While all eyes were glued on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's opening speech at the Loya Jirga, the grand assembly of more than 2,500 Afghan elders who were tasked with advising him on signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, nearly two weeks ago, an unprecedented, amusing, and thought-provoking incident occurred. Almost 40 minutes into Karzai's speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.
What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of "Death to slaves of Pakistan" and "Death to slaves of Iran" suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.
For wary Afghans, the incident demonstrated the overwhelming support that existed in the jirga for signing the security pact. But it was interesting that any opposition to signing the BSA was viewed as a subversive act by Afghanistan's two neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, both of whom disapprove of the agreement.
Additionally, Karzai's cleverly crafted speech reinforced the jirga's preliminary support for signing the BSA. He touched upon Afghanistan's vulnerabilities, stressed the need for ending civilian casualties caused by American forces, and eloquently provided a convincing rationale as to why the deal was important for the future of the country.
After four days of intense deliberations, the assembly not only overwhelmingly endorsed the BSA, but also called on Karzai to sign it before the end of the year. And this support even went beyond endorsement. Some committees also called on the Americans to establish a base in Bamiyan, Afghanistan's central province and home of the ethnic Hazara minority, who are mostly Shiite Muslims, and where Iran is perceived to have influence.
The jirga, which is the ultimate source of national decision-making in Afghanistan, illustrated a distinct paradigm shift as Afghans have never been receptive to the presence of foreign militaries in their country. However, despite this widespread support, Karzai rejected the jirga's recommendations and refused to the sign the BSA unless his newly-raised demands were met, creating an uproar both inside and outside of Afghanistan.
Karzai's new conditions include no U.S. interference in next April's presidential elections, the termination of U.S. military raids on Afghan homes, the release of Afghan detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and U.S. help in restarting the stalled peace talks with the Taliban. Coming after the jirga approved the BSA, Karzai's stated demands and delaying tactics have perplexed almost everyone. Some argue he does not want to sign the BSA. Others say he will lose his final leverage if he signs it now. However, many may have missed the nuances behind his bizarre gesture.
Karzai's political posturing is most likely designed for domestic consumption and he actually has no intention of not signing the BSA. After all, if he wasn't planning on signing the document, why was his opening speech to the jirga focused on approving the document? By holding off on signing the agreement, he is generating further domestic support for the pact. In other words, he is effectively building public pressure against himself. Why? Because there is a historical stigma attached to any agreement that includes the establishment of foreign military bases in the country. While Afghans currently support the creation of these bases, with the country's uncertain political future, Karzai is worried about his legacy and he does not want to be seen as the person who facilitated this development if the domestic sentiment changes. By increasing the public pressure, he is creating an environment that would allow him to sign the BSA, while claiming that he had no other choice but to yield to the public demand.
Karzai also intends to send a message to the Taliban and undermine their narrative that he is a puppet of the United States, stripping the group of a propaganda tool it has used to discredit the regime and recruit fighters. In fact, the Taliban sent out a press statement earlier this week that politely praised Karzai for his refusal to sign the agreement.
Despite his statements to the contrary, Karzai knows he cannot hold off the BSA's completion until after the elections because of the extensive and destructive impact that would have on the process. He also understands that postponing the agreement's signing will further uncertainty about the country's future as the BSA is perceived as creating the biggest physical and psychological support for the political and economic stability of Afghanistan. Afghans know that an atmosphere of uncertainty will be detrimental to holding elections that are considered vital to the long-term stability of the country. After all, perception of the election process is as important as the actual practice.
As for the argument that he won't sign the BSA because he will lose his leverage over the Americans, there is no doubt that he will lose his ability to use to the document as a bargaining chip when he signs it. But, as a practiced politician, Karzai will always find other ways and means by which to pressure the United States. Even after signing the agreement, he will remain the most powerful figure in the country until after next April's elections, and will probably remain a dominant political player once he is out of office as well. He has proven to be a shrewd tactician with remarkable courage and a knack for brinksmanship and confusing everyone. But this time, Karzai should understand that he has gone too far, as many Afghans are beginning to question whether he is out for his own interest or the nation's. They have also started to question Karzai's stability in terms of making decisions for the country since they do not understand the underlying objectives behind his bizarre moves.
Yet for all of Karzai's bluster, the United States should know that he will most likely sign the BSA soon, even if his conditions are not met. In the past 12 years, relations between Afghanistan and its Western allies, particularly the United States, have been pushed to the brink of collapse multiple times because of failures to fully understand each other. This lack of understanding has been a primary source of complications and setbacks, so there is dire need for Washington to learn about Kabul's domestic dynamics and Karzai's psyche, and for Kabul to grasp the political realities in Washington. Karzai feels insecure and wary about his own political survival, and the United States expects to be treated as a superpower. Both stances have undermined the countries' pursuit of the main goal, fighting terrorism.
It is important for the United States to realize the significance of Afghan people's support for the BSA. A nation that has long fought against any invading military, regardless of its might, supports, for the first time in its history, the presence of a foreign military on their land. And they proved that they want close ties with the world, without factoring in any ideological or religious ideals.
It should be clear by now that Afghans are the United States' only ally in an unstable region where extremism and anti-U.S. sentiment is consistently promoted by violent extremist groups and, more importantly, governments themselves. Acknowledging that the United States' investment in the country has won over the Afghan people, it is critical that it continues to support Afghanistan's political development and the strengthening of its security forces, who have now taken over the battle against extremism. Sustained engagement with Afghanistan would enable the country to become an anti-terrorism sanctuary in the region.
Najib Sharifi is a member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness, a Kabul-based think tank.
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How do you solve a problem like Hamid Karzai? According to his former counterpart at ISAF command, Gen. John Allen, and other pundits, the answer is simple: Ignore him. After all, Allen and others have reasoned, there is no need for the United States to add injury to Karzai's insults by playing into the drama surrounding his refusal to sign a security agreement that would keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan through 2024. While this might be good advice for dealing with an unruly guest at the dinner table, it is probably not the best counsel when making a multi-billion dollar deal with an inveterate gambler-cum-head-of-state with a proven penchant for betting the farm on a pair of deuces.
Many things can and will be said about Afghanistan's president when he finally steps down. Some will say he was crazy, like a fox. Others will say he was a vainglorious old man obsessed with his legacy. Few will extol his poker playing skills. What is important to understand is that after 12 years as head of state, the last thing Karzai wants is to be viewed as a washed-out-has-been with no cards left to play. Only time will tell, however, whether he has aptly chosen the right moment to leverage the deal over a continued U.S.-NATO presence to his own personal benefit. To judge whether matching Karzai's brinksmanship with more brinksmanship is the right course of action, the White House would do well to evaluate the spread, assess who is bluffing whom, and decide whether the stakes are worthwhile.
The release of key Taliban members from the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay tops the list of call options Karzai has placed on the table. Control of senior Taliban prisoners has been at the center of Karzai's negotiating strategy for years. The only problem is that he hasn't been able to reap many benefits from this approach since Congress and the Pentagon have shown reluctance to play along. Last week, however, on the very same day that Karzai announced he was digging in his heals on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and upping the ante, the Senate, in a little noted move, opted to loosen the stringent rules governing the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to detention facilities in either their home or third-party countries. The move may face tough resistance in the Republican-held House of Representatives, but, as demonstrated by the recent visit of the Department of Defense's special envoy, Paul Lewis, to the island prison, there can be no mistake that a thawing is underway.
Karzai may be right to add these important signals in his "plus" column, but there is no assurance that his timely pronouncements on Guantanamo and chest beating over the U.S. security deal will win him much. Along with the prisoner release demand, Karzai has also pressed for the United States to get serious about restarting negotiations with the Taliban. This presumably means making sure that the Taliban understand that doing business in Kabul and Kandahar will mean doing business with the Karzai clan. The trouble is that the Karzai clan will not likely count for much if it can't deliver the elections to its chosen successor.
Indeed, the Afghan president's greatest fear must be that the clock is running out on his ability to impact the endgame. So he has fallen back on the tried and true approach of injecting uncertainty into the mix, which we've all seen play out in Afghanistan before.
In 2009, we saw 1.2 million fraudulent votes discarded in the presidential and provincial council elections. In 2010, 1.3 million votes were thrown out due to fraud in parliamentary elections; results were disputed for nearly a year before both chambers were finally seated in 2011. In both instances, uncertainty about the timing of the elections exacerbated structural flaws in the political system that remain unresolved. Not surprisingly, Karzai has apparently pressed the head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to postpone the April 2014 polls, a move that would force the White House to rethink its plan to leave 8,000 to 12,000 coalition forces in place as part of an advisory mission.
Karzai knows this well, of course, and so do those in his inner circle who are hoping to benefit from promoting a course of mercurial high-risk gambling. Key among the advocates of this strategy is, reportedly, Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai's chief of staff and a stalwart member of the conservative wing of the Hezb-i Islami party. Khurram, a confederate of Hezb-i Islami warlord extraordinaire and former Afghan prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has earned a reputation for being bloody-minded when it comes to dealings with Americans.
But it is not entirely clear that this time around his interest aligns with Karzai's. Where Karzai is looking to insulate himself from the inevitable blowback that will occur once his principal backers in Washington reduce their investment in the Karzai brand come 2014, those allied with hardcore conservatives like Hekmatyar are looking to blow the whole game up. Amid all the drama this week over the BSA, Hekmatyar went so far as to write a letter to Karzai, threatening to rescind the informal ceasefires that have been in place for the last year or so if Karzai signs the deal. Hekmatyar knows as well as any other of the irreconcilables, like Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, that a sustained U.S. presence in Afghanistan means there is no coming home for them anytime soon. From where Karzai is sitting, these facts considerably increase his bargaining power with Hezb-i Islami and the Taliban.
So is there any "getting to yes" with Karzai on signing the security deal? Probably, but it's not certain that "yes" will mean much. History suggests that the deal the Obama administration cuts with Karzai today may not necessarily hold with his succesors tomorrow. Under the current political dispensation, it is unlikely that the Afghan government will be both willing and able to deliver any time soon on a strategy that calls for the country's beleaguered security forces to secure its borders and contain the insurgency. Although the Afghan National Security Forces have shown marked improvement, they have sustained heavy casualties in the face of the continued resurgence of the Taliban. They also have been heavily impacted by a spike in political factionalism within the upper echelons of the security sector.
Proposals to extend the U.S. military presence beyond 2014 additionally present a troublesome paradox: as long as U.S. forces remain, so too must the parallel legal infrastructure that has grown up around aggressive U.S. counterterrorism operations that have become anathema to many Afghans. The lack of trust between U.S. and Afghan partners over civilian casualties and night raids does not improve prospects much. The continued threat of insider attacks will also place an undue burden on U.S. military leaders to maintain unrealistic force protection measures regardless of whether Western force levels are at 10,000 or 1,000 after 2014. The latter point is all the more salient given Pakistan's apparent unwillingness to abandon its support for the Afghan insurgency. Any expectations that U.S. strategy in the region will profit greatly from a further investment of military assistance should be lowered accordingly.
Washington's post-2014 options are deeply constrained by these rather bitter facts, but it doesn't mean that the "zero option" is the only option. An investment in Afghanistan's stability needs to be an investment in the Afghan people, first and foremost. This means focusing hard on supporting a fair election process, ensuring that the economy remains stable, that rule of law and education programming continues to receive international support, and that women's rights and better health care remain high on the international aid agenda. Washington also needs to focus more on arriving at a political settlement that will hold. Boots on the ground, even in limited numbers, may be an important part of that signaling strategy in the short-term. But if the fraught political gamesmanship that has marked Karzai's tenure isn't brought under control within the next few months, it will be hard to ignore the unruly guest at the dinner table for much longer. The White House should send a strong signal to that it is still serious about a strategy that envisions an Afghanistan that can eventually stand on its own. A post-2014 U.S. strategy that maintains the status quo of insecurity and instability is hardly worth betting 10,000 American lives on and risks seeing the country held hostage to the caprices of ambivalent Afghan leaders for yet another decade.
If the short-term goal is to keep some troops in theater, then the long-term goal must be to leverage continued American assistance to influence the course of a negotiated political settlement that engages both armed and unarmed factions in the Afghan opposition, and to resolve longstanding frictions with Pakistan over military incursions and trade disputes across the Durand line, the disputed border between the two countries. This may mean that Washington and the rest of the international community will have to get creative in seeking solutions to current and future impasses over a continued Western presence in Afghanistan. Throwing money and military resources willy-nilly at the problem of widespread political disenfranchisement in Afghanistan will not bring greater security to the country or its region.
Instead of simply ignoring Karzai, there are a few ways that Washington can signal its seriousness about a responsible drawdown in Afghanistan. The first would be to publicly back the appointment of a U.N. special envoy and negotiating team to facilitate a regional settlement. A second way would be for the United States to engage regional powers, like China, India, Iran, Russia, and Central Asian states, on the possibility of encouraging Pakistan and Afghanistan to agree to refer the bloody, costly, and divisive dispute over the Durand line to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The sooner Washington and its international partners acknowledge the longstanding hostilities between the two countries as the center of gravity in a conflict, the better. Shifting the focus from boots on the ground to building momentum for a negotiated settlement may also mean taking more practical steps to resolve the status of high-level detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in the near term, as Karzai has repeatedly suggested. All of these recommendations may seem distasteful to a war-weary White House fed up with Karzai's antics. But the sooner the Obama administration acknowledges that the conflict in Afghanistan is desperately in need of a negotiated end, the less need there will be to bet billions on propping up compulsive gamblers in Kabul.
Candace Rondeaux is a non-resident research fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School. She lived in Kabul from 2008 to 2013, working first as the South Asia bureau chief for the Washington Post, and most recently as the senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group. She is writing a political history of the Afghan security forces and is currently undertaking a mid-career masters at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
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As I scrolled through my Inbox earlier this week for my daily news clippings from this blog, something seemed amiss. Instead of "AfPak Channel," the header read "South Asia Channel." An error I presumed. Scrolling down further, however, I realized the error was mine: "Next Monday, November 25, the AfPak Channel will be relaunched as the South Asia Channel" with the addition of "key stories and insights from India."
The notification got me thinking about the twists and turns in Washington's conception of South Asia over the past decade. Somewhere along the way "AfPak" had appeared. Due to the distortions it produced, the phrase has for some time now been winding its way into retirement. The 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan will give it the final push. AfPak will no doubt have plenty of company with "hearts and minds" and countless other pithy friends in Washington's little known Archives for Foreign Affairs Shorthands of Fleeting Value. Can't say I'll miss it.
I came to Washington ten years ago to work as an analyst in the Henry L. Stimson Center's South Asia program. Having grown up in Pakistan, I had actually never uttered the phrase "South Asia." The region to me was a simple, if tormented, duality: Pakistan and India. I discovered that in Washington, South Asia meant the same two players, and the issues boiled down to Kashmir, militancy, military, and nuclear issues. Afghanistan was relegated to its own war-torn limbo.
At the time, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were talking about peace between the two countries. Both have since fallen silent, with the former facing treason charges; between India's upcoming elections and Pakistan's unending turmoil, peace commands little attention in Delhi and Islamabad today. The United States was two years into the war in Afghanistan, yet the lens on South Asia was varied. Afghanistan was a policy imperative, but so was managing the Indo-Pak rivalry and the risk of nuclear escalation.
Those working on South Asia in Washington seemed to fall into two camps. The South Asia wallahs had spent decades working in and on the region, often with formal academic training. The Cold Warriors sought to apply lessons from a superpower rivalry to a relatively nascent nuclear dynamic on the subcontinent. They reflected the fluidity of functional analysts within the strategic community -- crossing boundaries while the regionalists remained in their lanes.
Soon enough, a new crop of functional analysts crossed over. They anchored their world views on a different issue: counterterrorism. Thereafter came "AfPak." The phrase traces back to the first year of the Obama administration and the tenure of the first Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Richard Holbrooke. A region that was once viewed as India-Pakistan, with Afghanistan on the margins, gave way to India on one hand and Afghanistan-Pakistan on the other.
With the change, India got its wish to be "de-hyphenated" from Pakistan. The Bush administration keenly helped facilitate this shift via a civil nuclear deal, in light of India's perceived strategic import in Asia. Meanwhile, AfPak eventually flipped to "PakAf" given deepening concerns about the various militant groups that were "veritable" arms of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the safety of its nuclear arsenal.
To be sure, AfPak helped focus attention on the war in Afghanistan after a misguided invasion in Iraq. It framed the theatre and the operational challenge posed by "safe havens" in Pakistan. Though Holbrooke espoused a wider view within its confines on forging a broader partnership with Pakistan that extended beyond kinetic issues, the diplomatic piece was and remains fluid, messy, and hard. As the war wore on, patience and imagination dried up. AfPak became shorthand for CT (counterterrorism) -- far too constricted a prism for the colors and complexities of the region.
The Obama administration eventually recognized the limits of the AfPak moniker itself; Islamabad made sure of it. Like Delhi, it had its own gripes about being lumped with its neighbor. Little wonder then that regional integration in South Asia is among the lowest in the world. Yet even as the phrase largely vanished from official public statements, it continued to periodically surface and, importantly, cast a shadow in Washington -- until now.
As the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan winds down by the end of 2014, AfPak is undergoing its own retrograde. The office that embodies the term, SRAP, will need to assess not whether but how and when to reintegrate within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
Think tanks in Washington are also rebooting their South Asia programs. Some are doing so in the pre-AfPak mold, others with variation. The Brookings Institution, for example, now has a stand-alone India program, focusing on politics and economics, as much as foreign policy -- kaleidoscope eyes on a potential Asian power. Along with and related to the shifting geopolitical winds are the interests of funders who share Washington's AfPak fatigue. Their weariness, however, cannot match that in the region whose "troubles" (to borrow from Northern Ireland) are likely to rage on.
Newer shorthands such as the "rebalance" or "pivot" to Asia have also provided a new prism with which to look on South Asia. A fresh crop of scholarship has arisen on how South Asia relates to the Asia-Pacific region, from the "Indo-Pacific" concept to Pakistan's role in the rebalance -- welcome efforts to think beyond traditional silos in an interconnected Asia.
The periodic reimagination of South Asia in Washington is as inevitable as it is easy to miss. We are in such a transition right now. So come next Monday, when the "South Asia Channel" pops up my Inbox, I will be fumbling a bit to figure out how all the pieces fit. So might you.
Ziad Haider is the Director of the Truman National Security Project's Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice and as a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter at @Asia_Hand. The views expressed are his own.
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The recent killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the notorious leader of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), in a U.S. drone strike has not only put the newly-elected Pakistani government in a difficult position, it has also presented the militant group with a serious leadership crisis that may culminate in wider rifts, fragmentation, and even armed confrontations if it persists for a long time.
Looking at the reign of terror let loose by the ruthless TTP fighters under Mehsud's command, both in Pakistan's tribal areas and the country's cities, there is every reason to celebrate his death. However, the reaction from the Pakistani ruling and opposition political parties have converted him from a dreaded villain, whose daring attacks on Pakistani civilians and government installations forced state authorities to place a 50m-rupee ($470,000) bounty on his head, to a hero.
In an emotional press conference on November 2, Pakistan's Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, announced that "this is not just the killing of one person, it is the death of all peace efforts." While this may seem like hyperbole to some, Khan has to avert the wrath of the Taliban, as well as snatch the opportunity away from his government's key rival, Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, who has threatened to block the NATO supply route through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where his party controls the government.
Since the May 2013 election, the PTI has emerged as the third biggest party in Pakistan's parliament and Khan himself is a staunch opponent of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the covert CIA drone program that targets wanted al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Although public opinion over Mehsud's death is widely divided, Sharif has had to condemn the U.S. strike, even though it killed a wanted terrorist, lest his opponents -- like Khan and Monawar Hassan, leader of the anti-U.S. Jamiat-e-Islami party -- accuse him of being complicit.
In September, under pressure from the opposition, the government convened an All Parties Conference and continued appealing to the Taliban to begin peace talks, despite the latter's ruthless attacks on civilians and military personnel, which include the killing of a two-star general and a double suicide attack on a church in Peshawar.
The second, and somewhat more important, factor behind the Pakistani government's angry reaction to Mehsud's death is the fear of revenge attacks by the TTP. Silence, let alone a hint of satisfaction on part of the government, could provide enough ground for Taliban suicide bombers and target killers to chase government ministers, just as they did with the Awami National Party and Pakistan People's Party during this year's election campaign. (The two parties had ordered military operations against the TTP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and South Waziristan in 2009.)
In discussing the Pakistani reactions to the killings of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and Mehsud last week, local columnist and commentator Ayaz Amir said: "When Osama bin Ladin [sic] was killed the army went into mourning, citing breach of national sovereignty. Hakeemullah [sic] Mehsud's killing has plunged much of the political class into mourning." As there has been no serious reaction to the November 1 drone strike from Pakistan's military, the silence is being seen as consent on the part of Pakistan's security establishment.
