Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why Canada Should get Out of Afghanistan ?

Canada should pull its troops out of Afghanistan. The West's mission there is no less a "march of folly," to use historian Barbara Tuchman's phrase about the U.S. war in Vietnam, than was the Soviet attempt to impose a regime in Afghanistan with its invasion in 1979.

That invasion was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. Sixty years earlier, in 1919, the British decided that their own imperial effort to dominate Afghanistan was doomed and withdrew to the other side of the Khyber Pass.

In our day, the United States is involved in an unwinnable struggle for hegemony in Iraq, Afghanistan and much of the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia. Canada should stand aside.

In Afghanistan, Canadian troops are not engaged in peacekeeping. They are involved on one side in a civil war. While Canadians have been rightly proud of this country's decision to stay out of Iraq, they have paid insufficient attention to the fact that the former Liberal government drew us ever more deeply into Afghanistan. The mission now entrusted to Canadian and other coalition troops in southern Afghanistan, under the command of Canadian Brigadier-General David Fraser, is no less a war mission than the campaigns being fought by the British and Americans in Iraq.

When President George W. Bush paid a surprise visit to Kabul this week, he spoke, as always, of his determination to prosecute the war on terror. The so-called war on terror is really a struggle in which the United States and its allies are trying to impose their hegemony on a large part of the world. (The rejoinder that the Americans had to invade Afghanistan to retaliate against the 9/11 attacks is a non-starter. They had as much reason to invade Saudi Arabia, from which much of the financing of the attacks and most of the hijackers came.)

In the process, the values that are most dear to us - democracy, human rights, equality for women, freedom of speech and the right to publish our thoughts - are being preached in a contest that has little to do with any of these. In many regions of the world, democracy, freedom and human rights are seen as cynical slogans, Orwellian doublespeak, mouthed by those who want oil and other natural resources, and the strategic pathways, such as Afghanistan, that lead to these resources.

In 1900, Mark Twain offered a warning about phony humanitarianism that still rings true. "I said to myself," he wrote about the American intervention in the Philippines, "here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.

"But I have thought some more, since then ... and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem ... And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."

If Canada and the other Western powers pull out of Afghanistan, what will be the consequences for that country?

The struggle involving the government in Kabul, the remnants of the Taliban and regional warlords will continue. At the end of the civil war, the regime that emerges is unlikely to look much like a democracy that practises human rights. It could even be a fascistic theocracy.

On the other hand, the presence of Western powers, perceived in this region of the world as the forces of imperialism, will never succeed in imposing a Western-style system in the country. For centuries, the Afghans have shown an ornery tendency to throw out foreign invaders. And when, years from now, the people of the West decide to pull out of Afghanistan, withdrawal at that late date could leave an even more battered country and an even more tyrannical regime in its wake.

In the 19th century, the Europeans thought it was only natural that their empires should rule much of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. In the 21st century, the Americans have not yet learned that this is folly, although recent public opinion polls in the U.S. suggest that the truth is dawning on them.

Not least, Canada should pull its troops out of Afghanistan for an old-fashioned, even politically incorrect, reason. It is not in our interest to put our young men and women in harm's way in a struggle that will not be won.

Written by James Laxer, a professor of political science at York University.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Road to Balkh

The road from Termez on the Oxus River to Balkh and then over the Hindu Kush to Kabul, has inspired great writers such as Robert Byron (The Road to Oxiana) Arnold Toynbee (Between Oxus and Jumna). Fitzroy Maclean (Eastern Approaches) and the two outstanding Great Game writers, Robert Keay and Peter Hopkirk.

On the say the US and British forced lauched their attack on Iraq, I was in the Mother of all cities, Balkh. It was also my birthday. March 21, 2003. I travelled with Ali Hassan Quoreshi and Zaman. Here is an extract from my diary and photos I have taken along that road over a 30 year period.

The entrance to The Salang tunnel as you see it coming from Mazar I Sharif. and the men who keep the road open. The Salang Pass (Persian: كتل سالنگ Kotal-e Sālang) (el. 3878 m.) is the major mountain pass connecting northern Afghanistan and Kabul province, with further connections to southern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Salang River originates nearby and flows south.

The pass crosses the Hindu Kush but is now bypassed through the Salang tunnel, built by the Soviet Union in 1964, which runs underneath it at a height of about 3,400 m. It links Charikar and Kabul with Mazari Sharif and Termez.

The potter and his family at Istalif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

A boy and his donkey on the roadside. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The Chamar valley in the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The author reading from Eric Newby's ' A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' to some local lads in the Panjsher valley. Photo: Ian Clarke.

Mainly Uzbek soldier at a Nowruz celebration in Mazar I Sharif. Photo: Bob

A carpet repairer on the roadside. Photo: Bob McKerrow
At the Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif on Nowruz, the fertility pole is raised. Photo: Bob McKerrow

An hour and a half after leaving Kabul the road starts climbing up towards the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The game of Bushkashi celebrating Nowruz in Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Jewett's Tower at Jabal Seraj. In 1911 an American Engineer camne to Jebal Seraj to install Afghanistan's first hydro-electric plant for Amir Habibullah. A.C. Jewett stayed here eight years and built his home and published a book, An American Engineer in Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Trip from Mazar I Sharif to Kabul 21 March 2003

Had a very informative and interesting visit to Mazar I Sharif. We were due to fly back Saturday 22 March 2003 by Red Cross flight but due to bad weather, it was cancelled. Then, we found out early Sunday that the flight was going from Mazar to Peshawar, Pakistan, and not Kabul. Not wanting to get stuck in Peshawar with events happening in Iraq, Quoreshi and I drove from Mazar I Sharif to Kabul. It was a 13 and a half hour trip

The Afghan Red Crescent Society, supported by the Federation in the north are doing a superb job with 17 very well run Mother and Child Health Clinics.

We also travelled up to Hairaton, on the banks of the Oxus (Amu Daraya River), just near the border of Uzbekistan to visit one project. I marvelled at the history of this great river.

We also went to watch Buskashi, Afghanistan's version of rugby on horseback where they use a headless goat instead of a ball. Great spectacle to watch,

With the war intensifying in Iraq I was expecting some strong protests here but things have been quiet so far. It could flare up at any time.

Trip schedule

0845 Left Mazar with its the typical planted fields mixed with desert patches and blowing sand over the road up to Gowr e Mar, just before the turn-off to Hairaton. Passed a herd of camels grazing just after the turn-off.

0915 50 km. Arrived at Kulm (Tashqurghan) famed for its covered bazaar. I worked here in 1976 after the big Kulm earthquake.. The city has a delightful backdrop of rocky peaks. We are now into ancient Afghanistan with its dried mud houses and from the exterior, it could be the 10th Century . For the next few km the road closes in with villages hemmed in by mud walled as the road narrows to Tangi Tashqurghan, that spectacular gap in high mountain walls through which flows the Tashqurghan River.

0945 Talhuki (now in Samanghan province). There is a distinct lack of animals compared to previous visits to this area.. With 4 years of drought animals have died, been sold or eaten for survival.

0955 Arrived at the outskirts of Samanghan (Aibak) where the trees were blooming with walnut and almond flowers, a hue of pink and white.

For the past 10 km I’ve seen many bomb craters on the road or in nearby fields that were dropped by the American on the fleeing Taliban/suspected Al Quaida. From Alexander's coins on sale in local bazaars, to recent US bomb craters, history is etched into every footstep of this journey.

0957 110 km Arrived in Aibak.

From here you leave the Tashqurghan River and climb up to Kotali Robatak with Mt. Robatak on the left. Grand views of the lower Hindu Kush and across parts of Hazarajat are so striking..

1025 (147 km) Aikak, a small settlement where the road has been washed out by heavy rains in the past few days, is so typical of these old roadside villages.

1040 Enter Baghlan province and drive through Shismasher with either freshly dug or recently planted fields on either side of the road.. Some still being ploughed. This village is nestled in a semi circle of snow covered mountains, the nearest a mere 8 km away.

1220 Arrived at Doshi at the confluence of the Surkhab and Anderab rivers. Here the road branches to Bamiyan and Salang. On entering Doshi there is a delightful tree lined avenue with a disappearing perspective up to the massive heights of the Hindu Kush

From here we then followed the Anderab river up into Khenjan district small, high-walled villages. Pink blossoms gladden the eye on the harsh mud and rock landscape.

