Wednesday, April 7, 2010

US Troops Celebrating Easter

Ever since I learned we were going to have to contribute to the Afghanistan Blog, I knew I wanted to cover American soldiers.  I didn’t want to cover them in a traditional way.  I wanted to find coverage that portrayed them as American citizens in Afghanistan.  At first I thought this was going to be difficult, but since Easter was Sunday, finding a humane piece about our soldiers was easier to find.

My neighbor’s fiancĂ© has already served twice in Afghanistan.  The reason he is not going back for a third time is because of medical leave.  Whenever I am home, I find myself talking to him.  I asked him what the worst part of being stationed in Afghanistan was.  He always says that he hates spending holidays in Afghanistan.  He hates the holidays not because he misses home, but because he feels like an outsider.  He says it’s a surreal feeling to celebrate a Catholic holiday in a Muslim country. 

Since we’ve started this class, I’ve started reading CNN’s Afghanistan blog, called Afghanistan Crossroads.  The purpose of the blog is to bring a diversity of voices to the reporting of the occurrences in Afghanistan.  It has made me more informed about what has been occurring in Afghanistan.  When I was looking for an article, I immediately went to this blog.  I clicked on the tag for troops and came across this video of US troops celebrating Easter:

I think most citizens, whether American or Afghan, forget that the soldiers are real people with morals, values, and faith.  Yes, it’s strange to see people attending church in uniform rather than in suits and dresses, but some balance is reached because they do not enter the church with their weapons. 

I found it sad when the woman soldier said that most people forget it’s Easter.  This means that they must lose track of the days while stationed in Afghanistan.  In the United States, the calendar revolves around holidays, which gives people something to look forward to.  When stationed in Afghanistan, the troops often forget when a holiday is approaching because they do not have reminders.

It was ironic when the sergeant was talking about being Christian on Islam soil.  It seems he agrees with my neighbor’s fiancĂ© that you have to be careful when celebrating your own religion.  The sergeant mentions that troops have to be mindful because interpreters and other Muslims who may not believe in the same things that they do surround them.

Another interesting point of view a lieutenant brings up is a comparison between Christians celebrating Easter in Afghanistan and Muslims celebrating Ramadan in the United States.  He says that a holiday shouldn’t be more or less important to someone because of where they celebrate it.  It should have the same importance because it is part of the faith.

I think this video makes us realize that the men and women fighting in Afghanistan are people’s sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters.  I admit I sometimes forget about the people fighting for us.  I just read stories about the current war and look for details of events.  It is difficult for me to put faces to the soldiers I read about because I do not know that many people fighting overseas.  I think many Americans feel this way, as well.  Viewing and reading stories about soldiers during holidays makes me feel closer to them.   It makes me feel grateful that I can celebrate Passover comfortably, while the soldiers are celebrating their respective holidays overseas in a nontraditional way.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why did Obama visit Afghanistan?

As I was thinking about my post for The Afghanistan Project, I kept coming back to one central question: why did President Obama visit Afghanistan last week? What goals did he have for his trip, which was just six hours long? One possible answer came in the form of a Taliban message mocking Obama's visit. According to The Washington Post, a message from the Taliban said that Obama's visit proves he hasn't made any real progress in Afghanistan:
"By making a six-hour unannounced trip to Afghanistan ..., Obama proved that his military strategy and surge of 30,000 troops, his morale-boosting propaganda, have all failed to make a dent" Taliban website
Even if we set aside the group's obvious anti-war bias, the message might have a point. By appearing before troops stationed at Bagram air base, President Obama both brings a smile to troops' faces and shows that he's still interested in the situation in Afghanistan. This point was echoed by New York Times photojournalist Stephen Crowley:
"The president’s six-hour visit was intended in part to shore up morale as American and Afghan forces prepare for an all-out assault on Taliban militants in the southern province of Kandahar" Stephen Crowley
And finally, here's what The New York Times had to say:
"Mr. Obama’s visit... included a boisterous pep rally with American troops. It was his first trip as president to the scene of an eight-year-old war he has stamped as his own" The New York Times
It seems fairly evident that Obama's visit was a sort of PR stunt intended to rally support around the war both for Americans at home and troops stationed in Afghanistan. By talking to troops and showing he's willing to travel to the war-torn country, Obama shows he is interested in the war that he has "stamped as his own."

