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 fiancé 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 fiancé 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.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Taliban's Control over the Internet

The article I chose to add to this blog comes from the BBC - my foreign news source for this class.  The article that drew my attention is titled "Taliban Harness Power of the Web."  Why did it interest me?  The connection of the Taliban to the war, and the connection the article had to our class discussions about press freedoms.  Like we've gone over in discussions of China, for example, when the government (or in this case the Taliban) steps in and limits what can be accessed via web searches etc -- questions as to what is actually 'truth' are raised.  Admittedly, I do not have much prior knowledge of the Afghanistan War... but the internet and its ability to inform freely, yet at the same time be severely limited, is something I can relate to and understand.  

Never before had I heard about this limitation placed on the internet by the Taliban from 1996 - 2001 (as they declared it "immoral" and "un-Islamic"), and so I certainly never heard about the current-day insurgent's utilization of the internet post-fall of the Taliban regime - although I can recognize how useful of a tool the internet could be for insurgents despite its prior separation from Islam.  It also excited me to find this article, because the first time I even learned what insurgents were was through reading Graveyard of the Empires for class.

The article credits the internet to be the "weapon of choice" for many in the Taliban.
"...the internet has become one of the main platforms for insurgents in the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan."

It's crazy to think that something as mundane as the internet - something literally used every day by billions of people - is a strategy and weapon.  But if you think about it - communication is key in plotting and carrying out plans when intended, as well as key in influencing public opinion.  The article made me question: Is it possible that we are too concerned with watching our airports (for example) when we should be directing attention back to where these plans and propaganda strategies are originating? And stopping them before they can even come to fruition?

The article is a bit of a cause for concern, in my opinion... as it doesn't address any of these questions I have!  It raises many points, which I can only hope - are taken seriously by someone.

The BBC  refers to this internet strategy - to "generate popular support and undermine local governments and their international partners" - as a second front of the war... "the battle for winning hearts and minds" - a battle which is intensifying every day.

The problem is that the Taliban is referred to as very sophisticated in regards to their internet use... and they not only have established 'virtual' sanctuaries, but they have multi-lingual websites, which they regularly update.  Updates are to be expected, when discussing internet... the issue lies within the fact that the Afghan government does not yet have the necessary equipment to censor these updates and emails containing interviews with Taliban leaders, propaganda videos, commentaries, and their official statements to the media that they offer to readers - once the equipment does arrive to the Afghan government, it is said that they will be blocking websites that "promote terrorism, glorify violence, contain pornography or encourage gambling."

"The Taliban also send their material to a number of other 'independent' websites in an effort to make their actions seem more acceptable to audiences...It seems that they are trying to become less dependent on other local and international media...and make their actions seem more acceptable to audiences."  It is also stated that the Taliban are generally even faster than the Afghan government and allies in circulating information regarding incidents in the country.

All in all, the Taliban is seeking to gain influence in the community via their internet activity - problematic as BBC states 50% of the Afghan population will have access to the internet within the next three years.  If the Taliban dominates this medium by then... who knows what will be viewed as "misinformation" and who/what the people will chose to believe.

Where are the people of Afghanistan?

After looking through articles regarding Afghanistan, I really began to wonder: Where are the Afghanistan people? For this post, I looked at two articles I found that report about the recent bombings in Kandahar this past weekend. The first is story by CNN and the second is from the Wall Street Journal Asia.

CNN: Taliban Web site claims Afghan blasts were 'message' to U.S. general

The CNN story is something that I usually expect to see. The focus is on the Kandahar bombings and is mostly focused on the message left on a Taliban website that said the target of the bombings was the US general of Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The rest of the article goes on to talk about Gen. Stanley McChrystal who promised to “secure Kandahar.” He also notes that the military is already doing security operations in Kandahar that is part of a “larger counterinsurgency effort.” While the article does note the amount of civilians that were injured and killed during the bombings, it does not have any statements from the citizens, other than from officials. The video attached to the article is very brief, although the story was still developing. It shows a map of Kandahar and talks about what was hit and the way two of the bombings were believed to be carried out, but there were no images of the bombings destruction.