1240 Reached Khenjan where there is a checkpoint. The landscape gets steeper with small, well irrigated wheat fields..

1250 (264 km) climbed up to Walian another small and pretty village. It is surprising how high they plant the wheat fields here..

1255 (267 km) one reaches the first of three new bridges built by the Government of Uzbekistan
The second bridge at 1258 and next at 1303. These strong and smart looking bridges have done much to improve the road and passage of heavy vehicles.

1307 Passed Char Zah the steep roadsides lined with neat rock walls, with old tanks and APC’s littering the road side. Good to see stunted pines thriving in the harsh alpine environment, leaving some semblance of bio diversity in the alpine regions..

At about 1330 about 6 km from the tunnel a large volume of vehicles decide to play ‘Machina Bushkashi’ as an undisciplined bunch of drivers try to pass each others with wheels literally hanging over precipices to get ahead of the other car.. Hundreds of trucks lined one side of the road waiting to get through the tunnel.

1338 Made very little progress and now stuck in traffic. I was bursting for a pee and ventured slightly off the road to relieve myself when I saw a red rock. “Mines,” shouted an Afghan in English. The red painted rock indicated the spot where the mines had been cleared too.

1346 Moved a hundred metres or so and then stopped again.

1420 Nearing the first portal

1445 After a lot of stops and starts, through and out of the first portal.

The next hour the ‘machina bushkashi’ continued as the traffic in one direction kept trying to pass one an other, often three abreast for no gain. A real dog eats dog madness interspersed with halts.

1515 Away again, and another 100 metre gained. The car in front of us got stuck in a gaping hole which we managed to avoid.

1530 We got stuck at the second portal close to the entrance to the Salang Tunnel (on the northern side) at 3,800 metres for about 3 hours surrounded by deep snow. A beautiful place to get stuck and we enjoyed the awesome mountain scenery and the very fresh air. A complete stranger in another car shared his dried mulberries with us and then as always, Afghan hospitality is there every time you turn. It was nice to get out and talk to people in the middle of this mountain madness as cars and buses tried the impossible to pass cars that were two and sometimes three abreast, causing even a greater jam.

At 1615 the sun set behind the Hindu Kush and there was a few moments of tranquility as the evening cold starts gnawing at your bones.. Quoreshi and I seemed the only foreigners in a crowd of over 800 Afghans in buses trucks, taxis and cars.

Then it was announced by ACTED road men that a truck and convoy were coming with a dead body from the southern side, despite the road being open only in our direction. Imagine the scene of cars and buses and trucks some three abreast, having to maneuver themselves into a single lane to let a northbound convoy through. I felt there was a need for a mountain giant to appear with a barrel of oil and a crow bar, and to pour oil over all the vehicles and prise them out one by one and stack them in an orderly line. Much to my amazement, a giant wasn’t called for somehow, the vehicles slithered and maneuvered themselves in such a way that the convoy carrying the dead body managed to crawl by.

Looking down from the Salang Pass at the road which winds up from Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow

After about half an hour we took off our chains and joined in a race, something like a rally car race, as all and sundry raced for Jebal Seraj and distant Kabul., passing Walang and Salang villages. Looking back over my shoulder I marvelled at the view, the star studded sky and a trail of cars and bus headlights snaking down from the skyline of the Hindu Kush.

2015 Once at Jebal Seraj, after consultation with ICRC through Younis, we decided to head for Kabul as many other cars were doing the same.

What has changed in Kabul is the rainbow colour lights you see miles ahead which illuminates and indicate the many new gas stations.

Passed three checkpoints, the final one being at Khair Khanna as we entered Kabul at 2130. At this checkpoint there was a huge illuminated portrait of Ahmed Shah Massoud, watching over Kabul and its twinkling lights.

Arrived at our House in Wazi Akbar Khan just after 2200 hours.

Another way to cross the Hindu Kush is via the Khotali Anjuman which takes you from the Panjsher valley to the Anjuman valley. Crossing the pass in 1995 with Ian Clarke. Photo: Bob McKerrow

For further reading I recommend The Road to Balkh by Nancy Nancy Hatch Dupree. Afghan Tourist Organisation, 1967

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Afghanistan and the lessons of history

Buskashi, the ancient game of Afghanistan requiring outstanding horsemanship and courage. Photo: Bob McKerrow

My last posting was mainly about what I see as the lines between aid agencies and the community work of the military becoming blurred in Afghanistan and other countries where there is conflict. I was also lamenting the fact that more and more humanitarian workers are being shot, maimed or killed. Little did I know then that it would come closer to home a few days later.

Last Thursday morning I went to Banda Aceh where the Red Cross is near to completing its large Tsunami rehabilitation programme. I was stunned to get a phone call late afternoon from one of the staff of the German Red Cross saying that Dr. Erhard Bauer had been shot not too far down the road from where I was. He was travelling with three Indonesian staff when a motorcycle drew up beside the vehicle with two passengers, the rear passenger fired three shots into the front passenger side window and one bullet passed through his left side and lodged inside Erhard's abdomen. Our Red Cross team in Banda Aceh speedily organised an evacuation to Singapore so the bullet could be removed. Surgery was successfully carried out and he is now stable and recovering. Thank God he was only wounded.

It was strange standing by Erhard's bedside in the hospital in Banda Aceh last Thursday night trying to provide moral support to him as he was struggling on life support equipment. Only five days early we met at a football match in Jakarta where our children were playing in opposing teams and as we both have a love of Afghanistan, we began talking about the places in Afghanistan where he lived for many years with his wife and children.

After a few hours on oxygen, Erhard removed his mask and although in pain, started talking about Afghanistan and surprisingly, we got onto the subject of Dr. Brydon, who was the sole survivor of a sixteen thousand five hundred strong retreating British army that fled Kabul in 1842 - all but Brydon were mercilessly massacred with horrific efficiency by Afghan forces lying in wait (depicted below).

For those of us who have worked in Afghanistan, the painting of Dr. Brydon (above) evokes an array of feelings. Recently, my good friend Paul Conneally posted an article on his outstanding blog

Paul give his take on recent events in Afghanistan:
Last week's suicide bombing and armed raids on a guest house frequented by UN staff in Kabul got me thinking, not for the first time, of this interminable part of the world. The UN bombing had been preceded a few days before hand by a suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that left at least 17 dead and dozens severely injured. Then, a few days after the UN bomb we had massive explosions in the crowded alleys of Peshawar's sprawling street markets that left more than a hundred civilians dead.

I remember back in 1999 when I had my Afghanistan time, the country - apart from a territory in the north - was presided over by the Taliban and an assembly of war lords. At that time there was no alcohol allowed, no women in the workforce (or anywhere else except mostly indoors), no television, no music - no fun basically. It was a tough time on many levels not least the psychological one. You have no idea how dreadfully depressing it can be to work with some twelve hundred colleagues all of whom are male with an average age of about 50! I longed for female company and I longed also for a cold beer at the end of the day.

Given the lack of social outlet and the very real security threats life was confined to work and (heavily guarded) home - a good time to catch up on my reading and experiment with some herbal teas. At that time I became fascinated with the historical writings on what is know as the Great Game - the great rivalry between the British and Russian empires that lasted the best part of one hundred intriguing years ending in 1921 with a friendship treaty between the two great foes. The prize for the Great Game was the Indian sub-continent which Britain declared the jewel in its crown and feared mightily that Russia would conquer Afghanistan and use it as a launching pad to snatch India.

So, not for the first or last time in her long and illustrious history, the nation of Afghanistan found itself at odds - through no real fault of its own - with major military powers. A victim of its own geography. But, not being one to turn down a decent offer of a good fight, Afghanistan embraced the Great Game and played both sides off against each other, much like they did with Persia during the same period and of course the Americans and the Soviets in the 1980's.

Never conquered. Never Divided.
History will show that the whole of Afghanistan has never, not once, been controlled from the centre. And, while (in western eyes) treachery and deceit are a frequent feature of their methods of warfare (rendering the Geneva Conventions culturally biased?) Afghanistan has incredibly remained solidly intact, never fragmenting along ethnic or religious lines and maintaining its borders since its inception. It clings fiercely to the origin of its name which is Sanskrit for "land of the allied tribes".

