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Continuous coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan: Is this what peace looks like?

Karzai once again lambasts his foreign allies as the insurgency stages another raid on central Kabul.
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An Afghan policeman helps a wounded man during clashes following an attack on a police station at the main market in central Kabul on June 18, 2011. Armed militants stormed a police station in the heart of the Afghan capital, triggering an explosion and ongoing heavy exchange of fire, officials and witnesses said. The attackers got into the police station in the crowded main central market area, close to the Afghan presidential palace, defence ministry and other official buildings. (Massoud Hossaini /AFP/Getty Images)
KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai seemed intent on torpedoing any possible goodwill between the U.S. and Aghanistan with another scathing speech aimed at his ostensible allies.

Afghanistan: The "Forgotten War" all over again

Last year at this time dozens of reporters scurried around Kandahar Airfield. This year there is only me.
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Army privates on their first deployment last summer. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

I arrived at Kandahar Airfield's Media Support Center yesterday expecting to see a mass of reporters wearing khaki cargo pants and olive T-shirts pacing about, chain-smoking under the No Smoking sign. There were none.

Maybe they're in their rooms, I thought. But where were the doors left slightly ajar, with satellite modems pointing to the sky downloading entire seasons of "Lost" at $10 per megabyte?

Where were the empty Diet Coke cans strewn about and where was the laundry hanging to dry?

This media encampment, which housed 60 reporters at its peak last year, is a ghost town. The soldiers who run the place say everyone who has cancelled their embeds has done so to spend time covering the conflict in Libya.

Could this signal Afghanistan's return to it's prior status as our Forgotten War?


Afghanistan: the dark side of the moon

A lunar eclipse causes a near panic in Kabul.
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The earth's shadow passes over the moon, behind the crescent on top of the minaret. (Christopher Furlong/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — Unexpected loud noises are apt to cause consternation to those who have spent time in Afghanistan. Last New Year’s Eve I went to Boston Common for First Night fireworks with two friends, both of whom had worked in Kabul.

At the first sparkling volley, the three of us almost hit the ground.

So it is not surprising that I jerked awake last night slightly after midnight, heart pounding, mouth dry, badly disoriented. My house is situated in a mosque-rich environment, and from at least five loudspeakers in my immediate vicinity mullahs were wailing the arzan, or call to prayer, at the top of their voices. On the streets outside my gate dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men had responded, and were shouting “Allahu Akbar!”

I thought for a minute that Harold Camping might have just been off by a few weeks, and the Rapture had come to my adopted town. I did not see any ascending bodies, however.

Then I wondered uneasily whether the Taliban had taken Kabul. No more television, no more restaurants, and no more music other than an endless call to prayer. There would, of course, be other disadvantages if the fundamentalists were to assume power, but my sleep-deprived brain could not come up with any.

My last semi-coherent thought was that the war was at last over, and I should just throw on some clothes and go join the revelers.

Luckily, a friend of mine sent me a text message just about then. “Don’t worry about the mullahs arzaning,” he wrote. “It’s something to do with the moon.”

Had I not been so tired, I might have gone out to my balcony to investigate. But knowing it was not the end of days, I just turned over and tried to go back to sleep. No luck. The cacophony went on forever.

This morning I finally got the story. Several Afghan journalists at a workshop I was giving asked if I had heard the noise. Apparently all of Kabul was awake all night.

“Yes,” I said. “What was it?”


Gaiety battles despair as Kabul’s expats trip the light fantastic

Long summer evenings, boozy discussions with friends … what could be better? Well, a different venue, for starters.
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An Afghan child looks on as others rehearse for a performance on child labor at the Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children in Kabul on June 11, 2011. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — I rarely make the expatriate scene these days, but last night I went to a party for a dear friend who was combining her birthday and leaving celebrations.

Documentary filmmakers were there in abundance, along with several journalists and some practitioners of that mysterious art known as “media development” — which often seems to involve training Afghan reporters to do things that are still all but impossible in this country.

