Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sustaining peace after war, Afghanistan


 


Kabul in winter, 1996. photo: Bob McKerrow

Over the years I have been saying that the US and its allies should have taken note of  of the many thousands of years of recorded history on Afghanitsan to make sure they don't repeat mistakes made by other occupying powers.

I was fascinated by the article I attach below written by Jonathan Power, foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune. I hope the leaders of countries with troops in Afghanistan read and understand this advice.

When it comes to creating a peace in Afghanistan sufficient for the US and NATO to pull their troops out with some degree of confidence in the country’s future stability history offers conflicting lessons.

The mantra is that war-shattered states must be guided into a liberal democracy and a market-orientated economic system.

Yet there is much evidence that the process of political and economic liberalisation can sometimes do more harm than good in states that have just emerged from civil war. Liberalisation doesn’t always foster peace. Both democracy and capitalism are built on a paradox- the notion that societal competition can limit inter-communal competition and dampen conflict.

Last week’s peaceful if biased election in Angola is a reminder of the 1992 election meant to end the civil war. In fact it polarised the combatants’ political parties even more and rekindled the fighting.

Liberalisation did not help Rwanda avoid the genocide of 1994. The partial liberalisation of the popular media following the Arusha Declaration helped reignite the conflict. The growth of a vibrant but irresponsible anti-government press appeared to reinforce the desire of the extremists of the ruling Hutus not to share power with the Tutsis nor to allow the promised elections to proceed.

In Bosnia political liberalisation seems to have worked against the goal of building a lasting peace. The Dayton accords, signed in November 1995, mandated elections. But the elections in the following year consolidated the power of extremists and nationalists, reinforcing the country’s division into separate ethnic conclaves.

In Central America following peace agreements that led to elections in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala it has been economic rather than political liberalisation that has caused destabilising effects.

In El Salvador there has been a sharp increase in criminal violence giving it the world’s highest murder rate with a greater number of deaths than in the civil war. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank initiated in return for future help a fast purge of subsidies, public ownership, trade barriers and high government spending and employment. Realing from the effects of war this was the coup de grace, hitting disproportionately hard the rural poor and the urban working class. Unemployment shot up. Income distribution, the general welfare of the society (longevity, infant mortality etc) and poverty worsened. Crime took over.

In Nicaragua the imposed “structural adjustment” in 1990 led to a 50% drop in wages and a 30% drop in per capita food consumption. The 90s became a “lost decade”. At the time the newly deregulated financial and export sectors thrived but only helped a small proportion of the population. Reduced government spending made it difficult for the government to fulfil its war-ending promises of land reform and increased credit and agricultural aid. Crime increased sharply. An editorial in the New York Times in March 1990 made the point that “Central America’s warring nations have essentially returned to the conditions of misery and inequality that caused the wars to begin with.”

Nevertheless, there are examples, such as Angola and Mozambique, where peace has broken out after harsh civil wars and has been sustained.

There are two reasons. Both countries are neighbours of South Africa. South Africa was the puppeteer of the wars and once it forsook that role the countries more easily turned to peace than the Central American ones.

The second explanation is the economic benefits they obtained from bordering South Africa. This gave them the much needed foreign investment which financed massive industrial and infrastructure projects and gave their economies a boost during the precarious, early period of economic reform. Both countries have had a fast rate of economic growth.

Third, they were ruled by strong men. In Angola’s case by a relatively benign dictator, Jose dos Santos, who last week finally asked for a popular mandate; in Mozambique’s case through continuous elections that gave enormous power for 19 years to a popular leader, Joaquim Chissano.

We learn from all these case studies- Mozambique is an exception- that in many situations both severe economic reform and elections should be delayed until poverty-reducing programmes and cross-factional political parties and media institutions are more solidly established. Successful candidates should also be required to win a minimum level of support from each of the warring groups. (In presidential votes in Nigeria aspirants have to win not only a majority but at least 25% of the vote in two-thirds of the 19 states.) International lenders and financial institutions need to give more resources to improving income distribution and sustaining social programmes. This should come before or at the same time as “pruning” takes place.

We must learn from history and not make the same mistakes when negotiating and implementing the end of other bitter conflicts, including Afghanistan. It should not be forgotten that when Germany and Japan were defeated in the Second World War the allies enforced sensitive social and politically aware reforms. They seem to have lost their touch.


Monday, April 30, 2012

Reflections on a Red Cross colleague murdered in Pakistan



What a brutal end to the life of a Red Cross colleague and friend. I struggle for words to describe one of the most callous acts of brutality I have read or seen on a harmless Red Cross (ICRC) worker in Quetta, a man providing health services to the poorest of the poor. When I worked in Afghanistan for the Red Cross (IFRC) between 1993 and 1996, I met with Khalil a few times and admired the outstanding health work he was doing with the ICRC. Professional, private, warm and dedicated is how I remember him.
His close friend Nick Harris wrote this moving piece about him.

I have been trying for much of the day, and failing, to write a proper tribute to Khalil Dale, my friend of 23 years, murdered in Pakistan.

We were at university together, shared a flat, played football (I persuaded him just the twice, he was even more rubbish than me), listened to the Stone Roses.

Some of the reports about his death have got details wrong. He wasn’t from Yemen, for example. He was a Manc. Many of his friends still know him as Ken; he converted to Islam decades ago and changed his name then.

We were both at the University of London (SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies), on the same course.

He was a mature student, late 30s at the time. He’d already spent years in war zones and famine regions: Iran, where he’d been tortured; Ethiopia; Kenya.

