Afghan Graffiti

How a street art campaign in Kandahar City got under the Taliban's skin.

KANDAHAR CITY -- "We're targeting mosques," Haidar Mohmand says to me as we dodge convoys of Afghan National Army Humvees on the road into Kandahar City, "and sporting grounds, and generally high traffic areas." It is my third time in this southern Afghan province in as many months. As we race from the airport in a silver Corolla, the minarets of a mosque on the outskirts of town come into view and Haidar turns to me in the back seat. "Like that one," he says. "We really wanted to make sure that we hit that mosque. It's in a perfect location."

Haidar is not an insurgent. He is the program manager of a small youth cultural organization based in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, that is pioneering a graffiti art campaign in support of Afghanistan's 2014 presidential and provincial council elections scheduled for April 5th. We pull into the parking lot of the mosque, surrounding which are bright murals reading "Ballots not Bullets" and "Your Voice Your Vote."

"People in Kandahar come in and out of this mosque five times a day, and we wanted to put something up for them that directly challenged what they might have been hearing inside."

Though much has been made in Afghanistan of late about the rise of social media and Twitter and the way that technology is shaping these elections, often the most innovative ideas are still the most self-evident.

"In all these years, no one has ever worked with spray cans," one of the street artists explained to me later that day as he was putting his personal tag -- "Wali" -- on his latest peaceful elections-themed mural downtown.

"There is a lot of painting, but there has never been any spraying. Painting is for advertisements, but what I've learned over the last month is that spraying is not just an artistic medium, it's a political medium." As far as anyone can tell, the Kandahar graffiti campaign is the first of its kind in Afghanistan. The artists working on the project learned to paint by downloading YouTube tutorials and then taught other young artists in isolated and abandoned parking lots, away from the skeptical eyes of both the Taliban and the Afghan security forces. Though the project had the official nod of the government, the fear that working in the open would provoke Taliban retaliation or wear on the anxieties of the government forces who might nix a mural midway meant the artists had to work fast.

But the Taliban soon took notice. When the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and local media began running photos of the murals to illustrate their election stories, Haidar Mohmand and the artists (whose identities must be protected for security reasons) began receiving cease and desist phone messages from local Taliban. "That's how we are measuring our impact," Haidar Mohmand told me. "In Kandahar, the Taliban isn't threatening the IEC [Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission, which has come under attack recently in Kabul] they are giving us phone calls because they know these kind of messages, especially in a place like Kandahar, can have an impact on getting people to the polls." 

The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive; evident in the way that motorists and pedestrians were slowing down to take a look as some of the 30 murals across town that we visited, and the instant crowd of 30 that formed when the artists took to the street to create the final two pieces in the week before the elections.

"You see everyone thinks that just because this is Kandahar -- because of the Taliban and all that -- that something like street art wouldn't work. But Kandahar has always been an artistic place. The people love color, they love art, and I think they are happy to see messages that aren't in favor of one candidate or another, but are in favor of the act of voting, of choosing our future, not just choosing this candidate or that candidate," one of the artists summed up as we sat in his paint strewn studio and crop of young, impressionable artists all poised over their sketch books stopped to listen.

If anything the ability to carry out a campaign like this in a city that has seen so much violence in the last decade is itself a success in itself. The fact that the community has responded positively, and most Kandaharis seemed excited about going to the polls this Saturday to choose their future, to choose "ballots over bullets," was a sign that despite all odds, the Afghan elections just might be an incredible success.

Casey Johnson


Suicide by Statehood

Palestine's push for international recognition is tanking John Kerry's peace talks. Was this Abbas's plan all along?

JERUSALEM — On Tuesday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, appearing live on television, signed the documents necessary for the Palestine Liberation Organization to seek membership in 15 international organizations. His speech was the culmination of hours of deliberation Sunday and Monday in Ramallah, as the Palestinian leadership mulled how to respond to Israel's announcement that it would delay a long-scheduled prisoner release. Within minutes of Abbas's speech, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled his planned trip to the region -- and today, the peace process appears, once again, near death.

But is it?