But, I digress. I did not intend a historical account, even a brief one. But it is necessary for the remainder of my tale. During those turbulent days back in 1999 we did manage to escape on rest and recreation every few months to Peshawar where the first destination was the long-established American Club - a place with cold beer, conversation with women and late night darts. At the entrance of this modest but grand old building, just before you climbed the stairs to the bar, hung a gilt-framed oil painting which always stopped me in my tracks and urged me to ponder awhile. It was an original copy of "Remnants of an Army" depicting a lone soldier, Scotsman Dr. William Brydon, at the gates of Jalalabad, which lie approximately half way along the 200 mile road between Kabul and Peshawar.

Brydon was the sole survivor of a sixteen thousand five hundred strong retreating British army that fled Kabul in 1842 - all but Brydon were mercilessly massacred with horrific efficiency by Afghan forces lying in wait (depicted above). The same Afghan forces, it should be mentioned, with whom they had been allied just a few days before - things can change very quickly in Afghanistan.

This effectively brought to an end the First Anglo Afghan War (1839 - 1842) and one of the lessons learned (for evaluation it seems was also a practice back then - makes you wonder if it is really possible to learn from our mistakes) was a telling and succinct recommendation whose relevance today is undeniable: The First Afghan War provided the clear lesson to the British authorities that while it may be relatively straightforward to invade Afghanistan it is wholly impracticable to occupy the country or attempt to impose a government not welcomed by the inhabitants. The only result will be failure and great expense in treasure and lives.

From Tipperary to Afghanistan and back
Now, that painting (shown at the top of this post), as mentioned, fairly captivated me at the time especially as I was so enamored with Peter Hopkirk's writings of the Great Game that repeatedly recalled the resilience of the Afghans throughout their long and combative history. Staring at the forlorn figure of Brydon, the lone horseman, one didn't know whether to feel pity or pride. His form embodied defeat, set against an unforgiving and alien landscape; and such were the incredible odds against his survival that you were forced to wonder whether the Afghans let him loose on purpose - a barely living testimony to their military might.

The painting was the work of an artist called Lady Elizabeth Butler. When writing this post I could not remember her name so scoured the internet until I found it - and I found out a few other aspects which struck me as interesting. Elizabeth was born in Lausanne (Switzerland) but married an Irish soldier, writer and adventurer called William Francis Butler.

William hailed from the impoverished famine fields of Tipperary and had risen to great heights in the British army. The couple returned to Ireland upon William's retirement and lived in Bansha Castle before moving eventually to the east coast of Ireland, settling down in Gormanstown Castle where they stayed till their final days and are buried at nearby Stamullen Graveyard.

Year's after my own Afghan adventure I tracked down some of Elizabeth's paintings at the Imperial War Museum in London, and I was not disappointed. I have heard that the painting of Brydon - the last remnant of a decimated army - now hangs at the Tate but will have to confirm that at a later date. It may be coincidence that a painting which had such a hold over me ten years ago somehow turned out to have strong Irish connections. Whatever the case, I'll be making my way to Stamullen cemetery the next chance I get to track down the last resting place of this incredible couple and pay them my respects.

My sincere thanks to Paul Coneally from Head Down Eyes Open

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Praying for More Unemployed Grave-Diggers in Afghanistan

The lines between aid agencies and the military have become blurred in Afghanistan,

Bamiyan where New Zealand troops are doing humanitarian work alongside their military duties. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The earthquake in West Sumatra has occupied every waking moment of my life in the past five weeks and has even stolen many of my sleeping hours. Midst the hundreds of emails I received was one from my good friend in Kabul, Steve Masty entitled "PIRATES.'

dear bob

i went into spinneys, the dubai-based supermarket in kabul, and looked at your 'Mountains of your Mind' book and, while well produced it looks to be a pirate addition, with no isbn number. when i go back i will bring a pencil to jot down the web address of the second publisher, different than the real one on the title page.


When I told Anuj , my publisher in New Delhi, he replied " you should be ‘HAPPY’ if your book is pirated. The pirates only ‘GO FOR THE BEST’."
So the book I published on Afghanistan in 2003 has been pirated, so I am flattered. Photo: Tara Press New Delhi

However, thinking of my book is a bit selfish at this time because I am more concerned by the blurring of lines and mandates between aid agencies and the military in Afghanistan.

The other day there was a headline in most New Zealand newspapers announcing in shocked tones that there has been a shooting incident involving New Zealand troops in Afghanistan.

It went on to say "Government sources say our troops have been fired on."

When you call a plumber to unblock a sewerage pipe, he gets shit on his hands. Send soldiers into Afghanistan they are likely to get blood on their hands, especially the New Zealand soldiers who do humanitarian work in communities with an automatic rifle slung across their back. Soldiers should be in a country to support the regime their Governments are backing politically, or doing UN-type peacekeeping work. Mixing military intervention with humanitarian works only contributes to genuine humanitarian workers being mistaken as soldier/humanitarian workers.

In his recent article Empire Games in the New Zealand Listener, Gordon Campbell observes:

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Taliban forces have mounted major attacks in recent weeks, rendering the provinces of Zabol, Helmand and Oruzgan highly dangerous for foreign and local ground troops. Aid workers have been withdrawn from many provincial areas. In both countries, foreigners and locals engaged in humanitarian work – including the reconstruction tasks that our deployment of 61 armed engineers have been set in Iraq – are being singled out as “soft targets”.

I am terrified when I read that 61 armed New Zealand Army engineers are doing humanitarian work, probably in areas where non-armed humanitarian workers are working.

Coalition Forces doing a form of humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

In his article Afghan aid as a military weapon, Thalif Deen in Asia Times Online in August 2004 was one of the first journalists to signal the growing problem about communities that humanitarian workers and soldiers work, Afghans have become confused as to the lines between aid agencies and the military. He writes:

"There are times when aid agencies need the support of the military - as in Bosnia - but we are concerned about the increased involvement of the US and UK military in the provision of aid," said Caroline Green of Oxfam International.

"Our impartiality is vital for us to carry out our work on the ground but this has become undermined by the United States giving aid to people not on the basis of need but in exchange for information," Green told Inter Press Service (IPS).

Besides aid agencies, humanitarian assistance - including food aid and relief supplies - have also been provided by coalition forces, including the US, the UK, France, Germany and Italy, according to the US State Department. "Communities that we work with have become confused as the lines between aid agencies and the military have become blurred in Afghanistan," Green said.

Those charges have been strongly endorsed by several other international aid organizations, including Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders), Christian Aid and Concern Worldwide. Last week, MSF pulled out of Afghanistan after having provided humanitarian assistance there for nearly 24 years. The reasons for the organization's withdrawal included a deterioration of the security environment in Afghanistan and, more important, the misuse of humanitarian aid by US military forces in the country.

MSF also said it was unhappy with the lack of progress in a government investigation of the killing of five of its aid workers in the northern province of Baghdis in June, presumably by insurgents. MSF, which employed about 1,400 local staff and 80 international staff, ended all its operations last week.

How many more soldiers and aid workers will be buried here ? The Christian cemetery in Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I remember the first time I went to that graveyard.
It was a cold winter’s day in early 1994 when I first met Rahimullah, grave digger and caretaker of the British Cemetery in Kabul. He looked poor in tattered Shalwah Kamez and a shawl wrapped round his shoulders to keep out the biting cold. The headstones and graves were dusted with snow. In the distance the Hindu Kush range stood high above Koh Daman, the hills that skirt Kabul. Rahimullah looked about 50 then. Since the Soviets withdrew from Kabul in 1989 he hadn’t been paid. I knew that Aurel Stein, the famous Hungarian born British Archaeologist was buried here in 1943. I didn’t know that this would to prove to be the most interesting grave yard I had ever seen. Its oldest residents are British soldiers from the Anglo-Afghan wars. Like the 29 members of the 67th Foot (South Hampshire Regiment), buried in a mass grave after a failed attempt to climb a hill south of Kabul on the 13th December 1879.
All that really remains of them is part of their grave stone, stuck along one side of the cemetery wall with other fragments of history. Long lists that tell no stories other than the staccato military details of name, rank, regiment and date. In between are assorted ranks of other visitors who never made it home. Explorers, journalists, hippies who lost the trail, engineers and aid workers; Italians and Germans and Canadians and Polish and many from other countries. Their headstones tell a snippet of Afghanistan’s rich history.

