Tag Archives: New York Times

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


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?


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.


In the Shadows of War: the Reporter

This is first in a series of entries in which I will try to understand the effects of war on those who experience it up close.

Photographer Ashley Gilbertson closely followed US Marines in Iraq.

“Only the Soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not. He may share the soldier’s outward life and dangers but he cannot share his inner life because the same moral compulsion does not bear upon him. The observor knows he has alternatives of action; the soldier knows he has none. It is the mere knowing that makes the difference.”

Eric Sevareid, CBS radio broadcast, 1945. *

Undoubtedly, those involved in a war inherit scars, visible and not, tangible and not, that take a long time to heal. If they heal at all. The lucky few who manage to come out in one piece will be haunted by the loss of loved ones, by images of gruesome violence, and by the screams of  children they could not rescue.

The soldier, especially, bears the most extreme emotional toll of the war. He is the one carrying the gun. Whether he shoots or not, whether he saves or not, whether he acts or not will always live with him.

But what about the reporter on the ground? How does he fare after a war is over? How taxing is the experience for him?

In recent years, war-correspondence has certainly become much more intimate. The war in Iraq, especially, has seen tremendous human resource deployed for its reportage. Journalists have taken enormous risks to feed the public with details of the battlefield.

After a brief while of initial freedom for reporters, Iraq became too dangerous. Reporters could not move around on their own. They had to embed with a military team.  So, to record the happenings on the ground, the reporter shadowed the soldier, following him into battle, dodging the same bullet, walking the same number of hours without rest, and eating the same M.R.E.

In a sense, the reporter is becoming more and more involved in the experience of war. He faces similar realities as the soldier. Yes, he does not bear the same “moral compulsion” because he doesn’t make decisions of life-or-death as the soldier does. But, as American journalist Dexter Filkins and Australian photographer Ashley Gilbertson would tell you, the experience of war haunts the reporter as much, depriving him of a sense of normalcy long after the war is over.

Usually, the reporter also feels up-close what the soldier only sees in passing: the pain of the civilians caught in the middle of the chaos.  He gazes at their wounds, records their screams, and notes their hopelessness. True, the soldier too sometimes, mingles with the civilians. But his contact is not as intimate as the reporter’s.

One can only get a better sense of what the war experience is to a reporter by reading their own words. Bellow, I share excerpts from the works of New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins and photographer Ashley Gilbertson.

Here is Filkins writing in the introduction to Ashley Gilbertson’s photo collection titled  “Whisky Tango Foxtrot”:

“War, the old saying goes, is seven parts boredom and one part terror. A soldier mans a post for hours on end, with only the crickets to liven his night. Life in the village carries on, the distant armies no more troubling than the clouds on the horizon. Then, in a flash, all is changed: lives are upended, bodies wrecked, futures destroyed. This is war’s way.

But the old formula, while true in a sense, misses war’s most singular aspect: its ability to evoke a wider range of human experience than any other human endeavor. Heroism, cowardice, joy, deceit, brotherhood, and violent death. A nineteen year old from upstate New York discovers an unknown capacity for courage as he pulls a fallen comrade from a mosque. A young Iraqi woman feels her life dissolve as she cradles her blinded son. All in an afternoon, all in a flash. War maybe a peculiar mix of boredom and terror, but within those horrifying moments lies the whole galaxy of human conditions.”

The Trauma:

In the early years of the war, Filkins and Gilbertson embedded together with Bravo Company in Falluja. Their reporting from the front-line, both the pictures and writing, is riveting.

Dexter Filkins, photographed by Ashley Gilbertson during the embed with the marines.

One incident on the mission, however, highlights the intimate relationship of the reporters with the soldiers and the trauma that they both share in.

Apparently, Bravo company came under fire from a tower. After an exchange that lasted a couple hours, the fire ceased. The marines felt that the insurgents had been taken out. The editors in New York had asked for a photo of the dead insurgents and Gilbertson felt the moment right. He notified the commander that he wanted to go up to the tower and photograph dead insurgents. The commander, Gilbertson says, insisted that they be accompanied by a group of his marines.

So Gilbertson and Filkins followed a group into the tower. However, as soon as they started climbing the stairs, shooting began again. Lance Corporal Miller, who was one of the marines accompanying Gilbertson and Filkins, had been the first to go up. He was shot. The rest ran back, but there was no sign of Miller.

Filkins describes the immediate scene in his book, The Forever War:

Ashley was sitting on the stoop beside the entrance to the minaret mumbling to himself. His back was turned to the tower, and his helmet was on crooked so he looked especially vulnerable. His shoulders were heaving. My fault, he was saying, my fault. There was blood and bits of white flesh on his face and on his flak jacket and on his camera lens. My fault.

The firing stopped. Smoking rifles. Two more marines went up, and the minaret began to come apart. Bricks falling, dust and rocks, the tower swaying… Ashley was still seated on the stoop, helmet crooked, mumbling to himself like a child. My fault.

Miller appeared. Two marines had pulled him out…Miller was on his back; he had come out head first. His face was opened in a large V, split like meat, fish maybe, with the two sides jiggling.

“Please tell me he’s not dead,” Ash said. “Please tell me.”

“He is dead,” I said.

I felt it then. Darting, out of reach. You go into these places and they are overrated, they are not nearly as dangerous as they say. Keep your head, keep the gunfire in front of you. You get close and come out unscathed every time, your face as youthful and as untroubled as before.  The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and her tears move so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling  across the wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of the marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you have always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.

An introduction to Filkins’s book:

* Source of the opening quote is the book A Time of Our Choosing: America’s War in Iraq.