There was laughter and bonhomie and dancing under the stars. The wine flowed freely, mojitos were handed around, and a case of beer mysteriously appeared when supplies ran low. So by midnight tongues were loosened perhaps a bit more than was good for any of us.

That’s when I realized that in almost every conversation I had had, in over six hours of mingling and laughter, there ran a current of cynicism and despair.


Gift horse or Trojan horse?

Analysis: U.S. assistance to Afghanistan is under attack by two major congressional studies. The final verdict: it’s not working.
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An Afghan man cultivates poppy bulbs at a farm in early May, 2011 near the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Despite aid money to reduce poppy harvesting, it remains a challenge within Afghanistan. (Majid Saeedi/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — U.S. aid to Afghanistan is often shoddy, frequently wasteful, and almost always unsustainable. It fuels corruption and creates a dependency mentality that retards development. It has wasted billions of dollars for minimal returns so far, and, if urgent care is not taken, tens of billions more will follow.

This is the upshot of two major studies of assistance programs in Afghanistan undertaken by various groups in Congress. The only difference between them is that one, a special report compiled by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, has bipartisan backing, while a new one released on Wednesday was written by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

So now it’s official. Both parties have taken years, and most likely spent a lot of money, to ascertain what anyone with more than a week’s experience in Afghanistan could probably have told them for free: assistance money is not only useless, it is often detrimental.

Not that anyone is shouting this information from the rooftops in Kabul, mind you. Too many people here are making much too much money from the gravy train of aid dollars for there to be anything like a candid examination of assistance programs on the ground.


Afghanistan: What withdrawal?

It’s no wonder the Afghans are confused: Top U.S. advisers issue sharply contradictory remarks about the timing and pace of the promised U.S. troop drawdown.
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates meets with troops on June 6, 2011 at Combat Outpost Andar in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. Gates is on a two-day farewell trip to Afghanistan before he steps down as U.S. Secretary of Defense. (Jason Reed/Getty Images)

KABUL — As United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates continued his victory lap through Afghanistan’s combat zones Monday, the debate over the pace of the coming troop withdrawal gathered steam.

Gates was on his 12th and final visit to Afghanistan in his current job: He is due to retire within weeks of his return to the United States.

As he dispensed and collected kudos in his meetings with the troops in Kandahar, Helmand, Paktika and Kabul, Gates had one consistent message: Any drawdown must be gradual, and should start with support troops, not with combat forces.

"If it were up to me, I'd leave the shooters to last," he told troops at the base outside Kandahar city, according to numerous media reports.

A hasty retreat could send a signal to Afghanistan’s troublesome neighbors that it was once again open season on the volatile country.

"We don't want the Afghans or any others in the region to think we're pulling up stakes and taking (off) out of here," Gates told troops in Helmand.

With Pakistan, Iran and Russia, all professing to have strategic interests in Afghanistan, a continued U.S. presence could provide a necessary stabilizing influence; at least, this is what some of President Hamid Karzai’s closest aides seem to think.

Karzai’s national security adviser, Rangin Dadfur Spanta, told the New York Times on Sunday that the Afghan government was planning on a close relationship with the United States for a decade or more.

But as Obama considers his options ahead of a promised announcement on the withdrawal later this month, he has a host of domestic concerns to deal with. A shaky economy has left more than 9 percent of Americans jobless, while Congress explores ways to gut healthcare for the elderly. Unhappy at home, Americans are, frankly, tired of a $100-billion-a-year effort in a country they know or care little about. Polls show that up to two-thirds of Americans believed the war in Afghanistan was no longer worth fighting, even before the killing of Osama bin Laden deprived the war of its most powerful justification.

Patience for the decade-long venture in Afghanistan is wearing thin, and with a presidential race heating up, Obama is going to have to put voter concerns in the mix.

There are now approximately 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 30,000 of which were added last year in a much-debated “surge.”

At his West Point speech on December 1, 2009, when he announced the troop increase, Obama promised that he would begin to bring the troops home in July 2011.


With friends like these, who needs the Taliban?

