During a race on Sunday to mark the Day of the Turkmen Racehorse, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his horse Berkarar (Mighty), of the national Akhal-Teke breed, were the first to stride across the finish line, claiming an $11 million prize.
The strongman, who is known as Arkadag (the Patron), bested six other riders by completing the 1,000-meter course in 21.2 seconds, and proclaimed that he would donate his winnings to a state-run company that breeds horses. "The spectators' attention was riveted on the golden arrow -- Berkarar, led by the leader of the nation," one news outlet in the country gushed (never mind that, as Russia's RIA Novosti noted, public institutions forced workers to attend the races or "face punishments including dismissal from work").
It was a nice and tidy story spun by the country's state-controlled media -- until, that is, EurasiaNet got hold of a video reportedly showing Berdymukhammedov crossing the finish line, only to tumble off his horse and face-plant in the dirt, prompting black-suited officials to frantically run to the president's aid. Here's another clip of the incident circulating on Turkish television (h/t RFE/RL):
EurasiaNet has more:
The motionless Berdymukhamedov, who was apparently briefly knocked unconscious, was haphazardly lifted in a manner that could have left him paralyzed, if his spine had been injured. Security officials in the crowd waved for cameras to stop filming and snarled at those that continued. An ambulance sped out onto the track and the huddled ministers and security officials loaded Berdymukhamedov inside, to be whisked away to receive medical attention.
For approximately an hour it was not clear if Berdymukhamedov was alive or dead, or how injured he might be. Security officials had little idea what to do. Along with dignitaries in the stands, they sat uncomfortably in their seats, sure only that leaving the stadium was not an option. Finally, state cameramen arranged themselves and Berdymukhamedov briefly presented himself, moving stiffly but able to wave to the crowd, which cheered.
Berdymukhammedov's affection for Akhal-Teke horses has been well-documented since he took office in 2006. He's authored two books about them -- "The Flight of Celestial Race Horses" and "Akhal-Teke - Our Pride and Glory," and launched a government website, "Heavenly Akhal--Teke Horses," to boot. He's also mandated annual beauty contests for the horses, and once fired the head of the national equine association for not doing enough to develop the horse industry.
As for the horse carrying Berdymukhammedov on Sunday? He appears to be safe for now.
Journalists have had their hands full this week with reports of Iran's fake time machine, not to mention the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the country's south. But somehow, in all the excitement, an Iranian proposal to annex Azerbaijan went largely unnoticed.
On Tuesday, Iran's Fars news agency reported that Azerbaijani-speaking lawmakers in Iran had introduced a bill to re-annex their neighbor to the north. Iran lost Azerbaijan in 1828 -- "The most frustrating chapter in the history class!" Fars laments -- when it was forced to sign the Turkmenchay treaty, ceding the territory to Russia. The legislators propose revisiting the terms of the treaty, which, according to Fars, means "the 17 cities and regions that Iran had lost to the Russians would be given back to Iran after a century."
For its part, Azerbaijan has told Iran to "bring it" -- diplomatically speaking. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Siyavush Novruzov of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party has declared that revisiting the treaty would result not in Azerbaijan being annexed to Iran, but rather in Tehran ceding its northwestern territory to Azerbaijan.
While all this may sound like the makings of an international showdown in a strategically sensitive region, here's the comforting part: in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides have repeatedly brandished the treaty as an empty threat. Take a look at this January 1992 edition of one Kentucky daily:
Screenshot of the Kentucky New Era
Or a December 2011 headline from Azer News that reads, "MP wants to 'annex Azeri territory to Iran.'"
On the other side of the border, Azerbaijan has threatened more than once to reclaim the region in Iran known as "Southern Azerbaijan." And as we wrote in February 2012, minority lawmakers in Baku have even provocatively suggested changing the country's name to "Northern Azerbaijan," implying ownership over the Iranian territory to the south.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Iran expert Alex Vatanka explained why, despite significant cultural and linguistic overlap, the two countries remain tense neighbors. After securing independence in 1991, Azerbaijan failed to become the close Shiite ally that Tehran wanted, he notes. And since 2003, Vatanka adds, "Baku has grown both considerably richer -- thanks to revenues from energy exports -- and noticeably bolder in its foreign policy."
This boldness -- which includes the purchase of weapons and technology from Israel in exchange for granting the country a foothold on the Iranian border -- has driven an increasingly substantial wedge between Azerbaijan and Iran. In other words, don't be surprised if we see this headline crop up again ... and again and again.
