Strategic Pact and Uncertainties

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published May 08

President Obama’s short stay in Kabul was more of a symbolic political visit on the eve of Osama bin Laden’s first death anniversary. Addressing Americans from Afghanistan before launching reelection campaign, President Obama reminded them that he sent the Navy SEALs to kill Osama.

He said the tide of insurgency has turned and the Taliban’s momentum has been broken. He spoke to Americans with a victorious tone, about a situation that is more of a quagmire of uncertainties for us in Afghanistan. It shows the sophisticated reach and strength of the Taliban who were successful to launch an attack in Kabul as soon as President Obama’s arrival was breaking news on Afghan media. Several, including some foreign security guards were killed when some insurgents breached the high-security zone of Kabul and attacked Green Village, a compound where foreign aid workers and diplomatic staff live.

Talking about the security transition and Afghan forces taking control, he mentioned the decrease in size of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in 2015, a plan proposed by the Obama Administration to reduce the burden of military costs on the US and its NATO allies. Details of the plan might be endorsed in the NATO Chicago Summit next week.

The size of ANSF is projected to reach 352,000 before October this year, of which 195,000 number of Afghan National Army has already been completed. The Obama Administration is considering a plan to downsize ANSF to 230,000, reducing a third of it starting gradually from 2015 to 2017. It is estimated that the current strength of ANSF will cost annually about $10billion. But the reduced size of ANSF has an estimated $4.2billion annual cost. The United States is urging its NATO allies to contribute about 1 billion Euros to this, while Washington would channel about $3 billion. But among NATO allies, only Britain has pledged $110million annually. It is expected that Afghanistan add about $500million to $1billion annually to the cost of its security forces.

However, Afghan security officials have been critical of the Obama Administration’s plan to heavily downsize the ANSF. Afghan officials say the plans are a conceptual model based on certain assumptions of improved security and a possible deal with insurgents for a political settlement.

Presidents Obama and Karzai also signed the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). After two years of contentious negotiations on Afghan-control of US-run prisons in Afghanistan and the limits of Special Forces’ night raids agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding on the Transfer of US Detention Facilities and the Memorandum of Understanding on Afghanization of the Special Operations, the announcement of SPA was expected to bring a sigh of relief.

But the SPA is a general framework short of specifics. It talks about the generals of US-Afghanistan relations after ISAF withdrawal in 2014. Details of the US military presence and commitment to Afghanistan will be part of another Bilateral Security Agreement to be finalized by next year.

Domestically, the SPA has been criticized. We could not expect more than this from the ruling circle who have made sure to secure their domestic narrow-interests in the SPA. President Karzai at the press conference next day was saying the SPA clearly rejects change of system in Afghanistan.

One instance is the intentional wrong translation of some terms in the English, Pashto and Dari versions of the SPA. At the end of the text, it is mentioned that all three translations are equally authenticated. The original SPA text in English says “Afghanistan shall strengthen the integrity and capacity of its democratic institutions and processes, including by taking tangible steps to further the efficiency and effectiveness of its three branches of state within its ‘unitary’ system of government, and supporting development of a vibrant civil society, including a free and open media.”

In Dari and Pashto versions, they have replaced ‘unitary’ with ‘central’ (markazi). All major political opposition blocks are calling for decentralization of power, with more administrative authorities to local governance bodies and parliamentary form of government. They are strongly criticizing this part of the SPA. But the fact is that our visionless rulers with narrow-interests are playing domestic politics with the strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the US.

It must have been push by the Palace negotiators to avoid a single mention of the Taliban in the SPA. It glosses over by mentioning “Al-Qaeda and affiliates” avoiding the name of Taliban or other insurgents, keeping room for manipulations of Karzai and Co’s power-sharing designs to strike deal with elements of the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami after 2014.

But the question is, why should Afghanistan’s system of Government be mentioned in a strategic partnership agreement with any country? It is a matter of constitutional and internal affairs that can be changed on popular demand, not a concern for our strategic relations with the US.

