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This article, by M. Ashraf Haidari, was originally published in Journal of International Peace Operations, September 4, 2009
The study of the political landscape of a country used to involve looking for the existence of certain state and security institutions; it has changed in the recent decades to examining whether these institutions perform as they should. In the case of Afghanistan , however, the metric is slightly different. Here, human capital has remained underdeveloped, courtesy of the decades of war that preceded the current state-building efforts. As a result, the question here is not whether institutions exist, but how well institutions are run and how meritorious those running them are.
Capacity, or lack thereof, in the police, the judicial system, the bureaucracy, education and other fields is a thread that weaves through the successes and failures of our efforts to build a state essentially from ground up. In what follows, I will outline some of the key lessons learned over the past eight years. Indeed, whether or not we proactively work together to build upon these vital lessons learned will determine our collective success or failure in the few critical years following the 2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan .
Afghanistan’s battle against the Taliban and other extremist elements is unique in that it is the national police, not the army or the international forces, who constitute the first line of defense. Our sincere efforts to fight drug-trafficking and production, defeat the insurgency, and create an enabling environment for the civilian institutions also hinge on this key area.
However, law enforcement institutions have been neglected from the beginning in Afghanistan . The implementation of judicial and police reforms—reforms that should have been the foundation on which other state institutions were built--was shelved indefinitely due to a lack of resources. This paucity of resources has contributed to a significantly higher number of police casualties. Between 2007 and 2009 alone, more than 1500 Afghan National Police (ANP) officers were killed. Close to 600 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers have lost their lives in the same period. The total International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) casualties since 2001 are at about 1300. Thus, given the substantially higher risk environment the ANP faces and the seminal role it plays in maintaining day-to-day law and order across Afghanistan , it is very important that long-term attention and resources be focused on police training and equipment. These enable them to counter threats from the Taliban and other militant elements, who are often better trained, paid, and equipped.
Another related and equally neglected institution has been the Afghan justice sector. Although the effectiveness of the justice sector determines the legitimacy of any government in public eyes, the reform of this critical sector in Afghanistan has unfortunately received the least amount of international attention and aid resources. Afghanistan has fewer than 1500 judges and 400 defense lawyers for a population of approximately 33 million. Most of these judges and attorneys lack modern legal training, as well as office resources and protection to execute their duties effectively. This is one of the main reasons why 62% of Afghans believe the government does not provide timely justice, and only half believe the government’s justice system is fair; compare this to 70% favorability for traditional methods, according to an Asia Foundation survey.
The popular sense of justice is still percipient—Afghans expect the government to provide them timely and effective justice. Indeed, failure to do so will undermine popular confidence in the government, as well as in the state-building efforts of the international community.
Work on the justice sector must be complemented by an increased emphasis on aid effectiveness. In the past, many donor-related contractors have undermined the Afghan government’s efforts by working parallel to it, instead of working with it or through it. Over the last eight years, this parallel method of operation has resulted in very little transfer of knowledge and skills to Afghans. Donor-related firms continue to receive highly profitable contracts, which they frequently subcontract to smaller companies for implementation. Indeed, each layer of subcontracting skims some 20% of the taxpayers’ aid monies, consequently robbing the beneficiaries of the “billions of dollars” in officially announced aid to Afghanistan .
Moreover, most of the contractors and their affiliated business partners neither have the necessary work experience in Afghanistan nor the right expertise to operate successfully in Afghanistan . Yet, so far, only about 10% of all aid money given to Afghanistan has been spent through the government; the rest has been channeled through private contractors and other means. And because of a lack of consultation and coordination with the Afghan government and people, these agencies have concentrated most of the aid activity in insecure areas, apparently hoping to help defeat the insurgency by winning the people over. Not only has this tactic not worked, but the absence of enough aid in the peaceful provinces has caused disillusionment among the masses and given insurgency a foothold there.
Coupled with aid effectiveness is aid coordination. So far, donor countries have failed to effectively coordinate their efforts in various sectors. This has hampered aid effectiveness and slowed down the process of state-building. Case in point is the education sector. In many instances, the building of a school is constructed by one country, the chairs and desks are provided by another, and other equipment is financed by a third donor—if donors notice the shortages in the school that was just “built.” The overall aid effort in the country is characterized by this same lack of coordination.
Common to each of the above lessons is the importance of human development and institutional capacity building in Afghanistan . Past experience is instructive in this regard, as the first point of contact between the Afghan people and the governing entity used to be the army, the police or other militia groups. These institutions mostly kept people in check rather than protecting them. As a result, Afghans are not used to—but have shown great demand for— a government whose main function is to protect them and maintain conditions for peaceful life.
Unlike established democracies, therefore, the source of legitimacy and support for the government in Afghanistan does not overwhelmingly come from electoral majority. It rather comes from the nature of people’s first experiences with the government, the bureaucracy, the police and the justice system. The more positive these experiences, the greater respect and legitimacy the government and the democratic system garner in the eyes of the Afghan people.
