To Stay or Not to Stay: That is the Question

September 4, 2009

Washington -and particularly the corner of it which houses the foreign policy pundits and pontificators- has been abuzz with opinions on Afghanistan, the new strategic assessment presented by Gen. McChrystal, and with anticipation of the upcoming review of the strategy this fall.

The noise conveniently falls into two distinctly demarcated -and familiar- frequency ranges: those that I like to refer to as the ‘defeat-mongers’ (and if the word has no previous references in the US political lexicon, I humbly reserve the boasting rights of having coined it) and those who are in favor of staying the course and not walking way from Afghanistan -again.

The defeat-mongers seem to be led, oddly enough, by Sen. Feingold (D-Wis) who for all his admired and reasonable policy positions at home, seems to have made it his calling to bring the troops home, come what may. He does not say that of course in those words and polishes it saying this does not amount to walking away from Afghanistan. The truth is that it does. Plus, the senator is guilty of some gross generalizations, using outdated data, and comparisons that simply do not hold. Consider:

He cites a 2007 poll to support his view that most Afghans do not support foreign military presence. This is outdated data, twice challenged this year by successive IRI polls showing first 30% and then a staggering 60% of Afghans support of foreign and US military presence in the country to secure it and root out the Taliban -which, by the way, according to the same polls stood at just around 6% popularity rating.

He subscribes to that annoying old adage of ‘graveyard of empires’ by once again equating the current international presence to the imperial adventures of the British and Soviet occupiers. This equation is so wrong I do not want to waste valuable cyberspace in refuting it. Instead go and read Peter Bergen’s earlier piece Graveyard Myths in the NYtimes. The circumstances, motives, methods, and the prevailing international relations atmosphere are all different with this effort and simply do not compare to the British and Soviet invasions of yore -and make no mistakes about it: Afghans understand the differences.

The good senator’s lead is followed by columnist George F. Will who writes derisively of the revised Afghanistan strategy calling it ‘New Deal 2.0 in Afghanistan’ and thereby stoking the American right’s pathologies about wasteful democratic policymakers, this time in its international incarnation. He concludes by calling for a substantial reduction of forces to serve “a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.” Right. The same formula that is responsible for thousands of civilian casualties, the turning tide of goodwill against foreign forces, and the souring of relationships between Washington and Kabul. And “Pakistan, a nation that actually matters”? As opposed to the one where a decade of neglect spawned a network of terrorists that instrumented the attacks on numerous Western cities, and then went on to destabilize Pakistan and the region? We are talking about Afghanistan -not Iraq that was variously derided by commentators as a nation that did not matter in the war against terror. We are talking about the ‘original front’ on the war against terror.

Fortunately, these two’s lone voice of ‘calling it quits’ is sufficiently refuted by a number of good pieces on Afghanistan and the importance of staying the course there -including in the same WSJ publication:

First, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings and Bruce Riedel of the new Obama Af-Pak strategy fame ask What’s Right with Afghanistan, and find that plenty is: from the way the people of Afghanistan want success in this joint effort to defeat the enemy and are still largely pro-international presence (backed by credible, recent polls) to the performance of the ANSFs, the state of the economy despite all that still needs to be done, and the elections. The same elections that brought out Afghans in their millions in an unprecedented display of how the political paradigms have changed in Afghanistan for the better, as Jawed Ludin argues in the Guardian. The same elections which, regrettably, are being overshadowed by shameful international skepticism and doubt.

The authors correctly point out that:

Democracies sometimes talk themselves out of keeping up the faith in tough situations, and we should avoid any such tendency towards defeatism, especially so early in the execution of the Obama administration’s new military/civilian/economic strategy, which combines stronger and more widespread counterinsurgency measures with increased nation-building efforts.