Apart from the unnecessary hysteria about the release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and an end to U.S. drone strikes, which was mostly for public consumption, Sharif's October visit to Washington was quite successful, particularly on the economic and social fronts, military-to-military relations, and Pakistani concerns about the post-2014 Afghanistan. But the November 1 drone strike and the political considerations Sharif faces at home present the Pakistani government with a dilemma.
Being a close U.S. and NATO ally, Sharif can't raise the issue of the killing of a declared terrorist via diplomatic channels. But Pakistan can't welcome Mehsud's death either, lest that invite the wrath of the TTP and provide an excuse for opposition groups to take to the streets. However, those in Sharif's close circles believe that, despite the rhetoric of his interior minister and angry speeches in the Pakistani parliament, the prime minister is still supportive of close ties with the United States.
Testing time for the TTP
If the killing of TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike on August 5, 2009 was the first serious blow to this loose network of a dozen-plus militant outfits, Hakimullah Mehsud's death may prove fatal.
In 2009, signs of rift among the TTP factions emerged as the group tried to find Baitullah Mehsud's successor, choosing between his two close associates Wali ur-Rehman Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud. Though the matter was resolved when Hakimullah was appointed as the new TTP commander and Wali ur-Rehman was named as his deputy, the differences persisted, despite the duo's appearances exchanging smiles in several videos.
Tensions flared up again when Wali ur-Rehman was killed in a drone strike in May 2013 and his group declared Khan Said, alias Sajna, as their leader, without consulting Hakimullah or the TTP shura (consultative body). It was the same old rivalry that resurfaced this past weekend when Hakimullah loyalists refused to endorse Said as his successor, despite the fact that he had received support from 43 of the 60 shura members.
Local sources told this writer that Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, who was named the group's interim chief, comes from Hakimullah's group and is maneuvering hard to draw maximum support for a Meshud group commander from the shura members. If that occurs, the grievances, even open opposition and confrontation, from Said supporters could lead to fragmentation in the network.
Apart from Said, there are quite a few names on the potential successor list, but the tribal dynamics are such that it is unlikely the Mehsud faction will concede leadership to a non-Mehsud. Prominent among the potential candidates are Fazlullah, the chief of the Swat Taliban who is also known as "Mullah FM" for his notorious FM radio channel and is now running his bases from Afghanistan; Omar Khalid Khurasani, who leads the Taliban in the Mohmand tribal agency; Hafiz Saeed Khan in the Orakzai tribal district; and Bhittani.
Since the TTP is drawing most of its fighting force from the Mehsud tribe and uses Mehsud terrain for its base, the Mehsud loyalists will always want a lead role in the organization. However, serious tensions exist among the Mehsud, and even if the shura were to pick Hakimullah's successor soon, the years of disputes and bad blood between the two main factions could lead to serious divisions in the TTP rank and file.
Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan's English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan's Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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Dan Markey, No Exit from Pakistan: America's Tortured Relationship with Islamabad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Since President Obama took office in 2009, there have been several books published highlighting the deception, failures, and flaws of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Most of these books, such as Mark Mazzetti's The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, and David Sanger's Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power offer insider accounts of the U.S. and Pakistani political dynamics that made it so, with a particular focus on U.S. counterterrorism policies and the war in Afghanistan.
All of these texts open a window into Washington's thinking, infighting, and attempts to fix what has become America's most tortured relationship. Nasr talks about Pakistan's "frenemy" status with the United States and whether it is in the U.S. interest "to stress the friend part or the enemy part." Sanger elaborates on Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who as Chief of Army Staff "understood the American paranoia about a Pakistani meltdown, and he took advantage of it." Mazzetti gets to the heart of the matter when he says that the CIA's war in places like Pakistan was conceived as "a surgery without complications," but became a "way of the knife" that "created enemies just as it has obliterated them," fomenting "resentment among former allies and at times contribut[ing] to instability even as it has attempted to bring order to chaos."
While American policymaking in Pakistan remains haunted by the demons of the September 11th attacks, even older demons linger on the Pakistani side, among them the memory of U.S. sanctions, American pressure on its nuclear weapons program, and the CIA's reliance on Pakistan's covert support during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. During a 1995 Senate hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel described the discontent of the Pakistanis, explaining that: "the key impact of sanctions relief is not military or financial. The effect would be primarily in the political realm, creating a sense of faith restored and an unfairness rectified with a country and people who have been loyal friends of the United States over the decades."
Dan Markey's new book, No Exit from Pakistan: America's Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, heeds Raphel's comments and attempts to answer the perennial questions of the relationship: why do they hate us? How did it get so bad? What are America's options for future relations with Pakistan? Markey roots his analysis in French existentialism, of all things. In French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre's play No Exit, "three sinners, all dead to the word" are subject to "eternal torment by each other," each both capable of and vulnerable to the punishment doled out by the others. Building on this idea, No Exit from Pakistan argues that while "Pakistan's leaders tend to be tough negotiators with high thresholds for pain, Washington can cut new deals and level credible threats to achieve U.S. goals. This is not a friendly game, but out of it both sides can still benefit."
Markey spends a good portion of the book summarizing themes, issues, and events since 1947 that explain this mutual vulnerability and mutual gain between the United States and Pakistan. And he covers the full gamut: Cold War cooperation, sanctions, anti-Americanism, energy, trade, infrastructure development, India, China, the Musharraf years, demographics, youth culture, Afghanistan, the Osama bin Laden Raid, the list goes on.
As an introductory primer for understanding what ails the relationship, this approach is constructive, especially in understanding the U.S.-Pakistan dynamics since 9/11. Markey also writes with a directness and honesty that should be appreciated in the context of one of Washington's most sensitive relationships. He accuses the Pakistanis of being addicted to U.S. assistance dollars, while claiming "Washington's top policymakers felt a personal animus towards Pakistan."
Markey also rightly focuses on new political trends and ideas in Pakistani popular culture that have been largely ignored in other accounts of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, as well as in the course of much of the policymaking in both countries. For example, when discussing Pakistani notions of abandonment and national honor, Markey highlights the nationalist anti-American sentiment that grew from nuclear sanctions both among the government and the Pakistani public. As a sign of progress, he notes the success of Pakistani pop band Beygairat Brigade, who released a video on YouTube in 2011 "with thinly veiled references to a wide cast of Pakistani xenophobes, religious extremists, and conspiracy theorists" with lyrics that "lampoon many of the notions associated with defending Pakistan's national pride."
Herein lies the strength of Markey's analysis - his acknowledgment of the grassroots efforts currently afoot that are trying to transform Pakistani politics. He identifies four complex and often contradictory identities of Pakistan: "the elite-dominated basket case," the "garrison state," a "terrorist incubator," and a "youthful idealist, teeming with energy and reform-minded ambition." Without this information, the casual observer of Pakistani politics can easily conclude that the government and its people are merely confused, duplicitous, careless - or all three.
It is hard to argue with the claim that knowing Pakistan is critical to understanding the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. But what of the Pakistanis - do they not need to understand why the United States behaves the way it does? Markey's approach puts the entire onus on the Americans to understand how complex Pakistan can be.
While he does outline a comprehensive set of options for managing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship - ranging from looking beyond Afghanistan, waiting until after 2014, "defensive isolation" which involves ending formal cooperation, to comprehensive cooperation - he fails to suggest which specific path the countries should take, or even how the United States and Pakistan might prioritize the management or mitigation of threats over time. Markey simply recommends that the solution for this troubled relationship is nothing other than "patient, sustained effort, not by way of quick fixes or neglect" and that "managing or mitigating threats over time is a more realistic expectation." But is he speaking for the United States, Pakistan, or both? It is not clear.
No Exit from Pakistan is more useful as a relationship management strategy than a policy prescription. But the United States and Pakistan seem to have already entered the realm of relationship management over disengagement. This proved true after a NATO cross-border strike in November 2011 at the Salala border post, where over 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed. Pakistan closed NATO routes for nearly seven months and the United States delayed coalition support funds payments. The two countries eventually resumed dialogue after the brief period of disengagement with the tacit acknowledgement that they had gone too far, especially so close to the pending withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
Ultimately, No Exit from Pakistan introduces some uncomfortable questions about ownership and blame in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. On the one hand, Markey blames the basket case quality of Pakistan on the country's political elites, who "sent their children to private boarding schools while millions of other children never learned to read. Too many sipped cool cucumber soup even as their countrymen struggled to find safe drinking water." But on the other hand, he recognizes that the $1.5 billion-per-year U.S. assistance pledge, known as "Kerry-Lugar-Berman," "was not grounded in an assessment of specific Pakistani development needs or America's ability to meet them."
This is perhaps the true perennial question Markey has set out to answer - who is responsible for Pakistan's problems? He would agree that the United States and Pakistan share in the blame. The decades-long focus of the bilateral relationship on security assistance, militancy, covert activity, and proxy wars has left much unattended by way of development, economics, and stability. Likewise, in Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven pushes for the recognition that the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan "has been responsible for increasing Islamist insurgency and terrorism since 2001." In Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes, it becomes acutely apparent whom and what is to blame. The book is a fictional account of the events leading up to the deaths of Pakistani military ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq and American Ambassador Arnie Raphel in a C-130 plane crash in 1989. As they walk to the plane to enjoy a case of Pakistani mangoes, Zia says to Raphel: "Now we must put our heads together and suck national security."
The controversial writer Salman Rushdie tackled the same question from another angle in his 1983 work of fiction, Shame, which focuses on internal politics in Pakistan and relations between the East and West. Rushdie writes:
Wherever I turn, there is something of which to be ashamed. But shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture...you can find shame in every house, burning in an ashtray, hanging framed upon a wall, covering a bed. But nobody notices it any more. And everyone is civilized.
Rushdie's final reminder is simply: "Shame, dear reader, is not the exclusive property of the East."
While the anguish of Sartre's No Exit resonates strongly with the current psychology of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Rushdie's commentary on shame is a much stronger parallel. It too recognizes that both countries pursue their own interests even as they inflict harm upon themselves and each other. But it focuses on a much more embarrassing aspect of the mutual vulnerability: the fact that the harm, which has become so prevalent, is unacknowledged. Yet both move forward together because, as Markey says, "this is not a friendly game, but out of it both sides can still benefit," even though there is much to be ashamed about.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor to Dean Vali R. Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies and is a Senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation.
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Dear Mr. President:
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is meeting with you on Wednesday with high expectations. He is a pragmatic business-oriented politician with a powerful electoral base who has shown magnanimity and deftness in allowing opposition parties to form governments in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces, and he backed the election of a nationalist Baloch as the chief minister in Baluchistan. While this could be seen as a policy of sharing the misery of trying to govern an ungovernable Pakistan, it could also be an attempt to work within a fractured political system. Regardless, he represents a chance to provide continuity for civilian governance in Pakistan and to build a relationship that goes beyond our immediate need to exit Afghanistan gracefully.
On Afghanistan, his advisors, both civil and military, will have told him that we need them badly; Pakistan tends to overestimate its leverage on such security issues. You will have likely been told by many yourself that we can get the Pakistanis to yield, if only we tighten the screws on them -- militarily via our aid program and the use of drone strikes, and economically via threats to withhold assistance directly or from international financial institutions.
We already have some credit on the latter. Pakistan has a new loan package with the International Monetary Fund, that we supported, though it remains to be seen if they will be able to deliver on the tough policy shifts they have to make to sustain the loan. This type of international financial support is an easier way for us to help or squeeze Pakistan without bringing Congress into the game.
As for the game itself, we can play the short game, focusing primarily on Afghanistan. In that case, making smoother payments from the Coalition Support Fund, and replacing Pakistan's heavily-used military materiel will help. Closer collaboration in helping them target their local Taliban fighters would also win points and cooperation.
Or, we could go for the long game and broaden our influence beyond the central government to the business community and the people of Pakistan. Large numbers of Pakistanis hate the United States because they have seen us support unpopular leaders, both civil and military, in the past. Sharif, a popular and business-oriented leader, appears to have the right instincts on a number of issues. He favors trade over aid, and he favors open borders with his neighbors. We could directly assist him by lowering the tariff rates on Pakistani imports, especially those on textiles -- at least to the level of European countries which have already given Pakistan that concession. Call it a level-playing field. At worst, you will lose South Carolina. But we will bring the emerging and powerful Pakistani business community to our side. In turn, it will help Sharif make the case domestically for open trade with India. You could also use quiet diplomacy with India to help it work things out with Pakistan on trade and border issues while waiting for the next Indian elections in spring 2014.
We also have a substantial proportion of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman funds that have not yet been disbursed and though that aid program ends next year, you could extend it for another two years without seeking additional monies and thus use the full $7.5 billion that has been allocated. Though this is not a huge amount when compared with Pakistan's needs, the symbolic value would be substantial.
Currently, Sharif is personally running the foreign, commerce, and defense ministries -- a tall order for any prime minister. But it allows us to deal with him on a wide range of issues at the highest level. His energy ministers are already working with our key officials and even intelligence collaboration exists, regardless of the underlying mistrust. If we can avoid looking for an obvious quid pro quo in the short run, we may be able to help the Pakistanis also play the long game.
In short, we may be able to do business with Sharif. Recall that he did help President George H. W. Bush with Somalia in the early 1990s.
You will have only a short time with him on Wednesday. Instead of having him recite his grievances, it might be better to have him define a path for the future that helps both countries, and offer to help strengthen his position at home as a result. He will get that. You do not get to be prime minister of Pakistan for a record third time without such smarts. Trust him. But tell him you will verify his moves once he gets home.
Shuja Nawaz is the Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within.
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Afghanistan has come a long way since the United States and its allies arrived in the country 12 years ago. Daunting challenges remain, but it is a far cry from the failed state and terrorist hideout it was in 2001. Doom-and-gloom press prognostications of an inevitable post-2014 return to Taliban tyranny do not reflect the realities on the ground. The fact is that Afghanistan has a solid chance of becoming significantly more stable, productive, and self-sustaining. This outcome, however, depends upon the will of the United States, its partners, and the leaders Afghans choose in next April's presidential elections.
As political leaders in Washington wrestle with budget issues in the coming months, they should resist the temptation to slash funding for Afghanistan. Outbursts from an outgoing President Hamid Karzai should not obscure larger U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the region. Abandoning Afghanistan now would squander the significant investments and sacrifices the United States and its partners have made there, including the sacrifices still borne by many U.S. service members and their families. The scale of the investments needed over the next few years pale in comparison with the magnitude of the earlier ones, which have enabled the Afghan government and its police and military forces to degrade the Taliban-led insurgency and build the country's institutions and economy.
Although skepticism exists in Congress and even parts of the administration, most officials who have worked on Afghanistan, regardless of their political leanings, tend to have far more confidence in the future of the country. That's why I and many other former officials and diplomats and civil society leaders have come together to support a new initiative - the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a bipartisan coalition dedicated to preserving and protecting the progress made by the Afghan people since 2001.
Underlying our confidence is an appreciation of how much Afghanistan has changed for the better. Living standards have improved dramatically across most of the country. Significant advances have taken place in agriculture and healthcare. An unprecedented 8.2 million children and young people, four million of them young women and girls, are now in school in Afghanistan, and 180,000 of them are in university classes. Women in Afghanistan, who suffered unspeakable oppression under the Taliban, have become an increasingly significant voice in Afghan society, calling for minority rights, criticizing corruption, and demanding the rule of law. Fresh, young leaders with passion, commitment, resilience, and incredible talent are already emerging. These twenty- and thirty-somethings are serving in the private sector, non-governmental organizations, government, academia, and many other professions. Though they are Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and often refugees who grew up abroad, they see themselves first and foremost as Afghans. The recent victories of the Afghan soccer and cricket teams, which were celebrated across all ethnic lines and throughout the country, highlighted this new reality.
The Taliban insurgency will not overrun Afghanistan's central government so long as the United States and its partners continue to support the Afghan government and its military and security forces as planned. Some 80 percent of the population is now largely protected from Taliban violence, which has increasingly been confined to the country's more remote regions. The major cities and transportation routes are now secured by the Afghan security forces rather than by foreign troops.
Why surrender this success in the area of security -- the sine qua non for success in every other aspect of communal life?
The next generation of Afghan leaders offers a compelling vision and opportunity for the country's future: Afghanistan can combat corruption and hold increasingly free and fair elections -- undertaken within a legal framework and overseen by independent electoral watchdogs -- that produce officials and legislators acceptable to the country's voters. It can become a country where the political rights of women are fully respected. It can undertake an inclusive peace process that addresses the root causes of conflict. And it can continue to develop its economy, trade, and regional ties.
True, these would be immense achievements for any poor, remote, war-torn country, but this vision is not beyond the reach of Afghanistan, with modest international support. Given all that we have achieved together and all that we have sacrificed together, it would be worse than foolhardy to short change this future now. It would be tragic.
Michèle Flournoy, a former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, co-chairs the Center for a New American Security's board of directors; she is also a signatory to the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a bipartisan coalition dedicated to preserving and protecting the progress made by the Afghan people since 2001.
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Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's memories of Washington cannot be pretty. He was last in town in July 1999, when he met then-President Bill Clinton to discuss the escalation of tensions amongst India and Pakistan in the Kargil district of Kashmir, an area long disputed between the two neighbors. Four months later, Sharif was out of a job.
Sharif's own Chief of Army Staff, Pervez Musharraf, initiated the coup that led to his ouster after Sharif pulled troops out of Kargil -- at Clinton's urging -- to avoid any further escalation. His entrée into the "military's space" by initiating these troop withdrawals ultimately led to his downfall.
This time around, Sharif is in a much stronger position politically. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, dominates the National Assembly as a result of its landslide victory in the May elections earlier this year. The military, a perpetual thorn in the side of the civilian government, is showing no visible signs of getting in Sharif's way for the time being. The government is about to receive a multi-billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund to breathe life back into the country's economy. Sharif's economic team seems to be making all the right noises on other aspects of economic reform, mainly in the privatization of state-owned steel mills and railways, as well as improvements in the energy sector.
This week, Sharif is in Washington, where he will meet President Barack Obama on Wednesday for an official visit at the White House. Meeting with Obama is typically a sign of strength for foreign leaders back home, but in Pakistan, the American president is so unpopular that Sharif wins no domestic brownie points for the meeting. In fact, it could hurt Sharif or be used against him. When he returns to Pakistan, any dramatic moves on security issues could be construed as a response to American pressure, real or not.
Furthermore, the strengths of Sharif's government are irrelevant under the current circumstances, especially on the issues the United States cares about the most. While his engagements with the American business and development communities will be more positive, Sharif will face "hard messages" from Obama and other American officials that won't be as easily answered. Among many issues, high on the White House's agenda will be the drawdown in Afghanistan, the lingering al-Qaeda threat in Pakistan, the recent uptick in tensions with India, and everlasting concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. High on Pakistan's agenda will be pushing for an end to CIA drone strikes, asking for continued assistance in fighting the Pakistani Taliban, and seeking more information on NATO's plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan.
If it sounds like nothing's changed, that's because it hasn't. A combination of patronage, pressure, and mixed messages has always defined U.S.-Pakistan relations. In December 1998, when Sharif traveled to Washington at Clinton's invitation, security concerns at the time centered on India and nonproliferation. When President Asif Ali Zardari was in Washington in January 2011 for the memorial service of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Amb. Richard C. Holbrooke, he was lucky Obama even met with him. Some American policy advisors at the time seriously questioned Pakistan's willingness to disrupt the Taliban, viewing the country's "double game" with the militants as reason enough to deny Zardari an audience with Obama.
While military ruler-turned-president Pervez Musharraf received a much warmer reception in Washington during his 2006 trip, he too faced the music when dealing with American officials on Pakistan's relations with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and its nuclear weapons program. Another military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, probably enjoyed the highest level of American patronage in the history of Pakistani leaders -- the result of his covert cooperation with the United States in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. But during his 1980 visit to Washington, even Zia faced pressure from the Carter administration to give up Islamabad's secretly expanding nuclear program.
Given the trends, it is apparent that Sharif will have the same kind of trip every other Pakistani leader to the United States has had: beset with unrealistic expectations in Washington and Islamabad; a scramble for "deliverables" identifying progress in the relationship; disappointment that the White House did not grant the Pakistanis the coveted "state visit;" mixed messages on both sides about how "hard" and "soft" the talking points were; and an underlying cynicism questioning the existence of the "unholy alliance" between the two countries. In all fairness, the same circumstances apply when American officials travel to Pakistan.
It is easy to get excited at the prospect of high-level engagements; such visits offer a potential pivot moment for bilateral relationships going through difficult times. We all know how badly the United States and Pakistan need a pivot, but the two countries may have already moved beyond that point. The visit occurs at a time when the countries have initiated a period of more subdued, private, and pragmatic engagement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Pakistan in August was an initial attempt to "open a new chapter" in the relationship. The recent release of $1.6 billion in military and economic aid was possible because "ties have improved enough to allow the money to flow again." And while the recent decreased frequency of drone strikes does not appear to be coordinated, it probably doesn't hurt.