In order to ensure that these popular experiences are positive, building institutions that are staffed by qualified professionals is necessary. In case of Afghanistan , that has to happen from scratch. As stated earlier, with less than a third of the Afghan population being literate, the pool of competent people for professional careers and leadership capacities is already small. Unfortunately, decades of war have significantly hampered human development in Afghanistan , and the absence of effective state institutions in these periods—such as the police, the army and a civil bureaucracy—has certainly contributed to the deceleration of the development and transfer of knowledge and skills to successive generations.
Therefore, human development and institutional capacity building must top the agenda of international peace operations in Afghanistan . Without enough knowledge and skill, Afghans could hardly achieve self-sustainability to help drive the rebuilding and development of Afghanistan on their own. The road leading up to this level of competence is long and hard, but a serious emphasis on education and training is imperative.
Improving the infrastructure for, and quality of, both secondary and higher education coupled with ensuring greater inclusion of women in education are cornerstones of this policy. To complement that, helping Afghanistan establish a culture of meritocracy in all hiring and firing, and emphasizing accountability in all institutions of the government is critical to improving governance and curbing corruption.
Finally, it is important to note that international peace-building efforts so far enjoy tremendous popular support in Afghanistan . Some of the most recent public opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds of the Afghan people believe our country is headed in the right direction. A July poll by Glevum Associates found that an overwhelming majority of the Afghan people—more than 80 percent—believe the August elections will be inclusive and representative. Such overwhelming popular trust in the democratic process is a signal to the international community that the Afghan people are still optimistic about the future, support human rights and the rule of law, denounce extremist elements, and demand a future with democracy rather than militant extremism.
But perhaps the most important lesson is that even after being neglected twice—first after the defeat of the Soviet Union and then after the ouster of the Taliban—the Afghan people still want to be part of the global community of nations. They are ready to give the international community another chance.
Indeed, international peace operations have hardly been cheap, and it takes time, patience, and commitment. However, the alternative— neglecting Afghanistan again—in a world where security has rapidly globalized, is far more costly, as we vividly remember from the tragedy of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
To this extent, failure in Afghanistan is not an option, and peace can hardly take hold in Pakistan and the rest of the region without stability in Afghanistan . Nor can global security be ensured without a consolidation of Afghanistan 's democratic achievements of the past eight years.
All stakeholders—Afghans and non-Afghans alike—should understand the gravity of committing to success by building upon the above lessons learned until the Afghan people can stand on their own and secure the future of Afghanistan.
This article was published by Reporeters Without Borders, August 19, 2009
The instructions which the government issued to the media yesterday forbidding them to cover Taliban violence during tomorrow’s presidential election send a very bad signal, Reporters Without Borders said today.
“Issued by Hamid Karzai’s government on the eve of democratic elections, this ban is very inopportune even if the possibilities of enforcing it are very limited,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It not only violates media freedom but also the fundamental right of Afghan citizens to know what is going on in their country. Worse still, this censorship attempt threatens the entire democratic process and increases the danger that Taliban attacks represent for the population.”
The press freedom organisation added: “Journalists already say they are harassed by the security forces when their try to cover violent incidents, but now we could see journalists being kept away from voting stations because they could be the target of terrorist attacks. This runs counter to the principal of electoral transparency.”
Both the foreign ministry and the interior ministry issued separate statements yesterday about media coverage of election-day violence.
The English-language version of the foreign ministry statement “requested” the media not to cover any violence “in view of the need to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people... and prevent any election-related terroristic violence.” But the Dari-language version was much more authoritative, telling the media that reporting terrorist violence was “strongly prohibited.”
The interior ministry statement instructed journalists to keep away from the scene of any attacks.
This article was posted to Raw Story, August 19, 2009
The U.S. military said Wednesday six American troops were killed in Afghanistan, as militants killed six election workers amid growing fears on the eve of the presidential election that insurgents would mar the vote.
Two troops were killed in gunfire in the south on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, while a third was killed in an unspecified hostile attack. The U.S. also said a roadside bomb Tuesday in the south killed two troops, while another died of noncombat-related injuries. No other details were released.
The deaths bring to at least 32 the number of American troops killed in the country this month, a record pace. Forty-four U.S. troops died in Afghanistan last month, the deadliest month of the eight-year war.
Attacks in the countryside killed six election workers, officials said Wednesday, one day before Afghanistan decides whether President Hamid Karzai deserves a second five-year term. In Kabul, three Taliban militants took over a bank, and gunfire and small explosions reverberated throughout the capital. Police stormed the bank and killed the three militants.
Violence has increased across the country as the Taliban have ramped up attacks ahead of Thursday's election, reports CBS News correspondent David Martin.
Fearing that violence could dampen turnout, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday saying that news organizations should avoid "broadcasting any incidence of violence" between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on election day "to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people."
