30 December 2008

The Limits of Force: Why the coercion constraint matters

News junkies out there will notice the trend I am talking about, that conventional militaries have been less successful at solving problems lately. There is actually a very good and succint explanation for why this phenomenon exists and how it operates. Since I don't hear this discussed much I'm laying it out here, with a proper shout-out to my undergrad poli-sci professor, Victor Magagna, who explained this idea (and others) so well.

The coercion constraint is the concept that cost of coercion increases geometrically for the coercer with each additional increment of force used.  In other words, it becomes increasingly costly to make someone do something for you.  You have to expend more effort, provide more incentives, and so forth.  The end result is a lot like one of the things Sartre said, "we always have choices."  For the sake of simplicity imagine you want a specific person to eat an apple and assume that they would rather not.  You can bargain with them, you can provide incentives and inducements, but you actually cannot force them to do so.  If they absolutely refused you can threaten them with death, but if they still refuse and you carry out that threat, the apple is not eaten. On the other hand you can force-feed them the apple but then they still didn't do it, you fed it to them. If the point had been for the apple to be eaten, then it would have been significantly less costly for you to do it yourself. Now consumption of an apple is a minor issue and could probably be accomplished with basic incentives, but the point is that the only way to get there is a bargain with the other agent. The use of force is really a bargaining mechanism, whereby you increase the cost to someone else of not doing the thing you want them too.

The coercion constraint matters as a blunt point of reality, but it also carries important implications for conflict in the 21st century. Coercive threats mattered a lot more in pre-modern times because the ideologies that supported them were much stronger. The constable showing up with goons to take a percentage of your grain always sucked, but it was underlined by a whole range of assumptions (usually believed by the elite themselves too) such as the state's legitimacy being divine and hence the right of the nobility to take their share. Nowadays people find such justifications absurd. It's not that they believe less in God, it's rather that God has been recast in their image. Modernity required that sovereignty be popular for the state to function, and the axial view (and axial deity) came into to line with that. Now God supports popular sovereignty (read the preamble to the American constitution for an example of this formulation.

The result of the trend to popular sovereignty raised the costs of coercion dramatically. States couldn't make unjustified wars with obfuscation or treachery, but more importantly, short of killing everyone who disagreed with them (genocide), wars could no longer change people's minds. Consequently violence these days no longer has much truck with things like conquering territory, but it is rather and attempt (however unjustified or ineffective) to make other people agree. This is why Israel's operation in Gaza is doomed, there is no way it's going to make the people of Gaza agree with their aims. It is has also been at the heart of Western strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Militants in Afghanistan cannot be coerced to stop their insurgency and regular people cannot be coerced into not supporting them, they have to be convinced. So who has been successful in convincing? The two most successful military organisations of recent years are actually parastatal organisations with armed wings--yep, love 'em or hate 'em they are Hamas and Hizbullah. Along with their aid-related activities, their enemies have played a large role in convincing people to support them, by attacking them. Part of the Taliban's ongoing weakness has been its failure to provide real public goods.

The lesson of the increasing cost of coercion is that we can only accomplish our objectives when our strategies are within the bounds of reality. Coercion is no long a realistic means to produce desired outcomes and genocide (and other forms of collective punishment) are generally unacceptable. Organisations like the Taliban and Israel are engaged in a war against reality (wars against abstract nouns are bad, but that's another rant) and it truly is sad to watch bystanders get killed and hurt for such causes.

22 December 2008

The Israeli Political Elite Sputters

Yet again, it seems, Israeli candidates are making the rounds and promising the impossible, the toppling of the Hamas-run statelet in Gaza.  It's a really novel idea and only been tried before in 1982, 2000-02, and twice in 2006.  Given that this is mostly the same cast of characters seen over previous years, one has to wonder if they know they are full of shit and have just taken to smiling as the ship goes down.

In other news about Israel's slow collapse, I'm starting to wonder if the state could evacuate all the settlers if it wanted to.  Remember evacuation of all settlers is a minimum requirement for a two-state solution, which I've long argued is impractical and outside the realm of possibility.  During the eviction of settlers from one house in Hebron, the BBC noted that several soldiers were required to remove each settler and whatever the exact number, that's a lot of manpower.  There are 400,000+ settlers now living on the wrong side of the green line.  Let's say that half would go willingly, that still leaves 200,000 people who would need to be forcibly evicted.  The Israeli state might not have the ability, coercively or politically to do so.  (See my next post about the coercion constraint)  In fact the Israel situation with its settlers (more broadly, its religio-nationalist extremists) shares striking parallels with Pakistan's situation along its northwestern frontier, with the main difference being that in Israeli radicals form a larger share proportionally of the population.  In both cases the state's identity is deeply interwined with a less extreme version of the ideology's radical manifestation.  See how much easier it is to base your state on fulfilling its duties to its citizens rather than an ideology!

