America Foreign Policy – Ending the Violence in Syria

Insurgents Syria

As Syria’s internal conflict enters its 20th month, the international community has become increasingly horrified at the levels of violence suffered by the civilian population. Syrian military forces have used their heavy artillery and undisputed airpower to attack insurgent strongholds with seemingly little or no regard for civilian life. In turn, local guerrilla forces opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad operate without any central leadership and have been repeatedly documented executing prisoners and otherwise acting contrary to established laws of war. The increasing levels of savagery and de-humanization of the opposing forces and civilian communities believed to support them has resulted in a situation that has regional, if not international, implications. The United States has the ability to play a crucial role ending the conflict, but not through counterproductive rhetoric at the United Nations Security Council – America must encourage and support Russian leadership orchestrating the departure Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad in a manner that returns the country to the pre-conflict status quo.

In the Western media, the conflict in Syria is portrayed in fairly black and white terms. Bashar al-Assad is the cruel Arab butcher who slaughters his people, aided by Russian arms, Iranian logistical assistance, and Russian and Chinese protection in the Security Council. Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has demonized Russia and China, calling their vetoes of Security Council resolutions on Syria “reprehensible,” “destructive,” “dangerous,” and “deplorable.” The hypocrisy of Susan Rice’s self-righteousness is readily apparent for anyone with a background in Middle East history – the United States has been the lone country vetoing Security Council resolutions directed at its own regional ally, Israel, no less than 41 times. Susan Rice has personally overseen a number of appalling UN vetoes, including a General Assembly veto of the internationally supported Palestinian bid for statehood,an SC statement labeling settlement building in the West Bank “illegal” (which it undoubtedly is), and obstructing SC efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the recent clashes between the Israel and militant forces in the Gaza Strip.

Despite the accusatory and antagonistic rhetoric, all is not as it seems. America’s continual advocacy for “democracy” and “regime change” —knowing that both of these prospects pose serious threats to Russian interests — is a de facto recipe for a continuation of the conflict and further shedding of innocent Syrian blood.

It has been speculated by some foreign affairs experts that continued bloodshed in Syria is actually the ultimate goal of the United States. An ongoing civil war in Syria does, superficially, serve a number of strategic interests for the United States. First and foremost, it ‘bleeds’ both Iran and Russia, who are forced to invest monetary resources to prop up a key regional ally. Despite the grand humanitarian statements at the UN Security Council, the facts on the ground suggest that America is, in fact, engaging in the time-honored tradition of confrontational great power politics. Instead of trying to broker a peace where the current Syrian regime remains intact except for the departure of al-Assad, America has pushed for a direction that would lead to the installation of Western-backed groups like the Syrian National Council, Free Syrian Army, and now the National Council of Syrian and Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF?). All of these groups have been fundamentally hostile to Russian interests and – were they to come to power – would represent a dramatic shift in the region’s web of alliances.

The fact that the U.S. is supplying the Free Syrian Army with non-lethal resources, as well as tacitly approving the supplying of Syrian insurgent groups with arms by their Gulf state backers, suggests that America is allowing just enough resources and arms into the hands of the insurgents to allow them to maintain the fighting, while denying them the more sophisticated anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons necessary to gain any significant ground on the battlefield. The longer the conflict rages, the more Russian and Iranian resources will be depleted by U.S. proxies. In this equation, human suffering and the tens of thousands of dead Syrians are not taken into account, an unconscionable and foolish lack of consideration on the part of U.S. policymakers who have thus far failed to see the potential backlash for their inaction.

If this is indeed the strategy adopted by the U.S. government, consciously or otherwise,  then it is treading a dangerous path, one America has walked down before. When the Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan in the 1989, U.S. officials congratulated themselves on wearing down their geo-political nemesis from afar without expending American blood and at a relatively small cost in treasure. What they left behind, though, was a radicalized, psychologically scarred country along with a refugee crisis in Pakistan. These conditions ultimately provided the perfect breeding ground for al-Qaeda and other terrorist operations. The rising rates of butchery on both sides of the conflict in Syria, the increase in inflammatory sectarian rhetoric, the influx of extremist foreign fighters, and a refugee crisis that threatens to destabilize three key U.S. allies (Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq) all suggest that history is repeating itself. If so, the U.S. could go from being a self-assured and self-righteous onlooker to having its own strategic interests threatened in ways that are very real yet unacknowledged by American officials.

In a situation like this, the U.S. cannot have its cake and eat it too. The act of bleeding Russia and Iran and potentially turning a regional antagonist into a regional ally may be appealing, but the question remains, at what cost? We already know what the cost is in Syrian lives, now surpassing 40,000 dead. What the cost will be in terms of regional stability remains unknown, as is the consequences of allowing radical religious jihadists from around the region to gain military expertise on the Syrian battleground, coupled with embitterment towards the West for its lack of support.

It is time to cut a deal with Russia. The idea of sweeping regime change is unacceptable from the Russian side. The departure of Bashar al-Assad as an individual is something that would likely be considered acceptable as long as Russia is provided assurance that its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and its existing arms contracts and defense relationships remain intact. China, which does not have the type of deep business and defense relationships with Syria that Russia does, must be assured that America will not have gained another strategic pawn to use against it in the UN, and that Syria will continue to support China in General Assembly activity related to flash points in the South China Sea and Tibet.

Russia must be given assurances, if not outright incentives, to shepherd a leadership transition in Syria. If the U.S. is able to maturely assume the role of second fiddle to Russia in the interests of regional stability, U.S. blood and treasure will remain protected, while America will show itself to be a strong partner for peace in the new Middle East.

 

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Failing the Disabled: Looking for Answers

This article was published in the November 2012 issue of JO Magazine.

For a moment, the issue of the treatment and status of people with disabilities came to the fore of Jordan’s collective consciousness. In May, the BBC aired an explosive story based on the work of an undercover reporter who used a hidden camera to document the abuse of children in eight of Jordan’s privately operated special care homes for children with disabilities. The video captured by Hanan Khandagji is horrific, showing children physically and mentally abused, neglected, and inhumanely restrained. The public outcry was apoplectic. Facebook and Twitter were inundated. HM King Abdullah II visited several of Jordan’s special care centers, issuing directives to government offices to hold negligent centers accountable and prosecute individual wrongdoers. Despite this, few concrete reforms on an institutional level have been made.

In 2007, Jordan signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention was coupled with passage of Law Number 31, developed in close cooperation with advocacy groups made up of people with disabilities and aimed at modernizing the legal approach to disability. Jordan would end its practice of providing handouts and short-term solutions, which were often more patronizing than helpful, and begin implementing inclusive practices to provide the tools for those with disabilities to be functional, productive members of mainstream society, with measures including wheelchair access to buildings and proper education. Law 31 also called for the creation of the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities, which opened in 2008.