Afghanistan's active local media - the country has a host of newspapers, radio stations and television news outlets - condemned the statement as stifling freedom of the press that was supposed to have returned after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
In preparation for the election, U.S. Marines have been engaged in a delicate balancing act between rooting out militants and protecting civilians. Under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, the military is seeking to build up its relations with locals.
CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan, accompanying a company of Marines in Helmand province, reports that U.S. forces are walking a "tightrope of death" in trying to ensure the safety of voters.
Roads in Helmand province are "literally awash" with improvised explosive devices as the Marines try to clear areas of militants, writes Logan.
Karzai faces some three dozen presidential candidates at the polls, including his former foreign minister and top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.
Afghanistan's electoral commission said all but one of the country's 364 districts had received voting materials. Polls open at 7 a.m. Thursday.
In a region generally considered safe, four election workers were killed Tuesday when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb about 20 miles outside the capital of northeastern Badakhshan province. Officials said the four were delivering materials to a polling station.
Another two election workers were killed in Shorabak district of Kandahar province on Tuesday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, said Abdul Wasai Alakozai, the chief electoral officer for southern Afghanistan.
A remote-controlled roadside bomb exploded early Wednesday near a vehicle taking voting supplies to a poll in the Chaparhar district of the eastern province of Nangarhar, said Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, the governor's spokesman. The driver was slightly wounded, but the voting materials were not damaged, he said. Security forces arrested the man who detonated the bomb, he said.
The Interior Ministry says about a third of Afghanistan is at high-risk of militant attack, and that no polling stations will open in eight Afghan districts under control of militants.
The three armed men took over a branch of the Pashtani bank early Wednesday in a section of Kabul's old city still in ruins from the country's 1990s civil war. Police surrounded the building, exchanging gunfire with the attackers.
Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, head of Kabul's criminal investigations unit, said police eventually stormed the building and killed three "terrorists." Few civilians were in the area because government ministries and businesses were closed Wednesday in observance of Afghanistan's independence from British rule.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said 20 armed suicide attackers wearing explosive vests had entered Kabul and that five of them battled police. The claim could not be confirmed, but the Taliban in recent months have unleashed several attacks involving teams of insurgents assaulting government or high-profile sites.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the rise in insurgent violence in Afghanistan reflected a deliberate campaign to intimidate voters. A shopkeeper near Wednesday's gunfire attack in Kabul, Abdul Jalal, said that if violence persisted into Thursday, he and his wife would not vote.
"Tomorrow we plan to go the polling center," said Jalal. "But if it was like today, we will not vote. Elections are a good thing for Afghanistan, but security is more important."
Attacks nationwide have increased in recent days from a daily average of about 32 to 48, said Brig. Gen. E. Tremblay, the spokesman for the NATO-led force. Even with the increase, Tremblay said that insurgents do not have the ability to widely disrupt voting at the country's 6,500 or so polling sites.
When you're looking purely at statistics ... they're not going to be able to attack even 1 percent of the entire polling sites in this country," he said on Tuesday.
U.N. Secretery-General Ban Ki-moon encouraged all Afghans to vote and said that by participating in the election Afghans will help "bring fresh vigor to the country's political life, and ultimately reaffirm their commitment to contribute to the peace and prosperity of their nation."
The next president will face challenges on several fronts: the rising Taliban insurgency, internal political divisions, ethnic tensions, unemployment, the country's drug trade and corruption.
Karzai is favored to win, but if he does not get more than 50 percent of Thursday's vote he and the second-place finisher will face off in an October run-off. Polls show Abdullah in second place with around 25 percent support and Karzai's support around 45 percent.
Preliminary official results of the presidential election should be announced sometime Saturday evening.
Fearing that violence may dampen turnout, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday demanding that news organizations to avoid "broadcasting any incidence of violence" between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on election day "to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people."
In other violence, a roadside bomb killed a district government leader and a tribal elder early Wednesday in the Registan district of Kandahar, said Ghulam Ali Wahadat, a police commander in southern Afghanistan.
Another roadside bomb in Tirin Kot, in Uruzgan province, killed three policemen, said Ali Jan, a provincial police official.
This article was posted to e-Ariana, August 15, 2009.
Days before the Afghan presidential elections, journalists from thirteen provinces in Afghanistan have told Amnesty International that they had recently been threatened by Afghan government officials because of their critical reporting.
At the same time, the Taleban and other anti-government groups have also stepped up attacks against journalists and blocked nearly all reporting from areas under their control.
“Afghans have made government corruption and failure to implement the rule of law as key aspects of the current election campaign, but some government officials want to respond to criticism by silencing the journalists who monitor government conduct and provide vital information to the voting public,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.
In some cases, government officials have initiated criminal proceedings against journalists for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression and information. In other cases, government forces have even directly attacked journalists. For instance, in July 2009, five journalists were beaten by police officers in Herat for reporting on a public demonstration and police corruption.
