October 09, 2011

Political Crisis Threatens Democratic Institutions

Almost lost amid an unfolding banking scandal in Afghanistan, a confrontation between President Hamid Karzai and the country’s parliament is coming to a head, threatening to paralyze the government at a crucial juncture.

Two recent developments concerning Afghanistan – the hastening of the US military drawdown and a financial scandal that has embroiled the former head of the country’s Central Bank – have helped obscure the seriousness of Karzai’s power play. And the banking scandal continues to capture local and international media attention: in the most recent twist, Afghan authorities issued an arrest warrant for the former Central Bank chief, Abdul Qadeer Fitrat, who earlier resigned his post and fled to the United States. Officials want to question Fitrat about possible malfeasance in connection with the collapse of Kabul Bank, a privately held institution.

The brewing executive-legislative conflict has the potential to be even more destabilizing for Kabul than the banking scandal. Afghan officials will be expected in the coming 18 months to assume greater responsibility for maintaining the country’s security. Yet the current trend suggests that the government is coming apart, rather than coming together.

At the heart of the dispute is a power struggle between parliament and Karzai's administration, in which the president's chief objective is to weaken the legislative branch. Five months after he swore this second post-Taliban legislature in, and nine months after elections, Karzai authorized his own investigation into electoral fraud during last year’s polls, a process that led to the disqualification of a roughly a quarter of the deputies.

The decision of the Karzai-backed Special Election Tribunal, announced on June 23, is a direct challenge to the autonomous bodies that have constitutional mandates to oversee elections. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) both investigated and eliminated fraudulent votes after the polls last September. Karzai set up his own tribunal in December in a move that some critics see as unconstitutional.

“That nine months after the elections [and] eight months after the final results were announced by the IEC … MPs still can be changed by a body established by the president is a sign of the sad state of Afghan institutions,” said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, an independent research organization.

In Afghanistan’s party-less electoral system, the legislature – the first sat from 2005-2010 – has repeatedly acted to check Karzai, trying to prevent the president from amassing too much power in the executive branch.

While the political affiliations of the 62 of 249 deputies who have been tapped for disqualification do not form a significant pro- or anti-Karzai pattern, the implementation of the special tribunal’s action could provide a boost to executive authority by making the legislature more pliant, critics fear.

When announcing the Special Tribunal’s decision, judge Sidiqullah Haqiq said the body had been set up “in response to complaints” about the vote and had “functioned transparently.” But FEFA (the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan), the country’s only independent election watchdog, said the process was characterized by “disorganization and lack of transparency.”

“After all the post-election chaos, no one will ever be able to say who really won or lost a seat in September. The legitimacy … of the ‘new democratic’ Afghanistan has been destroyed for good. It is a very bad example for the transition because the 2009-10 election cycle [which included controversial presidential polls in August 2009] was the first major political process handled by the Afghan government alone,” Ruttig told EurasiaNet.org.

The IEC has challenged the right of any other institution to announce final results of the elections, saying in a statement that it regards “the interference of any other organization in this issue as an explicit violation of the constitution and the Electoral Law.”

Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies (KCSS), a think-tank, warned that the events pointed to a “constitutional crisis” that could evolve into “a political-security crisis.” If the president does not recall the tribunal, Afghanistan could witness “institutional weaknesses jeopardizing the legitimacy [of the government], which is destructive for the political future of Afghanistan and the survival of democracy in this country,” he told EurasiaNet.org.

MPs have grouped together in opposition to Karzai. On June 22, a group of over 100 legislators announced the formation of “The Coalition for Support of the Rule of Law,” promising to prevent “powerful individuals from usurping the rights of others.”

Parliament has appealed to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to intervene. But Karzai has warned the international community to stay away. His spokesman Waheed Omar told reporters during a June 27 news conference that no external interference would be allowed and that the president was working to resolve the issue.

Despite earlier support for Afghanistan’ autonomous electoral institutions, it is unclear whether the international community can or has the political will to intervene. “Afghanistan's peaceful future lies in the building up of robust democratic institutions based on the rule of law and the clear respect for the separation of powers,” the UN’s Staffan de Mistura and Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union’s special representative to Afghanistan, said in separate statements.

“We cannot impose democracy from outside. It is up to Afghans to nurture the seeds of democracy that have been planted,” Usackas told EurasiaNet.org.

Whatever the outcome, the political maneuvering seems set to be highly contentious and debilitating. “The winner – again – is Karzai. But it is a Pyrrhic victory,” said Ruttig. “The losers are those Afghans who need a functioning state. Reestablishing the balance between the executive and the legislative would require new elections. But how should this work under Afghanistan’s current security conditions and the state its electoral institutions are in?"

Editor's note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.

Dealing with the Trauma of War Onstage

May 25, 2011/Eurasianet

The stage is just a couple of large dining tables covered with white cotton sheets pushed together at one end of the room. The “commandant,” played by a young woman, has an elfin face and shy smile behind oversized dark glasses. On the surface, the scene appears lighthearted, but the emotions in the tiny room run deep: a group of Afghan women, scarred by the brutality of war, are using acting to address their pain.

“Every Afghan is a victim of the conflict,” says Neak Mohammed of the Afghan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO), a non-governmental organization managing the theater project. Mohammed should know. His father was tortured and six of his brothers perished in the violence that has plagued Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet occupation. Several of his siblings were “disappeared” by the various regimes that rotated in and out of power after the Red Army left Afghanistan in 1989.

Taking its cue from the “Theater of the Oppressed,” an initiative developed by Brazilian activist Augusto Boal, the Afghan participatory theater encourages actors and audience members alike to come to terms with their suffering by getting them to open up.

“The first time I talked [onstage] I cried so much I don’t know what I said,” says 25-year-old Shilla Qiam. “I realized here that it was not just me. Everyone has a story. Someone has lost a brother, a father, a sister.”

“I had never talked before,” said Qiam’s friend Waseema Amiri. “There are things you cannot talk about with your family because later on it is held against you. Here I could open up my mind and heart. I see these other sisters [female participants]. I didn’t even know the extent of the problems many women in the provinces have to face.”

The scene presented on the stage during a recent performance at AHRDO’s suburban Kabul office was one familiar to many in the audience: An underage girl was being forcibly married to a commander, an older man, by her father who hopes to get a good bride price. The girl protested, the father beat her and the mother was unable to intervene. When the scene froze onstage, audience members were invited to show how they would handle the situation.

One by one, women from the audience went onstage to role-play. One woman became the daughter. Another played the mother and another, the father. The mother offered to find a job so her daughter did not have to be married against her will; the daughter tried to soften the father through emotional arguments. The idea behind the exercise is that efforts to transform the situation onstage mirrors attempts to transform their own lives, the real situations the audience members have to deal with. “The audience gives the solution through which they can change their own lives,” explained AHRDO’s Mohammed.

“Afghans embraced this [concept] from the beginning,” said Hjalmar Jorge Joffre Eichhorn, an AHRDO founder and Bolivian-German theater activist who has developed acting-therapy programs in several countries. It is especially well suited for Afghanistan, which has a long tradition of oral expression. In addition, a theatrical venue offers a safe space for women to share stories that cultural stigmas, familial restrictions and the continuing conflict do not easily allow elsewhere. Just the act of narration is in itself an empowering act, said Eichhorn.

“The theater creates the safe space – both emotionally and physically – and brings people together. No one has listened to their stories before. Telling lifts a burden. Sometimes it is like a volcano erupting,” he added.

Outside the theater, little is done to help Afghans deal with the consequences of over three decades of conflict. Mental health facilities are virtually non-existent in Afghanistan, even though 60 percent of Afghans are estimated to suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to government data. An action plan on transitional justice that the government adopted in 2005 has not been implemented largely due to the resistance of powerful figures who fear the possibility of being called to account for war crimes. Moreover, the conflict’s stark ethnic divisions have prevented a common understanding that would be the starting point for any justice and healing process.

“Afghanistan is still a country in conflict and there is no agreement on the macro-narrative. It will take a lot of time until we are at a stage where we can agree and each group doesn’t feel it is the most victimized and that some other group is the worst oppressor,” said Sari Kuovo, the head of the Afghan program of International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), one of the organizations the funds the theater project.

Law student Zahra Yagana has moderated many of the workshops. “In the beginning it was difficult. Some women would not take off their chadori [full burkha],” Yagana said. “Some would not speak. But day-by-day it gets better. We want the women to change their tears into energy.”

For Hadisa, a 20-year-old participant, this is already happening. “Before I thought there was no one to listen to the voice of women. Now I know we can raise our voices together. Our voice must be heard by decision-makers.”

Editor's note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.

India Woos Kabul as Influence Wanes

May 17, 2011/Eurasianet

A few years ago, the Indian Embassy in Kabul entertained a curious request. Afghan counter-narcotics officials, despairing that poppy-eradication efforts weren’t working, came up with a novel idea. They proposed to hire an Indian soap opera star, Smriti Irani, to record anti-poppy public service announcements for television and radio.

Given Afghans’ obsession with Irani’s character, Tulsi, on the show ‘Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ (The Mother-in-Law Was Once the Daughter-in-Law), Afghan officials believed the public service spots could have broad appeal. At the time, viewing the show was a national obsession: Even wedding ceremonies were sometimes suspended so that guests could watch the daily telecast. In the end, the proposal never took off, but it did demonstrate the depth of Indian soft power in Afghanistan.
These days, Afghans have many more television options. India’s influence, meanwhile, remains strong, but the dividends of the feel-good relationship are wearing thin. The ebb in relations was evident during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s May 13-14 visit to Kabul. Singh pushed for more security and political cooperation, including a clear role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation process, but his gestures yielded nothing concrete.

