“There are barriers not just in winning hearts, but letting our own hearts be won”

 Farzana Marie is a poet, author, social worker and former Air Force offer. She heads Civil Vision International (CVI), an organization focused on positively influencing international relationships through connecting, informing, educating and inspiring. She is the author of Hearts for Sale! A Buyer’s Guide to Winning in Afghanistan. 

Ms. Marie served as Air Force Officer in Afghanistan for two years, between 2010 and 2012. Before that, she had worked with Afghan orphanages between 2003 and 2004. Her research focuses on Persian literature, especially Afghan women’s poetry. In conversation with Syed Zafar Mehdi, she speaks about her experience as soldier and social worker, her poetry, and what she thinks of Taliban and Afghan youth. 

Q. You served as volunteer in Afghan orphanages before being deployed as an Air Force officer in Afghanistan. How was the experience as soldier and as social worker?
A. When I first went to Afghanistan in 2003, I was 19 years old. I was probably very naive and trying to ‘change the world’. But I think being with those kids at Allahudin and Tahai Maskan orphanages changed me far more than it changed them. After I was commissioned as an Air Force officer, I volunteered to go back to Afghanistan as soon as I could. I was nervous, though, because I was afraid I would be stuck inside the base doing something meaningless and disconnected from Afghans.

I was very frustrated, especially in the first 6 months, with many paranoid restrictions. My deployment was supposed to end after those 6 months, but I was offered the opportunity to extend it. It was in the second year (under the great leadership of people who understood the importance of engagement) that I was able to participate in more significant work as part of the ISAF Anti-Corruption Task Force called Shafafiyat.

Q. In your book ‘Hearts for Sale; A Buyer’s Guide to Winning in Afghanistan’, laced with intellect and emotion, you urge Americans to come out of their fortified barracks and mingle with Afghans to win their hearts and minds. Why have they failed to do so in all these years?
A. What I saw when I was serving in Afghanistan was that many American men and women in uniform were in fact very eager to spend time outside and connect with Afghans. The policies and regulations that often prevent them from doing so largely stem from a system built on rewards that are not based on actual results or success. The system is based to advance careers, and thus treats deployments as ‘checking a box’ with the goal of coming home safe (with medals, of course).

The other problem is a misconception of safety: the idea that security is derived from high walls and heavily-guarded gates. In my experience, this is incorrect. The best source of security and safety in a place like Afghanistan is an ‘arsenal’ of deep relationships with Afghans. The best ‘weapons’ are language and culture, which are usually far better tools for navigating tense situations than bulletproof glass or the raised muzzle of an M-16.

Actually, you have to fall in love. It has to be real. And the mission you are fighting for, the mission you have left your loved ones behind for has to mean something. The short tour lengths, the high physical and mental walls, the mindless briefings disconnected from the realities of Afghanistan, the lack of understanding of the tremendous potential of Afghanistan’s future and how U.S. partnership can help secure that against the forces seeking to destroy it. These are barriers not just in winning hearts, but letting our own hearts be won.

The best source of security and safety in a place like Afghanistan is an ‘arsenal’ of deep relationships with Afghans; the best ‘weapons’ are language and culture, which are usually far better tools for navigating tense situations than bulletproof glass or the raised muzzle of an M-16

Q. In your book, you tell gripping stories of your engagement team’s 350 plus missions around Afghanistan. Which one was most memorable?
A. I think it was the trip to Panjshir Valley on the 10th anniversary of Ahmed Shah Masoud’s assassination just before 9/11. That day involved memories of so many kinds I love Afghanistan for: stunning natural beauty, hospitality of people, importance of remembering our shared history. A close second was an Iftaar dinner at Governor’s house in Herat with young leaders and friends from civil society in attendance.

Q. Your research primarily focuses on Persian literature, especially Afghan women’s poetry. As a poet yourself, what do you make of it? 
A. I feel very honored and humbled to be studying this. The enormously rich tradition of classical Persian poetry combined with the important and intriguing new material Afghan poets are producing today makes me feel very small and very excited at the same time. Understanding Persian poetry (and hopefully one day Pashto poetry as well) is a lifelong pursuit for me. I think what interests me most about the poetry of contemporary Afghan women is the strong impulse to address socio-political issues, the potential for poetry to be more than just a venue for expression, but actually a process to bring awareness and stir action. I am probably most interested in the unusual or striking images that I find as I read. For instance, in Somaya Ramish’s new book, A Season of Pomegranate Dreams
(Yak Fasl-e Khaab-e Anaar), there is a poem whose first line and central idea is: ‘load poems like guns’.

This gives us a lot to think about in terms of the power of poetry and its potential as means of ‘fighting back’ against forces that would seek to destroy, to oppress, or perhaps most significantly in this case, to silence.

Q. How does poetry wrestle with the conflicts and social issues of our time? As Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail puts it, is poetry not medicine but an X-ray?
A. I think poetry (and art more broadly) can be both part of the diagnosis and the healing. Poetry is a layered language, but it also does a great deal of exposing. It can point to the wounds, identify the broken places which are often ignored or have been hidden beneath the defensive mechanisms of forgetfulness or willful ignorance. Once these places are spoken back into the light, we can begin confronting them more clearly. Poetry is about finding new ways to see, and I think in this sense, it is an important part of confronting the issues of our time, especially in conflict. I think poetry can help us see the way forward in that too.

