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.


Talking to the Taliban is Foolish

August 7, 2008

Finally, a voice of reason in the “let’s negotiate with the Taliban” hysteria. From Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director of International Crisis Group:

Talking to the Taliban is foolish
By Samina Ahmed
Financial Times
Published: July 24 2008

As the insurgency ramps up, support for “talking to the Taliban” in Afghanistan is increasing. Voices in the United Nations and in Europe favour a new set of negotiations between civil society, political parties and the insurgents, and it is a natural reflex to seek a way out of a seemingly intractable conflict by exploring all available political solutions. But while negotiations are credible and acceptable if they help resolve conflict and save lives, that will not be the case in Afghanistan’s current environment.

The problems begin with identifying those who would be involved in a “new dialogue process”. Afghan civil society is weak at best, and political parties, which have been completely undermined by lack of domestic and international support, are in no position to lobby or feed constructively into national policy formation. And who would represent “the Taliban”? The UN Security Council has formally castigated Mullah Omar and most of his Kandahari leadership, and removing them from the list will not happen quickly. The US, at least, is unlikely to play ball.

The British have suggested talking with mid-level commanders, but it is hard to see how that would address the threats the insurgency poses to Afghan citizens and the state. The likely result would in fact resemble the Musa Qala disaster, a temporary truce UK forces made with the Taliban that strengthened the Taliban’s position by providing them space to regroup and attack again. A “new dialogue process” would offer them this on a national scale. If the British have not learnt much from Musa Qala, neither it seems has the UN.

Nor would such a dialogue address the cross-border aspects of the violence and Pakistan’s formal or informal role in supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Without stemming this, the chances are even greater that an agreement would be a temporary refuelling exercise for the Taliban.

It is far from clear, moreover, that the Afghan government, which cannot survive without substantial international military backing, could implement an accord on its own, provided one is reached at all. And if the outside world has to oversee implementation and enforcement anyway, this hardly meshes with the belief that Afghan patience with international military forces is exhausted – one of the driving ideas behind the talk of a “new dialogue process” – let alone the fact that the Taliban’s primary goal is to oust the international presence entirely.

Most importantly, however, is the basic nature of the enemy some would do a deal with. The Taliban thoroughly reject all the work the international community has done in Afghanistan since the end of 2001. At present, the Taliban top leadership appears to have little interest in negotiations other than on its terms, which include the withdrawal of foreign troops and the re-creation of a Taliban-style “Islamic” state. Would the international community stand by as the Taliban deprived Afghan women and girls of even the basic rights they have acquired since the Taliban’s ousting?

Yet another concern is that negotiations with the Taliban from the internationals’ and Kabul’s current position of weakness would resemble the Pakistani military’s counter-insurgency approach: short-sighted accords that concede territory and political authority to militants. These accords have only undermined the writ of the state and empowered insurgents.

Yes, military force alone is clearly insufficient. And yes, negotiations take time and must begin somewhere. But it is wishful thinking to assume that negotiating with insurgents from a position of weakness would stabilise Afghanistan. Obviously, the international community wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, but this is no way to go about it.

Instead of seeking quick fixes, international attention should focus on a comprehensive strategy with broad-based nation-building at its core. Instead of seeking exit strategies, international troops should remain so long as Afghan security forces, civilian and military, are incapable of protecting the lives of citizens and the security of the state. A new robust military commitment – not just in terms of numbers but also appropriate force structures, configurations and mandates – is the way to go.

If we let Afghanistan sink now, the revitalised Taliban will only come to dominate the country, bringing back all the problems that forced the international community to get involved in the first place.

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As the blog ThePolitic put it a while ago, why not simply ask the question like this:

“Negotiate with theocracy that seeks to keep women subservient to men and uneducated, and kill anyone who converts to another religion?”

And then some; i.e. engage in ethnic cleansing, undo virtually all the progressive clauses of the constitution, and marginalize all minorities.

My advice is, get real, people. You may be fooling yourselves, but you ain’t fooling neither the Taliban nor the majority of the people of Afghanistan. Maybe you can appease the Taliban, but that comes at the cost of a fatal blow to the nascent and fledgling democracy in Afghanistan and the alienation of more than half of the country. What then? re-negotiate with them? I mean I am all for inclusion and widening the political spectrum -but consider how would a proposition like this would offend the liberal sensibilities of those who are currently beating the drums of negotiation the hardest: in the aftermath of WWII, what the Germans and the Allies should have done is to have negotiated with the remnants of the Nazis and the fascists instead of trying them in Nuremberg. What all these talking heads are proposing in Afghanistan is no less.


