After a Year of Setbacks Afghanistan Sees Renewed Committment

January 26, 2007

Not long after the start of the Iraq War the world became so embroiled with the many twists and turns of that fatal mistake that Afghanistan was relegated to the backburner -and soon came to be referred to as the “forgotten war.”

And forgotten it was. Since the fateful summer of 2003, with an initial euphoria and illusion of success in Afghanistan, the foreigners, ever so impatient to pack and leave the dusty country to its own instruments (as they had done before after the Soviet withdrawal) thought that the good work was once again done here.

Not so. As international committment waned (and the reconstruction that was promised came ever so slowly), the Taliban did not rest. They built up in weapons, troops, morale, and popular support (on both sides of Afghanistan-Pakistan border) and starting as early as the spring of 2005 made a comeback.

By 2006 the Taliban were stronger and in a better state to face international troops than they had been even as a regular army back in 2001. Over the years, the regular army of the Taliban diffused into the population and became a guerilla force -a nightmare for the state of Afghanistan and its international backers that had to hold, secure, and defend cities and villages across the country and face a mobile enemy. Add to this the novel reality of suicide bombing, and the losses of 2006 should not come as a shock.

Now, as Afghanistan begins its sixth year post-Bonn and awaits another fateful spring, there is a broad consensus that things must change. If there is a silver lining to the setbacks of 2006, it is this: Afghanistan’s Lost Year has served to catapult the forgotten war back into the front and center of world’s attention.

Here are some key recent developments that I think signal a revitalized US and international committment to the struggle in Afghanistan:

  • In today’s NATO foreign ministers’ summit in Brussels the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to announce increased US committment to Afghanistan and ask European NATO members to step up to the plate -both in terms of increased aid money and more troops.
  • After a US policy review of Afghanistan (studying the period starting with the protests of June 2006) found that the current resource levels are not sufficient to meet the reconstruction goals, the US administration is expected next month to appeal the US Congress for additional funds of as much as $10.4 billion (Washington Post reports the figure as $7-8 billion) to supplement the funds already earmarked for Afghanistan reconstruction.
  • While increasing troop levels may be out of the question for now (especially as the deteriorating situation in Iraq requires a more urgent surge in troops there), the US army has just announced that it will extend the tour of duty of 3000 soldiers of its 10th Mountain Division who are stationed in Afghanistan by 120 days. This comes at the same time as another influx of troops who are supposed to replace the departing soldiers also arrive in Afghanistan. In effect this amounts to a temporary surge of troops, calculated to last the period of the presumptive spring offensive of the Taliban.
  • While his State of the Union addresses was geared mostly towards domestic issues and as a sequel to the Iraq Policy Speech earlier and President Bush remained silent on Afghanistan but for an acknowledgement of the deteriorating situation there, in a nod to fresh US commitment to Afghanistan the American president did meet the US general (McNeil) who is to take over the command of the NATO troops there.
  • This one is a mixed bag of sorts and may not prove to be as effective as other policy shifts, but the US is also eager to fight the War on Drugs in Afghanistan more seriously: the appointment of its former ambassador to Colombia and a stated objective to employ Colombia-style tactics in the War on Drugs signals frustration with the prolonged drug cultivation and trafficking problem and its myriad complications with funding terrorism and insurgency. It was recently revealed that for months the government of Afghanistan has been under increasing “behind-closed-doors” pressure to allow aerial spraying and the use of herbicides and exfoliators in the Southern provinces.
  • While current NATO troop levels in Afghanistan are 20% short of committments made by member countries, another brigade is expected to arrive “shortly” (i.e. before the spring sets in,) “and more after that,” according to NATO commander Gen. David Richards.
  • For what it is worth, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO established a joint “intelligence hub” in Kabul. While the “hub” can hardly stand in for a much more serious settlement of differences and alignment of interests that is needed between Kabul and Islamabad, it is hoped that the move will serve to improve coordination and intelligence sharing

Whether the renewed US and international committment to Afghanistan is genuine and long-term, or just a bracing up for the anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban remains to be seen. In the latter case, the temporary build-up of troops will merely amount to a Maginot Line: the enemy will only delay its offensive enough that the eager foreigners tire and leave once again before the ANA is up to the challenge -as they have unfailingly done in the past. And then it will be groundhog day all over.

Wither the State of Democratization Speech?

January 24, 2007

For those of us who watch the American president’s annual state of the union speech from a narrow, parochial vantage point, last night’s address was somewhat of a disappointment. But then there is only so much that can be fit in the 50 minutes of the largely ceremonial address that is valuable only in that it draws up the battle lines in Washington’s internal politics for the year ahead (on which note the president’s addressing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was most moving.)

