Archive for February, 2011

Anti-social Networking: can sexual thugs be democrats?

Monday, February 28th, 2011

New media leave brutish, sexist values untouched in Mideast

The power of social media like Facebook and Twitter has been part of the giddy, feel-good narrative of the Arab uprisings. And we Americans have a tendency to think that as our technologies and pastimes spread, so will our values. But it’s equally true that technologies are fitted into existing social forms, benign or otherwise.

When news broke of television reporter Lara Logan’s abuse at the hands of an Egyptian mob, I felt instant regret: When writing a story a few days earlier, I’d edited out references to beastly conduct by some Egyptian men.

During a long-ago visit to Egypt, men would shout to me in the street asking whether I wanted to have sexual intercourse. (They used a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word.) They asked even while I was bicycling with my boyfriend.

During the recent uprising, though, this sort of thing seemed at first to be ancient history. Women participated in the Tahrir Square demonstrations and the groping that they often meet with on the streets of Cairo was absent in the square.

And so I wrote of my visit to Egypt not that I had been constantly harassed, but that “what struck me was the lack of civility in the public street.”

Then the story of the Feb. 11 attack on Logan broke. The boorishness I experienced in 1978 was not outdated at all. And that is bad news for Egypt.

Democracy doesn’t develop just anywhere. It’s nourished by certain kinds of civil society. It’s hard to imagine a strong democracy in a country where, say, 50 percent of the citizens routinely abuse the others. And Egypt seems to be this sort of place. An oft-cited 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found not just that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in Cairo had been harassed, but that 62 percent of men admitted to perpetrating this abuse.

It’s not just a few bad apples, but 62 percent of Egyptian men. Sexual harassment isn’t even a crime in Egypt. The Egyptian Parliament was supposed to consider criminalizing it, but then the revolution came.

The Logan incident has a few more bitter lessons for those of us who support democracy in the Middle East.

If 62 percent of Egyptian men are sexual thugs, it’s likely that some of those Facebook- and Twitter-using, democracy-supporting Egyptian men we’ve been seeing on TV are sexual thugs, too. Nor should this be all that surprising. In the U.S., teenagers have driven other teenagers to suicide by online teasing, and the persecutors in such cases probably believe in democracy and the Bill of Rights.

Technologies like movies, television and mobile phones have increased the general knowledge base in developing countries, and allowed poor people more economic options. Anglo-American pop music has had real cultural effects in the rest of the world. But social media let any given society be itself more efficiently — not something better. Social media may “empower” ordinary people in repressive societies, to the extent of making it easier for them to gather together and protest. But social media leave basic power relationships and habits intact. They are egalitarian in the sense that any literate person with access to a computer can use them — but they don’t make societies more egalitarian. (Nor do they determine who becomes literate or has access to a computer.) You can just as easily tweet a call for genocide as a report of police brutality.

Technology doesn’t change a traditional society. As I’ve seen in Afghanistan, where I spend a few months a year, you can be a mobile-phone-mad university graduate with a Facebook page, and still unquestioningly accept that your parents will choose your spouse.

Kabul has movie theaters that show foreign films, but only men go to theaters in Afghanistan. You can buy a frozen chicken from China in Mazar-i-Sharif (in fact, it’s cheaper than a fresh, locally raised chicken), but the chicken buyers are men, because women don’t shop for food in Afghanistan. And while Egyptian men are part of the online community of Facebook, women in the streets of Egypt are not treated the same way as they are in the West.

I wish the democrats of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other Arab nations every success. But some of the men in those protests need to get out of their own way — and that of their women. The democracy they say they want involves a level of respect for women that isn’t in evidence. And as Americans watch the inspiring events unfolding in the Arab world, we need to remember that having a Facebook page doesn’t make a man modern, or ready for civil society.

A fatal supermarket bombing is symbolic of the war in Afghanistan

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

from The Daily, the tablet-based original news publication.

What’s in store

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Yet another all-too-ordinary Afghan tragedy: On Jan. 28, the Finest supermarket on 15th Street in Wazir Akbar Khan, a suburb of Kabul, was destroyed by a Taliban assault culminating in a suicide bombing. The target, the Taliban claimed, was the Afghan head of military contractor Blackwater (now known as Xe Services). But the 14 victims included a well-known Afghan human rights activist, Hamidi Barmaki, her husband, Dr. Massoud Yama, and their four children. Several employees of the market also died, but Western news reports haven’t given their names.

I shopped at the Finest about every other day during my last stay in Kabul. I didn’t know the murdered family, but I remember the Afghans who ran the market as unfailingly helpful and polite. In a country where customer service is a new concept, they were ahead of the curve. They would even send a young boy to help me carry my purchases four muddy blocks to my home. The Finest boasted not only an incredible selection of packaged foods, local handicrafts, toys, imported toiletries, and housewares, but ATMs from two different local banks. There are at least 10 other similar supermarkets in Kabul now, but of those I’d visited, the Finest had the most helpful staff.

What’s especially hateful about this attack is that the Taliban are taking aim at the fragile beginnings of a civil society and middle class in Afghanistan.

The Finest was frequented not only by foreigners but by upscale Afghans like the unfortunate Barmaki-Yama family. While some items, like pet food, were bought mainly by foreigners or hyphenated Afghans, the Finest also carried large samovars and other kitchen goods used mainly by Afghans. The toys on the second floor were also aimed at Afghans, as foreigners almost never bring their children to Afghanistan, lest they suffer the fate of the Yama kids. In November, I bought a model helicopter there for the son of Afghan friends in a second-tier city, Mazar-i-Sharif, where they don’t have such toys.

