February 7, 2011

A Checkpoint Kabul farewell


(Roses blooming amid the wreckage of a Kabul guest house destroyed by a car bomb last year.)

Last month, Checkpoint Kabul posted this classic break-up letter from one US service member to Afghanistan.

Now it's time for me to write a break-up letter of my own.

At the end of this week, I will be winding up my work with McClatchy Newspapers and heading off to work for the Wall Street Journal's Kabul bureau.

Over the past year, Checkpoint Kabul has tried to cover both the substantive and the sublime.

Checkpoint Kabul was able to feature unusual stories on everyone from the Jihadi Gangster to the Afghan James Bond. This blog posted items on Kanye West in Marjah and riding a rickshaw through Kandahar.

Checkpoint Kabul looked at the dispute between McClatchy and Gen. Stanley McChrystal over our "bleeding ulcer" story and attempts by the US military to restrict media access to the front lines in southern Afghanistan.

Over the past year, McClatchy has examined questionable USAID programs and failed US Army Corps of Engineers projects.

In the coming year, I hope loyal Checkpoint Kabul readers will look for the same kinds of reporting in the Wall Street Journal.

But chances are good that Checkpoint Kabul will live on as other McClatchy reporters head to Afghanistan to cover this conflict.

Readers of this blog know that they can count on McClatchy's stellar team of reporters -- including Jonathan Landay, Saeed Shah, Nancy Youssef, Warren Strobel and Marisa Taylor -- to keep producing groundbreaking and thought-provoking work on Afghanistan.

I know I'll be reading their stories.

2011 should be a pivotal year for Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama hopes to begin bringing US forces home in five months.

If Obama hopes to begin this transition, US-led forces under the command of Gen. David Petraeus are going to have to convince Taliban-led insurgents that they face slim hopes of uprooting the surge of American forces hunkered down in southern Afghanistan and rapidly train more Afghan fighters capable of protecting their country with minimal international support.

President Hamid Karzai has to convince wary Afghans that he is willing to weed out insidious political corruption that has undermined his credibility at home and abroad. He also has to carefully consider how much compromise he is willing to offer in peace talks with Taliban-led insurgents so that he doesn't lose critical support from his Northern Alliance allies.

The US-led alliance in Afghanistan has to decide if billions of dollars in development aid is having the desired effect.

And then there is the wild card of Pakistan.

The daunting challenges have fueled widespread doubts about the prospects for success in Afghanistan. Gen. Petraeus faced the same kind of skepticism in Iraq and managed to turn the tide.

The coming months will probably determine if the US commander is able to do the same in Afghanistan.

Thanks to all the loyal Checkpoint Kabul readers for your time.

I hope you'll come find me in the Wall Street Journal.


January 17, 2011

One U.S. service member's break-up letter to Afghanistan

The following is an open letter from one US service member to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan...

Dear Afghanistan,

We need to talk.

Well...we had a good run, but when I said I liked sand, I meant next to the ocean and not in the form of a storm or in my lungs. So I'm going to pre-empt you now on Facebook like the classy girl that I am, and let you know that I'm breaking up with you soon.

Breaking-up It's not you, it's me.

Maybe we can be friends after this, maybe not. I just want to be free to wear my hair down and paint my toenails pink and break into spontaneous song and dance. And dammit I want to wear high heels and a different outfit every day.

I feel like we're getting too serious... and a year is a long time for me as far as relationships go. You're getting a bit clingy and needy, and I just need my space and independence.

My family and friends were pretty hesitant for us to be getting involved to begin with, and I think they're right. I'm just not ready for a relationship with a war-torn country right now. You want more than I'm prepared to give... and I love you but I'm not "in" love with you.

To be completely honest, I haven't been faithful. There was Arizona... and there was New York City. And you just don't quite compete. They offered me dirty martinis and first class flights... you offered me non-potable water that I was warned not to drink, and rocket attacks. They called me pretty and commented on my shoes, you called me "Ma'am" and took me to the same chow hall every single night. Not to mention, the very terrible cell phone and wifi service.

