26 April 2009

This blog has moved!

Come follow me at my new home, scottbohlinger.com.  The archives have been transferred as well.

24 March 2009

The American Deep State and Conciliation with Iran

Obama's Nawroz message to Iran marked a serious shift in American policy and attitude towards Iran but also showed the structural weaknesses in the American state that could prevent it  from achieving those goals.   Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, gave an excellent and well-thought-out reply to that speech the following day, which has been analysed by Juan Cole and Farideh Farhi.  When discussing countries like Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, commentators often mention the existence of a 'deep state', a coterie of officials somewhere within the state apparatus who have ultimate control over policy.  I don't think this is much the case with Iran, and I'll explain below, but it definitely is a factor with the US, and in a lot of ways it gets to the heart of constraints on nation-states' abilities to act and react.

Although representing an unmistakable improvement in attitude, the American overture revealed serious errors and a general lack of understanding on the part of the US government.  The speech started out with a nice amount of ego-stroking and going on about the greatness of the Persian people and nation.  Now this represents a good surface-level understanding understanding of Iranian culture, when people greet each other they go on with endless platitudes and compliments, but at some point they get down to business.  This tendency to spend lots of time complimenting people, indeed often dialectically and with an almost competitive attention to detail, is known as ta'âruf.   Notice the point about 'competitive attention to detail' and then 'getting down to business'; that's what's called zaringî or "cleverness".  In how you compliment somebody and what you compliment them on, you are setting the framework for what you want to discuss (or even the relationship more generally), hopefully in your favour.  When Americans become familiar with the concepts of ta'âruf and zaringî, they understand them both individually but fail to realise how Iranian culture puts them together so magnificently into the political WMD known as pârtîbâzî.  And this extends to every level of human interaction--if it seems overly political, well it is, and it exhausts many Iranians themselves as well as many foreigners (of course, being a fan of the supremacy of politics in life, I love it, and I think it gives Iranians a real leg-up in the modern world).  A compliment, when followed up by a specifically glaring lack of action also has the effect of being a huge insult...one of those insults that knocks people flat on their asses and gets talked about for a long time because it was such a great diss.
The point is, after all of this lovely ta'âruf the US president needed to get down to business by way of introducing one or two solid chunks of new policy.  Rather, what he did was say this:
"You, too, have a choice.  The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nation.  You have that right -- but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilisation.  And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated capacity to build and create."
Burn.  Along with not introducing any new policies on the part of the US, Obama instead offered sharp criticism by implying that Iran is not being responsible and that the main thrust of its diplomacy is bolstered by terror and arms.  Iran is far from being my favourite state actor, but this sort of talk is useless and largely out of line.  The most negative interpretation is that the US simply doesn't get it while a more positive one would be that Obama and his team get it but the broader political establishment both made them throw this in as a disclaimer and required the speech to be cautious so as to elicit a response from the Iranian government before introducing concrete policy initiatives.  The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Many Americans would like to believe that the US's primary USP is its ideological commitments, but the reality is different.  It doesn't particularly fail in that regard, but first and foremost its commitment is to its citizens, nor is it a particularly responsible member of the international community.  Even if Obama really is different than the neglect or disparagement of liberal ideals which we have seen from the US recently, the US has no right to go around chastising others for support of militant movements.  Support for groups like Hizbullah as bargaining chips is minor compared to the level of US support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.  Additionally the comments reveal that Iran's desire to build a bomb is taken to be undeniable.  I would argue that there is no consensus about this in the Iranian leadership other than the notion that the door should be left open.  The chances of the leadership committing to weaponisation are indeed small in any circumstance short of an attack on Iran, the political and clerical opposition would likely topple the government were that openly mooted.  Rather, Iran, like the US, is a status-quo power with the occasional ideological flourish.  The inflammatory statements which come from Iran are usually the populist rants of President Ahmadinejad and aren't taken seriously by many Iran-watchers--when Khamenei gets on stage things are much more subdued.  Again this is no more inflammatory that the Bush managed to say even when he wasn't mangling his words.  The reality is, that while Iran has been a force for stability, real security nightmares have come to pass, like Israel's and Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons.  True, Iran's internal human rights record could use some work (especially with regards to treatment of Bahais), but it's still the liveliest and most participatory governments around its region.

So it's clear that the US view of Iran is disproportionately bad in comparison to other regional actors.  This probably boils down to a matter of pride, as well as the shock of all the anti-Americanism expressed during the revolution (as used to it as we are now, it was a genuine shock then).  What worries me is that deep down the American security services and intelligence agencies just don't get it.  One of the main qualifications for getting the necessary clearance to work at those levels is loyalty to the US, and by and large this is not the pluralistic US of Nawroz and Chinese new year but of apple pie and narrow worldviews.  Anyone with genuine empathy towards non-Americans (I once heard a CIA official call it "affinity for foreign regions"!) isn't going to make it far in this system and their viewpoint will have been largely shaped by the received wisdom or lack thereof.  This isn't a particular criticism of the US, it's a problem with the nation state in general; in this case the Iranian security services have similar issues.  It means that some Americans think they're being real clever and understanding by buttering up Iran but haven't had enough exposure to the culture to realise that they came off as demeaning by not following up a grand gesture with grand substance.  Such people might not also realise that they US really needs to change the way it acts, even if those are the actions that Iran has been criticising for so long for entirely the wrong reasons.  And this is what I mean when I talk about the "deep state".  There is a certain class of people who must be disabused of entirely false notions for the US to take the steps necessary to produce dialogue with Iran.