This new tone and approach can be helped along by strong diplomatic ties at the highest levels of government -- a condition that has been lacking in both U.S. and Pakistani policymaking circles for several years. Sharif's visit to Washington this week gives both him and Obama an opportunity to formally begin a professional relationship that could do just that.
But as in all things U.S. and Pakistan, a heavy dose of reality is recommended. The two countries face many potential pitfalls as they look towards 2014 when NATO departs Afghanistan, and high-level diplomacy alone cannot ensure that Pakistan and the United States successfully avoid them. Coordination between American and Pakistani militaries, intelligence services, diplomats, and development specialists will also be in demand; engagement on many of these fronts is still recovering from the conflicts of the past two years, whether it be the Osama bin Laden raid, the Raymond Davis incident, or the cross-border incident at Salala. At the least, the Sharif-Obama discussion will offer a taste of what challenges lay ahead and one way to engage on them.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor to Dean Vali R. Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies and is a Senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation.
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When Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lands in Washington this weekend, he would not be blamed if he is wracked by mixed feelings. His last visit to the U.S. capital, in July 1999, occurred in the wake of the Kargil adventure with India that he allowed to get out of hand, and which led to a break with his army chief and his eventual ouster as prime minister. Due to the coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan was in the political doghouse until the then-president became a U.S. ally in the wake of the terrorist attack of 9/11 and the allied invasion of Afghanistan. For over a decade, Musharraf played the Afghanistan and terrorism cards to his advantage, while his own country slid into the depths of militancy and terrorism. Ironically, he never visited his own troops who were fighting and dying inside the border region. Neither did most of Pakistan's civilian leaders.
Sharif promised a change toward more active democratic governance when he took over after the May 2013 elections, but his tenure has had a slow start. If he is to make a difference, he will need to show much more alacrity, planning, and boldness in his dealings at home and abroad. He comes to Washington, a place that Charles Dickens once called city of "magnificent intentions," though a number of realities will challenge him both during and after this visit.
First, Washington is distracted at home by its recent budgetary battle and government shutdown. Abroad, Syria and Iran have stolen the attention of policymakers and lawmakers alike. The good news is that Pakistan is not on the front burner. But the bad news is also that Pakistan is not on the front burner. Sharif will, at best, meet a polite reception, but it is unclear what big issues bring the two countries together, while many issues potentially threaten this tenuous relationship. The impending coalition exit from Afghanistan is a short-term issue. A stable and prosperous Pakistan is what will matter most for the long run. Sharif needs to resist the temptation of showing how important he is to the Americans. If he is strong at home in governing and delivering on the promise of democracy, he will carry greater weight abroad.
Second, Sharif has yet to establish clear civilian control over the military. His tentative steps in handling the upcoming changes in the military's leadership leave more questions on the table than answers. Exercising his constitutional prerogative to appoint military commanders is critical, but so is the timing of those actions. Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani gave him an opportunity by publicly announcing that he would in fact be stepping down at the end of November. Sharif muddled that opening by delaying the naming of the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Army chief. What lessons will the Americans draw from this? Most likely that they must continue their military-to-military relationship as the dependable cornerstone of the current engagement with Pakistan, at least until they exit Afghanistan next year.
Third, despite Pakistani claims of victory when the United States agreed on Friday to pay $322 million worth of arrears of Coalition Support Funds (CSF) to Pakistan, the future is uncertain. Pakistani Finance Minister Sen. Ishaq Dar, during his recent visit to Washington to attend the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, said he had taken up the issue of CSF payments with U.S. State and Treasury Departments and they had assured him that payment would be made soon. But the reality has been obfuscated by that cheerful announcement.
CSF payments will cease at the end of 2014. Currently, there are no U.S. plans to support Pakistani military operations beyond next year. Furthermore, no payments will be given to Pakistan for the period when the Ground Lines of Communication with Afghanistan were closed. So forget about those seven months. And U.S. authorities have laid down new rules, meaning that the previous claims for expenditures outside the border region and unrelated to military operations will no longer be entertained for reimbursement. In effect, roughly a third of the previous claims will not be paid. The only bright side is that claims will now be paid on a quarterly basis at the potential rate of roughly $100 million a month.
Fourth, Pakistan has not shown many signs of ground work in Washington since the Sharif government took over. Not on the Hill, nor with the administration. Even the prime minister's own visit was not preceded by high-level preparation. And there is no Pakistani ambassador in town, as yet. All of this leads one to believe that no major issues will actually be discussed or resolved. Afghanistan will loom large. India may be raised. But the United States has its own India agenda that does not always include Pakistan. Congress will likely want to know what will happen to Dr. Shakil Afridi and to Musharraf. Will Sharif be able to provide a clear set of answers?
Pakistan needs a new and clear strategic overview of its region and global relationships. It cannot lurch from crisis to crisis, nor can it rely on the global fear of its nuclear arsenal falling into the wrong hands to be the excuse for aid to a country that has not clearly defined its domestic or foreign policy. It faces a huge domestic terror threat. It needs to open its borders to its neighbors and to trade across the region. Sharif has an opportunity to boldly and unambiguously state where he stands on these issues. If he does so in Washington, he may mark an early turning point in his tenure. Ambiguity and business as usual, however, will not do.
Shuja Nawaz is the Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within.
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It is past time to shed the illusion that talks with the Afghan Taliban can result in a grand bargain that somehow resolves the Afghan conflict. The belief that there is, after all, nothing to lose in trying to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table is misguided. Three years of continuing American attempts to get talks going have had consequences that are anything but benign. These efforts have diverted attention from needed domestic reforms; undermined confidence in the critical economic, political, and security transitions underway with the departure of U.S. and other NATO forces; and harmed prospects for a viable Afghan state after 2014.
The damage accruing from mostly wishful thinking about reaching a comprehensive settlement with the insurgents is widely evident. It has planted doubts about American intentions and further strained Washington's testy relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai and his close advisors have interpreted American diplomatic initiatives as deliberately sidelining the Kabul government's participation in negotiations. Fears that the United States and Pakistan are working in tandem to strike a deal with the Taliban that would divide up Afghanistan have also worsened Kabul's already acrimonious relations with Islamabad. The Karzai government's own peace initiatives have also intensified differences with Pakistan, which is accused of blocking Taliban participation in talks. Karzai's recent visit with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, while cordial, is unlikely to end those suspicions.
But the most destructive fallout from the ill-founded prospect of a negotiated peace with the insurgency has been its effect on the Afghan people, only a minor fraction of who support the Taliban's return. The possibility that the Taliban might once again wield power has exacerbated ethnic tensions within Afghanistan. In particular, the country's northerners detect what they believe to be a Pakistani solution that cedes the south and east to the Taliban, who are then thought certain to make a bid for power over the entire country.
Overall, the possibility of a Taliban return to power has spread confusion among Afghans and intensified hedging strategies beyond those already occasioned by the withdrawal of foreign forces. Local and foreign economic investment has dried up, and the flight of human and physical capital has accelerated. Afghans in the provinces and districts, many ambivalent in their loyalties, have greater reason to distance themselves from Kabul. While Afghan leaders keep pursuing a political outcome, the country's security forces are being asked to take greater risks against the insurgency.
The allure of a political settlement in Afghanistan for the United States and others is, perhaps, understandable. With an outright military victory against the Taliban unlikely in the foreseeable future and an insurgency that faces great difficulty in overrunning the country, it is tempting to conclude that both sides are ready for a negotiated peace. A power-sharing agreement would presumably avoid further conflict and the high probability of a protracted civil war. Talks hold out the promise that with the Taliban and its allies joining a political process, a stable, inclusive Afghan government could emerge. Necessary compromises might shift the country in a more conservative religious direction, but an agreement, it would be hoped, could preserve the core of the Afghan constitution and protect the social and economic gains of the last 12 years. Certainly the Afghan people are anxious to see an end to 35 years of almost continuous warfare.
For departing coalition forces, a political solution would avoid testing the ability of the Afghan security forces to fend off the insurgency. By fostering an agreement, the United States and its allies could be absolved of the criticism that they will desert the Afghan people. Despite all they have failed to accomplish, these countries could say that the years of military involvement were justified by having laid the groundwork for a durable peace.
Afghanistan's neighbors also see the attractions of a political outcome as they all fear the uncertainties of a civil war that might follow the withdrawal of foreign troops. None would welcome an outright Taliban military victory that might spill extremist ideas and militants across their borders. Even Pakistan recognizes the possible gains from a political accord, albeit one that promotes its interests. Although it firmly backed Taliban efforts to wrest full power in Afghanistan until 2001, that was before Pakistan had to contend with a radical Islamic insurgency of its own.
Yet all of the various back channels employed by the United States to get the Taliban to start negotiating have only revealed that they have no strong incentive to stop fighting. The more tireless the U.S. efforts to get a peace process going, the seemingly more convinced the insurgents are of American desperation, and the more they believe their current strategies are working. While those in the West may doubt that there is a military solution, the insurgents apparently still believe in one.
Supposedly among an increasingly divided Taliban leadership there are those who favor holding peace talks, but even these alleged pragmatists offer little hope for serious negotiations. Privately they have made it clear that their side will not agree to a ceasefire and disarming, or accede to many of the basic principles of the constitution. The Taliban have shown no interest in negotiating directly with the Karzai government, and it is doubtful that they would accept the presence of any foreign military personnel in the country post 2014. The Taliban representatives who opened a political office in Doha proved to be mainly interested in winning the release of the group's prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in gaining legitimacy for the insurgency.
It is high time that the United States and its partners stop believing that there exists a shortcut to ending the Afghan conflict and a clear path for a graceful exit. The United States should instead concentrate its remaining resources and influence in the country on working with the Afghan government to improve its governance, development, and security forces. There may indeed be a political outcome in Afghanistan, but only when elements of the insurgency, seeing that the state is here to stay, conclude that time is not on their side and their grievances are best addressed within the system. Such a peace is likely to be realized through the gradual reintegration of insurgents in hundreds of small agreements across the country, not around a negotiating table in Doha or anywhere else.
Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. He served as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
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This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Name: Yunus Bakshi
Province: Shamali Plains, Kabul
Yunus Bakshi, the founder of Afghanistan's first astronomy association, is a small, soft-spoken but energetic man, who moves between a conservative family and liberal-minded friends. Having studied in Russia, he has friends who sided with the Russians, friends who spied for them, and also, friends who fought against them. We meet in a small office he keeps ostensibly for his astronomy club, but which at any given time also serves as a base camp for one or two drifters, friends of his in some state of transit. Recently returned emigres, or those about to depart; people generally inclined towards the life of the mind but without work; writers, filmmakers, and poets. Here, in a dark office with a few bare fluorescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling, over small sour cherries and cigarettes, he begins...
The following are the words of Yunus Bakshi, as told to Jeffrey E. Stern.
I grew up in a religious family. Muslims, like Christians, they believe that the world was created by God and everything that we see is perfect, and nothing is change-able -- this kind of idea. And in Islam it is stricter because you don't have the right to ask the cause of the creation of the universe. But when I read my first articles about the universe, it started some kind of mixture inside of my mind. I discovered that what the religions were saying is completely wrong.
And I feel that this kind of question could exist in the mind of every young Afghan. But on the other hand I discovered that if you learn more about the universe -- if you know that besides the earth there are many planets, hundreds billions of the stars -- then you as a human, as a Hazara, or Pashtoon, you're not even a tiny grain on the vast shore of the universe. And this has a very good application: to accept the differences in the world, accept the other peoples, accept the different ideas, different colors, religions, everything. And that to my mind was a very good means to change the people's minds, to teach Afghans that we should live in coexistence with the other people in the world.
We are not the only or the best nation, or the best people, in the world. We are the same as Americans, or Russians, or any other people. And the people who were introduced to astronomy, their mind definitely changed completely about this. For example, most Muslims think that, ‘it's ok if we don't have financial ability, or if we're poor, because we will have a good life in the afterlife in the heavens.' But when you read astronomy you begin to understand that everything that happens in this world is a result of our actions. God has no interference in our future or in our actions. The only one responsible is you. And that forces you to make changes for yourself. That helps you to manage your life in a better way. I think, to my mind, this is the best benefit from astronomy.
Since the announcement of this withdrawal date, my perception about the whole situation beyond 2014 several times has already changed. It shows that we are not sure, in Afghanistan, what will happen.
Even not considering the security situation, we have concerns. For example, unemployment. Because as international organizations leave this country it automatically creates more unemployment, many people will be sacked from these organizations and will be looking for jobs. Some of them are used to working in organizations with a good salary.
As for myself, I am more concerned about my future and my future employment than I am about the withdrawal of the international forces. And this points to a very serious concern, if you have this huge army of unemployed young people, that in itself creates chaos in Afghanistan. Many people are ready to do anything just to feed their family. Just to keep their life as it is.
And many people have weapons. I don't want to say exactly what they would do, but indirectly I want to say that some of them may even go to create some kind of gang, and this is just one of the problems.
My main concern is my family: my children, my wife, my mother. I'm looking for a safe haven somewhere, even outside of Afghanistan, if it is possible. Because I'm sure even if we have secure and stable government in Afghanistan, at the same time, unemployment, lack of any services, they all can create a very, very difficult situation for us.
I'm dying to give a good -- even if it's expensive -- a good education to my children. Because year by year searching for a good profession will become very difficult. I want to say that the main concern of every Afghan like me is employment, and to earn money to keep your family and a safe future. And day-by-day it gets harder. Because day-by-day I witness my friends who before had jobs are now unemployed. Because many organizations, they've already closed. Many NGOs already left the country.
Now I worry, if I flee the country, what would happen to my telescopes? To whom should I give them?
Edited by Jeffrey E. Stern.
Jeffrey E. Stern -- www.JeffreyEstern.com -- is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has been published by The Atlantic, The New Republic, Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jeffrey E Stern/Author Photo
On July 3, 2013, a female health worker was killed in northwest Pakistan while conducting polio vaccinations; she was the latest to die in an on-going anti-vaccination campaign by militants. About three weeks earlier, on June 16, militants killed two male volunteers who were administering polio vaccines in northeast Pakistan. That these two attacks follow the fatal shooting of female health workers engaged in a polio vaccination campaign on May 28 provides a stark reminder that polio vaccinators in Pakistan continue to face a serious threat of violence.
Polio, a virus with no cure that can cause paralysis and death, has been the target of a worldwide eradication effort and since the vaccination campaign began in 1988, there has been a 99% decline in reported cases. Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan are the only countries were the virus is still endemic and continued violence against Pakistan health workers poses a threat to the continued success of these eradication efforts.
The recent wave of violence against polio workers is likely linked to opposition from the Pakistani Taliban to the vaccination campaign. On June 16, 2012, Taliban leaders in both North and South Waziristan banned the vaccination campaign pending a cessation of American drone strikes in the region. Since then, there have been at least 27 incidents of violence against health workers involved in Pakistan's polio vaccination campaign, and against the security personnel tasked with protecting them. At least 22 people involved in these efforts have been killed and another 14 people have been injured.
Increased opposition to polio vaccinations may also be linked to the revelation that the CIA used a fake Hepatitis vaccination program during its attempt to locate Osama bin Laden. Media outlets as diverse as Business Week, The Guardian, and Scientific American published pieces criticizing the ruse for endangering polio vaccinators. One anti-polio worker commented on the effects of the fake vaccination program in 2012 saying, "It's been over ten months since the Al-Qaeda Chief Osama Bin Laden is dead [sic], but his ghost is still haunting our efforts not only to persuade the people in the country's northwestern parts, particularly in the tribal belt, to get their kids vaccinated, but also to move freely."
In July 2012, this surge of violence against polio health workers in Pakistan began with two shootings in Gadap Town, Karachi. On July 17, a UN doctor from Ghana and his driver were shot; three days later, another polio worker involved in the same campaign was also shot. In October 2012, a polio vaccinator was killed in the Killi Jeo area of Quetta during a three-day vaccination campaign. But the violence against polio workers reached new heights in December 2012. In the span of just two days, eight people were killed in six separate attacks.
The increasing violence against health workers, as demonstrated by the December attacks, forced a widespread change in the way polio vaccinations are conducted in Pakistan. The World Health Organization suspended its vaccination campaign due to its inability to ensure security for its workers. The Pakistani government provided security guards for vaccination teams and issued new guidelines urging vaccination campaigns to avoid publicizing their visits out of fear of encouraging attacks.
In February 2013, Pakistan's Capital Development Authority (CDA) announced the launch of a four-day sub-national polio vaccination campaign, prompting some to report that the campaign violated the new guidelines. In particular, an anonymous senior official with the Prime Minister's polio monitoring cell was quoted as saying: "The CDA's fanfare that accompanied the launching drive has put the lives of over 160 vaccinators at stake." These fundamental changes and the confusion they have created is also illustrated by the refusal of some health workers, including the two killed on June 16, to accept protection from security details, out of fear that it will actually make them targets.
While the intensity of the violence against polio health workers decreased after the December attacks, it did continue. In January 2013, there were three incidents that killed three people (though one involved a roadside bomb that might have only incidentally targeted polio vaccinators). One person was killed in Ghalia Der, Mardan in February; and in March, a polio center was bombed, injuring one health worker, and another polio vaccinator was abducted for ransom. There were another seven violent incidents targeting polio teams in April and three more in May.
The violence against polio workers takes many forms. Shootings are the most prominent method of attack, constituting all but six cases, and at least 12 of the 27 incidents involved shootings by multiple attackers. The remaining incidents consist of two cases of abduction and mistreatment (including torture), one bombing of a polio center, one roadside bomb explosion, one attack with an ax, and one case of stone throwing.
The cases involving multiple shooters suggest that there is an organized attempt to target polio vaccinators by militant groups with the capability to direct such attacks. In none of the cases, however, did a militant group claim responsibility for an attack. In fact, the Pakistani Taliban has regularly denied involvement in the attacks.
The violence has taken a tremendous toll on Pakistan's polio workers, but it is not simply an issue for Pakistan's health and development workers. Setbacks in Pakistan's eradication efforts threaten the ability of other countries to remain polio free, as seen when strains of polio linked to Pakistan caused a small outbreak in China in 2011 and were found in an Egyptian sewer in 2012. While the number of registered polio cases in Pakistan dropped in 2012, the surge in violence against health workers occurred at the very end of the year, making its effects unlikely to show up in the numbers. As of July 10, 2013, there have been 18 cases of polio so far this year, compared to 22 cases during the same period last year.
The wider global community would also do well to pay attention to the attacks on polio workers in Pakistan because violence against health workers is an issue affecting many other countries. In May, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a report showing that, in 2012, there were 921 violent incidents affecting healthcare in 22 countries experiencing armed conflict and other emergencies. Nigeria in particular has seen attacks on health workers and polio vaccinators similar to those in Pakistan. At least nine polio workers were killed by gunmen in attacks there in early February 2013.
Historical experience suggests that health workers will often become targets in civil wars and insurgencies as they did in Nicaragua and Mozambique in the 1980s, Chechnya in the 1990s, and in Somalia in the 2000s. Giving greater attention to what does and doesn't work in Pakistan with regard to protecting polio workers will pay dividends in securing future global health efforts. In particular, examining Pakistan's efforts may provide international aid organizations with new information regarding the costs and benefits of eradication strategies that minimize publicity and increase the presence of armed security personnel in order to continue vaccinations during conflict.
David Sterman is a Master’s candidate at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and an intern with the New America Foundation.
Good intentions and clear political willingness to commit significant resources has meant that, waste and inefficiencies aside, the U.S. has been able to muster military and financial support for the war in Afghanistan from nearly 50 nations. Recently, however, Afghan and Coalition allies, along with other influential regional power brokers such as India, are starting to publicly question U.S. policy in Afghanistan, particularly the decision to engage with and support the Taliban in opening a political office in Qatar.
For reasons discussed below, the dialogue between the Taliban and the U.S. should continue, quietly and with limited objectives. But public, ill-choreographed, overly ambitious, and unrealistic attempts at reconciliation will continue to make the Doha peace process a dangerous and distracting sideshow that will hurt rather than support U.S. foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan.
For some time, the U.S. has been coordinating with other stakeholders to jump start reconciliation efforts between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Less than a month ago, that effort culminated in a rather embarrassing press conference for the opening -- according to the Taliban banner in the background -- of the political office of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." Afghan officials and many other governments, including the U.S., reacted harshly to what appeared to have been a serious miscalculation of the Taliban's intentions.
To be fair, Secretary of State John Kerry quickly admitted that "the United States is very realistic about the difficulties in Afghanistan," and acknowledged that a final settlement "may be long in coming," emphasizing that if the new Taliban office in Qatar proved unproductive, he would push for its closure. Similarly, the new Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador James Dobbins, reiterated support for the Afghan-led reconciliation, admitting that the Taliban's consequential press conference "may have been a combination of misunderstanding and a desire for a certain propaganda victory, which I think turned out to be - from their standpoint - disappointing." Placing such emphasis on reconciliation in the first place, however, was neither appropriate nor useful in achieving U.S. national objectives in Afghanistan and the region.