In a recent gathering wherein Gen. McChrystal unveiled a preview of his report to a select audience of Afghan stakeholders (itself very telling of how the US is shifting its way of doing business here by sharing more of the plans for the future of this country with a key segment of the stakeholders -i.e. the Afghans themselves) this author raised a similar point; that soon after the report’s unveiling and going public, it will likely see a barrage of critiques from various quarters, and that a good part of any such plan is to see it through to successful implementation. (To continue the self-indulged digression, this author also quoted Churchill’s memorable quib on how you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other possible option. Of course this was said in its positive connotation, and with a certain degree of wishful thinking that this time and this revised plan represent the right thing in US policy making towards Afghanistan. It certainly has the makings of one -particularly the focus on protecting the population and non-military interventions, including a plan for economic development and jobs creation.)

Another WSJ Editorial raises somewhat of a similiar point, asking whether “our current Commander in Chief has the nerve of his predecessor to withstand a Washington panic” and the calls for the US to leave Afghanistan. The editorial correctly ties the prospects of a precipituous US departure to a likely backtracking by Pakistan on its recent fight with the Taliban insurgents there, a combination that will certainly turn Afghanistan into a haven for terrorism once again.

On the same date, another editorial in the Washington Post agrees that despite the recent setbacks in Afghanistan, the struggle there is worth continuing:

Yet if Mr. Obama provides adequate military and civilian resources, there’s a reasonable chance the counterinsurgency approach will yield something better than stalemate, as it did in Iraq. The Taliban insurgency is not comparable to those that earlier fought the Soviets and the British in Afghanistan. Surveys show that support for its rule is tiny, even in its southern base. Not everything in Mr. Karzai’s government is rotten: U.S. officials have reliable allies in some key ministries and provincial governorships, and the training of the Afghan army — accelerated only recently — is going relatively well. Stabilizing the country will require many years of patient effort and the pain of continued American casualties. Yet the consequences of any other option are likely to be far more dangerous for this country.

Finally, and as if on cue, somebody had to come up with a call for some sort of a “middle way” between these two camps. David Ignatious writes in Washington Post that the decision on what to do next with Afghanistan (i.e. quit or stay) is tentamount to “rolling the dice”, as neither option is clean and straightforward and present merits that are convincing enough to bowl over the other side; and that at the end of the day, the US might have to decide to “both shoot and talk – a strategy based on the idea that we can bolster our friends and bloody our enemies enough that, somewhere down the road, we can cut a deal.” However, despite the convincing middle-path trappings of it, Mr. Ignatious’s solution is no more than a re-casting of what has already been said by Senator Feignold and George Will, albeit with greater forthrightness.

The debate and the buzz is likely to continue and to build to a feverish pitch as the US administration considers its options in Afghanistan. With Iraq largely off many radars, the loud noise, mud-slinging, and endless debate that we saw occupy TV screens, opinion pages and most political conversations between 2003 and 2008 is now focused on Afghanistan. The real side of all of this debate, however, plays out in Afghanistan and not in the American op-ed wars of the left, the right and the middle. Any policy preferences bear life and death consequences for the people of Afghanistan. And the large majority of the people of Afghanistan today seem to be in favor of their foreign friends mustering the endurance and courage to stay the course, difficult as it may be. One hopes that this view from the ground goes into the calculus of that final policy decision.

One Voter’s 1st Person Account of Afghanistan’s Elections

August 22, 2009

[cross posted at]

voter reg card election day

I waited until mid-day before I went off to cast my vote. Partly because yesterday -voting day- was a day off and I could use the extra sleep, but also partly because I -like many others- wanted to see how things would unfold and whether the grand apocalypse that the international media had cooked up will indeed be happening.

It did not.

I went to this station housed in a certain government ministry near my house. I drove there. My car was one of the few on the streets. Dark green ford rangers belonging to the national police were driving at maniac speeds up and down this big thoroughfare I had to cross to get to the station. At the station, there were more international observers than voters, but that might have to do with the fact that I went right at lunchtime and that -as people later told me- this certain area was riddled with voting stations. There were other parts of Kabul where reportedly up to a hundred people stood in lines in the morning to cast their votes. The soldier at the door did an unusually thorough body search and then pointed me to the booth. There were two -one filled with a bunch of lady voting officers in their white IEC vests, and the other, a bit to the left, the male one.