21 December 2008

Chickens and Modernity

The root of the conflict in Afghanistan stems from the clash of agrarian and modern lifeways.  To be more precise, agrarian societies that have come into the modern world (and all have) redefine customs in a way that distorts them because their original context is now missing.  In parts of the world that were not in the vanguard of modernity (where modernity has been less jarring because it has been felt to be an indigenous process) and hence have the short end of the global political stick (everywhere that the West colonised basically), defence of these pre-modern moral and social systems becomes defensive if not also violent (anti-modernity is often misread, by supporters and opponents alike, as anti-Westernism).

The classic example is fornication.  In agrarian societies sex outside the rules was dangerous and threatened the societies with collapse.  In agrarian Europe, for example, power and authority were bound up in heredity which in turn was a foil for legitimacy, all backed by the divine authority of an axial god (popular legitimacy did not exist because mass society did not exist and was not technically feasible).  Like everything else in agrarian society, this was fudgeable; new dynasties took control, but when they did so the assumption was that the losing party lost the favour of god and the underlying basis of the system was not felt to be challenged.  In the modern context that entire web of assumptions disappeared as societies adapted to new technical and material possibilities.  The significance was that when a society that had developed more aspects of modernity encountered one with its roots still firmly in the agrarian age, the moderns they seemed permissive and immoral.  Because the more agrarian society is also modernising and forming its own mass society and national identity, it latches onto the most salient differences between it and the moderns to define itself.  These differences are not those that existed from one agrarian culture to another or even from one modern one to another but rather they encapsulated diachronic change as synchronic juxtaposition.  "What people did" in agragrian societies came to be redefined as a cultural artefact and emblem of distinction, and, unlike in the past, intended to be followed to the absolute fullest.  Coming back to my example, restrictions of fornication were a common area in which later-modernising societies have come to define themselves as different.  The results are harmful to the society in question because it is embracing activities which are at odds with the modern social relationship which is emergency.  Invariably people start forming modern kinds of relationships (dating, love marriage) while the social elite is backing the reactionary morals (in this case a modern more which is based on a reinterpretation of a perceived agrarian norm).  Not only are the new elite-back morals contradictory and harmful to individuals in the society, they're harm is increased but they are, with the resources of modern society, being implemented much more thoroughly than they ever could have been in agrarian society.  This process is exemplified by the Taliban regime and the numerous abuses that occurred as they tried to pound a square peg into a round hole.

Modernity has altered ethics and morality in human life without altering the human, and one of my goals is finding away that explains these underlying shifts to people in an intelligible way.  A lot of moderns reject ethics and morality because for them they are tied to the old way of doing things, whereas I think that these things are not only still important but in fact more important.  What we have to do is realise that we are developing a new morality for our new world.

One concept I've long entertained is a collection of fables, echoing what Aesop and Gilgamesh when societies had to explain to each other how things would be done in the new agrarian world in which they then lived.  Events do not occur in clean narratives, but consicousness seems to string them together as such.  And let's face it, some people are just not entertained by social philosophy.

The linked story (from the Chicago public radio show This American Life) could be one example of such a fable.  It is a very vivid illustration of how pre-modern social ways cannot hold their own in a modern world (spoiler alert).  The story involves a youth in Balochistan and his father, who's a pretty high on the social ladder.  The father wants to break an old friend out of jail, so he plans to stage a raid on the prison.  To ensure his friend isn't his with any stray bullets, he buys a tawiz which is meant to protect him against such things.  To make sure the tawiz works, they buy a chicken and try shooting at it.  The father and his friends touch the chicken no matter how many times they try.  The youth, in the meantime is insisting that these are a new kind of gun has to be held and aimed a different way, which makes him the subject of ridicule.  After the old guys finally give up the kid takes a shot and, aiming properly, gets the chicken the first time.  It later emerges that over US$1k was spent on the tawiz.  The story demonstrates (and the reporter himself goes on to comment) how this event reflects the power shifts brought on by the modern revolution and also on how emasculating it must feel to be on the wrong end of the transformation.

