Richard Holbrooke

Seasoned diplomat Richarad Holbrooke, President Obama’s Special Envoy to Paksitan and Afghanistan, passed away in Washington on Monday. He was 69 years old.

Mr. Holbrooke left a strong legacy of diplomatic achievements, most important of which being the Dayton agreement to end the bloody conflict in the Balkans. He also served as Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton.

A lot of expectations came with the job that Mr. Holbrooke took under President Obama– to coordinate the efforts in Afghanistan. Having established a reputation of being a tough negotiator,  the Ambassador was entrust the responsibility of working towards a solution in Afghanistan. But during his time, Mr. Holbrooke found it quite difficult there, causing tremendous strain in President Karzai’s relationship with the Obama administration.

One of the reasons given for why Mr. Holbrooke was frustrated in Afghanistan was his assertive– and at time bullying–style of diplomacy. It worked in the Balkans, but Afghanistan was different. The Ambassador was quite confident of himself and usually would not tone down his criticism of the players involved, particularly Karzai.  Jean Mackenzie at GlobalPost sums it up nicely:

Holbrooke’s last post, as the Obama administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will most likely not figure among his finest hours. Long-time friend and colleague Peter Galbraith, who served as ambassador to Croatia while Holbrooke was negotiating an end to the Balkan war, told the BBC Monday evening that the Dayton Accords, signed in 1995 and effectively putting an end to hostilities in the three-year conflict in Yugoslavia, would serve as Holbrooke’s legacy….most observers acknowledge that Holbrooke was a problematic figure in both Kabul and Washington.

But one has to wonder whether it was Holbrooke or the awkward role that he was assigned that created the tensions. The Ambassador repeatedly declared that the military solution was not viable in Afghanistan, yet he found himself working a long side a massive military operation and trying to coordinate his efforts in that shadow. Perhaps, he would have been more effective if  reconciliation had been given a more prominent place in the policy, and if face to face negotiations with the Taliban had been taken up, what many intellectuals and experts are calling for right now.

While Mr. Holbrooke would have hoped for more concrete achievements in Afghanistan, his frustrating time there was not completely ineffective. He put tremendous pressure on President Karzai’s administration to cut down on corruption, and he spoke repeatedly for tackling the save heavens across the border in Pakistan. Above all, he assiduously spoke of a political solution, which might as well be the only way out of the war in Afghanistan..

Nick Kristof over at NYT pays  a heartfelt farewell to the Ambassador:

I’ve never met an abler diplomat, or a smarter one, than Richard Holbrooke. He was inevitably the brightest guy in the room, and usually the most pragmatic and hardest-working – and he was also a friend whom I admired hugely. His death today is a tremendous loss for all of us who knew him, and for the country as well. Richard never achieved his dream of becoming secretary of state, but he leaves a legacy around the world – from Bosnia to East Timor, from AIDS clinics in South Africa to his legions of followers in the United States – that exceeds that of many Secretaries of State. He was simply a legendary public servant, and an inspiration.


The Constitutional Struggle Over Election Results

Tensions are high over the results of parliamentary elections in Afghansitan (Photo: ToloNews)

On October 6, I went against the current and showed optimism in the parliamentary elections. I thought that in the given context, the voting process had not been as bad as certain news outlets made it to be. But I highlighted that the main challenge lay in how claims of fraud are dealt with. I wrote:

The next stage, of how the fraud is dealt with, is incredibly critical.

For a second time in a year, ordinary afghans have braved the threats to cast their votes. They have played their part in this flirt with democracy, but if serious action is not taken to ensure them that their voices matter, they will lose hope.  The future of the democratic system in Afghanistan will be in peril.

It is crucial that this time around the Afghan leadership really crack down on those who were involved in the fraud. For the sake of saving any hopes of democracy, the government and the leaders need to forget about their pride. They need to man up and accept that there were enormous shortcomings. Rather than questioning its extent and blaming others, they need to take action: punish those who committed systematic fraud, ban them from participating in politics, and perhaps even redo the voting process in certain districts with tighter security and anti-corruption measures. The people need to know that democracy is not corrupt and rotten, but individuals are. If this message is not clearly given to the Afghan people, any hopes of a democracy in the future will be childish.

