Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Tears of a President

As the New York Times reported, Afghan President Hamid Karzai once again broke down in tears during a televised speech. Addressing a crowd of educators in Kabul, the President sobbed as he lamented the lack of progress in the country and the uncertainty of the future.

Just like last time, when he got emotional listening to the stories of victims three years ago, Mr. Karzai will surely receive criticism for this outbreak of emotions. A president, especially one who is at war, is supposed to be strong, bold, and stern they say. He is not to cry, but to act. The realities of Afghanistan, however, are different. And so is its president.

At the moment, Mr. Karzai is overtaken with frustration and hopelessness. A dignified and charismatic man of good intentions has struggled to change the living conditions of his people. We only need to dial the clock back a few years to understand how this happened, and why Mr. Karzai is more a victim than an instigator, as Josh Foust put it on his FP blog.

A lot seems to have gone wrong for the man who came into this job on the merits of his dignity, and on the basis of his clean image. He was not a warlord, he did not have a militia, and he did not have blood on his hands.  And contrary to the popular belief, he was not parachuted from the west. He was a rare breed: homegrown, well-educated, moderate, and relatively clean off the mess the was the Afghan civil war. Above all, he had a history of activism for the sake of reaching an end to the war in Afghanistan.

His task at the time? One of the most difficult in world politics. He was mandated to hold together a country of only 30 million people, but as many warring factions. All armed to teeth. He was not only to hold them back from fighting each other, what they had done for the previous two decades, but also to establish a democracy in the country and to rid it from Al Qaeda and extremism.

Today, what frustrates Mr. Karzai to the verge of tears is that the enormity and the difficulty of the task is overshadowed by the talk of his incompetence and corruption. In the popular opinion in the west, Hamid Karzai has turned into the image of corrupt governance and insecurity. A good indication of this is when you search his name in Google: the first two associations are “corruption” and “brother.”

Perhaps, in the wake of recent events, the brother should be plural: brothers.

Much of Mr. Karazai’s frustrations lie in the fact that those close to him have betrayed him tremendously, only caring for their own pockets and power and not for the progress of the country. Internationally, his image is hurting bad from the spiraling ill-reputation of his brothers. His last name is becoming a liability. Locally, his young government is struggling to reform. The only answer that he can find to the problem of corruption, which is derailing his legitimacy, is setting up commission after commission. Security has not improved remarkably, and the war does not seem to be reaching an end any time soon.

But what pains the President most is that all these factors have led to his people losing faith in him immensely. To his defense, Afghans have been a little thankless at times, mostly forgetting the harshness of the reality and the lack of infrastructure that Mr. Karzai began with. That is not to say that their demand for more is illegitimate. It is just that the demands have not happened with an eye on the dark recent past that country is trying to emerge out of.

And lastly, Mr. Karzai is extremely worried about his political legacy. This is his last term as President and he has given a lot to this process of national revival. Yet, things are certainly not where he would want them to be. Because of the factors mentioned above, he has struggled to turn his hopes and dreams for the country into reality. Mr. Karzai knows that Afghan politics are cruel—that he will not be remembered for his intentions and his dreams, but his actions which have been impeded by the difficulty of the situation. This, above all, frustrates the President.

For the moment, however, spare a thought for the man. His job is one of the world’s most difficult and his struggle must go on.

Was it a question of character or circumstance?

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Amrullah

I think the picture clearly says what I am trying to get at.


A Tulip that Smells Fishy

Ariana Cinema, where the Black Tulip was premiered. (Image:Adam Ferguson/NYT)

“Sonia Nassery Cole knew that shooting a movie on location in Afghanistan could get her killed. The most vivid reminder came a few weeks before filming, she said, when militants located her leading actress and cut off both of her feet,” says a New York Times article about a new film on Afghanistan, The Black Tulip, that just premiered in Kabul.  The bit about the amputation in this  opening paragraph has gotten Ms. Cole, an Afghan  born activist/director/actor who grew up in the US, in trouble. Questions about the legitimacy of her project and the intentions behind it are spiraling.

Three days after the piece was printed in the New York Times, the paper added this correction:

Correction: September 24, 2010An article on Wednesday about an Afghan-American film director’s efforts to shoot a feature film in Afghanistan reported that the director, Sonia Nassery Cole, said she took the leading role in her film after the actress she had cast had her feet cut off by militants. The local casting director and Latif Ahmadi, head of the Afghan Film Organization, corroborated Ms. Cole’s account for the article. After the article appeared, questions were raised about the assertion, and in a followup article today on Page A10, Mr. Ahmadi contradicts his support of Ms. Cole’s assertion, characterizing it as “just propaganda for the film.”

