Permissible Arms

Pressure Drop (Upcoming Afghan Elections)

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 7 September 2010

Hope the Americans enjoyed their Labor Day as much as I did–with family, friends, and a barbecue in the backyard. Posting has been spotty as I’ve been working on some projects behind the curtain, but I hope to bear the fruits of those labors soon.

Stories of interest:

Afghans to handle most security for Sept. 18 election.

Afghan soldiers and police will take the lead securing provincial elections later this month with international forces backing them up, according to the International Security Assistance Force.

“These elections are Afghan-led, Afghan-run and the Afghan National Security Forces have the lead in providing election security throughout the nation,” Air Force Capt. Will Powell, an ISAF public affairs officer, said in an e-mail this week.

Afghan National Police will be responsible for protecting voters at polling centers while the Afghan National Army secures nearby neighborhoods and roads, he said.

“It’s a critical step in the development of both the Afghan Security Forces, but also the country as a whole, for the people to see and develop trust and confidence in their own security agencies,” he said.

This is good news and good press, especially in light of the failed ANSF mission last month. Putting an Afghan face on Afghan security operations is exactly what ISAF has been working towards, and what ANSF are beginning to claim. Speaking of, this parliamentary election has the greatest number of women running for an elected position in the short history of Afghanistan’s democracy. To my utter lack of surprise, however, those female candidates and those that support them are finding their experience to be a very dangerous one. Women running for Afghanistan parliament now have tougher time:

But not since the five-year reign of the Taliban, which ended in 2001, have female candidates faced such intense political intimidation, the women say. Less than two weeks before the balloting, many are deeply frustrated by their inability to get out and connect with voters, particularly in rural areas.

Even in Kabul, the capital, where campaign posters showing women’s faces are tolerated, the electoral placards are sometimes defaced with marks and slashes. But in villages where the Taliban is active, campaign workers are often too frightened to put them up.

Female candidates and their supporters receive a stream of threatening phone calls. Large campaign rallies are almost unheard of, because voters and office-seekers alike fear suicide bombings. Terrified family members sometimes plead with would-be lawmakers to drop out of the race, and some have heeded the call.

The respect I have for those candidates–both male and female–who are pursuing this election at risk to themselves, their families, and their colleagues is unparalleled. Not to be too starry-eyed, but this is pioneerism in action. I hope election day comes quickly and with fewer casualties.

Also on the election, Scott Worden’s piece on Afghan election fraud provides some good context:

The main question, then, is not whether the parliamentary election will be clean, but what the consequences of another highly flawed election will be.

To assess the potential damage that significant irregularities in the parliamentary elections could cause, it is useful to consider the fraud that occurred in the provincial council vote in 2009. While the dispute over the presidential race dominated international headlines and absorbed most of the diplomatic energy devoted to rescuing the legitimacy of the process, the provincial council elections involved the same constituencies as this year’s elections and were equally if not more flawed. Both ballot stuffing and counterfeit tally sheets skewed the results in many of the provinces. But because the provincial councils, like the parliament, involve dozens of candidates running for multiple seats in the same constituency, the patterns of fraud are more difficult for outsiders to detect.

Voters and candidates within a province know, however, when a vote has been stolen when the list of winners is announced. Does one family or tribe dominate the list? Are certain ethnic groups left out? Did the winning margin for a controversial candidate come from only one polling center where there was violence on election day and no-one showed up to vote? This puts a premium on having a fair and transparent dispute resolution process that has both domestic and international support.

This election has the potential to right some wrongs (and should a strong parliament emerge, also act as a needed check on Karzai’s rather unilateral power–shall we take bets on parliament strength? No? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too) and do some image scrubbing internationally for the Afghan political process; but it also has the very real potential to go horribly, heinously wrong.

Finally, Sharifullah Sahak’s piece in the NYT At War blog, A Pashtun Writes, provides some heady insight into the Afghan electorate going into this month’s elections. He’s writing on the execution of the pregnant window by the Taliban early last month.

I felt anger that the authorities weren’t able to protect her. The Taliban have no right to judge her. The government should protect her, but cannot in such areas.

