Saturday, 21 February 2009

You could not make it up

TIME Magazine’s recent feature on warlords in Afghanistan purports to be an up-to-the-minute expose, illustrating how a handful of greedy and rapacious bandit-kings are preventing the country from developing.

Sadly, it is nothing of the sort. It is an example of how sloppy TIME has become, allowing unchecked facts and old copy to be recycled as news.

Reporter Aryn Baker chooses to base much of her report on the activities of the Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum. She outlines an unpleasant (but old) story of how Dostum threatened to have a woman raped by 100 men and also how he is now building a massive pink mansion, complete with fish tanks in the entrance hall.

Baker also gives the distinct impression that she has recently met or spoken to the General. “These days, Dostum strides across the marble-inlay floors of his new mansion – a pink, three-tiered wedding cake of a house”. One assumes, reasonably, that Ms Baker has witnessed the General striding through his new palace.

She also quotes him in the present tense: The money to build the house, Dostum says, came from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for whom he was military chief of staff. According to Dostum, Karzai pays him $80,000 a month to serve as his emissary to the northern provinces. "I asked for a year up front in cash so that I could build my dream house," he says.”

What is the problem with all this, you may ask? Quite simple. Anyone reading this blog – not to mention other sources – will be aware that Dostum has been in Turkey since early December and that there is very little chance of his return. I reported here that Dostum had recently phoned former President Rabbani to complain about the fact that he had been tricked into leaving and could not return.

Time’s reporter Baker mentions none of this. Presumably she dialed a Turkish telephone number when she spoke to him? In fact, she seems to have done very little checking on this story at all. Much of her report is merely the recycling of a story she filed on 9 December last year. Then, in relation to the woman who was threatened by rape, she wrote:

“Last year Samimi received a phone call from General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a US ally who was appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai as Army chief of Staff, threatened to have her raped ‘by 100 men’ if she continued investigating a rape case in which he was implicated. Dostum denied every making such a threat and calls the rape allegation ‘propaganda’. A witness to the phone call, military prosecutor General Habibullah Qasemi, was dismissed from his post soon after, despite carrying a sheaf of glowing recommendation letters penned by U.S. military supervisors."

Compare that to what she reported in her 14 Feb story:

"In 2007, Samimi received a phone call from Dostum threatening to have her raped "by 100 men" if she continued investigating a rape case in which he was implicated. Dostum denies ever making such a threat, telling TIME that the rape allegation is "propaganda." And yet a witness to the phone call, military prosecutor General Habibullah Qasemi, was dismissed from his government post soon afterward, despite carrying a sheaf of glowing recommendation letters penned by U.S. military supervisors."

I should add that other sections of Baker’s more recent report are lifted almost without change from the story filed in December. She has clearly not made any further checking calls or she has accepted the propaganda put out by Dostum's officials.

When I contacted TIME to ask them about all these matters, this was their response: “Aryn Baker, who reported and wrote the article about Afghan warlords in the current issue of TIME, stands by her reporting that, according to General Dostum, Dostum’s men and government officials, Dostum is not in exile in Turkey but is there only to receive treatment for an unspecified condition before returning shortly to Afghanistan.” Oh well, it must be true then.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The reality of living on $1 a day

Jennifer McCarthy, a researcher from Kings College in London who is living in Maimana, Faryab province in northern Afghanistan while conducting her PhD research, has decided to try and live on $1 a day for the next month. According to the UN OCHA more than half the population of Afghanistan presently live on this amount of money.
"I work in rural villages in Faryab and see that most families struggle for access to adequate food and water. I want to begin to understand what it is like to live just below the international poverty line, so I will do so for 30 days beginning tomorrow, February 19th. USD $1 is the equivalent of 52Afs in the local currency. I will provide myself with daily food and water with these 52Afs and will share with you the experience and reflections through my blog:"
Please read the blog and contact Jennifer to let her know what you think about her project. We wish her the best of luck - she will need it.

