Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Praise for Kandahar's Warrior Poets...

...From one of my favorite writers right now, Walter Russell Mead:

The New Faces Of The Afghan Army

The most recent issue of The American Interest has a profile of the Afghan National Army by Alim Remtulla, one of the only Western journalists to spend any length of time in the Afghan Army without NATO supervision. The article, over a year in the making, is here; excerpts are below.
A clutch of soldiers is gathered around one bunk. At its center is the company’s resident entrepreneur, 28-year-old Dawa Khan, a former police officer who, after a friendly-fire incident with coalition forces, decided he would be safer in the army. Tucked under his bed in a lockbox is a collection of mobile phones, calling cards and cigarettes. Dawa Khan has the company commander’s blessing to visit Kandahar’s markets (in civilian clothes, of course) and return with supplies. For his time and effort, he takes a small cut. Dawa Khan’s distinctive facial hair has earned the budding capitalist the nickname Lenin. The irony is lost on everyone.
Remtulla goes on to interview the Afghan Army’s past and present commanders including Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Hasan Baluch, commander of the 3rd battalion and an old associate of the legendary Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud; General Sher Mohammad Zazai, trained in Leningrad and known for ushering “foreign security contractors out of his office by the sole of his boot”; and the (forcibly) retired General Amir Mohammad Ahmadi, another former communist turned mujahid.

Perhaps the article’s greatest asset is the way it analyzes the divisions and different allegiances that permeate the Afghan Army’s leadership. General Ahmadi, for instance, was pushed into early retirement because of the simmering distrust between the current Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak (an ethnic Pashtun with whom Ahmadi enjoyed a close relationship) and the recently departed Army Chief of Staff General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, an ethnic Tajik. Afghanistan’s tribal and ethnic divisions create complicated power struggles at the highest levels of the Army and government, and what is simply simmering tension now could easily fracture into violence, as has happened so often in Afghan history.

Remtulla’s article is fine war journalism: lengthy interaction with one group of ordinary soldiers combined with access to the higher echelons of Army leadership and sprinkled with insightful analysis on the state of the Afghan Army as a whole, which will soon be responsible for maintaining peace in a fractured and wounded country. Our hopes are high; our expectations more modest.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

File Under "Pitfalls Of War By Consensus"

US President Bush begged Italian PM Berlusconi to stop bribing the Taliban in Afghanistan
The Australian
By Tom Coghlan and James Bone
August 12, 2011
PRESIDENT George W. Bush made a personal plea to Silvio Berlusconi to stop Italian forces paying bribes to the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to newly discovered US diplomatic cables.
They show that concerns over alleged Italian payments to insurgents, long denied by Rome, reached the highest levels of the US Administration.
They support claims that were first published by The Times in October 2009 and which were furiously denied, with threats of legal action, by the Italian Government.
Mr Berlusconi said that the claims were "totally baseless".
However, among the cables uncovered by the Italian magazine L'Espresso are four from 2008 onward that deal with the question of bribes paid by Italy's intelligence service in Afghanistan.
The cables, which The Times has verified, include one that shows that President Bush raised the matter with Mr Berlusconi personally after the latter's re-election for a second term in May 2008.
It reports that Mr Bush obtained "the promise of The Knight (as Mr Berlusconi is known in some cables) to get to the bottom of the question".
In April 2008, Ronald Spogli, the US Ambassador, wrote a memo to Washington promising: "We will press for Italian troops to take a more active attitude towards the insurgents.
"We will also give a strong signal opposing the habit of the past to pay money to obtain protection and to negotiate ransoms for release of kidnapped persons."
According to another cable, in a meeting on June 6, 2008, the US Ambassador told Mr Berlusconi: "We continue to receive worrying reports of Italians paying-off local warlords and other combatants. Berlusconi agreed this should be stopped."
In a cable to Mr Bush before Mr Berlusconi's visit to Washington in 2008, Mr Spogli writes that Italian support in Afghanistan "has been undermined by Italy's growing reputation for avoiding combat and paying ransom and protection money.
''This reputation is based in part on rumours, in part on intelligence which we have not been fully able to corroborate.
''True or not ... Italy has lost 12 soldiers in Afghanistan, fewer than most allies with comparable responsibilities".
The ambassador warned that, if true, "Italian actions are endangering allied troops".
L'Espresso quotes its own sources from within SISMI, the Italian military intelligence agency, who claim that the Italian Government signed off payments to warlords and insurgents.
The magazine says it has credible evidence that 23 million euros ($31.6 million) was authorised to SISMI for "security and information activities for the Prime Minister" in 2004-06, the first two years of the campaign.
Italian forces are alleged to have paid off insurgents in Sarobi district, east of Kabul.
After a six-month period in 2008 in which Italian troops suffered only one fatality, French troops took over in July.
Weeks later the French had 10 killed and 21 injured in a devastating attack.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Kandahar's Warrior Poets

I've got a new story out for The American Interest about the month I spent with the Afghan National Army last year.  This piece took over a year from conception to publication.  As far as anyone at NATO or the US military was aware, and much to their concern, I was the first foreign journalist to embed with a pure Afghan unit (which is why, I suspect, it took so long to organize and pull off).  There were no foreign forces around and the Afghan army was completely responsible for my safety. I was repeatedly asked by NATO if I knew what I was getting into, and if I was being looked after and treated well.  In light of recent headlines regarding Taliban infiltration of the army's ranks, their worries were well grounded but in the end it all turned out pretty well.

