Wednesday 19 November 2008

A culture in exile

Contratulations to Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan-born writer and filmmaker, who has just won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. His book Syngue Sabour (Stone of Patience) is about the thoughts of a woman as she sits besides the bed of her wounded husband, "somewhere in Afghanistan or somewhere else".
"At first, she prays to bring her husband back to life, but she begins to talk about herself, her suffering and her secrets and little by little, she trasforms her husband into this stone of patience," he said recently in a French TV interview.
The novel was Rahimi's first novel in French, having always previously written in Dari, his own language. His novel Earth and Ashes, written in Dari, was subsequently turned into a film that won a prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Born in 1962, Rahimi fled his native country in 1984 and lived in Pakistan for a year before obtaining political asylum in France, where he now lives.
An interesting, if slightly dated, interview with him can be found here.
Rahimi is only the latest literary exile from Afghanistan to make an impression in the West. Khaled Hosseini, whose novels The Kiterunner and A Thousand Splendid Suns have sold in their hundreds of thousands and have both been made into successful films, is probably the most famous. His novels bring out the uniqueness of Afghanistan and its people and remind us all of the extent to which we have let down this remarkable country.
Rahimi and Hosseini were part of an enormous humanitarian catastrophe, when almost a third of the country's population were forced to flee during the Soviet occupation of the country. At one point there were 6.5 million Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran alone. Tens of thousands more were in Central Asian, India and Western Europe.
At least 100,000 Afghans arrived in Germany, with more than a quarter of them living in Hamburg. More than 300,000 Afghans ended up in the United States, , with 40,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.
Even the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989 did not end the enforced exile. Terrible drought, followed by years of internecine fighting between the Afghan warlords and then the arrival of the Taliban in the mid 1990s ensured that the camps were always full. Writers and artists in particular faced persecution.
One of my strongest memories whilst in Kabul in 2002 was a visit to the National Art Gallery. Most figurative paintings had been destroyed and the wreckage had been gathered together in a heap as a kind of makeshift exhibit to illustrate the barbarism of the Taliban. Other paintings had been temporarily painted over by museum staff to hide 'offending' human figures from the zealots.
After the Taliban government fell in 2001 a number of programmes began to encourage Afghans to return to their homeland. For example, the International Organisation for Migration runs a Return of Qualifed Afghans Program and The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund also runs an Expatriate Services Program. These initiatives offer financial incentives to Afghans who agree to go home.
Many other Afghans have had little choice in the matter. Iran, in particular, has thrown out hundreds of thousands of Afghans, many of them Shia Hazaras. And Pakistan has also closed down many of the camps that had become almost permanent fixtures on the outskirts of Peshawar.
But still there are many thousands of Afghans who consider it is still too difficult or dangerous for them to return. Artists and musicians in particular are reluctant to return to a country where they know the Taliban would once again persecute them if it had the opportunity.
They include the great rubab player Khaled Arman and his father Mohammad Hossein Arman, both of whom live in Switzerland; the writer Spojmai Zariab (La Plaine de Cain and Ces murs qui nous ecoutes) and her writer husband Rahnaward Zariab who live in Paris; the writer Fateh Emam, who lives in Lausanne and is the author of Au-dela des mers salee and Un desir de liberte and many others too numerous to mention.
Afghanistan has great traditions of art and music. The poetry of Rumi, who was born in Balkh, and of the great Pashto mystic poets such as Khushal Khan and Abdur Rahman, is rightly regarded as amongst the greatest in any language. We all long for the day that Afghan poets feel safe once again in this land of poets.

Monday 17 November 2008

Can the Taliban count?

