“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)

‘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)

Foreign intervention is ineffective when it goes against the will of the people involved.’

Thomas Barfield is the Director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization and President of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. He is a widely recognized expert on Afghanistan and the author of Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (2010), The Central Asian Arabs of Afghanistan (1981), Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture (1991), among other books. 

In a freewheeling interview with Afghan Zariza, Mr. Barfield talks about his research on the problems of political development in Afghanistan, systems of governance, ineffectiveness of foreign intervention, future of the country after foreign withdrawal, US-Afghan security pact, April 2014 elections and much more. Q) In the minds of westerns, Afghanistan mostly conjures up images of a rugged land occupied by befuddled, tribal people. What reasons do you attribute to such stereotyping?
A. Afghanistan is a geographically rugged land but few foreigners are aware of the country’s rich culture and its diverse population.  Like most national stereotypes. ‘the tribal Afghan’ is just as rare a person in Afghanistan as the ‘American cowboy’ is in the United States or ‘Arab camel rider’ is in Cairo.  Most Americans have never even gotten close to a cow or ridden or horse, and most Arabs know camels only from films.  But just as cowboys represent a type of freedom and independence for Americans, the tribal Afghan is sometimes portrayed by Afghans themselves as a similar stereotypic symbol of independence, hospitality and honor.Q) Your research primarily focuses on the problems of political development in Afghanistan. Can you identify some of these problems in the present context?
A. Over the course of last century, the Afghan political system has seen a transformation from a tradition of rulers being drawn from a small traditional elite where ordinary people expected they would have no role in national politics to a more inclusive system in which hereditary privilege fails to command the authority it once did and ever larger numbers of people expect both to participate in national politics and assume a significant role in choosing their leaders. One problem today is that the constitution and the leaders of Afghanistan refuse to recognize this major social change and try to rule as if they were the kings of old.

Q) Why has foreign intervention in Afghanistan proved so ineffective? Do you see it differently than U.S. intervention in Iraq or Vietnam?
A. Foreign intervention is ineffective when it goes against the will of the people involved.  The initial intervention of the U.S. in Afghanistan had a great deal of popularity because it ended a civil war, helped guarantee more equal political rights for all groups in Afghanistan and gave people hope of a brighter future.  Yet, both the international community and the Afghan government then squandered so many opportunities to fulfill promises of better security and economic development that the Afghan people became disillusioned.  In addition, the US, like other foreign powers before it, initially attempted to remake Afghanistan in its own image without considering Afghanistan’s own culture and history but as the desire to leave became stronger, they became more content with allowing Afghans to follow their own ways of doing things.

Q) In your book ‘Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History’, you have done an ethnographic study of the country. What systems of governance, according to your study, have been most popular over the years in Afghanistan?
A. Since Afghanistan is a diverse country, it needs a political system adapted to that reality. Until the late 19th century, even powerful kings in Kabul left local administration in the hands of regional governors who had considerable autonomy to raise revenue and supervise local officials. But beginning with the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman, the central government in Kabul created a highly centralized system of administration where everything was decided by ministries in the capital and all officials were appointed solely by the ruler. This is the system that still exists, although it neither meets the expectations of the Afghan people nor does it allow local populations to hold Kabul-appointed officials accountable for its actions. Afghanistan would have been more stable if the central government handled the higher order affairs (foreign relations, national security, and finance) and set national policies; but they allowed it to be implemented by local officials.

One innovation would be to allow for the election of governors — Afghans elect Presidents and Parliaments but have no say in choosing or holding accountable those who have the greatest impact on their lives locally. Although there is a fear in Afghanistan that any devolution of power might lead to the country’s breakup, this fear is misplaced. Countries are more likely to fail when their governments are so highly centralized that any failure at the center can cause the collapse of the whole system. When power is more broadly distributed, mistakes at the center are less destructive.  The United States, for example, has the oldest federal constitution in the world and the country is stronger precisely because it allows different states to enact their own laws and elect local officials who represent their interest and values but within a national system that protects constitutionally guaranteed rights for all.

