Chapel Hill Treehouse

A decidedly mixed bag of musings by andrew reynolds, professor of political science at UNC Chapel Hill, NC, USA

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Trailhead report - Afghanistan

I maybe a newbie but I know enough to know that trailheads sneer at roadrunners, have veiled contempt for track-letes and only passing toleration for those who tread the grass.

Running on a treadmill, a machine, indoors, without shouts of ‘turtle!’, ‘head!,’ or ‘why is Sqounk running so slow!’ are reason for expulsion. But prey let me finish my Carolina friends, give me a chance. Yes, my ‘trail run’ was on a big black machine in the basement of the UN operations guest house in the Shar-e-naw district of Kabul, but frankly it is a miracle I’m running at all, here in this bastion of democracy.

Running outside in Kabul has three significant flaws: 1. Kabul is at 2,000m and the altitude makes you queasy. 2. The roads look like campus construction on a good day. 3. There is about at 98% risk of being bundled into the trunk of a Honda by the kindly gentlemen of the Taliban. While (1) and (2) I have ignored in other places, and (3) gets you on TV; for Willow and baby Willow’s sake I promised not to run outside. Monk and Ding could outrun al Qaeda but I’m not speedy enough.

My ‘trail runs’ have consisted of driving to a UN guest house about 20 minutes away through survival-of-the-fittest Kabul traffic, saying ‘salem’ to the armed guards and then hanging out with the white people in an improvised gym. I have actually run 60k over the last week – all on the machine (averaging about 7.40 mile pace, gearing up for the Outer Banks in the Fall). I saw beautiful white walls, listened to Rufus on my ipod, and noted the delightful ceiling architecture. Ok, enough pathetic trail report…but at least I can attach a photo of me in the gym garden proudly wearing Willow’s Trailhead shirt…is this the first trailhead sighting in Afghanistan I wonder? Shouldn’t there be a ‘pics of trailheads on vacation runs’ page on the website?

To pad out my report I’ll offer some reportage on my trip. I am here working with the Independent Electoral Commission, helping them to re-write the national electoral law. It is my third trip here – I enjoyed the Afghan winter in 2005 and the Fall in 2004. While security is deteriorating dramatically in the South and East of the country, effectively a low level war now between the Taliban and Coalition forces, Kabul remains comparatively safe. Of course, ‘safe’ if you are not in uniform or unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are improvised explosive devices (ieds) almost every day aimed at the tanks of the European ‘peace-keeping’ forces and the US-UK soldiers. Tanks and big guns are pretty ominous when you see them up close, especially when those carrying them have that hunted look of those who never know where the attack will next come from. Yesterday I drove through a battalion of my British army squadies on foot patrol…fully armed, fully kitted out, looking down the road through the sights of their machine guns. My Afghan colleague couldn’t understand how I could tell they were British…I said “look at them…pasty, mean, teenagers, who are my height but about 100lbs of muscle heavier.” The next day at the heavily guarded ISAF ‘soldiers’ market I felt so at home with the pride of England around me…guys remarkably well trained in the art of using the word “fuck” and its derivations, as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective and vowel. On the way I enjoyed watching three sandy American hummers speeding towards me with a gun turret nicely aimed at my passenger seat…couldn’t they tell I was UNC faculty!!? What is wrong with these guys?

As part of my work I’ve been speaking to a lot of people. In and out of parliament -- which inspires just because it is there. A lecture at the University of Kabul which used to be more of al Qaeda madrassa. And brainstorming sessions with the leaders of civil society – lawyers, teachers, doctors.

Malalai Joya is a small raven haired woman of 28 with large brown eyes and a mouth that on occasion breaks into a grin despite the fact that she lives under constant threat of assassination. She first hit the headlines in 2003 at the loya jirga in meeting in Kabul to confirm the transitional government of Hamid Karzai. She brazenly denounced the warlords, in particular the notorious Abdul Sayyaf. A shocking move for an Afghan woman to do in public.