The United States and Pakistan have not had the greatest year -- or decade -- from a diplomatic perspective. Just today, for instance, Pakistan and Iran launched a natural gas pipeline that Washington has vigorously opposed. Reflecting on the state of U.S.-Pakistani relations at the end of 2012, one senior State Department official told reporters:
Obviously, if you sort of step back a little bit, for us, 2011 was as hard a year in U.S.-Pakistan relations as you can imagine.... And so we tried in 2012 to sort of get back into some sensible business with them. Our philosophy has been that it ought to be possible between Pakistan and the United States to systematically identify our shared interests and act on them jointly.
Apparently, 12-year-olds have no trouble doing just that. Through the Marshall Direct Fund's Global Kid Connect program, Aspen Country Day School in Colorado has been taking part in a pen pal exchange with Lahore Grammar School in Pakistan. In their letters, which the organization has posted online, the elementary and middle schoolers go beyond identifying "shared interests" (Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift), broaching some touchier subjects as well.
Audra, a seventh-grader, writes:
Not many of the Pakistani students' letters have been posted online. But judging from the responses by Aspen students, terrorism is a recurring theme in the exchanges, Here's Tristan, 13:
To answer your question. We don't think your country is all terroriscs [sic] but we think that your country has terrorists in it. Are there terrorists in your country?
Meanwhile, Sarah, a seventh-grader, unequivocally states her lack of an agenda when it comes to Pakistan:
Here's my personal favorite, from Andrew, 13, and Mat, 9:
You have to give these kids credit. It might be time for the State Department to recruit some junior ambassadors.
China's People's Daily may have taken some heat this week for publishing what the Shanghaiist described as a "leering" slide show of a "beautiful" journalist, but some news outlets in Kazakhstan have been one-upping the Communist Party daily when it comes to misogyny. This week, in honor of International Women's Day on March 8, the Kazakh website Vox Populi is hosting a Miss Military Kazakhstan contest -- encouraging readers to vote not for models but for "beauties" from various military and law-enforcement units who "wear shoulder straps" and guard the country.
On Wednesday, Kazakhstan's Tengri News reported on the competition as if it were a horse race:
Judging by the current results of voting the National Guard of Kazakhstan has the most beautiful officers. Three girls from the National Guard of Kazakhstan have taken the leading positions in the rating: Sergeant of the National Guard Bibigul Sauytova from Astana is in the first place, Junior Sergeant of the National Guard Saltant Bayzhumanova from Astana is in the second place and Sergeant of the National Guard Natalya Fokina is in the third place.
It's not clear how many times this particular contest has been held, but Tengri News reports that authorities in the country do host an annual Lady of Kazakhstan Police contest, with the winner appearing on the cover of a police magazine.
Which brings us back to International Women's Day. According to the website for the century-old celebration, the "tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, etc with flowers and small gifts." In keeping with that tradition, Vox Populi will award Miss Military Kazakhstan with a digital camera. And in a separate development, Tengri News is reporting that police in the country will give female drivers flowers and forgive them traffic violations in honor of the holiday. So, there's that.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. and Pakistani officials signed a memorandum of understanding today, finally reopening supply routes to Afghanistan after a seven month blockade. In a statement to the press, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Mozzam Ahmed Khan assured that public that the decision to restore supply lines was made "without any financial benefit."
That may be true for Pakistan, but not everyone is coming out of this empty-handed. The Associated Press reports:
"Stopping these supplies caused us real trouble," a Taliban commander who leads about 60 insurgents in eastern Ghazni province told The Associated Press in an interview. "Earnings dropped down pretty badly. Therefore the rebellion was not as strong as we had planned."
A second Taliban commander who controls several dozen fighters in southern Kandahar province said the money from security companies was a key source of financing for the insurgency, which uses it to pay fighters and buy weapons, ammunition and other supplies.
"We are able to make money in bundles," the commander told the AP by telephone. "Therefore, the NATO supply is very important for us."
The U.S. military estimates that theft, bribery and mismanagement put $360 million in the hands of the Taliban, regional war lords and criminals in 2010 alone -- with more than half that amount pinched from convoys along the supply routes.
Citing evidence "rang[ing] from sobering to shocking," a 2010 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report titled Warlord, Inc illustrated the extent of extortion and corruption along the Afghanistan supply routes and called for increased efforts to cut losses. Efforts to protect supply routes and diminish the influence of local power brokers have gained little traction and convoys remain a target for attack and theft.
Though today's MOU banned the transport of arms and ammunition, the Taliban's glee remains unabated. "We have had to wait these past seven months for the supply lines to reopen and our income to start again," cheered one commander, "Now work is back to normal."
