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)

October 3, 2010

US military finds no fault with disputed night raid

Nightraid

(Friends and relatives of three Afghan students killed in a recent raid by US Special Forces pray during a memorial for the trio earlier this month in Kabul.)

Last month, US special forces hunting for Taliban insurgents staged a questionable night raid in Afghanistan that ended with the force killing three young brothers -- two of them English-speaking college students.

The shootings immediately sparked vitriolic anti-American protests and put the spotlight on the dramatic rise in special forces raids that have become a critical component of the US military strategy in Afghanistan.

As NPR's Quil Lawrence noted at the time, there was no evidence that the three brothers -- two of them university students in Kabul -- were Taliban insurgents.

In fact, friends of the shooting victims said one of the brothers was afraid that he might run into the Taliban while heading home to be with his family for the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Initially, the US military put on a vague press release that served to obscure the details of the raid.

After fielding repeated questioning about the raid, the US military admitted that they had captured no Taliban insurgents in the compound where the three boys were killed. In the end, military officials conceded that their initial claim that they captured a local Taliban leader appeared to be unfounded.

As the US military decribed the shootings, the US-led force targeted the compound, ordered people to come out and then discovered the three brothers in a cramped room.

There, the US military said, one brother was shot as he picked up a lone AK-47. Then, the US military said, the second brother was shot as he went for the gun. Then, with two brothers fatally wounded, the US military said the third brother was killed as he, too, reached for the lone AK.

Family members challenged that story and said they had no weapons on the compound.

Nearly a month after the raid, the US military told McClatchy this weekend that an internal investigation had cleared the US forces of any wrongdoing.

"The rules of engagement were followed by the entry force and there will be no further investigation," said US Maj. Sunset Belinsky, a spokeswoman for the US-led international military coalition in Afghanistan.

September 25, 2010

Jihadi Gangster for parliament

2

(Aman Mojadidi as the Jihadi Gangster, his latest artistic incarnation.)

Last year, Kabul-based artist Aman Mojadidi transformed himself into an Afghan policeman and set up a fake checkpoint where he searched cars and then offered drivers $2, along with an apology for any bribes they had been forced to pay to policemen in the past.

This fall, Mojadidi's latest incarnation, the Jihadi Gangster took his bling, his gold-plated guns, and his bravado on the campaign trail to run for parliament.

While the Jihadi Gangster (shouldn't it really be Jihadi Gangsta?) didn't round up the necessary signatures or submit the proper paperwork to run as a legitimate candidate in the recent election, he did go so far as to produce campaign posters that were stuck up on walls around town.

DSC_0192 copy

 In the final weeks of the campaign season, Jihadi Gangster campaign posters began popping up alongside posters for legitimate politicians.

The JG's campaign slogan, emblazoned on the poster, is simple: Vote for me. I've done jihad. And I'm rich.

JG's face is blacked out by a box and the words: Your favorite jihadi face here. JG is wearing a black turban, suit and a gold plated handgun hanging around his neck from a large gold plated chain.

The backdrop is filled with dollar signs and AK-47s.

Because of the high illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, each candidate in an election has a small icon next to their name and face so voters can more easily identify their favorite politicians.

Sometimes it is cups or horseshoes. Other times it is a fish or key. The Jihadi Gangster's icon: Three diamonds.

Amid growing indications that power brokers engaged in widespread fraud in last Saturday's election, some might argue that the next parliament is likely to be filled with plenty of criminal minds, even if the Jihadi Gangster won't be joining them.

As things go in Kabul, the JG's upstart campaign almost never got off the ground. At least one printer refused to print the JG campaign posters because he said they were too inflammatory and insulting.

Since the JG won't be heading to parliament any time soon, he is set to make his true international debut.

Next month, Mojadidi's work, which you can see more of here and here, will be featured in Paris at the Gallery Nikki Diana Marquardt from Oct. 23 to Oct. 31.

(His work will also be part of the SLICK Art Fair in Paris from Oct. 21-24.)

In some ways, the JG is a manifestation of the two worlds Mojadidi inhabits as a native of Jacksonville, Florida with deep political roots in Afghanistan. (His uncle is Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the former president who now leads Afghanistan's upper house of parliament.)

In a recent interview, the journalist asked Mojadidi if he considered himself Afghan or American.

"Afghan-American became the ‘nom du jour’ and so I was that for a while," he said. "But in the U.S., most Americans identify me on sight as a foreigner, and here in Afghanistan most Afghans identify me as a foreigner on sight as well. I was born in the U.S., my parents are Afghan, and I’m fluent in both English and Dari; it could end there. But I’ve started to think more about how one’s identity has become almost taken out of one’s own control, and is more and more defined by others. So I think about post-identity possibilities. In answer to your question using the options you’ve given me, I guess that would mean ‘neither.’ But beyond that I’m not sure."

Mojadidi said his life and art have largely been defined by the conflict in Afghanistan.

