Sunday, May 15, 2011

Modern mercenaries

Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater, is once again up to no good. The New York Times reports that he is working to build an 800-man battalion of predominately Colombian troops for the United Arab Emirates.

Having just completed Sarah Sewall's fantastic course on American Warfare and the Humanitarian Ethic, I've come to appreciate how much of the "how" we fight is determined by public opinion and the body politic. Military hierarchy doesn't always accommodate ethical considerations effectively, even when it means to - outside pressure and vigilance help ensure that our troops fight according to our values.

This is already a problematic notion to apply to autocratic countries, where militaries serve a central authority other than their fellow citizens. However, recent events in Egypt demonstrated some more fundamental accountability - when the time came to either fire on protesters or accommodate them, Egyptian soldiers avoided large-scale violence and protected their protesting compatriots.

But if the army is not made up of the neighbors, relatives, and countrymen of protesters, is there any chance of a similar outcome? Not all armies abandon their leaders - see Libya for a prime example - but when revolution does come peacefully, is it a result of common humanity or some closer bond? And what will it mean if Colombians become responsible for the Emirs' authority? Modern mercenaries raise a number of legal and technical questions, but I worry also that the entire logic of when and how to fight becomes distorted when legitimacy and politics no longer play a role and any rentier state with enough cash can raise as many troops as they like, the citizenry be damned.

Friday, January 28, 2011

What a time to be busy

Tunisia is still far from sorted out, Lebanon's teetering on the brink, and Egypt has no internet. I'd love to be a full-time news junkie (or actually take off for the Middle East), but of course a new semester is starting and a thesis needs drafting.

The one thing I can follow and justify as work is, of course, Afghanistan. Martine van Bijlert asks many of the questions I'd post here if I had the time to write. We're pouring so much into Afghanistan right now that the conventional wisdom about the trade-offs between "quickly, cheaply, and well" allowing only two of the three have broken down - things are happening quickly, but they are neither cheap nor quality, it seems. Van Bijlert asks what the end goal is, but I'm afraid the answer might be that no one has it - everyone is so operationally busy working towards 2014 that they just don't see the strategic picture.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Radio Kabul

This summer, the radio station Hossein liked to play on the way to work used 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" as inter-program filler. Even realizing that almost no one listening could understand the lyrics, I was still a bit shocked at the song's popularity. Some weeks later, one of my usual taxi drivers proudly showed off a small video screen he'd installed, complete with looping footage of the Pussycat Dolls.

So I shouldn't really have been surprised to learn that Rihanna's latest album is quite the craze here. I hadn't heard it yet, though, so climbing into a taxi yesterday to hear "sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me," still felt completely surreal. Oh, Kabul, where no woman bares her elbows, but where a girl can sing about S&M to her heart's content (in English at least).

Friday, January 7, 2011


So I'm back in Kabul on a 9-day research trip for my Policy Analysis Exercise (or PAE - effectively a capstone project/thesis). Expat Kabul is nearly dead, with everyone taking long or belated holiday breaks, making my project of interviewing people about development sustainability, infrastructure building, and community engagement a bit challenging.

For the moment, however, I'm actually enjoying the wintry day holed up in a favorite French restaurant reading through my literature review pile. The coziness of the electric heaters seems destined to end after the fourth power outage in 90 minutes - I think we keep overloading the fuse. The usual dusty smog in the streets is thickened with smoke from a city of bukhari stoves burning God-knows-what as heating fuel, but hey, pomegranate season can't possibly be all bad. Mmm, pomegranate...

Saturday, September 18, 2010


By the time the United States goes to sleep tonight, polls will be opening in Afghanistan. However, all the security and other complications already noted, the fact that an earthquake hit Badakhshan Province in the northeast certainly can't help matters any.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On Afghanistan, in Cambridge

The Kennedy School has a way of taking up as much time as you'll allow it to - the return to classes has proven no exception to that rule. I haven't forgotten the summer, however, and I still have posts drafted on Mazar-i Sharif, my final days in Kabul, and on the bigger lessons learned. For the moment, however, the student newspaper wanted to present a point-counterpoint on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in its first issue. The resulting op-ed is now on the Citizen website.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Kite Sellers

To her credit, Natalie found the kite shop first. Over dinner one evening, she told the group about Phalawan Kareem's shop in the old city and described the kites, from incredibly simple sheets of plastic molded into flying shape by a pair of crossed sticks to the elaborate tissue-paper affairs he had supplied as props in The Kite Runner. I took a copy of his business card and made plans with my roommate Solmaz to visit a few days later.

The "Kite Runner shop" sits among a city block of kite-sellers in the neighborhood of Jadeh Maiwand, the city center for flying paper toys, as they are called in Dari. As Solmaz and I said our "salaams," I noticed the framed photographs and newspaper articles perched above the spools of string and stacks of delicate finished kites both small and large. The edges of the open storefront and the low ceiling displayed oversized, elaborately-decorated but eminently airworthy models each marked with a scorpion logo - the mark of Noor Agha. Profiled in Time and written about by Reuters, Noor Agha designs and makes the most beautiful - and the most responsive - fighting kites in Afghanistan today.

Though these flying canvasses decorate the shop, its primary sales are in small children's models made of simpler tissue-paper patterns and even plastic models. They hang along the awning alongside wooden spools decorated with CDs and Bollywood stars.

I selected a mix of medium flying kites and larger Noor Agha designs while Phalawan Kareem told stories of his friends in NATO, his clients the movie producers, and the difficult Taliban years, when no kites could be flown. After helping load my delicate stack of purchases into a garbage bag, he threw in ten of the small paper kites as a gift, demonstrating how to tie the kite-string to the body for maximum flying control. Solmaz and I offered our thanks and returned home to test our new toys.