Archive for the 'Afghanistan' Category

A deadly triangle: India vs Pakistan in Afghanistan

The Brookings Essay by William Dalrymple:

 AT SIX O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING of February 26, 2010, Major Mitali Madhumita was awakened by the ringing of her mobile phone. Mitali, a 35-year-old Indian army officer from Orissa, had been in Kabul less than a year. Fluent in Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, she was there to teach English to the first women officer cadets to be recruited to the Afghan National Army.

It was a sensitive posting, not so much because of gender issues as political ones: India’s regional rival, Pakistan, was extremely touchy about India providing military assistance to the government in Afghanistan and had made it very clear that it regarded the presence of any Indian troops or military trainers there as an unacceptable provocation. For this reason everyone on the small Indian army English Language Training Team, including Mitali, and all the Indian army doctors and nurses staffing the new Indira Gandhi Kabul Children’s Hospital, had been sent to Afghanistan unarmed, and in civilian dress. They were being put up not in an army barracks, or at the Indian Embassy, but in a series of small, discreet guest houses dotted around the city’s diplomatic quarter.

The phone call was from a girlfriend of Mitali’s who worked for Air India at Kabul airport. Breathless, she said she had just heard that two of the Indian guest houses, the Park and the Hamid, were under attack by militants. As the only woman on her team, Mitali had been staying in separate lodgings about two miles away from the rest of her colleagues, who were all in the Hamid. Within seconds, Mitali was pulling on her clothes, along with the hijab she was required to wear, and running, alone and unarmed, through the empty morning streets of Kabul toward the Hamid. More:

Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

In The Washington Post, an excerpt from Rajiv Chandrasekaran‘s “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan“:

In late March 2010, President Obama’s national security adviser, James L. Jones, summoned Richard C. Holbrooke to the White House for a late-afternoon conversation. The two men rarely had one-on-one meetings, even though Holbrooke, the State Department’s point man for Afghanistan, was a key member of Obama’s war cabinet.

As Holbrooke entered Jones’s West Wing office, he sensed that the discussion was not going to be about policy, but about him. Holbrooke believed his principal mission was to accomplish what he thought Obama wanted: a peace deal with the Taliban. The challenge energized Holbrooke, who had more experience with ending wars than anyone in the administration. In 1968, he served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam. And in 1995, he forged a deal in the former Yugoslavia to end three years of bloody sectarian fighting.

The discussion quickly wound to Jones’s main point: He told Holbrooke that he should start considering his “exit strategy” from the administration.

As he left the meeting, Holbrooke pulled out his trump card — a call to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was traveling in Saudi Arabia. More:

And a review in WSJ:

Back in 2006, when the American war effort in Iraq was lurching from one disaster to another, smart reporters began publishing books trying to explain “What went wrong.” One of the most successful was “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It appeared just after George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate” and Thomas E. Ricks’s “Fiasco” and, like them, it traced the war’s woes to a lack of preparation on the part of political and military leaders and to an excess of ideological zeal among the political appointees sent to run things in Baghdad in the early days. It was even made into a silly adventure movie, “Green Zone,” starring Matt Damon.

Mr. Chandrasekaran no doubt hopes to repeat this success with “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.” If the title sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because in “Imperial Life” Mr. Chandrasekaran often referred to the Green Zone as “Little America.” But the new book does not focus on the Afghan counterpart to Baghdad’s Green Zone, the luxurious U.S. embassy compound in Kabul. Rather the title refers to attempts by the U.S. Agency for International Development to spur development in southern Afghanistan from the 1950s to 1970s. The city of Lashkar Gah, now the capital of Helmand province, was built to support a giant irrigation project run by expatriate engineers. Locals started calling it “Little America.” Mr. Chandrasekaran’s early chapter on those efforts is fascinating and fresh, but they are far removed from the post-2001 struggle against the Taliban. More:

Inside the mission to catch 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

In The Atlantic:

In August, the FBI caught a break when it questioned a brother-in-law of KSM, Abdul Samad Din Muhammad, who had been arrested and questioned in the United Arab Emirates in November 2001 and extradited to Pakistan in 2002. Muhammad told FBI agents that Aziz Ali was in constant contact with his uncle, KSM. He also said Aziz Ali received a constant stream of Arab visitors from Pakistan at the airport and that Ali had suddenly bolted from the UAE a day or two before the Sept. 11 attacks. He didn’t have his belongings together, but insisted on leaving. When Muhammad asked Aziz Ali why he was in such a rush to leave, he didn’t get a satisfactory answer. FBI deputy legal attaché Jennifer Keenan, who was working closely on the case, was now certain that the way to get to KSM was through his nephew.

More raids initially yielded nothing, but in early September, the Pakistani police got lucky. Neighbors had pointed out that there was an awful lot of traffic through a house in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighborhood. Police nabbed a man leaving the house on his way to pay utility bills. Agents of the ISI investigated and detained the man, a Saudi native, who said he managed the house. His name was Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani. Rabbani’s driver proved to be quite talkative. He said Rabbani and his brother managed several similar guesthouses, all of which had a constant stream of guests. He helpfully gave police the addresses of the houses.