Rod Nordland had a beautiful follow-up piece in today’s times titled “Snickers and Skepticism Greet Premiere of Afghan Film.” He portrayed the local’s reaction to the film and raised more questions about the project.

It was meant to be a serious film about Afghanistan, by an Afghan-born director, set in present-day Kabul and even filmed on location here, but many of the Afghans who saw it said they did not recognize the society they knew.The movie tells the story of an Afghan woman who starts a family-run Bohemian cafe in Kabul, where they serve wine in teapots and have poetry readings, which angers the Taliban.

Leaving the content of the film aside, the central questions is about the claimed amputation of the leading actress. The whole account seems really shady. Ms. Cole, who ends up playing the leading role, claims that she only took up the acting part because the actress that she initially had in mind, named Zarifa Jahon, disappeared. Months later, she got a call from her. “Finally, she called me and she said, ‘You’ll never guess what happened. The Taliban chopped my feet off.’ ”

It is shady because Ms. Cole refuses to offer details on the actress, brushing the issue aside by saying “the woman begged her to leave her alone for her own safety.” And its shady because one of her strongest supporters on the ground, the head of Afghan Film, Eng. Latif Ahmadi, told the New York Times he did not believe in the story. “I think that’s just propaganda for the film,” Mr. Ahmadi said.

It seems even shadier because many in the local film industry, including Mr. Ahmadi who helped in casting the movie, told the New York Times they had never heard of an actress named Zarifa Jahon. And they have not heard of an actress who was amputated.

This whole episode makes one question: how much of this project is simply shameless self-promotion? There is nothing wrong with self-promotion– unless you make up blatant lies that defame and harm a people. I am no semi-loyalist here. I have no word of defense for the Taliban and I know they do horrible acts such as the one Ms. Cole claims. But something about Ms. Cole’s narrative sounds fishy. It just doesn’t add up.

Maybe I am a cynic. And I would love to be proven wrong, but for now this seems to me another episode of taking advantage only for the purpose of generating publicity.


Election Coverage: Why the Negativity, NYT?

At the least, the interest in the democratic process is still well and alive

The elections deserve a much longer piece and I will get to that as soon as I get a chance. First impressions: it was not as bad as it could have/would have been. The turn out seemed decent, the number of security incidents not considerable (within the context). As for irregularities, yes as expected. The extent? initial reports do not indicate large scale, systematic fraud.

As Jed Ober, the chief of staff in Afghanistan of Democracy International, whose observers kept a watch in 15 provinces, told Al-Jazeera

“We have not witnessed any type of systematic irregularities,” he said. “We have seen a pretty predictable process so far with nothing that we think affects the process. We are pretty optimistic about the process.”

But we can only be certain once the counting unfolds and the observers reports come in.

The issue that I briefly want to raise here is the difference in the coverage of the elections in the international media, particularly the US and Europe Media. Giants such as the New York Times approached the elections with a very grim look. Their feature stories, of the election eve as well as election day, were written by Elisabeth Bumiller with Rod Nordland or Alissa Rubin. Both stories began as “Marja, Afghanistan.” It makes one question why the New York times chose to see a nationwide election through such narrow, troubled window? All the articles focused on was the small turnout, the fear of rockets, and the gloominess of the overall picture. The Times’s At-War blog too, ran only entries by Ms. Bumiler from Marja. One can only speculate the reasons for such a narrow-scope of coverage.

While there is no doubt that the elections faced some of those challenges to an extent, but to boil it down to just that is unfair to the 150,000 international and 300,000 Afghan forces who worked tirelessly to ensure the security of the vote in the face of tremendous threats. It is also not fair to the 4 million who turned up to vote despite having the bitter taste of last year still in their mouth.

European outlets were a little milder in their approach, leaving some window of optimism. The BBC, for example, raised as many concerns as the New York Times. But it was open to the possibility of a decent turn out, and an election with a relatively low degree of fraud. The Guardian too, was harsh. And so it should be. But Jon Boone was kind enough to mention the possibility of success in one his headlines.

Just for kicks. Not really sure what the source is. a friend shared it.