The Taliban denied killing any civilians in the Web site statement: March 15, 2010, library pressdisplay (if you would like to read it)

In the Wall Street Journal Asia, takes a different angle of the story. Instead of focusing on the reactions of the US, it focuses on the impact this has had on the people who witnessed the bombings. They explain that the Taliban’s main target was the prison in Kandahar, which holds many of the Taliban detainees. According to the article, the other bombings, including one to a police station, were merely diversions to keep security away from the prison compound. The article claims the attacks were part of a larger motive to “intimidate Kandahar’s population and paralyze the Afghan government’s activities.”

Despite the Taliban’s boastful claims of killing or injuring a large number of US and coalition soldiers, many of the victims were civilians. But the Taliban fervently denied killing any civilians, not wanting to lose any public support. They claim that the attacks took place during “curfew” hours, even though the article notes that no such curfew exists. One thing that struck me about this article was a statement made by Agha Shirin, a 22 yr old tailor. “There was a huge flame in the air, and then the electricity was gone in the whole area. Windows shattered and children started to cry.” This statement is so powerful and really gives you a firsthand look into the bombings.

In my opinion, I thought the WSJ-Asia article did a great job at giving a different point of view of the bombings. Usually when I read articles like these, most of the comments and concerns revolve around the military officials that are there to clean up and react to the mess. For this article it focused on the outrage and impact of the civilians that witnessed the attacks, which gave me more of a connection with the story.

Once I started looking for the point of view of the Afghan people, I came across an opinion article on the Kabul Press website: “What if the people of Afghanistan could choose?” This article talks about the January 2010 Referendum held by President Obama in order to decide on withdrawing troops. Of course the article acknowledges know the public’s full opinion is very difficult. The polls are so varied by region and ethnicity and the margin of error is fairly large for the country.

However, the article asserts that in order for the people to have a voice, the US President and Congress would have to first create a open forum in which the people of Afghanistan can speak about what they want. The article notes President Karzai opinion on the matter, who says, according to the article, that he expects the US military to continue its presence until 2024.

The article predicts how this open forum of the Afghan people’s voice would change the dynamics of the war. First, it says that if the people do decide to keep troops in Afghanistan, the US can expect greater cooperation from the public and would know that it is respecting the wants of the citizens. However, one the same note, if the public decides they want the troops out and the US abides by this they will also be respecting the wants of the people. According to the article, if this were to be the case it offers the US a few options. First, the US might want to provide training for police and military personnel. Second, it could provide support in order to rebuild the country’s economy, political and education systems. And finally, the article boldly asserts that the US could make payments to the militia, “in the same way that the US, perhaps in large part, bought its way out of an insurgency in Iraq.

I thought this article was interesting because it really tries to get people to stop thinking about the “official” word (i.e. US) on what should happen in Afghanistan, but rather what do the Afghan people actually want to happen. The article makes a good point, in order for a true democracy to happen in Afghanistan, the people’s voice must be heard and their opinions used in order to make decisions.

Article links:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Civilian Death Tolls

All wars have civilian casualties as we know. Civilians are always present in war zones often becoming victims of the conflict at hand. These global conflicts in recent decades have seemed to focus more on these unfortunate fatalities. They seem to occur as accidents, however it appears many of these losses could have been avoided. While looking at the War in Afghanistan, these civilian casualties have been seen as being a necessary loss in efforts towards an end to Taliban rule. In a recent article concerning this issue in Afghanistan I was drawn towards the way in which an Associated Press writer portrayed some of the latest civilian deaths. The thing that struck me about the article is that many of these poor civilians can do nothing when it comes somehow being involved in the conflict between the Taliban and American troops. Much of the conflict in their hometowns is out of their control. Residents are most noticeably under the control of Taliban forces. It is extremely dangerous to be seen with NATO forces and are threatened with death if they don’t follow Taliban orders. They are basically the puppets of Taliban forces, something I had never known or thought about. Due to this, many of them despite not wanting to help the Taliban are forced to do so putting themselves in a position to be more likely killed.