In fact, the disastrous grand opening of the Taliban office represents the first time that the U.S. has yielded political initiative to the Taliban - even if fleetingly. Or as the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel puts it, "instead of being treated as insurgents or terrorists, the Taliban got the symbols of statehood."
Furthermore, it has brought the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) negotiations to a halt. No matter how well intentioned the U.S. administration was in its avid support of Afghan-led reconciliation efforts, its attempt to take such an active role in the process has backfired. Many worry, however that President Karzai's emotional overreaction to the Taliban office will damage U.S.-Afghan relations even more than the U.S. attempts to restart the talks. This is particularly concerning given the July 9 report that President Obama is keeping the "zero option" -- removing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 -- on the table.
Beyond the immediate negative impact, however, hurrying reconciliation or looking for quick fixes also increases the risk of potentially calamitous outcomes. For example, continuing to support public engagement with the Taliban - who are in full ‘summer offensive' swing - while there is no national consensus for reconciliation, may lead to a spiral of violence and a fragmentation of the Afghan polity along ethnic, anti-Taliban, and fundamentalist lines. From there, it is not too far-fetched to imagine a return of al-Qai'da to an ungoverned and insecure environment.
Equally dangerous, in the near term, is that the uncertainty is also encouraging former mujahedeen commanders to consider rearming fighters to guard against their sense of abandonment by the U.S. These warlords, some of whom are still in the Afghan government, find it incredibly difficult to understand how the Americans, having sacrificed so much fighting the Taliban, are now bringing the insurgent group in from the cold.
Also of concern is that many Afghans believe that the so-called Taliban representatives in Doha owe their allegiance and loyalty more to Pakistan than the senior Afghan Taliban leadership; thus, arguably, giving no guarantee that negotiations in Doha will have any positive impact in Afghanistan at all in terms of reduced violence. Expectations in Kabul are that even if negotiations in Doha are wildly successful, rank and file Taliban in the field will not adhere to deals made there. Furthermore, no matter how much some have tried to convince the Western audience that digging ditches on a development project for $15 a day will convert the "$10 a day Taliban" to the side of the Afghan government, the fighters are not just in it for the money.
Furthermore, at least for now, the Taliban and the Afghan government are either incapable or unwilling to conduct substantive peace negotiations in Doha or anywhere else. The Taliban do not recognize the Karzai government as legitimate, and the Afghan government, for its part, is in no position to offer a "deal" to the Taliban that is going to be supported by the majority of the opposition groups and, more importantly, the majority of the Afghan people. As such, the U.S. should stop wasting effort and political capital on starting a process that is going nowhere for now, and should focus talks on limited and manageable objectives such as the near-term issue of prisoner exchanges and the mid-term objective of severing Pashtun tribal support to al-Qai'da and affiliated militants along the Af-Pak border. Reconciliation prospects are, at best, a long-term process that the U.S. can support, but cannot lead. It should not, particularly in its nascent stages, be taking center stage over other much more significant and meaningful issues.
This well-intentioned but ill-conceived meddling in Afghan reconciliation efforts has created a perhaps unfair -- but dangerously persistent -- perception that there is a convergence of interest between the U.S. and the Taliban, and a divergence of strategy between the U.S. and its allies. Although the Obama administration is trying to quickly correct this misperception, the damage is done. As the U.S. contemplates its next move, it needs to not only reconsider its position on Afghan reconciliation but also its relationship with the Afghan government - the other half of the reconciliation efforts.
In order to affect a real, sustainable, and positive outcome in Afghanistan, the U.S. is better off focusing less on reconciliation and, instead, reassessing and reaffirming its relationship with the Afghan government. Reaching a conclusion in the negotiations over the BSA and declaring the size of the residual presence in Afghanistan post-2014 are two important issues the U.S. could start with.
While achieving a peace deal in Afghanistan in time for the coalition withdrawal at the end of 2014 would be ideal, it is also highly unlikely. Instead of making attempts to entice both the Taliban and the Afghan government to substantive but rushed peace negotiations, the U.S. must refocus on providing solid, albeit conditional, aid and support to the Afghan government in return for progress, as outlined in numerous international community conferences. Rather than focusing on what has turned out to be a reconciliation sideshow in Doha, the U.S. should focus its considerable resources on improving Afghan governance and strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces.
Holding the Afghan government accountable for the poor governance and corruption that undermine economic progress and deny future opportunities to Afghans struggling to find jobs in a business environment plagued by bribery, uncertainty, and predatory behavior are much more important to peace in Afghanistan than reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. Coupling these challenges with the rampant narcotics production problem, the flight of many Afghan diplomats and other government officials out of the country, and lost opportunities such as the failure to capitalize on vast economic opportunities in the mining sector, makes open negotiations with the Taliban in Doha a sideshow, not the real challenge for Afghanistan's future.
But, like it or not, the Taliban now have a political office in Doha. The international community's demand on the Taliban political office should be simple: ultimate reconciliation will be an issue decided by Afghans, but as long as the Taliban attempt, via violent means, to forge an Afghanistan similar to that which existed pre-9/11, the world will not accept them as a legitimate entity. The U.S. and its allies - including Afghanistan - should insist that with such legitimate public representation comes responsibility in full view of the international community.
Throughout history, even the most polarized enemies sought open channels of communications. No one should consider dialogue between foes a bad thing; the key lies in identifying common ground in order to minimize violence and active fighting. If the most charged discussions remain private, and public declarations are carefully choreographed, the chance of embarrassment is minimized. Afghans should always be the lead in discussions with the Taliban office in Doha, but without pressure from Western partners expecting miracles; at least not until after next year's Afghan presidential elections.
It will probably take a very long time to see an eventual positive outcome in Central Asia, or to dissect the failures responsible for not getting there. However, efforts in Afghanistan don't have to end in disaster. For things to improve, American foreign policy must find a way to remain well-intentioned but also imaginative, with strategic and inspirational vision, worthy of what most around the world consider the most powerful nation on earth.
Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Much has happened in Afghanistan since 2001, and there is heightened uncertainty about the country's political future with the security handover being completed, conflict with the Taliban continuing - despite attempts to begin a reconciliation dialogue in Qatar, the withdrawal of international troops proceeding, and the 2014 presidential election approaching. While the situation on the ground is quite different from when the Bonn Agreement was signed nearly a dozen years ago, the Bonn experience can, to some extent, inform current thinking about Afghanistan's upcoming political transition.
The 2001 Bonn Agreement involved an agreed transfer of power from one nominal head of state, Burhanuddin Rabbani, to another, Hamid Karzai, after the fall of the Taliban regime, and occurred without substantial violent conflict both during the negotiations and over the three-year period covered by the Bonn process. This is exceptional given that leadership changes in Afghanistan during the past century have occurred through assassinations, coups, forced exiles, and, between 1978 and 2001, devastating wars and civil conflict. Since a peaceful transfer of power is also a primary objective of the current political transition, it is worth reviewing several key components of the Bonn experience:
Some possible elements of continuity with the current political transition are evident. Many current Afghan political actors were part of or affected by the Bonn process; fragmented, personalized, factional politics remain extremely important; organized political parties (especially nationally-oriented ones) remain weak; there is no obvious candidate for head of state (for the first time in an Afghan presidential election, no incumbent will be on the ballot); and a number of actors - including some members of the "loyal opposition" to the Karzai government - desire to come to a consensus or at least agree on broad parameters in advance of the election. However, the differences are more striking.
First, all aspects of the Bonn Agreement were finalized when it was signed at the meeting, including the choice of interim head of state. A national presidential election is a fundamentally different process.
Second, negotiations at Bonn were kept on-track (and basically not allowed to fail) by heavy international pressure to conclude an agreement quickly and, during the following three years, to ensure timely implementation of the Bonn roadmap. Although the 2014 presidential election provides an ultimate deadline for any pre-election negotiations, their success is by no means assured.
Third, in 2001, the Afghan government had been devastated by two decades of protracted conflict and did not have any impact on Bonn. Now the government has built up considerable capacity and power, which can be deployed to influence the current political transition.
Fourth, in late 2001, the international community's engagement in Afghanistan had just started and was growing, whereas next year's presidential election will occur alongside the international military disengagement from Afghanistan and declining international financial support.
Fifth, the Taliban - widely regarded as defeated and irrelevant during the Bonn negotiations - are currently seen as an important force in the country, and are being actively courted by the international community in parallel reconciliation efforts, which may distract attention from the political transition; moreover, the Taliban clearly have the capability to be a disruptive force in the upcoming elections.
Based on these major differences as well as elements of continuity, here are some questions to consider as the political transition moves forward:
Thinking about these questions probably tells us more about the mindsets of some actors from the time of Bonn who remain significant political players today than about how the 2014 political transition might actually proceed. While some may be enamored with behind-the-scenes negotiations, allocating ministerial and other top positions in advance, and perhaps even hoping for an outside entity to serve as "broker," key factors that made the Bonn process viable and sustained it for three years are no longer present. Whatever may be decided in advance, things could go off-track before, during, or after the 2014 presidential election. Moreover, any agreements reached among various political actors and groupings (sometimes termed a "national agenda") would not necessarily have the internationally-backed force and staying power of the Bonn Agreement. Thus, while there may be similarities to certain features of Bonn, a Bonn-like scenario seems unlikely for the current political transition. Nevertheless, the Bonn experience provides an illuminating counterpoint to weave around and inform thinking about 2014.
William Byrd is an Afghanistan senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
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The Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF), agreed to at the July 2012 Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan, started out with high hopes. International donors pledged to provide Afghanistan with $4 billion in civilian aid per year through 2015 and to continue significant support through 2017 and beyond, while the Afghan government committed to governance improvements and a democratic political transition as per the Afghan Constitution. Less than a year into the implementation process, however, serious obstacles are being encountered.
As noted in a recent paper, the old adage about work in Soviet-era centrally-planned economic systems -- "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us" -- appears to be increasingly applicable to TMAF implementation, which is being undermined by:
- Doubts about the realism of some pledges made by both sides, specifically the degree of genuine commitment by the Afghan government to improving governance and fighting corruption, and the level of international funding that will actually materialize in the face of donors' budget constraints and disappointment over limited Afghan progress;
- Short-term priorities that may sideline TMAF implementation, most notably the international community's preoccupation with its military exit strategy, and the Afghan government's focus on political maneuvering in the run-up to the 2014 election;
- Adherence to process, fulfilling the "letter of the law" and "checking the box" on benchmarks, which is being emphasized at the expense of substance; and
- Focus on the TMAF for its own sake, which is, perhaps, distracting both sides from achieving actual results and positive outcomes.
Furthermore, there is a risk that TMAF implementation will degenerate into a "blame game," with each side accusing the other of failing to live up to its side of the "bargain" and using perceived failures as justification for falling short on its own commitments.
A few examples illustrate these themes. Recent convictions of Kabul Bank senior executives involved in the theft and misuse of some $1 billion in deposits and other bank funds were presented by the Afghan government as evidence of its fulfilling commitments regarding the bank, but there was a perception internationally that the verdicts were too lenient. Regardless, the practical point is this: with the principals of Kabul Bank convicted on some other fairly minor charges but not on money-laundering charges, the government cannot initiate formal procedures to seize the stolen assets already identified in other countries, and an opportunity for the Afghan state to recover hundreds of millions of dollars has been lost -- irrespective of whether TMAF benchmarks regarding corruption were met or not.
Some efforts by international donors to move aid "on-budget" -- providing funds to the Afghan government for disbursement through its national budget and administrative mechanisms -- seem questionable. Most donor funding is currently "off-budget" -- channeled bilaterally -- but at the Tokyo conference, donors committed to putting at least 50 percent of their aid on-budget, a laudable objective, as part of the shift toward Afghan leadership during the transition. It was recently announced, for example, that the installation of a third turbine at the Kajaki hydroelectric plant (in a conflict-ridden part of Helmand province) would be turned over to the Afghan government, despite massive and ultimately unsuccessful international efforts to complete the project. It is unclear how the Afghan government will be able to succeed where the international community failed.
Intruding short-term priorities can also trump making mutual accountability work. The international imperative of a timely and smooth withdrawal of foreign combat forces may be interfering with efforts to hold the Afghan government accountable for its performance. For example, international pressure for action on Kabul Bank has greatly eased as the coalition has become increasingly focused on its military exit strategy. It also appears that the IMF-supported macroeconomic program, which provides balance of payments support and the critical IMF "certification" that enables funding through trust funds and other budget support, is likely to remain officially "on-track," even if the government's performance falls short of its targets (for example in the crucial area of domestic revenue). No one wants to deal with the consequences of going off-track, namely a budget crisis.
On the Afghan side, short-term political considerations in the run-up to the 2014 presidential election are sidelining and distorting TMAF implementation. Expectations that the government will take meaningful actions to improve governance, especially against high-level corruption, will become all the more unrealistic as the election approaches. There are also signs of possible manipulation of some TMAF benchmarks for narrow political purposes. For example, the Afghan government has strongly advocated that 100 percent of international funding for the 2014 presidential and the 2015 parliamentary elections be on-budget, ostensibly related to the TMAF benchmark of moving more aid on-budget. However, without safeguards to preserve the independence of electoral authorities, this may increase their vulnerability to interference or at least undermine public confidence in the elections (I am grateful to my colleague Scott Smith for making this point).
It is also uncertain to what extent the Tokyo pledge of civilian aid will be delivered. Based on Afghan and international experience, actual aid commonly falls short of pledges for a variety of reasons, and it would be surprising if the Tokyo pledge turned out to be an exception to this general pattern. Moreover, given that the pledge was slightly above even the high-end scenario ("accelerating progress") put forward in the World Bank study Afghanistan in Transition: Looking Beyond 2014, it seems clear that donors saw this amount as a "stretch target" -- something to be aspired to only if there is strong progress by the government in improving governance and fighting corruption in the spirit of the TMAF's objectives, prospects for which are doubtful in the short run.
Aside from these concerns, the TMAF is generating a substantial amount of paperwork, which may further distract those involved from substance. The government's "anti-corruption decree" of July 2012, intended to be a vehicle for implementing the TMAF, contained more than 150 specific action points/benchmarks, called for a large amount of reporting, and would be no small task to monitor.
Overall, the larger goals that animated the Tokyo conference and the promise of the TMAF are being undermined during implementation. But this should not come as a complete surprise given experience with conditionality, benchmarks, and similar arrangements in other countries, as well as in Afghanistan's own recent history. Such mechanisms do not work well in the absence of a reform constituency in the country that can leverage conditions and push reforms, if objectives and targets are overly ambitious or multitudinous, and if a medium-term perspective is lacking or is dominated by short-term priorities.
But how to move forward? Rather than investing more effort in trying to fix and fine-tune the TMAF, let alone add benchmarks or revisit the respective "failures" of both sides, the Afghan government and its international partners need to clarify and manage their own and each other's expectations. This will be particularly important in the immediate future while the challenges of elections and political transition, as well as the withdrawal of international combat troops, dominate the landscape.
Both sides can responsibly pursue their respective, clearly-defined objectives, while staying realistic about overlaps and disconnects. Progress would be facilitated by clear and honest communications. The main objectives of Afghanistan and the international community are interdependent and in many ways broadly consistent -- provided they are responsibly pursued and include a wider, medium-term perspective rather than solely serving narrow and short-term interests. The international community's key short-run priority is to withdraw most foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and achieve a smooth security hand-over. For this hand-off to be sustainable, the achievement of several key Afghan national objectives is required, most importantly a successful presidential election and political transition, resulting in an effective new government administration and (later) parliament that are perceived to be legitimate both internally and externally.
Once these key milestones of the current political and security transition are successfully achieved, the TMAF, if tempered by realistic ambitions and timeframes, may provide the basis for a productive partnership between Afghanistan and the international community over the medium term.
William Byrd is an Afghanistan senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
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When Amb. James Dobbins arrives at the ground-floor offices of the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan he will find a depleted staff, a moribund peace process and a mandate riddled with colossal diplomatic challenges. Secretary of State John Kerry called today's state of affairs a "pivotal moment" for the two nations. But it is also a critical moment for U.S. involvement in ending the conflict President Barack Obama once called the war "that we have to win" and now wants only to "responsibly" wind down.
Dobbins is a veteran of uphill assignments. He oversaw the return of the American flag over a newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2001. In addition to Afghanistan, he has served in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia. Not exactly a list of luxe diplomatic posts.
As Dobbins prepares to assume his post on 23rd St, a series of open questions await his attention. Three of the biggest are below.
1) Troops: Just how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014? That question remains unanswered as the United States continues to negotiate an agreement with Afghanistan on the shape of the U.S. military presence post-2014. Gen. James Mattis, who most recently served as the commander of U.S. Central Command, is on the record pushing for more than 13,000 troops. Most numbers out of the Pentagon and the White House come in at less than that. The State Department's Robert Blake noted recently that "we are still in the process of thinking through what our final military presence will be in Afghanistan after the end of the transition at the end of 2014." Exactly when that will be and what shape it will take remains to be seen.
Also an open question: how many Afghan troops will be needed? And how many will be funded? Those two numbers may well end up being different. And the latter should be known sooner rather than later.
2) Peace process: Right now there is not one of substance to speak of. What shape might one take? The window for action is rapidly closing as frustration between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains very much alive, with Afghanistan arguing that Pakistan looks favorably on Afghan instability. Will Afghanistan and Pakistan agree to agree on conditions for talks? And what role will the Americans take? Sec. Kerry met last month in Belgium with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and vowed to "under-promise but deliver" as the sides "continue a very specific dialogue on both the political track as well as the security track." What, if anything, the dialed-down dialog yields will be watched carefully as nearly all sides agree that a diplomatic solution - one in which human rights are not made the price of peace - is the lone shot at a lasting and durable peace.
3) Transition: whither and at what pace will security, political and economic transitions continue? So far, the economic transition has been bolstered by GDP numbers that have been better than expected. As the World Bank noted, "rapid economic growth" has been accompanied by "relatively low inflation." But the government is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign coffers for its funding -- civilian aid alone is "estimated at more than US$6 billion a year, or nearly 40 percent of GDP" - and as those dollars dry up, the questions of stability and security arise immediately. A recent IMF report mentioned by the New York Times notes that tax evasion, corruption and declining growth all mean that the government will find it tough to pay even half of its bills this year. Stories of graft and CIA-filled slush funds do not lead to greater confidence in the Afghan government from either the American public paying for it or the Afghan people who will pay the price of chaos and a political power vacuum.
These are only the most pressing of a rash of questions sure to occupy Amb. Dobbins on Day One. Fortunately for both Sec. Kerry and Amb. Dobbins, the SRAP position does not require Senate confirmation, so they can get down to work quickly - as they must. The U.S. is speeding toward the end of the NATO combat mission, and both diplomats will soon be hard-pressed to find answers.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
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During a recent trip to the region, Secretary of State John Kerry decided not to visit Pakistan out of respect for the country's ongoing electoral processes. He made the right choice.
The United States has repeatedly found itself in the middle of Pakistan's domestic politics, a problem partially of its own making. In 2006, the United States tried to broker a power-sharing deal between exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and then-President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, who unceremoniously took power in a bloodless coup against the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999, desperately needed domestic and international legitimization of his presidency. Bhutto - the popular scion of a political family from Sindh - could offer the domestic portion of that by participating in national elections that would be sure to put her back into office as Prime Minister. An increasingly unpopular Musharraf could stay on as president.
While U.S. mediation was warranted to some extent on account of the high stakes involved in the "global war on terror," the result was disastrous. After months of secretive meetings with a coterie of high-level American officials and informal representatives, Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile in Dubai only to be assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban ten weeks later. Ever since, the United States has in some way been blamed for her death and the circumstances following it, most notably the election of Bhutto's widow, Asif Ali Zardari, as President of Pakistan.
If Secretary Kerry had visited Pakistan, he would have inevitably signaled de facto American support for the incumbent Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and co-chairman Zardari, who remains President until September. Zardari and the PPP would have relished such attention given their dismal electoral chances, but the United States did not take the bait.
Maneuvers to elicit U.S. support for legitimacy within Pakistan are not new tactics for Pakistani politicians. Since his self-initiated exile in 2008, Musharraf has diligently sought U.S. government support to anoint his return to Pakistani politics. After all, if the United States did this for Bhutto in 2006, then why not for him - the secular, U.S.-leaning, cosmopolitan general turned statesman who enjoys an occasional scotch?
Musharraf should get credit for trying. He lobbied hard within U.S. political circles, with his Philadelphia-based office regularly releasing photographs and announcements of his meetings with members of Congress. In a slightly disingenuous move in 2011, his office even released a photograph of Musharraf with Vice President Joe Biden at a football game, suggesting the meeting was planned. The Vice President's office quickly covered its bases by clarifying that it was a chance encounter with "no substantive conversation."