"For me, living with my own internal conflicts, be they issues of religion, identity, relationships, coupled with the global conflicts carried in the media, and tripled with living in a conflict zone has created a strange nexus where no conflict feels distant or separate from the reality within which I live," he said. "It all seems connected somehow, as if a state of conflict is simply what must be accepted; many of which are not conflicts that can or will be resolved but that just make up a part of the personal and global identity. At a certain point it becomes less that I feel as though as I’m in or at conflict with anything, but rather that I am conflict, as a state of being."

September 15, 2010

Imperialist segregation in Kabul

While I was on break in the US, The Guardian ran a provocative piece by Seema Jilani, a Texas-based physician who recently traveled to Kabul to help train Afghan doctors and offer some much-needed specialized care for the country's children.

Jilani wrote a series of thoughtful pieces for The Huffington Post about her trip. But it was her Guardian column (titled: "Getting drunk in Kabul bars? Pass the sick bag") that drew the most attention.

In the piece, Jilani railed against Western reporters who get drunk in Kabul restaurants that bar most Afghans from entering because of the country's laws banning the sale of booze to Afghans and Muslims.

The sale of alcohol in Kabul creates an awkward and uncomfortable political subtext.

As Kabul-based artist Aman Mojadidi noted in a recent essay: "These private-run establishments cater largely to the international workers and Afghan expats living in Kabul (a de facto rule at any of these establishments, more particularly the ones serving alcohol, is that you must have a foreign passport to enter, hinting, if ever so faintly, back in history towards other segregation efforts from the United States to South Africa)."

Jilani's piece focused on the same issue and took particular aim at Western reporters living in "the Kabubble."

"My Afghan friend told me of his shame at not even being allowed into restaurants in his own country," she wrote. "When waiters confront him with: 'Wouldn't you be more comfortable at a place that serves Afghans?' his acidic response is: 'No, would that make you more comfortable?' Congratu-effing-lations. We have just managed to isolate Afghans from us even more than before. Not only have we invaded their country and torn it to shreds, but we have also created a segregated, imperialistic society – one in which Afghans are third-class citizens in their own country, invalidating an already marginalised population further."

As expected (and probably as intended), some Western reporters (and others commenting on The Guardian website) took offense at the suggestion that they were fueling segregation and imperialism in Afghanistan.

(Afghans forced to face the humiliation of being turned away from restaurants in their own country privately praised Jilani for raising the issue.)

Some Western journalists criticized Jilani for focusing on drinking in Kabul instead of looking at larger issues in Afghanistan. (Along with her work looking after Afghans with her medical care, most of Jilani's pieces did examine larger issues in Afghanistan.)

While the caustic piece had a pretty derisive tone, it did draw attention to exclusionary practices that Westerners in Kabul routinely ignore.

That may make some people uncomfortable, but it is an often-overlooked issue that deserves more attention.

August 16, 2010

US Embassy warning: Alarming dangers ahead

Over the weekend, the US Embassy in Afghanistan issued an updated travel warning.

Chances are good that few people are considering a holiday in Afghanistan these days, but the latest travel warning offers some stark reflections on life in the war zone, especially in the wake of the brutal murder of eight Westerners and two of their Afghan colleagues taking part in a medical trek in Nuristan.

Here's some highlights:

"No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other Western nationals at any time."

"Afghan authorities have a limited ability to maintain order and ensure the security of Afghan citizens and visitors. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe due to military combat operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry between political and tribal groups, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, including attacks using vehicular or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The security environment remains volatile and unpredictable."

"In Kandahar, the assassination of government officials, their associates, or anyone notably linked to the government has become alarming. The number of attacks throughout the south and southeastern areas of the country is growing as a result of insurgent and drug-related activity, and no part of Afghanistan is immune from violence."

"Ambushes, robberies, and violent crime remain a problem. U.S. citizens involved in property disputes -- a common legal problem -- have reported that their adversaries in the disputes have threatened their lives. U.S. citizens who find themselves in such situations cannot assume that either local law enforcement or the U.S. Embassy will be able to assist them."

"The U.S. Embassy's ability to provide emergency consular services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is limited, particularly for those persons outside the capital."

July 26, 2010

Wikileaks quiz

WikiQuiz:

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 18, 2010

Blissed out in Kabul

Kabubble 

(Keith Shawe, front left, leads a yoga class at Kabul's Fig Health Centre.)

On one level, yoga and armpit waxing might seem a tad out of place in the middle of a war zone.

On the other hand, a Jacuzzi soak and Moroccan massage might just be the things one needs to relieve the stress of living in Afghanistan.

One of the strangest things about life in Kabul is how normal it can sometimes seem. Relatively speaking.

Social calendars fill up with salsa lessons and ballroom dancing, soaking by the pool at the local French restaurant and watching the World Cup on a big screen under the stars.

