The Rocky Road to Ankara

April 26, 2007

If I was an easily excitable octogenarian news junkie, this is the sort of stuff that would send me licking my chops and saying “Oh boy!” As it is, I just get excited and start twitching under the left eye. Why? Because the upcoming Karzai-Musharraf meeting in Ankara is shaping up to be even more interesting than I had predicted. Even the American president failed to have the two shake hands at a White House dinner aimed exclusively at conciliation; perhaps Prime Minister Erdogan should opt for plastic cutlery instead of silverware.

While Karzai has yet to find the platform and the choice words to give his own steamy retort to Musharraf’s comments earlier this month that he is “indeed very angry” at his Afghan partner, and that Karzai’s claims that the Taliban are in Pakistan are “absolute nonesense”, Musharraf scores yet again with yet another western audience.

In an interview published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais today, Musharraf said: “The ones who do nothing against terrorism, like Karzai, are those who criticize those who fight, like us.”

Correct me if I am wrong, but sometimes I get the feeling that having a Western audience who feel oh, all so honored to recieve such dignitaries and who gawk and gloat at the two, just invigorates these men and makes them say things that are not really in their interests, and that they invariably regret later on.

Speaking to an audience of students about Islam and the West, the self-styled enlightened tyrant and benevolent dictator also claimed that both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban “were imported from Afganistan…We in Pakistan are victims.” While I would like to think of myself as separate from the horde that is Musharraf-bashing Afghans, and while I do think that Musharraf is concerned about the ill effects of Islamism of Pakistani society and politics and sincerely wants to tackle it, these claims by the General are factually wrong, and outrageous. Enough evidence exists to show that former Pakistani governments (especially that of the other enligthened Pakistani democrat, Benazir Bhutto) all but gave birth to the Taliban phenomenon.

Now the proverbial ball is in president Karzai’s court. I hope that he refrains from the norm and remains aloof -thus capturing the moral high ground and keeping a modicum of civility at least for the upcoming Ankara meeting. But a devious part of me also wants him to let out in a big way, again. Dammit, it has been so long since the two men’s fall tour of the US news studios.

(For a more detailed commentary and some backdrop about the upcoming meeting in Ankara on April 29, and how Turkey is best placed to host it -owing to historical ties to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the US- read Looking for Love in Ankara)


Watch it, BBC!

April 26, 2007

If you have set your homepage to BBC Persian’s Afghanistan page and hit refresh with a frequency that makes you wonder if you suffer from OCD, then you know what I am talking about.

Early yesterday morning, the page carried this headline:

“Parliament Votes to Grant Independence to Radio Television Afghanistan”

Within an hour of my first visit, the same story was titled differently:

“Radio Television Afghanistan Will Continue to Function As a Government Agency”

Substantively, the article had not changed all that much.
Both versions said, in essence, that as a result of a vote in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of Afghan parliament) the state-run RTA will be granted functional autonomy and freed from the shackles of the Ministry of Culture (MoC) while at the same time continuing to be funded and run as a government agency.

All the same the change of title and tone is telling. One wonders whether the gestapoesque writ of the MoC and of Attorney General Sabit extend over the British Broadcasting Corporation as well. More than likely it does not, which is why BBC of all outlets should salvage some dignity and spine.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

On a related note, the parliament’s symbolic granting of functional autonomy to RTA and its separation from MoC, while at the same time debating how best to cut back on freedom of the press, amounts to “one step forward, two steps back.” As a continuing state-run agency, one cannot be too hopeful for a radical overhaul in RTA’s management or content. Privately-owned television stations like Tolo TV and Aina TV present the best hope for the future of media in Afghanistan. With the expected passing of the new media law by the parliament, however, even these independent outlets will be subjected to newer and certainly more draconian restrictions.

Related on Safrang:

Freedom of the Press in Afghanistan: A Little Bit Pregnant

The Fate of the Fourth Estate in Afghanistan

Incident at Tolo TV Offices Marks Setback for Press Freedom


Safrang Reaches Farsang*

April 26, 2007

When I set out about six months ago with a renewed zeal and a shiny, new WordPress template to do my part in “filling the void of… serious English language blogs on Afghanistan reflecting the national perspective,” I knew I was embarking on what would be a quixotic journey.

Today, the battle against blogger apathy and editorial neglect of Afghanistan is still as uphill. Good thing a hopeless romantic like me would have nothing less.