And I felt confused, as all Afghans do, at how many different laws our people have to live under – the laws of their tribe, or of the Taliban, or of the government. The laws should protect her, but we have so many different laws.

A lot of people probably read about that story and thought, No wonder, they’re just Afghans, or They’re just Pashtuns, what do you expect of such savages?

Well I’m an Afghan, and I am also a Pashtun, and I think what they did, whether it was in the name of religion or tribal custom or whatever, was wrong and horrible.

And I am neither the only Afghan who feels that way, nor the only Pashtun who finds the Taliban’s actions to be extreme. There are many savages in our country, it’s true, because war makes life safe for savages and unsafe for educated people.

It is very easy for those of us in the west to discuss and analyze the political implications of the upcoming elections–myself included–but I have found time and time again that the most pertinent voices are from Afghans themselves who have access to a public voice.

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Friday Miscellany (Think long, think hard.)

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 27 August 2010

My Afghanistan in 2050 post has been cross-posted to Feminist Philosophers, which pleases me to no end. There’s been some interesting discussion in the comments of the Chicago Boyz post as well that I’m working on parsing.

Also from that discussion, see Afghanistan 2050: A Chronic Low-Grade Sameness. Or, Each Life, A Story. by Madhu.

Ours was not a typical refugee or disaster victim virtopsy. Those we had done in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, on international hospital ships in rough and calm seas both. We only needed the scans to do those. The bodies were not ours and were disposed of as the locals or families saw fit. (Presuming the families would let us scan them. This was sometimes difficult to arrange.) From the scanned images, however, we could compile data and enter it into the open database that our physician-NGO group provided to the public. We shared our conclusions with a world-wide audience of academics, the curious, the bored, the skeptics, war proponents, human rights activists, nationalists, speculators, terrorists, cranks, freaks, perverts, politicians – whoever felt like “tuning in.”

In the “things I never expected” file, Murfreesboro, TN on The Daily Show this week. I would embed, but WordPress apparently hates anything but Youtube. Murfreesboro–where we used to shop for back-to-school clothes, and maybe hit the Red Lobster. Weird.

Andrew Bacevich’s personal missive in Salon this week about the “unmaking of a company man” seems to shed some light on his point of view, light that helps to understand something of his recent pieces, I think.

These visits to Jena and Berlin offered glimpses of a reality radically at odds with my most fundamental assumptions. Uninvited and unexpected, subversive forces had begun to infiltrate my consciousness. Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble.

That worldview had derived from this conviction: that American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed the nation’s enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism had become a signature of U.S. policy did not — to me, at least — in any way contradict America’s aspirations for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness of those aspirations.

Interesting. I missed an opportunity to see Bacevich speak earlier this month, which I regret.

David Wood sort of cheerleads General Conway, or at least doesn’t criticize:

But it took the Marine Corps’ blunt-spoken commandant, Gen. James Conway, who retires this fall, to name the rhetorical fig leaf that emerges from all the comments officials have made about July 2011: the White House could order an inconsequentially small withdrawal of, say, three dozen troops — and claim it had fulfilled Obama’s promise.

“I certainly believe some American unit, somewhere in Afghanistan, will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011,” he told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday. But not Marines in southern Afghanistan, he said, where “it will be a few years” before any withdrawals are possible.

Seeming to call for some forthright talk from the Oval Office, the outgoing commandant added: “I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war, but I would remind [them] that the last of the 30,000 troops only arrived this month. I would also quote the analysis of one of my regimental commanders when asked about the pace of the war. He said, ‘We can either lose fast or win slow.’ ” The upshot of all this hedging and backtracking, together with the steady drumbeat of sobering news from Afghanistan, is that a general understanding is emerging in Washington that July 2011 may come and go without any significant troop reductions, and perhaps without any troop reductions at all.

Conway spent the last week and a half going off without a filter, for which one might rightly be wary of engaging in his claims, but I do think there’s a fair assessment here of where ISAF will actually be in July 2011. In addition, Karzai has stated that the withdrawal deadline has boosted Taliban morale, for whatever that is worth.

