An idyllic Afghan tourist spot is bouncing back from decades of conflict.
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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The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's recently published summary report on Afghanistan's opium harvest in 2013 paints a dire picture on first glance: Estimated opium poppy cultivation expanded by 36 percent and, at 209,000 hectares (ha), set a new record, slightly exceeding the previous record of 193,000 ha in 2007. While estimated opium production in 2013, at 5,500 metric tons, is only the fourth-highest year recorded (well below the 2007 peak level of 7,400 metric tons), it rose steeply -- by almost 50 percent -- from 2012. And despite a modest reduction in opium prices, the volume of drug money -- most of which goes to drug traffickers, their sponsors and associates inside and outside the government, and to warlords and the Taliban insurgency -- also has risen sharply.
However, the temptation to see these developments in alarmist (or even apocalyptic) terms must be resisted. While the growth and spread of the opium economy in 2013 is concerning, it does not represent a fundamental change in the situation, and poorly thought out and misguided reactions would cause more harm than good and could turn out to be more problematic and destabilizing than the rise in opium cultivation and production itself.
Part of the increase in 2013, which was predicted and should not have come as a major surprise, can be attributed to the large year-to-year fluctuations that have always been the norm for Afghanistan's opium economy, especially since 2012 was a year of low yields and production. This reflects the importance of weather and other factors for Afghan agriculture more broadly, with a climate characterized by low and variable precipitation and little in the way of water conservancy investments to stabilize water supplies. Moreover, the 2013 figures are not grossly out of line with longer-term trends in opium cultivation and production. In fact, estimated opium production is exactly in line with those trends (as projected based on 1995-2012 data). Although the cultivated area is somewhat higher (about 25%) than the long-term trend, this is similar to some of the annual fluctuations seen in earlier years.
What 2013 does underline, however, is the resumption of continuing growth of Afghanistan's opium economy after temporary and unsustainable reductions in poppy cultivation and opium production in the years following the 2007 peak. This is not surprising, as the factors which supported those reductions have been dissipating.
First, the withdrawal of U.S. and other international military forces, especially from key opium-producing provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, has been reducing the overall security presence and associated pressure to reduce poppy cultivation, particularly in more remote areas where the Afghan National Army is not able to maintain the level of activities carried out previously by International Security Assistance Forces. Even though international troops were not directly involved in the eradication of poppy fields, their presence provided a security umbrella for counter-narcotics activities and also was used by Afghan officials as a threat against local leaders and farmers to dissuade them from cultivating poppies.
Second, funding for programs promoting alternative livelihoods is being sharply reduced, leaving much smaller potential financial incentives for farmers and other local actors. Even though such programs were not sustainable and were often characterized by inefficiency and waste, adequate funding will clearly be a prerequisite for effective and sustained rural development in the future.
Third, concomitant with foreign troop withdrawals and reductions in international funding, the political leverage to press for counter-narcotics actions is declining. Moreover, the drug issue is likely to be distinctly secondary on the list of political priorities for the United States and other international partners.
Fourth, domestic political and other trends in Afghanistan have weakened the ability to contain, let alone curtail, the opium economy. The 2014-2015 election cycle is distracting from drug issues and will likely lead to avoidance of politically sensitive counter-narcotics actions; some stalwart anti-opium provincial governors have been weakened or changed in the past year or so; there has been some recovery of opium yields from unusually low levels in 2012; and prices for opium remain relatively high despite modest reductions.
These recent trends, which are expected to continue in the future, demonstrate that the counter-narcotics policies implemented during the past decade, reliant as they were on temporary factors and, as in the case of the Helmand "Food Zone," endeavoring to replace opium largely with wheat (a low-value, relatively low labor-intensity crop with no export prospects), were not sustainable. Moreover, the suppression of poppy cultivation in core growing areas, such as the canal area of central Helmand, stimulated a shift of farmers and cultivation to new areas, leading to the further spread and entrenchment of opium.
Even though predictable and occurring for understandable reasons, the adverse impacts of recent developments should not be minimized, including:
However, there are also some mitigating factors that need to be kept in mind:
In any case, knee-jerk reactions and ill thought-out actions against the illicit narcotics trade in Afghanistan will be counterproductive. Whether aerial spraying or massive eradication of the opium crop at one extreme, or attempts to institute licensed opium production for legal pharmaceuticals at the other, there are no "silver bullets." These options, as well as other simplistic solutions, are not implementable or sustainable and will make the situation worse.
What, then, can be done? First, modest expectations and a long-term time horizon are called for on the part of both the international community and the Afghan government; eliminating illicit opium cultivation in Afghanistan most likely will be the work of decades, not years.
Second, there is a need to be prepared for growth in the opium economy in coming years and to avoid hand-wringing or overreaction. In particular, adverse short-term developments and fluctuations should not become an excuse for the international community to sharply cut or stop overall funding for Afghanistan, let alone exit from the country.
Third, preserving gains made in eliminating opium poppy cultivation in localities with favorable resource endowments, good access to water resources, proximity to urban markets, good roads, and at least a modicum of government presence and security will be very important and is certainly possible based on past experience.
Fourth, law enforcement efforts against drug traffickers, drug transport, heroin processing, and money laundering need to continue and be built upon over time, keeping in mind that progress inevitably will be gradual.
Fifth, investments in rural infrastructure -- in particular major water conservancy projects -- will be essential. More generally, broad-based rural development is the way forward over the medium-term to enable rural areas to escape from dependence on opium poppy cultivation, requiring sizable investments and effective programs to this end.
Sixth, value chains for suitable Afghan labor-intensive cash crops that enable them to reach both domestic and export markets will need to be developed. There is no substitute for the private sector to do this -- particularly elements of the international private sector that represent and link to the demand side and will be able to promote and ensure the essential quality and health and safety standards for exports. Creative ways to incentivize the international private sector to engage with Afghanistan in this way will need to be found.
Finally, it has to be recognized that none of this will be easy, that the drug industry will be present in Afghanistan for quite some time, and that keeping modest expectations while avoiding major mistakes and wrong turns on the counter-narcotics front will be essential.
William Byrd is a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
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Like many other regular readers of Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, I was surprised by the announcement that it is to be rebranded as the South Asia Channel. But while my friend Ziad Haider received a quantum of solace from ‘AfPak' losing its conceptual toehold in Washington, I had instinctive misgivings about the adoption of ‘South Asia.' What exactly does that phrase connote today? Is the term in any way useful? Or is it so poorly defined -- culturally, politically, geographically, and bureaucratically -- as to make it problematic in its own way? In fact, beyond one rather ineffectual international organization and a handful of sporting events, does ‘South Asia' even exist?
South Asia -- as any sort of single entity -- was not really worthy of Washington's attention until the 1990s. India and Pakistan did feature in American strategic calculations beginning with their independence in 1947, but usually in the context of U.S. policy toward China or the Soviet Union, which often determined American responses to the region's political developments. All of that changed when India, and then Pakistan, conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The handful of South Asianists from academia and the diplomatic world -- and there weren't many Americans who could lay claim to that label -- were suddenly in high demand by the U.S. government and think tanks to address a narrow set of American priorities: nuclear proliferation, India-Pakistan tensions, and the Kashmir dispute.
The region assumed further importance with the 1999 Kargil War, by which time India and Pakistan were effectively "hyphenated," treated as inextricably intertwined and perennially in competition with one another. As a result, other countries in the region -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc. -- were often ignored; issues related to national economies and domestic political dynamics remained poorly understood; and the broader regional strategic context -- such as the role of China -- was often overlooked.
An important shift began with the 9/11 attacks, which was around the same time that Washington belatedly recognized the prospect of India's economic and political emergence on a wider Asian canvas. India, largely on the strength of its burgeoning economy, began to be incorporated into the institutional and commercial structures of East Asia, such as the ASEAN-led regional groupings, and a new term eventually began to make the rounds in strategic circles: the Indo-Pacific. But while India is now considered an unequivocal part of ‘Asia,' the other states traditionally constituting South Asia are not necessarily granted that same privilege. Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, are often seen as part of the Greater Middle East, a somewhat arbitrary shorthand, it would appear, for the Muslim world west of India.
Which brings us back to what precisely defines South Asia. Is it geography? The Indian Plate excludes all of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan, and includes the Irrawaddy basin. Religion? Not when India and Nepal are majority Hindu, Sri Lanka and Bhutan majority Buddhist, and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives majority Muslim. The legacy of British colonial influence? Maybe, but where then does that leave Myanmar? Ethnicity and language are similarly limiting. Pakistani and north Indian languages are more akin to Persian than to the Dravidian tongues of southern India, while it would be a stretch to draw ethnic links between the Manipuri, Baloch, and Sinhalese peoples. How about the footprint of Brahmanic culture and Sanskrit? That, as historians have noted, would mean encompassing much of Central and Southeast Asia.
It should be no surprise that conceptual confusion manifests itself in U.S. bureaucratic structures. The U.S. State Department has a South and Central Asia bureau. The armed forces, however, deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of U.S. Central Command, with India and the rest of the region falling to U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. Meanwhile, the Office of the Secretary of Defense groups Afghanistan and Pakistan in with Central Asia and considers India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka under the rubric of South and Southeast Asia.
While a confusing construct, the term ‘South Asia' persevered in America's strategic consciousness, despite the inevitable dehyphenation of India and Pakistan. Among non-specialists in the counterinsurgency era, it was often used as a casual and more politically-correct synonym for AfPak, marginalizing not just India, but also Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, all important countries in their own rights. I recall reviewing the syllabus of a graduate studies course on South Asia at a major American university two years ago, and you could have been forgiven for thinking that the India-Pakistan border constituted South Asia's eastern frontier.
A real concern is that a conceptual resurgence of ‘South Asia' -- especially as an outgrowth of ‘AfPak' -- could be accompanied by the conscious or subconscious rehyphenation of India and Pakistan, and the prolonged side-lining of other states in the region. As the anonymous genius behind the Twitter handle @majorlyp has caustically written:
Indians are Indians and Pakistanis when caught in tight situations (like in Airports) are Indians too. In other circumstances they are South Asians. Being "South Asian" offers many advantages. Such as an overwhelming numerical advantage.
Example: When faced with the question "Is radicalization a problem"? South Asians can reply with a straight face "Only 170 million, or less than 10% of the South Asians are radicalized". Which sounds entirely reasonable.
The author writes in somewhat cruel jest, of course, but like the best parody, there is more than a grain of uncomfortable truth in what he says. Will U.S. discourse related to South Asia come to be dominated by the problems of terrorism, Islamist extremism, nuclear proliferation, and anti-Americanism at the expense of the incredible opportunities and challenges associated with dynamic economic growth, raucous democracy, immense social and cultural diversity, and broad support for a U.S.-led international system? Let's hope not.