One of the obvious goals of the Americans initiative in Afghanistan is to help free Afghan citizens from Taliban rule. This would provide them a safer environment to live in as well as basic human rights. Aside to this, the war has resulted in an extremely dangerous setting. As the article states, three recent civilian deaths has “highlighted the toll on the population from an offensive aimed at making them safer.” The article goes on to state that “two errant U.S. missiles struck a house on the outskirts of the town of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, half of them children. Afghan officials said Monday three Taliban fighters were in the house at the time of the attack.” I find the diction of the writer to be interesting in his use of the word “errant.” This makes it seem as though the missiles were accidentally fired upon this house. Therefore, these civilian casualties are not a direct result of American forces. In addition, three Taliban fighters were still killed, which is good according to this statement. Again, civilian deaths are simply a result of achieving a better effort of ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban. This is something always apparent in recent global conflicts. It is disappointing to see the reporting on this incident hinder the truth most likely, however it is not surprising and is an effect of the American press system. The article does interestingly provide the fact that NATO officials stated there were only 15 civilian deaths in another incident, while an Afghan human rights group reported 19 deaths. The writer is able to give voice to a group that would otherwise never be heard.

As I stated, the thing that struck me was the unfortunate involvement Afghan civilians have in this conflict. One man in the article proclaims, “When they come, we try to tell them not to use our house, but they have guns so they do what they want.” The Taliban forces clearly do what they want within communities in Afghanistan. This puts these civilians in harms way of NATO forces. By using Afghan civilian homes to attack NATO forces this makes it harder for NATO forces to distinguish Taliban fighters from Afghan civilians. There is nothing these Afghan civilians can do about this unfortunately. They play an unlucky role in this conflict that often gets them killed. I never took this into consideration until reading this article. My question is then are the Taliban forces to blame for this or do NATO forces still need to be more careful and thorough in their operations? It appears that both are to blame. They both attribute to the ill-fated civilian casualties of war. Sadly, there will always be civilian casualties. It will be interesting to see how much longer this war will prolong causing more and more civilians deaths.

Monday, March 1, 2010

PTSD and Consequences for Soldiers

There are so many interesting news stories that can be covered in the Afghanistan Project. And a recent news story that really caught my eye was from the Al Jazeera website, an interview with psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen. Al Jazeera’s interview with Van Dahlen, the war within: PTSD in the military aired February 4, 2010 and claims that out of two million US soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, psychiatrists estimate that one may, at some point, develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I chose this story because when I watch the news, I usually find personal stories more meaningful than more expansive news stories. Statistics are important to me, but I feel more empathy when learning about individual soldiers. Likewise, I have a family member in Kuwait at this very moment and I can really sympathize with these personal stories about the war. The Al Jazeera piece explaining PTSD also supplied a link to Nicholas Horner’s story, Iraq Vet in Pennsylvania Murders Was Radically Changed by War and PTSD” published by the Salem News in April 2009.

According to Van Dahlen, post-traumatic stress disorder causes people to be ‘on the alert’ because they fear there’s danger, since they have previously experienced trauma by an event they couldn’t control that was very physically threatening, disruptive, or dangerous; their brain is on ‘hyper alert’ for fear that another event will occur that they can’t control. PTSD is significantly affecting soldiers since there really is no frontline in this war, there are no safe zones; it’s difficult to tell who is foe. In the interview, Van Dahlen also told Al Jazeera that PTSD affects the whole family, not just the soldier and that suicide rates are also on the rise among soldiers. She said that soldiers become more anxious, agitated, and that they don’t perceive the world as safe anymore. They feel frightened, threatened, and their judgment is impaired, which puts them at a higher risk for impulsive acts. After viewing this interview, I could perceive Van Dahlen and Al Jazeera’s real concern with PTSD. I sympathize with Al Jazeera for exposing this disorder that affects so many soldiers. Before reading this, I had no idea the extent to which it was affecting our soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan; I’ve heard all my life about soldiers with this condition from serving in the Civil War and Vietnam especially, but I wasn’t aware of how much its affecting our soldiers today.