One of the houses was nearby, on Tariq Road. Authorities raided it and found the brother there, along with two other men, two women, and three children. They also found 20 carefully wrapped passports and almost two dozen SEGA game consoles that had been modified for use as detonators for explosives. The passports were for members of Osama bin Laden’s family. The police interrogated the children to determine if they were bin Laden’s. One of the women was a caretaker, and one child was hers. Two of the children were brothers. The other woman was a nanny to the brothers — and the man was her companion. The two boys, ages seven and nine, were named Omar and Abdullah. No, they said, their father’s name was not bin Laden; it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The women were caretakers and nannies. More:

My drone war

Pir Zubair Shah in Foreign Policy:

“We don’t even sit together to chat anymore,” the Taliban fighter told me, his voice hoarse as he combed his beard with his fingers. We were talking in a safe house in Peshawar as the fighter and one of his comrades sketched a picture of life on the run in the borderlands of Waziristan. The deadly American drones buzzing overhead, the two men said, had changed everything for al Qaeda and its local allies.

The whitewashed two-story villa bristled with activity. Down the hall from my Taliban sources sat an aggrieved tribal elder and his son in one room and two officers from Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate in another. I had gathered them all there to make sense of what had become the signature incident of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan: an American drone strike, one of the first ordered on the watch of the new U.S. president, Barack Obama. The early 2009 strike had killed a local elder, along with his son, two nephews, and a guest in the South Waziristan town of Wana. Several sources had told me the family was innocent, with no connections to the Taliban or al Qaeda. But traveling to Waziristan had become too dangerous even for me, a reporter who had grown up there. So instead I had brought Waziristan to Peshawar, renting rooms for my sources in the guesthouse. I had just one night to try to figure out what had happened.

I spent the night running from room to room, assembling the story in pieces. On the first floor sat the dead elder’s brother and nephew, who told me what little they knew of the incident. On the second floor, the ISI officers, over whiskey and lamb tikka, described their work helping U.S. intelligence agents sort out targets from among the images relayed back from the drones. Then there were the two Taliban fighters, whom I had first met in Waziristan in 2007. One had been a fixer for the Haqqani network, skilled at smuggling men and materiel from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The other drew a government salary as an employee of Pakistan’s agriculture department but worked across the border as an explosives expert; he had lost a finger fighting the allied forces in Afghanistan. None of the men in the house knew the others were there.

The two fighters described how the militants were adapting to this new kind of warfare. The Taliban and al Qaeda had stopped using electronic devices, they told me. They would no longer gather in huge numbers, even in mosques to pray, and spent their nights outside for safety, a life that was wearing thin. “We can’t sleep in the jungle the whole of our lives,” one told me. Gradually, a picture of a rare incident came into focus: a deadly strike that had mistakenly taken out a man with no connection to al Qaeda or the Taliban. More:

The last Hindu temple in Kabul

Amitav Ghosh at his blog:

This hill, which looms over the center of Kabul, was once home to many Hindus and Sikhs. There was a Sikh gurudwara on it as well as a Hindu temple – the Asha Mayi Mandir. Many of the Hindus and Sikhs of this area had been in Afghanistan for generations. They had grown up speaking Pashto and were thoroughly assimilated into Pakhtun culture. They were protected by the Pakhtun tribal code, being regarded as guests. They prospered in Afghanistan in much the same manner that many Afghans did in India – through business and the retail trade. They ran shops and some had extensive lands and property.

But in the last few decades most of the Hindus and Sikhs have left. Only a few managed to sell their houses and businesses. Mostly their properties were seized or encroached upon.

The Asha Mayi Mandir too has moved elsewhere. Today it is located in a featureless building with high walls. Until quite recently some fifty Hindu families lived within the compound. Now there are only five or six families left and they too may not last long. More:

Taliban cut nursing woman’s breast, asked others to eat pieces

Iftikhar Firdous in The Express Tribune:

Peshawar: Kashmala Bibi* says her cousin’s breasts were cut into pieces when five militants walked into their house and saw the woman breastfeeding her child. One of the insurgents then asked the other women around to eat the pieces.

This is one of the many tales of horror recorded in a report titled “Impact of crisis on women and girls in Fata”.

The report, released by human rights organisation “Khwendo Kor” (Sisters’ Home in Pashto) with financial support from UN-women, is based on case studies of women from the tribal belt living in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s IDP camps.

Women in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) are more susceptible to violence and abuse in a post-conflict scenario, whether or not they are part of the conflict, it says.

Another stark revelation made in the report is that women in camps were forced to have sexual intercourse in exchange for food and non-food items. Girls and widows were at greater risk.

The surveys from Nahqai and Jalozai camps further show that women were uncomfortable going to restrooms because there was little privacy as men constantly lurked around.

“A security officer forced me to have sex in exchange for cooking oil and pulses when I was collecting food at the main entrance of the camp,” a 22-year-old woman Nighat* from the Jalozai Camp is quoted as telling the discussion group. More:

The ally from hell

Pakistan lies. It hosted Osama bin Laden (knowingly or not). Its government is barely functional. It hates the democracy next door. It is home to both radical jihadists and a large and growing nuclear arsenal (which it fears the U.S. will seize). Its intelligence service sponsors terrorists who attack American troops. With a friend like this, who needs enemies?

Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic:

SHORTLY AFTER AMERICAN NAVY SEALs raided the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May and killed Osama bin Laden, General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani chief of army staff, spoke with Khalid Kidwai, the retired lieutenant general in charge of securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Kidwai, who commands a security apparatus called the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), had been expecting Kayani’s call.

General Kayani, the most powerful man in a country that has only a simulacrum of civilian leadership, had been busy in the tense days that followed the bin Laden raid: he had to assure his American funders (U.S. taxpayers provide more than $2 billion in annual subsidies to the Pakistani military) that the army had no prior knowledge of bin Laden’s hideout, located less than a mile from Pakistan’s preeminent military academy; and at the same time he had to subdue the uproar within his ranks over what was seen as a flagrant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by an arrogant Barack Obama. But he was also anxious about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and he found time to express this worry to General Kidwai.

Much of the world, of course, is anxious about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and for good reason: Pakistan is an unstable and violent country located at the epicenter of global jihadism, and it has been the foremost supplier of nuclear technology to such rogue states as Iran and North Korea. It is perfectly sensible to believe that Pakistan might not be the safest place on Earth to warehouse 100 or more nuclear weapons. These weapons are stored on bases and in facilities spread across the country (possibly including one within several miles of Abbottabad, a city that, in addition to having hosted Osama bin Laden, is home to many partisans of the jihadist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen). Western leaders have stated that a paramount goal of their counterterrorism efforts is to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of jihadists. More:

Afghanistan: What the Anthropologists say

Can the study of politics, power and culture at the local level reshape efforts to rebuild Afghanistan? Alexander Star in The New York Times:

Ten years after the Taliban’s leaders fled their country in apparent defeat, the war in Afghanistan has become what one observer calls “a perpetually escalating stalemate.” As in Iraq, the United States military has responded to bad news with counterinsurgency: eliminate troublemakers in the dark of night, with the most lethal arts, and befriend tribal elders by day, with cultural sensitivity and expertise. The Army has gone so far as to embed credentialed social scientists with front-line troops in “Human Terrain Teams” that engage in “rapid ethnographic assessment” — conducting interviews and administering surveys, learning about land disputes, social networks and how to “operationalize” the Pashtun tribal code.

The military, in short, demands local knowledge. But what kind of local knowledge is in supply, and what does it indicate? Though the chief purveyors of such insight, academic ethnographers, have balked at working with the military — the American Anthropological Association issued a report condemning the Human Terrain program as a violation of professional ethics — they have not ignored the country. Noah Coburn’s “Bazaar Politics” is the first extended study of an Afghan community to appear since the Taliban fell. It follows an ambitious history of Afghanistan by the Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield, and an impassioned essay by Rory Stewart, the Conservative M.P., author-adventurer and Kabul preservationist, that faults the international effort in Afghanistan for its neglect of ethnographic insight. Whatever anthropology has to say about America’s longest war, it’s saying it now. More:

Afghanistan – touch down in flight

“As each of us has his own impression of Afghanistan that is predominantly marked with pictures of foreign forces, explosions and terror, we were privileged to have access to capture daily life and portrait some people of Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan – touch down in flight from Augustin Pictures on Vimeo.

Talk in Pakistan: When will US attack?

Salman Masood from Islamabad in IHT:

The United States might still be weighing its options about how to deal with Pakistan, but many politicians, retired army generals and popular television talk show hosts here have already made up their minds that America is on the warpath with their country.

Such is the media frenzy and warmongering that popular talk show hosts have even begun discussing possible scenarios of how Pakistan should react if the United States attacks the country. One television news channel has even aired a war anthem.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has called on a conference of opposition political parties and government’s allies for Thursday to discuss the crisis. The government is also enlisting allies.

Islamabad, the capital, has seen a flurry of diplomatic activity with the visits of Chinese and Saudi officials. The American ambassador, Cameron Munter, has also met with President Asif Ali Zardari and Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir. More

The Haqqani clan: the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war

In The New York Times:

They are the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war, a ruthless crime family that built an empire out of kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, even trucking. They have trafficked in precious gems, stolen lumber and demanded protection money from businesses building roads and schools with American reconstruction funds.

They safeguard their mountainous turf by planting deadly roadside bombs and shelling remote American military bases. And they are accused by American officials of being guns for hire: a proxy force used by the Pakistani intelligence service to carry out grisly, high-profile attacks in Kabul and throughout the country.

Today, American intelligence and military officials call the crime clan known as the Haqqani network — led by a wizened militant named Jalaluddin Haqqani who has allied himself over the years with the C.I.A., Saudi Arabia’s spy service and Osama bin Laden — the most deadly insurgent group in Afghanistan. In the latest of a series of ever bolder strikes, the group staged a daylong assault on the United States Embassy in Kabul, an attack Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged Thursday was aided by Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. More: And more here

In Kabul, it’s not MTV, it’s a mission

The man who brought us rock videos is advising a media group in Kabul that is shaking up television in Afghanistan. David Carr in the New York Times:

The missile strike was in Afghanistan, where Mr. Freston lived during the 1970s when he was in the clothing business. Now he is serving as a board member and adviser to the Moby Group, which owns a burgeoning string of television and radio networks in a country where simply owning a television was illegal not so long ago. Forget about wanting their MTV, Afghans just wanted their TVs.

