Archive for September, 2010

Ignoring Afghan Rot

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

News broke this week that federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District are investigating Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s older brother Mahmoud on charges that may ultimately include tax evasion, racketeering or extortion. But the recent history of US anti-corruption efforts for Afghanistan raises fears that this probe, too, will be quashed.

The word is that the Obama administration has decided to let Karzai “deal” with higher-level corruption while we focus on the local level. As anyone who has followed Karzai’s actions knows, this is a bad joke.

In July, two US-advised task forces in Afghanistan, the Major Crimes Task Force and the Special Investigative Unit, arrested a senior Karzai adviser, Mohammad Zia Salehi. Salehi was allegedly using bribery to obstruct a probe of the New Ansari Exchange for laundering opium profits and aiding the Taliban.

This was not minor stuff: New Ansari has moved $3.1 billion in cash out of Afghanistan since 2007. But Karzai yelped about violations of sovereignty, and the United States turned a blind eye when Salehi was released.

Then, early this month, Afghanistan’s largest bank, Kabul Bank, part-owned by Mahmoud Karzai, nearly collapsed amid allegations of insider loans gone bad. America pressed for a probe of the bank, which our government uses to pay the Afghan army, police and schoolteachers — but there has been no word recently on what’s happening.

There’s also Task Force 2010, a military effort launched in June under the leadership of Rear Adm. Kathleen Dussault. This was to oversee Pentagon contracting to ensure it wasn’t benefiting Afghan thugs or subverting our war strategy. It was focused on southern Afghanistan and the delicate role of another Karzai brother, Ahmad Wali, who is suspected of links to the opium trade and the insurgency. But Dessault, a logistics expert who holds two-star rank, was just replaced by an Army brigadier with no contracting experience after only four months on the job.

In yet another failure of American nerve, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee decided this summer not to release a potentially explosive report on Afghan corruption.

“The US stand on corruption within the Afghan government lacks consistency and continuity,” says 2009 presidential runnerup Dr. Abdullah. (Like many Afghans, he has just one name.) “In Afghanistan, concerns about deep-rooted corruption are beyond the issues of good governance and rule of law, it also fuels insurgency and jeopardizes the efforts against terrorism.”

That is, tolerance of corruption among Afghanistan’s rulers is the quickest way to further destabilize Afghanistan.

In a land that has no system of political parties and precious little civil society, stolen money translates directly into political clout. Many Afghans fear that President Karzai has used the vast financial resources we have put under his control to buy this month’s parliamentary elections, just as he bought last year’s presidential vote.

Afghans are largely uneducated, but not stupid. A June poll of Kandahar citizens found 70 percent believe that local officials make money from drug trafficking, and an astonishing 64 percent state that government administrators in their area were connected to the Taliban insurgency.

Yet even in the alleged Taliban heartland, Afghans value democracy: 40 percent stated that democracy was important to them, and 72 percent would prefer their children to grow up under an elected government rather than the Taliban.

As if to quash such hopes, US commanders in Kandahar brought the entire militia of Afghan warlord Gul Aga Sherzai into the Kandahar police in July. Indeed, we’ve empowered a variety of Afghan thugs — such as Border Police boss Abdul Razik, widely rumored to be a player in the heroin trade — on the thin rationale that they provide useful intelligence.

Gen. David Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency (COIN) Field Manual says with simple good sense: “The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.”

Or as Col. Brian Mennes of the 82nd Airborne says of his Afghan deployment, “What I found is that the most we could hope to do was to impress the Afghans that we were good people. That we would live out our values in front of them . . . and leave them with the impression that the flag on our uniform was a symbol of hope, like it has been for so many throughout history.”

We need to show Afghans that everyone is subject to — and no one above — the law. Otherwise, as Afghan diplomat Ahmad Wali Masoud says, “The culture of corruption Mr. Karzai has encouraged will continue probably for decades.”

The existing anti-corruption teams must be urged forward with the same vigor they would use in the United States. The mess at Kabul Bank — and allegations of equally lax procedures at other privately held Afghan banks — must be scrutinized just as they would be here.