Afghanistan’s Council of Religious Scholars calls for a harsh crackdown on independent media on grounds of “immorality.”
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An Afghan vendor sells newspaper on a street of Kabul on May 3, 2011. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Those who think that Afghanistan’s problems began and ended with the Taliban should take a look at a recent declaration by the country’s Council of Religious Scholars, known here as the Ulema Shura.

The Shura meets with President Hamid Karzai on a bi-weekly basis to advise him on religious matters. At the latest session, which took place on Thursday morning, just before Karzai flew off to Italy for the country’s 150th birthday party, the esteemed mullahs presented the president with a statement calling for, among other things, the closure of some of the country’s most progressive media.

TOLO TV has been in the mullahs’ sights before, most often for broadcasting foreign soap operas, irreverent coverage of the government, or for showing women who sing and at times actually move to the music when they perform.

The Shura is now criticizing the television station for “immorality,” and demanded “for the last time” that Karzai close down TOLO for its “anti-religious” broadcasts. If the president refuses to heed their call, they say, they will mobilize the public for mass protests.


A half-staff kind of weekend

Days of death and chaos in Afghanistan exposes some of the deep inconsistencies in the conflict.

No Memorial Day weekend here, no family barbeques to start the summer, no gleeful beginning of white-shoe season.

But U.S. President Barack Obama’s directive that U.S. flags be flown at half-staff until noon on Monday is particularly fitting for this land of endless conflict.

It’s been a weekend of mayhem all around: a major police commander killed in the north, a disastrous airstrike in the south, and an empty threat by a desperate but weak president in the center.

An airstrike in Helmand province killed 14 civilians, all women and children. At the same time Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that NATO cease its night raids against the Afghan population, although NATO did not seem to be paying very close attention.  

A suicide attack in Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province, shocked the nation. The primary target appeared to be Gen. Mohammad Daud Daud, a well-known military commander who was in charge of Afghan forces in the north.


“Forbidden Love” sweeps Afghanistan

A Turkish TV soap opera has many Afghans riveted to their televisions. But not everyone is enamored of the sexually charged serial.
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Afghanistan's TOLO television station is broadcasting "Forbidden Love" a controversial Turkish soap opera. Some in Afghanistan are calling for the serial to be taken off the air because it is allegedly corrupting Afghan Islamic values. Here, an Afghan television shop shows an episode of Indian soap opera that stirred a similar controversy in 2008. (Massoud Hossaini /AFP/Getty Images)

As soap operas go, it has all the right elements: a beautiful, tragic heroine; a gorgeous, cavalier male lead; and a plot sufficiently twisted to keep even the craftiest spectator guessing.

Premiered in February on Afghanistan’s most popular television station, TOLO, “Forbidden Love” already has a large following.

It tells the heart-rending tale of young Bihter, bullied by her mother into marrying a wealthy older man. She swiftly falls in love with his nephew, Behruz, who lives in the family manse like a son.

Her husband’s daughter Nehal is also in love with Behruz, as is one of the household staff, whose brother is in love with Nehal.

Behruz, a ne’er do well playboy, begins to succumb to his obsession with Bihter, but distracts himself by seducing his patron’s daughter.

You get the idea — plenty of unresolved conflict, unrequited love, and unsatisfied passion.

Girls by the thousand are mooning over Behruz, while young men strive for his too-cool-for-school charm. Bihter, with her soulful eyes and pained smile, is the new sex symbol for thousands of Afghan men.

For the most part, it is harmless, mindless entertainment — just what a weary Afghan needs at the end of the day to take his or her mind off a steady diet of suicide bombings, high-level corruption scandals. And dashed hopes for peace.

But ”Forbidden Love,” a Turkish soap opera that airs five times a week, is threatening to produce a very different kind of passion in this deeply conflicted society.

In a country just a decade away from the Taliban’s cheerless regime, where conservative values are deeply embedded in the mainstream culture, “Forbidden Love” is seen by some as dangerous subversion.

“This serial will have a very bad effect on the people of Afghanistan,” wrote one reluctant watcher, posting his comments on the website that TOLO has devoted to the serial, known in Afghanistan as “Eshq al Mamnou.”