Believe me, there are other fish in the sea... and by fish I mean other bubbly, tiny Asian, doesn't-take-themselves-too-seriously U.S. service members. And by sea I mean... CENTCOM.

There, there...it'll be alright. I'm easy to get over, & just in a different league ;)

- J

January 15, 2011

Jihadi Gangster: Censored in Afghanistan


(Image of Afghan Scene article on Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi banned by Afghan government censors.)

The Jihadi Gangster has been censored in Afghanistan.

Afghan government censors have branded the unrepentant Kabul Gangsta Godfather as an offense to the nation's traditional values and directed Kabul's largest English-language magazine to excise an article about the Afghan-American artist.

A story on the Jihadi Gangster, aka Aman Mojadidi, was slated to appear in the current issue of Afghan Scene, a glossy English-language monthly geared towards the expat community in Kabul.

When the latest issue was flown in from the Dubai printer, government censors were not too happy with what they found.

The article (a reprint of this Checkpoint Kabul blog post) featured photographs that Afghan government censors said were offensive to the country's mujaheddin anti-Soviet fighters.

One of the photos showed the Jihadi Gangster's faux campaign posters stuck up around town during last fall's parliamentary race.

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

JG's face was blacked out by a box and the words: Your favorite jihadi face here. JG wears a black turban, suit and a gold plated handgun hanging around his neck from a large gPicture 1old plated chain.

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

The campaign poster and Jihadi Gangster persona are unique artistic critiques of the corrosive culture of corruption in Afghanistan.

But the message wasn't very funny to Afghan government censors. 

"This is an insult to all society," said Abdul Raquib Jahid, an Education Ministry official who serves on the 14-member commission that scrutinizes publications coming into Afghanistan."The media in America might draw an unflattering picture of President Obama, but not in Afghanistan."

By law, Afghan Scene must be vetted by government censors.

Picture 2 Before it was printed, in an apparent move to stave off possible objections from the censors, Afghan Scene removed a photograph of the Jihadi Gangster sitting on a couch, channel surfing while a scantily clad, pistol toting woman with a burqa covering her face fawns over the nonplussed gangsta.

Even so, when government regulators saw the piece, they threatened to take legal action, said Saad Mohseni, the head of Moby Group, Afghanistan's pioneering media company and publisher of Afghan Scene magazine.

Even though the magazine, with a print run of about 9,000 copies, is geared towards the expat crowd, Jahid said it was possible that prominent Afghan leaders could also see the piece.

In defending the decision to prevent the article from being distributed in Afghanistan, Jahid cited Afghan law that allows the government to ban anything that could increase tensions.

"If the magazine found its way into the hands of [Afghan Vice President] Marshal Fahim he would hold the commission responsible," Jahid said.

Jahid said he found no offense with a photograph depicting the imminent execution of a kneeling, gagged, blond Westerner by masked men -- aside from the black oval over the face of one of the would-be executioners with the phrase: "Your favorite jihadi face here."

Faced with threats of legal action, Afghan Scene officials agreed to have the article cut out of the printed magazine and even had to go back to distributors to collect some issues before they were sent out to cafes, restaurants and bookstores.

The current issue around Kabul touts the "Jihadi Gangster" story on the cover and in the index. But when readers go looking for it, the article isn't there.

"We tried hard but they said no and threatened us with legal action (referring the case to the Attorney General)," Mohseni said in an e-mail. "Their action is nothing unusual (given our neighbourhood and people sensitivities to certain issues). It is an expat magazine and as such it is not going to impact freedom of expression at a national level."

Moby and Mohseni are known for pushing free speech boundaries in Afghanistan.

Moby is the parent company of Tolo TV, which airs 'Danger Bell," a biting political satire show that has been compared to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and frequently airs pieces that are as caustic as the Jihadi Gangster campaign posters and photographs.

Perhaps because he has larger battles to fight, Mohseni said he chose not to challenge the demand that Afghan Scene cut out the article.

"We win some and lose some," said Mohseni.