After all, American taxpayers are footing the bill for the Karzai family’s shenanigans. The next time President Karzai whines about sovereignty, President Obama should remind him in no uncertain terms at whose grace he became and remains president. If he doesn’t like his situation, he’s more than free to leave.

Serena Confidential: Intrigue at Kabul’s Only 5-star

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

“It’s like high school,” I said to Matt, “with people gossiping about who’s walking with whom or sitting in the lunchroom together.” We were in the coffee shop of Kabul’s only five-star hotel, the Serena.

Matt lives there while on assignment in Kabul; I was on my longest stay to date, eight days of luxury in the midst of Afghan squalor.

We’d been debriefing one another, gossiping about our fellow guests–-Ambassador Zal, it seemed, had just checked in to a room down the hall from Matt’s, while our mutual friend Tawfiq was checking out, heading to Dubai, it later emerged.

I’d seen Tawfiq, a businessman with connections high in the Karzai government, the night before at a party by the British Embassy’s pool, and he hadn’t breathed a word about his departure—but then, I hadn’t even told him I was coming to Kabul. When we ran into each other in the Serena coffee shop, he barely contained his surprise.

Something about Kabul makes everyone act like spies, though not, alas, in the high-Bondian style. Because the Serena is dry (think Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or, indeed, high school), its coffee shop occupies the social niche that bars usually hold. And so the Serena doesn’t have the fun quotient of, say, the Al Hamra pool scene I remember from Baghdad in May and June 2003, or the legendary rooftop bar of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel in the 1960s.

Tawfiq seems to live in the Serena coffee shop, telling everyone about an extremely complicated business deal gone wrong. The other habitués run the gamut: dazed-looking Japanese aid bureaucrats, plump Afghan businessmen, small clusters of what my friend Lisa calls “teshukor ladies.” “Teshukor” is the Dari for “thank you,” and it’s the only Dari this species seems to know. They are women of a certain age who do good works, like training Afghan women to sell useless small handicrafts. They veil themselves profusely so as not to be culturally insensitive, and I don’t have the heart to tell them that when you’re sexually hors de combat, no one cares whether you cover your head or not.

Because there’s just one place like it, everyone ends up at the Serena sooner or later, both wealthy Afghans and foreign workers (called “internationals” rather than the quaint-sounding “expats”). Recently, another friend had called to tell me he’d just seen a powerful Afghan political figure materialize in the large, open Serena lobby in the company of an American from Spectre Group. (No, you couldn’t make that up. There is something very literal about Afghanistan. It took me years to realize that the reason some Afghan businessmen of my acquaintance wore black shirts with white ties wasn’t that they were from “another culture”; they dressed like gangsters because … they were gangsters.)

The Serena lobby boasts none of the nooks and crannies of grand old Western hotels—the coffee shop comes closest—so sightings tend to be immediate and journalists quickly start texting and emailing. The hotel is probably wired–-the only question is by whom, and what tolerance they have for tedium. I can picture the bored monitors listening with headphones in some basement: “If I have to hear Tawfiq complaining about his business partners again…”

This was just the second time I’d stayed at the Serena in eight years of visiting Afghanistan regularly. It didn’t exist in my first trips in 2002-2003, the rough times when I’d lose ten pounds on a month-long stay, and then when it opened, in 2005, it seemed decadent to stay there. The cost of one night, about $200 at the “journalist’s rate,” was a decent Afghan salary. Most of us visitors rented rooms at the homes of other internationals, which also provided access to English-medium social life. I sometimes went to the Serena to swim laps in its pool, Kabul’s best, but I resented the $31 charge.

In 2005–2006, when I spent a fair amount of time in Kabul, any stay in town was a guilty pleasure, and even the most modest guesthouse or international’s home was a five-star fleshpot in comparison to the life I led while visiting Afghan friends in the provinces. Hot showers, flush toilets, wireless Internet, espresso, and the chance to exercise were all thrills. (What ultimately drove me crazy about real Afghan life was the enormous amount of time spent sitting.) Kabul social life, by contrast, was great fun, with mad, adventurous sorts and a lopsided male-female ratio to gladden the heart of a woman past her prime.