All the same a brief analysis of the address from the said parochial perch is in order.

President Bush rightly acknowledged that the tide has turned in Afghanistan. The gains made by the people of Afghanistan in 2005 and in the years before that, since the Bonn agreement of 2001, suffered major setbacks in 2006:

“In 2005, the people of Afghanistan defied the terrorists and elected a democratic legislature… A thinking enemy watched…adjusted their tactics, and in 2006 they struck back… In Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters tried to regain power by regrouping and engaging Afghan and NATO forces.” (full transcript)

And yet apart from this acknowledgement (and if you insist on the word count, 3 other passing references) the address remained mute on Afghanistan. In the face of the setbacks of 2006 (by all accounts a Lost Year for Afghanistan) President Bush could have pointed to the fact that the US is in fact changing its strategy in Afghanistan.

For weeks now the US top brass in Afghanistan has been discussing ways of meeting the insurgency challenge more effectively, including through increased PRT deployment, faster and more effective reconstruction, targetting top Taliban leadership, and better coordination with Pakistan.

A recent policy review with regards to Afghanistan recommended that to turn the tide around in Afghanistan, more resources (troops, money) are needed. This, and the findings of the US SecDef Robert Gates’ trip to Kabul, will form part of the talking points of the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as she meets with her counterparts this Friday in the NATO foreign ministers summit in Brussels.

A mention of these efforts in last night’s SOTU address would not only have bolstered them, but could also prove useful in blunting the onslaught from Bush’s democratic opponents who have made Afghanistan into their mantel of foreign policy complaints now, behind Iraq of course. But Iraq is the dominant debate here nowadays, and so it will be.

Another issue that could prove of interest to the discussion on Afghanistan in the days to come is the increasingly belligerent stance taken by the US with regards to Iran. In last night’s address President Bush all but compared the defiant regime to Al-Qaeda, saying that just as Al-Qaeda was a manifestation of extremist Sunni Islam’s terrorist tendencies, so too Hezbollah and the Iranian regime are signs of the extremist Shi’a tendency vying to dominate the Middle East.

Talk of the supposed “Shi’a crescent” with its sinister schemes of dominating an area of the Middle East running through Lebanon, Syria, Southern Iraq, and onto Iran, and its outwordly millenarian theology has animated debates in the US for many months (and needless to say, has fallen on many receptive ears in the Sunni Arab world.) Yet, regardless of what will become of Iran’s dealings with the West over its nuclear enrichment program (which, by the way, does not appear promising: the country recently banned 38 UN inspectors from working there) the fact remains that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran yields increasing influence, and good relations with the country may prove indispensible to the American success in both fronts.

Colombia as Model for Afghanistan?

January 23, 2007

General Peter Pace thinks so:

The United States’ top military official said Friday that American-backed anti-drug and counterinsurgent operations in Colombia – the world’s largest producer of cocaine – could serve as a template for Afghan efforts to fight drug production. (continue)

And he is not alone by a far shot. The re-assignment of William Braucher (former US ambassador to Colombia) to Kabul confirms that the ideological -and disastrous- “War on Drugs” model is indeed the next thing for Afghanistan. For years now groups inside Afghanistan, in the civil society, and among the more precient of Afghanistan observers have warned against Colombia-style eradication efforts in Afghanistan. The argument has been made that in the absence of mechanisms of alternative livelihood -and enough time to allow for an effective transition- any eradication efforts, no matter how massive, will run aground in the face of simple laws of economics.

Unless people -as rational agents with calculated self-interest- are not convinced of the fact that cultivating crops such as wheat or saffron are equally or more profitable than growing opium poppies, they will keep on growing poppies. With time, as eradication makes it costly for some to cultivate poppies, at the same time it increases the margin of profit for others who will continue to take the risks and cultivate it. And then with some more time, those people will find ways to arm their militias (Taliban for FARC) to protect their investments.

Let’s face it: the whole war-on-blank metaphor has proved disastrous, and Afghanistan is still a little better off stuck with the war-on-terror part of it to afford another war-on-drugs at the same time. The war-on-blank mindset is uncompromising, idealistic, and impractical – and serious policymaking is anything but these: it is pragmatic, settles for setbacks, and admits mistakes and adjusts course accordingly.

