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.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The reign of the Corolla

Ha! As I noted in a postscripted comment on "The Kabul Commute", the Toyota Corolla is the king of the Afghan road. Clearly imported as used vehicles, they still display bumper stickers from their previous lives, ranging from Wall Drug to "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned". I've seen contributor stickers for the South Carolina Policemen's Association for 2007 and the Missouri Firefighters' Association for 2006, as well as any number of added-in-Kabul slogans in wacky English - "Don't cry Girls - Ill Be Back" being a personal favorite.

Now the Washington Post is writing about the overwhelming popularity of Toyotas, too. It must be a slow news day in Kabul?

Anyway, my personal collection of sayings and decorative car stickers as seen by my friends and roommates over the summer:

"Love is Killer" - on a public bus
"Don't Follow Me" - also, often, "Don't Fallow Me"
"Baby Don't Cry, I'll Be Back"
"Danger Doesn't Give Meaning"
"My Toyota is Awesome" - on a Toyota, naturally
"No Girl, No Tension"
"When Nothing Goes Right, Go Left"
"Son of Panjshir" - next to a lady-in-a-martini-glass decal
"Can't touch this"
"My father said no friends, only girlfriend"
"In God We Turst" - on another bus
"Land craoser" (sic)
"24: Jack Bower" (sic)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Afghan National Gallery

After the Uzbekistan trek fell through, I used my unexpected additional days in Kabul to play the tourist about town. The Lonely Planet guide recommended the Afghan National Gallery as a collection worth seeing if only to pay respect to the efforts of its administrators to protect their art from the Taliban. A display case on the first floor shows samples of less-lucky paintings:

The memorial of shredded canvass is far from the only unique feature of the museum. The building is drastically undersized, and well over half the collection sits stacked against the walls - through rooms and down the hallways. While no longer threatened with destruction, most of the art still isn't actually on display, unless you're willing to shuffle large frames about very, very carefully.

One entire room held portraits of Afghan and international leaders, though the remainder of the museum suggested no other pattern. I saw a British pheasant-hunt hanging in the stairwell, and this portrait of an Afghan patriot, but these were a few of my other favorite pieces:

Friday, August 13, 2010

Home sweet Colorado

Sure, I'm home now, and after spending the better part of the past 24 hours sleeping off a nasty head cold, I even have downtime. I really do intend to finish up Afghanistan stories soon, but in the meantime, I really don't think you can expect the blog to compete with this:

Catch you once I've gotten my fill of mountain sunrises.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Humanitarians in war

The International Assistance Mission killings in Badakhshan are rattling. The province, a high-mountain area in the far northeast, has long been moderately secured by geography alone, though this situation had been deteriorating recently. The group were far from novices - most spoke Dari, and their leaders had lived and worked in Afghanistan through the Taliban years. Michael Semple, in remembering Dan Terry, also explains why the killings are an especially-worrying sign of social breakdown.

In more recent worrisome news, a suicide attack killed two drivers for a security company located in my Kabul neighborhood. Targeting security contractors is a long-standing practice and carries less weight of surprise, but the proximity to my house (about eight blocks, possibly ten) leaves me feeling very grateful to be posting this from half a world away.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dubai Airport fun fact

Customs agents will detain you for 30 minutes and serve you coffee while inspecting your antique (and non-functional) souvenir firearms before letting you out; on the other hand, airport security will scan your bag, completely ignore the monitor, and slap an "inspected" tag on them while welcoming you in.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Goodbye, Kabul

I don't actually fly until tomorrow evening, but because I anticipate last-minute errands and goodbyes will take up most of the day, I'm signing off from Afghanistan tonight. The blog isn't finished - there are tours of the National Gallery, further political updates, a fortunate chance encounter with a student leadership program, a day in Mazar, and some final thoughts on the big picture still to write - but these will be posted from home, where I'll be spending a few days decompressing, first in Cambridge and then Colorado.

Tonight is subdued, due both to normal pre-travel reflection and the news of ten aid workers killed in Badakhshan. As security deteriorates in the provinces, those working beyond the secured city boundaries are taking ever-greater risks.

On a lighter note, a photo for the day - previewing the National Gallery collection:

There's nowhere quite like Afghanistan...

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Friday in Panjshir

On an otherwise quiet Friday, Afreen, Rory, N and I hired a car and set out for the Panjshir Valley. Over the course of the day, Rory played soccer with some local boys until fascination with us girls broke up the match, the whole group toured Ahmed Shah Massoud's tomb, and Afreen and I took photos of the many rusting tanks stacked haphazardly along the river at various points. The slideshow linked below also includes a highway sign papered over with campaign posters, the wreckage of a helicopter near one bridge, and the daily catch as gathered by some local fishermen we found walking through the valley.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

24 hours in Mazar-i Sharif

Apologies for the radio silence; with the end of my time at the Commission, I've been playing the tourist a bit in Kabul, visiting the National Gallery and enjoying time with friends. Tomorrow, I'll travel to Mazar-i Sharif with two new friends, so photos of the shrine of Hazrat Ali (along with a belated slideshow from Friday's trip to the Panjshir) are coming soon.

