Category Archives: Karzai

Washington pundits get it wrong. Again.

Last week, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election. I wrote a critique of his piece and, as a sequel, proposed a list of five things the US should do instead of pre-determining the next Afghan president.

But now, Max Boot says Michael O’Hanlon “is absolutely right” to call for the US to pick the next Afghan president.

Boot is a senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations and, according to his bio, “one of the leading military historians and foreign policy analysts.” In short, a lot of people listen when he talks. Or writes.

While I generally agree with some of Boot’s ideas — like his call for more training, equipment and support for Afghan forces — I think his suggestion that the US install the next Afghan leader is wrong for two reasons: 1. it is predicated on faulty reasoning, and 2. it makes for bad, incoherent policy.

My critique of Boot is over at my UN Dispatch blog, but I hope to write a more comprehensive piece outlining my own ideas about the subject. As the election date draws nearer, the Washington debate about the subject will likely intensify.

As is usual in this town, I fear there won’t be many Afghan voices to counter the noise in the policy circles. The piece will up against those odds, but it’ll be a modest attempt hopefully to inject a degree of sanity in a debate that can sometimes be characterized by partisan slant and, honestly, skullduggery.

We’ll see.

Afghans deserve to make their own mistakes – a note to O’Hanlon

The Washington Post just carried an op-ed by Michael O’Hanlon calling for the US to “pick the winner” in the next Afghan presidential election. That’s right — he’s calling for the US to rig the elections, pick sides, pre-determine the outcome and strip Afghans for the democratic right to choose and the motivation to vote, which they’ve sometimes done at the cost of life and limb.

O’Hanlon doesn’t even pretend to say, even if tangentially and for the sake of political correctness, that the US should not play buzkashi with democracy but should rather protect the integrity of the election, strengthen institutions instead of individuals, nurture the rule of law instead of flouting it.

O’Hanlon is not a Washington nobody — he’s a senior fellow at the prestigious Bookings Institution and an advisor to CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus. That means he has the ear of people inside and outside the government, and his writings are not academic flights-of-fancy.

However, O’Hanlon’s idea not only makes for bad policy aesthetics but is also a dangerous option that displays a naive understanding of Afghan politics that I can only attribute to his attempt to satisfy a Washington audience.

***

For the sake of argument let’s for a second agree with O’Hanlon: America has spent blood and treasure for a decade in Afghanistan, so it should have a say in who gets the job of preserving those gains.

This argument ignores that post-ISAF success in Afghanistan depends not on installing an individual but on the transition, on the stability of the political structure so Afghanistan does not implode — which is likely given the drastically reduced amount of cash and troops and the specter of ethnic fracturing in the ANSF and broader Afghan society.

O’Hanlon is asking the US to stake the success of the withdrawal strategy on the uncertain outcome of a tactical gamble. There is no guarantee an American-installed president will: a. last in office, b. follows America’s directives after coming to power, c. manages the change well, d. handles the neighbors, e. you get the idea.

If, with 100,000 American troops and billions in aid Karzai can defy America, the next president with little troop backing and even less money will most definitely do so too — because they have to survive in Afghanistan’s state-of-nature real politik by making deals. America’s support may be most critical in picking a winner, but it’ll inevitably be less crucial in keeping in him place because the balance of power will have tilted toward local strongmen, tribal leaders and warlords, which the next president will have to inevitably embrace as an insurance against the Taliban.

***

But, for argument’s sake, let’s also grant O’Hanlon the benefit of the doubt and say the next president will be a competent individual who listens to America. Then O’Hanlon has to answer two questions: what will be the criteria for choosing the winner? And who fulfills them?

Says O’Hanlon:

But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat. [Emphasis added]

O’Hanlon doesn’t at all explain what reforms he wants to see, but he does rattle off a wish-list for the hand-picked dictator-president:

Should such a reformer prevail, the Kabul government will continue its struggle to contain the insurgency in rural locales while absorbing the occasional body blow in populated areas. But it will probably be able to hold onto major cities and transportation routes and keep the nation’s security forces intact.

Roughly two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population lives in rural areas and “population centers” outside major cities. A government that leaves them vulnerable to insurgent attacks has effectively ceded control of most of Afghanistan.

Anyway. Who does O’Hanlon think is “reform-minded” enough and can accomplish the above?

Possible candidates include Hanif Atmar, a former minister of both education and the interior who recently helped start a multi-ethnic political reform movement; economic wizard Ashraf Ghani; and the former foreign minister and presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah.

