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.  

Monday, 27 June 2011

Kabul’s Car Market Gets Pimped Out

Just over a month ago, an irresistible slice-of-life story jumped the divide between Afghan and western media.

National Public Radio was the first to report on the trend story of Afghan aversion to the number 39:
It’s hard to find a credible story to explain what exactly it means, but everyone knows it’s bad. Many Afghans say that the number 39 translates into morda-gow, which literally means “dead cow” but is also a well-known slang term for a procurer of prostitutes — a pimp.
In Afghanistan, being called a pimp is offensive, and calling someone a pimp could carry deadly consequences. Similarly, being associated with the number 39 — whether it’s on a vehicle license plate, an apartment number or a post office box — is considered a great shame. And some people will go to great lengths to avoid it.
Three weeks later the Wall Street Journal weighed in on the conspiracy theories swirling around the growing taboo:
One rather credible conspiracy theory contends that the entire 39 mania has been inflamed by underhanded Kabul car dealers.
Kabul car dealer Mahfuzullah Khairkhwa, who has 39 on his own license plate, admitted that, at the very least, he takes advantage of the curse to turn an easy profit.
“The problem is only in Kabul,” said Mr. Khairkhwa, who conceded that he could knock several thousand dollars off the purchase price of a car in Kabul with 39 on its plate and then turn around to sell it for a profit in the surrounding provinces, where the urban legend has yet to spread.
The head of the union of car dealers in Kabul offered a retort in a Reuters piece this month:
…Najibullah Amiri, blames corrupt police officers for fanning the trend.
The issue has gained prominence just as number plates for Afghan cars — which carry five digits — rolled over from the series that starts with 38, to a new series that starts with 39.
Amiri said officials at the police traffic department charge buyers between $200 and $500 to change a “39″ number plate for a new car to something less offensive.
This is not the first salacious episode involving Kabul’s automotive fleet.  As the "39" story was breaking, drivers were  urgently removing rainbow decals that had begun arriving stuck onto  imported cars and became fashionable until conservative Afghans learned they were also gay pride symbols.

Rainbow stickers can be peeled off but Kabul’s problem with pimp-mobiles has, overnight, thrown the city’s booming car sales industry into chaos.  Dealers are reporting that “thousands of dollars of stock is now sitting unwanted in their yards, with even a prime condition vehicle almost unsaleable if its plates bear the now-hated numerals.”

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

Friday, 24 June 2011

The Duke Of Wellington’s Take On The Afghan War


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by His Majesty’s ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable.  I have dispatched reports on the character, wit and spleen of every officer.  Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain.  This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instruction from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains.  I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below.  I shall pursue either with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:
  1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or, perchance…
  2. To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain

Your most obedient servant,

The above letter—dated August 11th, 1812, and addressed to the British Foreign office in London—is attributed to the Duke of Wellington who, at the time, was waging his Peninsular Campaign.  The war for the Iberian Peninsula, which would thrust the general to prominence, marked an early example of modern warfare.  For it was on the Spanish plains that pitched battles between standing armies of professional soldiers gave way to the spontaneous emergence of large-scale guerilla warfare (the term guerilla being the diminutive of guerra, Spanish for “war” or quite literally “little war”).  The British press quickly seized on the novel uprising: for the first time, peoples, not princes, were in rebellion against the “Great Disturber.”

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

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Counting Blood and Treasure

Last night U.S. President Barak Obama announced the beginning of the end of his Afghan surge.  Ten thousand U.S. troops will be home by the end of the year, with the remaining 20,000 surge troops returning stateside by next summer.  That will leave approximately 70,000 to focus on Afghanistan’s restive borders to the south and east.  Some of those will trickle back by 2014, when full security of the country is to be handed over to Afghan forces.  Others are likely to be stationed at semi-permanent bases across the country into the near future.

The drawdown is seen as deeper and faster than anticipated by the Pentagon and, rather than signaling overwhelming success, reflects the heightened fiscal pressures that have descended on Washington along with the uncertainties surrounding the broad nation-building mission in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death.

