December 6, 2010

'Karzai' appears on 'Saturday Night Live'

This weekend Saturday Night Live took a stab at imagining what things would be like if you fused WikiLeaks with the celebrity tabloid site TMZ. And the merger isn't pretty.

In the opening skit, SNL featured "Julian Assange" as TMZ's Harvey Levin pumping his celeb-chasing team for juicy details and video on world leaders.

After catching Lybian leader Moammar Qadaffi coming out of a restaurant with his "nurse" (who admits that she is a prostitute), the TMZ crew tracks down Afghan leader Hamid Karzai -- played by SNL host Robert De Niro -- on a city sidewalk where he rejects allegations that his government is corrupt.

"I do not take bribes," Karzai/De Niro says as the waiter rushes out to give Karzai the briefcase he left in the restaurant, which promptly falls open and dumps stacks of cash on the sidewalk...

You can also check the skit out here.

The final part of the segment catches Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a rather crude and embarrassing moment as she exits her vehicle while being filmed by a surprising prankster...

De Niro, it will be recalled, won an Oscar for playing a Mafia kingpin in "The Godfather, Part II."

November 8, 2010

The politics of traffic in Kabul

My colleague, Warren P. Strobel, is currently on his first reporting trip to Afghanistan, where he has quickly been enveloped by the challenges of driving in Kabul. Traffic_jam_in_kabul

In his latest post for Nukes & Spooks, Warren reflects on the chaos of capital traffic.

"Kabul's traffic has to be experienced to be believed," he writes. "Think 4 million-plus people squeezed into a city designed for maybe a quarter of that, then forget lanes, rules, more than a little asphalt and just about everything else. Throw in pedestrians and cyclists dashing around and in between bumper-to-bumper cars. Quarter is rarely given, or asked for. I've been in some interesting places for traffic before - Cairo, Jakarta, Manila, the roads of rural India - but Kabul is definitely up there with the best."

One of the most pervasive problems with Kabul streets is the lack of paved roads.

In July, Alissa Rubin of The New York Times wrote an insightful piece looking at what the economic stagnation in the capital says about the Kabul-based government and the US attempts to end a decade of war in Afghanistan.

Alissa focused, in-part, on Kabul's Sherpoor neighborhood, where the city's notorious "Poppy Palaces" tower over unpaved roads.

"In this neighborhood, the houses, elaborate as wedding cakes, loom over unpaved streets so rutted that your teeth chatter even when you are in a four-wheel drive vehicle with good shocks," Alissa wrote. "Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t say, 'How can this be, that America has been here for nine years, and there are still streets like this?'""

(Kabul traffic photo: Nasim Fekrat)

September 28, 2010

How to commit Afghan voter fraud: 101

No one expected Afghanistan's recent parliamentary election to be fraud-free.

But some people, especially those in the Western capitals looking for a dignified way to bring their troops home, were hoping that the election would be better than last year's fraud-riddled presidential race.

So far, the best thing that folks can point to as a success is the fact that there were no spectacular Election Day attacks to capture headlines.

Beyond that, however, there is little so far to suggest that the elections have produced a great leap forwards for Afghan democracy.

Afghan elections officials are looking into more than 3,600 complaints about the recent election, and more than half of them have the potential to alter the outcome in races for 249 seats in the elected house of Afghanistan's bicameral parliament.

There have already been serious reports of voter fraud that have raised questions about the legitimacy of the election in key Afghan provinces.

This week, new video emerged that adds to the evolving picture.

The most most damning video shows a man wearing an Afghan Border Police uniform standing watch while three men sit around a ballot box they keep stuffing with rigged ballots.

The video was obtained by an Afghan politician who asked not to be identified - and it could not be independently verified.

It was reportedly shot in Spin Boldak, the border town in Kandahar province that is basically run by Abdel Razek, the feared Border Police commander dubbed "the Master of Spin Boldak."

Razek has noted that anyone can buy an Afghan military uniform (a completely separate problem...) and dismissed the video.

But Afghan elections watchdogs say that the video is one of many to raise concerns about the election.

What remains to be determined is how widespread the fraud was in the race - and if the election process can be touted as a small step forward for Afghan democracy.

