Kabul’s Shehr-pu district was once a poor area, but since the Taliban fell and the capital’s population of foreigners swelled with security companies, NGOs and media companies, Shehr-pu’s slums have been replaced with awkwardly proportioned and garish mansions, squeezed next to each other and surrounded by some of the worst roads in the city.
But even more striking than the architecture in Shehr-pu is the sudden appearance of graffiti which looks like it could be the work of the anonymous British artist Banksy
Almost two years ago, Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic captured a dramatic shot of U.S. Marine Sergeant William Bee, from Wooster, Ohio, the moment a Taliban bullet hit a wall inches from this head.
In the photo Bee is just about holding on to his rifle as he is hit by a spray of rocks and dirt when the bullet hits a compound wall in front of him.
At Thursday’s London conference on Afghanistan, some 60 countries will to try flesh out the details for a plan to gradually hand security to Afghans, which involves strengthening and expanding Afghan security forces, improving the way donor aid to Afghanistan is spent and reintegrating Taliban fighters. But where do women fit into these plans, especially if the Taliban are to be involved?
The plan, which has been tried in the past without much success, would involve luring low-level Taliban from the insurgency using jobs and money to re-join Afghan society. There has also been much talk, particularly in the media, about the possibility of dialogue or negotiations with the Taliban.
The United Nations said last week that Afghanistan is “without doubt” the worst place in the world for a child, especially a girl, to be born.
It has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, 70 percent of Afghans have no access to clean water and hundreds of schools, mostly girls’ schools, have been attacked by Taliban or other insurgents.
U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated on Monday his belief that the Afghan police and army had to grow in order to pave the way for a United States and NATO military drawdown in Afghanistan.Strengthening Afghanistan’s indigenous security forces has always been one of the main planks of the NATO-led ISAF military strategy. But the Afghan police have a lot of problems. The are often accused of endemic corruption, colluding with Taliban insurgents, being poorly trained and badly organised. In some areas, we have reported before, their criminal behaviour has actually turned the communities they are meant to serve toward the Taliban, unwittingly empowering the insurgency.The United States and its allies have spent billions of dollars on the Afghan police, but as this July report, funded by the European Commission states, “sustainable returns on investment seem very limited”. The report is still one of the most forthright and frank accounts of the problems facing the Afghan police.The report points to five major problems facing police: 1) forced to take on military responsibilities sometimes such as engaging militants in gunfights, 2) lack of trust by Afghans 3) lack of training and equipment 4) a very high level of illiteracy and 5) allegations of endemic corruption.In the field they do sometimes look like a bit of a motley crew. It is not unusual to see police on patrol wearing casual shoes or sandals with no socks. They like to customise their uniforms with unusual jewellery and quite a few like to decorate their Kalashnikov rifles with stickers, flowers and colourful tassles.These few anecdotes do not of course accurately reflect the entire 80,000 and more individuals who make up the force. But with a target to recruit another 80,000 Afghans, the Interior Ministry really have their work cut out, considering the rather limited human resources Afghanistan has to offer.There is no shortage of unemployed young people in Afghanistan and as one of the world’s poorest countries it is not difficult to recruit people en masse here. Government recruitment can also be a means of deterring the poor from joining the insurgency. But finding healthy and educated young men and women who want to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world for little more than $100 a month, is another matter entirely.Decades of conflict and the subjugation and exclusion of women from education and the workforce during the Taliban government have severely retarded infrastructure, the economy and literacy levels in Afghanistan.Just under one third of Afghans are educated, that’s about 10 million people. And while women are allowed to join the police force they still represent a tiny minority because in many parts of Afghanistan it is still a cultural taboo for them to work. Potential recruits also must have a spotless criminal background and be aged between 17 and 25 with proof that they graduated high school. By and large only Afghans in the country’s handful of urban centres would have gone to high school. In remote, dangerous, insurgent-riddled districts where populations are largely uneducated, schools are scant and where the overlap between law enforcement and counter-insurgency is most acute, it is difficult to find enough people to match the police’s employment criteria.Other jobs in the myriad NGOs and foreign companies which have mushroomed in Kabul since the war started in 2001offer safer and better paid opportunities to literate Afghans than law enforcement. Those who speak English also have an incentive to work as translators for U.S. and other NATO-contributing military forces by the tempting offer of a visa and eventual U.S. citizenship after at least two years of good service. There is no such carrot dangling before aspiring police trainees.Afghan police are working in a war zone, where they are often the first target of insurgents, something which worries their commanders who say their policemen are forced to act as paramilitaries and adopt the posture of an offensive army. Given the weakness of the rule of law in Afghanistan because of the insurgency and effects of war, perhaps the idea of an effective and law-abiding police force is, for now, just wishful thinking.