I walked in to a small room with three cardboard box booths at the far end, a table with two persons to my right, and two ballot boxes with five people sitting behind them to my left. I was one of 3 voters there at the time, and two more walked in as I was casting my vote. Unsure of what to do next, I raised my voter’s registration card and said I wanted to vote. I was dressed rather formally for a TV interview and so the elections officers for a minute thought I was one of the observers or officials. It took an awkward split second before one of the seated officers to my right asked for my card, checked my finger, took a pair of scissors and made a triangle cut on the edge of my card (apparently a large number of the punch hole machines were out of order yesterday) and had me dip my finger in the famous purple ink, and told me to blow on it. Then I went over to the next officer who tore two ballots, one for the president, the other for the provincial council member, folded and stamped them, and sent me behind one of the cardboard box booths.

The presidential ballot was one page full color print of 41 candidates (oddly enough including those who had dropped out of the race in favor of others -I had thought their mugs would have been removed). It was easy enough to spot the candidate of choice, circle, and fold again. I sort of had made up my mind about my choice for the president, but there was still some last minute hesitation. In the end I marked the box of the candidate that I would not have voted for on a brighter, sunnier day. But since scary clouds were gathered up on the horizon, I thought I made the choice that would serve us all well at this juncture. These choices are never perfect, one learns. One learns too, that the quest for the perfect, the ideal -as I. Berlin would tell you- is one of the most wrong-headed and dangerous of quests ever.

Then came the four pages, 530-plus provincial council candidate ballot. What a confused mess. I knew the person I was voting for, but had forgotten her ballot number. It took me a good five minutes to look through the four pages and find her picture and name. I made a ’swad sahih’ -tick mark- and folded this too. Then I went over and dropped these in the two designated ballot boxes indicated by green and orange sign papers.
There were some tense looking people sitting on chairs a distance away from the ballot boxes. I told myself these could only be volunteer observers working for one of the campaigns. Everyone looked less excited than I had thought, but I was filled with a mix of indescribable feelings -some of them having to do with the choices I had made, others with the fact of having had the opportunity, finally, to be part of it all. I bid everyone farewell and walked out into the blinding mid-day sun, and instantly started rubbing the ink off my finger. The ink, faint and almost unrecognizable earlier, had congealed into a black purple and was impossible to remove.

Afghanistan: Independence Day & Elections Eve

August 22, 2009

[cross-posted at]

Today Afghanistan marks the occasion of its 90th independence anniversary from Great Britain after the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war.
We are nearing the centennial celebrations -now a mere decade away. One hopes that everyone will take this as a challenge, a deadline. That Afghanistan’s 100th independence anniversary will be meaningful, and befitting of a centennial celebration. So that when we do celebrate, there won’t be that nagging hollow feeling in our collective hearts that is there now.

Today streets of Kabul are relatively calm on account of elections tomorrow. Like the proverbial calm before the storm. One senses anticipation in the air all over the place; both of elections -what it really means for all of us, what will it bring about- and of some looming prospect of possible insecurity. Nobody believes it will all be safe and eventless, at the same time as everyone hopes it will be. Security, however, is not the biggest variable in the average voter’s calculus of whether he or she will go to vote. Apathy will be the undoing of voter turnout, me says.

The road to Kandahar and onwards to Quetta in Pakistan is arguably one of the most unsafe, going through Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, Kandahar and beyond -a kind of highway to certain death by the Taliban if you may. And yet i know people who travel the road regularly to go to Ghazni, Kandahar, Pakistan, and even Herat -the latter requiring them to cross Helmand and Nimroz too. The average person has a mental index of insecurity and a sharp sense of what the tolerable quotient of insecurity is, and within that tolerable quotient, life goes on for most of the people.

The odds, and hence the quotient of insecurity and violent disruption of voting in the 6,000 plus voting stations is pretty low for a lot of people. That’s why security won’t have a major impact on whether most people vote or not. The key variables are whether they care, and whether they think that their act of voting -which as any self-respecting economist of rational self interest school of thought would tell you, is one of the most senseless things to do- will make a real difference. Another key consideration might be how many other people vote so that the average voter in question will be pressured to go along -the herd mentality often is the key driver of a lot of decisions. And of course whether the person is paid enough, or is made to swear on the holy book, etc. Not security though.