Q. How do you rate Afghanistan’s new breed of leaders? Do they present hope and optimism?
A. Afghanistan’s young leaders give me such exuberant hope. I have the great privilege to be connected with many visionary young Afghans who I am convinced will shape their country’s future in positive and inspiring ways. These are the leaders who are constantly thinking of helping those in need. These are the leaders who are not afraid to stand up to a corrupt official, who are voting or running for office, who stand in peaceful protest, who plant trees, who make courageous art and music. Through their actions and words, they choose to be a part of creating the future they want to see for Afghanistan.

I have the great privilege to be connected with many visionary young Afghans who I am convinced will shape their country’s future in positive and inspiring ways

Q. In the wake of withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014, do you think Afghan forces will be able to take control of things?
A. I think there will still be a residual force to continue training the Afghan forces beyond 2014, but I think the Afghan police and army have been taking tremendous strides and are capable of rising to meet this challenge. To me, it is not so much about equipment and particular skills. Those things are important, but I think the determining factor in how successful the ANSF is at meeting the challenge of Afghanistan’s enemies is leadership. The Afghan troops are facing a psychological battle, which is intensified by the high number of physical casualties they have been suffering. They need inspiration and they need leaders who have integrity and see rank as an opportunity to serve rather than rule.

Q. What are the major challenges in negotiating with Taliban? Why did Doha talks fail?
A. Negotiations have to begin on some kind of common ground, however small. Usually in peace negotiations, part of that common ground is a desire for peace. Unfortunately, it appears that the sponsors of Taliban in Pakistan do not actually want that. Another foundational element of the necessary common ground in negotiations with the Taliban is acceptance of the Afghan constitution as the law of the land. In the political theater performance in Doha, indications from the raising of the Taliban flag to the ‘Islamic Emirate’ sign made it clear that the Taliban are not yet willing to accept a government other than one of their own making, under their own terms, even if they have to continue to kill Afghan civilians by the hundreds to get it.

I think there will still be a residual force to continue training the Afghan forces beyond 2014, but I think the Afghan police and army have been taking tremendous strides and are capable of rising to meet this challenge

Q. What is the story about your name, which you got as a gift in 2003 and has become a part of your identity now?
A. Farzana was the name my first Afghan friend, Zulekha, gave me. This was in California, before I first went to Afghanistan, and I was trying to learn some Dari. “You need an Afghan name,” she said.”Oh, I would love that! In Kazakhstan they called me Fariza,” I said. “Ok then, you can be Farzana,” she said. And it stuck.

Q. “Light beckons! Come, come to your senses”. These words in your beautiful poem Memento Mori sound ironical, almost mocking at all the entities that have turned Afghanistan into a bedlam. Where do you see Afghanistan ten years down the road? 
A. I think what we see determines what we do, and how hard we work for it. I see Afghanistan in 2024 with strong civil society, independent women, development in industry, access to education and healthcare, thriving art and dying Taliban.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/03/13/these-are-barriers-not-just-in-winning-hearts-but-letting-our-own-hearts-be-won–interview)


‘Women’s empowerment is not in the status quo mode anymore in Afghanistan’

 Samira Hamidi is the Program and Advocacy Director for Empowerment Center for Women-ECW and former Director of Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), which comprises more than 90 women’s organizations and 5,000 individuals. She is also the recipient of Afghan Presidential Medal.

Q. Did you always want to become a women’s rights defender or it happened by chance?
 I grew up in an educated family. My parents paid equal attention to me and my brothers for our growth, access to education and other opportunities. That helped me become independent and take my own decisions. While working in various organizations, interacting with women, understanding their issues, I decided to engage myself in women’s rights issues and address the challenges women of my country face.

Q. You have extensively worked to advance gender equality in Afghanistan. Has the ground reality changed in terms of women empowerment or is the status quo intact?

A. There have been tremendous changes in the life of women in last 12 years. Women’s access to education, healthcare, employment, political participation and economic engagement are some of the important steps towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. Afghan National Development Strategy and National Action Plan for Women of Afghanistan are important tools that have led to empowerment of women. Afghanistan, for the first time, has Elimination of Violence against Women Law that addresses domestic violence as a social issue rather than a domestic one. After 12 years, women’s empowerment is not in the status quo mode.

Q. As the former Director of Afghan Women’s Network in Afghanistan, working with 90 women’s organizations and 5,000 individuals, what challenges did you confront and how was the experience?
 During my tenure with AWN, it was challenging but rewarding to advocate and coordinate at the policy level, demand women’s role at various platforms, their participation as well as their role in decision-making. My overall experience has been enriching. AWN is an institution where women’s empowerment and equality is the vision. While I used my expertise and knowledge in leading the network, I also had the opportunity to learn a lot.

Q. The countdown for April 2014 elections has begun. How do you rate Karzai’s tenure and as an Afghan woman, what are your expectations from his successor?
 I personally respect President Karzai for his courage to step in to lead Afghanistan in 2001 when there was no system in place and the development budget was zero. Most of the development today can be credited to his leadership. However, with time, he has failed to maintain the confidence people showed in him after he got re-elected in 2009. His decision to bring warlords and criminals in government has further dented the trust people had in him.