20 October 2008

Scott's Northeastern Tour

This month I finally got around to one of my original goals when starting this job...getting out to see more of the countryside.  I embarked on a trip that took me to Kunduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan provinces.  I met a lot of people and it turned out to be great workwise and gave me a greater sense of the country I'm working in.

Kunduz has good German food at the Lapis Lazuli guesthouse, Taloqan has a small core of really cool people, and the folks from AKF showed me a good time in Fayzabad.  I didn't end up taking so many pictures because frankly the landscape looked just like a less dramatic version of California.  The coolest part of the drive was the road between Taloqan and Rustaq (specifically after Puli Begam).  The "road" is pictured...we actually we riding along the riverbed for a while and the bits which look kinda like pavement are really the water.  That's another point, so many days of unpaved roads leave you exhausted.

Another thing that amazed me is how--and I know this sounds odd--homogenous the country is. With the exception of being able to get fish near the Amu, I'm disappointed that all you find is qabili pulaw, monochromatic lamb kabab, and week vegetable khoreshes.  More stunning is that they all taste the same everywhere.  I'm starting to get the feeling that the synthesis of the Afghan identity has been remarkably successful and that the problem rather lies in society's difficult relationship with modernity.  All sorts of pre-modern praxes have individually been nationalised and modernised but are in the present context incompatible and often hypocritical.  One example being hour the 'science of honour' has been perfected amongst women (more and better ways have been found to keep their honour beyond reproach) which complete ignores the fact that it's way too expensive to cordon off one half of society into limited and pre-ordained roles.

The construction of the road between Kesham and Fayzabad is also something really amazing.  It involves some pretty impressive terraforming and it's rare that you see a road of this size being built where there is no pre-existing alignment.  I got the sense that the engineers were just having fun in some instances by trying to make the job more difficult.  Sometime rather than build the road into the more amenable gradually sloping opposite bank of the river, they were blasting away 1500m sheer rockfaces to make way for it.

30 September 2008

Pakistan's Existence

Reading the transcript of the first debate between the presidential candidates did not reveal much new and inspiring insofar as their opinions were concerned, but it was illuminating in that it helped me put together an idea I've long been mulling; what precisely is wrong with US foreign policy?  My answer:  Lack of a coherent and reflexive approach to sovreignty.  Sovreignty is central to the equation because the US is itself a state of the 1648-style Westphalian kind.  This problem is becoming most evident with the failure to address the Pakistan Question and the resultant denial of rights to millions of people.

There are two different ways for the state system to fail us.  There is either a lack of state control over a particular area or the state exercises its control improperly.  (my definition for the state is a geographically delimited public goods monopoly.  The state may be an individual in the legal sense, but it is not a human being.  There is no "right" for it to exist, rather it has duties; contractual obligations to provide rights (public goods) to all of its inhabitants)  The lacks of control are well know and admitted--the Chad/Sudan border, the Place Formerly Known as Somalia, most of Congo.  The other side of the continuum in state failure is too packed to even begin to list and some states are worse than others in this regard.

My proposition is that there are three such holes in the state system that pose particular threats.  I think of them as my own personal axis of evil.  These states are Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.  All three fail on the level of failing to provide rights to large numbers of people living under their control, but most interesting is that these states' failures also create black holes in the state system.  All three states' claims to legitimacy rest on mutually contradictory tenets that serve to weaken the order around them.

For the sake of brevity, I'm just addressing Pakistan for the moment.  Pakistan is the one thing that keeps Afghanistan from becoming a success, or for that matter just surviving.  All of Afghanistan other neighbour's can be bargained with and play within some basic parameters.  This goes for India, China, the Central Asian states, and Iran (the US's failure to deal rationally with Iran goes back to the corrupting influence of Israel policy, which is subject for another rant).  Pakistan on the other hand cannot not be dealt with within the framework of the state system because the Pakistani state has already failed.

The curious part of Pakistan's failure, and the one that I think leads policymakers astray in constructing a coherent approach to it, is that it has failed on both of the levels I have mentioned about.  The very success of the political elite in building a strong state has overlooked such a states necessary foundation and consequently produced holes in the state system on Pakistan's fringes.  Whereas Saudi Arabia has had sufficient resources to subsidise its legitimacy by doing things like supporting illiterate business men who would never be able to succeed anywhere else without fully embracing modernity or funding missionary activity abroad, Pakistan has had to pursue a much more austere programme to hold the state together.  That 'programme' has been the military, which plays such an immense role in Pakistan's political culture that it has practically become the state.