Dhruva Jaishankar is a transatlantic fellow with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @d_jaishankar.
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Most of the recent talk on Afghanistan has focused on whether or not Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States by the end of 2013, distracting Afghans and the international community from paying attention to an ultimately more important, but not as sensational, issue -- the 2014 Afghan presidential electoral landscape and process. After weeks of high drama over the BSA, it is time to focus less on the negotiations' rhetoric and more on the real legacy of the nascent Afghan democratic progress.
After all, a "good enough" presidential election outcome in April 2014 will offer a measure of hope and could signal the end of a troubled beginning for the 21st century Afghan state. It could also reenergize commitment from an international community whose interest in Afghanistan is waning. A "bad enough" election result -- a contested or tainted outcome that is not accepted by the Afghan people -- will likely force most remaining coalition partners and Afghan elites with foreign passports to rush for the exits, leaving the Afghans who remain to look for protection along ethnic, tribal, and political interest boundaries. The stakes are high, primarily for the Afghan people, but also for the international community, whose 12-year involvement has not yet yielded a peaceful outcome.
Of the original 27 presidential candidates and their vice presidential running mates who registered their nominations with the country's Independent Election Committee, 11 remain. The list ranges from obscure figures to high-profile former government officials, with principles ranging from strong anti-Taliban sentiment to inclinations towards accommodation. From these presidential hopefuls, only five candidates hold exciting promise.
Abdullah Abdullah remains the leading contender, with respected BBC reporter David Lyon considering him "the man to beat." This former foreign minister and head of the National Coalition of Afghanistan has managed to create an impressive team. His running mates include Hizb-e-Islami icon Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun from the Qarabach district of Ghazni province, as the first vice president, and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, the head of the Hizb-e-Wahdat party, as the second vice president. With additional backing from the Jamiat-e-Islami party, Abdullah unites many northern allies in a strong national movement and his selection of Mohaqiq brings the Hazara minority vote into the mix. He also has the critical support of Mohammad Atta Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh, and, if early indications are accurate, the backing of the current first Vice President Marshal Fahim Qasim, giving Abdullah what Lyon accurately describes as "wide support."
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Zalmai Rasool's team is also impressive. A well-respected moderate with royal ties, he now appears to be one of Karzai's favorites in the election. Rasool is a respected, honest, and humble diplomat who has tried to articulate his vision for Afghanistan in recent interviews, receiving positive feedback from both Afghans and the international community. Rasool has picked his key running mates wisely. His choice for first vice president, Ahmad Zia Massoud -- a former first vice president, the brother of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the current leader of the National Front of Afghanistan -- challenges Abdullah's primacy in the north. Former Bamyan governor Habiba Surabi, Rasool's pick for second vice president, is a popular and reasonably successful former governor who can appeal to both Hazaras and women's rights groups.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who also ran in 2009, has put together a much stronger coalition than during his previous bid for the presidency. Ghani, a brilliant, charismatic, and hard-working perfectionist is perceived by many as one of the few Afghan leaders who have laid out a basic framework of how to "fix" Afghanistan. This former finance minister, well-regarded economist, and "transition czar" -- responsible for the shift of security responsibilities from NATO soldiers to the Afghan security forces -- is well known to the international community and is considered by Afghans to be one of their brightest scholars. Interestingly, he has picked Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former jihadi commander with the ceremonial role of Chief of Staff (of the Army) to the Commander in Chief and de-facto leader of the Junbush party, as his first vice president. There are rumors that Karzai orchestrated this arrangement in order to take the Uzbek vote away from Abdullah's team. Whether or not this is true, Dostum is a controversial figure with enormous influence. Although Ghani once condemned him as a "killer," Dostum can deliver the majority Uzbek vote.
For his part, Dostum has apologized for his actions during the Afghan civil war, and he is not the only politician running for office who is facing accusations of serious human rights violations. For his second vice president, Ghani has picked former Minister of Justice Sarwar Danish. A lesser-known and certainly less controversial figure, Danish rounds the ticket off with his Hazara credentials.
Representing the staunchest anti-Taliban movement, Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf is another formidable presidential candidate. Most recently, he became the Afghan Taliban's "public enemy number one" for his open disdain of the group, and for using religion to condemn Taliban suicide bomber tactics. Ahmad Shafi put it best, saying that, "quoting Islamic texts extensively, Sayyaf said he wanted to send a message to the militants that on Judgment Day, they would show up with "flags planted in their buttocks from the back," marking them "unforgivable" in the court of God." For Sayyaf and his running mate, Mohammad Ismail Khan -- the influential "Amir" of western Afghanistan and a legend among jihadi commanders -- reconciliation with the Taliban is not an option. In fact, this is the one team that has remained consistent in its contempt of the Taliban and any accommodations towards them.
According to Sayyaf, Afghans should do their best to "eliminate [the Taliban] from the face of the earth." But his tough talk is not the greatest source of concern for the Taliban leadership. More worrying for them is Sayyaf's use of Islamic text and belief in challenging their religious right to fight against the Afghan government and their foreign allies. In fact, Sayyaf's religious credentials from the prestigious Cairo-based Al-Azhar University make him an authority on religious issues, and thus capable of countering Taliban ideology at its core. But Sayyaf comes with baggage.
Human Rights Watch has extensively documented allegations of war crimes against Sayyaf and his party, Dawat-e-Islami, particularly against Hazara civilians. Also, in the 9/11 Commission Report, Sayyaf was listed as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's "mentor." Completing the Sayyaf-Khan ticket is second vice president candidate Mawlavi Abdul Wahab Irfan, a Junbush-e-Milli Islami senator from Takhar province and a Dostum confidant. Irfan brings with him both a conservative block from the north, as well as a substantial number of Uzbek votes.
The last of the serious contenders is Abdul Qayum Karzai, the current president's older brother. His running mates are former Afghan mines minister Wahidullah Shahrani and former lawmaker Ibrahim Qasemi. Although Qayum Karzai -- a former member of parliament with a horrible attendance record -- has little real experience in government, he is a "Karzai" and should therefore not be underestimated.
Shahrani, an Uzbek, and Qasemi, a Hazara, seem to offer a good ethnic balance to Karzai's strong Pashtun credentials, but this group is unlikely to win much of the popular vote amongst ethnic constituencies. Most of the Uzbek vote should be secured by Dostum, Irfan, and then perhaps Abdullah. The Hazara vote will be split between Mohaqiq, Danish, and Suhrabi. Karzai's team, however, has a lot of money.
There are other groups with strong financial backing, but they are not in the same league as the Karzai team. Between Qayum, Mahmud, and Shah Wali, the Karzai brothers are spending most of their time in Kandahar, where there is a significant financial reserve they can tap into for support. Shahrani also has his own group of financial supporters who will undoubtedly contribute to Qayum Karzai's campaign.
It is still uncertain if President Karzai will back his older brother or pick another candidate in the 2014 race. The president's motives appear to be less about a continuation of the "Karzai dynasty" and more about his own survival and continued influence over his successor. In fact, four of the top five candidates have received significant support from the president. By actively encouraging Rasool, Sayyaf, and Ghani to run and providing tacit support to his brother Qayum, Karzai has split the vote amongst "his favorites" in such a way that he could prevent Abdullah from winning the necessary 51 percent of the vote needed to win in the first round of the election. In a place such as Afghanistan, where conspiracy theories run wild, many think that he orchestrated the candidacies of four of the top five presidential contenders to ensure that, in a runoff election, at least one of the two candidates would owe him some allegiance. Rumor also has it that Karzai plans to rally the candidates who don't make the run-off behind his preferred candidate to ensure his own post-election survival and continued influence over Afghan politics.
The other five presidential candidates who qualified to run for the 2014 election (Gudbudin Hilal, Rahim Wardak, Gul Agha Sherzai, Nader Naeem, Hedayat Amin Arsala, and Daud Sultanzoi) do not, for a variety of reasons, have a chance of getting a significant number of votes. At the same time, they will play critical roles in both the election itself and the government that follows. For example, Sherzai, the powerful tribal leader of the Barakzai tribe from Kandahar, may not have a chance at winning the presidency, but his support of another candidate will carry significant weight amongst Pashtuns in the south. Similarly, endorsement and support from Arsala -- one of the most respected political figures in Afghan politics, with impeccable credentials as a technocrat and as a Pashtun tribal leader -- will go a long way in building confidence and validating a mandate in a leading candidate's camp of supporters.
Although the election campaign season will not officially start until February 2014, the political maneuvering is already in full force, and candidates are laying out their primary campaign plans, along with contingency plans for all sorts of outcomes. These include scenarios in which there is no election and in which the election result is so heavily contested that the Afghan population becomes disenfranchised, disgruntled, and drives the country to the brink of civil war.
While all the candidates are considering the most dangerous scenarios in earnest, the truth is that most Afghans remain cautiously optimistic that this next election will move the country forward. Time will tell which scenario unfolds, but the international community needs to remain vigilant to prevent some of the more perilous scenarios from occurring. Otherwise, the modest -- if not minimal -- gains of the past 12 years will quickly disappear.
With six months to go to, one thing is certain: The road to the April 2014 election will be bumpy. From shifting alliances to politically-motivated assassinations, the run-up to the election will be both bloody and hard to predict. Additionally, one should expect nuanced meddling and bet-hedging from regional powers who want to guarantee their influence, regardless of the election outcome. And Afghan elites who have benefitted significantly from a decade of instability will likely offer their support to candidates in hopes of securing their own prominence once the race is over. These shifting allegiances and manipulations will keep everyone guessing as to who is working with whom, and to what ends.
Finally, the way the U.S. and Afghan governments behave between now and the elections will either put a burden or alleviate pressure on Karzai's successor. As noted earlier, the BSA has been getting too much attention. That said, one cannot ignore the fact that Karzai's behavior during the jirga and his propensity for controversy continue to put unnecessary stress on already strained U.S.-Afghan relations. Perhaps he is deliberately trying to maintain focus on the BSA to keep the United States from meddling in the 2014 elections, as they did, in his mind, in the run up to the 2009 vote.
Regardless of his motives, Karzai's actions this week highlight the fact that no matter who wins Afghanistan's elections, salvaging the deteriorating U.S.-Afghan relations will be the top priority. Faced with "Great Game" politics characterized by external actors meddling in Afghan affairs, a flourishing narco-trade, a fragile economy that is as inefficient as it is corrupt, and a raging insurgency in rural areas, just to name a few challenges, the new Afghan administration cannot afford to alienate those same international actors who must provide the donor funding necessary for Afghanistan's economic survival.