  • Hanif Atmar was a moderately successful interior minister but electorally, he is completely untested. But you don’to have to test him to know that he doesn’t have a popular base or strong tribal/ethnic connections. The motley group he has assembled into an ostensibly centrist party stands no chance in Afghanistan’s politics.
  • Ashraf Ghani is so unelectable that even the Democratic Party campaign whiz James Carville couldn’t change his fortunes in 2009. He’s seen as a Westernized Afghan with no political street cred. He lacks real tribal connections, something that putting on a patu and turban doesn’t change, a major reason why, according to David Sanger’s book, the US didn’t back him in 2009.
  • Abdullah Abdullah was moderately successful in the 2009 election. But after Karzai agreed to a run-off following major arm-twisting from America, Abdullah unexpectedly quit the race, making Karzai president and disappointing his supporters. His 2009 numbers were good largely in the North, indicating he lacks broad-based appeal.
Then again, in all three cases, why would legitimacy or popular appeal matter if you’re picking the winner? It’s not like we’re pretending it’s a democracy anymore.
And nobody blames O’Hanlon for the weak slate of candidates he’s proposed. Afghans themselves — from politicos to analysts — are decrying the lack of a national figure who could rise and unify the country ahead of the elections. So any candidate America chooses will likely suffer from the democratic deficit and inefficacy. And there are other side effects:

The prospect of America choosing the next winner terrifies the ethnic minorities, who suspect the US will choose an ethnic Pashtun who will continue to reach out to the Taliban, a move they oppose. (The US already picked Karzai in 2002 and 2004.) They see this as depriving them of any realistic (or fair!) chance of creating pan-national political parties or creating coalitions, taking away incentives to work within the democratic framework, leaving them little more than the stark choice of using alternative methods of interest articulation.

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O’Hanlon sells his call for picking the winner by saying there is Afghan demand for it:

Some may wish to avoid interfering in the elections of a sovereign nation, but Afghan reformers are calling out for help. When I visited Afghanistan in May, several suggested to me that the United States pick a winner so they could rally around him.

Yes, some political leaders would love for the US to pick a winner, but they want the candidate to be them — not someone “they could rally around.” If there are “reformers” eagerly clamoring for America to pick a winner, O’Hanlon neither discloses them nor offers any hints as to their identities. But we know this: no serious presidential candidate wants to be passed over, and certainly no Afghan wants to vote at the risk of life and limb in a sham election. Therefore, I don’t know where O’Hanlon found his “reformers” who can’t wait to support America’s next choice for Afghanistan’s president.

***

O’Hanlon’s prescription for how to pick a winner is even more outlandish:

…a coordinated message from congressional leaders in both parties, President Obama and Mitt Romney could go a long way.

I have a hard time imagining even a first-semester freshman in American Government class argue that such unanimous consensus would be possible in an election year in the era of the Tea Party where compromise is a taboo, between-the-aisle politicians are an extinct breed and the political chasm is so wide that only the prospect of a sovereign debt default can force the parties to agree (and only barely so). And then there’s the Rohrabacher factor.

And Romney, running as the not-Obama, is doing his darndest best to distinguish himself from the incumbent (and bypass the sticky issue of ‘Obamneycare’). Expecting agreement on this issue that gives him no immediate poll advantage and casts him in the same light as Obama is far-fetched.

But O’Hanlon goes one step beyond:

U.S. diplomats, ideally backed by other foreign missions in Kabul, including such key Muslim states as Turkey, Indonesia and Tanzania…should also be willing to say, publicly if necessary, which candidates would be unacceptable as president.

Firstly, Tanizania does not have a mission in Kabul. Secondly, Indonesia’s and Tanzania’s preferences for the next Afghan president have absolutely no sway in Afghan politics unless it’s backed with resources (read money). And O’Hanlon does not explain how America will get Turkey on board. I don’t see any incentive for Turkey to squander diplomatic capital and effectively help steal an election in a Muslim country by serving as an American accomplice.

***

Whether America picks a winner or not, it has the same finite amount of leverage in the form of monetary and military support. Using those resources doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome, but not using them is a guarantee the gains will evaporate. In both scenarios, there are more ways that the plan won’t work than otherwise. Consider:

  1. America picks a president, supports him and the outcome may be positive
  2. America picks a president, supports him, and the outcome is negative
  3. America does not pick a president, still supports him, and the outcome may be positive
  4. America does not pick a president, does not support him (contrary to its interests), and the outcome is negative.