Four years later, Muhannad Al Azzeh is deeply concerned about the lack of progress. “We did not fulfill even half of our obligations according to the convention,” he says.

At the sleek, modern offices of the Jordan Civil Society Program, Al Azzeh makes his way around the facility by feel, slowly but deliberately. Though well funded through a USAID grant, there is no all-purpose worker to tend to guests. Al Azzeh doesn’t seem to mind, offering to prepare tea or coffee for visitors himself. Marked by the physiology of middle age—thinning hair and heavyset build—Al Azzeh is unassuming at first glance. When he speaks in slightly accented English, his words carefully chosen, it becomes clear he is not ordinary. And he cannot seem to open his eyes.

Dr. Muhannad Al Azzeh

If Al Azzeh had been young enough to ever be helped by the Higher Council, he would have been their poster boy. Al Azzeh was born with sight, but at a very young age it began to deteriorate. Doctors informed his father that he would be blind by the time he reached elementary school. Fearing his son would be marginalized in society, Al Azzeh’s father began pushing him at a young age to excel in academics. “I was told that if you want to be recognized, and if you want to have opportunities, you shouldn’t accept less than your PhD degree,” he says.

Al Azzeh earned a law degree from the University of Alexandria and a doctorate in the Netherlands with a focus on public policy, democratization, and good governance. Despite his exceptional education, Al Azzeh was unable to find university employment in Jordan. “My applications to work as a lecturer were always rejected because I was blind,” he says.

That spurred Al Azzeh to become involved in Jordan’s budding disability rights movement. Having already played a key role in developing Law Number 31 in 2007, Al Azzeh joined the Jordan Civil Society Program in 2010, providing his legislative and legal expertise to a special unit dedicated to disability rights. “I decided that my legal and public policy background could be utilized to promote the rights of persons with disabilities, including my own rights.”

—-

In a report issued last February, Al Azzeh and his organization documented in detail how the Jordanian government had failed to live up to its commitments, from basic protections from abuse and discrimination for the disabled to the failure to enforce building codes that require wheelchair accessibility. Patronizing the disabled is still the norm and even practices long abandoned in other countries, like forced hysterectomies for intellectually disabled women, are still conducted in Jordan.

The 200-page report, submitted to the government and the general public, faced immediate criticism from government officials. “Our report was aggressively rejected by the relevant ministries, including the Higher Council,” he says. “What we said exactly is that there is a clear, clear lack of coordination amongst the different governmental and national departments in the disability field. Behind the lack of coordination is an ambiguity in the identity and mandate for each ministry.”

Two months later, the BBC exposé aired. Al Azzeh wasn’t surprised by what it showed. “In the report we documented violations and the lack of monitoring of the special care centers. Some of these findings had been published in newspapers in 2009, 2010, and 2011, but nobody listened.”

Rakan Saida is the politics editor at Al Rai newspaper and one of nine members of a royal commission set up to examine the situation of the special care homes in Jordan. Saida is quick to contest the assertion, often circulated by government officials, that the abuse cases in Jordan’s special care homes are isolated and limited to a few abusers. “There are many reasons why the abuse documented by the BBC documentary was able to occur,” Saida says. “The most important is the lack of official guidance in monitoring the special care sector and the lack of coordination between the relevant government bodies. All of the government organizations are working independently and without standards, going in their own directions.”

At the center of the abuse scandal is the poor quality of staff. BBC footage reveals their basic apathy toward the welfare of children under their care. The sole focus of staff members appears to be the maintenance of order, achieved through severe, often physical punishment of children perceived to be disruptive.

Ghadir Al Haris, director of educational programs at the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities, says the council is well aware of staff issues at centers but has little power to correct the situation—that is supposed to be done by the Ministry of Social Development. According to Al Haris, a major obstacle to hiring and retaining quality staff members is the inability or unwillingness of centers to pay competitive salaries. Particularly in rural areas, centers pay as little as JD 75 a month despite a minimum wage of JD 190 per month. “Unfortunately, many centers are facing big financial problems. Some have the money but are unwilling to pay [higher salaries],” says Al Haris.

Saida agrees low salaries are a problem. He would also like to see employees with appropriate qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree in psychology and adequate supplementary training. “Without qualified staff, effective monitoring, and coordination between relevant government entities, the children at these centers are not getting a real education.” The special care homes become, in effect, glorified daycare centers where, according to Saida, “They provide food, water, and a place to sleep, and that’s it.”

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By any objective standards, Hanan Khandagji has shaken the special care sector in Jordan. Her BBC report set in motion a reform process involving officials at the highest levels of government. The ramifications go far beyond the reassessment of the treatment of children with disabilities, but also involve intensive scrutiny of the homes for orphans, juveniles, and the homeless. With an immaculately wrapped headscarf, Khandagji is beautiful when she smiles, laughs easily, and shows her youthful idealism. What she has done is remarkable, especially considering that she is just twenty-three and still a university student.

The story begins when Khandagji was tipped off to potential abuse when Al Balad Radio, her employer, launched an investigative reporting unit and began receiving anonymous complaints about Amman’s special care homes. To see if there was any validity in the accusations of abuse, Khandagji posed as a volunteer and began working at several facilities. Initially she recorded audio, as the report was developed for a radio audience. When the BBC heard about her work at a journalism conference, they asked her to try to replicate it for an international television audience, this time with hidden cameras.

Hanan Khandadji

Once she had the footage of abuse, Khandagji contacted the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development for comment on the situation. Amal Nahhas, the secretary general of the Higher Council, vehemently denied the accusations. “Amal Nahhas said that ‘Everything is under control,’” Khandagji says. “She said that ‘There is no abuse and we are performing our role as required.’” The response was the same from Ministry of Social Development spokesman Fawaz Ratroot. “Some from the Higher Council said I was lying, that I was fabricating things, that there was no real evidence, that I was ruining the reputation of Jordan and the special care sector. Instead of dealing with me as a serious person with a serious investigation, I was brushed off,” Khandagji says.

When Nahhas’ office was contacted for this story, a request for an interview was declined.

When the BBC report aired, viewers around the world were aghast at the treatment, while Jordanians were furious that such abuse and neglect could be occurring here. The two main entities involved in disability issues in Jordan, the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development, could no longer maintain their denials.