[Top: An Afghan policeman filming with his camera phone in Tarin Kowrt, southern Uruzgan province/Tim Wimborne (Reuters); Above: An Afghan policeman takes a nap in Zhari district, southern Kandahar province/Stefano Rellandini (Reuters)]
Katrina Manson is a Reuters reporter based in East Africa. She recently accompanied the British government’s development agency, DFID, on a visit to Helmand province in south Afghanistan. By Katrina Manson The new head of Helmand’s Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT), tasked with helping to develop one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous and conservative provinces, says that the 300-strong group’s greatest achievement to date is the fact that the governor has managed to visit all 13 districts.It might sound a strangely slight claim to success for a body that will this year spend £190 million on efforts to rebuild the province and help provide basic services such as justice and education, but for PRT head Lindy Cameron, success is about somebody else doing the work. The PRTs are joint foreign military and civilian teams trying to rebuild the war-torn nation.“My job is making the government good,” said Cameron. “The point of us being here is to get district government and services up and running and to support the government to be effective enough that people will see it as credible. We have a particularly active and energetic governor who sees it as his job to get out to the people rather than to twiddle his thumbs in an office in Lashkar Gah.”A favourite of the British military and development officials, Helmand’s provincial governor Gulab Mangal, has been credited for championing opium poppy replacement programmes and helping to steer parts of Helmand’s population away from the Taliban. Governor Mangal, is known by British helicopter pilots as a “bullet magnet” for just such feistiness (the helicopter he was travelling in was hit by rocket fire last year). Mangal’s successes against the insurgency and his close cooperation with British and U.S. forces in Helmand have brought him many Taliban-shaped enemies who would be happy to see the back of him. Since taking up the post in March 2008, he has wasted no time in getting out and visiting the districts – opening schools, recruiting police officers, and attempting to convince farmers to grow wheat instead of poppy – recording a 33 percent drop in poppy cultivation this year and hoping for a further 50 percent drop next year.Nato’s new commander General Stanley McChrystal has said of the military strategy in Afghanistan that “the objective is the will of the Afghan people”. As Nato soldiers attempt to make safe more areas in the province — in which 86 British troops have been killed this year — the PRT is trying to show life under the government is better than life under the Taliban.“We’re no longer discussing which comes first, the chicken or the egg – security or development – but recognising that we have to do both,” says Cameron. “We are managing an astonishing level of cooperation.””We need to compete for hearts and minds through government structures,” says Cameron. “We need to make Taliban fighters feel like they have a constant choice, not that once they join the Taliban they’re beyond the pale but instead give them reasons to think life is better elsewhere.”Life, however, remains insecure and hard. A report commissioned by the USAID, the U.S. donor agency, makes clear the limited scope for legitimate economy: “There is no manufacturing sector of any significance,” it said, finding that narcotics in the province — which this year provided 54 percent of the world’s opium — account for half Helmand’s economy. It also said infrastructure needs $17 billion in investment, notably into electricity — only 14 percent of Helmand’s population have access to the public electricity grid — and roads.Donors are attempting to bring the province back to life, designing a $60m road project to link Lashkar Gah, the political capital, to Gereskh, the commercial capital, which should be finished by 2011, as well as bringing the Gereskh hydro power station back to life in a $40m project. US donor money has already helped to reopen the civilian airport nearby at Bost, and efforts are underway to create agro-processing plants so the province’s many crops, which include pomegranate, grapes and nuts, can be transformed and exported.For many, progress is coming too slowly, however. “We have invested in great big new machines this year but none of them is running because we have no electricity from the grid,” said Mirkalam Zahidy, director of a marble factory that employs 100 people and was hoping to expand.”It’s too costly for us to fuel the generators so the machines are just off.”Governor Mangal will have to keep on getting into those choppers if he’s to convince people throughout the province that progress is on its way.