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

Friday, 17 June 2011

World's Most Livable City Burns

Rioting and looting left cars burned, stores in shambles and windows shattered throughout the city center as police fired tear gas to control the mob.  One hundred and fifty were injured and close to 100 were arrested.  Three stabbings were reported and one victim sustained serious head injuries.  Nine police officers were hurt.  Fifteen cars were burned, including two police cruisers.  Perhaps as many as 50 businesses were ransacked, with damages easily climbing into the millions.

The local police chief described the instigators as "criminals and anarchists."  "Organized hoodlums bent on creating chaos, incited the riot," said the mayor.

The rabble was not roused by the burning of holy books by foreign occupiers.  It was not in reaction to brutal and repressive Middle East dictators.  Nor was it against the imposition of harsh austerity measures within a currency bloc.  No, these riots were in response to cross border aggression against cultural heritage.  On Wednesday the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup final (that's ice hockey) to the Boston Bruins.  

It was only four months ago that The Economist awarded Vancouver, for the fifth straight year, the title of the world's most livable city, with Melbourne ranking a close second.  The accompanying report explained what makes a high-ranked city:
Cities that score best tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density. This often fosters a broad range of recreational availability without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure. Seven of the top ten scoring cities are in Australia and Canada, where population densities of 2.88 and 3.40 people per sq km respectively compare with a global (land) average of 45.65 and a US average of 32.
Unfortunately, in this case, recreation led directly to high crime levels.  But, chin up Vancouver, while Most Livable City 2012 might have just slipped away, there's always next year for the Cup.  In the meantime, all the non-anarchists can hide out in Melbourne.


Thursday, 16 June 2011

Burying the Lede in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s second vice President, Karim Khalili, the Minister of Interior, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, MoI leadership, NTM-A Deputy Commanding General and EUPOL and German Police Project Team officials gathered for the ribbon cutting ceremony of Afghanistan’s largest premier police training facility.
So began a press release from the NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan (NTM-A).  The article describes the modern training facilities that will house 3,000 cadets once construction is completed.  The U.S.-funded, $106 million dollar facility has an impressive "23 barracks, eight classrooms, 23 guard towers, three dining facilities, three headquarters and administration buildings, gym, auditorium, medical facility, fire station and international trainers compound."

That fire station must have come in handy during yesterday's ribbon cutting ceremony for, you see, the NATO public affairs officers missed a more gripping intro to their report.

Buried deep in the story was this apparently throwaway paragraph:
As the ceremony was concluding, a rocket impacted in the training center.  There were no injuries or fatalities during the attack and dignitaries were able to safely depart the site.  Wardak province has a history of sporadic rocket attacks that are the ongoing focus of Afghan and NATO forces in that area.
 The Associated Press framed the incident differently:
The round crashed down and exploded within the grounds of the facility during its inauguration Wednesday, sending panicked police recruits crawling across the floor of a meeting hall and prompting bodyguards to bundle one of Afghanistan's vice presidents and the government minister in charge of police forces into helicopters and flee.
Spin is one thing but when self-congratulatory ribbon cuttings are deemed more news worthy than rocket attacks on senior Afghan politicians and NATO officials, a firm grounding in reality has somehow slipped away, if not in Afghanistan as a whole then at least in NATO's public affairs department. 


Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Balkanizing Afghanistan

In the coming weeks, President Barak Obama will announce exactly what shape the termination of his Afghan surge will take.  In light of this, and in the aftermath of bin Laden's death, pundits have been falling over themselves to voice just what all this means for the future of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Gates has called for a gradual withdrawal while Democrats in Congress are eager for a more hasty departure.  The White House itself has said that the July drawdown will be "real" and the final decision will be based on "conditions on the ground" lining up with the president's stated objectives of defeating al-Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, according to CFR.org.

Part of the calculus behind any drawdown schedule will be the progress of peace negotiations with the Taliban.  Yesterday, The Express Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper affiliated with The International Tribune, ran a story alleging that, according to an unnamed source, the United States had made direct contact with Taliban leader Mullah Omar via an intermediary, a former Taliban spokesman known as Mohammad Hanif who was arrested by U.S. forces in 2007.