The new President has to show political will to support people’s aspirations and respect the core values of democracy. He should devise concrete plans to fight corruption, establish robust justice system and strong law enforcement sector. He must also consider inclusion of 30 percent women in the new cabinet as per Afghan Constitution, and appoint male cabinet members based on their past record.

Q. There is a political lobby that wants negotiations and peace parleys with Taliban. Do you think it is a sensible thing to do at this juncture?

A. The current peace process is not moving in the direction as the people of Afghanistan had recommended during the 2010 National Peace Consultative Jirga. The lack of a clear strategy on how the peace process will become inclusive is another issue. Lack of access to information, symbolic presence of women in High Peace Council and Provincial Peace Councils is another grave issue. I am not optimistic about any negotiation if women are not made part of it.

Q. There is a large majority of students who drop out of school. How can government encourage them to pursue higher education and have bigger goals in life?
 More than 60 percent Afghan population are youth and the direction they take is bound to affect the country. Unfortunately the education sector is in shambles. Children still study in tents. The lack of security in some parts of country is another big challenge, forcing students out of school. Government needs to make education its top priority.

Q. Are you hopeful about the future of Afghanistan?
 Despite all the challenges, it is important to admit that we have come a long way. We cannot expect a country that started from scratch to become fully developed in 12 years. All Afghans need to work together to build their country.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/03/10/womens-empowerment-is-not-in-the-status-quo-mode-anymore-in-afghanistan)

‘It would be much harder to film something in the streets of Sydney than in Jalalabad.’

 Australian artist and filmmaker, George Gittoes has set up mobile studios for three decades, creating works in regions of conflict around the world. He has worked in North America, Europe, Middle East, Asia Pacific and Africa, creating works in both traditional and digital mediums, still and moving images, within a matrix of cultural interfaces.

Mr. Gittoes is currently making films in Afghanistan, painting and drawing and continuing to move around the globe. His documentary film Love City Jalalabad was widely acclaimed and screened at many international film festivals. He also runs Yellow House, an art and film school in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In a freewheeling interview with Syed Zafar Mehdi, he talks about his cinema, his love affair with Afghanistan and his dreams for the war-weary country.

Q. You are known for your documentation of the effects of war in films and on canvas – how difficult or easy is your job?

A.     I grew up in Rockdale, Sydney, a neighborhood always favored by new migrants. For a kid born in 1949, this meant I was surrounded by refugees from World War II. A war my own father and uncle had fought in. People took me to their homes and I learnt of all the terrible things they had endured. When I travelled to America in 1968, I saw injustices about race that did not fit with the Hollywood image we had been shown through film, as well as the mass protests against the Vietnam War. I started doing drawings and paintings about the civil rights movement and Vietnam and that is how it all started.

I regard my work as a war against war. I have been at the frontline of conflict in Cambodia, Somalia, Nicaragua, Philippines, Palestine, Southern Lebanon, Western Sahara, Sinai, South Africa, Rwanda, Mozambique, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, East Timor, Bougainville, Tibet and Iraq.

This job has not been as bad as it may seem because people everywhere have been kind and warm to me. The violence is always caused by a minority while the majority suffers. People see me as an advocate and friend, willing to risk my life to tell their story to the world. For example, whenever I arrived in Baghdad during the worst days of the war, the people who ran my apartment would say “everyone else is here trying to destroy our country but you are here to create and show the beauty of our culture”.  It is wonderful to feel so appreciated and loved.

Q. How did you come to make Love City Jalalabad and how did your love affair with Afghanistan start?

A.      My relationship with Afghanistan goes back a long way. Australian Army Engineers set up a demining program in coordination with the UN and I documented their work in the 1990’s. I travelled all over the country spreading mine awareness and made many friends, basically falling in love with the country and the culture.

The work I have done with the Jalalabad film fraternity, however, came about because of the assistance I offered to the Pashtun language Tele Movie industry out of Peshawar. While making my documentary Miscreants of Taliwood, I started funding dramas. This led me to the Dutch NGO Oxfam who providing a small budget to create work for this industry which had been devastated in the war. In a sense, I became a one-man-film-school, teaching the latest techniques in camera, sound and script writing. All the filmmakers were self-taught and had not known the benefits and nuances of formal training.

I believe some of the artists and filmmakers I have met can stand up with the best in the world and will be known for the greatness of their contribution in generations to come

The filmmakers of Jalalabad are linked with those in Peshawar and often use the same editors and equipment. When Amir Shah Talash and Mohammad Shah Majroh heard of what I was doing, they visited me on the sets and persuaded me to come to Jalalabad.

The first day I arrived in Jalalabad, one of the video stores was bombed, graphically demonstrating the difficulties filmmakers were facing there. My reaction was to book the Spingah Hotel and start working with this talented group on script development.

We needed to find a subject that would allow women to play strong and meaningful roles in films, which would appeal to audience for their content and storytelling rather than the usual action – violence shown in the Pakistani films. Films men would want to purchase as DVDs and take home for their wives and daughters to share in the entertainment. We decided that there was nothing more universal or enjoyed by Afghans than a good love story. I was so impressed by the Jalalabad group of artists that I was happy to give all my support to make three feature length dramas. I was joined in Jalalabad by my wife Hellen Rose, who is a famous Australian actress, singer and theatre director. The three films we made were Love City, Talk Show and The Tailor’s Story, all based on true stories we had collected from real people in Jalalabad.