While the Higher Council had successfully produced legislation and recommendations in a number of key areas, including special care homes, the council has no means to enforce its own policies, either with the special care homes or with government ministries. Lara Yassin, another official at the Higher Council, says, “We do not have any legal enforcement mechanism that says violators must deal with lawyer X or judge Y. When we get a complaint, we go through the channels that exist for us to address that complaint.” Those channels are limited to issuing reports on centers and sending the information on to the Ministry of Social Development.

Samir Ramadan, the Higher Council official who works directly with rural special care centers, described the difficulties getting the centers to abide by all of the regulations meticulously developed by the council. Without the means to enforce, Ramadan admitted, the council had to lower its standards. “While we understand our roles and responsibilities,” Ramadan says. “That is not always the case with the service providers operating the community rehabilitation centers. Sometimes we have had to loosen the requirements and make exceptions to the rules.”

The care centers have been just the most egregious of the problems. The lack of legal enforcement has meant that even though Jordan has clear regulations regarding disability access in newly constructed buildings, the rules aren’t applied. Money is not the obstacle; many, if not most, sidewalks in affluent neighborhoods are impassable for those in wheelchairs, while even high-budget building projects currently underway, some even part of government-funded programs, lack wheelchair access.

—-

While the investigative committee set up immediately after the BBC documentary scandal focused solely on care homes, a parallel and longer term committee was also formed to look at the more general issue of special care homes in Jordan, including those that serve other vulnerable groups.

Al Haris serves on this committee alongside Saida, and in her view the committee’s approach of stepping back to look at the wider picture has been critical. “Sometimes you have to think outside of the box,” Al Haris says. “Sometimes when you go out of the box and look at things comprehensively, you see things differently.” She says the committee is working to get the wide-ranging organizations, both in and out of the government, to work together better.

Saida makes the point more bluntly. “I don’t want coordination like ‘we sit and drink coffee together,’” he says. “If you want to change, change! This talk needs to be translated into real action.” For observers like Saida who are deeply invested in the reform process, what remains particularly frustrating is the lack of accountability at the highest levels of government.

Khandagji, who faced personal attacks from officials at the Higher Council and fierce denials from the Ministry of Social Development, agrees with Saida’s assessment. “There are no repercussions at the higher levels of these government bodies,” she says. “One day after the investigative committee assigned responsibility to the Higher Council and the Ministry of Social Development for the failures at the special care homes, Amal Nahhas, the secretary general of the Higher Council, had her contract renewed. How do you renew Amal Nahhas’ contract the day after the Higher Council was judged to be partially responsible for the abuse cases?”

Having stood resolutely at the center of the controversy since her investigation was first aired, Khandagji has no illusions that the solutions are easy or that rhetoric alone will solve the problem. “It is clear from the statements and actions of the royals that they wish to see serious reform of the special care sector,” says Khandagji. “The problem is that the people responsible for implementing change are not doing their jobs.”

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The U.S. Presidential Election: What it May, or May Not, Mean for the Middle East

Since I am using this blog as a portfolio of sorts for my writing, I am going to start posting the articles that I have had published for print magazines that do not feature their content online. As things stand, this consists of a whopping . . . two articles. This right here is my FIRST article EVER published, for Jordan’s very own Living Well magazine in the June 2012 issue (PDF version here). I was immensely proud of this petty achievement, though a bit miffed at the fact that my boss at the PR agency I was working for at the time insisted that I publish under a pseudonym (the agency has offices in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, both mentioned in the article in a negative fashion). So here it is, my analysis of the 2012 presidential contest and how it relates to the Middle East. Enjoy!

President Barack Obama

Governor Mitt Romney

As the United States struggles to find its way in the turbulent affairs of the Middle East, the prospect of either Democratic candidate Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney altering America’s position in the region is remote. Despite some minor differences in diplomatic style, humanitarian rhetoric (or lack thereof), and tone towards Israel, neither candidate has much room to maneuver within the rigidly-maintained status quo of U.S. policy in the region.

The Israel Lobby

If one is to honestly discuss U.S. presidential politics, America’s “special” relationship with Israel must be given top priority. Despite the common perception in the Arab/Muslim world that Israel controls the U.S. political system as part of a global Jewish conspiracy, the less dramatic truth is that America’s political system has weaknesses that special interest groups are adept at exploiting. Specifically, groups that funnel cash to electoral contestants have outsized influence in the world of U.S. politics, and one such highly-effective group happens to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

A must-read for anyone interested in the role of the Israel’s powerful American backers in U.S. Middle East policy

Jewish groups like AIPAC are not the only ones advocating on Israel’s behalf; for reasons of their own, America’s politically active and vocal evangelical Christian population also supports Israeli lobbying efforts. This sect of Christianity believes that the growth of Israel as a Jewish state is a necessary pre-requisite for the onset of the Apocalypse, also known as the “End of Days.” Not only does this demographic believe in the biblical apocalyptic prophesy, they also believe that they can actively contribute to its fulfillment. As a result of these lobbying efforts by both Christians and Jews, American politicians have little flexibility when it comes to dealing with the Jewish state.

Furthermore, the Israel lobby has undue influence in the U.S. media, which continues to propagate the Israeli narrative that the country is constantly threatened by the Arab hordes at its borders. Although this narrative may have been relevant in the era of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, it is a bit harder to swallow now that Israel has two peace agreements – one with Jordan and the other with Egypt – as well as de facto peace agreements with the rest of the Arab world. However, rocket attacks from non-state actors in the Gaza Strip and South Lebanon allow Israel to continue playing the victim in the U.S. media, despite its status as the sole nuclear-armed, regional military hegemon.

While there are growing movements among both Jews and Christians in the U.S. to push Israel towards a fair two-state solution with the Palestinians, these movements have a long way to go before they match the political muscle of AIPAC and its ilk. It remains to be seen if they ever will. In the meantime, the U.S. government continues to use all carrot and no stick when dealing with the Israelis. With over three billion dollars a year in financial and military aid to Israel, there is simply not much more carrot the U.S. can offer. Without the threat of the stick (cutting military aid for example), Israel has no motivation to stop its settlement expansion in the West Bank or its siege of the Gaza Strip.

In addition to the enmity that America’s “special” friendship with Israel earns it in the Arab/Muslim world, the relationship has the potential to drag the U.S. into yet another military conflict in the region (read: with Iran). This possibility is especially likely in an election year, when President Obama will face strong political pressure from Republican candidate Mitt Romney to provide unconditional support in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whether the Israelis will take such a military gamble, and whether Obama can politically afford to stay on the sidelines, is anybody’s guess.