Rumors on high-level secret negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban have been swirling around Kabul for at least a year.  Some of this hearsay could be credible, such as talks in Germany, the Persian Gulf and Turkey, while in others instances the U.S. has been outright hoodwinked by Taliban impostors.

According to the Express article, the U.S. had offered the Taliban control over the south of Afghanistan, while leaving the north for the other political forces under American influence. However, this was rejected by the Taliban.

Should this turn out to be true, it would seem the U.S. has taken a page from a recent Foreign Affairs article penned by Robert D. Blackwill, former U.S. ambassador to India and former deputy national security adviser for strategic planning. 

In the article Blackwill writes:
Current U.S. policy toward Afghanistan involves spending scores of billions of dollars and suffering several hundred allied deaths annually to prevent the Afghan Taliban from controlling the Afghan Pashtun homeland -- with little end in sight. Those who ask for more time for the existing strategy to succeed often fail to spell out what they think the odds are that it will work in the next few years, what amount of casualties and resources they think the attempt is worth, and why. That calculus suggests that it is time to shift to Plan B....The time has come, therefore, to switch to the least bad alternative -- acceptance of a de facto partition of the country.
Blackwill proposes a long term combat role for as many as 50,000 U.S. troops in the north half of the country, ceding the rest of the country to the Taliban.  "...Washington should accept that the Taliban will inevitably control most of the Pashtun south and east and that the price of forestalling that outcome is far too high for the United States to continue paying," argues Blackwill.  The former ambassador's proposal amounts to a decade of nation-building in the north and counterterrorism in the south.

If the U.S. is indeed offering to barter half of Afghanistan for a peace treaty, perhaps the Obama administration has reluctantly arrived at the same conclusion as Blackwill: "Accepting a de facto partition of Afghanistan has enough downsides that choosing it makes sense only if the other options available are even worse. They are."


Monday, 13 June 2011

Kabul Hustle

Kabul is a hustle.  But with a little scratch, a little nerve, a little luck and, yes, perhaps a little graft, all things are possible.

The economy grew by a blistering 22.5 percent last year, agriculture alone by 53 percent thanks to ample wet weather.  The service sector bounded by double digits and mining, the purported panacea the country’s been longing for, jumped by a third.

Security, however, is at its worst since 2001, Afghanistan continues to provide 90 percent of the world’s heroin, the country ranks as second most corrupt and relies more heavily on foreign aid than any other.

It’s in front of such a backdrop that everyday Afghans have been eking out an existence through the nearly 10-year war.

A recent Guardian article illustrates how this drama is playing out in the capital of Kabul:
The 10-year international effort has seen Kabul change from being a moribund city of fewer than 400,000 to a bustling metropolis of 4.5 million flush with cash. The last two years have seen an explosion in conspicuous consumption. There are blocks of luxury apartments under construction, giant video hoardings advertising energy drinks, BMWs and Hummers blasting their way through the traffic with overpowered horns. Miralam Hosseini, 56, sells at least two $140,000 4x4s every week. Across the street from his showroom, an electronics shops stocks the latest 52in flat screen.
To read the rest of this article, visit Forbes.com, where it was originally published.

Smurf Propaganda

A French academic has published "The Little Blue Book" which argues that Smurf society, intentionally or not, preaches the false virtue of a totalitarian utopia grounded in fascism, communism, colonialism, anti-Semitism and, to add a few non-ism, misogyny and autarky.  Whether Papa Smurf is the more cuddly embodiment of Uncle Joe or not, the movie still looks smurfing terrible. 


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Hello Time Bomb

Matthew Good—whose Underdogs and Beautiful Midnight albums served as the soundtrack to the teenage years of suburban Toronto youth who spent the late-90s shoulder-tapping outside The Beer Store and shotgunning beer in dorm bathrooms—oddly enough popped back onto the radar this week in an unexpected way.