We were going to save the world, Khalil and me and Zia, who was the one who called me first thing this morning and said: ‘Nick, they’ve killed him.’

Khalil was working in Quetta in Pakistan for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) when he was taken off the street by unknown captors in January.

As soon as I heard of the kidnap, I called his mobile and left him a message, as if it might help.

I sent him another message on Facebook on the same day, 5 January. ‘Khalil man, call me when you escape. Rooting for you. N’.

We all hoped we’d hear from him. We couldn’t talk about him, for various reasons relating to the highly sensitive efforts to try to get him back alive.

I knew it might end badly. But I really didn’t expect it to be this brutal.

Khalil knew it could be. He’d been in some hairy scrapes before; Kalashnikov-toting bandits, Somali warlords, mujahideen.

You wouldn’t know if you met him that he had this inner steel. He was such a slight, gentle, compassionate, tolerant man. Unless you got him on the subject of Margaret Thatcher.

A short time ago the International Committee of the Red Cross has spoken of its attempts to free kidnapped UK aid worker Khalil Dale before he was murdered.

The 60-year-old was kidnapped in Quetta, Pakistan, in January. His body was found in the same town on Sunday.

ICRC spokesman Sean Maguire said it had been in touch with his abductors "a number of times".

Pakistan expert Professor Shaun Gregory said such a killing was "actually quite rare" in that country.

Mr Maguire also said the death of Mr Dale, who was a Muslim convert, would weigh heavily on his colleagues. "It's a complex political reality on the ground in Pakistan," he said. "We're certainly not identifying who we were in touch with.

"Often in these sorts of places people say they are something and it turns out that they're not quite what they say they are.

"So we have to sift through the information; we have and try to come to understand what has happened and take what lessons there are to be learnt.

"But his death will weigh heavily on colleagues working in Pakistan and colleagues working in headquarters who ultimately make the decisions about who goes where and who does what."

I was sitting by the swimming pool late yesterday afternoon and flicking throught twitter and I got this news on AFP.

 QUETTA, Pakistan - The body of a British Red Cross worker held captive in Pakistan since January was found in an orchard Sunday, his throat slit and a note attached to his body saying he was killed because no ransom was paid, police said.


Khalil Rasjed Dale, 60, was managing a health program in the city of Quetta in southwestern Pakistan when armed men seized him from a street close to his office. The identities of his captors are unknown, but the region is home to separatist and Islamist militants who have kidnapped for ransom before.

The director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross condemned the "barbaric act."

"All of us at the ICRC and at the British Red Cross share the grief and outrage of Khalil's family and friends," said Yves Daccord.

Dale's throat had been slit, according to Safdar Hussain, a doctor who examined the body.

Quetta police chief Ahsan Mahboob said the note attached to it read: "This is the body of Khalil who we have slaughtered for not paying a ransom."

Militants and criminal gangs often kidnap wealthy Pakistanis and less commonly, foreigners.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned Dale's killing, and said "tireless efforts" had been under way to secure his release after he was kidnapped.

Khalil had worked for the Red Cross for years, carrying out assignments in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, the group said.

Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, lies close to the Afghan border and for decades has hosted thousands of refugees from that country. The Red Cross operates clinics in the city that treat people wounded in the war in Afghanistan, including Taliban insurgents.

A Pakistani foreign office statement condemned the crime, promising to bring its perpetrators to justice. However, arrests for this type of crime are rare.

Much of Baluchistan and the tribal regions close to Afghanistan are out of Pakistani government control, and make good places to keep hostages. Large ransoms are often paid to secure their release, but such payments are rarely confirmed.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials in Quetta said they were investigating whether this could be the work of the Pakistani Taliban. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

There are at least four other foreigners being held in Pakistan.

Last August, a 70-year-old American humanitarian aid worker was kidnapped from his house in the Punjabi city of Lahore. Al-Qaida claimed to be holding the man, Warren Weinstein, and said in a video he would be released if the United States stopped airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

In March, a Swiss couple held captive for eight months by the Taliban turned up at an army checkpoint close to the Afghan border. Insurgents have claimed a large ransom was paid to secure their freedom. That has not been confirmed by Pakistani or Swiss authorities, who are unlikely to acknowledge it even if they did.

The couple was kidnapped in Baluchistan.

Also Sunday, American missiles killed three suspected Islamist militants sheltering in an abandoned school in North Waziristan, said intelligence officials, who did not give their names because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

Pakistan's government strongly condemned the attack. In a statement, it said such attacks violate international law and Pakistan's "territorial integrity and sovereignty."

The strike comes as the U.S. is trying to rebuild its relationship with Pakistan, which opposes the missile attacks and has demanded they stop. The frequency of the attacks, which critics say kill innocents and energize the insurgency, has dropped dramatically this year.

Associated Press Writer Rasool Dawar in Peshawar contributed to this report

I put the news on facebook yesterday some of his friends put their comments on: .

John Roche: "an old colleague slained leaves me in shock."

Tony Maryon: "Very very sad news. Khalid was a member of my Federation team based in Baghdad in the mid nineties. Sincere condolences to his family." 

Bernd Schell " I remember well an assessment mission with him to Iraq, he was such a committed and gentle guy, so sad to get this news."

John LaPointe: "I'm just left speechless. My anger against people who would do such a thing knows no bounds. And neither does my sadness for his family, friends and colleagues"

Tragically, the Afghanistan and the Pakistan border area has seen the death of a number of Red Cross workers.  New Zealander Jock Sutherland was killed in late 1992 in Karabagh Pakistan, an Icelandic Red Cross delegate Jon Karlsson working for the ICRC was killed in Maiden Shah on April 12, 1992, and Ricardo Munguia (39), ICRC water engineer, was shot dead in southern Afghanistan on 27 March 2003 when I was visiting from Delhi, and was in Kabul the day later to receive his body. During my time in Afghanistan 1993-96, at least five Afghan Red Crescent workers/volunteers were killed in the course of their work.

