Impressions of Americans at war

People back home ask me what my impression is of the US military in Afghanistan. I usually tell them my feelings change with the context, and with the person I’m dealing with. I also let them know that I interact much more often with European soldiers. This answer is met with disappointment more often than not. Americans want easy answers. They want heroic defenders of liberty or psychotic occupiers, soldiers who rescue injured children and raise orphan kittens, or ones who torture prisoners and kill Afghan farmers for shits and giggles.

Coverage of this war is very limited in scope emotionally, and I’m always happy to find exceptions to that rule, even when they’re obscure or terribly sad. Here are three:

1) In this TIME audio slideshow, American soldiers in Marja deal with the aftermath of accidentally killing a 14 year old girl.  Quotes from the audio: “I feel like a bad man because of this,” (soldier) and “What am I going to do with ‘sorry’?” (the victim’s father).

2) An American trainer in Kunar blogs about hard stuff:

Upon getting into the village, we did the usual – looked around at the terrain and figured out how we were going to set up security with our sparse forces (2 Marines and perhaps a dozen ANA), before looking around for the village elder to talk to. We eventually got ourselves set up and found an elder, who invited me, my terp, and the ANA leader inside “The White House” for tea, nuts, and candies. No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying. Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20’s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own. Our base may have been less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do.

And absurd stuff:

I can recall drinking tea and eating nuts with an elder when bullets from across the valley started impacting near our men outside the house. I immediately put my helmet back on and ran outside to help out, without finishing the nuts or tea, or even saying goodbye or thank you. Afterward, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the bad joke about bad punctuation regarding a panda who walked into a restaurant, had a meal, and then shot the place up…since the book on pandas stated that a panda is a four legged, furry animal that eats, shoots and leaves. Being a panda, he does eat shoots and leaves, but typically does not eat, shoot and leave. Well, Marines sometimes really do eat, shoot, and then leave the area.

3) Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini writes about the frustrations of an embed-gone-wrong in Kandahar.

I have been waiting for many days to go to Arghandab, a lush green valley few kilometres northwest of Kandahar city. A military operation is going on in the area since the last couple of weeks. I’m staying in Kandahar Air Field (KAF) for the last 19 days and during my stay I’ve covered a Medevac unit in US military camp Ramrod. During all this time I’ve been asking the US army to send me to the war zone in Arghandab valley. At first, they canceled my trip telling it is so dangerous out there for journalists. So little they know that we are here to cover that kind of operation and we do it with our decision and it is our own responsibility to take care of our lives.

Our camp is abuzz with rumours. Some say the US Army is losing there and that the Taliban have put up a vigorous resistance against foreign troops. Others say a tough battle is going on there with a lot of IEDs and mines making it difficult for troops to move. Some also say that a lot of civilian casualties have taken place during the military operation in Arghandab valley and that’s why the US Army would not let any journalist go there.

The perils of mapping Afghanistan’s conflict

Afghan soldiers stand near the site of a mass grave outside Kabul. May 2010.

I have a new piece up at UN Dispatch about why the leaked and recently resurfaced UN conflict mapping report on Afghanistan matters.

Five years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) produced a conflict mapping report of crimes committed by all armed factions in Afghanistan between April 27, 1978 and December 22, 2001.

The report is not available on any UN website.

Some members of the international community claim it was briefly available on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) website, but was taken down following diplomatic alarm and immediate complaints that naming former commanders now serving in the Afghan government in  connection with serious international crimes would hurt the UN’s political mission. Others say it was never intended to be publicly released. Whatever the case, the report has been passed around on flash drives among a select group of Afghan and international activists and lurked unread and virtually hidden in out-of-the-way corners of the web for years.

It will reach a wider audience now that Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kuovo of the Afghanistan Analysts Network have linked to a leaked pdf version of it in their recent blog post about the good that the Nobel Committee could have achieved had it awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Afghan human rights pioneer Dr. Sima Samar.

The executive summary of the mapping report states:

No document can fully describe what the Afghans have lived through. Every Afghan has a story to tell, or many stories, of suffering and loss, and also of those responsible: the armies, militias, commanders, and gunmen—some Afghan, some foreign—who fought each other for ideals, political power, money, and revenge. Some victims became perpetrators, and some perpetrators became victims in a cycle of violence that has slowed but not yet ended.

Seven things you should know about the leaked report:

Read the rest at UN Dispatch.

