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July 30, 2010

Riding a rickshaw through Kandahar

We were somewhere around Kandahar on the edge of the desert when the engine kickeIndexd out.

I remember saying something like, "Is there a problem with the car?" even though I knew, for certain, that there was a problem with the car.

I remember thinking something like, "This is not the kind of place where you want to break down."

It was well past noon, and we'd already been properly broiled while sitting in 90 minutes of chaotic  Kandahar traffic that viewed the two-lane road through the desert as more as a general directional guide and, even then, it didn't seem to provide many drivers with a whole lot of direction.

We were already half-an-hour late for our interview with the Kandahar governor, and now it looked like we weren't going to make it at all.

Angry drivers honked their horns and zoomed past us as impassive shopkeepers on the side of the road waited to see what might happen to us.

"There is -- what do you call it? -- dirt in the fuel," said my Kandahari colleague as the driver helplessly pumped the gas pedal of our beat-up Corolla.

This was of little comfort.

Fortunately, we were on the bomber's highway in the heat of the day -- not prime bombing time. Bombers usually seem to favor dawn, before the day gets too hot and you just want to be inside, out of the dead heat.

Assassins, though, zip around Kandahar on their motorcycles looking for targets any time of day.

My Kandahari colleague had been making sure as we drove around town to point out the site of each recent attack: Here's where the district governor of Arghandab was killed a few weeks ago. This is the ruins of the USAID compound destroyed by a car bomb in April. That's the bridge they bombed in March when they hit the NATO convoy...

Oh, and, this morning they killed some government worker a block away from where you're staying.

All things considered, it seemed better at this moment to have a working car instead of a broken one.

That's when the transmission took hold.

We drove, albeit tentatively, to the governor's office -- which seems more like a quiet Ivy League library than a bustling government center -- where we learned what we already knew: The governor was off to help plan the battle for Arghandab.

If we wanted to see the governor, we'd have to meet him in Arghandab. Soon.

We rushed out of the governor's compound and onto the streets of downtown Kandahar to search for our driver. Who was at the garage getting the car fixed.

Rickshaw With little time to spare, we did the only logical thing to do when you're carless in Kandahar: Jump in an auto rickshaw.

As we puttered down the street in the back of the purple auto rickshaw on streets that American forces patrol in intimidating armored convoys, I thought, "My editors would probably prefer that I not be doing this right now."

We cruised past the old farmers with their wooden carts piled with neat rows of grapes (red and green), and some of the season's first figs. Eight-foot-tall sunflowers arched over groups of Kandahari men taking a break from the afternoon heat in the city's lush downtown parks.

The driver shouted something at one of the farmers, who lunged from his cart and grabbed hold of the rickshaw as we rolled past. The two of them teased each other like the old friends they were. Then the farmer let go and jumped off.

In no time at all, our rickshaw ride was over, our car was fixed and we were headed off in our Corolla to Arghandab to watch Afghan and NATO officials plan the unfolding fight to rout Taliban forces in the valley.

A jarring pic sparks debate about Afghan women


Time Magazine's cover this week features a jarring image of Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan who had her nose and ears cut off, per Taliban orders, after trying to flee abusive in-laws.

The photo by Jodi Bieber is joined with a cover feature by Aryn Baker that looks into the plight of Afghan women who are concerned that President Karzai's plans for peace talks with the Taliban will roll back the gains they have made since 2001.

In an editor's note about the decision to use the photo, Richard Stengel wrote: "In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan."

July 29, 2010

Afghanistan's stoner cops on patrol

It no secret that drug use, predominantly hash smoking, is prevalent among Afghan police officers and soldiers.

But the latest story for Al Jazeera English offers a vivid example of the problem.

In the report that aired this week, Clayton Swisher got hold of video (shot by US soldiers) of Afghan police getting stoned before heading out on patrol.

Since the problem is so pervasive, the US soldier quoted in the piece seems to take the drug use as one in a number of nuisances he has to deal with in southern Afghanistan.

As it happens, Swisher has been embedded in Afghanistan's Arghandab valley, where US and Afghan forces are ramping up efforts to drive Taliban fighters out of the key Kandahar region...

July 28, 2010

Kabul's Love Bug: Herb-i-Islami

Jerome Starkey, the Kabul-based correspondent for The Times of London is attempting to revive part of Afghanistan's past by resurrecting a shell of a 1969 VW Beetle that has seen better days.

Jerome has dubbed his Kabul Love Bug Herb-i-Islami.

In the above video, Jerome suspects that his VW might once have been the funky transport for 1960s Hippies on "The Hippie Trail." But, for now, Herb-i-Islami's origins remain a mystery...

Afghan soldiers: Strangers in their own land


(An Afghan soldier in southern Afghanistan. AP/Kevin Frayer)

The AP's Heidi Vogt and Kevin Frayer recently teamed up in Kandahar province to produce a special package on the challenges facing Afghan soldiers fighting Taliban-led insurgents in southern Afghanistan.

As Heidi notes, the Dari-speaking soldiers are often linguistic strangers in the Pashto speaking south of Afghanistan. When they go on patrol, Heidi reports, they are treated as strangers by fellow Afghans.

"We can be here in the Pashtun area for 1,000 years, but they will never be our friends," Afghan soldier Lt. Gulagha Haksar told the AP.