In addition, two colleagues I worked with in Afghanistan, Sheryl Thayer from New Zealand and , Reto Neuenschwander from Switzerland, were murdered in Chechnya and Congo in 1996.

I know the Quetta landscape well having travelled from Kandahar (one of the oldest settlements in the world) to Chaman and Quetta a number of times, and can imagine Khalil being quite happy until his abduction. The last 3 or so months must have been a traumatic trial for him.

After the death of colleagues there is a mixed feeling of grieving, sadness and often anger as you ask why? I found this article very helpful to understand the current terror and abduction that is going on in Pakistan.

Pakistan: Terror By Abduction – Analysis
By Ambreen Agha

Terrorist and extremist outfits in Pakistan have deepened their involvement in organised crimes, particularly including abduction-for-ransom and extortion, both to increase revenues and to push various illegitimate demands. A rampage of both high and low profile abductions across the country has provided the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda, along with their various affiliates, with new ‘resources’ to fuel their politically and religiously motivated ‘jihad’, both within the country, and against the West and other ‘infidel’ states. According to information retrieved from slain al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, for instance, al Qaeda in Pakistan had turned to abduction-for-ransom to offset dwindling cash reserves.

Reports indicate that all of Pakistan’s provinces are now under attack from armed abductors, with women and children, becoming the easiest targets. A report published by the Human Rights Commission South Asia (HRCSA) on February 19, 2012, estimated that some 7,000 children had been abducted in 2011 and, of this total, the largest number belonged to Karachi (Sindh). The report noted that kidnappings noticeably increased in 2011.

Pakistan

The Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) has suggested military operations in militant strongholds have a trickledown effect, spurring abductions and extortion in other parts of the country, with particular focus on Karachi, one of Pakistan’s most volatile cities, owing to the sophisticated network of jihadi and criminal gangs in the country’s commercial capital. Similarly, Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) Director Amir Rana argues that Pakistan’s ‘military successes’ in tribal areas have “probably led to resources becoming closed for TTP, and smaller groups that affiliate themselves with the TTP and al Qaeda might be responsible for raising resources in cities across Pakistan, including Karachi.”

The problem, however, goes way beyond Karachi. A March 22, 2012, media report indicated a swift rise in the number of abductions-for-ransom in the Lahore District of Punjab Province. According to the figures available in the report, at least 400 cases of abduction had been registered in the District in 2012, till March 20. Some 2,954 abductions were reported in 2011, while 2010 saw 2,831 abductions. The CPLC categorised the abduction gangs in Lahore into two groups – those operating from southern Punjab and affiliated with various terrorist outfits and others gangs operating principally on criminal-financial motives.

Similarly, a fact finding report compiled by the Balochistan National Party-Awami (BNP-Awami), highlighting the plight of the Baloch people, released on March 22, 2012, alleged that as many as 1,047 people had been abducted in the Province over the preceding four years. Provincial Agriculture Minister Asadullah Baloch of BNP-Awami observed, “Abduction for ransom has become a lucrative business in Balochistan and people are joining this business en masse as Police and Law Enforcement Agencies have failed to book a single culprit.” There are also strong charges of political and establishment collusion in this rash of abductions and, on March 20, 2012, during the Balochistan Assembly session, provincial Ministers demanded that Home Minister Mir Zafarullah Zehri and the law enforcement agencies disclose the names of Ministers allegedly involved in abductions in the Province.

According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 664 persons were abducted between January 1, 2010, and April 8, 2012. 2010 recorded 242 abductions, 2011 and 2012 witnessed 328 and 94 respectively. During this period, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) witnessed the highest number of abductions (251) followed by Balochistan (183), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (179), Sindh (43) and Punjab (8). These figures are likely to be a sever under-estimate, as lesser incidents of abduction, involving low profile individuals and small numbers, have become quotidian occurrences, and often go unreported.

The state’s negligence and complicity have led the entrenchment of major criminal- militant combines and their lesser affiliates. A January 2012 report by journalist Zia-ur-Rehman noted that the enforcement agencies in Karachi had discovered that several previously unknown militant outfits operating in the city were linked to TTP, and these provided access to local level logistics and manpower support to Pakistan’s major domestic terrorism combine. The head of Karachi’s Anti-Extremism Cell (AEC) Chowdhry Aslam, disclosed that one such group, al Mukhtar, basically a splinter cell of TTP’s Badar Mansoor group, was specially deployed in Karachi to collect extortion funds, carry out bank heists and abductions-for-ransom, as well as for terrorist activities and attacks. Sources in CPLC noted that abduction for ransom had become an easiest way to collect large sums of money.

The terrorists have also found their targets among foreigners in the country, as well as across international borders, in Afghanistan. A huge ransom was paid in Pakistan, for instance, for the release of two French journalists, Herve Ghesquiere and Stephane Taponier, who were abducted on December 30, 2009, by the Qari Baryal Afghan Taliban faction in Afghanistan’s Kapisa Province. An Afghan Taliban militant close to the group’s central command revealed, on condition of anonymity, “A ransom was paid — an enormous amount — millions of dollars. The money was handed over in Pakistan.” Significantly, the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban work in close collaboration with TTP, both to launch terror attacks and in activities like abduction-for-ransom.

