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, 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, where it was originally published.