The Moby Group owns Tolo TV, a Dari language network; Lemar TV, which beams out in Pashto; two FM stations; and Farsi1, a joint television venture with the News Corporation that serves millions of Farsi speakers in Iran as well. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, it all but criminalized most of pop culture, so it’s remarkable that Moby is broadcasting shows in which men and women interact, often to hilarious effect, and the radio station has a male and a female D.J. bantering away the morning. And the audience apparently is there: Tolo TV has a 45 percent market share, according to Saad Mohseni, the head of Moby.

In Afghanistan, many women still wear burqas, and freedoms are limited, so working with the guy who helped bring “Beavis and Butt-Head” into public consciousness would not seem especially helpful. But Mr. Mohseni said Mr. Freston has been critical to the enterprise.

“He is a prolific e-mailer and always available for making connections for even the smallest things,” said Mr. Mohseni, speaking by phone during a visit to the United States last week from Afghanistan. He said that Mr. Freston had introduced him to Rupert Murdoch, among others. “When he comes here, he talks with the producers, the managers, the people doing the work,” Mr. Mohseni said.

In the ’70s, Mr. Freston ran a clothing company called Hindu Kush — “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said — out of Kabul and New Delhi. He developed a lasting crush on Afghanistan and now, more than 30 years later, he’s traveling there about three times a year. More:

Also read: Studio Kabul

Afghans rage at young lovers

From The New York Times:

Herat — The two teenagers met inside an ice cream factory through darting glances before roll call, murmured hellos as supervisors looked away and, finally, a phone number folded up and tossed discreetly onto the workroom floor.

It was the beginning of an Afghan love story that flouted dominant traditions of arranged marriages and close family scrutiny, a romance between two teenagers of different ethnicities that tested a village’s tolerance for more modern whims of the heart. The results were delivered with brutal speed.

This month, a group of men spotted the couple riding together in a car, yanked them into the road and began to interrogate the boy and girl. Why were they together? What right had they? An angry crowd of 300 surged around them, calling them adulterers and demanding that they be stoned to death or hanged.

When security forces swooped in and rescued the couple, the mob’s anger exploded. They overwhelmed the local police, set fire to cars and stormed a police station six miles from the center of Herat, raising questions about the strength of law in a corner of western Afghanistan and in one of the first cities that has made the formal transition to Afghan-led security.

The riot, which lasted for hours, ended with one man dead, a police station charred and the two teenagers, Halima Mohammedi and her boyfriend, Rafi Mohammed, confined to juvenile prison. Officially, their fates lie in the hands of an unsteady legal system. But they face harsher judgments of family and community. More:

Can the Buddhas be restored?

Image: Tracy Hunter / Wiki Commons

Arnie Cooper in The Wall Street Journal:

A decade ago, just six months before the destruction of the twin towers, a pair of monuments of a different sort—the colossal Buddhas in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley—were blown up by the Taliban.

Hoping to rid the country of any trace of “the shrines of Infidels,” the Afghan Supreme Court had decreed on Feb. 26, 2001 that “all statues must be annihilated so that no one can worship or respect them in the future.” The edict had prompted countless protests from numerous heads of state, the International Council of Monuments and Sites, and Unesco, whose director-general at the time, Koïchiro Matsuura, had written a personal letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar just two days later. Fatwas condemning the Taliban’s order had also been issued by Muslim religious leaders in Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan, but the appeals had all been in vain. In early March, Taliban militiamen used dynamite, antiaircraft guns and antitank mines to bring the 1,400-year-old masterpieces crashing to the valley floor.

In one of humanity’s most notorious cases of art vandalism, the 125-foot-tall Eastern Buddha (“Shamama,” or Queen Mother, carved between 544 and 595) and the 181-foot Western Buddha (“Salsal,” or light shines through the universe, carved between 591 and 644), were decimated along with sections of the niches that enclosed them. Numerous other religious relics were destroyed throughout Afghanistan at the same time. More:

Aid to Pakistan: Advocacy or analysis?

Anjum Altaf at the South Asian Idea weblog:

Beyond Bullets and Bombs is the title of the latest report on aid to Pakistan from the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. In light of the increasingly anti-Pakistan sentiment in the U.S., the report, addressed to decision and policy makers in Washington, takes on the brief to make the best possible case for the continuation of aid. Hence the subtitle: Fixing the U.S. Approach to Development in Pakistan. The report is a revealing illustration of advocacy over analysis; a more open examination would have begun by questioning the impacts of U.S. aid to Pakistan, before deciding if the total benefits of “fixing” it exceeded the total cost to both sides.

It is to the report’s credit that it is forthright and includes all the relevant pieces of information, but the way it uses that information is determined by the choice it makes. What is highlighted or slighted is entirely a function of the case that is to be advocated, and all the evidence in the report could be interpreted quite differently in order to support quite different conclusions.