Rotting in the gaps

Tony Judt writes:

The wider the spread between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, the worse the social problems: a statement that appears to be true for rich and poor countries alike. What matters is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is. Thus Sweden and Finland, two of the world’s wealthiest countries by per capita income or GDP, have a very narrow gap separating their richest from their poorest citizens—and they consistently lead the world in indices of measurable well-being. Conversely, the United States, despite its huge aggregate wealth, always comes low on such measures. We spend vast sums on health care, but life expectancy in the US remains below Bosnia and just above Albania.

Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice toward those on the lower rungs of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.

Will anti-ACORN legislation defund corrupt defense contractors?

I’ll go out on a limb and guess no, but only because I’m cynical.

Still, this is a curious development.

The congressional legislation intended to defund ACORN, passed with broad bipartisan support, is written so broadly that it applies to “any organization” that has been charged with breaking federal or state election laws, lobbying disclosure laws, campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent paperwork with any federal or state agency. It also applies to any of the employees, contractors or other folks affiliated with a group charged with any of those things.

What hath outrage over tax advice for pimps wrought?

These people are beyond parody

Too bad, because parody is fun.

Anyway, here is a video that will ruin your afternoon:

You’re welcome.

A side note: Videos like the one above make me think, and we’re the ones advising other countries how to run liberal democracies and promote civic involvement and all that warm, fuzzy stuff? Insane.

But then, mercifully, I remember that it’s not the crazies doing that work, it’s people like me, or, more precisely, people like my superiors.

Interesting things

The Migrant Express – Four days through Central Asia on the crowded Dushanbe to Moscow train. This tender, humane seven-part RFE_RL documentary explores the social and economic consequences of Tajiks migrating to Russia for work.


Via the CPJ Blog – Afghan journalists are finally speaking with one voice, and are calling for a full investigation into the death of New York Times journalist Sultan Munadi and compensation for Munadi’s family.


Also on the CPJ Blog – An Iraqi journalist finds refuge in Phoenix, Arizona, but struggles to find work. Eventually, his persistence pays off …he gets a job at Red Lobster.


Kevin Heller blogs about the inevitable attacks on the Goldstone Commission, and the Goldstone-bashers respond in the comments.


The slow march of justice in the former Yugoslavia continues. Four former members of the Bosnian Army have been arrested on suspicion of participating in war-time crimes against Bosnian Croats in a village in Herzegovina. Meanwhile, the ICTY trial of Radovan Karadzic is set to begin October 19th.


The author of this article about expat snobbery and ignorance in Bosnia is someone I know personally, and we were part of the same large social circle in Sarajevo. He makes some important, if painful, points about how things work in the international organizations. However, I do think he exaggerates the extent to which young expats isolate themselves and eschew discovering all that is great about Bosnia. (Older, more mercenary expats are a different story.)  Also, the line, “the foreigners lecturing Bosnia have a fair amount of trouble mustering the necessary vocabulary to order a beer at a local bar” is a tad ridiculous. That’s the first phrase every expat learns.


From the “things that make me ashamed of my country” files or, alternately, “America’s shitty domestic human rights record”: in eight states and the District of Columbia, many insurance companies consider being a victim of domestic violence a “pre-existing condition,” and thus grounds for denying coverage. Jillian Hewitt at Feministe is spot-on when she writes: “This is so ridiculous that it may make my post seem obvious or unnecessary, but I think it makes it all the more essential to talk about. This is not a controversial talking point; it does not even seem like a political one to me—this is about humanity. Or inhumanity, as it were.”


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.

New York State bans shackling prisoners during childbirth

Earlier this summer, Human Rights Watch (one of many organizations that campaigned to end the policy of shackling pregnant inmates) wrote to the New York State Assembly:

Shackling of women in these circumstances represents a grave health risk and an unacceptable and unnecessary affront to women’s dignity. By passing NYS 1290, the New York state legislature would join a growing community of medical authorities, international bodies, and penal systems that have come out against this dangerous practice and in favor of ensuring the human rights and constitutional rights of women in state custody. We urge you to vote in favor of this important legislation.