In the amusing-and-truthful file, this post by @laurenist on celebrity aid appeals has both edgy humor and pointed assessment. Good for a Friday afternoon read.

At least when it was Sean Penn, I didn’t care. But with Misha, I care. Misha, I want you to succeed! You seem like a smart guy, I figure maybe there’s hope.

Let’s start with the orphanages. They tug at heartstrings, the stories about Haitian orphans were all over the news cycle, I get why there is a natural desire to support and fund orphanages. One of the things Misha says in the Random Acts’ introductory video is he wants to “cut out the middleman” in aid delivery. (That was the sound of a thousand heads hitting their desks in aid agencies across the land.) That means sending funds not to an Oxfam America, Mercy Corps, or even Save the Children, but instead sending funds directly to three orphanages in Haiti.

Long story short: bad idea. Disaster relief, especially after an earthquake like the one that hit Haiti, takes years, not just months. Long-term development projects for rebuilding livelihoods, schools, and public services are essential.

Here’s the gentleman in question, give you his best brooding, smoldering stare:

People, you do not understand how much effort it takes to resist photoshopping Starbuck’s head onto this image. (It would make such a good profile picture, man!)

Afghanistan in 2050

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 20 August 2010

I am pleased to announce my contribution to the Chicago Boyz round table on Afghanistan in 2050. My piece is Back to the Future: Afghanistan in 2050.

This is Afghanistan in 2050; it looks remarkably like Afghanistan in 1950. Men and women walk the streets without fear of death by stoning; women choose to shop with uncovered heads; education is widespread and equally available for all Afghans.

100527_5-Afghanistan-69-v1

The differences between Afghanistan pre-Taliban and Afghanistan post-Taliban are challenging to conceive. From 1996 until the invasion of the United States in 2001, the world as Afghanistan knew it changed dramatically, and undeniably for the worse. The lot of women under the Taliban’s harsh regime was devastating. But perhaps the greatest hope for Afghanistan in 2050 is to look into its past.

From the ’50’s to the ’70’s, Afghanistan was a largely stable country under the rule of Mohammed Zahir Shah. The King steered his country slowly into modernization, opening it to the West and allowing his subjects greater political freedom. The culture of the time also liberalized, providing social freedoms for both men and women. Notably, women were allowed into the work force, chose whether to cover or uncover their hair and bodies, and had more substantial agency over their own lives.

This, then, is the challenge Afghanistan should undertake: undo the last sixty years of repression and throw as much weight as possible behind the cause of Afghan women. As Afghanistan pushes, and is pushed, towards control of its own destiny over the next four decades, perhaps the best hope for the country’s future lies with its female citizens.

More at the round table. Other contributors include Steve Metz, Gian Gentile, my nifty-keen blogfriend Zenpundit, Joseph Fouche, and many others. I encourage you to dive in over at CB.

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Only Got One More Step to Go

A little bit of late night blogging; somehow Friday just slipped away from me. Posting has been light as all my blog-related brain cells have been dumped at Attackerman; normal service should resume soon as the vestiges of moving office suites fall away.

Bits and bobs:

I shall attempt substance soon. Promise.

Cleaning Out and Cleaning Up

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 8 August 2010

The At War blog this week covered modern art in Afghanistan–not a topic you see that often. Of even more particular interest to me, all the artists are women. This summer saw a show at Kabul University featuring 18 female artists enrolled in the fine arts program there.

For one week in June two spacious auditoriums at Kabul University hosted a large exhibition on the themes of pollution and the environment.

The exhibition had two remarkable qualities: All 18 participating artists were women, and the genre was modern art, a rarity in Afghanistan. Even today Kabul and Herat are the only Afghan provinces — out of 34 — to have a faculty of fine arts in their universities.

“The curriculum at most of our arts institutions has not changed for years,” said Rahraw Omarzad, the director of the Center for Contemporary Arts — Afghanistan. “Such copying and copying only kills the creativity of our artists,” Mr. Omarzad said. “It gives them no opportunity, no room to develop a style of their own.”