India has the chips to be a major player in Afghanistan. It has aid commitment that makes it Afghanistan’s sixth-largest donor (New Delhi has spent $1.5 billion on aid projects from 2001-2011). In addition, there exists plenty of goodwill among Afghans toward Indians, and there’s a history of friendship between the two countries. But India, according to Afghan analysts, has not made efficient use of its assets. New Delhi has not, for example, cultivated relations with an assortment of Afghan political players in the post-Taliban era. “They are missing from the political space,” said Waliullah Rahmani, the Director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “This is a major shortcoming in the Indian foreign policy in Afghanistan.”

In a search for explanations, critics point to the understaffed Indian Embassy in Kabul, where only one officer handles aid programs. Another lone diplomat looks after the political and media portfolio, as well as chancery issues. In sharp contrast, most Western embassies in Kabul are brimming with diplomats. The British Embassy, for example, has around a dozen officials in the political section alone. The reason for the discrepancy, the critics say, is India’s na├»ve expectation that good relations with both Kabul and Washington means both will protect and promote Indian interests in Afghanistan.

India has traditionally acted as a counterweight to Pakistani-Pashtun influence in Afghanistan. Most notably, New Delhi became a strong backer in the 1990s of the ethnic Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which battled the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. In the process, New Dehli helped check Pakistan’s efforts to project its authority across all of Afghanistan.
Though it initially continued supporting the Northern Alliance after Taliban militants were driven from Kabul in late 2001, India has shifted in recent years to a policy of strong support for President Hamid Karzai’s administration, says Kabul-based analyst Haroun Mir. In doing so, India backed itself into a diplomatic corner, and, as a result, its influence with Karzai waned. Sensing that India has no other diplomatic options, the Afghan president has become a hard bargainer. At the same time, the Indian government has lost credibility with the opposition, which includes members of the Northern Alliance.

India’s position could erode further in the event that a reconciliation iniative brings pro-Pakistan figures into government, Mir explained. “It was a mistake for India to invest so completely in the government of President Karzai. They have to balance their activities and aid to Afghanistan. They kept away from their natural allies, the Northern Alliance, for fear of how President Karzai might react,” said Mir, a former Northern Alliance associate, currently director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Of late, the Karzai government and its supporters have kept up pressure on New Delhi to sever ties with his political opponents. “India needs to cut its ties to all groups and have relations only with [Karzai’s] government,” Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, president of the Regional Studies Center of Afghanistan, a government-affiliated think-tank, told EurasiaNet.org.

New Delhi has caved too easily, says Mir. “India should not have given a blank [aid] check without conditions. Other [donors] have conditions. It is not as if India is not familiar with this culture. It has the same culture,” he told EurasiaNet.org, critiquing India’s inability to leverage its massive spending.

“They [Indians] have completely failed to cultivate individuals with political power, as all the other countries have done, and it is those individuals who are making decisions now,” said an analyst close to the government who asked not to be identified.

Meanwhile, India’s relationship with the United States, while strong, has not produced the returns New Delhi had hoped for in Afghanistan. Despite fears of a pro-Pakistan government appearing in Kabul, for example, India has found itself sidelined in reconciliation talks. India’s cozy relationship with the United States also has taken a toll on ties with traditional allies Russia and Iran, two countries that have stakes in Afghanistan and which could have expanded India’s leverage. As it is, Iran, according to a source close to the government, “has been complaining about India’s role in Afghanistan and the region to us.”

Even though the discovery that Osama bin Laden hid for years near the Pakistani capital suggests some members of the Pakistani establishment supported the terrorist-leader, the terrorist mastermind’s death may not be the game-changer that India hopes for. “We could go down the other route of just having a flaming great row with Pakistan over this. I think that would achieve nothing,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said in response to allegations some members of Pakistan’s intelligence service protected bin Laden. His comments support fears in India that the West will overlook any Pakistani betrayal.

Prime Minister Singh used his recent Kabul visit to announce $500-million in additional Indian aid for Afghanistan. The premiere also expressed a desire to broaden a strategic partnership. The details have not been worked out, but they seem, as do most aspects of Indian-Afghan relations these days, up to Kabul to dictate.

Editor's note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.

It’s over to officials after PM Manmohan Singh broadens ties with Afghans

May 14, Economic Times

Both the unsaid and the said defined the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to Afghanistan over Thursday and Friday, opening up the opportunity for a significant shift in India's engagement with Afghanistan.

The visit, less than a fortnight after death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, confounded expectations of high rhetoric against Pakistan. Singh's second visit to Afghanistan, after a gap of nearly six years, also sought to plug the gaps in India's engagement with Afghanistan, announcing the intent to establish a strategic partnership that could provide for engagement across political, security and economic fronts. India also substantially increased its aid to Afghanistan from $1.5 billion to $2 billion, a bulk of it ($100 million) for a massive expansion in small development projects.

Though neither Afghan President Hamid Karzai nor Prime Minister Singh shied away from pointing to terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the language remained muted. Despite a provocative media, both maintained their cool. Pakistan was described as a "partner", and the Indian PM went out of his way to provide assurances that India was not out to target Pakistan, either politically or militarily.

While the announcement of a strategic framework signalled India's political intent to depart from a narrow engagement that has, at times, appeared shaped as well as restricted by Indo-Pak tension, its impact will be determined by the political will of both countries to actualise the agreement, including the timeframe for its adoption.

A rapidly shifting political environment within Afghanistan coupled with India's past failure to cultivate and expand its political engagement in Afghanistan suggest the new partnership is a possibility rather than a fait accompli.

Despite an enviable start in its post-2001 bilateral engagement when overwhelming goodwill for India combined with the powerful position of the pro-Indian Northern Alliance, India failed to capitalise on its leverage. Initially limiting its engagement to the Northern Alliance at the cost of neglecting other key political players, India subsequently swung to wholesale support of President Hamid Karzai, making no attempt to broaden its political base or increase its participation in the political space.

The eye of the storm

04 May 2011, Himal Southasia

While almost the entire world reeled from the shock waves emanating from the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, Monday remained a routine day in Kabul. Afghanistan, which is still paying the price for having hosted bin Laden, carried on its business as usual. In fact, apart from the flurry of meetings and security alerts within the international organisations, Kabul city did not even appear perturbed. It exhibited none of the signs of anxiety usually evident in reactions to emotive events, such as the burning of the Koran. The eye of the storm was uncannily still.

The Afghan government reacted quickly with President Hamid Karzai welcoming the operation leading to the killing of bin Laden. Later, the Afghan media joined in reporting on perhaps the biggest news story since 9/11. Most Afghans, however, reacted not emotionally as did most Americans, but much more cautiously. ‘I don’t know whether it is good or bad,’ says Hashim, a Kabul taxi driver, referring to bin Laden’s death. ‘Some say it is good and some say it is bad. What do you think?’

Many like him weigh their words before expressing an opinion, unsure whether it is appropriate to celebrate or mourn the man whose name had become synonymous with the centre of global terrorism. They seem to be waiting to see where the dominant opinion is headed. And while they wait, they weigh the pros and cons of bin Laden’s death and the impact it might have on their country. Whatever he may have once meant to Afghans, bin Laden had long ceased to be an issue in Afghanistan. Instead, Afghans had been (and are) more concerned with events and personnel more pivotal in shaping lives and deaths inside their country.

Separate, but connected
Although the image of bin Laden is most closely associated with the rugged mountain terrain of Afghanistan, the links between the Taliban insurgency and the al-Qaeda’s global jihad are not as symbiotic as often portrayed in a large section of the western media. Bin Laden was able to use Afghanistan as well as his Taliban hosts to consolidate his movement and also launch attacks which eventually brought the Taliban crashing down. Yet through it all, the Taliban has been able to maintain autonomy over their movement as well as ideology, which has been largely confined to Afghanistan. In 2001, it was not the support to the cause of global jihad, but the Pasthunwali code of honour which speaks of safe-guarding guests – and which the Taliban had referred to – that made the Taliban refuse to hand bin Laden over to the US.

‘It has to be emphasised that the Afghan Taliban - apart from a few individuals - have never said and, more importantly, shown in their [actions] that they follow the al-Qaeda strategy of worldwide jihad. Instead, they have concentrated exclusively on Afghanistan and those parts of Pakistan where they have their logistics and fall-back positions,’ says Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, a non-profit, independent policy research organisation.

Many Afghans share this view. ‘Though the Western media sees the Afghan conflict as an internationally-led one, it is led by the Taliban… The Taliban is an independent movement within Afghan borders,’ says Borhan Younus, a freelance researcher and journalist.

Of course, while the motivations and goals of the Al Qaeda and Taliban are different, no one denies there are links between the two – there are, however, differences on the extent of this relationship. ‘I do not expect that Osama bin Laden’s death will have a large impact on the Afghan war,’ says Ruttig. ‘The war in Afghanistan is not fought with al-Qaida. Even the US military admits that there are only very few al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan. The war is fought with the Taliban who, without doubts, have links with al-Qaida, but are mainly a force of their own. The Taliban are not an al-Qaida affiliate. I doubt that they need al-Qaida fighters, trainers etc; they have their own war experience. The older Taliban generation has been fighting since the 1980s. Even the weight of al-Qaida’s financial role has lost importance for them because they can rely on domestic funding: raising taxes, the drugs trade and the big-money western contracts. I am not sure which of them is bigger.’