The point of departure, based on a review of the history of development assistance to Pakistan, is an uncontested matter of fact: “Since 1960, all OECD and multilateral creditors have given an inflation-adjusted total of over $100 billion in development assistance to Pakistan.” The report goes on to note that there is precious little to show for this assistance, mentions all the problems of the moment, and concludes: “None of these problems—in the power, education, and water sectors, or on the fiscal front—will be resolved unless Pakistan’s political institutions and leaders can tackle them head on.” More:

How Obama lost Karzai

Ahmed Rashid in Foreign Policy:

A few weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an exiled Afghan leader I had known for nearly 20 years paid a visit to my home in Lahore. His name was Hamid Karzai, and his problem, he told me, was that he was rapidly losing faith in the West’s concern for his country.

Karzai was the scion of a prominent Pashtun family in southern Afghanistan, one with a deep-rooted enmity for the Taliban regime. The Taliban, which had ruled the country since 1996, had gunned down Karzai’s father in front of a mosque in the Pakistani city of Quetta two years earlier. Now the younger Karzai was clandestinely sending money and weapons across the Afghan border for an eventual uprising against the ruling regime. But he had just been served notice by Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) that his visa had been revoked — the Taliban, with its close links to the Pakistani intelligence agency, had urged the ISI to get rid of him. Karzai was making the rounds of Western embassies in Islamabad to ask whether anyone would support him if he went inside the country and raised the standard of rebellion. But nobody offered to help. Several ambassadors refused to see him.

By the time U.S. bombers pounded the last remnants of the Taliban out of Kabul just a few months later, everything had changed. Karzai had gone from pariah to president and, in the eyes of the U.S. government, from combatant in an obscure regional conflict to vital strategic partner. Yet when I met with Karzai not long ago at the presidential palace in Kabul for a lengthy conversation, one of many in the decade since our pre-9/11 meeting in Lahore, it was remarkable how much his relationship with the United States seemed to have come full circle. More:

Al-Qaeda’s beauty tips

Julius Cavendish from Kabul in The Independent:

The cover of Al-Shamikha magazine

Not content with launching an English-language magazine that debuted with a feature called “How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom”, al Qa’ida’s media wing has followed up with a magazine for women, mixing beauty tips with lessons in jihad.

The 31-page glossy, Al-Shamikha, which translates loosely as “The Majestic Woman”, features a niqab-clad woman posing with a sub-machine gun on its cover.

Much like Elle or Cosmopolitan, it includes advice on finding the right man (“marrying a mujahideen”), how to achieve a perfect complexion (stay inside with your face covered), and provides tips on first aid and etiquette.

Alongside sisterly advice such as “not [to] go out except when necessary” and to always wear a niqab for protection from the sun, the magazine runs interviews with martyr’s wives and praises those who give their lives in the name of the editors’ interpretation of Islam. “From martyrdom, the believer will gain security, safety and happiness,” it says.

For those readers not quite ready for such a drastic step, it argues the pros and cons of honey facemasks and lobbies against “towelling too forcibly”. More:

Angelina Jolie visits refugees in Afghanistan

From The Daily Mail:

She was noticeably absent from the Oscars this year.

But is seems that Angelina Jolie was preparing for more pressing engagements at hand.

The actress has once again proved her dedication to charitable causes by travelling to the Middle East for humanitarian efforts.

Today the 35-year-old was in Kabul, Afghanistan, as part of her work as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for refugees. more:

A look at the world’s most notorious terrorist

Osama Bin Laden by Michael Scheuer. Oxford University Press, paperback. 278pp. Available from Amazon, US$13.00. Reviewed at Asia Sentinel:

With the secular, pro-Western government in Tunis having fallen and the regime in Cairo then followed suit, the timing of Michael Scheuer’s new biography of Osama bin Laden may seem a little off.

For where have the Islamists been in all this, let alone jihadis of any stripe? People power appears to have succeeded where al-Qaeda’s murderous violence has not. But Scheuer, the first head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996-99, thinks that the object of his scrutiny will be delighted.

“It’s always been one of his primary goals to get rid of those who he sees as oppressors and apostates and dominate the region,” Scheuer said recently while publicizing his book. “I’m sure this is very welcome news for him.”

It is far too soon to tell what role Islamist groups will play in the wave of change in the Middle East. Scheuer, however, would warn against taking their current absence from the stage as a reason to regard al-Qaeda not only as “an organisation of thugs led by a sociopath” who have “dwindled to a few” but now also as marginal extremists who have been overtaken by history. More:

Opium wars

A key step to securing peace will be to wean Afghan farmers off growing poppies. Robert Draper in National Geographic Magazine:

The chief of police has a memorable way of demonstrating that he’s not afraid of the drug smugglers. He holds up his right hand, revealing the absence of his middle finger. Four years ago, Brig. Gen. Aqa Noor Kintuz was hired as provincial chief of police in the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan and charged with destroying its plentiful poppy fields. “After I finished one of the first eradications,” he says, “my vehicle was blown up by a remote-control bomb.” He rolls up his right shirtsleeve. His forearm is badly mangled. In the years since, he has received innumerable death threats. Women and children of poppy farmers have hurled stones at his policemen. One of his eradication tractors was torched.