Iran too has deeply intrenched and unaccountable actors that make policy decisions they should not.  However, where Iran sometimes lacks full democracy, nobody can accuse one faction of having a monopoly.  All of the various security services, government foundations (which control 85% of the economy), and many different elements of the military and revolutionary guards answer to their own patrons and interests, but this hardly equals a coherent policy like one sees in the US or Turkey.  Rather, it can best be seen as a gross lack of accountability and state-wide sclerosis that makes any sort of major political movement difficult.  When Iranian-made weapons turn up in bazaars in Afghanistan they are not the result of state policy, they could be the decision of one commander somewhere to make a little bit of illicit financial gain or of a factory owner, or both parties thought they were selling to someone legitimate who was really a front for someone less so.  So yes, there are all sorts of actors with all sorts of interests buried deep within the Iranian government, but they don't represent a deep state that is really in control of Iran.

What the US needs with Iran is leverage, and that leverage cannot be built by scolding Iran.  Serious dialogue needs to be based on interest.  As much as it pains me personally, if the US (and Iran) can ignore talking about ideology, they will be able to do a lot together merely because it is in each other's best interests.  The US is not in a position to scold Iran and needs to refrain from doing so, and as such needs to approach talks with unconditionality.  I would advise Iran of the same thing.  Luckily both sides want dialogue and we'll gauge how much that's the case by willingness to overlook gaffes.  Khamenei's response was rightly welcomed by Obama's press secretary.  Let's just hope that the US doesn't wait for change from Iran before it does the right thing itself.

16 March 2009

The Big Picture in Afghanistan

There's one question that's on everyone's mind when the come into my office.  What do you think is going to happen with Afghanistan?  I haven't heard another theory or narrative that I'm completely satisfied with actually, so I've gone rogue and developed my own.

Stalemate followed by eventual collapse of the insurgency.  Right now both the Western Coalition and the various anti-government elements known collectively as the Taliban have difference strengths and weakness that match them fairly well in their contest over Afghanistan.  Both groups have now reached watersheds in their ability to control and influence the situation and what happens from here on out will shatter the traditional discourse of insurgency that both sides now buy into.  The "Taliban" do not own the morality discourse and are fast running out of demonstrable strategic gains.  The result is that they will increasingly discredit themselves by trying to win over people who are not sympathetic to their message and possibly also playing the role of spoiler.  The situation for ordinary Afghans and aid workers will not improve for a few years, but security will eventually improve as it becomes apparent that the opposition doesn't have a viable option and that the government of Afghanistan is the least bad option.

There is no Taliban.  There are a number of groups, at least forty, using the Taliban as their brand identity.  They have different goals and motivations both at the level of individual and group.  Some groups operate in a valley or district, others provincially, and others still operate both nationally and internationally with a combination of cells, linkages, and co-operation with other networks.  Some groups exist independently of any government, others are funded and given logistical support directly by members of the Pakistani state.  A bombing carried out by the Haqqani network was planned in an office in Islamabad, materials were sourced by legal, illegal, and semi-legal means through a network of actors with Haqqani providing key logistical support for one major bottleneck in the plan's execution.  Further down the road, the combined governmental-Haqqani apparatus worked with yet more diverse elements to facilitate, obscure, and obfuscate the plan until its fruition.  This description of one incident is representative in the diversity of possibilities and groups involved in carrying out an operation, not its sepcific details.  Along with not reflect facts, lumping insurgent activity under the heading of Taliban also helps validate their narrative.  Most analysts realise there is no coherent Taliban movement, but is too often used as a crutch in describing the situation.

This insurgency is different that the one against the Soviets.  If you travel to Badakhshan, the far northeastern province of Afghanistan never to have been ruled by the Taliban, it's amazing how much anti-Soviet grafitti there is in a place which has almost no organised insurgency today.  What's the difference?  It's who's fighting.  The primary distinction between the 1980s and the 2000s is that in the former everyone fought while now insurgent activity is limited almost exclusively to Pashtuns.  Now most Pashtuns are law-abiding and upstanding citizens and this statement should not be taken as a group indictment of them.  Rather it is an acknowledgement of the fact that anti-government activity occurs within networks strongly correlated to the Pashtun ethno-linguistic sphere.  Futhermore, Persian- and Turkish speakers (Uzbeks, Turkmen, Hazaras, Tajiks, Aimaqs) are if anything probably more conservative than their Pashto-speaking brethren.  The ability of Pashtuns to organise and agitate either individually or collectively stems precisely from their greater contact with modernity resulting from interconnectedness with South Asian culture and global ideological trends.  The ethno-linguistic dynamics which have appeared since the 2001 invasion are key way in which the current insurgency differs from that conducted against the Soviets.