Fifteen years later my heart bleeds for the killing that is going on in Afghanistan, the country that deserves peace, a country that has been penalised by its geographic locations for more than two thousand years. I FERVENTLY PRAY FOR MORE UNEMPLOYED GRAVE-DIGGERS IN AFGHANISTAN.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Anjoman mountain region, Afghanistan. A trip in May 1996

Climbing with Bruce Watson at around 5500 m in the Hindu Kush. This valley is south of the mountain village of Anjoman. Photo: Bob McKerrow

A Panchjeri defending the valley with an anti aircraft gun. We drove up the Panjcher Valley and then walked over the Anjoman Pass, down to Anjoman village, then turned right into the valley leading up to some unclimbed 6000 m peaks. Photo : Bob McKerrow

At our base camp in 1996 from where we attempted a 6000 m peak. Bruce Watson, Ross Everson and Mathias (AVICEN) Ross and Mathias climbed it. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The author at over 5000 m in the Hindu Kush. Phot: Bob McKerrow

A snowy pool just below in the lower valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Looking to the high Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Crossing the Anjuman Pass ( Kotali Anjuman). Ian Clarke, a British Halo trust de-miner. I did many crossings of this pass in 1994-96. This one was in early 1995. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Samay Hamed 9 11 children

My good friend Samay Hamed sent me his most recent poem about 9/11. It is well-composed and evocative.

I wish a small rainbow of a kite
From a burnt roof in Kabul
Could fly to New York... Read More
And a colorful bird in a drawing pad page
From an orphanage room in New York
Could fly to Kabul
So children of 911 both here and there
Could understan...d
There are no just suicide bombers in Afghanistan
There are no just politicians in the US
There are children who play and dream
Of a free and fresh future
They could understand each other
They will meet each other as tourists
Not as soldiers

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Can we learn from Napoleon and John Master's to improve the situation in Afghanistan

US forces in Afghanistan should keep in mind John Masters' account of the British campaign against the Pashtuns. Here is a very provocative article by HDS Greenway - GlobalPost
Published: July 4, 2009 08:26 ET

BOSTON — Napoleon recommended that every private soldier carry a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, to inspire leadership qualities. U.S. Marines pouring into Afghanistan’s Helmand Province would be advised to carry a copy of a slim book called “Bugles and a Tiger,” the memoirs of a soldier-turned-author about campaigning against Pashtuns on the Northwest Frontier 70 years ago.

Before he turned his hand to writing novels, John Masters was a British officer fighting wily and resourceful tribesmen — the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of today’s Taliban. I have quoted Masters before in this space for his insights on the enemies America faces in those same barren hills.

The British had a partiality for martial races. “Their darlings were the pale, fierce Pathans,” as Pashtuns were then called, along with the “unbending Sikhs” of the Punjab, Masters wrote.

Then, as now, the Pashtuns were often given to religious fanaticism, and from time to time the “the magic word, Jihad” would convulse the hill country. Before Islam, Pashtuns had been resisting foreigners since Alexander of Macedon crossed the Kabul River in 327 B.C.

When they could, the British recruited Pashtuns to fight other Pashtuns. They could cover “enormous distances at high speed on foot,” Masters wrote. “Each man carried 30 or 40 rounds of ammunition, a water bottle, a bag of raisins, a few disks of unleavened bread, and a lump or two of course sugar … loping ceaselessly on at five miles an hour” for 20 or 35 miles at a time. Today’s Talibs may prefer to travel in pickup trucks or on motor bikes, but their endurance and speed on foot has not diminished, and they travel just as lightly, except that today they carry more ammunition.

“The core of our problem,” Masters wrote, “was to force battle on an elusive and mobile enemy.., (who) tried to avoid battle, and instead fight us with pinpricking hit-and-run tactics.” When the Pashtun “tried to defend something, whether a gun or a village, we trapped him and pulverized him. When he flitted and sniped, rushed and ran away, we felt as if we were using a crowbar to swat wasps.”

British troops were frustrated, “robbed of a soldier’s greatest weapon — aggression.” For they knew that “there would be no tranquility among these proud and fierce people, however quickly we forced them into mere surrender, if we fought our campaign on unnecessarily ruthless lines. In normal warfare armies bomb cities and destroy the enemy food supply without compunction, but we had to be careful not to harm women and children if we could help it, and we could not shoot on suspicion, only on certainty, and we could not damage fruit trees or destroy water channels.”

How long before the Afghans can look after their own security?

With the situation in Kabul grabbing the headlines in the run up to the elections, I came across this article written earlier in the year by Anthony Paul.
Anthony Paul has reported on Asia and the Middle East for publications including Fortune, Reader’s Digest, Asiaweek, and the Singapore Straits Times. His first dispatch from Kabul came in the wake of the April 1978 communist coup.

By Anthony Paul - Special to GlobalPost
Published: February 12, 2009 15:33 ET
Updated: February 14, 2009 15:59 ET

When a suicide bomber sparked a breakout from Kandahar's Sarposa prison last June, by blowing up himself at the front gate, the local Afghan police — to no-one’s surprise — were caught unprepared.

Nearly 900 prisoners swarmed to freedom through the wrecked entrance. The 400 or so Taliban among the escapees then took over several villages near Kandahar, a blood-drenched hotbed of insurgency south of the capital.

At this point, the soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA), stepped in and performed impressively, working alongside NATO troops in major operation to find the escapees.

In doing so, the Afghan army units, from Kabul and Kandahar, lived up to a report last month to the U.S. Congress stating that “ANA operational capabilities grew markedly during 2008.”

The Congressional Research Service analysis noted approvingly that the ANA “deployed more than 1,000 soldiers south from Kabul, providing over half of the air lift required to transport them, within 24 hours.”

The report praised other ANA actions, including 35 combined air-assault missions in eastern provinces “most of them ANA-led,” and the ANA’s development of elite commando "kandaks," or fighting units.

These post-mortems of ANA operations are currently being used by Kabul and Washington as insights into both the Pentagon’s problems and the likely future direction of the Afghan war.

They address a question central to military strategies being devised here and in several Western capitals: When, if ever, will the embattled country’s own forces be able to maintain security without outside help?

When can young men from the United States and 41 other nations in the anti-Taliban coalition have relief from the Afghan war’s mounting death tolls. According to official figures, as of Feb. 4, 645 U.S. troops had died in the war and 422 soldiers of other nationalities.

Though the ANA is undoubtedly making some progress, the blunt, unpleasant answer to these two questions is: not for many years yet.

Before the Pentagon can begin withdrawing forces with the vigor President Barack Obama’s new administration hopes to marshal soon in Iraq, much more will need to be done to improve Afghan security forces.

Following his apparently successful counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (a so-called “surge” involving the addition of more GIs to the forces already deployed there), General David H. Petraeus, as the new chief of U.S. Central Command, has been charged with pulling the Afghanistan effort from the brink of failure.

He has no illusions about the challenge, which may indeed be greater than he faced in Iraq. As he told Foreign Policy magazine last month, Afghanistan “has a smaller amount of educated human capital due to higher illiteracy, as well as substantial unemployment, an economy whose biggest cash export is illegal (opium), and significant corruption.”

Afghanistan’s position — straddling invasion routes between Central Asia and today’s India and Pakistan — has generated a centuries-old suspicion of foreigners. Ancient Persians dubbed the region “the land of the unruly.” The country’s mountainous spine is called the Hindu Kush (literally: place where Hindus are killed).

Most ANA recruits receive their basic training at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) a short drive out of the capital. Here, about 1,200 trainers teach basic combat skills, graduating a "kandak," or fighting unit, of the same number of men, 1,200, every 10 weeks.