Still, even a hopeless romantic cannot help being overjoyed when coming across things like this:

Overnight I have learned about two noteworthy incoming links to Safrang: first, a wholesome endorsement from Eteraz.org‘s Eterazi-in-Chief (citing Safrang as “an excellent blog about Afghanistan”); and this morning, an email announcing that Safrang’s feed will be regularly included in the Washington Post-Newsweek’s blog PostGlobal as part of its daily “This Just In” feature. My heart beats like a dhol, like a dhol… dum dum dum.
The links are set to take Safrang breezing past the 10,000 visitors mark by the end of the day -a milestone.

I have been a longtime regular reader of both these websites, and highly recommend both to Safrang’s readers. (Both have been linked to in the links panel under “Other Links.”) I should also admit here and now that I have learned a thing or two from Eteraz about nonchalantly blogging about challenging issues, and writing about serious stuff without taking myself too seriously -all the while adding a tad of self-deprecation for good measure.

A word of welcome to the Eterazistanis and the readers of PostGlobal. Heartfelt thanks also to Safrang regulars who have stuck with this blog though hell and high water (notice no posts for the whole month of February? I promise such travesty shall not be repeated.)

Lastly, as a sign of coming attractions on Safrang, word to readers old and new alike: in a couple of months’ time, this blogger will journey 30,000 feet up and 10,000 miles eastwards to his native land. Stay tuned for Safrang from Afghanistan.

Safrang: Editorializing Afghanistan, Because the Wall Street Journal Does Not.


* Farsang: (Farsi) Milestone. Also an ancient Persian unit of distance.


Dr. Abdullah and the Return of the Ousted

April 26, 2007

Ever since being dropped from president Karzai’s cabinet as a result of the 2004 reshuffle, former Afghan minister of foreign affairs Dr. Abdullah has been uncharacteristically acquiescent. Uncharacteristically, I say, given the context of Afghanistan and third world politics. Usually in these settings such high profile dropouts are problematic, and the fact that Dr. Abdullah (and likewise his comrade in arms Marshall Fahim) have proved unwilling (or unable) to be more vocal or active in their opposition to the government only bears good tiding for the country, and bodes well for its political future.

Whether by the force of the circumstances (read American military force) or by the dictate of their own good senses, those who have been sidelined by president Karzai have chosen to abandon the age-old cycle of Afghan politics, and have actually stayed on the sidelines. Further, thanks to president Karzai’s famous personal distaste for sidelining others and his open embrace of assorted rivals and revolutionaries, including not a few undesirables, there are not many who have lost out, thus the absence of a ‘critical mass’ of powerful losers who could turn on the government. (Of course here we are talking about those in the broadly defined political mainstream of Afghanistan, and not the Taliban or those associated with Hekmatyar.)

That is, until recently. The formation of the United National Front (UNF) is a clear sign that those on the sidelines would like to be part of the action. Similarly, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, whose name has not been explicitly mentioned as part of the UNF line-up, has been making pronouncements about the state of Afghan affairs as of late. In fact, in a recent interview Dr. Abdullah raised important and barely veiled concerns about the current government’s performance, the “deteriorating security situation in an ethnically diverse country,” and what he called the government’s “shortcomings in strategic vision.” (Though when asked what he meant by lack of strategic vision, the answer was a muddled tautological mess.)

The recent surge in criticism and political posturing, coincide as it does with the rising tide of insecurity and other travails for the government, goes to show that the initial acquiescence of those who were ousted and marginalized, though partly inevitable in the face of American backing of the Karzai administration, has also been due in part to the fact that the government of Afghanistan was going through its probationary period. Now that its mettle has been tested, and by many an observer’s standards, it has not passed the test, the marginalized few see a clear opportunity in criticizing the government and posturing as an alternative leadership.

If these lines read like an accusation of opportunism, they are not. Quite the contrary: this is a welcome note.

Concerted political opposition is one of the few mechanisms by which democratic governments are held accountable. Even if election season is still far away; even if the current government has the wholesome political, military, and economic backing of the world’s sole hyper-power (and the few who are reluctantly going along, mainly to save face); even if political parties are so nascent in Afghanistan that they have not a hope or a prayer of winning nation-wide, cross-ethnic elections anytime soon; and even if there are far too many bad memories attached to the names of those who currently pose as alternatives; even so, the mere consciousness of an alternative, and a political opposition increases the ‘supply’ in the ‘marketplace’ that is a democratic polity, and is bound to have a positive impact on the government’s performance. This is why political opposition -granted that it remains in the mainstream of national political discourse, eschews extremism, and does not resort to violence- is indispensable to the democratic process in Afghanistan and should be welcomed. This is also the spirit, incidentally, in which the criticisms put forth by the UNF leadership and by Dr. Abdullah more recently have to be used by the government as a laundry-list of its own failings to be addressed.


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