Van Dahlen’s interview with Al Jazeera on PTSD brings me to my next issue,

Nicholas Horner, an Iraq war veteran charged with murdering two people. In April 2009, Nicholas Horner returned home from on medical leave from the army. While he was home, he shot three people in Pennsylvania as he had a ‘flashback’ and identified his victims as ‘threats’. Two of the three victims died and Horner faced criminal homicide charges. In a video report from WINK TV located in Pennsylvania, Horner’s family noted that Nicholas ‘changed’ after he was sent back from his third deployment and they thought he suffered from PTSD. Unfortunately, when browsing the Internet I wasn’t able to find much follow-up information about the outcomes of this situation, leading me to think that Horner’s case may still be in progress.

However, Al Jazeera’s interview and Nicholas Horner’s story imply that PTSD is prominent among soldiers and that it can have horrific effects such as suicide, homicide, or other impulsive behaviors. On a side note, PTSD has even been chronicled in a 2009 film, Brothers, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, and Tobey Maguire. Maguire plays the father of the family, Captain Sam Cahill; his experiences overseas caused him such emotional turmoil, that he had a difficult time readjusting to civilian life, and fear and paranoia began to manifest themselves in the form of jealousy for his brother's relationship with his wife.

Through a Lens: War Photography

Photo by Michael Kamber for the New York Times

I found this slideshow and commentary by war photographer Michael Kamber moving and interesting. How does war photography change our view of wars?

Click here for the link

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The war that can never be won (or lost).

In the midst of arguing whether or not to deploy troops, in the battle for determining wins and losses, lies a striking realization: we can't ever win this war in Afghanistan. Yet, nor can we lose it. In a brief interview with former UN representative Peter Galbraith, he talks about recently launched Operation Moshtarak (as explained by Brittany in the previous post).

Galbraith, like many others, questions the efficacy of NATO troops in Afghanistan. And what he says does hold weight and makes perfect sense. We are exerting enormous amounts of energy and utilizing trillion dollar bucketfuls of resources to keep up these "counterinsurgency" efforts in Afghanistan when we could be using this power force to address domestic issues. It's not an unheard of argument; in fact, it is one of the most common arguments against the "War on Terror" since the beginning of this war.

However, he mentioned something that I questioned: In his opinion, the Taliban can never retake Afghanistan again, especially because nearly 55% of people in the region do not support the Taliban and will not again in the future... unless "we do what we did in the nineties and completely walked away" (2:08). What is his basis for saying this? Granted, as of now, with NATO forces holding down fort in Kabul and other former Taliban strongholds, it is very unlikely that Taliban forces could take over. Yet, that is not to say that they could never ever again in the future come back to power, especially on the basis of the argument that more than half the population are opposed to the extremist party. Those with the will and resources can always usurp the place of others and insert themselves into positions of authority, even without the approval or acceptance of the population over which they rule. Power in many cases like these is not based in actual ruling capability or ruling rights, but is attributed to fear and violence.

What is interesting to note is the second portion of that quotation, citing back to what "we" (presumably the US government) did in the nineties, ie leave completely. Here, Galbraith brings up yet another oft-heard point-- that to completely pull out (of Afghanistan, Iraq, wherever) would bring detrimental consequences to both countries. Many have stated the the success of several radical parties post-war is contributed to the presence and sense of stability provided in the aftermath and chaos of violence. In this case, should the US leave after everything that has happened in the past eight years (and yes, it has been eight already!), then all our efforts would have been for naught and Afghanistan would relapse.

And thus comes the increasingly difficult question to answer: Now what do we do? We can neither stay nor leave, win nor lose. Will the Afghans be able to maintain a stable infrastructure? Will the Afghan government ever shed itself of its corrupted past? How will the different Afghan people from different regions and cultures ever develop a sense of nation? What is the best thing for outside forces to do in and for Afghanistan? Do the Afghans even have a say in this-- or are we planning everything for them in their name? How do we know what they want? How do we know what is best for a people we do not try to get to know or understand yet say that it is in their honor and for their protection we station ourselves in their country to fight their enemies, who are also our own?