Wednesday’s attacks on foreign U.N. workers at a guest-house in a normally secure area of Kabul shook the nerves of everyone in the city. Rightly or wrongly, the community of Western journalists, aid workers and security contractors often make the crude comparison between working in Baghdad and working in Kabul. All seem to agree that they prefer living in the latter, where they can travel around with relative ease, visit bars and restaurants and go to parties across town.
Kabul is, despite the concrete barriers and armoured vehicles, a beautiful city, nestled among towering mountains. None of the many restaurants and coffee shops frequented by foreigners have been attacked so far. Only the luxury Serena hotel has been hit by Taliban attackers before, the latest also on Wednesday when it was hit with rockets intended for the presidential palace.Before Wednesday, driving in the Shehrpu or Shahr-e Now districts, which the guest-house straddles, did not require a second thought. It would be laughable actually to think that these areas were high-risk. They are populated by “narco-mansions” a nickname for the gaudy, ostentatious palaces built by powerful Afghans and occupied by governors or foreign companies. Shahr-e Now, or “New town”, is home to bustling market parades, popular Afghan restaurants and bright, colourful street lights at night.All the mansions have some form of security, mostly private contractors guarding heavy iron barriers or sitting in guard boxes by the front door. Shahr-e Now is where Kabul comes alive and where Afghans socialise.Most attacks until now have been targetted at military convoys, embassies or government ministries. It’s natural for someone living and working in Kabul to steer clear from a block of U.S. humvees or armoured off-road cars and people try to avoid hanging around the diplomatic buildings, which tend to be surrounded by concrete blast walls.Guest-houses, however, have never really been seen as target. Perhaps security experts would argue otherwise, but it is safe to say they are not at the top of an insurgent’s list of places to attack. The Bakhtar guest-house is relatively low-key. Many had not heard of it before the attack. It is on a well-known but unremarkable side street, surrounded by other houses. Its green iron door was not distinctive at all.The attack on Bakhtar showed perhaps that the Taliban are turning to relatively low profile targets because they have little hope breaching the vast, heavily fortified military bases of foreign forces or well-protected embassies.
On a recent embed with U.S. Marines in a remote spot of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, the Taliban, or Taliban-linked insurgents, seemed so elusive and invisible that it was easy to doubt whether they actually existed. Only the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) planted crudely under dirt tracks indicated insurgents were lurking somewhere in Helmand’s vast cornfields and desert plains. Every home or compound that was visited and searched by the Marines I accompanied on foot patrol appeared to be safe or occupied by harmless residents who just wanted to get along with their lives. The Marines, who had been ambushed by a group of insurgents and successfully cleared a path laced with bombs a day or so before, were by and large convinced that someone, somewhere in these villages, knew where the insurgents were or when they were likely to turn up next. Patrolling villages in “Taliban country”, is an essential plank of the U.S. military’s counter-insurgency, the strategy championed by General David Petreus in Iraq and largely credited for quelling the insurgency there. Most U.S. military officers in Afghanistan swear by Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24) — the military’s counter-insurgency (COIN) bible. They admit to having “drank the Cool Aid” and most are confident it is the best hope Washington has of gaining the upper hand on the Taliban, securing the support of the population, while trying to keep civilian casualties as low as possible. But with reports that as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops have been requested for Afghanistan by the commander of foreign forces there, Army General Stanley McChrystal, many are beginning to question whether COIN is too costly, whether it’s misguided and if more troops actually feeds the insurgency. In his recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan McChrystal said that protecting the population was of paramount importance in efforts to defeat the insurgency. This is one of the core mantras from a French scholar and military officer, David Galula, whose work heavily informs the FM 3-24. Galula, however, was writing in the 1960s, with reference to France’s struggle against Algeria’s National Liberation Front. As such some scholars such as Thomas Rid at the Woodrow Wilson Institute