The public, too, has always been skeptical of a formal arts education. “Families saw art only as vulgar song and dance and nothing more,” said Prof. Alam Farhad, the director of fine arts at Kabul University. “A fine arts degree did not lead to a job, or a prosperous life.”

I wish there were more images of the artwork–there’s just enough to tantalize, but not enough to really give an understanding of the themes and emotions of the work there.

This dichotomy–the work of these artists and the cover of Time last week–is hard to wrestle with. What art would be lost if the Taliban were in power? And what would happen to the women who created such art?

For Your Sorrows

Posted in afghanistan, united states by Karaka on 4 August 2010

Some great posts at Attackerman yesterday. I wrote on a bank heist turned beheading, mikey mused on the ethics of Wikileaks, Adam framed the road out of Iraq, and Spencer checked in from Afghanistan.

On another note, last week Gulliver asked What’s the magnitude of human tragedy required to justify a financially and strategically bankrupting enterprise? It’s a great–and massively challenging–question, one I’ve wrestled with for a long time. And continue to wrestle with–there’s no easy answer. But this NYT article makes some of my points for me, I guess. Afghan Women Fear Loss of Modest Gains:

As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.

“Women do not want war, but none of them want the Taliban of 1996 again; no one wants to be imprisoned in the yards of their houses,” said Rahima Zarifi, the Women’s Ministry representative from the northern Baghlan Province.

Interviews around the country with at least two dozen female members of Parliament, government officials, activists, teachers and young girls suggest a nuanced reality — fighting constricts women’s freedoms nearly as much as a Taliban government, and conservative traditions already limit women’s rights in many places.

Women, however, express a range of fears about a Taliban return, from political to domestic — that they will be shut out of negotiations about any deals with the insurgents and that the Taliban’s return would drive up bride prices, making it more profitable for a family to force girls into marriage earlier.

It’s not that I think that NATO/ISAF is responsible for insuring these freedoms and rights; at least no more than any human has an obligation to see that the rights of other humans are secure. But we’re already there. There’s already an obligation to Afghanistan for destroying the power structure of their country (though everyone would agree, except the Taliban, that such destruction was for the good), to at least insure that another power structure is built and is self-supporting. If we’re already there, and we have to stay for awhile anyway, why not strive to push the new power structure to acknowledge and support the rights of women?

I’m aware that this is by necessity an abstract thought–there’s a great deal of context that has to be overlaid over this whole thought exercise. Does this human tragedy lever NATO/ISAF into staying beyond a point when it should reasonably stop? No, I don’t think so. But we haven’t reached that point yet. And there’s still much to be done.

“Protocol droid fluent in 6 mil languages discharged for violating DADT.”

Posted in afghanistan, pakistan, usaid by Karaka on 28 July 2010

Without a doubt, the most entertaining thing on the internet right now is the #wookieeleaks (or #wookieleaks) hashtag on twitter. Marc Ambinder has collected some of the best here, but my favorites are the ones about the Death Star. There’s some seriously clever humour in there for those who, like me, dovetail as Star Wars nerds and national security geeks. Of which there are more than I ever thought existed.

Naheed Mustafa has another dispatch up at Registan that I’ve finally had a change to read, and like the rest of her series it balances being both moving and informative.

Everyone needs a myth; it’s the only way to sleep at night. But behind the myths in Afghanistan, the warriors from then and from now are just broken men, continuously looking for opportunities to perpetuate their own hype and stay relevant because without the fight, what are they? Behind the myth, ordinary people are profoundly weary and untrusting. They relive their worst moments nightly each time they close their eyes.

Mosharraf Zaidi’s piece last week on Hilary Clinton, Pakistan, and foreign aid that I found compelling. The comments section of his site is a little wily, but his work is always worth your time to read.

