Saturday, September 05, 2009

Policing Afghanistan

Why things won't improve without more support for the Afghan police

In the scorching heat of a June afternoon, Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan policeman in his mid-thirties, sits on the roof of a remote police checkpoint in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. A makeshift screen, fashioned from the hood of a rusty farm tractor shields him from the sun. Nearby rests a battered AK-47. Immediately by his side is an old Sanyo radio, playing Pashto songs. “This is my best friend,” he says of the radio, pulling it onto his lap. “When my conversation with the bullets is over, he is the one I can speak to.” Dozens of dead, muddy batteries at his feet testify to the radio’s longstanding service. As he rotates the radio’s broken knob, he speculates that the Taliban­ could be preparing to attack that very evening.

Read the complete story in the Atlantic

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hobnobbing With a Hyena in Helmand Province

It’s almost like a dog. Well, except that it could rip your limbs off and grind your bones at once. But for reasons unknown, some members of the Afghan National Police in one of the check posts in Lashkar Gah have decided to domesticate a wild hyena, a beast they caught in the woods.

The hyena, as you will notice in the pictures below, lives inside a man-made den, a small hole burrowed in the ground. It is tied around its neck to a long chain and if the look in its eyes is any indication, the hyena is not enjoying his new home. But at least the soldiers feed it well (they said they do) and occasionally drag it out of the hole for an exhibition to journalists like us.

“It is the angriest beast I’ve ever seen,” said one policeman. Of course, it’s a bone-crusher.

My suggestion: The Afghan Police should start their special K-9 unit – except these canines would not sniff opium, they would chew flesh and bones. Maybe winning against the Taliban is not all that difficult. Just let the beasts out.

And if you know hyenas well enough, you will know who'll have the last laugh.

More photos below:

All photos by Anup Kaphle

Monday, July 06, 2009

Helmand: A Nepalese View

I am not used to my appearance working in my favor. But one of the most frequent compliments I've bagged in Afghanistan is that I look like an Afghan, talk like an Afghan, and without my heavy load of body armor could possibly pass as one. (Graeme has this affliction, too, and is often taken for a freakishly tall Hazara.)

Except for the dust and the war, Afghanistan is not much different from my home, Nepal. Take naan-e afghani, for example. As Afghanistan's national bread, it is a staple in every household, often eaten with vegetables or meat, much like the flour roti of Nepal or India.

Read the complete post (and watch an Afghan police sing a Hindi song) in

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Death of a Soldier

It was only three days ago when Canadians here at the Kandahar Airfield were dancing to techno music, sipping from beer cans and celebrating Canada Day. But the cheers did not last too long. One could sense the air filled with tragedy and faces filled with remorse as Canadians lost one of their soldiers in a major attack yesterday.

Corporal Nicholas Ashley Bulger was killed and five others were injured after the armored vehicle they were traveling in ran over an IED in Zhari district, where the Canadians are fighting to a bloody stalemate with the Taliban. The blast occurred a few seconds after the vehicle carrying the commander of the Canadian forces in Afghanistan, Brig. G. Jonathan Vance, drove past.

My colleague James Murray, who is reporting from Afghanistan for the CBC, spoke to Cpl. Bulger on Canada Day, during which Bulger talked about missing his family and his hope for the future of Afghanistan.

The prayer and eulogy ceremony for Cpl. Bulger concluded just a couple hours ago. His body is now being flown back to Canada. Below are pictures from the ramp ceremony:

All photos by Anup Kaphle

Cpl. Bulgar became the 121st Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan since 2002.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Slideshow: Faces from Afghanistan

Graeme Wood, my colleague at The Atlantic, and I are currently in Afghanistan under a reporting fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association. You will get to read Graeme's amazing dispatches in his blog Prepared for the Worst, where I also hope to write for the next couple of weeks.

Click here to see my latest photos - Faces from Afghanistan - in the

Click here to see the entire slideshow.

Monday, June 29, 2009

In Lashkar Gah, Meeting Some Trouble

When the world was mourning the death of Michael Jackson, I was heading to Lashkar Gah in a British army convoy from Camp Bastion. An IED that was apparently waiting for us few miles down from Gareshk, had blown up early that morning, tearing a blue sedan into pieces.

A second IED that did not go off still lay there on the side of the road. Leaving the IED behind meant giving the Taliban another opportunity to use that IED at another time and place. So the commanding officers decided to wait until an IED team arrived and detonated the bomb. But waiting there in one of the most dangerous highways meant that we could come in contact with the Taliban any moment.

Luckily, we didn't. Why the Taliban were not tempted to attack while the convoy waited in a hot zone for almost an entire day, is worth wondering. It could be the heavy firepower the Brits had. It could be the intense heat during the day that made the Taliban fall asleep under mango groves. Or it could be because of the Gurkhas.