In reality, Musharraf tried many times to get meetings at the State Department and White House but failed. Don't look for the United States to change track now that Musharraf is back in Pakistan. U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Rick Olson recently said of his return: "I don't see this as a terribly large or significant event...he doesn't have a great deal of support." The White House later chimed in to say Musharraf's return was "an internal matter." And recall that just the week before, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland clarified in a morning briefing that the United States "has no favorites among Pakistani politicians and we are looking forward to work with whoever is elected on May 11." An unnamed senior State Department official was even blunter, saying the United States "did not want to lead anyone to conclude anything about where" U.S. interests may lie."
It is now clearer than ever before that the United States does not want to get involved in Pakistan's domestic politics. Letting political affairs run their course is the best thing the United States - or any other country, individual or institution - can do. Given negative Pakistani public and government perceptions of the United States, it is extremely unlikely that the United States could effectively achieve its objectives if it chose to get more involved.
No doubt America will find another way to sustain stable and friendly relations with the Pakistani government - too much is at stake. Until the end of 2014, the United States will remain heavily dependent on the Pakistani military's cooperation in keeping NATO supply routes from Afghanistan through Pakistan open. Longer term challenges of Pakistan-based Al Qaeda members and affiliates, as well as Pakistan's nuclear program, demand the United States has a more normalized relationship with Islamabad. Time will tell if the United States can truly go cold turkey on getting involved in Pakistani politics to advance its own interests.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.
Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
Roderic Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (London: Profile Books, 2011)
Artemy M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)
The idea that history offers lessons for the present is uncontroversial and common to the point of cliché. Yet, American foreign policy decisions often proceed with barely a look to the past. And so we were informed in 2009 by then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, likely to return as a fixture in future Democratic administrations, "[T]here's absolutely no valid comparison between the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan" and the U.S.-led campaign to enable the Afghan people to "reclaim their country." Is that so?
In her award-winning book about the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, Frances FitzGerald states:
Americans ignore history, for them everything has always seemed new under the sun....Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge of it as representatives for all mankind. They believe in the future as if it were a religion; they believe that there is nothing they cannot accomplish, that solutions wait somewhere for all problems like brides.
Just as history's lessons were dismissed as advisers begat brigades in the jungles of Southeast Asia, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan has been discarded as irrelevant to our own war by American policymakers, commanders, and commentators. This has left us, in the words of Lord Butler of Brockwell, "like a driver who commits to some manoeuvre in the road without looking into the rear mirror." Indeed, American leaders believe we are on a different road entirely. While there are significant differences between the two interventions, the road winds through the same mountains.
Two books released as the latest incarnation of foreign intervention winds down - one by Rodric Braithwaite and the other by Artemy Kalinovsky - tell the troubled tale of the Soviet intervention and withdrawal. In doing so, they shatter mischaracterizations that prevent the West from looking to this decade as a source of lessons. The only major flaws of these books, Afgantsy and The Long Goodbye, is that they were published years too late to serve as rejoinders to Undersecretary Flournoy and others who came before her who insisted that Afghanistan, in the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, stood "at the dawn of a new day."
Yet, while Braithwaite and especially Kalinovksy draw on previously unpublished Soviet records and interviews, they were not the first to strike at the myths of the Soviet intervention rooted in the Cold War. Almost twenty years ago, Diego Cordovez, the U.N.'s point man on Afghanistan in the 1980s, and journalist Selig S. Harrison produced the insightful Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal. These three books demand to be read and revisited in combination. They very much complement each other. Braithwaite's Afgantsy provides a vivid, novelistic account of the war in its entirety. Kalinovsky's more scholarly text provides the oft-missing Soviet perspective based on Politburo records, now housed at the Wilson Center thanks to Kalinovsky himself. Cordovez and Harrison give us the ultimate insider's account, bringing readers along for the ride as the U.N. emissary shuttles back and forth between Moscow, Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad, furiously working to get deadly foes to sit down at a table and talk.
The common Western narrative holds that once Soviet forces crossed their southern border into Afghanistan in December 1979, they were modern-day Cossacks waging a war of unmitigated brutality. With U.S. support, the noble mujahideen prevailed. This narrative, rooted in the hostile spirit of the Cold War, tells us we have nothing to learn from the Soviets in Afghanistan because our mission is so different in its purpose, aims and methods. Our very nature is so different that comparisons are useless. Or so we tell ourselves, and in doing so ignore the nuances of history.
The Soviets also had trouble reconciling their mission with Afghan history. In one memorable exchange captured by Kalinovsky, Soviet Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Mikhail Kapista cited the British experience in Afghanistan in the 19th Century. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko responded, "Do you mean to compare our internationalist troops with imperialist troops?" Kapitsa retorted, "No, our troops are different - but the mountains are the same!"
There are many aspects of the Soviet experience relevant to the current U.S.-led campaign, but none are more relevant to the present day than the Soviet efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement and withdraw their military forces. On these aspects of the war before the war, these three books have a great deal to say, primarily by way of three key lessons: Even a "reconciliation" that promises substantial government concessions may not succeed. Timing is everything. Pakistan is not to be trusted.
By the time Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power in 1985, the view that the Soviet war in Afghanistan was a quagmire was commonly held in the Politburo and in the military. Frustration with Afghan partners - particularly General Secretary Babrak Karmal - was at an all-time high, leading to his replacement with Mohammad Najibullah in 1986. Gorbachev came to accept that the Soviets would not leave a socialist government in their wake, but he was not ready to abandon their client regime entirely. He pushed a second, internal track on Najibullah: the policy of "National Reconciliation," which was far reaching in its concessions to the mujahideen.
The reconciliation program sought to reach out to biddable elements in the armed opposition, as well as non-Communist political and religious leaders not involved in the rebellion. In doing so, they sought to strengthen the position of the Afghan armed forces. Through a re-tooled aid package, more emphasis on outreach to tribes, efforts to make Afghan officials more independent, and dialogue with insurgent commanders, the Soviets hoped to set the conditions for a durable state as they planned to withdraw. Attempts to make the Afghan government more representative, rather than dominated by the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), were key. The new policy was announced in December 1986. That same month, Gorbachev called Najibullah to Moscow and informed him that a military withdrawal from Afghanistan was now official Soviet policy. The government, with Soviet advisers over their shoulders, drew up a new constitution that established "an Islamic legal system run by an independent judiciary, greater freedom of speech, and the election of a president by a loya jirga assembly consisting of parliament and tribal and religious leaders."
While sensible, the National Reconciliation program arrived too late. All sides were too entrenched. The Khalq and Parcham factions of the PDPA were still at loggerheads. The "Peshawar Seven" and "Tehran Eight" mujahideen parties were strong and confident in the countryside and the mountains, dripping with a desire for revenge and a hatred of the Kabul-based government. The Pakistanis and the Americans doubted the Soviets and the Afghan government were serious about a negotiated settlement. And they understood that, regardless of Soviet intentions, a compromise on their parts was not necessary. One independent-minded Soviet colonel wrote in a letter: "[O]ne has to keep in mind that the counter-revolution is aware of the strategic decision of the Soviet leadership to withdraw the Soviet troops from the DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] ...The counter-revolution will not be satisfied with partial power today, knowing that tomorrow it can have it all."
Gorbachev also fumbled the timing of announcing troop withdrawals. In February 1988, against the advice of the Soviet negotiating team in Geneva, Gorbachev announced a full withdrawal would begin on May 15, assuming an agreement was reached in Geneva. He hoped that his announcement and the signing of the accords would induce the United States and Pakistan to cease arming the mujahideen. According to Harrison, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had warned Gorbachev that "a formal commitment to a specific target date would give the impression of an urgent need to withdraw." Gorbachev was wrong and Shevardnadze was right. The withdrawal timeline was one of the few cards the Soviets had left in their deck and Gorbachev gave it away. Subsequent Soviet efforts to negotiate directly with the Peshawar Seven and Tehran Eight were futile.
In response to Gorbachev's announcement, U.S. Secretary of State George P. Schultz demanded that the the two superpowers take a symmetrical approach to the withdrawal of military aid to their respective proxies. In other words, American aid to the mujahideen and Soviet aid to the government would be withdrawn simultaneously. Early drafts of the accords had not envisioned symmetry. Gorbachev was apoplectic, but it was too late.
Moscow had greater concerns linked to a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan - namely negotiations over American nuclear-tipped missiles in Europe. Success in these negotiations depended on improving relations with the United States. And so, on April 14, 1988, the Geneva Accords were signed. They committed the Soviets to execute a "front-loaded" withdrawal within nine months. The United States and the USSR agreed to "positive symmetry," meaning that aid continued to the mujahideen and the Afghan government alike, rather than negative symmetry, which would have withdrawn aid to both. Besides, the Soviet leadership believed that the Accords, which prohibited Pakistani interference and intervention in Afghan affairs, would mitigate the problem of aid to the mujahideen. At any rate, Gorbachev assured Najibullah that, "Even in the harshest, most difficult circumstances, even under conditions of strict control - in any situation, we will provide you with arms." Like the rest of the world, neither of them anticipated the dissolution of the Soviet Union less than four years later.
Pakistan has three interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan that endure to the present day: blunting Pashtun nationalism, preventing strategic encirclement by India, and maintaining strategic depth against India. Support for violent Islamist non-state actors, from the Taliban of the present to the Peshawar Seven of the 1980s, has allowed them to accomplish all three. With Pakistan under the leadership of pro-Islamist Zia ul Haq, the idea of a socialist state and Soviet forces on Pakistan's border was intolerable.
As early as 1980, the Central Committee of the Politburo in Moscow understood Pakistan was the key, and envisioned, according to Politburo records, "a complex of bilateral agreements between Afghanistan and its neighbors, above all Pakistan, and systems of corresponding guarantees from the USSR, USA." As such, the USSR and the Republic of Afghanistan signed the Geneva Accords, which committed Afghanistan and Pakistan to mutual relations, non-interference and non-intervention as well as to "interrelationships for the settlement of the situation." The Geneva Accords committed Pakistan to cease support for the mujahideen. As Cordovez explains, the whole negotiations process was premised on "international disengagement" that would "allow the Afghans themselves to sort out their differences."
Anyone hoping for Pakistani "disengagement" was disappointed. According to Shultz, when President Reagan asked Zia how he would counter Soviet accusations that aid to the mujahideen continued, Zia responded, "We will deny that there is any aid going through our territory. After all, that's what we have been doing for eight years." The UN monitoring mission - the key enforcement mechanism of the Accords - was an embarrassing failure. Before the ink on the Accords was dry, the Soviets and Afghan government began lodging legitimate complaints against Pakistani violations of the agreements. At one point, President Zia told the Soviet ambassador to Kabul that he would support a coalition that was divided in three between the former PDPA, "moderates," and the mujahideen. We do not know if he was serious, however, because the offer ended with the Pakistani leader's own life when his plane crashed later that summer. What we do know is that Pakistan has always sought to be kingmaker in Afghanistan, regardless of what outside powers do.
In the face of these treaty violations, the Soviet leadership hinted they might keep their military forces in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal deadline if the accords were not strictly adhered to. The bluff failed. The Soviets continued to withdraw their forces. The last of them crossed back into the Soviet Union on February 15, 1989.
The Nuances of History
History has not repeated itself in Afghanistan, but it has rhymed. There are important differences between the Soviet and U.S.-led campaigns that are worth keeping in mind. Brutal Soviet tactics, particularly early in the war, targeted entire communities. This had a direct effect on how the international community, Pakistan, and the mujahideen responded, particularly in terms of their recalcitrance to negotiate in good faith. The Soviet campaign was more deadly and indiscriminant in its violence, resulting in the deaths of up to a million Afghans - about 9% of the Afghan population at the time (admittedly, this figure is debatable). By the time of the Soviet withdrawal, there were millions of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Since the U.S.-led intervention began in 2001, most of these refugees have returned.
The scholar Louis Dupree described the Soviet strategy as "migratory genocide." In other words, the Soviets sought, in some provinces, to depopulate the countryside, the powerbase of the rebels. Joseph Collins, a longtime observer of Afghanistan, argued that for the Soviets, "[t]here was no talk about protecting the population; Soviet operations were all about protecting the regime and furthering Soviet control." Later in the war, the Soviets became obsessed with connecting the government and the population - but still, the Soviet campaign stands in contrast to that waged by ISAF, which has focused on controlling key rural areas and protecting rural communities. There has been operational success on this front. While there is reason to doubt these gains will endure, in this respect, the West has learned from the Soviet experience. Now, it is time for the West, and America in particular, to learn from how they negotiated their withdrawal so as not to repeat their mistakes.Ryan Evans is a PhD Candidate at the King's College London War Studies Department. His report, "Talking to the Taliban" - co-written with John Bew, Martyn Frampton, Peter Neumann, and Marisa Porges - will be released this month.
DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images
As Americans try to make sense of the latest salvo of rhetoric coming out of Kabul, Afghans are also perturbed by confusion engulfing their country's prospects at a time when both sides are expected to soberly focus on immediate challenges, maintaining Afghanistan's stability, and making sure that America's longest war is not perceived as a defeat when the mission ends in 2014.
Instead, all sides are witnessing a gradual erosion of bilateral trust that can be traced back at least as far as the controversial 2009 Afghan presidential elections. President Hamid Karzai has alleged that Western powers were trying to undermine his candidacy, while Afghan politicians accused his campaign and each other of fraud.
Evolving perceptions of U.S. and Afghan intentions since then continue to spark both nations' suspicions, raise questions about respective motivations, increase casualty counts on all sides, and test the strategic partnership that is essential to a successful transition process encompassing the security, political and economic sectors.
Such conditions can become untenable and strengthen the agenda pursued by most Taliban and their regional extremist support network.
The latest controversy was sparked a few hours after twin suicide attacks in Kabul and Khost killed scores of civilians last week. During a speech on International Women's Day, President Karzai accused the United States and the Taliban of unintended collusion and of holding back-channel talks. Without offering further details, he suggested to the Taliban that their attacks will create a sense of insecurity that could end up prolonging the U.S./NATO engagement, and criticized the United States for holding secret talks with the insurgent group that do not involve him.
In a convoluted way, the Afghan president is trying to convince elements of the "patriotic Taliban" to step up and put a stop to the carnage that is hurting ordinary Afghans. It is also not clear what evidence exists that continued Taliban atrocities are what the U.S. and NATO governments desire in order to have an excuse to prolong their presence in Afghanistan. Karzai has failed to explain how such a scenario aligns with the ongoing talks his government is carrying out with the U.S. and others on the post-2014 presence of troops to fight terrorism and train and support Afghan forces.
In his comments, Karzai also claimed that Americans and other countries are eyeing different elements of Afghanistan's mineral reserves, which he said would be negotiated taking Afghan interests into account.
There may be an element of truth to the claims, but both the Taliban and U.S. officials denied the accusation and offered strikingly opposite commentary. Many Afghan pundits, including opposition political parties, were highly critical of the tirade, describing it as far-fetched and provocative.
A week later, in an interview broadcast in Kabul on Thursday, Karzai offered a more positive assessment of his relations with the United States, and said that his comments were not meant to be critical, but corrective.
Whether Karzai's rant was purposefully timed during the top Pentagon official's visit or not, Chuck Hagel's first visit as Secretary of Defense did not go as planned. He was hoping to resolve two outstanding issues: one regarding the transfer of prisoners to Afghan custody, and the other Karzai's recent demand that Special Operations forces be withdrawn from Wardak Province. Although discussions are ongoing, neither issue was resolved during the conversations that took place hours after Karzai's diatribe.
Some commentators floated the notion that Karzai was getting back at Hagel because of sharp comments that were attributed to the then-Senator in 2003 during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which President Karzai was grilled by U.S. lawmakers. Heads of state are not usually asked to testify before Congress, and the Afghan ambassador at the time was fired for erroneously scheduling the event, though Karzai's staff had previously approved the president's appearance before the Committee.
The issue that seems to have rattled Karzai the most, however, is linked to his suspicion that the U.S. government is undermining his lead on the peace process by holding secret talks with Taliban representatives.
Karzai is not entirely incorrect when he says that secret contacts are underway between U.S. intermediaries and high-flying Taliban representatives who are now "sipping coffee" with Westerners in the Gulf and Europe. However, he is wrong to assume that these contacts amount to negotiations on the future of the country. The American interlocutors are mostly go-betweens who advocate dialogue and may not have the full blessing of the American government.
The Taliban say they are interested in talking to the Americans about a prisoner exchange, which would also help boost their political credentials through interactions with the international community, whereas Washington is partly using the contacts to convince Taliban leaders to enter into talks with Kabul. With the Taliban adamant so far about not recognizing Karzai as a stakeholder, the U.S. effort should not be seen as counter-productive.
If one is to assume that the "patriotic Afghan Taliban" - as Karzai described them in a speech this week - are actually in touch with him, they are not responding in kind, preferring instead to remain anonymous, since none have dared to advocate a desire to enter into peace talks with Kabul yet. This means that the so-called reconcilable Taliban are either being restrained by their more extremist counterparts, are not in a position to engage right now, are not willing to recognize Kabul, or do not exist as at all.
On the issue of prisoner transfers from U.S. to Afghan custody, Karzai's weekend ultimatum was once again rejected, as U.S. officials expressed misgivings about dangerous individuals who they fear Afghan officials will release. Instead of discussing the merits of the process and arriving at a mutually acceptable solution, the two sides have so far stuck to their respective positions.
With regard to the demand that U.S. Special Forces vacate Wardak province after allegations of civilian mistreatment last month, Karzai's request has yet to take effect. With parts of the province under Taliban control, and Wardak serving as a strategic entry point into Kabul, American officers, local leaders and even Afghan security officials have questioned the validity of the demand. So far, neither side has offered a mutually satisfactory solution that would not jeopardize the security situation and put the capital at risk.
Following the weekend outbursts, Karzai's spokesman lamented that the President is not taken seriously when he demands that his Western allies take practical steps to address all contentious issues, especially his demand for exerting more pressure on Pakistan, seen by Kabul as backing Afghan Taliban efforts.
Regardless of their actual origin, Karzai's pointed accusations nowadays are part venting, part drama and mostly motivated by political calculus. They are undoubtedly also intended to influence the upcoming presidential elections and the legacy Karzai wants to leave behind when he steps down in 2014.
However, his excessive use of the public pulpit - instead of diplomatic and political channels - could reduce the effectiveness of his overtures. This type of in-your-face politics may not win him many converts in Afghanistan, or help realize his political aspirations.
What is less apparent to Karzai and his politically motivated cronies is the public relations impact in Western nations, as well as the strategic communications bonanza that such rhetoric provides to his domestic and regional detractors.
Although Karzai is justified in the eyes of many Afghans when he complains about civilian casualties and chastises the West for waging war in Afghan villages instead of pursuing terrorist in their hideouts in the tribal regions of Pakistan, his choice of venue, rhetoric and timing undermines the real intention.
Provocative claims not only exacerbate public confusion, but they also dampen support for the Afghan mission in troop-contributing nations where questions about further engagement already abound.
Contrary to the delusional belief within Karzai's inner-circle that the West needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the West, the country cannot afford to alienate those who have contributed to the positive changes that have taken place over the past decade, and who are committed to continue to help beyond 2014.
This is not to say that mistakes were not made over the years, that certain strategic and tactical decisions were not erroneous, or that Western policies have all been thoughtful. There is enough blame to be shared on all sides, but now is not the time to engage in finger pointing or scoring points.
At the same time, Afghan sensitivities that are known to benefit the armed opposition need to be taken into account, as all sides need to engage in more coordination and trust building, and aim for solutions to technical or legal concerns.
However, if Karzai's intention is to engage in political flirtation with America's enemies, either in the hope of becoming the peacemaker or to be remembered as the nationalist who accelerated the Western withdrawal, his plan could backfire and end up damaging his domestic political base. Many Afghans consider the core Taliban (with the exception of some who are not in a position to act) as a pariah radical group supported by hardline regional actors. By alienating his base, there is a risk that Karzai could become a weak lame-duck president earlier than expected.
What Afghan leaders need to be reminded of is that hardcore Taliban and regional detractors are the beneficiaries of fractured domestic politics and incoherent international relations. There are powerful networks in the region (and some within the country) that want to destabilize the country and damage Afghan relations with the international community. Those are detrimental for stability and the transitions Afghanistan and many others are facing over the next two years.
This delicate situation requires better management of frustration and rhetoric on both sides in order to accomplish the goal of meaningful strategic partnership.
Omar Samad is President of Silkroad Consulting. He was Afghan Ambassador to Canada (2004-2009) and France (2009-2011), and Spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004). He can be reached at email@example.com.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is right to worry about perpetual war, but wrong to worry about drones killing Americans in America. His concerns about domestic drone strikes unfortunately obscured a far more pressing debate about how to manage and regulate surveillance via drones and other techniques such as wiretaps and Internet traffic monitoring.