Q.What is the film Love City Jalalabad about, and why did you choose Jalalabad?

A.     In a sense, Jalalabad chose me as I was invited there to help the local film industry as a guest and now I see it as my second home.

The name Love City Jalalabad is confusing because one of the three dramas we made in Pashto language is also called Love City. My documentary is about the process of forming the film group and creating a base for them in what we have named the Yellow House. The film shows the making of the three adult dramas and a children’s film with a first-time Pashtun woman director. The film then follows us taking the actors and films to communities with our Cinema Circus. We screen the films inside a tent to mainly children who have never seen films before. These films appeal because they are made with Afghans about Afghan culture.  The reactions have been joyous and we have proven that those foreigners who say Afghans do not like art, music and film are wrong.

Initially I was not interested in making a documentary as I felt this had all been covered by my film Miscreants of Taliwood about similar work in Pakistan. But, as the cameras rolled, I realized the footage we were getting was much more positive and happier than what we shot in Pakistan. Miscreants of Taliwood is a relatively dark film about an embattled industry and their hardships but Love City Jalalabad is all about fun, joy and love.

Q. Tell us about the Yellow House Jalalabad. What was the idea behind it?

A.     The Yellow House was created to serve multiple purposes as an art and film school in Jalalabad, where there was nothing for young artists and filmmakers to develop their skills.

I have been the sole funder of the Yellow House because I believe so deeply in fostering talent I discovered there. I have done this as a private individual. The aim is to make it self sufficient within a few years with its products, film and artworks, finding markets that can sustain it without outside help.

Q. From the Soviet era to the Taliban regime and post 2001, how do you see the evolution and progress of Afghan Cinema?

A.     I greatly respect the work of Afghan Film in both Kabul and Jalalabad and I admire the courage of the individuals in this organization who have preserved and maintained a film culture through the worst of times.

My vision for Afghan cinema is to see it getting international success and appreciation from global audience. The reason I am continuing to support the Yellow House filmmakers is the talent and dedication all the individuals have shown. Afghanistan has a rich and ancient culture that can be shared with the world through cinema. Some of the artists and filmmakers at the Yellow House are real masterminds. The next step in my plan is to sponsor the most talented in the group to come to Australia where they can study at Film and Art schools and take what they have learnt back to Afghanistan with them.

In all these years I have worked in Afghanistan, I have never faced any threat of violence or harassment by armed opposition groups; I have only seen and experienced friendship and love

Q. Have you faced any threats from armed opposition groups in Afghanistan in all these years?

A.     In all these years I have worked in Afghanistan, I have never faced any threat of violence or harassment by armed opposition groups. I have only seen and experienced friendship and love. When talking about this work outside Afghanistan, in countries like the U.S., people tell me how brave I must be because they think I am risking my life every day. They do not want to believe me when I tell them I have never felt my life or those of our actors and crew to be at risk. Before starting my projects in Jalalabad, I was told by non-Afghans that I would be kidnapped and killed by armed groups within the first week of production and that we would never be able to work outside secure areas. In reality, we have filmed in rural and urban areas without any resistance or harassment. It would be much harder to film something in the streets of Sydney than in Jalalabad.

Q. What is the role of Cinema in promoting Peace and Tolerance in Society. Do you think this applies to a conservative society like Afghanistan?

A.     Cinema is particularly important in Afghanistan for promoting peace and tolerance as it penetrates into homes and can be viewed privately by all members of the family. Our films promote equality and education. This is done in a way that supports tradition and tries not to be confrontational to conservative values. Our scripts are all written collectively and discussed in a group called Jirga. If there is anything anyone feels to be offensive to traditional customs, we either edit it or put it differently.

I do not believe Afghanistan is ready for films which represent American or European lifestyles or morality. Our Yellow House films respect existing culture and reflect our belief. It is more important to bring change slowly than to make people irate with films that are offensive and divisive.

For me, it is the children’s films that are most important and I am very proud of our efforts to train young actors and directors at the Yellow House workshops. These kids are the future and their vision for a better Afghanistan is full of passion and hope.

Q. How do you rate the local artists in Afghanistan? How difficult is it to train and teach them?

A.     Afghanistan has always had a creative spirit that is unique and rich with genius. I believe some of the artists and filmmakers I have met can stand up with the best in the world and will be known for the greatness of their contribution in generations to come.

Q. What has been the role of the Afghan government in promoting art and cinema in Afghanistan?  

A.     Through Afghan Film, in both Kabul and Jalalabad, and the support of the various ministries responsible for the arts and film, I can see the beginning of a renaissance for Afghan cinema. At 64 years of age, when I should be retiring near a beach in Australia with my family and children, my greatest desire is to see the Yellow House collective of artists and filmmakers in Jalalabad achieve their full potential and bring Afghan culture to the world’s attention. If I can play some part in making this possible, I will be a happy old man.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/12/it-would-be-much-harder-to-film-something-in-the-streets-of-sydney-than-in-jalalabad)

What frenzy is this!