The "safe and sound" tour is also coming soon to a time zone near you - I depart Kabul on August 8, and land in Boston the next afternoon. What comes next is still unclear, but it will involve some decompression time in either Missouri or Colorado before a long weekend at Mom's place in Montana, a jaunt to DC to meet with one of the State Department's innovation-and-tech geeks, and then finally the start of classes. I can't believe I'm out of here in only four days...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Flying Commercial

Domestic air travel in Afghanistan resembles the American practice only in the most casual comparison. Over a round trip to Herat, my flights ran a combined four hours late, I walked through four metal detectors (of which none were functional), and I received five separate pat-down searches from bored women (of whom two obviously felt zero regard for my silly sense of dignity). The planes smell deeply human on 90-degree days, and even my knees nearly brushed the seat ahead.

The trip began with a crazy man screaming and lunging after me outside the departure gate, pulled away by his guardian while a crowd gawked, then apologized to the clearly-shaken foreign girl. It ended in a quiet office with the chief of Herat airport security, drinking tea and chatting about India.

I get ahead of myself. Other than the deranged man, the departure from Kabul was mostly normal. We waited two and a half hours at the sole gate for domestic departures - I argued with a zealous steward who scolded me for putting a bag under the seat - but we arrived in Herat with no major incidents.

If the Bamiyan airport reminded me of a small-town gravel strip in the Rockies, Herat's lacks a similarly apt comparison. There's a two-room terminal serving departing travelers only. Arriving, we walked off the plane, past a waving portrait of President Karzai, and straight into a dusty parking lot where small boys ferried luggage in wheelbarrows.

Returning for the flight to Kabul, our taxi pulled onto the shoulder of a major road, depositing us seemingly several hundred yards from the main airport entrance (as marked by an old MiG mounted on a pedastal). Walking in that direction, however, we heard shouts from a small police checkpoint across the road - the real departure entrance passed instead between rows of sandbags into a dusty courtyard a quarter-mile from the terminal. Once there, we were shuffled into a shipping-container room for the first security check, then shuttled across to check in at a desk with two men and one laptop tethered to a SIM-card modem. Thus approved, we settled in to wait.

A policeman approached and asked to see our bags, accompanied by the woman who had patted us down just moments before. I handed him my backpack as Afreen explained that we had already been checked. He ignored her and then picked up my other bag, carrying two copper plates I'd bought from Sultan Hamidi, consulting all the while with the woman. He looked over them carefully, then asked me where I'd gotten them. I had a business card for the shop, and as I handed it over, I asked what the problem was. He replied "mushkil nist!" and handed me my bags. As they left, an Afghan-American sitting nearby quietly translated that the woman had suggested I might attack the pilots with the plate, hitting someone on the head.

Eventually, a gate opened at the other end of the courtyard, and we joined the line to file through and trek across the parking lot to the terminal. Once there, we went through another security checkpoint, where the woman ignored the plates entirely, and then to an x-ray machine, where the technician took them and insisted I put Sultan Hamidi on the telephone. After long haggling, an older guard stepped over and eventually returned my souvenirs.

Afreen and I had barely settled in to the women's waiting area when a man walked up and asked, "Farsi gap mezanid?" "Kam kam," I replied, pinching my fingers in the air to demonstrate just how little. Dread settled in as I sank into the office couch - these plates were obviously never going to make it home with me. Thankfully, the security chief had found a translator, who first asked where we were from, then spoke for several fond minutes about his time in Hyderabad after Afreen claimed it as her home. Finally, the issue of my apparent contraband came up, and our translator assured us that his chief was truly sorry for any inconvenience the search had caused. Would we like any tea before our flight?

(Postscript: upon returning to Kabul, we found that our traveling companions had shared a similar experience the day before - the guards had required them to check the glassware, some of which was then broken in transit, but allowed Francisco to board the plane with a switchblade.)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Herat Citadel

The final tourist stop in Herat is its fortress, built on a site originally chosen by Alexander the Great, now in the center of the city and overlooking the mosques and minarets it once protected. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is in the process of excavating and restoring the Citadel, and Afreen and I were lucky enough to encounter some of the engineering team on our visit. One pointed out fragments of old tile mixed in with the debris the construction team carted about busily, roughly dating it based on its use of multiple colors under a single glaze. Climbing the towers and peering down on life below, we caught pictures both birds-eye Herat and the fort itself - the photo below links to a brief slideshow.