One reporter from Ghazni, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told Amnesty International, “People working on the Karzai election campaign are calling me and other journalists and threatening us if we report on corruption or anything bad that Karzai’s government is doing. Taleban and other groups contact me and threaten me, telling me I must stop writing any positive news stories about the elections because they don’t want people to support the elections. I am caught between these two sides.”
Another journalists from southern Afghanistan who also didn’t want to be named added “If government officials are threatening me, then who do I complain to? I have to self-censor because otherwise I will be killed.”
“Afghan journalists have demonstrated that they are willing to face tremendous challenges in order to give a voice to the Afghan people, but instead of being supported by the government, they are facing increasing pressure from officials,” said Sam Zarifi.
There has been little official effort to investigate murders and physical attacks on journalists. Government institutions - in particular the National Directorate of Security, have attempted to reduce the media's independence.
“President Karzai, and all the presidential candidates, should immediately and publicly commit to defending Afghan journalists, both from the Taleban, but more importantly, from the government itself,” said Sam Zarifi. “It’s vital that the Afghan government upholds the rule of law and its commitment to media freedom by urgently investigating these cases.”
Amnesty International has produced a ten-point action plan calling on the government of Afghanistan to fulfill its international human rights obligations, including upholding the right to freedom of expression and media expression. Amnesty International said that at a time when Afghans are facing increasing insecurity, prioritizing human rights and the rule of law can serve to strengthen stability and security throughout the country. Specifically, Amnesty International called on the Afghan government to:
• Fully and effectively investigate and prosecute all those responsible for attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and others exercising their right to freedom of expression;
• Commit to ensure that no government agencies, and in particular the NDS, violate freedom of expression;
• Introduce legislation facilitating public access to information from governmental institutions.
To view the full ten point action plan go to www.amnesty.org/.
Freedom of expression, which flourished after the fall of the Taleban in 2001, has eroded as a result of increasing threats and attacks by the government and anti-government forces.
The government has improperly prosecuted several journalists on charges of violating religious sensibilities under pressure from the unofficial but highly influential Ulema Council (council of religious scholars). Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, Ahmad Ghous Zalmai a journalist and former spokesman for the Attorney General and Mullah Qari Mushtaq were each sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for publishing a Dari translation of the Quran without the Arabic text.
Since 2007, Taleban and other anti-government groups have increased attacks against Afghan journalists. The most recent victim was Jawed Ahmad, an Afghan journalist who was gunned down in the southern city of Kandahar in March 2009. On 7 June 2008 Abdul Samad Rohani, an Afghan journalist working for the BBC in Helmand province, was abducted and shot dead the next day, possibly as a result of his investigation of the narcotics trade. In May 2008, Afghan television journalist Nilofar Habibi was stabbed at the doorstep of her home in Herat, apparently for not wearing a burqa. In June 2007, unknown gunmen shot and killed Zakia Zami, director of the private radio station Radio Peace in Parwan province. She had been critical of local warlords, who had warned her to close the station. In March 2007, the Taleban beheaded journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi and killed his driver Sayed Agha in Helmand province.
This article, by Obaid Kharotai & Sher Ahmad Haider, was posted to e-Ariana, August 15, 2009.
SHARAN/GHAZNI - Twenty-five Taliban militants, five election campaigners and two policemen were killed and 20 others wounded in the restive south, officials said on Saturday.
In Paktika, 15 insurgents were killed an air-strike by NATO forces in Marghi area of Barmal district late Friday night amid a dramatic surge in pre-poll violence, the spokesman for the governor Hameedullah Zhwak told Pajhwok Afghan News.
Taliban have denied claims of casualties to their fighters in the overnight air raid. Zabihullah Mujahid said their fighters torched six vehicles of foreign troops in Urgoon district of the province, bordering the lawless tribal region of Pakistan.
More than 18 soldiers were killed in the attack, said Mujahid.
Paktika police chief confirmed the attack, but rejected any casualties to the forces. In another incident of violence, five election campaigners were killed in a militant attack in Larah village of Barmal district last night.
A resident from the area, Daud Jan, said Taliban attacked a convoy of Afghan Special Forces (ASF) backed by tribal militias hired for security of polling stations. Five people were killed and four others were wounded in the attack, he added.
An ASF official confirmed the attack, but denied casualties.
However, Mujahid said a dozen of ASF soldiers were killed in the overnight attack.
Elsewhere, six insurgents were killed and 10 others were wounded in a clash with police in Qarah Bagh district of southern Ghazni province on Saturday.
The clash also left a policeman dead and two others wounded, said police chief Brig. Gen. Khyal Baz Sherzai.
He told Pajhwok Afghan News the clash erupted when a group of insurgents attacked a police check-point in Chakar village Qarah Bagh district at 12:00pm.
One policeman was killed and two others were wounded in the assault.
