It sounds like chaos theory: a fringe extremist religious leader in the Florida boondocks holds a trial of the Quran for its role in inspiring the 9/11, condemns it to death and has someone else execute it by burning - and on the other side of the world, angry Muslims, possibly incited by sermons of hatred, storm a "foreigners" compound and in the words of the UN spokesman on BBC TV last night, "hunt down" and kill seven of them. Who would have thought that something like this could be possible following the Nazis' auto-da-fé in the Berlin of 1933 were they set the works of Jewish, Marxist and pacifist - in short "un-German" - writers like Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kästner, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx alight.
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To paraphrase a former U.S. official: There are some knowns and some unknowns in the highly complex equation that would be a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. The Century Foundation report (read it in full here) on a possible negotiated settlement in Afghanistan identifies some of the unknowns (first of all what the Taliban might want to achieve if they entered negotiations; the stress is on the "if", however), but does not add much to what hasn't been known before about their position.
It also shows that some of what is generally considered to be a known -- that the "international community" wants peace in Afghanistan -- often looks pretty ambiguous at closer scrutiny. The strongest part of the paper is when it lays out how a mechanism could look like if and when the Taliban decide that they want to talk. But what really is needed now -- and here the report is lacking again -- are realistic ideas about how the Taliban can be persuaded to enter into such negotiations, other than by applying more and more force and hoping that this will weaken them sufficiently. That latter might even happen without achieving the first: From all what we see, more violence just makes them more stubborn and might close the door for negotiations for a long time.
In general, the authors of the report are right: The time to "start a political process toward reconciliation is now." But first we should not confuse talks with negotiations, and secondly acknowledge that this process might take years rather than months and go beyond the year of 2014. When its authors state that "a genuine peace can be reached well ahead of 2014," it already runs the risk of creating a false hope that it can be done just because "we" have set this pivotal date. A hasty deal that does not address core causes underlying the conflicts in Afghanistan, however, might even close paths towards a better, more comprehensive solution.
This is the real weakness of the paper. It is often too Western-centric and it mainly addresses the U.S. government and the U.S. public (and indirectly the Taliban). These two parties to the conflict are only half of the story. The other half is Afghan public opinion with which a political solution in Afghanistan will stand or fall, even if this is one stakeholder that is difficult to gauge and predict.
Let's look at two of the report's key sentences. The first one says that "the international community seems clearly to recognize that the war in Afghanistan will have a political rather than military solution." It has both "seems" and "clearly" in it, i.e. the authors aren't really sure. And how can they?
I am sure that the "international community" (or let's be honest here and admit that we talk about the West when we use this term) wants the war in Afghanistan to end -- but even more it wants to get out of Afghanistan. The costs, both in soldiers' lives and money, are becoming too high, and in Europe more than in the United States. Most European troops will be out by 2014, while the United States is currently talking to Karzai about keeping some bases, at least. Under this scenario it is a likely outcome that they get out indeed but the war continues anyway, in the form of a new round of "civil" (factional) war and fueled, not least, by exactly those bases which the Taliban would see just as an extension of the current occupation. They don't care whether a U.S. President one day calls combat operations over and rebrands the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into a pure training-and-mentoring mission. What some in the West might hope, though (and therefore Petraeus, the new King David of Mesopotamia, was brought over), is that the same happens like in Iraq: while the fighting continues, not much of it will appear on U.S. newspaper front-pages anymore.
Also the latest remark of Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, that the U.S. surge is working does not point into the direction that the United Nations -- another crucial part of the "international community" -- really gets the point of a political rather than a military solution. It also undermines another of the report's assumptions, namely that the United Nations has sufficient credibility amongst all Afghans to be considered an honest broker. Not if it is seen as a U.S. mouthpiece.
And, by the way, many "ordinary" Afghans do not believe that "the Americans" want the war to end because they want to keep the mentioned bases. They assume that not all of this is about their country, but about Pakistan next door, its nuclear weapons and the West's nightmare that "the mullahs" get a hand on them.
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Afghanistan's Independent Election Council (IEC) has announced the eagerly awaited result for Ghazni province, which were the last of the outstanding lower parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, seats. At the same time, IEC chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi informed that this was "the final duty of the IEC regarding the parliamentary elections" of 2010. This also means that he is planning not to deal with any future decisions of the Attorney General or the Supreme Court regarding these polls.