I'm told this piece will be the cover story of the September issue of The American Interest and will include a full spread of pictures.  The issue should be out in late August and available in your finer bookstores, probably next to Foreign Affairs

Until then, you can find it here (http://the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1002) and from this afternoon it should be featured on The American Interest homepage.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Afghan Lessons from Rambo

The Washinton Post's Pamela Constable looks back through sepia-tinted glasses on 10 years of western involvement in Afghanistan and laments at the loss of the Kabul she once knew:
I can’t find my old house, my old street or the bakery where I used to watch the early-morning ritual of men slapping dough into hot ovens beneath the floor. They’ve all vanished behind a high-security superstructure of barricades and barbed wire, a foreign architecture of war. Elsewhere in the Afghan capital, a parallel construction boom is underway. The slapdash sprawl of nouveau riche development has sprouted modern apartment buildings, glass-plated shopping centers, wedding halls with fairy lights, and gaudy mansions with gold swan faucets and Greco-Roman balustrades, commissioned by wealthy men with many bodyguards and no taxable income.
She concludes that the real tragedy of Afghanistan is how little advantage it has taken of the enormous international goodwill that followed the defeat of the Taliban in 2001:
Showered with far too much aid, clever Afghans have learned to imitate Western jargon, skim project funds and put their relatives on the payroll — while many show little interest in learning the modern skills that would propel their country forward. At its core, this remains a society of tribal values and survival instincts. Goals such as democracy and nationhood come much further down the list.
There's little to take issue with in her analysis.  However, one overlooked cause of today's frustration might be the boundless optimism she describes after the fall of the Taliban:
I was privileged to witness that awakening and to experience the exhilaration of a society being given a new chance after a generation of war and ideological whiplash. In those early years, I met Afghan exiles who had given up careers in Germany or Australia to participate in their homeland’s renaissance, and American jurists and agronomists who had come to help rebuild an alien land.
Foreigners were welcome everywhere, and a new generation of Afghans was in a hurry to catch up. In the cities, I met girls who led exercise classes and boys who took computer lessons at dawn. In rural areas, women still hid behind curtains and veils, but schools reopened in tents, and mud-choked irrigation canals were cleaned. In 2004, long lines of villagers proudly flashed their ink-dipped thumbs after voting in the country’s first real democratic election.
The Taliban were a symptom, not a cause, of Afghanistan's troubles.  Instead of curing the condition their excision only exposed the deeper fissures of Afghan society.  Instilling the belief in Afghans and foreign donor governments that things would change for the better overnight, instead of the reality of trading in one basket of problems for another filled with longer standing issues, is part of what has added to Afghan and donor fatigue.

The war would have been a hard sell to Congress and other NATO governments if they had been told beforehand that it would last over a decade and its end would have little resemblance to a traditional victory.  But at least this would have girded governments and their citizens for what was needed to do the job right or allowed them to bow out gracefully before getting stuck in the mire of nation building.  But the business of coalition building requires compromise and consensus, which all too often means kicking these questions of commitment down to succeeding administrations.

This is not the first time western expectations have split from reality in Afghanistan.

In 1988, Rambo III hit theaters across the U.S. The movie, the most violent of its day, lionized the pious Mujahideen in their battle against the godless Soviets (see clip here).  The film makes much of the Afghan struggle for freedom (another clip here and here), providing a glimpse into the popular opinion of the day.

However, only a year after the movie's release the U.S. disengaged with Afghanistan.  Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the problem seemed solved to western eyes.  The much-vaunted Mujahideen, re-labeled warlords, faded from the zeitgeist, were left to fight among themselves and would eventually spawn the Taliban.

In the closing credits to Rambo III the film is dedicated to "the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan."  After the attacks of 9/11 this was changed to "the gallant people of Afghanistan."   

As the U.S. declares a marginal victory and begins extracting itself from Afghanistan once again, it is worth remembering that expectations ought to be managed and that pedestals are inherently unstable. 


Friday, 1 July 2011

Fast-Food From The Frontline: T.G.I. Friday’s And Tim Hortons In Afghanistan

To the disappointment of uniformed doughnut lovers, Tim Hortons is leaving the front.  The Canadian chain of all things baked and brewed will end a five-year deployment to Kandahar airfield (KAF), as Canadian forces are scheduled to ship out of the country by the end of July.  Popular with both Canadians and non-Canadians, hour-long lines frequently snake out of the coffee shop and down the KAF boardwalk, a hollow quadrangle of stores that hosts friendly pick-up games and the occasional Toby Keith concert at its center.  In Kandahar’s fierce heat, the iced capp machine has been put through its paces.  By the end of most shifts it is nothing more than a quivering mass after sputtering out one last frozen cappuccino.

