Entries in afghanistan (8)


An Afghan interpreter in Canada

As part of a touch-and-go media tour of Afghanistan two years ago, I spent a few hours at the headquarters of a Canadian OMLT on the outskirts of Kandahar City. The OMLT - for Operational Mentor and Liason Team -- was the business end of Canada's training mission in Afghanistan. Small groups of Canadian mentors -- about 30 or so -- would embed with ANA kandaks, and spend days and weeks out in the field, patrolling villages and engaging in move-to-contact missions. 

As the small troop of reporters I was with were being introduced to the Canadians, one of the officers made a point of drawing our attention to a squat Afghan wearing a rumpled uniform and a broad smile. "This is Froggy," the lieutenant said. "He's an interpreter." I looked at Froggy, who nodded and smiled. The Lt. went on: "Froggy saved one of our guys out in the field. He'd stepped on a mine, Froggy ran over, put tourniquets on what was left of his legs, and saved his life."

I looked at Froggy again, more sharply this time. He smiled some more. "Seriously?" I said. "Froggy's a bit of a hero around here," the Lt. said, then wandered off. Froggy and I chatted for a bit, and the source of his name became obvious: he spoke in a deep, guttural voice, almost like an Afghan Louis Armstrong.

Our stay at the base was hurried, and between the usual rounds of powerpoint decks with the Canadians and tea and nuts with the Afghans, I never saw Froggy again. But I always kept him in the back of my mind, partly because of what he had apparently done, but moreso because the way the tough-as-nails Canadians clearly worshipped him. 

And so here we are two years later, it turns out that Froggy is now living a few miles from me, in Ottawa, Canada. After receiving one night letter too many from the Taliban, Froggy (real name, Mohammad Rahman) decided to pack up his wife and seven children and come to Canada. It wasn't easy. Just as the Canadian government likes to support the troops when they are young and healthy and kicking Taliban ass but neglects them when they are wounded vets with PTSD and family problems, Canada made all sorts of promises to its Afghan terps about fast-tracking their refugee status if they wanted to come here, only to reject two thirds of all applicants. 

But with some of his Canadian friends pulling strings, Froggy made it to Canada. How is it going for him? To find out, you must listen to the CBC documentary, "The Interpreter", an outsanding piece of journalism by Julie Ireton, which aired this morning on The Current.  The closing scene, where Froggy is reunited (via Skype) with Major Mark Campbell, the officer whose life he saved four years ago, is an absolute triumph of storytelling. Yeah, I cried. So will you. 



Iran's influence in Afghanistan

The NYT today fronts a story about how the US is beginning to detect signs of Iranian influence behind the unrest in Afghanistan, with special attention to the riots that arose "spontaneously" after the news of the burning of Koran's by American troops leaked out. Yet according to the Times, US officials are unsure of how much success the Iranians are having:

One United States government official described the Iranian Embassy in Kabul as having “a very active” program of anti-American provocation, but it is not clear whether Iran deliberately chose to limit its efforts after the Koran burning or was unable to carry out operations that would have caused more significant harm.

The issue of Khomeinist machinations in Afghanistan has received far too little notice, especially in contrast with the obsessive attention paid to Pakistan's double-game in the Pashtun regions. One person who has been paying attention is the Vancouver writer Terry Glavin, who is also a columnist for my newspaper. As Terry wrote in February about the post-Koran burning riots, the whole thing followed a familiar script -- the similarly staged riots after the idiot Pastor Jones burned a Koran in Florida. 

It was Jones who was supposed to have caused an April 1 protest rally at Mazar-e-Sharif's grand Blue Mosque that got out of hand. A UN compound was stormed, seven foreign staff were slaughtered and five Afghans were dead before the afternoon was over. A dozen more Afghans died in various rampages all the way down to Kandahar. Those excitable and inscrutable Afghans, everybody said.

But it was an event between Pastor Jones' disgusting March 20 sacrilege and the April 1 Mazar massacre that set the drama in train. On March 24, simultaneously incendiary alarms emanated from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office, the Iranian government's propaganda bureau in Tehran and the Khomeinists' Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. In the next scene, Afghanistan's Tehran-allied Olama-e Shiia council marshalled the usual fist-shaking rioters to shout the usual slogans in Kabul. And then, Bob's your uncle.

Terry's point is that there is very little that happens in Afghanistan that is the raw expression of the Afghan "street". The Afghan people are being pulled this way and that by competing forces they can't hope to control. And the countervailing powers that could help them are unwilling to do so. Karzai denounces the Americans while accepting bags of cash from Khomeinist emissaries. President Obama cravenly capitulates on all fronts while maintaining the preposterous fiction that the ANA will take over security for the place in 2014. And "Green on Blue" attacks escalate, while Western intelligence agents speak off the record to the New York Times about Iran's "surprisingly low level of professionalism". 





Afghanistan and Appropriate Technology

Excellent piece by Patricia McCardle in the NYT today on localism in Afghanistan.

