Obama in Afghanistan, Books, and Karzai’s Secret Love Life

July 19, 2008

I know this is no proper way to resume blogging after a months long hiatus -by a mere links referral- but there has been some excited developments in Afghanistan as of late (including the touchdown of Sen. Obama an hour or so ago here) and I just did not want to miss on that opportunity to do a post.

> 1. Obama Lands in Afghanistan
Of course Senator Obama has his own reasons for visiting Afghanistan and much of it has to do with the allegations made by the Republicans back home about his lack of experience on foreign policy. All the same, one hopes that upon his visit to a country whose fate is so intertwined with the US elections he will get an opportunity to assess things close up and perhaps, just as he had done on a number of critical issues of domestic policy in the US, be able to present some real alternatives and innovative ideas -because, as is increasingly clear, the present course is a road to nowhere.

Bloggingheads: Obama and Afghanistan
Robert Wright of Bloggingheads.tv and Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network debate the politics of the war in Afghanistan.

> 2. Rebuilding Afghanistan, One Book at a Time
Nancy Dupree, an old and celebrated hand in the Afghanistan Aid community laments the debilitating shortage of books and access to information in Afghanistan

> 3. And on the lighter side: Karzai has a lover
I love how the wapo has spotted this.


Afghanistan Study Group Report

January 31, 2008

Since just about everybody concerned about matters Afghanistan-related has by now heard of the Afghanistan Study Group Report and its ominous “failed state” and “forgotten war” forebodings, and is scouring the internet for the report PDF file, here it is:

Afghanistan Study Group

The report is in reality a compilation of three studies commissioned by the Afghanistan Study Group (itself modeled on the Iraq Study Group) headed by a high-powered duo (former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired General James Jones) and backed by a number of illustrous DC think-tanks (CSIS and the Atlantic Council among them).

No promises, but I may do a post about the report contents and recommendations once I have gone through it myself.


We Love Dry Humor

August 8, 2007

And Mathew Yglesias has got a good bit of it on offer here:

Karzai, who only lives in Afghanistan and runs its government, calls Iran “a helper.” Bush, though, says he’s got it wrong.

*
Me thinks Karzai went to the Camp David (for some reason every time I hear this name I cannot help but remember the classic line from As Good As It Gets when Jack Nicholson references it while accosting his neighbor) armed with the thorny Iran issue not so much to get Bush to cuddle up to Ahmadinezhad as much as for political consumption back home and to show some spine and independence of thought and action. Here, it does not take very long to realize the importance of precisely that.


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)


Of Hostages and Candidates: Taliban Time Demands with French Elections

April 20, 2007

Royale Sarkozy - Candidates
Socialist Ségolène Royal and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy – Front runners in Sunday’s French presidential elections
Celine Eric - Hostages
Celine and Eric – French aid workers held hostage by the Taliban since April 3, 2007 (along with three Afghan colleagues)

In a rare show of prescience, we had suggested earlier on Safrang that the Taliban will time their hostage demands to coincide with domestic political excitement in France. (Alright, everyone had a similar feeling.)

AFP reports today that the group has demanded the withdrawal of the 1000-strong French contingent within the week and the release of more Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government. The demands come just two days ahead of the presidential elections in France. Although it is not clear how the news will figure into the French elections now that all the campaigning and debates are over, the French have predictably kicked into action, sending an envoy to Kabul to do everything it can to bring the hostages home including, presumably, an Italian-style prisoner swap with the Taliban.

The Afghan government, for its part, is in dire straits. After the Mastrogiacomo-Naqshbandi fiasco that ended in the death of the Afghan journalist, the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans cannot withstand a similar blow. In the aftermath of that episode, president Karzai made it clear that the quid-pro-quo was an exception, and ruled out all future such deals.

At the time, however, the Afghan government was only trying to cover its political rear and did not know that soon it will have to deal with an even richer, more powerful Western European nation with its own history of cohabitational politics and whose presence and friendship it badly needs.


Looking for Love in Ankara

April 17, 2007

AFP and the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman have confirmed earlier reports about a summit to be hosted by Ankara between Afghan and Pakistani presidents sometimes in early May this year.

Before anything else I am reminded of the White House dinner last year during which president Bush hosted the two leaders in a famously frigid atmosphere. Fresh from the sets of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room, where they had been mutually generous with criticisms and accusations of incapacity, the two leaders reportedly shook hands with their host before the dinner, but not with each other. (Unknown sources quoted a White House valet -who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the incident- noticing the two guests periodically kicking each other “in the shin” under the table.)

All in all, that dinner in Washington did little to bring a thaw in the relations between the two leaders, as evidenced most recently with this week’s remarks by President Musharraf on American TV. Asked how he felt about President Karzai’s critique of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, and his accusation that Mullah Omar was hiding out in Pakistan, Musharraf said that he is “very angry” with Karzai, and that Karzai’s continued insistence that Omar was in Pakistan is “absolute nonsense.” Surprisingly there has been no rhetorical tit-for-tat from the Afghan president so far, and there are subtle indications that at least some people in the government of Afghanistan are toning down their usually harsh and explicit criticism of Pakistan. Especially now that both leaders have agreed “in principal” with a meeting in Ankara, it is unlikely that the rhetorical altercation will worsen.