Some British officers told me that the Taliban are usually afraid of mounting an attack on the Gurkhas. "The Talibans often say not to engage with the Mongols," said one of the British soldiers, referring to the Gurkhas. A young soldier from the Royal Gurkha Rifles did not hesitate to agree with his British counterpart. "We are bigger in number right now," he said. "We could chew them raw." ["Chewing something/someone raw" is a Nepali slang for an easy victory.]

After a grueling wait in the hot sun for several hours, the IED was detonated - the ground beneath me shook for a second as an orange ball of fire went up in the air. Tired from an entire day's worth of sun, I was fast asleep on the back of the Ridgeback, when I was suddenly woken up by two shots. As we entered the bazaar in Lashkar Gah, one of the officers had fired two warning shots to keep the local vehicles away from the convoy.

Suicide bombers often target the security forces in Lashkar Gah. So the soldiers warn every driver on the street to slow down with hand signals and fire "mini flares" into the air. If that doesn't work, a warning gun shot follows.

Over the last couple of days, I've gotten a glimpse of this busy little city. Locals usually give a thumbs-up and a smile as the troops patrol the city. But there are the usual frowns and suspicious stares on the faces of some locals. A kid who was barely six-years old held his thumbs up for a second, then gradually shifted it downwards and stuck his tongue out at one of the soldiers. Another kid screamed and threw a pear at us while we were driving by. As simple as it is, not everyone seemed to adore their guests.

But the biggest problem in Lashkar Gah is not the inconspicuous hatred from a few little kids. It's the dish that the Taliban serve full time - deadly attacks. Every day during patrol, we heard about Taliban running over one of the police posts and killing ANP members. Soldiers told me about suicide bombers who drove their white Toyota sedans and motorcycles into ISAF and ANP vehicles in the busy bazaar. As one soldier put it to me, "You take your eyes off for one minute, and shit is bound to happen."

Driving down a busy market, it is hard to tell which one among the hundreds is waiting to meet his virgins in heaven. The troops make sure every single vehicle comes to a halt until the convoy drives past them. Gunners on top of the Landrovers have their fingers ready on the trigger just in case someone makes a move.

Knowing that someone could run into you and blow himself up is a scary thought. But it is that very fear that keeps me standing with my camera, next to the gunner the entire duration of patrol. What I get in return is a chance to capture normal (and sometimes abnormal) lives in Lashkar Gah.

As I wearily stand on the roof of the snatch Landrover
holding my gadgets, strange faces stare at me, tempting me to get back into the vehicle and stay put. But my camera is too arrogant to shy away, even for a minute. Because when sh*t happens, my camera wants to witness it.

Click here to see my photos from Lashkar Gah.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

PHOTOS: One Day in Lashkar Gah

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan - Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is a city that was once brought down to ruins by Genghis Khan. Almost 800 years later, the city still looks barren and demolished. Well, not entirely. Lashkar's marketplace is a vibrant center where you can get everything from yummy-looking loaves of Nan-e-Afghani, Afghanistan's national bread, to a motorcycle's spare parts. We rolled along the city in Snatch Land Rovers with the British Gurkhas, who are part of the Police Mentoring Team (PMT), helping train the Afghan National Police (ANP). More on PMT, ANP and the Gurkhas in posts to follow.

Note: All photos are copyrighted to Anup Kaphle. Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.

A Soviet era tank sits outside one of the ANP posts in Lashkar Gah.

An Afghan woman walks along the streets in Kashkar Gah.

A group of women sit on a heap of luggage on a tractor.

Boys take a ride on a donkey, the most popular form of transport for goods.

Local boys scavenge on a nearby streetside in Lashkar bazaar.

An Afghan lady enjoys the shade by the wall along the roadside.

Well, you know what these are.

A member of the Afghan National Police sits with an old radio, his best friend.

Children along the streets of Lashkar show thumbs-up to the convoy.

PMT team drive in the city during regular patrol.

A young boy signals as he sits to sell Nan-e-Afghani, the delicious bread.

A British service woman makes an attempt to pull-up in the gym.

Note: All photos are copyrighted to Anup Kaphle. Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Journalism and Embeddism

The first time I heard the word “embed” was in sixth grade Physics class – the protons are embedded to the nucleus like sesame are to a bread, so forth and so on. As I embarked on the first ever embed (sadly it’s a noun now) of my life, traveling with the security forces in Afghanistan, the only thing I didn’t want to be was the sesame that fell of the bread.