Borrowing from The Atlantic Wire:
China is at work on its first aircraft carrier which, Canadian musician and Guardian contributor Matthew Good notes, "has some defence analysts concerned, but they'd be the sort that view any alteration in the current global status quo discomforting." Not only is "a single U.S. carrier strike group, at present, the most powerful military asset in the world," but we have 11 of them. That's "two more active carriers than the rest of the world combined." The power a single one of these holds, Good explains, "could--if fully unleashed--devastate most nations on earth." Still, he acknowledges, the Chinese do have at least one sub "capable of launching nuclear weapons" and suspected to be working on two more. But this artillery hardly holds a candle to the U.S.'s "288 nuclear warheads per boat, each possessing a maximum yield of 475 kilotonnes." Good muses, "What an amazing technological age we live in. We can't feed the world, but by God we can blow it up."
What struck me first, judging from his picture byline, was that I'm not the only one who's put on a few pounds since the summer of '99.  Sipping wine would come later in life, but in retrospect many of us ought to have at least been chugging lite beer while Mr. Good's rock anthems cranked from the five-disc CD stereo.

But on to the substance of the article which, if nothing else, is very informative.  It's full of dry facts about how both China and the U.S. can destroy the world a couple times over.  Apparently a deft touch in songwriting doesn't necessarily translate to op-ed pieces (and, yes, the fact that this is being written for a personal, unpaid blog does not go unnoticed, but, seriously, the man could write a tune).

Good appears confounded by concerns over China's naval development, when, in his view, we should actually be worried about America's already formidable forces and how the resources to build and maintain such deadly arsenals could be put to more humanitarian purposes.

In my younger days, Good could do no wrong in my eyes.  But, today, I must disagree with the erstwhile Canadian rocker.

China's rise is indeed inevitable.  On track to be the world's largest economy it's understandable that, in an age of Somali pirates and other rogue actors with out-sized abilities, China's national security interests would extend in lockstep with it's economic reach around the world.  The Middle Kingdom must protect the trade routes and supply of raw material that have become absolutely vital to the Politburo as it seeks to maintain social harmony at home.

The concern of defense analysts, however, stems from the opaque nature of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).  Even to the closest Asia-watchers, it remains unclear if China intends for its ascension to be one of benevolent and enlightened self-interest or aggressive and rancorous nationalism.  Just last week Vietnam accused China of destroying a seismic survey boat in the South China Sea, while China said that Vietnam had "gravely violated" its sovereignty and warned its neighbor to stop looking for oil in the ocean without Chinese permission, said CFR.org.

Until it's clear which path the Chinese have embarked on, the U.S. along with China's increasingly insecure neighbors will have no choice but to brace for the worst while being mindful not to push the PLA into a corner and onto the defensive.

Otherwise the world could have a real time bomb on its hands.  Hit it, Matt!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Dueling Blogs

I've started a new blog over at Forbes covering Afghanistan's wartime economy.  This one actually pays cash, so visit often and tell your friends.  Not to worry though, non-economic ruminations can still be found here and over at RealClearWorld.com

Sunday, 5 June 2011

He Said, She Said

Sarah Palin dipped into the Afghan fray on Tuesday, posting a Facebook comment in response to President Karzai’s NATO ultimatum on civilian casualties after at least nine civilians were killed in their home in Helmand province.

What President Karzai is saying is that if we don’t severely limit our air campaign he will take “unilateral action.”  And he further says that if the airstrikes continue we will be seen as an “occupying” power. This is an indirect way of saying that American and NATO forces will be fair game, which is obviously an unacceptable situation that threatens our troops […] Let us be clear: we are in Afghanistan fighting for the Afghan people and for the security of our country and our allies. If President Karzai continues with these public ultimatums, we must consider our options about the immediate future of U.S. troops in his country.  If he actually follows through on his claim that Afghan forces will take “unilateral action” against NATO forces who conduct such air raids to take out terrorists and terrorist positions, that should result in the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the suspension of U.S. aid.