The growth of the military state in Pakistan has fanned the flames of defensiveness already rife within the state.  States founded on ideologies other than liberalism (providing public goods to all citizens) are always problematic, whatever they may be, but states with multiple ideologies are even more fractious.  Pakistan's elite struggles visibly with whether it is a state for South Asian Muslims, an Islamic state, or a curator of the Mughal legacy.  The quick creation of the state glossed over the fact that there are as many differences between South Asian Muslims as their are between many Muslims and Hindus, hence the pan-Indian Muslim identity of many Muhajirin from places like UP class with different Muslim identities in Balochistan and NWFP.  Adding to the irony was that secular, plurast India became a more Muslim state from the point of view of traditional sharia (this is worth another rant too) and also the fact that much of the Muslim elite did move to Pakistan during partition effectively lopping off the head of Muslim (Mughlai) high culture for the Muslim masses or could not or did not want to make the move in 1947. (For more on partition, Yasmine Khan's The Great Partition is an excellent place to start.)  The muddled rump that was detached from India to become Pakistan was then given one further ideological complex--a defensive posture against the universalist India.

The most important of all of the above has the creation of mass hypocracy amongst large sections of the Pakistani elite, the ones that morally conscious individuals need to do business with.  Hence many Pakistani who know well that there's nothing wrong with intoxication, fornication, and modernity still support causes that would make their own lives hell if they ever came to power.  This psychological phenomenon is not unique of course...in the US it's easy to witness Christians giving money to a cause that seeks among its objectives to deny rights to homosexuals, even though they themselves would not directly support a move.  In Pakistan however, these tendencies have become more extreme and more unsustainable.  At the policy level Pakistan has more and more sought to encourage unattainable policy objectives in the interest of holding together the coalition of elites who still buy into the existence of the state of Pakistan.

After every major attack, some observant commentator notes that 'the Pakistani elites will now have to get really serious about the threats facing them'.  This is not true because it ignores the fact that getting serious would mean questioning the existence of the state all together.  The attacks on the ISI headquarters, the Wah Cantonment, and the Marriott Hotel (narrowly missing the entire government) have not been enough to exercise support for the groups that carry them out.  To give a few examples of untenable foreign policies which Pakistan will continue; continuing support for militancy in Kashmir when the only solution to the dispute is political, supporting any movement that might set up a Pakistan-friendly regime in Afghanistan despite that Afghans would never support it and that the idea of strategic depth for Pakistan has been discounted, and sending in the military to suppress upprisings in Balochistan and the FATA when these situations could be addressed by simply giving the people there the rights of ordinary citizens.

The war in Afghanistan needs to be fought on Pakistani soil, and the reality is that there is no conceivable way the Pakistani government can be a partner in this.  The current attack across the Durrand Line are useless because they don't seem to be part of a more complete and well thought out strategy, but they are not wrong.  In the near future it needs to be understood that to the degree to which Pakistan is a sovereign state, it doesn't have effective controls over the areas where coalition forces are attacking.  The Pakistani state will not allow access to such forces, or even if they did say so, they would then support proxies to fight them.  As for "the Pakistani street", many people will indeed be infuriorated by an assault within the state's borders, but those same people also need to understand that support for that state is no longer a viable options.  Every Pakistani is in fact now faced with the decision between supporting the Pakistani state, whatever they may construe that to mean, and supporting their own humanity, their rights as individual human beings.  The militants born out of decades of Pakistani policy are now fighting a war not for political objectives but rather a war against reality.  I never thought that I would see causes much stupider than the US war on an abstract now such as terrorism, but sure enough some people managed to come up with one.

