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.

Is it safe?

This is an update to a post I wrote in 2011, when Kabul was suffering frequent suicide attacks.


Cartoon by Matt Bors for Cartoon Movement. Yes, that’s supposed to be me.

Aside from what to pack for Kabul, the most frequent question I’m asked is, “How safe is Kabul?”

The boiled down truth is that Kabul is not safe. It is the capital of a country at war, and coming here is a risk you need to seriously weigh against the good you think you can do. Staying safe is largely a matter of luck. People who do all the right things still get killed, while many reckless expats live on physically unscathed. The war in Kabul is like slow-rising floodwater, not a tsunami. This is what journalists mean when they refer to a rising tide of violence. It is overtaking every aspect of life, gradually, unevenly. Kabul experienced frequent attacks against civilians targets from 2009 through 2011, with Taliban suicide bombers taking out soft targets –shopping malls, supermarkets, and guesthouses. 2012 was eerily quiet, but now appears to have been an aberration as attacks are picking up again.

The longer you stay, the more likely it is that you will experience a spectacular attack firsthand. If you’re in the city for several months straight, you can count on being around for some kind of violent event; this is one of the grim mathematical truths of Kabul. Three weeks into my first year, Taliban commandos attacked a few blocks from my house. The massive car bomb jarred me awake and I lay on my bedroll listening to the ensuing gun-battle while my journalist housemate rushed into the mayhem, cameras in hand. You’ll never forget your first bombing — the sound of it and the indescribable change in the air in the moments immediately after the explosion. A friend of mine drove into an attack on a shopping mall during the summer of 2011. Before her taxi turned around, she saw a bloodied man being dragged away from the scene and a dismembered leg lying on the road. It was her first bombing.

But bombings are not how you will experience insecurity on a daily basis. Instead, you’ll experience insecurity in the subtle changes in the behavior and speech of your friends and colleagues; the shorter tempers, the depressed lethargy of your Afghan friends, the offhand remarks about not going for picnics at Qargha anymore because it’s not safe, and the tight faces of your fellow shoppers at the supermarket.  You’ll feel the deterioration in the grumbling of restaurant owners pacing their near-empty establishments, the exodus of your fellow expats to Burma and Mali, and the shifting landscape of security barriers and checkpoints.

Expats here are always searching for the right combination of security measures, that elusive, magic formula that will absolutely ensure safety or, at the very least, dampen the post-tragedy “she/he was asking for it” talk that is so toxic within the expat community. You should follow your employer’s security rules or, if you’re on your own, take the advice of long-termers seriously, but short of sealing yourself off from ordinary Afghan life entirely there are few ways to better your odds. Your odds are still pretty good –most of your days will be blissfully quiet and boring– but if don’t think you can cope through occasional days and nights of surreal mayhem, you should consider working elsewhere.

Practical advice for the freewheeling newcomer:


Low profile is the name of the game. This means avoiding large, well-known guesthouses. Ask around before you arrive and stay with other expats in an established, out-of-the-way house, or, even better, with a combination of expats and young Afghan professionals. Look for a house with high compound walls, set back from the street, and located in a mostly Afghan or mixed Afghan-expat neighborhood.


Use reservation taxis if you need to use taxis. Avoid yellow taxis unless you are with a group of three or more people, including at least one large man and a Dari-speaker.


It is simply a matter of time until a suicide bomber blows up one of the high-end restaurants frequented by foreigners and Afghan civil servants, but you don’t have many other options if you want to have a social life.


Do your grocery shopping after dark. Suicide bombings are typically carried out in the morning and afternoon, and almost never happen at night. Avoid shopping on Fridays. The majority of all suicide bombings in Kabul happen on Fridays. Don’t shop alone unless you’ve lived in Kabul for several months. I’ve also found that, as a woman, it is a good idea to carry a baton of knife in an easy-to-reach pocket. Busy shopping malls, crowded streets and stairwells are the favored lurking sites of Kabul’s many bored, predatory teenage boys and men.

Your intuition

Follow it. If a situation appears benign on its face but feels sinister, get out ASAP. Your subconscious is picking up on something.


Very few roads are paved and Afghans drive aggressively. Wear your seat belt at all times. If your office’s cars don’t have seat belts  complain until they do. Steer clear of traffic accidents, especially on the main roads leading out of the city, as these can quickly escalate to bloody brawls involving dozens of people and weapons. If a taxi driver is driving recklessly, complain to the dispatcher.

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.

Letters to my enemy: The Farrall-Al Masri dialogue

Leah Farrall, an online acquaintance of mine, is fast becoming one of the most talked-about security bloggers out there. It’s not hard to see why. Leah writes a provocative and accessible blog on counterterrorism, and has recently engaged in an exchange of letters with Abu Walid al Masri, an Egyptian-born Taliban propagandist and former fighter. In his first letter to Leah, al Masri writes:

So we become ready for an intellectual dialogue with the security beauty and the terrorist fighter, Mrs Farrall, we take a tour with her in the different field of terrorism. She wants a tour so she can get a more accurate knowledge of the enemy so she can target them in a better way. I want the dialogue to clarify the truths to our Arab public and to all the people of the world if possible.