In Kabul, the rainy days don’t always evoke a somber mood. Every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining. The dark clouds hovering menacingly over Afghanistan these days also have a silver lining, albeit elusive and obscure. On Wednesday, as hundreds of intrepid young men and women poured out into the streets of Kabul, defying all sorts of threats and odds, I could see both the dark clouds and silver lining.

Emotions were running high. The mood was incredibly tenebrous as people marched on the streets of Shehr e Naw, the bustling urban center of Kabul, with flags and banners in their hands. Students, activists, academics, journalists – everyone was out there to make a statement. Some of them struggled to hold back tears, the copious tears that were indistinguishable from rain drops descending from heaven.

There was deep anger and outrage, and understandably so. Three days ago, almost 80 Taliban guerilla fighters had ambushed an army outpost in eastern Kunar province, killing 21 Afghan soldiers in cold blood. The soldiers were asleep when they were showered with bullets in the dead of night and put to sleep forever. The ‘defenders of faith’ soon claimed responsibility for the attack, which was clearly the deadliest in last one year.

The American drones killing Afghans or Pakistanis in border provinces cannot be justified as ‘war against terrorism’. Similarly, the bloodshed of Afghans or Pakistanis by Taliban guerillas cannot be termed as ‘jihad’

Any loss of innocent lives must be unequivocally condemned, irrespective of who the perpetrator is. The American drones killing Afghans or Pakistanis in border provinces cannot be justified as ‘war against terrorism’. Similarly, the bloodshed of Afghans or Pakistanis by Taliban guerillas cannot be termed as ‘jihad’. The 21 soldiers killed in Kunar were not terrorists, occupiers or tormentors. They were Afghans.
There is no love lost between the Afghans and US-led allied forces occupying their land, and there is a history behind the animosity and hatred they share for each other. But Afghans are immensely proud of their own soldiers. The families of slain soldiers are equally proud of their martyrs. “I sent my son to defend the country and I am proud of him,” said father of Amir Husain, one of the soldiers killed in the attack. Amir, 35, leaves behind two small children. “I have another son who serves in Afghan army and I will feel more proud if he too gives the ultimate sacrifice for the country,” said the proud father, a Hazara. Most of the soldiers killed in the attack belonged to Hazara tribe, which bears testimony to how deeply patriotic Afghans are, both minority Hazaras and majority Pashtuns.

That brings us to an important question. Why are Afghans baying for blood of Afghans? The answer to this and many other questions was so convincingly and compellingly given by young men and women on the streets of Kabul yesterday. “Pakistan is a terrorism-sponsoring state,” read a poster carried by the activists of Awankend Youth Movement. There were many other posters and banners in Pashtu and Dari language, slamming Pakistan and Taliban. That is the war-cry in this country. Everyone here is pointing fingers at Pakistan for fomenting trouble on this side of border.

Why are Afghans baying for blood of Afghans? The answer to this and many other questions was so convincingly and compellingly given by young men and women on the streets of Kabul yesterday

Even the top-notch politicians, who otherwise make all the incoherent noises, are now training guns at the neighboring country. Condemning the attack by “enemies of Afghanistan”, President Karzai called on the government of Pakistan to crack down on its militant sanctuaries. But, the outgoing President did not deem it necessary to attend the funeral of slain soldiers, giving heartburn to many Afghans. As Noam Chomsky told me in an interview recently (to be published in March issue of Afghan Zariza), “I don’t know what President Karzai thinks he is doing.” Even I have no idea. When the nation is mourning, Presidential protocols should be thrown to the wind. The funeral was, however, attended by thousands of people from all walks of life. Many eyes turned moist when 21 coffins made way into the ground.

The Presidential contenders for April 2014 elections, however, did the miss the opportunity to offer their condolence messages. The slain soldiers were hailed as “martyrs of peace” by Abdullah Abdullah, one of the frontrunners in the race for Presidential Palace. Zalmai Rasool suspended his election campaign for a day as a mark of respect for martyred soldiers. Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai called it “unacceptable”.

Interestingly, the Afghan intelligence officials have squarely blamed Pakistan for orchestrating the attack as revenge for the killing of 23 Pakistani security personnel last week. Pakistan government alleged the hand of Afghan intelligence agencies behind the killings, but the Spokesman for Afghan government dismissed the allegations as baseless. “It is impossible to nurture venomous snakes on one’s soil and wishfully think that they will only bite others”, read the scathing statement. The killings in Kunar happened a day later.

The truth has many layers and there is certainly more to this story than meets the eye. What is unfortunate is the loss of innocent lives on both sides of border.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/02/27/what-frenzy-is-this/blog)

‘Afghanistan is a sovereign state and it is not our prerogative to choose its leader’


Michael O’Hanlon is a Senior Fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and Director of Research for the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings Institution. He is a Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University, Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a Member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His most recent book is Healing the Wounded Giant: Maintaining Military Preeminence while Cutting the Defense Budget. He has also authored Toughing It Out in Afghanistan (Brookings Institution Press 2010); and <span data-mce-=”” underline;”=””>The Science of War (Princeton University Press 2009). He coauthors Brookings’s Afghanistan Index. He and Bruce Riedel wrote A Plan A- for Afghanistan in the winter 2010/2011 issue of The Washington Quarterly and published a paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan for Brookings’s Campaign 2012 project.