Like protons, I was positively charged – maybe a little overcharged – about coming to Afghanistan. Reality about the dangers of going out on patrol with the soldiers did not hit me fully until I took a first aid class with the Canadians at the Joint Task Force base in Kandahar Airfield. Faces blown up, bones sticking out of limbs, blood gushing out of the arteries – all of these made me look like a fool who packed a dozen handiplasts I bought from the CVS pharmacy in DuPont Circle. When I arrived at the base, I was given a tourniquet, the grand daddy of all handiplasts, the use of which could mean a likely amputation. (Likely, but not always.)

Half of the fear about embedding comes from the fact that you put on a flak vest that weighs about 25 pounds and holds two ceramic rifle plates; a Kevlar helmet tied tightly around the chin; a pair of ballistic-proof glasses and a pair of fire-retardant gloves. I gladly put them on.

I climbed the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) and sat toward the edge. The two Canadian soldiers who were guarding the convoy, spoke French and very little English. As the LAV roared on the dusty road, one of them increased the volume on the stereo to the maximum - the theme song for the ride was Papercut by Linkin Park, their favorite band. It reminded me of the HBO series, Generation Kill where the American marines shake their heads to AC/DC in their Humvees on their way to invading Baghdad. The only difference was that the Canadians weren't as pumped up as the Americans - because they weren't invading, they were rebuilding.

Once we got to Deh-E-Bagh, we waited in a small building where the shura between local leaders from Dand district and Canadian officials was about to begin. The war against terror probably changed the meaning of a traditional shura. While the idea of consultation remains the same, most of the shuras these days are spent listening to the grievances of the locals, which usually comes with a long wish list, and then getting vital intel about the Taliban. But at the least, shura gives an opportunity for the members of coalition forces to show the locals that they care and in return expect them to provide information about activities of the Taliban in local areas.

After the shura, we spent about 20-30 minutes in a small bazaar in Deh-E-Bagh, an area under heavy protection by members of the Afghan National Police and the Canadian forces. I mingled with the locals, who looked all excited to see their photos on the screen of my digital camera. "Akhbaar, Akhbaar," they said, asking me to put their photos on a newspaper. I was excited to see the locals, but was quite surprised that there were no women in this bazaar, not even little girls.

We got back on the LAVs and headed back to the base at Kandahar. Midway during the journey, the armored vehicle in front of us suddenly stopped. A cross-street electricity cable was hanging low obstructing the road. The pessimistic side of me immediately thought it was some kind of ambush - but before I could even ask what happened, the soldiers were able to push the wires up and we were moving again.

I hope to go back to Deh-E-Bagh again, except this time without being embedded. People tend to respond to your questions quite differently when they don't see a robust man with a massive gun sitting next to you. As safe as these embeds usually are, it is hard to move around flexibly if what you are really trying to get at is the lives of the locals in these small towns. But again, without embedding, I would probably make a really good feast for the Taliban.

One of the first books I ever read on war correspondents was “Chechnya Diary” by Thomas Goltz in which Goltz skillfully narrates his reportage as Grozny burns into ashes. The last book I read on war correspondents was “Forever War” by Dexter Filkins, a man who I hope would make me his disciple and teach me everything about reporting from conflict zones. The difference between these two books could be the best explanation for how modern war reporting has changed, as embedding with the military becomes a necessary evil, at least to get a lopsided view of the war.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

PHOTOS: Soldiers, Locals and a Small Town

Deh-E-Bagh, Afghanistan - I traveled to the town of Dey-E-Bagh in Dand district yesterday with the Canadian soldiers. Here are some of the photos from the trip.

Note: All photos are copyrighted to Anup Kaphle. Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.

A man sits outside a local ration store in Deh-E-Bagh.

A soldier stands guard off the roof of a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV).

Residents of Deh-E-Bagh wait to see the governor of Kandahar.

A Canadian officer shakes hand with a local Afghani kid.

An automatic weapon sits at one of the command posts in Dey-E-Bagh.

Deh-E-Bagh, a town right outside city of Kandahar, boasts an amazing view.

A Canadian soldier patrols the premises of the outpost at Deh-E-Bagh.

A local Afghani rides past the checkpost inside the command post.

Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar listens to the local leaders during a shura.

Tribal leader from Dand district attend a shura at Deh-E-Bagh.

Member of the Afghan National Police sits on patrol at the post.

A young Afghani police sits at guard inside the Deh-E-Bagh post.

An ANP member sits on patrol inside the post.

Members of the ANP arrive inside the command post after patroling the town.

Bullet scars remain on one of the buldings after a fight with the Taliban.

A soldier stands guard off the roof of a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV).

Soldiers prepare to leave on an operation outside the base.

A Canadian officer looks on as he prepares to leave on an operation.

An Afghan journalist shoots the video of the shura between Canadian officials and local leaders.

Note: All photos are copyrighted to Anup Kaphle. Please contact me [anupkaphle(at)gmail(dot)com] if you need higher resolution photos for publication.