That is the challenge facing Afghan elections officials who are under intense pressure from many sides to tilt the races one way or another.

"If they leave the election the way it is, there is no place for democracy in Afghanistan," said Afghan lawmaker Khalid Pashtoon, a critic of Afghan President Hamid Karzai who is concerned that fraud will deny him a seat in the next parliament. "It is gone. It is history. It is under the debris."

July 30, 2010

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 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 9, 2010

Afghan election leaders: No complaints please!

Perhaps it seemed like a good idea at the start.

Earlier this year, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, the electoral oversight body accused of bias in last year's fraud-tainted presidential election, hired an outside firm to produce commercials encouraging voters with problems to call a complaint line.

Well, according to the From Kabul With Love blog, the IEC put a quick halt to the ad campaign.


"Because they were getting TOO MANY COMPLAINTS!" writes the blogger, who works for the outside company hired to do the PR. "What in the f**k did they expect? Really? That no one would call? Uh? If I recall correctly, the last election was fraught with accusations of vote-rigging and intimidation. People are angry and they have lost faith in the process and the first thing that is initiated in an effort to combat this gets sacked before it even has a chance."

June 7, 2010

Karzai ousts key security leaders

Four days after a pair of Taliban militants managed to evade heavy security and attack the national peace conference, President Hamid Karzai forced out the country's top intel chief and interior minister.

In a tense Sunday meeting with Karzai, NDS chief Amrullah Saleh and Interior Minister Hanif Afmar tried unsuccessfully to assuage the Afghan president.

The pair offered to resign - and Karzai accepted.

The abrupt shake-up has created widespread speculation that the resignations were about more than just last week's attack.

Martine van Bijlert at the Afghanistan Analysts Network called the attack "a rather feeble explanation" for the resignations.

"The two men may have simply become tired of being always blamed and never praised, but that does not explain Karzai’s swift acceptance at a time when you would normally want to keep your experienced officials," she wrote on her blog. " The speculations on what the ‘real’ and ‘hidden’ reasons are have of course already started and were fueled by Amrullah Saleh’s comment that 'there were tens of internal and external reasons' for his resignation (which he could however not expand on). There have been suggestions that the two may have opposed Karzai’s most recent decision to establish a review commission for political detainees as part of the follow-up to the peace jirga, but that looks like an attempt to connect the most recent dots rather than a plausible explanation. It is much more likely that their fall-out came as a result of the long and deep lack of trust towards them on the part of the President. Both Atmar and Saleh have had rather a rocky relationship with Karzai, which was exacerbated at times by their popularity among the internationals and the fact that Karzai was not at liberty to replace them. Their position may have been further weakened by Karzai’s recent overtures to Pakistan. It might just have been his chance."

May 25, 2010

McChrystal lights fire under Marjah commanders


(U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal aboard a helicopter in southern Afghanistan during a day-long assessment of progress in Helmand on Thursday, May 20, 2010.)

The questions were deliberately provocative. The discussions sometimes grew animated as generals and civilians verbally sparred with U.S, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as he oversaw a 10-hour, high-level assessment last week of progress in Helmand.

In meeting after meeting last Thursday, McChrystal worked to light a fire under U.S. generals, British commanders and Western strategists working to transform Marjah into a success.

After his recent visits to DC and Europe, McChrystal returned with a renewed appreciation for the political anxiety in the global capitals.

"People are asking: Are we failing?" McChrystal said in one briefing.

Throughout the day, McChrystal tried to impress upon the top military and civilian strategists that they needed to kick it into high gear.

"This is a bleeding ulcer right now," McChrystal told strategists at one point on the trip.  "You don't feel it here, but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside."

Perhaps the most animated discussion of the day took place in the Helmand PRT where civilian and military leaders are working together to secure Marjah and Nad Ali.

"I think the pace of progress is satisfactory," said Ghulam Gilani Popal, the Afghan head of the independent directorate of local governance. "Some of the things we cannot expedite. Like how to restore the confidence of the people. That needs time. But the rest of the things are good."