In the long term, policy makers need to sit down and start planning the future of the region after Pakistan is gone.  This could be anything from a deeply rooted regime change in Islamabad, to dividing the state into a number of smaller ones to reincorporating it back into India (though I'm sure India would be more than happy to not take responsibility for an area that has become such a basket case).  Gradually a consenus is emerging that borders can be withdrawn with a proper amount of process.  The long process that led to Kossovo's independence should how long, delicate, and arduous this can be, but the state system needs this basic amount of flexibility (that borders can be withdrawn without the consent of all parties involved) in order preserve its survival (and it does have many concrete advantages).  This process can be done the wrong way to, as Russia's hamfisted incursion into Georgia and subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia shows, but that should not distract us from the issue.  Some states, like Somalia, should be declared dead (for what to do afterwards on that check out When States Fail by Rotberg), and others--the other two in my access of evil, Saudi Arabia and Israel--need to be left to collapse on their own terms to a large degree and I think that any intervention itself might produce greater problems than the states are already producing.  But Pakistan's existence is no longer tenable either for Pakistanis or non-Pakistanis and should be the subject of immediate international intervention to figure out the next step.  Again, states don't have rights to exist, people do.  That means individuals in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, the US, etc.  The longer that the international community waits to address the unsustainability of Pakistan's existence, the uglier the outcome will be.

24 September 2008

Shostoshuye Maghzi

This has to be one of my favourite words which I've learn recently.

shustoshuyi maghzi (شستشوی مغزی), or brainwashing

Yep, it's a calque.

15 September 2008

Turkish food!

We now have a fourth restaurant in Mazar!  So along with the Royal Oak (truckstop fare and atmosphere), Delhi Darbar (Indian comfort food), and Ittifaq (pizza and burgers), we now can enjoy Turkish food.  I just got take-away from there last night...it seems to be the only thing completed yet in the soon-to-be-impressive Amiri planned community.  Amiri is one of the series of privately financed subdivisions going up on the east of town...if you're interested in their business model, think Irvine Corporation.  The food was good at any rate.  the Karishik Pide and ezme salatasi tasted just like they do back in Turkey.

Maybe the market for restaurants is not so big as I thought.  After living here a while it has become apparent to me, that only three NGOs including myself are based here, and that leaves embassy staffs and the UN and ICRC to make up the rest.  Kabul this is not.

Today whilst driving through town, my driver made a funny observation (we were looking at a convoy of World Food Programme (WFP) trucks).  "People don't like the WFP flower here because it's so dark and the bread doesn't look right."  My response was "obviously they are not hungry enough."  The observation was amusing because it is a reminder that this area was once relatively affluented.  Flour doesn't bleach itself but the fact remains that people consider normal what in places like India or the Middle East is considered a rather unnecessary luxury.  The other thing is that it's probably not the starving people suffering from food shortages in Kohistanat District of Sar-e Pol who are complaining--it's the urban customers buying bread from bakeries.  Bakery owners who, thanks to corruption at all levels, take their cut of WFP wheat.  Remember the flour is as good as any other but not bleached, but since people think that unbleached equals inferior quality, bakers acquire the WFP flour and cut it with the regular stuff to the degree they can get away with.  This leads to scenes of customers accusing the naanwalla of scamming them with WFP bread!

05 September 2008

Work, Vacation, and Beyond

After about two and a half months in Mazar, I can at last say I'm settled in--both to the place and my job.  I finally got to take a small vacation to a place other than India, and have even begun looking at the next step beyond Afghanistan.

My work is always fun and fascinating.  Anything that I accomplish in a given day is all subsidiary to one big bullet point: building and maintaing my own human intelligence network.  That, it turns out, isn't my notion of "work" at all in that work is something unpleasant which involves an Excel spreadsheet.  Here when something happens (unfortunately that means 'goes boom' for a security advisor), the resulting process is very akin to gossip collection at a party ("Sonali slept with whom?, okay you talk to Alex and I'll talk to Aziz")--we divide up who has the best contacts for the particular information sought, go to it, issue a report, maybe hash it out further with the boss in Kabul.  And it's all very intuitive.  Furthermore you get to interact with the plethora of NGOs (and other actors) roaming about in the north of country, which means there's always a parade of interesting people from different walks of life stopping by my office.  A while ago some food security people stopped by one of our meetings, so afterwards we went up to my office where I got a full Q&A session with them about how food security work is carried out, what it entails, what specific dangers they face and how they mitigate them; interesting for my own bank of personal knowledge and useful for me professionally in understanding their security profile.  An organisation doing food security faces completely different risks and threats than one involved in microfinance.  Likewise yesterday I got to learn about demining.  So the job is fun; always interesting, engaging, and different.  And the best part is I get to have all the fun of doing intel without having idiotic masters, the Americans (assholes) or Russians (clowns).