So where to now?  In 2008 the anti-government insurgence made remarkable strides in both number of incidents and areas of expansion.  Any security-risk map of Afghanistan has changed since 2003 from red/orange splotches in the south to a line which runs down the backbone of the Hindu Kush mountains, effectly dividing the country in two.  Both geographically and politically, two of the most important gains for insurgents last year were the collapse of security in southern Herat province and eastern Badghis.

Now here's a question?  Why did eastern Badghis fall apart while Herat city remained fairly stable (the insurgent influence spreading far northeast to an almost un-contiguous patch)?  Because of the limitations of the insurgency.  Until 2008, the expansion of the insurgency has occurred in areas where a potentially sympathetic population had not yet been swayed.  Invariably this has meant Pashtun communities like those in the south of Herat and in the eastern districts of Badghis.  (This rule is not absolute; in southern Shindand, when a group used the violence as an excuse to call in an American air strike which killed almost 100 civilians, residents' enthusiasm for the insurgency was somewhat diminished)  An unconventional military force cannot take Herat (nor Qandahar, nor Kabul), and on the whole anti-government elements have not tried.  Also, Herat is strategically useful to various insurgent factions in that it serves as a sort of free trade zone where weapons can be bought and money can be made.  Instead of Herat, various groups focused their energies on the valley of Bala Murghab and Ghormach in eastern Badghis where there were both dense pockets of Pashtun settlement and the major strategic objective of delaying the completion of the last stretch of the ring road.  Eastern Badghis has since seen major clashes and even some of the furthest-north airstrikes since 2001.

With the collapse of government authority in major chunks of the west in 2008, the Afghan war has now reached a stalemate.  Anti-government forces can't gain any more support in new areas of the country and will need to show successes.  Reporting often reveals a bias whereby insurgents always seem on the verge of winning precisely because their modus operandi is spectacular, media-grabbing incidents, whose likely outcome is the result of response to media coverage.  Coalition, or any anti-insurgency forces, have an in-built problem of perception in that few of their successes will grab headlines.  A village not having been overrun by insurgents will not make the front page.  By this same logic however, anti-government forces also need to achieve spectacular strikes to keep up attention and validate their narrative.  The Qandahar prison break and the Serena attack caught headlines but now insurgents need to have more of that in other areas of the country, specifically the stable north otherwise an insurgency which claims to be national but is in reality not will run into serious legitimacy problems.

Tipping the other half of Afghanistan.  Anti-government threats to the north have followed two trends since 2007.  Various anti-government groups have intended to incite such sentiment amongst potentially sympathetic groups in at least four major areas throughout the north.  This involves a combination of propaganda, support, and matériel.  The other major stratagem is the pursuit of a spectacular attack in the north to validate the national reach of the insurgency and make believable the idea that the north too is now ungovernable.

Two pockets in the north which are more receptive to anti-government sentiment are western Balkh province and Kunduz province.  Both areas have relatively high amounts of Pashtun settlement, though in Kunduz such settlement is both denser and in higher concentrations.  The northern Pashtun populations are the result of both natural population movements within an ethnically diverse state but also of government-sponsored resettlement campaigns from the late nineteenth century.  In the end, these Pashtun communities never fully integrated into their surroundings and also remained tied to wider trends within Pashtun society.  A large number of Pashtuns have intermarried and effectively Persianised but still many cluster together in separate villages or on the edges of existing settlements where they may not be properly incorporated into consultative processes such as shuras and needs assessments.  Adding fuel to this lack of social integration was the Taliban occupation of the area from 1997 to 2001.  The Taliban regime attempted to turn the tables an favour local Pashtuns to be in charge of its administration in the area, leading to more than a little vindictive justice and further embittering communities.  The Taliban's favouring of the Pashtuns at the expense of local Turks and Persians played a large role in permanently delegitimising any movement by the name of the Taliban in their eyes.  Some anti-government factions seem to be aware of this and bifurcate their strategy, targeting Pashtuns with the message of a revived Taliban and Turks with propaganda hailing from "The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan" (IMU).  In any event the result is that anti-government activity happens to a much greater extent in areas that are already sympathetic to the Taliban cause.

In western Balkh a lot of this process has been an attempt to build in-group sentiment and solidify group solidarity by means of night letters posted in public places.  A recent example (and representative of past incidents) was a graphic showing the Afghan nation as a puppet with the strings being tugged by various actors from the government of Afghanistan, to foreign countries, to the NGO community.  It was written in Pashto and clearly had the purpose of explaining, justifying, and proselytising for the movement rather than threatening dire consequences due to its already overwhelming might and support.  Furthermore, the notice was fairly professional and reproduced by photocopy and distributed by motor vehicle, both requiring a significant amount of capital and indicative of top-down organisation.  Insurgent activity, when it does happens in this area is fairly low-level and consists predominantly of threats and murders, with the occasional small arms fire attack or poorly constructed IED.

