Forgotten Allies

The contributions of our foreign allies to the Afghanistan War have been overlooked or downplayed throughout the 20-year conflict. But in proportion to their size, many of them committed more troops and funds, and suffered more casualties, than even the U.S.

The 9/11 attacks were the first time NATO invoked Article 5 of its treaty, which enshrines the principle of “collective defense” by recognizing an attack against one ally as an attack against all allies. Thus, all the other 29 members of NATO—along with 21 partner countries ranging from Australia to South Korea—contributed troops, money, and other aid to the war in Afghanistan.

(It is also worth adding that even the typically-deadlocked U.N. Security Council resoundingly supported American retaliation, indicating an exceptionally rate amount of international support.)

Besides the U.S., the top five countries to send troops were the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada. The U.K. in particular supplied roughly two to three times the troops of the other top contributing allies relative to its population.

British and Canadian troops put their lives at risk at twice the rate of American troops, when seen as a percentage of each country’s peak deployment. Proportionally, both suffered more than double the casualties of U.S. forces, while France suffered a similar rate.

As proportion of their military, many smaller countries played an outsized role, with Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Norway, and North Macedonia ranking near the top after the U.S. and U.K.; consequently, some of these countries suffered the highest fatality rates per capita.

The top contributing allies lost over a thousand lives in U.S.-led conflicts in Afghanistan as well as Iraq; all told, roughly half of all foreign military deaths in Afghanistan were among U.S. allies.

When measured as a percentage of their annual baseline military spending, the U.K. and Canada spent roughly half as much on Afghanistan as the U.S.; relative to their overall economic size, the U.K. spent more than the U.S., while Germany and Canada spent about the same.

This did not have to be our allies’ fight. The likes of Georgia, Norway, and South Korea (among dozens of others) had little to no skin in the game, aside from a broader sense that terrorism could potentially impact them. But even then, involvement would put them at greater risk of retaliation and domestic opposition (as Spain learned the hardest way when it lost nearly 200 lives in a terrorist attack perpetrated in response to its participation in Iraq).

The Courageous Voters of Afghanistan

In the face of threats of violence by the Taliban, ordinary Afghans are risking life and limb to cast their votes in upcoming elections. However flawed, ineffectual, and corrupt the system may be, for most of the country’s beleaguered citizens–who have endured decades of successive warfare, strife, and theocracy–it is the least bad option available–and worth dying for. As Al Jazeera reports:

Awrang Zib Zierak, a 38-year-old labourer in Afghanistan‘s capital city of Kabul, has decided to vote despite concerns about transparency and security.

For Zierak, an election with risks of fraud and security threats is better than no election at all. He believes voting is his right.

“Because of the lack of resources, constant threats from the Taliban and insincerity of our politicians, a fair chance is never given to a sincere person who wants to do some good for the country.

“But we must change the situation ourselves. If we don’t go out and express what we want, we will always be under a forced regime or a foreign invasion,” he told Al Jazeera.

Since campaigning kicked off on September 28, hundreds of banners and posters featuring the candidates have been hanging across the capital and surrounding cities, highlighting their mottos and slogans.

The parliamentary polls were originally set to be held in early 2015 following presidential elections but were delayed to July 7, 2018 and were then pushed to October 20 due to security fears and reforms in voter registration.

Despite his understandable cynicism towards Afghan politics, and the very real and horrific existential threat that hangs over anyone who dares vote, Zierak likely spoke for many fellow citizens when he told Al Jazeera why he was willing to go to the polls: “I want to make sure I have played a role in any kind of development in this country.”


The Cop Who Threw Himself at a Suicide Bomber

Afghanistan’s reputation as a lawless, war-torn place is perhaps surpassed only by its reputation for rampant corruption (which doubtless accounts for the intractability of many of its other problems). Yet millions of Afghans risk their lives everyday in the hopes of creating a better society for themselves and their children, and tens of thousands more have died toward that noble and seemingly distant end.

One of them was 25-year-old Afghan Police Lieutenant Sayed Basam Pacha. He was a hardworking and ambitious cop who despised corruption and the widespread distrust of the country’s security services. He even dreamed of being a high ranking police officer or government minister so as to do more good for his country. He ultimately gave his life in accordance with his noble and virtuous goals.  Continue reading

Two Photo Tours That Present An Unseen Afghanistan

Business Insider has two different collection of photos that each show sides of Afghanistan few outsiders know exists.

The first set is by New York-based photographer Frédéric Lagrange during his travels through Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous east in 2012. Compared to other parts of the country, this region has been largely untouched by conflict, and for that matter remains largely secluded from the world in general.

The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow strip of land in the far northeast of Afghanistan, bordering Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Western China. The harsh, beautiful landscape, bounded by the Hindu Kush mountains on the south, was once used as a major trading route for those traveling the Silk Road to China.

For three weeks, Lagrange and a team of locals made their way up the Hindu Kush mountains to the shores of Lake Chaqmaqtin. Along the way, Lagrange photographed the local peoples, who survive on the edge of civilization by raising and herding cattle.

The photos show the sheer scale of the country’s environment, as well as the hardscrabble perseverance of its people, made up mostly of persecuted minorities that have nowhere else to go.

More of Lagrange’s photos can be seen at his official website here.