As Time Magazine's Tim McGirk noted earlier this year, "Kabul's expatriates go out and partake in the manic craziness of the city's bar and restaurant scene in houses reminiscent of America's Prohibition-era speakeasies, behind 20-ft.-tall blast walls and an outer perimeter of armed Afghan security guards."

(Some people in Kabul grumble about Tim's story and blame him for sparking a police raid that hit some of Kabul's most popular drinking holes a few days after his story came out.)

The unusual Kabul social scene draws regular media attention.

But there is an awkward subtext to life in what some call the "Kabubble." It is off-limits to most Afghans, save for the country's elite.

Afghan law bans the sale of booze to Afghans and Muslims.

In the post-Taliban era -- where petty corruption is commonplace and bribes are used to get things done -- Afghan officials look the other way when Kabul restaurants serve booze to expats.

To enforce the selective booze ban, many of the restaurants that serve alcohol simply bar Afghans from coming inside.

But there are no set rules. Private Afghan security guards act as bouncers, deciding who can come inside and who is sent home.

On a recent evening, the bouncer at the French restaurant (whose owner was arrested during the recent raids) turned away a respected Afghan journalist who was planning to join a group of expats for dinner.

As Aman Mojadidi (the Kabul-based artist behind the inventive "reverse bribe" police film) noted in a recent essay: "These private-run establishments cater largely to the international workers and Afghan expats living in Kabul (a de facto rule at any of these establishments, more particularly the ones serving alcohol, is that you must have a foreign passport to enter, hinting, if ever so faintly, back in history towards other segregation efforts from the United States to South Africa)."

Mojadidi's essay, "The Well-Intentioned Dog Washers," views the Kabul social scene through a sociological lens.

Afghans refer derisively to some political leaders as "dog washers," a term that may be the product of an urban legend, but has basis in reality.

According to Mojadidi, the derisive term dates back to the early days President Karzai's post-Taliban interim government, when scores of Afghan exiles returned to help rebuild their country.

As the story goes, one former pet store owner with little political acumen became a trusted aide to Karzai in the palace. Thus the term "dog washer" was born.

As Mojadidi sees it, unqualified Afghans who have returned to positions of power and prestige in their country may be doing more harm than good.

"By using their social wealth in the form of family connections to obtain positions they are unqualified for, they are perpetuating a corrupt system that determines a person’s worth based on who they are and who they know rather than their knowledge, skills, or even behavior; a system that seeks to keep power and control in the hands of a minority elite while refusing to empower Afghans so they may take an active role in their own country’s development and reconstruction," he wrote.

"The result, therefore," Mojadidi says, "is that Afghan society becomes a contemporary configuration of an old, dichotomous class system with the elite on one level and the masses on another. So rather than working towards a society that is more inclusive and pluralistic, Afghan expats can often be found to be actively working against this kind of society as it would mean giving up some things in return; the political, economic, and societal wealth upon which everything they have built stands."

"Unless the elitist breed of Afghan expats does not give up its belief in an inherent right to their status, position, and economic benefit, begin to take responsibility for the work that they do, and look ahead to what the country will look like if (when?) they and the international community leave or minimize their presence in Afghanistan, then all the positive results from the good work many Afghan expats have done, and that one can tangibly see across various development sectors, will be perceived as tragically irrelevant, if considered at all," he concludes. "And in the future, when Afghans still living in Afghanistan look back on Afghan expat participation in the “once upon a time” reconstruction of their country, it will at best be simply remembered as 'the Era of the Well-Intentioned Dog Washers.'"

July 15, 2010

Kabul's 'rogue meat market'

I'd suggest waiting until after lunch to watch this...

July 5, 2010

CNN looks at Afghan fake checkpoint caper

CNN's Atia Abawi has done a piece on Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi's unusual "reverse bribe" checkpoint.

When asked again this weekend about the open -- and illegal -- sale of police uniforms in Kabul markets, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the problem was one for the Kabul police to tackle...

An American ambassador's wife in Kabul's court

Ching Eikenberry, the wife of US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, is as much a presence around Kabul as her husband.

While her husband tends to be reserved and cautious as the top American diplomat in a volatile country, Ching Eikenberry is more candid with her thoughts.

Today at The Daily Beast, Ching Eikenberry pens a piece about life in Kabul titled "Why I love Afghanistan." Eik

In one especially telling anecdote, Eikenberry lauds the Afghan staff, including Jawid, "a tall, slender 25-year-old man with dark eyes and a gentle demeanor."

"He always carries a wallet stuffed with five or ten dollar bills," she writes, "and one day, when I teased him he carries more money than I do, he looked at me quite seriously and said: 'I have to. There are so many places I need to bribe my way to get things done every day.'

"'What about people who don’t have the money?' I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Well, either they will wait for a long time, or things just don’t get done!'"

(Photo: US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and his wife Ching, check out grapes in an Afghan market.)

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

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