Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Kabul awoke to yet another bomb blast this morning and, from the looks of it, it was a big one:

Arriving at the blast site roughly six hours after detonation, it was a scene of security officers corralling municipal workers, journalists and curious Afghan onlookers (I being continuously mistaken for the latter) amongst the wreckage, while they themselves tried to take in the enormity of the blast.

In the crowd, an old man announced that we were all "clinging to Bush's testicles" and that from our "fancy cars, only cared about this life and have no regard for the next," before a security official angrily chased him away.  Something could have been lost in the translation.

A steady exodus of foreigners from the Heetal hotel passed by car or on foot, rolling their suitcases through the debris.  A few stopped to pose for a parting shot in front of the collapsed buildings.

The blast crater, said to be a meter deep and two meters wide, had been filled with rubble (see second video).  The black SUV carrying the payload was reportedly hurled through the air by the explosion.  The soft-shelled SUVs in the vicinity were reduced to charred and twisted metal.   The armored variety remaining surprisingly intact:

Violence in Kabul has been steady since this summer's elections but there are concerning reports that while the Taliban were once knocking on the gates of Kabul, they are now banging on its very doors.

In striking one of Kabul's most affluent districts, their message is clear: anyone benefiting from the government's corrupt practices is fair game and cannot hide behind their check points and blast walls. Unfortunately, those actually caught in the blast were most likely guards and domestic staff.

President Karzai's former vice president, Ahmed Zia Massoud, whose house was damaged in the attack is thought to have been the intended target.  Fittingly, the president himself was convening a conference on fighting corruption at the time of the attack.

Tackling corruption will no doubt deflate the Taliban cause, but after eight years of war and borrowing best practices from confederate insurgents in Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, the tide will not turn on de-greased palms alone.


Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Breaking Development

This is it. President Obama will announce his new Afghan strategy tonight. Analysts and pundits will learn which of their thinking falls most closely inline with the president’s on such issues as troop deployment, a timeline for withdrawal, the training of the Afghan army and police force, and how best to tackle corruption in the Karzai regime.

The president is also aware that force alone will not render Afghanistan more secure. Winning the necessary hearts and minds as part of a victorious counterinsurgency operation also requires a thoughtful development strategy to ensure that any success is both lasting and durable. How will President Obama weigh-in on the development issue?

In my brief few weeks here in Kabul I’ve somehow managed to ensconce myself within the development community. While we haven’t yet had the opportunity to discuss what they’d hope to hear from President Obama’s new strategy, I have noticed a pall of frustration that follows their every move, not an uncommon phenomenon here in Kabul.

When their accomplishments are not overshadowed by the unrelenting news of IEDs, corruption and opium, they are undermined by bureaucratic ineptitude. Within a few hours of arriving I was forwarded an article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, no stranger to good intentions gone awry from his time reporting in Baghdad’s greenzone with the Washington Post, that summed up the aggravations of development work here in Afghanistan.  

Worse still, some of their early accomplishments have begun to unravel in the deteriorating security environment

Of the journalists I’ve spoken to, most would love to spend more time covering development success stories but with bureaus already stretched thin, finite column inches for foreign news and development projects that, in a 24 hour news cycle, progress at a glacial pace, it’s rare to find media outlets that are both willing and able.

I would be remiss, however, to not highlight the few positive development stories that did breakthrough: here, here and particularly here.

Like President Obama’s stimulus plan, where we’ll never know exactly how many jobs it saved or created and how much worse the recession would have been in its absence, it’s difficult to gauge how worse off things here in Afghanistan would be, despite all the missteps and backsliding, without the emphasis on development work to complement the security strategy. As the president lays out his grand Afghan plan, it will be worthwhile to see what, if any, mention will be made on development to ensure that a third comprehensive review will not be necessary.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Butchering Sacred Cows

It’s Eid in Kabul. The city has shut down.  Locals head to mosque, then home to their families.  American expats are celebrating Thanksgiving; the rest of us are simply enjoying a long weekend.  When the two groups do cross paths, Afghan kids have been known to light firecrackers behind the feet of unsuspecting Westerners before running off giggling, leaving the foreigner, shocked and alarmed, to quickly search for cover from what can only be assumed to be incoming fire.