While the international community has signaled that it will not abandon Afghanistan after 2014, Karzai and those hoping to replace him should remember that this support will come with conditions. Years of unaccountable waste and corruption must give way to a true commitment to stability and economic progress in ways that honor the memories of the Afghan and NATO fallen (and their families) who sacrificed their lives to give Afghanistan a second chance. In the end, the April 2014 election offers another fork in the road in Afghanistan's journey as a nation. Depending on the outcome, the newly elected administration will serve either as a source of hope for a better, brighter future or it will flicker out and Afghanistan will descend into the chaos of civil war ...again.
Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects and innovating solutions to challenging projects in Afghanistan.
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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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On November 13, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual Afghanistan Opium Survey, which found that opium cultivation reached record levels in 2013, despite a decade of attempted counter-narcotics activities by U.S. and NATO forces. It also comes just a few weeks after NATO announced it will scale down its post-2014 troop commitments to Afghanistan.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan will conclude at the end of 2014, marking the end of the largest, most expensive, and most politically contentious mission in the alliance's history. The announcement reflects NATO members' eagerness to put the Afghan saga behind them, leaving only a small vanguard of trainers and advisers in place to oversee the transition. Yet Afghanistan's rampant drug trade, now at an all-time high, threatens to upend NATO's decade of fragile progress and mixed successes.
For over a decade, U.S. and NATO policymakers have struggled with the inconvenient truth that the insurgency in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the opium poppy trade. Opium poppy plants are hardy and durable, require little water, fetch a high market price once processed into heroin, and store without rotting, making them an ideal crop for Afghanistan's inchoate economy and arid mountain climate.
When U.S.-led ISAF forces initially entered Afghanistan in October 2001, they ignored the opium poppy fields, convinced that destroying a primary income source for many Afghans wouldn't earn them any local support. ISAF forces also elicited support from local Afghan warlords to combat insurgent groups with hundreds of millions of dollars. This flooded the Afghan money market, rapidly devaluing the already weak Afghan currency and prompting Afghans to put their money into the only safe and profitable investment in the Afghan economy: opium poppy farming. By 2003, when NATO assumed control of ISAF, Afghanistan's estimated opium income was $4.8 billion, compared with $2.8 billion in foreign aid.
Many U.S. policymakers eventually acknowledged the severity of the burgeoning drug trade problem in Afghanistan, but the diagnosis proved easier than treatment. Indiscriminate eradication, ISAF's next attempted strategy, failed miserably as it significantly undermined the coalition's popularity with Afghans who had no means of income outside opium poppy farming. Moreover, NATO forces could only eradicate the opium poppy fields in areas they controlled. By 2008, 98% of the poppy plants were cultivated in insurgent-controlled areas, and total poppy cultivation in Afghanistan grew to the point where the drug trade's potential export value constituted nearly 25% of the country's GDP.
One of the few positive outcomes from this failed policy was a slight improvement in NATO-Russia relations, as illustrated by the NATO-Russia Council's small Counter Narcotics Training Program (which today remains one of NATO's only formal initiatives tasked with addressing Afghanistan's drug trade). However, while this program represents a modest success story in the otherwise anemic NATO-Russia relationship, it is anchored in Russia's stubborn support for full-scale eradication policies, which stems from the widespread use of Afghan opiates and heroin in Russia.
The Obama administration took stock of these failures and transitioned to a strategy of selectively eradicating poppy farms that were linked to the Taliban, while simultaneously implementing "alternative livelihood efforts" for Afghan farmers. Yet poppies remain the most profitable crop available; farmers can earn up to $203 per kilogram of harvested opium, compared with $1.25 for a kilogram of harvested rice. Additionally, many Afghans doubt whether the alternative crop subsidies that currently counterbalance these price discrepancies will outlast ISAF's 2014 mission mandate.
While the selective eradication concept was promising, NATO provided no framework for its members to coordinate targeted eradication policies across their respective sectors of command. This led to a phenomenon known as "the balloon effect" -- if NATO forces effectively countered opium poppy production in one region, production would simply increase in another region.
All the while, drug money became a vital source of funding for the insurgents. By 2013, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that Afghan insurgent groups earned over $200 million annually from the drug trade. In the words of former ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus: "drug money has been the oxygen in the air that allows these groups to operate."
The unchecked drug trade dovetails Afghanistan's notorious and ossified corruption problems, which pose as large of a threat to Afghanistan's stability as the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made dramatic, but ultimately disingenuous, public promises to tackle corruption. In practice, he has perpetuated corruption and the drug problem through his internal political entanglements, affiliations, and dependencies. For example, Karzai's current anti-corruption czar, Izzatullah Wasifi, was once arrested for attempting to sell $2 million worth of heroin in Las Vegas (an act that Karzai waved off as a "youthful indiscretion"). Karzai vehemently counterattacks allegations of corruption, arguing that the bigger problem in Afghanistan is the corruption in ISAF contracts with private security firms. As this blame game continues, it risks undermining already feeble public confidence in Afghanistan's fledgling democratic institutions and poisoning the roots of Afghanistan's future.
Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for NATO to fully confront Afghanistan's opium poppy trade will likely close with its 2014 drawdown, especially now that NATO's post-2014 commitment represents only a modicum of its initial plans. However, NATO can still take a few relatively low-cost steps to at least curb Afghanistan's drug trade in the short-term, as it lacks the resources for a long-term effort.
The perennial first step is admitting the problem. NATO leaders have quietly acknowledged the dangerous drug trafficking problem Afghanistan faces without offering any real solutions, lest the alliance be labeled as the party in charge of ‘fixing' the drug problem while lacking the means and will to do so. However, after 2014, Afghanistan will take responsibility for its own security. When that happens, NATO will be on the sidelines, with more political breathing room to raise awareness for and offer suggestions to the Afghan government on the opium poppy trade.
Second, NATO can increase its financial and political investments in the Counter Narcotics Training Program, which has potential, but only if the alliance can convince Russia of the pitfalls of indiscriminate eradication. Counter-narcotics units are most effective when they are stringently vetted and highly trained with expert support. Afghanistan cannot produce such units without NATO funding and support.
Third, NATO can provide helicopters to support Afghanistan's counter-narcotics efforts, as they are the only viable way for counter-narcotics units to swiftly respond to and interdict drug traffickers in a mountainous country devoid of transportation infrastructure. As the U.S. Senate Drug Caucus concluded, "there is no end game capability in Afghanistan without the appropriate number of helicopters." As a corollary to interdiction efforts, NATO should leverage its integrated command structures, intelligence sharing capabilities, and well-established intelligence infrastructure in Afghanistan to support these counter-narcotics activities.
Finally, NATO needs to conduct an honest assessment of how the opium poppy trade impacted its own counterinsurgency. A NATO Counter-Narcotics Center of Excellence, a member-initiated and independent in-house think tank, offers one mechanism to provide the post-mortem on ISAF's failed drug policies and serve as NATO's institutional memory for its Afghan mission. As European Union forefather Jean Monet famously said, "the lessons of history are doomed to be forgotten unless they are embedded in institutions."
Though NATO members are reluctant to commit to costly long-term missions in the foreseeable future, the alliance has agreed to provide a residual force of trainers and advisers to the country under the auspices of Operation Resolute Support. Yet many of the threats that NATO's stability and reconstruction initiatives aimed to eliminate still persist. And for better or worse, NATO's reputation as a viable international security alliance is inextricably linked to Afghanistan. If NATO is ever pulled into another major operation, the world will look to Afghanistan as the benchmark for its successes and shortfalls.
NATO's announcement that it is scaling back its already sparse commitments to Afghanistan after 2014 does not augur well for efforts to curb the country's prevalent drug trade and record-high opium cultivation levels. Afghanistan's fate hangs in the balance, and the opium poppy plant may prove heavy enough to tip the scale against the full weight of NATO and a nascent Afghan democracy.
Robbie Gramer staffs the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He can be reached via email at rgramer@AtlanticCouncil.org.
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Afghanistan's presidential race has started, but among the ten remaining candidates, there is no obvious successor to President Hamid Karzai. While at this early stage, the leading candidates seem to be Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai -- both are experienced former ministers -- neither has Karzai's charisma nor, even more important, his consensus-building abilities. And the race has already brought some surprises.
Compared to the 2009 elections, the current list of candidates includes a greater number of warlords -- men who tore the country apart in the 1990s and paved the way for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to gain a foothold -- including Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Gul Agha Sherzai. Sayyaf has even teamed up with another warlord, Ismail Khan, choosing him as his running mate for First Vice President. Abdullah himself has chosen Hazara strongman Mohammad Mohaqiq as his candidate for Second Vice President. And Ghani, one of the most prominent reformers, has registered with one of the most infamous warlords, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Disappointed that Karzai had not given him more in return for his endorsement in 2009, Dostum now seems to have made his support contingent on an offer to become First Vice President, and Ghani gave him what he asked for.
This Ghani-Dostum pairing is the most remarkable in today's race. In an article for the London Times on August 20, 2009, when Ghani received three percent of the votes in the presidential elections, he called Dostum a "killer" and lashed out against Karzai for calling Dostum back from Turkey to lend him his support. Now, Ghani has invited the very same Dostum to be his closest partner in the hope that this new alliance will bring him victory. "Politics is not a love marriage, politics is a product of historic necessities," he explained to Agence France Presse a few days after he had chosen Dostum.
As a result, members of the Afghan human rights community, which would normally be Ghani's constituency, threatened to withhold their support. Young voters took to social media to express their disappointment. "Then I am out. Mark my words, Ghani," one female activist wrote about the prospects of a Ghani-Dostum team. Seeing the possible fallout of his new partnership, Ghani asked Dostum to issue an apology for his past actions -- and he did.
On October 7, Dostum issued a widely published statement of apology to people who have suffered on both sides of the conflict while avoiding any direct reference to his personal role in the fighting. However, he emphasized that all ethnic groups have been victims of atrocities. Predictably, the statement was received with suspicion by many, who insisted that an apology would not help people forget his crimes. Nevertheless, the statement could be important beyond its immediate aim of pacifying disillusioned voters, as it is the first such apology given by any of the commanders from the civil war.
According to Ghani's interview with Agence France Presse, Dostum "should be praised for his courage" and for making "such a clear break with the past to embrace the future." However, the question many will be asking is whether the statement really signals an embrace of the future or simply aims to prolong the political lives of the men of the past.
The prominence of the old warlords on the candidates' list reflects the reality of Afghan society today. The new president will inherit an exceedingly complex political environment -- one in which warlords are still powerful and cannot be ignored. It is this same environment that shaped Karzai's 12 years as president. For more than a decade, the failure to understand this complexity has often led the international community to simplistic interpretations of reality in Afghanistan and to misguided policies.
To seek justice while maintaining stability in Afghanistan is a still a daunting challenge. However, by addressing the past, Dostum has removed a barrier that has been there for too long. Moreover, Ghani's credibility now is on the line. From now on, both men will be challenged to demonstrate that the apology was not a tactical move, but an important political initiative.
