Afghanistan is doing better than you think

The Afghan capital, far and away its largest city, is safer than ever by most measures. Of course, not all is well. In addition to the Serena attack, a popular Lebanese restaurant was bombed this past winter and many expatriates killed; a Norwegian journalist was recently murdered in cold blood on a street by a fringe insurgent group.

Don’t get me wrong. I fall into the “Afghanistan is doing better than you probably think” camp. But if you are going to write a piece like that, don’t do it on the back of a one-week Thomas Cook US military tour of all its successes, where they probably wouldn’t let you leave their closely guarded bases – and why not check the nationality of Nils Horner? Swedish or British but not Norwegian.

You must like sugar in your tea…

Pleased to see that I’m not the only interviewer who has occasionally brainstorms. In this part of the world I can easily blunder into the “did you see the cricket last night?” mode. Even Edward Luce, the FT’s chief US commentator does it, rather brilliantly, here with Prince Turki al-Faisal, billed here as the most experienced spy on the planet….over lunch….

You obviously love sweets, I blurt out suddenly – you’re a typical Bedouin [the original desert nomads of the Arabian peninsula]. Turki looks puzzled at my observation and ignores it. I feel slightly embarrassed at having indulged a stereotype and then risk more by asking him whether he likes dates. Luckily this gets him back on track. “I love dates,” he says. He mentions that his name, Turki, was given because he was the youngest of eight sons. It means the “unripened date that is left on the branch”, which will be picked later in the season. “Yes, I love dates passionately. I eat them every day.” Are you proud of having been born in [the holy city of ] Mecca, I ask, now in full conversational risk mode. “Well, it’s a privilege, but not especially,” he says. “It’s fun to tell people that I’m a Meccawi.”

The whole thing is well worth reading,

Who killed Nils Horner?

Solid analysis – as ever – from the Afghanistan Analysts Network on who murdered Nils Horner, the Swedish journalist. Islami Tahrik Fedai Mahaz has claimed the killing. But as this report points out, they may be best described as Jihadi entrepreneurs or PR warriors. And their claims should best be taken with pinch of salt.

Targeting and killing Horner specifically, as a person known to his assassins, would have required time (Nils had only been in the country for a few days) and expertise in surveillance and planning and would surely have been beyond the Fedai Mahaz’ capabilities. Killing a random foreigner in Kabul, however, may have been possible, given the lack of sophistication needed: just wait in an area where foreigners are found and have an escape route ready.

Or it might just have been a couple of chancers with a gun.

Al-Qaeda’s advice for the gullible

InspireA new issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine Inspire is out. I don’t know what it says about the banality of evil, but flicking through each new edition I’m always struck by the apparent naivety of evil. Or the amateurish approach.

In the Taliban’s English language mag it was their tribute to the Honda 125.

In issue 12 of Inspire it is the advice to followers contained in a section entitled “Open Source Jihad”. After detailing how to build a car bomb along the lines of Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, it suggests:

Disguise yourself during the operation, appear fat (add some clothes on you), change your complexion, be a ‘clone’, use any mask (believe me embarrassment is the last thing you will think about), wear a mask suitable for the festival, white beards on 25th Dec. All in all, be creative brother. The most important part to hide is your eyes and around.

Never mind the rather odd image of suicidal maniacs dressing up as cheery-faced Santas – or perhaps there’s something particularly appropriate about donning the costume of a figure that represents how secular capitalism overtook the religious meaning of Christmas. What always strikes me about these magazines is how parts always seem to have been knocked together by a couple of giggling teenagers in between computer science lectures.

In fact, the incoherent ramblings dressed up as ideology and the facile advice to avoid CCTV cameras when on missions would be easily dismissed as fodder only for the gullible, were it not for the fact that they sit side-by-side with detailed instructions for how to inflict the most carnage on civilian targets.

A fool’s errand?

Brilliant post by David Bezmozgis on the problems he now faces with his novel about Crimea. If only events would stop for a bit, so he can finish his book. The piece taps into the age old question about whether fiction can ever deal with our absurd world, which I wrote about with reference to 9/11 a few weeks back. And brings it up to date with questions about trying to keep pace with the rapid flow of information with which we all have to deal…

This raises the question whether the novel—in and of itself, or because of its modes of production—is suited to the task of engaging with “the grander social and political phenomena of our times,” especially now that it competes with a rushing stream of up-to-the-minute reporting, which can be written from and read anywhere. Does this render the pursuit of a novel with political ambition a fool’s errand?

Well worth reading his conclusion and the whole piece.

Music in Pakistan

One day I’d like to go to a concert, or a reading, or a book launch or some such in Pakistan or Afghanistan that isn’t sponsored by an embassy, a United Nations programme, an anti-drugs campaign or whatever. One day, maybe I will be able to go to an event that someone has put on just for fun.

Anyway, last week I went to a concert in support of Music Freedom Day, sponsored in Islamabad by several of the above.

Musicians here have a tough time. They make routine targets for the Taliban. And children are apparently discouraged from taking up instruments, partly because of those threats from extremists and partly – in that rather insidious way that hardliners seem to exert a hold on everyday life – because it’s no longer seen as a respectable way of life.

The result is that ancient instruments seem to be disappearing every year with the last of the aging ustads or maestros.

The concert reminded me of a question I was asked shortly after arriving here: What was the biggest difference between Pakistan and my previous home in Kenya. Four years later and I’ve worked out the answer: The absence of music.

Go anywhere in Kenya and you weren’t far from music. Most often it would be a tinny transistor radio pumping out lingala. Gangsta rap was also a favourite on the radio while, inexplicably, Rick Astley still reigned supreme in some of the clubs. The best bars had Congolese bands. And in my first house, I was woken at 9am every Sunday by a gospel choir next door.

Of course there is plenty of music in Pakistan. But the only music I ever hear around my home in Islamabad is the call to prayer. Westernised hotels play listless muzac. Shops echo to the cricket commentary or in the evening to nonsensical political debate.

Artists such as Sachu Khan, from Baluchistan, should have a much higher profile. To me, the lute-like tanbur and the bowed suroz evoke a bluegrass energy that deserves a wider audience. I can’t get enough of it.


Interesting update to the Maj Gen Abdul Raziq story, who you’ll remember was photographed in a rather warm embrace with the deputy commander of US forces in Afghanistan. After I highlighted Gen Raziq’s history of alleged human rights abuses in The Telegraph last week, a reader of this blog was in touch to point out that the offending photos had been removed from the military’s DVIDS site. Maybe the US was embarrassed by its ties to this character after all. I wrote to Isaf to investigate and got this response from Col Kevin Arata, Isaf Joint Command, Chief of Public Affairs…

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention.  I was not aware the photo in question was removed from DVIDS, as someone at a unit below me removed it because it had not been downloaded since February 13th.  The photo of Lt. Gen. Anderson and Maj. Gen. Raziq is now posted back to DVIDS.  For your information, the photo was still maintained on RC South’s Facebook page, and is still there now if you would like to download from that site as well. Look to the date of February 12th to find it on Facebook and at this link ( to find it on DVIDS.”

And now the picture is back. Curious. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.