Similarly, on July 1, 2011, TTP abducted a Swiss couple, Olivier David Och and Daniela Widmar, coming from Dera Ghazi Khan District in Punjab towards Quetta, Balochistan’s provincial capital, in the Killi Nigah area in Loralai District. The couple was taken to the neighbouring South Waziristan Agency of FATA. TTP ‘deputy chief’ Waliur Rehman demanded they be exchanged for Pakistani scientist, Aafia Siddiqui, jailed in the US. On March 15, 2012, the Swiss couple was reported to have ‘escaped’ from captivity. However, a March 30, 2012, media report claimed that a massive ransom of PKR 1 billion was paid to the abductors for the release of the two Swiss tourists.

Several cases involving foreigners, moreover, remain currently unresolved. The most significant among these include:

January 19, 2012: Two Europeans, identified as Giovanni and Bernd, working with the Welthungerhilfe, a German International Non-Governmental Organisation for food rehabilitation, were abducted from Western Fort Colony of Qasim Bela area in Multan District of Punjab while returning from Kot Addu tehsil of Muzaffargarh District. The TTP claimed responsibility for the abduction and said that the two were being kept hostage near the Afghan border. Punjab Police Inspector General (IG) Javed Iqbal claimed that the aid workers were being held for ransom.

January 5, 2012: Unidentified militants abducted a British official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), identified as Doctor Khalil Ahmed Dale, from the Chaman Housing Society in Quetta. Later, the Police arrested up to 50 suspects for questioning in connection to the abduction, but to no avail.

August 13, 2011: An American aid expert, identified as Warren Weinstein, was abducted after unidentified assailants stormed through the backdoor of his house in the Model Town area of Lahore and overpowered his guards. On March 16, 2012, al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri declared, “He (Weinstein) will not return to his family, by the will of Allah, until our demands are met, which include the release of Aafia Siddiqui, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the family of Shaikh Osama bin Laden, and every single person arrested on allegations of links with al Qaeda and Taliban.”

Currently unresolved cases of abduction include two prominent Pakistanis as well.

August 26, 2011: Shahbaz Taseer, son of assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, was kidnapped in broad daylight by armed abductors from Lahore District. Accusing TTP of being behind the crime, his brother Sheryar Taseer told the media a day after the abduction, “Our family has been receiving threats from the Taliban and extremist groups.” On October 17, 2011, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that the abductors were keeping Shahbaz Taseer in areas near the Pak-Afghan border and that he was alive. No demand letter has been received and his whereabouts are still not known. It is believed that Shahbaz Taseer is being held to force the family to accept a token financial compensation under Pakistan’s (Islamic) Diyyat law, so that the death sentence against his father’s assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, is not executed.

September 7, 2010: Doctor Ajmal Khan, the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University of Peshawar, was abducted by TTP. Several videos have been released over the long period of one and half years, including footage of the VC making appeals for an acceptance of Taliban demands for his release, the latest of which was released on March 7, 2012. In response, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain stated that the Government was ready to concede the “just demands” of the TTP, but could not accept “unjust demands”, adding that conceding at this point would only encourage abductors to ‘lift’ more people for ransom, or for the fulfillment of other demands.

Abduction with the motive of fulfilling demands, other than the payment of ransom, is another facet of the rising current trend. In one of the most prominent incidents of this nature, the TTP faction led by Maulana Faqir Muhammad abducted 30 children, on September 1, 2011, from the Mamoond tehsil of Bajaur Agency in FATA. The children were held against demands which included the release of women and children languishing in various Pakistani prisons, ending state instigation of tribesmen to form anti-TTP lashkars (tribal militia), and the disbanding of such lashkars and ‘peace committees’ in the Bajaur Agency of FATA. On October 30, 2011, two boys, identified as Amanullah and Abdullah, managed to escape and returned home more than 40 days after being abducted. Subsequently, after holding them captive for another three months, on January 4, 2012, TTP released 17 boys. Bajaur Administration official Islam Zeb noted, “Today, Taliban has released 17 of them; some 8-10 are yet in their custody.”

More worryingly, children have been abducted to create ‘a trained breed of jihadis’, and to serve as ‘live bombs’. The US State Department report, Trafficking in Persons, dated June 27, 2011, also noted that militant groups in Pakistan used children to act as spies, to fight and to carry out suicide bombings: “Non-state militant groups abduct children or coerce parents with fraudulent promises into giving away children as young as 12, to spy, fight, or die as suicide bombers in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The report also noted that militants often sexually and physically abuse the children and use psychological coercion to convince them that the acts they commit are justified. In one such case, on June 20, 2011, Police said that terrorists abducted a nine-year-old girl, Sohana Jawed, on her way to school and forced her to wear a suicide bomb vest. Quoting the rescued girl, the Police claimed that she managed to escape her captors when they directed her to attack a paramilitary checkpoint in Timergarah town of Lower Dir District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Abductions have also overlapped sectarian faultlines in Pakistan, and on March 25, 2011, for instance, at least 33 Shias belonging to the Turi tribe were abducted by TTP militants in an attack on a convoy of passenger vehicles in the Kurram Agency of FATA. Later on April 25, 2011, one of the abducted tribesmen, Haji Asghar Hussain Turi, was released after the militants received PKR 5.4 million as ransom. Three months later, on June 22, 2011, another 22 were released after paying a ransom of PKR 30 million. According to media reports, the remaining 10, who were in the custody of a local TTP commander ‘Noor’, had been killed and buried somewhere near the Pak-Afghan border. Their coffins, with the names of the dead inscribed on them, were sent to Parachinar two months later.