The grim axiom defining today’s Afghanistan, 85 percent of whose citizens are farmers, is that its economy relies on two dueling revenue streams. One flows from Western aid, in the hopes that the country will renounce the Taliban. The other flows from opium trafficking supported by the Taliban, which use the proceeds to fund attacks on Western troops. Only recently has the Afghan government seemed to take stock of the obvious: For the outside world’s largesse to continue, the national economy’s addiction to opium must end. The poppy fields must be destroyed. But just as this devoutly Muslim nation did not become the world’s leading opium supplier overnight, uprooting Afghanistan’s poppy mind-set promises to be a complicated endeavor.

In Badakhshan, chief of police Kintuz appears to be making some headway against poppies. Five years ago the province was Afghanistan’s second-biggest opium producer, after the Taliban-controlled province of Helmand. For a brief period after a Taliban ban on poppies in 2000, Badakhshan even took the lead in poppy cultivation, because the province was controlled by the Northern Alliance militias, rather than the Taliban. When Kintuz started his job in 2007, 9,000 acres were planted with poppies. Two years later fewer than 1,500 were. More:

Bed 18

J. Malcolm Garcia in Guernica:

Illustration by Emily Hunt / Guernica

In Bed 19, a woman suffers from high blood pressure and burns to her feet from boiling water spilled from a pot; Bed 21 burned herself lighting an oil lamp; Bed 20 fell against a hot water heater.

Then there is the girl in Bed 18. She looks no older than fifteen. Stray wisps of black hair lie limply against her cheeks. Rank smelling blankets cover her bandaged-wrapped body, and she stares mutely at the ceiling, flakes of charred skin peeling off burns to her chin and neck. Beside her sits her pregnant sister-in-law who looks about the same age. They live in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold far south of Herat. They have never left their home before; have never been to their village bazaar and the cities beyond it. The girls won’t look at us. This is the first time they have not covered their faces in the presence of men outside their families.

Dr. Naeema Nikzad, a psychologist who counsels burn victims at Herat Regional Hospital, considers both girls while adjusting a blue-patterned scarf around her head. When they came to the hospital, Dr. Nikzad told the sister-in-law to remove her burqa. She gave her a smock, flip-flops, and a surgical cap and told her to put them on.

Dr. Nikzad then took the burned girl into surgery and told her, now I have to strip you. You cannot wear a burqa. No one will touch you. No one from your village will see you.

The girl felt Dr. Nikzad raise the burqa above her head.

“I am exposed,” she said. More:

A short walk in the Afghan countryside

Kristin Ohlson in The Smithsonian:

After a week in Kabul, I traveled by van to the Bamiyan Valley, most famous, in recent history, for being the place where the Taliban blew up two giant stone Buddhas in 2001. I planned to visit and maybe offer a little help to the Bamyan Family Park, an enormous enclosed garden with flowers and caged parakeets and swing sets and fountains, where Afghan families—especially women—can stroll and play. My friend Marnie Gustafson oversees the park, but she was stuck in Kabul running the venerable PARSA, a nonprofit that’s helped widows, orphans, the wounded and other Afghans since 1996, and she couldn’t come along.

“Be sure you get out and walk around,” she said before I left the PARSA compound.

“In the park?”

“No, everywhere! Bamyan is one of the safest, most peaceful places in Afghanistan.”

Kabul felt anything but safe and peaceful on this trip, my fourth since 2005. It took a while to break free of the city’s orbit, even though we left at 4 a.m. I had assumed Kabul was dustiest during the day, with all those cars grinding the dirt streets to dust and spinning it into the air. But it was even worse at night, when truck convoys rumble through the city and create a choking haze of diesel and dust. We passed through several checkpoints on our way out, the officials at each demanding to know what we were transporting in the back of the van. Flowers, we said. They opened the back of the van, stared at the pots of petunias and bougainvillea intended for the park, then waved us on. Soon we escaped the traffic and the helicopters and the fancy new villas wearing multiple verandas like so many garish ruffles and reached the countryside, where the traditional Afghan architecture—mud-brick buildings surrounded by mud compound walls—took over. More:

Wine and tulips in Kabul

Foreign invaders have always had a difficult relationship with Afghanistan. The diary of Babur, the first Moghul emperor, offers some lessons in how to manage—and to enjoy—the place. From The Economist Christmas edition:

ON A bright winter’s morning lines of plane trees and immaculately tended rose bushes fall away down terraces where men crash out on carpets and sheepish young couples sit as close together as they dare. The plants are fed by a central water channel, the signature feature of a Moghul garden. Below is the brown smog of Kabul; beyond, snowy mountains.

The tomb of Babur, the first Moghul emperor, blasted and pock marked during the civil war of the 1990s, has been lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Some visitors come because it is now Kabul’s most tranquil public space; some because Babur is emerging as an unlikely national hero in a country short of leaders worth admiring. People pray at the foot of his low, simple grave. One enthusiast sacrifices a buffalo to him every year, and distributes the meat to the gardeners who tend the place.