The truth is, drones are not actually all that good at killing people, nor at bringing them to justice. The reason they are used in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia is because no better alternatives are readily available. Within the United States, the president has far more capable means at his disposal for using force. In terms of surveillance, however, drones are among the most effective tools in existence.
During his 13-hour filibuster on Wednesday, Paul proposed a resolution against the use of drones to "execute or target American citizens on American soil." The resolution is superfluous because the chief limitation on the use of drones is how well they work -- not legal, moral, ethical, or constitutional considerations.
The question is not what drones themselves are capable of, but how those capabilities compare to the alternatives available to military, intelligence, and law enforcement officials. Compared to other means the American government has at its disposal for the domestic use of force, a drone-launched missile is a crude, blunt, and ineffective instrument. It is not possible to deploy the FBI to Pakistan's tribal areas or to rural Yemen. Drones are being used in these countries because they provide a capability that is better, in the eyes of the national security apparatus, than the alternatives of inaction or bombing from manned aircraft.
The reason for "signature strikes" in Pakistan and Yemen -- where patterns of behavior are targeted instead of specific individuals -- is because of a paucity of information. It is far easier for the U.S. government to gather information inside the United States than it is in Waziristan.
Drones, will, of course, grow more technologically capable of flying for a longer time, seeing with keener sight, and aiming explosives still more precisely. But even the apotheosis of these efforts will do no more than replicate the abilities of a trained sniper. There is no reason to be more fearful of a drone-based assassin than one armed with a rifle. The same existing laws and norms that prevent the president from capriciously bombing, say, Texas or ordering commando squads to assassinate American citizens, also apply to domestic drone attacks.
During his filibuster, Paul worried that the government might "kill people in America without even knowing their name." This worry is baseless. National security hawks can save face by agreeing that using drones to kill American citizens in the United States would be wrong and unconstitutional. But other infringements on constitutionally protected freedoms are not notional. By grandstanding on the issue of drone attacks, Paul loses the credibility that he and other advocates for limitations on the executive's power need to hold the president to account on the use of present-day surveillance technologies.
Unfettered surveillance from drones would be useful to law enforcement, just as it would be useful to not require search warrants. It is easy to convince the military, and law enforcement authorities, to give up capabilities that were never that useful to begin with. This is why the United States ratified the international treaty banning chemical weapons with comparatively little controversy -- chemical weapons never were all that effective as a tool of war (there was a heated debate about tear gas, which is useful). But the international treaty against land mines remains unsigned despite decades of effort by human rights advocates (and a Nobel Peace Prize), because land mines are seen as a useful force multiplier. The true challenge is to place limitations on tools that are genuinely useful to authorities but whose use infringes on the rights of citizens.
As the ACLU's Jay Stanley and Catherine Crump have written, the domestic use of drones by various state, federal, and local law enforcement agencies is already widespread, and is not effectively regulated. "Because of their potential for pervasive use in ordinary law enforcement operations and capacity for revealing far more than the naked eye, drones pose a more serious threat to privacy than do manned flights," they wrote in a 2011 report. Since then, the domestic use of surveillance drones has only increased, with only a scant patchwork of regulation by some states. (Bills have been introduced into the legislatures, though not yet passed, in Florida, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia, Montana, and Texas, according to the ACLU.) None of those state-level regulations would restrict federal efforts.
The 5th Amendment's due process protections are not at risk from drones within America's borders for the simple reason that drones are an ineffective tool for bringing people to justice -- as was shown when Navy SEALs were sent to apprehend Osama bin Laden, rather than a drone. But the power of drones that can loiter indefinitely overhead, tracking the past and future movements of all who pass below, is real. The questions of how the 4th Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches applies to drones, and of privacy concerns more broadly, are vexing ones that Senator Paul can help us, as a nation, come to terms with.
Konstantin Kakaes is a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and can be found on Twitter @kkakaes.
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Maintaining a large military presence in Afghanistan is not in the strategic interests of either the U.S. or the Afghan government. It does not help the United States accomplish its long-term goal of countering terrorism from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, nor its short-term goal of helping Afghanistan achieve stability and self-reliance in fighting insurgency. It is also economically unsustainable. However, retaining a smaller, lighter, residual presence in Afghanistan is critical to U.S. strategy and vital to core U.S. interests.
Additionally, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan must be based on a vision that goes out decades: Considering only short-term goals amounts to strategic myopia, unworthy of the sacrifices made by almost 2,200 U.S. service members in Afghanistan alone.
A Case for Lighter, Smarter, Long-term Residual Presence
With Osama Bin Laden dead and al-Qaeda's capabilities diminished in the Af-Pak region, the immediate threat of attacks on the U.S. from the region has greatly diminished. But the ingredients that could help Al Qaeda regenerate in the next decade remain, and thus the mission endures.
In fact, the "surge" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2009 had little to do with bin Laden; rather, it was an attempt to rescue the failing mission of stabilizing Afghanistan. Bin Laden was hunted and killed not by the surge, but by a small, specialized group, the likes of which I argue should remain in Afghanistan to monitor and guard against the long-term threat of terrorist cells.
More importantly, a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy must include the training of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to counter domestic threats. But this will take significantly longer than estimates suggest. As such, the U.S. must alter its stated strategy in Afghanistan to consider the training and equipping of the ANSF a key element of its plan to counter threats, and support Afghanistan in its domestic fight against terrorists that, left unchecked, could re-emerge. The numbers of trainers must be kept low and should not be outsourced to contractors. Currently, the only elements specifically designed to counter insurgencies are the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF). Considering the nuanced task, the training force should be predominantly SOF.
With nearly 2,200 troops dead, thousands more wounded, and half a trillion dollars spent in America's longest war, merely staying the course in Afghanistan is no longer possible. In fact, with no sound opposition to President Obama's plan of swift withdrawal, the U.S. has decided to accelerate the transition from combat to training mission and, arguably less advertised, concentrate forces in a few heavily fortified locations such as Bagram Air Base.
Eleven one-year strategies in Afghanistan have brought us to a point where people consider "strategic retreat" the best of the worst options available. In pursuing this plan, however, the United States and its strategic partners in the Afghan Government risk a return to a time where fractured Afghan groups battled for supremacy, and an apathetic and financially exhausted U.S. didn't want to spend any more blood or treasure. History has shown that this "strategic retreat," fails to consider the greater geo-strategic importance of maintaining a U.S. presence in Afghanistan
Without a firm presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. will have no bases in South-Central Asia. The only other alternative is Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, whose lease is going to expire in 2014, and Kyrgyz President Almaz Atambayev has made it clear that his government will not extend the agreement any further. From a regional perspective alone, the U.S. must maintain a residual footprint in Afghanistan as a mechanism of influencing Central and South Asia. Stability in the AfPak region is critical in monitoring and combating a reemergence of al-Qaeda.
Ultimately, for the Obama Administration to achieve its objective of maintaining pressure on al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the region, and supporting Afghanistan as a strategic partner - it must consider a nuanced strategy when looking at the composition of the U.S. residual presence. After 2014, Obama should employ a specialized force with a light footprint, but a big contribution. I recommend the following elements be in the mix:
1. A counter-terrorism task force to focus on the remnants of al-Qaeda and any insurgent groups that pose a threat to U.S. assets and interests. The specialized CT elements need to be able to engage targets throughout the country, so this will have to include both primary bases, and lily pads to extend their reach. These elements should train and utilize their Afghan counterparts as much as possible; ultimately, the Afghan counter-terrorism elements themselves should take over.
2. A robust counter-insurgency training force comprised of both ground and air special operations forces that will focus on the training of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in specialized COIN training - similar to that in Colombia. This extends to the mentoring of the Afghan Air Force, civil affairs, etc.
3. The only "conventional force" presence should be in the protection of U.S./Coalition bases. These bases should have maximum flexibility by maintaining minimal infrastructure in only 4 locations (Bagram in the East, Mazar-e-Sharif in the North, Herat in the West, and Bastion in the South). Additionally, a limited aviation training presence should be kept in the main training base for the Afghan Air Force, Shindand Airfield. The U.S. will probably maintain Bagram and Kabul, whereas Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, and Bastion should be supported by NATO partners.
4. In Kabul, all that should remain are the headquarters at ISAF - with some of its coalition partners' participation - a limited contingent on the military side of the Kabul airfield, and a NATO Training Mission Afghanistan command.
5. SOF should abandon the "Afghan Local Police" (ALP) in most areas and focus more on the development of the ANSF. A few years ago, with over 100,000 U.S. personnel in country, SOF could afford to focus on the ALP concept. Now, with only a few thousand U.S. service members in-country, the emphasis must be on the uniformed security services.
In terms of numbers, the right mix is about 4,000 SOF and SOF enablers, and 4-5,000 conventional forces and headquarters support. While the 9,000 U.S. personnel seems to be the "just enough" figure for an enduring presence, it seems the President may now be set on a lower figure due to financial constraints.
Setting a Long-Term U.S. Strategy for Afghanistan
The United States non-military strategic course in Central and South Asia needs to start in 2015, not end in 2014. The U.S. needs to consider its 2025 strategic vision, and make smaller contributions to the region but with bigger payoffs.
For example, the U.S. should work with other key allies to coordinate on increasing trade and creating more jobs in a region that is currently plagued with high rates of unemployment and poverty. Coordinating with Pakistan and investment giants such as the United Arab Emirates to secure funding for a road or railroad from Helmand to the port of Gwadar, or with Qatar to invest in Afghanistan's and Pakistan's natural resources can create thousands of jobs and boost economies. This is not something that is purely altruistic; such activities can greatly benefit U.S. interests. Furthermore, a strategic "pivot to Asia" can only be accomplished if there is stability in Central and South Asia. Afghanistan is critical to trade corridors from oil-gas rich Central Asia states (including Afghanistan) to the end users of South and East Asia. In effect, Afghanistan's geo-strategic importance goes far beyond trans-national terrorism threats.
Over the past 11 years, the international community has committed billions of dollars in an effort to stabilize and reconstruct a country ravaged by three decades of war. The U.S. alone has spent over $600 billion in the longest war in its history, with over $20 billion in governance and development funds. And yet, Afghanistan is still not economically self-sustainable. Perhaps that is not so shocking, though. President Obama himself made it clear (as early as May 2012) that, "Our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars and many more American lives."
Another way of looking at this, however, is the way most American veterans of the conflict view their sacrifices: as a strategic investment. They might argue that the dollars spent and the lives lost deserve a much more impressive outcome than simply a strategic retreat with Afghanistan in dire straits.
For their part, few Afghans welcome the U.S. withdrawal. While important to equip and strengthen the Afghan security forces, Presidents Karzai and Obama did not address crafting a long-term strategy that looks towards a stable Afghanistan in 2030, rather than a short-term "stable enough to transition security" by 2014.
Presidents Karzai and Obama - two leaders unable to seek reelection and concerned about their legacy - may still be able to give the people of Afghanistan a gift that can help stabilize Afghanistan. President Karzai has a unique opportunity to leverage his last year in government to broker a deal that can offer real hope of change and progress. On the American side, the U.S. and other donors should minimize "hand out" aid and focus on investments in Afghanistan. Donor programs don't create revenue, but rather act as symptomatic relief. Public funds, partnered with private firms, can help develop a self-sustaining Afghan economy. For the past three decades, the United States has appeared to prefer short-term strategies. They did not recognize the long-term consequences of inattention following the Soviet withdrawal. They seemed satisfied with the near term and non-committal cruise missile-targeting of Osama Bin Laden after a series of terrorist attacks in the late 1990s.
President Obama's inaugural speech last month made it clear that the "decade of war" has come to a close. By 2014, the U.S. should conclude this chapter by leaving behind a small training force, a robust counter-terrorism force, and an economic support model that is viable in the long-term. Significant intellectual and limited monetary capital must go toward achieving sustainable Afghan economic growth in the mid-to-long-term. Rather than how much is spent in Afghanistan, donors - and in particular, the U.S. as the largest - need to start paying attention more to effectiveness of what is spent.
Ultimately, the most important date on our 2014 calendar should be the April Afghan Presidential election rather than the December withdrawal deadline. If the election is not credible or moderately successful in maintaining the trust of key stakeholders in the democratic progress, the numbers of U.S. troops remaining will not make much difference in the post-election environment. The Afghan people and the international community will be watching closely to ensure that the election is an example of the democratic progress that 13 years of Coalition presence made possible. The troop levels, important as they may be, are only secondary to the success of the political process.
Gianni Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/GettyImages
Viewers watching the Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing for former Sen. Chuck Hagel Thursday could be forgiven for forgetting that America is at war.
Apparently, so did their senators.
In a marathon hearing that spanned eight hours, several Senate votes and one lunch break, Hagel's past statements and future outlook on Iran and the state of Israel won far more airtime than a conflict in which 66,000 US troops now serve. More time was spent discussing the appropriateness of talking with the leaders of Iran, with whom we are not currently at war, than the feasibility of talking to the leaders of the Taliban, with whom we presumably are. (Vice President Joe Biden noted a little over a year ago that the "Taliban per se is not our enemy.")
As the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekran tweeted, "At Hagel hearing, 136 mentions of Israel and 135 of Iran. Only 27 refs to Afghanistan. 2 for Al Qaida. 1 for Mali."
In the hearing's second session the word Afghanistan received only one mention.
In their curious mix of apathy and amnesia concerning America's longest-ever war, senators on both sides reflect the views of the American public. Polling shows more than sixty percent of Americans no longer think the war is worth its cost. CNN notes that in a fall CNN/ORC International poll not even five percent named Afghanistan as "one of the most important issues facing" America. And fifty-one percent of respondents in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said the war was "not worth it.
The recent presidential campaign also made precious little mention of the war still being fought and for which National Guard units continue to deploy. The President talked about bringing a "responsible end" to the war while Vice President Joe Biden repeated throughout the summer and fall that "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive." On the Republican side Clint Eastwood and his empty chair mentioned Afghanistan more than GOP nominee Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
As former Amb. Ronald Neumann noted recently at the Brookings Institution, the debate around the war's future "has been completely ignored in the electoral period, and it is being framed all too much in bumper sticker phrases, which simply are idiotic ways of trying to understand the complexity of Afghanistan."
Americans and politicking officials have clearly developed a habit of ignoring America's decade-long war, but it is curious to see the next Secretary of Defense receive so few inquiries from senators about the war whose end he will presumably oversee in the coming years. A thorny rash of unpleasant questions surrounding Afghanistan's future confront the president and the Pentagon's next chief. These include: how many U.S. troops to keep in Afghanistan, how to define their mission, how generously to fund the Afghan forces and at what levels, and whether and how to proceed with peace talks with the Taliban.
None of those issues, however, sat in the spotlight at Thursday's hearing.
To those few questions Hagel did receive on Afghanistan he offered vague and decidedly noncommittal answers, aside from noting that he fully supports the president's current policy to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. But on the issue of post-2014 troop levels -of both American forces and the Afghan Army - Hagel said he did not want to speculate regarding exact numbers because he had not been aware of all conversations between President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"As far as I know, as of this morning the president had not -- not made a decision on what a residual force, numbers-wise, would look like. I have not been included in those discussions, so I don't know, other than knowing that he's got a range of options, as you do," Hagel said regarding US troop levels. "As to what kind of a force structure should eventually be in place by the Afghans, I don't know enough about the specifics to give you a good answer, other than to say that I think that has to be a decision that is made, certainly, with the president of Afghanistan."
In 2008 then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama called Afghanistan the war "that we have to win." Now it is the war everyone wants to forget. Except those who cannot: on the same day as Hagel testified, the Kentucky National Guard announced it would hold two "departure ceremonies" for soldiers preparing for a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
An October report by Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic claims to have found significant flaws in media reports regarding casualties caused by U.S. drone operations in Pakistan. Three organizations, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation, maintain databases that collect information on the casualties for each strike and their research is regularly cited in congressional reports and news articles. While the Columbia report laments that these estimates can only "substitute for hard facts and information that ought to be provided by the U.S. government," it proceeds to weigh in on the casualty debate. After a strike by strike comparison of the three databases' 2011 data, Columbia concludes that two of these organizations "significantly undercount the number of civilians killed by drone strikes," while singling out the Bureau as the most accurate and reliable source of information on drone casualties.
The Columbia study is quick to critique the drone data compiled by the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal, yet it devotes negligible attention to potential shortcomings in the Bureau's reporting. The study repeatedly applauds the Bureau's investigative practices, analysis criteria and the breadth of its sources. It offers the most guarded criticism, writing only, "we do not agree with the Bureau's analysis of media sources in all cases." Upon reading Columbia's "Counting Drone Strike Deaths," one is led to conclude that the Bureau's casualty estimates are both methodologically rigorous and empirically sound.
And yet, a careful reading of the separate 65 page dataset, which details the findings of Columbia's exhaustive comparison, reveals numerous instances in which the Columbia researchers reject the Bureau's interpretation of the evidence or dispute the credibility of their sources, criticisms that receive no mention in their widely circulated report.
Columbia only analyzed reports for 2011, but had they continued on with their research, they would have found that these problems pervade the Bureau's reporting on strikes from 2004 through 2012.
Based on this tenuous evidence the Bureau has claimed 45-240 civilian casualties. Taken together, this methodologically flawed reporting accounts for over 25 percent of the 474-884 civilian casualties the Bureau claims died between 2004 and 2012. While it is highly probable that some of these deaths may in fact have been civilians, in the face of so much ambiguity, it would be more prudent to label the deceased as unidentified or unknown. This would provide a more accurate representation of the evidence, and acknowledge that despite the best attempts to gather information, there is still much uncertainty about the outcome of individual strikes and the overall effect of the U.S. drone program.
The trends highlighted above point to three broader methodological flaws in the Bureau's analysis that Columbia researchers fail to highlight. The first is a problem of evidence. The Columbia report suggests that the widest range of sources will provide the most credible evidence, and based on the fact that the Bureau cites the largest body of sources and has the highest casualty figures, its numbers are the most reliable. Beyond the fact that the Bureau is a notable outlier as compared to the other two datasets produced by New America Foundation and The Long War Journal, it is a mistake to privilege quantity of evidence over quality. Pakistan Body Count, South Asia Terrorism Portal and the Long War Journal are secondary sources that rely on reporting from other media outlets and should not count as corroborating sources, yet the Bureau does so. Antiwar.com, sify.com, Prison Planet and the World Socialist Web Site are simply not credible news outlets, yet these are some of the sources that the Bureau is praised for citing.
The second problem is the absence of transparency in investigations of drone strikes carried out by the Bureau's own researchers. The Bureau says it has conducted independent investigations of certain strikes and their database includes 13 strikes where the sole source of information citing civilian deaths is from "the Bureau's own researchers." These uncorroborated claims account for at least 56-64 of the Bureau's reported civilian casualties. The strike on January 6, 2010 includes a typical description: "According to the Bureau's researchers five rescuers died, named as Khalid, Matiullah, Kashif, Zaman and Waqar, all belonging to the Utmanzai Wazir tribe." However there is no indication of whom these researchers are or the standards they apply to their reporting.
The same criticisms that the Columbia report levies at unnamed Pakistani government officials discussing drone strikes on the condition of anonymity, could just as easily be aimed at the Bureau's own reporting:
We do not know who the unnamed Pakistani officials are, although observers believe they are Pakistani army officials. What definition these officials use to categorize a person as a militant or civilian is unknown. Nor do we know how the Pakistani Army confirms such deaths or the quality of information it is able to rely on given the limited accessibility of some of the tribal regions to even the Army.
The Bureau's researchers might well be the sort of local journalists or "stringers" the Columbia report is quick to term unreliable. Nor does the Bureau make mention of whom their sources are, when or where they were interviewed, or what was said. If the Bureau wants its findings to be taken seriously by other researchers, then it should provide independent reports of its investigations rather than cursory references in the midst of its dataset.
The third problem is one of interpretation. The Bureau consistently counts references to "local" deaths as civilian casualties, but as the Columbia dataset notes, these descriptors are not synonymous. The media reports are riddled with references to "local militants" and "tribal militants." It stands to reason that a significant number of the militants operating in the tribal regions of Pakistan would live in the area, and thus the mere fact that the deceased are reported as local is not sufficient to establish that they are civilians. And yet, the Bureau consistently claims just that. Even worse, it frequently labels the fatalities as civilians when the media accounts refer to them in neutral terms such as "people" or admits that their identity is unclear.
Furthermore, the Bureau's written methodology provides limited insight into how it makes these interpretations. The methodology makes no mention of how the Bureau treats reports of "local" deaths. Nor does it explain how it deals with conflicting reports. The methodology says that when reports differ it provides a range of total casualties, but it does not explain how the Bureau determines who to count as a civilian. It goes on to state that "where media sources refer only to ‘people' killed... we indicate that civilian casualties may be possible." One would assume they indicate this by way of an asterisk or note, but it would seem that in most instances it reports a range of civilian casualties with a low end of zero and a high end of the total killed. This denotes the uncertainty but potentially inflates the high end of the range of civilian deaths. Moreover, it signals a clear preference for counting unidentified casualties as civilians.