As of late December, the Afghan army numbered about 68,000 soldiers. Another 80,000 or so Afghans are assigned to the country’s other security forces (e.g., air corps, police, border patrol). The goal is to train 134,000 for the ANA by the end of 2011.

Will a force that size mean that the Allies can leave? No one seems sure. In this eighth year of the Afghan war, the highest circles in Kabul, Washington and London continue to fiercely debate the total needed to make Afghanistan a stable, peaceful nation.

The outgoing head of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, Major General Robert Cone, says bluntly “134,000 probably isn’t enough.” Another senior U.S. commander says total forces would have to grow to 300,000.

By some calculations even that would still be nowhere near the number needed.

The Soviet Union introduced about 130,000 troops in the 1980s. When Soviet generals, in the face of rising casualties (an estimated 26,000 fatalities by the 1989 withdrawal), decided that something like a force of 300,000-400,000 would be necessary, secretary-general Mikhail Gorbachev elected to cut and run.

The U.S. Army’s new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a document overseen by Petraeus himself, appears to call for as many as 650,000 for Afghanistan – or more than three times the current Afghan-Coalition’s mass (and well over the 545,000 troops peak U.S. commitment in Vietnam).

Former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ronald Neumann, has suggested raising a large conscripted Afghan force. He gives the example of Korea, where America helped mobilize a 700,000-man South Korean army in the 1950s in a country that then had a population two-thirds of present-day Afghanistan’s.

Asked to comment, Neumann’s successor, Ambassador William Wood, politely but bluntly rejected the idea.

“All I can say is that I think we’re getting adequate numbers, and better training than they’ve ever gotten before,” he told me last year in an interview at the Kabul embassy. “Large numbers of draftees who are not adequately trained, led or equipped give us more of a problem than a solution. Unfortunately, even with the draft you can’t produce a baby in less than nine months.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

Letter from Kabul - 1995

27 April 1995

After 16 years of war, including five years of bloody civil war, Kabul is peaceful. The fighting ceased on 21 March as Government forces drove the Taliban faction out of rocket range of Kabul. How long this peace will last is unclear, but the government in Kabul is looking very strong at the moment. During the last three weeks it has sunk in to Kabulis that there is peace. Countless number of shops have opened, a daily newspaper has started, music, onced banned, is now heard in restaurants. Women from wealthier families have cast aside their drab clothing and bright pink, red, yellow and blue clothes are starting to be seen.

It is strange for me having only known Kabul under siege to feel peace and calm. Over 30,000 people have been killed in Kabul and countless others wounded and maimed for life. But such is their resilience, Kabulis are rebuilding bombed homes and putting their shattered lives together. There are still about 400,000 people who need assistance and in response, 15 NGO's (non-governmental organisations) have got together and formed the Kabul Emergency programme and have a
coordinated strategy to feed, restore water supply, improve sewage and rubbish collection etc. Although we (the ICRC and Federation) have not joined because we have to remain neutral and impartial because of our mandates, we work closely with them. It is a very difficult time nation wide for the Red Cross, Red Crescent movement, because we must strive to work with all factions and not be seen to be giving a disproportionate amount to one factional area in comparison to the others.

Between 11 and 17 April I went to Badakhshan, the remote north-eastern province of Afghanistan which includes the Wakhan corridor where the Pamir mountains join the Hindu Kush. Our main reason was to give assistance to the village of Qarluk which was engulfed by a huge landslide late last month. Over 350 people were killed out of the approx. 750 people living in the village. All the women in the village were killed except three and most of the children. It happened at 11 am so most of the men were out ploughing in the fields.

Due to an ecological disaster facing the whole of Badakhshan, caused by overgrazing by cattle, sheep, goats, deforestation, ploughing and planting on steep mountain slopes etc, many villages are threatened by landslides. We encouraged a number of people to evacuate and rebuild in safer places.

We also visited other districts in Badakhshan. The general situation of the 1 million or so people living here is appalling. The province borders Russian Tajikistan and there is regular conflict on the border. Russian jets have been bombing villages inside
Badakhshan killing many innocent civilians. They do this saying that Afghanistan is harbouring Tajik rebel fighters. When I was in Faisabad jets Russian jets flew overhead and bombed a village 6 km away killing 6 people and seriously wounding many others. The following day Russian jets bombed neighbouring Taloquan killing over 100 innocent people. When I visited the district capital of Baharak I saw many houses flattened by Russian bombs and grieving families who had recently lost family members. In the hills behind Baharak, frightened women and children shelter in caves at night to shelter from the Russian aerial bombing. In the northern districts of Darwaz and Shegnan, famine is affecting large numbers of people. Traditional foods such as wheat is in short supply and starving people roam the country-side scavenging the land for wild flowers, tree bark, wild honey which keeps them alive. To replace the wheatflour which is the staple, people are grinding mulberries and making a flour from it. Many women and children have died of starvation and malnutrition is rife. To get news from Darwaz, 13 men from the district came to Kabul. It took them 15 days to fight there way over snow-bound passes to reach Faizabad the capital of Badakshan. It took them a further month to get to Kabul to break the news. The region is so remote and impossible to drive there from Kabul.
We had to wait over a week to get suitable weather to fly. Once there we travelled on mountains tracks for some of the way by Jeep and then walked and rode horses. We have mounted a major relief operation to assist the people of
Badakhshan. We flew in 700kg of medical supplies plus food and key items. I am also awaiting a charter plane from Iran with further relief supplies. In addition, I have sent a very urgent report to Geneva imploring them to inform the international community; governments and NGO's etc.

However, despite the tragedy unfolding, one can't but help notice the incredible beauty of the high mountains of the region. We were in the region north of the Hindu Kush and travelled through the Kohi Xaja Muhammad (range) which goes up to 5000m. As we crossed the high passes the massive bulk of the Hindu Kush was closeby to the south. Huge hanging glaciers spill from the high summits and the jumble of rock, ice and glaciers give this part of the Hindu Kush shape and form unique to the Greater Himalayan chain. Kush.

For the first week of April I was in Nangahar and Laghman provinces in the east of Afghanistan where we have ARCS branches. I think I wrote a little about that in my last letter.

I find that most days while I am working I find something which shocks, saddens or makes me very happy. Today I went with Ahmed Gizo to the Kharte Se hospital in the west of Kabul. On arrival we visited the men's ward which had 80 patients packed in. About 35 of them have had legs blown off during the past week by land-mines. Most of them are in a lot of pain as they have to regularly soak the open stumps in plastic bags of iodine to prevent infection until the final operation is done and the healing takes place. As I was talking to one man who had both legs blown off above the knee just two days ago, a nurse dipped the raw stump which looks as if someone had just chopped his leg off with a meat cleaver exposing bone, muscle and flesh were raw - as his stump touched the iodine he let out a piercing scream and then cried like a baby for some time after wards. I have seen thousands of people of all ages with legs blown off in the last 18 month and I find myself getting very angry with the countries that produce these weapons of destruction, and the armies that use them. However my anger subsided later when I visited the Red Cross orthopeadic centre were artificial legs are made and fitted. My good friend Alberto from the Italian Red Cross runs the centre. He has been doing the job for five years and employs about 150 local staff who do brilliant work producing , limbs, wheelchairs and crutches. There are three other Red Cross orthopeadic centres in Afghanisatm.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who are the Taliban ?

Recent years have seen the re-emergence of the hardline Islamic Taliban movement as a fighting force in Afghanistan and a major threat to its government.

They are also threatening to destabilise Pakistan, where they control areas in the north-west and are blamed for a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks.

The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

A predominantly Pashtun movement, the Taliban came to prominence in Afghanistan in the autumn of 1994.

It is commonly believed that they first appeared in religious seminaries - mostly paid for by money from Saudi Arabia - which preached a hard line form of Sunni Islam.

The Taliban's promise - in Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan - was to restore peace and security and enforce their own austere version of Sharia, or Islamic law, once in power.

In both countries they introduced or supported Islamic punishments - such as public executions of convicted murderers and adulterers and amputations of those found guilty of theft.

Men were required to grow beards and women had to wear the all-covering burka.


The Taliban showed a similar disdain for television, music and cinema and disapproved of girls aged 10 and over from going to school.

The Taliban first came to prominence in Afghanistan in 1994
Pakistan has repeatedly denied that it is the architect of the Taliban enterprise.