Perhaps now Pakistanis can better understand the frustration of the John Kerrys, the Hillary Clintons and the Richard Holbrookes of the earth. Top US policymakers have fought for over two years to win the Kerry-Lugar Bill. Since then, two things have kept that money from flowing into Pakistan. The first is Mr Holbrooke’s decision to dispense with the Clintonian (Bill, not Hill) model of US aid disbursement through large contracting firms that Americans often refer to as Beltway Bandits. That decision, while long overdue, was rushed and was made in the wrong country, at the wrong time. American development assistance, which is not routed solely through USAID, but often through half a dozen different US departments (or ministries), has been in desperate need of an overhaul for years. But to attempt to reform the instrument of aid delivery in Pakistan, at the climax of Obama’s war in Afghanistan, has been a disastrous decision. The American international aid community is so removed and so distant from the mainstream of western assistance thinking (spearheaded by the OECD and captured in the Paris Declaration) that it doesn’t quite know how to deal with large sums of money without the Beltway Bandits. This has meant that the Kerry-Lugar money has been parked in Washington DC, with a clear destination, but no vehicle to take it there.

Top pick of the week, though, goes to David Wood writing on women in Afghanistan (a recurring topic of mine and one of immense interest).

In Afghanistan, where women have traditionally been treated as shut-ins and worse, 29 Afghan women are taking a daring step: They are the first volunteers to undergo training to serve in the all-male Afghan national army.

Two American women, Rebekah Martinez and Jennifer Marcos, are among a cadre of U.S. Army Reserve drill sergeants spending six months away from their families to train the Afghan women here.

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, reportedly has issued new orders for his Taliban fighters to begin again targeting women cooperating with Americans or helping their own government. Assassinations, suicide bombing and IED attacks may follow, on the women — and on their families.

One of the basic premises of my understanding of “reasons to stay in Afghanistan” ten years into this thing unequivocally has to do with women. Well, people in general, but women specifically. The quality of life for women in Afghanistan–not exactly of stellar height right now–plummeted under the Taliban and would do so, without a doubt, once again should ISAF retreat. Of the many obligations I believe the United States to possess towards Afghanistan, the quality of life of women there carries great weight for me.

Friday Miscellany

Posted in afghanistan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 25 June 2010

Two bits from the Guardian. First, records from soliders in the Boer War have been put online at Ancestry.co.uk, which allows for a database search for information on specific individuals. I don’t know how useful this might be to anyone not looking for specific individuals, but I still think it’s neat. I’ve been reading on and off about the Boer war for a couple of months now, and it’s a fascinating conflict.

The Guardian also reports on US Military women in combat:

If you are one of the more than 235,000 women who have been on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, then the idea that you are being shielded from the brutality of direct warfare may sound to you like a pretty sick joke. As Laura Browder, an academic at the University of Richmond in Virginia, puts it: “When women are serving as handlers of explosive-sniffing dogs, kicking down doors, doing searches, conducting IED sweeps, then yes, they are very much in combat.”

Until the 1970s, there was a quota on the proportion of women in the military of 2%. Since that was ended their presence has grown steadily, and now it stands at 14%.

As the numbers grew, so did the remit. The 1991 Gulf war created huge extra demand for personnel, and that in turn led to the lifting of bans on women flying combat missions and serving on combat ships. The Clinton presidency opened up more than 90% of tasks across the services to women.

In the latest reform, the secretary of defence Robert Gates announced in February that he would allow women to serve on nuclear submarines. Pending congressional approval, the first women are expected on submarine crews by early next year.

Which just leaves the final taboo: the full exposure of women to bloody frontline warfare. There is clearly a debate to be had about the desirability or otherwise of ending the 1994 proscription, except that what is happening on the ground is an answer in itself.

Mostly this just serves to put in circulation an already known idea, one that I believe the Department of Defense is moving closer and closer towards. Women on subs is a long-delayed step in that direction, but I appreciate the thrust of the article that anyone who thinks women haven’t been serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan exist in bizarro-world.

DoDBuzz has Gates talking about Petraeus and Afghanistan, Foreign Policy interviews Peter Mansoor on Petraeus, and this speech by Eikenberry to the Command and General Staff College Graduation Ceremony at Leavenworth on June 11th takes on some new resonance given the events of this week.