Q) In your work, you have applied analytical tools developed by 14th century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Do you also attribute the success of ruling dynasties in Afghanistan to the strong sense of group solidarity, in absence of robust economic structure and political institutions?
A. Royal dynasties were successful in Afghanistan because people believed only members of that group had a right to rule. However, there was little solidarity within such groups, and when a ruler died there was always a violent struggle among his descendants for power. Thus members of the Durrani Sadozai lineage fought bitterly among themselves every generation after the death of Ahmad Shah Durrani until they were displaced the Barakzai lineage of Dost Muhammad.  His heirs then fought each other for power until the end of the 19th century when Abdur Rahman consolidated power and for the first time the throne passed peacefully to his son Habibullah. Yet after that secession, struggles continued when King Amanullah fought his uncle for power in 1919 and lost the throne himself in 1929, replaced by a new Musahiban dynasty of Nadir Shah.

In other words, to outsiders, the Durrani rulers of Afghanistan appeared to have strong solidarity because they held power from the beginning of the Afghan state in 1747 to Daud Khan’s death in 1978, but they internally followed the model of Ibn Khaldun who said that dynasties could rarely sustain themselves for more than three or four generations.  That such a system continued to exist at all in the 20th century was because Afghanistan’s economy and political structures were so underdeveloped that they offered no alternatives to a system of royal rule that had died out much earlier elsewhere.

Q) Under King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan witnessed a prolonged period of economic prosperity and internal stability. What went wrong in the last 10 years of his rule before he was ousted in a coup?
A. Zahir Shah became victim of what is known as “the revolution of rising expectations”.  When conditions are very bad politically or economically, people rarely revolt because they are consumed by fear or personal distress.  Political systems are in more danger when they attempt political reform or experience better economic conditions.  While people are pleased with things, they are also more critical of the defects that remain and question why the existing system is even allowed to continue.

The French, Russian and Iranian revolutions all followed this pattern, as did the collapse of the Soviet Union at the time of Gorbachev’s reforms.  Afghanistan was growing more prosperous from 1963-73 but at the beginning of the period, everyone who entered the growing educational system could be guaranteed a government job, by the end of that period, Afghan high schools and universities were producing more graduates than the government could hire and it had done nothing to encourage the growth of the private sector as an alternative.  These young people were dissatisfied with the monarchy and enthusiastically endorsed its overthrow.

The famine of 1971 that let to starvation in the Hazarajat and Badakhshan also did great damage to the king’s reputation.  On the political side, Zahir Shah had created a democratic constitution and established a parliament in 1964, but his refusal to allow political parties and the palace’s continued control of executive appointments only angered those who argued he had not really changed the political system in any fundamental sense.

Q)  Do you believe Taliban was able to command political legitimacy because in Afghanistan, the Islamic belief is closely intertwined with tribal customs?
A.      The Taliban came to power by promising security.  Only after they took control, did they stress the religious aspect heavily. This actually came to hurt them because the majority of Afghans believe that their own Islamic faith is so strong that that they are unwilling to accept that other people have the right to tell them how to practice it. While the Taliban’s religious leadership was able to use that authority to overcome tribal divisions, its close association of tribal customs with religion hurt it in urban areas where the movement was seen as reactionary — attempting to impose rural values on people who did not accept them.

Q) How do you predict the future of Afghanistan after the foreign withdrawal in 2014? Will the country emerge stronger or slip into chaos?
A. One is a return to the civil war conditions of the 1990s that brought disaster and disunity. In this scenario, Afghanistan is abandoned by the international community before falling prey to the machinations of neighbors who bankroll conflict between rival ethnic groups, potentially bringing about the country’s dissolution as a unitary state. The other is the emergence of a stable, prosperous Afghanistan bankrolled by these same neighbors. In this scenario, economic self-interests trump old parochial politics.

Q) What are your thoughts on the contentious US-Afghan security pact? Why is President Karzai dragging his feet over it?
A. It is not clear why President Karzai is refusing to sign. He acts as if it is he who must be pleased, not whether it is in Afghanistan’s national self-interest. The 2014 transition marks a return to Afghanistan’s full sovereignty. He should sign and if in a year, or anytime thereafter, the Americans have not lived up to their commitments, and then the new president can tell them to leave. While Karzai is concerned about his legacy, a failure that leaves Afghanistan abandoned and back at war would never be forgiven by the Afghan people. The question is less military than political, with no agreement the bulk of international aid for Afghanistan is also likely to disappear and no Afghan government can survive that.