He is a strong votary of the US-Afghan security agreement and believes it is a win-win situation for both the parties. In his recent articles, he has slammed President Hamid Karzai for dragging his feet over the agreement. He believes it is about the Afghan and American people, not one individual.

In a freewheeling interview with Afghan Zariza, Mr. O’Hanlon takes some tough questions about the bilateral security agreement, war crimes in Afghanistan, and why he is still hopeful for the future of country, despite umpteen challenges confronting it.
Q. In your recent New York Times Op-ed, you launched a scathing attack on President Hamid Karzai for not signing the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. How is this agreement ‘about the American and Afghan people’, as you write in your article?

A. First, we did not meant it to be scathing, and the New York Times used a title we did not approve of. But we did mean to underscore that President Karzai does not appear to be speaking for most Afghans, given the results of the Loya Jirga, the fact that all Presidential candidates appear to support the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with U.S., and so on.
Q. Over the past few months, airstrikes have resulted in the deaths of several civilians. Can we say the ongoing U.S. raids and strikes have contributed to Karzai’s concerns, especially the way U.S. authorities refused to cooperate with National Directorate of Security (NDS) to investigate the Wardak incident where 18 men disappeared after U.S. raids?

A. I doubt your information is correct on the latter point; normally we take all concerns about civilian casualties extremely seriously.

Q. In a report that was published on September 23, National Directorate of Security (NDS) investigators said they had asked the United States for access to three U.S. Green Berets and four Afghan translators working with them but were rebuffed. “Despite many requests by NDS they have not cooperated. Without their cooperation this process cannot be completed,” said the report. So, doesn’t that mean investigations were halted due to lack of cooperation from U.S. or you don’t trust what NDS said?

A. But, in general, the US/ISAF and NDS/ANSF do cooperate on investigations. There are many times they have done so, and as you know ISAF tries hard to take responsibility if mistakes are made that lead to loss of life. It is worth remembering that this has been the most careful counterinsurgency campaign in history with far greater efforts made to protect civilians than in virtually all previous wars.

Q. At the recent NATO meeting in Brussels, Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. does not rule out the possibility of exploring other options if President Karzai refuses to sign the deal. Do you think they will dump Karzai and rope in some other person to go ahead with the deal?

A. No, Afghanistan is a sovereign state and it is not our prerogative to choose its leader.
Q. At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Afghanistan, the three senior U.S. government officials failed to answer two simple questions about the casualties of U.S troops and the cost of war in Afghanistan. Do you agree something is seriously wrong with the U.S. plan and policy in Afghanistan?

A. This is an unfair way to attack the U.S. officials without even saying why you think they failed to answer the questions. I have lots of criticism of U.S./International policy, however, so I would agree that it is far from perfect.

Q. Rep. Gerry Connolly called it “a stunning development”. “How can you come to a congressional oversight hearing on this subject and not know” he said. And here is what Rep. Dana Rohrabacher had to say: “Maybe this is the grovel administration. This is insanity and it’s time for us to get our butts out of that country, not for their sake, but for our sake.” Why do you think these gentlemen were so angered by the lack of response from officials at the hearing?

A. I am not familiar with the Congressional debate that you mention. I have my differences with administration officials but don’t think of any of them as unprepared or ignorant. So my working assumption is that the two Congressmen were angry and perhaps trying to gain some attention for their remarks – and I probably would not agree with their choice of words.
Q. In your article ‘Plan A-Minus for Afghanistan’, you argue that the strategy of U.S in Afghanistan ‘still has a good chance to succeed’, but you hasten to add that it is ‘not guaranteed to succeed, for reasons having little to do with its own flaws and more to do with the inherent challenge of the problem’. Could you explain this dichotomy?

A. Taliban forces are strong; corruption is rampant; the state is relatively weak, Pakistan is ambivalent at best, and relations with President Karzai are complex. All that said, I still believe in the mission – and the country and people of Afghanistan. On the whole, I am very hopeful.

Q. You coauthor Brookings’s ‘Afghanistan Index’, which is a statistical compilation of economic, public opinion and security data. How far have the international community’s counterinsurgency and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan succeeded?

A. It is mixed, as you know. There has been a great deal of progress on economics, the quality of life and security institutions. But, there are also problems like Taliban, corruption, neighbors etc.

Q. In its November 2013 report on Preliminary Examination Activities, the International Criminal Court has found that the war crimes and crimes against humanity continue to be committed in Afghanistan by US-led foreign troops? Do you agree?

A. No; with the rare exception.
Q. There are reports that U.S. is throwing its weight behind Abdullah Abdullah in the upcoming Presidential elections. How strong are his chances against Ashraf Ghani and Zalmay Rasool, the two men considered close to Karzai?

A. I doubt that you are right. In fact I am fairly confident you are wrong to think the U.S. has a preferred candidate for 2014 Presidential elections.
Q. How do you rate President Karzai’s 12 years at the helm? How has Afghanistan evolved over the years?

A. I think I will leave it at that.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2013/12/22/afghanistan-is-a-sovereign-state-and-it-is-not-our-prerogative-to-choose-its-leader)

Panjshir Valley: Incredible Afghanistan Lives Here

 The picturesque peaks kissing the clear azure sky; the icy-cold water surging down the glacial heights; the brackish lakes dotting the breathtaking landscape; the lush green meadows dancing in the breezy air and the rich heritage seeped in history.

