Category Archives: Taliban

This Kabul attack is more sinister; it’s also a turning point – initial thoughts

A team of Taliban suicide attackers is holding dozens of women and children hostage at a hotel on the popular Qargha Lake in Kabul. The Taliban have accepted responsibility for the attack, saying the hotel is “a center of debauchery” and the attack is an “attempt at morally reforming society.” While some reports suggest the hotel was hosting a marriage ceremony, most people in the area are just out for a Friday picnic.

Here are my initial thoughts about this developing story.

This attack is a horrifying turning point.

It’s horrifying because:

  • The attackers are suicide bombers, they’re holding civilians hostage, and they have not articulated any demands. That means they’re not interested in negotiating with the security forces, making this attack potentially very, very deadly for the civlians.
  • Brave and patriotic as the Afghan special forces are, they’re new to hostage situations – they can’t simply walk in, fight hard and save the day like they did two months ago. They’ll need ISAF backup in this complicated operation, but the hostage takers aren’t interested in negotiating.

It’s a turning point because:

  • The rationale from the Taliban sounds awfully like what they used for their notorious vice and virtue police during the glory says of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The only difference is, this attack is more sinister and has large-scale terrorist aims. The idea of a reformed, softer Taliban? This attack proves that a myth, once and for all.
  • Attacking a hotel at a popular picnic spot on Friday (weekend in Afghanistan) and holding women and children hostage is clearly an attempt at maximizing the civilian impact. In that sense, it’s different from the Finest Supermarket attack, and different from the “normal” spectaculars, such as the one involving the parliament building and embassies.
  • Attacking a public spot and holding civilians hostage demonstrates Taliban’s complete disregard for the lives of Muslims, Afghans, civilians, or anything they’ve thus far pretended to respect – so they’re not interested even in appearing to win over the public. They want to maximize the impact on the public by upgrading their deadly tactics from previous attacks such as the one on Finest Supermarket.
  • For the reasons above, this attack marks a turning point in Tailban attacks in Kabul, a possible new phase of their Al-Badr summer fighting season.

Two important things the world is ignoring about the Kandahar massacre

Immediately after the incident in Kandahar involving a US soldier that killed 16 unarmed Afghan civilians, we heard concerns about “Afghan anger” and “backlash.” This approach, emanating from an instinct fear, is precisely the wrong one because it ignores two things:

  • The grief and pain experienced by the Afghans who have lost, among others, 9 children, and;
  • The tremendous restraint exhibited by Afghans in the face of repeated incidents of civilian deaths, including the infamous Kill Team and other occasions of aerial strikes targeting the wrong people.

The fear-of-backlash approach dehumanizes the people who have been affected by this incident and paints them not as victims but as potential aggressors. This approach, coming from the ISAF troops sent in to protect the civilians, is regrettable at the least and prevents effective interaction with the population. Further, it ignores all historical precedent of how civilians have reacted to such incidents, which is with much restraint.

I am going to write more about this for the UN Dispatch, but for a more expanded version of the above, listen to my interview from earlier today on The Kojo Show.

Update (March 13): My post on UN Dispatch dealing with this subject in greater depth.

How best to ensure defeat in Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently made comments suggesting that U.S. combat role would end in Afghanistan by mid-2013. This came as a shocker to many. The U.S. had insisted – in fact, cajoled other NATO members – to contribute troops and resources to the Afghanistan war. Other U.S. officials tried to do damage control, but Panetta set the tone for the May Chicago conference, where  the final timetable of withdrawal will be decided.

These comments came just before the NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels, where discussions were supposed to be held on the future size of the Afghan national security forces (ANSF). NATO member countries are going through a tight financial squeeze, so the apatite for sustaining a a 350,000-strong security forces for Afghanistan – the current projection for Oct. 2012 – was not strong. France said it would be happy with a 230,000-strong force, while the U.S. preferred 227,000.