Adding to the growing threat of terrorism is the state’s negligence, collusion and consequent impunity with which the terrorists act. In one prominent case, a key al Qaeda operative and former Pakistan Army commando, Major Haroon Ashiq, accused in several cases of murder and of abduction-for-ransom, was set free from Rawalpindi Jail on March 21, 2012 because witnesses withdrew their testimonies for fear of reprisals, and the prosecution failed to furnish any further material evidence. According to media reports, Haroon is a close associate of Illyas Kashmiri, the founder of Brigade 313, later an operational arm of al Qaeda, and a member of the jihadist outfit Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). With such coloured action, and the visible impotence or collusion of state agencies to act effectively against the perpetrators of the current and rising epidemic of abductions, as well as against the wider acts of terrorism that create its context, it is unlikely that the people of Pakistan – across all Provinces – will secure any early relief from this scourge.

Thanks to Ambreen Agha

Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management for permission to run this article.



Friday, March 30, 2012

Snowboarding in Afghanistan

The skiing in Afghanistan is superb due to the cold winters and for most of the time, lovely crisp powder snow. I did quite a bit of skiing and climbing in Afghanistan between 1993 and 1996 and have written many articles. The previous link gives a good description of the Hindu Kush and the people.


Skiing near the Salang Pass Afghanistan in early 1996. Photo: Bob McKerrow collection.

Therefore I was delighted to read in the New Zealand website stuff.co.nz, that a group of young New Zealanders have been snow boarding in Bamiyan. This must be a snowboarders heaven. Here is their story.
 
AIR RAID: Kiwi snowboarder Clint Allan jumps over a house in Koh-e-Baba mountains, Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, a province wracked by war since 2002.

A gaggle of villagers deep in the mountains of central Afghanistan stared in wonder as a professional snowboarder from New Zealand launched himself over half a dozen young children, two of them perched atop donkeys.

It was one of the oddest interactions between foreigners and Afghans in the decade since US-led forces invaded the country, and the result of a surprising tourism push in a country at war.

International aid workers and enterprising locals are trying to attract snowboarders and skiers to the untouched slopes of the Koh-e-Baba mountains to improve the fortunes of Bamiyan province - the site of towering Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, and one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces.

It's no surprise that challenges abound.

Though Bamiyan is largely peaceful, it's tough to convince any but the most adventurous travellers to come to war-torn Afghanistan. Once visitors land in the capital, Kabul, they face the tricky prospect of catching a diplomatic or humanitarian flight since no commercial airlines fly to Bamiyan. A few hardy foreigners have braved the six-hour drive despite the threat of robbery and kidnapping.

There are no ski lifts, so every ascent requires a lung-busting climb up snow-covered mountains that rise to more than 5000 metres. Skiers climb up using "skins" - pieces of rough fabric stuck on the bottom of skis for traction. Snowboarders use special boards that split down the middle and then lock back together for the downhill.

 LEAP OF FAITH: Kiwi snowboarder Mitch Allan launches himself over a bunch of locals in Koh-e-Baba mountains, Bamiyan province, Afghanistan.

The writers of the definitive (and only) guide to skiing in Bamiyan also suggest the "donkey lift" - hiring a villager's donkey to carry you up the mountain.

The commercial guest houses open in the winter provide little more than a bed and a traditional wood-burning stove, and "apres ski" is limited to tea, kebabs and parlour games.

But the mountains are spectacular and provide seemingly endless runs down pristine slopes filled with nothing but the sound of the wind and the rush of skis against snow - a far cry from the crowded trails of American and European ski resorts.

This was the draw for a group of professional snowboarders from New Zealand and Australia who travelled to Bamiyan in late February to film a documentary. They were terrified when they arrived in Kabul, especially because of violent protests against US soldiers burning Korans that left more than 30 people dead.

"The amount of guns and razor wire that I saw on my way to the guest house from the airport only confirmed what I expected," said Alex Cameron, 22, editor of a snowboarding magazine in Sydney. "But stepping off the plane in Bamiyan, I felt completely safe."

Arriving in Bamiyan does feel a bit like being enveloped in a pastoral painting. The flight into Bamiyan city first makes a flyby of the gravel runway to make sure it is clear of animals and people. The plane lands with views on one side of the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains, and the niches of the Buddha statues carved into sheer red cliffs on the other.

The snowboarders spent a week travelling with a local guide down Bamiyan's bumpy roads past clusters of mud brick houses looking for steep slopes to shoot down and things to jump, including cliffs, houses and, yes, donkeys - although it took some time to convince the animals' owner it was a good idea.

Once permission was secured, Clint Allan, 26, and his 24-year-old brother, Mitch, leapt off a jump built in the snow and soared about three metres in the air over the animals and local children.

The two tried to ride the donkeys afterward, provoking howls of laughter. They didn't have much luck getting the stubborn animals to move until a local kid started whacking the animals with a stick.

"It was sweet!" said the elder Allan.

Bamiyan attracted thousands of foreigners every year until the Soviet invasion in 1979 plunged the country into more than three decades of war. Tourists came to trek through the mountains, to picnic at dazzlingly blue Band-e-Amir lake and marvel at the Buddhas. But tourism was mainly limited to the summer, and skiing was unknown in the area.

There was some skiing near the capital, where a few enterprising Afghan skiers built tow ropes in the hills just outside Kabul. But they were abandoned after the Soviets invaded.

The push to make Bamiyan a skiing destination started in 2010, when the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation sponsored two Americans to write a guidebook. It has also trained locals to ski and hired internationally certified ski guides to take tourists into the mountains.

The new ski industry has had some economic benefit, although the numbers are still fairly small.