But there is little doubt that many Afghans who initially joined the movement were educated in madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan.

Pakistan was also one of only three countries, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which recognised the Taliban when they were in power in Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001.

It was also the last country to break diplomatic ties with the Taliban.

The attention of the world was drawn to the Taliban in Afghanistan following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001.

Mullah Omar's precise whereabouts are still unknown
The Taliban in Afghanistan was accused of providing a sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda movement who were blamed for the attacks.

Soon after 9/11 the Taliban were driven from power in Afghanistan by a US-led coalition, although their leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was not captured - and neither was Osama Bin Laden.

In recent years the Taliban have re-emerged in Afghanistan and grown far stronger in Pakistan, where observers say there is loose co-ordination between different Taliban factions and militant groups.

The main Pakistani faction is led by Baitullah Mehsud, whose Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is blamed for dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks.

Observers warn against over-stating the existence of one unified insurgency against the Pakistani state, however.

The Taliban in Afghanistan are still believed to be led by Mullah Omar, a village clergyman who lost his right eye fighting the occupying forces of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Afghans, weary of the mujahideen's excesses and infighting after the Soviets were driven out, generally welcomed the Taliban when they first appeared on the scene.

Emerged in Afghanistan in 1994
Mainly supported by ethnic Pashtuns
Toppled after US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001
Fugitive leader Mullah Omar wanted, whereabouts unknown
Their early popularity was largely due to their success in stamping out corruption, curbing lawlessness and making the roads and the areas under their control safe for commerce to flourish.

From south-western Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly extended their influence.

They captured the province of Herat, bordering Iran, in September 1995.

Exactly one year later, they captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, after overthrowing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defence minister, Ahmed Shah Masood.

By 1998, they were in control of almost 90% of Afghanistan.

They were accused of various human rights and cultural abuses. One example was in 2001, when the Taliban went ahead with the destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues in central Afghanistan, despite international outrage.

US onslaught

On October 7, 2001, a US-led military coalition invaded Afghanistan and by the first week of December the Taliban regime had collapsed.

Mullah Omar and his comrades have evaded capture despite one of the largest manhunts in the world

Mullah Omar and most of the other senior Taliban leaders, along with Bin Laden and some of his senior al-Qaeda associates, survived the American onslaught.

Mullah Omar and most of his comrades have evaded capture despite one of the largest manhunts in the world and are believed to be guiding the resurgent Taliban.

Since then they have re-grouped in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but are now under pressure in both countries, from the Pakistani army and Nato respectively.

But Mullah Omar and most of his comrades have evaded capture despite one of the largest manhunts in the world and violence in Afghanistan has returned to levels not seen since 2001.

Despite ever higher numbers of foreign troops, the Taliban have steadily extended their influence, rendering vast tracts of Afghanistan insecure.

Their retreat earlier this decade enabled them to limit their human and material losses and return with a vengeance.

Thanks to the BBC for this.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Riding a Dead Horse - The wisdom of Buzkashi Riders

A Buzkashi match at Parwan, 21 March 1996. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The wisdom of Buzkashi riders, passed on from generation to generation in Afghanistan, says that 'when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount'. However, in the UN and NGO community a range of far more advanced strategies are often employed,such as:

Changing riders;

Appointing a committee to study the horse;

Arranging to visit other countries to see how others ride dead horses;

Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included;

Reclassifying the dead horse as 'living impaired';

Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse;

Harnessing several dead horses together to increase the speed;

Providing additional funding and/or training to increase the dead horse's performance;

Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse's performance;

Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries
lower overhead, and therefore contributes substantially more to the mission of the organization than do some other horses;

Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses;

Preparing a workshop with paid attendants on the subject of Experience gaining in riding dead horses in post war setting;

Preparing a second workshop on environmental hazards caused by horse s…, and the advantage on using dead horses since they do not s… therefore are of no hazard to the environment.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The moon-faced lady. Bibi Maru

Kabul April 2003

I about 4.00 pm I left Wazir Akbar Khan, Kabul, with Liisa (a Finn) and Briita ( Danish) heading for Bibi Maru, the mountain made famous by Babur on his return from Herat in 1503.

From the run-down streets, blocked drains and drab houses I remember in 1996 and in March 2003, the area is now flourishing with newly paved streets, footpaths repaired, and renovated houses painted in bright colours and alongside some, new houses are being built. The poky little street corner shops that used to be stocked with a maximum of 20 items, have been enlarged five-fold and overflowing with goods from every corner of the world, to cater for the needs of foreigners. Shoe shine boys that once looked like skinny waifs, show a plumpness in the face from the foreign largess.

The walk up Bibi Maru was a climb up memory lane. As we arrived near the top the sun was setting to the right of the hill where Babur was buried. The reflection of the last rays of the sun was just visible in a murky trickle that is still the Kabul River. Ford O Ford of Kabul River wrote Kipling about this once mighty river where thousands of British soldiers lost their lives in crossing one dark winter's night long ago.

Bibi Maru, the moon-faced lady, hasn't changed, but the occupiers have. They are no longer Parthian, Persian, Greek, Mongol, Turkish, Moghul, British, Soviet or Taliban but Romans. Ironically, almost 2400 years after Alexander and his Greek Army stood astride this very hill, the new Romans, ISAF troops in 3 APC's from Italy, settled in for the night to protect Kabul. Does Kabul need Romans to protect its beauty ? In my garden and all around Kabul, the thorns are protecting Kabul's roses as they have done for centuries. Roses, Romans, conquerors come and go, but the new and old thorns mingle, and protect Koh Daman and its settlements.

From the summit I drew in a view I had seen at least 50 times before, but each is different. Gazing over the plains to Istalif and then up to the awe inspiring Hindu Kush, freshly coated in snow, two thousand years of history flashed in a blink.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Zealand to invest 41.7 million in Eco Tourism in Afghanistan

Bandi-e Amir Lakes

Only the hardiest, or foolhardiest, of tourists make it to Afghanistan these days -- but New Zealand is investing $NZ1.7 million in ecotourism there.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark announced the investment a year ago after discussions during the Wellington visit by Dr Habiba Sarabi, Governor of Bamyan province. NZAID's investment in Bamyan increased by $1m in the past next financial year, with total funding of $1.7m over three years to support the eco-tourism project.

Miss Clark said at the time that tourism - based around the ancient Bamyan Buddhas and the renowned Bandi-e Amir Lakes and the Bamyan Valley world heritage site - was an important avenue for development which complemented health, education, and other work in which New Zealand was already actively involved.

By starting work on eco-tourism before international tourists returned, it could be made both environmentally and economically sustainable.

Amir Foladi, head of the new Bamiyan Ecotourism Programme, has now told Reuters that though the unique historical sites can attract many tourists, the weak element is services and information.

Bamiyan city opened a rudimentary tourist centre in October, last year, backed by the New Zealand Government. New Zealand has been sending troops to Afghanistan for nearly seven years - a longer involvement than New Zealand's World War 2 campaign - where they are part of a provincial reconstruction team, which includes conducting mobile medical clinics.

The ambitious tourism venture is helping fund small guesthouses around the province, training staff, setting up a tour guide service, developing pamphlets and trying to lure in tourists with events such as a festival for the Persian new year.

Work has started on an asphalt road and in Bamiyan the widespread hope is that middle-class Afghans seeking an escape from the capital's dusty, over-crowded streets will provide the initial impetus for a fledgling industry.

"When we have the paved road it will bring lots of national tourists, it will be enough for Bamiyan until the security situation gets better," Foladi said.

The area was getting over 60,000 tourists a year before the war, and around half that as recently as 2005, when the security situation was better, he said.

But news of suicide attacks, kidnappings and the resurgent Taliban have eclipsed the desire among any but the most intrepid travellers to see the stunning vistas and archaeological treasures that once drew visitors here each year.

Bamiyan's poor land and harsh climate make it a farmer's nightmare, but in most other countries its natural and historical attractions would allow locals to earn a living from travellers.

The area boasts spectacular scenery, a sprawling collection of world heritage sites, including the remains of giant Buddhas blown up by the Taliban in 2001, and a unique cascade of lakes that last month became Afghanistan's first national park.