I've also come to discover that, as predicted, the security world is in great need of people who can put two and two together.  At the micro level that means being more interested in protecting people than shiny new weapons, but on the broader scale it also means that what sounds tough does necessarily work.  This all brings me back to the (unsuccessful) interview which firmed up my decision to quit DC a few years back...it was four days into the 2006 Lebanon War and the interviewers asked me what was going to happen, and were consequently very displeased at my answer that the IDF was going to get its ass kicked for a number of reasons starting from lack of defined strategic objectives.  My point is that these people (security consultants) had a pre-defined notion of how the world had to work and they weren't about to let reality intrude on it.   Basically people handling security matters need to know why Russia is a threat just like Israel is, even though neither gets their fair share of blame.

The city of Mazar is survivable, but being a quiet place I find it something of a din of iniquity.  I chill a lot more here and get a lot more reading done (thanks to the Kindle as well, which is awesome), and it's okay because I'm not missing out on things like I would be in Kabul and I have a really nice home/office to come back to here in Mazar.  In general, even though there are a lot of expats around, they are all pretty introverted and hard-working.  Plus there isn't a critical mass of people who like to party.  This is made tolerable by the work and the fact that I would feel like a tool if I keep hanging out in Kabul, with its cast of interesting (much better than DC or NY) yet repetative people (the meatheads, the glamour-seekers, the int'l men of mystery, the granola-munchers, and so on).  I will not be one of those people who just stays on here indefinitely without any direction...I will get out a some point next year and if not it will be because I found something in Afghanistan that is a damn good and clear alternative.  It would be nice to live in a Western country if it helps me in my career goals (not North America, which I've long since outgrown) and eventually if I do something development-related it would be nice to spend time in a country with more morality and decency (Georgia?! Turkey?!) rather than Afghanistan, which all too often seems like a bunch of Sarah Palins running around unwilling to acknowledge the realities necessary to achieve what it is they claim they want.

Finally there was the vacation; a quick tour of Toronto, DC, and London.  I also got a new passport and stopped in for MillerStock near Buffalo.  I've definitely learned never to go visit a big group of people...go stay with one friend or just bring one or two along and leave it at that.  Trying to fit everyone in in DC was insane, but the plus side was that everyone showed up.  Muhammad was there from Khurtum, Waise made an appearance from Manila.  I had great hosts (Lynn and Ann) and a generally good time.  DC has improved as well--two cheers for gentrification.  I spent a good a mount of time in what used to be an incredibly depressing Columbia Heights which is now full of nice house and appartments and fun things to do and shop at.  And of course I also got to have Ravi Kabab with Neda and Navid.  It was nice to leave DC in the end, and I definitely don't know when or if I'll be coming back though.  Been there done that.  On the way back to Dubai I had a day layover in London which did turn out to be an eye-opener.  The customs gods smiled on me getting to and from Heathrow and I got to spend the whole day with my lovely friend Jaya getting a tour of the city.  It's a huge and quite strange place (19 degrees in August...hmm) but I decided I might well give it a go post Afghanistan.  I also have some friends there and hence a potential roommate pool and place to start building a new network.  The real test will be to see if I can survive the winter there...the next step is to try spending vacation there in late January, do some informational interviews, and get a feel for the place.

10 June 2008

Advising on security and touring Bamiyan

In the months since I last contributed to this blog, there have been a lot of changes in my life. After about six months I finished up with Altai, then took some time to finish up a long-overdue report for Integrity Watch, and then found a new job. My main interests were to do something in a feel where I had little experience--the only thing I want to remain constant is that I continue to get more managerial experience. So I decided it would be either communications or security. In the end I got an offer as regional security advisor for ANSO (the Afghanistan NGO Safety Organisation). It basically involves coordinating security amongst all the NGOs in my region, which will include the north (from Faryab in the west to Badakhshan in the east and Baghlan in the south). Other job descriptions could be "mainting, establishing, and expanding human intelligence networks" or "herding cats".

The other event was that I finally got to see Bamiyan and Bandi Amir.  The most beautiful part of the road to Bamiyan was the journey itself, proceeding through Ghorband and over the Shibar pass (Alexander's route). The toughest part is that most of the way is not paved, meaning that from where you get off the road between Charikar and Jabal-us-Siraj and Bamiyan is a 6-8 hour insanely bumpy road. The landscape consisted of dramatic peaks interspersed with lush green valleys that smelled heavily of roses and lupins.