Around the corner from the Tim Hortons stands the T.G.I. Friday’s, complete with requisite surfboard and guitar latched to the wall, above couples on awkward first dates.  Apart from the complete dearth of children, the equally dry bar and burgers, the errant rocket attack, the camouflaged clientele, and the seemingly all-Bangladeshi staff, you could be in any midwestern, suburban strip mall.

Tim Hortons and T.G.I. Friday’s are among the few fast-food purveyors in Afghanistan to survive a nationwide culling last year.

Back in March 2010, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael T. Hall, a deputy to then-top U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wrote on an ISAF blog: “This is a warzone – not an amusement park… In the coming weeks and months, concessions such as Orange Julius, Burger King, Pizza Hut [and] Dairy Queen…will close their doors,” in an effort to help the alliance, “accommodate the troop increase and get refocused on the mission at hand.” It’s reported that in private, McChrystal told senior officers he was shuttering the food-court detritus because he didn’t want to be the first American general to tell a grieving mother that her son died delivering frozen pizza.

To read the rest of this article, visit Forbes.com, where it was originally published.   

Betting Against Karzai Is Paying 20 To 1

Should Afghan President Hamid Karzai depart office before midnight, eastern standard time, on June 30th, one lucky punter will make $50.  If Karzai’s presidency stretches into July, they will lose their $2.50 wager.  Intrade, the world’s largest online prediction market, has placed the odds of the Karzai administration making it to next month at 95 percent.  A seemingly safe bet.

However, as late as 9:18 pm on Sunday, May 2, the Intrade market placed the probability that Osama Bin Laden would be “captured or neutralized” before the end of the year at a paltry 2.7 percent.  Only a half hour later, before President Barack Obama delivered his dramatic address, the market had jumped to 98 percent.  With 40 to 1 odds, Navy Seals weren’t the only ones making a killing that night.

The imperfect flow of information in politics doesn’t make for terribly efficient markets but lucrative opportunities abound for those wielding inside information or an inspired hunch.

Between July and December of 2003, the odds that Saddam Hussein would be captured or neutralized by the end of 2003 had fallen from 53 percent to as low as three percent.  Eight months after the deposed dictator escaped from Baghdad, the trail appeared to have gone cold.  But then, in early December, unidentified Intrade investors began making hundreds of, what appeared to be, long shot bets against Saddam.  Trading volumes spiked 450-fold.  However prices remained undisturbed as there were more than enough eager sellers to take what looked like easy money.

A few days later, Hussein was found in a spider hole near Tikrit.

To read the rest of this article, visit Forbes.com, where it was originally published.   

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Afghanistan’s Top Banker Runs For His Life

Afghanistan’s top banker, Abdul Qadeer Fitrat, who is alleged to have played a role in the country’s largest financial scandal, has fled to the U.S.

The, now, former-governor of Afghanistan’s Central Bank is holed up in a Northern Virginia hotel.  Contacted by phone, Fitrat said he left Afghanistan because his life had been threatened and that the Karzai government was refusing to prosecute those allegedly involved in fraudulent loans.

The near collapse of Kabul Bank, the national’s largest private bank, involved years of malfeasance by politically connected bank shareholders, including the brothers of both Mr. Karzai and the first vice president, Muhammad Qasim Fahim, who along with other shareholders took more than $900 million in loans, many of them interest free with no repayment plans, writes the New York Times, which goes on to add:
The bank’s troubles and the government’s failure to deal with them was one of several issues that caused the International Monetary Fund to suspend its program with Afghanistan, which had the effect of halting the country’s access to some foreign aid money and threatens to reduce sharply the country’s ability to access the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund, administered by the World Bank.
A few weeks back the Guardian followed the corrupt and moneyed trail that ensnared both businessmen and politicians, and brought Afghanistan to the brink of financial ruin:
The most notorious of Kabul Bank’s “investments” are in Dubai, where [Khalilullah Ferozi, the former chief executive of the bank] says $160m was spent on 35 luxury villas on the Palm Jumeirah, the artificial sand banks that jut out in “fronds” into the Arabian Sea. Many of the houses were registered in [the bank's former chairman, Sherkhan Farnood's] name and handed out to bank shareholders. I visited house No1 on Frond O – a huge five-bedroom “Riviera”-style mansion occupied by Ferozi. Others owned by the bank showed every sign of occupation – pools were full of water, and cushioned garden furniture was set up in the sticky summer heat.
It was in these houses that Afghan MPs were entertained with drink and “Russian girls”, according to one Afghan intelligence official, who says the bank deliberately sought to compromise the politically powerful.
Ferozi frankly admits that millions of dollars were lost on these villas after Dubai’s real estate bubble burst in 2008. He firmly pins the blame on Farnood (who promised to answer my questions by email, but never did), saying most of the disastrous lending, particularly in Dubai, happened before he became CEO.
The 18-month Kabul Bank scandal and the crony-capitalism it revealed to be endemic throughout Afghanistan has worsened the already tense relationship between the Afghan government and the United States, which has led the nearly 10-year-old war here to rout the Taliban and al Qaeda and is now beginning a partial military withdrawal.

To read the rest of this article, visit Forbes.com, where it was originally published.