Category Archives: Afghanistan

The electorate is confused and the field is wide open

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The election season’s first public opinion poll results were released yesterday by TOLO News/ATR, with the headline that ‘initial election polling reveals three favorites.’ Those favorites are Dr. Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Qayum Karzai, respectively.  This is fascinating insight for Afghanistan, because popular punditry also had Zalmai Rasoul, Sayyaf, Gen. Wardak and Gul Agha Sherzai as among the top favorites, but they barely even registered (Sayyaf, for example, was the highest at 3.4%).

But the headline buried the lead, because 50% of the respondents to the survey said they do not have any favorites or have not decided whom to vote for, suggesting that the field is wide open. This means that even Gen. Wardak’s 0.8% could theoretically go up to 50.8%, making him president.

There are many reasons to take these results with a pinch of salt,* but the poll results show that the electorate is open to being wooed, that ethnicity will matter less and platforms will matter more. Unlike previous elections when ethnic blocks were represented by one premier ticket, this time those ethnic blocks are fractured — the Tajiks, Hazaras and Pashtuns all have more than one prominent person running.

In the absence of an optimal ethnic ticket, the so-called vote banks cannot vote based on their habitual reflexes but have to choose between several tickets. If voters were shoppers, and their trusted brand of toothpaste is on longer available, they are now searching for a good new alternative. A significant portion of the electorate is open to being influenced, and the ticket that most appeals to the voters and reflects what they want has a greater chance of winning.

This does not mean that ethnicity does not matter anymore, but it does mean that it matters less than in previous elections. A shrewd ticket would capitalize on that and instead of focusing on getting the best combination of warlords on the ticket, it would work on developing a platform and an effective campaign message.

The question then becomes about what the voters want. We have a fairly good idea of what they want for the country, which is security, economic development, reduced corruption, electricity and education, justice, etc. But there is a dearth of hard data on what the electorate wants in a candidate. We know that Afghans have always wanted peace but they have reliably voted for warlords; they have always wanted economic development but they have been swayed by candidates with religious credentials; they have wanted education but they have voted for conservative mujahids.

But people with technocratic reputations – Ashraf Ghani, Rasoul, Qayum Karzai, Abdullah and Wardak – dominate this field, and ethnic tickets are multipolar. The voters have to develop new calculations about what they want in a vote-worthy ticket, what factors matter more than others, and what attributes could replace or proxy for traditional ones such as ethnicity, religious and jihadi credentials, etc.

That could perhaps be the subject of the next TOLO News/ATR poll.

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* Reasons to take the poll with a pinch of salt:

  • Opinion polls are untested in Afghanistan, so we don’t know how well polls reflect actual voting patterns
  • It is still too early: tickets will change, alliances will shift, people will get disqualified
  • Opinion polls may not reflect who will vote and who will get to vote –  the Ministry of Interior says more than half of the polling stations are in insecure areas, and the Taliban say they will target anyone who becomes a candidate or votes
  • Opinion polls cannot factor in the amount of fraud/irregularity that is likely to occur
  • Two-thirds of respondents are in urban areas, which does not reflect Afghanistan’s actual population spread
  • Et cetera.

Note: I have expressed a lot of views in this post. The views are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.

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A late-night rendezvous with Afghan police

Kabul residents know better than to frolic about the streets and cafes until late at night and then hop into a random cab to go home. It’s simply too dangerous for that. But the danger is not because of threats specific to the war, such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the warlords. The danger has nothing to do with that.

The caution stems from hazards specific to any unstable, post-conflict country that’s struggling with poverty and the rule of law. The popular fear is that taxi drivers might turn out to be kidnappers or criminals preying on unsuspecting passengers late at night. (As a parallel, taxis that run at night are also afraid of the random passenger who might have criminal intentions.)

But your humble blogger has been unwisely and habitually flouting the rules of caution: He’s been hopping on taxis at 9, 10, 11 p.m. or even later (No, he’s never drunk). Most taxi drivers have been incredibly nice people and good conversationalists. They’re out there to make a living, not kidnap people.

One recent night, I approached a taxi, haggled with the driver to settle the fare and hopped on. He turned up the car’s heater and we settled into a warm conversation. Along the way, we spotted a group of four young men standing on the street hailing our cab. The driver was slowing to pick them up when I sounded a note of alarm.