Eight years on and the war in Afghanistan doesn't look like it's coming to a close. It's tough to keep Americans interested—few other American conflicts have lasted so long. More important still is keeping American soliders motivated as the conflict continues to be extremely deadly. As Penelope wrote in her blog post, the number of troops killed in Afghanistan is about double what it was at this point in 2009.

There's another benefit: it got the U.S. (and world!) media to cover Afghanistan. As the war drags on, news from Afghanistan has definitely dropped off the front page and the nightly news. In fact, Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) ranted against the U.S. media's apparent lack of interest in the war. He was angry that the press hadn't shown up to cover a Congressional debate over a resolution to withdraw troops from Afghanistan:
"It's despicable, the national press corps right now... We're talking about war and peace, three billion dollars, 1,000 lives and no press! No press!" Patrick Kennedy
Instead, Kennedy said the media were voraciously covering allegations of sexual abuse by Congressman Eric Massa (D-NY). Once again, the press had chosen to focus on a timely scandal rather than on the ongoing war that's killing hundreds of Americans every year. The sex scandal is breaking news that's happening now; the war is eight years old with little new information. And in the web-connected, 24-hour news cycle, the newest buzz always wins out.

So President Obama's trip most likely had two goals. Firstly, to raise morale and support for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Secondly, to make people pay attention to the war. And we really should pay attention, because we're sending millions of dollars and scores of young Americans there every single day.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Streets On Fire

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has just recently released a report on the deplorable conditions in Afghanistan. The report is filled with words and phrases like “absolute poverty”, “widespread corruption”, “disillusioned” and “abuse of power”. Since 2002, over $35 billion dollars of aid has been poured into the country and yet, the country has seen no significant improvement. The report criticizes the international community for placing too much focus on security rather than long-term development and ignoring the basic needs of the people. As expected, the report also lists numerous statistics relating to the appalling living conditions including the “world’s second highest maternal mortality rate” and the “third worst child mortality rate”. Furthermore, the report criticizes the corruption within the country where the “abuse of power is the key driver of poverty in Afghanistan.”
As I went through numerous articles, members of the of U.N. Human Rights Commissioner’s office blamed corrupt vested interests which shape the public agenda to be one of the primary factors behind the fact that only “23% of the population have access to safe drinking water” and the incredibly low literacy rates (only 24% above the age of 15 can read and write). Additionally, the report draws attention to the dire need for abusive power structures to be “torn down as a matter of urgency”. An article posted from the Associated Press addresses the “vicious cycle” that Afghans are trapped in; for Afghanis, the only way to survive is to take up arms and “perpetuate the vicious cycle of war and poverty that has plagued the country for decades.”
At this point, it is important to note that this report comes days after President Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan who pledges to not “give up” on Afghanistan. If anything, it seems that the U.N. wants to hint out to Obama’s administration and the international parties involved that after 8 years, nothing has change. I also looked at an interview on MSNBC with Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films who is directing the movie, Rethink Afghanistan of which I have attached a short clip.