It is hard not to suspect Washington’s hand in arranging the Ankara talk. There are no reports to the effect, and I have heard nothing so far from any officials in the American government, but it is clear that aside from the largely symbolic place that the common religion of Islam holds in the relations between the three countries, the real common denominator for all three countries can be found in the three capital letters: U.S.A.

Both Ankara and Islamabad (incidentally also sister cities) are longtime US and NATO allies, and both played front and center roles during the Cold War against the Soviet Union: Izmir was the site of US Jupiter IRBM nuclear warheads that was used as a justification by the Soviets for deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba -triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis– and Pakistan was instrumental in channeling American money to the Mujahideen in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The US also continues to enthusiastically back Turkey’s membership into EU, an issue that probably tops Turkey’s list of foreign policy priorities and concerns.

Separately, Turkey and Pakistan have celebrated their common cultural links and economic as well as strategic interests in the form of such regional organizations as ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization), and according to his memoirs In the Line of Fire, the Pakistani president has spent part of his childhood growing up in Turkey, and is clearly inspired and enamored in his thinking by Turkey’s secular and modernizing leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For its part, while Turkey has not been as proactive as Pakistan during the civil war in Afghanistan, it is clear that it has not sat on the sidelines either. Turkey supported, and at times hosted, prominent Uzbek warlord and Northern Alliance commander Rashid Dostum during the civil war and later in the fight with the fundamentalist T. regime. More recently, Turkey has supported the US-led struggle in Afghanistan and has contributed troops to the security umbrella ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, and a Turkish general has previously led the outfit.

Now, these good offices are called upon to perform a difficult task of monumental consequences: thaw the little ice age that has suddenly descended between Kabul and Islamabad.

Update:
Regardless of how the summit turns out for Karzai and Musharraf, the host (Turkish Prime Minister Recep Teyeb Erdogan) could use some distraction from the recent public opposition to his candidacy for Turkey’s presidency.


Karzai Criticizes New Front, Alleges Outside Backing

April 6, 2007

Karzai

Since the announcement of its formation in mid-March, the United National Front has generated a lot of buzz. Thanks to early reports on BBC Persian and a few non-media sources here and there, this blog was one of the first to pick the story, and try to make sense of its oddball composition and line-up. (Read previous posts Old Guard Lining Up… and Update on New Front… )

Now, returning from his trip to New Delhi where he secured Afghanistan’s membership into SAARC, president Karzai has joined the fray. BBC Persian reporter Marzia Adeel reports that while the press conference was nominally held to mark the president’s trip to India and the regional summit, most of the journalists peppered him with questions about the new political front that has decidedly postured itself at odds with Karzai’s policies.

Responding to questions about the new front, the president was quick to accuse it of enjoying the backing of Afghanistan’s neighbors through their respective embassies in Kabul. While the president did not name any names or offer any evidence to back his claims (save for saying that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Directorate were investigating possible links), his comments are sure to bring the new group under scrutiny and perhaps even cost them politically. And for good reason: certain faces among the UNF’s leadership have well-established, time-tested, and undeniable links to regional stakeholders such as Iran, Pakistan, India, the Russian Federation, and some of the CIS nations.

The president also used some ‘spin’ in attacking one of UNF’s stated goals to instate gubernatorial elections for Afghanistan’s provinces, saying that such an arrangement would be tantamount to federalism (he did not explain how), and that that was not a route that the people of Afghanistan wanted to go down again (he did not say when they had done so before.) In regard to UNF’s other goal of changing the constitution in favor of a parliamentary system in Afghanistan, the president invoked the mandate of the people (an oft-invoked genie these days) in that their representatives voted in the constitutional Loyal Jirga in favor of a strong unitary and presidential form of government.

Furthermore the president choose the occasion to admit that members of his government have met with Taliban representatives and that he has had personal audiences with them. This is most certainly in response to another point on the UNF agenda, i.e. its stated willingness to negotiate with the Taliban. With the Taliban’s cycle of spring insurgency well underway and suicide bombings taking place at unprecedented frequency and proximity to the capital, UNF’s placatory moves could be seen as a more attractive alternative to the Karzai government’s failure to negotiate with the Taliban to curb violence.

So far so good. The president has done well in choosing to confront the reality of the new front and responding to their stated goals and criticisms of the government instead of ignoring it like he has been doing for the past couple of weeks. The cynical wheeler-dealers that constitute the new front bring to mind other such disastrous mass marriages of convenience during Afghanistan’s lost decade (1990s) i.e. the Islamabad and Mecca pacts. Then too leaders and figures who were sworn enemies of each other had come together by the force of circumstances and united by their common designs on the people of Afghanistan. Now, marginalized and confronted by new realities (read the frightening episode of “National Amnesty” debate where for a while it seemed likely that the bill would not go through and they would remain prone to accountability for their deeds) some of the very same figures have come together again. Lastly, the new group is aggressively promoting itself as a multi-ethnic and broadly representative grouping. In reality, this could be vacuous posturing as the UNF is not all that representative.

While the formation of new political parties is widely recognized as one of the most urgent needs of the political system in Afghanistan, the truth is that groups like UNF simply don’t cut it. Instead of such old-guard, top-down, wheeler-dealer line-ups, genuine efforts by civil society groups in Afghanistan should be encouraged.