Conceivably, a second-term American president could attempt to use more stick and less carrot when attempting to coax Israel to the table with the Palestinians. Freed from concern about another re-election campaign, President Obama could drag the Israelis to the table to negotiate a two-state solution in good faith. In this regard, an Obama presidential victory holds the ever-so faint possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace that a Republican victory does not.

The Arab Spring

With regional protest and revolutionary movements reshaping the Middle East, an analysis of Obama and Romney’s positions on the Arab Spring is crucial. Like any other country, America’s first priority is its strategic interests. When its pursuit of strategic interests overlaps with its liberal values, the American government pats itself on the back as the global defender of freedom and justice. More often than not, such an overlap does not exist when it comes to U.S. policies in the Middle East. For instance, the U.S. supports the Saudi regime, which happens to be intolerant to minority religious groups, oppressive to women, and remains entirely undemocratic. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia’s conservative, theocratic values are antithetical to American liberalism, the U.S. not only continues to buy Saudi oil, but also sells the autocratic state billions of dollars in military hardware. Unwilling to jeopardize its oil supply, the U.S. government turned a blind eye to the hard-line regime’s brutal crushing of Shi’a protests in Eastern Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2011.

Saudi troops roll into Bahrain to help crush its protest movement

Similarly in Bahrain, peaceful protests that began in February 2011 were harshly dealt with by the country’s monarchy, an ugly reality that was also ignored by President Obama. While the U.S. has strongly condemned the actions of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council, discussion of Bahrain has been largely absent. The presence of the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet in Bahrain is undoubtedly a factor in this deafening silence.

Depending on the outcome of the presidential election, America’s relationships with the countries involved in the Arab Spring may change in some cases while remaining the same in others. Despite Obama’s lofty liberal rhetoric directed towards the peoples of the Middle East, he has proven himself to be a classic foreign-policy realist when it comes to action. In countries where the U.S. has strategic interests (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for example), condemnation of regime brutality from Obama have been muted. In the case of Syria, where fighting in urban areas makes direct military intervention a non-option, Obama has chosen to pass the buck to other Arab countries interested in seeing the departure of Bashar al-Assad. When it comes to the supporting the Gulf state monarchies and chipping away at the Assad regime, it is unlikely that a President Romney would deviate from Obama’s realist agenda.

In other Arab countries, a Romney victory could affect the nature of several bi-lateral relationships. In contrast to Obama’s deep interest in engaging the region and all of the players involved, Romney will not have room to politically maneuver when it comes to the rising power of Islamists in several post-revolutionary governments. In Egypt and Tunisia, citizens have elected Islamist governments (with Libya potentially joining the Islamist ensemble). This trend is worrying for the Republican electorate, who tend to be weary of political Islam and the notion of Islamic Sharia law, whether it is in the U.S. or abroad.

Conservative Christians in the U.S. – an important part of the Republican party’s base  – see themselves as having shared religious ties with Christian minority populations in Arab countries and therefore perceive Islamist governments (fairly elected or not) as a threat to their co-religionists. In the case of a Romney victory, expect to see icy relations with the Islamist governments in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

Jordan-U.S. Relations

In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, few believe that there will be much change following the U.S. presidential contest. With the election coming up in November, Jordanians interviewed for this article remarked that there was little coverage of the Republican nomination process in the local media. A rare exception was local and regional media coverage of former Republican candidate Newt Gingrich’s public denial of the existence of the Palestinians as a “people.” The remarks – incendiary in Jordan considering the country’s sizeable Palestinian population – momentarily spurred a surge in the already high negatives of the Republican Party.

Jordanians keen on following the race mainly turn to English-language news sources like the BBC and CNN to stay informed. For these election watchers, there was the perception of a clear distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties; one Jordanian positively described the Democrats as “more open-minded when it comes to international affairs, religion, acceptance of different cultures, and gays and lesbians.” Republicans were termed “arrogant” by another respondent when discussing their approach to international affairs.

Despite the stark contrast in Jordanians’ general views of Democrats and Republicans, respondents did not feel that an Obama victory would bring any more benefits to the region than a Romney victory. While some predicted that Obama would be more conciliatory towards the Palestinians in terms of public statements and tone, it is widely recognized that both parties face the same political realities. As one Jordanian professional put it, “It doesn’t matter who wins; the policy direction will stay the same.”

The Status Quo

While the U.S. government may be deeply involved in developments in the Middle East, the fact is that the American people themselves are not. The uprisings in Syria and Bahrain have captured the attention of the international media, but most Americans would not be able to explain who is pitted against whom in these conflicts, or even be able to locate these countries on a map. Political and military experts in the U.S. State Department and Pentagon are developing regional policies based on strategic interests, not on America’s liberal values. Occasionally domestic political forces – the Israel lobby being a prime example – disrupt careful planning by these experts.

Regardless of who wins the 2012 U.S. presidential election in November, America’s foreign policy in the region will carry on as before. The U.S. will pursue its interests, with reformers and revolutionaries only gaining America’s blessing if it suits these interests. American politicians will continue to tell voters that their country is a beacon of freedom and justice in the world, while those in the Middle East looking to the U.S. for leadership will shake their heads in puzzlement over America’s contrasting words and actions. As the prominent American journalist Henry Adams once said, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

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Full Translation, 8 September 2012 Protest Statement, Haya al-Tafilah, Jordan

This is a translation of the official statement by the activists who organized the 8 September 2012 protest in the Haya al-Tafilah neighborhood in East Amman (Haya actually means neighborhood, but it sounds better like this). The brunt of the translation was done by my ‘Jordan’s Best Damn News Team’ partner, Katrina Sammour, with yours truly assisting in editing the English. Footage from the 8 September protest was used in a CNN iReport produced by Katrina and I, and here is a link to an article we co-authored for the Carnegie Endowment publication Sada.

In any case, here is the full translation with original Arabic below, lifted from the protest’s Facebook page:

We are the free people of the Tafileh neighborhood and the families of the arrested. We direct a message that is nothing like its predecessors, to the head of our regime, which states that we do not believe anymore in idols and false gods. For you are not the one who defines our nationalism, nor are you the path that brings us closer to our homeland. You are not the one who grants us freedom when you please, and then takes it away when you please, without any crime having been committed.

You are disguised in the costume of freedom and democracy, while hiding inside of you is absolute fascism and control over the destiny of this country and livelihood of its people. We can no longer can be patient with repression of our arrested sons, with no guilt other then demanding freedom and social justice for all Jordanians, and fighting corruption that is royally sponsored. We do not absolve the regime from supporting and concealing this corruption.