From the clip, it seems apparent that after the billions of dollars spent on the war, the focus of the war needs to shift from this whole “in it to win it” to a more substantial future for the country. Robert Greenwald brings up a great point that “war is not free”; spending 2.5 million dollars itself while President Obama was giving his speech is astounding. Moreover, there seems to be inherent flaws in the system being used in Afghanistan. Six billion dollars have spent on security including police forces, arsenal, etc. in Afghanistan but it still seems that the Taliban are well in control of the population.
One discernable aspect of this interview was that Robert Greenwald brought President Karzai’s corruption into the picture; how can a war-torn Afghanistan enjoy any positive change if its leader itself if corrupt? Though the U.N. report did not mention President Karzai’s corruption in particular, there does seem to be this consensus that corrupt officials are one of the root causes of this poverty. This U.N. report describes the Afghan people to be “disenfranchised and marginalized; their voices are rarely heard.” At this point, a number of questions are yet unanswered; Does America need to keep 120,000 active troops in Afghanistan? If so, do these troops need to shift their focus toward improving the lives of Afghans? Does the U.N. need to do more than just post a report but actively participate in the distribution of Aid?
I titled this post, “Streets on Fire” (a song by Lupe Fiasco) because to me, it honestly seems that way. This war in Afghanistan has been going on for almost a decade, billions of dollars have been spent and thousands of lives have been lost but to what avail? “Poverty is neither accidental nor inevitable”; it seems that this dwindling lack of interest in Afghanistan’s future by the international community has left their citizens “disillusioned”. It seems to me that this pursuit of a military stronghold has ignored or even exacerbated the plight of the poor. After 2001’s Bonn Agreement, reconstruction, developmental, education and sanitary projects have all taken a back seat to security. Ironically, even security is a luxury Afghanis cannot enjoy.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Obama visits Afghanistan

My original intention for this blog post was to analyze articles of public opinion in reference to the war in Afghanistan. It is evident that the support of war has risen and fallen over the years and especially during the change in administrations. However, in light of recent events, and surprise visits, I decided to take a different direction with this blog.
On Sunday March 28, 2010, President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. It was the first time Barack came to the country as President of the United States. It was surprising to me that this was his first visit as president considering his deployment of 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan last December.
In his short 6 hour visit, Obama met with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. One of the main messages Obama delivered to Karzai was the continued U.S frustrations in Afghan government corruption and drug trafficking. President Obama praised the military progress that has ensued in the country, but stressed that progress on the civilian front has been lacking.
President Karazai’s election into office in August of 2009 was plagued by corruption and criticism. Obama has even regarded Karzai as “unreliable and ineffective.” Thus, Obama’s concern was for the service of the Afghan people. Obama demanded a few things from Karzai during his visit. He made it clear it was essential that the Afghan authorities actually make good on their repeated promises, including improving living conditions for Afghan civilians. Along with this, Obama wants Karzai to enforce the law that prevents people from joining the insurgency. This stern message from Obama is correlated with his hope of U.S troops to exit Afghanistan by mid 2011 and hand over security to the Afghanistan government.
Karzai seemed hopeful in his response to Obama’s request. He told the US President, that his country would be moving forward into the future and eventually be ready to take over its own security. According to U.S. accounts of the meeting, Karzai also told Obama he has begun to establish more credible national institutions on corruption. Showing signs of improvement, this past month Karzai gave more powers to an anti-corruption body. They now have the authority to refer cases to court and as act as prosecutor. The White House hopes that Karzai can fulfill U.S. expectations for Afghanistan and have invited Karzai to Washington for more talks on May 12.
Obama’s short visit to Afghanistan also included a visit to U.S. troops at Bagram Air Force Base. In a leather bomber jacket, Obama thanked the troops for what they have done in Afghanistan and for the American people saying, “My main job here today is to say thank you on behalf of the entire American people. You are part of the finest military in the history of the world. And we are proud of you.” 
The morale boost from the President served as a way to reiterate the mission for the troops: to destroy al Qaeda and strengthen Afghan security forces and Afghan government so they can take responsibility of their country. The Commander in Chief did state that progress has been made in the last several months. Many seemed to doubt this however, considering Associated Press reports that the number of U.S troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010 in comparison to the same time period last year. An interesting perspective on President Obama’s speech to the troops in Bagram was noted by Al Jazeera’s reporter John Terrett. He mentioned the President’s tone was different than it was when he fist made the announcement of extra troops. Terrett noted that Obama, “stressed on several occasions the sacrifice of the US troops and how if he didn't think this was strategically important for the US he would bring them all home today.” Terrett even stated his thoughts that Obama was preparing the troops for the fact that July 2011 will “come and go and not many troops will begin to come home.”
I suppose this brings me back to my original thought for the blog. What are Americans thoughts about the war in Afghanistan, more importantly, what do Americans think of Obama’s handling of the war? In a Washington Post poll conducted right after Obama’s most recent trip to Afghanistan. Overall, Obama had a successful outcome in the poll; 53 percent of those polled approved of the way Obama is handling the war in Afghanistan, while 35 percent disapprove of how the President is handling the situation. It will be interesting to see how Obama’s approval rating with the war in Afghanistan changes. Even more so it will be interesting to see if Karzai and his administration can begin to take control of the situation in their country and eliminate corruption.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Afghanistan Peace Talks in Context

