Weddings, prisons and rebranding the Taliban

11 05 2010

Butcher's shop beside the road on the way to Istalif

We made another trip to Istalif and reached one of the ridges for a 3000m high picnic. With late rains the valleys are still green and very pleasant to walk through. Up on the ridges you can see between nearby peaks to the bigger mountains to the north. Meeting the same Istalifi shepherd I saw a few months before I was reminded of a recent story of an ex-TM colleague who has gone back to the UK to work on a friend’s farm to make money for up-coming studies.

Metal workshop on the way to Istalif. I've seen the big pans used for roasting popcorn but are probably used more for rice of which Kabuli is the speciality.

 The Afghans who have heard this feel insulted that they were taking advice, sometimes instruction from a shepherd. To have to try and explain that a university graduate working on a farm between degrees isn’t a shepherd seems one of the biggest differences in cultural belief I’ve experienced. Our colleagues believe that farming is the poorer living of which shepherding is the most remote.

Bright lights of a Kabul Wedding Hall. The choice of venue and size of these parties are a status symbol for Afghan men.

I went to my first Afghan wedding a few weeks ago. I was warned that these can be quite an intense experience for foreigners, taking your turn dancing under the gaze of everyone else in the room is obligatory. A cost to the Groom of at least $10,000 , the average Afghan wedding in Kabul is comparable to European standards in expense and therefore equivalent to a few years’ salary even for professionals. 

Congratulating the groom, Farid on his big day. Segregated, in this case by a high screen the two wedding parties, male and female eat and dance the night away. More a case of dance like everyone's watching.

The coloured wedding hall lights flickering in the city near the fort are the exuberant kitsch that Afghani’s have come to crave since the Taliban left the city. More than anything else the pressure for Afghan males to accumulate the money for this step up the social ladder affects our resourcing at TM. Photos of the wedding to follow. 

The lights of ISAF's Bagram Airbase seen from the other side of the Shomali Plane

On the way back we descended into the Shomali Plane by a different road and the lights of Baghram airbase flickered ahead of us. This has become a more controversial site since the accusations, denied by Vice Admiral Harward in charge, that there is a second prison with allegations of abuse from former inmates. As a favour to the Vice Admiral, who has help us with the MK school, I took a group of American servicemen and woman who ran Bagram’s detention centres around Murad Khane. Despite their assurances that the detainees left the prison as better people I was confused as to how they could make that judgement considering how unaware they were of Afghan customs during their 2 hours in MK. 

Istalif Valley in early summer. The river creates and destroys in equal quantities. Even since the last trip a few weeks before the valley is greener but the riverside road has become impassable in places

 Aga Khan Trust for Culture have sponsored an exhibition of paintings and photographs. Afghanistan Observed 1830-1920 neatly catalogues Britain’s interest in the country. At a time when Britain was taking greater interest in Afghanistan as a barrier to Russia moving south into India paintings and drawings became as much about intelligence gathering as a record for posterity. The earlier paintings show views of key cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Ghazni. Later photographs also provide an interesting comparison to changes in the cityscapes, particularly Kabul, but due to the ease of capture also give an insight into lifestyle, dress and the character of the period. 

The Taliban have announced a new strategy although no-one is sure exactly how this will materialize. To assist the uninformed New Yorker magazine has gone some way to filling this gulf in security intelligence. 

Lad in Istalif on his way home lugging brushwood, probably for the animals.

Afghaniman is a lad who was lugging brushwood down the valley in Istalif. His father would be perfect for a Davidoff advertisement. Perhaps a photo next time. 

And finally congratulations to the founder of Turquoise Mountain, Rory Stewart who has become MP for Penrith and the Borders. 

Duncan DJ

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Earthquake at the party

24 10 2009
Rendering a mud-brick wall with cargil, literally mud-straw. Note the small street-side windows for privacy.

Rendering a mud-brick wall with cargil, literally mud-straw. Note the small street-side windows for privacy.

There was an earthquake on Thursday night that momentarily disturbed our party held for USAID-sponsored staff leaving Kabul and also welcoming the new. Much vodka jelly was consumed in view of the glimmering lights of Kabul’s hill developments. The fort has a few new cracks in the wall and the kitchen table was covered with a new layer of dust at breakfast. The epicentre was in Northern Afghanistan near the neck of the Wakhan peninsular, a remote mountainous region with limited access. Damage in Kabul was minor but reports of casualties will take a while to filter through from the mountain communities already cut off but the oncoming winter.

View of the hill settlements during the day. As city electrical power has strengthened so the evening view improves.

View of the hill settlements during the day. As city electrical power has strengthened so the evening view improves.

International pressure has done its job. Karzai now publicly supports a runoff in the name of a bonafide government and long-term stability. Bring on November 7th!

Although TM’s work is fairly distant from the wider political issues of Afghanistan not surprisingly our lifestyle is not. There is a strong argument for reducing military force based on the number of Pakistani Taliban who cross the border to more than match each increase in ISAF forces. A political commentator and author of Ghost Wars, Steve Coll is critical of leaving a void but from the insider’s view his argument for a ‘winnable solution’ seems stretched. Rory Stewart provides an articulated argument for a reduction in international military numbers matched by an increased focus on development that instead stabilises the nation from inside. However the difference between community development and ‘state-building’ can be difficult to see from the top of a 9 figure budget courtesy of the US tax payer. See an extension of these arguments here. (As difficult as it is to profile the Taliban’s make up and expectations it is also hard to project the course of Afghanistan’s future and the effect of essentially a re-Talibanisation of the country were the international community to withdraw. Key to this is the debate whether removing the Taliban, if ever possible, would lead to a destabilisation of Al Qaeda, the more real threat to international security.

Excuse the brief move from everyday life to politics but as I say some days it is difficult to separate the two.

Duncan DJ