Either way, the cost factor was the most important in those calculations. It was less about how many troops would be necessary to defend Afghanistan against the insurgency, and more about how much money NATO can afford to give to sustain the Afghan forces. The discussion had shifted from a security policy perspective to a predominantly financial austerity perspective. To be sure, policymaking is always a balancing act between scarce resources and optimal policy outcomes, and mostly the outcomes are as important in final analysis as the money. But in this discussion, it was the other way around.

So, as the U.S. is cutting down its troops and further accelerating the drawdown, it is also pushing for a smaller ANSF. At the same time, American diplomats are trying hard to make the ongoing negotiation efforts with the Taliban work. If there is anything that screams “we’re negotiating from a position of weakness,” it would be this. ISAF is leaving Afghanistan and leaving behind a small and less capable force to fight the insurgency. Before they leave, they are attempting to dissuade the Taliban from violence and integrate them into the government — not as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan but as a smaller group that shares a fraction of power. That is impossible to do as long as the the Taliban remain more powerful vis-a-vis the ANSF.

This is a lose-lose proposition on many levels. First, U.S. negotiators will find it harder to argue for things that are not on the top of their national security agenda — important things like women’s rights, girl’s education, minority protection, human rights, etc. Second, the U.S. or its partner countries have not announced or debated any special increase in civilian aid as they have contemplated withdrawal and cutting ANSF funding. A funding shortfall in the face of a growing insurgent threat and a hostile neighborhood will inevitably force Afghanistan to prioritize defense over development. Third, the U.S. and its allies seem to be largely ignoring the concerns of the political opposition, which is growing increasingly paranoid as they see Afghanistan’s future direction being negotiated almost exclusively between the Taliban and the U.S. This does not bode well for any future negotiated settlement where the opposition’s demands are not factored in.

Amid fiscal belt tightening, growing war-weariness and election-year politics, the international community is pursuing the exact policy it should not. It is inevitable that Afghanistan’s security forces will have to be downsized, but that should only happen when the current heightened state of security threats has been addressed. It is also inevitable that the international community will stop funding Afghanistan’s forces, look for a solution other than protracted war and withdraw their own forces. But the current strategy – if it can be called that – doesn’t not constitute an optimal combination of these realities.

If anything, it seems like the best strategy for failure in Afghanistan.

Video: Afghanistan Analysis talks to the BBC on the Marine ‘urination’ story

I got the opportunity to speak with the BBC on this story yesterday. The interview was fairly soon after the story broke, so these are my initial thoughts. For more on this issue, see this earlier post.

Video: Afghanistan Analysis talks Taliban on Al Jazeera

AJ Stream recently invited me to appear on their show focused on the current attempts by the U.S. and its allies to negotiate with the Taliban. Along side me was Afghan journalist and writer Fariba Nawa, whose new book Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan is one of the best books written by Afghans on Afghanistan in the last decade.

Here’s the show in full.

Thoughts on talks with the Taliban

I wrote a piece for the UN Dispatch after the Taliban agreed to open an office in Qatar and negotiate with the United States. The complete article is located here, but I am also reproducing some of the excerpts in this post.

Taken as is, this momentum is a positive development. But…the biggest challenge to the effort is choosing the parties to the negotiation. The Taliban have so far completely sidelined the Afghan government and have indicated that they only want to talk with the United States. They are participating not as an insurgency, but as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the country’s legitimate government – attempting to negotiate the withdrawal of the occupying foreign forces.

And so Afghanistan’s High Peace Council is sitting idle as the Taliban initiate talks with the USA. Also excluded are Afghanistan’s civil society and political groups.

[Snip]

Given all of this, nobody should expect that negotiations can completely end the Afghan conflict because high-level talks cannot remedy smaller-scale, localized conflicts motivated by tribal competitions, personal rivalries and the opium trade.

[Snip]

…the international community and the Afghans must first harmonize the dissonance in their respective objectives. The international community’s main hope from the negotiations is a semblance of peace to allow them an honorable exit, while Afghans also want some form of reconciliation involving justice for the victims of the Taliban’s humanitarian and political crimes. Reconciliation would involve prosecution and punishment, and the Taliban are not negotiating to put themselves in jail or on trial.