January 13, 2011

Five star rule-of-law in Afghanistan


(Kabul's five star Serena Hotel. Photo courtesy of Serena Hotel)

Kabul's luxury Serena Hotel is one of the more swanky sanctuaries in the Afghan capital.

The "Mind, Body and Spirit Spa" offers massages, a heated pool, gym and beauty salon frequented by expats and wealthy Afghans looking for a temporary refuge from the smoggy, traffic-clogged, checkpoint-filled Kabul chaos.

For five months last year, the Serena also served as the headquarters for an American contracting company with no previous experience in Afghanistan that is being paid $15 million by USAID to revamp Afghanistan's archaic judicial system and convince Afghans that they can trust their government.

"It was something of a risk to bring them out here," said a US official involved in the program, who was authorized to talk about the issue only on the condition of anonymity. "They had not, unlike some other contractors, worked out here previously," the official said. "So when they were selected we said, 'OK, we'll see.' "

So far, some experts say, it has been a risky gamble with questionable results.

The Tetra Tech DPK consultants burned through $300,000 for five months of housing at the Serena Hotel while they waited for their permanent compound to be done.

USAID officials were frustrated by the extended hotel stay and how it would look to have American consultants camped at one of Kabul's most luxurious hotels.

Facing intense pressure to get the project up-and-running, USAID officials decided that trying to push the DPK consultants into cheaper housing was more trouble than it was worth.

"For us to dismantle operations, go in somewhere else, try to figure it out when the ambassador and all them are saying ... 'When are they going to have their first training in Mazar?' " said the U.S. official. "I remember going back in late August and saying, 'OK, we're doing something in Mazar and, by the way, they don't even have an office yet.' It was pretty trying."

Reforming Afghanistan's judicial system is one of the cornerstones of the Obama administration strategy for beginning to scale back the costly US commitment to the country this year.

Everyone -- from US military leaders and diplomats to front-line soldiers and aid workers in remote provinces -- is facing increasing pressure to produce quick results in Afghanistan.

But a growing number of skeptics are arguing that the push for quick progress is proving to be counterproductive.

"The strategy at the moment is to try and spend our way out of this war," said Bob Kitchen, the country director in Afghanistan for the nonprofit International Rescue Committee, which is involved in USAID programs. "We should be spending less and demanding more."

In the case of DPK, the contractor's $15 million project has so far generated as much derision as praise.

Amid increasing scrutiny and criticism, the DPK consultants moved out of the Serena Hotel at the end of October.

The project's highest profile event was a wayward kite flying event in Kabul where Afghan police officers beat unruly boys and carted off kites for themselves.

"In an uneducated police force you just don't get sensitive crowd controls," the U.S. official said of the event.

Aside from the public events, USAID offered a list of modest success stories generated by the $15 million DPK contract, including a three-day training session for judges, a two-day female recruitment forum, the donation of six computers to an anti-corruption tribunal and a relaunch of the Afghanistan Supreme Court website.

USAID touted its support for the court's first female Web designer, who set up the first official e-mail account for the court in a country where more than 95 percent of people have no regular Internet access.

"For the first time in history, a two-way exchange exists between a more informed public and the country's highest legal body," the USAID statement said.

"Not only does this redeveloped website improve the judiciary's image within Afghanistan, but it also has far-reaching implications worldwide," the agency said. "Just recently, via its website, the chief justice of the Afghanistan Supreme Court received an invitation from Indian officials to attend an international legal conference in India."

DPK officials declined to discuss their work in Afghanistan and said they would defer comment to USAID.

January 12, 2011

Checkpoint Kabul


(A Kabul security guard checks a car in the Afghan capital.)

January 6, 2011

Threats, lies and Facebook taunts in Afghanistan


(Mohammad Shoaib Barakzai, left, Jalaluddin Saeed, center, and Rafi Ahmadi, right, say an American company fled Afghanistan without paying their construction companies more than $2 million for work on projects around the company.)