In Kunduz the dynamic is similar but the higher population receptive to anti-government activity means that incidents are both more common and more disruptive.  It also helped that the Taliban regime chose Kunduz for their administrative centre in the north, which means the connections to more active networks in the south remain stronger.  Complex attacks involving small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) are more common, as well as well-construct and consequently deadlier IEDs and even suicide attacks.  Suicide attackers in Kunduz do not originate in the province but are brought in from further afield; still it is important that the community can sustain and conceal them long enough for them to execute an attack.  Still in Kunduz, there are areas where anti-government sentiment and activity is extremely high and areas where there is none at all.  Moreover, armed groups have had mixed success in convincing non-supportive groups of their cause.  In a few occasions insurgent patrolled have been publicly embarrassed or the recipients of local backlashes.  In short the dynamic in Kunduz reflects that of elsewhere in the north, activity exists where and because support already exists, and those not in the in-group have no interest in joining.  At the end of the day anti-government elements fail to win new hearts and minds and end up preaching to the choir.

In two other areas of the north, anti-government activity is either the result of political rivalries or influenced directly from the outside.  In the areas surrounding Aqcha in eastern Jawzjan local potentates routinely try to raise their profile by sponsoring violent activity.  The political benefits are that they can demonstrate their usefulness by appearing to stamp such activity out or they can be credited with it.  Incidents are consequently less numerous but more high-profile.  The same political forces in Jawzjan that make such campaigns desirable also combine to tamp down violent activity before it escalates too much (it is made apparent to the actor that he has crossed a line).  In Faryab armed groups from the volatile eastern districts of Badghis are likewise trying to destabilise the situation but have met with relatively little success thanks to willingness of locals to report on their movements.  Remarkably Faryab has had almost no increase in incidents from 2007 to 2008 which the few additional incidents being limited to a single district.

Spectacular attacks.  The strategy of significant attacks in the north of Afghanistan seems to have been a goal since at least November 2007, when a major suicide bombing captured headlines by killing 40 people in Baghlan, including members of parliament and a potential presidential hopeful, Mustafa Kazimi.  In addition to reports of plans for a high-profile kidnapping, anti-government elements succeeded in a major suicide bombing of the police headquarters in Puli Khumri (Baghlan's capital) which killed and severely injured several Afghans and international forces.  Baghlan is bears the brunt of such threats because it is strategically significant being located in the north and because it straddles the key north-south route between Mazar/Kunduz and Kabul.  Every additional kilometre into the north of Afghanistan posed great challenges for anti-government groups trying to carry out attacks.  It involves more security forces to be bribed and more chances to be ratted out.  However once cannot underestimate the desirability of such an attack for anti-government hopefuls looking to strike a major blow to the government's perceived stability and raise their street cred amongst fellow insurgents.  The 2007 bombing in Baghlan may well have been one of the few events in the north to have been covered in international media.  Similarly the attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul got far more coverage that similarly executed and more deadly attacks because of the symbolic value of the establishment and the fact that the deaths were foreigners.

The dynamics of the north argue against the southern, Pashtun-based insurgency ever getting a firm foothold there, but until that is apparent through a long process of trial and error, these groups' own internal ideologies and the need for the perception of manifest success will push them to try.  With insurgent control having reached both its maximum depth and breadth in approximately the southern half of the country, such groups will have little on their hand but to attempt to extend their influence in the north.  (Attacks on military forces and perceived collaborators in the south will of course continued unabated though)  The result of more attention, resources, and matériel being poured into the north will have a negative impact on regular people, NGOs, the international presence, and the government for probably the next one to three years.  The long-term news is good but the short-term will be trying.  Insurgents always like to say they have time on their side.  The oft-repeated phrase runs: "You have the watch, but we have the time."  This is defeatist and simply not constructive; in this case the Coalition has both the watch, the time, and more importantly acknowledges the existence of time, but it will take time.

13 March 2009

The Afghan Scene: The Culture of Aid in Afghanistan

Delving further into this occasional series on aid in Afghanistan, I thought I would do my own spiel on who comes here and why, and what they do when they get here.  Now, this has been done before (I think even the actual Afghan Scene got around to its own send up), but this is my take.  Essentially these are a number of personality types that people fall into, and they often move from one type into another (as I have); sometimes they overlap too.  An remember that people have to be fairly "interesting" to get here in the first place.  Generally living and working has remained tolerable thanks to what I call "the filter", it's exotic enough that it filters out people who just want to stay at home but also not violent enough that it filters out the craziest conflict junkies.  What ensues is enough solid people that you make some first-rate friendships and enough drama to fill the rest of the time rubbernecking and reminding yourself how sensible you are even though you too are drinking a G&T behind Hesco barriers.  I really encouraged comments and suggestions regarding this, maybe we can even make a definitive taxonomy.

The romantic.  You know this guy from numerous portrayals in pop-culture.  He loves the traditional, real, unsullied culture before the white man (yours truly) sullied it with 1960s urban planning schemes, communism, stinger missiles, new-fangled Islamism, and pavement.  This mindset has a lot in common with the hippy but overall has a more colonial era feel to it.  Also hippies tend to come from the US while romantics often hail from western Europe.  Romantics don't always take themselves seriously, but they have a tendency towards sepia-toned photographs of themselves near random derelict forts, high-priced nicknacks from Zardozi, and tea at Turquoise Mountain (yes I do like both organisations and have bought stuff there myself).  Many such individuals are the product of the western nationalism meme (everyone must have their own flag and national cuisine!) so sometimes its easier to accept the 21st century construction of Afghanistan with its ubiquitous qabili pulaw and creeping xenophobia that the real complex historical picture.