Update: Of Rumors & Resignations

January 22, 2007

Since rumors of “political infighting” and even a “coup” conspiracy have surrounded the recent resignation of president Karzai’s ex-chief of staff, Mr. Ludin himself has come out to set the record straight:

KABUL (Pajhwak News) – President Hamid Karzai’s former chief of staff Javid (sic) Ludin has rejected as baseless reports about his removal from the top position. Speaking to Pajhwok Afghan News, Ludin said he wanted to resign from the job some six months back, but the president asked him to continue. Ruling out any conspiracy behind his leaving the Presidential Palace, Ludin said he was intended to go abroad for higher education. He said President Hamid Karzai had offered him the posts of deputy foreign minister, advisor to the president on international affairs and ambassador… Terming reports about his sacking as baseless, Lundin (sic) said he had developed no grudge against any one, nor there (sic) any conspiracy behind leaving the job. He also rejected the notion that a group of officials was influencing upon (sic) the decision of the president. Karzai is the president of the whole nation and not a single community or nationality.

While this is certainly welcome news through and through, as this and similar incidents demonstrate, political stability in Afghanistan remains fragile and is vulnerable to misinformation, bad PR, and poor government transparency. Clearly there is a felt need for change in that area.

What is in reality a voluntary resignation to continue studying abroad or an anticipated re-assignment (or as it may happen, a desire to “spend time with wife and children”) should not -and does not normally, elsewhere- fuel rumors of a “coup.” A COUP for chrissakes!! (The sheer absurdity of it makes me want to apply all the font editing that WordPress allows.)

And let’s not forget that this was not in just any tabloid either but the UK’s Daily Telegraph – although I suspect that many will follow Askar Guraiz’s example (read his comments on prev. post) of taking Ahmed Rashid a bit less seriously when he next tries to act like the Seymour Hersh of South Asia, and relying on his palace contacts break Big news.

As for the state of the free press in Afghanistan, barring the arrest and sentencing to death of two now-exiled newspaper editors some two years back (and we can only assume subsequent self-censorship by many who did not want to follow the example,) the media is otherwise making a slow but sure-footed progress. The TV medium in particular has been a source of info-tainment for the public and a constant nuisance for conservative and Jihadi MPs in the National Assembly.

The print media also serves a useful -if unintended- purpose as bundles of fresh off the press newspapers (funded by enthusiastic supporters of democracy and its requisite free press -but alas, not of its requisite literacy rate) see widespread circulation only in the form of wrappings for steaming naan loaves and assorted grocery items.

As a last note, sincere wishes to Mr. Ludin in his expressed desire of continuing his higher studies abroad- so far as I can tell , he has served the part of a model public servant over the years with Mr. Karzai’s office, the kind that Afghanistan so badly lacks and so urgently needs. I just wish his departure had been less dramatic.

Shroud of Secrecy Covers the Resignation of Karzai Aide

January 20, 2007

With the Taliban spring offensive just over the horizon, the last thing that the fragile government of Afghanistan led by President Karzai needs is political infighting. And yet political infighting is precisely what has been rocking the budding government’s boat over the past few weeks, as evidenced this Thursday with the forced resignation of the Karzai administration’s long-time public face and recent chief of the presidential staff, Mr. Jawed Ludin. According to Ahmed Rashid writing in the Daily Telegraph:

Mr Ludin was forced to resign this morning, senior officials in the Afghan cabinet said. The move has shaken Western diplomats in Kabul and is seen as a sign that Mr Karzai is struggling to control the loyalty of his government.

Mystery surrounds the sudden resignation of Mr Ludin who first served Mr Karzai as press spokesman and then as chief of staff after graduating from a British university.

However the officials said the cause of the shake up was due to political infighting within the president’s staff. (continue)

The fact that this comes as a surprise is hardly surprising itself. In keeping with the historical tradition, the current government of Afghanistan keeps a tight lid on all matters internal and palace-related. Similar bouts of rumor surrounded the resignation in the fall of 2005 of then minister of interior, Mr. Ali Ahmad Jalali. (Mr. Jalali has since moved to the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. and his name of often mentioned -once again in rumors- as one of the likely candidates to succeed Karzai as president.) Similarly, the online magazine Kabul Press reported earlier that the government has been keeping the news of ex-King Zahir Shah’s death from the public, fearing the outfall: The honorary “father of the nation” commands much legitimacy among his fellow Pashtun in the country and to many among them, his standing by the Karzai government is the only attractive feature of the otherwise unpopular regime.