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't choose his foreign visits lightly. On May 31, Putin makes his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a third term as president on May 7, to neighboring Belarus. The visit is highly symbolic of Russia's desire to be the leader in the post-Soviet space, as well as Putin's continued support for the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko (also known as "Europe's Last Dictator"). Afterwards, Putin will head to Germany and France, Russia's major trading partners in the EU. After the European visits, Putin will fly to speak with Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov in Tashkent, to Beijing, and finally to Astana, Kazakhstan, to meet with long-time ruler Nursultan Kazarbayev; countries central to Putin's vision of a Eurasian Union.
Earlier in the month, Putin suddenly declined to attend the G8 Summit in Camp David, under pretext that he was too busy forming a new Cabinet of Ministers, sending instead Prime Minister Medvedev. The move was widely seen as a snub to President Obama, as Putin avoided a meeting with the president, and sidestepped making the U.S. his first foreign visit. A few days later, Obama announced he would not be able to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vladivostok this September, because it conflicted with the Democratic Party convention.
Putin has now also taken the opportunity to snub the UK, by announcing he will not attend the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, even though the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on Russian territory in Sochi. Likely, Medvedev will once again be sent in his stead. Russian-British relations have been tense since the 2006 poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. Moreover the West has been pressuring Russian officials over the 2009 death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while he was detained in prison. Putin's foreign trip destinations are by no means accidental.
The squares out there who don't frequent the theaters of Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, probably haven't seen this year's movie and play about the life of Kazakhstan's authoritarian leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. Luckily for them, his story is coming out as a children's book. The AP reports:
A newly published book heralds [Kazakh President] Nursultan Nazarbayev's achievements on the international diplomatic scene in the form of illustrated fables, state news agency Kazinform reported.
The book, titled Leader of the Nation Nursultan, is being published to coincide with the president's 71st birthday Wednesday.
Government critics say such exercises are part of attempts to build a personality cult around Nazarbayev, who has ruled the oil-rich Central Asian nation since the 1980s, when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
Author Roza Akbolatova says the bright illustrations accompanying her stories will help make politics more accessible to children.
And if one fawning book wasn't enough, Akbolatova has written another: an essay illustrated with photos of meetings between Nazarbayev and well-known figures in Kazakhstan that is confusingly also called Leader of the Nation Nursultan.
No doubt this one will be up there with Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, and all the other fairy tales about oppressive dictators of oil-rich nations.
Judging from past experiences, Turkmenistan's autocratic president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, doesn't seem to be a lover of the animal kingdom. There was the time he reportedly fired one of his security officers for negligence leading to an "assassination attempt" -- by a cat. And once he fired 30 workers from the main state TV channel for allowing a cockroach to interrupt the evening news.
Apparently one animal does get the Turkmen seal of approval: horses. So much so that he issued a presidential decree on Monday ordering that national beauty contests for the country's thoroughbred horses should be held every April, coinciding with a celebration of the "annual horse days."
According to Reuters:
The best horses of the breed, distinguished by shimmering coats, long delicate necks and legs and popularly revered as "the wings of the Turkmen," will be chosen "to promote the glory of the heavenly racehorse worldwide," the decree said.
Special awards will be given to craftsmen for the best carpet featuring the horse, the best "holiday attire" for the breed, the best portrait and even sculpture.
Turkmenistan's 5 million people celebrate the Akhal Teke horse as a national emblem -- horses are often bestowed as gifts to foreign leaders and eating horse meat is especially taboo. The late leader Saparmurat Niyazov opened a $20 million leisure center for horses in 2004, complete with swimming pool, air-conditioning, and a medical center. Berdimuhamedov, an avid equestrian, wrote a 2008 book about Turkmen horse breeds.
Let's just hope a horse isn't involved in any other national mishaps -- there are only so many government workers to fire.
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
Tajikistan has agreed to give up a chunk of its territory to neighboring China:
Parliament voted Wednesday in favor of giving up around 1,000 square kilometers of land in the Central Asian nation's sparsely populated Pamir Mountains region. There was no immediate information on how many people live in the territory to be ceded.
Opposition leader Mukhiddin Kabiri said the land transfer is unconstitutional and represents a defeat for Tajik diplomacy. But Foreign Minister Khamrokon Zarifi portrayed it as a victory, saying China had initially claimed more than 11,000 square miles (28,000 square kilometers).
The dispute dates to the 19th Century, when Tajikistan was part of Czarist Russia.
It seems a little bit petty of China to be engaging in a land dispute with a country that could fit inside it 67 times, but every little bit helps I suppose. The Pamirs are in quite an interesting spot geopolitically, running from eastern Afghanistan and straddling the Tajikistan-Pakistan border all the way to China.
This has been a week of expansionism for China, which was accused by India of sending troops into a disputed region of Kashmir earlier this week, although Beijing denies it.