What kind of injustice is this? What kind of wondrous paradox? For now all Jordanians know that the head of the regime, who is vocal about being a leader of reform, is in fact the official sponsor and protector of the corrupt. For 20 months the Jordanian people have aspired to see one corrupt person put behind bars, but instead the free people of this nation are arrested, and we are surprised time and time again with the existence of this entrenched mentality.

You who are lounging in castles, know that the Jordanians are preparing graves for your corruption. You are not so precious to God [that you will be protected from us]. What is going on around us, in terms of the Arab Spring, is not far from you. So beware from a patient person’s anger, for we have run out of patience, and we have made up our mind. We do not believe in the existence of a true will to reform. You have closed all outlets that lead to reform. By doing so, you have sanctioned for us all the doors of peaceful escalation that will transform the Jordanian street that is already prepared. This escalation will lead us to a situation that you have forced upon us. You will bear the consequences for it if all the prisoners of conscience aren’t released.

The dignity of a Jordanian and his freedom is more precious to us than the corruption of your regime. The Jordanian citizen has grown disgusted with the prevalence of corruption and its royal sponsorship.

God, we have delivered to them this news, God is our witness. The free people of the Tafileh neighborhood, 8 September 2012.

نوجه اليوم نحن أحرار حي الطفايلة و ذوو المعتقلين رسالة ليست كغيرها من الرسائل إلى رأس النظام مفادها أننا كفرنا بالأنصاب و الأزلام فلست الذي يحدد و وطنيتنا و لست الذي نتقرب به إلى أردننا و لست الذي تهبنا الحرية متى تشاء ثم تنزعها منا متى تشاء دون ذنب أو جريمة .

فأنت كذئب السوء إذ قال مــــــرة لسخل رعى و الذئب غرثان مرمل
أأنت الذي من غير جرم شتمتني؟ فقال متى ذا؟ قال ذا عـــــــــام اول
فقال ولدت العام بل رمت كذبـــــة فدونك كلني لا يهينك مـــــاكـــــــل.

أيها المتنكر بزي الديمقراطية و الحرية و أنت تخفي في داخلك الفاشستية المطلقة و التحكم بمصائر البلاد و أرزاق العباد لم نعد اليوم نصبر على قمع أبنائنا الذين اعتقلوا من غير ذنب و لا جريمة غير أنهم
طالبوا بالحرية و العدالة الاجتماعية لكافةالأردنيين و بمكافحة الفساد المرعي ملكيا الذي لا نبرئ النظام من دعمه له و التستر عليه فاي ظلم هذا وما هذهالمفارقات العجيبة فقد بات الأردنيون جميعا يعلمون
أن رأس النظام و المتشدق بقيادته للإصلاح ليس إلا راعيا رسميا للفساد حاميا للفاسدينو منذ عشرون شهرا و الأردنيون يطمحون أن يروا فاسدا واحدا وراء القضبان و لكنهم يفاجؤون حينا بعد حين بوجود العقلية العرفية البائدة باعتقالأحرار الوطن المطالبين بحقوقهم الشرعية .

ايها القابعون في القصور اعلموا أن الأردنين يهيئون لفسادكم القبور و لستم على الله بعزيزين و ما يدور حولنا من أحداث الربيع العربي ليس عنكم ببعيد فاحذروا غضبة الحليم فقد نفد صبره و حزم أمره و إننا لا نؤمن أصلا لوجود نية صادقة للإصلاح و بناء عليه و على إغلاقك لكل المنافذ المؤدية للإصلاح فقد شرعت لنا كل الأبواب التصعيدية السلمية التي ستنقل الشارع الأردني المهيأ أصلا إلى حالة أجبرتنا أنت عليها وستتحمل انت عواقبها ما لم يتم الإفراج عن جميع معتقلي الرأي الاردني واعلم أن كرامة الاردني و حريته أغلى عندنا من فساد نظامك الذي بات الاردني مشمئزا من استشرائه و الرعاية الملكية له.

اللهم قد بلغنا اللهم فأشهد.
حراك أحرار حي الطفايله 8-9-2012

 

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Tourism in Afghanistan

“Who you with?”

I looked back in the boarding line for the early morning Dubai-Kabul flight . The speaker was a man who looked to be in his 40s, short in stature, and wearing cargo pants, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap with “Retired U.S. Army” emblazoned across it.

“I’m a tourist,” I replied, stumbling over my words a bit, knowing how absurd they must sound.

“Right. I’m with Dyncorp. Who are YOU with?” he asks again.

“No really, I’m a tourist. I’m visiting a friend in Kabul. I’m not with anyone.” I realize at this moment that I’ve made a very unfortunate wardrobe decision as I enter Afghanistan for the first time. This guy is assuming that I am like him, a security contractor, or ‘mercenary’ in laymen’s terms.

Wearing cargo pants, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, I had inadvertently chosen the classic contractor outfit for my trip. ‘I need to buy some different clothes,’ I thought to myself as I got on the bus that would shuttle us to the plane itself. The contractor boarded the bus a moment later. He stunk of alcohol and paranoia, and latched onto me as the only other white person in the area.

“Where are you staying?” he asks.

“With my friend, he’s a reporter,” I reply.

“Which compound?” he asks, and then proceeds to rattle off a couple of names.

“It’s not a compound, it’s just private residence, a house. It’s in Qala Musa [a Kabuli neighborhood].”

I can see the contractor’s mind starting to explode at the thought of traipsing about Kabul without a trusty blaster in hand.

The contractor then began giving me his expert assessment of our fellow passengers on the bus.

“This guy right here, at your 3 o’clock . . . he’s scoping us out. Taliban motherfucker.”

Now, keep in mind that  if you are ex-military white trash from America’s Deep South (this gentleman’s accent gave him away as a southerner), EVERY Afghan wearing traditional Afghan attire and sporting a beard no doubt looks like Taliban.

He then turns directly to the man in question and gives him a “Hey, what’s up?” (not a look, he actually says it out loud) in the most hostile, antagonistic way possible.

At that point I thought to myself, ‘I have got to get away from this guy.’ As the only two white people on the bus, it was clear that we had already been the subject of people’s curiosity. Now, thanks to Mr. Taliban Profiling next to me, we had the entire bus’s attention, and not the kind of Wedding Crashers positive attention that one would want.

A moment later, the bus finally stopped outside of the aircraft. I thanked God that I did not have a seat near the contractor, and after a short flight we touched down in Kabul.