Stores like the Finest are not just providers of goods. In a place like Afghanistan, which has next to no public sphere, they provide one. Both men and women go to the elite supermarkets. Women do not buy food in traditional outdoor bazaars in Afghanistan; men do that shopping. But women can come to indoor places like the Finest, which are considered safer. As I’ve seen in another context — a popular park in a gated community in Mazar — Afghans often feel more relaxed in confined spaces that are accessible to the public than they do in more open public areas.

Even the fact that the Finest stocked a variety of shampoos is a small gesture toward civilization. After all, people who are comparison-shopping for shampoo are people who are not thinking about blowing themselves up tomorrow. The Finest turns out to have its own website, which speaks the language of retail worldwide, in often touching phrases (“afghan and expects customers”).

Private, Afghan-run businesses like the Finest are doing as much as or more than anything Western nations do in Afghanistan to pull the country out of benighted poverty and into the modern world. You might think they would have the vigorous support of the Afghan government. But you’d be wrong.

President Hamid Karzai did not offer his condolences on the occasion of the bombing, as he often does when Taliban are killed by coalition forces in a so-called wedding party. No, he was busy proposing that the war criminal and Osama bin Laden cohort Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf be the new speaker of Parliament, and condemning foreign Provincial Reconstruction Teams as “serious obstacles to the process of building government” — a description far more appropriate for Karzai himself.

And so it goes in our war, in which ordinary Afghans are often doing their damnedest to build up Afghanistan, and the president the United States subsidizes by the billions is trying to tear it down. The world was watching the thrilling events in Egypt while the Barmaki-Yama family was dying. I wonder when the Afghans too will decide they’ve had enough of their American-enabled autocrat, and stand up together as citizens to take back their country.

Supply-Side Foreign Policy What would Charles Wolf Jr. do in Afghanistan?

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

1:15 PM, Feb 7, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE

Here’s an idea: Let’s try reducing the supply of insurgency in Afghanistan rather than reducing the demand for it. This notion—potentially as important an insight as the Laffer curve—comes from a 41-year-old book by a retired RAND Corporation scholar now entering his ninth decade, Charles Wolf Jr.

Supply-side economics focuses on increasing the supply of goods and services, famously by lowering tax rates, rather than the often-impossible task of moving the demand curve. But looking at supply rather than demand management may be worth applying in our counterinsurgency in Afghanistan as well. The current policy debate is stuck among a few old ideas—negotiating with the Taliban, more “counterinsurgency,” more drone strikes—so a fresh approach is worth considering.

The supply-side approach to COIN, as in economics, dates to the 1970s. A distinguished economist and public policy theorist, Wolf articulated it in a slim 1970 volume, Rebellion and Authority: An Analytic Essay on Insurgent Conflict, co-authored with Nathan Leites, sponsored by RAND and published by Markham. (Wolf is still serving on hedge fund boards and playing tennis in Santa Monica; Leites, a Soviet expert, died in 1987.) The authors are opposed to the so-called hearts-and-minds school of counterinsurgency, which looks at the demand for insurgency in the population: “Attitudes, in the sense of preferences, affect behavior but are not identical with it; nor, in most cases are they the primary influence on it.” And supply for rebellion is probably more elastic than demand. Instead, they argue that counterinsurgents ought to focus on reducing the supply of insurgency: Cut the inputs that allow rebels to act, rather than focusing on the much harder task of changing the preferences of the population.

Wolf/Leites point out that rebellions can spread even if the rebel cause is unpopular. This seems to be what is happening in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have never scored above 10 percent approval in polling but are gaining ground in many areas of the country. The population—which the authors take to be rational economic actors—makes a calculation of the costs and benefits of supporting one side or another, and decides accordingly. Wolf/Leites emphasize something I have seen in Afghanistan: that the population will often make its decision on an extremely short-term basis, essentially sacrificing a good long-term future in favor of short-term threat relief. Making a government lovable—a hard task in Afghanistan, among other places—will not necessarily affect that calculus. But reducing the supply of insurgents may do so because the less effective the insurgents are at enforcing their threats, the less the population will obey them.

Some of Wolf/Leites’s ideas for reducing the supply of rebellion are raising the costs of necessary inputs like food and weapons, degrading the efficiency of the insurgents’ production process, destroying the insurgency’s outputs, and increasing the population’s capacity to absorb the insurgents’ onslaughts. So what would a Wolfian approach mean for our Afghan strategy?

· It would have elements of Joe Biden’s counter-terrorism plan, reducing the supply of insurgents by killing them. Since insurgents generally don’t control territory, the way to hit them is by destroying their organization. This is something General Petraeus is already doing.

· It would get very, very tough with Pakistan, which has done little to reduce the supply of terrorists emanating from its lawless border areas or using them for rest and re-supply. Our $2 billion a year in aid to Pakistan has to offer more leverage than this: “Successful counter-rebellion has always required either the absence of significant external support (for example, the Philippines and Malaya) or the shutting off of such support (Greece and Algeria).”

· It would shut off the American aid spigot and spend money on population control instead. Rather than spending money on public works projects to bribe the Afghans to support their government and our forces—an approach which seems to stop working the moment the money stops flowing—a new method would focus on making it much more difficult for the insurgents to resupply, to purchase food and fuel, to communicate with each other, and to communicate with the population.

Yes, it’s hard for big-hearted Americans to see poverty in Afghanistan. But poverty doesn’t cause rebellion, and Wolf/Leites argue that increasing the disposable income of the population may just enable them to buy protection from the insurgents. (Some American aid in Vietnam “almost certainly helped the Viet Cong.”) There will be plenty of time to improve the living situation of the Afghans once they are living in peace.