Mehbouba Seraj, a political and civil society activist, who contested the last parliamentary election as an independent candidate unsuccessfully, also feels that there are clear links between the two militant organisations. ‘Taliban has nothing to do with the Al Qaeda is a bunch of lies,’ she says.

Interestingly, the Taliban are also reserving their ‘reaction’ to bin Laden’s death. They argue that they have no confirmation of the information, but do not deny the news outright as is often the case in a conflict where a warring faction does not want to lose its psychological advantage. ‘This news is only coming from one side, from Obama's office, and America has not shown any evidence or proof to support this claim,’ says Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid in a statement e-mailed to journalists. ‘The other side: our sources close to Osama bin Laden have neither confirmed nor denied the news. Until there is news from sources close to Osama bin Laden, it will be too early to provide any reaction,’ Mujahid continues.

The reticence observed in the Taliban may have a lot to do with opinions divided within its leadership on how far it should go in claiming bin Laden as one of their own. This ownership reluctance might be the result of the fact that bin Laden does not resound strongly within the Afghan population, the main constituency of the Taliban.

In fact, as a symbolic figure, bin Laden had far more resonance within the US and other western countries. Within Afghanistan, however, speculations on the next al-Qaeda leadership and the time it will take to reach that decision are more pertinent. Fahim Dashty, editor of Kabul Weekly and a former associate of the Northern Alliance who was with Ahmed Shah Masood when he was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attack, agrees. So does Seraj, ‘The al-Qaeda is not one person. This may be a big blow, but it does not mean they will change what they are doing.’

Those who see closer linkages between the two organisations fear retaliation in reaction to bin Laden’s death. ‘They will want to prove themselves’ says Seraj. ‘There will be some repercussions and the main place for that will be Afghanistan.’

‘The disappointment, the loss of credibility will push the al-Qaeda and the Taliban to react strongly. There will be a push to raise the level of violence in Afghanistan as much as they can,’ says Dashty.

Danish Karokhail, the managing director of Pajhwok, Afghanistan’s first independent news agency, feels the revenge attack might be an excuse for the Talibans to step-up violence, which will result in more civilian casualties.

Fear of abandonment
In the next three to five months, a spike in violence is expected for several reasons and it may be difficult to separate whether it related to bin Laden’s death or not. The ‘fighting season’ associated with the ease of movement in summer months has already begun. On 30 April, the Taliban announced the beginning of their ‘spring military operations’ named Badar, a day ahead of the US military operation resulting in bin Laden’s death.

In fact, the timing of the US operation lends itself a great deal of speculation. Obama’s bid for the second term; his domestic travails, including the doubts about his birth certificate; and the quagmire that US troops continue to be mired in in Afghanistan – all lend themselves to theories of a planned timing rather than a sudden discovery. It is not lost on any Afghan that the bin Laden operation came weeks ahead of the scheduled drawdown of US troops in the country, slated to begin in July. The successful operation has, in fact, re-raised fears of abandonment that Afghans have carried within them since the 2001 intervention. These fears are not just the result of past experiences of being used and dropped, as in during the Cold War, but also of the stated strategic goals of the US in their current war against terror.

‘I hope the international community will not abandon Afghanistan saying “mission accomplished”,’ says Shahmahmood Miakhel, chief of party of United States Institute for peace (USIP). Amir Foladi, a political analyst, echoes similar fear: ‘I have concerns that the United States may think that their mission is done and that there is no need to be heavily involved.’

Their concerns are not misplaced. As reported earlier by Himal, the US has been clear about its limited interests in Afghanistan with President Barack Obama saying: ‘From the start, I’ve been very clear about our core goal. It’s not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country. And it’s not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation. Rather, we are focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.’

So far, debate over the ‘withdrawal’ of US troops has been largely framed in black and white, with one section swearing by the US interest in permanent bases and the other predicting a complete withdrawal of troops. The more likely scenario, however, is a drawdown of some troops in July while will meet the promise Obama made to his domestic audience. The initial reduction in numbers will be followed by more gradual ones and then a switch to non-combat operations, rather than an exodus of all American troops from Afghanistan.

As far as the future role of the US in Afghanistan is concerned, it will most likely be shaped by the former’s complex relationship with Pakistan. This is also where the multiple theories on Pakistan’s role in bin Laden’s capture come in. Was Pakistan complicit in providing safe haven to bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad or was it collaborative in yielding him to the US forces? It is difficult to conceive that the Pakistan’s state apparatus, which is strong as opposed to in Afghanistan, did not have an inkling of the set-up so close to an important military installation. On the other hand, it is also inconceivable that all components of the Pakistani state structure, fragmented as it is between the civilian and the military, were in full knowledge of their most hunted guest. Hamid (name changed on his request), a young and politically aware Afghan working in an international organization, thinks that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies kept bin Laden alive until his survival was no longer useful. That may be closer to the truth than the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ theories currently dominating the debate. It could also help explain a number of seeming contradictions in the Pakistani position, as well as in the even more confusing details given on the US operation. It could be that towards the end of his stay, bin Laden may indeed have been ordered to be a ‘guest’ rather than accorded sanctuary by the Pakistani establishment.

‘[The operation] could not have happened without the cooperation of the Pakistani government,’ Younus says. ‘The timing coincides with Pakistan’s own intent to carry out operations against the Pakistani Taliban, who have very different goals from the Afghan Taliban.’

Speculations on whether the US will now use Pakistan as a proxy in Afghanistan to help itself disengage from an unpopular war are rife. So are opinions on whether Afghanistan is now willing to abandon its former allies in return for a closer relationship with Pakistan. Much depends on the reading of Pakistan’s role regarding bin Laden’s stay and death within its borders. Pakistan has formally denied any knowledge about bin Laden. However, if it is able to demonstrate that it was actually able to track down and control the whereabouts of the terrorist, it might establish its credentials to ‘manage’ the insurgency in Afghanistan. As Ruttig says, ‘After Sunday night's events, it is the link between al-Qaeda and the ISI that needs to be explored, not so much the one between al-Qaeda and the Taliban’.

While conspiracy theorists, analysts, pundits will all have their say in the coming days, the reality will be far more complex and containing too many variable factors for anyone to present and predict a concrete scenario. Judging by their reactions to bin Laden’s death, however, ordinary Afghans seem to have grasped this; for as long as they can remember, their realities have been, and are being, shaped by uncertainties.

Aunohita Mojumdar is a contributing editor (Kabul) to this magazine.

Fear is Constant Companion of Kabul Journalists

May 3, 2011/ Eurasianet

No Afghan journalist died in direct connection with his or her professional duties in 2010 while reporting on the Islamic insurgency. On the surface, that is welcome news. But media advocates in Afghanistan say the statistic is also cause for concern.

Overall two reporters, both of them foreign, were killed while covering Afghan combat operations in 2010, according to a recent report prepared by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The decrease in journalist casualties in comparison with recent years was not the result of enhanced security measures for combat reporters, but was a byproduct of heightened cautiousness. “While the war intensified, the number of combat-related media deaths did not rise in proportion, a reflection of cautious coverage tactics,” the CPJ report stated.

In a few, small ways, conditions are improving for Afghan journalists: the number of news outlets in the country is growing, meaning journalists enjoy more employment options; in addition, public appreciation for the value of an independent press is slowly rising. Even so, fear is the constant companion of just about every Afghan journalist. Rather than take risks, many journalists forego reporting. Some succumb to the temptation or rewriting PR releases and passing it off as news.

“Security is the mother of all challenges,” said Farhad Peikar, an Afghan journalist working for an international news agency. “We cannot go everywhere and report.”

In the absence of a safe operating space, journalists increasingly rely on self-censorship. “I think twice before reporting on drug lords or warlords and try to be very cautious, weighing whether my report will put my life in danger,” Peikar said.

Local power brokers and officials often act on their own to stifle unflattering reporting. In the month of March alone, Media Watch, a regular newsletter published by the Afghan media non-governmental organization Nai, documented several instances of harassment and intimidation, including the roughing up of a Kabul-based reporter by traffic police, and illegal “orders” given to a radio station in the Western province of Badghis to stop broadcasting for allegedly insulting President Hamid Karzai. Media Watch also reported on efforts by Karzai administration officials to bring independent media outlets under government control.

In general, Afghan journalists seem to have a prickly relationship with Kabul officials. In particular, many complain about a lack of access. Despite working for an international news agency, Peikar, for example, expressed frustration that Afghan officials prefer talking to Western correspondents than with representatives of local media outlets.

Writing in the February 5 issue of the Killid Weekly magazine, journalists Farukhlaqa Sultani and Gulkohi, who uses only one name, highlighted the issue of Afghan journalists being treated like second-class citizens in their own country. “News and information about Afghanistan often [first] appear in the mainstream Western media and then get translated by the Afghan media,” they wrote. Afghan officials like to be quoted in the international media “because they care more about US and NATO governments and Western public opinion than the Afghan public.”

“The international media are more influential and can change policies. Why should they [government officials] talk to local journalists?” one Afghan journalist remarked cynically. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for his international news organization, the journalist alleged that bias began at the top -- in President Karzai’s office.

“Though I am known very well to them and work for a recognized media organization, the president’s office refuses to even put me on their mailing list, let alone invite me for press conferences,” said the journalist. “They think I am not a friendly journalist because I am critical.”

Meanwhile, representatives of Killid, which also operates a well-established radio network, say they have tried for several years to obtain an interview with Karzai. Their efforts have not been successful, even though the president regularly finds time to sit down with international outlets.