Born far to the north of modern Afghanistan, Babur went to Kabul only because he had failed in Central Asia. It was Samarkand he dreamed of capturing. Yet when the demands of building an empire drove him south, he yearned to return to Kabul.

For a man who achieved so much, he is strangely unknown outside Afghanistan. Not only did he create a dynasty whose empire stretched from Afghanistan to southern India and which gave the world some of its greatest cultural riches, but he also wrote an autobiography which, though half a millennium old, is a far better read than most of the political and business memoirs churned out today. The Baburnama recounts the barbarity and hardship of a princeling’s life in a chaotic world; but it is also full of delight and humanity. Sometimes self-aggrandising, sometimes self-critical, Babur emerges from his autobiography as a real person, in a way no other great leader except Churchill does. And because the author is so open, and the style so clear, the book offers an intimate view of a world the reader would otherwise struggle to imagine. “Rarely can such a sophisticated mind”, says Bamber Gascoigne in “The Great Moghuls”, “have recorded so wild an existence which combined to an extraordinary degree the romantic and the sordid.” It was first translated into English in 1922 by Annette Beveridge, mother of William Beveridge, architect of Britain’s welfare state; “The Garden of the Eight Paradises”, a recent biography of Babur by Stephen Dale, has done it more than justice; yet it still lacks the fame it deserves. More:

What should be done in Afghanistan

Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, in The Express Tribune:

The first blunder was the abandonment of Afghanistan and Pakistan by the US in 1989. The chaos that followed for the entire decade of the 90s gave birth to al Qaeda and later the Taliban.

The second was the non-recognition of the Taliban government which ruled 90 per cent of Afghanistan after 1997. My idea of the entire world recognising the Taliban government and opening diplomatic missions in Kabul which would be managed from within, was not paid any heed to. Had it been done, maybe we could have saved the Bamiyan Buddha statues and even untangled the Osama bin Laden dispute.

The third blunder was committed after 9/11 when the Taliban, who were all Pashtuns, were defeated with the help of the Northern Alliance composed of three minority ethnic groups (Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks). The Taliban and al Qaeda were dispersed and they ran into the mountains and the cities of Pakistan. Their organisational and command structure was totally dismantled. The military achieved its objective of getting into a dominant position. The logical course of action after this was to change strategy and place a legitimate government in Afghanistan, This implies a government dominated by the Pashtun majority (half of the Afghan population), because historically nobody other than Pashtuns have governed Afghanistan. Not doing this and persisting with a government dominated by a Tajik minority, still in place, was and still is a great blunder. More:

Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s Af-Pak envoy, is dead

From The New York Times:

One of his main tasks was to press President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to take responsibility for security in his country and to confront the corruption that imperils the American mission there. At times, Mr. Karzai refused to see him, but Mr. Holbrooke was undeterred.

“He’s an enormously tough customer,” Mr. Holbrooke said during one of the periodic breakfasts he had with reporters who covered his diplomatic exploits. “As you’ve heard,” he added with a smile, “so am I.”

He helped his boss, Mrs. Clinton, whom he had supported in her presidential bid, to persuade President Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, while pressing for more aid and development projects to improve the United States’ image there. But he died before anyone knew if the experiment would succeed.

A brilliant, sometimes abrasive infighter, he used a formidable arsenal of facts, bluffs, whispers, implied threats and, when necessary, pyrotechnic fits of anger to press his positions. Mr. Obama, who praised Mr. Holbrooke on Monday afternoon at the State Department as “simply one of the giants of American foreign policy,” was sometimes driven to distraction by his lectures. More:

Searching for Buddha in Afghanistan

An archaeologist insists a third giant statue lies near the cliffs where the Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed in 2001, once stood. Joshua Hammer in The Smithsonian:

Clad in a safari suit, sun hat, hiking boots and leather gloves, Zemaryalai Tarzi leads the way from his tent to a rectangular pit in the Bamiyan Valley of northern Afghanistan. Crenulated sandstone cliffs, honeycombed with man-made grottoes, loom above us. Two giant cavities about a half-mile apart in the rock face mark the sites where two huge sixth-century statues of the Buddha, destroyed a decade ago by the Taliban, stood for 1,500 years. At the base of the cliff lies the inner sanctum of a site Tarzi calls the Royal Monastery, an elaborate complex erected during the third century that contains corridors, esplanades and chambers where sacred objects were stored.

“We’re looking at what used to be a chapel covered with murals,” the 71-year-old archaeologist, peering into the pit, tells me. Rulers of the Buddhist kingdom—whose religion had taken root across the region along the Silk Road—made annual pilgrimages here to offer donations to the monks in return for their blessings. Then, in the eighth century, Islam came to the valley, and Buddhism began to wane. “In the third quarter of the ninth century, a Muslim conqueror destroyed everything—including the monastery,” Tarzi says. “He gave Bamiyan the coup de grâce, but he couldn’t destroy the giant Buddhas.” Tarzi gazes toward the two empty niches, the one to the east 144 feet high and the one to the west 213 feet high. “It took the Taliban to do that.”

