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.


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.