As I took the five minute outdoor stroll to leave the Kabul International Airport, I walk by security contractors being met by their buddies in armored vehicles. You can see them throwing on their body armor and loading their weapons. To them, every inch of Afghanistan is a war zone. I keep walking, hearing the mechanical noises as rifle bolts are drawn back and bullets are snuggly deposited in the chambers of automatic weapons. I go through the final layer of security at the airport, and in a crowd of Afghans waiting eagerly for arriving friends and relatives I see Tom’s smiling face.

There’s three ways to do Afghanistan; there’s the security contractor way, where every Afghan is Taliban and you only leave your heavily-fortified compound in armored vehicles with guns locked and loaded. There’s the development worker way, where you take the dire warnings of your security team seriously and rarely, if ever, step foot outside of your compound. Finally, there’s the photographer/journalist way, where you weigh risks yourself, walk around with no security detail, and try to non-verbally communicate as much as possible (with smiles, body language, etc) that, ‘hey, I’m not a combatant and I’m not on anyone’s side!’

I’ve heard U.S. Marines say that “5.56 [the caliber of the bullets in their assault rifles] is a universal language.”So is a genuine smile, something that has served me well in my many travels.

When we arrived to Kabul, I found that Tom was snuggly set up in a little rustic urban estate house with a Chowkador, or servant, always on duty. He shared the neighborhood with several Afghan warlords, which meant that lots of armed guards were out and about on the streets and there was a general sense of peace and (relative) quiet.

As soon as I had a moment to settle in, Tom briefed me on the security situation in Kabul and the surrounding provinces. As I learned, safety was not a big issue in the capital city. Even with no ability in Dari and Pashtu, Afghanistan’s two primary languages, I would have little reason to be fearful walking around during daylight hours. That being said, Tom spent the first 24 hours with me whenever I’d go out so I could get an orientation of the city and how best to function in it as large, highly visible American man. This mainly involved being friendly and not being an asshole, which is something I strive to be at all the time when I’m in unfamiliar territory.

I’m not going to go into detail about all the things I did in Kabul; I’ve waited too long to write this post, and the details that make such travel narratives engaging are hazy at this point (besides the introduction, which I wrote before I even left the country). Thus I will simply post a couple of photos, which you can enjoy below.

Playing cricket in the park, Kabul

Security at a restaurant, Kabul. All establishments frequented by Westerners have armed security

The tailor shop that made my shalwar khamiz suits

There is simply not that much to do in Kabul, so after going through the tourist highlight reel I started doing research on where to do a nice 2-3 day trip. The original idea was to go to Bamiyan, the (former) home of two massive Buddha statues carved into a rock face (since destroyed by the Taliban, thanks assholes). The incredible Band-e-AmirLake is just beyond to the west. This plan was scrapped the night before, when Tom received reports that the road to Bamiyan was closed due to a military offensive along one stretch.

The next best option was Herat, a city to the far west of Afghanistan that was once a part of Iran (the country’s western neighbor). A predominantly Tajik city with a high level of security, a general distaste for the Taliban, and a number of impressive sites to see, Herat turned out to be a phenomenal choice. My first day there Tom arranged for an Afghan photojournalist to pick me up and take me around. He did not speak a word of English (at least as far as he would let on), but we had an altogether pleasant day visiting the city’s massive, re-built citadel, its trademark masjid (one of the world’s largest), and some ancient leaning towers.

My guide was able to communicate to me that he would not be available for day two (out of three) of my trip due to work commitments, which meant that I’d be on my own for the remainder of my time in Herat. I had no problem with this, and when he dropped me off at my hotel I began using the interwebs to see what other sites I could check out in the city. This is when I met a young man who I shall call “Ahmed” for the sake of his security. Ahmed was visiting his friend, the receptionist at the hotel, and when he saw me he quickly introduced himself in American-accented English and explained that he was an ex-U.S. Army interpreter. After operating in different areas in Afghanistan, he explained, he was forced to quit the job when the Taliban learned his identity and threatened reprisals against his family. Therefore he returned to his native Herat and began medical school.

Now I take risk management fairly seriously when I travel, but I also believe that if you are intensely risk averse, you miss out on a lot of the main benefits of travel, mainly meeting new people and learning about the country you are visiting on a deeper, human level. Ahmed seemed like he had approached me simply because he genuinely liked Americans, and so I asked him if I could pay him to be my tour guide the next day. He said yes, and as a result I was able to able to have an incredibly unique day, though not before I did some solo wandering that evening.

I took off for what may be considered ‘Downtown’ Herat to have dinner at a traditional Afghan restaurant. I blew people’s minds as perhaps the only white person to have ever stepped foot in the establishment, and then proceeded to take a stroll through the market area to blow minds there as well. One shopkeeper was particularly excited about having a Western visitor coming through, and his English was quite good. I started chatting with him and this soon turned into an impromptu question & answer session with a growing crowd of curious Heratis. There were obviously few American who had simply come through Herat as tourists, so people had questions about me, about America, and about my various travels (I like to think of myself as a budding Ibn Battuta of sorts).

The next day started with a special tour of Herat’s AWESOME Mujihadeen Museum (not yet open to the general public) and ending with an incredible dinner at Ahmed’s father’s house that included long discussions about the future of Afghanistan and the fate of the country after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces. As with Kabul, I will include a couple of my favorite pictures below.

Dinner, Herati restaurant.

Participants in my Q&A session, Herat

The citadel, Herat

Now when I returned to Kabul (boarding my airplane with a handwritten ticket, might I add), I had enough time for one more day adventure. I chose to go to Panjshir, the province of one of Afghanistan’s mightiest heroes, Ahmed Shah Massoud. What is there really to say about Panjshir, except that it is spectacularly beautiful. A winding, two-lane highway takes you into the mountains where I took a who bunch of pictures of war junk, beautiful landscapes, and finally the tomb of Ahmed Shah Massoud himself.

Cool war junk (there was tons of it), Panjshir

Final resting place of Ahmed Shah Massoud, Panjshir

Was I scared at all on the trip? Can’t say I was. The scariest thing I experienced the entire time was on my last day, when I realized I barely had enough time to finish preparing my postcards and picking up three shalwar khamis suits that I had ordered, meaning that I would have to take a taxi into the heart of Kabul in rush hour traffic to pick up the items, and then turn around and head the opposite direction to the airport to catch my flight to Dubai. Miraculously, I managed this feat and did not miss my flight.

This is probably the only time I will ever go on a vacation without seeing a single other tourist the entire duration of the trip. Seriously, I saw some of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life and there was not a HINT of another tourist. When I was in Herat and Panjshir, I did not see another white person the whole time. That’s four days of no white people on and eight days without seeing a tourist.

Who can beat that?