Shrines of Herat

Herat is a city of shrines - over three days, I visited the mausoleums of two princes, two religious poets, and one Sufi saint known for traveling by rolling on the ground. Photos of Afreen befriending one pilgrim, Kufic script in blue tile, a pomegranate-tree fresco, and several peaceful pistachio-treed tombs tell the full story - click on the photo below to see the rest.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A WikiLeaks roundup

As with many an explosive headline, the real meaning of the WikiLeaks release didn't really become clear until the second day's story - and each day has brought some new perspective. Having followed the releases, the responses, and the discussions, I'll offer a brief summary for those with less free time:

Possible revelations
A debate about what the documents really add to our understanding of Afghanistan soon began. None of the reports contained anything that was both revelatory and verifiable - some of the RUMINT reports delve into wild territory, but most of the wilder speculation they contain vanished into the database unsubstantiated and likely ignored. Professional Afghanistan-watchers soon noted the consistency of the documents with public information on the war, disputing the Pentagon Papers analogy. Others pointed to the difference between day-to-day reporting and the sort of big-picture coverage the WikiLeaks trove had inspired, as well as reminding the pundit class that not everyone follows Afghanistan coverage in all its detail, and that the bold headlines could still surprise casual news readers.

The best reporting using the WikiLeaks documents put the reports in context, incorporating other sources to weave a complete narrative out of these incredibly narrow snapshots. C.J. Chivers used the documents to add very-human detail to the already-known tragedy of Combat Outpost Keating, while Noah Shachtman described his embed last summer in order to illustrate the gaps left by a situation-report view of the war.

And finally, retaliation against Afghan informants appears increasingly likely. Their identities are carelessly redacted, and the Taliban have issued threats against them. If (for the most part) the content of these reports is mundane and hardly worth its Secret classification, the WikiLeaks staff's lack of concern for non-military identities is one glaring exception.

The true value - and costs - of the leak remain undefined. The sheer quantity of information here is a researcher's dream, and valuable work could yet come from the repository. The possibility that a series of WikiLeaks murders take place in Taliban-controlled areas also looms large, however. Sometimes even the sixth-day story doesn't bring a full conclusion.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Photos for the day: kite season

Each time I think I've had enough of the dust and the stress, Afghanistan has a way of charming me back to sanity. For the moment, it's the kites that began to invade the late-summer sky this week. Less than a week left in Kabul, and suddenly I'm not sure I'm ready to leave...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Happiness to scale

My current Amélian pleasures:
  • Children flying kites out along the streets
  • A burqa with a red sequined skirt underneath
  • My colleague whose fingernails always match her headscarf
  • The dust-free cool blown in after a recent rainstorm
  • Finding all three volumes of The Venture of Islam for sale in a Kabul bookstore

The Musalla complex

The first period of neglect and decline for the Friday Mosque came with the construction of the Musalla complex early in the 15th century. Queen Gawhar Shad's architectural legacy once included not only a mosque but also a madrassa, and the complex was adorned with 20 minarets.

Unfortunately, time and fortune have been far less kind to the buildings at Musalla - in 1885, in anticipation of a Russian invasion that never came, the British dynamited most of the complex to clear the line of their artillery defenses of Herat. Minarets were toppled by earthquakes, and later wars brought further destruction.

The mausoleum of Gawhar Shad herself still stands, as do five minarets. Stopping by on a quiet Saturday afternoon, Afreen and I were able to wait for the guardian to unlock the building. Inside, UNESCO restoration plans sit among the handful of tombstones. At the very back of the complex, part of a sixth minaret marks the former mosque, with the remains of a Soviet tank standing watch. A paired reminder, these two remnants of war each commemorate the former grandeur of the area and its sadly strategic location.

(Musalla complex - album link)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A market for war rugs

Catching up on my RSS feeds post-Herat, I find a report from Wired's Danger Room blog on a consulting contract to rebuild the export market for Afghan carpets. The article is illustrated with, of course, a pretty awesome war rug.

Sultan Hamidi

Across from the Friday Mosque stands a glorious junk-shop full of relics and nonsense, the purview of a charismatic performer and true vaudevillian. In the course of an hour in his store, he served our group tea, strummed every stringed instrument among his wares, and told stories of his two wives and 18 children - including a son who was shot in the mosque and a daughter killed by a missile-strike.

In Farouk, Sultan Hamidi found a kindred spirit. Our official group negotiator soon claimed Afreen as his zan (wife) and swore his father's name was also Sultan, striking his most outrageous bargaining stance and proving himself an equal showman. Hamidi clearly delighted in the sparring, and so loud debate soon filled the shop.

Ameel fiddled with a tabla while Francisco sorted through the rifles to admire a broken pistol inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Alyza searched the painted glassware for a carafe labeled in Arabic, rather than English, characters. Afreen and I debated the value of antique copper plates engraved (strangely enough) with women's faces, and soon we all accepted Sultan Hamidi's invitation to visit the glassblowing workshop down the street.