Amrullah Saleh says by avoiding mention of Taliban, some Palace elements are furthering the agenda of their neighboring foreign patrons to ignore the safe havens of insurgents and their leadership across the border. He adds that after ten years of ruling, the Palace has no definition of national security for Afghanistan and a vision for enemy and friend.

Besides all these, the NATO summit in Chicago was supposed to come up with concrete security plans and commitments after its fundamentals were to be detailed in the US-Afghanistan SPA, but uncertainty seems to loom for another year.

The US and NATO are in rush with an exit formula, but without a concrete post-withdrawal strategy. It is not clear how many US troops will stay in Afghanistan. There are no clear US commitments on military and economic support to Afghanistan in the SPA, and it will not be any clear in the NATO Chicago Summit too. NATO countries should come up with clear pledges of continuation of aid to Afghanistan.

The decrease of ANSF strength should be based on ground realities and conditions of improved security. Long-term stability and security should take precedence over cutting costs in determining US support for ANSF. It cannot be based on assumptions of success in talks with Taliban and better cooperation from Pakistan. There is no Plan B for a scenario when insurgency will increase much deadlier after 2014 while Afghan forces will be reduced to half and the bulk of US and NATO troops will withdraw.


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Persecution of Minorities in Pakistan: A Failed State

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published May 03

Persecution of minorities is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. After partition from India  as a movement of ‘equal rights for the Muslims of sub-continent’, religious and ethnic minorities were not only declared third-class citizens through state legislations, but they have also faced brutal violence since the day of Pakistan’s birth.

Religious radicalism was promoted as a state policy on a very fundamental level. School text books taught a whitewashed history, promoting hatred against non-Muslims, particularly Hindus. Christians were never accepted more than a social class of sewerage-drain sweepers in Pakistan. Terror groups were created for intervention in Kashmir, and Jihadi radicalism was let grow deep in society.

The first ideological blow to the crack was independence of Bangladesh in 1971, when the majority Muslim Bengalis separated after more than a decade with the Punjab-dominated military and bureaucracy that controlled the then East and West Pakistan. Though troubles had erupted consecutively in parts of Balochistan and Sindh too, junta dictatorships that ruled for more than half of Pakistan’s age have suppressed it through military operations.

After secession of Bangladesh, another radical downward spiral for Pakistan as a state was when its National Assembly declared Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslim in 1974, not only making them third-class citizens deprived of many rights and systematically discriminated against in state laws, but also invoking the wrath of religious radicals grown loose in the last two decades, particularly the Kashmir-oriented Jihadism during the first and second Indo-Pak wars in 1948 and 1971. Since then, Ahmadis have been persecuted routinely, both by mobs and courts in blasphemy cases. The violence against Ahmadis has increased in recent years. Last year Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was murdered for his defense of a Christian women Asia Bibi accused of blasphemy. He was killed by one of his own security guards, who later confessed that the Governor was killed because of his advocacy for the Christian woman.

The small numbers of Hindus are another minority community facing discrimination on every level in Pakistani society. Recently human rights activist Marvi Sirmed in a press conference in Islamabad highlighted the large-scale kidnapping and forced conversion of Hindu girls to Islam in Sindh. Many Hindus have migrated abroad during the last decade from rural parts of Sindh and Balochistan.

Rivalry with India has been the mindset behind Pakistani security establishment’s promotion of religious extremism. The decade-long rule of General Zia-ul-Haq promoted radicalism to its peak. Followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Jihadism started with state sponsorship had now spread to every nook and corner of Pakistan. And during that era, sectarian terror groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were created, and Shias became another Jihadi target in Pakistan after Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. Thousands have been killed in the merciless sectarian violence during last few decades. Leaders of these terror groups roam free around the country. Pakistani Supreme Court recently released Malik Ishaq, leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an Al-Qaeda allied banned outfit.

One ethnic minority group under routine sectarian attacks in Pakistan is the Hazaras of Quetta. According to media reports and human rights organizations, more than 700 members of this community of 600,000 people have been killed since 2001. LeJ claims responsibility for all attacks. The previously targeted attacks on professionals and activists have now taken a new merciless turn on ordinary people with suicide attacks in residential areas.

