‘For us, or for our enemies’ : Has Karzai forgotten his forces?

His rifle, his boots full of rocksAnd this one is for braveryAnd this one is for me

Kabul – Nearly four members of the Afghan National Security Forces have died each day in the last 10 years, but one of the nation’s youngest parliamentarians says the Afghan president has done little to support the men and women who have died defending their nation.

Shortly after 21 Afghan soldiers were slain by Taliban fighters in a February 23 raid, Baktash Siawash, MP from Kabul, began a sit-in to demand that Hamid Karzai, the outgoing president, “take one day to visit the families of the ANSF martyrs.”

Siawash’s tent, erected across from the American University of Afghanistan, receives dozens of visitors each day. A young man from Parwan province came to relay a message of support from the northern province’s students. Another student said he came as a representative for 4,000 youth who have joined in Siawash’s call for the president to “prove his support of the forces under his command.”

Taliban ‘brothers’

The criticisms of the current administration’s treatment towards its security forces is nothing new. Shortly after an April 2012 complex attack, Afghanistan 1400, a youth-led political movement erected billboards across Kabul in honour of the ANSF.

But the February attack on the Kunar province military outpost, seems to have struck a particularly raw nerve for the Afghan public.

For those that have staged protests in the days and weeks following the 100-Taliban-strong Ghazi Abad raid, it was Karzai’s treatment of the February 17 killing of Mawlawi Abdul Raqib, a former Taliban leader in Pakistan, that showed the president’s priorities.

Reports that the president referred to Mawlawi Abdul Raqib as a “Martyr of Peace” only served to heighten a years-long criticism of Karzai for calling members of Afghanistan’s largest armed opposition movement “brothers.”

To many in the crowd at a separate February 26 rally in support of the soldiers killed in Kunar, the air transport of the body of the Taliban-era refugee-affairs minister to his home in Takhar province was further evidence of the fraternity between Karzai and the Taliban. Many referenced the fact that families of slain ANSF still struggle to return to their loved one’s bodies home after being “martyred.”

One protester put it quite bluntly when he said: “More dangerous than the Taliban’s return is the return of Taliban thoughts in the Arg,” presidential palace.

Enemy’s blood

Gardoo, 46, was one of the 120 rain-soaked protesters gathered at a youth-led demonstration in Kabul’s Shahr-e Naw Park last month.

For Gardoo, Karzai’s actions have shown that: “our enemy’s blood is worth more than our own.”

Siawash used one of his visitors in the West Kabul tent as an example.

“He had to hire a taxi to transport his son’s body back to their home in Ghazni.”

The journey across Highway 1 would see the elderly man travel across dangerous stretches before arriving in Ghazni. As a known Taliban stronghold, the dangers would not end for the old man and his driver upon arrival in the eastern province. In recent years, the Taliban have issued strong statements saying they would target the Afghan government and those who support them. As the father of an ANA soldier, this could put the man squarely in the group’s sight.

In a March 4 statement, the Office of Administrative Affairs, cabinet, secretariat, said 13,729 families of slain security force personnel had been awarded financial support. Another 16,511 families were compensated after a relative was wounded.

Of those, 4,551 were soldiers killed through March 2013.

Morale

However, Siawash said support of the armed forces is not merely a financial matter.

Instead, he said support is about the morale of men and women who are “willing to sacrifice their lives to fight the enemies of the nation.”

“All they have to do is tell one orphaned child ‘your father is a martyr, your father is a hero and the person who martyred him is an enemy of the nation.’”

For the protesters in Kabul, the 13,729 recorded ANSF deaths in the last decade are further proof that not enough is being done to keep the security forces out of harm’s way.

“Canons, tanks and planes, our forces need them,” they chanted.

The call for increased armaments in a nation that has seen more than three decades of armed conflict may seem disconcerting from the outside, but for those gathered in the park, their demand was that the ANSF be given a fighting chance.

In November 2013, Kabul asked New Delhi for among other things, 150 battle tanks, 120 field guns and 24 attack helicopters.

In 2012, ANA soldiers in Logar and Paktia provinces told the Associated Press they lacked even proper night vision goggles to target the armed opposition.

“Our commander-in-chief, for us, or for our enemies”, they shouted.

Though they would not comment directly on Siawash’s campaign, the presidential palace said the government does in fact support its forces.

“The president meets with families of security forces  as needed. He has also instructed the reverent government institutions to provide necessary support to them on regular basis”, Adela Raz, deputy presidential spokesperson, said.

Future administration

Still, the movement embodied by the likes of Siawash and the protesters in the park, is calling on Karzai to use the dwindling days of his administration to set the tone for the winner of next month’s presidential polls.

Karzai’s tenure as a military leader has been “stained” by his lack of support of the forces under his command, said Siawash.

All Karzai has to do is tell the armed forces that his lack of attention of was “not intended to say that: ‘you, and your blood have no value’. The shortfall was with us.”