Gull Hussein, a 28-year-old entrepreneur, started a tourism company last year that offers a three-day ski package for US$315 ($NZ384). The deal includes lodging, local transport, ski rental and an international ski guide. About 70 foreigners have taken him up on the offer, most of whom travelled from Kabul.

Ali Shah Farhang has also benefited as Bamiyan's first local ski guide. The 20-year-old student started skiing about a year ago under the tutelage of an Italian guide brought by Aga Khan and has begun leading foreign clients into the mountains, including the professional snowboarders.

He receives $100 a month from Aga Khan and $30 per day when he is guiding clients, a significant sum in a country where a typical government bureaucrat in the capital makes $200 a month. For rural Bamiyan, it's a fortune.

"Foreign people are usually fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but in Bamiyan they are comfortable, they are skiing," Farhang said.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Did our letter have an influence on President Obama?


Amid fresh concerns over the safety of American forces, President Barack Obama says the accidental burning of Korans in Afghanistan and the retaliatory killings of US troops gave new credence to the need to end the war.
I am wondering if the letter I, and a group of writers and experts on Afghanistan wrote to Obama of December 17, 2010, had any influence on him. See letter below or this link. To the President of the United States:  December 17, 2010

"I think that it is an indication of the challenges in that environment, and it's an indication that now is the time for us to transition," Obama said during a White House news conference.

Obama announced no speeding up of the NATO-backed plan to end combat missions in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, saying "that continues to be the plan". But he said the violence aimed at Americans in Afghanistan that followed the accidental burning of Korans on a US base was "unacceptable".

Six Americans were killed in retaliatory violence. Obama offered his apologies to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a move that was roundly criticised by his Republican presidential rivals as weak and unnecessary.

From Congress, Obama was getting tugged from another direction. A letter calling for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan had the backing of 23 senators, mostly Democrats but including two conservative Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

HERE IS THE LETTER WE WROTE TO PRESIDENT OBAMA.

Mr. President,

We have been engaged and working inside Afghanistan, some of us for decades, as academics, experts and members of non-governmental organisations. Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future. The cost of the war is now over $120 billion per year for the United States alone.

This is unsustainable in the long run. In addition, human losses are increasing. Over 680 soldiers from the international coalition – along with hundreds of Afghans – have died this year in Afghanistan, and the year is not yet over. We appeal to you to use the unparalleled resources and influence which the United States now brings to bear in Afghanistan to achieve that longed-for peace.

Despite these huge costs, the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country. It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition. The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country. Foreign bases are completely isolated from their local environment and unable to protect the population. Foreign forces have by now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Red Army.

Politically, the settlement resulting from the 2001 intervention is unsustainable because the constituencies of whom the Taliban are the most violent expression are not represented, and because the highly centralised constitution goes against the grain of Afghan tradition, for example in specifying national elections in fourteen of the next twenty years.

The operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and in Helmand provinces are not going well. What was supposed to be a population-centred strategy is now a full-scale military campaign causing civilian casualties and destruction of property. Night raids have become the main weapon to eliminate suspected Taliban, but much of the Afghan population sees these methods as illegitimate. Due to the violence of the military operations, we are losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Pashtun countryside, with a direct effect on the sustainability of the war. These measures, beyond their debatable military results, foster grievance. With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution. Drone strikes in Pakistan have a marginal effect on the insurgency but are destabilising Pakistan. The losses of the insurgency are compensated by new recruits who are often more radical than their predecessors.

The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure. Military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security, but those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement.

The 2014 deadline to put the Afghan National Army in command of security is not realistic. Considering the quick disappearance of the state structure at a district level, it is difficult to envision a strong army standing alone without any other state institutions around. Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement. The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think – a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more – are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system. The negotiations with the insurgents could be extended to all groups in Afghanistan and regional powers.

The current contacts between the Karzai government and the Taliban are not enough. The United States must take the initiative to start negotiations with the insurgents and frame the discussion in such a way that American security interests are taken into account. In addition, from the point of view of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations – women and ethnic minorities, for instance – as well as with respect to the limited but real gains made since 2001, it is better to negotiate now rather than later, since the Taliban will likely be stronger next year. This is why we ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan. A ceasefire and the return of the insurgency leadership in Afghanistan could be part of a de-escalation process leading to a coalition government. Without any chance for a military victory, the current policy will put the United States in a very difficult position.

For a process of political negotiation to have a chance of addressing the significant core grievances and political inequalities it must occur on multiple levels – among the countries that neighbour Afghanistan as well as down to the provincial and subdistrict. These various tables around which negotiations need to be held are important to reinforce the message – and the reality – that discussions about Afghanistan’s political future must include all parties and not just be a quick-fix deal with members of the insurgency.

We believe that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan, enables the Taliban to become a responsible actor in the Afghan political order, ensures that Afghanistan cannot be used as a base for international terrorism, protects the Afghan people’s hard-won freedoms, helps stabilise the region, renders the large scale presence of international troops in Afghanistan unnecessary and provides the basis of an enduring relationship between Afghanistan and the international community. All the political and diplomatic ingenuity that the United States can muster will be required to achieve this positive outcome. It is time to implement an alternative strategy that would allow the United States to exit Afghanistan while safeguarding its legitimate security interests.