Their visible racial features make them a turkey-shoot for LeJ operatives who are on a killing spree with impunity. Victims from Quetta tell me the routine attacks have traumatized people. The besieged minority community members have stopped traveling from one part of the city to another. Thousands have migrated abroad, many taking the deadly routes to western countries through illegal ways to seek asylum. Over a hundred have been killed in recent incidents of boat-drowning in sea waters of Indonesia and Australia.

The extent of violence has affected an entire ethnic minority group. In the poorest region of Pakistan, when the only breadwinner is killed, the entire family suffers as no one remains to feed them. Locals tell me they are living under constant threat and fear.  In a spate of attacks during last three weeks, about 40 Hazaras have been killed.

The question is, how can Pakistan’s security institutions fail to stop such a systematic killing which some have started calling a genocide-in-making? A bunch of sectarian terrorists besiege an entire community, and the whole state security apparatus fail. It is mind blowing. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding before the civilized world, but they have chosen to close their eyes and remain silent about it. In 21st century, such a brutal persecution of a minority group is nothing less than the severity of Jewish Holocaust under Nazis.

It is not mere failure of Pakistani security institutions.  Quetta is the provincial capital of Balochistan. Pakistan Army has a Corp of over 60,000 troops stationed in the city. The strong military intelligence Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has its regional station there.  The city is also home to headquarters of the paramilitary Frontier Corps and Police. Victims accuse, if it is not complicity, how a bunch of LeJ terrorists can kill with impunity in such huge presence of security institutions. I cannot believe that Pakistani intelligence agencies are unaware of the hideouts of LeJ operatives.  But not a single killer has been prosecuted in last ten years of consecutive systematic killings.

Due to lack of coverage of such a horrible humanitarian crisis in international media, there has not been due reaction. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have released several reports about the crisis, but the champions of human rights in Western capitals have chosen to remain silent.

There have been protest demonstrations across cities in Europe, Australia and Asian countries during last two weeks. Former British Home Secretary and current Labour MP Alan Johnson joined such a protest in London on Monday, April 30. He said, “I am here to stand in solidarity with Hazaras who face ethnic cleaning in Balochistan yet the government of Pakistan is showing no concern. In the last 10 years more than 700 Hazaras have been killed which is a scandal. The government doesn’t seem concerned and has shown no interest in catching the killers.” Another demo is organized on May 4 in front of the UN Headquarters in New York. The international community should raise voice to pressurize the Pakistani Government and stop a genocide-in-making in 21st century.

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Our Brothers

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published April 24, 2012

The recent Taliban attacks targeting Western embassies and parliament in Kabul, and government buildings in other provinces on April 15 has caused a revived confidence, support and pride of ordinary Afghans for our National Security Forces. The fact that Special Forces units and police gunned down 36 terrorists with minimum ISAF air support and least civilian and security forces’ casualties show the increasing capability of our forces, particularly the elite Special Forces units who are no less in performance than special operation forces of other regional countries.

It took the Special Service Group (SSG) of Pakistan Army nineteen hours to clear the Generals Headquarters in Rawalpindi when it came under attack in October 2009 by a group of nine militants. Nine commandos and three civilians were killed. Similarly, the bunch of LeT terrorists took Mumbai city hostage for three days killing 164 people in 2008 attacks. Of course the Afghan forces cannot be compared, but we have to keep in mind that It has been just a decade that the Afghan Security Forces were established. The Special Forces units are as new as a few years. But they have been performing extraordinary.

There is a perception that our forces are being trained by the best military mentors—NATO—in the world, but the US strategy of building Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) during the last ten years has had deep flaws, mainly focusing quantity rather than quality. Even now with the rush of withdrawal strategy, they are still reluctant to build our Air Force and provide ANSF with best equipment. The Special Operations units have been trained well and we see the result. It is a separate topic to be addressed.