In counter-attack, according to Sherzai, six attackers were killed and 10 others were injured. He said the injured included three local commanders.
A resident of the village, Noorullah, said the clash lasted an hour.
Mujahid said nine policemen were killed in the clash.
In Ghazni province, four Taliban and a policeman were killed and five militants and two cops wounded in a clash in Mangar area of Ghazni city last night.
This article, by Bronwen Roberts, was posted to Yahoo News, July 31, 2009
KABUL (AFP) – Afghanistan's intensifying conflict killed more than 1,000 civilians in the first six months of 2009, an increase of nearly a quarter over the same period last year, the United Nations said Friday.
This year has been the bloodiest in a Taliban-led insurgency that has drawn thousands of international military reinforcements, most of them deploying into areas where a strong militant presence could prevent August 20 elections.
The boost in troop numbers -- now roughly 90,000 -- was one reason for the higher toll of 1,013 dead civilians, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Human Rights Unit.
Nearly 60 percent of the civilian deaths so far this year were caused by insurgents, 30 percent by pro-government military forces and the rest unattributable to any party to the conflict.
The same period last year saw 818 civilians killed in insurgency-linked violence. In the first six months of 2007, 684 were killed -- 41 percent by security forces and 46 percent by militants, it said in a report.
"The armed conflict intensified significantly throughout Afghanistan in 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, with a corresponding rise in civilian casualties and a significant erosion of humanitarian space," the unit said.
Reasons for the surge in violence were increased military operations in civilian areas, more complex insurgent attacks and a crackdown on extremists in neighbouring Pakistan that forced fighters into Afghanistan.
Militant activity was also sustained during the winter, unlike in previous years when there had been a lull in fighting, it said.
Almost a third of Afghanistan was now directly affected by insurgent activities with civilians bearing the brunt of the fighing, it added.
"In addition to the sharp increase in civilian deaths, vulnerable groups are also suffering in terms of destruction of vital infrastructure, loss of income and earning opportunities, and deterioration of access to essential services."
Most civilians were killed by insurgent bombs, called improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide attacks, the report said.
The widespread use of IEDs "contributes to a climate of fear and intimidation that has significant repercussions for Afghan civilians, including in particular in terms of loss of life and livelihoods," it said.
Militants often target security forces but with no regard for the impact of their operations on civilians, it said.
The unit also said that militants based themselves in civilian areas as part of "an active policy aimed at drawing a military response to areas where there is a high likelihood that civilians will be killed or injured."
A new trend was the use of bombs that could be magnetically attached to vehicles. Schools, particularly for girls, came under increasing attack with 16 IED explosions on school premises this year.
International air strikes killed just over 64 percent of those civilians killed in military action and 20 percent of all civilian deaths from January to June, the report said.
These figures were down slightly and followed efforts to minimise the impact of military operations on civilians, the report said.
Such killings by pro-government forces created a "strong feeling of anger and disappointment among the Afghan general public" which undermined support for the international community generally, it said.
More has to be done by all, in particular the armed opposition, to reduce the impact of operations and activities on civilians, the report concluded.
This article, by Hanan Habibzai, was psted to e-Arianna, May 22, 2009
“We voted for the kingdom of Hamid Karzai to have a peaceful life, Instead we got death."
Intellectuals and poets have a commanding presence in Afghan society. It is the poets who often mirror the feelings of ordinary people, revealing much about the mindset of Afghans in the face of occupation and civil war.
Now, it is the smell of fresh blood rather than the delights of Afghanistan’s mountains and fields that occupies the poets. As an Afghan, when I read their works, I am shocked by the state of my country, and see in that state the failures of my government and the international community.
When Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election last year, many Afghans, intellectuals included, believed the end of the Bush era meant a let-up in their suffering.
But after the U.S. bombardments on the western province of Farah on May 4/5, the latest of many in which scores of civilians have been killed, most have lost faith.
Local elders say the strikes took 147 lives. If true, that makes the strikes the bloodiest since the war began in 2001, though the U.S. military accuse civilians of inflating the numbers.
But focusing on the numbers misses the point. The situation has devastated Afghans, and perhaps removed the last shred of faith they may have had in the coalition forces. Farah resident Hamidullah says: “We got it wrong. Americans came to kill us. We thought that they were here to make our future better. But no, they kill children, women, elders and any type of villager as if they are all Taliban.”
Another local, Khan Wali, who lost his sister-in-law and another female relative in the air strike, says: “The American military is trying to prove itself as a hero back in America by killing innocents.”
One Afghan poet, 28-year-old Samiullah Taroon, was born just after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and grew up between decades of war. Once famous for pretty verse about valleys in the Kunar region, he has now, like his fellow artists, turned to war and oppression, both foreign and domestic, for his subject matter:
We have heard these anecdotes
That control will be again in the hands of the killer
Some will be chanting the slogans of death
And some will be chanting the slogans of life
The white and sacred pages of the history
Remind one of some people
In white clothes, they are the snakes in the sleeves
They capture Kabul and they capture Baghdad.
