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.