In the war of perception, the latest attacks in Kabul generated greater support for ANSF among ordinary Afghans. For the first time, I see volunteer youth groups campaigning to cover the walls of Kabul with billboards, posters and banners praising ANSF with pride. The larger public perception was reflected in media reports. The widespread photo of one commando with his bloodied knees after the fight with insurgents has emerged as a symbol of ordinary Afghan’s pride and confidence in our troops. One particular photo viral on social media among Afghans portrayed something deeper than symbolic heroism. A photo of Taliban suicide bomber in women dressing was titled “Karzai’s Brother”, next to the photo of the wounded commando titled “Our Brother”.

Actually it’s not surprising that President Karzai, despite the continued bloodshed of militants, once again called them “brothers”, a day after the April 15 attacks. If I was a soldier with ANSF, I would wonder why I am fighting the “brothers” of my Commander-in-Chief.

In spite of all its problems of lack of professionalism and resources, the ideology and will to fight the enemy is the most important factor to hold our national security forces strong institutionally. Some analysts fear disintegration of ANSF after the US and NATO withdrawal in 2014 and our descent into chaos. With such a Commander-in-Chief, the concerns of fragility of our forces are very valid. When our President calls militants—who our forces are trained to fight—”brothers” in public, the definition of enemy gets blurred. And this cracks the very foundation of our security institutions.

When the news flashed on screens that Kandahar MP Naeem Lalai Hamidzai has taken position on the rooftop of parliament and fighting next to ANA troops against the militants who had stormed an under-construction building beside parliament, I was glad. I thought it was an important but symbolic public message of showing support to our forces by fighting beside them against the enemy.

However, later I watched the video of MP Lalai Hamidzai holding a machinegun, with a cup of green tea put beside him, opening burst of firing to every direction. A group of ANA soldiers and his private guards are laughing, while an officer on walky-talky urging the MP to stop firing as it could kill police who were engaged with militants inside the building, while one of Hamidzai’s guards filming all this drama. Then I realized it was a publicity stunt, as stupid as the Taliban commander in Paktika who had turned self in for $100-reward on ‘wanted’ poster.

President Karzai’s public remarks about his “brothers” are no surprise as he does not trust ANSF. Former NDS Chief Amrullah Saleh in an excellent analysis of politicization of our security forces on BBC Farsi and Al Jazeera has written; “When the president ventures out to pay a visit to a unit of the national police, national army, or intelligence, his personal security detail, called the President Protection Service (PPS), disarms everyone in advance. It sends the message that the only loyal unit to the president and the system is the PPS, comprised of 750 people who guard and protect him.”

The latest Taliban attack is a late reminder that our National Security Forces have been long deprived of the much-important, even if symbolic, public support. It is a reminder that we, ordinary Afghans, need to rally mass awareness campaign of support for our security forces, no matter if our President blurs the difference between “brother” and enemy.

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Budget Rejection

The parliament has rejected proposed budget for 1391 for the second time on Monday. It was first rejected on March 18 asking the Finance Ministry for some amendments. The quorum was 126 MPs, out of whom 123 voted against the proposed budget, while only 3 approved of it. MPs were mostly critical of the bailout package for Kabul Bank and uneven allocations of development funds for provinces against the constitutional term of equal and balanced development for all parts of the country.

Following are some major points of contention mentioned in the official disapproval letter of Wolesi Jirga to Finance Ministry:

  • Bailout package for Kabul Bank is illegal and cannot be endorsed
  • The “balanced development” principle is violated in provincial budgets distribution.
  • More appropriate amount of budget should be allocated for Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education.

Last year when Finance Minister Zakhilwal was under fire from MPs about the $73million bailout package for Kabul Bank, he had promised to recompense the payment, but not only the government has taken no action against all those who were responsible for the corruption that led to collapse of Kabul Bank, rather the Finance Ministry has once again come up with an unbelievably ridiculous bailout package of $80million this year. No serious progress has been made in the investigation and trial of Kabul Bank shareholders. It was their irregularities and corruption that almost took the banking system down in the country.  Now why should the taxpayers’ money go to recover the amount gone to luxurious villas of Dubai? The bigwigs in the Government who were shareholders of Kabul Bank have not paid their loans back. The influential ones were not even charged for an investigation and trial.

