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.


No They Don’t.

April 17, 2007

Ever since reading this piece last week by Chris Sands of UK’s The Independent (“We want the Taliban back, say ordinary Afghans”) I have been meaning to write something long and insightful and engage in more shameless pedantry.
But then again there is little that even as insightful and erudite of a person as myself can write that could reveal the true extent of Taliban’s brutality and moral depravity as would a brief glance at their list of recent accomplishments. So I will just offer this cursory and hastily put together list, rest my case, and briefly say: No They Don’t, for Taliban’s…

> Brutally slaughtering Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi after releasing his Italian colleague in a deal that the government maintains also included Ajmal’s safe release (thus also proving to be a dishonorable group of bandits.)

> Murdering schoolchildren.

> Burning at least 130 schools during 2006 and murdering at least 20 teachers in the same period.

> Blowing up a UN vehicle and killing four Nepali and one Afghan staff of a UN agency in Kandahar.

> Murdering defenseless women and children.

> And the list goes on: introducing suicide bombing to Afghanistan and employing it indiscriminately in cities and public places, kidnappings, beheadings…

All these things considered, one either has to stretch, shrink, or otherwise modify the meaning of “ordinary Afghans” or that of the “Taliban”, or that of “want back” to be able to come up with a story like the one in The Independent UK.
We Want the Taliban Back, Say Ordinary Afghans? The ordinary Afghans that I know would say by an overwhelming majority that: No thanks, we don’t.


Another Prisoner Exchange Deal?

April 16, 2007

Moi Aussi!

A few days ago this blog asked whether the French government will follow suit and try to pressure the Karzai government -like the Italian government did earlier- into arranging a prisoner exchange deal. That deal led to the release of Italian journalist Daniel Mastrogiacomo, but only after the death of his Afghan driver, the release of five ranking T-word commanders (bear with me for a few more days), and was followed by the tragic death of his Afghan colleague Ajmal Naqshbandi, the imprisonment of the person who arranged the deal -Rahmatullah Henefi, an Afghan staff of the Italian aid group Emergency-, and the pulling out of Emergency from Afghanistan.

So far, France’s answer the the question above seems to be an unqualified Oui.

Chirac Sweet Surrender - courtesy of politicalhumor

All jokes about French and their penchant for quick surrender aside, French president Jacques Chirac has reportedly appealed to president Karzai over a telephone conversation to “demand his support” for the release of two French aid workers held hostage for some two weeks now (the French aid workers are identified as Celine and Eric.) After the flak that the Afghan and Italian governments caught for negotiating with terrorists the first time around, and especially after the political fallout from Ajmal Naqshbandi’s death, president Karzai ruled out any future such deals. Against this backdrop, the “demand his support” clause from the French president can only mean one thing: just this one more time, please!

Who are you betting on?

Regardless of whether the deal goes through or not, the fact that both the Italian and French governments have so readily contemplated negotiating with the enemy and releasing dangerous prisoners begs one question: between the beleaguered government of Hamid Karzai and the resurgent terrorists in the south of Afghanistan, on whom are NATO’s European members placing their bets? If the answer is -as it seems to be on the surface- that they are standing by the government in Kabul, then the costs are clear. It may entail the deaths of even more hostages, and more troops on the ground. If, on the other hand, their faith in the Karzai government is faltering –as it seems to be in the case of the German Social Democrat leader Kurt Beck, for instance- then the doors are thrown open for negotiating with leaders of the extremist group that ruled Afghanistan until October 2001, embracing them, and bringing them into the fold of the Afghan government -an outcome that will mark the height of cynicism on part of the Afghan government and its international allies, and at the expense of the people of Afghanistan. This is the reality of the choice that faces the Afghan government and all its international allies in Afghanistan, and it is no easy choice. It is a choice about the life and deaths of the hostages currently held, and many more who will undoubtedly follow.