Taroon says the government is a puppet of foreign powers, and in thrall to warlords and corruption:
A fraud with the name of reconstruction
Takes power and gold from me
As a popular poet, reciting his poetry at rallies where thousands gather, he is a threat to those in power, and those who want it. Taroon says he is being followed by an Afghan intelligence agency, which opened a file on him last year, and fears for his life.
So what does the government or the Taliban have to fear from a poet? In Afghanistan, poetry is often recited or sung, and is hugely accessible to ordinary people, despite high illiteracy. Poetry contests are attended by thousands.
Poetry has for centuries reflected traditions, history and the mood of the moment in Afghanistan.
At the Battle of Maiwand in 1880, legend has it that a young girl named Malalai inspired Afghan fighters to defeat the British army. When the soldiers grew disheartened and the British looked like winning, Malalai, tending wounded troops, recited poetry:
Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!
The Afghans turned the tables and drove the British all the way back to Kandahar. True or not, many Afghans believe the tale.
Pashtun poets have a long history of protest. According to Afghan historian Habibullah Rafi, 19th-century editor Alama Mahmood Tarzi infuriated the British with protest poems that were read throughout the Pashtu speaking world.
When the Russians arrived in 1979, the poetry once again changed with the fortunes of the people. Ishaq Nangyal’s poems, written during the 80s and 90s, are a good example of the resilience shown by Afghans towards their oppressors, be they foreign invaders or religious extremists:
Even if my head is cut down from my body
If my heart is taken out of my cage with the hands
For the honour of the country I accept all these
I am an Afghan, I fulfil my intentions.
When international forces defeated the Taliban in 2001, many poets reflected hopes that they would finally bring peace and prosperity after years of suffering under the Soviet-backed communist government, the Mujahadeen and the Taliban.
But the suffering of ordinary Afghans continued: poverty grew, corruption grew and the government’s actions began to wear down its people. The poets became angry and directed their anger at the coalition forces.
Following a U.S. military air strike last summer in the Shindand district of the Herat province, 47-year-old Nader Jan lost his faith. “We voted for the kingdom of Hamid Karzai to have a peaceful life,” he says. “Instead we got death. I saw how Nawabad village came under American attack and more than 100 civilians died, 70 of them children and women. Are the children also fighting against America? No. I ask, what did they do wrong?”
A veteran Afghan poet, Pir Muhammad Karwan, mourns a bride and groom killed at a wedding party that was bombed.
Here the girls with the language of bangles
Brought the songs of wedding to the ceremony
With the rockets of America
The songs of the hearts were holed
(Hanan Habibzai is an Afghan writer who has reported from his country for Reuters and the BBC, and has recently moved to London. Any opinions expressed in this blog are his own.)
This article, by James Cogan, was published on the Woprld Socialist Website, 11 March, 2009
The desperation at the heart of the Obama administration's plans for escalating the war in Afghanistan was laid bare in the president's interview with the New York Times last Friday.
Asked if the US-led forces were winning the war in Afghanistan, Obama bluntly stated "No". The answer was the only one that could have been given. The armed insurgency against the US and NATO occupation has vastly expanded over the past several years.
Large areas of the ethnic Pashtun-populated southern provinces of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan are effectively controlled by the Islamist Taliban movement or other anti-occupation forces such as the Hezb-e-Islami movement of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The rate of occupation casualties has doubled this year compared with the same period in 2008, with 54 American and NATO dead so far. Attacks on the Afghan government security forces have tripled, according to the US Government Accountability Office. More than 50 Afghan police are being killed by insurgents per month. In many parts of southern Afghanistan, police do not leave their stations.
The resistance is being fuelled by the resentment and hostility of a poverty-stricken population that has already suffered more than seven years of repression and intimidation by US-led forces in Afghanistan and the US-backed Pakistani military over the border. Under conditions in which the Islamists are viewed as the only ones fighting against US attempts to dominate the region, they have continued to attract support.
Taliban-linked cells now appear to be active in all the major cities in Pakistan, raising the danger of a broader war. The US-NATO land supply route through that country is already unreliable, forcing Washington to seek alternatives through Russia and Uzbekistan. Concerns in US military circles over supply lines into Afghanistan have even led to suggestions that China and Iran be asked to assist. Significantly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has invited Iran to take part in a summit on Afghanistan later this month.
The military reality in Afghanistan is that the occupation force has been unable to suppress an insurgency that has significant popular support. Even with the extra 17,000 US personnel being sent by Obama, there will still be less than 90,000 US and NATO troops and barely 80,000 Afghan government personnel. Given the size, geography and population of the country, military analysts estimate that a force of upward of 500,000 would be needed.
In the tribal region of Pakistan, operations involving over 100,000 Pakistani troops have failed to break the grip of Taliban, close down the safe havens used by Afghan insurgents or stem their cross-border movements.