Respectfully,

Matthieu Aikins Journalist

Scott Atran Anthropologist (University of Michigan) and author of Talking to the Enemy

Rupert Talbot Chetwynd Author of Yesterday’s Enemy – Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Robert Abdul Hayy Darr Author of The Spy of the Heart and humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Gilles Dorronsoro Visiting Scholar (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) and author of Revolution Unending

David B. Edwards Anthropologist (Williams College) and author of Before Taliban

Jason Elliot Author of An Unexpected Light

Antonio Giustozzi Author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop and editor of Decoding the New Taliban

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi Associate Professor, James Madison University

Daniel Korski Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

Felix Kuehn Kandahar-based writer/researcher, co-editor of My Life With the Taliban

Minna Jarvenpaa Former Head of Analysis and Policy Planning, UNAMA

Anatol Lieven Professor, War Studies Department of King’s College London and author of Pakistan: A Hard Country

Bob McKerrow Author of Mountains of our Minds – Afghanistan

Alessandro Monsutti Research Director, Transnational Studies/Development Studies at The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Ahmed Rashid Journalist and author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos

Nir Rosen Fellow, New York University Center on Law and Security

Gerard Russell Research Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University

Alex Strick van Linschoten Kandahar-based writer/researcher, co-editor of My Life With the Taliban

Astri Surkhe Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway

Yama Torabi Co-Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan

Jere van Dyk Author of In Afghanistan and Captive

Matt Waldman Afghanistan Analyst

Saturday, February 4, 2012

My Queen of Kabul - Nancy Dupree


Kabul, the city Nancy Dupree wrote a book on and fell in love with. Photo: Bob McKerrow

It has been most enjoyable and productive having Ebrahim Faghihi working with us on a Sri Lanka Red Cross flood recovery operation. Over dinner last night we spoke of those wonderful days in 95-96 when we spent time exploring Kabul with Nancy Dupree the great historian on Afghanistan and author of so many books on the country. Here is a photo I took of Ebrahim with Nancy in 1996 on the outskirts of Kabul..

I knew got to know Nancy in those difficult days in Kabul between 1993-96 when Nancy was living in Peshawar. She stayed at my house in Kabul on visits to Afghanistan a number of times and Ebrahim and I often did day tours of Kabul with her where she explained in minute details, every scrap of history she knew of.
Although working for the International Red Cross, I gave a lot of my spare time working with her and colleagues, rescuing treasures from the Kabul museum which was coming under bombing by the Talibans and looting from other warring factions. We also worked together on preserving the British (Foreigners) cemetary
in Kabul which hid a rich history from the time of the early Ango Afghan wars.
Honouring 45 years since the death of the great archaeologist Aurel Stein at his grave in the Kabul cemetary. Tim Johnston AFP (2nd from left) and Ahmed Gizo (right). We invited Nancy Dupree but was unable to make because of fighting in Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow

As I was able to travel freely in Afghanistan in the course of my work, I took photographs for Nancy of historic sites her and Louis thirty years earlier and brought her back photographs. She was so grateful and could never thank me enough.

When I published my book on Afghanistan in 2003 I dedicated it to "My Queen of Kabul, Nancy Dupree."

She was grateful to get a copy of my book but I much more grateful to have autographed copies of all her books, which guided me through Afghanistan.

She would tell me over a wine at nights of her love affair with Afghanistan and her late husband Louis Dupree. These were romantic evenings around a log fire in Kabul, with a woman 20 years older than me, recounting her early and carefree days of the 1960s.

.
Kabul the city that Nancy Dupree fell in love with. Photo: Bob McKerrow
I haven't seen Nancy for 14 years but we kept in touch by email for a long time. Who better to tell her love story than C.M. Sennott from the GlobalPost who published this article in June 2009.

En­ter the steel gates that lead to the court­yard and well-tended gar­dens of a faded, but still el­e­gant, manse where Nancy Hatch Dupree greets us on the steps.

For a mo­ment, you feel what it must have been like to live here in the early 1960s.

That’s when Dupree first ar­rived in Kabul and where she would meet the two great loves of her life. The first was her hus­band, Louis Dupree, the dash­ing Amer­i­can para­trooper turned world-fa­mous arche­ol­o­gist. The sec­ond love was one they both shared: the cul­tural and his­toric riches of the rugged, mag­i­cal land­scape of Af­ghan­i­stan and its peo­ple.


As an arche­ol­o­gist and eth­nol­o­gist, Af­ghan­i­stan has been the fo­cus of their life’s work.
She and Louis, who passed away in 1989, lived through it all and suf­fered with the Afghans through the wars and cel­e­brated the life that has gone on in be­tween. She sur­vived the dark days of the civil war here in the early 1990s and the even darker days of the Tal­iban. Through it all, she stud­ied and worked to pro­tect and pre­serve the coun­try’s cul­ture and her­itage. To­day, there is no West­erner who knows the Afghan peo­ple like Nancy.

Some 45 years af­ter her ar­rival here, I meet with Dupree on a sunny day in the late af­ter­noon shad­ows of the once-grand home where she lives part of the year in down­town Kabul.

The rest of the year she lives just across the bor­der in Pe­shawar, Pak­istan, still writ­ing and re­search­ing at the age of 83. She di­vides her time be­tween the two cities, tend­ing an archive that is housed at Kabul Uni­ver­sity. The archive, an idea in­spired by Louis, is ded­i­cated to cre­at­ing a re­source cen­ter for all the dif­fer­ent aid work­ers and Afghan ex­perts who could no longer travel freely in war-torn Af­ghan­i­stan.

She looks heart­sick when she talks about the Tal­iban’s de­struc­tion of the two gi­ant Bud­dha carv­ings of Ba­mayan. She also wants to set the record straight that she was ne­go­ti­at­ing with the Tal­iban lead­er­ship to pro­tect the Bud­dhas, and be­lieves the de­ci­sion to dy­na­mite them was made by a mil­i­tant fringe closely con­nected to Al Qaeda. She in­sists that many in the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment were op­posed to the de­struc­tion, but the mil­i­tants had run away with the Tal­iban move­ment.