Ali Mohammad Faqeri, who has gone to visit Siawash’s tent several times, said the president must not look at such a statement as an admission of defeat. Instead, he should look at it as a final chance to connect with the nation.

“It’s a good last opportunity for Karzai to possibly earn a place in the Afghan people’s hearts, especially those unhappy with him. He should look at it as a positive step for his legacy.”

This, said Siawash would also send a clear message to the victor in the April 5 presidential ballot to not repeat their predecessor’s decade-long mistake.

For Shokib, a member of the Afghan National Army in the northern province of Takhar, for the president to make his support of the nation’s security forces would be an important step towards showing that the deaths of his colleagues, including those in Kunar, was not without impact.

“The real power and emotion of such a loss can only be understood if officials continue to promote the love and responsibility for one’s nation among the people. They should let these young men die in vain.”

Afghan pianist, Omar Akram wins a Grammy

Afghan-American pianist Omar Akram has won the Best New Age Album Award at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards for Echoes of Love, his fourth studio album released on June 05, 2012.

Akram’s win comes as the Afghan National Orchestra performs at three iconic venues in the US, including the Kennedy Centre and Carnegie Hall.

Omar Akram takes home Best New Age Album at the 55th Grammy Awards

… And a river of blood: Teju Cole’s drone stories

Unmanned aerial vehicle

All 7, and we’ll watch them fall, They stand in the way of [… ?], And we will smoke them all, With an intellect and a savior-faire, No one in the whole universe, Will ever compare … And in the distance an army’s marching feet (1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4), But behold, we will watch them fall … And we will see a plague and a river of blood

انگشتر هزار مشکلات

Abdol went $32,000 in debt for his son's wedding

Before leaving Doha for Kabul I was stopped by someone.

“Ali. I read there is a thriving limousine business in Kabul, is that true?”

Knowing that in Doha “limousine” can mean almost any non-city taxi I asked for clarification.

“Yes, limousines. Is it true?”

“I don’t know, probably …” I said while fighting the voice in my head that wanted to scream out “OKay, and…?”

Instead, I said “possibly. But if it is, it’s  for the overly-lavish weddings people in Kabul throw now”. I hoped the conversation would end at that.

“Oh yeah? The weddings”, the other person’s eyes lit up.

“Yes, people have these very expensive weddings. Kabul is surrounded by giant wedding halls with light-up signs.”

To avoid the inevitable, I quickly added that “there have been a lot of stories about them.”

I saw that it was of little help, so I went onThe thing is these weddings actually cause a lot of problems for the young men and their families, because they are huge financial burdens and can greatly lower their prospects”.

I was cut off. “Weddings? Really?”

“Yes, but there have been many stories about …” cut off again.

“Write about that!”

OKay, I say, in hopes of ending the conversation.

I had no interest in writing yet another article about the weddings in today’s Kabul as some sort of symbol of how lavish life in Kabul can be.

Especially, because I knew that much of that was on borrowed money and would become a huge financial burden for the couple, but especially the groom.

Infatuation

On my last day in Kabul, I stopped by a tailor in Qalai Musa where I had previously dropped off the cloth for a piran tomban.

Speaking to Abdol Samad, the tailor, he told me about the burden his eldest son’s wedding had placed upon him.

“He fell in love in the tenth grade, but she had three suitors in the West”.

The girl, of a different ethnicity than Samad’s family, had cousins in Germany, Canada and Australia all courting her.

“I tried to deter him. He has plenty of beautiful of cousins of his own that would have easily accepted him.” But Samad’s son “couldn’t move on from his infatuation.”

Two years had passed and Samad’s son’s crush had not faded, so he did what he could to insure his son’s success.

“I went, bought candy and convinced the daughter’s family of my son’s merits”.

The candies, given as part of the khastgari process, saw Samad follow the traditions of Afghan courting. But he knew he had to do more.

“I even paid for the engagement at an expensive hotel.”

I pointed out that per Afghan tradition the girl’s family should have paid for the engagement, but Samad said “what could I do? He was in love. I had to find a way.”

The party was a success and soon plans were being for the wedding.

Tradition was tradition, and though he paid for the engagement, Samad knew he was still bound by custom to pay for the wedding celebration.

It was another lavish party in “a hotel”, Samad said.

To finance that party, Samad, who had spent only a few months in the Pakistani city of Karachi as a refugee, had to go around borrowing money until he collected the $32,000 needed to pay for the nuptials.

“I don’t have land. I have lived in Afghanistan for over 50 years, no matter what happened, I left only once, yet I still don’t have a place to call my own”, he said.

Though, Kabul real estate has experienced several booms and busts in the course of the three-decade-long conflict, Samad said he has always lived between the Shahr-e-Naw and Qalai Faetuallah neighbourhoods of the Afghan capital.

It is the knowledge of the city Samad has gained throughout the years that he credits with what he says is the “low rent” he pays in Kabul. He credits that low rent as a reason for being able to pay for as much of his son’s wedding as he did.