"Bamiyan is a very famous place," said Najibullah Ahrai, head of information and culture for the province.

"These are vital assets for the local people."

Bandi-e Amir Lakes Afghanistan

Decades of war and the devastation caused by the Taliban when they conquered the area after strong resistance mean parts of the town still lie in ruins and tourist amenities are basic.

At the moment there are just two decent hotels in the area, one run by a Japanese journalist who first came to Afghanistan in the 1990s.

A dirt road makes the less than 200km drive from Kabul a bone-jarring nine hour odyssey, and the dirt airstrip cannot handle commercial planes.

Some historic sites still welcome visitors with signs warning of landmines, and paths marked out by the tell-tale white and red stones of demining teams, although the major ones should be free of explosives by the end of the decade.

Even now some adventurous foreign tourists are still making it to Afghanistan, and enjoying themselves there.

"I am quite interested in going to places that are a little bit different," said British teacher Toby Waterson, who came to visit a friend who works at the United Nations and ended up travelling to the relatively safe north of the country.

He loved the country so much that he pushed back his departure by several days to see more of it, but concedes that holidaying at the edge of a warzone is not for everyone.

"You would be a fool to go there without knowing anyone, because you get that entry into the Kabul bubble, and also I had a smattering of the language," he added.

In a country where diplomats drive around in armoured cars, attracting more than the odd adventure tourist means betting on peace. With the Taliban insurgency gathering strength, that is a risky gamble.

But the cultural and development experts trying to patch up Bamiyan say it is vital to offer an alternative to the poverty that has always been a recruiting tool for militant groups, and to show that peace can bring economic benefits too.

"We are not losing our hope, many other projects are happening at this time, and you cannot do nothing just because you are afraid," Foladi said.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Anyone for a shave?

Taliban 'shave beards' to avoid capture

Taliban fighters are shaving off their beards and trying to flee from a Pakistani army offensive in their Swat bastion, the military said as it relaxed a curfew to allow civilians to get out.

The army launched an offensive in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, last week to stop the spread of Taliban influence which had alarmed the United States and other Western allies of nuclear-armed Pakistan.

More than 900,000 civilians have fled and the United Nations has warned of a humanitarian tragedy unless Pakistan gets massive assistance.

Clashes had erupted in various parts of the region, the military said on Friday, adding it was achieving successes.

It also appealed to civilians to identify Taliban fighters trying to flee.

"We have confirmed reports that these Taliban terrorists, after shaving off their beards and cutting their hair, are fleeing from the area," the military said in a statement.

"We request the people of Swat to identify them," it said, while providing a telephone number for informants to call or send text messages.

Taliban members and supporters usually have long beards and many of them also have long hair. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban about the military's statement.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who is in Pakistan, has called for massive international help to avert a tragedy. His agency said more than 907,000 people have registered as displaced since May 2.

Residents began fleeing late last month when the army attacked the Taliban in two districts near Swat they had occupied in violation of a February peace pact aimed at ending violence in the former tourist valley.

The United States had criticized the pact as tantamount to "abdicating" to the militants. Pakistan is vital for U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and stabilise neighboring Afghanistan.

Most political parties and members of the public support the offensive, despite skepticism about an alliance with the United States in its campaign against militancy. But opposition will grow if many civilians are killed or if the displaced are seen to be enduring undue hardship.

Investors in Pakistani stocks have been unnerved by the fighting in recent days but the Karachi Stock Exchange's benchmark 100-share index ended 0.49 percent up at 7,177.64.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Student army fills Kabul with hope and dread

We are reading so much, viewing so much, about the Taliban (Taleban) today in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I lived in Kabul from 1993 -98 and remember in 1995 they were advancing on Kabul as a fledgling student army.

Here is a flashback to that time in 1995 when Tim McGirk from the Independent Newspaper described the situation..

Wednesday, 22 February 1995

"Garoom! Garoom! Rocket!" shouted the old Afghan, pretending to fall to the earth as if he'd been killed. It was a perfect act, for the Afghan had plenty of experience of seeing how bodies flew when a rocket landed. Many relatives had perished in the hail of rockets that obliterated parts of Kabul during a two-year siege by renegade mujahedin.

The rocket attacks on Kabul stopped nearly two weeks ago, when a force of Islamic students known as the Taliban ambushed the rebels of Hezbi Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and sent them running down Kabul's icy ridges. The old Afghan said: "We hate rockets and guns. If these new people, the Taliban, give us peace, then we are with them."

With 2,000 Taliban fighters poised 8 miles outside the city and another 8,000 further south with more tanks and a dozen MiG fighters, many of Kabul's inhabitants look on the students with gratitude and dread. Because of Taliban, the Hezbi Islami rebels are in retreat. Because of the students, peace has descended on the city. The roads from the south are open, bringing badly needed food, medicine and blankets.

However, the Taliban might be next in the queue to pummel Kabul. Their leader, a one-eyed cleric, Mohammed Omar, claims his students have a divine mission to bring peace to Afghanistan by disarming warlords whose feuds have left over 20,000 Afghans dead in Kabul alone. President Rabbani refuses to give up his guns to the students. A confrontation looms.

In Kabul there are entire neighbourhoods where no buildings stand. The rubble has collapsed into the streets and only brick walls remain. If peace is not reached in Kabul between the warring mujahedin factions, it will not be long before the capital is too ravaged for Afghans to bother fighting over.

Like the houses, with their roofs, doors and windows blown away, the people of Kabul have been disfigured by war. Many lack limbs. They hobble through the debris, picking for anything that might be of use; a picture frame to burn for a few minutes of warmth, or a sheet of tin to shield them from the wind during the bitter nights.

Many of Kabul's 700,000 inhabitants have moved house several times in the siege, whenever the attackers switched the direction of their assault. The eastern and southern neighbourhoods are so badly shelled that many fled to the west, where they are crammed into metal shipping containers. Some live 16 to a classroom in an abandoned school. Bob McKerrow, a New Zealander who heads the Kabul delegation of the International ederation of the Red Cross, which is bringing in medicine and supplies, said: "Malnutrition is getting worse in Kabul. I've had mothers come up to me and tell me their milk has run dry. These mothers are having to feed their babies on bread and tea. There's nothing else." Relief agencies fear Afghanistan may become a forgotten war, neglected by the donor countries.

At the same time, new Mercedes speed through apocalyptic scenes that resemble Dresden after the bombing. These limousines were given to militia commanders by President Rabbani to buy their loyalty, but people in Kabul see the cars as symbols of the warlords' corruption.

Yesterday, relief workers arrived in old Kabul, a human anthill of mud houses hanging from a steep mountainside. They brought two lorries of blankets and plastic mats. The scramble for these items was so frenzied that one militiamen clubbed people with the end of a rocket-propelled grenade.

One woman, clutching a new plastic mat, was Qandi Ghul, 40, a widow with six children. A month ago, her husband thought it was safe to return to old Kabul. He was wheeling their few belongings on a cart when a rocket killed him.

"We have no money. No roof. Two of my children work in a bakery, earning 7,000 Afghans a day (£1.50). rom that, we must all live." The woman, lifting her veil to speak, added: "If the Taliban make it cheaper to buy a piece of nan bread, then let them come."

The Islamic traditionalism of the Taliban worries some Kabul women, many of whom had Western the Communists and the mujahedin came to power. The Taliban is against women working or leaving their homes without a hejab, a long veil that covers the whole body except for the face.

irozan, 20, a graduate who supports 10 people in her family on the £60 a month she earns cleaning cups in an office, said: "I don't mind wearing a hejab. It goes with Islam and I feel relaxed wearing it with so many mujahedin roaming around. But if the Taliban won't let me work to feed my family, I don't know how we'll survive."

If you want to read further, check out the story below.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Written in 1808 about the Afghans

Mountstuart Elphinstone

"The English traveller from India… would admire their (Afhgans') strong and active forms, their fair complexions and European features, their industry and enterprise, the hospitality, sobriety and contempt for pleasure which appear in all their habits; and, above all, the independence and energy of their character...On the whole, his impression of his new acquaintance would be favourable…he would reckon them virtuous, compared with the people to whom he had been accustomed…Their vices are revenge, envy, avarice, rapacity and obstinacy; on the other hand, they are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious and prudent, and ready to defend their rugged country against a tyrant. The societies into which the nation is divided possess within themselves a principle of repulsion and disunion too strong to be overcome… ‘We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood,’ the old man said. ‘But we will never be content with a master.’”