The huge amount allocated for the Supreme Court and Attorney General’s office is also criticized by MPs. Another major point of contention is the budget for Presidential Palace, particularly the allocation for security. The amount for security guards of the Palace is more than the budget for parliament! Its more than the amount of budget allocated for many ministries. The amount for budget of Presidential security and Palace administrative expenses is about $80 million, while for the entire Ministry of Commerce and Trade its $14million and Ministry of Women Affairs $4million.So more than $15million of the Palace budget is allocated for Presidential Protection Service, which alone surpasses the amount for many ministries combined.

Though the Finance Ministry after first rejection of the budget by parliament amended with addition of $2 million for the Ministry of Higher Education, $2 million for Health Ministry and $5 million for the road construction projects in Herat that MPs had asked for, but other major changes requested about the Kabul Bank bailout package and “balanced development” for provinces have been ignored.

MPs should have a special sessions on the Palace budget and discuss legislative introductions. The amount for Presidential Office constitute more than one percent of our all national budget. President Karzai is the only President in the world who has more than 100 advisors. According to an investigative report by Afghan journalist Malyar Sadiq Azad of 1TV, President Karzai has 110 advisers, most of whom rarely see him. Each of them get $5000 monthly salary with luxurious benefits. They enjoy a vehicle, two body guards, three service personnel and other benefits. Some of them have been allotted luxurious villas in Sherpur, while others have offices in Shashdarak paying 12000 USD rent monthly. More than $4million is allocated for salaries of the army of Karzai’s advisers. Only 10 of these advisors meet the President regularly and are asked for actual advice on affairs of the Government, while the remaining 100 are fill-in-the-blanks in Karzai’s patronage politics of networking to buy power brokers and regional influential figures and a waste of the national budget.

The objection on imbalanced development budget allocated for provinces is not new. For the last several years, budget gets rejected for this reason. The parliament should take a more practical step by bringing a no-confidence motion against Finance Minister Zakhilwal.

Our rulers have no regard for democratic institutions. The Presidential Palace does not give a damn about resolutions of the parliament. It again proves that the nature of centrality of power to one person in our administrative system is the root cause of an incapable government that has failed the system.

The Government is violating the Constitution by ignoring some clauses on balanced development. Some provinces have been receiving all the attention and mega-million projects in the last decade, but the poorest parts of the country have been totally ignored.

The parliament is doing what it should do. If the Government had taken the parliament serious, the budget draft proposal should not have been rejected for second time. But in a country like Afghanistan, the Government will not shut down even if the budget approval takes months as it was the case last year. The Government must respect the representatives of masses and Constitution, and not make a mockery of the system.

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Kandahar Massacre: Their Disregard and Our Hypocrisy

Much have been written and said about the Kandahar massacre. The American soldier Robert Bales has been officially charged with 17 counts of murder, six counts of assault and attempted murder. In an interview to a US radio, the journalist told me Bales’ lawyer wants to visit Panjwai and “investigate” family members of those murdered. He says actions of his “clients” were not premeditated, and Bales has history of brain injury and does not fully understand the allegations against him.

Family members of the victims have been paid ‘assistance’ money of $50,000 for each of the slain, and $11,000 for injured by the US. The Afghan Government had earlier compensated the victims with $2000 for each murdered, and $1000 for those injured. A Government delegation visited the families and offered condolence. They came under a Taliban attack briefly in the area. I happened to see a video of the incident, in which an angry local villager was asking an ANA soldier to give him his weapon to fight with those who had attacked. The delegation included two brothers of President Karzai, Chief of Army Staff and other senior Government officials.

The US military and civilian officials have responded irresponsibly to this tragic incident. Regardless of the controversy that Robert Bales was alone or it was a group of soldiers who went to the houses and killed 16 people, it would have been proper if some senior US officials had joined the Afghan delegation to offer condolence to elders of the area during the funeral. I wonder what the cultural and religious advisors of the US military do. Later a group of area elders and family members of the victims were invited to Kabul by President Karzai. The US military and Embassy officials did not bother to meet them for a formal condolence offering. It might sound ridiculous from an ordinary Western perspective, but it got symbolic and traditional importance in our part of the world, when the guilty side visits the victims during funeral and offer sincere apology.