Another thing that is made quite a meal out of in the international media over the last week or so and which does not figure as prominently in the average person’s list of worries here is vote rigging and electoral fraud. The BBC, which particularly after its sensationalist coverage of Iranian election’s fallout seems to specialize in blowing these things out of proportion, is already reporting on how many voter’s registration cards its local fixers have been able to buy. This is all a bit nonsensical for the average person here. Draw, if you will, a kind of a mental Maslow’s pyramid of “political” concerns in you mind. For the Iranian electorate, election rigging was a major concern because they are in an altogether different stage of political maturity and the prime concerns, the fundamental political debate fell right on the conservative-liberal fault line in the Iranian polity. Here in Afghanistan, as evidenced by one presidential debate after another, that level of discord and disagreement is nonexistent. Everybody is agreed on the fundamentals -security, economic development, and what will be done with the Taliban. Understandably the question of election fraud is a major thing for the political elite and certain of the contenders who have a lot at stake, which is why certain presidential contenders have gone to the brink of losing their bearings trying to warn against rigging of votes and even threatening riots. The average person, however, could care less as long as it all does not go horribly wrong. This is why a lot of people need to just chill out on this matter. We know we cannot make this one hundred percent clean. That sort of thing still proves elusive even in the us especially with the mechanical fiascos and debold machines that seem to crop up at every election season. Why, then, subject this country to the most zealot standards? Especially when such zealotry can cost the rest of us so much? Chill people, chill. Bigger things are at stake than to be jeopardized by such trifles.

And finally, voter 003907269 -yours truly, that is- is fully intending to exercise his right to vote tomorrow. I can’t quite say why except that i really, deeply want to do this; that i have felt a pang of envy every time i have seen others do it in their countries, and perhaps, because, we need to move on and become a normal country for lack of a better word, even if at the beginning it requires us going through the forms for the heck of it.

voter card and election posters

[cross-posted at]

Afghanistan’s Televised Presidential Debates

August 22, 2009

My two and a half cents on the Afghanistan presidential debates of last night, for whoever’s interested:

afghanistan presidential debates

You know, of course, that last night the national TV (RTA) and radio RFE/RL held what was probably the most landmark debate of this election season and the most significant event of its type in the history of this country, with an incumbent sitting president standing next to two contenders who right there and then in front of him questioned his record and criticized him publicly. And to top it all off, an exceptionally audacious moderator who, even when the president pleaded for extra time to finish his thought, stopped him and said that the allotted time for that question has run out, Mr. Karzai, and that if you are interested you can take time in another question to return to this subject matter, and who asked him some rather uncomfortable questions, including what he had to say in his defense to those who accused him of being overly conciliatory and a wheeler dealer. Sort of thing unheard of -unthought-of – in places like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, central Asia, the Arab world, this entire neighborhood in fact.

And that, and the fact of the debates in itself, was probably the most astounding thing for us Afghans to behold. Basically, think of it as the climax of a long process of paradigm shift in Afghanistan politics that began years and years ago with the breakdown of institutions and structures of power (a kind of creative destruction, i submit) and then the shaky process of reconstruction and institution-building that has followed, and which culminated in this symbolic event of last night. A sitting president having to fight for his post with facts, figures, ideas and appeal to the masses who sat there in the hall like the jury and in their homes listening to their radios and TVs, and out there in the street in the front of the shop where a bunch of people were gathered to watch the debates with such enthusiasm it filled your heart with hope and good things. We are, hopefully, in the upswing of the process of creative destruction of structures of power, and at the tail end of the j-curve of this process in Afghanistan. The question is whether the curve will continue climbing, and the hope is that it will.

Beyond the striking fact of the debates itself, the obvious question of “who won” which usually follows such occasions:

Putting my spin-doctor’s hat on, my thoughts are that at the level of ideas, plans, ten and twenty year plans, bullet points, flow of ideas and organization of thoughts, it was dr. Ashraf Ghani’s game. To nearly every question he responded with his clearly set formula of where this government has failed, and how he would do different; first, second, third, etc. A bit too cold and far too detached for the afghan taste, if i may say so.