In all four cases, there’s a systemic bias against positive outcomes (things will go wrong and American support is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success). So O’Hanlon is pushing America toward a litany of sub-optimal choices while incurring the added cost of a bad policy aesthetic.

***

In short, O’Hanlon is calling for unspecified reforms by imposing nonviable candidates through impractical means in a gamble to the obvious detriment of the nascent, floundering democratic process.

Process that.

He is pushing for a terrible, terrible idea.

And finally, despite my own distaste for geopolitical analogies, I’ll mention this: The last time a superpower “chose a winner” before withdrawing from Afghanistan, the picture wasn’t pretty.

Similar chaos may spread again. Or America can allow the Afghans to make their own potential mistakes in their journey to democratic maturity.

Afghans are as invested in a positive outcome as America, and they’ve sacrificed as much, if not more, than the United States in the past decade for the gains that O’Hanlon boasts about in his article. They must have the opportunity to determine their own president.

Doing anything otherwise will tarnish America’s international image and fuel further disillusionment about democracy among Afghans.

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More:

Read the sequel to this post: 5 things America should do instead of picking the winner

Also:

Read Joshua Foust’s brilliant response to O’Hanlon: CIA Advisor Advocates Meddling in Afghanistan’s Election

Are we learning the right lesson from the Kandahar killings?

It’s barely two days after the Kandahar massacres and, although the full facts are not yet clear, there are various calls from a number of quarters about what the unfortunate incident actually means.

Some are approaching it from an instinct of fear and worry about the potential “backlash” from the “Afghan anger.” As I have described this elsewhere, this is exactly the wrong approach because it ignores the pain and grief felt by many Afghans after this horrendous incident, casting them as potential aggressors instead of the victims that they are.

But then there is the other camp, including Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who are calling for a quick, complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. They argue that incidents like this create a clear imperative for the US to get out because it “can’t fix” Afghanistan. Gingrich and company do not realize is that these events demonstrate, even more urgently, the need to take immediate and appropriate measures to prevent similar incidents in the future — in Afghanistan and beyond. That there have been so many of them in Iraq, Gitmo and Afghanistan means the systemic loose ends must be tied to minimize the likelihood of similar incidents from happening.

Proponents of this view also fail to understand that the United States is already withdrawing fairly precipitously. President Obama has hastened the already-short 2014 timeframe to include an acceleration of drawdown by mid-2013. Then there’s the logistical challenge: you can’t plop 80,000 troops and millions of tons of weapons and equipment back into the US — the process requires negotiation of withdrawal routes, fees and other arrangements with difficult partners such as Pakistan, Russia and its Central Asian neighborhood.

From the Afghan perspective, a precipitous withdrawal could be disastrous. I was asked on the BBC today (video forthcoming) what achievements ISAF has had in Afghanistan and I listed, in the little time I had, the assertive women’s movement, increased rights for minorities, education for girls. The interview was short and ended before I could add the caveat about ISAF’s failures, but the point about those achievements stands. The withdrawal is already threatening those gains which, without an appropriate settlement with the Taliban or other safety measures, would be significantly reversed.

So, in short, the lessons from the Kandahar massacre are numerous but we need to identify them accurately. More on this subject later.

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

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.

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…

VIDEOS: Karzai: We’ll stand by Pakistan against the US, India

In a bombshell interview on a private Pakistani TV channel, Karzai said his country would side with Pakistan if it fought a war with the US or India.

The two videos — in Urdu and English — are embedded below. Transcripts of each are also provided.

I’ll write more on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that he tries to blunt the sharp edge of his comments by mentioning the Pakistani people instead of the government. But no one’s splitting hair. Update: here’s the promised post on this subject.

First, the Urdu version and its transcript, as translated by yours truly.

Transcript:

Karzai: God forbid, if there is ever a war between Pakistan and America, then we will be with Pakistan.

Interviewer: So, you will be with Pakistan?

Karzai: Absolutely. We are your brothers.

Now, the English version (Karzai’s comments start at 0:17):

And its transcript, with my emphasis:

If Pakistan is attacked, and if the people of Pakistan need Afghanistan’s help, Afghanistan will be there with you. Afghanistan is a brother. Afghanistan would never forget — will never forget — the welcome, the hospitality, the respect and the brotherhood showed by the Pakistani people towards the Afghan people, who were five million refugees there [sic].