Domestic Political Vulnerabilities

Meanwhile, an Op-Ed in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal pointed to the political costs of “negotiating with extremists” for both the Italian and the British governments (and here you have to forgive WSJ for its stretched version of how the Brits “negotiated” with the “extremists” that are the Iranian government.) It is clear that many European governments who were persuaded one way or another by the Bush administration to join the fight in Afghanistan are politically vulnerable at home, and the extremists in Afghanistan, well cognizant of this vulnerability, are doing everything to exploit it.

Diverging Attitudes Within Afghan Government

Evidence also suggests rifts within the Afghan government over this issue, between those who deem the extremists as oh-not-so-terrible-after-all, and those who adopt a more uncompromising stance, ruling out all negotiations and opposing bringing them into the fold. While in a recent press briefly president Karzai openly admitted having spoken with leaders of the extremists (and there are still those in the government who think that Karzai is not being flexible enough on the subject), Foreign Minister Spanta reflected a different line of thinking in his complete rejection of talks with the extremists (saying that there are no “moderate” and “non-moderate” extremists, and that such distinction reveals ignorance about the reality in Afghanistan), and pledged an end to all hostage negotiations.


Will the French Follow Suit?

April 6, 2007

Vive La France

The recent abduction of two French aid workers and their three Afghan staff in Nimroz has surely vindicated the forecasters of doom who announced that the Mastrogiacomo deal marks the beginning of Taliban’s “open season” for foreigners. One can imagine all the gleeful “toldjya!” being thrown left and right.

The question now remains whether the French will resort to quid pro quo too. It seems like they would have to. The truth is that after the Mastrogiacomo case they are not left with many options. Entering a deal however will certainly deteriorate the situation and further steepen this slippery slope.

The Mastrogiacomo deal came under rather exceptional circumstances. With the Italian government just recovering from the collapse it had suffered largely because of its Afghan policy, it could ill afford to let Mastrogiacomo be held any longer with the Italian public holding its breath, or for that matter, be murdered at the hands of the Taliban. This is why it mustered all the pressure and influence it could bear on the Karzai administration to work out a negotiated release.

While French domestic politics are nothing like that of Italy’s, one can see how a protracted hostage situation could figure into the country’s upcoming presidential elections. Although the elections are still some time off, the candidates are already posturing on crucial issues of domestic and foreign policy. It is easy to see how in a frenzy to appeal to the electorate, candidates will embark on a race to the bottom where the release of the hostages at any price comes to be seen as the prized position to argue from. This can only spell further doom for expatriate aid workers and foreign journalists in Afghanistan.

For some time now the Taliban have shown that they are abandoning the brashness of their heyday and are becoming a media-savvy group with a keen eye to the evolving international environment. Mullah Dadullah and others have regularly cited happenings in international politics as evidence of their victories or as justification for their actions. It is likely that the selective targeting of foreign nationals from countries with rocky domestic politics is yet another such smart tactic.

On a related note, the fate of Mastrogiacomo’s Afghan fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi remains unknown. The “double-standarding” has provoked much anger and debate across Afghanistan, especially as the Italian journalist’s Afghan driver suffered a gruesome death. It is possible that the Taliban are holding Naqshbandi hoping for another, albeit less lucrative exchange of prisoners. With the new detainees, however, one fears that the Taliban may use the killing of one or two of the Afghan staff as a tool to coerce the French and Afghan governments into entering a deal. Let’s hope that will not be the case.


Karzai Steps Down, Citing Frustration with Pakistan

April 3, 2007

For the full report, which I was regrettably too busy to post here when it was leaked out two days ago -as would have been more appropriate- please click here.

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Pakistan, Pakistan:

Notwithstanding the veracity of the explosive news above (and remember, you read it first here on Safrang), or the fact that it is outdated by two days, in truth there seems to be apparently no end to the Afghan government’s litany of frustrations with Pakistan.