Go read the whole thing.  Stuff like this makes me seriously wish I had studied psychology.


Some perspective, via Penelopeinparis on Twitter.


Last week, the blogosphere and Twitterverse couldn’t stop debating the new MSF UK ad titled ‘The Boy.’ While exploring the ads of MSF UK through the years on YouTube, I stumbled across more ads by British humanitarian and human rights NGOs. It didn’t take me long to realize how much more provocative –and creative–  these were than ads produced by similar or even sister organizations in the United States. Take the following Amnesty UK ads, neither of which I can imagine ever running on television in the United States, as but two examples.

Amnesty UK anti-torture ad.

Amnesty UK anti-extremism, pro-human rights ad.


I have recently been thinking of the 2006 Economist editorial in which the publication took a shockingly bold stance against torture, and with a twist. Instead of arguing against torture based on torture’s ineffectiveness  as an intelligence-gathering tool –the line of argument adopted by many torture opponents in the American media– the Economist assumed torture to be very effective, and argued against it anyway. Maintaining a society in which people are free from state repression comes at a price, it stated, and in our era that price may well be thousands of innocent lives lost to terrorism.

When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots.


To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that –- with one hand tied behind their back –- is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.


Human rights are part of what it means to be civilized. Locking up suspected terrorists –- and why not potential murderers, rapists and paedophiles, too? –- before they commit crimes would probably make society safer. Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.

This is the liberal meaning of “freedom isn’t free.”

So be it.


The Refugee Recertification Network is up and running on Ning.


Safrang on the Afghanistan mission at a critical juncture.

The debate and the buzz is likely to continue and to build to a feverish pitch as the US administration considers its options in Afghanistan. With Iraq largely off many radars, the loud noise, mud-slinging, and endless debate that we saw occupy TV screens, opinion pages and most political conversations between 2003 and 2008 is now focused on Afghanistan. The real side of all of this debate, however, plays out in Afghanistan and not in the American op-ed wars of the left, the right and the middle. Any policy preferences bear life and death consequences for the people of Afghanistan.

No good options, lots of greys

A few days ago, Hamesha wrote about the ordinary people of Uruzgan:

[..] by looking at these ordinary people, i know deep down that they have reasons, and maybe good reasons, and that all that they think and do is not simply because of wanton rage and indiscriminate and blind passion –they are simple farmers and loving fathers and confused brothers and not always sociopaths and talibs and ideologically hardened insurgents. we have failed to reach out to them and to connect to them. we have foisted the most corrupt and dastardly upon them to represent us and somehow expect that they behave well while they do not even have a say in their own destiny. and we have come to see them as the enemy -and in doing so, have turned them into the enemy. and all along we have resorted to the power of violence and money to change their minds. we have commoditized development and fetishized security. we have come to perceive these people, otherwise ordinary humans, as either ‘elements’, or statistics, or swathes of public opinion, or insurgents, or supporters of insurgents, or a faceless mass of tools that know no reason and logic.

I thought of that passage when I read the following IWPR story today:

The Occasional Taleban

Dari Pashto

Impoverished young men struggling to find work hired by insurgents as part-time fighters.

By Fetrat Zerak in Farah (ARR No. 319, 23-Apr-09)

Abdullah Jan and Abdul Khaleq are both from the Pushtrod district of Farah province in western Afghanistan. Both are young, unemployed, and seek work as day laborers, for which they get about 200 afghani (4 US dollars) per job.

There is one big difference between them though: while Abdul Khaleq earns his money by digging ditches, painting houses, and other manual labour, Abdullah Jan, not his real name, does so by attacking police checkpoints. He is a Taleban part-timer.

“I am the only breadwinner in our family of eight,” said Abdullah Jan, a 22-year-old from a small village. “I went to Iran three times to try to find work, but I was expelled. I was in debt, and my father told me to go to the city. I looked for a job for three weeks, but then my brother got sick and needed medical treatment. He later died. Two of my friends then suggested that I go to the local Taleban.”

His mother was against it, said Abdullah Jan, and tried repeatedly to dissuade him. His father, however, kept silent.

“My first assignment was to attack the police checkpoint in Guakhan district,” recalled Abdullah Jan. “We killed four policemen, and we lost two of our own. Another one was injured. The fight lasted for two hours, with the real Taleban encouraging us from behind the lines, saying ‘go on, further, move, move, move.’

“When it ended, I was paid 400 afghani by the local commander. He said that if I performed better in the future, I would get more money. Since then, I have participated in five more attacks, and I make about 1,000 afghani per week.”