Pictures themselves don't capture the beauty of Bamiyan and the dramatic natural setting. And the niches are just as impressive without the Buddhas. They were already in a pretty lame state before their destruction, with Aurangzeb having smashed their faces and having long been stripped of adornment. It's impressive actually to picture them as they must have been. Of course if they are restored, I hope they are totally rebuilt to their original splendour rather than cobbled together from the remnants.

There wasn't much to do in Bamiyan otherwise...but there was one really good restaurant, the Silk Road, where my group (me, Saurabh, and Joran) met up with Naysan and Yazmine, who's been posted in Bamiyan for some time now working for AKDN.

24 April 2008

Banning Indian Soaps and the Construction of the Afghan Self

First of all, I wish the Western media could divorce itself from the desire to try to fashion a coherent narrative out of what is happening here, and barring that to keep pushing this notion of the resurgent Taliban. (and in that I detect and inherent bias toward what I term "the fecundity of the west fallacy"--no matter how shortsighted and incompetent NATO can be here, it must be remember that there is no comparison between them and the Taliban or Soviets and that they have the moral high ground and are doing a difficult task in a difficult situation--a fact which I think is not lost on most Afghans)

Anyway, yes, South Asian pop culture is taking over the world (woohoo!) and people are at a loss as to what to do about it. One of the most fascinating things about this country is that traditional culture has completely failed but modernity has yet to take any seriously indigenous root (you know my rant on modernity and culture, right?). The issue with Indian soaps revolves around the common theme here--that people tend not to have individual moral constructions. So you get a lot of situations where everyone says something is wrong and denounces it publically, but btw they all do it themselves. I know that may sound a bit overwrought, but the issue is much more complex than pure hypocrisy. It's truly amazing how much these soaps have captured people's imaginations here (they're extremely simple and directed at the bottom tier of the Indian market), and what's happening is that people enthralled by the products of mass culture and the idea. For example a big part of Tulsi or Imtihaani Zindagi for the viewers is that you can you can go halfway across the country and discuss last night's episode with people. At the same time these programmes are new and not indigenous and the logos (cf. Hodgson's conservative spirit) is that new is bad. The fact that they involve Hindu characters and storylines creates a big cognitive dissonance too (these soaps are the first time that many Afghans are brought into contact with Hinduism and hence the idea that Islam and hence their baseline moral discourse is not always on top).

So if your a representative, it's easy points to say "ban it". And people will bitch but they don't have any paradigm for opposing it. These things (like the law against T-shirts and sexes mingling) are not re-entering the discourse now so much as they always were the moral absolute and no one discussed it before. As the ban is further being discussed, people are asking why there had to be such a ban in the first place, so that now what you're getting is a discourse. It sucks in the short term (people have more limitations), but it's also the only way people will figure things out for themselves and things will get better. Politicians here are democratically elected but don't know any way to act except the traditional patronage system (nor do there constituents) so another thing is that you get a lot of grandstanding without attention to underlying issues. Everyone here does want to drink, flirt, and be entertained, it's all a matter of them admitting that to themselves!

09 January 2008

Igniting 2008

First and most importantly, it is hereby announced that DJ Mariz-e-Muhabbat (Saurabh) and DJ Ilaaj (me) will be throwing the mightiest Bollywood party yet with the help of our apprentices, Shararat (Khatidja) and Safed Bijli (Nathan). On 24 January, prepare for all of Kabul's snow to melt and for the winter to dissipate into a heatwave.

As for the lesser important start of the new year on 1 January, I managed to bring that in in proper style in India. This included Shareena's wedding in Bangalore, new years in Delhi, and an unexpected detour to Dubai and Bombay.

Of course all this goodness nearly didn't happen thanks to a snowstorm here. My Indian Airlines flight was cancelled due to poor visibility (you have to feel sorry for the people on the flight, who took off from Delhi, circled around Kabul for two hours, and then had to return!). Well, a few of us were determined to get out and managed to do so with the help of Pamir Airlines. Indian assured us they would honour our tickets from Dubai if we could get there, so me and a few others took them up on it. Of course we had to buy new tickets to Dubai, and Pamir was accepting cash only, so I narrowly escaped thanks to a then complete stranger (Dinesh Sah) loaning me $110 so I could by the ticket. So in the course of the day waiting around at Kabul I got to make some friends and network! Along with Dinesh and a few other development types, Ron Susskind, an American author, was stranded along with us. I also learned that the Kabul airport restaurant is not to be scoffed at (it is easily found by following a series of post-it notes) and that they have a most delicious karahi gosht there.

