Twitterified Citizen Security?

I use Twitter a lot in Afghanistan.  Hear a big explosion and want to find out what and where it was?  Twitter has answers first.  Expat and Afghan journalists alike send out messages and queries, and the stream of information following #afghanistan or #kabul is quite substantial.  A lot of information that I wouldn’t find on traditional media sources, I can find links to on Twitter.  Three years ago I was woken by something.  Earthquake? Explosion?  I didn’t know.  10 minutes later on Twitter, confirmation of earthquake.  15 minutes later, a map showing where the epicenter hit and where aftershocks had rippled out to.

The Taliban even have a Twitter account.

The key is the ability quickly sift through the bullshit, misinformation, and mindless prattle, and to remember that just because someone says so, doesn’t mean its true.  Citizen reporting can lead to group think and endless retweeting of information that isn’t true.  I’ve seen it first hand with photos I’ve taken that have be reposted by someone else with inaccurate information, if not outright lies.  But as with all social media, it has its flaws and also its benefits.  Especially in countries like Afghanistan, where everyone has a cell phone.

Today, this tweet came through my feed:

No plate-number. Filmed windows in black. Roaming around the city. #kabul #security #election #Afghanistan pic.twitter.com/4miRV9oCM1
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As we are 6 days out from the run off elections in Afghanistan, and yesterday’s attack on Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah reminds us that road side bombs and suicide bombers are determined to create fear and suppress voter turnout, photos and posts like this one are important tools in citizen led security.
It reminded me of old-school neighborhood watch signs I’d see posted around residential neighborhoods in North Dakota when I was growing up.  This was before entire areas of towns became covered in CCTV cameras and other big brother style surveillance.  The idea was that it was up to all of us, as community members and citizens to keep an eye out for each other.  See something disturbing?  Let someone know.
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In a country like Afghanistan, and a city like Kabul, where the ring of steel can only be partially effective if you operate on random stoppages and half hearted searches, security is even more dependent upon a strong community watch.  Twitter is one potential way to make it easier to crowd source security and share in real time unusual behavior, suspicious cars, and street violence.  Structured correctly with a strong communications platform and community outreach, twitter could also be an amazing tool for gender violence and street harassment.   Of course it only works if others are playing, and more importantly, if police and security forces are watching and are engaged.  Neighborhood watch campaigns or street harassment campaigns could find a valuable tool in Twitter if developed and used correctly.

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Politics is Lying

wardaq-interview1Dr. Roshanek Wardak is one tough cookie.  Here is a woman that stares down the Taliban daily and I got a heady dose of how intense that gaze is today.  Dr. Wardak is a female member of the Afghan Parliament, representing the tumultuous province of Wardak.  This is a province still fighting, and with a large number of Taliban living there it is not likely to quiet down anytime soon.  It neighbors Kabul and its hard to comprehend the difference in security between the two provinces.  Harder still to imagine that the Taliban willingly stay put under Dr. Wardak’s intensity.

Dr. Wardak is Pashtun, the same ethnic group as the Taliban.  She is also the province’s only female OB/GYN – and as such is quite important as the one that delivers the babies to the women of the area.   During the Taliban’s time, most women wore the burqa, but she insisted she could not do her job wearing one and instead simply wore her black headscarf so that her face was covered except for her eyes.   She worked throughout those difficult six years in Wardak and then when the Taliban were removed and elections were held, the people of Wardak encouraged, and pushed, for her to run as a candidate for Parliament. With very little effort, she ran and won.

Sitting across from her, her eyes probe mine, questioning my interest, questioning my knowledge of the situation, and questioning deep into my heart of hearts.  Her eyes search and probe as we talk, and when silences come, they are not for me to fill.  They are there for her to decide if she will continue and when she does, its with direct honesty.   This is a woman with no time for playing games.  Her mantra, “Politics is Lying”, is repeated often throughout our conversation.  She hates politics and says so openly.  She is a doctor, and loves her work, and loves her people.  “A doctor must be honest and direct at all times,” she tells me.  As a politician, she sees the falsehoods, the games, and the outright lying,  and has no stomach for it.

We discuss women in politics, gender equality, Afghanistan’s political climate, and most importantly, due to her unique insight, the Taliban’s role in the future of Afghanistan.  Unique I say because she is a woman who had no rights under Taliban rule.  A woman that was forced to cover her face.  A woman who would not have been allowed to vote, much less run as a candidate herself, were the Taliban to have held elections.  Yet, she realizes that the Taliban are Afghan, and as such, must be allowed their place in society under the Afghan constitution.  Like Hamas and Hezbollah, the Taliban are part of their own country and hold great numbers within Afghanistan.  Wardak believes that they need to be part of the process to bring peace, and others like Karzai, and our own government are coming to the same conclusion.