Within this context, the strategy outlined by Obama hinges on the ability of the occupation forces to replicate what was called the "Awakening" in Iraq during late 2006 and 2007.
Coinciding with the "surge" of 30,000 additional troops that boosted US strength in Iraq to over 160,000, the US commander General David Petraeus was authorised to implement a policy of bribing insurgent leaders and their fighters to cease their attacks. The groups sought out were overwhelming made up of Sunni Arabs. Eventually, over 100,000 joined US-paid militias, especially in the suburbs of Baghdad and the western province of Anbar, and assisted the US military to crush a radical Islamist minority within the insurgency.
Obama told the Times: "If you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq." In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said, "there may be comparable opportunities".
The prospect of an Afghan or Pakistani "Awakening," however, ignores the main factor behind its development in Iraq. While in Anbar province there was conflict between traditional Sunni tribal leaders and Al Qaeda-aligned factions, the Sunni insurgents in Baghdad changed sides because they had been defeated in a vicious sectarian civil war against the Shiite fundamentalist parties that dominated the US-backed government.
Thousands of Sunnis were fleeing the capital to escape daily indiscriminate killings. By ending their resistance, the Sunni insurgents were primarily seeking to win US military protection for their suburbs and communities from the Shiite death squads that operated with impunity within the Iraqi army and police forces.
Even now, the situation remains fragile. The US occupation has created a sectarian divide in Iraq, which primarily benefits the Shiite elite at the expense of the predominantly Sunni ruling stratum who dominated the regime of Saddam Hussein. In the long term, the bitterness and frustration among those who felt they had no choice but to sign up for the Awakening could trigger renewed fighting against US forces and the Shiite-dominated government.
In Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan, there is no obvious reason for the Taliban or Hezb-e-Islami to bow to the occupation or accept the US-backed government, as occurred in Iraq. While they have suffered large casualties at the hands of the far better equipped US and NATO forces, their strategic position is far stronger now than at any time.
Haroun Mir, a former advisor to anti-Taliban Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, commented to the British Guardian: "Reconciliation was a great idea in 2003 or 2004, when the government had the upper hand, but now things are all going the Taliban's way. They are at the edge of Kabul and they have no incentive to join the government's side."
A particularly blunt characterisation of the situation in the key province of Helmand was made on March 6 by Sebastian Morley, a former major in the British special forces who resigned from the army in protest over the conduct of the war.
Morley told the Telegraph: "The operations that we are conducting are so worthless. We hold tiny areas of ground in Helmand and we are kidding ourselves if we think our influence goes beyond 500 metres of our security bases. It's just crazy to think we hold that ground or have any influence on what goes on beyond the bases. We go out on operations, have a punch-up with the Taliban and then go back to camp for tea. We are not holding the ground.
"The Taliban know where we are. They know full well when we have gone back into camp. I don't think we have even scratched the surface as far as this conflict goes. The level of attrition and casualties is only set to rise. This is the equivalent to the start of the Vietnam conflict. There is much more to come."
At this point, the political settlement suggested by Obama could only be realised by offering factions of the Taliban or Hezb-e-Islami control over majority Pashtun provinces or ministries in the Afghanistan government. This would mean, however, sidelining their Pashtun opponents who have collaborated with the occupation, in particular those around President Hamid Karzai.
Such a policy is clearly being considered. US recriminations against Karzai's administration, over its corruption and incompetence, have grown steadily as the military situation has deteriorated. Karzai's supporters are alleged to have amassed considerable fortunes by plundering state revenue and taking bribes and kickbacks from heroin traders. Most prominently, Karzai's brother, Ahmed Ali Karzai, has been publicly accused by US agencies of overseeing drug trafficking in the southern province of Kandahar.
The Obama administration has made clear that its priority is to prevent US imperialism being driven out of Afghanistan. It has declared it has a "realistic" assessment of the government needed in Kabul—that is, it has abandoned the Bush propaganda that the US occupation is seeking to transform the country into a "flourishing democracy".
Moves to weaken and remove Karzai are underway. His term of office ends on May 21. The country's constitution states that presidential elections must be held 30 to 60 days before the end of the president's term. However, the electoral commission, backed by the US and NATO powers, has called the poll for August 20, on the grounds that security for a credible poll in much of the country would not be ready before then.
Karzai has legitimately interpreted the decision as a hostile move. He faces demands to step aside for a "caretaker" government after May 21. His decree that the election be held according to the constitution was rejected by the electoral commission last week. He is now insisting that he remain president until the ballot but agitation is continuing for his term to end on schedule.
The most vocal opposition to Karzai is coming from the Northern Alliance—the ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazari warlords that fought alongside US forces in 2001. These are same people that the Obama administration would have to involve in any power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. Supporters of the Northern Alliance also dominate the officer corps of the Afghanistan army.