In contrary, the US officials and media were talking more about reaction and protests across Afghanistan, rather than looking into the human side of this tragic incident. My friend Ahmad Shuja puts it in the following words:

The debate following the Kandahar massacre shows that Americans at home and in Afghanistan still don’t quite understand the meaning of events in that country. Domestically, the calls for a swifter withdrawal is not only divorced from the realities of logistical constraints but also display a reckless disregard for the negative consequences of a hasty pullout on Afghans. In Afghanistan, an instinct of fear pervades the US and ISAF reaction, which leads them to ignore the grief of the victims.

This approach is precisely the wrong one because disregarding the human suffering and concentrating on “Afghan anger” and threat of a “backlash” dehumanizes the people affected by this incident and paints them not as victims but as potential aggressors. From a practical standpoint, it is especially counterproductive that the mission charged with protecting the civilians is taking the fear approach, because it separates them from the population and prevents a more human connection with the population in grief.”

The ignorance is not exclusive to the US military and civilian officials and political elite. Another friend Josh Shahryar has summarized the disregard of the victims of Kandahar by the mainstream US media in following words:

What disgusts me as an Afghan is the degree to which the victims of this massacre have been ignored. Imagine if this was a serial killer who committed this crime in a suburb of Chicago? By now, you’d have pictures of every victim, published in neat collages in every major newspaper in the US. The US mainstream media has people on the ground in Afghanistan. They also have access. Yet they have not documented names or pictures or stories. Afghan tragedies have been left for Afghans to cover, even when that tragedy is caused by an American.”

Josh points to an editorial on the Kandahar massacre published by the National Review Online referring to Afghans as “primitive”, and says:

“An American soldier goes to Afghanistan and massacres 16 civilians inside their homes, then burns their bodies. And we are the ones who are primitive”.

Almost a week after the incident, Wall Street Journal has been the only US media outlet to have interviewed the victims in Panjwai. Seeing the way mainstream US media have covered this massacre, I am not surprised that Robert Bales’ lawyer actually wants to visit Afghanistan and “investigate” family members of the victims for his “client”. There is little doubt Bales’ action were not premeditated. But his lawyer will try best to prove that Bales has mental problems and should go away with 16 murders.

In Afghanistan, people have been patient and there were no riots as feared by US officials and media pundits. But Afghan media should highlight the hypocrisy of our political and religious leadership and ordinary people regarding our reaction on such issues.

Taliban kill civilians every day. A day after the Panjwai massacre, an IED by the Taliban killed 5 women and 4 children in Uruzgan. The next day a blast killed several innocent people in Helmand. Taliban blow up mosques, they are responsible for majority of civilian casualties, but I remember only few cases in which people took to streets chanting against Taliban atrocities. If only President Karzai would have invited victims of any of the daily Taliban atrocities, media had highlighted in the way they reported Panjwai massacre, and people had protested like the riots after Quran burning, Taliban would think twice before sending a suicide bomber and killing civilians. If the US officials and media have shown utter disregard and ignorance, our hypocrisy has not been less in degree. Rather our collective hypocrisy has been more harmful than their disregard.


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Shadow of Afghanistan: 1959-2012

Shadow of Afghanistan: 1959-2012

My review of Shadow of Afghanistan for Outlook Afghanistan, published March 13, 2012

In recent months, two interesting documentary films covering the conflicts in Afghanistan during the last four decades have been released.

Shadow of Afghanistan: 1959-2012 is a compilation of over 100 hours of video shots by two Oscar-nominated filmmakers Jim Burroughs and Suzanne Bauman, who made 18 trips to Afghanistan over the last 26 years of war and chaos. The film is now released with publication of Blood on the Lens: A Filmaker’s Quest for Truth in Afghanistan, which describes the making of the documentary over the course of two decades, during which two crew members Lee Shapiro and James Lindelof were killed by Soviet troops when they were caught in a firefight with Mujahideen.