Galbraith is right-- there is no winning or losing. Because how can someone win or lose something that is not a matter of winning or losing? Maybe Afghanistan is like a "Would you rather?" game, where the best of two bad choices must be made in the hopes that something good and long-lasting will come of it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Women at War: Life on the Front Line

When deciding on what I would write my blog about I first decided to obtain my sources from the BBC because throughout the semester I have been using coverage from the United Kingdom. I then started reading a lot about Operation Moshtarak, which is a joint effort between NATO and Afghan forces in the area of southern Afghanistan. Over 15,000 Afghan, Bristish, American, Danish, Estonian and Canadian troops are located here in an offensive effort against the Taliban. Their main focal point is on the town of Marjah, which has been the center for trading opium. After trying to somewhat grasp the background of this operation, which you can learn more about by clicking on the word Moshtarak, I decided to focus on an article that related to not only this, but also a previous discussion we had in class concerning women in battle.

The article highlighting Lieutenant Colonel Jennie Carignan, Women at War: Life on the Front Line, simply caught my eye because it is a reversed story about a woman fighting in Afghanistan while her husband raises their family in Quebec City, Canada. She is a Canadian woman who is stationed in this dangerous location of southern Afghanistan, leading a group of engineers and landmine specialists. The article discusses how Col Carignan feels that she is treated as if she is one of the guys, but that it took some time to get to that point. She has been in the Military for 23 years and has earned much respect through other battles she has been involved in. Although she is comfortable with her own, she was very surprised by how well the Afghan commanders have also accepted her. I too was very surprised by this approval and wondered if it is only because she is a Canadian woman, and how they react if one of their own country’s women obtains this type of military rank? Not knowing much about women’s rights in Afghanistan I may be questioning nothing, but I also have a hard time believing that all the British and North American male troops are overly accepting of this. Although men and women share many equal opportunities, I personally think the military must still be a soft spot in equality. Consequently I was very surprised at how this acceptance was really only a blip in the article. Furthermore, I believe the Taliban is notorious for their maltreatment of women, therefore I worry if she were to be captured how she would be dealt with and where her treatment would differ from that of the men.

The article continues to discuss her husband and how the family copes with her absence. Col Carignan’s husband who also worked with Canadian forces for 22 years is caring for their four children and becoming a schoolteacher. The piece explains how proud the family is of their mother, but goes on to say that the father always receives astonished faces when people learn of their situation. In addition, Carignan’s husband shares how he is worried about their children and what they are missing because their mother is gone, but on a positive note that he is raising very independent individuals. Personally I felt like in the discussion of her family the journalist made it more evident that it is different for a woman to be gone at war than a man. Why is it so different? Although a mother is a huge part in a child’s life, so is a father and for as long as there has been war an abundance of children have been raised without their father always being there. Is there actually a difference between the severity of being raised by only a mother or a father, or is it just that it is in many ways more socially acceptable to be raised by only a mom?

Overall I thought this article was very interesting and it made me really think about where my opinions lie with regards to women on the front line in the military and how far along different parts of the world are in accepting the idea. What do you think about women in the military? Do you think the concept will ever be as well received as the service of men?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Power of Visuals: Photos from Afghanistan's Hurt Locker

I found this article/photo essay in Mother Jones very compelling. We will talk about the use of images--photographs, graphics, video--in the telling of news and how it affects our view of the news.
Take a look here

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Women in an Islamic Workforce

Hearing about the suicide bombers in Afghanistan isn’t exactly something that’s new. Tragic, certainly, but not really new. Suicide bombers are a considerable problem that American news sources report all the time. Normally, these sources report on the American soldiers and Afghani civilian bystanders that are injured or killed by the attacks. It’s rare to read about preventive measures besides perhaps Americans becoming more suspicious and increasing security around their bases or something similar. It’s extremely rare to read or see anything about what local Afghani officials are doing to protect their people, who perhaps suffer greater casualties than the American soldiers.

But these efforts exist, Al Jazeera reports, in almost revolutionary ways.

I originally chose Al Jazeera as a news source due to its location in the Middle East as well as in light of Melanie’s blog post. I expected it to possibly be more sympathetic to the plight of the regular citizens compared to Western news outlets. However, the news story was actually sympathetic to both the rather unstable government in addition to the people suffering the most from these bombings.