If the romantic is motivated enough by religion they might well fall into the missionary category, but often they don't simply stay romantics.  They often stay in Afghanistan and, having learned to take it with a wheelbarrow of salt become lifers or realists.  This probably best describes me when I arrived (read my initial posts!) with my obsession with the Persian language (still there but only acknowledging I'm an LA snob), occasionally wearing of kurta pijama (okay for South Asian weddings filled with women, booze, and good music), and willingness to abstain from alcohol.  Though if the romantic gets sufficiently jaded and cynical they are also good candidates for veering to the other extreme, the mercenary.

The missionary.  The distinguishing feature of the missionary is the religious motivation, and it applies to one religion in particular.  It's actually the most complex category because it encompasses both the best and worst instincts of people seeking to help Afghanistan.  On the one hand you have people who are honest and open about their faith and quietly use it as a motivation to do good things in competent ways, but on the other there are a few people who are way too certain in an uncertain environment.  Other big issues are the social isolation of missionaries and the fact that religious organisations add a layer of complexity to underlying political and cultural issues.

Some faith-based NGOs and individuals have had remarkable acceptance and longevity in Afghanistan.  I figure religion should and can be a positive force, even if I don't personally have time or interest for it.  And if religion is your deal, the best way to do it, then being open about it is the way to go.  People will make their own individual choice whether to deal or not.  I am annoyed that people have to complicate the picture with religion, because Afghans are particularly sensitive to the topic, but then again the major problem with Afghan society is xenophobia and the suspicion of different customs and lifestyles.  As a liberal, pluralistic Westerner that argues for rights in the West, I can't start making exceptions in Afghanistan.  Also development inherently involves a degree of proselytisation (usually to modernity and modernity-appropriate customs and mores), so pure and simple transparency and accountability go further to justifying aid and the aid community's presence.

On the other end you have the loonies, best exemplified by the group of Koreans that were taken hostage in Ghazni.  These individuals exercise the minimum amount of planning and cultural sensitivity, but here I would also argue that the religious loonies share common ground with the secular loonies; witness two Germans that were executed after they set up camp by a river in the mountains and decided to take a naked swim in the river.  Another annoying point is bringing in small children to Afghanistan.  This country doesn't have proper facilities for them so it's putting them at risk and it's unfair to minors.  People should be encouraged to come to places like Afghanistan, but ultimately when basic health is at issue they need to make that choice for themselves.

The missionaries then represent a microcosm of the aid community in general.  The real salient point, and where they fit into my taxonomy, is that they do keep separate from everyone else which means lessons are unnecessarily re-learned.  A large part of this tendency in turn is the result of the personality of people who tend to a) be attracted to religion and b) be motivated by said religion to come to Afghanistan.  They're quiet and they don't socialise a lot with others.  They don't go out to L'Atmosphere or La Cantina, and so they don't get to know the rest of us. Because aid coordination is already so limited we need all the social interaction we can get (of course I'm always annoyed by quiet, introverted people, but I can let that go).

The adventurer.  The adventurer's main attribute is the quest for adrenaline.  Adventurers have varying degrees of cultural sensitivity but are always motivated by excitement.  There are nature adventurers who like long journeys in remote places far from accoutrements and medical services.  Also in this category are conflict junkies, people who get excited for reasons correlating with or resulting from media attention.  Conflict junkies might be motivated by the appearance of badassness more than the actual adrenaline rush from putting oneself in a potentially harmful situation.  One should recognise that most people get a little bit of conflict junkie/adventurer in them after living in places like this.  After a while you get used to traded stories of near misses and Ben Gurion Airport shakedowns.

The lifer.  The lifer is destined to spend his or her life wandering from one conflict zone or third world country to the next.  They have a genuine interest in their work and living in such environment but often end up going from one ineffectual contract to the next, often because they either do not think of the big picture or don't feel compelled to do anything about it.  Some lifers are happy and have deep and profound specialisations in areas of development you never knew existed.  Others are emotionally stunted and have never come to terms the tradeoffs or requisite management skills necessarily juggle such a career with a fulfilling personal life.  Many journalists fall into the lifer category.  A lot of NGO workers are here too, going on as country directors and programme managers.  A hidden upside though is that many such people are refreshingly devoid of national attachments which clears away a lot of bullshit and can allow you to connect with them at that basic human level that I am so fond of.