Dostum's statement challenged others with similar backgrounds to issue their own apologies and to, according to Dostum's words "develop a common understanding of the painful events of the past." If they do, it could open up a discussion of past atrocities and suffering that has so far been absent in the Afghan society. General apologies do not bring back the dead, heal the suffering, or repair the damage inflicted on so many, but they are better than silence or a continuing atmosphere of denial.
Dostum has -- perhaps inadvertently -- created an opportunity to initiate a process of reconciliation, of coming to terms with the legacy of the civil war. If Afghans can exploit this opportunity it could also give a much-needed boost to the generational transformation of Afghanistan's political life. However, it is a process that must be carefully handled to ensure that it truly enables Afghans to put the past behind them and does not lead to a return of past conflicts. Only Afghans themselves can find a way and a framework to make this possible.
Kai Eide was the U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010. He is now a PRIO Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
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The Waziristan-based Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), picked Mullah Fazlullah, nicknamed "Mullah FM Radio," as their new chief on Thursday. Once known for his two-year reign of terror in Pakistan's tourist resort of Swat, Fazlullah is stepping into the shoes of Hakimullah Mehsud, another dreaded TTP chief who was killed in a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan on November 2.
As the newly-elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif struggles to launch peace talks with the TTP, a number of Pakistani analysts believe that any hope of reconciliation is now dead.
"The appointment of Fazlullah as head of the TTP means the chapter of talks is closed for the time being," said Sen. Haji Muhammad Adeel, a top leader for the secular Awami National Party. Talking to this writer on Thursday, hours after Fazlullah's leadership was announced, Adeel said the Pakistani army would also be averse to talks since Fazlullah was behind the attack that killed Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi, a top military officer, in September.
From Fazle Hayat to TTP chief
Fazle Hayat, as Fazlullah was originally known, was a common village boy who joined the religious seminary of a Malakand-based cleric, Sufi Muhammad, and later married one of Muhammad's daughters. He was impressed when his mentor and father-in-law launched the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) in the early nineties, but his first fighting experience began when Muhammad led a lashkar of thousands of volunteers from Malakand, as well as the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal districts, to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban against NATO and U.S. forces in October 2001.
Muhammad's arrest by Pakistani security agencies in late 2001 upon his return from Afghanistan left a vacuum in Swat's militant movement. But his son-in-law, who had himself spent about 17 months in a Pakistani jail, came forward to fill the void and started preaching at a small mosque in the Swati town of Mam Dheri, which he later renamed "Imam Dheri" to add a more Islamic touch.
Born in 1974 or 1975 to a simple farming family in Mam Dheri near Fizza Ghat area of Swat, Hayat changed his name to Fazlullah in the 1990s to bolster his credentials as an Islamic leader, even though he had failed to receive full credentials from any religious institution.
Once an employee at a ski lift in Fizza Ghat, he used to say that he was not a religious scholar, but that did not stop him from advocating for the imposition of shari'a law in Swat.
Though Fazlullah initially taught the Koran to children at his Mam Dheri mosque, his preaching tone changed from sermons to threats after he launched his unauthorized FM radio channel in 2004. People started supporting him with men and material as he earned the nickname "Maulana Radio." Though he addressed the people of Swat very generally at first, he soon gained supporters among the conservative Pashtuns of the area, as well as erstwhile supporters of the jailed Muhammad and Pakistanis working abroad in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, whose families back in the country relayed Fazlullah's messages.
While encouraging his listeners to pray five times a day and avoid sins, Fazlullah also preached anti-Americanism, focusing on the U.S. forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. As his audience grew, he started discouraging parents from sending their girls to schools and spoke out against watching television or listening to music. In November 2005, after he criticized the "evil of television," some local Swatis responded by setting fire to thousands of TV sets.
According to Fazlullah himself, he burned television sets, video equipment, computers, and digital cameras worth 20 million rupees (approximately $32,000) because "these are the main sources of sin." He added: "Now we have no other option but to re-organize our movement and work for a society purged of all types of evils including music, dancing and drinking alcohol." In September 2007, Fazlullah's supporters also tried to destroy the centuries-old statues of Buddha and prehistoric rock carvings in the Swat Valley on the grounds that they were un-Islamic.
Fazlullah's fiery speeches carried an appeal for virtually everyone, from household women and laborers to landowners. They came forward in large numbers to donate goods such as wheat flour, cooking oil, and sugar, as well as cement and bricks for construction work. But despite the Swatis' initial support for Fazlullah, his movement began to lose popularity. His armed brigades patrolled marketplaces across the valley, intimidating locals into keeping their daughters home from school and beheading local opponents. But the general population was unable to resist publicly, because by late 2007, Fazlullah had gained too much power.
Fighting and agreements
During his 2007-2009 reign in Swat, the Pakistani government signed two peace agreements with Fazlullah, both of which ended in a military operation and further escalation of violence.
The first peace agreement was signed on May 21, 2008, and the Swat Taliban said they would not challenge the writ of the state in exchange for the release of Taliban prisoners and the implementation of the shari'a system. The agreement, however, only lasted for a little more than a month when Fazlullah demanded the government withdraw army troops from Swat. Soon after, the Taliban launched attacks on the army and police, and the government launched Operation Rah-e-Haq (Just Path) in June 2008.
In February 2009, the Fazlullah-led Taliban and the government of Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province signed another peace agreement. Like the previous agreement, this one lasted for just a few months and the Pakistani government had to order a massive operation, Rah-e-Raast (Right Path), in May 2009.
After the operation, the Taliban vacated Swat and Fazlullah fled from the area, taking refuge across the border in Afghanistan. Several of his close associates were killed during the operation, while several others were captured -- some of which, like his spokesman Muslim Khan, are still believed to be in the custody of the Pakistani security agencies.
Since 2009, the 39-year-old Fazlullah has been hiding in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan and orchestrating attacks in Pakistan from across the border. Prominent among those attacks are the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai in October 2012, and the bomb blast that killed Niazi.
While some in the Pakistani government still hope the Taliban will agree to carry forward the peace process, Adeel, whose party held extensive negotiations with Fazlullah in 2008 and 2009, says "the chapter is closed, at least for the coming few months, if not years, after the appointment of Fazlullah as the TTP head."
While Fazlullah is regarded as a hardliner, it took at least seven days and a lot of maneuvering for the Taliban shura council members to choose their new leader and operational head. Though his appointment was not unexpected, analysts and locals from Waziristan, the Taliban's stronghold, believe his status as a non-Mehsud TTP leader and his living across the border in Afghanistan will neutralize his strategic skills, vast fighting experience and oratory, and that some Mehsud Taliban leader could challenge him and cause cracks in the umbrella organization in the future.
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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Matt Zeller, Watches Without Time: An American Soldier in Afghanistan (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2012).
Ben Anderson, No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan (Oxford: One World Publications, 2011).
Carter Malkasian, War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
As the U.S. military reels from budgetary battles and withdraws from Afghanistan, commentators offer post-mortem after post-mortem on counter-insurgency (COIN) - an ambitious operational concept-cum-strategy hoisted on its own petard in Afghanistan. These sundry writers - including military officers, scholars, bloggers, and talking heads - have collectively sought, in the words of one blogger "to fire a few shotgun rounds into the recently buried corpse of population-centric counterinsurgency to prevent it from rising again." The specter of the Vietnam Syndrome has become flesh once more, and now the U.S. military plans, or attempts to plan, what form it will take in the decades to come. That is what the COIN debate has always been about - not Iraq or Afghanistan, but the future of the U.S. military.
It is likely that the outcome of this struggle will have a far greater impact on the United States and the world than America's strategic defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, not only is it unfortunate that these debates are not more rooted in the theatres in which these conflicts have taken place, it is very typically American. Contravening Clausewitz, the COIN debate proceeds as if war can be divorced from policy and politics; as if the organization, training, and equipping of the U.S. armed forces can take place apart from the aims to which and the places where these forces will be applied.
It is in this context that the books reviewed here all have considerable value, showcasing different perspectives of the Afghan campaign during its most crucial and resource-intensive years: the experience of an American soldier, a brave journalist covering the war for years, and a political officer coming to know his district and its history with an uncommon intimacy.
Matt Zeller's Watches Without Time provides a moving portrait of the war in Ghazni province through the author's eyes as a young lieutenant struggling to make sense of the war around him. The book is a collection of letters, reflections, and diary entries on everything from combat to working with the Afghan National Security Forces to the journey home. If anyone is wondering what it is like to go to war, read this book. It is packed with drama, excitement, fear, humor, and heartbreak. More importantly, it contains incisive observations about Afghan society from a young man trying to understand the war around him. His brief anecdotes and explanations of political corruption and the performance of the Afghan National Police are worth the price alone.
Of the many journalists who have covered the war in Afghanistan, Ben Anderson is one of the most impressive. His book, No Worse Enemy, which informed his excellent 2013 documentary with Vice, "This Is What Winning Looks Like," spans 2007 to 2011 and covers his time with the British Army and the U.S. Marine Corps as they struggle to pacify Afghanistan's deadliest province, Helmand. As a military outsider, Anderson struggles to make sense of the British and American militaries as much as he tries to understand the war in Afghanistan, thus making No Worse Enemy an interesting companion read to Zeller's insider account. Anderson is at his strongest when his narrative illustrates the complexity of telling friend from foe and right from wrong in a country where such distinctions are hopelessly blurred. He concludes that, if he were Afghan, he "certainly wouldn't be picking sides." He continues:
If someone built me a school or repaired my mosque, I would undoubtedly smile, shake their hand, maybe even make them a cup of tea or pose for a photograph. But this would be simple pragmatism. It would not mean I offered them my loyalty, much less that I had rejected the Taliban. The nature and detail of this pragmatism is entirely lost on idealistic foreign commanders.
This critique cuts to the heart of the series of assumptions that are often grouped under the misnomer of "counterinsurgency theory." If one cannot truly "clear" an area of the insurgency because the difference between a guerrilla and a disgruntled farmer is far from obvious, and one cannot effectively "hold" an area because the Afghan police are abusive and ineffective and Western forces rotate every six months (as in the case of the British and the U.S. Marines), or "build" in a "held" area because the government is alternatively venal, corrupt, and disinterested, what can Western counter-insurgents really accomplish in Afghanistan that will endure? Through their engaging portraits of the campaign in the south, Anderson and Zeller confront these contradictions head on.