[Snip]

Reconciliation has to be a process, and processes take time. This means that by the time negotiations turn into reconciliation, the international community will likely have moved on from Afghanistan. Reconciliation processes always carry the latent possibility of failure; that likelihood is even greater in non-inclusive processes such as this one. Given this, what are the contingencies for when peace and reconciliation don’t work and conflict erupts once again? What are the safeguards that can dis-incentivize the temptation to go violent? These questions are important because, while no one wants the Taliban to dominate the country, the insurgent group is not negotiating to obtain a status of secondary importance in the future of Afghanistan.

[Snip]

…surprisingly, Pakistan seems to have looked the other way as the Taliban negotiators and their families were flown out to Qatar. Could this be a tacit change in Pakistan’s strategy? If so, what are its new demands? And how do they square off against the interests of its arch-rival India and those of China, whose stakes in the country have been increasing?

Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, has its own reservations about the idea of Taliban returning to Afghanistan’s mainstream and about the American demand of keeping about 30-40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan…. The problem with Iran is not its reservations but the fact that nobody wants to make it party to the negotiations, essentially giving it license to pursue any and all means to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan.

[Snip]

A lot is at stake on this flawed, failure-prone initiative. Think of it this way: if the Taliban can produce a stalemate fighting NATO and Afghan forces, they can do a lot more when the Afghans are left on their own.

2012: Things to keep an eye on in Afghanistan

This incomprehensive list is a repository of my initial thoughts and will evolve over the next few days. As this year wraps up, I thought I’d make a note of some of the important news items to look out for in 2012. Two of the first items are part of a larger listicle (list article) on the UN Dispatch.

  • Security transition/international troop withdrawal

More than a dozen members of the 49-country international coalition in Afghanistan are preparing to bring many or all of their soldiers home next year. The foreign military footprint is expected to shrink by around 40,000 troops by the end of 2012. The United States will pull approximately 29,000 troops, reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 97,000 to around 68,000. Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Denmark, New Zealand, Slovenia, Hungary, Finland and Italy will collectively withdraw thousands more.

Will the Afghan security forces be prepared to take over when they leave? The signs aren’t encouraging. Attrition, lack of discipline, disrespect for civilian lives and propertyinsurgent infiltration, ethnic and political fractures, corruption, and unsustainable recruitment continue to plague Afghanistan’s police and army.

Also worrisome is the fact that anti-Taliban militias nominally under government control will continue expanding in 2012 with the support of international forces. These groups have gained notoriety among ordinary Afghan civilians and civil society for their fluid loyalties, links to organized crime and involvement in human rights abuses.

The government in Kabul needs competent police and soldiers to survive the departure of foreign forces. If the international community, and especially the United States, fails to seriously address the Afghan security forces’ shortcomings in 2012, doing so in 2013 will be too late.

Una Moore

  • Food insecurity and hunger

Close to three million Afghans are facing starvation as a harsh winter descends upon the country. A drought affecting 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces has rendered many families that engage in subsistence farming incapable of feeding themselves. The affected provinces are mostly in the north and northeast, where the loss of 80% of the staple wheat crop has left many with little to eat – some families are already reportedly limiting their diets to one meal a day. Winters can last up to six months and supply routes become impassable much of that time due to the mountainous terrain and snowfall of up to 13 feet. The international community has so far only pledged about one-third of the $142 million requested by the U.N. That is likely to impede efforts to stockpile food in affected areas before they become inaccessible. Children and pregnant women face chronic malnutrition in some of the poverty-hit areas regardless of drought.

An estimated 80% of Afghanistan’s population is involved in farming and herding. Droughts are not uncommon in Afghanistan, but their effects on crops and livestock are especially severe because irrigation remains poorly developed and water preservation is largely nonexistent. In addition to these structural challenges, the mountainous terrain and the harsh winter, a limited road network makes it difficult to reach many remote villages.

Although this drought does not affect areas with the strongest insurgency presence, serious concern still remains for the millions of people who will be cold and hungry for six months.