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The Great War for Civilization

In 2010 I read a book that will probably remain one of my favorite works of all time, Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation. The book is a first-hand narrative account of basically every major event in the history of the Middle East (and many major events in Afghanistan and Iran). The title of the book was taken from an inscription on the back of a World War I campaign medal awarded to Fisk’s father, a veteran of the first “Great War for Civilisation.”

I am now going to adopt this phrase to describe my assessment of the culture war the human race is currently engaged in, not simply in America or the Middle East, but on a global level. I live in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and have for the past three years, so naturally much of what I write is in the context of my extended residency in this country.

First, let’s talk about the word “civilization.” In Jordan, the word cannot be used without arousing a kerfluffle amongst both Arabs and Western liberal academic types. As a former colony and then quasi-colony of the British Empire, Jordanians assume that if I label a part of the culture here as “uncivilized” (e.g. honor killings), then I must automatically believe, as a white American, that my own race of people (the pale faces) and country (Amurca) represent all that is civilized. This could not be farther from the truth.

I define “civilization” as the desired endgame in the human race’s long, stumbling battle to conquer our most basic, primal human instincts. I am speaking of the instincts of men to dominate women. The instincts to fear what you don’t understand. The instincts of humans to form collectives based on religion, race, or nationalism and use that strength to project power on others.

For all my American friends out there who think you are from a “civilized” country. I am here to tell you that you are not. While you may be swimming in a sea of iPhones and have your First World problems, I have some mind-blowing news; your country is not only NOT exceptional (Stephen Walt, do tell), but also, examined region by region, not yet fully civilized.

My hand is too fat to get into this Pringles container, I must be civilized!

Let’s work on defining “civilization” a bit more, shall we. Civilization is not based on race. It is not based on religion. It is not based on clothing. It is not based on the type of food you eat or how you eat it. To get into specifics, the following is a non-exhaustive list of the traits of civilization:

1.) Groups that are historically vulnerable are protected by a governing entity (the State). Such groups include (but are not limited to) women, children, the LGBT community, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities.

2.) People are allowed to change their religion at will without repercussions.

3.) People are allowed to choose their spouses with full freedom, without being constrained by family or community pressure.

4.) Individuals settle issues on a one-on-one individual basis, whether through discourse or the legal system, without using family/tribal connections to settle matters extra-judicially, e.g. targeting innocent, un-involved persons who may be from the rival’s tribe/sect/etc..

5.) Religious/ethnic/tribal majorities are not allowed to project power on minority groups.

Are we clear? Great, now I shall continue . . .

The Great War for Civilization is being fought in every country and in every community in the world. It is being fought in France, where Muslim schoolgirls cannot wear their headscarfs when attending public schools. It is being fought in Norway, where the atrocities of Anders Breivik punctuated the rise of a savage, Islomophobic, intolerant right-wing movement (inspired in part by savage right-wingers in America, mind you). In rural, underdeveloped communities in Jordan, women can be killed and raped with minimal punishment when the word “honor” is involved.

In my homeland, America, the war is being fought on multiple fronts. The American Jewish community agonizes over its support of Israel – the world’s last apartheid state – based on its primitive, tribal affiliations to their Israeli co-religionists. American Christians – especially in the half-civilized Deep South – continue to try to flex their muscle by trying to impose their views on abortion, alcohol purchase, and LGBT rights on non-Christians.

Another American politician spits in the eye of civilization by supporting apartheid in the holy land

These so-called Christians burn the holy texts of others, advocate for the wholesale destruction of other countries, and attempt to demonstrate their dominance in their communities with religious displays on public property. They call for fundamentalist Christian teaching of the origin of the universe in public school curriculums, while scoffing at the scientific method and the theory of evolution.

The paradox of fundamentalist Christian America, in a nutshell

On the opposite end of the spectrum, on the ideological left, the products of liberal Middle Eastern Studies Departments (justly) rail against Israeli crimes against humanity, though conversely draw red lines in the sand around the Arab/Muslim world. They warn critics that there are topics that non-Arabs (the pale faces) are not permitted to speak about. They bandy about words like “racist” and “bigot,” though their own views on who can and cannot speak are purely based on ethnicity and skin color.

These are the cultural relativists and apologists, the ones who say that we, as Westerners, are not permitted to make judgments or critical remarks on such things as so-called honor crimes or gender-discriminatory nationality laws. We (the pale faces) cannot comment on other people’s culture, no matter how repugnant some practices may be. Besides, claim the cultural relativists/apologists here in Jordan, Jordanian society will eventually reform itself, incrementally. Jordanian women will ‘one day’ succeed in securing their own rights, with outside pressure from non-Arabs deemed – subjectively – unhelpful. Teenage Jordanian girls will ‘one day’ not have to worry about getting kidnapped, raped for three days straight, and then having to marry their rapist (this really happened, fyi). One day . . .

I remember raping your mother for three days straight, and then she had to marry me or be killed by her own relatives. That’s where you came from junior!

I could not disagree more with these relativists and apologists. I am saying that we need to step beyond race, beyond religion, beyond nationality. Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, I am saying that every struggle in the world for basic human rights is every other human being’s problem. I am saying that there is no monopoly on criticism; critics of Israel must not be labeled anti-semites, while non-Arab critics of so-called honor killings must not be labeled racists or bigots.

Wait, you’re criticizing us for spitting on little girls in our neighborhood if we don’t like how they dress?! Yup, you must be a Nazi anti-semite . . .

The Great War for Civilization isn’t one of the West vs. the barbaric hordes of the developing world; it is a war that is taking place on every continent, in every country, in every community, in every individual. It is a war against our very own instincts, our very own impulses, our very own human nature to hate and destroy. It is the human instinct to build power in numbers based on religion, race, or nationality and then project that power using force or the threats of force.

How dare you support gay marriage! Quake in fear at our power to give ourselves heart disease! [Note: sentiments not sanctioned by Jesus Christ]

The path to civilization starts with recognizing that the world is not held back by Arab, White, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, American, or Jordanian problems, but rather by human problems. We need to fix them together.

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My account of the June 22nd battle at Qargha Lake, Afghanistan

Disclaimer: this is my personal recollection of the events of the June 22nd, 2012 attack on the Spugmay restaurant at Qargha Lake, Afghanistan. If you want the official report on this event, I suggest you consult an official news source (like the New York Times article here).

I hate to write the first of my planned blog posts on Afghanistan with the account of yesterday morning’s events. This trip has been one of the most eye-opening, fulfilling travel experiences I have ever had, and I do not want to give it an aura of danger that, quite frankly, did not exist at any point during my time in Kabul, Herat, and Panjshir.