But one cannot truly understand the war unless one understands Afghan history, especially on a very local level. Carter Malkasian, also in Helmand, clearly mastered these details. While all three books are excellent, War Comes to Garmser stands above the rest. The term "instant classic" long ago achieved cliché-status by being applied to middling works - much like the word "brilliant" has lost its luster by being applied to average people - but War Comes to Garmser truly became a classic as soon as it was put on store shelves. It will be one of a small number of books on Afghanistan to be published in the last 12 years that will be read for decades to come, and demands to be consulted if the United States ever again dispatches its forces to a faraway land to embroil itself in an internal war.
Malkasian's book, a history of Garmser through the prism of conflict, begins centuries ago. As someone who has also worked at the local level in Helmand, I can assure you it is no exaggeration to say that you must go this far back in order to truly understand the dynamics of the current conflict. He narrates the tribal and factional dynamics as they developed over the decades, alternately forged and fragmented through war, until his own more recent labors as a State Department political advisor working with the U.S. Marines. Malkasian - who is currently advising Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the Commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force - is something of a folk hero among Afghan hands. He learned Pashto, achieved an unmatched understanding of his district, admirably violated State Department security strictures in order to go where he needed to go and speak with whom he needed to speak.
Gen. Larry Nicholson - who knew Malkasian from his time commanding the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Task Force Leatherneck, in Helmand - memorably said:"We need a Carter Malkasian in every district of Afghanistan." But to say that is to draw the wrong lesson from both his book and the conflict. While it is true that we cannot understand (and therefore cannot be effective) without understanding what I call "micro-conflicts" - the localized, enduring conflicts and rivalries driving politics within the Afghan government and the larger insurgency - and that Malkasian understood them as deeply as any outsider could, this level of understanding alone could not illuminate the nature of the Afghan campaign.
This campaign, as Anderson vividly depicts, rests its "success" on empowering a government and security forces that behave monstrously and feed the problems they are funded to defeat. Which brings me back to my main argument: when a military campaign is so disconnected from politics that it cannot succeed without exacerbating the true political problem - in this case the Afghan government - it matters not how many Carter Malkasians we have or how "good" our military becomes at counterinsurgency.
Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for National Interest in Washington, DC. He is the editor-in-chief of the web magazine War on the Rocks. In 2010-2011, he worked as a social scientist on a human terrain team in central Helmand province. You can follow him on Twitter @EvansRyan202.
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No country aside from Afghanistan has more to lose than Pakistan from the coming departure of international forces. All post-2014 scenarios seem dark for Pakistan should the challenged Afghan state begin to unravel. In a protracted civil war, a reluctant Pakistan stands a good chance of being drawn into the conflict along with other regional powers. Taliban gains leading to a radical Islamic regime in all or most of Afghanistan, while once welcomed by Pakistan, may now result in empowering Pakistan's own militant extremists. Intensified fighting across the border is certain to push millions of new refugees into a Pakistan unprepared and unwilling to absorb them. Prospects that a successfully negotiated political agreement might some time soon avert these outcomes seem dim.
And yet, Pakistan does have one policy option that can result in a brighter scenario for itself and its Afghan neighbor. This opportunity has, in fact, been available throughout the course of the last 12 years, but it requires a strategic reassessment by Pakistan of its long-term national security interests, recognizing that they are best served when there is a stable, peaceful, prospering and, yes, independent Afghanistan. While Pakistan officially endorses this vision, its policies regularly undermine its achievement, above all by giving sanctuary and sustenance to Afghan insurgents. Instead, Pakistan should fully embrace efforts that improve prospects for the emergence of a moderate, economically improving, and accountably-governed Afghanistan. As University of Peshawar professor Ijza Khan advises, rather than pursuing a strategy focused on ensuring a friendly regime in Kabul, Pakistan should strive to win the friendship of the Afghan state and its people.
Convincing Afghans of Pakistan's good intentions will not be easy. Almost regardless of their political disposition, Afghans view their neighbor as overbearing and covetous, blaming it for much of the country's problems. Building trust is bound to be a slow process. Yet Pakistan is not without the means with which to allay Afghan suspicions. An economically-strapped Pakistani government cannot offer the kind of financial assistance that the West and Japan provide Afghanistan, or even match India's development aid portfolio. But Pakistan has advantages that come with geographical proximity, overlapping cultural and ethnic affinities, and established economic ties. It also has a relative abundance of human capital available with which to help strengthen the Afghan state.
To begin, Pakistan could agree to open the long denied trans-country routes that block India's trade with Afghanistan. Afghanistan's critical dependence on road links to the port of Karachi could be better secured and border impediments removed. Existing training programs in Pakistan for Afghan civil servants could be greatly expanded. Pakistan can do more to allay Afghans' beliefs that it is obstructing a peace deal with the Taliban and assure them that it has no plans to divide Afghan territory ethnically. Pakistan can also help secure Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled in 2014 and 2015, respectively, by using its not inconsiderable influence to limit Taliban interference. It could also place additional troops at the border to reduce infiltration, much as it did during elections in 2004 and 2005. Although largely symbolic, Pakistan might even propose a non-aggression pact. But all these trust-building actions would pale against a decision by Pakistan to withdraw its patronage of the Afghan Taliban. Simply put, it must be willing to evict, if not arrest, Afghan Taliban fighters and their leaders on its soil.
Admittedly this will be hard. It will incur risks for Pakistan, particularly inviting a backlash not just from Afghan Taliban in the country, but also from their Pakistani allies. Afghans may be driven into open alliance with Pakistani insurgents and other extremist groups against the state. Yet this is a fight that Pakistan must eventually undertake. It cannot continue trying to differentiate between good and bad militants and expect the country's endemic violence to end. Delay has only made the task more difficult. If there is to be a reckoning, Pakistan may find that dismantling the Afghan Taliban offers a less difficult first step toward eliminating all of the militant groups that are currently or will inevitably be challenging the Pakistani state.
Pakistan has much to gain from a strategic reappraisal. Aside from possibly avoiding an Afghan civil war and its consequences, Pakistan could expect to enlist Afghan efforts to deny Pakistan's Taliban insurgents the safe haven they have found across the border. Pakistan could feel confident that the Baloch rebellion is not being fueled from the Afghan side of the border and that India does not overplay its hand once NATO forces leave. More broadly, Pakistan should have less reason to fear India's role in Afghanistan. A stabilized, secure Afghanistan would find it unnecessary to look to India to provide a counterweight to Pakistan or worry Pakistan by maintaining an oversized army.
Building confidence between the two countries could also perhaps permanently defuse their long-standing dispute over the Durand Line that separates them. With improved security in Afghanistan, new life could be breathed into plans to construct a gas pipeline from the fields in Turkmenistan. A growing Afghan economy would open up new markets for Pakistani goods and services and improve opportunities for investment. And Pakistan's dreams of using Afghanistan as a road bridge to Central Asia to extend its commerce and political influence might finally become a reality.
Without reciprocating Afghan policies, friendly overtures by Pakistan cannot be sustained. But it is Pakistan's initiatives that will drive any embrace. More than any external power, its actions will determine whether the present Afghan state can succeed against the current odds. And through assisting its struggling neighbor, Pakistan may help secure its own future.
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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At long last, it appears that the Bilateral Security Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan may be nearing the finish line. However, there are equally consequential negotiations reportedly underway between the Taliban and Afghan government. While it is still unclear what the results of these negotiations will be, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar made the group's position clear earlier this year when he said that they will not attempt to monopolize power in Afghanistan, but that the Taliban seeks "an inclusive government based on Islamic principles."
With the U.S. troop drawdown underway, this statement needs to be fully considered by both the United States and the international community, as it will directly impact Afghan women's rights and human rights more broadly. Afghanistan's future is on the line.
Currently, things are far from stable in Afghanistan. The recent assassination of Arsala Jamal, the governor of Logar province, through a bomb hidden inside a Koran, is a new low in the militants' race to the bottom. Meanwhile, the intimidation and targeted killings of female Afghan government officials and societal leaders continues. Statements by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay after her September trip to Afghanistan highlighted these ongoing abuses against Afghan women.
Gains have certainly been made -- women's rights are respected in ways that were unthinkable 15 years ago, there is an independent media, and political parties are active -- yet all of these are tenuous and reversible. Why? The climate of impunity, and the fact that the current Afghan constitution has effectively established a restrictive interpretation of shari'a as the law of the land. Consequently, Afghans lack both personal security and freedom of thought. Protections do not exist to safely dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy, to debate the role and content of religion in law and society, to advocate for the human rights of women and religious minorities, or to question narrow interpretations of Islamic precepts.
Despite this reality, Mullah Omar said it was not enough and his government would be based on Islamic law. His desire for more would be fatal to Afghanistan's effort to emerge from decades of war and instability.
I saw a glimpse of possible things to come first-hand during a trip to Kabul in May, when I visited the Afghan parliament during the debate on the proposed Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. The bill was introduced by the irrepressible parliamentarian Fawsia Koofi, who wanted to replace the imperfect but important presidential decree on protecting women. Koofi thought it better to have a law enjoying popular support through parliamentary passage. When I arrived at the Parliament, Koofi was being thronged by female MPs vigorously arguing that introducing legislation was foolish, as it risked giving conservative elements an opportunity to roll back protections.
Despite these protests, Koofi forged ahead. The outcome? Conservative legislators pressed for amendments based on their narrow interpretation of Islamic law, such as reducing the marriage age from 17 to 14, but the bill did not pass.
If this is happening under the umbrella of protection afforded by the United States, it should give policymakers pause as they look to engage Afghanistan after U.S. forces drawdown. From this low starting point, any consideration of Mullah Omar's offer for a government based on his retrograde interpretation of religious law would be deeply problematic.
Right now, those who think and speak freely in Afghanistan do so at their own risk. My conversations in Kabul made it clear that Afghanistan is a generation or more away from experiencing anything close to freedom of thought due to decades of war, the theological echoes of Taliban rule, poor rule of law, and weak human rights protections. Furthermore, the current environment promotes a vicious cycle: diverse thinking is snuffed out, either by state action or violent religious extremists, which amplifies extreme voices while marginalizing differing Islamic interpretations or debate about religion/state questions. Allowing Mullah Omar to constrict that discussion further would be disastrous.
Afghanistan has not only struggled to respect women's rights, it has also failed to value and protect its religious diversity. I repeatedly heard that Afghanistan is 99% Muslim, a factoid that obscures its existing religious diversity, of which many Afghans are unaware. In the Sunni majority, there are different schools of thought, including "moderate" Muslims who hold a progressive view of religion/state relations. The Shi'a community is theologically and ethnically diverse between Hazara Jafaris and Tajik Ismailis. The historic Hindu and Sikh communities continue to exist, with their distinctive dress and burial traditions providing a visible reminder of Afghanistan's historic pluralism. The hidden Christian and Baha'i communities, not acknowledged by Afghan religious leaders or government officials, live a vulnerable existence in the shadows.