Me: Be careful, ustad, a group of young people like that can be trouble this late at night.

Him: No, don’t worry. I’m in the police and on patrol right now.

He might have spotted the incredulous look on my face despite the darkness. He tried to reassure me and proceeded to dig out his radio phone from his jacket pocket and placed it on the dashboard, next to his police hat, which I then noticed. I also noticed his uniform under his thick jacket. He produced his police ID for my inspection. His name on the card was, simply, Aimal.

Sergeant Aimal said he had spent four years in the police academy and boasted that he was one of the most qualified cops in town. He repeated that he’s on patrol as we speak, this time adding somewhat apologetically that it is hard even for qualified cops to make ends meet because of the low salaries.

Sergeant Aimal was working as a taxi driver while on duty as a policeman. He wasn’t patrolling in the police truck but in a cab, not chasing a particular route but going where the passenger was headed.

I asked if he owned the car (plenty of taxi drivers who don’t have their own vehicles pay a portion of their daily earnings as “rent” to vehicle owners). Sergeant Aimal tried to dodge the question by saying something about his brother’s Corolla.

The car clearly wasn’t his. But could it be some poor taxi driver’s car held at the police station for an investigation? Was Sergeant Aimal trying to earn extra money while on duty by spiriting away a car confiscated for criminal investigation?

I didn’t press him on these questions, of course, but I knew the common complaint about low wages for most government employees.

President Karzai has said several times that foreigners are to blame for corruption in Afghanistan. But could it be that his government is incentivizing widespread corruption by offering pitifully low wages to its employees? Some foreign observers point out that corruption is endemic in Afghanistan because the country is awash in foreign aid. But would Sergeant Aimal skip patrol, steal a car and drive people around town at midnight if he were paid adequately? The international community pledged tens of billions of dollars in continued aid for the decade after 2014, with particular emphasis on the security forces. Is that an effective strategy when the ministries of defense and interior (which oversees the police) fail to implement most of their budgets while their soldiers are forced to get into bizarre financial arrangements to make ends meet?

There are other ministries that regularly fail to execute enormous chunks of their annual budgets because of a lack of capacity, inferior management, security concerns, bad planning and other systemic inefficiencies.

A recent visit to the ministry of education, which regularly fails to execute its budget, illustrated the problems perfectly. The deputy minister said they had recently implemented pay reforms that resulted in a raise for everyone. But the deputy minister’s assistant later told me that some of the clerks receive as low as AFN6,000 ($120) a month. That’s an impossible wage to live on, especially if it has to feed an average Afghan family with five kids. Clerks have the option to work over-time to boost their income to AFN8,000, but most clerks supposedly working overtime are not even at work. They arrange for someone else to clock them in, a favor for which the accomplice might sometimes get a little something.

Hundreds of millions of dollars go unspent each year, yet hundreds of millions of dollars keep flowing into the government coffers as aid, while tens of thousands of government employees are forced to become corrupt.

But whereas some of the corruption by foreigners and domestic fat cats is for greed, the corruption pervading the government ranks is often for survival. This corruption is systemic and therefore largely avoidable. But as long as we keep pointing fingers at foreigners or attribute corruption to too much aid, we’ll either evade making real policy changes, or we’ll make the wrong ones.

In either case things won’t change for the likes of Sergeant Aimal.

Watching ‘The Patience Stone’ in Kabul

The cold Friday night was well suited for landi – the dried, preserved meat dish – most commonly served in the winter. Someone from my extended network of cousins had somehow procured an illegal copy of the movie on his thumb drive. So there was the landi delicacy, the movie, cards to play and an unceasing flow of green and black tea. The night was set.

The French-made film started with a deceptive simplicity, a calm that is so at odds with the typical Hollywood movie that aims to dazzle with action, graphics, sound, movement or a combination thereof. As the film went on, it was interspersed with scenes of war and destruction, but the screen adaptation of the book fell somewhere short of being impressive.

The principal actors, mostly Iranians, failed despite their best efforts to mimic the Dari accent. The screenwriters – I don’t know who they are – failed despite their best efforts to produce a genuine Dari screenplay. The use of Karzai-era Afghani in a scene supposedly depicting Jihad-era Afghanistan was a subtle but obvious indicator of how disconnected the filmmakers are from Afghanistan. The random kid with the kite – obligatory in most Afghan-themed films after The Kite Runner – was cliché and unconvincing.