By the summer of 2007, as it became clear that Afghanistan wasn’t going to grow its way out of poverty and instability until the insurgency ended, I started going on embeds with the American Army. This offered the comforts I was culturally primed to value—the gyms and coffee shops and real bathrooms, and food that didn’t make you sick. Having spent my share of time projectile vomiting or urinating blood in remote locations, digestive calm counted as a huge advantage. I would spend brief stints in Kabul to interview generals and government officials, but my life was once again in the provinces. I had the sense—or perhaps I just wanted to believe—that Kabul social life wasn’t as amusing as it used to be, with free spirits replaced by mercenaries, and then by bureaucrats.

This April, I stayed at the Serena for the first time, between visits to Afghan friends in Khost and Kabul and an embed in Zabul Province. It was mainly the pool that drew me: By April, it routinely climbs to 90 degrees at midday. Every day, I swam a mile or more. Every day, I chose my breakfast from the elaborate buffet, which even includes sushi for Japanese guests. (All the meals at the Serena are buffet style, and its nearest competitor, the Intercontinental, has an equally lavish but cheaper variation. Afghans know that they can’t be poisoned by their enemies at a buffet.) Sometimes I’d fire off an email to a colleague, “E.M. having breakfast with L.T and unknown African American—who?”

But every time I walked through the Serena locker room to the outdoor pool, I thought for a moment about an acquaintance, Thor Hesla, who was murdered there on January 14, 2008, in the course of a Taliban suicide assault on the hotel.

I’d met Thor at what still passes for Kabul’s raciest bar, the bunker under the Gandamack Lodge, just a month or so before. It was a memorable night, not least because it was the only time I’d kicked someone to the ground outside a martial arts dojo. A fellow American had picked a fight with me about opium cultivation statistics. (Where else but Kabul?) When he called me a “f***ing bitch,” I couldn’t help myself: thwack! An hour later, I met Thor and a much nicer group of Americans. He was funny and smart, and after an hour’s chat I hoped to add him to the list of my Kabul friends. But that was not to be.

Reminders of danger lurk elsewhere in the Serena. The outside-facing rooms are undesirable, not just for the street noise, but because the Serena has been a favorite target for rioters and, at no higher than three stories, the rooms rest easily in the crosshairs of high-powered rifles. Tawfiq liked to talk about a frenemy who boasted that he had the largest room in the hotel. “But when he invited me up there, I saw that he also had the worst room in the hotel—it was right by the street!”

On this pre-election trip, I got to re-immerse myself in Kabul’s international life. I attended a formal birthday dinner at the French restaurant Le Bistro, where the other women’s floor length dresses made me abashed for my clothes, more suited to trailing soldiers around Zabul. Then there was a traditional Afghan garden party at the home of a very gracious Afghan-American businesswoman, and a drink at the Gandamack with an old friend. We agreed that the crowd was more female, younger, and less eccentric. The glory days of Kabul’s social life might be gone.

The pleasure on this last trip came in rushing about trying to stay ahead of events, which moved at a frenetic pace before the end of Ramazan paralyzed the country during a four-day holiday. (“What do you do for Eid,” I asked Afghan friends when I first learned about Ramazan. “We visit our families”. “But you do that every day,” I replied.)

Grab your BlackBerry and your two phones (one for each of the major mobile carriers, for those occasional network outages) and head out to the central bank, or a political gathering, or to ISAF (the Kafka-esque warren where the war is run, guarded by barely-English speaking soldiers from countries one wasn’t entirely certain existed—thank you, gallant little Macedonia). Or NTM-A (the blander, more rational command center for the disastrous mission of training the quite irrational Afghan Army and police), or one of those eerily quiet Afghan government ministries.

Many of my colleagues on the right side of the spectrum still spin every obvious disaster in Afghanistan as an opportunity, but it’s been clear to me for about a year that all the trend lines point Down, and that very little can be done to reverse that without changing the Afghan government. I sometimes wonder how much longer the Serena will be open. And, more to the point, under the regime that sooner or later topples Karzai’s, will they still let women use the pool?