Riding on the backs of anti paramilitary and drug lord sentiments last year she was elected to the new Afghan National Assembly from her home province of Farah, which is deep in Taliban land. In April she tried to speak in parliament and was shouted down, with threats of rape and murder made against her by her parliamentary colleagues. Behind barbed wire and multiple bodyguards she said she is a marked woman – there is no reason to disbelieve her. We followed a car to her heavily guarded house and then spent an hour discussing politics. Her passion and quiet bravery makes her seem so much larger than her little body. She makes an immediate impression…in a land where almost everyone plays nice with the warlords she offers no accommodation – women must be respected, the law of the gun must be ended, and the ugly mafiosi of drug lords and militia commanders (many of who remain at the highest level of government) must be kicked out permanently-- no ifs, no buts, no ‘but the reality is you must accept the men of the past otherwise they will bring down the state.’ My questions are translated into Dari for her, but she answers in English.

Today we headed north to the Panjshir valley – home of the ‘Lion of the Panjshir’ Ahmed Shah Massoud – the leader of the Northern Alliance and the man assassinated by al Qaeda on Sept 9th 2001 as a precursor to 9/11. Now THIS is the place for our next international trail run. The Panjshir valley runs along a stretch of imposing mountains which was Massoud’s fortress in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s and against the Taliban in the 1990s. The valley itself is only about a mile across and has a single road that winds along the river. The journey here is relatively safe because the Panshjiries hate anyone who is not from the valley. But the only people they hate more than anyone who is not from their valley are the Taliban, and so because the Taliban hate us, the Panshjiries would die for us to avoid even a paper cut. It’s the age-old logic of the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

The valley is such a change from the dry dusty yellow around Kabul. It is a mini grand canyon with sheer mountain cliffs and a lush green floor. Stunningly beautiful. The white-water river that runs the length of the valley would be terrific for rafting but I don’t see the tourists hitting it hard just yet. Half way up the valley we visited Massoud’s grave and patted the camels of the nomads. You can imagine that it all seems quite far from Wilson Park.


At 10:08 PM, Blogger Wilf Day said...

Since you mention Malalai Joya, you may know that she is about to leave for Quebec City, Canada, where she is to speak to the biannual federal convention of our social democratic party on September 8 or 9.

"Farah is deep in Taliban land"? Unlike the four southeast provinces, didn't it have a good voter turnout last September, and a good turnout of women voters? I read somewhere that it had Taliban only in the mountains on the border of Helmand.

Matthew Shugart notes you are there to work on Afghanistan's electoral system, which needs some work. While reading up on Malalai Joya, I tripped over the sad case of Afghanistan's youngest politician, Salima Sharifi, an 18-year-old schoolgirl who won 2,114 votes, enough for the last of four reserved women's seats on Helmand's provincial council, and a place in history, of sorts. Helmand has about a million inhabitants, of whom (thanks to the Taliban boycott) only 194,742 voted, only 187,344 cast valid votes scattered between 117 candidates, the last name on the ballot got the most votes (10,698) -- shades of Belgium, where the last spot is the best place from which to break the slate -- so, with only 2,114 votes in a province with a million voters, she complains she was elected to a powerless council. No wonder? Luckily, Helmand is far from typical.

At 1:31 AM, Blogger Wilf Day said...

P. S. My apologies, on Farah.

Although, says the CBC, "Just 1,600 NATO-led troops operate in western Afghanistan's desert plains and mountainous provinces like Farah. The region has long been spared the kind of violence witnessed in southern and eastern provinces" I see that "Up to 200 Taliban fighters in dozens of pickup trucks poured into the Farah town of Bakwa early Thursday, surrounding a police compound and firing rocket-propelled grenades at policemen, said Maj.-Gen. Sayed Agha Saqeb, the provincial police chief.

"The raid came a day after Taliban insurgents ambushed a police patrol in Farah. Four police officers and four militants were killed. Several days earlier, a roadside bombing there wounded four Italian soldiers."

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