A Testing Election for Afghanistan

Afghanistan prepares for parliamentary elections (image from Zimbio)

Tomorrow, Afghanistan holds its second election in consecutive years. When polls open, not only will the capabilities of the security forces be tested, but also the people’s belief and trust in elections and the democratic process.

Last year’s presidential elections ended in chaos and controversy. The turn out was low because of intimidation by the Taliban. In certain provinces, the Taliban threatened to chop the fingers that had been dipped in ink. And they did.

They ignored threats and took tremendous risks to line up and vote, believing that their vote mattered in shaping their future. Did it? Most will say not really. The vote ended in shambles. And not many people, whether those who voted for Abdullah or Karzai, were satisfied with the final result. The biggest loser of all was the elections and the trust in the democratic process

For tomorrow’s parliamentary vote, the Afghan government has repeatedly assured the people that extensive security measures have been taken. 300,000 Afghan forces assisted by 150,000 international forces. The new election chief, too, has been much more honest in his dealings. He has repeatedly asserted that no polling stations will opened in unsafe places. To that end, he has closed down about 1000 polling stations.

Tomorrow’s elections, in the face of tremendous challenges, will most importantly test the international community’s patience for Afghanistan. After last year’s messy vote, the international community has increasingly lost faith in the democratic process taking root there. If tomorrow’s vote is as messy as last year’s — or messier– one can only see the international community growing hopeless.


The Legacy of a Warrior: Ahmad Shah Massoud

Massoud, a warrior who maintained his humanity. (Photograph by Reza Deghati)

“If there had never been a war,” he said, “I would have been a very good architect.”

Ahmad Shah Massoud, a renowned guerrilla fighter of his generation, left behind a mixed legacy after his death on September 9, 2001. A moderate amongst the leaders of jihad who grew extremer every day, few close to him would question the personal dignity of the commander.  His humanity remained intact despite being devoured by the beast of war for more than half of his life. However, what taints his legacy is the involvement of his men in the darkest period of Afghanistan’s history—or Kabul’s history, rather.

The period I speak of is the years between 1991 and 1996, when the government of Dr. Najib was toppled and the Mujahideen moved into Kabul. As their eminent victory over Najib’s government neared after the Soviets withdrew their military power, the Mujahideen grew progressively divided. At the heart of their disputes was the structure of the future government that would move into Kabul. How would the power be divided? And more importantly, who will move into the mouth-watering presidential palace?

As the various factions tightened the noose around Kabul, Najib offered to step down. His attempts to ensure a smooth transition did not reach anywhere for no one listens to the demands of a leader on verge of demise. The country was at the mercy of the handful jihadi leaders who bargained behind closed doors in Peshawer. Pakistani agents sat at the head of the table, trying to broker a deal.

Massoud himself did not have any ambitions of becoming president, that is one certainty of the matter.  He was a king-maker and his word carried a lot of weight, but he had never shown any desire for the seat. He repeatedly said that he had left the issue of leadership of the country to the elders. However, it was his rivalry with Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a fellow engineering classmate in his younger days, that eventually turned Kabul into the bloodiest killing-ground.

The commanders had delayed an immediate entry into Kabul until a political agreement was reached by the different leaders in Pakistan. A sudden entry would bring chaos in the city, it was said. But Hikmatyar grew restless of the negotiations, and felt that nothing was being achieved. He wanted to move in immediately and claim the ultimate prize for the Mujahideen: the presidential palace. But there was no longer such a thing as the mujahideen. The language used was one of ahzab, or parties, factions. Hikmatyar’s entry meant a victory for his faction, not for all. And Massoud vehemently warned against such an entry. He tried to convince Hikmatyar that he should wait, pending the results of the negotiations in Peshawer. But Hekmatyar would have none of it. So Massoud declared that he would “defend the people of Kabul, the man, women, children, and elderly of Kabul.” And so began the darkest period in history.

For close to five years, until Taliban emerged from the South to rid them all and corner Massoud into Panjsher, Kabul burned in a hellish civil war. The small city was divided up into numerous kingdoms, with a throne on every street. Hikmatyar fired mortars from one end, Charasyab, and Massoud responded from the other, Koh e Telvision. In between, Kabul was looted, raped, and burned until it turned into a ghost-town.

The Legacy:

Any warrior, whether he likes it or not, will have blood on his hands. Massoud is no different. His image, as Afghans see it now, has splashes of blood over it. Whether he pierced his own dagger and drew that blood is questionable.  Did he have men under his command who caused tremendous bloodshed? That is a harsh certainty.