The mercenary.  The mercenary is rather like the lifer, but here the work comes before the sorts of environment.  A mercenary is indifferent to whether they are in western Europe or Afghanistan, just so long as they do their job and get paid well for it. (the lifer will get bored in a place like Europe)  A lot of technical advisors fall into mercenary category as do meatheads.  Meatheads are often caricturised as their own group because they form such a distinct and visible presence (drunk and routy at conflict zone bars), but in reality they are no different than the hydrologist or Islamic finance expert, just trained in a specific area.  Private security company employees (to use their full name) are usually people with a military background who have discovered they can get paid obscenely more in the private.  The role of PSCs is an interesting one to watch in that they provide essential services (and usually more cheaply and effectively) that cumbersome nation-states and their armies cannot.  Where PSC employees differ from other "mercenaries" is in institutional culture.  A PSC will often follow a pattern of starting up with a small, competent, and close-nit network of individuals, who are highly effective and therefore attract a lot of business.  As a result the company will scale up, stop vetting so carefully, and take on all sorts of people, and this is where most of the corruption and abuse enters.  Some people who start out in the military/PSC realm eventually end up acquiring more of a humanitarian sensitivy and end up forging the middle route between humanitarian actors and belligerents, eventually bringing them into the realist camp.  Other "mercenaries" manage to get attached to the country (or at least its complexities) and end up staying on because accumulated knowledge and connections become more valuable and there's opportunity to fix even more things and earn more money.

The hippy.  Life used to be nasty, brutish, and short.  And for most Afghans it still is.  Yes, there are people who prove that a nobly savage utopia can be sought in even the most patriarchal society and still others who get stuck short of the Indian subcontinent whose citizens and customs most of their brethren end up benighting and making a mockery of.  Ah, but these Afghans live in small simple villages, work on the land, and have grounded spirituality, and celebrate the small things in life.  Many of them also have astoundingly rude and harmful notions about a lot of things in the world around them, and will have to change many or most of their received wisdom if their children are going to live past forty with a decent amount of teeth.

Such people differ from romantics in that whereas romantics see a specific intricate tapestry (which also doesn't exist), the hippy sees a simple universal tableau.  Frankly the hippy doesn't last long in Afghanistan due to the sheer weight of reality around them and are much better suited to places where the simple folk are more well off like Turkey or Iran.  But still you'll see a few here.

The realist.  When you understand that, yes Afghanistan is completely full of bullshit, as is the aid effort to help it, you have become a realist.  Maybe you also realise that the best you can do is contain the drama here from affecting other society that are willing to play ball; just create a space so that people can put it together when they stop beating each other over the head with gilded tissue boxes.  The realist also realises that the majority of the world's population live fairly comfortable middle-class lives and doesn't feel bad about a weekend of normalcy in Dubai.  I think all of start out as one of the above groups and go on to become realists at heart. Or we don't and move on to some other place more amenable to our lifestyles.  Of course missionaries and adventurers can always get their kicks (rockclimbing or Jesus) alongside a more hard-headed approach, but that's more difficult for the romantics and hippies.  Lifers and mercenaries have different goals altogether.  For me an example of a realist approach is that I don't bitch and moan about not being able to drink, but I damn well do so when I get the chance because there is nothing wrong with it and things won't be okay here until people have the freedom to do different things than other people.  I ask myself how long I can stay in this country as a realist without being, well, unrealistic about my goals for myself and my career, to which I respond that I need to go out and doing something else.

25 February 2009

Aid in Afghanistan: The trouble with reporting

A BBC story published just a few minutes ago gives me an excellent opportunity to outline some of the problems I see in reporting from this country. Check out the story and the associated "in pictures" feature:


It's a good story in terms of the basic level of reporting, but it lacks context and begs the question 'what next?' The story is about a poor village in the Farkhar Valley of Takhar Province, an area which I have been near myself. The story does well in capturing the basic conditions of the village, where people are cold, hungry, and not integrated into the modern economy. As the story goes on however, I noticed that the villagers themselves have actually seen a bit of personal attention from the aid effort.

There is mention of a small power plant. Yes it runs little else but light bulbs but that is a huge surplus in productivity in that people can work a few more hours in the day and it saves on fuel costs. A mobile clinic. It may come occasionally, but occasional is far better than never. The local roads have not been paved, but indeed the main Kunduz-Taluqan-Fayzabad road has been (some sections are not quite finished). That in itself was a titanic feat of engineering. What are the complaints? They are vaguer complaints about warlords and corruption. Also true, and although I want to emphasise the situation of this village, and many others is dire, it shows how people bitch about things.

The problem overall is how little money has been invested in Afghanistan relative to other post-conflict countries like Bosnia. Without the figures on hand it is something in the neighbourhood of $60 per person here compared to around $1,000 per person in Bosnia. Considering this and the extremely low baseline in terms of human development which we are starting from, the project mentioned in this story alone seem like a good return on investment.

So what's going wrong? It's the lack of attention and coordination. It's not enough just do follow through with projects, they have to be perceived to be beneficial as well. The problems are not individual persons or organisations for the most part, but structural issues that reach up to the top levels of the state system and the aid industry. The issues are both at the highest levels of politics and in basic approaches taken in Afghanistan. These will be the subjects of my next few posts. Up next: The Psychology of Aid.

16 February 2009

Reflections on London

My last leave wrapped up successfully and I know find myself back in Mazar. The break was relaxing and envigorating because, rather than sitting back on a beach, I went on a networking binge and made some progress towards shaping my exit strategy from Afghanistan.