Elsewhere, in connection with World Press Freedom Day on May 3 the democratization watchdog organization Freedom House released its annual Freedom of the Press 2011 survey. There were no surprises concerning countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Georgia was the only Caucasus country in which the media environment was rated as “partially free.” Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were rated as “not free.” All five formerly Soviet Central Asian states also received “not free” media designations. Only North Korea ranked lower than Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in Freedom House’s media survey.

Editor's note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.

Osama dead: Afghans see it as another chapter in conflict

May 3, 2011/Economic Times

It was the explosion of sms messages and phone calls that alerted many Afghans across Kabul city that Osama bin Laden, the man who had made Afghanistan coterminous with the centre of global terrorism, was dead.

But here in Afghanistan, the response to his death was not the visceral show of emotion that was evident among Americans gathering spontaneously outside the White House and on Ground Zero. In Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, Afghans reacted more analytically, pondering the impact of the death and seeing it as yet another chapter in their endless conflict rather than as a closure.

While Afghans seem divided between hope and concerns for the future, they were united in their assertion that the operation had provided proof of what they had been saying for several years -- that the centre of terrorism was not in their country, but in neighbouring Pakistan.

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The sentiment was articulated most clearly by Afghan President Hamid Karzai who said: "The world should realise, as we said many, many times, and continue to say every day, the fight against terrorism is not in Afghanistan's villages, the fight against terrorism is not in the houses of poor and oppressed Afghans, the fight is not in bombing women and children. The fight against terrorism is in its sanctuaries, in its training camps and its finance centres, not in Afghanistan, and today it has been proved we were right."

Karzai was tapping into a widespread feeling echoed by a cross-section of society. "Afghans are sure that they have been targeted without any reason while the centre of Al Qaeda has been based in Islamabad," said Danish Karokhail, the managing director of Afghanistan's first multilingual independent news agency, Pajhwok. "Why have we lost so many Afghan lives in the last few years? It is better that the international community focus on the real place now."

"It should help Obama and NATO realign their strategy," said Halim Fidai, the Governor of the province of Logar, which has seen an escalation of violence over the past two years. "They should focus and expedite their efforts to disrupt leadership of the terrorist cells."

Karzai also called on the Taliban to "learn from what happened yesterday and stop fighting". While the Taliban had not reacted to the event at the time this went to press, there was a widespread feeling that the successful operation would help anti-insurgency operation by denting the Taliban's feeling of invincibility.

Although US President Barack Obama expressed appreciation for the help from Pakistani counterparts, Afghans were not forthcoming with praise. "If they had known there would be an operation, they would have helped him escape," said Fahim Dashty, the editor of Kabul Weekly, who had been with Ahmed Shah Masood, when he was killed by a suicide bomber days ahead of 9/11. Masood played a leading role in driving the Soviet army out of Afghanistan and was also at the forefront of the battle against the Taliban.

Bin Laden's removal achieves one of the strategic goals of the US, something that has left many Afghans with a sense of foreboding. "I hope the international community will not abandon Afghanistan saying 'mission accomplished' and leave behind an unstable government," said Shahmahmood Miakhel, the chief of party for the United States Institute for Peace.

(Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist based in Kabul)

Osama’s Death Stirs Uncertainty and Apprehension in Kabul

May 2, 2011/Eurasianet

There were no scenes of spontaneous celebrations in Kabul on May 2, as news of the death of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden spread among residents of the Afghan capital. Rather than fostering feelings of vindication or satisfaction, bin Laden’s demise filled many Afghans with a sense of unease, amid a sprinkling of conspiracy theories.

Afghans had lots of questions relating to the sudden turn of events for which there are no immediate answers: Will bin Laden’s death provide the US military with cover to accelerate the pace of its withdrawal from Afghanistan? Will the international community turn away from the nation once more, as it did after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989? And will al Qaeda retaliate?

“I don’t know what I feel,” said Ahmed, a young waiter at a glitzy Kabul restaurant frequented by internationals and well-heeled Afghans. “What do you think about it? Is it good or bad?”

President Hamid Karzai responded quickly to US President Barack Obama’s late-night May 1 announcement that American special forces had killed bin Laden during a raid on his compound, located not far from the Pakistani capital Islamabad. News agencies quoted the Afghan president as urging the Taliban to talk with his government: “We call on Taliban to learn from what happened yesterday and stop fighting.”

Karzai also used the occasion to trumpet that terrorism is centered across the border inside Pakistan, a case that his government has been making for years. “The world should realize as we said many, many times, and continue to say every day, the fight against terrorism is not in Afghanistan’s villages, the fight against terrorism is not in the houses of poor and oppressed Afghans, the fight is not in bombing women and children,” Karzai was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “The fight against terrorism is in its sanctuaries, in its training camps and its finance centers, not in Afghanistan and today it has been proved we were right.”

Among Afghan analysts, the sentiments expressed by Karzai are widely shared. Bin Laden’s death in Pakistan offers “proof that most of al Qaeda’s senior leadership is not in Afghanistan,” said Shahmahmood Miakhel, the chief of party for the United States Institute for Peace. “Hopefully Afghanistan’s neighbors, with the help of the international community, will cooperate to weed out the root causes of terrorism from Afghanistan, the region and the world.”

Miakhel was among several analysts in Kabul who expressed concern that bin Laden’s death would cause Afghanistan to take an undesirable turn – at least from the Afghan perspective. Specifically, Miakhel wondered if the news on bin Laden was a prelude to abandonment by the United States. “I hope the international community will not abandon Afghanistan, saying ‘mission accomplished’ and leave behind an unstable government,” Miakhel told EurasiaNet.org.

Political analyst Amir Foladi echoed that concern. Bin Laden’s death “demonstrates that no one can hide for the rest of their lives to escape their misdeeds. It is a lesson for the Taliban. At the same time, this should not be seen as game over. I have concerns that the United States may think their mission is done and there is no need to be heavily involved. The al Qaeda network is not dead,” he said.

Observers were split over how the death of the al Qaeda leader might influence the Taliban’s insurgency. “This may be a big, big blow, but it does not mean they will change what they do,” said civil society activist Mehbouba Seraj, referring to the Taliban. “They may step up efforts to prove themselves and the main place they will do that will be in Afghanistan. I am really concerned that they [the Taliban] will step up their attacks.”

While accepting the notion that the death of bin Laden might damage the Taliban’s image, Borhan Younus, a researcher and writer, emphasized that the Taliban, unlike al Qaeda, is a national movement. Thus, bin Laden’s death does not stand to alter significantly the Taliban strategy in Afghanistan. “Al Qaeda has global ambitions, the Taliban is an independent movement within Afghanistan’s borders. It is only using land and sanctuary [inside Pakistan] for their own fight,” Younus told EurasiaNet.org.

Many Kabul observers questioned the timing of the operation to kill bin Laden, noting the United States is set to start its drawdown in a matter of weeks, in July. “I don’t believe in coincidences. I think there was a link between the recent changes in the US leadership in Afghanistan,” said Seraj, referring to the April 28 announcement of the appointment of a new US ambassador and a new general in charge of US and NATO troops on the ground.

Younus was blunter: “This has happened at a time when the United States is seeking justification for withdrawing troops. This operation will provide it.”

Editor's note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.

UN Says Political and Humanitarian Concerns Don’t Mix

April 18, 2011/ Eurasianet

Humanitarian agencies working in Afghanistan have been saying it for years. Now the United Nations is also admitting it: Humanitarian aid workers are facing increasing risks in many conflict zones where assistance is most needed and not much is being done to protect them.

A new report, released on April 12 by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), says the UN has failed to maintain neutrality by playing both a political and a humanitarian role in Afghanistan, a fact that the UN’s political leadership may find an embarrassing admission, and says Taliban militants now see the UN as a legitimate target.

“Due to the dual nature of the UN as both a political actor and a humanitarian actor, UN aid agencies have more difficulty projecting a neutral image than many other humanitarians. The UN’s political role in many of the most-contested environments has placed it squarely in the Western camp, where it is viewed as a legitimate and prominent target (Al Qaeda along with national-level jihadist elements in different countries have named the UN as an enemy target on more than one occasion),” says the report, To Stay and Deliver: Good Practices for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments. “Humanitarian action is under attack, but neither governments, parties to armed conflicts, nor other influential actors are doing enough to come to its relief.”

Certainly, the April 1 attack on a UN compound in Mazar-i Sharif highlights the challenges of operating in Afghanistan’s increasingly dangerous environment. Seven employees died in that assault. The crisis for aid agencies is likely to deepen with the escalation of international military operations and the counterattacks expected ahead of the international forces drawdown, slated to begin this July.

“Compared to 2010 there is a multiplication of military operations by the international military forces or those initiated by the AOG [armed opposition groups],” says Laurent Saillard, director of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid programs in Afghanistan. “It is an extremely hostile environment, politically speaking.”

“Access is a huge challenge for all of us,” says Manohar Shenoy, Oxfam’s Afghanistan country director. “It is becoming more complicated as the insurgency is spreading and for the belligerents it is difficult to distinguish between who is impartial and who is not. The impartial and humanitarian lines have become blurred.”

“In provinces like Kandahar and Helmand, as the fighting intensifies, the space for civil society and non-state actors is decreasing,” Shenoy adds.
The threat to humanitarians is widespread, now impacting organizations that have managed to maintain neutrality even in the eyes of Taliban commanders, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. In a March 15 operational update, the ICRC described the situation as “untenable,” warning that it is relying more on local partners in remote areas.