But Ahmad Shah Massoud stands out for one characteristic that many life-long warriors lose in the face of war: the ability to maintain a concerned, moderate, human heart. At every moment of his life, in every speech, in every gesture, Massoud gave the vibe that he had risen from the people, that his struggle was for the people, and that he was firm on the principles of his struggle.

Journalist Sebastian Junger, who visited Massoud for a National Geographic assignment, had this to say about Massoud’s undeniable charisma:

There was something about him – the slow nod of his head as he listened to a question, the exhaustion and curiosity engraved on his handsome, haggard face – that made it clear we were in the presence of an extraordinary man. I found it impossible not to listen to Massoud when he spoke, even though I didn’t understand a word. I watched everything he did, because I had the sense that somehow – in the way he poured his tea, in the way his hands carved the air as he talked – there was some secret to be learned.”

From what his friends and those close to him recall, one gets a sense that Massoud was a man  firm on upholding his principles at all times. In time of peace, that is an easy task. But when you are cornered into a ditch for years and your enemy threatens to destroy you every moment, it takes an extraordinary man to stay firm, to stay true, and to maintain a kind heart.

Little anecdotes help us put this picture of Massoud together. General Daoud Daoud, one of Massoud’s commanders and the recent Deputy Minister of Interior, shares this story:

We were in Kabul. A professor at Kabul university came to Massoud and complained that his daughter had been taken by the son of a commander. Massoud ordered Fahim [his intelligence chief at the time, the current Vice President of Afganistan] to return the girl to his father at any cost. In fact, Massoud said he would not eat until the girl was returned to his father. Fahim said that the case would get messy, it could ignite fighting. The boy’s father had lots of armed men. Massoud replied that the honor of the professor and his daughter was everything to him. She should be returned at any cost.

Dr. Mehdi, one of Massoud’s advisers and current politician, remembers this anecdote:

I joined Massoud at a gathering in Takhar. My entry into the room had interrupted his conversation  with one of his commanders. After greeting me, he turned to the commander and asked him to please continue.

“Yes sir,” the commander continued, “so I left with eight of my men. They have Kalashnikovs and I have a kalakov.  We arrived there at dawn. Our guide showed us to a place where deer grazed. There were two ways that the deer could escape and my men blocked both ends. When it turned light, the deer that had been grazing got scared of us and started running. Since both escape routs were blocked, they had no option but to come towards me. And I started in the name of God. I fired three rounds. When I finished, my men came and gathered the deer. I had shot 28 of them. The rest that were injured ran away. They might have fallen later, but we did not follow after them. 28 was more than enough for us. I brought ten home and give away the rest, to my men and the villagers.”

The gathering remained silent. Massoud took a long look at the commander. Then, he brought his hand to his forehead and lowered his head in silence. All eyes were fixed on him as to how he would react. He turned to the commander and said:

“What a pity. You are mujahid, a haji who has gone to pilgrimage, and a sufi. You killed God’s creatures, you ended a generation of them. Don’t you think in Islam, hunting has its limits? And that excess is a sin?”

Later, Massoud refused to have a bite of the deer meat they had brought him as a delicacy.

And a final anecdote from Mir Dad, one of his commanders:

I served as the commander for the Commando Battalion.  Once, Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army invited Massoud for a meeting, which he accepted. With a few commando soldiers and couple horses, we left for the headquarters in Badakhshan. The  journey was long, so Massoud repeatedly offered his horse to one of the soldiers. “You are tired, come ride my horse,” he said. The soldier refused. Massoud got off the horse and started walking. He left the horse behind for the soldier. He asked me to have the rest soldiers take turns on the other horses…

Massoud, on many times, reminisced about his student days. The man had gone through a lot, but he still remembered his days at the lyce Istiqlal as the best days of his life, where he played soccer and prepared to join the engineering faculty at Kabul Polytechnic. His first two years of university, too, he recalled with nostalgia. He had been very focused on his studies, very excited about becoming an architect. But the communist revolution in Afghanistan changed everything for him, turning him into a life-long warrior.

One only wonders how good an architect Massoud would have become had there been no war.

This is the second and final part of a two-part serines on Massoud and his legacy.