  • Negotiations and reconciliation

President Karzai has agreed at last to accept an office for the Taliban in Qatar, provided Afghanistan plays a lead role in the negotiations. The US has been conducting secret preliminary talks with the Taliban as it looks for an “honorable” exit from Afghanistan. But there are a number of other variables that make negotiations a tough task, not the least of which is the Taliban’s strong public refusal, thus far, of any talks. Other variables are Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and even China, whose stakes in Afghanistan are growing in tandem with their investment in the natural resource extraction sector.  Domestic Afghan opposition to reconciliation and the question of justice — what to do with the Taliban leaders who have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity — are some of the other important dimensions to the reconciliation process. Then there is the all-important question of what to do if the reconciliation process fails, or if any potential peace deal resulting from this process falls apart, after the world has moved on from Afghanistan.

  • Afghan security forces and irregular militias

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have been rapidly growing in numbers, although desertion, the quality of recruits and infiltration by the Taliban remain as serious challenges. But ANSF is taking over the security of more areas in Afghanistan. A parliamentary committee recently evaluated their performance in the “phase 1″ of the transition as unsatisfactory. The transition is a good early indicator of the quality and development of the ANSF as a fighting force, although they are expected to remain dependent on ISAF for air support, medevacs, intelligence/communication, operational help — and operating budget. On the other hand, the Afghans and Americans are arming ALP and a slew of other militia groups that have little formal accountability. The Afghan-initiated disbandment of CIP is also an important factor to watch.

  • The political process

The international community is preparing to leave Afghanistan but the Afghan political elite are reaching out to each other — instead of their guns — as political battle lines are drawn and the stakes increase. The formation of three major political parties in the past three months is a strong indicator that the Afghan elite are not giving up — yet — on democracy and politicking as a means to carve out a future for themselves in Afghanistan. They still believe that by being part of the system, they can gain more than they are expected to give — which is relinquishing violence and factional and inter-ethnic war. It’d be interesting to see how long they can hold their collective breath before they reach out for their guns, now that the US is withdrawing, the Taliban are increasingly assertive and Karzai is preparing his moves for his political future.

To be continued…

Those who don’t learn from history

Rachel Reid has a must-read article about the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a program under which NATO (read the US)  trains and then arms local groups as a way to shield communities against the creeping menace of the Taliban. As you can imagine, creating a new armed group with little supervision or accountability is a recipe for disaster. That’s what Rachel’s report for Human Rights Watch pointed out. Now, even NATO is beginning to officially admit that.

But there’s more than just the ALP that is cause for real concern. Writes Rachel:

Human rights abuses are almost inevitable when injecting lightly trained forces into fractured communities that tend to lie at the edge of government control, where impunity is rampant. Significant efforts have been made to safeguard against the risk of creating lawless militias, but what compounds this risk is that it’s not just the ALP that the U.S. and Afghan governments are backing. There’s also the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), the Critical Infrastructure Program (CIP), the Interim Security Infrastructure (ISCI), Community Based Security Solutions (CBSS), and the Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3). And these are just the groups with acronyms. Beyond them are a myriad of informal militias supported by Afghan intelligence forces, provincial officials, warlords, and unregistered private security forces, as well as the reintegrated former insurgents who are allowed to keep their arms.

Read the whole article here. In a country where the state does not have a monopoly of force, distributing arms among such an astonishingly broad spectrum of groups that have competing interests and little to no loyalty to the state is a patently bad idea. It’s a simple calculation: when you give guns to groups that don’t love each other and you, as the arbitrer, aren’t strong enough to keep them in line, you can’t expect peace and brotherly love to reign over the country.

As the report shows, the ALPs have shown a modicum of success in keeping the Taliban out, but their success is not motivated by a sense of duty to the country or the communities they are supposedly protecting. Rather, their motivation is their own interests, which they jealously guard by extortion, human rights abuses, fear tactics and violating the law, almost always with complete impunity. As a result, Afghanistan gets a whole host of new abusive militant groups in exchange for one. And a lot of money is being spent on this bad bargain.