Meandering through the serpentine roads tucked into the rocky mountains; you land up in an exotic place, unarguably Afghanistan’s best-kept secret. The drive to Panjshir valley, 150 kilometers north of Kabul, in the lap of majestic Hindu Kush Mountains, is both adventurous and exhilarating.

Panjshir valley, which translates into ‘valley of five lions’, gets the name from five brothers who quite astonishingly made a dam here for Sultan Mahmoud Ghazni, the most prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid empire, in 10th century. Their shrine greets visitors at the entrance of valley.

Bordered by Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering rivulets and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold. A silent and blissful place, its intimacy belies the rugged 4,500 meter peaks enveloping the former kingdom.

Bordered by Hindu Kush Mountains, which divide Central Asia and South Asia, Panjshir valley with its shimmering rivulets and rocky terrains is an incredible sight to behold

The valley starts at Dalang Sang and stretches for 100 kms right to the Anjoman Pass, through beautiful fields of wheat, maize, walnut and mulberry. The fast flowing Panjshir River is famous among locals for fishing escapades.

For foreign tourists and water sports enthusiasts, the river is ideal for kayaking, which has evolved into a popular water sport.

Passing through well-irrigated farms and fields, you come across a football stadium, which is expected to become better than the one in Kabul city.

Among the major attractions of Panjshir valley is the green-domed mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Masoud. Hailed as the ‘Loin of Panjsher’ because of his resistance to Soviets, the Tajik guerilla leader also fought Taliban and Al Qaeda as the commander of Northern Alliance, and was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks. A massive portrait of Masoud sits at the entrance of the valley and his beautiful mausoleum attracts large number of visitors, both locals and foreigners.

Panjshir, claim some historians, was not just a hiding place for Masoud, but was a source of income for him and his party because of emerald mines. Even today, miners are digging deep into the mountains of Panjshir valley to extract some of the world’s finest emeralds. The huge deposits of rubies, sapphires and lapis lazuli, which are currently sold for about $200 million USD every year, could well lay the foundation of a robust gem industry here in future.

Panjshir has become a favourite destination for tourists not only because of the tranquility and calm, but also because of the history and legends associated with this place, which is the central setting of Ken Follett’s 1985 spy novel ‘Lie Down with Lions’. This is truly a delight.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/03/06/panjshir-valley-incredible-afghanistan-lives-here

What the Presidential candidates have to offer!


There is palpable buzz, chaotic exuberance, lingering fear, and an elixir of hope. There are no measured steps or calculated moves. It’s a no-holds-barred political showdown.  As their tryst with destiny inches closer, the Presidential candidates are throwing all the caution to winds and quite vigorously gearing up for the grand political spectacle in April this year.  The election campaigning is in full swing these days and the candidates are firing on all cylinders.

In the last few weeks, we have seen some high-voltage, rip-roaring and adrenaline-gushing television debates between the candidates. No, it’s not the race for White House. It’s the marathon for Presidential Palace of Afghanistan. The most difficult political job in the world, perhaps also the most exciting. The manner in which they have spelt out their roadmaps and articulated their thoughts on various pressing issues, with sheer eloquence and sense of purpose, bears eloquent testimony to the fact that this war-weary country has come a long way.Operation Mountain Fire

It is incredibly heartwarming to witness the socio-political metamorphosis in this country, and the way local media is emerging as a stimulus of political and social change and custodian of public interest. A decade back, politics in Afghanistan was defined by anarchy and lawlessness. Warlords used to call the shots. Bullets were synonymous with ballots. Free and independent media was a figment of wild imagination.

It is incredibly heartwarming to witness the socio-political metamorphosis in this country, and the way local media is emerging as a stimulus of political and social change and custodian of public interest

Today, Afghanistan is a country that has come out of obscurity and embraced change. The sword of Damocles still hangs overhead but the resilience of people is amazing, almost infectious. When Hassan Nasrullah, the Hezbollah leader from Lebanon, mentioned Afghanistan four times in his powerful speech on Sunday, with reference to the ominous threat of takfirism, he meant that the battle is not over yet. Of course, the battle is on. And, as my Afghan friends often say, with a hint of confidence and optimism, we shall overcome one day.

Right now, the five top contenders for the most challenging assignment in world politics are Ashraf Ghani Ahmedzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmai Rasool, Qayoom Karzai and Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf. The other candidates are dark horses in the race, so it would be naïve to rule them out completely.

Ahmedzai, who ended up with a meager three percent votes in last elections, has emerged as a frontrunner this time. The former advisor to President Karzai, Ahmedzai is a celebrated anthropologist, having authored many books, including Fixing Failed States: A Frame for Rebuilding a Fractured World. He studied at American University, Beirut and Columbia University, U.S. and taught at University of California and John Hopkins University.

His political vision is both amalgamated and lucid. He seeks to transform the system and devolve financial powers to the provinces, giving them 40 percent of the national budget. In terms of security, he wants to establish rule of law and end discrimination of all manifestations. Unlike Karzai, who has developed cold feet, Ahmedzai is willing to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S.