“People tell us that they are caught in the middle of the conflict and they don’t know which way to turn,” the ICRC’s head of delegation, Reto Stocker, was quoted as saying in the update. “We need to remain close to the people if we are going to be able to do our work.”

“Only half the country is accessible to humanitarian organizations,” said a quarterly report on Afghanistan released by the UN Secretary General in March. “The deteriorating security situation has been hampering safe access to people in need.”

That lack of access is, in turn, hurting the people who need aid the most, wrote Tufts University’s Antonio Donini in the January issue of The Humanitarian Exchange.

“This is particularly true of the UN, whose international staff can only move around in armored vehicles in all but a few more stable areas in the center and north,” Donini writes. “The one-sidedness of aid agencies, real or perceived, is affecting both the reach and the quality of their work. With the exception of the ICRC and a few others, mainstream international agencies, UN and NGO alike, are becoming more risk-averse and loath to rethink the way they work.”

Editor's note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.

Afghanistan: UN Losing PR Battle in Kabul

April 6, 2011/ Eurasianet

The United Nations is struggling to remain relevant in Afghanistan. At the heart of the UN’s challenge is a growing perception that it has lost the trust and respect of Afghan leaders, as well as considerable segment of the general public.

The UN’s delicate position was highlighted by the April 1 attack against a UN compound in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an incident that left three UN staffers and four UN security guards dead. In an effort to defuse tension and restore its image among Afghans, UN officials quickly blamed Islamic radicals for the violence. The tragedy was the outgrowth of a mass demonstration against the burning of a Koran by Terry Jones, an extremist pastor in Florida. According to the UN version of events, a small group of militants, numbering no more than 15, infiltrated a mob of about 3,000 and somehow redirected its fury toward the UN compound. In singling out militants for responsibility, the UN apparently wants to downplay the possibility that widespread public anger with the UN played a role in the tragedy. At least four Afghans, in addition to UN personnel, died in the April 1 incident.

Other accounts, including those of eyewitnesses, as well as an article published by The Wall Street Journal, have clashed with the UN version. These accounts suggested that the violence was the product of a spontaneous outburst of anger among protesters, rather than the result of well-targeted action by militants. If accurate, such a view has ominous implication for the future of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Relations are already severely strained with the Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai. If the popular mood also has turned against UNAMA, then its ability to promote Afghanistan’s stabilization would appear to be thoroughly compromised.

Popular frustration with UNAMA has been building steadily in Afghanistan. As a coordinating agency for foreign assistance, including civil-military aid, UNAMA has come to be associated in the public eye with problems, including civilian deaths. At the same time, UNAMA’s lower public profile during the past year is complicating its efforts to reverse the slide of its image.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s disenchantment with the United States is relatively well known, but his dissatisfaction with UNAMA’s role is less documented. Karzai’s main complaint, it seems, is that both the United States and the UN won’t accord the Kabul government a level of freedom of action that he thinks it deserves, even though corruption is rife in Afghanistan, and the government has not demonstrated it can meet the basic needs of the people.

In a March 22 speech that announced the beginning of the security transition that would bring areas under the control of Afghan national security forces -- including, ironically, Mazar-i-Sharif -- Karzai singled out the UN for criticism. “There are numerous UN institutions operating in Afghanistan, of which the government is not aware, and their spending and performance is questionable to us,” Karzai said. “We have begun talks with the UN on this issue and hope the issue could be resolved in the course of this year.”

President Karzai’s remarks came as the UN Security Council extended UNAMA’s mandate, a process that had grown strained after Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul shot off a letter to the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon calling for a curb on UN activities in Afghanistan. Diplomatic sources described the letter, dated March 1, as written in “language that was not diplomatic at all.” It reportedly listed 10 specific demands for changes in UNAMA’s mission to ensure that its “future mandate should correspond with the principles of Afghan leadership and ownership.”

While some demands merely called on the UN to meet pledges, such as a commitment to support the routing of a greater share of international assistance through the Afghan government, others demanded that the UN curtail its efforts to promote democratization and good governance. Afghan authorities specifically asked the UN not to include mention of electoral reform or sub-national governance in UNAMA’s renewed mandate and to “limit its offices to the six recognized zones throughout the country.” The renewed mandate dropped earlier references to the UN’s leading role in electoral reforms, but it emphasized a need for a stronger UN presence. It also included a concession by agreeing to an Afghan government demand for a comprehensive review of the UN mission in the coming months.

Since the April 1 incident in Mazar, the UN has been careful not to point a finger at Karzai, even as the Afghan president faces international criticism elsewhere for using inflammatory rhetoric that helped spur protests across Afghanistan against the Koran burning episode in Florida.

The source of the Karzai administration’s antipathy for UNAMA seems rooted in the fallout from Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential vote and parliamentary elections the next year, both of which were marred by widespread fraud. UNAMA lent its support to independent electoral bodies that substantiated fraud claims and whose authority later came under attack by various government institutions.

In 2010, UN officials attempted to reinvigorate its relationship with Karzai, installing Staffan de Mistura as UNAMA’s special representative, following the departure of Kai Eide. De Mistura lowered UNAMA’s visibility inside Afghanistan, curbing its contact with the public and reducing its political involvement to concentrate on the delivery of health and education services. Such efforts, however, did not produce the hoped-for results.

In recent months, UNAMA has sought to carve out a role as a neutral mediator in the reconciliation process between the government and Islamic militants. If popular anger, not militant scheming, was behind the Mazar-i-Sharif attack against the UN compound, UNAMA’s mediation aspirations would seem dashed, as it would show that all the major actors in the peace process – the government, the Taliban and the Afghan people – have serious doubts about the organization. Already, the government has emphasized in a letter to the UN secretary-general that UNAMA could play a role in the peace process only “if requested by the Government of Afghanistan.”

Disliked by Karzai’s administration, it seems that UNAMA will have limited influence over Afghanistan’s political course for the foreseeable future. It likewise may encounter growing difficulties in playing a humanitarian role, if it is viewed as a partisan entity in the ongoing conflict.

Editor's note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.

May 06, 2011


Himal, April 2011

Early in March, Marc Grossman, the newly appointed US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, completed a tour of several countries. Dropping in on Jeddah, Kabul, Islamabad and Brussels, this was his first tour of the countries the US considers crucial to the ‘Af-Pak’ portfolio. This was also Grossman’s first tour since he took over the post left empty by the sudden death of the US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, on 13 December. The most notable public outcome of the visits was a back-and-forth exchange with Pakistani journalists on the issue of Raymond Davis, the US contractor charged with murder in Pakistan and released after paying ‘blood’ money (see accompanying story by Urooj Zia). The other notable aspect during this trip was Grossman’s near-verbatim repetition of policies described earlier by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent speech to the Asia Society, during which she announced Grossman’s appointment. Though early days yet, it seems unlikely that the new incumbent, a diplomat brought out of retirement, will be making the waves his predecessor did.

With his forceful personality and penchant for persuasive bullying, Holbrooke grabbed headlines wherever he went. Prior to his appointment, he had been given credit for pushing through the US policy in the Balkans, by getting Slobodan Milosevic on board for the Dayton Accords. In Kabul, however, this headstrong approach proved less helpful. Among the notable contributions Holbrooke made to American relations with the Afghan leadership was his infamous showdown with President Hamid Karzai following the August 2009 presidential elections. The fallout, which is purported to have involved a shouting match, was over Holbrooke’s criticism of the rigging of polling booths by Karzai supporters, and his insistence on the need for a second round of elections to establish credibility. Seen from the Afghan authorities’ point of view, this was nothing short of betrayal; Karzai’s supporters felt the US, which had no compunction in dumping democratic principles whenever it suited them, was using the charade of democracy to weaken him.

Holbrooke was not solely responsible for this state of affairs. But he did exemplify the falling-out between President Karzai and the US administration that had been set in motion even before Barack Obama took office, when, as a visiting senator, the future president expressed doubts on Karzai’s leadership. Afghan leaders are extremely sensitive to perceptions about loss of face and public humiliation. While Holbrooke’s bullying tactics might have worked with weaker bullies such as Milosevic, his handling of the Afghan leadership backfired. Though the US-Karzai relationship recovered to some extent, it never regained the previous warmth. In retrospect, the appointment of Holbrooke to the position was a miscalculation on the part of the Obama administration. The latter should have been forewarned by the fate of British leader Paddy Ashdown (another Balkans hand), whose appointment as a special envoy in Afghanistan was scuppered once tales of his heavy-handed approach preceded his appointment.

Yet even now, in the aftermath of Holbrooke’s death, the Obama administration does not seem to have grasped the need for a more politically sensitive approach. The current US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, a straight-talking former army general, is known for his dismal opinion of President Karzai, made public through leaked embassy cables as far back as January 2010. In the cables, Eikenberry said that President Karzai ‘is not an adequate strategic partner’ and ‘continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden’. Nonetheless, Eikenberry has been kept in his position, a sensitive post that requires working closely with the Afghan leadership. While tough diplomacy might be thought of as a requirement in Afghanistan, it is through these episodes that the US has lost on the swings what it gains on the roundabouts. Public fallouts have been followed with private capitulation, a fact that many Afghan leaders have caught onto quite quickly. Many Afghan leaders have honed the act of public outrage into a fine art that maximises their own political capital, usually allowing them to extract greater concessions from the US administration.