Yes, there is no denying the fact that Pakistan is -whether actively or passively- complicit in Afghanistan’s security travails. Yes, nobody can seriously question the fact that elements within Pakistan’s security and intelligence establishment have strong sympathies for, and time-tested ties with, the Taliban. Yes, it is true that Pakistan has lost significant ground in post-Taliban Afghanistan and does not enjoy the hegemony that it once did there. And yes, the anachronism of “strategic depth” has been relegated to the dustbin of history with the advent of a new government in Afghanistan that has aligned itself -both regionally and internationally- along lines that are less than beneficial to Pakistani national interests. (For a more detailed account of Pakistan-Afghanistan relationships read my earlier post here.)

All this and more is true of Pakistan, and to the extent that the Afghan government and its American allies pressure Pakistan for greater cooperation in these areas, they are correct.

But lately it is beginning seem like Pakistan is becoming the great scapegoat for all that is wrong with Afghanistan, whether or not they are related to the security situation, the Taliban insurgency, or Pakistan’s role in supporting named insurgency. Note, for instance, Nicholas Kristof’s recent interview with president Karzai. Virtually all of the questions and answers in the interview come down to one thing: Pakistan. Even where Nicholas Kristof tires of hearing about Pakistan and asks about Afghanistan’s economy and the Taliban’s treatment of women, the answers invariably go back to Pakistan’s role.

In one particularly interesting exchange, the president says that the Taliban’s treatment of women was motivated not by their religious conservatism, but was rather a calculated piece of Pakistani “colonial” policy that was aimed at breaking the will of Afghan men, and thereby of the Afghan nation, till they ultimately submitted to Pakistani rule. Continuing this thread, the president accuses Pakistan of continuing its “colonial” policies to date -ostensibly in the form of the insurgency- before retracting his statement on grounds that the upcoming Peace Jirga between the two countries is forthcoming and any such comments would further erode relations. All the same the president sticks to his line and goes on to say that Mullah Omar is in fact Pakistan’s colonial “stooge,” as opposed to a religious fundamentalist bent on establishing an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan and making Shariah the law of the land. At least for this writer such revisionism of recent history is new and amusing. One need not attribute to the Taliban outlandish motives in order to see that they were and are bad news for Afghanistan. Taliban’s treatment of women was wrong even on their professed religious premises, and should be confronted on those grounds – and not because it was -as the president claims- an effort by Pakistan to humiliate Afghan men and their Ghairat and honor.

The truth is that there are many things wrong with Afghanistan today, and not all of them are because of Pakistan. Corruption, for instance, and the fact that it is institutionalized and widely tolerated, is one among the many serious shortcomings of the current Afghan government and it is doing enormous damage to its legitimacy and capacity -perhaps more than the Taliban insurgency has done. Pakistan has nothing to do with official corruption in Afghanistan, and it is time the president and others at the highest levels of the Afghan government took responsibility for this problem and vowed to confront it. And yet all public pronouncements coming from the government, like the interview above, are centered on how Pakistan is to blame for the Afghan government’s failures.

While finding a perfect alibi and an excuse in Pakistan has helped the Afghan government not get much flack for its shortcomings and failures, the truth is that very soon Afghanistan will have far bigger problems on its hand, and it will not be because of Pakistan or the Taliban. Pakistan, while complicit and culpable in Afghanistan’s instability, should not become the center of Afghan government’s imagination. By limiting itself to holding Pakistan responsible, and -however sincerely- trying to set confront all of Afghanistan’s troubles by seeking their roots in Pakistan, the Afghan government suffers from extreme myopia and lack of imagination and is in fact searching for a silver bullet to Afghanistan’s problems – in the form of greater cooperation from Pakistan. Tragedy is, very soon Pakistan may hopefully succumb to international pressure and take tougher action against Al Qaeda and Taliban elements in its soil, and the Afghan government will then face a crisis of purpose, no longer having Pakistan to blame or combat.

