Boston Regional Model UN

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of addressing the Boston Area Regional Model United Nations as the keynote speaker, a gathering of some 300 students tackling some of the more difficult present and historical problems in international relations. The theme was Towards Peace, and I was impressed by the caliber of the students who came together to from far and wide, including around the United States and the world, to attempt to hash out a better way forward.

An excerpt from my introduction: 

A few years ago, I found myself hanging onto a piece of rope, dangling over a raging river in western Afghanistan, with my well-being seemingly in the hands of an Afghan man who may or may not have been high on opium. I think he was.
I was working at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul at the time, and a colleague and I had decided to go see the Minaret of Jam after reading about it in history books and old tourist guides. In the 12th century, when it was built, it was the tallest brick building anywhere on the planet. But today, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is almost forgotten because of its remote location in a nearly inaccessible region of western Afghanistan.
Just getting there was an experience: Our driver got stuck in a traffic accident involving two trucks on a one-way road and a washed out hill, though which a contingent of Taliban fighters eventually happened on with their Kalashnikovs. It was an encounter that we survived probably first because we were dressed in Afghan garb – a lot different than this - our faces covered except for our eyes – and second because we didn’t open our mouths. Later, trucks dislodged, we spent an intimate night with 50 other men sleeping side by side on an open floor – the Afghan version of a cheap motel on the side of the road.
When we finally got to Jam, after days driving across hills and sleeping under the stars outside of villages, I realized we had to traverse one final obstacle: Crossing the river hanging from a rope pulled by a guy whose loyalties I was at best uncertain about. About half way across the river, hanging above an unpleasant death should I fall, I found myself thinking: What AM I doing here? Is this all REALLY worth it?  
After nearly 10 years of living and traveling abroad, from Tehran to Timbuktu, from Damascus to Kabul, my conclusion is: Yes. Absolutely. Never doubt the power of immersing yourself in another culture. To soothe the world’s ills, there are few other options that are as effective as trying to understand how people in other shoes see the world - and why and how they think that way. This is a critical component of peace.
I would not, to be sure, recommend getting thrown in an Iranian prison in pursuit of that ideal. For one thing, the food is bad and the toilets really smell. But if there’s one point I want you to impress upon you today, it is this: In order to understand the world, you need to go out and be a part of that world. Much as it would be nice, we can neither quell war nor forge peace from distant cubicles. We must understand how people think and what motivates them – for good or ill - before we can surmount differences and find a path forward. A path towards peace.
Sadly, this is not a common sentiment. We know this from the world we meet today – where this kind of thinking is far from accepted. Fear stifles and suppresses many who would make the trek in happier times. But overcoming this fear is something I task to your generation of individuals and groups who will transform the world for the better. The usual ways of thinking have arrived us to this point. We must do better. 

Another Memorial Service

On August 24th, a few members of the Taliban attacked the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. To get to this school, first they attacked another school located just next door, killing an unarmed man and driving their truck up to another wall. After that blew a hole in the campus defenses, they ran inside, killing as many as they could and gleefully celebrating the fact that they were killing defenseless students and excited to go to heaven for doing so. Ultimately, they killed 13 people. 

Working at the university from 2010 to 2014 was a privilege and an honor that I've yet to figure out how to put into words. I'll need to save trying to describe that for another post, now that sufficient time has passed so as to allow for wholesome reflection (1).

So when I heard it was attacked, it was the latest in a very long line of events that hit the heart in ways that are similarly hard to describe. It was my home, and I have fond memories of several of those lost. After losing so many friends and colleagues in Iraq and Afghanistan - Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans - you even wonder how to mourn. As they untether from your life, your eyes close and the heart, no matter how hardened, grows weak as you exhale and slouch. You don't even care about the 'why' after a point - you care only that you fiercely grip your memory of them and never let it slide until you too uncouple. 

On September 9th, I attended a moving event at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, DC to remember the victims. The current Afghan Ambassador to the US is, in fact, a former employee of the American University of Afghanistan, as is his wife. Other former and current employees alongside supporters of the university assembled. It was painful and beautiful, with crying and laughter as their lives were remembered. 

And here they are, more names to tack on the list: 


Naqib Khpulwak had studied at Nangarhar University and received a Fulbright to study at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He was also a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Law School. He was a leader in the Afghan legal community, and was preparing to begin his PhD studies at Oxford University. Naqib also helped the US Institute of Peace and their work on community courts and constitutional issues. He constantly engaged the diaspora community, telling them to return and help instead of staying abroad and watching. He had also memorized the Quran and was a passionate follower of cricket. 


A guard at the neighboring Blind School behind AUAF since 2006, he died in the attack, leaving behind a four year old daughter and one year old son. He owned no property and lived simply, giving all of his money to his family. 


23 years old, in his final semester studying law at campus. Hailing from Badakhshan province, he had attended high school in the US thought a State Department scholarship program and was a member of the advisory board of the newly established civil society organization Roshan (Brightness), and was interested in becoming a politician. 


26 years old, from Mazar-e Sharif, in her final year of study, majoring in Finance. Being raised in Pakistan during the Taliban regime, she returned and finished high school in Kabul after their overthrow. She had already obtained a degree in computer science from Kabul University, and was studying finance to help provide women with real skills to help them open small businesses. 


18 years old, had just begun his studies the day before the attack. A talented musician from a poor family, Sami had performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and wanted to represent Afghan music as a cultural ambassador from Afghanistan. 


28 years old, from Kabul, studying Political Science. He worked at Etisalat, a large communications company, during the day to support his family. Zubair frequently led students as an imam in communal prayers and was described by all as humble. 