Rescuing Afghanistan’s Buddhist History

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Even as once-secure parts of Afghanistan succumb to criminality and the insurgency, and the Afghan financial system hovers on the brink of failure, there are small signs of hope here. A spectacular Buddhist archaeological site is now being excavated by the Afghan government’s National Institute of Archaeology, near where Al Qaeda ran a training camp in the 1990s.

Work on Mes Aynak (“Little copper well”) has proceeded at a rapid pace since it began in May, because the archaeologists—16 Afghans and two Frenchmen from DAFA (Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan)—are racing against time. Within three years, the site is slated to be destroyed by Afghanistan’s largest single foreign investment, a Chinese-run copper mine not 900 yards away. The plan is to document the site thoroughly and attempt to remove as many of the smaller stupas and statues as possible for conservation in the National Museum or possibly a future local museum. Because the buildings are mudbrick and schist, a wholesale relocation isn’t possible.

Visiting the main 262-by-131-foot Buddhist temple, which once boasted a stupa 32 to 50 feet high, it was hard not to gasp. The head of DAFA, Philippe Marquis, pulled back plastic protective sheets to reveal statue after statue of Buddhas and donors. In many niches, large hands and feet peeked out, the rest of the bodies still obscured under mudbrick. Some statues were intact except for their heads, removed by looters. There are wall paintings in still-vibrant reds and black, and even the stump of a wooden pillar.

Mes Aynak is impressively large. Scattered in the hills around the ruined temple are dozens of areas where the archaeologists will do test digs. “Every mound is an archaeological site,” says Mr. Marquis. There was a civic and commercial area—I saw two places where Afghan workers were confidently clearing the dirt away from finely worked terra-cotta storage jars—and ancient mining remains. “The question is whether the mining drew the monastery, because of its wealth, or whether the monastery worked the mine,” Mr. Marquis explained. Areas where the ground is blackened are sites of ancient copper smelting and will be investigated thoroughly. (The mine was abandoned some time in the early Islamic period when deforestation made it impossible to continue smelting.)

At just over one square mile, Mes Aynak is one of the country’s largest Buddhist sites, equal in importance to the famous ruins in Bamiyan and the looted site of Hadda. Mr. Marquis says that it’s likely Mes Aynak was begun in the first century, but most of the ruins he showed me date from the fourth and fifth centuries. During that period, and for the next century or two, he says, it’s possible that Afghanistan was ruled by a theocratic Buddhist kingdom, “like Tibet.”

Must the site be destroyed? Mr. Marquis says the site survey now taking place is aimed at providing the Afghan government with the means to make an informed decision about Mes Aynak’s fate. “Our job is to help Afghans set up this operation. Our budget of $10 million will be spread over three years. The Chinese have an obligation for excavating, but not for restoration of the clay statues. We are asking the U.S., Italy, China and the U.N. for money—we are trying to create an international coalition like the one fighting in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Marquis is convinced of the significance of the site for our knowledge of the Buddhist world and argues that Mes Aynak, if properly excavated and preserved, could offer “a reward a hundred times bigger than the copper mine. The copper mine is for 20 or 30 years. But this will be around for much, much longer.”

The mine is supposed to bring about $880 million to the government before production, but the payments depend on contractual benchmarks that have not been met. The Afghan government didn’t accept the Chinese plans for waste storage—which is a good thing—but this will delay the series of payments. The $880 million is equal to the annual customs and tax revenue of Afghanistan, but given the realities of corruption, it is questionable what impact it will actually have on Afghans’ lives. By contrast, the ruins, Mr. Marquis says, “are for everybody. This is for the future of Afghanistan.”

The unequivocal good news is that the work is proceeding under the efficient Afghan supervision of Nadir Rasouli, with Afghans doing all of the excavation. Mr. Marquis is doing the documentation only. The Afghans I met, who are working under Mir Zakir, deputy director of the National Institute of Archaeology, were enthusiastic about their labor and eager to show me their finds. “They are very proud of their work,” Mr. Marquis says. “They are not working only for money. ”