Monday, 16 February 2009

An unlamented death

The death of the Taliban commander Mullah Ghulam Dastagir last night in an airstrike in the northwestern province of Badghis brings to a bloody end a saga which had been particularly damaging for President Hamid Karzai.
Dastagir and another Taliban commander, Mullah Baz Mohammad, died along with a dozen or so of their men in a compound in the village of Darya-ye-Morghab, near the Turkmenistan border in north-western Afghanistan. According to US military reports, the precision strike damaged no other buildings.
His death will be a blow to the Taliban as he was in charge of much of western Badghis. “He was like the shadow governor of Badghis,” said General Mohammad Ayub Nizyar, a former police chief in the province.
This was no exaggeration. From almost no Taliban activity three years ago, the Taliban are now estimated to have several hundred fighters in the province, many of them sheltering in the rugged mountains in the region. Already by November 2007, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting noted that Dastaghir and his fighters had a significant presence in the area.
And historically, Badghis had always been more open to Taliban influence than other parts of the north. It was the first northern province to go over to the Taliban in 1997. Unemployment and the failure of the Afghan government to offer any hope to a substantial Pashtu-speaking population in the area are factors in their resurgence.
President Karzai has, no doubt, wished death on Mullah Dastagir many times since 27 November last year when he led insurgents who ambushed a supply convoy, killing nine Afghan soldiers and five police officers, wounding 27 men, capturing 20 others, destroying at least 19 vehicles and stealing five others.
Two months previously Dastagir had been in custody in Kabul on charges of aiding the Taliban. He had been arrested in March 2008 in the Kamarkalagh district just north of Herat’s provincial capital. Dastagir spoke regularly with regional media outlets and was the Taliban’s unofficial spokesman for their northwestern faction.
Despite this background, he had been released by President Karzai after assurances from a delegation of tribal elders that he would live a peaceful life. The disastrous ambush and the presidential pardon that preceded it subsequently became the subject of a government inquiry, as well as a source of profound embarrassment for the Afghan government.
Just in case anyone had any doubt that the Mullah was responsible for the November attack, he was happy to go on the record. When asked directly, he replied, "Definitely!" He was hardly able to contain his laughter. "I am a jihadist, I will continue my jihad," he declared. "My morale is very high."
The parliamentary inquiry has since revealed further details of the negotiations that led to Dastagir’s release. According to the New York Times, Rangeen Mushkwani, a senator from Badghis who attended the elders' meeting with Mr. Karzai, said the Taliban ordered the delegation to plead for Dastagir's release. "These people did not come by their own choice," Mr. Mushkwani said. "They were forced to come." He said that he and others had only attended the meeting in order to protect relatives in Badghis that the Taliban had threatened to kill.
Dastagir continued to cause problems, even amongst the Taliban. In early December last year he became involved in a firefight with another Taliban commander that left one dead and four injured. The fight between Dastagir and Mullah Bahauddin broke out in the Dokoon area in Bala Murghab district. Perhaps President Karzai will not be the only one to welcome the news of his demise.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society

Mit-i-Kasimabad Minaret, 1921

The city of Candahar by James Atkinson, 1842

Horse dealers in Kabul by Benjamin Simpson 1881.

If you are in London in the next couple of weeks, you may want to get down to the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington, which is running a wonderful exhibition entitled 'From Kabul to Kandahar: 1833-1933.
Drawing on the Society's unrivalled collection of images, the exhibition features drawings, lithographs and photos, accompanied by extracts from historic travel journals and maps.
The exhibition includes scenes of Kabul's market place in 1842, panoramic views of Kandahar taken after the second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880 and many other stunning images. It is curated in partnership with the Afghan Association of London (Harrow), Brondesbury College for Boys (Brent) and members of the London-based Afghan community. It is also available for regional tours. The exhibition closes on 26 February, so get along while you can. (The images above are all from the exhibition © Royal Geographical Society).

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Tensions between US and NATO over civilian deaths

The Sun newspaper reports today that a British colonel faces possible charges under section one of the Official Secrets Act for leaking sensitive details of civilian casualties in Afghanistan to a woman from a human rights group.
Lt Col Owen McNally, who has been seconded from his regiment for a year to work with NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is apparently on his way back to London under guard where he will be questioned by detectives from the Metropolitan Police.
From the few facts that have been made public it would appear that the details being referred to are contained in a report published last September by Human Rights Watch (see here for more information on Rachel Reid, his alleged contact at HRW and here for a strong rebuttal statement from Ms Reid. ).
Their report
, Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan, openly acknowledges that NATO and other military officials, particularly from the USA, were contacted. "Human Rights Watch is appreciative of the numerous interviews granted by US and NATO military and civilian officials. In particular we would like to thank the members of the Judge Advocate General Corps, NATO headquarters, Kabul; US military personnel at Bagram Air Base; military planners at the Combined Air Operations Center, Doha; and the NATO Media Operations Center, Brussels."
The report noted a steep increase in the number of civilians killed by US airstrikes and was published just days after dozens of civilians in Azizabad in the west of the country were killed in yet another disastrous bombing (see my previous blog on this subject). Thus in 2006 116 civilians were killed in 13 bombings by Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF airstrikes. In 2007 this figure had risen to 321 deaths in 22 bombings. And in the first seven months of 2008, excluding Azizabad, 119 civilians had been killed in 12 airstrikes.
However, what was striking about the HRW report is that it contains very detailed information about some of the incidents in which civilians were killed in Afghanistan. For example, it notes: "In one district, a senior British commander asked US Special Operations Forces to leave his district due to the mounting civilian casualties caused when the US repeatedly called in airstrikes to rescue small numbers of special forces during firefights with insurgent forces."
This is, to say the least, an unusual level of detail and it is surprising that the information was handed over voluntarily by the military authorities. Not least because it highlights possible tensions between NATO and US commanders over the use of close aerial support.
This point was reinforced at the end of January this year when NATO decided to publish its own civilian casualty figures. According to NATO spokesman James Appathurai, of more than 1,000 civilians killed last year in Afghanistan, less than 100 were killed by NATO-led forces. He also said that there was no information on civilian deaths for previous years because there was no reliable way of collating them. "We put in a new tracking system last year. Before that we weren't frankly confident in our ability to judge it accurately. You have to understand this is a country where there are no birth certificates, there are no death certificates, people are buried very quickly and this is often in remote areas," he said.
Clearly there is more to this than meets the eye.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Afghan Opium - where is the fatwa?