As recently brought up in discussion, one concern with news media is that it often fails to report on the context of a story. This neglected information may be vital for media consumers to develop a coherent understanding of issues that could have significant implications for the American people (i.e. the Afghanistan War). For this project, I sought to find an article that discusses current circumstances in Afghanistan, as well provides a historical context for these events. I found such an article by the Associate Press on

The article, “Karzai Meets Delegation from Taliban-Linked Group,” discusses preliminary talks of peace negotiations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Taliban and other insurgent group leaders. The main meeting prompting this article took place on Monday morning, when Karzai met with leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Hizb-i-Islami insurgent movement, the second biggest militant group in the country after the Taliban.

Though the two insurgent groups have many similar aims and have previously been allied, the Hizb-i-Islami is actually less linked to the Taliban than the title of the article may imply, as the two groups have recently opposed each other in addition to Afghan forces. The article describes violent conflicts taking place earlier this month between the Hizb-i-Islami, whose fighters are greatly concentrated in the east and north of Afghanistan, and the Taliban, which has led the insurgency in the south. Hizb-i-Islami militiamen were said to have fought the Taliban “with rocket-propelled granades and heavy machine guns” in the Baghlan province, eventually leading dozens of Hizb-i-Islami fighters to join government forces. While insurgent groups are generally thought of as only fighting against the ruling government, it is interesting that this article highlights the additional conflicts taking place between groups and the implications these may have.

Karzai’s meeting with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar covered a 15-point delegation proposed by the Hizb-i-Islami, under which all foreign troops would have to leave Afghanistan within the six months following July and new government elections would need to be held within a year. Although Karzai has not yet agreed to any of the conditions of this proposal, he is planning a “peace jirga,” or assembly, extended to a number of insurgent groups for the end of April. This effort is referred to as “a step towards national reconciliation” and as laying “the groundwork for a peace initiative,” though many feel a concrete agreement is still a long way off.

The significance of Monday’s meeting is also realized in this article through the background information it provides about Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister and current leader of Hizb-i-Islami. The article explains how Hekmatyar was “a major recipient of U.S. military aid” during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s but lost support from Washington because of “his role in the fighting among “mujahideen factions” which killed more than 25,000 civilians in the early 1990s. The article continues to describe how Hekmatyar was declared a “global terrorist” by the U.S. government in 2003 because he was said to have “participated in and supported terror acts committed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.” This contextual information is vital because it is predicted to have major implications regarding the willingness of the U.S. to participate in these peace proposals.

Regarding the delegation’s hope to also discuss agreements with Taliban leaders, the U.S. Embassy said that “there would be no meetings with U.S. officials.” This lack of willingness to negotiate demonstrates the military-based approach that the U.S. has maintained towards addressing the conflicts that plague the stability and security of Afghanistan.

Last month, news reports confirming the arrest of the prominent Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, conveyed a reassuring message of progress made by U.S. military efforts and made the idea of “success” in Afghanistan more tangible to many Americans. In a New York Times article, this arrest was even describes as “a hugely successful intelligence-gathering effort.”

According to the recent NPR article, however, President Karzai’s view of this arrest was quite the opposite because the government had been holding “secret talks with the Taliban's No. 2 when he was captured in Pakistan.” In addition to covert conversations by the Afghan government, “U.N. officials had also been in discussions with senior Taliban officials since last year, but the arrests of Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban figures halted the dialogue.”