While Holbrooke’s personal style might have tripped him up in the complex political waters of Afghanistan, it seems unlikely that even his more low-key successor will be able to make much progress. The concept of Af-Pak itself is of nebulous value, and the role of the Af-Pak representative encapsulates much that is wrong with US policy towards the area and the wider region.

Unsound conjunction
Whether weighed in terms of looking for a common approach towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, or a solution to the Afghan conflict, the US approach falls short. Undoubtedly the role and concerns of Pakistan are a major factor in Afghanistan. The role of a section of the Pakistani state in providing support to forces of insurgency, the contiguous areas on the Durand Line where much of the military battle is taking place, and the political entwining of Afghanistan and Pakistan, make it imperative to pay attention to and deal with Pakistan for any future stability in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan, while a dominant player, is not the only one shaping the political canvas of Afghanistan. The complex balance of power in the region – which, apart from Pakistan, includes Iran, the Central Asian states, Russia and India – requires a far more holistic approach than can be encapsulated in the ‘Af-Pak’ strategy of the US.

Beyond describing a geographical region, ‘Af-Pak’ has little coherence as a concept. Insurgent groups operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, challenging the authority of the state apparatus in both countries with differing degrees of success, and the use of terror as a tool by many of these groups is also taking a heavy toll on citizens in both countries. However, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with very different sets of political and social factors as well as very different state and governance structures, require almost diametrically opposite approaches – whether militarily or politically.

In Afghanistan, US policy has centred on the ‘transition’, which will allow the US to withdraw troops from active combat and frontlines and disengage with nation-building. But in Pakistan, the problem is one of intrusive US political and military diplomacy. In Afghanistan, the US is attempting to shore up a weak state structure, often by empowering individuals rather than institutions. Pakistan has a strong state structure, with the problem there being one of balance of power, both between the military and the civilian authorities, and between the army and the ISI. The Afghan state currently lacks the ability to deliver governance, whereas in Pakistan the issue is one of priorities set by the state.

The genesis of the term Af-Pak is commonly attributed to Holbrooke himself. Holbrooke, who earlier had ambitions to become the secretary of state under President Obama, settled subsequently for the role of special representative. Soon after he took the office, in 2009, he explained the construct:

First of all, we often call the problem Af-Pak, as in Afghanistan-Pakistan. This is not just an effort to save eight syllables. It is an attempt to indicate and imprint in our DNA the fact that there is one theatre of war, straddling an ill-defined border, the Durand Line, and that on the western side of that border, NATO and other forces are able to operate. On the eastern side, it’s the sovereign territory of Pakistan. But it is on the eastern side of this ill-defined border that the international terrorist movement is located.

The term certainly had its genesis in US politics rather than the politics of the region it encompasses; neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan have had much use for the term, with its reductive connotations. As former President Pervez Musharraf said:

I am totally against the term ‘Af-Pak’. I do not support the word itself for two reasons: First, the strategy puts Pakistan on the same level as Afghanistan. We are not. Afghanistan has no government and the country is completely destabilized. Pakistan is not. Second, and this is much more important, is that there is an Indian element in the whole game.

Holbrooke himself was forced to admit that the term had backfired, describing it first as a ‘bureaucratic shorthand’, and later saying, in January 2010, ‘We can’t use it anymore because it does not please people in Pakistan, for understandable reasons.’ Though the term was officially dropped, ‘bureaucratic shorthand’ continued to inform policy, and the approach of equivalence was not set aside. In December 2010, the Obama administration came out with its ‘Afghanistan-Pakistan annual review.’

The combination of the two countries in a ‘theatre of war’ approach might well be understandable from the point of view of military commanders. But it is difficult to see why it was embraced as a politico-diplomatic concept, not just by the US but by other Western countries and alliances, who also rushed to appoint their own ‘Af-Pak’ envoys. Two years later, it is still difficult to see what the concept has to offer apart from an increasing proclivity for Western troops to cross the border in violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. The initial crossings have been followed by unmanned drones, with each trespass followed by token apologies.

The ‘Af-Pak’ approach, however, does allow the US to narrow down its goals to immediate short-term aims: the downgrading of the al-Qaeda threat to the US and its allies, rather than the broader and more long-term aim of regional stability. Although the ‘region’ came up for mention in Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Asia Society, her elaboration of US policy left little doubt as to the narrowness of this vision. In its hurry to ‘transit’ out of Afghanistan, the US is looking for a ‘political settlement’ that will involve bringing some of the insurgent groups into the government, a step the US hopes will ensure that such groups will no longer pose a threat to the US. If there is any regional aspect here, it is to try and ensure that regional powers such as India do not become spoilers in any such settlement.

More of the same
The clubbing together of Afghanistan and Pakistan also has another attribute. It disguises the lack of coherence within the US administration towards Afghanistan – not only politically, but also within the State Department, the Defence Department and the CIA. Within Kabul these differences are clearly visible in the day-to-day operational arena. There is little unity of command or purpose in the US approach, and the US ambassador and the US commander based in Afghanistan have often had divergent approaches in policy. These differences were most sharply articulated during the tenure of General Stanley McChrystal, but have not disappeared since his abrupt departure in June 2010. The direct reporting by Kabul-based US officials to Washington has deprived the US of a focus of American authority in Kabul, and the office of the US special representative is based in Washington, not in either Islamabad or Kabul.

This allows various factions of power within Afghanistan to cultivate their own lines of communication directly with players in Washington. An individual who encapsulates the contradictions of US foreign policy is the brother of President Karzai – Ahmed Wali Karzai, known in US foreign-policy circles as AWK. Long rumoured to have links to the drug mafia – a link denied vehemently by the Afghan government and never substantiated by the US, despite regular reports in the US media – AWK is seen as a problem by the State Department, which wants to cut off links to him. The Defence Department, on the other hand, considers him someone they would rather have on their side than as an opponent, and continues to do business with him. The CIA likewise considers him an asset, and has, according to reports in the US media, kept him on their payrolls. The approach, a Western diplomat points out, is ‘not very different from the confused US approach towards Pakistan, its army and the ISI’. However, while such differences have a limited impact on Pakistan’s functioning and well-entrenched state apparatus, they have a disproportionate impact in Afghanistan, which is both weak and dependent.

Holbrooke himself was neither authorised nor senior enough to overcome these differences in US policy, being better suited to bullying leaders of desperate countries rather than trying to sway US politicos. It is unlikely that his successor will make much headway. Grossman’s last engagement with the Afghanistan-Pakistan region was during the 1970s and 1980s, in his first assignment, as a junior officer in Pakistan. Since then Grossman worked steadily, but not spectacularly, as an American diplomat. As assistant secretary of state for European affairs, from 1997 to 2000 he played a role in the US participation in NATO’s military campaign in Kosovo. He served two tenures in Turkey, the last as ambassador between 1994 and 1997, and held the position of undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2001 till he retired from service in 2005.

Holbrooke’s untimely death presented an opportunity to move beyond the narrow agenda defined by the ‘Af-Pak’ office within the State Department. However, the appointment of Grossman and Clinton’s Asia Society speech show that the narrow approach has been embraced with even greater fervour.

The Risks of Rising Anti-American Feelings in Kabul

Eurasianet/March 24, 2011

Anti-American sentiment is at record high levels in Afghanistan, a factor that promises to complicate what is already shaping up as a tricky transfer of security responsibilities from Western forces to indigenous military and law-enforcement entities.

Under the existing timeframe, the Afghan government will assume in 2014 primary responsibility for maintaining security in the country. The transfer of authority would involve the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops that are currently fighting to contain the Taliban insurgency. Growing Afghan displeasure with the US military presence means that many are eager for foreign troops to leave. “The people of Afghanistan no longer desire to see others defend their country for them,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai said March 22.

But the unpopularity of US forces could increase the difficulty of preparing Afghan forces to handle security operations after 2014. Foreign analysts widely agree that the Afghan Army and other government security structures are unprepared at this time to take the lead in battling Islamic insurgents. A major risk, given the current dynamic, is that anti-American sentiment can cloud the government’s judgment, leading to a transfer of authority in Kabul that ends up boosting the Taliban’s strategic position.

Karzai’s comments on the public’s perception of US troops came two days after Der Spiegel, a German magazine, published photos allegedly depicting American soldiers posing with the bloodied and naked corpse of an Afghan civilian, killed in what US authorities are investigating as a murder. Though the public’s response to the Der Spiegel photos has been relatively muted, observers fear the possible release of hundreds of other photos could spark a popular backlash.

Most Afghans mention civilian casualties as the major source of their disenchantment. A recent ABC/BBC poll released in December found that, among Afghans, strong support for the presence of US military forces had declined from 30 percent in 2006 to 16 percent in 2010; the number of those strongly opposed to their presence had almost tripled during the same period.

A story recounted by a government official is representative of the experiences of many Afghans, and helps illustrate a major cause of anti-Americanism. The official, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org, said he was traveling through northern Afghanistan with his son, visiting from Europe, who was filming the trip.

An American convoy stopped them. “They said, ‘Give us the f***ing camera. Who sent you?’” the official recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They did not ask what we were doing there, but asked ‘who sent you,’ as if my son needed their permission to be in his own country.” The matter was resolved, but ended on another inappropriate note. “They gave us 500 afghanis [USD 9] as compensation. Were they buying the right to insult?”

Back in late 2001, when an American-led offensive drove the Taliban from power in Kabul, support for US troops among Afghans ran high. Many citizens saw the American presence as a welcome relief from Taliban oppression. They also entertained perhaps unrealistic hopes that American economic muscle would transform their war-ravaged country. The pool of goodwill that once existed, however, has been drained, according to Najib Manalai, a senior advisor in the Ministry of Finance.