There is no doubt that the insurgency against US-led forces in Afghanistan has gathered pace this year (see my previous post). And even if it is true that many incidents described as 'Taliban' attacks are not necessarily what they seem, that organisation is undoubtedly playing a leading role. Yet even the most devout Taliban supporter must surely wonder about claims of military success made on theTaliban's official website ( Take the last week for example; between 12th and 17th November the Taliban issued 32 statements about military actions. That's roughly four or five per day. If we look in a little more detail at the Taliban statements, they claim to have killed four Canadian soldiers, 15 British , 48 Americans, 10 French, 12 Germans, 44 soldiers from the Afghan national army and 14 policemen - a total of 143 fatalities in one week. They also claim to have destroyed 11 tanks and 10 other unspecified military vehicles. In one of these reports claiming to have killed 11 Americans in Herat in Western Afghanistan on 16 November the official statement says: "According to a report, the Mujahide detonated his explosives, and completed attack in which 2 tanks of American invaders were completely destroyed".
A second report on an attack in which the Taliban claim to have killed 11 German soldiers, also on 16 November, in Baglan province contains the following statement: "According to a report, the Mujahide detonated his vehicle, and completed attack in which 2 tanks of German invaders were completely destroyed few vehicles were damaged .
What a coincidence! Clearly we cannot place a lot of trust in the Taliban claims on the battlefield. They appear to be issued by rote, with little concern for the truth. In reality, several Coalition soldiers have been killed and there have been a number of firefights, but nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, with the first heavy snows of winter already being reported in Laghman province, the level of fighting is likely to decline.
Even the most widely reported event of the week - the seizing of a number of US Army Humvees and other military equipment from a convoy that was halted and pillaged in the Khyber Pass (see picture above) - was not actually the work of the Taliban itself, but of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the movement's Pakistan-based co-thinkers, who have numerous differences with the Quetta-based Taliban leadership.
Why is it that the Taliban chooses to publish so many lies? After all, they are likely to be much happier about the present state of the insurgency than, say, the White House or Downing Street. The increasingly directionless US entanglement in Afghanistan will soon be that country's longest active military engagement anywhere.
Is it because they think people in the West will believe the lies? That is unlikely. The spokesmen for the Taliban (who can easily be contacted by journalists) are no fools. Although it is often difficult for journalists to travel within the country to check on reported incidents for themselves, they are unlikely to swallow such improbable 'facts' fed to them by Zabiullah Mujahid or Qari Muhammed Yousuf, the two Taliban spokesmen
. Eleven British fatalities on one day, as reported by the Taliban in the last week, would have caused a major political crisis in Britain.
It is because the Taliban are unsophisticated and don't care too much about accuracy? This is not true either. The organisation runs a professional propaganda operation, which produces well thought-out dvds that use the latest video technology and computer programs, runs regularly updated websites and often succeeds in getting its message across by being first to issue a statement on an important event.
No, the simple truth is that in many parts of Afghanistan, with little or no access to public information and high rates of illiteracy, the outlandish claims of the Taliban are believable. In an interview with the BBC last week, Abdul Raziq, a teacher in Lashkar Gar in Helmand province, spoke to reporter Jill McGivering: " 'The current insecurity is because of the illiteracy in our country,' he told me. 'If the people were literate, they wouldn't have this insurgency now. That's why I'm trying to do what I can to educate the future generation, so they can serve their country, instead of destroying it.' "

At the same time, people know that there are Taliban roadblocks appearing on a regular basis in many of the more remote places. Vehicles are 'taxed' by local militias. Night letters are distributed threatening anyone who steps out of line.
No wonder that they think the insurgents can destroy dozens of tanks, kill hundreds of foreign soldiers and drive them from the country.
That is a measure of where we are today. Even the most barefaced of Taliban lies is believable to many Afghans, who at the same time grow increasingly sceptical of Coalition claims, particularly following numerous recent bombings of innocent civilians. Unless Western policy on Afghanistan changes rapidly the Taliban will soon be calling all the shots.

Thursday 13 November 2008

When the Army played the Afghans at footie

I was looking through some pics I took during a visit to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US-led invasion and thought I should share some of them with you. On 15th February 2002 at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul - previously infamous as the site of public executions by the Taliban - a remarkable football match took place between Kabul United and ISAF. Billed as the 'Game of Unity', the stadium was full to capacity and I was only able to get in by being passed over the heads of hundreds of Afghans who were less fortunate. I recall seeing some desperate fellows unwinding their turbans to pull their comrades over the high wall.
It was a most remarkable match. On the roof of the stadium ISAF marksmen lay prone behind their sniper rifles, while on the pitch the half-time entertainment was provided by a small group of Gurkha dancers. The 20,000-strong crowd jeered as the Gurkhas trotted to the middle of the pitch, wearing their white ceremonial costumes and red waistcoats, topped off by a headpiece similar to a fez. It was only when the Gurkhas, with a flourish, unsheathed their
kukris - the deadly knife they use in close-quarter combat - that the jeering turned into cheering. As the dancers faced each other and their curved blades flashed in the thin winter sun a roar of approval rose up from the crowd.
As for the football, the ISAF team was most British, but there were also Italians, Spanish, Norwegians, French, Dutch and Germans. It ended as a 2-1 defeat for the Kabul team, but honour was saved because the Afghan goal was a corker.
Today, of course, no such match could take place in Afghanistan. Large public gatherings are places to be avoided now that the Taliban has imported the technique of the suicide bomber. The goodwill that existed throughout the country in the wake of their overthrow in 2001 has somehow been frittered away. Too many broken promises, too many indiscriminate airstrikes and too much corruption have all played their part.
Don't let it ever be said that the Afghans did not give peace a chance. They did. It was the ignorance and incompetence of those who conduct the 'war on terror' that turned things around. Simple as that. Ask any Afghan.

