Samee lists his chairmanship of Digistan on his LinkedIn profile and on a public Facebook profile, which cites his current place of business as Beruit and until this week showcased a photo of his wedding to Baker.
Before her marriage to Samee, Baker — who worked as a Paris pastry chef before entering journalism — was reporting for Time on “hardy strain of entrepreneurs” — including at least one Digistan client, bank founder Hayatullah Dayani. Though she never profiled Samee, she wrote about his acquaintances. One was Rory Stewart, a Scottish diplomat, author and former Iraq administrator for the Coalition Provisional Authority who had once crossed Afghanistan on foot. She dubbed him, in a glowing 2007 profile, “S
tewart of Afghanistan.”
Stewart, a dashing figure who wears lamb fleece hats like Hamid Karzai’s and has inspired a Hollywood screenplay with Orlando Bloom attached to play him, is also founder of the $1.7 million arts charity Turquoise Mountain, of which Samee is a sponsor. The group hires engineers to restore Kabul’s historic districts. The charity’s activities have included an art contest that a U.N. press release issued in July claimed was “created through a brainchild of President Hamid Karzai and Britain’s Prince Charles” (whose sons Stewart tutored).
Stewart later wrote a July 2008 cover story for Time, “How To Save Afghanistan,” recommending, among other things, that the Karzai government be given the money it seeks for communications infrastructure.
Baker and Samee, courtesy Facebook
Even if Baker’s husband has pulled up stakes in Kabul’s IT market, as Time asserts, he’s still listed as one of just six board members on a Karzai government minister’s $100 million project to create, according to its mission statement, a “flourishing investment environment” in Afghanistan.
Known as Harakat (or in English as AICF, the Afghanistan Investment Climate Facility), the group issues grants for lobbying projects to change laws and expand the availability of credit. It is run by U.K.-educated Suleman Fatimie, who has recently served in a number of Kabul government posts. Karzai’s Ministry of Commerce still lists Fatimie as chief of the Ministry of Commerce’s export promotion agency. Created with $50 million in British aid money, the group is actively seeking an extra $50 million in private funds.
While on the board of Harakat, Samee has been a featured guest at a number of business and aid forums in Kabul and beyond. One exclusive affair, highlighted by Foreign Policy as “the only [Afghanistan conference] you really want to go to…and sorry, you’re not invited,” was off-the-record and headed by Obama Afghanistan-Pakistan policy chief Richard Holbrooke.
Meanwhile, Digistan appears to have earned healthy profits. One of Samee’s former employees, tech salesman Shah Afghan, boasts on a LinkedIn resume of bringing in $1.2 million for Digistan between 2006 and 2008. An “elite” portfolio of customers, Afghan notes, include Kabul Bank — whose reputation for lawlessness has fueled demands by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Karzai clean up corruption, and which embodies, according to the Washington Post, “a crony capitalism that enriches politically connected insiders and dismays the Afghan populace.”
Put the Taliban back in charge, and many such contracts will likely begin to dry up.
The Aisha story marked a last hurrah for Baker’s time in Afghanistan. On July 10 she and her husband reportedly held a going-away party, though the reporter’s husband is still pursuing business opportunities in Afghanistan. Another bash, six days later, celebrated the launch of Samee’s organic-branded sandwich business, Tazza, “the new tasty, healthy and safe catering kitchen in Kabul.” A party invitation welcomed an elite guest list to their home in the city’s central district, promising a “secured residence.”
And what about Aisha, a new war emblem? While it’s long been evident that women have suffered unimaginable horrors under customs practiced in Afghanistan, Aisha’s brutal mutilation occurred in 2009, almost eight years into the American invasion.
Meanwhile, in a story light on specifics, there remains some question as to whether the unnamed Afghan judge who ordered Aisha’s mutilation qualifies as a “Taliban commander” in any formal sense. And if Aisha’s is the face of the notoriously cruel Taliban justice system, the Taliban aren’t taking credit. A Taliban press release on August 7 condemned the maiming as “unislamic” and denied that the case was handled by any of its roving judges — to whom many Afghans are now turning, distrustful of Karzai officials.
In the long run, the NATO-backed president, Hamid Karzai, may not be the friend Aisha and other persecuted Afghan women so desperately need. Last August he signed the Shia Personal Status Law, allowing men to starve wives who withhold sex and to punish those who walk outdoors without permission. Under this law — passed by a parliament that is 25 percent female as mandated by the new Afghan consitution — Aisha’s decision to leave home would have been considered a crime.
UPDATE: A Time spokesperson requested that we print their statement in full. Here it is: “These assertions are completely untrue; Aryn Baker’s husband has no connection to the U.S. military, has never solicited business from them and has no financial stake in the U.S. presence in Afghanistan whatsoever. TIME fully stands by our recent cover story, and as is made clear in the editor’s letter—and from the reading of the actual piece—the story is neither in support of, nor in opposition to, the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan; it is a straightforward reported piece about the women of that country.”