In a move aimed at punishing potentially naughty
citizens, the government of Tajikistan is trying to get its students studying
abroad at religious schools to return
home. Fearing a politically and religiously coupled radicalization against
its authority, the Tajik state stepped up the conflict by blocking websites
supposedly critical of the government and armed forces. AFP reports that the blockage:
comes after Tajik Defence Minister General Sherali Khairullayev accused local media at the start of the month of supporting the Islamist militants.
He said that journalists' coverage had been one-sided and focused solely on alleged shortcomings of the armed forces. 'They do not ask who has carried out a[n] act of terror, on whose orders,' he complained.
The broad backlash follows a series of attacks carried out inside this Central Asian state by what the government suspects are radicalized Muslim elements. In recent weeks, scores of government soldiers have died, some in unclear circumstances, but clearly linked to fighting operations in the particularly volatile Rasht region of Tajikistan.
Apparently, the state does not want to slide back into a repeat of civil war which ravished the country during the 90's and pitted the current government, backed by Russia, against a more diverse opposition of Muslim fighters and non-religiously affiliated resistance, at least partly based in Afghanistan at the time.
While there have been reforms in the country allowing political opposition, there are still problems with the political will and administration in carrying them out; thus the recent chaos reflects what seems like a still non-placated opposition which stems, in part, from the authoritarian and non-inclusive tendencies of the current government.
For the poorest of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics, the prospect of armed conflict is a tremendous expense -- both economically and politically -- that Tajikistan truly cannot afford and would be a setback to any nascent post-war progress that may have been acheived.
Tesgaye, once an aspiring fighter pilot, was one of 80 Ethiopian cadets sent to a Soviet military training facility in the remote republic of Kyrgyzstan in 1989 to master the art of flying combat aircraft.
"At that time in Ethiopia there was a military government, and because of an agreement between the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, they used to train pilots for the country's air force," Tesgaye explained.
Within two years, both the Soviet Union and Ethiopia's Marxist regime had collapsed, forcing the cadets to think carefully about their options for their future in a strange and foreign land.
Almost 20 years later, still fearing reprisals back home for the small role he played in the brutal rule of deposed Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, Tesgaye is marooned here — a world away from a family that has grown older without him.
The cadets have endured some horrific racial abuse during their time in exile, an ironic parallel to the thousands of Kyrgyz migrant workers who receive similar treatment in Russia.
Maybe it was all the excitement with the Russian spies last week, but somehow we missed one of the more intriguing things to grace the Wall Street Journal's letters page in a while: A full-throated defense of Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, written by Gerald Posner. Posner, you may recall, was an investigative reporter for the Daily Beast until February, when he resigned after being caught plagiarizing from the Miami Herald and other news sources. In the letter -- which concerns an unflattering recent story about Karzai ferrying cash out of Afghanistan -- Posner identifies himself as "Gerald Posner, Attorney at Law," and refers to Karzai as "my client." Huh?
FP spoke this afternoon with Posner (above left), who says he isn't just representing Mahmood Karzai (above right), but also the other two Afghan presidential siblings, Hamid's younger half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and older brother Qayum Karzai. It's an odd twist on the disgraced plagiarist-fabulist rehabilitation story, which often involves a legal career but not usually in the service of a beleaguered Central Asian ruling family. "They are really proud of the reputations that they have earned," Posner says of the Karzais, "and sort of in shock that they are viewed with such disdain in a country that is their ally in this process."
Christopher Bierlein (L), Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images (R)
China's Xinjiang province is known mostly for being a hotbed of separatist violence and government crackdowns on free speech. But not all the news coming from Western China is bad: just days after Beijing ended a controversial 10-month Internet blackout there, President Hu Jintao announced an ambitious aid package to bring the region's per-capita GDP up to the national average. The goal is to complete the project in as little as 10 years, and to help meet the deadline, provincial governments are getting involved:
More specifically, 19 relatively affluent regions including coastal and
central provinces and big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen,
will pipe support into different areas of Xinjiang during the next 10
years. In addition to financial aid, efforts will also be made to
improve employment, education and housing conditions for the poor in the
If your knowledge of Chinese geography is as rusty as mine, check out this neat color-coded map that highlights the participating provinces and breaks down their expected contributions.
Porfiriy / http://www.thenewdominion.net/1740/color-coded-guide-to-eastern-provinces-to-xinjiang-economic-aid-pairing/
This is interesting:
Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said Tuesday that "Bakiyev and his family are in Minsk under the protection of our state and me personally." His presence, however, could exacerbate Belarus' tensions with both the West and neighboring Russia, as well as with Kyrgyzstan itself. ...
Lukashenko's move to give refuge to Bakiyev appeared to be an open challenge to Russia, which he accuses of trying to absorb or crush his country. Many observers suggest that Russia supported or even aided Bakiyev's ouster, angered by his reneging on a promise last year to evict the U.S. base.