Despite this challenging environment, the U.S. government needs to continue to press all the players seeking peace to protect members of the majority faith whose views contradict the religious establishment or Taliban sympathizers, as well as religious minorities. The Taliban and other militants have long used religion to advance their religio-political agenda. The United States, however, can undercut their message by offering counter narratives of tolerance and understanding, while supporting women's groups and other human rights groups.
The U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement, on which I informally advised, offers guidance on a way forward. It addresses the issue of advancing pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom, stating:
Building on current initiatives, the Administration will increase efforts to engage a diverse spectrum of religious leaders on the advancement of universal human rights, promoting core U.S. values like respect for the human rights of members of minority and marginalized groups, pluralism, tolerance, and sensitivity to and respect for the beliefs and traditions of others.
As endgame negotiations speed up, this strategy needs to be brought to bear in Afghanistan immediately. Religion provides a narrative and context for much of what happens in the country, and Mullah Omar wants to re-enshrine his religio-political worldview as international forces withdraw. Instead of ceding the religious space to him, the United States should take steps to protect diverse religious and political views. Doing so can support other U.S. priorities, such as women's rights and free speech, while undercutting the Taliban and other militants seeking sway over the Afghan population.
Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.
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The assassination of Amanullah Aman, the Chief Election Officer of Afghanistan's Kunduz province, in September should be taken seriously, as it could mark the beginning of a devastating terror campaign targeting election workers that could potentially paralyze next April's presidential elections. One day after the incident, the Taliban kidnapped two low-level election workers in the other northern province of Faryab. Combined, these events sent a chilling message to election workers across the country and raised alarms about the changing tactics of insurgents for derailing the elections.
An inclusive and transparent election, which is key to creating legitimate results, plays a vital role for the future of Afghanistan. A legitimate election will not only guarantee the first peaceful political transition from one elected leader to another in Afghanistan's history, it will also harden the entrenchment of the roots of Afghanistan's young democracy and political order. More importantly it will increase existential threats against the violent militants and thus will increase hopes for future peace talks with the Taliban. Conversely, any failure to hold proper elections will pose serious challenges to Afghanistan's stability, and will boost the position and rhetoric of the Taliban and other extremist groups who have been relentlessly sabotaging democratic processes.
The Taliban and their benefactors understand the critical nature of the elections and in all probability will spare no acts and means of subversion to sabotage the process. The assassination of Aman, for which the Taliban took responsibility, most likely demonstrates a new tactic of the militants, which is targeting election workers. To make this message clear, the Taliban boasted about the incident onTwitter and declared to the media that they will kill anyone involved in the elections.
In previous elections, Taliban focused on intimidating the public to prevent them from voting. But their disruptive tactics failed to produce the desired outcome. People voted, in spite of the threats that even included chopping off voters' fingers. This failed strategy, combined with the fact that the significant reduction of international troops will add to the security challenges than in the 2009 presidential elections, may have led the Taliban to change their tactic, switching their focus from the public to the election officials.
Noor Ahmad Noor, one of the spokespersons for the Independent Election Commission (IEC), told the media that during the previous elections, the Taliban did not explicitly threaten election workers and that IEC officials were not singled out. He added that prior to the Aman incident, there had been no attacks on commission staff for the past two years.
According to Farid Afghanzai, another senior IEC official, Aman spent the last 10 years of his life organizing elections in the country's north, and he managed four elections in the area: three in Kunduz province and one in Badakhshan province. He added that Aman was respected by all ethnic groups in the provinces and it will be almost impossible to find another person as professional, capable, and widely respected as he was.
Afghan election officials have long been complaining about the lack of adequate security for their staff and the public at the voting sites. Just one day before Aman's assassination, Mohammad Yosuf Nooristani, chairman of the IEC, told reporters that the security of his colleagues was his biggest worry. He also said that 259 of the nearly 7,000 polling centers were currently beyond the government's control.
This is a serious challenge for the elections. The primary concern is that Afghan security forces, considering the nature of the attacks of the insurgents and the tough geography of Afghanistan, will find it difficult to secure all electoral sites and electoral workers, particularly the mobile teams operating in remote areas. Furthermore, the planned reduction of NATO troops in the run-up to the elections will inadvertently increase the security challenge and make it more difficult to create a safe voting environment.
Inadequate security for election officials should be considered a serious threat to the political transition by both the Afghan government and Afghanistan's international partners, especially in light of the recent targeting of electoral workers. To combat this threat, the Afghan government needs to use all of its resources to secure the election process, and the United States should tailor its troop reduction strategy based on the security need on the ground. The United States should also support the Afghan security forces by placing limited troop reinforcements along Afghanistan's borders around election time to prevent the heavy infiltration of terrorists. Furthermore, the US and its allies should put pressure on the Pakistani fouj (Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment) to check Taliban infiltrations into Afghanistan around polling day just as it did in response to similar pressure from the Bush administration in the 2004 presidential elections. After all, successful elections will play a definitive role in shaping the results of 12 years of U.S and coalition partners' sacrifice and investment in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, both the Afghan government and its international supporters need to consistently communicate their adamant support for holding elections no matter what security threats exist. This will help boost the morale of Afghan voters and will weaken the psychological effect of the fear campaign of the Taliban.
"We don't have any other choice but to have elections" is the most common sentiment voiced by Afghans of all walks of life. Next year's elections in particular need to be considered a sacred mission in Afghanistan, as they are not only necessary for strengthening democracy, but also a major step in marginalizing violent extremists. Current President Hamid Karzai, who recently said that "holding successful elections will help foil the plot of Afghanistan's enemies" - a term often used when referring to the Taliban and their foreign backers - realizes the importance of the situation. However, the upcoming elections pose the biggest imperative to president Karzai to demonstrate decent statesmanship and would enable him to preside over a historic transfer of power. Taking the threat to election officers seriously is a crucial step in guaranteeing a secure and legitimate election.
Najib Sharifi is a founding member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul-based think tank.
With the looming withdrawal of NATO troops and a persistent insurgent threat, Afghanistan is in a precarious position. Innumerable tragedies have beleaguered rural Afghans throughout the past decades of conflict -- perpetual violence, oppression of women, and crushing poverty have all contributed to the Hobbesian nature of life in the Afghan countryside.
While the Afghan government has been able to address some of these issues since the Taliban's ouster in 2001, archaic social traditions and deep-seated gender norms have kept much of rural Afghanistan in a medieval state of purgatory. Perhaps the most deplorable tragedy, one that has actually grown more rampant since 2001, is the practice of bacha bazi -- sexual companionship between powerful men and their adolescent boy conscripts.
This phenomenon presents a system of gender reversal in Afghanistan. Whereas rural Pashtun culture remains largely misogynistic and male-dominated due to deeply-ingrained Islamic values, teenage boys have become the objects of lustful attraction and romance for some of the most powerful men in the Afghan countryside.
Demeaning and damaging, the widespread subculture of pedophilia in Afghanistan constitutes one of the most egregious ongoing violations of human rights in the world. The adolescent boys who are groomed for sexual relationships with older men are bought -- or, in some instances, kidnapped -- from their families and thrust into a world which strips them of their masculine identity. These boys are often made to dress as females, wear makeup, and dance for parties of men. They are expected to engage in sexual acts with much older suitors, often remaining a man's or group's sexual underling for a protracted period.
Evolution of Bacha Bazi
Occurring frequently across southern and eastern Afghanistan's rural Pashtun belt and with ethnic Tajiks in the northern Afghan countryside, bacha bazi has become a shockingly common practice. Afghanistan's mujahideen warlords, who fought off the Soviet invasion and instigated a civil war in the 1980s, regularly engaged in acts of pedophilia. Keeping one or more "chai boys," as these male conscripts are called, for personal servitude and sexual pleasure became a symbol of power and social status.
The Taliban had a deep aversion towards bacha bazi, outlawing the practice when they instituted strict nationwide sharia law. According to some accounts, including the hallmark Times of London article "Kandahar Comes out of the Closet" in 2002, one of the original provocations for the Taliban's rise to power in the early 1990s was their outrage over pedophilia. Once they came to power, bacha bazi became taboo, and the men who still engaged in the practice did so in secret.
When the former mujahideen commanders ascended to power in 2001 after the Taliban's ouster, they brought with them a rekindled culture of bacha bazi. Today, many of these empowered warlords serve in important positions, as governors, line ministers, police chiefs, and military commanders.
Since its post-2001 revival, bacha bazi has evolved, and its practice varies across Afghanistan. According to military experts I talked to in Afghanistan, the lawlessness that followed the deposing of the Taliban's in rural Pashtunistan and northern Afghanistan gave rise to violent expressions of pedophilia. Boys were raped, kidnapped, and trafficked as sexual predators regained their positions of regional power. As rule of law mechanisms and general order returned to the Afghan countryside, bacha bazi became a normalized, structured practice in many areas.
Many "chai boys" are now semi-formal apprentices to their powerful male companions. Military officials have observed that Afghan families with an abundance of children are often keen to provide a son to a warlord or government official - with full knowledge of the sexual ramifications - in order to gain familial prestige and monetary compensation. Whereas bacha bazi is now largely consensual and non-violent, its evolution into an institutionalized practice within rural Pashtun and Tajik society is deeply disturbing.
Pedophilia and Islam
The fact that bacha bazi, which has normalized sodomy and child abuse in rural Afghan society, developed within a deeply fundamentalist Islamic region of the world is mystifying. According to a 2009 Human Terrain Team study titled "Pashtun Sexuality," Pashtun social norms dictate that bacha bazi is not un-Islamic or homosexual at all -- if the man does not love the boy, the sexual act is not reprehensible, and is far more ethical than defiling a woman.
Sheltered by their pastoral setting and unable to speak Arabic -- the language of all Islamic texts -- many Afghans allow social customs to trump religious values, including those Quranic verses eschewing homosexuality and promiscuity. Warlords who have exploited Islam for political or personal means have also promulgated tolerance for bacha bazi. The mujahideen commanders are a perfect example of this -- they fought communism in the name of jihad and mobilized thousands of men by promoting Islam, while sexually abusing boys and remaining relatively secular themselves.
The rampant pedophilia has a number of far-reaching detrimental consequences on Afghanistan's development into a functional nation. The first -- and most obvious -- consequence of bacha bazi is the irreparable abuse inflicted on its thousands of victims.