Still, he knew he had to prove his son’s worth to his would-be in-laws.

“I had to show them my son’s wedding would be no less than any other in Kabul.”

To prove his son’s worth, Samad went into debt.

Now, several years later, he still owes $12,000 on the cost of the nuptials.

After years of trying, Samad said his son was able to find a job.

“He makes $500 a month. In Kabul it’s not a lot, but finally I told him, ‘I have gotten you this far. I told you I would get your wife, now please help alleviate the burden this money has placed on me”. His son agreed.

 

Anisa is not Malala, at least not yet

Graphic compares Malala to Anisa

 

Schoolgirl Shot to Death in Kapisa“, read the headline of a December 04 Tolo news story about Anisa, a volunteer for a polio vaccination campaign in the eastern province.

Since that report on Tuesday, the Afghan social media sphere has been in uproar over the shooting.

With an emphasis on the “schoolgirl” in the headline, some began to compare Anisa to Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

There were even references to Anisa as a “girl” who was killed, in part, for going to school.

One female MP suggested naming a school after Anisa.

But, soon after that initial report, the story of a “girl” killed by the “Taliban” began to change.

There were reports that she may have been a 25-year-old health worker who was still in the tenth grade because she worked while studying.

Both a provincial council member and Kapisa’s head of womens affairs cited the Taliban as the culprits in the shooting.

However, a Guardian report later contradicted the head of women’s affairs account reported by Tolo.

On December 05, Saifoorah Kohistani was paraphrased by the British paper as saying there were no Taliban in Anisa’s area.

For their part, the group denied any involvement in the death of Anisa.

There were also several reports claiming Anisa was targeted for her work on polio eradication, which “the Taliban has opposed … in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan”, wrote Tolo.

The Daily Mail also referenced Anisa’s involvement with the polio programme as “one reason why she was targeted”.

Though the Taliban in Pakistan, a separate entity, has been opposed to polio vaccination programmes, the Afghan Taliban have in fact stated they are in support of polio campaigns as far back as 2007.

The vast majority of the 31 new polio cases reported in the Central Asian nation in 2009 were in Helmand and Kandahar, both provinces with high Taliban presence.

Local police go on to say that Anisa was caught in crossfire, an account which Aimal Faizi, spokesman to Hamid Karzai, referenced online.

Josh Shahryar, an Afghan journalist, lamented how much the circumstances seemed to have changed in the two days since the Tolo report.

“This is just a massive failure on the part of everyone involved: government – central and provincial – news organisations, human rights organisations … It’s been days and we still don’t know how old she was [or] how she was really killed”, he said.

In light of these conflicting reports, the government of Hamid Karzai will embark on a four-day investigation into the death.

However, in blogs and news reports, the narrative of the “schoolgirl” targeted by the “Taliban” prevails. Why?

Surely, Anisa’s story, even if she was yet another Afghan caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, would still be tragic.

If it does turn out to be Taliban, Anisa’s shooting would be seen as yet another example of the group going back on their statements that they would not target Afghan civilians or health workers.

If proven to truly be a Taliban attack, Anisa’s death would join the June attack on hotel guests in Lake Qargha as another example of the group blatantly going against their statements that they would only target foreigners and their Afghan collaborators.

Even if Anisa was caught in the crossfire her death would give a name to the thousands of Afghans whose deaths in a 33-year-long conflict go unnoticed.

For Afghans the deaths of family and friends caught in the line of fire are familiar occurrences, but for the media, giving even one of them a name would highlight the direct impacts of the violence on daily life in Afghanistan.

Anisa’s death also brought together activists to demand public attention to violence against women in Afghanistan.

Yet, the spectre of the media coverage surrounding the shooting of Malala Yousafzai – a girl who had for years publicly fought for girl’s education in neighbouring Pakistan and kept a blog for the BBC – still seemed to haunt some Afghans online.

After all, the shooting of a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl made headlines the world over and even put her ahead of Barack Obama, US president, in Foreign Policy’s top 100 global thinkers of 2012 list.

So Afghans quickly began engaging the weak tit-for-tat comparisons between Afghanistan and Pakistan, née ‘Af-Pak‘ that the media has been lazily relying on since the phrase was first coined in 2009.

In truth, though, we don’t need an “Afghan Malala”, rather, what we need are clear facts to convey the true situation on-the-ground to the world at-large.

Trying to frame the unclear narrative surrounding the death of a female Afghan polio worker to bear a resemblance to the shooting of Malala does little to show the outside world the complex threats still facing Afghanistan.

In fact, even tenuous comparisons of Anisa and Malala without clear evidence to prove how the polio volunteer died, further invite lazy and inaccurate analogies between Afghanistan and Pakistan favoured by the West and do little to address the complex challenges facing the Afghan people.

As Afghans wanting to honour Anisa’s memory we should wait to tell her full, proper story.

For Afghanistan, like any other nation, a complete story that provides the proper context, is much more powerful than a sensational one that engages in half-formed analogies.