One of the biggest disappointments of the way environmentalism has evolved over the past few decades is the way the Schumacher's fundamental insight about appropriate technology got rolled into an all-ecompassing rejection of modernization. It led to a polarization of the debate, where AT advocates got swallowed by the most radical anti-development activists, while any one opposed to anything except a "consumer-oriented, mechanized, fossil-fuel-based economy" is dismissed as a granola-munching flake.

And then there's Afghanistan, a country that is economically and technologically backwards in any number of ways. But it also possesses domestic technologies and practices that are cheaper, safer, more effective, and - yes - more appropriate to Afghan society than what the Americans and their allies (including Canadians) are trying to force upon the country. And as McCardle points out, there is far more at stake here than you might think:

If donor nations dismiss Afghans’ centuries of experience in sustainability and continue to support the exploitation of fossil fuels over renewable energy, future generations of rural Afghans will be forced to watch in frustrated silence as the construction of pipelines, oil rigs and enormous power grids further degrades their fragile and beautiful land while doing little to improve their lives.

And long after American forces have departed, it will be these rural farmers, not Afghanistan’s small urban population, who will decide whether to support or reject future insurgencies.


Fawzia Koofi in Toronto

It's my pleasure and privilege to be the emcee for the Toronto launch tonight of Fawzia Koofi's book, Letters to My Daughters. It is hosted by the Toronto Chapter of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee in conjunction with the Consulate of Afghanistan (Toronto) and Canadians in Support of Afghan Women, and takes place at the Taj Banquet Hall 4611-4619 Steeles Avenue. Yes, it's very far; things will get cooking around 6:30 or so. 

Here's an excerpt from the book. Here is Chris Cobb's review.

Hope to see you there.



Afghan Chain Letters

Probably inevitable, but this kinda breaks my heart:

KABUL (PAN): Mobile phone users in the Afghan capital have started receiving text messages warning them that if they do not send on the names of Allah to several other people, they will endure a lifetime of misfortune.

While most people in Kabul do not want to insult their religion, they say they cannot afford to send messages out to so many people.

Massoud, a resident of Qala-i-Wakil, said he had received four such text messages during the past month. Two days ago, he received an SMS which said: "TheBeneficent, the Merciful, the Eternal, the Majestic, the Powerful, and the all Inclusive. Allah is everywhere! Send this to nine people; you will hear good news tomorrow. If you don’t send it, you will be unfortunate for nine years."

Massoud said he usually sent on the messages as asked, but one night he was asked to send the SMS to another 24 people, but ran out of credit after he sent 19 messages. Because I was afraid of being sinful, I used my other mobile to send it to another five people.

I wrote a somewhat more positive story about love and mobile messaging in Afghanistan for a recent issue of Canadian Busisness:

In a society where marriages are mostly arranged, young lovers gift one another with free airtime. As the study quotes Ahmed, a 24–year–old day labourer, "The mobile phone makes love marriages possible."



Afghan Chicken War!

A common knock against open immigration policies and official multiculturalism is that many immigrant groups bring the the fights and social schisms from their homelands to their adopted countries. While it isn't unheard of, I've always thought the threat was overstated. That, until I heard about the Afghan Chicken Wars that are raging throughout New York City, from a beautifully-handled story by Dan Bilefsky. 

Abdul Haye, "the self-styled Colonel Sanders of New York’s Afghan community", claims that he owns the rights to the "Kennedy Fried Chicken" brand, which has spawned hundreds of knockoff restaurants, none of which pay him royalties or franchise rights. A few points worth noting: First, Kennedy Fried Chicken is itself a dubious take on Kentucky Fried Chicken. Second, it isn't clear that Haye himself owns the rights to the brand, since he appears to have "borrowed" it from the original Kennedy Fried Chicken restaurant, which was opened in Flatbush in 1972 by one Zia Taeb. Mr. Haye didn't open his restaurant until 1994.

But what's great about this story is how typically Afghan the reactions from his competitors are. Afghans are famously combative, independent, and anti-hierarchical. No sooner does someone achieve a position of authority in his community than everyone else tries to pull him down. And so:

“We won’t pay a penny,” huffed Nour Abdullah, the manager of Kennedy Fried Chicken on Junction Boulevard in Corona, Queens, which seems indistinguishable from Mr. Haye’s except for the fried shrimp balls and gyros on the menu. “I can rename the shop Munir Fried Chicken after my son or even New Kennedy Fried Chicken. Then let’s see what he’s going to do.”

Even Mr. Taeb thinks Mr. Haye is out of luck. “He won’t win because I know my people, and Afghans will never pay him,” he said. “I will go after him.”

The story ends with a fantastic kicker, with Mr. Haye slouched resignedly over a plate of lamb chops:  “You know, Afghans don’t even like eating fried chicken.”



To Live and Skate in Kabul


Wikileaks and the Paradox of Transparency

What is the impact of the War Logs leak? I think this is best split into at least four questions.

1.  What is the impact on journalism?
2. What is the impact on operational security?
3. What will the impact be on public support for the mission?
4. What is the impact on the military?