have said that because counter-insurgency as a military doctrine is the product of a colonial age, rooted in 19th centruy scholarship, it may essentially be outdated or inappropriate for a 21st century war in Afghanistan. In a recent interview with news channel Al Jazeera, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said that COIN principles were outdated and would not work in Afghanistan. Even the idea of conducting a western-style democratic election was laughable to him and had echoes of how the Soviet Union tried to impose communism on Afghans in the 1980s. More soldiers will inevitably foster more discontent within the population, Brzezinski said. A few years down the line, the insurgency would have grown leading to another call for more troops, perpetuating a troops-violence-troops cycle. The supporters of COIN maintain that it’s the only way to ensure that a viable state can be built and supported. This blog post on the AfPak Channel says that what appears to be going on in Washington, particularly after President Barack Obama’s strategy review of Afghanistan back in April, is an attempt to combine COIN with counter-terrorism, something which “threatens to leave the U.S. with no clarity of strategy, doctrine, tactics and objectives.” Another crucial part of Afghanistan’s future stability is the power of its own security forces. Right now the Afghan army, which is seen as broadly successful and relatively effective, is far too small. Only 650 Afghan troops pushed into Helmand with 4,000 U.S. Marines this summer. Marine commanders on the ground say the Afghan army needs to significantly expand together with Afghan police. The police are paid between $70 and $100 a month to work one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, as they are often the first target of insurgents. They are also by and large poorly-educated or illiterate and because they are locally deployed, they tend to have loyalties to certain tribes and are known for turning a blind eye on insurgent activities in some areas. Afghan army officers themselves are sometimes at odds with the U.S. approach. Foreign troops respond to insurgent gunfire using sophisticated weaponry and stronger force. It is a tactic some Afghan officers say is unnecessary and provokes local anger, even before foreign troops can advance into villages. “I think language is the strongest weapon of all, not guns, I think we should do a lot more talking” one Afghan sergeant in Helmand recently told me. None of the villagers I interviewed in Helmand last week seemed happy to see Marines turning up at their front door, at best some were indifferent. In one shura I observed, the tone of the Marines, who are often decades younger than the wizened, bearded elders they try to communicate with, seemed frustrated and they appeared convinced the local elders were hiding information from them. The elders are never asked whether they are happy to see their new neighbours, it is taken as a given that they should be grateful for their presence. The line often used to try and turn them into informants is: “you give us information on the Taliban and we will build you a school”. (Photos: on a foot patrol with U.S. Marines in Darwishan, Helmand; a U.S. Marine takes a break while on patrol in Mian Poshtay, Helmand; Afghan soldiers search a compound in Mian Poshtay, Helmand. Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)
The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), made up mainly of Westerners, has published its findings into Afghanistan’s disputed, fraud-beset presidential poll.Now Afghans must determine their political future using the bureaucratic legacy of lists and numbers the ECC has left behind. It’s been exactly two months since Afghans went to the poll to choose their leader. They are none the wiser today about who they can expect to be running their country.Neither are we. Teasing out information about the elections has been a difficult process. We have relied on diplomats who cannot be named, faceless officials close to the proceedings and campaign representatives to try and make sense of an extremely vague, closed process.Right now, officials at Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission — a much criticised office, because its panel was appointed by Karzai and is therefore seen by his main rival Abdullah Abdullah as working in his favour — are pouring over the sheets of figures published by the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission on Monday.A run-off, we have been told by numerous diplomats in Kabul, looks likely and some resourceful think tanks in Washington have done the math themselves and drawn the same conclusion from the ECC’s pages of numbers and percentages.Perhaps there will be light later on Tuesday and Karzai, locked away in his forbidding presidential palace, will step forward to speak to his people.