As my host in Kabul, Tom, told me before coming here, living in Afghanistan is like having the opportunity to see real-life movies. What Tom meant by this is that if there is an attack in Kabul, you can make the decision to witness death and destruction on a level that most Westerners would only ever experience in the cinema. The key thing to remember though is that it is a choice. For most Western journalists here, you choose to go to where the violence is at. That was certainly the case for us yesterday.

Let’s start at the beginning; at 4:30 am on Friday, Tom was woken up by a national news radio program that called to inquire about the hostage situation at the Spugmay restaurant at Qargha Lake. Tom had gone to bed at 11 pm on Thursday night, about a half an hour before the insurgents stormed the restaurant. Although he was completely unaware of any details of the attack, he took several moments to catch up on the events that transpired overnight and then provided some situational analysis. Upon conclusion of the interview, he began making calls to find out more information about the situation. At around six he woke me up to see if I was interested in going to the site of the attack. Of course I was, and by around 6:30 we had a driver picking us up to take us to Qargha Lake.

We passed by about three police checkpoints before getting to the outer military cordon, at the base of the Qargha dam, just below where the gun battle was taking place. At this point I was introduced to Tom’s journalistic modus operandi in Afghanistan, which is to let the Afghan journalists assess risks (as they can do better than Westerners) and follow them when they decide to move. This method of risk management first led Tom and I – in tow behind a gaggle of local journalists – to the top of the hill overseeing the lake, then to the bottom of the hill on the road to the restaurant, and finally to a shore-side outdoor lounge area. This location came with a very convenient brick wall right along the shoreline that served as excellent cover for the twenty or so reporters that had massed together.

Covered position behind a brick wall with eyes on the restaurant.


I would say we were about 600 or 700 meters away from where the fighting was taking place across the lake – likely out of range of most automatic weapons being used in the battle – but we could still hear the occasional stray round cracking overhead. It was at this point that Tom called his Afghan partner, Zubair, to ask him to contact the Taliban for a comment about the attack. This is how we learned that a spokesman had claimed Taliban responsibility, saying that the restaurant was a target because it was popular with foreigners and Afghan government officials who go there for “illicit fun.” The spokesman also said that the hostage takers had killed a number of foreigners and government officials, which later turned out to be false.

We waited for several hours as the gunfight between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army (ANA) ran its course. During this time I was able to fully appreciate how big Twitter has become in breaking news. Everyone was tweeting; the Western journalists were tweeting, the Afghan journalists were tweeting, and the Afghan security forces were following the tweets. Through the grapevine, I heard that one Afghan journalist was grossly exaggerating events by tweeting that ‘shrapnel was flying overhead,’ ‘bullets were cutting down tree branches,’ and he saw a soldier ‘die in front of his eyes.’ This same journalist was not ten feet from where I was sitting, hiding under a table no less. None of these tweets were true. When I asked one Western journalist about this lack of integrity, he sighed and said simply that Afghan journalism was “still evolving.” As it turned out, one of the leading Afghan military commanders on scene that morning was following these disingenuous tweets and reprimanded the Afghan journalist to the point where he looked like a sullen, embarrassed school boy for the rest of the morning.

It was also during this long waiting period when many of the other journalists asked me, as the new guy, who I was “with.” Well, despite my best efforts, I had not been able to obtain press credentials for the trip, so I would just reply that I was a “tourist.” One time I  replied in a very weighty tone of voice, “I’m with Asda’a Burson-Marsteller . . . [leaning forward solemnly] public relations.” None of this was going over well with the cadre of seasoned Afghan and Western correspondents on scene, so Tom advised me to just tell people that I was a freelancer. If you’re wondering how I managed to be involved in any of this without some kind of press identification, it’s because no Afghan security personnel asked for them. Seriously, at no point during the day was I even asked to present my passport.

As the fighting started winding down around 10 am, the Kabul police chief, General Salangi, started giving remarks. Needless to say the remarks (in Dari I presume) were unintelligible to me, but like one of those scavenger fishes that attach to sharks, I meandered through the crowd and collected whatever scraps of information I could get from the real journalists. Apparently, a van of Taliban fighters had made there way to the site from the mountains of Paghman, taking a route which avoided any military or police checkpoints. With no fortified entrance and only three lightly-armed security guards (all of whom where killed), the restaurant was no doubt considered a ‘soft’ target by the Taliban.

The Kabul Chief of Police speaks to the press


The choice of launching the attack on a Thursday night (the beginning of the weekend inAfghanistan) guaranteed that the restaurant would be crowded. As of the writing of this blog post, it appears that the victims (numbered at 20 in the latest official statements) consisted exclusively of restaurant employees and well-to-do Afghan patrons of the restaurant.

At around 11 am the fighting had finally ended and the mob of journalists now assembled was allowed to move up to the gate of the restaurant. There soldiers were being led in victory chants by a senior Afghan commander, which soon turned into more interviews with commanders, civilian leaders, and witnesses who were on site. Unlike in the West where hostages would immediately be sequestered and treated for shock, the Afghan military actually paraded around two young Afghan boys, no older than ten years old, who had been rescued by the ANA. Within an hour of having their lives in peril, they were put in front of a throng of reporters to answer questions. I guess it makes me a hypocrite, but my concern for their mental well-being did not stop me from taking a thousand pictures of them during this impromptu Q&A session.

ANA celebrates victory


 

ANA soldier


 

Police cordon off entrance to the resort while it is cleared for booby traps


 

Rescued boys are paraded before the press


 

 

ANA commander after leading victory cheers


The last part of this narrative is my account of the inside of the restaurant itself. If you have a sensitive stomach, I would perhaps stop right here (and certainly before the photos at the conclusion of this paragraph). It has been several years since I have personally seen the body of a man killed by severe trauma; I didn’t enjoy it then, and I didn’t enjoy this part of the experience yesterday. I was there to take photographs though, and thus I sallied forth as best I could and documented everything I saw with my camera.

Really, it could have been worse; there were no dead women, and no dead children. Just men, two who’s ammunition belts gave them away as insurgents, one potential insurgent, and eight who were clearly civilians. It was ugly business walking around the burnt out rooms and blood-stained verandas, imagining the lovely time guests were having before the Taliban arrived. Walking through the kitchen, you could still see chicken in the fryer and boiled meat in a giant pot. No one had any idea this was coming.

I don’t really know enough about this country to comment further. This is what I saw that day, and maybe at some point in the future I’ll be better able to understand this horrific violence. For now though, I can only share what I saw as accurately as I can with whomever may be interested.

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