Admittedly, this somewhat esoteric discussion about the veracity of the Bureau's claims versus those of other databases, or the appropriate methodology for counting casualties, risks losing sight of the broader picture. These are not merely numbers; these are people. And no matter which database you reference, civilians are being killed by the hundreds. While this consideration should be paramount, an assessment of the drone program should also take into account those factors that are less quantifiable: the elevated rates of PTSD in areas where drones operate, the dangerous example being set for other states, most notably China and Russia, and the increase in anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan that risks endangering the lives of American citizens.
But as the Columbia study points out, numbers matter. Numbers drive our public discourse. Numbers are how politicians measure outcomes. Numbers are how we make sense of our world. And numbers are vulnerable to manipulation, a distortion that is equally dangerous whether it involves government officials lowballing civilian casualty reports or independent researchers potentially inflating them.
Meg Braun is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, where she is researching the evolution of U.S. drone policy. She was an intern at the New America Foundation during summer 2012, where she worked to revise and update its drone database.
Correction: This post initially stated incorrectly that "The Bureau says it has conducted independent investigations of certain strikes and their database includes 15 strikes where the sole source of information citing civilian deaths is from "the Bureau's own researchers." These uncorroborated claims account for at least 65-73 of the Bureau's reported civilian casualties." The correct numbers are 13 strikes and 56-64 reported civilian casualties.
With a second term assured, President Barack Obama has a shot at making a huge difference in greater South Asia, an opportunity that he failed to take in his first term. This may now be the time for a new hyphenation across the map of that critical part of the globe: bringing together a string of countries ranging from Iran, through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Bangladesh. For this may be the center of gravity of Asian stability and growth in the next couple of decades, if the United States and its partners get their policies right. But first, the President needs to create a center of gravity for decision making on this region in his own Administration, reaching across the aisle and bringing in new blood to rejuvenate his efforts to bring peace. Then he must help create a network among the nations of this region that is based on their own self-interests and from which the United States would profit immeasurably.
The President could use the emerging forces of democracy, gender equality, and civilian supremacy rather than military might as the catalysts for change in the region. No carrots or sticks, but moral suasion, applied quietly and confidently to help these countries build confidence amongst themselves.
India is perhaps the most critical part of this new opportunity. Under a Prime Minister who has dared to think of peace and normalcy even with arch enemy Pakistan, India needs to be encouraged to open its borders to its neighbors for trade and travel, opening far wider the door that has been cracked open in recent months. A paranoid Pakistan that fears hot borders on the east and the west could be helped to get over its concerns. Pakistan must recognize that it is in its own interest to create normalcy with its neighbors, for it cannot afford to continue on the path of military or economic competition, especially with India. Rather, it can catapult its economy to new heights by becoming a regional partner. The United States could also bring together support for strengthening Pakistan's recent overtures to all Afghans, not just the contiguous Pakhtuns, whom Pakistan wrongly saw in the past as its assets.. There are signs that Pakistan is prepared to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan. Much could be done to support that trend by helping open trade and power (gas and hydroelectricity) routes to central Asia. In both these countries, civil society and civilian governments are the key to progress and stability. Pluralism, gender equality, education, and health may be the foundation stones to help them gain their footing as democracies.
This means shifting the focus of expenditures from guns to butter over time. The United States has a great position in that regard, as a strategic partner to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India for the time in history. It can also open the door to engagement with Iran by bringing Iran back to the table on Afghanistan's future stability. By helping create regional ownership for Afghanistan's future it can find a way to exit gracefully from the region. India, again, will be key in creating transparency in its relations with Afghanistan to help Pakistan overcome its suspicions of being hemmed in on both sides.
The region has been ready for some time to create an atmosphere of trust, though much remains to be done on the issues of cross-border terrorism and non-state actors. Civil society groups have started benefiting from the opening of trade relations and visa regimes. The current limited transit trade arrangements need to be extended from Kabul to Dhaka. The cross pollination of ideas -- especially among the burgeoning youthful populations of the region - and the greater involvement of women in their societies, will help ensure that there is no slipping back toward obscurantist thinking of the past. Those positive trends are growing and cannot be turned back, come what may.
President Obama can ride these emerging waves to truly earn his Nobel Prize of four years ago by helping bring lasting peace to greater South Asia. Perhaps he could start by visiting two border posts in the first few months of his second term: Wagah, where India meets Pakistan, and Torkham, where Afghanistan and Pakistan meet, and calling for keeping the gates that now close daily to remain open forever. This would be a grand legacy for the 44th president of the United States.
Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 - Seth Jones
The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West - Mitchell D. Silber
What is the nature of al-Qaeda? Is it an organization with tight leadership structures and command and control, or is it an idea that takes harbor in the hearts and souls of disenfranchised or disillusioned young men and women seeking some greater meaning to their lives? Over time, the importance of these two schools of general thought has waxed and waned with various academics, authors, pundits and practitioners alternatively concluding the importance of one over the other largely depending on the nature of the latest plot to be disrupted. Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 by Seth Jones and The al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West by Mitchell D. Silber offer different insights into this question, while reaching largely similar conclusions about what al-Qaeda is and how it has targeted the West.
Both of these books were published over a decade after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington bloodily thrust al-Qaeda into the public consciousness, meaning they are able to look back at a considerable amount of data. While Jones' is the more narratively satisfying book, telling a story of al Qaeda around the world, there are omissions in the text that reflect its heavy American focus. Silber's, on the other hand, is a case-by-case analysis that lacks a narrative storyline, but the accounts of the plots in question are drawn from primary sources that make them some of the most factually accurate versions yet told of the various plots, and bring new and interesting insights useful to analysts and researchers.
Gathering information from court documents, press, personal experience, and interviews the books focus on two different theses that ultimately reach the same goal. Silber sets out to find, "what is the "al Qaeda factor" in plots against the West?" For Jones, the central question is "what factors have caused al Qaeda waves and reverse waves?" "Waves" are "surges in terrorist violence" and "reverse waves" are "decreases in terrorist activity." The underlying aim of both is to understand how it is that al-Qaeda has targeted the West, and to what degree we can ascribe responsibility to the core organization.
Silber argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between those plots he characterizes as "al-Qaeda command and control," "al-Qaeda suggested/endorsed," and "al Qaeda inspired." As the definitions quite clearly imply, in each case there is some semblance of a connection to al-Qaeda or its ideas, but there is a distinct difference between the cases in which individuals sitting in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have provided direction, and those in which individuals internalized al-Qaeda ideas to try to carry out plots (or al-Qaeda-like ideas, given the inclusion of the 1993 attempt by Ramzi Yousef to bring down the World Trade Center, something he did after having been trained in Afghanistan and having plotted with his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but prior to Mohammed's swearing of bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden). The end result, however, of all three types is the same: a plot, or attempted plot, to attack the West in support of al-Qaeda's ideology. The cases offered are a laundry list of some of the most prominent plots targeting Europe, North America and Australia.
Jones' thesis is instead that al-Qaeda's violence has come in waves, the product of more or less intense and effective focus by counterterrorism forces. Identifying three key prongs to an effective counterterrorism strategy - a light military footprint, helping local regimes and authorities in their counterterrorism efforts, and exploiting al Qaeda's tendency to massacre civilians - Jones draws upon events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, as well as al-Qaeda plots in America, Spain and the United Kingdom, to map out how these waves have crested and broken against determined counterterrorism efforts.
Al-Qaeda's ability to shoot itself in the foot, as in the wholesale butchery by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is highlighted as an example of where the group goes too far and causes a local resurgence from which American forces were able to profit. It also serves to highlight how al-Qaeda Central can lose control of affiliates and suffer as a result. AQI's butchery not only appalled the general public, but it also led a number of scholars to write about the group's brutality and the numbers of Muslims that it wantonly killed whilst claiming to be targeting the West.
Here we can see how the organization would have liked to have tighter control, but was unable to maintain it. As the ideas it has been advancing take root, they increasingly find themselves being used by groups that take them in directions that detract from the original strategy of using terrorist attacks to stimulate the broader ummah into rising up. In some cases, like the Madrid bombings of 2004, the inspiration approach seems to work, as a group loosely connected to -- but not directed by -- al-Qaeda managed to carry out a successful attack on the West. In Iraq, on the other hand, where a local affiliate became too bloodthirsty, massacres of civilians led to the "Anbar Awakening" against al-Qaeda.
While al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is not the focus of attention in either book, he lingers as a background presence, his letters and writings surfacing as he tries to assert authority over the network he has created. In Jones' book we see others in the organization finding his leadership somewhat lacking. Jones quotes a letter in which top al-Qaeda operative Saif al-Adl expresses anger to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about how Osama "‘had failed to develop a cogent strategy for what would happen after the September 11 attacks." In Silber's text, bin Laden features even less, mentioned only as being aware of the 9/11 attacks (though plotting is described as being led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and as meeting with some of the members of the ‘Lackawanna Cluster,' a group of Yemeni-Americans who prior to 9/11 travelled to Afghanistan and trained at al-Qaeda camps. Some of these young men heard bin Laden speak, and soon afterwards concluded they were not interested in doing any more training.
One of them, Sahim Alwan, was invited to speak to bin Laden directly, and the al-Qaeda leader asked why he was leaving and more generally about what Muslims in America were like. But, as Silber points out, while this presented an opportunity for the group to recruit the men, "it did not happen." Both authors conclude that bin Laden was important primarily as a figurehead. As Silber writes towards the end: "regardless of the nature of his precise operational role in the organization, in the ten years since 9/11, he had become a legendary and mythical source of inspiration to individuals in the West who aspired to join his movement, regardless of whether they were in London, New York, Toronto or Madrid."
But the larger figures in these books are the operational leaders underneath bin Laden. Coming from authors with deep involvement in American counter-terrorism efforts, the books are highly tactical in their approaches. Silber's is written from the perspective of a man who has spent many years tracking al-Qaeda's threat to New York as Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD, while Jones writes as a researcher at RAND, drawing heavily on interviews with key players from the American counter-terrorism community, including Bruce Hoffman, Philip Mudd, Art Cummings, and John Negroponte.
Both authors conclude that al-Qaeda Central has tried and failed repeatedly over the years to launch attacks against the West. September 11 was a thundering success in this regard, but since then, while we have seen surges of terrorist violence around the world linked to al-Qaeda affiliates, the core organization's ability to effectively launch attacks has clearly been stymied by effective counterterrorism efforts. Heavy pressure means less time for people to be trained properly, and this means less effective operators and a reduced capacity to attack.
And while the spread of extremist ideas is important, it is not always going to produce great cells. While the Madrid group or the Hofstad Cell in Holland were reasonably productive cells that connected with peripheral al-Qaeda figures and led to results like the Madrid bombings or the murder of Theo van Gogh that impressed al-Qaeda, the Duka family in New Jersey or Russell Defreitas in New York (both highlighted in Jones' text) produced half-baked plots like the effort to blow up the fuel pipeline to JFK airport with no proper training that are hardly the sort of activity that al-Qaeda would want to be associated with.
Both books are useful in painting a methodical picture of how al-Qaeda has tried to attack the West, but where they are maybe less effective is in identifying how it is that these individuals can be prevented from ever going down the path of seeking meaning in al Qaeda's ideas. Jones does suggest finding ways to exploit the inconsistencies in al-Qaeda's narrative in order to undermine their capacity to recruit, but the fact is that more than a decade since the group's official creation, people are still being drawn to the flame. This suggests that we have still not figured out how to offer an appealing alternative narrative, and that the ideas that al-Qaeda advances are still able to draw recruits.
Jones's Hunting in the Shadows could be described as an official history of sorts of al-Qaeda from the U.S. government perspective. This makes it a different beast to Silber's The Al Qaeda Factor, in which a much more coldly analytical process draws a clear conclusion about the ‘al Qaeda factor' in various terrorist plots.
Jones and Silber both conclude that it is becoming ever harder for al-Qaeda to effectively connect with and re-direct these recruits back home to carry out terrorist plots. Taking this conclusion a step further, we may assume that over time this sort of pressure will wear the network down. But if they are able to harness individuals drawn to them more effectively and enable a further wave of terrorist violence, the al-Qaeda ideology may survive longer. The solution advanced in both of these books, and echoed by the U.S. counterterrorism community, is to maintain heavy pressure through drone strikes as well as support to the host governments, and continue to focus on disrupting the groups' capability to launch attacks on the West.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming 'We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain's Suburban Mujahedeen' (Hurst/Columbia University Press).
A report released in September by human rights researchers at Stanford Law School and New York University Law School sets out to demonstrate that U.S. drone policies are "damaging and counterproductive."
Media outlets from CNN to BBC hailed the report as new evidence of the U.S. government's false narrative on drones and the New York Times' Scott Shane described the study as "among the most thorough on the subject to date."
While the Stanford-NYU report certainly presents a comprehensive review of existing drone research, its new contributions to the evidentiary record are far more modest than its sweeping conclusions would suggest.
The U.S. government claims that civilian casualties caused by drones are in the "single digits" during Obama's years in office, while the Stanford-NYU report seeks to establish that there is significant evidence that U.S. drone strikes have killed and injured a larger number of civilians. This is a low bar, and would merely necessitate proving that more than 10 civilians have been killed by drones since Obama assumed office, a claim that has been made by all three major databases aggregating information on drone strikes. The Stanford-NYU report goes further, claiming that between 474 and 881 civilians have been killed since 2004.
However, this does not represent new evidence. Stanford and NYU researchers made no attempt to offer new statistical analysis on the number of civilian casualties caused by drones. Rather, their report is essentially an extended endorsement of a database compiled by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a small team of journalists based out of City University, London. In doing so, the report rejects the findings of two other widely cited databases, The Long War Journal, which reports 138 civilian deaths and New America Foundation's Year of the Drone, which lists 152-191 civilian deaths and the deaths of 130-268 "unknowns."
If the Stanford-NYU team wants to paint a picture of the U.S. as a human rights abuser, then the Bureau, whose casualty statistics dwarf the more conservative estimates of the other databases, is best suited to that purpose, but that does not make it the most reliable source.
While a comprehensive assessment of the Bureau's data should have been conducted before giving it a resounding endorsement, just a cursory review of its account of 2012's drone strikes reveals problems:
- On May 5, 2012 the Bureau reports that a strike in North Waziristan killed 8-10 people, of whom between zero and ten are listed as civilians. Upon reviewing the accompanying sources one find that early reports said the identity of the dead could not be determined, but subsequent reports from government officials identified them as militants. Of the 15 sources cited by the Bureau, not one states that the victims were civilians.
-On June 2, 2012 the Bureau reports that 2-4 people were killed and between zero and two of them were civilians. These civilian deaths were inferred based on a report that a motorbike was accidentally hit, but the Bureau fails to take note of a later report from The Express Tribune identifying the motorbike victims as suspected militants Khalil Yargul Khail and Rehmanullah Gangi Khail.
-On July 23, 2012 the Bureau references 25 sources for a drone strike, only one of which described the victims as local residents and based on this the Bureau reports that up to 14 civilians were killed.
The Stanford-NYU report critiques the Long War Journal for not making its data available in a verifiable strike-by-strike format, over-relying on U.S. intelligence sources, and identifying all victims as militants unless they are specifically identified as civilians. These are reasonable criticisms, but when the critique turns to New America Foundation research, it becomes logically inconsistent.
While Stanford-NYU researchers admit that all three databases rely on "the same universe of publicly available press reports," they criticize only the New America Foundation for over-relying on the anonymous Pakistani government officials cited in such news reports. The Stanford-NYU report laments that these officials are cited in 88% of articles referenced in New America's 2012 data but fails to consider that these same articles are referenced by the Bureau. Furthermore, the only reason the researchers were able to generate that statistic is because New America compiles a highly transparent summary of media sources relied on for each strike with a list of which sources reported which casualty estimates, something no other database provides.
The Stanford-NYU report goes on to question the "deep reporting" capabilities of New America's sources (The New York Times, Reuters, AP, BBC, etc.) while uncritically accepting the veracity of reports from fringe outlets such as the Kuwait News Agency, the South Asian News Agency, Central Asia Online, and Punjab News, which are sometimes the sole sources for the Bureau's reports of civilian casualties.
This is not to suggest that the Bureau's research is without merit, but it should be noted that it represents an interpretation of the facts with a bias toward reporting civilian casualties. The Bureau's database does not even have a category for reporting militant deaths. It seems counter-intuitive that the organization's researchers can have such absolute faith in their civilian casualty estimates, but not have the confidence to label any of the deceased as militants.
And the Stanford-NYU team was not impartial. By the report's own admission, the research project it undertook in Pakistan to interview family members of drone strike victims was commissioned by Reprieve, a UK based advocacy organization. Reprieve, which filed two lawsuits on behalf of alleged drone victims in May of 2012, arranged, paid for and collaborated on many of the victim interviews conducted by the Stanford-NYU researchers.
No database is perfect, but a strong argument could be made that the New America Foundation's policy of attempting to identify both militants and civilians while maintaining an explicit category for "unknowns" to represent the uncertainty surrounding many of the strikes is a more balanced representation of the facts. After all, if the public is to assess the efficacy of drone strikes then we need to consider the strikes that hit their targets as well as the ones that do not.
Stanford and NYU's analysis of the three drone databases, in some respects, misses the forest for the trees. A comparison of the annual data collected by the Bureau with that compiled by the New America Foundation suggests that while their numbers may differ, their underlying findings are substantially similar. Both the Bureau and New America have observed a general decline in the percentage of civilian fatalities since the high in 2006, with a sharp decrease during the Obama administration. According to the Bureau's data, the proportion of civilians killed in drone strikes fell from 35 percent in 2008 under President Bush to 9 percent thus far in 2012. Similarly, New America reports that the rate of civilian and unknown casualties decreased from 23 percent in 2008 to 2 percent in 2012. This stands to reason when we consider that the Bureau tends to err on the side of assuming that unidentified dead or individuals of disputed identity are civilians, while New America prefers to accommodate ambiguity by listing "unknowns" and only reports a civilian or militant casualty when it is reported by two independent sources.
If one takes the average number of civilian and unknown deaths counted by the New America Foundation from 2004-2012 as a percentage of the total number of people killed in drone strikes, the civilian and unknown deaths represent 15 percent of the total. The Bureau's data suggests that civilian deaths account for 22 percent of the total killed. These numbers are in fact, not so very far apart. And while the Bureau has criticized New America for reporting that in 2012, civilian deaths are approaching zero, the Bureau's own data suggests that the percentage of civilian casualties in 2012 is at nine percent, an all-time low and significantly less than the 23 percent the Bureau reports during Obama's first year in office. This suggests that the choice is not between two very different data sets, but rather two different interpretations of similar evidence. Contrary to the Stanford-NYU report's claims, the New America Foundation is not underreporting civilian casualties; its researchers have simply chosen not to feign certainty in the face of ambiguity.
What They Didn't Say
The Stanford-NYU researchers also fail to incorporate evidence that might temper their claims. Their report makes numerous references to an AP investigative report that interviewed 80 villagers at the sites of the ten deadliest attacks in 2011 and 2012 but neglects its conclusions that "a significant majority of the dead were combatants" and the numbers of casualties gathered by AP investigators "turned out to be very close to those given by Pakistani intelligence on the day of each strike."
Numerous media accounts, including the LA Times, have highlighted that "the [Stanford-NYU] study concludes that only about 2 percent of drone casualties are top militant leaders." The study reached no such conclusion. This claim is based on research conducted by New America and published last month on CNN. While the Stanford-NYU report summarily dismissed New America's militant and civilian casualty estimates, they have been quick to make this statistic a centerpiece of their argument. In doing so, they also take the conclusion out of context, and ignore the possible tactical utility of deliberately targeting low-level militants. Indeed, destroying communication centers, training camps and vehicles undermines the operational effectiveness of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and quotes from operatives of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network reveal that drones have forced them into a "jungle existence" where they fear for the lives on a daily basis.
A second key contention of the Stanford-NYU report is that drone strikes are "damaging and counterproductive" to U.S. national security. However, it is shortsighted to evaluate U.S. security in isolation from Pakistani domestic order. Terrorist attacks have been a pervasive problem in Pakistan, especially since 2007. While the report references these attacks and the frequent assassinations carried out by Taliban forces, it makes no reference to recent research by an analyst at the RAND Corporation, who identifies a negative correlation between drone strikes and militant violence inside Pakistan, indicating that the rate of violence has gone down as the rate of drone strikes has gone up. Analysis by New America suggests that while only 10 percent of drone strikes target al-Qaeda operatives, approximately 50 percent hit Taliban targets and in 2009, 19 of the first 32 drone strikes targeted the organization of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis, and the alleged mastermind of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud was a far greater threat to Pakistani security than that of the United States.