I was focused on these details, but my cousins had other things to focus about the movie. It was raunchy, but everyone kind of knew to expect (and enjoy) that.

In one scene, the female lead’s soliloquy discusses Prophet Muhammad and his relationship with his beloved wife, Ayesha. This is where the first critical note came from the group. Someone said the filmmaker shouldn’t have gone there; it’s sacred space after all. Someone else retorted that the story wouldn’t have won any wards had it not been deliberately provocative.

In that way, the film had the typical European artistic irreverence to it. This “irreverent” attitude could not only offend Muslim sensibilities but also thoroughly anger Afghans because it appears to them as though the artist deliberately sets out to offend an entire people.

The female lead seems connected with her sexuality and is vocal about it in a way that’s taboo for Afghans to imagine – much less talk about or depict on screen. At one point, she reveals that her brother- and father-in-law forced themselves on her regularly when her husband was away on jihad; she also engages in sex for money with a young jihadi fighter and initiates him in the ways of love. She connects with her aunt, a prostitute, and reveals how she, an “infertile” woman, supposedly conceived her two daughters through sex with a “healer” in a dark room. At one point she asks her husband, who is in a vegetative state, what God has done for him after all the years of fighting for His sake?

Afghan familial relations are governed by a sense of pious honor. It should come as no surprise, then, that the movie’s rancid depiction of the family could elicit indignation and vehement protest once it premiers in Afghanistan (if it ever does). There’s no lack of constituency that the movie could offend: the mujahideen, the mullahs, the religious Afghans or, at the very least, the manly Afghan man who prides himself on the sacredness of the Afghan family and the superior purity of the Afghan society.

Protests against films and subsequent bans on those films are not new in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The precedent began with the Bollywood production, Kabul Express, which was banned after protests from Hazaras who felt offended by its portrayal of the ethnic group.

But perhaps because The Patience Stone does not have a cohesive ethnic or linguistic constituency, it will be met only with scoffs and righteous indignation. (The book is set “somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” but the movie doesn’t make that clear.)

None of the people in the audience with me seemed much troubled by the provocative aspect of the movie.

An interesting comment came from a wholly unexpected quarter. One of my cousins, in his 40s, had been a village mullah in the late 90s and early 2000s. Mullahs are expected to lead their congregations toward goodness and away from sin. This cousin launched into a think-out-loud session that yielded some interesting remarks.

“When I was a mullah, I condemned – or if within my powers, prohibited – people from watching things that even portrayed women without a headscarf. But now it has all become so common that any such objection from me will make very little sense,” he said.

“Maybe because uncovered female hair and other things are so common now, people don’t feel carnal pleasure seeing them on TV,” he continued.

“And maybe because people don’t derive pleasure, it’s not a sin to watch these things.”

He was a mullah when the Taliban were in power (he didn’t have any connections with them). With these comments, he was stepping well beyond the limits of what is proper for mullahs and adopts views that are openly contrarian and blasphemous by the standards of the conservative religious orthodoxy.

Afghans and some foreign observers claim that Afghanistan is a vastly different country now than it was under the Taliban. Few of these observers can tangibly explain exactly what they mean by this change apart from pointing to the number of students in school, the proliferation of TV channels and the improved road networks.

But, as this mullah’s comments indicate, it’s the evolution in thinking and expectations that has made Afghanistan such a different place now than it was a mere 10 years ago.

And that is a truly sustainable development that will outlast the international community.

Everything you need to know about Afghanistan in one anecdote

For those who’ve followed my Twitter feed (@AhmadShuja), I tend to decry pundits or parachute humanitarians/journalists who write about Afghanistan in broad, general strokes. I’m particularly wary of the pervasive tactic of using one interaction or episode in their time here to explain “Afghanistan.”

Today I’ll break my own taboo and relate this short but illustrative anecdote.

The story revolves around two little girls in a Kabul neighborhood. I found them involved in a heated exchange one cold morning about a subject I couldn’t figure out. But their dialogue was fascinating and particularly telling of who they were and what they valued. I walked past them just in time to catch the following bit of exchange:

Little Girl #1: Your mom’s never been to school, she doesn’t even know her ABC’s.

Little Girl #2: YOU have been to school and know school things, but not the Qur’an.