Pedestrians hurried past the workshop with hardly a glance at the furnace or the hunchbacked man working molten vases, but we visitors with cameras soon drew a curious crowd. Herat's streets were secure, but the population clearly lacks Kabul's bored familiarity with foreigners - it usually took mere minutes for our group to acquire an entourage after setting out on foot.

Returning to final negotiations, Sultan Hamidi pulled out a karakol and traditional Kandahari jacket, costuming the boys for photos in turn. He solemnly presented Farouk with an additional glass vase as a gift, but made him buy a silk-embroidered cap, tacked onto our pile as a final impulse purchase. We left with several carafe-and-cup sets, a long-handled switchblade, three copper plates, miscellaneous small gifts and the satisfaction of long bargaining successfully concluded. Cracking open a battered copy of the Lonely Planet guide on the table, Sultan Hamidi showed off his photo on page 5 - somehow I suspect he exercised similar charms on the author.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Candidate killed in Khost

The explosion at a campaign rally I linked to on Saturday killed the candidate, Maulvi Saeedullah Saeed. Another candidate, Najibullah Gulistani of Ghazni province, became the second politician abducted by the Taliban this cycle. As elections near (scheduled for Saturday, September 18, they are now less than eight weeks away), expect increasing attacks and disruptions.

Even when violence doesn't mar the competition, the campaign season manages plenty of drama. One male candidate spoke out against a female opponent by calling her a "scarlet pagan" and warned that she would turn the women of the province to her vices if elected, for example. Reading the American political press, I'm sure I can find statements at least as ludicrous, but the degree to which ad hominem attacks on women are accepted here is troubling.

Friday Mosque

A Ghorid king built the first Friday Mosque in Herat in 1200. It survived damages from the Mongol invasion, an earthquake, and royal neglect as a later mosque usurped its place as the primary place of worship in the city. Over the years, it has been built over considerably, sometimes in the name of restoration and sometimes with new elements entirely.

Over the centuries, however, periods of investment and rebuilding have turned the mosque to a monument in tiled mosaics. The open vestibules off the main courtyard (iwan) have simple whitewashed walls, but every other surface boasts rich detail.

Our group (classmates Afreen and Francisco, plus new friends Ameel, Alyza and Farouk) slipped in on a quiet Saturday morning to photograph and explore. Slipping off our shoes before stepping out into a courtyard of white marble, we padded quietly among the arches with their sprawling geometric patterns and lilting calligraphy before rejoining for a moment together in the shade.

A workshop hidden in one corner of the complex houses the craftsmen who design new patterns and restore the old. Wandering past the sign for the "International Project for Preservation of Historical Monuments," we watch this team chip at tiles, stencil templates, and lay out new pieces, entirely unperturbed by their audience and its cameras.

Though prayers remain several hours off, our driver is impatient and many shrines remain on the day's agenda. And so, after expressing sincere admiration for the work underway, we exit through a different façade, snap a few additional photos, and continue on to see more of Herat.

(As usual, the photos link to a full slideshow of the Friday Mosque)

The logs of war

I'm back in Kabul and working on travel stories from Herat for your enjoyment, but they may be postponed if the New York Times' coverage of the Wikileaks flood sucks me in for a full day of reading. I'll write soon, but for the moment, this story is really what you should be reading, anyway.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Herat: photos for the day

In campaign news, violence against candidates continues: an explosion injured 17 people. Actual Herat travel-blogging and campaign news to follow soon, I promise.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Off to Herat

I'm flying to Herat, former Silk Road nexus and pearl of ancient Khorasan, tomorrow morning. Updates could be sparse until Monday, when photos of the Friday Mosque, citadel, old city and assorted touristalia will liven up the political coverage.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kidnapping candidates

Pajhwok News covers the kidnapping of a parliamentary candidate in Herat province. Arbab Yusuf was campaigning in Gulran district when he was abducted by the Taliban yesterday.

Running for office is a very different game here. Night letters demanding that candidates withdraw (often threatening violence against those who remain in the race) also menace would-be parliamentarians. Women are especially targeted, and the threats often extend to the candidates' families and children. A report from the Free and Fair Elections Foundation details the extent of this intimidation:
Attacks on individuals involved in the electoral process were reported by observers in Badghis, Farah, Helmand, Nangarhar, and Paktika during the challenge period. The attacks, several of them resulting in fatalities, included physical assaults, suicide attacks, and bombings directed at candidates and election workers.
Night letters were reported through direct and indirect observation in 9 provinces, with the general population, election workers, candidates, government employees and Afghan security forces designated as targets. In Zabul, government employees received threatening phone calls warning them not to participate in the electoral process.

When the risks of campaigning include violent death, it's almost natural that the rewards include kick-backs and bribes - salaries for the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of Parliament and those currently running for election) just aren't high enough to justify running otherwise. It also affects candidates without ties to existing power-brokers disproportionately - for all the messy rounds of candidate vetting, even a perfect process could not eliminate everyone with questionable connections, so those afforded the security of warlord protection run with the additional advantages of armed support.

This certainly isn't the sole reason democracy struggles in Afghanistan, but insecurity is quite possibly the greatest current obstacle to good elections. If you're a praying sort, Arbab Yusuf - and his fellow candidates under siege - could probably use one right now.

Kabul Conference

(written in a 'net-less house yesterday, an account of the Kabul Conference as it appeared to residents of the city, rather than foreign diplomats).

The house today takes on the character of a hospital waiting room - the tense boredom permeating every thought, the paralysis of endless sitting, the vigil unknowing whether the patient will pull through, whether the security will hold. I remember this same toe-tapping quiet from four years ago, thoughts pacing over and over the wish that my mother's surgeon would walk through the door to tell he'd repaired her spine and that I could see her soon. Those worn prayers brought good news, and so today I return to habit, repeating a mantra of "let the conference end soon; let the city remain peaceful," with every helicopter passing overhead.

My roommate's Collected Stories of Richard Yates pass the time, as does forcing myself to make tomato sauce from scratch for a simple pasta lunch. By mid-afternoon, even the steady rhythm of washing my scarves feels like escape from the stifling nothingness in the shaded salon - and the prospect of another roommate's Lindsey Lohan DVD (the only thing at the corner shop not dubbed in Hindi) begins to seem more like entertainment than torment.

Finally, the periodic droning becomes a steady procession until one chopper passes so low the windows all rattle. Wishing the departing dignitaries their own safe travels, the knot in my solar plexus begins to unwind - it will be a quiet night.

(The New York Times suggests sightseeing the conference participants missed and details security procedures - including blocking pedestrian access - in the city.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Afghanistan in black and white

One good thing about the security lockdown surrounding the Kabul Conference is that I have enforced quiet, punctuated only by the arrival of fresh iced coffees, in which to write. Expect a pileup of posts on Wednesday, as tomorrow all my usual haunts will be closed and I'll have to settle for chilled Nescafe in my own shaded-but-internet-free garden.

I've been reading good articles on Afghanistan in quantity of late, following current developments but also discovering older studies that just didn't fit into a busy academic schedule. For the moment, though, I'd like to express my annoyance with the Wall Street Journal, who this past week took an important story in Helmand Province and framed it very one-sidedly. The article's title, U.S. Rebuilds Power Plant, Taliban Reap a Windfall, demonstrates all the depth of analysis to appear in the article.

Believe me, there are plenty of stories to be written about the United States inadvertently supporting the opposition. I've noted before that logistics sub-contracting has created a self-sustaining protection racket, encouraging local leaders to manufacture instability along major roads and funnel bribes to the Taliban, for example. But building and maintaining power plants in provinces with insurgency is not as uniformly bad as the article, and subsequent blogs about it, appear.

The brief "on the other hand" pivot in the article acknowledges as much:
U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials acknowledge that the insurgents benefit from Kajaki's electricity. Yet, they say, winning over the South's population centers - Kandahar city and the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah - is the overwhelming priority, and providing them with more power for industries and homes furthers that aim.

"Electricity is changing people's lives. Whatever industry we have in Helmand is booming" since the Kajaki turbine was repaired in October, says Rory Donohoe, the U.S. Agency for International Development field program officer for Helmand.

Like most aspects of security and development work here, there are tradeoffs involved in the project - and exactly how they measure on the balance isn't necessarily clear. However, the author makes no attempt to do so. Reading between the lines of the next paragraph: "American civilian and military officials in Afghanistan have been arguing for months over whether further investment is warranted in Kajaki. Civilian officials point to the hydropower plant's sustainability and long-term potential, while military commanders are pressing to remedy the rolling blackouts that strike Kandahar and Lashkar Gah through a quick fix of installing diesel-fuelled generators in the two cities." It appears that the debate is over how best to extend electricity production, not whether to do so. If this many officials agree on one thing, I think the positives outweigh the negatives, at least in assessments by people on the ground.

Development projects often help both the population at large and insurgents living among them - part of the tricky nature of insurgency is its embeddedness among a much larger group of innocents. The fact that the Taliban are able to collect electricity fees is problematic, but it's not the entire story. Questions I've have liked to see answered: What are the estimates of the populations living in both areas? Is the Taliban able to take credit for providing this electricity, or do residents even in insurgent-held districts know that a Western development project powers their lights? How many jobs rely on the Kajaki plant? Is there any sign that electricity provision and development could reduce public dependence on Taliban governance in these districts? (okay, so the last question may be over-optimistic, but the point stands.)

