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.

Afghanistan headlines for the Onion

I asked and you delivered, mostly on facebook. Thanks, guys! Let’s keep this going.

Taliban Propaganda Chief Found with Unlicensed Photoshop Suite

Unable to Check Facebook in Daikundi, Taliban Recruits Refuse to Deploy

Distracted by Afghan Idol Finale, Taliban Suicide Bomber Forgets to Detonate

‎Taliban Monitoring and Evaluation Officer Disputes NATO Metrics

Taliban Who Wintered in Pakistan Taunted as ‘Warbirds’ at Home

Morale Plummets Among Taliban Recruits Amid Rumors of Virgin Shortage in Heaven

Quetta Shura calls rumors unsubstantiated, scrambles to develop alternative incentives

Back in the USA: What I’ve been up to

I left Kabul mid December for an extended vacation back home in the United States. In between catching up with old friends, adding someone new and wonderful to my life, hugging my little sisters until they begged for mercy, attending an aidbloggers party in Washington, DC and a Balkan music festival in Brooklyn, giving a talk at my old school and working on a report for my job in Kabul, I’ve also tried to be a better blogger for UN Dispatch, my unfailingly patient and understanding second employer. That is to say, I’ve tried to be a blogger who doesn’t go weeks or even months between posts.

Two of my recent pieces (also linked in my RSS feed to the right):

A Taliban Reversal on Girls’ Education? Not So Fast.
Afghan education minister Farooq Wardak’s announcement that the Taliban no longer oppose girls’ education has been met with cheers internationally. Grouchy kill-joy than I am, I give a few reasons why these celebrations are premature, and perhaps even ill-advised.

Reconciling Afghanistan
In this long-than-usual analysis piece, I examine some of the challenges and dilemmas any future talks with the Taliban will pose, and argue for greater inclusion of Afghan civil society in peacemaking efforts.

Will the International Community Prevent “Eye-Watering” Violence in Afghanistan as Troops Depart?

My latest:

Afghanistan could experience “eye-watering” levels of violence during and after the departure of foreign troops, NATO civilian Special Representative Mark Sedwill told reporters Wednesday, just two days before the 2010 NATO Summit commenced in Lisbon. Human rights groups meanwhile urged NATO member states to take humanitarian and human rights concerns seriously as plans are made for the phased withdrawal of foreign forces beginning early next year.

“As NATO begins to discuss its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s crucial to explain to the Afghan people exactly how the international community will follow through on its promise to protect and promote their human rights,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Programme Director.

Twenty-nine leading Afghan and international NGOs, led by Oxfam, called on NATO to improve oversight of Afghanistan’s police and army during the security transition between 2011 and 2014 and end programs that train and arm often abusive local militias to fight the Taliban.

Human Rights Watch, which echoed the call to end militia programs, rebuked the United States and NATO for working closely with known human rights abusers and ignoring Afghans’ desire for justice and an effective, non-predatory government.

“The US and NATO impatience for quick results is reducing their resolve to press for governance reform,” said Rachel Reid, HRW’s Afghanistan researcher. ”The tougher – but longer-term solution – is to stop doing deals with abusive or corrupt people, and instead, prosecute them and strengthen the institutions capable of delivering that justice.”

Sedwill’s candid admission that mass violence could follow the security transition poses urgent questions. Will the international community prevent major crimes against civilians in Afghanistan during and after the withdrawal of foreign forces?

Read the rest at UN Dispatch.


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!

The return of Batshitcrazy

Why haven’t I been blogging much since the spring? A few reasons.

  • Afghanistan-related workaholism
  • Fatigue
  • Grief
  • Lack of time
  • Fear of what I might send into cyberspace if I reflected at a keyboard for any length of time

But now I’m back. At least, I think I’m back.

Checking my comments today for the first time in months, I found the following in moderation for my post on Malou Innocent’s drone-y solutions for Afghanistan.

You sound hysterical, like one of those batshitcrazy feminists over at Femnisting or Feministe who take what people write and twist them in a very snarky and annoying manner into something they’re not. Reasonable people see throught it and you just look bad doing it.

Here’s a hint: don’t assume you know the motives of an individual who makes an argument you disagree with it. There are people who disagree with you but who aren’t necessarily negative/immoral/evil. Most adults, and most thoughtful people, understand this.

Comparing me to Jill Filipovic, Jessica Valenti, and other badasses? Come on now with the flattery!

I’m starting a new blog

It doesn’t make much sense for me to use the same blog to post links and general commentary about Afghanistan and password protected journal entries. So, I’m starting a new journal blog called Wire and Sunlight, and this one will be turning back into a storage space for my rants about politics and society. My journal password for Wire and Sunlight will remain the same as it was here.

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!