These kids were not making Yo Mama jokes. They were in quite a serious argument, hurling insults at each other right and left. In their own little way, their quarrel is indicative of Afghan society today — the value of education alongside the value of religion, the progressive and the religious, the sources of shame and pride.

At the risk of turning this post into a don’t-abandon-Afghanistan polemic, let me also say that this is indicative of what has been gained in the last decade at the cost of billions of foreign dollars and tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign lives. Barely 5 or 6, these girls are products of the post-Taliban generation of Afghans. Education is available to them, but that they find the illiteracy of their mothers a source of shame (and therefore an insult) is telling about what they, as the next generation of Afghan women, value.

One might argue that I may have read too much into what might have just been an innocent fight between two little girls. That’s a genuine possibility, in which case I give you this:

Books on a Kabul bookstore shelf. Pictured are Mein Kampf, Khayyam, Hafiz.

The picture is from an open-air Kabul bookstore in the center of the city. Thousands of people walk past these books everyday in illiterate oblivion, others might cast a glance and carry on, a few might even purchase them. It is these purchasers who form the messy nuances and contradictions of Afghanistan.

In the bottom-center of the picture sits the Mein Kampf. To its right is a book by Afghan sufi saint Khwaja Abdullah Ansari and a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; to its left is Hafiz; on top is a book on Nelson Mandela (and Fidel Castro).

So, next time someone makes a sweeping statement like “Afghanistan is…,” don’t believe them. It’s far more nuanced, messy and full of contradictions, like any nation of 30 million people should be. But pay attention to the little girls, their little chatters, their arguments and values. They are the future and their collective chatters are the public opinion.

What is the Camp Bastion attack really about?

The September 14 attack on the heavily fortified Camp Bastion complex that houses more than 20,000 US, British and other coalition troops was repelled with minimal coalition casualties. The “well-coordinated attack” involving 15 “well equipped, trained” insurgents resulted in the deaths of two US Marines.

The Bastion attack would seem like a terrible bargain for the Taliban, who lost 14 of the attackers (the 15th is injured). But like much of the war in Afghanistan, if we focus on the wrong metric, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

From the Taliban perspective, the Camp Bastion attack was not about producing coalition casualties, taking over the base or regaining ground lost in the 2009 Marja offensive. It was, however, about producing maximum hardware damage.

Take, for example, the ISAF press release, which explains the attack thus:

Dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers and suicide vests, the insurgents attacked Coalition fixed and rotary wing aircraft parked on the flight line, aircraft hangars and other buildings. [Emphasis mine]

When they breached the base, they didn’t go for human targets, just straight at the airplanes. What was the result?

Six Coalition AV-8B Harrier jets were destroyed and two were significantly damaged.  Three Coalition refueling stations were also destroyed.  Six soft-skin aircraft hangars were damaged to some degree.

I’m not an aviation hardware expert, but it’s reasonable to conclude the damage was significant if not cripplingly extensive. It is also reasonable to conclude that the damage will significantly affect the activities at Camp Bastion — one of the busiest military airbases in the world — that sustains tens of thousands of coalition troops by transporting soldiers, food, military equipment, medical supplies, etc.

CNN’s Barbara Starr asks an interesting question that helps put into perspective the extent of the Camp Bastion damage:

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Another important aspect of the attack is the 15 insurgents wearing US military uniforms: All previous “insider attacks” have soldiers in Afghan army or police uniforms.  That a group of 15 insurgents used US military uniforms to attack the base will certainly add to the complexity surrounding “insider attacks.” It will also take a psychological toll on coalition soldiers. My friend and US Air Force veteran Fred Wellman of ScoutCommsUSA puts it succinctly:

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Also disturbing is that the insurgents are using tactics that have been used by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistani militants have launched similar attacks on sensitive Pakistani bases on at least two occasions, the latest being this last August. Let’s compare the attacks’ anatomy. First the PNS Mehran attack last year:

On Sunday evening at 2230 (1730 GMT), militants stormed three hangars housing aircraft at the Mehran naval aviation base, according to officials.

However, eyewitnesses say the attackers were dressed as naval officials and were aware of the security protocol at the base and carried themselves like soldiers.

Their first targets were aircraft parked on the tarmac and equipment in nearby hangers, says the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan at the scene.

The militants used rocket-propelled grenades to damage and destroy several warplanes, witnesses said. These included the Pakistan navy’s premier anti-submarine and marine surveillance aircraft – the US-made P-3C Orion.