The public statements of politicians are made to serve myriad audiences and their rhetoric should not be taken literally.  Karzai is attempting to crest the wave of war fatigue and anti-foreigner sentiment rising through Afghanistan.  Palin is trying to prove that the view from her Alaskan home extends beyond Russia, right into the heart of Asia.  At most, their comments demarcate the extreme positions of the much more nuanced debate taking place behind closed doors and between cooler heads.  At the very least they should be dismissed as posturing and brinkmanship.

However, the former governor gets a few things wrong.  At no point did Karzai make the threat that “Afghan forces will take ‘unilateral action’ against NATO forces.”  It’s his government that will take action, militarily, diplomatically or by other political means.  And, in the wake of bin Laden’s death, Palin’s labeling of the Taliban as terrorists is subject to some debate.

Karzai, currently the only one of the two who is an elected official and representing a presidency, must be held to a higher standard of accountability than a private citizen on a non-campaign family bus tour.  But with millions of “friends” comes great responsibility.  The cyber-phenom that is Sarah Palin has so far stirred almost 4,000 responses to her Afghanistan Facebook post; likely far more than Karzai could ever hope to elicit, and dwarfing a lifetime of responses for this humble blogger.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Religious Rants

As a proud Canadian and a three-day-a-year Muslim, I was gobsmacked by an Op-Ed in the National Post, one of our two Canadian national newspapers. Jonathan Kay, managing editor of the paper, highlights Dutch Politician Geert Wilders and his controversial views on Islam.

Out of haste (I’m on deadline) I’m lifting from The Atlantic Wire’s summary:
Wilders insists that he doesn't hate Muslims but considers them "victims of bad ideas," describing Islam not as a religion, "but rather a retrograde political ideology with religious trappings." Kay understands why Wilders's opinions have branded him "a hatemonger" in the eyes of many Europeans. Still, "His insistence on the proper distinction between faith and ideology deserve to be taken seriously," he argues. "For it invites the question: If we permit the excoriation of totalitarian cults created by modern dictators, why do we stigmatize (and even criminalize) the excoriation of arguably similar notions when they happen to be attributed to a 7th-century prophet?"
Being in no position to challenge Wilders on what is and isn’t in the Koran, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.  And from the little I’d previously read about Wilders, I wasn’t left aghast by his comments.

But it’s Kay’s closing thought that irks. It singles out without context or perspective.  There’s little question that Christopher Hitchens might have issues with Islam but at least when he strikes a match he burns down the whole pantheon:
[…] I will not be told I can't eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger.
Granted, it would be irresponsible not to discuss the role of Islam in a study of today’s geopolitical landscape and there’s room for only so many words in an Op-Ed piece, but to confound religion and ideology is mistaken—even in the case of Islam, whose current convulsions through it’s own Enlightenment are creating a branding challenge, to put it lightly.

Challenging and questioning the diktats of prophets, 7th-century or otherwise, can never be a bad thing.  But if Islam is to be judged ideology rather than religion on the basis of its most literal interpretation then there can be no halfway.  The yardstick must stretch across the religious (er,  ideological?) spectrum before it can find any moral force.

In crises of faith I often turn to a trusted friend to help light the way—television.

I leave you with The West Wing, season two, episode three:


Saturday, 30 April 2011

Fungible Oil

The FT had an interesting note on oil markets last week.  It seems US traders are floating barges full of oil down river from Oklahoma to Louisiana where a barrel fetches an extra $15.10.

Record stocks of 40m barrels at landlocked Cushing, Oklahoma (the delivery point of West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark price), have produced a supply glut.  There’s talk of building a pipeline to move 400,000 barrels per day from Cushing to Houston to connect “stranded” barrels with the global energy infrastructure.  In the meantime, oil is being moved by truck, train and boat to take advantage price differentials.

The economics and infrastructure are such that one oil company is even sourcing Canadian crude from a pipeline in Mississippi and literally shipping it to refineries in Louisiana. 

“We’re taking a steady diet of crude through our proprietary barge system down to our Garyville refinery,” said one oil executive. “Who would have ever thought that we would be moving western Canadian all the way down to Louisiana?”

The current trend of price anomalies reconfiguring energy markets is reminiscent of the oil price swings of 2008.