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved out of the cliff’s malleable rock, long presided over this peaceful valley, protected by its near impregnable position between the Hindu Kush mountains to the north and the Koh-i-Baba range to the south. The monumental figures survived the coming of Islam, the scourge of Muslim conqueror Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari, the invasion and annihilation of virtually the entire Bamiyan population by Mongol warriors led by Genghis Khan in A.D. 1221 and the British-Afghan wars of the 19th century. But they couldn’t survive the development of modern weaponry or a fanatical brand of Islam that gained ascendancy in Afghanistan following the war between the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen in the 1980s: almost ten years ago, in March 2001, after being denounced by Taliban fanatics as “false idols,” the statues were pulverized with high explosives and rocket fire. It was an act that generated worldwide outrage and endures as a symbol of mindless desecration and religious extremism. More:

Arifa Akbar: Unveiling Eastern vices and some Western fixations

From The Independent:

Last week, a report revealed how female students at Kabul University lived in fear of predatory male lecturers demanding sexual favours for good grades. This week, an evolutionary psychologist published his “discoveries” into, among other things, the dangerous sexual desires that motivate Muslim men to become suicide bombers.

Next week, a provocatively titled book, Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle-East, by John R Bradley intends to take us on a “riveting journey” (his publisher’s words) through the “underbelly of the region to expose its sexual mores”. Much of this coverage seeks to highlight the degree of sexual perversion arising from the practice, or malpractice of Islam and while such sexual abuses endemic to various cultures should be brought to attention, it is worth admitting to our own unhealthy cultural obsessions too. The plethora of reports on murky sexual customs in the Arab worlds are shocking, but also reflect our fixation with the Muslim male libido, which appears to be feared, loathed and fetishised, and which, it is intimated, must be urgently civilised by the liberal West. Zena Al Khalil, author of the memoir, Beirut, I Love You, feels it should not be assumed that Muslim women always end up as victims. Just as in the West, it is the rich who are the all-powerful consumers of the sex trade, be they women or men. “There are Saudi princesses who come to Lebanon to buy sex, as well as Saudi princes,” she says. More:

Pakistan’s drones

Pervez Hoodbhoy at Viewpoint:

Pervez Hoodbhoy Pakistan has many more drones than America . These are mullah-trained and mass-produced in madrassas and militant training camps. Their handlers are in Waziristan, not in Nevada . Like their aerial counterparts, they do not ask why they must kill. However, their targets lie among their own people, not in some distant country. Collateral damage does not matter.

The human drone is infinitely better manufactured than its aerial counterpart. The motor, feedback, and control systems have been engineered to high precision by natural evolution over a million years. This drone never misses its target, which could be a mosque, Muslim shrine, hospital, funeral, or market. But military and intelligence headquarters have been targeted with deadly precision as well.

The walking (or driving) drone’s trail is far bloodier than that of the MQ-1B or MQ-9; body parts lie scattered across Pakistan . Detection is almost impossible. The destructive power has steadily increased. The earlier version had a simple bomb strapped on the back but the newer one carries plastic explosives packed into vests both on the front and back of the chest. For additional killing power, the explosives are surrounded with ball bearings and nails. This killing machine is far cheaper than anything General Dynamics can make. Part payment is made by monthly installments to the family, and the rest is in hoor-credits, encashable in janat-al-firdous.

What must be the last thoughts of the bomber as he sits in the eight row of mosque worshippers, moments before he reduces dozens of his fellow Muslims to bloodied corpses? Can he think beyond instrumental terms? As a murder weapon, the human drone has no room for moral judgment, doubt, remorse, or conscience. More:

Afghan war hero is put down by mistake

Julius Cavendish in Kabul. In The Independent:

Target, a tawny-coloured mongrel bitch, defied an Afghan suicide bomber, gunshot wounds and an attempted hit-and-run, but fate finally caught up with her in middle America, where an animal control agent put her to sleep in a heartbreaking case of mistaken identity.

US soldiers serving in Afghanistan rescued the dog after she alerted them to an attack in February, by barking at a suicide bomber about to blow them up with 25 pounds of explosives. From that day on Target was treated like royalty by US soldiers in Dand Patan, near the Pakistan border. Five soldiers were slightly injured in the attack and it was suggested at the time that the bombing could have killed as many as 50 troops without Target’s intervention.

Sergeant Terry Young – one of the soldiers whose lives she saved – took the two-year-old German Shepherd cross home with him after he finished his tour of duty earlier this year. She was feted as a war hero and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. More:

U.S. platoon in Afghanistan accused of killing for sport

Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post:

The U.S. soldiers hatched a plan as simple as it was savage: to randomly target and kill an Afghan civilian, and to get away with it.

For weeks, according to Army charging documents, rogue members of a platoon from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, floated the idea. Then, one day last winter, a solitary Afghan man approached them in the village of La Mohammed Kalay. The “kill team” activated the plan.

One soldier created a ruse that they were under attack, tossing a fragmentary grenade on the ground. Then others opened fire.

According to charging documents, the unprovoked, fatal attack on Jan. 15 was the start of a months-long shooting spree against Afghan civilians that resulted in some of the grisliest allegations against American soldiers since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones. More: