Archive for September, 2009

Restoring Afghanistan: A tour of Asheqan wa Arefan

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Restoring Afghanistan:
A tour of Asheqan wa Arefan.


Afghanistan is not quite ready for tourists. But when it is they will stand here, at the edge of Kabul’s Old City, preparing to explore the area of a couple of square miles known as Asheqan wa Arefan. Though from a distance Asheqan wa Arefan looks downtrodden, on closer inspection it contains many lovely 18th- and 19th- century wooden houses, sensitively renovated over the last seven years by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Home to about 22,000 mainly poor Afghans, the neighborhood in central Kabul, like much of the city, has ancient roots. It bears the name of two brothers whose grave dates from the ninth century. On the steep hillside above is an old Islamic period mausoleum and, higher still, the remnants of a Buddhist stupa.

“The municipality thinks it is a slum,” says Jolyon Leslie, the head of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). In the absence of tourism in the Old City, the AKTC, a nonprofit founded by a hereditary leader of one of the largest Shia Muslim sects, is working to preserve Afghanistan’s heritage for those who live among it. Afghan architects have done the design work, supervising Afghan artisans.

The AKTC is best known for its restoration of Baghe-Babur, or Babur’s Gardens, now once again a popular Kabuli park with as many as 60,000 visitors monthly in the summer. This high-profile project provided one million man days of labor and trained 100 skilled workers.

But the AKTC has been working quietly south of the Kabul River on projects that few besides the residents of the neighborhood see. After the artisans finish, the houses are simply returned to their owners, with the stipulation that they take care of them. This is more radical than it sounds, for Afghanistan is a low-trust society where no one gives—or expects—something for nothing.

The Picture Awaits: The birth of modern COIN theory

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

(this is a very long article, please see the link for complete text)

At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, counterinsurgency theory was about as popular in American military circles as tank warfare is today. An early study by the chief war planner for the 101st Airborne Division during its first deployment to Iraq reported “a collective cognitive dissonance on the part of the U.S. Army to recognize a war of rebellion, a people’s war, even when they were fighting it.” There was a reason for this. Eager to forget the most painful experience in its history, the army had all but banished counterinsurgency from the lexicon of American military affairs after Vietnam. As a result, the army relied on a flawed strategy in Iraq for a period that lasted, according to author Thomas Ricks, at least “twenty months or more.”

As U.S. Army Colonel Gian Gentile has summarized this line of argument, there was a “bad war” in Iraq fought by officers who ignored the theory and practice of counterinsurgency, followed by a “good war” fought by its champions. In Vietnam, however, even the “bad” war was fought by commanders deeply versed in the tactics, techniques, and procedures of counterinsurgency (COIN)—much more, in any case, than their counterparts were on September 11, 2001. The United States may have gone, in James Fallows’s memorable phrase, “Blind into Baghdad.” It did not march blindly into Vietnam. On the contrary, counterinsurgency theory enjoyed a special vogue in the 1960s: it was certainly more fashionable and better understood by an educated public than it is today. Especially among military officers, COIN was more roundly known during this era than at any time up until the release of Field Manual 3-24 in December 2006.

A May 1964 article in Harper’s magazine, “Books on Guerrilla Warfare—Fifteen Years Overdue,” mocks what it presumes to be a shallow and fleeting interest in COIN among the power elite. “Already we are suffering an over-production of doctrine,” Eric Larrabee laments, even though doctrine is “relatively useless without the fine-grain detail.” He places David Galula’s now canonical Counterinsurgency Warfare in the category of “High Policy,” and counterinsurgency experts Charles T. R. Bohannan and Napoleon D. Valeriano in the “For the Professional” group. Larrabee reserved the “Recommended” designation for the highly specialized 1956 volume Guerrilla Communism in Malaya, by Lucian Pye, a prolific Sinologist and advisor to President Kennedy. He mentions in passing Viet Minh General Võ Nguyên Giap’s People’s War, People’s Army, along with an anthology of Marine Corps Gazette articles, The Guerrilla and How to Fight Him.

There were very good reasons for this popular interest. The great success of Mao Zedong in China and the proliferation of Communist guerrilla warfare were deemed to be second only to the Soviet nuclear arsenal as threats to America’s national security. Counterinsurgency theory emerged in response to Mao’s doctrines of revolutionary warfare, and it was studied in the postwar period with an urgency that still has no corollary today. That the accumulation of all this knowledge generated so few results in Vietnam—certainly fewer than it has generated lately—is one of the great puzzles of American military history.

A Humane Afghan City?

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

The 21st-Century City
A Humane Afghan City?

Ann Marlowe, 09.02.09, 6:00 PM ET

For the cities of Afghanistan, the 21st century may be the road to dystopia. Like many million-plus cities of the Islamic world, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, and to a lesser extent, Herat, have already joined the worst of East and West, traditional and modern. They have the stifling, impractical concrete and glass buildings that read as “modern” in the developing world, but none of the elements of contemporary civil society. Meanwhile, charming old houses and historic monuments are bulldozed or ignored, while ancient superstitions and ignorance persist.

There’s a popular notion that most Afghans live in tiny villages, but the population may be as much as 50% urban now, due to the push-pull of years of drought and superior urban job opportunities created by rapid economic growth. Farming is still the livelihood of most Afghans, but other activities are now contributing more to GDP. According to Ministry of Finance adviser Dallas Newby, the share of agriculture in the overall economy is just 30%, while industry provides 28% and services 39%.

The cities swollen by these changes seem to have been designed as an illustration of the tragedy of the commons. Some families live in comfort, even luxury, behind high walls, but the streets are filled with trash, unlit at night and often unpaved outside the main business district. An influx of uneducated villagers living in shantytowns or illegal construction strains the electrical grid and water supply, raises the price of housing and introduces a de-civilizing element. Even cities as advanced as Istanbul are experiencing a similar re-population, and this will likely continue over the next 20 years.

Today, Afghan cities have almost no public amenities. Sidewalks are broken and potholed. The scant parks are mainly derelict and given over to single men. Children’s playgrounds are a rarity, and liable to have been built by foreign donors. Women do not attend movie theaters, and besides an occasional appearance of a music star in Kabul, public musical performances are almost unheard of. The few museums serve foreigners and schoolchildren’s annual visits.

Even the bazaar is more a place to hurry through rather than to savor. Afghans do not use shopping as a social occasion, and customer-merchant interactions rarely have even the superficial civility of those in Western Europe. The ritual greetings are for the foreigners at the antique and carpet shops; in a clothing store, there’s no pretense of any relationship between customer and shopkeeper. Food shopping is done exclusively by men, and women’s visits to the clothing bazaars have a furtive tinge.

Gender apartheid means families must dine behind curtains in the most stifling sections of restaurants, so restaurants are unattractive, dirty and mainly filled with tables of men. Alcohol is of course forbidden, so restaurants aren’t a place to enjoy and linger, but grim canteens acknowledging the necessity of sometimes filling one’s stomach away from home.