Finally we got on the flight, which took off in a hurry before night fell and ascended at a good 50-degree angle to pop out over the clouds. The rest of the flight was smooth and I had the honour of sitting next to someone who had never been out of Afghanistan or on a plane before. It was truly amazing to see his first impression of the outside world, from the snaking and well-lit Iranian expressways below us to the platforms in the Persian Gulf to the blazing light of the Emirati coastline. In Dubai I had a mini-vacation in the terminal which is a first-rate shopping mall and spent some of the last cash I had on a Starbucks coffee. Event the (expensive) drive from Terminal 2 to Terminal one was a treat just getting to see the clean roads and big shiny buildings and feeling the Middle East again. I hung out with my new friends at the terminal and talked my way onto a flight to Bombay (the Indian Air rep had simply written that I should go Dubai-Bombay-Bangalore on the ticket in chicken scratch--my original flight was Kabul-Delhi-Bangalore, so dealing with a state-owned monopoly has its advantages in that they can easy fudge schedules).

The rest went smoothly and I can't complain, since averting Delhi saved me the risk of getting stuck in fog. Even though I only saw Bombay on the takeoff coming out, I have to say it's one of the most amazing things I've seen. I've never seen a city so big or so dense before...the sheer amount of huge buildings and closely packed houses that fill a peninsula which juts far out into the Indian Ocean and spill out into the Maharashtrian hinterlands dwarfs Manhattan. While I generally need to do things other than go to India, I have to take up some friends on their invitation to give me a proper Bombay tour. Also, note that I'm calling it Mumbai, the city is Bombay (a Portuguese creation) and I would like to emphasise in the rudest way possible that Hindu Nationalists can all go fuck themselves! :-) When I got to Bombay, the first thing that greeted me were the headlines announcing Modi's landslide victory in Gujarat. This is depressing because it was bad enough when Modi was the genocidal leader of Gujarat who was personally responsible for thousands of deaths in the pogrom--no, now the overwhelming majority of Gujaratis are vilifying themselves by throwing their support behind Hindu nationalist terror. Did I mention Gujarat is dry? As a person of integrity I slam teetotaling every chance I get, and to Gujarat's ebullient extremist I have just one insult: you guys are worse than a bunch of American Christians and NWFP extremists combined. But then again, we can always be thankful for justice in that prohibition, conservativism, and discrimination will sink Gujarat eventually as they have slapped down everyone else who has tried them.

Enough with that rant; Bangalore was beautiful and the weather was perfect. I stayed with Martin and Priya, friends of the groom who were great and polite hosts. Shareena's wedding was great too. I spent a lot of time relaxing and eating super-hot Andhra food. The only downside was that I had to "blacklist" a former friend for extremely disappropriate behaviour (her name is Amber Sommer; because transparency and accountability are so important to me I make a point of calling people out either for good or ill--that way we learn from past mistakes.). But the fallout itself had an upside in that I wasn't pressured to go to annoying tourist traps and could focus on the real Bangalore: eating and shopping!

Delhi was also fun and mellow. I spent much of the time with Saurabh (my friend from Kabul), and Aasim who just returned from a trip to Pakistan. The three of us ended up at Malchamarg Market of all places on new year's eve, at a Chinese restaurant. I also did yet more shopping, buying pretty much every major piece of music made between the summer and now as well as a tonne of classic movies (Mother India, Amar-Akbar-Anthony, Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Hey Kabuliwala, etc.). We also hit all the best restaurants of Delhi, like Karim's and Andhra Bhavan. The only thing I still have to cross off the Delhi list is Dum Pukht, which specialises in Lakhnavi food (yes, Nihari!) and has a remarkably particularistic menu. That's a big relief in Delhi, where even the best Mughlai establishments feed the need to give you a selection of Mughlai, South Indian, Continental, and Chinese--come on people, just do what you do best! I personally find that there are very few people who can do such diverse cooking styles well, so unless the establishment is damn good, most of that menu will just be dead weight. Of course I also got some drinks in at 4S, the dive bar in Defence Colony which I so often call home.

The flight back to Kabul was smooth and on-time, and since I've returned so has everyone else. A few friends had breaks far more dramatic than me and have also returned home in good spirits and ready to start the new year. Now all we need is for this weather to warm up...