Similar to how the insurgent groups are described as working against each other above, this shows how conflicting efforts between the Afghan and U.S. government are also hindering the overall progress of their joint mission for peace. In an article from the BBC, which also describes the current negotiation process between the Afghan government and insurgent groups, the journalist explains that “there is a growing recognition, both within Afghanistan and from its foreign partners, that insurgents have to be part of any peace settlement and that military operations alone will not be enough to bring peace to the country.” Though it may be difficult for the U.S. to accept the inclusion of insurgent groups as a strategy to achieve peace given their history with these groups, I think it is important that Washington consider these negotiations as they may be a potential path to "success" in Afghanistan.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Context of a War

While looking for articles on the war in Afghanistan I wanted to see how the foreign press reported on the war and in what fundamental ways it would differ from the American media's message we are so used to. I decided to look in my country of study, Egypt. I thought it would offer a unique middle eastern perspective on the conflict while still remaining sympathetic to certain core goals of the American fight. I was right.

In reading my foreign media, the Al Ahram Weekly – a weekly English language version of the most popular Egyptian paper, I came across an extremely interesting article pertaining to Afghanistan. The article, titled “Surging over the brink” is written by M Shahid Alam, professor of economics at Northeastern University. The article discusses Alam's views as to where the future of this conflict is going while offering a concise history of the conflict as a whole and even includes important historical background information, comparing the Taliban of today with the Mujahideen of the past.

The article makes some very important points about the war. Why were the Taliban able to come back after they were removed from power in 2001 and almost nearly destroyed? If we were familiar with the history of the Pashtun people, Alam claims, this would come as no surprise. They have defied all of the odds, and with a remarkable lack of ties or support from Muslim countries, they have made advantages out of their handicaps and mounted an unprecedented comeback to such a formidable opponent. Because the Taliban acts entirely independently of outside help, “they have built their gains almost exclusively on their own strengths: and these are harder to take away”. The U.S. has pressured Pakistan to take military action against the support network in Pakistan, and as Pakistan “caves” more and more, “escalating their wars against their own population”, the backlash amongst the people grows, causing more and more to join the fight with the Taliban.

Corruption and bribes are abundant in the conflict. The Afghanistan government is very corrupt, “battened by drug money, government contracts and cronyism”. President Karzai has worsened the situation by placing the blame of this corruption on the U.S.
I was particularly impressed by Alam's careful wording. At one point he asks, “Can the US defeat these calls terrorists?” This very simple distinction evokes a world of difference in viewpoints that I don't believe I've ever been offered by the American press. Later on in the article Alam offers another revelation that I may never have considered,

"No one suggests that the Taliban can match the credentials of America’s freedom fighters in the late 18th century. The latter were committed to the proposition that all men are created equal — barring certain overlooked exceptions. The Taliban are zealots and misogynists, but only a tad more so than the mujahideen whom the West embraced as freedom fighters.
The West celebrated the mujahideen’s victory over the Soviets. The same people, fighting under a different name, have now pushed the US into a costly stalemate. Will the US prolong this stalemate, and push Pakistan too over the brink? Or will it accept the fait accompli the Taliban have created for them, accept its losses, and save itself from greater embarrassment in the future?"

While reading this article I was almost shocked at the wealth of information pertaining to the war that I had never heard before and I wondered, why doesn't the American media provide us with similar journalism? The reasons why I've never read something as critical of the U.S. are not that surprising. Although I'm sure many would find it refreshingly honest and would welcome differing views from the ones recycled again and again, many would find it alienating and would no doubt it attribute it to liberal “blame America first” sensibilities. But why aren't we offered the pertinent background information that would often shed much needed context on hard to understand situations.

I wanted to quickly compare the article to a similar American one, so I found an article by The New York Times that deals with some similar topics. The Al Ahram article reflects heavily on the influx of troops and what affect it will have on the escalating conflict, so I found an article from back in November announcing Obama's troop surge. The article, titled “Obama Issues Order for More Troops in Afghanistan” is exactly what one might think. In comparison it is an extremely narrowly focused article dealing with Obama's recent decision to send more troops into Afghanistan. It offers plenty of numbers, troop numbers before Obama, after Obama and after the surge, commitments from other countries around the world, and of course makes reference to support polls. But sadly, I couldn't find mention of why a surge was necessary, how it may affect the fight, or even the state of the current conflict. I feel that staying informed is extremely essential in this day and age, but from what I have seen, the American press may be failing at giving us all the information we need.