July 26, 2010

Wikileaks quiz


The historic release of the Afghan War Logs by Wikileaks is:

A) The Afghan 'Tet offensive' (Joe Klein/Time)

B) "The New Pentagon Papers (Democracy Now! and many others...)

(If are thinking of going with B, please see this FT story, with this quote: "These documents are not the Pentagon Papers," said Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon official who gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times...)

C) Not the Pentagon Papers. (ProPublica and, many others)

Whatever the political impact, "The War Logs" offers a rare view of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Among the many ways to look at the info is this interactive map that The Guardian used to chart civilian casualties and friendly fire deaths.

Now you, too, can read scores of Escalation of Force summaries and incident reports!

July 25, 2010

Trouble in the Kabubble

Word quickly swept across the Afghan capital on Thursday night.

SMS messages and phone calls bounced from from bar to bar: There was trouble in the Kabubble. 

Rumors filtered through Kabul's expat social scene that the police had raided Kabul's Gandamack Lodge, which features one of the more popular bars in the city. Until now, the Gandamack has escaped theKabubbleLogo wrath of police who have created a social chill in the capital since staging a series of raids on restaurants serving booze.

Expats drinking sour carton wine at Le Divan (the recently renamed restaurant most people still call L'Atmo, AKA Kabul's "latter-day Rick's Bar," AKA one of the places shut down by police in their last series of raids), quickly fled into the night to avoid being caught up in another unnerving police crackdown.

KabubbleLogo At the nearby Kabul Health Club, scores of Kabul funksters drinking $10 glasses of wine danced to live music from Kabul Dreams (Afghanistan's version of Oasis) and then filtered inside to the dance floor to groove late into the night to Lady Gaga, Nancy Ajram, Shakira ("Waka Waka"), and Michael Jackson.

As word reached the dance floor after midnight that the police were on the prowl, the party began to thin out.

Hipsters filtered over to the party at the Dutch Embassy, trekked across town where the AP was hosting a rooftop, hello-and-farewell shindig for ISAF public affairs officers or retreated to their own compounds where the police were less likely to tread. KabubbleLogo

As the hangovers began to lift Friday morning, it was clear that the previous evening's panic had been largely the product of rumor.

There had been no raid. Police had turned up at the Gandamack, but didn't raid the lodge, which happens to be run by well-connected owners. Gandamack shut down the bar for the night, the Gandamack manager said, to prevent any problems.

But the bars were back open Friday night, even if they had limited stocks of booze to serve.

KabubbleLogo Kabul's clandestine alcohol suppliers were running out of stock. Prices for beer and wine spiked. Party planners had to call in favors with their diplomatic friends to get booze for the weekend.

Over at Le Divan/L'Atmo, the restaurant's ever-present owner was conspicuously absent. After being one of the favored expats to be thrown in jail during the last round of raids, L'Atmo's owner had reportedly had enough.

Friends said the L'Atmo owner was making plans to open a new place. On the beach. In Sri Lanka. Far from Kabul.

July 23, 2010

A sweltering Afghan summer


Two-year-old Faith Marie Adams reaches for one of the U.S. flags from her father, Army Spc. Christian M. Adams' coffin, during military honors ceremonies at the Main Post Chapel on Fort Huachuca, Arizona on Tuesday, June, 22, 2010. Christian Adams, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, died in Afghanistan on June 11. (AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Kelly Presnell)

The Boston Globe's Big Picture feature is one of the best on-line platforms for news photos.

In February, The Big Picture put together a compelling series of photos from the battle for Marjah.

One of the most recent features looked at Afghanistan in June, which was the most deadly month for coalition forces.


This June 4, 2010 picture shows the starry desert night over Camp Hansen at Marjah, in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Hyunsoo Leo Kim)

July 21, 2010

A haji's farewell to Marjah


(Haji Zahir, the former district governor of Marjah, takes a phone call in March at his sparse, U.S.-protected office in Marjah.)

He was supposed to be a central piece of US Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's "government in a box" plans when US-led forces stormed into Marjah and quashed hard-core Taliban resistance in the dusty Helmand town.

Well McChrystal has gone. And, now, so too has Haji Zahir, the one-time Marjah district governor.

Zahir was quietly removed from the post last week.

Military officials in southern Afghanistan said he had been removed because he refused to take a long-delayed government competency exam. But, chances are, it had more to do with his performance. Or lack thereof.

Zahir's removal isn't a big shocker.

After all, soon after Haji Zahir took control in the wake of the US Marine offensive, Josh Partlow at The Washington Post reported that the new Helmand leader had been convicted in Germany of stabbing his step-son.

Zahir vehemently denied the allegations, even as the AP and other reporters in Germany found court records and news reports showing that Zahir had served four years in prison for the assault.

At the time, the top NATO civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, was quoted as defending Haji Zair by suggesting that the assault conviction was no big deal.

"This country is not going to be run by choir boys," Sedwill reportedly said at the time.

A new guy has been brought in to try and get a handle on the place McChrystal, before he was unceremoniously ousted, called a "bleeding ulcer."

No word yet on whether the new district governor has any hidden problems in his past...

July 19, 2010

A prayer for Kandahar, too

An Afghan soldier prays on the roof of a new checkpoint in a pass between Kandahar city and the Arghandab valley.


Checkpoint Kabul is written by McClatchy journalists covering Afghanistan and south Asia.

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