Monday 10 November 2008

Has Obama learned any lessons from history?

As President-elect Obama begins to form his administration his wisest counsellors will be pointing out the need for a major policy rethink in Afghanistan. For months senior military figures in both Britain and America have been speaking publicly of their own failure to win a military victory against the Taliban and the need for negotiation.
They join a long list of military commanders over the past two centuries who have learned the hard lessons of fighting in the Hindu Kush and the hot southern plains. The Afghans do not take kindly to
farangis who occupy their land and this issue will unite them as much as ethnicity, language, religion and geography divide them.
The generals may have known all along that the chances of defeating the insurgency were very small, but after seven years of fighting they can no longer be in any doubt. This summer the insurgency was more active and effective than ever before.
Two hundred and fifty soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year so far, including 151 Americans. In the whole of last year there were 232 casualties. More than 1,000 have died since the US-led invasion in 2001, of whom 634 were Americans (all figs from Many thousands more have been seriously injured.
Estimates of civilian casualties are harder to come by, but most estimates suggest somewhere around 7,000 people have been killed directly as a result of the conflict, with anything from 9,000 to 27,000 having been killed indirectly by the humanitarian crisis that has gripped parts of the country.
And while US and other forces have had some success in direct firefights, we have also begun to see accounts of battles in which the Taliban is willing to commit several hundred fighters at a time, occasionally over-running fixed positions before quickly withdrawing. On several occasions groups of soldiers have only been saved by the use of massive airpower.
But that is increasingly controversial. The last few months have been particularly noteworthy for the number of airstrikes which have led to civilian deaths, clearly as a result of poor targetting or misinformation. In the August bombing of the village of Azizabad in western Afghanistan, in which many civilians died, it later emerged that information that led to the airstrike came from Afghan tribal opponents of the village that was hit.
One of the most striking differences between the present conflict and the many campaigns conducted by the British Army during the days of the Raj is the comparative lack of knowledge of the tribal and social structure of Afghanistan by the military.
The first Pashto grammar in English was written by Henry Walter Bellew (1834-92), a surgeon in the Bengal Army, who served with the Corps of Guides in Mardan in the 1860s. His
General Report on the Yusufzais (1864) and Inquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan (1891) remain important historical works. Many other British officers learned either Dari or Pashto and were familiar with the pashtunwali code of conduct.
Today there is little evidence that the military understands the importance of tribal politics in trying to understanding Afghanistan. How many military officers know that there are Shia enclaves in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, for example?
One consequence is that
all Pashtuns have been demonised, as military strategists find it impossible to differentiate between Taliban and Pashtun, often using the two terms interchangeably. The reality is that the insurgency is almost as fractured as the US-led coalition it is fighting. In parts of the south it is drug lords who predominate, in others the Taliban of Mullah Omar or the Hezbe Islami of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Understanding these local differences is vital.
As Obama consults his generals he would do well to consider the possibility that the Islamic world itself may have an important role to play in terms of resolving the present conflict. One could go further and reasonably argue that the chances of a negotiated settlement are minimal without the participation of moslems. For some time it has been rumoured that negotiations have been taking place with elements of the old Taliban leadership that has become disenchanged with Mullah Omar and his close association with al-Qaeda. President Karzai himself has admitted as much and not so long ago he threw British advisers out of the country for conducting such talks without his permission.
These may look like local talks, but the reality is that it will require power brokers based in Cairo and Jeddah to make these discussions turn into a real agreement.
For those living in Kabul, there is still a sense that they are living in a capital city, even though safety cannot now be guaranteed in most of the country. In the last week we have been told of three kidnappings - a Canadian and a Dutch journalist - both of whom were seized very close to the capital - and a 61 year-old American engineer who was held for two months before being rescued by US special forces. Two weeks ago a Frenchman was kidnapped off the streets of Kabul and before that UK citizen Gayle Williams was gunned down in the street, allegedly for spreading Christianity. The town of Sarobi, where ten French paratroopers were killed six weeks ago by a large force of Hekmatyar's men is only a half-hour drive from the capital.
It may be that the impending arrival of winter will slow the momentum towards national disintegration, but unless someone in Washington wakes up to the realities and convinces the President that missiles fired from drones and a surge in troop numbers will not solve this war, then the spring will bring another hard lesson for Operation Enduring Freedom.