At the level of rhetoric, populism, and mass-appeal it was Bashardost who stole the show with his maverick, down to earth, and occasionally vitriolic rhetoric and appealing to the masses, placing the people above all, and referring over and again to their empty pockets, empty tables, empty stomachs and blaming the government for it all. He did confirm that he lives in a tent, has refused to drink coca cola (not when the elections started, but since the day he learnt in France that the soviets had invaded Afghanistan and that people were not well off) and that he distributed his salaries to pay for lunches of his staff during his days as the ministry of planning. He took quite a few pot-shots at both Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, sometimes obtuse and indirect, at others quite direct.

Karzai, to the eyes of the public, arguably was the poorest of the debaters. He was obviously coached by someone who clearly understands the American presidential debates and how it plays out, and the importance of facts, figures, and data. But that does not play well in Afghanistan – not yet at least. The result was that the president, usually flowing, grand, flourishing, and even sentimental came across as overly stiff, structured, note-card-bound, and given to sensory and statistical overload. He should have instead been the person he has always been, and let himself free from the shackles of his mentors to talk to the people and not his note cards.

Dr. Abdullah, widely regarded as the runner up to Karzai did not show up for this round of debates. He was busy getting in the last messages, speeches, campaigning before the clock runs out and there is a 48-hr moratorium on campaigning just ahead of the elections.

[cross-posted over at]

The Case for Staying the Course in Afghanistan

March 28, 2009

The revised US policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is made public after what seems to have been a long and thorough process of revision, consultations and analysis. Here is a link to President Obama’s statement laying out the key elements of the policy, and here is a link to the white-paper of the new policy:

White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan

The new policy is categorical on the need for continued US and international committment to the effort in Afghanistan. This is a welcome development, because in recent times there have been troubling signs of wavering public opinion in support of the effort in Afghanistan, and let’s face it, because historically there have not been many positive precedents for democratic administrations continuing an overseas war in the presence of economic hardships and a public mandate that demands more introspective policymaking and focus on domestic issues.

gallup on afghanistan war

From the new policy white-paper’s conclusion:

There are no quick fixes to achieve U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The danger of failure is real and the implications are grave. In 2009-2010 the Taliban’s momentum must be reversed in Afghanistan and the international community must work with Pakistan to disrupt the threats to security along Pakistan’s western border.
This new strategy of focusing on our core goal – to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually destroy extremists and their safe havens within both nations, although with different tactics – will require immediate action, sustained commitment, and substantial resources. The United States is committed to working with our partners in the region and the international community to address this challenging but essential security goal.

NY Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks returns from a recent trip to Afghanistan to say that now, after having made a number of terrible mistakes in the past few years, is not the time to leave Afghanistan. Rather, with those experiences under the belt, this is the time to learn from them and to commit to Afghanistan in a more serious way because finally everyone is focused on the real issues, finally the institutions are beginning to show signs of progress, finally the US is taking Afghanistan seriously, finally a regional dimension to the problem is being addressed, and because, ultimately, Afghan people are such a nice people (nicer than the Iraqis, Brooks quotes US servicemen who have worked in both countries) and they have embraced the democratic process enthusiastically.

I came to Afghanistan skeptical of American efforts to transform this country.
Every element of my skepticism was reinforced during a six-day tour of the country. Yet the people who work here make an overwhelming case that Afghanistan can become a functional, terror-fighting society and that it is worth sending our sons and daughters into danger to achieve this.
The Winnable War

Terrorism expert Peter Bergen strikes a similar chord as he challenges the “graveyard myth” that has been so openly embraced by the defeatist discourse in the US and writes that:

What Afghans want is for international forces to do what they should have been doing all along — provide them the security they need to get on with making a living.
Afghanistan is no longer the graveyard of any empire. Rather, it just might become the model of a somewhat stable Central Asian state.
Graveyard Myths

Bergen also cites poll after poll that indicate how public opinion in Afghanistan to this day remains solidly in favor of US and international presence and against the Taliban. This is the voice of the otherwise “silent majority” of the Afghans, who by dent of their being silent are implicitly in approval of the international engagement in Afghanistan. Tragically, it has been the vocal minority (with the sounds in most cases provided by roadside bombs and suicide attacks) that are dominating the discourse, and contributing to the slide of public opinion against the Afghan effort in western capitals. This has made for the curious situation where the Afghan people, including in the South and East, are noticing the defeatism of some in the international community and telling them to take heart and that this war is winnable.