Anybody that attacks Pakistan, Afghanistan will stand with Pakistan, Afghanistan will be a brother of Pakistan. Afghanistan will never betray their brother. Afghanistan is not going to be dictated in any way, by any country – US or India. Afghanistan has its own policy, it’s own stand, it’s own clear view on things – and from that point of view, from that stand, is dealing with our brothers in Pakistan. We have more than 2,000 kilometers of border, we have ethnic links, we have – we have – cultural links, we have historic links. We have to live together in happiness and in prosperity….

Karza ditches the Taliban, wants to talk to Pakistan – initial thoughts

In an incredible moment of lucidity, Karzai seems to have finally realized two things that much of the rest of the world — and his Afghan opposition — has been telling him for a pretty long time. In a meeting with a group of religious leaders, Karzai said the following:

Where is [Mullah Omar]? We cannot find the Taliban Council. Where is it? A messenger comes disguised as a Taliban Council member and kills, and they neither confirm nor reject it.

And this:

Who is the other side in the peace process? I do not have any other answer but to say Pakistan is the other side in the peace talks with us.

Karzai

Photo source: BBC Persian website.

His favorite expression for the Taliban had always been “angry brothers,” with whom he had insisted that Afghanistan should reconcile. He had held his ground in the face of stiffest criticism from his political opposition and the barrage of assassination of high-level government officials, senior security officials, his own brother and, most recently, his chief peace negotiator. That he has now turned against his “angry brothers” is a huge change from him.

This step from Karzai will radically alter the equation for everyone — Pakistan, the Taliban, the Afghan opposition, the United States, Iran, KSA, India and the Afghan people. But what does it exactly mean for the various actors involved in the picture? As of this writing, there hasn’t been any official reaction from any of these parties; that said, here’s a preliminary attempt at making sense of it all.

The “Northern Alliance”:

Karzai’s political opposition, which had doggedly opposed any talks with the Taliban, has scored a huge victory by having one of their longstanding demands recognized. But not only that, Karzai’s recognition of Pakistan as the real party to any settlement has affirmed their perennial suspicion toward Pakistan and its security institutions. So their victory is both political and moral.

Bolstered, they will likely amp up their opposition toward Pakistan, which they have always seen as interfering in Afghanistan’s internal matters and always backing anyone but them.

Taliban:

The Taliban have been behaving like the spoiled child that gets the candy but still maintains the nagging, unreasonable behavior. The UN Security Council removed about a dozen Taliban members from its blacklist, and Karzai had maintained an open embrace with a bag of goodies at the end of one arm in exchange for the Taliban dropping their weapons. This despite the carnage they wreaked in the country in the last few years. So the Taliban have been scoring international points and making domestic inroads by assassinating key leaders and expanding their presence across Afghanistan.

But by refusing to treat them as a legitimate party to negotiations, Karzai has ostensibly withdrawn the golden handshake. The terms of the previous offer are no longer valid — Taliban leaders won’t get (what amounts to) amnesty in exchange for peace and they likely won’t get to participate in the political process. (Those were huge concessions that Karzai had made even before getting to the negotiating table!)

The Taliban will now have to do their bidding through Pakistan, with whom they have always had a love-hate relationship — they have continued to receive needed help and support, but have always resented Pakistan.

The Afghan people:

The biggest losers of the whole reintegration/peace/reconciliation/negotiation saga, the Afghan people, will be watching President Karzai intently for his next moves. The previous peace process was not inclusive – Karzai had convened a rubber-stamp loya jirga to give himself the green light on negotiations. Three-day jirgas are hardly any substitute to serious, inclusive national debates about such issues of immense importance. In true democracies, hand-picked jirgas can’t make effective foreign policy or decide matters relating to serious national crimes and injustices.

Karzai had not consulted the broader Afghan public about reconciliation and, perhaps purposefully, not set out any clear and definite parameters for reconciliation, expected outcomes and the extent of concessions.

Pakistan et. al.:

Karzai handed Pakistan a victory by accepting unconditionally and decisively their longstanding demand that they be recognized as the principal party to any future settlement in Afghanistan. It is unclear who Karzai will get to negotiate with in Pakistan — the ISI-military side or the civilian government. And it is unclear how sincerely, if at all, Pakistan will engage in any talks. However, although the Afghan recognition of their role is important, the Pakistanis really covet the same acceptance from the United States.