Mohammed Shoaib Barakzai wasn't so thrilled to drive into rural Kandahar Province to check on a $15,000 wall building project at FOB Ramrod, one of the many US bases that dot the southern Afghanistan countryside.

But Barazkai had been assured by the US firm that hired him that success at Ramrod would lead to $40 million more in business.

It was a gamble - and one that nearly cost Barakzai his life.

As he left Ramrod in a Toyota Corolla, Taliban insurgents on motorcycles attacked. Barazai retreated to Ramrod as bullets shattered the rear window and peppered the car.

Barakzai's risk led him deeper into a relationship with an American businesswoman named Sarah Lee who abruptly shuttered her Bennett-Fouch construction firm in Afghanistan last year and left behind a pool of irate Afghan businessmen who say she still owes them more than $2 million for work they did building US bases.

“Because of Bennett-Fouch we lost a lot of trust in the market," Barakzai told McClatchy. "If there is a $1 million project, 100 people work on it. Sarah Lee not only damaged the business of her clients, she hurt the hearts of hundreds of poor Afghans.”

On Wednesday, nearly a year after Lee closed Bennett-Fouch and her related firm, K5 Global, the US military announced that it was temporarily blacklisting Lee's companies while they continue to investigate the case.

Since taking command of coalition forces in Afghanistan, US Gen. David Petraeus has sought to combat insidious corruption infused in the multi-million-dollar construction business in the country.

"With insufficient oversight, it is likely that some of those funds will unintentionally fuel corruption, finance insurgent organizations, strengthen criminal patronage networks, and undermine our efforts in Afghanistan," Petraeus wrote in special contracting guidelines he issued last fall.

But the Afghan businessmen still trying to get their money from working with Lee said the US military and US Embassy did little to help them until it was far too late.

"This is meaningless," said Jalaluddin Saeed, president of Associates in Development, an Afghan construction company that produced invoices showing that it's owed more than $1.3 million by the U.S. firms. "They already ran away with the money after committing the crime."

Bennett-Fouch touted itself in Afghanistan as an international construction company with 1,600 employees that was managed by disabled U.S. veterans.

K5 Global, which said it had secured more than $40 million in military contracts, vowed on its website to "become one of the U.S. government's most trusted and reliable contractors."

Afghan business records show that Bennett-Fouch and K5 Global are both owned by Lee, a 45-year-old U.S. businesswoman whose construction companies have worked for a few years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. military said American laws prevented the government from paying subcontractors directly and suggested that the Afghan companies could pursue their claims in U.S. courts.

"It really reflects badly on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan," said Barakzai, head of the Barak Durani Construction and Logistics Co., which he says is owed more than $150,000. "It's 100 percent the U.S. government's responsibility to take her and hand her over to the Afghan government."

While Lee was sometimes slow to pay her bills, Barakzai said, the problems escalated in the fall of 2009 as rumors began to circulate that Lee was preparing to leave Afghanistan without paying her bills.

In e-mails given to McClatchy by the Afghan businessmen, Lee repeatedly blamed the U.S. military for not paying her so she could pay the Afghan subcontractors.

"I can never say I am sorry enough for this delay or the impact it has caused you or any of the operations," according to a Jan. 12, 2010, e-mail from Lee's account. "I am more than sure that US Govt will soon realize that the prices will jump exponentially due to the lack of payment in a timely manner from their side."

Suspicious of her claims, Saeed tracked down invoices proving that Lee had been paid by the U.S. military.

"We are all compromised by this inaction by the US military and it is very difficult to move forward," according to another e-mail from Lee's account.

Saeed warned Lee that his vendors were threatening to have him arrested or killed if the bills weren't paid.

"You have my solemn word that all debt shall be cleared that is owed to you and I do not have to run from anything," according to a Jan. 29, 2010, e-mail from Lee to Saeed.

Within weeks, Saeed said, Lee's offices in Afghanistan were shuttered.

Lee couldn't be reached by phone or e-mail. The U.S. military also said it couldn't reach Lee to discuss the allegations.