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has just published its winter assessment of the Opium trade in Afghanistan and it makes fascinating and encouraging reading. Opium production is down. The 18 provinces that were opium-free in 2008 are likely to remain so and four others – Badakhshan, Baghlan, Faryab and Herat – could see all poppy cultivation eliminated this spring. Nangahar province is opium free for the first time in anyone’s memory.

Opium cultivation is becoming concentrated in the seven most unstable provinces in the south and south-west, although even in Helmand production may decrease this spring. These seven provinces produce 98 per cent of the country’s opium. In fact Helmand produces more opium than any other region in the world. The UN estimates that about 10 per cent of Afghanistan’s population - around 2.4 million people - is involved in opium cultivation.

The reasons for the drop in production vary. In the north, centre and east of the country it is due to government pressure, higher prices for legal crops and the success of a government propaganda campaign; in the south and east it is due to high wheat prices and a severe water shortage. In the southern region, 21 per cent of village headmen questioned about why they had not planted opium said the reason was because it was against Islam.

Overall, 29 per cent of villages in the south said they would not be cultivating opium, compared to only 15 per cent a year ago. Eighteen per cent of the villages (compared to 29 per cent a year ago) said that they had received a cash advance for growing poppies, although it was not clear who had provided this money.

Despite the fall in production, prices have also fallen by around 20 per cent. This is in part due to massive over-production during the last three years and therefore stockpiles are high – although the location of these stockpiles is unknown. However, as the report notes: “the drugs trade remains a major source of revenue for anti-government forces and organized crime operating in and around Afghanistan. Drug money is also a lubricant for corruption that contaminates power.”

The survey found that the average farm gate price for opium had fallen to $55/kg by November 2008, compared to almost double that in 2006. However, total income for opium farmers totalled around $752 million, compared with about $1 billion the previous year.

Another significant finding is that opium is grown in more than 50 per cent of villages where security is poor, but is not grown in more than 90 per cent of villages where security is good. There is, therefore, a close correlation between opium production and insurgency.

This is the subject of an excellent article by Jacob Townsend, writing in the Jamestown Terrorism Monitor. Townsend is a consultant working with the UN in Afghanistan. He points to several consequences of the recent trends in opium production.

First, he argues, falling prices for opium means the Taliban will be forced to tax non-opium crops more than at present. Second, farmers will have to pay more for their illicit crop to be protected by the Taliban; third, the Taliban will be forced to become more involved in trafficking opium as a way of protecting its income. And fourth, as drug money declines as a form of Taliban income, other sources of funding for the insurgency – for example, donations from the Gulf –will become more evident and thus possibly easier to stop.

Townsend suggests that the nexus between the insurgents and the criminals involved with the opium trade will become even more blurry than it is at present: “a recession in insurgent control will unmask the collusion between local powerholders, opium farmers, and, in many cases, government officials in Kabul.” He argues that next two years - before the opium price rises again - will be critical.

There are several points to make about all these statistics. The first and most important is that the UN has failed to communicate what is happening with the opium trade to the general public. Most people are unaware of the recent successes.

Second, it has not yet been able to persuade enough Moslems that opium cultivation is haram. The truth is that the vast majority of the opium and heroin produced in Afghanistan is consumed locally or in neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. Its main victims are Moslems. Where are the fatwas? Why has the Taliban not been challenged? It was against opium production when it ruled the country.

Third, it is clear that much of the opium business is being conducted not by the Taliban, but by warlords and criminals who are close to the Karzai administration in Kabul. Is anyone prepared to name and shame?