“Let them run candidates if they wish, the same as anyone else.  If they win seats, then we must honor that.”  But the trick is that they have to abide by the ‘rules’, women as their counterparts, perhaps even their new president.  Yet, if they are given the chance to run amok, isolated from the political system, and peace process, it will be to the destruction of the country and will put Afghanistan in the center of the war on terror.

When asked what is the most important priority for her work at Parliament her answer is immediate.  “Security.  It is the ONLY priority for progress.”  Achieving it is another story.  Yet, the Parliament, Ministers, and the people of Afghanistan need to work towards a peace process conducted with all of Afghanistan represented as a complete way to end the violent spiral.

Staring back into Wardak’s tough gaze, I realize that while she may hate being a politician, she is the politician this country needs.

photo by Di Zinno

A False Sense of Security

bag_checkNajibullah greets me each day with my latte round-up.  He kindly replaces my need for a morning shot of espresso with a quick run-down of the latest Afghan security updates:  kidnappings (new and resolved), suicide bombings (completed and prevented), and the like, ensure that I remember to lock my car doors, and keep my headscarf from slipping down the back of my head.  The problem is, that Najibullah realizes that I would be quite happy to ditch the car any chance I get to wander the crowded markets, back alleys, and am practically salivating over the thought of hiking up one of the mountains to follow the path of an old stone wall that is calling my name.

I am so comfortable in this country, I had several friends comment that perhaps going back to Breckenridge will not be a home-coming after all as I seem to have found my place in the world.  More than one has mentioned past-lives as an Afghan, and I was honored to have two prominent female leaders in Kabul refer to me as an Afghan sister.   Yet, as a stubbornly headstrong, athletic, and independent woman, its strange to think that THIS corner of the world would be where my heart settles, a place of restrictions and security concerns that impede my natural desires and dress code!

Security is the name of the game over here and while I am at ease, I am still quite aware of the false sense of security that pervades daily life.  I may be comfortable, but get too much so, and I could easily be on the wrong side of newsfeed.  I have to remind myself of that when I jump eagerly on the back of motorbikes or stride through the tight streets in Old Kabul, lost in the sights and smells.  Immerse, experience, and interact, but stay alert.

The topic of security is a common thread through nearly every meeting and interview I have.  Both Cabinet Minister, Dr. Massouda Jalil, a female minister who has run twice against Karzai in the Presidential elections since the Taliban’s defeat, and Dr. Roshanek Wardak, a female Parliamentary member representing the conflicted province of Wardak, stated that security is the priority above all else.  Without security, growth in areas of infrastructure and education could not move forward.  Without security, drug smuggling and corruption would continue to run rampant.  Dr. Wardak emphatically stated in our meeting, “The ONLY priority for progress and peace is security”.

Yet the question continually bounces around in my headscarved head…how does a region such as this acheive security.  If it were such an easy fix, then wouldn’t the confluence of international militia, aid organizations, and UN personnel have that under control already?  This is the question I pose to Faheem Dashty, editor of Kabul Weekly, Afghanistan’s largest newspaper.  He takes the question of security further by describing how security cannot be a first or second priority in a list of Afghan steps towards peace.

“Security cannot be a priority above all else.”  Faheem explains.  “How is that possible with drug smuggling, poverty, and the needs of education, all influence our country’s security?  We need a clear view that realizes that all four are interconnected.”

The real key is with the Afghan people.  They will lay down their lives, quite willingly, for the good of their country.  Millions have died and many more are willing to take on the risks involved to create a lasting peace within Afghanistan.  They understand the complexity of their region and need the support of the international community to make real and lasting changes from within.   They realize that millions cannot be spent destroying poppy fields, if the void left isn’t filled by other viable crops or exports.  Infrastructure cannot move forward if corruption runs rampant through the private contractors hired to ‘oversee’ progress.  Schools can’t be built to further education if they are built in areas where the Taliban rule.  Security can’t be ensured if the Afghan police are barely paid a living wage and private security forces roam the streets, a law unto themselves.  Yet the number of guns you see on an average street in Kabul gives one the idea there is security all around.

A perfect example of my own false sense of security is made evident in the Kabul airport.  As I make my way through to fly back home, I had to pass through 10 separate security checkpoints and three additional body searches.  That’s a lot of security.  Yet, had a I chosen to smuggle something back I am quite sure I could have…each of the bag and body searches were insufficient.  Not to say that the security in our own airports is any better at home.  Taking my shoes off and putting my shampoo is a Barbie doll sized container is inconvenient, but not really aiding security, but apparently it makes us feel better.