What especially caught my interest was the fact that the government, largely Islamic both culturally and lawfully, is now seeking to (or being forced to, at least) break out of this tradition by Islamic extremists. This brings to mind the phrase, “Desperate times call for desperate measures”. As clichéd as it is, the phrase perhaps sums up the situation best. When men aren’t enough to do the job, both sides, the government and the Taliban, bring in women, whose traditional roles normally keep them in the home.

There was another thing that caught my attention, and that was the anecdote of the policewoman, Sabera’s, daughter getting beaten by other young boys because of her mother’s job. I found it surprising that the story didn’t go into more detail about why Sabera was willing to risk both her and her family’s life by working undercover in the police force. This was especially surprising since the news story gave positive incentives that men received that encouraged them to join, but none were mentioned for the women. There was no mention of pay or benefits for the women but only the risks they were forced to put up with.

I thought that there was another interesting and stark contrast between the women and men in the police force. The clips of the women were set in a very domestic setting, i.e. in a den-like room with a kettle and some filled cups on a table. The men, on the other hand, were shown “in action” carrying guns and standing behind barbed wire or frisking men who were passing through the checkpoints. Is this meant to be a sign that, even with the necessary change and need for female police officers, women, in the end, just aren’t meant to be active law enforcers? And, if they do, their loved ones will only be scorned and beaten because their mothers are attempting to create a safe community? Could the armed men also be a comparison to American soldiers, who are frequently seen in full battle gear when patrolling their areas? Compared to the American soldiers, these police men are almost woefully under equipped with guns that look like props in a historic war film.

The news story provided some insight to a side—what the Afghanistan government is doing—that Americans rarely hear about. However, although the government is taking a step towards expanding the diversity of their work force, it is also evident that there is still quite a considerable amount of work that needs to be done to create equality in the workplace. Especially for these high-risk jobs in frisking potential suicide bombers.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Running Out of Options, Afghans Pay for an Exit

Running Out of Options, Afghans Pay for an Exit

For my post this week, I wanted to delve into the experiences of Afghan people. More specifically, how do they reconcile their identity as an Afghan citizen with a desire to live without violence and instability? In my search, I found an interesting article about the increased rate of migration out of Afghanistan through illegal, often perilous means. Despite the influx of Afghan refugees returning home following the seemingly successful ousting of the Taliban early on, the insurgency along with corruption in the government have led to big business for smugglers offering escape to other countries. Afghans are paying upwards of $25,000 to be able to live a normal life outside of Afghanistan.

Given the fact that it’s very difficult to find work and impossible to find safe work, it makes sense that these people would want to get out of Afghanistan. However, prior to reading this piece, I had a very different image of what smuggling entailed. Above all, I was surprised by how common smugglers are. The author writes that, “Finding a smuggler is not as difficult as it might seem.” Despite knowing many of the problems with Karzai’s government, I was struck by the ease with which these smuggling rings operate as well. The writer continues citing how, “One smuggler chuckled when asked if he feared being arrested, saying his business operated much like a travel agency, and almost as openly.” I imagine many people cannot afford to leave the country, but for a lot young people, it’s a realistic option.

For me, this article illuminates the struggle faced by everyday Afghans more clearly. While many young people love their country, they feel conflicted because they want to live in peace. And because of this, they are extremely committed to finding a way to leave Afghanistan. One deportee is quoted as saying he will save his money and try to leave again as soon as possible. Another Afghan explains his commitment to escaping, saying that, “’It’s death or destination.’” These people are Afghans, but Afghanistan cannot provide the simple pleasures and freedoms they want. Living a normal life seems unachievable is such a setting.

In general, the piece highlights the important fact that war has deep, unforeseeable, far-reaching and lasting implications. As Americans, we hear news about Afghanistan, but we can never truly understand the innumerable ways in which individual human beings are affected. This is relevant to us, because as consumers of news coverage of the war, it’s important to understand that it’s more than just the number of people killed that day or even the experiences of our own soldiers. The Afghanistan war is a jumble of causes and effects, and it spreads across continents with the individuals it influences.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Day in the Life...