With some fascinating footage from 50s and 60s era before war, the documentary covers complex aspects of the tragedy that has been known as Afghanistan for decades. It tells the story of the Afghan generation of my age, who were born during the Soviet occupation and since have experienced an unending cycle of conflicts caused by the regional great games of super powers and our neighbors.

The film starts with 9/11 scenes of the plane-crash into the twin towers and comments of Afghan ‘resistance’ commander of National Islamic Front Wakil Akbarzai, the main liaison who organizes the trips and works as translator for the two American filmmakers, who are out to complete the documentary by their friends Lee Shapiro and James Lindelof. Another Afghan, Fatima Gilani, daughter of Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, the leader of National Islamic Front also comments throughout the film. With the political affiliation of both Afghan ‘experts’, one should know that their views are not reflective of average Afghan perspective.

As one among the generation of Afghans who were born during Soviet invasion, experiencing the last decades of conflicts, particularly those millions who fled the country as refugees, I would have been particularly interested to see views of the non-Mujahideen Afghans during the anti-Soviet resistance reflected equally. I have not come across a single American documentary about the Soviet invasion and following chaos in Afghanistan to have covered the perspectives of progressive and liberal Afghans of that era.  With their particular political affiliation, contention is reflected in the commentary of the two Afghan experts in the documentary, especially when Wakil Akbarzai talks of the civil war in Kabul among Mujahideen factions.

The film is very informative and a good revision for anyone interested in Afghanistan and it’s recent history of conflict and chaos. However, from the title Shadow of Afghanistan: 1959-2012, which covers 20 years of work by renown filmmakers, I had expected a more in-depth analysis of the situation from Soviet invasion to today’s Taliban resistance.

In fact the movie does not cover much after the US and NATO arrival in 2001.

Afghanistan’s poverty, illiteracy, religious extremism and other problems were not exclusively caused after the Soviet invasion, rather it’s rooted far back.

Shadow of Afghanistan is a passionate work of great courage by two filmmakers who, despite murder of their two friends on this documentary mission, risk their lives on frontlines with Afghan fighters and go to refugee camps on Afghanistan-Pakistan border and follow events in the country throughout decades of chaos that witness from withdrawal of Soviet troops and factional civil war among Mujahideen to rise of Taliban and their alliance with Al-Qaeda, the bloodthirsty group of Arab terrorists who make Afghanistan their launching pad for 9/11 attacks, when the US finally wakes up to the blunder of its own—abandoning and ignoring Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal.

However, the film does not give an in-depth analysis of how it all led to that situation. With a slight focus on war-journalism, as two crew members of the movie were killed, it does not tell the story of how irresponsibly the mainstream American media covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and following events.

The role of American press and the way they reported the Afghan resistance is important. A radical transformation of fanatic thoughts during the ‘Afghan Jihad’ against Soviet Union was overlooked with the indiscriminate and unaccountable assistance of the US to the radical Islamist Mujahideen factions. It was those last years of the anti-Soviet resistance that Osama Bin Ladin and influx of angry Arab fighters penetrated and radicalized some Mujahideen. And later it was them who used Afghanistan as training ground for Arab Jihadis to spread terror across the globe. How could the US remain unaware of all this radicalization happening? And what responsibility comes to the questionable role of American press in that era?

It was millions of US taxpayers’ money that was used in support of the Afghan Mujahideen resistance against Soviet forces and the American press coverage was biased in favor of Mujahideen to the point that it overlooked the radicalization and much more disturbing anti-American extremism growing in that era. The journalist community of American Club did their all reporting for all major US media outlets from the University Town of Peshawar in Pakistan. Robert Darr in his book The Spy of the Heart tells this story in some detail.

Shadow of Afghanistan strikingly portrays the tragedies of war, hardships of millions of Afghan refugees who fled the country during the Soviet invasion, children who are victim of land mines and Taliban brutality that was Afghanistan’s darkest era of history.