My time in Afghanistan has been wonderful, both in terms of friends and experiences, but like most good things it has an expiry date. At some point I determined that this would be the end of 2009. I've had a good range of experiences that fit into a coherent narrative for my future career goals and I've also think I will have reached the upward limit of what can be done (for me and Afghanistan) both in my current job and in general. ANSO's been really great in that sense, in that it has given me a top-down perspective on all the different levels and systems of operation in this country and I really need to shift to a higher gear to make things happen. Just being another programme director or country director, no matter how effective, just isn't satisfactory amongst this crumbling system. Another issue is that I don't wanna become a one-trick pony specialising in Afghanistan. Some people may truly love Afghanistan, or the romantic side of them may be infatuated with the noble savagery of it all. Spending time in a place like this is good for lots of us, but after a while we, like the Afghan social discourse, have to move on.

The first question was where to go next? No offence to east Asia, but my specialisation really doesn't extend there, so I left that out. This has left me with a narrow set of options in terms of cities that are acceptable bases of operation. The full starting list was Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay, Karachi, Dubai, Tehran, Beirut, Tel Aviv, London, New York, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Delhi and Bangalore are lovely but still a bit too small and constricting. Various political problems make Tehran (my citizenship) and Karachi (the state is collapsing) untenable. Beirut and Tel Aviv are cool, but that's the problem, just cool (I could add Istanbul here too, the 20th century population transfers made the place too homogenous even if it has remained cool). Los Angeles and San Francisco, while truly my favourite places, are just too far from anywhere. DC and NY have that old frumpy east-coast culture, which means they are both passé and not international enough. This left with Bombay, Dubai, and London. Bombay would require a lot of capital and Dubai I still think is wonderful and centrally located--it really is the world's natural hub. In India I like the local identity, Dubai I like because it's the only place that truly doesn't try to impress an identity on you and lets you be humid.

By process of elimination I was down to London, which was also attractive because I knew so little about it, having only seen it on two brief occasions (two nights of clubbing in 1999 and a 10-hour layover summer 2008). Thanks to my generous friend I got a great place to crash for three weeks and time to introduce myself to the city.

Weather: The weather is not so bad. The frequent rain is refreshing without being annoying, and the brilliant green (even in winter) helps you not notice how overcast the sky is.

Style: Don't listen to what people say, Londoners do not know how to dress and that is okay. Rather than have a general sense of style, they have three styles which are each done very well but in that leave little room for individual refinement. (By contrast in LA you are what you wear, if you just put on a normal three-piece suit you're lame because you're not being creative--if for some reason you wanna do that and still be cool you have to carry it over into the realm of self-conscientious kitsch.) The three styles are penguin (suits), modern (self-conscious alternative), and casual (jumpsuits warn on high street, yes).

Urban layout: London, like LA, has no proper centre. It has a bunch of little neighbourhoods which all compete for attention and have different places in different estimations of cool. Zone 1 is of course the centre, but it doesn't steal the cake. The problem with strong centres such as NY and DC have is that they ultimately suck in too much culture and stifle diversity.

Attitude and Culture: For a while I tried to get a sense of this for London and kept coming up empty. Then I realised, there is none! The oddity of meeting actual English person brought this point to the fore I think. London is not England, it's London. All sorts of different people doing different things. Maybe there are some stiff old-school Brits around somewhere, but they're social capital certainly isn't very high because I found that being my chatty self I could just start up conversations and make friends.

Opportunities: Here's where London really shined over DC. DC is stuck by being the political centre of a large and powerful state. In London the city is connected internationally by the legacy of empire, but the UK is too small of a state to overwhelm people's agendas. The short is that the city looks outward and provides opportunities in security and politics that no American place can and that India will still not be able to for some time.

So I like London, I'm sold on it, and it should be a good place for the next few years.

16 January 2009

My carbon footprint is larger than yours!

It feels like a miracle, but I got out of Kabul and have had a wonderful day in Dubai.  Miraculously this morning we took off on time as the clouds parted from their week-long barrage of snow (the plane that I took came from Dubai last night and only landed on its third attempt).  This included the fifteen-minute delay created by NATO, which cleared airspace for military activity as they too were taking advantage of the break in the weather.

When I arrived in Dubai I received text message which informed me that Salang, despite the valiant efforts of the Afghan National Army, had finally been closed thanks to the combination of twelve hours of snow and avalanches (bummer those are).

Dubai is golden.  I listen and nod politely when I hear the criticisms from those who are so fond of New York and Boston, but now I'm fighting back.  It just feels normal to me and yet aspirational (probably has something to do with my personality) and for a person who gets tired of peculiarism, I get the strange sensation I can just be myself.

I came out of Terminal 2 with the crowd of Iranians (way too many blond highlights going on there, got to see one woman throw of a chador to reveal a tank top), and got on to the hotel.  The best part was the weather, all the Philipino workers were complaining about the 24C weather, but not me!

Once settled in, I washed off the grime of Afghanistan and hailed a taxi to the Dubai Mall.  The Dubai Mall (at the base of the Burj al-Arab, the world's tallest building), though still half-finished and with many of the stores set to open, actually manages to put the Mall of the Emirates to shame.  I spent three hours just walking it not including stopping everywhere and couldn't help noting how much nicer it was than Kabul City Centre.  Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts:

1) Maybe there can be too many Starbucks.  After the fifth one (they really helped magnify the disorientation) a part of me felt like crouching down, crying, and yelling "please stop watching me"...not to mention the copious Starbucks clones such as Caribou Coffee, Barista, and Costa.