While no government in the world can be expected to disclose the most sensitive of issues to the public, it seems that the government of Afghanistan is still under the spell of the palace mentality of its predecessors and is in particular need of showing greater transparency. The citizens of the country have a right to the truth when it comes to issues of national importance and should not be deprived of it. More importantly, while the government may choose to keep all such news on the low-down, this will only invigorate the country’s proverbial rumor mills. The fact that the government refuses to disclose its own side of the story only worsens the situation as speculation abounds and conspiracy theories blow the story out of proportions.

This is what has been happening once again with Mr. Ludin’s resignation. While in reality the incident could have been prompted by political disagreements or even a regular cabinet reshuffle, rumors of a “coup” attempt have already surfaced. Such news is sure to put the government in a precarious position as its many rivals try to exploit the situation. Until a viable and responsible free press takes root in Afghanistan, the country’s rumor mills will continue to occupy the exalted and powerful position of the Fourth Estate. Afghanistan’s modern history reveals that governments have only neglected rumors at their own detriment. Let’s hope that the current government decides to learn from that history, becomes more transparent, and fights rumors will truth.

II) A Troop Surge for Afghanistan – Maybe.

January 17, 2007

It appears that the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was convinced of the case for additional troops for Afghanistan during his trip to Kabul, and not only because of ُSen. Hillary Clinton’s call. According to the SecDef, who held a number of closed-doors meetings with top US commanders in Afghanistan, the grunts on the ground were able to make the case for additional troops especially on the eve of the Taliban’s perennial “spring offensive.” It is likely that the secretary heard similiar calls for added troops during his meetings with Afghan government officials who have all but wearied of the setbacks of 2006. (In 2006 insurgent attacks were up by 400% from 2005 levels, and jumped another 100% only during the month of December.)

It remains to be seen how the SecDef will in turn make the case to the American Commander in Chief, and what will the US joint chiefs of staff (who will study the request from commanders in Afghanistan) recommend. If the year 2007 is to prove any different for Afghanistan, renewed committment of troops and resources is a necessity. Much has changed since the post-Bonn lull that lasted from 2002-2005 and that gave everyone the impression that things were going quite well in Afghanistan – especially so as the situation in Iraq looked bleak by comparison. That 3-year window of opportunity was squandered by all parties – the government of Afghanistan, and the US and international presence- and now a fresh, reinvigorated push is needed to restore the country to a satisfactory homeostasis in terms of security and political stability.

If there is a saving grace, in the face of the resurgence of the Taliban and the lost opportunities for success, it is the resilience of the people of Afghanistan and their tireless committment to seeing things improve. That committment was on display yesterday, when two civilians prevented a truck bomber from detonating his 300 pounds of explosives in front of a US base in Kabul. Were it not for this, given the disappointing pace of reconstruction and the corruption and cynicism of the political elite, no one would be able to make even the self-serving comparisons with the situation in Iraq. Yet that resilience and patience is wearing out now -even by Afghanistan’s standards where civil war and the absence of government for decades has fostered very low expectations of what governments should do for their people. It remains to be seen how aware of this fact are the Afghan government officials, and by extension the US government. A telling sign would be whether upon Secretary Gates’s return, the US government considers sending more troops to Afghanistan. (Watch out for the 3rd and last segment of this post.)

A Troop Surge for Afghanistan?

January 13, 2007

As Washington is swept up in a frenzy following the president’s Iraq policy speech, it’s a relief to know that not everyone is oblivious to the disturbing fact that things are really, really looking bad for Afghanistan:

Hillary Pushing for Troop Surge in Afghanistan

“I wish we were discussing additional troops for Afghanistan. We are hearing increasingly troubling reports out of Afghanistan and we will be searching for accurate information about the true state of affairs both militarily and politically,”

In reality, odds are stacked against sending more troops to Afghanistan in the near future, and Sen. Clinton’s position may not actually be a “push” for a “troop surge” there as much as dictated by the need to respond to the president’s Iraq policy speech as she postures as a front-runner for ’08 elections. All the same it should have the effect of calling some attention to the situation in Afghanistan and keeping it from sliding off the stage (it has already been pushed out of the limelight.)

What is more likely to happen in Afghanistan is a decrease in troop numbers, as some NATO members pull out forces in the face of mounting political pressures at home (e.g. Spain.) At best the US will maintain its current troop levels. Instead, we may witness a change in tactics on part of the coalition forces (going after top Taliban leadership for instance, and should Pakistan come under the requisit international pressure and concede, possible cross-border aerial attacks on proven Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan) -and an enlarged role for ANA troops.

(P.S. this author too has been swept up with a number of projects as of late and apologizes to the regulars of this blog for irregular updates.)