Now, our civ-mil partnership isn’t perfect, but it is the only path to success. As Secretary of State Clinton said in December: “The task we face is as complex as any national security challenge in our lifetimes. We will not succeed if people view this effort as the responsibility of a single party, a single agency withfin our government, or a single country.” I can tell you that the civ-mil partnership has definitely improved since 2007 when I was last in Afghanistan. Our closer collaboration is already having an impact, and I look for even greater results in the months ahead. Like the military, we are experiencing a tremendous civilian surge. By January 2011 we will have tripled the number of civilians we had on the ground as recently as August 2009. These civilians work at Embassy Kabul to improve critical ministries and institutions at the national level, and in the field to help the government deliver essential health, education, justice and agricultural services in areas with the greatest insecurity.

Definitely read the whole thing–I would have liked to hear it spoken–but I wonder how effective civilian and military relations are going to be after all this. Especially when the civilian presence is still vastly underpopulated in Afghanistan, even if it is supposed to further increase over the rest of the year.

Monday Errata

Posted in afghanistan, kyrgyzstan, united states, us defense, us military by Karaka on 14 June 2010

If you haven’t yet read it, zen’s interview with Steven Pressfield is a worthy read. It’s also nice to see Mark talk a little about himself, which we don’t see much in his blog! For good reason, of course, but it’s also nice to know the person behind the mind.

Thunder Run has an interview up with Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger on Restrepo.

The film is very balanced and doesn’t lead you, but rather just shows you how it is. Could you describe whether you had any guiding principles about how/what you shot as well as how you edited, how you shaped the film ultimately?

Sebastian: We were not interested in the political dimensions of the war, only the experience of the soldiers, so we limited ourselves to the things soldiers had access to. We did not ask any generals why they were in the Korengal, for example, because soldiers don’t have that opportunity, either. Our guiding principle was that we would only have people in the movie who were fighting in the Korengal. It was that principle that excluded Tim and me from the movie as well… and prevented us from using an outside narrator.

Tim: It was a conscious choice. We are journalists, and as such, we are not supposed to “lead” people to a certain opinion. That is called “advocacy,” and it certainly has its special place in the media world, but as journalists, it’s not something we wanted to engage in.

Also, here’s a counter review on War that speaks very negatively of the book–I called it “delightfully scathing” in the comments to my review at SWJ (hey, give them money, won’t you?), which I still think is true on the re-read. I mean, I think the author of the review, Lewis Manalo, is generally barking up the wrong tree, but he makes some strong points. Points I disagree with, but strong nonetheless.

I’m following Registan’s thorough coverage of the situation in Kyrgyzstan; it remains one of the best english-language sites for updated information. If only I read Cyrillic. The Post this morning picks up the story, noting:

Kyrgyzstan’s own security forces have failed to contain a rising tide of ethnic violence in the south, where more than 100 people have been killed since fighting began Thursday night, according to the country’s health ministry. The officials say the death toll could be considerably higher, as the current count includes only the dead at hospitals and morgues.

Around 75,000 people have now fled fighting into neighboring Uzbekistan, Russia’s official news agency said, citing the Uzbek government.

Kyrgyzstan has contacted Russia, asking for military assistance, but so far Russia has only provided minimal aid. As Christian and Michael at Registan note, what we know is what we don’t know, and conspiracy theories are worming their way outward at a rapid pace.

More pictures of FETs in action (h/t Akinoluna as per usual).

Must read article I haven’t had time to read yet: Dexter Filkin’s portrait of a wavering Karzai.

And–this one is just for you, Chris Albon–the New York Times suddenly discovers there are lucrative minerals in Afghanistan! Which have been a known property for at least thirty years! Shocking. Film at eight.

Economic Clout

Posted in afghanistan by Karaka on 9 June 2010

H/t Brian Platt at the Canada-Afghanistan Blog for this article featuring Moussada Jalal who has the unique distinction of being the first Afghan woman to run for president).

The main obstacle to solidly establishing women’s rights in Afghanistan, Ms. Jalal opined, is the old guard’s economic and political clout. For warlords, she said, “political power has become a business.”

Women have “knowledge, experience and political consciousness … but they cannot compete within this power circle because they don’t have enormous economic power in their hands.”

They have barely any economic power. But even small steps, like microloans from organizations like Kiva won’t make a difference if Afghan women aren’t made aware of them, or other opportunities.

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