Well, it turns out that I was overly optimistic. The post-voting process has been a complete shit-show. It is developing into a constitutional crisis.

The problem began with the province of Ghazni, where contenders from the ethnic minority Hazara won all the seats. The Pashtoon candidates claimed this was unfair for the fact that in most districts polling stations remained close due to Taliban threat. They claimed that a minority group could not represent the entire Province of Ghazni. President Karzai publicly sympathized with them, asking the Election Commission to find a legal solution that ensures “national unity.” Over this and many other, a massive heated and public argument has erupted between the Attorney General’s Office, the Election Commission and and the Electoral Complaints Commission .

The Attorney General’s office released arrest warrants for several members of these commissions and asked the Supreme Court to declare the election results as void. The Election Commission, in return, has questioned the legality of the Attorney General’s involvement in this matter. They claim that no authority can overrule their final announcement of the results.

Initially, the Election Commission remained calm and calculated in its response to the Attorney General’s calls. More recently, however, they have responded in very bold words. Fazel Ahmad Manawi, head of the commission, in his recent press conference accused the Attorney General’s office of “bullying that can lead to instability in the country.” He scorned the charge sheet sent to the supreme court which recommends the highest form of punishment [execution] for the 14 members accused.

Where will the legal argument lead? Does the Attorney General’s Office have the authority to question the results of the elections? Many believe  it does. The AG has presented criminal cases of fraud against top election officials as well as winning candidates. This seems within their bounds of authority. But Mr. Manawi, himself a former Supreme Court Justice, has challenged their authority on the grounds that the election law only gives the Election Complaints Commission the authority to call the results void.  Him being a prominent legal scholar and a former justice, one is tempted to believe that he,too, has strong reasons for his position. How will this public argument end? Hard to predict, but expect it to get eve more messier.

During all this, President Karzai has remained very quiet. Yes, he did sympathize with the losing Ghazni candidates, but since then he has said nothing bold. Waheed Omer, his spokesman, has insisted that the President will take no measures against the constitution. Yesterday, he declared more precisely that the President does not have the authority to call the results void. But is the Attorney General’s office doing his work for him? It seems so. The Attorney General has almost always acted in line with the President’s wishes. In this case, too, the President seems like he is raising his concern through the AG while maintaining an uninvolved public image.

War Reporting

Last week, it was revealed that Dexter Filkins is leaving the New York Times  for the New Yorker.  Obviously, its a massive loss for the New York times.  But for the readers? This means that Mr. Filkins will have more time and room to produce the kind of profound stories that he has done more often than any reporter of our time.
Here is a fine example of the kind beautiful writing that Mr. Filkins has given us so often and we hope to see more of. George Packer wrote about this on his New Yorker blog. Mr. Filkins is describing how he felt immediately after seeing a solider get killed:
And at that moment, you think about how the word of his death will travel; how it will depart Iraq or Afghanistan and move across the ocean and into the United States and into the town where he lives, Corinth, Miss., say, or Benwood, W.Va., and into the houses and the hearts of the people who love him most in the world. And at that moment, standing there, looking down on the dead man, you can wonder only what the family will do when the terrible news finally arrives, how they will resist it and wrestle with it and suffer from it, and how they will cope and how they will remember.
— Dexter Filkins’s introduction to Ashley Gilbertson’s book of photograps

From Ashley Gilbertson's photographs of dead soldiers's bedrooms, published in NYT

Poetry:Tying Satan’s Hands Behind his Back

Original in Pashto: Abdul Bari Jahani
Mr. Jahani is the most prominent contemporary poet in Afghanistan who writes in Pashto. He beautifully weaves classical and mystical themes such as intoxication and music with more contemporary, political ones such as invasion, resistance, and social erosion.
Jahani is particularly celebrated for his satirical poems that have a clear narrative and deal with themes of superstitions and corruption. “Shaikh Nasruddeen” is an example of such satirical poetry. The Shaikh is a Don Quixotic type of character. But perhaps a little more clever. And the poem has a more direct message than Don Quixote. I hope that at least a small bit of the original humor comes across in this translation.