Q)  Do you think the historic Presidential elections in April 2014 would be free and transparent? Is there a possibility of foreign stakeholders manipulating the results?
A. The 2009 election set a bad precedent for fraud, but without an incumbent running, perhaps this one will be more open. I think that any manipulation of the election results is more likely to occur with Afghan stakeholders than foreign ones — they have more to lose or gain.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2013/12/07/foreign-intervention-is-ineffective-when-it-goes-against-the-will-of-the-people-involved)

‘Men should take lead in promoting women’s rights’

 Zahira Sarwar, Afghan-Canadian blogger and women’s rights activist, believes law enforcement is easier and effective than changing the minds and men should take lead

Q. What is the role of Afghan women, inside and outside Afghanistan, in shaping the destiny of country post 2014?A. I do not want to preach what all Afghan women living outside should do, but from my own experience, there
is a lot we can do, regardless of where we live. As an active member of the Afghan Students Organization here in Ottawa, I think its important for us to use every opportunity to give back to people in Afghanistan. We raise funds through our events for different initiatives. For the women inside Afghanistan, they have been doing tremendous work but I think what is often left out of these conversations about the future of women in Afghanistan, is role of men. There needs to be more solidarity and support from the men in our communities to help their daughters, sisters, wives, as well as their sons, nephews, and brothers to have a brighter future. We need more men in Afghanistan to speak out against women’s inequality, violence against women, child marriages, and women’s right to education.

Q. How do you see the progress of Afghanistan since 2001, in terms of politics, economy, society?

A. The progress of Afghanistan since 2001 has been quite positive for the most part. I was in Afghanistan in
2001 just before the intervention of international troops and again in 2005 and the difference was incredible. Businesses started to thrive after 2001; more boys and girls went back to school; women started working in various fields. But as time passed and the number of war casualties rose and government’s credibility came under question, the optimism was replaced by hopelessness. Things have not been progressing as much as we would have liked, given the lack of job opportunities, lack of security and development and overwhelming economic dependence on foreign aid. These are some of the critical areas for Afghans and the international community to address post

Q. The crime against women still continues at an alarming rate. What are the main factors responsible for it?

A. This is a complex issue because there is no single factor responsible for crimes against women such as domestic abuse, child marriage, or simply lack of respect for basic human rights. Changing people’s mentalities will take a long time but if the government and law enforcement agencies continue to take a stance against these issues, and consistently implement harsh punishments against perpetrators throughout the country in all cases, this will be a good start to help eliminate some of these issues. I also think proper religious education can help people in this respect because if we read and understand Quran, we will realize the status of women in Islam and the respect accorded to her.

Q. How do you predict the future, especially after the withdrawal of international troops in 2014? Will the country emerge stronger or slip into chaos?

A. I am a realistic optimist so I would say the country will not slip into chaos. The Afghan people are incredibly determined and the youth of the country have had enough of war and chaos because this is all they have known and experienced. They are ready for something better and brighter and will not let their country slip back into a dark phase like before it was prior to 2001.

Q. What are the dreams you have for the country?

A. My dream is to see Afghanistan evolve into a free and democratic country where all the people are respected because diversity makes our nation unique; where ethnicity is not a determining factor of your alliances because we are all Afghans; where girls and boys go to school and college without fearing for their lives, and where we have highly educated, progressive and bright people in various spheres of life, working for the future of Afghanistan.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/01/31/men-should-take-lead-in-promoting-womens-rights)

‘The war in Afghanistan is all about opium’


By: Syed Zafar Mehdi

A well-known Afghan activist, poet and author, Shafie Ayar is brutally honest. He was small when his parents separated and in his own words, his father unintentionally helped him “become a fighter”. He ran the ‘Afghan Revolutionary Youth Association’ at Kabul University in late 1970s when Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and spent five years in Policharkhy prison after being arrested. Ayar is the author of five books: Hamasa-e-Eman, Paqnjal Hae-e-Khoneen, Nawrooze tan Behrooz, Afghanistan – Jihad and Peace, and Afghan Hearts & Minds.


In a freewheeling interview with Afghan Zariza, Mr. Ayar talks about his early life when he saw his father abusively treat his mother before they separated, his days in university when he became a political activist, why he thinks Pakistan foments trouble in Afghanistan, why U.S. has failed to win hearts and minds of Afghans, his expectations from new President, his opinion about US-Afghan security agreement, his love affair with Khayam and Hafez, and why he thinks Quran is the solution to all evils in society.


Q. Your book Afghan Hearts and Minds was critically acclaimed. Let me ask you, why has the international community led by U.S. failed to win hearts and minds of Afghans?

A. I will attempt to scratch the surface of this critical question in a few sentences here, but I think it would do justice to the question if people read my book in English or watch some of my weekly political and religious shows in Farsi freely available on internet. I believe Pakistan has played a major role in making sure the U.S. does not win the hearts and minds of people here.