Ahmad Shah Massoud

Part One:

Khwaja Bahauddin, Takhar–Nine years ago today, two arab terrorists disguised as television journalists were finally granted permission to interview the leader of the Anti Taliban resistance after nine days of waiting.  The arabs had first gone to Panjsher, Massoud’s headquarters, but they had not managed to secure an appointment. So they followed the commander to Takhar, where he had gathered his troops for a meeting

The arabs arrived at his office and the door to the adobe room closed behind them.

Ahmad Shah Massoud,  a man who had not put down his gun since the jihad against the Soviets, suggested he sit across from the large windows for better lighting.The arabs nodded their heads in approval, without preoccupying themselves too much with the commander’s position or the angle of light.

The cool breeze coming in through the open windows disheveled Massoud’s hair, which had begun to gray. He was no longer a young anti-soviet guerrilla fighter. He was as much a seasoned statesman now as an experienced commander.

Massoud fixed his collar, tilted his pakool in his trademark fashion, leaned back against the cream wall. His prayer beads: he kept thumbing with his determined fingers. An assistant placed a cup of tea in front of him as his long time-friend and advisor Khalili took a seat by the window.

This is another chance to warn the world, Massoud thought perhaps. Another opportunity to shed light on the Taliban’s brutality, on their fanatic ideology.

Three years earlier, Massoud had sent a letter to the American people and government, warning them of the same concerns. He had written:

I send this message to you today on behalf of the freedom and peace-loving people of Afghanistan, the Mujahedeen freedom fighters who resisted and defeated Soviet communism, the men and women who are still resisting oppression and foreign hegemony and, in the name of more than one and a half million Afghan martyrs who sacrificed their lives to uphold some of the same values and ideals shared by most Americans and Afghans alike…

The country[Afghanistan] has gradually been occupied by fanatics, extremists, terrorists, mercenaries, drug Mafias and professional murderers. One faction, the Taliban, which by no means rightly represents Islam, Afghanistan or our centuries-old cultural heritage, has with direct foreign assistance exacerbated this explosive situation. They are unyielding and unwilling to talk or reach a compromise with any other Afghan side

….

We consider this as part of our duty to defend humanity against the scourge of intolerance, violence and fanaticism. But the international community and the democracies of the world should not waste any valuable time, and instead play their critical role to assist in any way possible the valiant people of Afghanistan overcome the obstacles that exist on the path to freedom, peace, stability and prosperity.

And just few months earlier, during a rare tour of the West, Massoud had sent a more direct message to President Bush from Paris. In April 2001 he warned that if the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies were not dealt with, they would grow into a cancer for America and the rest of the world. Then, it would not be just Afghanistan’s problem.

But Massoud was an increasingly isolated leader. His words seemed to carry no weight with the international community because his men only controlled less than ten percent of the Afghan territory. Their resistance to the Taliban did not seem anything more than a final hurdle that would fall sooner or later.

So on September 9, 2001, as Massoud prepared for the interview, perhaps he saw another opportunity: to try to reach out to the Arab world.

During the years of jihad against the Soviets, numerous Arab intelligence agencies had been close supporters of the cause Massoud had fought. Perhaps, he could extract some sympathy if he chose his words with care?

Out of habit, Massoud asked for the questions to be recited to him before the arabs roll the camera.  Khalili, his friend and interpreter for this interview, had a curiosity of his own that he wanted to fulfill before he could express Massoud’s request. Khalili looked to the arabs and asked: what television do you report for?

One of the arabs replied that they were not journalists. They worked for an Islamic organization that had centers in Paris and London. Khalili looked at Massoud, a bit confused and skeptical. Massoud motioned with his head that it was ok, let them move on with the questions.

Nothing about the questions seemed unfair to Massoud. What condition was his resistance in? Why had the Taliban managed to control so much, and his forces so little? one that raised Khalili’s eyebrows was: why did Massoud declare Osama bin Laden a killer on his recent trip to europe? But that question,too, did not bother Massoud.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, once the legendary anti-soviet warrior and now an isolated commander who struggled to maintain a resistance, fixed his pakool hat one last time. Slowly, he raised his head high, and let an expression of confidence take over.  The creases on his forehead, the gray of his hair were those of a statesmen. But the weary eyes were those of an exhausted warrior. He cleared his throat and then motioned to the cameraman with his eyes: he was ready.

A flash. A bang. And the room collapsed. The large windows flew into the street. Darkness took over.

His follower tried to play down the news of his death until September 16, but Massoud had not even made it to the hospital.

Part two of this entry will focus on Massoud’s legacy.