"Counterinsurgency is complex" is a common trope, and "Afghanistan is complex" isn't a new statement even on this blog. Still, is it so hard to offer some balance in telling what seems to be on the whole a moderately successful development project with a notable downside?

Carpet diplomacy, or, a photo for the day

Yes, it's an Obama carpet, as found in a Bamiyan shop. Not quite a war rug, but almost as ridiculous.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Suicide bombers on bicycles

No one knows much yet, but a suicide bombing did just hit Kabul. Microyan is across town from where I work, so I saw this flit across my facebook feed - all is fine here.

Still. It's been a week of mid-90s temperatures, moderately empty workdays, and reports of night letters and other threats against parliamentary candidates, and I'm starting to feel ready for home. First, another security lockdown day (or two) as the Kabul Conference brings high-level targets (Secretary Clinton! Ban Ki-Moon!) into the city.

A photo/question for the day

19th-century engraved weaponry: completely inappropriate, or moderately awesome souvenir?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bamiyan wrap-up

...almost one week back in Kabul, and just in time to begin planning for Herat, here's a quick round-up of Bamiyan photos that didn't make it in to previous albums. Catch Soviet tanks 'planted' in potato fields, converted into checkpoints and broken down into speed bumps; a remote auto-repair station; the old city market (destroyed in the civil war); and a schoolgirl who asked me to take her photo on my last afternoon there. And, as you might expect, a few more mountain views. Enjoy!

Kabul Fried Chicken, Part II

The sequel to the graffiti-advertising shown previously - the actual storefront of one restaurant calling itself KFC (the other, with at least two locations, uses a large chicken as its mascot rather than appropriating Col. Sanders). Near Shar-e Now Park, AFC (Afghan Fried Chicken) provides additional competition.

Elections and Illegal Armed Groups, Cont.

The wiser, learned hands of the Afghanistan Analysts Network are following the candidate vetting process I wrote about, and to my surprise, they have almost as much difficulty understanding what's going on as I did.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Thursday in the garden in Kabul

Thursday afternoon begins the weekend - the office closes at one and everyone goes to prepare for the coming day of rest. Waking for the morning commute six days each week seems disproportionately exhausting than a mere five, and so Thursday afternoons take on additional luxury for their still quiet. Hossain drops me at the Flower Street Café, notable for never having been located on the actual Flower Street the one neighborhood over.

The occasional helicopter flyover interrupts a soundtrack of Beatles and Ella Fitzgerald piped into the garden. A determined kitten begs for scraps of my chicken salad as I sprawl in my usual mini-salon relishing an iced coffee made all the more heavenly by a week of hot-tea-drinking. The day is hot but not unbearably so, especially now that my scarf is crumpled atop my backpack rather than trapping cool breezes away from the back of my neck.

Having traded Thucydides for John Le Carré's latest, I disappear into Turkish Hamburg and forget for a time my true location. This evening brings an art exhibition at Babur's Gardens, tomorrow a mix of housework and social events, and Saturday morning back to the office - for these few hours absolutely nothing pressing invades the peace of my shaded divan and its sunny rose garden view.

Election law, alphabet soup, and illegal armed groups

I began writing about Afghan election management in order to provide some context for when actual campaign stories began to appear. However, the principal actors remain unintroduced even as their decisions have begun to stir controversy.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) serves as the technocratic body responsible for administering elections. Founded in 2004 as a domestic successor to the Joint Elections Management Body (JEMB), an internationally-run institution, the IEC registers candidates, voters, polling places and election monitors.

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) remains a mixed secretariat, with three Afghan and two international commissioners. It is established under Afghan electoral law as an enforcement body responsible for monitoring and investigating possible violations.

Though chaired by the IEC, the vetting group responsible for reviewing candidate ties to illegal armed groups is a separate (third!) election body. Lists it produces are given to the ECC, which then records the complaints against these candidates and passes them to the IEC for a final decision on inclusion or removal on the voter rolls. Different readings of Article 12 of the Afghan Election Law empower both the ECC and IEC to review or amend these lists, though in practice only the IEC does so.

The work of the two commissions is tightly intertwined, and as we can already see, often confusingly interdependent. Try and follow this one:

On June 22, the IEC released a press statement titled "Publication of final list of candidates for Wolesi Jirga Elections 2010 and commencement of electoral campaign" [PDF] explaining the process by which the preliminary candidate list had been thoroughly reviewed and culled. With regards to possible ties to illegal armed groups, the IEC explained, "It is mentionable that after ECC investigation for the submitted complains for 8 candidates who have been challenged, here IEC provide them the opportunity of 5 working days till 24 June to submit their advocacy documents. As result the final list of (Kabul, Jowzjan, Ghor, Badakhshan, Ghazni and Takhar) provinces will announce until mentioned date. It is worth to mention that if the candidates provide sufficient reasons, they can be included in the final list of WJ elections." [multiply sic]

The candidate lottery completed, symbols assigned and ballot order determined, campaign season officially opened and posters began to crop up overnight.