Now, the attack from August:

One security official was killed and a plane damaged in the pre-dawn assault at PAF Base Minhas.

The Air Force said seven to eight attackers with rocket propelled-grenades and suicide vests attacked the base, home to to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex that assembles Mirage and JF-17 fighter jets, at 2:00 am (2100 GMT Wednesday).

That gunmen disguised themselves in uniforms and got inside the facility just 60 kilometres (37 miles) northwest of Islamabad will renew questions about security, particularly at a base which has been attacked twice before.

Heavily armed militants dressed in military uniforms attack a base, directly targeting military hardware instead of military personnel — the signature of these three attacks is similar enough to indicate a cross-pollination of ideas between both countries’ militants. The groups are highly adaptable and the osmosis of fighters, literature and propaganda material among them is strong enough to indicate the Afghan insurgents are learning from the TTP’s attacks. But the coordination might be stronger than just Afghan insurgents copying Pakistani militants; it might also involve Pakistanis training Afghans, but we have not direct evidence in this case.

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For the Afghan insurgents, this attack represents a qualitative leap, a significant change in tactics. Like most large coalition bases, Camp Bastion routinely comes under random, haphazard rocket attacks that usually does little to no damage. This is the first highly sophisticated attack of its kind on an airbase that has strategically steered clear of producing casualties, instead focusing on inflicting hardware damage. In a sense, that’s very uncharacteristic of the Afghan Taliban, who have mostly focused on IED attacks and ambushes designed to kill coalition troops.

The Bastion attack, then, represents the latest step in the Taliban’s tactical evolution — from IED attacks to Afghan ‘infiltrators’ to American ‘infiltrators’ destroying military hardware. Deaths from IED attacks are down, signifying their reduced utility for the Taliban. And just as serious efforts are underway to contain green-on-blue attacks, the Taliban introduce this new tactic.

Ultimately, that’s what it’s about — a highly adaptable insurgency, trying to be a step ahead of ISAF and always keeping the latter on its toes.

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.

5 things America should do instead of picking the winner – a note to O’Hanlon

This post is my second response to Michael O’Hanlon’s op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the US to pick the winner of Afghanistan’s next presidential election. My first response attempts to rebut O’Hanlon’s arguments, but this one seeks to set out alternatives the US should pursue instead of installing another dictator-president.

First off, let’s be clear: there are exceedingly important issues that the United States should expend time, treasure and effort on. These include working for the rights of women, children and minorities; managing the economic transition; tackling the crisis-level condition of the Afghan higher education; kick-starting the non-existent transitional justice process, etc.

In an attempt to remain fair and germane to O’Hanlon, this post focuses on issues relevant to the election. So, here goes…

  1. Protect, preserve and defend democracy by working to make sure the elections are fair, transparent…and logistically feasible and financially possible. This entails supporting the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission, offering technical and logistical support during the elections, providing security to the voting population, etc.
  2. Offer adequate support to the next (democratically elected) president of Afghanistan so they can steer Afghanistan out of the dire straits of collapse while juggling the neighbors, the bureaucratic inefficiency, tackling corruption, managing to offer a modicum of services to the citizens, etc.
  3. Support and nurture the formation of political parties. History has shown that supporting individuals over institutions may have short-term benefits but it always has long-term costs. In this case, a robust political party system will keep the whims of Afghanistan’s president-cum-czar in check. And that’s in addition to the regular benefits of parties.
  4. Nurture the rule of law to help the next democratically elected president restore Afghans’ faith in their government and in democracy by promoting justice, equality and fairness, and eliminating arbitrary and summary justice, graft, nepotism, bribery and immunity for the powerful. These are the real issues that make life extremely difficult for Afghans; these issues also also have immeasurable social and economic costs for the country.
  5. Do minimal harm during the transition. These are fragile times, and there are more ways things could go wrong than vice versa. If things go wrong, there’s little room for repair; there’s certainly no time or energy for grand new plans. All actors are operating in this narrow strategic scope, and it’s exceedingly important to remain cautious and cognizant. Upsetting the political balance in Afghanistan by choosing winners is one way to get it wrong, so the US should avoid it at all costs.

Most of these steps are interconnected and some of them require investing resources, but they all function to consolidate and perpetuate the gains of the last decade — one of America’s key objectives and Afghans’ main desires.