With Moscow's role in the lead-up to the Kyrgyz uprising becoming more clear, it will be interesting to see how other authoritarian governments in the region respond. Lukashenko's government has resisted Russian pressure to recognize the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With presidential elections scheduled for early next year, could we see Russia starting to put pressue on its onetime ally?
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
While his father's regime was being overthrown back in Kyrgyzstan, Maksim Bakiyev -- who was the head of the country's Agency for Investment and Economic Development -- was on his way to the U.S. for a series of meetings in Washington. The new government charged Maksim with embezzlement and abuse of power on Friday, the only problem is that no one now knows where he is.
RFE/RL's Richard Solash explains:
During an April 14 press briefing, U.S. State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley was asked by a reporter whether Maksim Bakiev was seeking asylum stateside -- one of the various rumors that have been swirling in recent days.
Crowley’s response: “We don’t believe his [Kurmanbek Bakiev’s] son is in the United States. We don’t know where he is.”
Someone going by "maksimbakiyev" was posting on Livejournal last week, but gave no clues about his whereabouts.
He's not the only one laying low. No one is currently answering the phone at the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington and a recorded message says the voicemail-box is full.
In the wake of a rally that turned violent this morning, deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has left the country:
Gunfire had been heard earlier as Mr Bakiyev spoke in the southern city of Osh; an opposition rally was going on nearby.
Mr Bakiyev was quickly bundled into his car and driven back to Jalalabad where a plane was seen taking off from the nearby airport.
The plane later landed in the southern Kazakh city of Taraz, a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman said.
Kazakhstan currently holds the presidency of the OSCE.
The opposition takeover of Kyrgyzstan's government now appears to be complete. Given the violence and chaos of the initial uprising, Roza Otunbayeva's interim government seems to have consolidated power remarkably quickly, and it never really seemed like Bakiyev's supporters had a chance. Once the dust settles, the tick-tock account of how all this transpired should be pretty fascinating.
The situation in Kyrgyzstan is rapidly evolving, with reports that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has fled the country, the unconfirmed death of Interior Minister Moldomus Kongantiyev in the protests, and a declaration by opposition leaders of the formation of a new government. In this age of mass digital media, viral videos of the unfolding events are uploaded virtually as they happen. Here's a roundup of some of the best footage online.
Gunshots and explosions are clearly audible in the above video from the AP, which also appears to show protesters marching through the streets, weapons in hand, and seemingly in control.
This footage from Russia Today, which is funded by the Russian government, shows government forces taking position, and protesters chasing after fleeing riot police. One policeman is injured in the video, and swarmed upon by the crowd.
Watch the above clip for a video compilation of foreign news reports.
The Euronews footage above is notable for its filming of indiscriminate shooting by government forces, starting at the 0:46 mark.
You can follow the protests on Twitter with #Krygyzstan, and watch Passport for future updates.
Eurasianet reports on the latest from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek where at least 21 people have been killed. Stores are being looted, the office of the state broadcaster has been raided and automatic weapons fire has been exchanged between rioters and security forces. There are reports of black smoke rising from the parliament building.
The whereabouts of President Kurmanbak Bakiyev are still unknown but rumors are flying:
The whereabouts of President Bakiyev as of the evening of April 7 could not be verified. Some rumors circulating in the city suggested that he had taken refuge at the US air base at Manas, outside of Bishkek. Other reports claimed that he had fled the country. Opposition leaders, including Omurbek Tekebayev and Almazbek Atambayev, were reportedly released after being taken into custody on April 6.
Earlier in the day, Bakiyev declared a state of emergency following initial clashes between police and protesters outside the government headquarters. During the afternoon, demonstrators drove two trucks into the White House gates. They caught fire as Ministry of Interior forces stationed within the compound shot at the vehicles with what appeared to be live ammunition, a EurasiaNet.org correspondent witnessed.
Bakiyev himself took power in the 2005 "Tulip Revolution," overthrowing authoritarian President Askar Ayakev, but his tenure has been marked by increasing authoritarianism and corruption.
If Bakiyev were actually taking refuge at Manas, it would be ironic. The presidents numerous threats to shut down the facility have been a perpetual annoyance to the Pentagon, which relies on Manas to bring goods into Afghanistan.
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
Update: Thanks to a reader's comments, the post below has been edited to reflect that all three band members were born in Afghanistan.
New York City has the National. Minneapolis-St. Paul has the Hold Steady. Portland has the Shins. And Kabul has... Kabul Dreams?