On June 30, staff at the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) received complaints from a number of candidates who had received notification from the IEC that they were under suspicion of holding ties to illegal armed groups. Each was given 48 hours to travel to Kabul and present documentation signed by three relevant government ministers in order to remain on the candidate list. Given long travel times over Afghan roads and the fact that much of this 48-hour period fell on Friday, this effectively gave the 32 affected candidates no opportunity to respond.

On July 1, FEFA called a stakeholders' meeting to determine why candidates were being threatened with exclusion after the official list had been closed. Because I'm not certain whether the meeting was on or off the record, you'll have to make do with my summary of its findings rather than a complete transcript of the proceedings.

The critical detail revealed in the meeting is that the ECC has to sign off on the IEC's final candidate list before it is legally closed to further amendment. Though this should happen before the ballot-symbol-and-order lotteries, the ECC had not, in fact, given its official approval to the IEC's list as released the week prior. The IEC, in keeping with its official published election schedule, had released the list without this ECC sign-off. The crisis moment then came when, after the IEC's announcement of what we will now call the "final list", the vetting group had handed over to the ECC its fourth list of candidates with ties to illegal armed groups.

(Some back story: the first list consisted of 85 names. With no written procedure in place, the ECC requested that the IEC give each five-day period in which to clear their names via signed letters from the Ministry of the Interior. At the end of the five days, all 85 were able to produce such declarations of innocence, so a second list re-affirmed some of their cases in order to force at least a few from the ballot. This cycle between the vetting commission and the elections commissions continued, such that the fourth list consisted of 16 candidates who had already been accused on lists 1-3 and 16 new names.)

Given that its ballot list was already released, the IEC shortened the response time available for their defense in order to speed the process. In the end, 31 names were removed [PDF] from the ballot on July 7 and a "final, final" list [PDF] came out, with no changes to the lotteries already conducted.

Predictably, this looked like the Commissions joining together to re-open a legally-closed list to evict 16 opposition candidates under the guise of late-breaking discoveries. Yes, there's electoral infrastructure in place, governed by written law. It's just that not even watchdogs like FEFA know each intricacy, and the commissions themselves don't necessarily help clarify. Transparency, comprehensibility, and perceived fairness all have some way to go.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

City of dust

(It's a multi-post afternoon as work grinds to a post-lunch lull in the face of afternoon sunshine. Please do scroll down for further Bamiyan photos.)

Even the rain in Kabul smells of dust. As the first drops fall onto the evening streets, damping the alleyways and eventually running through the open gutters, an unmistakably mineral, earthy smell drifts back up into the air.

Dust pervades the city, defying weak human attempts to control its advances. Street-dirtied shoes might be left at the door, but the enemy drifts through open windows on teasingly cool summer breezes instead. It invades my breathing, prompting vigorous allergic reactions from my nose and lungs. Bicyclists in the city wrap scarves over their faces to filter the air, but I remain stupidly stubborn in leaving uncovered these few inches of socially-acceptable skin.

The frantic road-paving projects will certainly go unremarked by the diplomats at the Kabul Conference next week (though it is for these dignitaries that every street is currently half-destroyed), but the fervent hope protecting my sanity through every creeping construction-related traffic jam is that just maybe the morning commute will become clearer after all these thoroughfares are hard-topped.

This passing evening storm will temporarily tame the air, turning the streets into puddled mud-clay for a few hours all too brief. Then a dry breeze will pick up, bringing the finest, lightest particles to dust my room once again.

Shahr-e Gholghola

"The city of noises" or "the city of screams" - like Shahr-e Zohak, this original city of Bamiyan was destroyed by Genghis Khan (and later mined during the civil war). A story I've found only in my Lonely Planet guide, however, suggests that a surprise betrayal may have caused this fortress considerably greater anguish than its red-stone neighbor.

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola have deteriorated more than those of Shahr-e Zohak, and their plain stones lack the beauty of red brick, but the hilltop view of Bamiyan city and the Buddhas below made the climb very much worthwhile.

Overlooking modern Bamiyan, these ruins commemorate the city's history while serving as an eerie reminder of even this remote valley's susceptibility to invasion. Homes destroyed several hundred years previously interspersed with recent mine-clearing markers mar the idyll of green, green fields below. Afghan National Police sprawled in their watch post atop the hill have little to do, but stand watch over the ruins nonetheless. A skinny dog wagged hello and came to have me scratch its ears - Arif translated to the policemen as I greeted the animal, and they laughed when I asked if it had a name.