“In 2001 and early 2002 there was quite a positive feeling toward Americans,” Manalai said. “But instead of winning hearts and minds, they [US forces] alienated the people through their indiscriminate punishment of the larger population … with blind bombing in certain areas and culturally inappropriate behavior of the ground forces when they came to meet people.”

Many Afghans felt deserted by Americans in the early 1990s, following the end of a decade-long Soviet occupation. Washington had waged what was in effect a proxy war against Moscow in Afghanistan from 1979-89, but as soon as Soviet troops departed the country, US officials lost interest with helping their Afghan allies stabilize the country. Eventually civil warfare erupted, paving the way for the Taliban conquest of much of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.

“The United States left Afghanistan alone after the Soviets. The subsequent problems were a result of the US intervention to bleed the Soviets. We had expected they would help rebuild the country, but we were left alone and factional fighting erupted,” said Akmal Dawi of the Afghan Rights Monitor, a human rights group.

Battlefield actions are not the sole source of Afghan resentment for foreign troops. The United States, prior to the arrival of US forces, was viewed by many, perhaps looking through an idealized prism, as a beacon of stability, justice and prosperity. The reality of the last 10 years has prompted some to grow embittered by what they see as American moral ambiguity. An Afghan working at an international organization, who asked to be called Mariam for fear of losing her job, summed up her feelings this way: “They came in 2001 promising to bring us democracy, and they will go out with negotiations with the Taliban, and after providing millions of dollars to the warlords. … If the Taliban or warlords cut off the ears of girls, they [the Americans] say, ‘it is not my business.’”

Other Afghans say Washington lacks willingness or the understanding to work effectively with Afghans. “They have the world’s biggest institutions for civil diplomacy, but they don’t use the human to human resources,” said Dawi. Contact for the most part “is only between Karzai and the White House or military to military.”

“The United States never tried to understand us,” added Manalai, the Finance Ministry official. “They have played the kind of politics which cannot work in Asia.”

The hasty exit strategy

Himal/ February 2011
If only you could take the Afghans out of the equation, you might be able to rebuild their country’ – or at least so goes the black humour within a small section of the international community, the long-term residents who have watched with frustration as the country has moved from international-backed plan to plan, proffering new panaceas with seasonal regularity as the situation deteriorates. With each year deemed more critical than the last, the only underlying strand unifying these ‘solutions’ has been a singular absence of the Afghan citizen from the centrality of plans, projects and policies. Like collateral damage, the euphemism used to describe the death of civilians in military operations, Afghan citizens have been corollary to the rebuilding of their country. Unless their interests are allowed to take centre stage, no plan or policy is likely to make a substantive difference, even though other interest groups, including the donor countries or the powerful political elite of Afghanistan, might achieve their short-term or even long-term goals.

Although there is widespread agreement that Afghanistan is a complex country with complicated problems, solutions adopted have usually lacked the necessary sophistication, being reduced to one-dimensional aims. Despite its shortcomings, the 2001 Bonn process spelt out the components of a modern state, implementation of which could have done much to stabilise the country. However the timetable set for its completion was unrealistic, with emphasis on achieving the form rather than the substance of the agreement. While this allowed the international community to claim success in completing its blueprint by 2005, it left Afghans with a Constitution riddled with contradictions and a lack of clarity on the delegation of administrative and political authority, both of which have repeatedly come back to haunt the polity.

Since then, the situation has followed a downward spiral, with the international community adopting and discarding a succession of diagnoses and treatments, each centred on the one big idea that would provide the key. Corruption, President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan, Indo-Pakistani relations have, by turns, all figured as the bogey. Even democracy has begun to be seriously considered in this light – the ‘Afghanistan is not Switzerland’ theme. The accompanying solutions have, however, suffered from a remarkable lack of accountability to the Afghan citizen.

No accountability
The current buzzword is ‘Afghanisation’. This goal sounds both noble and progressive, constituting the handing over of control of decision-making to Afghans, thus strengthening their sovereign status. Yet, the institutions and processes put in place since 2001 have been contrary to the aims of establishing a responsive government and representative polity. Despite the obvious difficulties of creating a strong, centralised state in a country characterised by regional autonomy and the dysfunction of three decades of conflict, the most centralised form of government was chosen. Dominant interests of the Western coalition ensured that the Constitution, rather than reflecting the country’s decentralised polity and pluralistic social fabric, centralised all political and executive authority in the president. Having a one-man show made it easier for many of the donor countries to deal with Afghanistan, but it denied representative and participatory decision-making to Afghans.

While Afghanistan has been called an electoral democracy, political parties were banned from elections under an electoral law that prevents political consolidation through a complex system of multi-seat single-constituency voting (see Himal March 2010, ‘Tattered parachute’). Afghans therefore have neither the advantages of a strong authoritarian government nor the benefits of a political democracy.

Even the limited accountability to the people that might have been possible under this system has been further diluted by denying elected bodies a clear role and authority. The Parliament, the strongest of the country’s elected bodies, uses its leverage to play the spoiler, but is prevented from playing a more positive role in shaping governance in the partyless system. Provincial representatives, meanwhile, although also elected, have almost no role or power, with the provincial governments run by governors answerable only to the president. Even the governors themselves lack power, and moves at introducing effective sub-national governance have yielded little. District-level elections, mandated by the Constitution, have not been held.

While there is a strong body of opinion that feels a Westminster-style democracy might be more suited to Afghanistan, there is scope for much greater political and administrative accountability even within existing provisions. At a time when the armed opposition is being wooed to lay down arms and join the mainstream, it is imperative that ordinary Afghans are also provided the means to participate in governance if their loyalties to the pro-government forces are to be retained. Channels also have to be created to address citizens’ grievances, if they are not to be further alienated.

A critical aspect is the conflict of interest of the Afghan leadership. A significant section of influential Afghans benefit directly from the spoils of war, as the international community pays them for providing militias, land for military bases, goods and services for those bases, all at hugely inflated prices. Whatever the reasons for this, the operational practices of the international community have created a divide between the interests of the Afghan population and a significant section of its leaders, who stand to lose personally and monetarily if peace were to arrive.

Good to go
The disjunction between the concerns of Afghans and those of the Western compact was highlighted starkly in the December 2010 review of US strategy in Afghanistan. The review drew exceedingly positive conclusions of the US security strategy, claiming ‘notable operational gains’, ‘progress across all three assessed areas of al-Qa’ida, Pakistan and Afghanistan’ and ‘significant progress in disrupting and dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership and cadre of al-Qa’ida over the past year’. It also claimed that the security forces had ‘reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts’ of Afghanistan. The glowing report card was presented even as civilian casualties increased sharply amidst a general rise in violence, increasing restrictions on the movement of the international community within Afghanistan and an increased threat level faced by the diplomatic community, even in relatively safe Kabul.

Photo credit: Marcin Bondarowicz

The contradictions between the US claims and ground realities are reconcilable, however, if one looks at the divergent goals between the US and the Afghan people. Speaking of the review, President Barrack Obama said, ‘From the start, I’ve been very clear about our core goal. It’s not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country. And it’s not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation. Rather, we are focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.’

The Western coalition and the troop-contributing countries see themselves as answerable to their own populations – not to Afghans. As early as 2001, the US, reflecting ‘a desire by the American people to not seek only revenge, but to win a war against barbaric behaviour’, in the words of President George W Bush, prevented the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mandated by the UN; and co-opted key militia commanders by equipping them in the pursuit of extremists turning a blind eye to their human-rights record and their terrorisation and brutality towards the local population. ISAF itself came under NATO command, later changed to US-led NATO command, and the cooption of militia leaders was carried on by several other Western countries with donor countries providing arms and money to specific commanders in the area, both in Kabul and, more specifically, in areas where their troops are based. By engaging with these commanders, they have also provided them with a degree of political legitimacy they might otherwise lack.

Receiving their wherewithal directly from the Western coalition, these militia commanders have remained unaccountable to the local population. They have also manipulated the considerable firepower of the Western military forces to target their political enemies and settle local rivalries, consolidating control in a situation of political flux. The international community did not deploy troops for the essential task of peacekeeping, and the strengthening of the Afghan army and police was neglected. All the while, the Afghan population was asked to support the Karzai government and its allies, and left at the mercy of insurgents, criminal networks and the drug mafia.

Civilian casualties caused by international forces and the response to them provide a clear example of the divergence of interests and the lack of accountability to the Afghan population. While the Afghan government has been paying solatia, or compensation, to civilians killed by the international forces, it lacks the authority to pursue action, either criminal or disciplinary, against the foreign military personnel. This task has been left to the discretion of the troop-contributing country. Instances of disciplinary action are rare and the civilian casualty figures acknowledged by the international forces remain consistently lower than those compiled by the UN. Most civilian casualties take place either due to lack of information or due diligence, but the numbers have almost certainly escalated because of the lack of punitive action.

Transition to what?
In seeking to hand over the responsibility of security to the Afghan security forces, the foremost concern of the Western coalition has been a timetable for pullout of troops to present to their own domestic public, rather than an appraisal based on the security for Afghans (see Himal December 2010, ‘Afghanistan: Too much, too little’). But how convinced is the Western coalition that Afghans are actually ready to begin the transition, now mandated to begin in early 2011?