I did day trips with Nancy out towards the Jebal Seraj in winter to view the mighty Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

She holds the se­crets to so much of the pol­i­tics that has gone on in Af­ghan­i­stan, but at every turn the con­ver­sa­tion comes back to the Afghan peo­ple and her love for and fas­ci­na­tion with them and their his­tory.

"I’m a peo­ple per­son," says Nancy, who apol­o­gizes that she doesn’t have much time to talk as she is head­ing out to a party at the em­bassy to meet the newly ap­pointed Amer­i­can Am­bas­sador, Karl Eiken­berry, who also served as the com­mand­ing gen­eral in Af­ghan­i­stan.

Right away, she wants to get into it.

Nancy still has a lot of fire in her voice and she has some stern crit­i­cism of the U.S. mil­i­tary and diplo­matic ap­proach in Af­ghan­i­stan.

"They make strate­gies for peo­ple who they don’t talk to," she says, sit­ting on a couch in the par­lor where we are talk­ing and lean­ing for­ward with in­ten­sity.

"They sit be­hind the fortress with ra­zor wire walls of the Em­bassy. And the rest make their strat­egy from be­hind desks thou­sands of miles away … They don’t seem to re­al­ize that the strat­egy has to be about the peo­ple," she says.

She checks her watch and says, "Sorry, I have to go put on my face now and get ready for all the diplo­mats. Too many of them, if you ask me."

Mo­ments later she heads out through the steel gate, look­ing el­e­gant in a long, tra­di­tional em­broi­dered gown. She slides into the back seat and she and her dri­ver head out down the crowded, chaotic and some­times-per­ilous streets of Kabul, the city she loves.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Some new old photos of Afghanistan

Over the weekend I was sorting out colour slides and scanning them. Here are a few from 1976 and my three years (1993-96) later.
On top of the Subzak Pass in 1994. The passes of the Paropamisus in the west are relatively low, averaging around 600 meters; the most well-known of these is the Sabzak between the Herat and Badghis provinces, which links the western and northwestern parts of Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow



                                       Kabul in early winter 1996. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Coming down from the Khawak Pass in the footsteps of Alexander the Great with my good friend Lola. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The damage that was caused in Kabul was tragic to witness in the early 1990s. Photo: Bob McKerrow


I first visited Afghanistan in 1976 when I was working with the Red Cross in Geneva to assist the Afghan Red Crescent on an earthquake relief operation in Samanghan. here I am in the bazaar in Herat. Photo: Bob McKerrow


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who is killing Afghanistan?

The Blue Mosque in Mazar-I-Sharif which is a Shrine to Ali and revered by the Shia Muslims.  Taken in 1976 when I was working for the Red Cross after a major earthquake in the north. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Bombs kill 58 in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. The BBC's Quentin Sommerville: "It seems this was a co-ordinated attack; it certainly seems to have a sectarian element"

Twin attacks apparently targeting Shia Muslims have killed at least 58 people in Afghanistan.

In the deadliest incident, a suspected suicide bomb struck a shrine packed with worshippers in the capital, Kabul, killing at least 54.

Another blast hit the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif at about the same time, killing four people.

The attacks appear to be of a sectarian nature unprecedented in recent Afghan history, correspondents say.

They coincided with the Shia Muslim festival of Ashura - the most important day in the Shia calendar and marked with a public holiday in Afghanistan.

Ashura is the climax of Muharram, the month of mourning for the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.

The police have cordoned off all roads to the blast site in the medieval Murad Khani district where many Shias had gathered to commemorate Ashura at the Abu Fazal mosque.

Here, at an emergency surgical centre just 10 minutes from the site, people are gathered crying and wailing. I have heard women shouting: "My son is dead, my son is dead." I have seen people with charred clothing.

Security forces have been ferrying victims to waiting ambulances. There are many wounded too. Those who were there say there are a lot of casualties. People are gathering in front of the hospital and the police are on the streets around here controlling the traffic.

Though tensions exist between Afghanistan's Sunni and minority Shia Muslims, most attacks in Afghanistan in recent years have targeted government officials or international forces, correspondents say.



When I lived for three years in Afghanistan (1993-96) I visited the Abu Fazal mosque in Kabul one of the places of today's atrocities, and the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif. The book I wrote on Afghanistan provides prose, poetry and photographs of my favourite country and the peaceful nature of the people. Why this today?

Children hit

The near-simultaneous explosions happened at about midday (07:30 GMT).

In Kabul, the bomb went off near a gathering of hundreds of Shias singing at the Abu Fazal shrine.

Fifty-four people were killed in the blast, said health ministry spokesman Norughli Kargar, while 150 were injured.

"It was very loud. My ears went deaf and I was blown three metres [yards]," Mustafa, who uses only one name, told Associated Press news agency.

"There was smoke and red blood on the floor of the shrine. There were people lying everywhere."

Amid the chaos straight after the blast, a young girl, dressed in a green shalwar kameez (traditional dress) smeared in blood, stood shrieking, surrounded by the crumpled, piled-up bodies of children, AFP reported.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke of the unprecedented nature of the attack, saying it was "the first time that, on such an important religious day in Afghanistan, terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place".

No-one had claimed to have carried out the attacks, said Mohammad Zahir, head of Kabul's criminal investigation department.

A Taliban statement said the group had not been behind either incident.

Police said they foiled another attack elsewhere in the capital.

Thanks to the BBC for permission to run this article.