2) The wall of pork.  In the gourmet supermarket on the basement floor there was a room entirely devoted to pork.  It was a mighty selection, from chorizo from every Latin country to scores of Italian sausages to a wall of bacon.  All the better was that not a single product therein was pork free.  Pork-flavoured ice cream was all that seemed to be lacking.

3) Blank spaces should be covered in LED screens. Always.

4) The food court.  Again, addressed to Americans: What the fuck is wrong with you?  Why do you people not embrace the 21st century? And why do you so disdain the goodness of fast food?  But Europeans have these problems too while at the same time defending decidely mediocre national cuisines.  The food selection was dazzling, even in terms of American regional food.  And that's saying something because Americans perform weakly in fast food offerings both in terms of taste and variety.  The Great Kabab Factory of Delhi fame has started franchising too.  After panicking over the shear variety of choice I gave up and went for a mix of traditionals...chhole bhature complemented with a few pieces of extra spicy from KFC.

Laden with a new pair of shoes (I came with old running shoes I've been running 10k in way too long and which felt immediately demodee on arrival to Dubai), I returned to the hotel and resolved to find a nice place to sit outdoors and drink a beer and finish Rashid's Descent into Chaos.  Le Meridien has a big food court here and I settled on the Irish pub with many things on tap.

Of course I owed it to myself to stop by the large club in the middle of the courtyard--an inappropriately loud house party in the middle of one's hotel is never to be passed up, even if it is playing a mix of late 80s ami-pop, remixed Gugush, and too much Cheb Khalid.  Plus it's furnishing consisted of throw pillows and it offered complimentary nargilas.  I sidle up to the bar and start a conversation.  This is one of those moments when contact with the real world (as opposed to Immoralistan aka Afghanistan) blows away any pre-conception of how civilised you thought you had kept yourself on the frontier.  Moreover, for someone who spends his professional life thinking about things blowing up, stopping things from blowing up, who's blowing them up, and how to stop people from getting blown up with them, mixed with a large dose of constant political intrigue, normal conversations are difficult.  I mean I'm behind, really behind.  I just watched Om Shanti Om, the biggest movie of all time by every metric, a few days back--I actually booked Emirates so I could do nothing but watch film trailers all the way to London and be able to carry on a respectable conversation.  By this time tomorrow I will know what Saif and Soha Ali Khan have been up too.  But not yet.

After one Corona I leave the bar resolved to drink on my own a bit and enjoy the freshness of the tap.  Sitting out in the warm evening (the air smells of plants--something one misses in Afghanistan where the environment has been crushed time and time again) and people watching I must admit I appreciate Dubai.  It has the diversity and humanity, which Los Angeles excels at over New York, but so much more of it.  I ended up at the Irish-themed pub hanging out a random mix of people interact on a normal basis and not being bothered by questions of nationality at all.  Dubai is a never-ending construction site, has way too many roads and I see how an east-coaster would feel isolated, but it's so pretty and shiny and shows how consumerism is a force for good in our lives too by creating lively integrated spaces.

I didn't go for the Irish food (thought about cabbage and bacon with potatoes mash)...and instead opted for a nice fish curry even though I imagine that's all I'll be eating in the UK.  Off to bed and on to the UK.

11 January 2009

Escaping Winter

The time has finally come to go on leave.  The goal here is to obviate about four weeks of what it hopefully my last winter in Afghanistan.  It's not that good a plan because I'm going to the bleaker environs of the UK, but at least they understand the concept of central heating there.

Getting out of Afghanistan in winter is always especially stressful (as it getting back into the country, but who cares if their return from leave is delayed?).  In my case there will be two hurdles to contend with.  The first involves crossing the 3500m pass of Salang and the second is the flight to Dubai.  The weather is a great deal shittier and colder in Kabul than here...while we get 10-15C on many days, Kabul has considerable trouble peaking above freezing (mainly because we are at 300m while Kabul is at 2000).  This means the weather on the Kabul side is often cloudy and snowy when it's just fine here in Mazar.  That said, the authorities do a stellar job of keeping Salang open throughout all but the worst blizzards.

The departure from Kabul by plane is also traditionally stressful.  It might be better now as the airport seems to have gotten better navigational facilities (planes can land at night now).  The problem is planes landing in low visibility it seems--they don't need much to take off, just lift in the direction of the flight path and then pop above the cloud cover.  So as long as the plane is already on the ground your chances are improved, as opposed to a plane coming from Delhi which might have to turn back before it can land.  For this reason it's good to go with the local airlines, who will take off no matter what.  Once those first 5 minutes are over and you're skybourne, it's smooth-sailing to Dubai and you relax and appreciate the well manicured Iranian countryside below you (lucky bastards with their fancy freeways and roadside foodcourts).  It's also a good idea to have a few extra hundred dollars on you so you can buy a ticket on another (potentially less scupulous and safety-conscious) airline.

With all luck my next post will be from the UK, where I will be feverishly socialising and networking my way into the new year.  Or else it could be a drunk poste from L'Atmosphere in Kabul!