Saeed and two other Afghan businessmen who worked with Lee said they unsuccessfully sought help from U.S. military contracting officers, anti-corruption investigators and America's special inspector general in Afghanistan.

"Unfortunately, there's not a lot I can do to help you in the near term," one US military contracting officer wrote to Saeed in April.

In June, two of the contractors said they made a public appeal to U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry during an event in Kabul to highlight the U.S. government's "Afghan First" strategy of promoting Afghan companies.

"He promised us in front of everybody three times — 'I promise. I promise. I promise, I will solve your problem'," said Rafi Ahmadi, president of Ahmadi Group Construction, Logistic and Services, which is owed about $680,000. "But it was just a promise."

Ahmadi and Saeed said they gave an Eikenberry aide a sheaf of documents to back up their claims. But they never heard back from the U.S. Embassy.

A U.S. Embassy official declined Wednesday to discuss the matter.

At one point, Barakzai was humbled when his tribal elders were forced to intervene and pay $300,000 to one of the businessman's irate unpaid vendors. Angry over the shame of unresolved dispute, the elders instructed Barakzai to stop working with foreigners.

But since so much of his business was with international firms, the Afghan businessman refused.

"I was always saying that foreigners are better in business than Afghans," Barakzai said. "They asked me to not even talk to foreigners again. Don't do business with them."

When rumors started circulating that Lee was preparing to leave Afghanistan, Barakzai began repeatedly to press Bennett-Fouch officials to pay $750,000 his company was owed.

At one point, Barakzai said he threatened a Bennett-Fouch official based at the sprawling Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan on the outskirts of Kandahar City, the major city in the Taliban's spiritual heartland.

"I said, 'If you don't pay me by tomorrow at 4 p.m., I am going to take you to the city," he said. "Go with me. Stay with me. You will be my guest until I get my money."

It took the emergency mediation of one of Kandahar's most influential families — the Sherzais — to resolve the dispute.

In a last-ditch effort to secure his money from Bennett-Fouch, Barakzai said he wrote a Facebook message to Lee and said he was coming to the U.S. to settle the matter.

"Hello Sarah," he wrote to Lee last June. "You might remember me, this is Shoaib Barakzai from Afghanistan who still looking to receive the unpaid money. Could answer to this message or give me your phone number? I want to talk to you and shortly I will be seeing you in your state in the US."

"Come on over," came the reply from Lee's account. "Got a surprise for you when you get here . . . "

Barazkai said the failed business ventures could have a ripple effect in Afghanistan.

"We've really had good business since the U.S. has come, but that doesn't mean that the companies should take the money they make from Afghan businesses back to their countries," Barakzai said. "We are learning this. If they do corruption, then we can think that we will do the same corruption because we have learned from those that taught us."

January 4, 2011

A snapshot of Afghanistan

(An Afghan man points to the holes caused by a bomb explosion outside a butcher shop in Herat, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday, Jan. 3, 2011. A police official in the western Afghan province of Herat says a bomb planted outside a butcher shop has killed one civilian. AP Photo/Reza Shirmohammadi)

'Tom and Jerry' in Afghanistan

An anonymous U.S. military official in southern Afghanistan says that the war resembles a never-ending "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. 

The paraphrased comment was made to Afghanistan's Tolo News.

"A US military commander told a TOLOnews reporter in southern Helmand province that he has come to know that Afghan war is more like 'Tom and Jerry' cartoon which never ends," the report states. "The only difference is the cartoon does not claim lives, but here we lose men every day. But what hurts is that we are not able to capture sanctuaries where they sketch attacks against us, the US military commander said on condition of anonymity."Tom-and-jerry-tom-and-jerry

It's not clear what the military official meant by making the comparison.

According to Wikipedia, "Tom and Jerry" shows "usually center on Tom's numerous attempts to capture Jerry and the mayhem and destruction that ensues."

"Tom rarely succeeds in catching Jerry, mainly because of Jerry's cleverness, cunning abilities, and luck," Wikipedia writes.