Under this ad hoc arrangement, Abdullah Jan is a Taleban for only a few hours per week. Other than that, he goes about his business like any other citizen. He has no gun or any other equipment that marks him as an insurgent, and he does not consider himself to be one.

“I am just fighting for the money,” he said. “If I find another job, I’ll leave this one as soon as possible.”

By some estimates, up to 70 per cent of the Taleban are unemployed young men just looking for a way to make a living. In Farah, Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul, and other southern provinces, the majority of insurgents are fighting for money, not ideology.

But they are caught in a vicious circle: as long as their provinces are unstable, there is little investment that could generate employment opportunities. However, in the absence of jobs, they join the insurgents, prolonging the violence and guaranteeing that security and development, remain but a distant dream.

Too often, the Taliban are portrayed as a uniform group of ideologues who cannot be reasoned with and can only be stopped with bombs and bullets. There are, surely, some Taliban like that. Though, I am inclined to believe Fetrat Zerak and Hamesha, who tell a more complex story, one that speaks more to universal human desires and frailties than to unadulterated evil.

What would I do in the place of someone like Abdullah Jan? From my place of privilege, it is hard for me to put myself in his shoes.  I do not know his poverty or his obligations. What would I do if I alone was responsible for filling eight empty bellies? How heavy would that weigh on me, and madly gnaw at me? What might it drive me to do?

Then again, undoubtedly the civil servants Abdullah Jan and others like him kill are also ordinary people doing what they can to make it from one to the next and to provide for those in their care.

Perhaps that is the greatest tragedy and irony of all; those holding power  have pitted the poor and desperate against each other and by doing so have ensured that they remain poor and desperate and easy to manipulate to cynical ends.

I know I shouldn’t feed the trolls, but…

Sometimes it’s just too tempting.

John Press, a man who wrote a really, really dumb book and somehow managed to get himself an adjunct position at NYU, just posted this charming take on the displacement in Pakistan over at his “culturism” blog.

We should not accept refugees from Pakistan. That nation is descending into turmoil. In Pakistan the government is fighting an extremely important fight. The government gave the Islamic group, the Taliban, parts of the Swat Valley region in exchange for peace. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban showed what appeasement does and pushed to expand outside of the agreed upon borders. And their implementation of Islamic law, called Sharia, has been brutal. Beheading and the destruction of hundreds of girls’ schools exemplify the terror the Taliban Muslims [John just wants to remind you –in case you forgot!– that the Taliban are ZOMGMUSLIMS!!!!1!  -ed] seek to expand. 1.3 million people have been internally displaced by this struggle. As culturists we demand that all refugees be sent to Islamic nations, not western ones.

As the LOLcats say, ORLY?

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has called for aid. We can send some aid, but had better not grant anyone from the region asylum. Why not? Well the brutality of the Taliban and their expansion tell us why not. Multicultural globalists, take a generic view of humanity.

As in, all human beings are, uh, human beings. This kind of namby-pamby liberal thinking pisses John off.

They speak of “displaced persons.” But, culturists understand the importance of culture. If a significant percentage of those fighting in Pakistan did not believe in Islam and Sharia law, the war would have never reached this pique. Many people, without dispute, in Pakistan are willing to die for the imposition of repression we can barely imagine. Those displaced will include many of these numbers.

Wow. Because all wars are by default popular wars, even with the people fleeing in terror from them. By that logic, I am shocked to realize my partner is actually a Taliban supporter!


Inviting them in means inviting in zealots for repression. These are not displaced persons. That is too generic. These are displaced Muslims.

And by golly, the most salient fact about the million + IDPs in Pakistan isn’t the “I” or the “D” –and it’s certainly not the “P”– no, it’s the fact that they’re Muslims. Crazyass, repression lovin’ Muslims. Fleeing a warzone is like their version of the wacky family road trip. What? That makes no sense whatsoever? Well, it shouldn’t make sense…unless you’re a Muslim! And we’ll never understand how they think.

Humanitarians will shriek at the idea that we recognize culture in times of crisis. “Humans are humans and have human rights!” they will declare. But, again, in rebuttal to these abstract idealists, culturists must point out the real world importance of culture. Diversity exists. Some people, the Taliban should make clear to you, do not embrace the specifically western values of freedom of religion, rights, democracy and freedom of speech. Many people do not believe women should be educated. And they are willing to die for this cause. They are called Muslims. And, therefore, if they are to be displaced they should be displaced within the Muslim world.

Does John Press really think there is a monolithic Muslim culture? I mean, is it really possible that he could have progressed as far as he has in his education and still not get that what is referred to as the “Muslim world” is actually a collection of forty-eight different countries? That the world’s billion Muslims are every bit as diverse culturally, politically, linguistically and in every other way as its billion plus Christians? That, for example,  Albanians and Indonesians have more in common with their non-Muslim neighbors than they do with each other? And that –for crying out loud–  NOT EVERY SINGLE THING a person who happens to be Muslim does is religiously-motivated?