"I have a slightly different view," McChrystal replied as his top commanders looked on. "I think that we’ve done well, but I think that the pace of security has been slower… I’m thinking that, had we put more force in there, we could have locked that place down better. That’s a bleeding ulcer right now. You don’t feel it here, but I’ll tell you, it’s a bleeding ulcer outside. We’re making progress. I have no doubt about that. But Kandahar is being judged through the lens of Marjah and that lens may not be fair, but that’s the lens…"

"In 2001, we were viewed as omniscient and omnipotent," said McChrystal. "That has decreased every year since. When we can’t secure, I think there’s a perception that we don’t want to secure or there’s a perception that we’re not what they thought we were."

McChrystal's deliberately provocative attempts to spark a debate about troop levels did exactly that.

U.S. Major-Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, challenged McChrystal.

"I don’t agree with you about putting more forces in there," said Carter. "I agree with Director Popal. This is about convincing people."

"You’re going to feel that," McChyrstal cut in in with a deadpan joke "It’s your plan."

"I am, sir," Carter replied. "You would have to put about five brigades in to achieve the effect you’re talking about and, even then, I bet the Taliban would get through because it’s in the minds of people. And I really don’t think, in Marjah in particular, it would have made much difference. I think what’s going to make the difference, whether we marketed it right or not at the beginning, is time. And it’s about persuading people."

"I think we have let too much move along without overwhelming enough security, and I think we are paying the price for it," said McChrystal.

Later, McChrystal explained his thinking more.

"What we have done, in my view, we have given the insurgency a chance to be a little bit credible because we’ve put in more forces than ever in an area with a unique situation. We said: We’re taking it back. We came in to take it back, and we haven’t been completely convincing."

McChrystal's staff invited McClatchy along for the day-long strategic assessment in an apparent attempt to convey the challenges strategists are facing and spotlight the progress they are making in Helmand.

To McChrystal's team, the progress in Marjah is "mixed" and there is no need to panic.

On the flight back to Kabul, McChrystal expressed confidence with the plans in southern Afghanistan.

McChrystal's view was backed by Mark Sedwill, the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan who is now NATO's senior civilian representative in the country.

Marjah, Sedwill conceded in an interview with McClatchy "is taking longer, frankly, than any of us would have hoped."

"Have they changed as fast as was reasonable to expect?" Sedwill said. "I don’t know. It was a long way gone, therefore I think patience is necessary. But I can quite understand why the sheer amount of attention created a sense of expectations that’s hard to fulfill. I think it wasn’t really until we started holding these shuras that we realized, not how bad it was under the Taliban, because in a sense that was fairly obvious. But actually, what we hadn't really appreciated was how bad things had been beforehand and why the Taliban found fertile ground into which they could move and do well enough to raise their flags over it. You can only do that with the support of the people. And none of us, including the Afghans, had really understood why that had happened and quite how appalling the circumstances had been beforehand."

In a recent speech at London's Chatham House, Sedwill laid out a sobering picture of success in Afghanistan.

"If we succeed in regaining the initiative, resolving political tensions and transitioning responsibility, what will Afghanistan look like by 2014 when President Karzai's second term concludes and history begins the judgment of the legacy he hands his successor?" Sedwill asked in the address.

"Afghanistan will still be poor and rough, especially to the western eye," he said. "Illiteracy will still be rife, worse among women and worse still in the rural areas. Respect for human rights, especially women's and children's, will still be patchy. Corruption will still be entrenched – getting Afghanistan up the Transparency Index to the levels of much of Africa will be a dramatic success. To Western eyes, the levels of violence, mostly tribal, land and water disputes, might seem eye-watering, punctuated by eye-catching terrorist attacks from whatever remains of the insurgency."

"I know that doesn't sound as inspiring as some of the early nation-building rhetoric, but think how much we will have achieved," Sedwill argued at the end of his speech. "Afghanistan will be stable enough that the integrity of the nation is assured. Afghanistan's territory will not be a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other groups to attack us or disrupt Pakistan. Afghanistan's kaleidoscope of ethnic groups will be working together through authentically Afghan and thus to the western eye confusing parliamentary, shura and jirga mechanisms to share political power and the economic benefits of Afghanistan's huge mineral resources. President Karzai will be the first democratic Afghan leader to hand power to a democratic successor, and one of very few to hand over his country in a dramatically better condition than he inherited."