1.  Following Jeff Jarvis, we can frame this as the question of “what if there is no more secrecy”? Journalists are, more than anything, information brokers, gatekeepers, and editors.  The big career score is “breaking a story” – that is, being the first person to report on something that becomes a cultural touchstone.

But what happens when there are no more secrets? When, for all intents and purposes, everything is made public, when there is no more use for “access journalism”? I make some tentative explorations of this in chapter five of The Authenticity Hoax, where I’m quite skeptical of the positive claims that are made in favour of maximal transparency and openness.  It’s part of a broader debate being played out between publicity-maximalists like Jarvis and privacy advocates like Andrew Keen, and it is one of the relatively few areas where I’m closer to Keen than to Jarvis.

There’s no magic way of figuring out where the line ought to be between transparency and secrecy. In every case you have to ask who benefits from more transparency, and who benefits from secrecy. Jarvis has a good posting on this where he questions his own commitments:

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be move by force.

This is the nub of the problem. Jay Rosen’s post on this is excellent, and his key point is to note that Wikileaks is the first “stateless” news organization. Why does this matter? Partly because it means it is harder for governments to control it, which can be a good thing. But it also means that Wikileaks has less reason to be responsible and accountable. When newspapers and other “state-based” organizations break news, it is because they perceive themselves as serving the broader public good, and they have a natural constituency that keeps them accountable. Where’s the accountability here, with Wikileaks? I don’t see it, and it bothers me.

2. That said, what is the material effect on the release of these documents on operational security in Afghanistan? From what I’ve read in the documents so far, I don’t see much to be too worried about. I suppose one way of getting at it is to ask whether, if you were working over there, how you would feel about this release. Safer? Less safe? The same? I  don’t have the knowledge or the expertise to answer this adequately.

But perhaps this isn’t a good standard to use anyway. If the military had its way, virtually nothing would be released to the public, in the name of “OPSEC”. OPSEC is just the military version of the “national security” line that the government uses to keep information from the public. But OPSEC and National Security can’t be a get-out-of-jail free card, used to trump all requests for access or information. There is a lot in these documents that I think the public has a right to know about, and that the military could very well have chosen to share with the public years ago, on their own terms.

3.  A lot of people who support the mission are very upset about this leak. For example, my friend Brian Platt got “up on his high horse” (as he put it), arguing that unlike a targeted leak designed to unveil a scandal, this document dump is “a senseless leak, an act of pure treason,” whose only purpose was to screw over the military.

That’s no doubt true, and I share Brian’s suspicion of the motivations behind these leaks.  But just because someone has an agenda, it doesn’t mean the documents aren’t genuine, or valuable, or useful. But more to the point, I’m not convinced that this leak will have the knock-on effect of undermining support for the mission.

Most of the opposition to the mission is  fact-free ideological leanings by people who are against the war not because of what is happening on the ground, but simply because the war exists in the first place -- they are opposed to the mission in principle. In which case, new information -- however positive -- is not going to change their minds. At the same time, a lot of the pro-war faction is pretty much immune to bad news of any sort, and will always be willing to double down on the military commitment no matter how poorly things are going.

The real action is in the fuzzy middle; people (like me) who are unsure of what the goals of the mission should be, and how best they might be achieved, and to what extent realism has to be balanced against idealism. These are people for whom facts on the ground matter, and there is nothing in the documents, on balance, that I can see that would lead the fence-sitters to become devoted anti-war lobbyists.

If anything, I think the opposite is true. The picture that emerges from the documents is of a professional military working in an intense and difficult situation, and performing its job as humanely as possibly under the circumstances.  Canadians have had no indication as to the pace and tempo and intensity of the conflict since the insurgency started in 2006, and that is by design. The military brass has acted under the assumption that if we knew what was going on – how much contact there was, how many IEDs were being found, how many friendly fire or civilian casualties there were – that the public would pull its support. I think that does the public and the military a disservice.

It does no one any good if the public is kept in the dark about what the war is really like. If there is material in these documents that will undermine the effort in the mind of a reasonable public, then that is an argument for making them public. A war that relies for its support on keeping important truths from the public is not a legitimate war.

4. Ultimately, I think that the effect of this leak will be counterproductive for all concerned, in the same way that access-to-information laws have been  counterproductive. In Canada, ATI legislation has helped construct what has been called “the neurotic state” – a government and bureaucracy that is paranoid, highly media-averse, and reluctant to put anything of any consequence in writing.

This is probably what will happen with the military. This leak of very sensitive material is going to convince the government bureaucracy and the military brass that they simply can't put any points of dispute or debate down in writing. There will be an increasing trend towards pseudo-transparency – the release of lots of communiqués and reports that say nothing at all. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be points of contention or matters of urgency; it just means there won’t be a record of it anywhere.

For journalists, coming on the heels of the Rolling Stone piece on McChrystal, it means access will be more difficult to come by. Sources will dry up, interviews will be cancelled, strict and useless talking points will be the order of the day.