While the aforementioned American cities are famous among music fans for the popular indie rock bands they've produced, if you're looking for the indiest city in the world for indie rock music, you might have to go Kabul, birthplace of Afghanistan's only rock band, Kabul Dreams.
Formed less than a year ago, Kabul Dreams is the result of a musical friendship formed between three young men who had returend to their native Afghanstian after having lived abroad as refugees: singer/guitarist Suleman Qardash, who had previously lived in Uzbekistan; bassist Siddique Ahmed, who had previously lived in Pakistan; and drummer Mujtaba Habibi, who had previously lived in Iran.
Already, the band has enjoyed great success in Kabul. It regularly plays concerts in the city's one and only nightclub to an audience of Western aid workers and diplomats. But the band, fresh off a 1,000 person show at a contemporary Asian music festival in Delhi and Jaipur, India, may soon outgrow the Kabul club scene. "We are aiming for big things," said Ahmed. "A record label, an international tour," Qardash added.
As for the band members' opinions on Afghan politics, Ahmed said that "They are talking about pulling out foreign troops. Nobody likes troops from another country in their country, but everybody knows that if the troops leave, the [Afghan factions] will start fighting each other again because that's their nature, that's what they do." Given the U.S. State Department's emphasis on cultural diplomacy and exchange, who knows what's in store for Kabul Dreams. (I'm hoping that Pitchfork will dispatch a foreign correspondent to keep us up-to-date.)
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
The newest Wired magazine has a great, terrifying article on Ug99, a fungus that is imperiling wheat crops, auguring possible famines and rising food prices. The story focuses on the damage Ug99 has already caused from southern Africa north to Iran, the USDA's race to genetically engineer resistant plants, and the fungus' possible implications for the United States, where wheat is the third-biggest cash crop.
But I wondered about Ug99's possible implications for Afghanistan -- on the fungus' frontline, and where wheat is the chief legal cash crop. On one hand, this is clearly terrible news. About 80 percent of Afghans are involved in farming; millions of livelihoods depend on wheat, particularly in the north and west. Plus, big wheat hauls recently started cutting into poppy production. On the other hand, by virtue of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, the country receives considerable food and seed assistance. The USDA already has an infrastructure in place to help Afghan farmers use higher-yield seeds; NATO and USAID already have an extensive food-aid infrastructure -- that might help mitigate Ug99's effects, if the fungus makes it into Afghanistan this growing season. But here's to hoping it doesn't.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
On his New Yorker blog, George Packer takes aim at the "devastatingly unremarkable" bloviation of Beltway journos. He cites Washington Post columnist (and "dean" of the Washington press corps) David Broder's analysis of a recent Sarah Palin speech as "[showing] off a public figure at the top of her game -- a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself." He also offers up the New York Times' Adam Nagourney's coverage of a recent Republican leadership conference: "Here in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way."
These two characterizations from two top writers for the United States' two leading papers, Packer argues, are but purple guff -- in the words of Michael Kelly, examples of how the "idea of image" is "faith in Washington." The journalists follow the same, strange, well-worn routine. They take the mundane comings and goings of major political figures, interpret them according to prevailing partisan winds, and write them up in the overheated, undercooked language of a harlequin novel. The result is airy nonsense that fervently insists on its trenchancy.
Packer further demonstrates the absurdity of this journalistic convention by satirically recasting the Palin passage about Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats."
The point is that Washington coverage of major political figures is not just bizarre stylistically, but dead substantively. To discuss for hundreds of words how Palin is at the top of her game is to spend hundreds of words not discussing her actual relevance to the fractured conservative scene. Foreign correspondence on major political figures needs to be more explanatory than illlustrative -- and it would be better if coverage of Washington were more like the clear-eyed, clean-written analysis of Kabul.
Yet, Washington is -- we all must agree -- as complicated and tribal and strange a town as any. Contrary to Packer, I see it as increasingly covered as if it were, with the conventional-wisdom reporting shifting away from personality-focused atmospherics towards structure- and process-focused explanation.
It is a matter of necessity. It once used to be that you understood the presidency by understanding the president, at least according to the corps. Clinton was a man of appetite and a bleeding heart -- ergo the klieg-lit campaigns, the Lewinsky affair, the Brady Bill, the low-income tax cut. Then, the press corps put George W. Bush on the couch. The stubborn Texan-by-way-of-Connecticut was always trying to prove himself to his father, the correspondents said, hence the invasion of Iraq and the wartime tax cut.
But you'd look like an idiot trying to explain Obama's Washington by explaining (the rather Vulcan) Obama. To be sure, the press corps has limned his psychology -- most brilliantly in the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza's profile of Obama's sharp-elbowed navigation of the Chicago machine and most obviously in the Obama-as-poker-player stories. Both Broder and Nagourney have filed the profiley fluff Packer derides. But both Broder and Nagourney have also written granular pieces on the strange conventions and rules of the White House and Hill.