Women who are shackled are at risk for injury during transportation to medical appointments, can suffer added pain during delivery, and may be deprived of appropriate care during examinations and delivery.[ii] Officials from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have stated that “physical restraints have interfered with the ability of physicians to safely practice medicine by reducing their ability to assess and evaluate the physical condition of the mother and the fetus … thus, overall putting the lives of women and unborn children at risk.”[iii] This risk is heightened by the fact that the pregnancies of women in custody are usually already high-risk.[iv] In addition, the humiliation brought on by the shackling is inflicted on a population with a high incidence of past sexual or physical abuse.[v] Finally, it is inflicted without a persuasive security justification: The large majority of women in prison are there on account of convictions for non-violent offenses,[vi] and those jurisdictions that have restricted the use of shackles have not reported security problems.[vii]

The Assembly, to its credit, passed legislation that bans shackling unless the woman in question is a threat to hospital staff or guards. New York Governor David Paterson signed the legislation into law this week. This change in policy is, as Michael Mechanic put it in Mother Jones, “a small, humane step for a very, very troubled American institution.”

Six states now prohibit shackling inmates during childbirth under either all of most circumstances. Forty-four more to go.

Sexism at home, sexism abroad

If she goes this ballistic over sexual harassment in the U.S., she certainly won’t be able to deal in [insert country where women are treated worse]!, you are probably saying to yourself.

Actually, no.

I will put up with all kinds of things abroad –and have– that I won’t tolerate for an instant at home. If someone offered me a job in Afghanistan, where I have wanted to work for a very long time, I would be fine with the dress code, because I know that women’s freedom to dress as they please is not on the radar of even most liberal Afghans. In a place like Afghanistan, there are far more immediate will-I-see-tomorrow? matters to contend with, especially for women. Most Afghan women, including activists and aid workers, find the Western obsession with their clothing counterproductive and self-serving when issues like widow  poverty and the shortage of women’s shelters don’t get nearly as much media play as the burqa does.

Abiding by rules I disagree with regarding women’s clothing is a concession I’d make without hesitation if it meant I could work on the Big Things. I’d even grit my teeth and endure the inappropriate touching Afghan and expat women experience (though less expat women now, from what I’ve heard, because fewer expats brave the streets these days).

What I won’t do is change my behaviour or dress (again) in my own country, or swallow my pride and passively put up with the rude remarks, hungry stares, and grabby hands of bored misogynists loitering on the streets of my city.  They are the ones who need to change, not me.

New York –somewhere below Kenya, Guatemala, Brazil and Bulgaria

…in transparency, when it comes to juvenile prisons.

Mie Lewis gives an account of her struggle to obtain information on girls in juvenile prisons that reads like something from the undemocratic world:

Back in the winter of 2005, I was a novice researcher at Human Rights Watch, trying to find out what life was like for girls held in youth prisons in upstate New York. Getting information was almost impossible. The New York juvenile justice agency — called the Office of Children and Family Services, or OCFS — was one of the most secretive and defensive that Human Rights Watch had ever encountered, even compared with agencies in places like Bulgaria, Guatemala, Kenya, and Brazil.

Because OCFS refused to let human rights monitors into its facilities, we scraped together information from every place we could, tracking down girls who had recently been released, finding sources inside the agency and even lurking in prison parking lots in mid-winter to talk to the parents of incarcerated girls.

This week, the Department of Justice released a scathing report on inhumane conditions in juvenile prisons in upstate New York. What the New York Times describes in its article on the report is inexcusable:

Excessive physical force was routinely used to discipline children at several juvenile prisons in New York, resulting in broken bones, shattered teeth, concussions and dozens of other serious injuries over a period of less than two years, a federal investigation has found.

Lewis continues:

First, the Justice Department’s report shows us that these four youth prisons, at a minimum, are corrupt beyond repair. They should be closed. Now. More effective, cheaper and safer alternatives to incarceration have worked elsewhere, are working in New York, and need to be expanded.

Second, in the coming legislative session, the New York state senate must pass the bill, which has been introduced several times, creating an Office of the Child Advocate, separate from OCFS. The abuses in youth prisons thrive in darkness. An independent child advocate means transparency and accountability, which are the only way to keep these abuses from happening over and over.

There have been more than enough damning reports, broken bones, and abandoned children. We know where the problems lie, and how to solve them. It will take genuine political will and public pressure that goes on far longer than a news cycle to make sure that two years from now we don’t hear the same heartbreaking revelations again.

According to the DoJ report, a federal takeover of New York State’s juvenile prisons is being considered. It says a great deal about the New York State Government that its incarcerated children were forced to endure so much, for so long, while officials actively sought to prevent human rights advocates like Lewis from uncovering abuses.

America leading by example, yet again.