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Let me be frank: I can't hear it anymore*.
Did ever anyone say that Afghanistan should or would become Switzerland? Afghans definitely didn't.
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Only five of Afghanistan's 110 political parties have finally had the chance to field candidates in the upcoming parliamentary election under their party logo. Another 31 parties had candidates on a preliminary candidates' list but later withdrew the party affiliation. Many political scientists would say parties are a key requirement for a functioning democracy, yet in Afghanistan, they play a minor role in both elections and politics in general. AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig tries to explain why the 2010 elections yet again pit myriad numbers of independents against each other (with material by Political Researcher Gran Hewad).
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Update: U.S. President Barack Obama relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his post as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in Wednesday, replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus. Obama described his decision as a “a change in personnel but ... not a change in policy.” Before the decision was made, Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network filed this dispatch from Kabul arguing that whoever’s in charge, it’s that policy that needs changing.
Great, General, that was really helpful! The austere, Bud Light Lime-only, non-plus-ultra ‘Jedi’ commander has spoken to the Rolling Stone, him and his population-centric "handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs" (and gay-haters, as the author of the famous Rolling Stone story cautiously implies), badmouthing people with whom they should be working. The Boss is "angry," says the BBC. Result: Everyone within the Beltway, i.e. the whole world, is speculating whether The General will be MacArthured. Think tankers are already demanding his head. That seems to be what really what matters. Not Afghanistan.
The Boss should be angry -- or better: concerned -- about something else: here, on the ground, things are on fire. Violence is even increasing, ‘attributable,’ as the latest UN report on Afghanistan puts it, "to an increase of military operations in the southern region during the first quarter of 2010" but also to the Taliban’s counter-surge. A government lacking legitimacy by half-way decent elections, apparently concerned mainly for their families’ and friends’ business interests and even considering an unprincipled embrace of the insurgent leaders in order to cling to power, is creating fears of an all-Pashtun coalition, deepening the ethnic divide, acutely risking the alienation of half of the population for good while, by the same action, strengthening warlord rule in the North even further. The U.S. military is happily looking forward to the withdrawal of the ‘sissy Dutch’ and Canadians so that they can ‘kick ass’ and dismantle all the cautiously built respect with local tribal leaders who straddle the blurred frontline between ‘us and them.’ And finally, Pakistan leading the U.S. and its Kabul ally by the nose -- having made clear that a political settlement will only happen on ISI terms.
Actually, from the start, it didn’t look like the brilliant new U.S.
strategy was working. Has anyone, including The General, really expected
that he could bomb and black-op the Taliban to shreds, in Marjah, that "bleeding ulcer," Kandahar or elsewhere while there still is an
unchanged, predatory government in place in the provinces? (Probably
they did, considering their successes in Ramadi and Falluja.) With
figures at the top of the government who are regularly visited by the
top-most U.S. military and civilians or bolstered with contracts worth
millions, while there is full knowledge (not only since the latest
congressional report, ‘Warlord, Inc.’) that are involved in all kinds of
stuff that undermines the ‘nation-building’ which, according to some,
the US is still attempting in Afghanistan? Remember all the media
stories from Uruzgan, Spin
Boldak, Kandahar and the forgotten one from Kunduz (only mentioned so that we do not forget that
this is not only about the south).
This strategy has been too little too late from the start. Hearts and minds were lost long ago across Afghanistan and they cannot be won back by throwing money at them. See the -- really -- brilliant Andrew Wilder, deservingly quoted in the Rolling Stone story: "A tsunami of cash fuels corruption, delegitimizes the government and creates an environment where we’re picking winners and losers." And The General’s strategy has another major flaw: It is dominated by the military. It "cannot by itself create governance reform," as CFR’s Stephen Biddle puts it in the same Rolling Stone story. Remember that also outgoing Kai Eide had warned against a ‘militarization’ of ‘our’ effort in Afghanistan?
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The Peace Jirga that began today in Kabul, will fail its declared main
aim: To establish a real national consensus on talks with the Taliban. There are too many relevant political forces absent --
and those who are in attendence are massively monitored and manipulated. The jirga
does not bring an end -- or at least a reduction -- of violence closer.