It seems the deans of Washington journalism are increasingly treating their home city the way Packer treats Kabul -- and it is a very good thing indeed.
Today marks the start of a grueling set of four congressional hearings for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McChrystal:
We'll be live-blogging and live-tweeting throughout, and watch for thorough coverage on the AfPak Channel as well.
So, what to look for?
Well, above all: details about the Obama administration's planned escalation of the conflict, including where the soldiers are headed, information about strategic goals, information about the civilian surge and population-centric strategy, questions about the importance of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and questions about relations with the Karzai government and Pakistan.
Also: dissent. Eikenberry and McChrystal aren't particularly fond of one another right now. The ambassador reportedly strongly questioned the strategy the latter helped create, arguing that sending more troops without bolstering the Afghan government might foster dependency and undercut the state; McChrystal, in contrast, wanted to send 40,000, rather than 30,000, troops. One of the unstated goals of the hearings will be to show a united face. But members of congress, as well as the press, will be looking for any cracks.
Yesterday, I wrote about the brief life and presumed death of Rep. David Obey's "war tax," also known as the "Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010." Obey and his cosponsors hoped to make the Afghan war pay-go from here on out, with an income tax surtax (one percent for most earners, and higher for high earners) linked to the cost of war.
I liked the idea precisely because so much of this war (around 40 percent) thus far has been funded with deficit spending during very good economic times, from 2001 to 2006, when high-income Americans certainly could have afforded higher taxes (which were cut by George W. Bush).
Commenters here and elsewhere asked: Why raise taxes during a recession, when the government has been deficit-spending wildly to boost the economy? Tax dollars are tax dollars, not earmarked for one use or another. Raising taxes is raising taxes. Isn't this precisely the time we're supposed to deficit spending?
Well, yes, but not all deficit dollars are created equal, I fear. If we spend an additional $60 billion on the Afghanistan war, it does do some good for the American economy. It goes to American companies to build things like planes and armor, to hiring new soldiers, to American contractors working in Afghanistan to build roads and schools. But, down the road, the United States doesn't get those roads and schools. Soldiers stop fighting in Afghanistan, but continue to collect salaries and benefits. This means the deficit dollar spent in Afghanistan isn't as effective as the deficit dollar spent in, say, Detroit.
For some data on this phenomenon, Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research produced a paper showing that war spending (rather than domestic spending) ultimately costs jobs and GDP.But all of this might be moot. It seems that Congress is considering extending the estate tax, which was due to expire for a year before coming back into force in 2011. The tax only hits estates worth more than $3.5 million. I say extend it, and expand it to include less, erm, ample estates as well. That seems even better than the Obey plan.
Today, U.S. President Barack Obama is announcing his plan to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This is, he says, the endgame; the White House press secretary has reportedly indicated that Obama plans to end major military operations within three years. But, in the meantime, Congress will have to figure out how to pay for all of those soldiers, who will cost an estimated $1 million each to deploy.
To that end, Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, last month introduced the Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010. It makes the war in Afghanistan pay-go, with a progressive tax (that would amount to an additional one percent of income tax for average-income Americans, and more for bigger earners) gauged to prior-year war spending. If we spend $100 billion on Afghanistan one year, the tax raises $100 billion the next; if we spend $1, it raises $1.
It's an obviously sensible idea. To date, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are the only ones the United States has funded without raising taxes -- mostly by running multibillion-dollar deficits and borrowing 40 percent of the wars' costs from other countries, who will have to be paid back, plus interest, in the future. (George W. Bush famously cut taxes during wartime.)
But Congressional sources, The Cable reported, have said that the bill will never reach the House floor, let alone Obama's desk. It's galling not just because the bill makes some obvious sense. It's shocking because it was a very moderate measure that would have covered just a sliver of the cost of war to the United States. The Share the Sacrifice Act sought to pay for only the yearly cost of Afghanistan war operations: not the aggregate cost of Afghanistan, or the interest the United States needs to pay its creditors, or the aggregate cost of both wars, or down-the-road costs (like healthcare and social security for added troops or the cost of replacing and repairing equipment).
Through 2009, the United States has spent $944 billion on Iraq and Afghanistan, with more than 70 percent of funds going to the former war. For 2010, the requested budget is $139 billion -- with $63 billion apportioned for Afghanistan. The Obey bill would have raised just that $63 billion with a tax levied in 2011 (and the option for presidential deferment if the economy hadn't recovered). That's 6 percent of aggregate spending over the past nine years.
