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 clich├ęd 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.

Monday, February 1, 2010

International talks begin, but where are the news reports?

Talks Begin On Way Forward In Afghanistan

For this week’s posting, I tried to find a recent article from a U.S media source that framed the fight in Afghanistan in its broadest international and historical sense. This was for two reasons: in order to contrast with last week’s entry, which focused on a single U.S. military officer’s experience, and to determine the extent to which a U.S. media outlet is able to describe the deeper historical aspects which we read about in In The Graveyard of Empires.

In searching for an article about the war in Afghanistan, one that fit with the above description or not, I was struck by how little recent information was available on the subject. Searching through various media archives, I saw a pattern emerging: since the weeks leading up to and directly after President Obama’s December 1st announcement that the U.S. would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, the number of stories has dropped significantly, a pattern which I saw reflected in other U.S. news sources as well. Rather, other domestic and international stories seem to have commanded the most attention: the ongoing crisis in Haiti, the recent State of the Union address, and the national deficit. While this is a mere observation and is not backed by any empirical data, it was still surprising that the war in Afghanistan received so little attention in the media. It seemed to me that in the free market of ideas, Afghanistan was losing ground to other more prominent issues.

The NPR report that I chose to examine centers on the international conference on Afghanistan, which was held in London last Thursday between the foreign ministers of NATO countries along with leaders of Japan, China and India. Framed as a conversation between Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep and correspondent Renee Montagne, the report does a fair job discussing the key issues to be addressed at the conference as well as likely roadblocks.

At the start of the dialogue, Montagne notes that the last time a meeting of such size and scope was held was more than eight years ago in December of 2001, after the Taliban had been driven out of Afghanistan. She also mentions that at this last meeting, leaders in attendance were responsible for “more or less anointing” Hamid Karzai as president, and for “divvying up the various jobs of rebuilding Afghanistan’s broken institutions” between various foreign partners – choices which have unquestionably contributed to the situation which Afghanistan finds itself today. Despite the brevity of the interview (slightly more than four minutes), I was pleased that Montagne attempted to place the conference within a relevant yet concise historical context.

Another key issue raised by the report is President Karzai’s strategy of “reaching out” to “lower level [Taliban] fighters and commanders,” a strategy which has attracted support from U.S. and NATO leaders as well. In Montagne’s description, we see an apparent avoidance of more context-laden terms such as terrorist and insurgent. When such words are used within the report, they are identified as terminology used by other individuals and institutions: “[McChrystal’s] own counter-insurgency strategy” and the qualification of the word “unreconcilable.” Montagne’s avoidance of more politically charged language creates in the piece a more restrained and “objective” tone (though the absolute lack of subjectivity is highly questionable).

Overall, the report did a fair job presenting the information in a relevant and concise manner, which has to some extent become the hallmark of NPR reporting. Also of importance is the fact that the report was created for radio broadcast, which imposes natural constraints on the length and the level of detail of any given story. In summary, I credit the report with high marks for its historical context and its inclusion of perspectives from leaders outside the U.S., as well as its avoidance of politically charged terminology. However, it was a very short report that was unable to go into any significant depth, and I would encourage NPR and other media outlets to increase the amount of stories devoted to Afghanistan, despite the prominence of other domestic and international concerns.