This policy is an experiment in irony. Right after the fall of the Taliban, the international community, under the leadership of the Japanese, spent many millions of dollars disarming and reintegrating armed groups that existed in the nooks and crannies of Afghanistan. The only two big groups that weren’t disarmed — the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami — are now the biggest challenge to Afghanistan’s future. Under this new policy, millions of dollars are being spent to once again to create armed militias, rolling back the gains made with Japanese and international help. Worse yet, there is no strategy to demobilize these new groups once their utility value runs out.

Afghanistan should know better than anyone that the last time armed entities were formed (to chase the USSR out of the country) we got the civil war. It took Afghanistan 20 years of unspeakable horrors and billions of dollars in international aid to get here. If Afghanistan botches it this time, the world won’t give it a second chance — and we’re not strong enough to do it on our own.

So we seem more or less destined to repeat our bloody history.

Mullah Omar’s Eid message (Audio and text)

The Taliban’s elusive leader, Mullah Omar, has released a statement on the occasion of the Eid holiday. In a nutshell, he calls Afghanistan home to all of its ethnic groups, instructs the Taliban to minimize civilian casualties, and bans night letters and threatening phone calls.

It’s text has been released in Urdu, Pashto, Dari and English. They have also released what they claim to be the voice of “Mullah Omar Mujahid” reading his message. The audio below is from the Taliban, helpfully made available to me by Sharifullah Sahak of the New York Times.

http://www.box.net/embed/kra0cjegtjqy088.swf

More on this message later.

Karzai says he’ll side with Pakistan against the US. But who’s surprised.

President Karzai has been on a roll recently. He dropped talks with the Taliban, decided to negotiate with Pakistan, signed a strategic partnership with India and has just promised to stand by Pakistan if it ever goes to war with the US or India.

On a diplomatic time-frame, that’s all on the scale of one short breath. But it’s President Karzai we’re talking about, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Even if he made his newest strategic partner and the country that props his government into imaginary foes and decided to fight them in support of a country that he maintains backs the enemies of his government.

In his latest comments he said Pakistanis are his brothers, so he would stand behind them. But then again, he once called the Taliban his brothers, even when his army and international partners were fighting the group.

Given this context of perplexing and often contradictory statements, your guess is as good as mine about why Karzai made his latest comments. But they are hardly surprising. They follow a pattern of progressively worsening relations with the US under the Obama presidency. After all, he had weekly video conferences with President Bush, took walks in the Rose Garden and even testified before Congress. (Yes, that was 2003, and Bush called him afterwards to apologize for the grilling he received from the overzealous lawmakers.)

But as soon as Obama became president, he put Karzai under a lot of pressure to fight graft and corruption in his government. At one point, Obama even conditioned further aid to Afghanistan on Karzai’s crackdown on corruption. But Karzai wouldn’t budge. He kept scraping investigations against high-ranking officials in his government, and when the pressure got too high, he threatened to join the Taliban.

Upping the ante by more than just a few notches, he hosted Ahmadinejad in Kabul, providing the Islamic Republic’s firebrand president with the perfect forum to lambaste the US.

US Defense Secretary Gates was also in town, exploring the possibility of sending more troops to buttress Karzai’s government. But Karzai stood beside Ahmadinejad in a joint press conference as he uttered the following words:

Your country is located on the other side of the world, so what are you doing here?

Did Karzai even try to ameliorate the force of his rude guest’s comments? The BBC reports that he didn’t say much at the press conference, be he was sure to say this:

We are very hopeful that our brother nation of Iran will work with us in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan so that both our countries will be secure.

This was around the time when the US was discovering rockets and other arms that Iran was allegedly supplying to the Taliban.

So, in a nutshell, Karzai’s diplomatic pyrotechnics are not new. We are not even sure he quite understands the significance or symbolism of his words/actions sometimes. After all, he was just a teacher of English language in Quetta before he was suddenly thrust into the limelight of the Afghan presidency.

But the only thing we can be fairly certain about is that his latest comments are just another milestone in his rocky relationship with his current US counterpart.