In defense of Mac McClelland (And the view from where I’m standing)

The indignant responses to Mac McClelland’s personal essay in GOOD about how she used consensual, violent sex to ease the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder she developed while reporting on sexual violence in Haiti are extreme examples of the limiting, self-defeating call-out culture in both journalism and American feminism.

That 36 well-respected women working as journalists, aid workers and researchers deemed it necessary to endorse a letter that shames a reporter grappling with PTSD for things she did not even write is evidence of just how widespread support for self-censorship is among a network that, were it to live up to its ideals, would encourage bold self-expression, but instead mobilizes to stamp it out and sow fear of independent thought. As Jill at Feministe put it in a piece about calling-out in the feminist blogosphere: “We have increasingly focused on shutting down voices rather than raising each other up.”

The letter:

To the Editors:

As female journalists and researchers who have lived and worked in Haiti, we write to you today to express our concern with Mac McClelland’s portrayal of Haiti in “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.”

We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland’s story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.

The issue here is that McClelland re-tells the story of the gruesome aftermath of the rape of a Haitian woman, an aftermath McClelland herself witnessed, at the beginning of her piece. But she doesn’t bring up the story to make her piece more shocking –she brings it up because it was the event that set her on a collision course with PTSD. In other words, without telling that story, the rest of the essay wouldn’t make sense. It is a deeply disturbing, completely necessary part of McClelland’s narrative of her own trauma.

Between the 36 of us, we have lived or worked in Haiti for many years, reporting on and researching the country both long before and after the earthquake. We each have spent countless hours in the camps and neighborhoods speaking with ordinary Haitians about their experiences coping with the disaster and its aftermath.

We feel compelled to intervene collectively in this instance because, while speaking of her own personal experience, Ms. McClelland also implies that she is speaking up for female “journalists who put themselves in threatening situations all the time,” women who have “chosen to be around trauma for a living,” who she says “rarely talk about the impact.”

In writing about a country filled with guns, “ugly chaos” and “gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments,” she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.

“This is what a hit piece reads like when it’s cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular,”
Conor Friedersdorf wrote in his response to the letter at the The Atlantic.

I couldn’t agree more.

Nowhere in McClelland’s piece are the terms “heart-of-darkness dystopia,” “savage men consumed by their own lust,” or “danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA” used. And since when is it verboten to call men who gang rape homeless women “monsters”?

Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland’s piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting.

McClelland’s piece for GOOD is not a scholarly article about Haitian history. It is not even a reporting piece about Haiti today. It is a personal essay about one reporter’s literally physical battle with her psychological demons. (How difficult is it for other media professionals to distinguish between these?) McClelland isn’t obligated to fill her essay with any more context than is necessary to make sense of her own actions.

Ms. McClelland’s Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there.

The Afghanistan I know is not the Afghanistan many of my friends who have lived with more safeguards (and those who have lived with fewer) know. In fact, my Afghanistan –that is, the entirety of my experience in this country up to this moment– is known only to me.

Expats in places like Haiti and Afghanistan are not a uniform group. Some of us take more risks than others, live further outside the parameters of what is considered a sensible foreigner’s lifestyle and break more rules, both spoken and unspoken.

Those who live closer to the edge and those who do not stay long enough to experience the very real bursts of joy and love amidst the suffering, are struck more deeply by trauma. (McClelland definitely falls into the second category, and probably the first as well.)

When discussing the rampant, menacing sexual harassment on Kabul’s streets with other expats, I have actually been told that the problem is not serious, that I am being hypersensitive, that I am exaggerating and overreacting. The people who have said these things are, for the most part, people who do not walk alone, have not stood as frozen witnesses to men trying to drag a screaming woman into a car, have not been groped and cornered by Afghan men, do not have female Afghan friends and do not understand when a man shouts “Hey, foreign pussy!” at them in the local language.

But the women who responded to McClelland’s essay aren’t like that. They’ve lived in Haiti for years, even decades, a fact that makes statements like this even more baffling:

This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

Now that is just college freshman bullshit. Again, I have to agree with Friedersdorf:

It isn’t fair to say that this paragraph is loaded with the pathologies of left-leaning political discourse. A journalist writing in The New York Review of Books or The Nation or The American Prospect would seek to correct alleged misinformation about the prevalence of rape in a country by providing the most accurate available statistics about the prevalence of rape there.

And this makes no sense whatsoever:

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization.

Actually, the image of Haiti McClelland paints, mostly in her reporting pieces for Mother Jones, is of a place where the threat of rape is tragically high for thousands of displaced women. It’s not at all clear what the authors are taking issue with here, besides McClelland receiving a great deal of attention while being a relatively new name in mainstream journalism and not a Haiti beat long-termer.

While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.

Oh, come on. Haiti has survived worse.


One day, when my time in Afghanistan is over, I intend to write about my life here. I do not intend to write a history of the Afghanistan war or a book about the intricacies of Afghan politics. Other people will write those books. Instead, I will write about the things that happened to me, the choices I made, the people I knew, and how my experiences affected me. Will it be self-indulgent? Absolutely. Because that’s what all personal writing –-including every male war correspondent memoir ever written– is.