Kandahar, Afghanistan
“DONT worry, we are not going to lose this war.”
These were the parting words to us from Brig. Gen. Sher Muhammad Zazai, commander of the 205th Corps of the Afghan National Army in Kandahar. He was echoing the sentiments of a group of village elders we had met days before in Khost Province, who assured us that they would never allow the Taliban to come back.
It is odd that the Afghans felt it necessary to reassure American visitors that all was far from lost. It reflected the fact that even in a country where electricity and running water are scarce, word of the defeatist hysteria now gripping some in the American political elite has spread.
How to Surge the Taliban

The silent majority in Afghanistan is in favor of continuing this joint enterprise, albeit with some modifications. The silent majority has bought into the new process. (There was a recent flare-up about the elections, and amazingly enough, everyone of every political shade -from the president to the legislature and the opposition- referred to the constitution of Afghanistan as the document that contained the solution. That is no simple fact -it shows that the society as well as the political elite have bought into the new process and take its various manifestations -such as the constitution- seriously. And as Charles Krauthammer rightly points out, this is not short of miraculous in Afghanistan with little precedent of that sort of thing.) And, lastly, the silent majority is still fiercely opposed to the oppressive rule of the Taliban, and still think that the international community came to their help in 2001 -although we know that the international community came for its revenge.

Even if we are to ignore the silent majority, let’s not mistake the fact that the vocal minority of extremists will, if given the opportunity, once again strike at the west. This, if nothing else, should be the imperative from which the need for continued American and international committment to Afghanistan flows. And this is what the new US policy for Afghanistan seems to have understood, taken into account, and is premised on.

Tribal Militia Plan (APPF) Gains Traction

March 3, 2009

Few ideas are so dangerous as this one. Few highlight the desperation of the international community and the Afghan government so well. And, unfortunately, few other ideas gain the traction and generate the momentum that this one has recently. We are talking about the ill-thought plan to re-arm illiterate, undisciplined tribal militias in the proximity of the capital to engage in the so called ‘self-defence’ and protection of the communities, all of this while up until recently one of the key challenges cited was the problem of illegal armed groups and the hundreds of thousands of AK47s spread all over the country. The Human Security Report Project has a dedicated page that traces how this idea went from a bad one, to a not necessarily bad one, to a secretly OK one, to an OK one, and is well on the way of becoming official policy and being implemented.

US Afghan tribe plan ‘is risky’

January 16, 2009
By Martin Vennard
BBC News

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, Said Jawad, has said a US-backed plan to form local tribal groups to help combat the insurgency is very risky.

The US hopes groups similar to those that have had success in Iraq will counter the growing insurgency and the lack of security forces.

But Mr Jawad told the BBC the plan could backfire.

He said it could undermine state institutions and actually strengthen warlords and criminals.


Mr Jawad is the latest Afghan official to publicly raise concerns about the US-backed plan.

“In order to gain a short-term term victory we might be in danger of losing the long-term objective of building state institutions,” he said.

Mr Jawad said that Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structures had been undermined by three decades of conflict.

He said if the plan was not properly managed it could strengthen the warlords and criminals.

The plan has revived memories of the militias formed in the 1980s by Afghanistan’s Communist government. They later became involved in factional warfare.

But the US ambassador to Kabul, William Wood, said the plan, which is due to be tried out in Wardak province near Kabul, was not a re-creation of those tribal militias.

He said the groups would not be armed by the Americans, but receive training, clothing and military back-up.

The governor of Wardak says the plan is still being discussed and the groups will be involved in things such a reconstruction as well as security.

But critics say the groups will have to have weapons to be effective and are wondering where those arms will come from.