Residents of Kabul Protest Government’s Inaction on Behsud – UPDATES

July 23, 2008

Some updates about yesterday’s demonstrations here against government’s inaction on the Behsud conflict -now that the dust (of the demonstrations, not yet of the conflict itself) has somewhat settled:

Pictures of demonstration via BBC

Kot-i Sangi to Deh-Mazang

According to reports and eyewitness accounts, the demonstrations started in Dasht-e-Barchi area but it was only in Kot-i Sangi that the numbers really began to swell. People in a giant human wave in thousands joined the rally that stretched unbroken between Kot-i Sangi and Deh-Mazang, with the entire avenue clogged (one source put it at 300,000 strong.) In what is surely an unprecedented practice in Afghan public and political culture, the thousands-strong rally proceeded and concluded without incidents. One of the organizers told me that there were around 5,000 women in attendance in yesterday’s rally. An eyewitness recounted that women were leading the demonstrations. Besides the IDPs and former residents of Behsud/Behsood -who were present in the largest numbers- people originating from several other provinces also joined the rally. The constituency, however, is reported to have been primarily Hazara.

Halt at Deh-Mazang

By mid-morning the rally had arrived in Deh-Mazang on its way towards the center of the city and offices of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. And then it stopped.
There are varying and conflict accounts of why the rally stopped. I will list all of the accounts that I have heard- many of which cannot be substantiated:

1. The president personally ordered the rally to be stopped, calling on all of the government’s security forces (including the ANA) to halt the progress of the march in Deh-Mazang. Based on yesterday’s presidential order calling on the Kochis to temporarily evacuate Behsud, and indications of compliance from the Kochis, the government had earlier asked for the rally to be cancelled, and when this was not done, it took measures to stop it before it reached the city center. Security and peace in the city was cited as one of the reasons for the rally to stop.

2. The leaders of the demonstrated struck a deal with the government and called off the demonstrations. Again unconfirmed, this is a variant on version # 1 above, albeit this one implies that the government offered some sort of deal or was able to persuasively sell its solution of temporary evacuation of Kuchis out of Behsud to the leaders of the rally. Other variations of this account go further and blame the demonstrations organizers and leaders as having been “bought off” and co-opted and thereafter calling upon the people to go home. The leaders spoke to the rally and invited them to stop the march, stating that should the government not keep its promises or continue its policy of inaction in Behsud, a bigger rally will be organized in the future and that will go onwards towards the city center to make its demands heard.

3. According to an unconfirmed report by ANSO (Afghan NGOs Security Office), when the demonstrators arrived at Deh-Mazang area and close to the Kabul Zoo, ‘violence’ and ‘armed demonstrators’ were reported. ANSO: “There are various unconfirmed incidents of violence being reported, including a report of armed demonstrators in the area of the Kabul Zoo. NGO should suspend all movement in the city.” I have not been able to corroborate reports of violence or armed demonstrators through any other sources and all of the media (TV, radio, print -including even the BBC Persian Webpage which has finally decided to break its implicit gag-rule over the matter) are unanimous on the non-occurence of any incidents in yesterday’s rally.

Besides the 3rd account which is unlikely in view of the media reporting of the event, it is likely that a combination of 1 and 2 was at play in halting the rally at Deh-Mazang -a carrot and stick approach, if you may.

(More to come on yesterday’s demonstrations.)

For now, here are links to pictures of the event and some reporting:

1. Exclusive pictures from the demonstrations

2. After Progress in Talks, Mohaqiq Ends Hunger Strike, Calls Protesters Back Amid Emotional Scenes


Residents of Kabul Protest Government’s Inaction on Behsud

July 22, 2008

Today thousands of residents of Kabul engaged in a peaceful demonstration to protest the Karzai government’s inaction on the conflict in Behsud.

(This post may come out of the blue for many readers abroad who are used to hearing about the Taliban and the conflict in the South of Afghanistan. I promise another post in the near future about the conflict between the settled people of Behsud in Central Afghanistan and the nomads that has been going on for the past many weeks.)

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(I did not attend the demonstrations, but know many people who did, and hope to update with more accurate information as I speak to them. This initial post is based on anecdotal information, and what I have heard on the television -which, save for two TV channels out of 10: Farda TV and Ariana TV- has been surprisingly little.)

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Photo of todays demonstration via Quqnoos.com

Photo of today's demonstration via Quqnoos.com

The Demonstration

The march started around 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning in Dasht-e-Barchi area of West of Kabul and proceeded towards the city center and the offices of the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -UNAMA. Several news agencies have put the number of demonstrators at “thousands”. By mid-day, Farda TV reported that the demonstrations were over and no incidents had taken place. Farda TV also aired footage of the demonstrations showing people in thousands marching in large thoroughfares of the city, advancing towards the center of the city.