At that time, however, it wasn’t geographical price differences—exacerbated by a Middle East supply shock, growing emerging markets and loose monetary policy—that traders were cashing in on.  It was quite the opposite in fact.  As the world economy fell off the precipice in 2008, traders, oil companies, and even investment banks, were taking advantage of the record price differences between tumbling current prices and rebounding future prices caused by oil supply outstripping global demand. 

Punters were hoarding the cheap, excess oil, storing it offshore on super tankers, while at the same time entering agreements to sell that oil at a future date and at an agreed upon higher price, thereby locking in a profit.  The difference then between WTI for immediate delivery and a one-year forward contract was $21.50 a barrel.

But not all oil is created equal, independent of if it’s bought today or tomorrow.  The crisis in Libya has halted the production of its light, sweet crude that is prized for being easily refined into diesel and petrol, and for having a low sulfur content, making it cleaner to burn.

Saudi Arabia has said it “will meet any shortage” of oil supply but its oil is heavier and higher in sulfur, leaving it as a more expensive product for oil refineries to work with.  WTI oil, also sweet and light, is a better substitute for Libyan oil, which means unrest in North Africa has helped push the US benchmark to $114 a barrel. 

Luckily a flattening has been occurring across the crude spectrum in the last few years.  Since oil prices reached their record level of $147 a barrel in 2008, refiners have invested hugely in infrastructure allowing them to process heavy crude much more efficiently and thus putting on smaller premium on the sweeter variety.

Had this not been the case, who knows how far, and by what means, traders would be moving Canadian oil just to make a quick buck.


Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Endgame Cometh

Happy Mujahideen Victory Day.

Nineteen years ago, today, a rag-tag group of insurgents overthrew the previously Soviet-supported Afghan government.  It’s a national holiday here in Kabul.  The roads, usually clogged with traffic and pedestrians, are clear not only because Afghans are staying home to celebrate but also because many international civilians are on lockdown. 

A string of high profile attacks on government and military buildings in the past few weeks have cast a pall over the holiday.  And a blockbuster prison break this week has only added to tensions.

But in commemorating a day that was precipitated by the withdrawal of Soviet troops three years earlier in 1989, it’s worth looking forward to how the next major foreign military withdrawal from Afghanistan might shape the country.

Lost in the stories of Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces has been reporting on how Afghans across the country are starting to hedge their bets as U.S. and coalition forces prepare to drawdown their forces this July, a process that should end by 2014.

Taliban are turning themselves in to authorities to be reintegrated into society, sometimes as part of local militias.  Ethnic minority groups are beginning to rearm themselves in anticipation of a return of the Pashtun Taliban.  And armies of pundits have weighed in on the false hope of talks with the Taliban or are exasperated that a 10-year war has gone on this long without a diplomatic component to compliment the military hardware.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is what exactly happens after 2014.  Ahmed Rashid commented on Karzai’s request for a “strategic partnership agreement” with the U.S. after 2014:

The Pentagon is keen on this so it can maintain between two and six bases in Afghanistan to keep pressure on al-Qaeda. Most countries in the region – such as Pakistan, China and Russia – will object to an indefinite U.S. military presence, while Iran will see it as a permanent threat.

The New York Times reports that upon hearing talk of a U.S. presence beyond 2014, Iranian, Indian and Russian officials made a mad dash to Kabul.  The Times goes on to explain how talk of long term U.S. bases could sink the burgeoning peace negotiations.

[The strategic partnership agreement] is without doubt a delicate process, and one that comes at a critical time.  Afghan officials have expressed concern that the negotiations could scuttle peace talks with the Taliban, now in their early stages, because the insurgents have insisted that foreign forces must leave the country before they will deal. That they are already talking is an indication they are willing to compromise on the timing of a withdrawal – but it is hard to imagine Taliban acceptance of a lasting American presence here.

Discussions of permanents bases also plays into Afghan conspiracy theories that the U.S. is only here to steal Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and to have a permanent base in the region from which to exert influence over the eventual nuclear state of Iran and the current nuclear power of Pakistan, to say nothing of China and Russia.