Lt. Akbar

From Baghlan, he completed the Policy Academy in 2008 and joined the Special Police Unit, eventually passing up the ranks until he completed the Special Forces Selection training, becoming the CRU 222 Troop Commander. During the attack at AUAF, he tasked one team to clear the ground floor while he and the rest of his team climbed a ladder to the second floor, carefully clearing classroom by classroom and saving hundreds of lives. As he turned corner, one attacker was hiding and managed to fire several rounds at Lt. Akbar before being killed. He was one of Afghanistan's top commanders, and his colleagues referred to him as 'Achilles.' 

Mohammad Alem

Had worked as an unarmed security guard at the university since 2008, and leaves behind four children, aged seven, five, four and eight-months old. He was hoping to save enough money to help his younger brother, a university student, purchase a laptop. 


22 years old, Mujtaba had raised $4,000 for the victims of snow avalanches in his home province of Panjshir last year. He had hoped to become a pilot, and ran a charitable program where he gave books to street children and taught them how to read. He had been raised in Pakistan during the Taliban regime but returned after their overthrow. 

Abdul Walid

26 years old, and had just begun a business administration course at AUAF. Walid was also the director of the NGO Afghanistan Libre, an education-focused NGO that was particularly committed to female education, as well as the manager of the publication Mujaleh Roze. 


18 years old, and the daughter of a refugee street vendor in Pakistan who had saved up enough money to afford Elnaz the trip to Kabul after she was admitted on a scholarship to study at AUAF. She had just started her BA in Political Science, and studying at AUAF had been her dream for a decade. 

Abdul Wakil

Had worked at AUAF as an unarmed security guard since 2008. He leaves behind three children, aged nine, seven and a newborn. He was saving money to send his mother on the Hajj pilgrimage and cover medical expenses for one of his sons, which has a medical disability. 


Worked as an unarmed security guard since 2012, and was born in 1986 in Maidan Wardak. The caretaker and provider for his two brothers, his hope was to study information technology at AUAF to eventually work in the country's growing IT sector. He had been hoping to get married.

Rest in peace.


(1)  I'm truly grateful I took notes every single day I was there. Reading them in dusty journals stacked in a corner of my apartment is to travel in time and live somewhere else for a moment. 

Center for Strategic and International Studies - Podcast

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with some of the brain trust over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center always churning out interesting work on the pressing issues of the day.

We chatted big picture topics - refugee flows and the causes of instability in the Middle East, Iran's worldview, Afghanistan, and (on a lighter note) the importance of reading Oh The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss as an indispensable resource to keep close on one's journey through life. 

This and more made it onto a podcast that was recently published. If you're interested in listening, check it out below. 

In this CSIS podcast, TNT Director and Senior Fellow Tom Sanderson interviews Matt Trevithick, the co-founder and director of research at SREO Research, an NGO based in Turkey, which analyzes aid effectiveness for the United Nations, the World Food Programme, and more than a dozen NGOs involved in the regional refugee humanitarian response. Matt was the “surprise prisoner” released on January 16th of this year from Iran’s notorious Evin prison – after being held for 41 days. Tom and Matt discuss his experience in Iran, recent events in Turkey and Syria, and advice for those interested in working in the field.

The Exact Word

The last several years have been spent (among other things) studying related things across a few disciplines, with the desire of becoming a more well-rounded person. Through this, I've learned a few thematic things, and one of them is that improving one's vocabulary rarely gets old. This is generally because you get the joy of realizing that there are specific words dedicated to entire concepts - however abstract - that you may often think about. This word, discovered years ago, is one of them. An otherwise verbose and potentially vague concept, distilled into a few syllables. Beautiful. 

And even better was pairing that thought straight back to a book I thoroughly enjoyed - The Conquest of Happiness (online here) by Bertrand Russell, which manages to be both of its time and occasionally timeless. After writing at length about the importance of cultivating the will in order to achieve our goals in life (for which it is an indispensable component), he then cautioned against relying on it excessively. 

Podcast: University of Chicago Professor on Research

Our latest guest on the podcast Alex and I run is Dr. Andrew Abbott, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. He talks about learning via the experience of his students and the general decline of research skills, as well as the researcher's relationship with the Internet. One particular quote I liked of his: 

We’re moving to a point where everyone in the world thinks everything can be abstracted... This notion that you can get to ‘the point’ and extract ‘the point’ has become central to people’s thinking about how knowledge works. Well, that isn’t the way knowledge works, and we’re actually in a bigger crisis about this, than about libraries. The bigger problem is that students coming up don’t actually know what knowledge is. They only know what the internet is. And the experiential message of the internet is that everything has an address somewhere, you just need to find it, you just need an address. Of course, that’s not what knowledge is. Knowing is not knowing a web address. It’s assembling things, it’s making new things in your own head. The internet only teaches you to find things.
— Dr. Andrew Abbott

Checkout the show here

My New Favorite Correction


Flipping through an (otherwise) useful story on IS and antiquities, saw this little note at the bottom here, which gave me pause. Not even for all the usual reasons about how different those two countries are (the numbers and key dates here, as at least a first step, though honestly probably better to just look at a map - you don't exactly learn much about a place from their key exports) but just for the sentence itself - that IS could have been in Iran at all, letting alone smashing antiquities. All in all, another baffling day for the US in the Middle East. 

Hosting a Yemen Expert on our Podcast

Listen to / download this show (and view the links to useful resources) here.

By: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Matt Trevithick

Description: Our guest this week is Gregory Johnsen, author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia." Johnsen went to Jordan with the Peace Corps and first went to Yemen on a Fulbright Fellowship. In addition to his book, he has also written for the New York Times, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and others. He holds a BA in History, an MA in Near Eastern studies from the University of Arizona and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. He was the 2013 - 2014 Michael Hastings National Security Reporting Fellow at Buzzfeed. We talk to Gregory about writing books, learning languages and how to get to know complicated places. Show notes are available at