Footage also showed police in riot gear standing around, and in some cases lining up on the main streets at a distance from the demonstrators, blocking their advance. Faced with the riot police, some among the demonstrators encouraged those at the head of the demonstrations to sit down and not advance any further, avoiding contact with the riot police and keeping a distance of 15 meters or so.

It was hard to read many of the placards and banners held up by demonstrators on TV screen. Those that I could read included:
“We oppose ethnic conflict and those who support/encourage it”
“The government should stand with defenseless civilians of Behsud”
“We want Justice”

White City

All expatriates and UN employees were told to stay put, with the UN offices announcing a “white city” -an oxymoronish term that says no UN vehicles (which are all white) are to be seen on the roads. Many embassies also followed suit, with employees in some cases working from home. Government offices, however, were open and working, along with most of the Afghan NGOs.

Suicide Bomb

Around 6:30 a.m. a suicide bomb went off near the Babur Gardens in Guzar-gah area which is close to the Deh-Mazang roundabout and the road that leads to the ruins of Darul Aman palace. All indications are that the incident was unrelated to the demonstrations, though it does ensure that the demonstrations are not the headline of the day, as no one was hurt or injured in the demonstrations, while the suicide attack took the life of the bomber and injured five three people. (By early afternoon the BBC English site for South Asia had reported the suicide bomb but had yet to do a story about the demonstrations -same with BBC Persian site). Tolo TV and Ariana TV reported that the bomb exploded when the attacker on foot was spotted by the police and he set off the bomb. At the time of the explosion the demonstrators had yet to reach the Deh-Mazang roundabout, and their advance was not interrupted by the incident.

Presidential Order

President Karzai reportedly signed an executive order yesterday to the effect that the Kochi nomads temporarily pull out of the Behsud area. I do not know yet whether the Kochi nomads have complied or not (see update 1 below). The order came after a full-scale armed conflict -with light and heavy weaponry in use- has been raging on in Behsud area for the past several weeks. Waves of IDPs -I have heard in hundreds- have descended on West Kabul and Dasht-e-Barchi area. (I will try to visit the area in the near future to conduct some first-person interviews with the IDPs and hear their stories.)

Following the order, a spokesperson for the Directorate of National Security came on TV this morning to announce that there was no more any reasons for the demonstrations to go on and that it should be cancelled. He also stated that the responsibility for any incidents that may interrupt the city’s calm and security will be borne by the organizers of the demonstrations.

Fact-finding Commission

Earlier the government had appointed a fact-finding commission to gather information and suggest workable solutions to the problem. The commission followed at least one previous such commission with the same mandate. Little is known about the results of the recent commission’s work, and there seems to be a consensus that it was a failure as it has not resulted in a peaceable solution to the conflict. A similar commission was appointed last year around the same time when the Kochi nomads entered settled areas inhabited by people of Behsud/Behsood. At the time last year UNAMA issued a statement and a bulleted list of solutions that both sides found unsatisfactory and one-sided.

Update 1

– According to Pajhwok news, following the presidential order of yesterday Kochis have began evacuating villages in the Behsud area. (link)

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Related News

1. Huge protests in Kabul by Hazara community

2. Returning Nomads to their Home

3. (Video) Behsoud people claim being attacked by Kuchis


1st Person Account of Kamikaze-Cabbie in Kabul

July 21, 2008

Just heard a pretty messed up story about a potential suicide bomber who was, fortunately, caught in time. This is a rendition of a first-person account just narrated to me.

According to Dagarwaal (a military rank here, and often used as an honorific title even when it is no more applicable and the person has been out of the military for years), last week his daughther in law (his son’s wife) and her two children had gone out to town for some shopping. Done with shopping, she waved down a cab near Shar-e-Naw to take them home. The cabbie proceeded to take them on a winding tour of the town and close to all the key embassies, until he really sparked their suspicion when he took the road to the airport, which was a significant detour from the road that would normally lead them to their house. She insisted to be dropped immediately and eventually the cabbie obliged -and even apologized, citing a terrible headache- and drove off without asking for the fare.

She took another cab and it was while describing the bizzare episode to the second cabbie that the driver said that she might have just been the passenger of an intihaari or a suicide bomber, and that she should probably report the kamikaze-cabbie to the police. The driver described how vehicle-borne suicide bombers have taken to camouflaging their operations with passengers that would make them seem innocuous and get them through many a police checkpoints because of the presence of a woman passenger.

Dagarwaal’s daughter in law did call the police, and two days later the cab driver was caught with the cab’s trunk containing an IED and a large amount of shrapnels, nails, and explosives. Just goes to show how far these people are willing to go -to the limit of knowingly sacrificing innocent people’s lives (besides that which is normally lost in collateral casualties -which is again heavily skewed in numbers towards civilians.)


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.