Implicitly, Obama's Afghanistan policy is based creating a new warlord regime to replace Karzai's. Providing that factions of the Taliban and other Pashtun powerbrokers accept an ongoing US presence in the country, Obama would sponsor the parcelling out of spheres of influence between them and the Northern Alliance strongmen.
This sordid real politik highlights the reactionary and neo-colonial character of the occupation of Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghans and hundreds of foreign troops have lost their lives for no other purpose than securing a base of operations for US imperialism as it seeks to extend its domination over the resource-rich regions of Central Asia and the Middle East.
This article was originally published by the Associated Press, March 3, 2009
KABUL — Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef is a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He spent almost four years in Guantanamo. He wears a black turban, has a thick beard — and is never without his Apple iPhone.
The ultra-conservative Taliban banned modern technology like the Internet and TV during its harsh 1996-2001 rule, but those items have boomed in Afghanistan since the regime's 2001 ouster, helping to bring the country into the 21st century.
Zaeef, who reconciled with the Afghan government after being released from U.S. custody, says he uses his iPhone to surf the Internet and find difficult locations, employing the built-in GPS. He even checks his bank account balance online.
"It's easy and modern and I love it," Zaeef said as he pinched and pulled his fingers across the iPhone's touch screen last week. "This is necessary in the world today. People want to progress."
Beyond making life easier, some say the country's embrace of technology could help break the cycle of 30 years of relentless warfare. It puts at the tip of a finger many things that were strictly outlawed by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar — music, movies, pictures of people and games like chess.
Young Afghans see the world differently from older Afghans because of their use of the Internet and mobile phones, and their participation in sports, said Shukria Barakzai, a female lawmaker and former newspaper editor.
Afghanistan's youth are not caught up in "the old circle of war," she said. "They are engaging with the rest of the world. That's why technology is so important for Afghanistan."
As an example she uses the popular television show Afghan Star, a version of the American Idol-style singing contest, which draws millions of viewers each week, both young and old. Viewers vote for a winner by text messaging, helping to promote democratic practices, she said.
Eight years ago Afghanistan had only a few hundred cell phone users, mostly members of the Taliban government. Today it has more than 8 million, meaning roughly one in four Afghans uses a mobile phone, according to government figures.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a speech earlier this year that Afghanistan was "in the Middle Ages" when the Taliban was toppled. Today, he said, half the country is at peace and access to education and health care are up 10-fold.
"When I saw an Afghan fellow pull out his Apple iPhone in Kabul, while I was talking on my 5-year-old NATO mobile, I saw another symbol of progress," he said of a recent trip to Afghanistan.
The Afghan capital has one gleaming mall, with glass elevators and escalators and a rare European-style coffee shop. Electronic stores stocked with GPS units, Sony PlayStations, flat screen TVs and iPods fill the shopping center.
Faridullah, the owner of an electronics store who like many Afghans goes by one name, said he sells about four iPhones a month to wealthy Afghans. The price in Kabul has dropped from $1,100 one month ago to about $800 today, he said.
"The country is really progressing now. Nine years ago the country didn't know about mobile phones. We can't compare today to nine years ago," he said. "It's like a custom now in Afghanistan that even if someone doesn't have enough money to eat he'll still carry an expensive cell phone."
The nation's leading mobile phone company, Roshan, added 1 million customers between June and early February, when it surpassed 3 million users. Roshan offers mobile banking services so users can send money to others through their phones, and it began offering Blackberry service in August, the first company in Afghanistan to do so.
Still, the average annual income in Afghanistan is just $800, so shop owners must target the ultra-wealthy and foreigners. Most Afghans never have heard of an iPhone, and Roshan reaches only 56 percent of the population.
"It's still pretty expensive," Jawid, the owner of another electronics store, said of iPhones and other modern gadgets. "The problem is the economy, otherwise people are very interested in the new technologies."
Many shops in Kabul sell a Chinese-made iPhone copy that shop owners say can do most things a real iPhone can. The fake sells for $300. "People use the Internet on it and it goes for a reasonable price," Orash said.
Zaeef, the former Taliban official, said he has always been interested in technology despite his militant links. He used a laptop and satellite phone to access the Internet in the late 1990s, and now he surfs the Web an hour a day, he said.
Zaeef said he tried to persuade top Taliban officials to let Afghans have more access to modern electronics in the late 1990s, and he noted that the Taliban itself now embraces technology. Militants use remote control devices to set off roadside bombs, and they produce high-quality videos of attacks that they post on militant Web sites.
The Taliban movement is highly fractured and is essentially a loose knitting of commanders who wield ultimate authority in their regions. As a result, some commanders have relaxed strict social rules against technology and now allow TVs and music. But others have ripped down satellites from homes and thrown out TVs from village barber shops and tea houses.
"All the time with the technology I tried to get them to investigate about the negative and the positive. I thought the positive outweighed the negative," he said. "I tried, but unfortunately I was not successful."