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Dial 190 in Afghanistan

That's the free number that Afghans can call for information about their upcoming elections.  Set up by the UN team in the country, the number has become one of the most popular in Afghanistan:

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said today that some 25,000 Afghans call the Independent Election Commission (IEC) every week to get information on the 20 August presidential and provincial council elections.

Providing details on voter registration, polling place, and the election date, the hotline is one of those small, subtle ways that technology can further the UN's -- and Afghans' -- goals.  The fact that operators sometimes receive threats from callers claiming to be part of the Taliban may make their job more dangerous, but it also underscores how important this service is to the growth of Afghan democracy.

(image from flickr user rybolov under a Creative Commons license)

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Stopping civilian casualties in Afghanistan

In the simmering controversy over U.S.-caused civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Washington has been sending decidedly mixed signals. It has acknowledged that civilian protection must become the top priority for U.S. forces, and, in appointing counter-insurgency acolyte Stanley McChrystal to lead the mission in Afghanistan, has sent the signal that military operations must undergo a top-down shift in strategy and focus. A U.S. military report has even agreed that troops who conducted a particularly devastating air raid in early May committed grave errors that jeopardized civilian lives.

Yet, even as it has castigated its own, the U.S. has still insisted that the Taliban was responsible for the deaths of the 30 (the U.S. number) to 140 (Afghanistan's number) civilians in the raid. (And, for that matter, the continued squabbling over mortality figures, which are consistently lower than either Afghan or UN totals, does not ultimately help the cause of reducing these fatalities.) Even if Taliban fighters did force these civilians to remain in the combat zone, the U.S. military's use of this rationale belies the purported goal of civilian protection: if the primary aim of the operation was to attack the Taliban, then it was not, by definition, to protect civilians.

A stronger critique than the United States' own has come from UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, who issued this sharp rebuke:

"The government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-ranking soldiers for such deaths, and has not held senior officers responsible," Alston said. "Worse, it has effectively created a zone of impunity for private contractors and civilian intelligence agents by only rarely investigating and prosecuting them."

Actual prosecution is less important than creating an atmosphere of deterrence. All 68,000 American troops that are to be deployed to Afghanistan under President Obama's plan will need to embrace the principle that civilian protection comes first. Criticism from a UN envoy is ultimately less important than negative reactions from those who matter most -- the Afghan people.

(image of a U.S. drone in Afghanistan, from flickr user jamesdale10 under a Creative Commons license)

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Scores of Afghan Schoolgirls Ill in Poison Gas Attack

Once again, young girls pay the price simply for being born female:

Five young girls slipped briefly into comas and nearly 100 were taken to hospital after a gas attack on their school on Tuesday, the third in a series of such incidents north of Kabul, Afghan officials said.

The early morning mass-poisoning at Qazaaq school was likely the work of Taliban sympathizers hostile to girls' education, the head of security for Kapisa province told Reuters.

Despicable.

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NYT – Afghan Women: “We Want Equality!” Men: “Get Out of Here, You Whores!”

From the New York Times, a perfect example of the abuse women are subjected to across the globe:

The young women stepped off the bus and moved toward the protest march just beginning on the other side of the street when they were spotted by a mob of men.

“Get out of here, you whores!” the men shouted. “Get out!”

The women scattered as the men moved in.

“We want our rights!” one of the women shouted, turning to face them. “We want equality!”

The women ran to the bus and dove inside as it rumbled away, with the men smashing the taillights and banging on the sides.

“Whores!”

But the march continued anyway. About 300 Afghan women, facing an angry throng three times larger than their own, walked the streets of the capital on Wednesday to demand that Parliament repeal a new law that introduces a range of Taliban-like restrictions on women, and permits, among other things, marital rape.

It was an extraordinary scene. Women are mostly illiterate in this impoverished country, and they do not, generally speaking, enjoy anything near the freedom accorded to men. But there they were, most of them young, many in jeans, defying a threatening crowd and calling out slogans heavy with meaning.

With the Afghan police keeping the mob at bay, the women walked two miles to Parliament, where they delivered a petition calling for the law’s repeal.

That's courage.

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Afghan women attacked at protest

Late last month, the Afghan government passed what is, by all accounts, an atrocious law, legalizing marital rape and explicitly confining women's mobility.  Even if the law is a bit of a "red herring" for what is in reality a deeper problematic in Afghan society, it's hard not to see it as a step backward for women's rights in the country.  This situation also presents the tricky question of how exactly the West can or should exert pressure to oppose the law, particularly when, as Dispatch blog salon participant -- and regular Change.org Global Health blogger -- Alanna Shaikh noted, it was likely enacted with the interest of pursuing the necessary negotiations with the Taliban (even if they don't appear to be living up to their end of the deal).