Reaching the top, I looked up into the southern peaks and out along the valley toward Kabul. The Buddha-holes seemed much smaller in their cliff from this height, as did the communications tower perched by the airport. Even the New Zealand PRT base appeared to vanish into the shadow of the surrounding hills. After enjoying a few moments' quiet atop the fort, it was time to return to the town below - we had an early dinner invitation from Afghan friends and packing left to be done - though after a month in Bamiyan, Afreen was ready to return to the big city, the departure came all too quickly for me.

(small album link)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Against Postponing Elections

In Sunday's Washington Post, Candace Rondeaux argues for postponing parliamentary elections. Her main points are:
  • Security is still deteriorating
  • Known flaws in the elections process haven't been fixed since last year
  • The international community isn't sufficiently involved

I don't actually take issue with any of these arguments, but I don't think that they add up to postponing the elections...

Security is a huge unknown, and it could just as easily deteriorate as improve over the next six months. If we postpone in the hope of a free campaign environment, we could find ourselves waiting quite some time (at least in certain districts). If the security situation is too bad for elections now, then any postponement would become indefinite.

The elections process is indeed terribly flawed. In explaining the quirks of the voting system, I've only scratched the surface. The process of removing candidates with ties to illegal armed groups functions even more poorly than she described - but given the relevant government ministries' refusal to thoroughly vet would-be parliamentarians, it's near-impossible for outside bodies to even begin researching all 2500 candidates. The institutions we helped form are opaque and dysfunctional, but we're losing leverage to reform them. This is a question worth addressing, but unless we can spell out a new framework for electoral management, halting campaigns already underway hurts many legitimate candidates without changing the underlying deficiencies.

Finally, the international community is deliberate in its distance. In the presidential election, their involvement was able to highlight flaws without being able to prevent fraud or solve the crisis. Again, without the leverage to change how these elections are carried out, the international community is quite possibly better off not associating itself with the process. But the solution still shouldn't be postponement or cancellation now that campaigns are underway, candidates are already printing posters and hosting rallies and spending both their hard-raised funds and taking well-calculated risks. An election clearly stolen by supporters of the president would be a disaster, but a suspension of elections could create just as much public disillusionment.

The solution, such as it is, should be harder behind-the-scenes work for effective administration, combined with a highly concerted effort to ensure election-day security and plenty of training and support for organizations like the Free and Fair Elections Foundation and the Commission, who are playing an active advocacy role. Elections are much harder to carry out here, due not only to security and administration but also because of questions of media, geography, and the near-total loss of social trust over years of conflict.

The word "solution" makes these problems sound addressable, though some of them may not be. But we've begun holding elections here and to halt this one step towards democratic governance doesn't even begin to fix all these other issues - it's just a concrete action that feels like a solution in the face of a tangle of challenges too complex for any easy proposals.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Shahr-e Zohak

For those of you keeping score at home, I'm now back in Kabul, so elections-intrigue posts will resume shortly. However, several posts' worth of Bamiyan photos remain. Continuing the travel-blogging:

Having already seen the most spectacular of Bamiyan's natural wonders, Afreen and I set out to explore some of its historical curiosities. Shahr-e Zohak, a 6th-century fortress built up into a 12th century city only to be destroyed by Ghengis Khan, offered a perfect afternoon of mountain-climbing and picture-taking.

The red-brick ruins sit perched over a green valley of potato fields about 12 miles outside of Bamiyan along the road to Kabul. As Afreen scrambled up the steep hill, Arif turned to check on me as I stumbled, winded and gasping, behind. "She's part mountain goat," I told him, but even as he nodded I realized he hadn't understood. Pointing my index fingers from my temples like small horns, I clarified my previous statement: "baaaa..." His laughter made Afreen stop long enough for me to catch my breath.

At over 8,000 feet, Bamiyan is enough higher than Kabul that my lungs noticed the lack of oxygen - at least when hiking. Pausing for another "please stop; I can't breathe" break, I looked back out on the valley from which we were climbing. Though the New York Times' reporting on mineral wealth in Afghanistan started a debate on whether this story was or was not a revelation, a simple glance at the bright bands of color streaked through these hills certainly hint at riches beneath.

Along the hillside, scattered white-painted stones mark a clear route safe from landmines, while a handful of warning markers appear to protect unsuspecting tourists from the few remaining threats. The hillside served a defensive role even as the Taliban came into Hazarajat, so the ancient fortress also serves as home to piles of scrap metal and more recent remains of war as well.

Most spectacularly, the highest turret still contains a battered green anti-aircraft gun, pointing out over the town below. Bamiyan today is one of the quietest, most stable provinces in all Afghanistan, but the memory of conflict is recent enough that certain scars still show.

(Additional photos of Shahr-e Zohak)