Mountstuart Elphinstone, Age 29, 1808

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dispatches from Kabul

I got this note yesterday from an old friend who lives in Kabul. I felt so nostalgic when I read this. Bob

dear bob

went to kapisa with my Afghan friend. Had some delicious dogh and bought a bunch of aboriginal tulips, like the kind in ottoman iznik tiles
if memory serves. 10 afs or 20 cents. prettier and more slender and fragant than the obese european models. the hindu kush is bigger than ever, its snowy peaks towering above a grey bank of rainclouds busily watering the grapes on the verdant shomali plain. apricots in flower there, mulberries still enjoying their winter nap. streets full of mud and gracious tajik chaps in lovely chappans. clever locals took industrial garbage and made three hydroelectric generators each with its own stone water intake. what clever, diligent, admirable, likeable people.

booked a table for four at the chaikhana on the kandahar road (azoy's song), dunno what they mean by 'rebab and tabla delta blues' but the cover charge is said to include badskshani nachos and mexican salsa, and everyone talks about the foxy hazara waitresses especially one named conchita (a popular shia name, i believe).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mountains of our Minds - Afghanistan

Ioday I discovered a review of my book Afghanistan Mountains Of Our Minds at the following website. Thankyou Paterika. It brought tears to my eyes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Afghanistan Mountains Of Our Minds

By Bob McKerrow
Review by Patricia Hendy (aka Paterika Hengreaves)

I have travelled to many far away places. Never to Afghanistan but a New Zealander who is a mountaineer, polar traveler, family man, humanitarian, kayaker, skier, Head of Delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia, writer and poet through his book made me feel as though I was there with him in Afghanistan In 1976 amid the suffering of the people from the great devastation of an earthquake and then lingering with him on his return to Afghanistan for three years in a time-capsule of 1993 to 1996. A period punctuated by grave destruction to the lives of those mountain people caused by the invasion of the Russian Army that occupied the country for nine years.

In his book, Bob reminisces through his poetic eyes. He draws you into his mind by sharing so eloquently and in an elevated style his experiences of the destruction, sufferings of the mountain people caused by natural and man-made calamities and how the Afghans went about their daily lives picking up the pieces tempered with their undying love of their mountains and their cultural roots, shaped and hardened in every way by their natural environment; that to many outsiders such would seem to border on the fringe of modern civilization as westerners know it. I loved the feeling I got when I was transported back in time, not by gory pictures or sound-bytes that make media headlines but rather through the muse, that for centuries has shaped minds of these mountain people. The main theme of the book draws contrast of a once peaceful country where people were living in harmony with their mountain lands. It highlights the indomitable spirit and tenacity of the Afghans and to chronicle the tragedy and beauty from real journeys into their mountains through a medium the Afghans have used throughout their existence.

Here are some more reasons why I like this book. The order in which I tell you does not place on them any degrees of which is more importance than the other. Anyway, here it goes:

I don't get the feeling that I'm served with cooked-up stories. This comes from the authentic imagery I get from reading the contents of the book. The imagery flashes the doings of real people, in my mind's eye, interacting with various circumstances in their immediate surroundings. I cite just two of the many examples in the book as listed below:


Whisper wind, whisper higher
Over mosaic dome and silver spire
Blow on in a peaceful hush,
Don't disturb the Hindu Kush...


You pass my door
As bombs fall
Scuffing leaves
You've lost all

Everything in one bag
Plastic, once leather
You walk with dignity
In worsening weather

I reach for the handle
To let you in
A tank track rattles
Your body thin

Your husband was shot
Three children blown apart
I want to say sorry
But my throats parched

How do I say sorry
When I'm riddled with guilt
We supplied the weapons
For the blood that's spilt

I try to tell my friends
What you've been through
They read and say little
It's too remote to be true

So come inside
And share my food
The whole world's stuffed
Except me and you.

I like the way the book is presented. I like his style of writing. It is soft and gentle on a flowing cadence and yet forceful. It is not threatening in any way but comes across as a genuine fire-side chat as he skillfully takes me with him down memory-lane and having the courtesy to introduce me to his many friends among them Dr Abdul Samay Hamed, Ali Haider Waheed Warasta, Alberto Cairo, Nancy Dupree, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Masood Khalili and Steve Masty that have played key roles in getting him to this point…sharing wisdom about a country vastly misunderstood. His poetry stands tall, for a linear approach would not have done the job well, for key elements that feed on soul of the Afghan people would have been overlooked. Wise decision to evoke the muse in this regard.

I like the way the book cleverly draws my attention to cultural and creative minds of the people of Afghanistan that match their love of the mountains in a poetic ensemble throughout the 125 pages. This one such instance rolls off my tongue with sweet-raspberry taste tantalizingly beautiful:

Drink wine in the citadel of Kabul
Send round the cup without stopping,
For it is at once a mountain,
A sea, a town, a desert

Found on Babur's citadel in Kabul tells how the great Mogul ruler love the city of Kabul and the mountains of Afghanistan. Clearly the books alludes to the fact that poetry runs deep in the DNA of the people of Afghanistan. Their historical roots are revealed as well.

The larger theme of the book is about how the mountains shape the people, people shape the mountains. They dominate the landscape of Afghanistan and these massive ramparts have shaped the lives, culture and the minds of the Afghan people for thousands of years.

Thus, the book gives authentic proof of how their natural environment influences their lives, culture and their aspirations. I get the sense of how one can go about bridging the cultural divide that seems to separate the east from the west. Take this instance cited in the book for what it is worth, young soldiers armed to the teeth, but keen to share their poems composed between periods of transient calmness.

The main theme and sub-theme of the book are captured alluringly in the well crafted quatrains full of tone, texture in streams of rhythm and rhymes that not only reflect sadness, joy, longing, anguish, desperations, hope, love and of course, romance that mirror the essence and spirit of these mountain people. And here, I quote you yet another extract from the book, "Acorn and the Horse" . The imagery I get from it is that of romance that bloomed in a war-torn country in the region of Turkmenistan and it is painfully beautiful. I get the feeling too that the voice in this book found his beautiful mountain flower. I have emboldened those lines that have led me to draw that conclusion. Here it goes:

An acorn plucked from a dry dusty tree
Has no meaning really
But in the crumbling mountains
Separating Turkmenistan from Iran
Symbolism is strong as blood
Now in the hand of a Kazakh women
Whose ancestors have ruled the steppes since
Chenghis galloped through with his hordes

As we strode towards the mountain stream
Shoulder to shoulder
Kazakh, Uzbek, Russian, Afghan Turkmen and Scot
Blood meant nothing at that moment
But it has been spilt for centuries
Across this very stretch of land
Once Parthian, Persian, Mongol now Turkman
Like a green acorn, a brief oasis of peace

Two green acorns were casually passed
Symbolism of cultures apart
Yours is the horse, mine the oak and kauri
Spars for ships of the great oceans
Can I not give you something for yours?
Like bridle, whip or stirrup
When you ride east and I sail south
Conquering the wandering white horses

I'm glad I read this book. It has erased my negative attitude to that part of the world through my own lack of understanding of their cultural heritage. And from reading this book which came to my home on January 2009, my sixth sense tells me that no conquering nation will ever drive these Afghan people from their lands and mountains they love, their poetry handed down to them through time in memorial. The metaphoric language in the book supports my contention and this is but one such example,

East is east and west is west
And never the twain shall meet
It was Kipling at his best
The words rang clear and deep

You don't have to be a connoisseur of poetry to find this book appealing. Also you'll find many useful gems sitting on the lines that can help one to reach into the minds of the Afghan people. The cultural route is the only way, in my opinion, to traverse their mountains, the book concurs.

This book, therefore, is a must read for all those brave men and women taking up base camps in Afghanistan. Trust me, you have to read the book to experience what I have experienced or even more; and to feel its full impact on your mind, for no amount of my words will suffice.

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