Alanna suggested that one possible policy option would be to support Afghan women's groups, as they would have a better sense of how exactly to oppose this hateful law, even in the context of working with the Taliban.  Which brings me to this heinous occurrence:

A crowd of about 1,000 Afghans swarmed toward a demonstration by 300 women against a conservative new marriage law Wednesday, pelting them with rocks as police struggled to keep the groups apart.

If the law itself is deserving of condemnation, then attacks against those who peacefully protest it are perhaps even more abhorrent.  I don't think this means that Afghan groups won't be able to oppose the law effectively, but it certainly underscores their need for support, from their own government and from the international community.

(image of Afghan women praying on International Women's Day, from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on flickr)

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Young Couple Elope, Are Publicly Executed by Taliban

The brutality of this story is unsettling:

Taliban gunmen executed a young couple in southern Afghanistan for trying to elope, shooting them with rifles in front of a crowd in a lawless, militant-controlled region, officials said Tuesday.

The woman, 19, and the man, 21, were accused by the militants of immoral acts, and a council of conservative clerics decided that the two should be killed, said Ghulam Dastagir Azad, the governor of the southwestern province of Nimroz.

Riflemen in the remote district of Khash Rod shot the man and woman with AK-47s Monday during a public execution, said Sadiq Chakhansori, the chief of Nimroz' provincial council.

This line alone makes one's blood boil: "a council of conservative clerics decided that the two should be killed." How hideously mundane that sentence sounds: just like that, 'decide' to snuff out two young lives - for the crime of being in love. Absolutely heinous.

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Iran Talks Afghanistan at The Hague

Hillary Clinton may not be shaking the hand of an unclenched fist yet, but at least she's working together in the same room as Iran. Today in The Hague, countries are meeting at a UN conference on Afghanistan, and it's a very good sign that Iran is in the mix. Cue Richard Holbrooke's blunt wisdom:
"How can you talk about Afghanistan and exclude one of the countries that's a bordering, neighbouring state?" Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters. "The presence of Iran here is obvious."
Iran's interests in Afghanistan are, well, obvious. Drug traffickers have destabilized the Aghan-Iranian border, and Tehran has no interest in a resurgent Taliban next door either. Remember that immediately following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Iran was -- quite literally -- on the phone with Washington, offering its help. What happened next? George W. Bush included Iran in his "axis of evil" speech in January 2002. So long, cooperation. Could this be a turning point in U.S.-Iran relations? Well, probably not yet. But it could be a turning point in terms of Afghanistan, and international relations with that country are just as, if not more, important. UPDATE: Laura Rozen suggests that, because Iran is only sending its deputy foreign minister to the conference, it is effectively holding back on warming relations with the U.S., deploying a "B team" as a snub to the America's "A team." True enough, but again, I think this misses the point. This conference is not about Iranian-American relations; it's about Afghanistan. In this light, the delegation disparity makes sense -- the United States currently has more at stake in Afghanistan than Iran. But it's only in Iran's interest to increase engagement with its neighbor. (image from flickr user rabinal under a Creative Commons license)
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What to do About Civilian Casulties in Afghanistan?

Earlier this week, a new United Nations report showed a 40% increase in civilian causalities in Afghanistan. About 55% of those deaths are attributable to the Taliban, meaning that the United States and its NATO and Afghan allies were responsible for a large proportion of civilian deaths. Most (65%) of these allied-inflicted civilian deaths came from U.S. air strikes. Stories like this, however, tell you what statistics cannot:
I could see all the dead and injured bodies. My son’s wife was horribly injured. And my daughter had been killed already. … She had been baking bread inside the house when the bomb hit. Due to the blast, she was thrown into the oven. Her body was totally burned. She was taken to hospital, but she died. … My son had injuries on his feet and the force of the blast had thrown him over the tree. Another daughter – she was blasted into so many pieces that we still have not been able to find her body. She was in too many parts. My neighbors came and helped to drag the bodies out of the house. It was terrible, terrible. Haji Nasib, lost nine family members and suffered significant property loss due to an [...] air-strike in Wardak province.
This comes from the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) in a new report Losing the People: The Costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan. The report is a long but fascinating exposé of the haphazard way in which international forces compensate civilian victims of “collateral damage.” It finds that rarely -- if at all -- are compensatory payments made to victims or their families in a timely manner. Obviously, this does not endear local populations to international troops, which in turn harms international forces' ability to win the “hearts and minds” of local Afghans. That said, in the instances where the United States government or one of its NATO allies does pay some form of compensation, victims and their families generally consider the payment as a gesture of condolence and apology. The lesson here is that coordinating and institutionalizing mechanisms for civilian compensation is not only a humanitarian imperative, but can be a strategic tool in the counterinsurgency toolbox. It would behoove the Pentagon to take note.