Oh, I give up. I just hope this pseudo-intellectual’s students give him serious shit. Though, I’m sure that if they do, prof. Press will get to write a long-winded piece for, say, the National Review Online, about how meany-pants liberals took away his freedom.

You know it won’t be pleasant when ‘death squads’ is in the headline.

Because they took place within the Russian Federation, the 1994-2009 Russian-Chechen wars (technically 1994-1996 and 1999-2009) haven’t been as extensively analysed, written about, and dramatized on film as the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Even though about as many people died in Chechnya as in Bosnia, there was no ‘Welcome to Grozny.’  (Ok, there were a few pro-war Russian films. If anyone knows of any anti-war or even-handed ones, please correct me in the comments.)

The suffering of civilians and combatants on all sides during the Russian-Chechen wars took place mostly off camera, and seemed somehow much farther away, much more obscure  than the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, which, while badly misunderstood at times, were still framed as wars in Europe, and thus the moral burden of Europe and its allies.

Not so with Chechnya. That was a very Russian mess, best left for historians and scholars of the Caucasus to argue about at university functions and in scholarly journals. It rarely made international headlines until Chechen militants began killing Russian (and other) civilians in much larger numbers using terrorist tactics like suicide bombings.

The gruesome Beslan school siege, which left more than three hundred children dead, was the first event of the conflict that made its way into the 24 hour news cycle as Big International Event. But that was a decade into the conflict, after Grozny had not only been leveled but had already been partially rebuilt. By then, what happened in the North Caucasus was considered part of the post 9/11 ‘Global War on Terror,’ so the complicated context  of the long-running conflict was shoved aside in favour of a more general  backdrop of Islamist terrorism.

During this decade, families of victims of human rights violations during the conflict have waged a quiet and slow battle of their own in the European Court of Human Rights, winning several landmark cases against the Russian Government for everything from torture to extrajudicial killings to enforced disappearances. These cases, combined, have functioned as a kind of truth commission (the only kind Chechens and Russians will likely ever get) by giving victims a forum and by forcing the Russian Government to answer questions about the conduct of its military and pay compensation. So important did the ECtHR become to Chechens seeking justice that the embarrassed Russian Government began obstructing the Court’s badly-needed reform process.

Under the control of former warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya is now at peace. Russia ended its military operations –declaring the war against Chechen separatists won– this year. But Chechnya’s peace is tenuous, maintained by economic development and reconstruction (which may slow significantly as the global recession leaves the Russian state with less funds with which to buy peace) and the authoritarian rule of  a man best known outside of Russia for his fondness for pet tigers and decided lack of fondness for investigative journalists.

Moreover, humanitarian needs have not disappeared in this tiny republic, which saw fully half its population displaced during the conflict. As the IRC reports:

Although there have been many positive gains in reducing violence and instability in recent years, including the revitalization of Grozny, the rebuilding of one of the largest mosques in Europe and an overall improvement in security, there are still many communities with dire humanitarian needs, without access to basic water, sanitation and housing. “As our staff see and experience every day, there is still a very strong need in the area for assistance, development, and investment,” said Thomas Hill, IRC’s Caucasus director.

A former colleague of mine worked in Chechnya for a while. She said that foreign NGOs were watched very closely and not allowed to address systemic problems. To point out glaring gaps in the services provided by the Kadyrov government  was to “politicize” relief, and could easily result in one’s expulsion, she told me.

Still, with major violence over, Chechnya does seem like less of a taboo topic now, and I’ve noticed more and more articles exploring the conflict and its legacy.

The Times of London just published a rather graphic article on Russian death squads during the Russian-Chechen wars that is, to put it bluntly, fucking disgusting –an important but really, really brutal read.

Here’s one account of Russian special forces searching for –and then killing– women thought to be training as suicide bombers.

When the order came to storm the single-storey property, dozens of heavily armed men in masks and camouflage uniforms – unmarked to conceal their identity – had no difficulty in overwhelming the three women inside. Their captives were driven to a military base.

The soldiers were responding to a tip-off that the eldest of the three, who was in her forties, had been indoctrinating women to sacrifice themselves in Chechnya’s ferocious war between Islamic militants and the Russians. The others captured with her were her latest recruits. One was barely 15.

“At first the older one denied everything,” said a senior special forces officer last week. “Then we roughed her up and gave her electric shocks. She provided us with good information. Once we were done with her we shot her in the head.

And just when I thought I couldn’t be shocked at body-disposal methods (uh, especially after hearing many Afghan civil war stories), Russian ex-commandos had to prove me wrong.

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