Obama's War

When I initially thought about the topic I wanted to focus on for my blog post, I realized that one of the things I had little knowledge of was the strategies that have been proposed in order to win the war in Afghanistan. In the book In The Graveyard of Empires we have been reading about what Afghanistan looks like-- a mountainous region, but I was interested to know what it looked like from inside the military; the inner-workings and reasoning behind occupying the country. Another reason I chose the topic of looking at soldiers in Afghanistan is that as I write this blog post, my brother-in-law is being shipped out to the Middle East to serve in the Air Force.

The Frontline Story, called Obama's War, gave me the opportunity to see into the occupation, including views of both soldiers and those they take direction from. However, the story focused both on giving context to the fighting taking place, as well as the counterinsurgency strategies the military employs to "win" in Afghanistan. Experts believe that clearing the Taliban from provinces has proved fruitless because as an area has been cleared of Taliban control in the past, the military leaves shortly thereafter and never actually holds the territory, allowing the Taliban take over again. In the book In the Graveyard of Empires, we also see that in the 70s, the US similarly pulled out of Afghanistan as soon as Russia pulled out, rather than helping set up an infrastructure to prevent "extremist" groups from taking over.

Throughout the story, loaded phrases were thrown around, mostly by those interviewed, which included military men and strategists. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, interviewed about the production of opium states that, "drug dealers, criminals, and extremists" survive off of the poppy production by paying and intimidating the farmers. Rather than allowing for the possibility of producing opium in order to survive, Mullen implies that all men growing must be under the influence of "extremists." However, the piece goes on to prove that it was actually Westerners who allowed for poppy production to grow rapidly because years ago, the same men who created the Hoover Dam created similar dams in the Helmand province, allowing for better control of flooding and, thus, rich and fertile grounds. Drug trade, however, is not the focus of military strategy, so for the time being, the opium is largely ignored.

What the military is instead attempting to do is forge relationships with the people in Afghanistan in order to make the population feel secure enough to participate in political discourse. Strategists state that unlike previous missions, the marines plan to stay in Afghanistan this time around to work with the people in order to separate them from the Taliban. The three main strategies include protecting the population, maximizing the effects of the civilian insurgency, and improving the government, fighting corruption, and building infrastructure. Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and prominent Middle Eastern studies scholar shown in this piece for his expertise, writes a blog called Abu Muqawama (Arabic for "father or expert of the Resistance) about counterinsurgency, which can be read here.

In listening to these strategies, it was hard for me to grasp the reality of success in Afghanistan. The report juxtaposes the possibility of relationships by showing soldiers "talking" with Afghan people, but getting frustrated because the people wouldn't help. One Afghan man promptly responded, somewhat aghast at the lack of understanding, "What can we do to help you? You have planes, tanks, and guns. We are simple people with nothing." Though it must be frustrating for the marines to speak to a group of people from a different culture, the soldiers were less friendly to them than one would expect. Although soldiers must be on their guard at all times in order to protect themselves, when walking up to a group of men outside a building one marine said, "Tell your people don't run and don't start stuffing stuff in your pockets- that looks suspicious." Though the troops are sent to Afghanistan to protect the people, at times it feels more like the troops are controlling them.

Even in the first 30 minutes of the segment, it is possible to grasp the type of guerilla fighting that takes place overseas; soldiers are never really sure where their enemies come from and thus are wary of any Afghan people. The report was a bit lengthy, given that it covered an hour-long time slot, but gave great insight into soldier's day-to-day experiences and the thoughts of officers that soldiers report to. On the side of the screen next to the segment are posted links to other articles and interviews relating to Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency efforts, like this one. This allows for even more context and background than the initial report gives.

I think it was important that the report included Afghanistan people talking about their fear of the Taliban, while also including interviews with important figures within the US military. For once, a report did not glorify the actions of the American soldiers, but rather gave a more objective view of how both Americans and Afghanistan people view them. I would encourage reporters to further explore the connection between soldiers and Afghanistan people as they continue to report on the war- an important aspect of the strategy for which soldiers hope to drive out the Taliban: by forming relationships with the people in order to work with them.