December 27, 2010

NATO attempt to stop Christmas attack draws blowback


(A bullet hole shattered the window at Tiger International, an Afghan armored car company hit by a Christmas Eve day NATO raid.)

Nawid Shah Sakhizada said he was hanging out with colleagues at his armored car company office when one of his security guards rushed in before dawn on Friday morning with confusing news.

NATO forces were outside -- and they were on the hunt.

There had been a brief gun battle and two other guards for Tiger International had been fatally wounded in the parking lot.

As Sakhizada headed downstairs to find out what was going on, he said the NATO forces opened fire through the wall of glass windows overlooking the parking lot. The guard leading him downstairs fell on the stairs as Sakhizada retreated to his office.

By the time the shooting was over, two Afghan guards were dead and two others were wounded.

The NATO forces, joined by Afghan colleagues, had converged on the parking lot at the Kabul office building because they had what they considered "credible" evidence that two vehicles parked there were packed with explosives in preparation for a Christmastime attempt to bomb the U.S. Embassy.

But the special forces team found no car bombs, no explosives and no indications that Tiger International was involved with any plot to attack American diplomats. Raid3

Sakhizada said the soldiers apologized for the deadly battle and cautioned him not to speak to the media.

But when he saw the official version of events, Sakhizada and other company officials decided to speak out.

“I asked them ‘What do we tell the families?’” Sakhizada told McClatchy Newspapers on Sunday. “I told them ‘you did not kill two cows. You killed two human beings. We have to answer to the families.”

NATO officials released little information to explain why they targeted the office complex and what information led them to suspect there were explosives in the vehicles out front.

Tiger International officials said the NATO team appeared to be focused on two of its ambulances in the parking lot.

But U.S. officials emphatically stated that the team opened fire only after the guards fired on them.

The incident drew the ire of Afghan government officials who accused NATO of failing to properly coordinate with Kabul security officials.

The Afghan Interior Ministry suspended one general and fired a colonel who helped NATO carry out the raid.

Night raids remain a polarizing tactic in Afghanistan. NATO officials say night raids are effective. Afghan President Hamid Karzai regularly criticizes night raids as counter-productive when they end with civilians killed in murky circumstances.

“Saying sorry is not so easy,” said Mohammed Faird Wafah, a friend of Sakhizada family who came to visit the office on Sunday. “Afghan blood is not so cheap. When something like this happens in the center of Kabul, what do you think happens in the more remote provinces?”

(Photo: Nawid Shah Sakhizada looks out the window where one of his company security guards was shot during a disputed NATO Special Forces night raid.)

December 26, 2010

The Leatherneck Grinch who jammed for Christmas


(The Grinch plays air guitar during, "Camp Leatherneck's Got Talent," a talent show hosted on Christmas Eve at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Photo: Cpl. Megan Sindelar)

It has been an especially tough and deadly year in Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of new U.S. forces arrived in 2010 to take part in a military surge. 2010 has been the most deadly year of the nine-year-old war. Nearly 500 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan this year. Of the 700 U.S.-led coalition fighters killed in Afghanistan, nearly 60 percent were killed by IEDs.

Of the 9,200 U.S. service members wounded in Afghanistan since 2001, nearly half were injured this year.

About 100,000 members of the U.S. military spent Christmas in Afghanistan, where Americans at remote bases tried their best to bring a touch of home to the war.

Camp Leatherneck, the main U.S. Marine Corps base in southern Afghanistan, was the site of "Camp Leatherneck's Got Talent," a talent show featuring an air guitar playing Grinch MC, some "Macarena" dancing, and a healthy dose of guitar crooners.

NPR's Quil Lawrence spent Christmas Eve at Bagram Air Field where medics worked to get wounded troops back home for Christmas.

NPR put together an emotional montage of stories from wounded U.S. service members spending Christmas in a hospital bed.

In the piece, USMC Sgt. Zachary Scoskie, who sustained minor injuries when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, sends holiday greetings to the folks back home.

"Just Merry Christmas and happy holidays," says Scoskie. "And just make sure that people, you know, just kind of realize that there's still a lot of us over here."


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

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