Because it is so common, a significant percentage of the country's male population bears the deep psychological scars of sexual abuse from childhood. Some estimates say that as many as 50 percent of the men in the Pashtun tribal areas of southern Afghanistan take boy lovers, making it clear that pedophilia is a pervasive issue affecting entire rural communities. Many of the prominent Pashtun men who currently engage in bacha bazi were likely abused as children; in turn, many of today's adolescent victims will likely become powerful warlords or government-affiliated leaders with boy lovers of their own, perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
A second corrupting, and perhaps surprising, consequence of bacha bazi is its negative impact on women's rights in Afghanistan. It has become a commonly accepted notion among Afghanistan's latent homosexual male population that "women are for children, and boys are for pleasure." Passed down through many generations and spurred by the vicious cycle created by the pedophile-victim relationship, many Afghan men have lost their attraction towards the opposite gender. Although social and religious customs still heavily dictate that all men must marry one or more women and have children, these marriages are often devoid of love and affection, and are treated as practical, mandated arrangements.
While the Afghan environment has grown more conducive to improving women's social statuses, the continued normalization of bacha bazi will perpetuate the traditional view of women as second-class citizens -- household fixtures meant for child-rearing and menial labor, and undeserving of male attraction and affection.
The third unfortunate consequence of bacha bazi is its detrimental bearing on the perpetual state of conflict in Afghanistan, especially in the southern Pashtun-dominated countryside. Because pedophilia and sodomy were, and remain, a main point of contention between the Islamist Taliban and traditional Pashtun warlords, the widespread nature of bacha bazi likely continues to fuel the Taliban's desire to reassert sharia law. The adolescent victims are vulnerable to Taliban intimidation and may be used to infiltrate the Afghan government and security forces.
The resurgence of bacha bazi since the Taliban's defeat and the significant percentage of government, police, and military officials engaged in the practice has put the United States and its NATO allies in a precarious position. By empowering these sexual predators, the coalition built a government around a "lesser evil," promoting often-corrupt pedophiles in lieu of the extremist, al Qaeda-linked Taliban. Going forward, the strong Western moral aversion to pedophilia will likely erode the willingness of NATO and international philanthropic agencies to continue their support for Afghanistan's development in the post-transition period. As Joel Brinkley, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, asked: "So, why are American and NATO forces fighting and dying to defend tens of thousands of proud pedophiles, certainly more per capita than any other place on Earth?"
Despite the grave nature of the child abuse committed across Afghanistan, this tragic phenomenon has received relatively little global attention. It has been highlighted mainly in sporadic news articles and one Afghan-produced documentary, while other Afghan issues such as women's rights and poverty are center stage.
From a human rights perspective, the pervasive culture of pedophilia deserves substantial international consideration due to its detrimental effects -- the immediate and noticeable effects on the young victims, as well as the roadblocks it creates towards achieving gender equality and peace.
The only way to tackle both bacha bazi and gender inequality is to modernize Afghanistan's rule of law system. Afghan officials have been scrutinized in multiple reports by the United Nations' Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict for their failure to protect children's rights. Although Afghan officials formally agreed to outlaw these practices in response to U.N. criticism in 2011, the government's ability and willingness to internally enforce laws protecting children has been non-existent.
If a future Afghan government can achieve a balance between the Taliban, who strictly enforced anti-pedophilia laws but harshly oppressed women, and the current administration, which has put an end to the hard-line Islamic subjugation of women but has allowed bacha bazi to reach shocking levels, Afghanistan's dismal human rights record may improve.
An additional strategy for combating bacha bazi is to attack the issue from an ethno-cultural standpoint. Identifying key tribal elders and other local powerbrokers who share the West's revulsion towards such widespread pedophilia is the first step in achieving lasting progress. As is true with women's rights, understanding Afghanistan's complex social terrain and bridging its cultural differences is necessary to safeguard the rights of adolescent boys.
The Afghan government's acknowledgement of bacha bazi and subsequent outreach into rural Pashtun communities, where the legitimacy of the government is often eclipsed by the power of warlords and tribal elders, will also be critical. The most important breakthrough, of course, will come when the Afghan government, police, and military rid themselves of all pedophiles. If the central government can ensure its representatives at the local level will cease their engagement in bacha bazi, the social norms are bound to change as well.
Eliminating this truly damaging practice will finally occur when a pedophile-free Afghan government is able to more closely connect the country's urban centers to its rural countryside. Only then will a progressive social code be established. And if this evolved social code can incorporate the tenets of Islam with social justice and effectively marginalize the archaic and abusive aspects of Pashtun and Tajik warlord culture, there is hope for Afghanistan yet.
Chris Mondloch served as an analyst for the U.S. Marine Corps for five years and directed intelligence production for the Corps' Economic Political Intelligence Cell in Helmand province in 2012.
AREF KARIMI/AFP/Getty Images
Managing Afghanistan's nascent industrial base will be critical as the nation attempts to build a modern economy that is increasingly less dependent on foreign aid. Today, there is great room for optimism as Afghanistan moves toward the post-transition period. Despite having a GDP that was made up almost entirely of outside aid in 2011 and 2012, certain industries -- including the Afghan telecommunications, agricultural, and mining sectors -- have begun to demonstrate remarkable growth and potential, leading to the vital stability needed for a viable, diversified marketplace.
Experts estimate that Afghanistan holds deposits of $1 trillion to $3 trillion of oil, gas, gold, copper, iron ore, and other natural resources. Of this subset, perhaps the most intriguing is the country's marble industry, which is further along in its exploitation than other areas, and whose emergence is an instructive success story on seeding enterprise in the war zone. As commodity cycles turn, prices increase, and large-scale resource extraction projects scale up, Afghanistan is focusing on the industry as an anchor for the development of its resource corridor. According to the Afghanistan Investment and Support Agency, the Afghan marble industry has expanded by 60 percent since 2008, a growth that has positives effects on other industries as well.
Economic considerations aside, Afghanistan's post-2014 future will be heavily tied to its security situation. In geostrategic hot spots around the world, counterinsurgency experts have long argued that adequate development and economic prosperity follow security. But if there is a successful strategy that upends this conventional wisdom, it may lie in western Afghanistan, where the development of the nation's multi-billion dollar mining industry is growing the economy and consequently forcing improvements in the security sector. In essence, as businesses have begun to flourish, despite the lack of fully settled security, Afghans have moved swiftly against nefarious actors to ensure that they do not impact the flow of marble and revenue generation.
Ultimately, an economy is built out through trade, not aid, as growth and new jobs are the most sustainable way to raise living standards. With increasing exports across Europe and Asia, the Afghan marble sector already earns at least $15 million per year and remains the top marble producer in the region. If present maturation trends hold, the marble sector could generate nearly $700 million in exports by 2018.
Over the last five years, other sectors have also demonstrated robust growth: the Afghan media, health, and agriculture sectors (dry fruits and seeds, which surpassed carpets as Afghanistan's primary export) have all shown impressive development. However, these areas rely to a significant extent on the funds available from foreign aid, and subsequently have not generated sizable, sustainable profits that maximize the sectors' full potential. Conversely, certain large-scale mining activities have turned a profit relatively quickly and have continued to expand at a dynamic rate, especially as innovative Afghan companies increasingly access a burgeoning global market for the nation's rare, world-class materials.
Since 2008, Afghans have sharply focused on the country's export capacity to meet the rise in international demand for high-end stone. Since its introduction to the global market, Afghan white stone, a marble noted for its unusually rich quality and rainbow color, has been actively sought by some of the world's wealthiest buyers -- industry insiders -- who are engaged in a continuous price war for the most expensive marble products. By increasing its share in this highly competitive market, Afghanistan is already carving out broader regional economic relevance, with the World Bank concluding that "in a scenario with higher investment in mining development, growth could increase to 6.9 per cent on average until 2025, and fiscal revenues could reach 2-4 percent of GDP in the early 2020s, depending on the number and scale of the exploited mines and the pace of their development." The potential earnings from the mining trade are therefore poised to become an important source of fiscal revenue, as well as a vehicle for creating jobs, developing infrastructure, and ensuring national economic growth. The key remains strategic management and investment.
The largest marble producer in Afghanistan, Equality Capital Management (ECM), founded in 2006 by Nasim and Adam Doost, has implemented a successful framework for foreign direct investment and economic growth. In Herat province, located in western Afghanistan, ECM has secured multi-million dollar commitments from leading international firms by offering an exclusive right to its top-grade marble, in exchange for modern production machinery, mining refinement technology, and technical support from geology and engineering experts. As a result of this business model and efficient management, ECM has helped bring the Afghan mining sector in line with international standards, while also using public-private partnerships to improve infrastructure, power reliability, and access to deepwater ports that are crucial to making the industry competitive.
The effects of these improvements have been clear. Since ECM's introduction of Afghan marble to some of the world's top stone importers in 2008, it has become a highly sought commodity -- a global-luxury good competing with Carrara marble, an Italian stone generally recognized as one of the finest in the world. Consequently, ECM's current portfolio boasts foreign buyers from a vast lineup of nations, including China, India, Italy, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. Afghan stone is increasingly used in prestigious construction projects across the world, such as the building of China's St. Regis Shenzhen, a premier five-star international hotel, and in the new headquarters of Margraf Industria Marmi Vicentini, a century-old firm and the fourth largest marble exporter in the world with ties to some of the world's most distinguished architecture.
Because not all foreign companies are keen to enter an unproven market in a war zone, Afghan leadership in cultivating joint ventures to share risks and costs in regions fraught with danger has been critical to the industry's growth. The combination of security operations and economic growth sprouting from these marble-for-security deals, in which Afghan business owners provide marble to the Afghan government in exchange for hard security guarantees, has created challenges for the insurgency. Pursuing this course, "the Afghan National Army has taken the lead and a more active approach to secur[ing] the marble mines, checkpoints, and transit routes over the last six months," notes a senior U.S. military official of Regional Command West. As a result of such deals, in order to guard the industry's growth, the Ministry of Interior and the Afghan National Security Forces have become more responsive, reinstating the flow of commerce hindered by illicit activity and constraining the insurgency in key zones.
Given the improved security, the growth of the marble industry has created an impressive spillover effect. As noted by Mansour Rahimi, the head of the Herat Marble Union, the number of Afghan-run small-to-medium-size marble enterprises in Herat province alone has increased from four to over 40, and the number of quarries contracted with the government has grown from two to 12, a rate that Adam Doost predicts "will generate 40,000 jobs ...over the next five years in this region." In fact, many of the relatively smaller businesses working beside ECM recently established the Marble Union to help capitalize on opportunities and solve challenges facing the industry due to this growth.
The size and sophistication of the mining industry, and the direct work of Afghans themselves as owners, have made the Herat marble industry a model for Afghan businesses in other regions and industries, such as barite, gold, limestone, lithium, tin, and even oil and gas. Acknowledging this influence, a group of Lashkar Gah onyx dealers from Helmand province in southern Afghanistan recently toured several Herat manufacturing facilities and met with the Doost brothers and Marble Union leaders to learn from their successes. The timing of these study tours is crucial, as the Helmand business leaders are currently introducing their highly prized onyx to the global market for the first time. Afghans' direct participation in these industries is absolutely essential for long-lasting economic growth and stabilization in the region.