The other set of images are by Marieke Van der Velden, who visited Kabul in 2013 with the explicit aim of showing the everyday lives and experiences of average urban Afghans.

“It’s important to talk to and show normal people on a normal day, not just right after a bomb attack,” Van der Velden told Business Insider. “The people I photographed are in the middle of a 30-year-old war, but they have no part of it.”

For all the people Van der Velden met, she decided to ask them a simple question: “What is your favorite place in the city?” Finally given a voice to talk about something other than war, her subjects lit up and showed her a side of Kabul few Westerners ever see.

A family picnic at Bagh-e Babur Gardens, a historic park built in 1528.

Many schools and gyms are encouraging women to participate.

The beautiful Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city north of Kabul, is a favorite spot.

Hero of the Week — Maria Bashir

Maria Bashir II Maria Bashir


Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat Province Afghanistan (the second largest jurisdiction in the country), the only woman to hold such a position thus far. Her fifteen years of experience as a civil servant has brought her into conflict with criminals, the Taliban, and corrupt policemen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, she was barred from working and instead spent her time illegally educating girls at her home. 

She was called back into service in 2006, focusing on rooting out corruption and eradicating the oppression of women. She has handled hundreds of cases amid death threats and assassination attempts, one of which nearly killed her children; subsequently, she has a retinue of around 20 or so bodyguards while her children are in virtual hiding.

For her courage and tenacity, Bashir has received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award and been recognized among The 2011 Time 100. I recommend reading her interview with the United Nations here; unfortunately, most of the information about her is three or four years old, so I am unaware of her current efforts and predicaments. Thankfully, she seems to still be alive and working as a prosecutor, doing everything she can to better her country and its future .

Needless to say, Maria Bashir is an incredible hero and role model, to say the least. 

Photos of the Week: Students in Afghanistan


Afghan university students attend an exam in Baharak district in Badakhshan province (Sharif Shayeq/AFP/Getty Images)

It is amazing what conditions and limitations people will endure for an education, something many of us take for granted.

I am reminded of another powerful piece that highlights this point, also from Afghanistan:

Students attend class in partially destroyed building in central Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002. National Geographic: Edward Girardet.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan


Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, often called the the “Muslim Gandhi,” was an Afghan political and spiritual leader known for his nonviolent opposition to British Rule in India. A devout Muslim and dedicated pacifist, he worked with Gandhi to put an end to the British Raj and bring unity among the divided people of South Asia. He once said it is “better [to] be poisoned in one’s own blood then to be poisoned in one’s principle.”

Khan was also a reformer and social activist who sought to alleviate the poverty, violence, and hatred of his society. To that end, he formed the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement, in which members would take an oath of honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice, and the serving of others without regard to faith or ethnicity. The success of this group led to a harsh crackdown by the British, though Khan remained committed to nonviolence.

He opposed the partition of India, and because of this – as well as his lifelong opposition to authoritarian rule – he was frequently arrested, exiled, and harassed by the Pakistani authorities. Despite this, he never wavered in his values and remained a pacifist for the rest of his life.


Below is a sculpture of the Buddha, dating back from the 1st to 2nd century CE, found in what is today eastern Afghanistan (but what was then called Gandhara).

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Notice the resemblance to a traditional Greek sculpture? That’s not a coincidence: this unique piece reflects a rare art form known Greco-Buddhist style.

This remarkable fusion of Greek, Indian, Persian, and Buddhist culture developed between 300 BC and the 400 AD in what is now modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It was the result of a long chain of interactions begun by Greek forays into India that began with Alexander the Great. Even though his empire collapsed almost right after his death, what most people don’t know is that it broke into various Greek-ruled kingdoms that remained for centuries and fused local cultures with Greek (also called Hellenic) culture.

Examples include Greek rulers claiming to be reincarnations of previous local leaders, certain Buddhist figures being portrayed as Greek gods (and visa versa), a combination of clothing styles, transmission of rituals, and even the creation of new languages and philosophies.

In fact, to this day, you can still find some Afghans, Pakistanis, and Indians who are descended from Greeks. It’s claimed that Buddhism may have influenced Western thought through Greece too: some have found similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the Stoics with that of the Buddha (though the connection is disputed and difficult to trace).

Below are more fascinating examples of this unexpected cultural syncretism, the influence of which has reached as far as China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Read more about it  here.

The bodhisattva Vajrapani depicted as Hercules as the protector of the Buddha, 2nd century.

The Greek Titan Atlas, supporting a Buddhist monument.


Casket depicting the Buddha in Greek-style (contrapposto pose, Greek himation, bundled hairstyle, realistic execution) flanked by Indian gods.

Gandhara frieze with Buddhist devotees, holding plantain leaves, in purely Hellenistic style, inside Corinthian columns, 1st-2nd century CE. Buner, Swat, Pakistan.



Fazila Shirindil is a former student of Skateistan, a nonprofit organization that employs Afghan youth from the street, teaches them a new sport, and provides a place for boys and girls to play together. It serves as a necessary respite from the horrors of war and poverty. She has since become a skateboard instructor, and is seen here playing on a mini-ramp outside a guest house in Kabul in 2010, at the age of 12.

You can learn more about this amazing project in this beautiful slideshow from Foreign Policy.