Shaikh Nasruddeen

Image Source: "English for Students"

Long ago, in a distant village, was a young man
without people, without belongings, without a home.
A champion of reason, sturdy and strong
but dismal fate had left his heart swollen.
His father had named him Nasruddeen in pride,
but, poor, wretched, a mere Nasrugay he was called.
Neither his summers, nor his winters were comfortable;
from heat or cold, he never ceased to grumble.

As his heart grew weary of his village and tribe,
jaded with the elders and the youth alike,
Nasrugay declared: I’m leaving on a journey,
whatever happens will be kismet and destiny.
He rolled up his sleeves to end his poverty
and passed village after village, around the country.

One day, as dusk fell on Nasrugay, the air darkened.
In a shrine, on a Shaikh’s almhouse he knocked.
This shrine, this house, belonged to Shaikh Qader
Among the saints, well esteemed and high regarded.
In the Shrine, Nasrugay secured a place to rest
and, amongst the hangers-on, became a guest
In the corners of the house, in various rooms
crowds of guests convened; conversations bloomed.
From the kitchen, full steaming plates arrived
and the guests eagerly devoured bite after bite.

As he listened to the stories of the men,
he measured them with the scale of his wisdom.
In the hundred tales that he patiently heard
The secrets of the Shaikh Qader were unveiled!

Nasrugay, too, in his chamber, began to bow and sway
From dawn to dusk, he prayed and prayed.
Spending all his time bent in prostration,
he no longer cared for food or conversation.
Word of him traveled to the dervishes and faqirs.
With praises they rushed to him and began to query:
Shaikh, from what city, when did you arrive? Tell us
So on your path we sacrifice the rest of our lives.
Nasrugay refrained from answering, paid no attention,
leaving the dervishes to lament in dejection.
One of the dervishes, wiser than the rest
aware of the house’s long buried secrets
approached Shaikh Qader in great haste,
and after score of praises, informed the Saint:
A godly traveler has recently joined our way
Days and nights, all he does is pray and pray.
So focused that he has no time for food or stories
On his knees all day, I’m sure he’s after some glory!