Certainly, the move to apply to a raft of international organizations looks confrontational, to say the least. At first glance, it's a major move outside the Oslo parameters and is liable to sabotage the progress Kerry has made over the past year. What's the Palestinian endgame? A vote for upgraded status at the U.N. Security Council? Many have speculated that the Palestinians will take Israel to the International Criminal Court, charging the country for war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza.

But we're not there yet.

It is important to remember that the Palestinians don't view their campaign for international recognition in the same light as their interlocutors. While the United States and Israel have been quick to characterize Palestinian international efforts as a threat to the peace process, the Palestinians have consistently upheld their belief that the negotiations and the international campaign can complement each other. In Ramallah, it's a game of leverage -- the Palestinians need to strengthen their negotiating stance with international pressure on Israel. The PLO has already stated that it intends to continue negotiating until the talks' agreed-upon April 29 end date.

This isn't the first time the Palestinians have threatened to go international. Their history with the United Nations goes back decades, but their history of using the international community for diplomatic leverage goes back to the Clinton years. In the spring of 1999, at the end of the five-year interim Oslo period -- after which negotiations were supposed to result in the establishment of a Palestinian state -- then-President Yasser Arafat began murmuring about approaching the United Nations for international recognition. Ever the master of pursuing multiple policy objectives, Arafat dispatched Saeb Erekat and Nabil Shaath to Europe to gauge support. In his memoirs, Dennis Ross recalled the effort the United States had to exert to pull Arafat back to the table, eventually involving President Bill Clinton himself and the promise of future negotiations. Within a few weeks, Arafat had secured promises from the United States for another round of talks. It was enough to keep the Palestinians focused on the bilateral track for the next decade.

But by 2008, the negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas appeared to be falling apart -- reaching much the same point as the negotiations today. By the time the talks broke down in early 2009, the Palestinians were already beginning to formulate a different strategy. Palestinian policy groups began to sprout up, advocating a paradigm shift to "regain the initiative." When the U.S.-sponsored talks in 2010 again failed to take off, Abbas had a Plan B ready and waiting: He took the Palestinians to the United Nations.

So, why renew the international recognition campaign now? In a word: momentum. Up until last summer, the Palestinians had been rolling at the United Nations. They recovered from a botched 2011 campaign at the Security Council with a rousing, overwhelming vote to join the General Assembly in 2012. Support for the U.N. campaign paid political dividends for all involved. Abbas's favorability numbers increased, while support for his plan reached 81 percent in the West Bank and 86 percent in Gaza.

When Kerry finally walked the Palestinians back to the table in July 2013, the one concession was that they would have to pause their campaign until the end of April 2014. In exchange, Israel would agree to release Palestinian prisoners in four stages, the last occurring on March 29. When Israel delayed this release, all bets were off for the Palestinians.

The fact is, pursuing international recognition is a political winner for Abbas. It's rare to find a political issue that polls at 86 percent favorability in the Palestinian territories -- and rarer still for any politician to fail to pursue such a popular initiative. When it became clear that Israel was going to drag its feet in the prisoner release and that even convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard might be released by the United States to sweeten the deal for Israel, Abbas was placed in a political bind. Senior Fatah officials have described Abbas to me as the "bravest of us" for his commitment to negotiations through the years, but even the bravest have their bluff called from time to time.

But Abbas's move does not necessarily mean the end of the peace process. Among the organizations and conventions that the Palestinians applied to join, none of them represents a serious threat to Israel. Almost all of them are not even directly linked to the United Nations. Rather, they're a series of conventions and articles, such as the 4th Geneva Convention, treaties on the rights of the child, and a convention on the elimination of discrimination against women. This is assuredly the limit for Abbas, the committed negotiator, to sign at this point. They show the United States and Israel that Palestinians are serious about the international campaign, but that they can be brought back to the negotiating table.

Kerry and the United States need to rally their diplomatic efforts now and reapply the pressure that initially halted the Palestinians last July. They need to secure the fourth batch of prisoner releases from Israel and do everything in their power to secure another pause in the Palestinian international campaign -- a pause that ensures negotiations continue until the end of the year.

If bilateral talks aren't prolonged now, time will only work against the United States. Without a way to stall the international campaign, it's going to be incredibly difficult to slow things down when the U.N. General Assembly convenes this September, which will give the Palestinians further opportunity to push for membership in more international organizations. After all, they have the momentum.

Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images