And they will view Karzai’s concession as an important step to that end. Regardless, Pakistanis area already feeling better in their strategic calculus vis-a-vis India, which will be watching everything warily.

Iran, which had just started to cultivate ties with the Taliban, will also need to reassess its policy. They have historically been close to the Hazara/Shia and the Tajik camps and will likely continue to press their side. KSA — whose diplomats left Kabul last week and whose proxy now has the rug snatched from under its feet — has lost much of its status as the arbiter that could bring the Taliban to the table and broker a deal.

Moving ahead…

Naturally, talks with Pakistan are radically different from negotiations with the Taliban. If Pakistan chooses to oblige and negotiate a settlement, they will have obligations under international law. Whether Pakistan will choose to honor any final settlement and what the world can do to enforce those obligations in case of noncompliance is a different matter.

Because of the different nature of this ‘peace process,’ the Afghans will need to do new soul-searching. A broad national consultation will need to take place to determine what the nation is ready to give in exchange for peace, and what they hope to realistically gain from negotiations. Perhaps a little less urgently, the Afghans will need to decide whether they will continue to fight the insurgency indefinitely and how to handle justice issues related to Taliban’s crimes during and before the insurgency.

And Karzai’s success won’t just be determined by the domestic support of his policies. He will also need to have serious international backing. But that’s not guaranteed, given that he just left the United States high and dry by abandoning the trilateral peace process.

Karzai’s Reintegration Program IS Beginning to Work…Kind of

I wrote a post some time ago in which I noted the growing number of fighters joining the government’s reintegration program and asked whether the program is really working.

Well, it is…kind of.

Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports that there’s been an increase in the number of anti-government fighters willing to lay down their and reintegrate.

British Maj. Gen. Phillip Jones, the NATO military command’s director for reintegration, said there has been a “significant uptick” in interest among insurgents in laying down their weapons. He said that more than 40 groups of fighters, amounting to a few thousand men, are in negotiations with the Afghan government.

There’s apparently been so much interest, in fact, that the Kandahar governor is asking for a breather:

In Kandahar province, a hub of Taliban activity that has been a focus of U.S. military operations, the governor is taking the extraordinary step of urging insurgent leaders to delay their surrender.

“We are not prepared the way we should be,” said the governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who has been approached in recent weeks by emissaries for mid-level Taliban leaders. “We are telling them to wait a little bit.”

The lack of preparation Governor Wesa talks about includes funding restrictions from USAID, slow or incompetent implementation of the program from the Afghan government, delay from inter-ministerial coordination, etc. (Read more on this in the WaPo article.)

And then there is the issue of weeding out false claimants — people who claim they’re fighters only to get the benefits of the program.

Perhaps the most complicated and important of all is the question of justice: should we really be rewarding these people, many of whom have been involved in killings or otherwise illegal activity, instead of prosecuting them? This concern is raised primarily by civil society organizations. But in a different incarnation, Karzai’s political opposition is asking why we should invest so many resources in buying off Taliban fighters instead of rewarding peaceful, law-abiding Afghans.

But for now these questions are ignored in favor an attempt at a swifter path to peace through the reintegration program. But that’s not working too well either.

Insurgency 2.0: How the Taliban are Technologically Outperforming the Afghan Government

My first article on UN Dispatch furthers the point made in the previous post on Afghanistan Analysis about the difference in the online presence of the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government.

The article, which analyzes their performance histories and looks at the reaction from Afghans to the performance differential, starts thus:

After maintaining twitter accounts in Arabic and Pashto for some time, the Afghan Taliban broke new ground in their online social networking strategy yesterday by starting to tweet in English. The Afghan Taliban’s online presence on social networking websites and elsewhere is rivaling and often surpassing that of the Afghan government’s. The Taliban’s technological savvy is a different dimension to the common image of an insurgency known for violence and brutality and one that, when in power, suppressed most forms of mass media.

Read the rest on my UN Dispatch blog.

Thoughts on the NYU report on Taliban and al-Qaeda

New York University’s Center for International Cooperation has published a report authored by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the duo that edited a memoir by Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan.

The report, previewed by Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, emphasizes a point that some critics of the war had long been making: the Taliban are distancing themselves from al-Qaeda and retain little sympathy, if any, for the terrorist organization.

The report calls for a more serious attempt to reach out to the more reconcilable Taliban. This, too, is a call that has increasingly gained momentum, one that Karzai and the US are actually supporting.