These criticisms are not to suggest that the Stanford-NYU report is without merit. The anecdotal evidence on the adverse mental health impact of drones, the economic hardships created by attacks and the restriction of movement caused by FATA residents' anxiety about potential strikes are all valuable contributions to the public's understanding of drones, as is the report's succinct and cogent summary of some of the key legal issues. Both of these topics merit further research and the teams at Stanford and NYU seem well poised to continue contributing in these areas.
However it would be a mistake to unequivocally accept all of the report's conclusions or its stance on the civilian casualty debate. The U.S. government's claims that civilian casualties from drone strikes during Obama's term in office are in the single digits are manifestly untrue, but there is no need to overstate the rate of civilian deaths to make the point that drones strikes are legally suspect and morally hazardous.
Meg Braun is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, where she is researching the evolution of U.S. drone policy. She was an intern at the New America Foundation during summer 2012, where she worked to revise and update its drone database.
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In a remarkable act of 'pin the war on your opponent' Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday evening worked to portray Paul Ryan as the candidate most in favor of continuing the unpopular fight in Afghanistan, a conflict President Barack Obama once called the "war that has to be won" and to which he added 33,000 American soldiers.
Biden said that Ryan and his GOP running mate Mitt Romney support a timeline for drawdown of the remaining troops in Afghanistan that is based on conditions on the ground. And then he proceeded to ridicule that idea.
"My friend and the governor say it's based on conditions, which means ‘it depends,'" said Biden of the Afghan war's promised 2014 end. "It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security."
"Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014," Romney said in September. "We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military."
Ryan Thursday tried to defend his ticket's position and clarified that "we don't want to extend beyond 2014." Instead, he said, he and Romney want to be certain that American troops still in the field have enough strength in numbers to pursue their fight.
"We want to make sure that 2014 is successful," Ryan said. "That's why we want to make sure that we give our commanders what they say they need to make it successful."
Of course Biden's own Pentagon sounded a lot like Ryan last November.
"We've repeatedly said that the nature of the drawdown after the surge troops come home will be conditions-based," Pentagon spokesman George Little said, according to Reuters. "No decisions have been made."
But Biden said that it was now up to Afghans, not Americans, to fight this war.
"Because that's the Afghan responsibility. We've trained them," said Biden. "We should send Americans in to do the job, instead of the -- you'd rather Americans be going in doing the job instead of the trainees?"
America's longest war won little attention in the first presidential debate and even less at either party's convention this summer. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has struggled to define his position on Afghanistan and how it differs from the president's. The major distinctions: Romney does not favor Taliban negotiations and while he supports President Obama's 2014 drawdown he says he would not have announced it as Obama did.
But in the 90-minute vice presidential showdown, the candidates wrangled on Afghanistan multiple times, both at the start and toward the end of the evening.
And Biden made it clear, again and again, that the war's end was in sight regardless of what happens on the ground.
"We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period," said Biden.
Sec. Clinton says every time she speaks of Afghanistan - most recently at last week's meeting of the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Commission - that the United States "has made an enduring commitment to Afghanistan." In Afghanistan last May the president said the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries sent "a clear message to the Afghan people: as you stand up, you will not stand alone."
But no such reassuring language came from Biden as he sought to make Ryan look more hawkish on a war that his administration pursued and to which it added 33,000 "surge" forces in 2009.
Five years ago then-candidate Obama called Afghanistan the ‘right' war when compared to Iraq. And he said that might alone would not bring victory.
"The solution in Afghanistan is not just military - it is political and economic," Obama said at the time. "Above all, I will send a clear message: we will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared."
On Thursday Biden made clear that the only mistake of the past he sees is embracing a bloody and expensive war that a majority of Americans now say is not worth its costs. And he tried to make Ryan look more hawkish on a war that his president advanced and the public no longer backs. It is unlikely war-weary voters will pay much attention to the vice president's policy waltz on the country's long-enduring conflict. Most Americans simply want out, and, like Biden, the "how" is now far less important to them than the "when."
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
This month marks the end of the American surge in Afghanistan: the 33,000 additional troops President Barack Obama authorized in his administration's first months will complete redeployment, leaving behind a force of 68,000. By launching the surge in December 2009, President Obama attempted to remedy the previous administration's inattention to the Afghanistan effort and fully resource a civilian and military stabilization campaign.
Although the surge's primary military objective was to reverse the Taliban's momentum and train Afghan National Security Forces, it also aimed to "promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government." It would focus on local Afghan government institutions. After widespread acknowledgment that international assistance had concentrated too heavily on Kabul in the years after the 2001 Bonn Agreement, the new U.S. approach aimed to connect local-level governance structures to national ones "from the bottom up." The new strategy endeavored to build governance and development in regions of the country recently "cleared" from a security perspective-largely in Regional Commands South and East. For the first time, U.S. personnel and resources would flow directly into the district level in some of Afghanistan's most volatile areas.
Over three years after President Obama's initial strategy announcement, and as the international community shifts to transition mode, what lasting impacts has the surge had on Afghan subnational governance? A new paper from USIP, drawing on over sixty interviews with Afghans and Americans based at the district level, explores this question. Examining both the U.S. military's localized CERP-funded "governance, reconstruction, and development" projects and civilian stabilization programming, this paper argues that despite policymakers' proclamations of modesty, the U.S. surge aimed to profoundly transform Afghanistan's subnational governance landscape. Although the surge has attained localized progress, its impact has fallen short of this transformative, sustainable intent because its plans were based upon three unrealistic assumptions.
First, the surge overestimated the speed and extent to which specific types of governance intervention would yield progress. In military parlance, it assumed that the campaign's quick success in "amassing security effects" would be mirrored by (or closely approached by) the speed with which it amassed governance effects. Plans assumed that in the realm of governance, more resources could make up for less time. For example, surge policy presupposed that with enough assistance, local governors could rapidly foster legitimacy and durable local support. It also assumed that American aid could quickly establish vertical linkages for service delivery-connecting increasing local "bottom up" demand for services to the "top down" of ministries' delivery systems. Finally, plans assumed that governance successes would quickly gain momentum of their own and spread "ink blot" style, rather than continuing to require great amounts of U.S. inputs.
A second miscalculation was the expectation that the surge's "bottom up" progress-the result of dedicated work by locally-based U.S. and Afghan personnel-would be matched by "top down", Afghan-led systemic reforms to make this local progress durable. Where surge personnel encouraged district governors' responsiveness to their local populations in the short run, they hoped that in the longer term, these local officials' incentive structures would shift to ensure they were more accountable to their constituents and not Kabul. Instead, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance's subnational appointment system made claims of reform and merit-based improvements but in practice left Kabul's longstanding patronage system largely unchanged.
In addition, as U.S. officials worked with district-level councils to improve the competence of these shuras, they assumed that, in the longer term, the councils' makeup and authority would be formalized by the Kabul-based government. Instead, Kabul showed little appetite to reconcile the confusing, competing array of local councils or to standardize their powers. (Very recently, after the Tokyo conference, a committee led by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) is drafting district council regulation, but any implementation will come too late for the surge.) Finally, some surge personnel labored to increase local officials' budgetary prioritization skills so that local needs could be reflected in central line ministries' decisions. But any meaningful fiscal deconcentration, apart from a nascent and currently-stalled provincial budgeting pilot, was unlikely during the lifespan of the surge. In short, the surge showed that one key ingredient-Afghan political will to undertake needed structural reforms-was not malleable from the "bottom up."
Finally, the surge rested upon the assumption that "lack of governance" was a universal driver of the insurgency, for which service delivery was the appropriate cure. Though this analysis rang true in some districts and municipalities, in others, particularly some remote parts of Regional Command East, observers suggested that presence of government became a fueling factor. In these regions, the local insurgency represented a response to the intrusion of the Afghan government, viewed as extortive and foreign. The presence of ISAF troops facilitating this extended Afghan government reach represented a further grievance for communities who wanted to be left alone. Stabilization programs attempted to win popular support by providing services, but in some areas these initiatives were just atoning for the fact that outsiders-Western and Afghan alike-had shown up in the first place.
More broadly, there is genuine debate over whether "more service delivery" is truly the appropriate prescription for the most contested areas of Afghanistan targeted by the surge. Beyond a deep local desire for security and justice, most other international offerings of "service delivery" found themselves abutting preexisting Afghan arrangements to locally manage everything from karez (irrigation canal) cleaning to equitable water distribution. Many service delivery offerings targeted local requests that were never before expressed, thus creating newly inflated expectations. Meanwhile, the insertion or elevation of local government officials to administer these programs often facilitated extortion, further alienating the local community.
What to make of the surge's governance track record? In many ways, this record merely echoed criticism of the surge's plans from the start, from those inside and outside of U.S. government: the campaign was overly ambitious for an externally-driven effort on a short timeline. So why was optimism so high at the outset? Partial explanations reside in American confidence about perceived counterinsurgency success in Iraq, and enthusiasm at finally resourcing the "good war" in Afghanistan. In addition, Capitol Hill and the American electorate would have been unlikely supporters of an effort billed as a very long, hard slog.
But once the surge was in motion, other American miscalculations emerged that fueled optimism. One was the confusion of discrete successes with replicable progress. When a previously hostile district such as Helmand's Nawa transformed into a peaceful one, the unrelenting stream of VIPs sent to visit did not necessarily see the unusual combination of tribal makeup, leadership calculus, and disproportionate American inputs that prevented the "Nawa Model" from being generalizable, or sustainable. Another common miscalculation was mistaking a local Afghan official's individual advancement with wider progress in building the institutions of local government. In a country where subnational officials are regularly reshuffled or, unfortunately, assassinated, this metric was deceptive. Finally, on a separate note, American officials often placed considerable faith in the power of technical and technological solutions to resolve problems that were fundamentally political in nature. New solutions fed new optimism.
As the surge recedes, the upcoming transition offers an opportunity to apply its lessons toward future governance and development planning. The U.S-Afghan Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement[i] represents a promising opportunity to embrace strategic planning that is longer in term but more realistic in ambit. As the international community draws down, it should exert its remaining governance-related leverage to impact select systemic issues rather than tactical-level ones, such as standardizing the system by which district council members are selected, improving ministries' recurring services, and bolstering provincial and municipal administrations. The international community should also prioritize a few key, attainable efforts, such as providing training that is consistent with current Afghan government functions, while avoiding creating additional structures. Finally, the surge proved once again that all the usual Afghan local governance recommendations still apply: resolving Afghanistan's subnational challenges requires long-term commitment and systematic execution.
Frances Z. Brown is an International Affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an Afghanistan Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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Less than half of Americans approve of Obama's job as president. According to Gallup's most recent poll, his job approval rating is 49 percent. However, there is one area where President Obama gets high marks: drone warfare. In June the Pew Research Center reported that 62 percent of Americans approve of the President's use of drone strikes.
Targeted killings by drones were first introduced under President Bush in 2002 when a Hellfire missile slammed into a Jeep in Yemen, killing Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, a key conspirator in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. And yet it is President Obama who has consistently made headlines for authorizing hundreds of attacks in Pakistan, and recently dozens more in Yemen. According to a recent CNN article based on data compiled by the New America Foundation, President Obama has carried out six times more strike during his first term than Bush did during his entire eight years in office.
On its face these numbers would seem to suggest that President Obama is the more aggressive commander-in-chief, that he is uniquely unencumbered by concerns for Pakistani sovereignty, a stronger proponent of drone warfare and disproportionately committed to killing al-Qaeda members. However, analyzing Obama's drone policy in isolation from larger geopolitical issues, obscures that which is truly radical about his foreign policy.
The rate of drone strikes was already increasing exponentially when Obama took office. He continued that trend and made the politically unpopular decision to give Afghanistan the resources he thought it deserved, while using drones to deny terrorists safe haven in Pakistan and targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban rank and file rather than just their commanders.
During his tenure, George W. Bush did not fail to use drones effectively; rather he was preoccupied with Saddam Hussein. From 2002 to 2008, the Bush administration devoted a preponderance of the United States' military assets, political capital and administrative attention to Iraq. In 2005, the Air Force had just two Predator drones monitoring the whole of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas, to say nothing of resources in Pakistan. It was not until the summer of 2008, seven long years after 9/11, that they began to shift their focus back to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. From January to June 2008 U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan nearly doubled, going from 26,000 to 48,000.
At the same time, the Bush administration made a critical decision to stop requesting Pakistani authorization prior to each strike. With a new government taking over in Pakistan and a renewed sense of urgency brought about by a Presidency quickly coming to a close, the White House seized the opportunity to re-write the diplomatic rules of the Predator program. The impact was immediate. During the first half of 2008 Bush authorized a modest five drone strikes. In his last six months he approved 31. Had he served a third term, we can reasonably expect, based on this trend, he might have carried out 62 strikes a year, if not more. Obama's annual average is 75.
This shift was facilitated not just by domestic factors, but by a
fundamental change in Pakistan. Just as Bush and the U.S. military were pivoting
their attention back to Afghanistan, domestic security in Pakistan was
deteriorating. In December of 2007 Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of
Pakistan and then opposition party leader was assassinated in a combined sniper
and suicide bomb attack. Bhutto's death was just one of many. Prior to 2007,
there were less than ten suicide attacks a year, however, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace, by 2009 there were 87
suicide attacks and 2,586 terrorist, insurgent and sectarian related incidents
of terrorism. Afghanistan succumbing to a Taliban coup would be tragic, but in
Pakistan, a country with over 100 nuclear warheads, it would be
catastrophic. Thus domestic terrorism and political insecurity presumably made
the Pakistanis more hospitable to drone strikes, while making intervention an
From the outset of his presidency Obama identified Afghanistan as not only a just war, but a strategic necessity. Within a month of entering office, President Obama announced the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and within a year he announced a surge of 30,000 more. Shortly after the reinforcements arrived, in September of 2010, the military launched a major offensive in Kandahar province. Drone strikes in Pakistan immediately skyrocketed from an average of 7 per month to 24 in September. This remains the deadliest month on drone record, with approximately 140 militants reported killed and zero reported civilian deaths.
This aggressive pursuit is a marked difference from Bush's Battle of Tora Bora, during which bin Laden and dozens of his followers escaped into Pakistan.
While Bush sought to decapitate the leadership ranks of al-Qaeda, Obama has sought to cut their legs out from under them, destroying the foot soldiers, rather than just the officers. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, while a third of all strikes by President Bush killed a militant leader, under President Obama, that number has fallen to 13 percent and leaders account for only 2 percent of all total drone related fatalities.
However a war of militant attrition is not without advantages. Drone attacks based on patterns of activity rather than individual identity have decimated the ranks of low-level combatants, forcing would-be terrorists to look to their own survival rather than plotting the next attack. The omnipresent threat of a missile strike has restricted freedom of movement, impeded communication and destroyed dozens of training camps.
Under Obama drones have not only been a tactic to hunt terrorists leaders, they are also a tool for preventing spillover into Pakistan at a minimum cost of U.S. blood and treasure, and, despite some civilian casualties, with minimal disruption to the state of Pakistan.
Finally, there is also evidence to suggest that many of the attacks were designed to appease Pakistan, in that drones have pursued Taliban leaders who were more threatening to Pakistan than to the United States. In the first eight months of 2009 the United States carried out 32 drone strikes, 19 of which targeted Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and alleged mastermind behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Thus some portion of the increased targeting of the Taliban may simply reflect the costs of doing business.
What Obama deserves to be lauded for is not increasing drones strikes, but rather a willingness to give Afghanistan the attention and resources it deserved while confronting the spread of violence in Pakistan. Facts on the ground indicate that the drone program has been an operational success. Under Obama's watch drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 1,332 to 2,326 combatants and the number of monthly terrorist attacks in Pakistan has fallen by over 50 percent since the high in 2008.
The question is not whether the next administration, be it a Romney or Obama one, will continue to use drones. The question is whether drones have reached the limits of their tactical utility. The core of al-Qaeda is in disarray and drone firepower had begun to focus on regional affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and beyond. However, killing militants will not cure the world of terrorism, it can only help to restrain it. The solution lies in committing the diplomatic and financial resources to address the political and economic instability upon which Islamic extremism feeds. A truly courageous commander-in-chief must know when to prioritize statecraft over armed force.
Meg Braun is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, where she is researching the evolution of U.S. drone policy.
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On Sunday, there will be a "splendid ceremony" marking the handover of the United States' Bagram prison. Yet despite the pomp, the handover hides the real story - the Afghans wanted this to mark the end of U.S. detention power in Afghanistan, while the U.S. has other ideas.
Remaking Bagram: The Creation of an Afghan Internment Regime and the Divide over U.S. Detention Power, a new report from the Open Society Foundations, revealed that while Afghan officials say they will have complete control over the Bagram detention facility-also known as the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP)-by September 9, 2012, the United States is likely to continue to control a portion of the facility. The Afghan government says that no detentions will be carried out by the U.S. military, while the United States maintains that it "still retains the authority to capture and detain."
This partial handover has come at a high cost for Afghanistan: the creation of a new internment regime that will allow the Afghan authorities to detain without trial. A number of Afghan officials have called this new regime unconstitutional and fear it will be subject to abuse.
The creation of an Afghan internment regime appears to have been introduced largely at the behest of the United States, in order to facilitate the handover of U.S. held detainees, and satisfy the U.S. desire for a lasting internment system on the Afghan side into which it could continue to transfer future captures. The system, created last March, closely resembles the U.S. system at Bagram. It was not introduced through legislation or even consultation with Parliament-instead it was created last March through a secret "inter-ministerial agreement" and unpublished presidential decree that are vaguely worded and ripe for abuse.
There is a danger that this will be the real legacy of Bagram--the creation of a flawed system of detention without trial in a country already wracked with decades of internal conflict, impunity, and weak rule of law. The Open Society Foundations learned that U.S.-Afghan disagreements over these issues led to a temporary suspension of detainee transfers from U.S. to Afghan control, which was resolved only days before the handover deadline.
And yet the "handover" ceremony will go on. In fairness, the majority of U.S.-held detainees have been transferred to the Afghan authorities at enormous speed over the past six months, and U.S. officials in Afghanistan are confronted with genuine challenges to transferring detainees responsibly. Handling of detainees by the Afghan government carries the potential for politicization and corruption of detainee releases. The capacity of the current government to process and properly prosecute detainees' cases is weak, and there is risk of detainees suffering torture and abuse, concerns that were compounded by a controversial new appointment to head the intelligence directorate. But differences between the United States and Afghanistan also reflect a central, long-lasting tension between Afghan sovereignty and U.S. strategic interests that has yet to be resolved, and that the March 9 handover merely papered over.
With the ISAF troop drawdown underway, the United States is trying to thread a tough needle: put Afghans in the lead on security, while at the same time continuing U.S. military operations, and protecting U.S. personnel. The role of special operations forces, and the reliance on detention operations like night raids, remain central to U.S. military strategy. Despite Afghan demands for sovereignty over night raids, there has been no sign of a decrease in these detention operations or the number of detainees sent to Bagram. The Open Society Foundations learned that since March, the United States has sent an additional 600 detainees into U.S. detention at Bagram, which President Karzai's National Security Advisor Dr. Rangin Spanta said was "not in accordance with our agreement."
Not only is this at odds with Afghan officials' unqualified insistence on complete control of the DFIP, and an end to U.S. detentions there, but it highlights another, related disagreement: how long the United States can detain an individual before handing over to Afghan authorities. "After the signing of the [Detentions] MoU the time limit to hold detainee is 72 hours and should be respected," Presidential Spokesperson Aimal Faizi told us. National Security Advisor Dr. Spanta reiterated that "There is a big difference in perception between them and us on this issue. ...I have discussed this with Karzai...and there is no tolerance with him on this issue."
Another unresolved issue is that of "third country nationals," or non-Afghan detainees. They remain in U.S. custody at the DFIP, their fate uncertain, and at risk of falling into a legal limbo of indefinite detention. The stalemate on these detainees ensures that the United States will continue to retain at least some portion of the DFIP for the foreseeable future, raising the troubling specter of another Guantanamo in Afghanistan.
Not wanting to rob President Karzai of a key political victory, the Afghan government appears, for now, to be turning a blind eye to these issues, and to the serious rule of law concerns that they raise. However, one of the principal criticisms of Bagram was its lack of legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghans-its secrecy, prolonged detention without trial, lack of access for lawyers and fears of detainee abuse. One has to wonder whether this is precisely what the United States has handed over to Afghanistan.
Agreeing to vaguely worded agreements that permits the U.S. and Afghan governments to interpret their obligations in starkly different ways may serve immediate political interests, but it is no way to build a lasting, legitimate, or lawful framework for detentions and ongoing military operations. Both governments have failed to resolve fundamental differences over the future of U.S. detention power in Afghanistan, and have presented the Afghan and American publics with very different pictures. These tough questions will be answered another day, it seems, as is often the case in Afghanistan.
Chris Rogers is a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Foundations specializing in human rights and conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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