Sadly, Pakistani policymakers see Afghanistan as both a strategic bargaining chip and an economic commodity that they want to continue to milk for their own benefit. For this reason, they have played a major role in making certain the Afghan hearts and minds are poisoned with negative sentiment towards NATO forces. This ensures that Pakistan is always invited to the bargaining table. They have misled the international community in assessing the Afghan situation and at the same time they have misled the Afghans about the US and NATO activity in Afghanistan.

The US and international community should accept blame for playing into Pakistan’s hands and not only accepting this type of argument but publicly recognizing and negotiating with the Taliban.

It is high time that we start working hard to create a healthy society and wealth-generating economy so that we do not have to beg for donations. Today Afghan economy is all about ‘opium war’. And look at the corruption. If we do not take care of that, it soon will become part of our culture.

Q. So, like many political experts here, you also believe that Pakistan is responsible for fomenting trouble in Afghanistan and supporting the armed opposition groups here. Am I right?

A. I absolutely agree. The war in Afghanistan is more than anything else the ‘opium war’. Pakistan is making billions of dollars in this war, and to maintain that wealth, it needs an insecure and unstable Afghanistan. Of course, there are other political reasons as well, but at this moment, it is all about opium.

If you have been watching any of my television shows, you would know that I dedicate an incredible amount of time and energy towards unraveling and simplifying the confusing puzzle of Pakistan and ISI. It is very important and I highly recommend that we Afghans wake up to this fact and take it into consideration before electing the next president.

Q. Coming to upcoming elections, how do you rate President Karzai’s 12 years at the helm? And what are your expectations from his successor?

A. My expectation from Karzai’s successor is that he should not be confused and should not confuse the Afghan people with questionable policy. He should stop begging the Taliban for peace. Afghans have fought too hard and too long to be slaves to Taliban ideology. He should start creating self-sustaining economy that generates work so that our people do not have to beg and look to international community for donations.

Today Afghan economy is opium, war and begging. He should take a strong stance against corruption. If we do not take care of corruption, it will soon become part of our culture.

Q.    What is your take on the US-Afghan security agreement that has become a bone of contention between Obama administration and President Karzai?

A.  I would classify it as a game. I do not see contention or disagreement. Till now, any agreement they have wanted Karzai to sign; he eventually found a way to sign it. At most, Karzai wants to get some attention and to give people reason to argue that he is not a puppet.

Q. Let us talk about your early days. You were in university when communists invaded the country and that is when you formed Afghan Revolutionary Youth Association. Tell us something about that.

A. To be honest, when the soviet coup happened, I was initially happy and thought we needed it as a nation to move forward. But, within a few weeks, I noticed my friends, my classmates, their families, my country-men in general were being taken for no good reasons and disappearing forever. That made me really upset. Something inside me clicked and gave me a signal to stand up and fight. I did. I asked all my friends to help me form a student organization at Kabul University.

That was a time if you were caught, you would be in a list of those killed. We played a good role. After a few years, I was captured, sentenced and spent five years in Policharkhy prison. I have written extensively about my time in prison and have also shared my experience in my shows, which you can see on You Tube ‘0066 Afghan Talk Shows by Shafie Ayar’.

Q. You take inspiration and strength from your mother who was victimized by your father but refused to suffer silently. Was patriarchy common in Afghan society then and how are things now?

A. I have shared those memories of my early life in my writings and my shows, not necessarily to evoke sympathy of reader or viewer, but to convey a message. If and when we can honestly do this, we would realize how horrible we have treated our women. Patriarchy existed in our time and exists today also. The only difference is that today it is worst than ever before.

Q. The trauma you faced as a child after your parents were separated made you take shelter in books. How did the works of Khwaja Abdulla, Khayam, Hafez, Sadee, Rumi and Bidel shape your worldview?

 A. I often say that I was reborn from the ovum of these books; stronger, calmer, happier, mature, and a human being. This time when I was born, I was a human being.

Q. You have authored the book Afghanistan – Jihad and Peace and you have also done comprehensive study of Holy Quran. What is the source of religious extremism?

A. The source of religious extremism, more than anything else, is people abusing religion for their self-interest and their own purpose. They abused Islam for 1375 years and derailed the base of Islam from the Holy Quran. Today the fake stories and fake hadith lead to misinterpretation of Islam. Islamic extremism incubates on these plots of dirt. The confusion and misinformation of these fake stories is used by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.