At the Indonesian embassy Rock'n'Roll classics are butchered by way of karaoke.  Outside, cows and goats are ritualistically slaughtered for the holiday.

Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, is one of the few countries that has maintained a diplomatic presence in Kabul throughout Afghanistan’s turbulent past.

Situated next to the embattled Indian embassy, the Indonesians don’t need to be reminded of the importance of upholding the appearance of neutrality in Afghanistan’s pugnacious politics.  Picking up stray body parts off the embassy tennis courts leaves a powerful impression.

But like the Indians, the Indonesians know all too well the threat of Islamic terrorism and can ill-afford to remain completely impartial on the topic of Afghanistan.  For the moment, however, there are painfully fresh kebabs and a harmonized "More Than Words" guitar sing-along to contend with.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Bristling Bureaucracy

My second week has been spent trying to navigate Kabul's bureaucracy. What I thought was a six month visa, purchased at the accordant price, now appears to be valid for only one. I have two weeks to exit the country.

Working strictly from hearsay, the only apparent source of information here in Kabul, I can now either fly to Dubai and brave the lines at the embassy, armed with a convincing yarn on why I am deserving of the scarce commodity that is the six month multiple entry visa. Alternatively, I can work towards finding a trusted Afghan fixer who can work the system and, for a modest fee, secure any visa.

Most firms here have dedicated staff to resolve such issues. As a freelancer I'm left to rely on the kindness of others or fend for myself. From what I've gathered a successful freelance journalist cannot be above the transparent calling-in of favors or even the forging of official documents.

On a recent mission to scour the streets of Kabul for a cheap iPhone, my companion, an Afghan of few words and gentle features, explained that Kafkaesque bureaucracy is nothing new to this country. Under the Taliban he was forced to wear a beard of at least eight centimeters. Erring on the side of caution he kept it at ten. Looking back at pictures as a bearded 29 year old, he thinks the facial hair added at least ten years. For the first two months the beard constantly itches but then you get used to it, he says. Sleeping was difficult though, the whiskers tickling at your face and neck. Now clean-shaven and baby-faced, he doesn’t plan to sport a beard until at least 50. Apparently a gray beard in Afghanistan is license to make your own rules.


Monday, 16 November 2009

Quick Compartmentalization

I'm approaching my first week here in Kabul. It's been filled with all the expected first impressions of a foreign conflict zone: the layers of military security and precautionary protocol; the motley crew of bacchanalian expats, myself among them; romantic notions of Afghanistan's storied past, rugged terrain, defiant people.

Coming from a nugget of truth, cliches serve as a shorthand and ought not be dismissed outright. But it's still worth being mindful not to slip into these the well-trodden pitfalls without at least of bit of resistance.

This week's evenings have been spent meeting dozens of aid workers, diplomats and journalists, and a few elusive security contractors. The days on learning how to navigate the city enough to feed myself and exerting mental energy on figuring out exactly how I'm supposed to make rent. It's going to take some time to understand exactly what's going on here, how things function, and who's who.

While still getting settled, events continue without me. A military convoy was bombed Friday morning (a friend said he heard his windows rattle), only a few days ahead of President Karzai's inauguration this week. I'm told most of the city will be even more locked down than usual for the event. Offices will be closed, roadblocks will choke the city, foreign staff's mobility will be restricted to a few secured locations and curfews are to be tightened. Still without a presspass, I'll likely be doing the same.

Monday, 9 November 2009


On the 20th anniversary of the seminal political event of my lifetime--my earliest political memory at that--I'm off to what is arguably the location where the chain of events that would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall was first set in motion. Read into it what you will.