[The link to Nicholas Kristof’s interview with president Karzai above is to NY Times Select which you will need a subscription to access. The full interview is available on Barney Rubin’s Afghanistan listserve, which if you have not already subscribed to, you should get out from under that rock and do now.]


Cover Ups and Collateral Damage

March 6, 2007

A few months ago president Karzai wept in public while talking about Afghans’ helplessness as they are attacked by the Taliban on the one hand, and the foreign troops on the other. Whether staged or genuine (we tend to think it was genuine) the emotional episode epitomized the weariness of those civilians who found themselves sandwiched between two blind forces.

That was then, in the aftermath of another incident with heavy civilian losses of life.

On March 4-5th, in a span of less than 24 hours, two more such incidents took place in Afghanistan. The first happened when a US troops convoy was attacked by a car bomb near Jalalabad, and subsequently started shooting at passers-by as it sped away. US army sources later confirmed that 8 civilians were killed and 35 more injured. Later, in a night-time artillary attack and air strike in Kapisa province, 9 more civilians were killed as 2000lb bombs were dropped on a house.

In a reminder of last spring’s demonstrations -following a similar convoy incident north of Kabul in which civilian bystanders were killed- after the Jalalabad highway incident thousands of people took to the streets protesting civilian deaths and shouting slogans against the foreign troops and the central government. In retrospect, observers see last spring’s protests as a milestone in post-Taliban Afghanistan, as they marked the beginning of a downward trajectory which lasted for the rest of the year 2006, and is yet to be turned about.

Whether the recent episode proves to be another steep drop in that downward trajectory remains to be seen. However, the involved troops’ response in the immediate aftermath of the civilian deaths is not anything to be too hopeful about. Most disturbingly, US soldiers on the scene confiscated cameras and deleted journalists’ photographs of civilian cars sprayed with bullets, threatening to also “delete” a journalist if he did not comply. Furthermore, the US military’s attempt to explain away the incident as some sort of a “complex ambush” does not seem either ingenuous or convincing, and should be independently confirmed through an investigation. President Karzai has called for just such an investigation, a call which the Human Rights Watch has strongly endorsed.

It seems that the US army has taken to heart the lessons of history as they pertain to a certain aspect of such incidents: that images have the power to win or lose wars: Vietnam. Mai Lai. Abu Ghraib. Iraq. But the lesson is only half learnt. The other half goes something like this: cover-ups usually end up doing more damage than damage control. The best way to deal with these tragic incidents is to confront them in their full ugliness. Just as with persons, so too with wars secrets have a habit of piling up on each other so that soon the whole effort seems like a sinister, secretive undertaking. And then the war is lost.

Tragic and heart rending as the episode was, the way that the US army dealt with Abu Ghraib probably came closest to the best way of dealing with something that difficult. Granted that many were forced to confront the truth -as by that time the images were already public- the fact that those responsible were held accountable, and the ugliness of the incident was publicly acknowledged, and decried, helped to distance it from the wider effort that is the war itself. Had they been swept under the rug, to date they would haunt all those who were involved, or knew about it, and did not do anything -needless to mention how the Iraqis themselves felt about it.

With civilian losses of life becoming so frequent in Afghanistan, it is time to ask why. When accidents become routine, then something is really wrong. Cover ups and information control may hide the symptoms, they may delay the inevitable, but they do not address the sources of the problem. The inevitable is that the sources of problem -which could, for all we know, be of a systematic nature- should be confronted soon.

The US army has said time and again that it is fighting an unconventional war with an unconventional adversary. Part of what that means is that the adversary -an irregular guerilla force- is not under the same international treaty obligations that the US army is -that is, among others, to ensure civilians’ safety. Unless measures are taken to prevent such episodes from happening again -and a good place to start doing that is to find out why they happened in the past- it seems only certain the war will be lost one incident at a time, and in the process, also bereft of its legitimacy.


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.