On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he has his priorities spelt out clearly. He wants talks with those Taliban who are not allied to foreign countries, but he does not wish to engage with Al-Qaeda linked groups operating on the soil of Afghanistan. He wants to fight corruption, bring accountability and transparency in governmental and nongovernmental projects. To address the issue of violence against women, he wishes to engage religious scholars and preachers. To develop economy, he wants to attract investments by ensuring foolproof security and incentives to potential investors.

Abdullah Abdullah, who was the main challenger for President Karzai in previous elections before he was forced to beat a hasty retreat following reports of fraud, is another strong contender in the race. An ophthalmologist by training, he jumped the political bandwagon in 1980s when Soviets invaded the country. After the ouster of Taliban in 2001, he was appointed as the Foreign Minister in the interim government led by Karzai, a post he continued to hold in Karzai’s first term as President, before he was axed in 2006.

Ahmedzai wants talks with those Taliban who are not allied to foreign countries, but he does not wish to engage with Al-Qaeda linked groups operating on the soil of Afghanistan

His political vision is of a parliamentary system of governance with devolution of power to provinces. He says he will strengthen the security infrastructure and ensure justice to all. Like other candidates in the fray, he is also willing to end the stalemate over bilateral security pact with the U.S. On the issue of negotiations with Taliban, he says those fighting to decimate the Afghan government will not be spared and those who fight because of political grievances would be invited for peace parleys.

On the question of corruption and nepotism, he wants to introduce meritocracy and rule of law. The trade agreements and development projects, he says, would be monitored by Parliament and Provincial Councils. The institutional prejudice against women would end and they would get adequate representation in political institutions. He wants to generate employment for youth through reforms and promote agriculture to boost the national economy.

Zalmai Rasool, a veteran statesman and former Foreign Minister, is a staunch Karzai loyalist and another heavyweight contender. A doctor by training, he served at many prestigious hospitals in France and Saudi Arabia before entering politics and joining as Chief of Staff under King Zahir Shah. In 2002, after years of war, he returned to Afghanistan amid much fanfare and became Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism in the interim government. In the transitional government, he served as the National Security Advisor.  In 2010, he was elevated as the Minister of Foreign Affairs by Karzai, before he stepped down in 2014 to run for Presidential elections, on the insistence of Karzai.

Abdullah Abdullah wants to generate employment for youth through reforms and promote agriculture to boost the national economy

His political vision is all about better management and improvement in the current scheme of things. His key campaign themes are moderation, equality and reconstruction. For security, he seeks to pursue diplomacy with neighboring countries to end cross-border terrorism. Unlike his political mentor, he is ready to sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S.

On negotiations with Taliban, he wants to engage those insurgents who accept the constitution of Afghanistan, and isolate those killing Afghan civilians and security forces. To fight the malaise of corruption, he wishes to bring transparency by appointing officials on the basis of merit. To empower women, he wants to increase employment opportunities for them and give them 20 percent representation in union cabinet.

Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, known as ‘Ustad Sayyaf’, is a conservative leader who has been at the center of many major political events in Afghanistan over last three decades. An alumnus of Al-Azhar University, he was a close aide of Hekmatyar in 1970s, and was put behind bars in 1974 for his criticism of the then government. In 1979, he launched his party Ittihad Islami Afghanistan to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan. He may be a controversial political figure but he enjoys tremendous public support, and his name was recommended by President Karzai himself.

His political vision is based on people-centric government that seeks to bring rule of law and end the malaise of corruption. He promises to bring visible change in the security environment within four months of his election, and quite interestingly, he is also in favor of the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he wants to engage with ‘good Taliban’ and isolate ‘bad Taliban’ who destroy schools and kill civilians. Among his priorities includes accountability in the political machinery, giving fillip to the culture of meritocracy and eradicating opium cultivation.

Women, he says, would have adequate representation in the government and women’s rights would be respected and safeguarded. Youth will have more job opportunities and focus will be on exploiting the rich mineral resources in the country, modernizing agriculture and improving trade ties with neighboring countries.

Women, says Sayyaf, would have adequate representation in the government and women’s rights would be respected and safeguarded

Qayoom Karzai, the elder brother of President Karzai, is also one of the strong contenders, if not the strongest. He used to run his family business in the U.S. before he returned to Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban. He served as the member of National Assembly of Afghanistan and was also the member of Narcotics Committee in Wolesi Jirga. In October 2008, citing health reasons, he resigned from his seat. He is believed to have played a key role in negotiations with Taliban.

His political vision is focused on economic development and reforms in current Presidential form of government. Unlike his younger brother, he says he will sign the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. without any caveats. On the question of negotiations with Taliban, he also wants to engage only with ‘good’ Taliban who show willingness to join the peace process. The Afghan High Peace Council, which has been negotiating with Taliban on the behalf of government, will be changed into an independent body if he comes to power.

To combat corruption, he wants to cut the red tape, bring transparency and increase the wages of government workers. To empower women, he promises to include them in his grand plans and promote the businesses run by women. For economic development, he wishes to build infrastructure such as railroads, airports and factories. Promoting trade and generating employment is also high on his agenda.

Now, the ball is in the court of voters, majority of them youth. As they say, youth hold the key to 2014 elections and they will decide who should lead the country forward. May the best person win.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/02/17/what-the-presidential-candidates-have-to-offer/blog)