Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
from Photographers' Blog:
It’s 1:00am, I’m sitting in a small dirt hole. Not sure exactly where but somewhere in western Kandahar‘s Maiwand district. How did I get here? On a journey that has involved too much time spent waiting. Waiting at Forward Operating Bases, waiting for planes, waiting for people, waiting for helicopters, waiting for convoys, waiting for patrols.
The short version is it hasn’t been the most productive assignment. I am itching to get ‘out there’ and shoot. So I have jumped at the offer to join an observation post patrol on a moonless night in a flat and treeless landscape, looking for militants laying IEDs.
I’ve bumbled my way out the back of an armored Stryker, across rocky ground, closely tailing a few soldiers who unlike me are equipped with night vision gear. It’s inky black, no illumination permitted. I even have the small red indictor lights on my camera’s back covered with tape. So now I’m in this little dirt hole. It’s dark, really dark. No light at all…… Well, except the billion or so stars above.
f1.4 offers such a tiny depth of field I’d be wasting my time attempting to manual focus accurately in the pitch dark on anything close and even a soldier sitting behind a night scope wont stay still long enough to be sharp for such a long exposure. But those stars aren’t close and they aren‘t exactly whizzing past either. It takes about 10 exposures with some fine adjustment to get them sharp. My tripod for the evening is a convenient and infinitely adjustable model. A small pile of pebbles and sand between my feet.
Pakistan is conducting its biggest military exercises in 21 years and at the weekend thousands of troops backed by fighter jets took part in a mock battle to repel a simulated Indian military advance and inflict heavy casualties. The manoeuvres were designed to test a riposte to India’s Cold Start doctrine of a rapid and deep thrust into Pakistan in a simulated environment, but you are never far from real action on the heavily militarised border between the two countries.
Pakistani army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani offered a rare apology at the weekend for a deadly air strike in the Khyber region in the northwest in which residents and local officials say at least 63 civilians were killed.
Tragically for the Pakistani military, most of the victims were members of a tribe that had stood up against the Taliban. Some of them were members of the army. Indeed as Dawn reported the first bomb was dropped on the house of a serving army officer, followed by another more devastating strike just when people rushed to the scene. Such actions defy description and an explanation is in order from those who ordered the assault, the newspaper said in an angry editorial.
One of my Kabul press corps colleagues once described covering President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Western diplomats who are supposed to be supporting it as a lot like being friends with a couple while they go through a savage divorce. We reporters hop back and forth, from cocktail party to quiet lunch to private briefing, listening to charming Afghans and Westerners -– many of whom we personally like very much — say outrageously nasty things about each other. Usually, the invective is whispered “off the record” by both sides, so you, dear reader, miss out on the opportunity to learn just how dysfunctional one of the world’s most important diplomatic relationships has become.
Over the past few weeks, the secret got out. Karzai — in a speech that was described as an outburst but which palace insiders say was carefully planned — said in public what his allies have been muttering in private for months: that Western diplomats orchestrated the notorious election debacle last year that saw a third of his votes thrown out for fraud. The White House and State Department were apoplectic: “disturbing”, “untrue”, “preposterous” they called it. Peter Galbraith, the U.S. diplomat who was the number two U.N. official in Kabul during last year’s election, went on TV and said he thought Karzai might be crazy or on drugs. Karzai’s camp’s response: Who’s being preposterous now?
from Tales from the Trail:
Tensions, what tensions?
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew arrived back from Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, touting the performance of several ministers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.
His visit came at a particularly tense time in U.S.-Afghan relations after Karzai made some corrosive statements in recent weeks against his donors, blaming the West for much of the corruption in his country and drawing critical comments from the White House.
The shoe’s on the other foot. The Pakistani army is saying that it’s being let down by U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan just when it has made hard-fought gains against militants along its stretch of the border.
Some 700 militants have fled a successful military offensive in Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal agency to the Afghan province of Kunar just over the border but no action had been taken against them, according to a Reuters report from the area.
from Tales from the Trail:
When President Barack Obama snuck into Afghanistan unannounced last month, a notable omission on Air Force One was his special representative for the region, veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
Leaving out the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan on Obama's very first trip to Kabul as president raised a few eyebrows.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to be making a habit of going to shuras, or meeting of local elders, across the country in recent weeks. After attending shuras in Marjah, Tirin Kot and Kandahar over the past month and a half, Karzai flew to Kunduz in the north this past weekend for another meeting with tribal elders. The U.S. military took a group of journalists to the town to watch the Afghan leader in action, his presence at shuras being a part of a carefully choreographed “hearts and minds” campaign aimed at getting local support for NATO operations in the area.
That the security situation in Kunduz is of concern seemed apparent soon after we got off our military plane from Kabul. Greeted by our German military hosts, we were bundled into heavy flak jackets for a bumpy 5 minute ride at breakneck speed from the airfield to the provincial reconstruction team base. As we listened to the standard instructions on what to do during a rocket attack, we also learned the last time a rocket had hit the base was just the day before we arrived. Once seen as one of the safer parts of Afghanistan, Kunduz has emerged as a relatively new battlefront in the fight with the Taliban, who have made inroads into the area from their main strongholds in the south and the east.
Where women really stand in Afghan society didn’t hit home to me until I walked down a busy market street in Kandahar without seeing a single woman. The birthplace of the Taliban, Kandahar is conservative even by Afghan standards. It is also the focus of NATO’s next big military offensive in Afghanistan, and I spent a couple of days last week embedded with a U.S. military police unit there to report on plans for the offensive and the mood on the ground.
While Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his American backers were having a very public row, 170 people were killed in political violence in Afghanistan last week, foreign affairs expert Juan Cole points out on his blog Informed Comment.
There were 117 incidents according to the Afghan interior ministry, four times the number for the previous week. Most of the violence was in the south casting a shadow over supposed U.S. gains in the region, Cole says. Indeed residents in Marjah, the site of a major military offensive against the Taliban, are complaining of lack of security, he quotes a report by the local Pajwhok news agency as saying.