At midnight, Shaikh Qader entered the chamber
and quietly hissed in Nasrugay’s sleeping ear:
Tell me your actual purpose right away.
This same night, you must end your stay!
Nasrugay, regaining his senses from confusion,
paid his respects and recounted his misfortunes:
Fed up with endless poverty, O almighty saint
I left on this hopeful journey to other lands.
But upon your command, in this darkness
I’ll ride my wretched fate out of your place.
But to do so, I ask your help, and the Lord’s grace.
The Shaikh, slipping hand to pocket in a flash
withdrew few coins and threw them into Nasrugay’s lap:
Here is some money, and there’s an ass in the barn.
Look after it; the animal is a very special kind.
Nasrugay, with amazement, took the money
mounted the ass, and resumed his journey.
For a few nights, he traveled through deserts and hills.
The ass was old, quickly wearied and fell ill.
By the road side, as tears streamed down his face,
Nasrugay mourned the struggling ass’s fate.
When dusk took over, Nasrugay was left alone.
His ass dead, his heart broken, he wailed in vain.
He buried the ass, building for it a large tomb.
At its feet he wept until his heart calmed.
In the morning, on the fresh tomb
he raised a grand waving flag of scarlet shade,
Announcing: this is Ghaybana Father’s Shrine!
I found it after many years of constant trying.
Without food or sleep I’ve served it hard and long;
with constant prayers, I’ve lighted his nights to dawn.
His frenzy has so quickly spread through the lands
Every soul, in every house, is familiar with his legend.
A dozen times, even more, he’s visited my dreams
With his finger, he’s pointed me to his tomb.
This shrine is for the barren and blind
for the widows, despairing and maligned.
The legend of the Shrine traveled through hands
Ghaybana Father grew famous in far towns.
Some brought cows for him, some herds of sheep
some offered money, some grains in heaps.
Soldiers, constables, sheriffs–those of high esteem
To Ghaybana Father, all sorts of people came.
In little time, Nasrugay became Shaikh Nasruddin:
a saint so rich that his crown in jewels gleamed.
Within a year he wedded three or four young ladies
plump as partridges, pretty as daisies.
Shaikh Qader was informed by one of the guests:
a great Shaikh has emerged from the Shaikhs
claiming he is the saint of the poor, the distressed;
he’s returned sight to numerous blind eyes
and cured fatal disease– most palsied hands and feet!
His frenzy has so quickly spread through the lands
Every soul, in every house, is familiar with his legend.
That a new Shaikh had brought a disaster on his tribe,
this news bruised Shaikh Qader’s fragile heart.
It was midnight, he mounted his horse and rode away.
At the Shrine, he asked a moment of Shaikh’s company.
Shaikh Nasruddeen had retreated to his chamber,
but as the name of Shaikh Qader caressed his ear
he blushed in excitement and proudly declared:
Leave us alone and don’t bother us for few moments
for this is a secret meeting of two old acquaintance.
Once left alone, the two Shaikhs began to converse.
The legend of the new shrine was recounted bit by bit
and Shaikh Qader was informed of the whole truth.
Shaikh Qader, stunned by the story, slowly began to speak:
My highest praises for you. For your enemies, defeat.
The secrets– yours and mine– are thus hidden
for we have both acquired the friendship of one Satan.
That you have so quietly raised a flag upon an ass
You have tied Satan’s hands behind his back.
Take good care of it, it is lineal and legitimate;
It’s father’s made me into this commanding saint.
His grandfather’s buried in another town;
hundred dervishes are prostrate on its grounds.
An almighty patron, confers to every need
and fulfills every heart’s desire, every plead.
The simple-minded come to it for pilgrimage
and bring along with them droves of sheep.

The Pashtoon tribe is a tribe of ignorance
Their land is a heaven for the rogue and the cheat
To anyone who grows long-shaggy hair, in respect
they give him their daughters and all their wealth.
Yesterday a barber came to them, today he’s their boss
he’s their elder, their lord, and their priest.
Whoever grows a long beard here is fit to lead.
In this city of the blind, a one-eyed is Lord.

If you desire paradise now, in this world,
countless servants, pretty women and good wine
for a brief period, seek detachment.
Then, by the highway, build a shrine.
For your household, a darbar leave behind
and reign over generation after generation.

Chains and Wounds: Poetry

Mr. Tabish's recent collection of poetry, "Human is Not a Bird"

From now on, I will frequently translate little bits of Pashto and Dari poetry and share through this blog.

Here is for a start: a section of a Ghazal by Qanbar Ali Tabish. Mr. Tabish was born in Ghazni about 40 years ago. Currently, he lives in Qum, Iran, where he is the editor of a magazine called “Fajr e Omid.” Mr. Tabish has published several collections of poems in Iran.

For the full poem in Dari click here

وطنم دوباره اينک تو و شانه های پامير
بتکان ستاره ها را که سحر شود فراگير
بتکان ستاره ها را که ستاره های اين شهر
همه يادگار زخمند همه يادگار زنجير

Pamir, with its twists and bends, is my homeland once again.
But shake down these stars so dawn can takeover
Shake them down, for the stars of this town
are nothing but reminders of chains and wounds.

Absurdities revealed in WikiLeaks


I will be updating this post with some of the absurd things from the Wikileaks, relating to Afghanistan.

