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Filkins on Afghanistan

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Whenever I want to get depressed about our permanent war in Afghanistan, I know what to do. Just read Dexter Filkins’ latest. There’s his astonishing book, The Forever War, and there are his regular reports in the NYT. But he has left the NYT for the New Yorker, and today his first New Yorker piece appeared.

I’d prefer to wait until we get the print issue to read it, but everywhere I turn in the blogopshere, I find reference to it and quotes from it. I may as well join in. The article describes a scandal in which

dozens of Afghan leaders and businessmen … , collectively, accepted tens of millions of dollars in gifts and bribes—some sources say as much as a hundred million dollars—from executives at Kabul Bank. The scandal is perhaps the most far-reaching in the nine years since Karzai took power. …

American officials say that Kabul Bank’s largesse included members of parliament and almost anyone whose silence would allow bank executives to embark on a spree of buying, lending, and looting. In addition, some former and current Afghan officials say, Kabul Bank became an unofficial arm of the Karzai government, bribing parliamentarians in order to secure votes for its legislative agenda.

The tens of millions of dollars that have, according to investigators, been doled out by Kabul Bank to Afghan officials are part of at least seven hundred million dollars determined to be missing from the bank.

You can read the details in the article. But here’s the key passage that has been widely quoted today:

Nine years into the American-led war, it’s no longer enough to say that corruption permeates the Afghan state. Corruption, by and large, is the Afghan state. On many days, it appears to exist for no other purpose than to enrich itself. Graft infests nearly every interaction between the Afghan state and its citizens, from the police officers who demand afghani notes to let cars pass through checkpoints to the members of Karzai’s government who were given land in the once empty quarter of Sherpur, now a neighborhood of grandiose splendor, where homes sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bribes feed bribes: if an Afghan aspires to be a district police officer, he must often pay a significant amount, around fifty thousand dollars, to his boss, who is often the provincial police chief. He needs to earn back the money; hence the shakedown of ordinary Afghans. In this way, the Afghan government does not so much serve the people as it preys on them. Last year, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the hundred-and-seventy-sixth most corrupt country out of a hundred and seventy-eight, surpassed only by Somalia and Myanmar. “It’s a vertically integrated criminal enterprise,” one American official told me.

Really, what are we doing there? Why has Obama made this his war? Is there any way he will see fit to find a genuine exit strategy?

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Categories: Politics, War

The Routes of Man

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Last February, I read reviews a week apart of two new travel books and thought both would be good reading on a trip to the east coast I would be taking during the first week of March: Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World and Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory. But which to bring?

As I explained in a post last April, I bought, and brought, both. That’s one of the benefits of the Kindle. Weight and space aren’t issues. Unfortunately, as I also mentioned, one of the Kindle’s weaknesses is its poor display of maps, and what’s a travel book without maps? Using a Kindle for such books is inevitably a compromise.

Once I boarded the plane for my trip, I immediately began to read Conover’s book. It has six chapters, each describing a different trip, each originating as an independent magazine article. Between chapters are shorter pieces in which Conover reflects on roads. The various parts don’t quite cohere into a single book, but they are individually engrossing and together offer a fascinatingly varied assemblage.

For whatever reason, I read the first two pieces during my trip, started a third, and on my return put the book aside. As other books came and went, I kept meaning to get back to it. While reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia in December, I decided the time had come. But first I had to read the new books I had pre-ordered that would be coming out earlier this month, Robert Crais’ The Sentry and Paul Clemens’ Punching Out. Which I did. With those books done, last week I picked up my Kindle and returned to the road between Mombasa and Kampala. Conover had joined a trucker to learn about the commercial traffic between Kenya and Uganda, following up on a visit years earlier in which he had investigated the spread of AIDS by truckers.

I wrote about the first chapter last April. It finds Conover “tracking of the source of mahogany being used for expensive furniture in New York, from New York backwards to the Peruvian coast, over the Andes, and down into the Amazon basin.” I would say, having finished the book, that that was one of my two favorites. The second chapter describes some villages in the Himalayas that the Indian government is slowly building a road to, and that in the meantime use the traditional winter route down a frozen river through a magnificent gorge to reach larger towns.

The fourth chapter is by far the most powerful. In his matter of fact manner, Conover describes the main north-south road through the West Bank, connecting all the major cities from Nablus to Hebron, now broken up by a myriad of Israeli checkpoints. The political issues of occupation and Israeli settler expansion are not discussed in any great detail by Conover himself, but rather laid out through the eyes and voices of Israelis and Palestinians, with Conover switching back and forth in perspective, and drivers, between Israeli military forces and ordinary Palestinians.

We get to relax a bit in the next chapter, an account of a tourist trip in China with a group of car owners traveling together under the auspices of an auto club. The intensity returns in the closing chapter in which no great driving journey is taken. We just stay in Lagos, making short journeys through a seemingly impenetrable, hopelessly crowded city. Anyone reading the chapter may be less than enthusiastic about booking a trip to Nigeria. I remember a delegation from the University of Port Harcourt visiting the university five years ago and, as part of their itinerary, meeting with a few of us for an hour in the dean’s office. They invited us to visit and, when I asked, assured us that all was safe, contrary to what I had been reading some days before. Safe or not, Lagos seems to be beautifully situated. Maybe, some day, … .

Categories: Books