I have male Afghan friends I trust with my life, but I have been cornered enough times by both strangers and personal acquaintances to fear the footfalls behind me and the grin of the average man on the street. I have learned to distrust before I trust. And when the time comes for me to write about my traumatic experiences with some Afghan men, I do not want to be told that I am marginalizing Afghan women, whining, or being racist.

Those of us who choose to go to work in places like Haiti and Afghanistan do just that –-we choose to work in extremely troubled places where we are outsiders. But the fact that we made that choice while others had it foisted on them at birth shouldn’t mean we aren’t allowed to write honestly and without shame or self-censorship about how we cope with the mental health issues that are among our occupational hazards.


And a few more points: Continue reading

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.

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.

Someone please high-five Charli Carpenter

For tackling torture proponent Marc Thiessen’s central argument in Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack on utilitarian grounds as well as liberal ones.

What if we were to accept that the CIA has made America a wee bit safer by torturing KSM?

Liberals actually need an answer to this question, I would argue, because so many of their fellow Americans will buy Thiessen’s empirical case. So the most important part of his argument to refute is actually not the causal argument. The most important part of his argument is his moral argument.

In fact, the most fascinating chapter of his book is the one in which he poses the question: why should torture be considered an absolute prohibition, when killing is not? He explores just war theory and makes an interesting argument that non-lethal forms of torture – the kinds that are scary more than physically injurious – are a lesser evil if innocent civilian lives can be saved as a result.

But this argument as it turns out can be answered by liberals on Marc Thiessen’s own terms as well, because if you read closely it is clear that Thiessen’s overriding goal is not to promote a torture culture per se, but something much nobler: to protect innocent civilian life. The problem with his analysis is that he simply doesn’t have a clear empirical understanding of the factors that most threaten innocent civilian life.

As a matter of fact, terrorism falls pretty far down that list, but state repression is a rather important risk. Think-tanks that track terror fatalities measure the number of dead from terrorism since 1970 in the tens of thousands. Compare this to the hundreds of thousands killed by their own governments over the same period, a number that rises, RJ Rummel tells us, to a staggering 169,198,000 between 1900-1987. International terrorism may be scary, but in relative terms it’s pretty small beer.

It stands to reason that if the goal is to protect civilians the means used to be consistent with the wider protection of civilians. So although liberals are fond of making the absolutist moral argument and the constitutive argument against torture, it turns out that you can also argue against torture on purely utilitarian grounds. And the argument is not that it’s ineffective. The argument is that even if it’s sometimes effective and even if it’s necessary to protect civilians, civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture than they do from avoiding every single risk that comes with living in an era of techno-globalization in which the gap between the haves and have nots is widening.

So, my friends, that’s the argument you use when your crazy uncle starts banging on about how liberals aren’t willing to do what it takes to protect their way of life.

“Meh. Let the kids fight,” says Obama

What the sweet fuck is going on at the White House?

This is a real memo:

Presidential Memorandum–Child Soldiers Prevention Act
Presidential Determination
No.       2011-4


SUBJECT:    Presidential Determination with Respect to Section 404(c) of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, pursuant to section 404(c) of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 (CSPA), title IV of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (Public Law 110 457), I hereby determine that it is in the national interest of the United States to waive the application to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen of the prohibition in section 404(a) of the CSPA.

You are authorized and directed to submit this determination to the Congress, along with the accompanying memorandum of justification, and to publish it in the Federal Register.


For those of you in locales where drinking is legal, please start now. I will catch up with you later.


Todd Huffman and Brian Conley have no time to deal with this TWOF. August 2010.

My comrade-in-arms Naheed Mustafa once used the phrase “a tidal wave of fuckery” to describe the immature, pervy and unnecessarily vicious social drama that washes over everything and everyone in Kabul.

It stuck with me because it’s a great expression, and one that deserves its own acronym for the internets. Hence, I give you TWOF.

Use it wisely, kids.

Here’s a good context:

Last night, I tried to visit a friend at the Park Palace, a well-known Kabul hotel that has recently come under new  and decidedly sketchy management. The teenage receptionist prevented me from visiting my friend’s room, implied I was a hooker (“You want to do something illegal in Afghanistan” and “You are a bad woman”), and threatened to have the guards remove me from the premises. TWOF!

Who wants to move into a frat house in Shar-e Naw?

The Survival Guide to Kabul is a bulletin board for foreigners living in Afghanistan’s dusty capital. It functions like a kind of primitive Craigslist for expats. People post housemates wanted ads, request recommendations for fixers and hotels in different parts of the country, inquire about gear rentals, and consult the expat hive mind with “is it safe to…” questions.

Occasionally, the Survival Guide provides a sad example of expat assholery. The following actual post is one such example.

2 Long Term furnished rooms for rent in a quiet MOSS compliant shared Republican American home in Shar-e-Naw. Full time electricity and Internet. Garden, balconies and a back deck with interior parking for 1 vehicle.

Cowboys, party animals, aid workers, TCN’s* or journalists need not apply. Contractors and builders welcome.

$1,200USD per month.

*For those of you not familiar with the lingo, TCN means “Third Country National,” and usually refers to aid/development workers from the global south.