Here is US embassy in Kabul’s analysis of a minister proposed to the Parliament by President Karzai. What a Genius!

--Commerce - Ghulam Mohammad Elaqi (Hazara). 
He was the Central Bank Chairman in 
the 1990s, and former Chamber of Commerce President until 2008. 
He was allegedly accused of corruption in 2001. His nomination 
was supported by Mohaqqeq,although he also has a relationship with 
competing Hazara powerbroker Khalili. 
Khalili appointed him as a secondary representative at the 2001 
Bonn conference. He reportedly owns a factory in Tashkent used to
 export special bags made from sheep stomach that are used frequently
 by heroine smugglers to prevent detection. Also, reportedly he took 
about $1.5 million from small businessmen in Afghanistan in 1995 to 
open a trading company, but instead absconded with the funds.

The Clever Mullah

Was it him?

It’s been a week of accusations and blame games in Afghanistan. The Clever Mullah who duped the Afghans and NATO is all over the headlines. He got his money, and quite possibly in tens of millions of dollars, and disappeared. But the shame remains, for NATO and the Afghan leadership.

How did an ordinary shopkeeper from Quetta, Pakistan manage to cause so much excietment, to make it all the way to the Presidential Palace, and to piss all over the hopes of an entire nation that was playing into the hype around high-level talks?

The easy way out: blame the British.

In an interview, Mohammad Umer Daudzai [Karzai’s chief of Staff] said that the British brought a man purporting to be Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a senior Taliban leader, to meet Karzai in July or August but that an Afghan at the meeting knew “this is not the man.”

Daudzai’s comments were the most direct assignation of blame so far, though U.S. officials have also said that the fake Mansour was primarily a British project. U.S. officials have long characterized the British as more aggressive than the Americans in pushing for a political settlement to end the war.

The false Mansour was “the Brits’ guy,” said a senior American official familiar with the case. “It was the British who brought him forward.”

While the British have messed up several times in Afghanistan, particularly in the

Mullah Zaif, on his iPhone: "we got'm real bad. LOL"

Southern province of Helmand, its harsh to lay the blame entirely on them. After all, NATO seemed entirely on board with this. General Petraeus openly said that NATO was securing the highway so Taliban leaders can make it to Kabul for Talks.

“And indeed in certain respects we do facilitate that, given that, needless to say, it would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul if ISAF were not witting and therefore aware of it and allows it to take place,”
The Guardian, in its Sunday issue, had some insightful comments about the Clever Mullah from the former Chief of Afghan Intelligence, Amrullah Saleh. Mr. Saleh said that “his agency first vetted the man, who claimed to be a representative of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, one of the highest-ranking figures in the Taliban, in mid-2008, but rejected him after he was unable to prove his credentials.”
Mr. Saleh puts the blame on the Karzai government:
“This became so exciting that even certain figures were thinking of either an Afghan Dayton agreement or Good Friday agreement for Afghanistan,” he said. “It shows the desperation of the leadership in Kabul, detachment from the reality and lack of sophistication on the most sensitive issues.”
And the Guardian also takes a swing at the US and NATO:
Western sources say that the UK did play a role in the debacle, with MI6 acting as a key intermediary because the CIA is not authorised to talk directly with insurgents. However, the decision for the British to proceed was taken by General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.
And, to end on a light note, Foreign Policy has a nice suggestion on how to avoid these kind of episodes in the future. They have a checklist of how to tell the fake mullahs from the real ones:

10. Keeps asking if the peace talks can be held in the Maldives

9. Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting

8. Introduces himself as “Colonel Iqbal from the ISI”

7. Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul

6. Wife angling for a spot on “The Real Housewives of Kandahar”

5. Claims to be texting Mullah Omar but is actually just playing Angry Birds the whole time

4. Offers to settle Afghan War with a game of Jenga

3. Turban made of an actual towel

2. Wears trench coat, offers to sell the letters O and U

1. Agrees to trade Osama bin Laden for Justin Bieber