In answer, panic followed the Karzai government’s decision to put a halt to the operations of private security companies in Afghanistan in October last year. The Western countries, most of whom use such companies, went into a frenzy, and private companies executing their projects said they would vote with their feet if the private security companies were shut down – a threat that most donor governments found both credible and justified. As recently as early January, US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was asking President Karzai to increase the number of personnel in the private security companies. Yet the preparedness of the Afghan forces is nonetheless deemed sufficient to begin taking over the security of the country.

To ensure this ‘preparedness’ the international coalition has adopted two policies that are likely to further weaken the security apparatus of the Afghan state and endanger its citizens. The Afghan forces are now being built up at a rapid rate, with the emphasis on churning out numbers rather than ensuring quality of training and command structures. It is clear that an army and police force created in this manner will prove to be more of a threat than a panacea. In addition, since the numbers of personnel still remain below what is seen as required, the international forces are setting up community militias and arming communities. Needless, to say, these are two measures that have proven detrimental in Afghanistan, not just in the distant past but over the past three years, as communities fight each other and militias prey on the
general population.

Until the ‘security transition’ is recast as a transition from the goals of foreign troop-contributing countries to the concerns of the Afghan population, the rising tide of insecurity is unlikely to be reversed.

The use of international aid to rebuild Afghanistan remains the most glaring example of a policy that is driven by the needs of donors rather than that of the Afghan population. An example of this is the underfunded ‘urgent humanitarian appeal’ launched by the UN for the past three years. Though the international community spends billions of dollars in Afghanistan each year, the humanitarian appeal identifying the most urgent requirements goes underfunded though it amounts to far less (USD 666 million in 2009, USD 775 million in 2010 and USD 678 million in 2011). This is because the bulk of aid continues to be spent bilaterally by donors following political and military objectives (see Himal August 2010, ‘Conferences, calendars and caveats’).

Major donors route their aid to the areas where their troops are based, and to sectors on which they would like to focus. Some, such as the US, make sure that a considerable portion of this money returns to American corporations. The commonly acknowledged rate of money returning back to the Western donor is between 40 and 50 percent. Beneficiary citizens ultimately receive a fraction of the original amount, with the rest going to overheads at each level of the sub-contracting process. The money leaks out in inflated salaries as well as inflated costs. The sub-contracting culture also means that the money reaches the final implementer very late, due to delays at each stage of the contracting process. Based on the donor’s annual budgetary cycle, the money is then required to be spent quickly, resulting in projects executed in a hurry, often shoddily.

Most donor countries have a system of accountability, but again, they answer to their own governments and elected representatives, not the Afghan beneficiaries. There are almost no mechanisms that allows the beneficiaries to have a say in aid projects, or how they are executed. The sight of private contractors executing projects while using hired guns to keep the ‘beneficiary population’ at bay is a common sight in Afghanistan. The system ensures that information about failed projects or misappropriation of money comes through only intermittently. Instances of companies being penalised because of complaints of beneficiaries, whether for badly constructed school buildings or inoperable water canal project are unheard of.

In fact, establishing accountability is not that hard, even within the existing remit. For example, Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA), an Afghan civil-society organisation, started a project in 2007 that empowers local communities to monitor projects being executed in their name with donor or government money. The community selects trustworthy members who are trained in the task of monitoring, to ensure there are no compromises in the quality of the projects. IWA also enabled the local monitor groups to go up the chain of contractors, to obtain information from the donor as necessary. The popularity of the process is evident from the growing demands on IWA to train communities throughout the country. Nevertheless, such initiatives are rare and receive inadequate support from the donors.

Peace before justice
The absence of the Afghan citizen is most starkly evident in the current mantra of ‘reconciliation’. As the Western coalition seeks to exit, it is compromising on the small political, civil, democratic and human-rights gains made by and for the Afghan population since 2001. While rhetorical homage is being paid to the Constitution and the so-called ‘red lines’ that will prevent compromise on the most fundamental of rights for the Afghan people, the actual rollback of these rights is taking place even now on the international community’s watch.

In 2005, for example, the international community, led by the UN, had extended robust support to a Transitional Justice Action Plan. It focused on prosecution for war crimes, reparation for losses, and acknowledgement of the suffering of victims as a means of reconciling citizens and bringing a sense of closure to the past. In 2007, the international community opposed the adoption of a law that sought to provide blanket amnesty to all participants in the conflict, pointing out that the law was against the principles of justice and human rights and violated international humanitarian principles. In 2010, however, with the focus shifting to reconciliation with the armed opposition, the concerns of citizens received short shrift. The amnesty law has indeed been adopted by Kabul, with scarcely a murmur from the international community. In fact, the UN itself has put peace before transitional justice, not only delinking peace and justice but also suggesting that the two were mutually exclusive in the current context.

Meanwhile, there is escalating violence against women, reversing the trend of the initial post-Taliban years. Opinion surveys show support for women’s work outside the home has dropped, as has support for women in Parliament. The parliamentary elections of 2010 – which dragged on messily for over four months - demonstrated the international community's changing posture. In the name of ‘Afghanisation’ of the electoral process, the international community decided to step back from its stated goal of strengthening the electoral institutions and processes. Though at the time Himal went to press a resolution under international pressure looked likely, it was not before the democratic process had been put through the wringer, setting a bad precedent for the future. To stem this deterioration, the international community needs to do more to support the efforts of Afghan civil-society organisations, which have been voicing demands for a spectrum of rights – rights that are being marginalised in the hasty exit strategy.

Rather than treating human rights and democracy as inconvenient principles that need to be shelved or circumvented in the short term, the international community needs to look at the country’s long-term stability by supporting policies that would reflect the country’s complex and pluralistic social and political fabric, and by strengthening democracy, rule of law, justice and an inclusive polity. By proffering ‘Afghanisation’ as the reason for not playing its part, the international community is being disingenuous. For better or worse, it is international aid money that is the current dominant determinant in Afghanistan. By picking and choosing individuals, institutions and forces it wants to fund, it is the international community that shapes the Afghanistan of today – and moulds the Afghanistan of tomorrow.

Karzai visits Moscow as Russia eyes greater role in Afghanistan

Christian Science Monitor/January 21, 2011

President Hamid Karzai is in Moscow this week for the first bilateral summit between the two countries in two decades. The last Afghan president to visit Moscow on a state visit was Mohammad Najibullah, the final Soviet-backed president during whose term in office the Soviet Union withdrew forces.
The Soviet Union disintegrated soon after. Russia then kept a safe distance from involvement in the messy politics of Afghanistan, although it kept a watchful eye on the country.
Now, Russia is keen to play an increasingly larger role in the country and is gradually expanding the range and intensity of its engagement.
During Karzai's Moscow visit, Afghanistan and Russia are likely to sign agreements on political, social, economic, and defense cooperation initiatives, including the possible revival of some key infrastructure projects that had been implemented by the Soviet Union. Russia is keen not to only provide aid and training to Afghans, but to secure a piece of the aid pie for its businessmen in exchange for technical expertise.
Rehabilitation of the Salang tunnel, the main artery connecting northern Afghanistan to the south, for example, could be done with Russian expertise and international aid, say Russian officials.
Russia sees opportunity
Last year, the Russian government donated 20,000 AK-47 rifles to the Afghan government and trained some 250 Afghan police. This year it hopes to deepen its involvement and expand the number of military officers it trains in Moscow, says Andrey Avetisyan, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan.
“The general situation during the past year has not developed in the way I could call safe and secure," he told the Monitor in an interview at the new Russian embassy in Kabul. "We now see constant fighting in the north, which worries us a lot because it is almost on our borders, [and] since our borders with the central Asian republics are absolutely open"
Two main threats emanating from Afghanistan are drugs and terrorism, and it's clear, he says, that they must be dealt at least at the Afghan border. "We are willing to support [Afghanistan] in any possible way, except direct military involvement in Afghanistan. No Russian soldier will ever be on Afghan soil."
Making the increased role of Russia possible
Russia has shed its concern about the presence of NATO and US troops in its backyard, and sees the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan as a top priority. It also now sees an opportunity to maximize its leverage with the US and NATO by using its influence on Central Asian countries.

Fahim Dashty, the editor of Kabul Weekly, points out that NATO itself changed its tune on a Russian role in Afghanistan because of its “need for a northern route into Afghanistan and the growing threat of the Taliban in the north.” The southern supply route of NATO that runs through Pakistan has been severely compromised by the growing number of attacks by insurgent and criminal groups. If NATO were to fail in Afghanistan, it would cost both Russia and NATO, he said.
“Military assistance from Russia will be welcome,” says Mr. Dashty, a former close associate of Ahmed Shah Masood, who led the armed resistance against the Soviet troops.
“The goals of the Russian Federation are quite different from that of the Soviet Union,” he says, although he was quick to reject the possibility of any Russian troops on Afghan soil.
A recent joint counternarcotics raid with Russian counternarcotics officials highlighted both the possibilities as well as limitation of a Russian role.
The raid last fall led to the recovery of a large quantity of heroin, but was criticized by President Karzai, who lashed out at Russian interference. Observers say Karzai was possibly preempting any political fallout.
However, senior government official and political analyst Najib Manalai says that while “there was a strong response from the government, there was no apparent reaction from the public. There have been many changes since the departure of the Russians. The emotional baggage of the past has been swept away by the misdeeds of the mujahideen.”
While Karzai’s anger was in keeping with his frequent outbursts against the international community, the subsequent conciliatory overtures were unusual.
Less than a week later, Karzai called Russian President Medvedev, and the two emphasized Russia’s role in Afghanistan including counternarcotics cooperation. As Western powers ready themselves for an exit, “the relationship with Russia is going to be key in the future,” says Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group.