But the report adds an interesting bit of insight: By assassinating, imprisoning or otherwise restricting the activity of high-level Taliban leaders, the international forces are marginalizing Taliban leaders most open to reconciliation, while creating space for a younger, more radical crop of Taliban commanders. These commanders, the report argues, are less interested in reconciliation and more likely to be receptive to overtures from foreign groups like al-Qaeda. Mullah Omar, the report says, is now “more of a symbolic religious figure than an authoritative commander” as a result of the emergence of the younger crop.

This has implications for the current ISAF strategy of assassinating high-level Taliban leaders in hopes of leaving the insurgency leaderless and hence willing to negotiate.

The authors caution against the younger Taliban generation:

With little or no memory of Afghan society prior to the Soviet war in the 1980s, this new generation of commanders is more ideologically motivated and less nationalistic than previous generations, and therefore less pragmatic. It is not interested in negotiations or compromise with foreigners.

Why are they not interested in negotiations? Because…

Members of the youngest generation, often raised solely in refugee camps and madrasas in Pakistan, have no experience of traditional communities, productive economic activity, or citizenship in any state; they are citizens of  jihad.

Fancy phrase — citizens of Jihad. But it is a simplistic, even demeaning, view of life in refugee camps and other settlements. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans lived, earned a living, learned skills and raised their families in camps and settlements. To equate this mode of living with radicalization is an oversimplification that implies that, somehow, such a life causes ultra-radicalization, even by Taliban standards.

In the camps the refugees retained their family structures, which meant that tutelage of children occurred according to values and ideals of the Afghan society. (Life in the camps is explained in good detail by Zaeef in his memoir.) It was in the madrassas, away from the family’s watch and tutelage, that most of the radicalization occurred. Hence, the name Taliban, or students (of religious education).

The report is written with a view that it will be consumed primarily by an American audience (which is not surprising). The authors get the bulk of their information from personal interviews with unidentified Taliban members.

There are drawbacks to deriving conclusions solely by viewing the problem from the Taliban’s viewpoint and molding the message around American foreign policy. This approach means the viewpoints of many other peace process stakeholders — rights activists, the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, Pakistan — are almost entirely ignored.

In certain areas of the report, the authors use information that is contradicted in other sources. For example, they state that:

…Pakistani security officials assured the inexperienced leader [Mullah Omar] that the United States would react in a limited way [after 9/11]….

Actually, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, recalls otherwise in the autobiography the authors edited. He writes that General Mahmud Ahmad, former ISI director-general, warned him, “We both know that an attack on Afghanistan from the United States of America seems more and more likely” (147).

Zaeef also acknowledges that “Pakistan was sending mixed signals”:

At the same time as General Mahmud was telling me that an attack was imminent, the Pakistani Consulate in Kandahar continued to assure us that America would never launch an attack on Afghanistan. (148)

However, Zaeef had other sources of information to which the Taliban appear to have attached more credibility. These were “a number of high-ranking Muslim officers in the Pakistani army [who] also served as advisors to President Musharraf ,” and “staff from the Pakistani Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs” (148).

Together, these contacts appears to have given them a very clear picture of America’s plan of action before the war:

I learnt of some of the war plans and America’s efforts to form an alliance. This worried Mullah Mohammad Omar. America, together with the Pakistani intelligence agencies, had apparently prepared a plan to launch a cruise missile attack on the residences of Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden in order to eliminate them in the first phase of their campaign. This would, I head heard, eventually become part of a vast military operation including heavy air strikes by the US Navy and Air Force. (149)

It is difficult to ascertain if Zaeef did in fact know such striking details of the American invasion beforehand, but it is clear that the Taliban did not take Pakistani assurances at face value.

The authors also claim in the report that…

In the run-up to the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, Pakistan also repeatedly assured the Taliban of its support, contributing to Mullah Mohammad Omar’s determination [not to hand over bin Laden].

Zaeef actually contradicts the notion that the Taliban bought these assurances. At an emotionally charged meeting, he launches a tirade at General Mahmud who, along with General Jailani, bursts into tears as Brigadier Farooq stands nearby:

If America is going to attack on Afghanistan, then you know better than me from which airports and territories it will attack us. We will see later how many Afghans will be martyred in this war. But, General, you will be responsible for the bloodshed and the killing when you cooperate with America…. You will be Afghanistan’s enemy number one. (148)

These apparent contradictions weaken one of the authors’ main arguments, i.e., that the Taliban decision not to hand over OBL to the US was less out of affinity for the group and more a miscalculation.