This was echoed by the rockets that exploded next to the tent this morning -- the closest one reportedly only one hundred meters away -- during President Karzai's speech. He first told the delegates not worry, but then apparently left the venue himself. The jirga has again resumed its work and but it is unclear whether Karzai plans to continue attending.
On the surface, the jirga with its 1,600 delegates bears all insignia of Afghan tribal ‘democracy' which, although, is male-dominated. (The women were only able to push through their 20 per cent attendance quota after Western diplomats intervened -- another example of "foreign interference," so often blasted by Karzai.) Bearded and turbaned men from all corners of the country provide a blaze of color that is supposed to create the impression of plurality that does not exist in reality. The delegates are rather handpicked. The main opposition party is absent and also some women rights activists boycott the jirga which they consider part of a Karzai legitimisation machine. They fear that burning issues like ‚justice, i.e dealing with the civil war crimes, and human rights might be sacrificed for a deal with the Taliban. This shows if a pseudo-consensus is pushed through, only new conflicts will emerge.
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It was around 6:30 this morning when we were woken up by a violent blast. As it turned out, it was another of the ‘complex’ (or multiple) attacks using suicide bombers and ‘commandos’ armed with small arms for which the Taliban have regularly claimed responsibility. The main targets seem to have been two guesthouses in Shahr-e Nau used by Indian aid workers, next to the Safi Landmark hotel and City Centre, a shopping mall, both in one building. This big building -- in which some Indian and Australian embassy staff live -- also is heavily damaged. At least 15 people were killed, amongst them apparently four Indians. At 1 pm Kabul time, shots still could be heard from the area. It is particularly remarkable that the attack happened on Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, or Maulud-e Sharif, a religious holiday and claimed many Afghan (Muslim) casualties.
Since the responsibility for the attack already has been
claimed by the Taliban through their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed who
said that ‘two buildings used by foreigners’ were the targets, this
attack raises many questions, mainly to the Taliban. The spokesman
vaguely refers to ‘foreigners’ in general but it is known that both
attacked guesthouses (Hamid’s and Park Residence) are used by many
Indian nationals. It seems that amongst the killed are Indian doctors.
Additionally, the Safi Landmark hotel might have been seen as
Indian-owned but it is owned by Khalid Abdullah al-Ghurair group in the
UAE. The large Park Residence is frequented also by many journalists.
The timing is also striking. Yesterday, the first Indo-Pakistani talks after the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 were yesterday in New Delhi on the foreign secretary level. This possibly is no coincidence. In this connection, today’s attack in Kabul can be read as another attack on Indian targets in Kabul (the Indian embassy here was bombed in July 2008) and -- indirectly -- on initiatives to improve the Indo-Pakistani relationship?
So, why do the Taliban make themselves an instrument of those -- by claiming responsibility -- who do not want to see such an improvement to happen? Does the whole Taliban movement support such a strategy? What about Mullah Omar’s statement of late last year that the Taliban do not threaten any neighboring and also any other country? Does that not apply for India? Does Zabihullah Mujahed speak for Mullah Omar or not?
Or has this attack been carried out by other elements: Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani network or those linked to groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba or al-Qaeda that has declared ‘Hindu’ India a target, too? Are Afghan elements linked to these groups (like the Haqqanis) out of Mullah Omar’s control? This would apply to spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed, too.
What repercussions does that have for the Taliban’s readiness to look for a political solution that was assumed for the Taliban leadership in Kandahar or, at least, elements of it? Possibly, the attack is another element in a development assumed by some observers here that the ISI currently is staging a turn-over in the overall Taliban leadership, away from politically people minded to radical 'hawks,' In this reading, the arrest of reportedly pro-talks people like Mullah Baradar, Maulawi Kabir and former Zabul shadow governor Mohammed Yunos would be another indication that this assumption is true. This would not augur well for chances of a political solution in Afghanistan.
The Taliban also have a ‘collateral damage’ problem that should be addressed in practice and not only in their layha. This code of conduct for their fighters advocates caution vis-à-vis civilians during suicide attacks although it does not rule it out as a tactical instrument.
Where are those Taliban who have argued a few years ago that the massive use of suicide bombers and the killing of scores of Afghan civilians are ‘un-Islamic’? And where are their ‘Islamic’ credentials when they cause such an atrocity on Mohammed’s birthday, one of the holiest days in Muslims' calendar?
Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network, where this was originally published. He speaks Dari and Pashtu.
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