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Scared of the Time to Come

op-ed Outlook Afghanistan Feb 27

Death toll has reached 30 after six consecutive days of demonstrations against the Qur’an burning incident at Bagram. It always starts from Parwan. Last year’s demos were also instigated there, when a local paper recycling factory was attached by residents of the area accusing them to have used sacred texts with verses of Qur’an. Three were dead and several injured.

I am amazed with the amount of ‘analysis’ by ‘Afghanistan experts’ describing the madness of few hundred protesters and opportunists among them as “popular reaction and anger against foreign troops”. Mentioning the paper-recycling factory incident is to say that the demonstrations are not particular show of anger against foreign troops in Afghanistan in general. If it had been any local Mullah involved, there would have been similar reaction. Indeed Afghans are the worst reactionary among people of over 50 Muslim countries when it comes to issues of religious sensitivity. But to say these protests are popular resentment against foreign presence in Afghanistan is ignorance on behalf of some activist international experts, and propaganda when it comes to few particular media outlets in Kabul pursuing the religious agenda of our Western neighbor. Some outlets carried statements and Fatwas by Iranian Ayatullahs about the Qur’an burning.

President Obama, the US commander in Afghanistan General John Alen and many other senior American officials have not only apologized for the ‘unintentional’ burning of Qur’an, but also promised a thorough investigation and punishment for those responsible. Even if a mistake, one wonders why the US military has not learned anything about local cultural and religious sensitivities after a decade? One point the fiery speakers in the protest demonstrations mention is that such regrets have been expressed in the past by US officials, but mistakes repeated. However, there is no proof the burning was intentional. When the hate-monger Pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn copies of Quran in Florida last year, President Obama had personally called him to stop, despite the principles of freedom of expression in the US. The madness we are witnessing is not justifiable in any sense. There are opportunists and elements who want to use such incidents for their agendas. I am not suggesting that the protest demonstrations are not spontaneous at all, but there are some who provoke.

Our political and religious leadership have acted very irresponsibly so far. It is shameful.

President Karzai held a press conference yesterday, when already 30 lives were lost during the last six days. He thought it was more important to reiterate his political scoring with demands of prisons to be transferred to Afghan control, including Bagram. What the violence of past week has shown is utter failure of Police to control mobs and the fact that situation can get out of control so easily. It is an alarm for all of us about the worst to come after 2014 when international troops will withdraw from Afghanistan.

President Karzai called the protesters to calm down. He should have asked for this last week when President Obama had  apologized to him and Afghans in a letter. The response from ISAF also shows their lack of understanding the graveness of situation, and miscalculation about repercussions of the ‘mistake’. A mere apology cannot help, even if from President Obama. Last year, dozens were killed when Terry Jones in Florida had only threatened to burn Qur’an. They should have realized the situation when pages of burnt copies of Qur’an were shown on Kabul TVs. They could have contacted Karzai’s Ulema Shura—the council of clerics—and offered a sincere apology urging them to intervene and request people for patience. If not directly, they could take different approaches.

The most shameful irresponsibility was shown by the parliament where some MPs actually called for ‘Jihad’ against the US. They were shouting Allah-o-Akbar inside the lower house and chanting slogans like “death to America”.  Abdul Sattar Khwasi was prominent among MPs who made the call for Jihad.

Some members of the Senate called people to “continue the violent protest demonstrations”. Hasan Hotak from Zabul was saying there have not been enough deaths, the protests should continue. He was interfering with demands of other senators calling people for restraint. Let me quote his exact words: “the protests should continue for a month. We should infidels that we can defend our religion”. These remarks further provoke violence. Senator Asif Azimi from Samangan was saying: “there should be violence against unethical Americans, who have desecrated the holy book several times. For defending Qur’an, my life has no worth”.  What a defense! Killing each other and burning down public property is no defense of religion. People are ignoring the very teachings of Qur’an for which they are protesting. Violence is no response to a mistake, especially when US officials have apologized with assurance that it will not reoccur and those responsible will be punished.

When you see such madness in the parliament, what one could expect from illiterate radical mobs? I am scared of the times to come. Such episodes of violence are interrupted trailers of the situation after 2014.


Filed under Religious Extremism