In the interview on Sunday, Sedwill conceded that the military coalition may have a difficult time at year's end demonstrating concrete progress.

If all goes well, Sedwill argued, the international coalition will be able to point to a series of positive benchmarks: From beginning to stabilize Marjah and holding a successful international conference this July in Kabul to helping to hold comparatively fair parliamentary elections and containing Taliban control in Kandahar.

"Personally, I'm probably slightly more confident than I am saying, but I'm not willing to jump ahead of where the evidence lies," said Sedwill. "The raw data I many areas will not look dramatically different by the end of the year, but I do believe that we will be able to show that the direction is positive... It's a hard argument, but it has to be good enough, because nobody every promised that it was going to be better than that."


(A U.S. military helicopter flies over a military base in southern Afghanistan.)

May 20, 2010

President Karzai set to boost brother's power in Kandahar


(Ruhullah at his Kandahar compound)

Is President Karzai poised to sign off on a lucrative new business deal that could boost the power of his controversial half-brother's in Kandahar?

Karzai is weighing approval of an expansive new business deal that could give Ahmed Wali Karzai increased influence over the lucrative security business that protects supply convoys for U.S.-led forces in southern Afghanistan.

Kandahar leaders and the Afghan Interior Ministry are pushing the plan as a way to unite rival security companies and bring some measure of control to the volatile convoy security business in the region.

But critics say the deal will only solidify Ahmed Wali Karzai's hold on power by elevating one of his allies to head the new company.

Under the plan, the new security firm will be run by Ruhullah, a Kandahar strongman who already controls long stretches of the supply route.

Ruhullah, who got his start in the field by offering protection to CNN and CBS crews back in 2001/02, says the deal will allow him to create a formidable force of about 2,500 people.

Interior Ministry regulators said Ruhullah will only be able to start with 500.

Either way, the deal would give Ruhullah expansive new clout in Kandahar.

Ahmed Wali Karzai said he would help the company, but would have no direct role in running the business.

But the close links between Ruhullah and Ahmed Wali Karzai were evident last week when we went to speak to the two in back-to-back interviews.

After meeting Ruhullah at his dusty compound on the outskirts of Kandahar, we drove into the city center 15 minutes away for an interview with Ahmed Wali Karzai at his fortified compound.

When we emerged from the interview an hour later, Ruhullah was standing there in the anteroom, waiting to meet with Ahmed Wali Karzai.

You can get details on the deal here.

May 18, 2010

Kabul blast hits NATO convoy near COIN academy

The attacker hit just after 8 a.m. and detonated more than a half ton of explosives as a NATO convoy made its way through early morning traffic on the edge of the Afghan capital.

From a few miles away, outside the presidential palace, the car bomb sounded like a large, hollow trucking container being dropped on a nearby street.

But the explosives, which one investigator estimated to be about 1,300 pounds, sent armored SUVs aloft and blew a massive hole in the cement wall alongside the road.

Afghan officials said 12 Afghan civilians were killed and four dozen more were injured. Many of them were riding on a public bus that was hit squarely by the nearby blast.

NATO said six service members, including five Americans, had been killed by the bomber.

Bombblog1 A few yards from the crater, American soldiers used a camouflage blanket to cover one body alongside a ravaged Suburban that appeared to be part of the NATO convoy.

Blood soaked into the dirt road and shrapnel could be found in fields hundreds of yards from the blast site.

The attack took place on a crowded, dusty, pothole-riddled street running from central Kabul out towards the Afghan parliament, and an Afghan army base nestled in the valley below Kabul's Darul Aman Palace, the iconic hilltop palace built in the 1920s by King Amanullah Khan.

(The bullet-riddled, bomb-scarred, abandoned palace has become a longstanding symbol of the ravages of decades of war in Afghanistan.)

The valley is also home to the U.S. military's counter-insurgency academy, the intelligence center meant to push the dominant military thinking in Afghanistan that puts protecting the civilian population as the priority ahead of killing insurgents.

Tuesday's attack took place two hours before Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a palace press conference meant to showcase his successful Washington visit that was engineered to rebuild his brittle relationship with the Obama administration.

His press conference was largely overshadowed by the morning's attack.


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

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