Tag Archives: War

Karzai’s Vission

Aljazeera recently aired an absolutely impressive program from Kabul. David Frost conducted a pair of interviews with General Petraeus and President Karzai that were absolutely fantastic, both for the standard of journalism and the skills of interviewing, but also for the warmth and humanity of the conversations. He gave the individuals tremendous room to breath, something that is lacking in today’s media.

Two important points raised by the General: A good majority of the Taliban they are fighting are “ten dollar a day Taliban.” Also, he emphasized that “what we do know is that very few of the Taliban leaders actually sit foot in the country.”

Frost raises an interesting question: Karzai’s father was murdered by the Taliban. How does that affect the negotiations when he sits down face to face with them? a wonderful answer by the president: “my father was only one of the thousands.” It really exemplifies the man’s optimism and his desire to see Afghanistan towards stability.
The president also emphasizes that he has no hopes for another term in office whatsoever.
Most interviews with Karzai are clouded with a tension of presumptions. Whether you agree with an individual or not, it’s nice to give him the space to explain himself.

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.

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.

An Eroding Bank at the Heart of the Afghan Financial System

In the past two days, clients withdrew more than $180 million from their Kabul Bank accounts. (AFP/Getty Images)

In what is the largest government intervention in Afghanistan since the turn to market economy, the Central Bank of Afghanistan took over the management of the largest private bank in the country. The move is meant to prevent the collapse of the troubled bank that lies at the heart of the Afghan financial system.

The Kabul Bank, after months of rumor and speculations, is officially in trouble.  Its top two executives—both also the largest shareholders of the bank—have been forced to resign, with a management team from the Central Bank moving in to take charge.

The move seems a credible one by the Afghan government.  The damage could still be controlled. But one has to question why they waited so long.  The troubles of Kabul Bank due to the shady nature of its management has been public knowledge for a long time now. As early as February, the Washington Post warned of the issue that seems to be at the heart of the collapse now:

Less publicly, Kabul Bank’s boss has been handing out far bigger prizes to his country’s U.S.-backed ruling elite: multimillion-dollar loans for the purchase of luxury villas in Dubai by members of President Hamid Karzai’s family, his government and his supporters.

In an interview with the New York Times yesterday, Khalilulah Frozi, the ousted Chief Executive and one of the largest  shareholders, admitted to the crooked investment of the Bank in Dubai real estate.

The biggest mistake, he said, was the decision by his partner, Mr. Farnood, to buy $160 million worth of villas and office buildings in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, at the height of the real estate bubble in 2007.

And of course, the troubles of Dubai real estate are known now.  The investment, along with offering of large loans to friends and family has put Kabul Bank, and the Afghan financial system, in serious trouble.

"Kabul Bank, a bank for everyone," their slogans say.

The Magnitude:

The collapse of Kabul Bank would not only create a mayhem for 250,000 government employees who receive their salaries through the bank, but it will also spread a culture of mistrust towards banks amongst the average Afghan. If the withdrawal of $180 million dollars in the past two days is any indication, the trust built in the past few years has been thrown out of the window. For, this will not be the first time Afghans see such troubles. They have been bitten by this snake once before, and they certainly fear this rope that progressively looks like another snake.

Towards the middle of the 20th century, Afghanistan was developing a decent economic system. Banks played a major role in people lives. Families opened savings accounts. A young mortgage system made it possible for civil servants to afford a house. The middle class was thriving. But in the 1990s, it all collapsed along with the communist regime. As the Mujahideen moved in to capture Kabul, the banks closed down. People’s life savings were lost within days. Bank deposits have never been guaranteed by governments in Afghanistan– not that there was much of a government in those days anyway.  Just like many other of their complaints, the people had no one to turn to on this one. They just had to shut up and take it.

In the past decade, during President Karzai’s government, the trust has been restored to an extent. Private banks have offered tremendous incentives for people to open accounts. Kabul Bank, one of the first private banks in Afghanistan, led the way by offering up to a million dollar prizes every month. They raked in more than “$1 billion in deposits from more than a million Afghan customers.”

Today, those one million clients are losing their trust in the bank. With it, the trust in the banking system at large is also at risk. Afghans are fearful of any kind of turmoil. In the past few years, some have managed to better their lives, to open a savings. Today, when that also seems at risk, one can’t blame them for any kind of reaction.

The Washington Post offers a clue on what that reaction could look like:

A U.S. official who monitors Afghan finances, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said banks appear to have plenty of money but noted that in a crisis, Afghan depositors “won’t wait in line holding cups of latte” but would be “waving AK-47s.”

Ands lets not forget that a big part of Kabul Banks clients are armed. The Afghan Army and police, to my knowledge, receive their salaries through the Kabul Bank. If they feel any loss of their savings, one has to worry about the security situation.

Also, is Kabul Bank the only one of many private banks in trouble? The Washington Post article from February briefly mentioned that Mirwais Azizi, the founder of Azizi Bank, had also invested large sums in Dubai. Is Azizi Bank next?

And to close off, one can’t just ignore Mahmoud Karzai’s plea to the US government to bail Kabul Bank, as Wall Street Journal reported. Mahmoud Karzai is the third largest shareholder of the bank, which means he is involved in the transactions that brought about the troubles of the bank. In fact, he lives in one of the Dubai villas purchased with Kabul Bank money. He told the WSJ:

“America could support Kabul Bank to the last penny, of course that would help,” he said in an interview at his Kabul home. “The full faith and credit of the U.S. government behind Kabul Bank—what more do you want?

What exactly does Mahmoud Karzai think the US government is? a mop to clean after them as they keep screwing up? It is beyond my comprehension as to how Mr. Karzai could bring himself to utter those pleas and still maintain an ounce of pride and dignity.