This mild rebuke pales, however, beside a tirade posted on the controversial Benawa website, which mostly publishes pro-Pashtun elegies and rants against everybody else.

Now the website has seen fit to give space to a truly alarming tirade against “Forbidden Love,” calling on the Taliban to blow up TOLO TV.

“TOLO has started some activities that are far from Islamic and Afghan values,” says the writer, who identifies himself as Baktash Anush. “The Taliban, who call themselves defenders of Islam and the homeland, kill people without reason, kill Pashtun political figures, commit suicide attacks against police and the army, but are not paying any attention to TOLO … If you are men, come and attack TOLO. … send five to six explosive-laden vehicles and ten armed suicide bombers to destroy this center of moral corruption.”

This is not the first time that TOLO has been censured for its programming. A previous serial, “Tolsi,” also attracted bitter complaints that it was “un-Islamic.”

But the public was wild for it. In Helmand, a mostly Pashtun province in the Taliban-rich south, fans went to great lengths to catch the series. Electricity in Helmand can be sketchy at best, so resourceful "Tolsi” devotees would remove their car batteries to power their televisions.

In 2008 the Ministry of Information and Culture, then headed by the ultra-conservative Abdul Karim Khoram, tried to ban “Tolsi” and several others soaps, on the grounds that they were harmful to Afghan cultural traditions.

TOLO defied the ban, and kept on showing “Tolsi,” a major moneymaker for the independent station. Ultimately the Ministry backed down.

“Tolsi” portrayed the ups and downs of an Indian Hindu family, with various story elements that shocked the Afghan public. One of the characters had a child out of wedlock, and, as one young Afghan put it, “she wasn’t stoned to death or anything.”

But at least with “Tolsi” the moralizers could console themselves with the fact that this was a strange culture and an alien religion. Of course, the Indian style of dress presented some difficulties – bare arms and midriffs had to be pixellated to avoid undue titillation.

“Forbidden Love” is another story entirely.


Afghanistan: Is Mullah Omar dead?

The Taliban leader may or may not be dead. Nobody knows for sure.
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There is considerable speculation that Afghanistan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been killed. Here, a man reads a newspaper with a photo of Omar on the front page. The newspaper is the Algerian daily El Youm from October 28, 2001. (Hocine/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL – It all started with an “unnamed Afghan official” from the National Directorate of Security (NDS), who apparently told TOLO TV, an independent Afghan station, that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had been killed in Pakistan.

The statement by TOLO that set off the storm read: “Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has been found and killed in Pakistan, a source in the Afghan National Directorate of Security told TOLO news on condition of anonymity. Mullah Omar was shot dead as he was being moved from Quetta to North Waziristan by former ISI chief General Hamid Gul, the source said.”

The Afghan Taliban has firmly denied all such reports, saying that their leader was safe and sound in Afghanistan, where he was directing military operations.

“Claims and rumors were spread this morning by the Kabul stooge regime’s intelligence directorate, other officials and some media outlets that the esteemed Amir ul Mumineen was martyred in Pakistan,” the statement read. “We strongly reject these false claims of the enemy.”

The news triggered a social-media frenzy. Soon speculation wrapped in rumor inside conjecture was flying around cyberspace.

Mullah Omar had been killed in a drone attack; no, it was an airstrike. Other sources claimed that the one-eyed “self-proclaimed Amir ul Mumineen, or “Leader of all the Faithful” was not dead at all, but in Pakistani detention.

The mainstream media remained fairly cool to the topic. The price fetched by the rather unusual hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the royal wedding occupied exponentially more air space than reports of the Taliban leader’s death.

But the Twitterati were in hyperdrive, sending literally thousands of tweets out into the atmosphere. Most reports could be traced back to the original TOLO account, embellished and embroidered as the author saw fit.

Former director of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) General Hamid Gul, reached by reporters in Pakistan, dismissed the reports that he had anything to do with Mullah Omar’s death as “rubbish.”

“I never met Mullah Omar, not even once in my life,” he told AFP.

He reportedly told other sources that he was in Murree, a resort town in the hills above Islamabad, with his wife, and had no information about the Taliban leader.