A Wall Street Journal piece nicely explores of the geopolitical posturing that surrounds an Afghan-U.S. strategic partnership.

Pakistan is lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him instead to look to Pakistan – and its Chinese ally – for help in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding the economy, Afghan officials say…

Some U.S. officials said they had heard details of the Kabul meeting, and presumed they were informed about [Pakistan’s] entreaties in part, as one official put it, to "raise Afghanistan's asking price" in the partnership talks. That asking price could include high levels of U.S. aid after 2014. The U.S. officials sought to play down the significance of the Pakistani proposal. Such overtures were to be expected at the start of any negotiations, they said; the idea of China taking a leading role in Afghanistan was fanciful at best, they noted.

And yet, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, has met Karzai three times since the Pakistani overture.


Monday, 18 April 2011

60 Cups of Tea

60 Minutes, last night, aired an expose on Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson.  While acknowledging his promotion of girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, their report brought into question his “origin story,” financial irregularities within his Central Asia Institute and exactly how many schools his NGO has built.

For those unfamiliar with Three Cups of Tearecommended reading for the rank and file of both the US military and Oprah’s book cluban Outside magazine article chronicles Mortenson’s activities in Afghanistan.

The fascinating nexus between book clubs and the military was highlighted in a New York Times piece last summer:

The collaboration [between the US military and Mortenson], which grew in part out of the popularity of “Three Cups of Tea” among military wives who told their husbands to read it, extends to the office of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last summer, Admiral Mullen attended the opening of one of Mr. Mortenson’s schools in Pushghar, a remote village in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.

On the ground here in Afghanistan development workers will confess that Mortenson’s inspirational story re-ignited their passion and drive for their often frustrating line of work.  However, many hold reservations about the efficacy and sustainability—to say nothing of the possible harm—of this “cowboy” approach to development work.

Thursday, 31 March 2011


A refreshing counterpoint to the Rolling Stone U.S. Kill Team story.


Wednesday, 30 March 2011

April Showers

The Persian new year was celebrated in Afghanistan just over a week ago. With it's passing, millions of wood-burning stoves have been relegated to storage and spring has officially arrived. Budding rose bushes and apricot trees dot Kabul courtyards.

But spring also heralds the return of the insurgent fighting season. The retreating cold releases its grip on supply routes to safe-havens across the mountainous Pakistani border, while the increasingly dense foliage provides impressive cover from NATO and US fire.

There is hope, however, in both Washington and Kabul, that this spring will mark a new year that breaks the rhythm of war in Afghanistan. President Barrack Obama's 30,000 troop surge, which came into place last fall, along with General David Petraeus' renewed focus on special operations, and the continued enlargement of the Afghan National army have secured a handful of strategic districts in the country's restive south for the first time in years. Cricket diplomacy between Pakistan and India could pave the way toward Pakistan playing a more constructive role in negotiations with Afghanistan's Taliban.  And fallout from the corruption scandal at Afghanistan's biggest bank may push forward reforms and introduce some semblance of accountability in the Karzai government.  Just last fall, six in ten Afghans said the country was moving in the right direction.

Granted, expectations should be tethered.  The afghan public is weary of the foreign military presence and gruesome pictures of a US "kill team" do little to allay the fears of civilian casualties, which reached a high water mark last year.  Moreover, this past winter proved more violent than most, a disturbing portent for the coming year.  Barely a week into the new year, 300 Taliban—yes, 300—overran an entire district in eastern Afghanistan.

Only a day before the Taliban invasion from the east, Laura King wrote this in the L.A. Times:
In addition, the spring will test a gamble by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are being withdrawn from areas once described as crucial bulwarks against Pakistani-based militant groups such as the Haqqani network and the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
U.S. troops have been "repositioned" away from former battlegrounds such as the Pech and Korangal valleys in Kunar province, where commanders said sophisticated surveillance and "intelligence-driven" raids would prevent a rush of cross-border movement. 
 Should old acquaintance be forgot, indeed.