditional Afghan tribes,” they are really discussing Pashtun tribes. The distinction matters, since in that same point they correctly point out that ethnic distinctions carry weight—if only about a third of the population is tribal, and the ethnicity of those tribal people is at the “top” of the rung, then you’re not really discussing Afghanistan, you’re discussing those tribal people. So from the start, the Times is misleading its readership in labeling this a discussion of “Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structure.”

Then there’s the problem of calling Pashtuns tribal. No one—not one anthropologist who’s studied Afghanistan (yes, there are many, and their work goes back decades) has described the “Traditional Afghan tribal system” of having five rungs. It’s more detail than we need here, but discussing a Pashtun’s salient identity requires moving beyond “levels” of identity—discussed in detail here, as well as in a detailed paper by the researchers at the Human Terrain System.

In fact, those researchers say it explicitly:

Pashtuns’ motivations for choosing how to identify and organize politically—including whether or not to support the Afghan government or the insurgency—are flexible and pragmatic. “Tribe” is only one potential choice among many, and not necessarily the one that guides people’s decision-making.

The report goes on at length—dozens of pages—about how viewing things only as “tribe” even amongst supposedly “tribal” Pashtuns is a misleading way to view their social structures.

Did you finish reading? Congratulations, you’re now better informed than Bill Easterly!

If some night I don’t come home

Another aidworker has been kidnapped in Chechnya. Zarema Gaisanova, an employee of the Danish Refugee Council, has been missing for five weeks, and, surprise, surprise, the police are being accused of abducting her. Gaisanova’s family and friends want her back.

I’m no longer going to feign hope when it comes to abductions of aidworkers, journalists and human rights activists in the North Caucasus.

We know how this story ends.

Afghan Ministry Triage

Spencer, reporting from the Afghanistan hearings, posted this earlier today:

Clinton said in testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee that intelligence-sharing was accelerating throughout the government about Afghan “corruption and major crime.” And then came something new. “We are certifying Afghan ministries,” she said. “There will be some that we believe are functioning well enough now that we can with confidence provide funding, holding their leadership accountable. And there are others, frankly, that we’re not gonna touch. Until they’re cleaned out, they’re not getting any United States civilian assistance.” She did not specify which ministries she meant.

::Shakes fist at Secretary Clinton::

I want specifics. My impression is that we’re going to triage the ministries, which is an interesting idea. We’ll pour assistance into some that show promise but need serious work, leave others mostly alone because they stand on their own as is, and withhold aid from a third, severely dysfunctional and corrupt group.

So, what’s the break-down? I can guess, but I’d like to know.