In a smart post about the subject, Matt Yglesias writes, "The reaction to David Obey's 'war tax' idea is telling -- nobody seems to really think there are national interests at stake that are critical enough to be worth paying slightly higher taxes for. But if a war's not worth paying for, how can it be worth fighting? And if we don't pay for the war in the FY 2010 budget, we still need to pay back the loans."
It's worth remembering that Obey was attempting to fund just 6 percent of the war with income raised from taxes.
If you are like most people who heard Afghan President Hamid Karzai's re-inauguration speech, you are wondering about a few choice words:
Here I would like to invite all presidential candidates, especially my brother Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and my brother Dr. Ashraf Ghani, who is present here, to make joint efforts for fulfilling serious national duties and for a united, proud and developed Afghanistan."
Wait, is he making overtures to the opposition? Would Abdullah and Ghani go for it?
Well, for Ghani's part at least, the answers seems a near-certain no. Speaking as part of a joint FP and Oxfam America event today by Skype at the Newseum, Dr. Ghani responded to queries about Karzai's mention.
What does it mean? That Karzai is interested in having "my name," said Ghani, but "not my ideas." He went on to say that he had "strict conditions" for entering the government, and was "not inclined" to join "unless those conditions are met."
So, looks like the powering-sharing option is still out. But alas, that should come as no surprise.
There's nothing more frustrating than reading an article which purports to answer a question that it really dodges. Take, for example, "How to Measure the War," by inveterate Afghanistan and Iraq indexers Jason Campbell, Jeremy Shapiro, and Michael O'Hanlon. One would expect to finish the piece with a better understanding of the metrics that we will use to judge our progress in Afghanistan than after reading, say, Taro Gomi's Everyone Poops. That would be incorrect.
Instead, the piece meanders inoffensively through thirteen pages, informing the reader that, yes, metrics are important in a counterinsurgency campaign. Yes, they can be misused and suffer from a lack of concrete data. And then there's this: "Unfortunately...metrics will not be up to the job of diagnosing clear and incontrovertible proof of progress or lack thereof in Afghanistan."
That's disturbing news, especially coming from the people who have followed the numbers in Iraq closer than anyone not in a uniform. It's also, thankfully, not particularly convincing. The authors argue that, because the primary measure of success in Afghanistan will be the effectiveness of the Afghan government, this presents a set of metrics which are hard to measure. Well, here are a few metrics to gauge the capability of the government off the top of my head: I would be interested in knowing in what parts of the country the government can collect taxes; how many students regularly attend government-run schools; and where the government can provide regular services, from functioning courts to trash pickup.
Those are just the basics. You can read the Obama administration's metrics for measuring progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan here. I'm sure there are more complicated metrics for a government's capabilities. So how about it, Passport readers? What do you think are the important factors to measure in Afghanistan to determine if the US war effort is worth the cost?
We're two installments into New York Times writer David Rohde's five-part epic on the seven months he spent as a hostage of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I can't recommend it enough to anyone interested in the country. Here's one fascinating excerpt, from the first part:
Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of "Al Qaeda lite," a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.
Living side by side with the Haqqanis' followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.
Rohde's revelations about his kidnappers themselves are even more interesting. The Times reporter, his driver, and his translator were on their way to interview a Taliban leader, Abu Tayyeb, when their car was hijacked. They were taken hostage by one Atiqullah, who said he had never heard of Abu Tayyeb. A few weeks into his detention, Rohde finds:
In conversations when our guards left the room, Tahir and Asad each separately whispered to me that Atiqullah was, in fact, Abu Tayyeb. They had known since the day we were kidnapped, they said, but dared not tell me. They asked me to stay silent as well. Abu Tayyeb had vowed to behead them if they revealed his true identity. Abu Tayyeb had invited us to an interview, betrayed us and then pretended that he was a commander named Atiqullah. I was despondent and left with only one certainty: We had no savior among the Taliban.
It's gripping, cinematic stuff -- and all the better knowing there's at least something of a happy ending. (Though Rohde is getting raked over the coals in his New York Times Q&A.)
With detail like this, the articles show the Taliban in all its diversity. Rohde notes that many members of the Taliban are far more religious and radical than they were 8 years ago. But the movement has fragmented and atomized. Rohde notes that his captors were in essence common thieves, not ideological warriors, driven by and even obsessed with money.
That's why initiatives to bribe and negotiate with Taliban leaders, paying them in exchange for security, seem so attractive to me. The sums of money wouldn't need to be great -- there's not much to buy in Afghanistan anyway. Plus, there are only around 10,000 members of the Taliban remaining in Afghanistan, only 3,000 of whom are full-time militants. (Note, for a sense of scale there: Afghanistan is a good-sized country with a population of 33 million.) And the strategy has worked well elsewhere.
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