Despite this success, fundamental obstacles to developing the mining sector remain. Procuring stable investment and credit facilities for businesses, repairing and updating antiquated technology and infrastructure, and improving the structure and application of mining laws all remain significant challenges. To be sure, no "one-size-fits-all" solution can guide business development and the next generation of entrepreneurs who are leading the way in mining and other growth enterprises in Afghanistan. Businesses throughout the nation need more robust trade opportunities and strong partnerships with foreign investors, since the marble sector is capital intensive and driven by a technological skill base, one which is still in its relative infancy in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, drawing on the Afghan marble industry leaders' blueprint for facilitating foreign direct investment and modern technology has already provided practical steps for up-and-coming Afghan business leaders to take as they seek to achieve transformative results.
In essence, understanding why the marble-for-security model works is especially relevant to the economics implicit in counterinsurgency operations across Afghanistan and other strategic zones. Actively seeking ways to identify, study, and apply the lessons learned from the reality of the war zone -- specifically how economics are incentivizing Afghan leaders to turn against the insurgency and drive hard security and stability guarantees -- can effectively help improve growth and stabilization successes across multiple industries throughout Afghanistan for decades to come.
Melissa L. Skorka is a Counterinsurgency Advisor for the Commanding General's Advisory and Assistance Team in Afghanistan.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
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.
KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images
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.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Name: Dost Mohammad
When not working out at Kabul's cricket academy, Dost Mohammad is working in his father's shop, selling clothes and trinkets, knockoffs from Asia of brands from Europe. And when he's not at the family store, he's playing more cricket -- pick-up games with neighborhood boys, practicing his bowling or his special kind of batting. The cricket academy is almost lush by Kabul standards, with a well-manicured grass field surrounded by a grandstand. But the field across the street, where Mohammad does his extra practice, is harsh. There's no grass, just hard-packed dust that pounds his joints and kicks up into his lungs, and there's no respite from the sun, which is strongest at midday when Mohammad tends to be there.
Kabul is a city that could be planned for the express purpose of punishing athletes. At 6,000 feet above sea level, the air is thin and heavily polluted, not just because there are so many vehicles and no enforced emission standards, but because there is so much dust that carries all kinds of pollutants. Grass and shade are scarce because during the communist regime, trees were cut down so the mujahideen couldn't hide in them, and with few trees to provide relief from the sun and roots to hold moisture, the city's plant life was defenseless against drought, which eventually, inevitably, struck.
Mohammad is thin and not immediately identifiable as an athlete, but when he begins to move at practice, he reveals a sinewy kind of strength; he is able to wind his body up and release it with tremendous force. To see him bowl from up close is to witness a kind of violence, his body unfurling, dust rising around him, and the ball leaving his arm like a rifle shot. To those like me, uninitiated to the game of cricket, he is a walking testament to the fact that this is not just a game for old, slow socialites. And as Afghanistan begins to make a name for itself in international sports -- winning a South Asian soccer tournament against India in September and qualifying earlier this month for the 2015 cricket world cup -- Mohammad hopes he'll make the national cricket team and become part of the movement.
The following are the words of Dost Mohammad, as told to Jeffrey E. Stern
I was around 7 to 9 years old when I started watching cricket on the TV. We were living in Pakistan, and I was eagerly watching India and Pakistan play each other. It was my dream to be a good cricketer. At that time, Afghanistan did not have a cricket team.
Cricket is the game of power, because the ball is very heavy -- about a kilogram (2.2 pounds). It needs a lot of power to bowl it. Batting is my favorite, but it is very difficult. If you miss the ball, you get injured, because it is very heavy. You have to concentrate when the bowler bowls.
There are some batsmen legends, like Tendon Karen and Parok Pandi. They have the ability to push the ball and move their feet at the same time. They have the ability to face 130, 140 kilometers/hour. Only the really good players can do that.
In Afghanistan, we have trials once a year. There are four to five coaches and one from Pakistan. They are experts in the field of cricket. They examine the players. I didn't know it was happening until my friend said, "Today is the last day of the cricket trial!" And they encouraged me: "You have to go, you have to go!" So I rushed over, I filled out the form -- name, there you put your father's name, there you put your picture -- and went to the field. But I hadn't brought my own equipment, my bat, helmet, I had to borrow from someone else.
The coach says that he wants to bowl you the short pitch. You have to play it. If you can't do it, it means you failed. And then the coach tells you that the bowler will bowl you in the feet. The ball comes this way. He told me that I have to cut that way. Then he told me another way. That day I faced 10 or 12 bowls.
More than 10,000 people came from 34 provinces of Afghanistan, and to most of them, the coach said "You are not able to join." When I found out I made it, it was amazing.
Now that we're practicing to make the national team, we have four sessions in a day. They go from 5 o'clock in the morning until 5 o'clock in the evening. My session is the second. There are about 120 players. We have fast ballers, slow ballers, spin ballers. All of them are working very hard to join, but maybe just five people will make it.
When we came from Pakistan, it was the first period of Hamid Karzai. There were few American troops, and all of Afghanistan was secure. When the amount of foreigners increased, the situation in Afghanistan got worse.
It is my own thought, but I think that the main reason the situation is getting worse is the foreigners. They are not doing well. To be very honest, I wish them to leave and to join their families in their own countries, because many of them lost their lives in Afghanistan.
But I don't think that they will leave Afghanistan, because they spent a lot of money here. They came here for their own aim. Some of them might leave Afghanistan, but not all of them.
I am not happy with the presence of ISAF and others in Afghanistan because they have done many bad things in some parts of the country, like Kandahar and Helmand. Most of the people say that about five or six years ago, there was some security in that part of Afghanistan, but when these troops came, the security situation got worse day by day.
You know, during the night they just go to the villages, without any reason, and search the women. Afghan people are very -- I mean they don't let other women touch their women. Now foreign soldiers come to touch their women.
And also, there are a lot of reasons that the foreign troops have bad attitudes. If you take an example from Kabul -- when they leave their base, they do not allow other people to go near their cars. It is a big problem, they're causing traffic jams. If someone wants to go close to them, I have seen many people get shot. When I was in Bagram, there was a person who had some urgent work and wanted to arrive quickly, and when he got close to the tank, they shot him.
There are a lot of people that have no relation or connection with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but the foreign troops just collect them and put them into jail. And they spend 10 years in Bagram or somewhere.
And I'm not worried about the Taliban. We had a football match between Afghanistan and Pakistan, have you watched that? I saw on the news, there were three or four people who came from Kandahar, or maybe it was Herat. They wanted to come to Kabul to watch the football game, and the Taliban stopped the car. The Taliban was searching for people associated with the government. The guys in the car looked like military personnel, so the Taliban snatched them out of the car. On the side of the road, the Taliban covered the heads of their captives with masks and took them away to execute them. But first the Taliban said, "Why you are going to Kabul?" And the men said, "We want to go to Kabul in order to watch that game." Then the Taliban called their friends over and said, "Let's all recite the holy Koran and pray for our national team to win." And then they let them come here!
They posted the picture of the travelers on BBC. So I'm not worried about the Taliban, because the Taliban love sport. They supported sport before.
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 appeared in Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jeffrey E Stern/Author Photo
Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf is a controversial Afghan politician, a former member of parliament, and now a presidential hopeful for the country's 2014 election. To his supporters, he is a leader who took on the Soviets and played a key role in the jihad against the Afghan communists. To his critics, he is a warlord who led bloody battles on the streets of Kabul, killing thousands of Shiites and Hazaras during the 1990s. To Westerners, he's an extremist with links to al-Qaeda-minded people, whose name alone has inspired other Islamist groups as far away as the Philippines. And now, for the Taliban in Afghanistan, he has become "Public Enemy No.1," someone they have already declared a dead man.
Sayyaf, which means "the swordsman" in Arabic, does not venture out of his sprawling residence west of Kabul very often, and he has kept a relatively low profile in the parliament over the last decade. But his role in the violent and often unpredictable Afghan political world extends beyond the country's "House of People." He is known to have played a key role in the appointments of governors and district governors across the country. He runs his own university and TV station in Kabul. He is wealthy, media-shy, and a shrewd behind-the-scenes political operator. But over the past few years, he's taken on a subject that is critical for the survival of the Taliban and other violent extremists -- their own religious narrative to inspire, recruit, and justify violence in the name of God -- making him their new arch nemesis.
It began during a speech in September 2012 to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, President Hamid Karzai's chief peacemaker who was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber posing as a peace envoy, when Sayyaf publically warned Taliban suicide bombers about their fate in the afterlife. Quoting Islamic texts extensively, Sayyaf said he wanted to send a message to the militants that on Judgment Day, they would show up with "flags planted in their buttocks from the back," marking them "unforgivable" in the court of God. He continued by declaring: "You are not fighting against foreigners, but against Islam and Muslims." Sayyaf then told the crowd: "They [Taliban] are enemies of God and his Messenger (Prophet Muhammad). Quran says kill them well. Kill them with torture. Do you know what it means to kill them well? With Zajir (torment or torture). Hang them! Let people see them hanged for a month. Cut their right hands and left feet. And do your best to eliminate them [Taliban] from the face of the earth."
Then last week, during an Afghan government-sponsored International Islamic Scholars conference in Kabul, Sayyaf again spoke against the Taliban, this time targeting the militants' financial backers in Middle Eastern countries. This is because the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, their chief ally, are known to do fundraising in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf Arab states. Sayyaf knows this well because he himself used to travel to Arab countries in the 1980s, using his oratory skills and knowledge of Arabic, to raise funds for mujahideen fighting the former Soviet Union.
Speaking in fluent Arabic, Sayyaf addressed the approximately 200 international Muslim scholars about the alleged support Muslim countries provide to the Taliban. "I ask you, and for the sake of God tell me, those [Taliban] who are fighting now, their war is not against foreigners," Sayyaf declared. He also asked the international Muslim scholars to explain why some Muslims countries did not oppose the intervention by the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan when the United Nations vote came up in 2001. "Did any of the Islamic countries at the United Nations oppose the arrival of foreigners in Afghanistan? All of the Islamic countries voted in favor for the arrival of them in Afghanistan," Sayyaf remarked. He also questioned the religious credentials of the Taliban by telling the scholars: "Those who are killing innocent Afghans, they don't know anything about Islam."
The Taliban and their violent extremist allies responded immediately to Sayyaf's remarks. In one article titled "What does this old Dajjal (anti-Christ) say?," they attacked Sayyaf, calling him a "manifestation of Satan," and used Quranic texts in an attempt to counter his remarks. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, also tweeted articles, social media posts, and reports from the militant group's own gathering of "1600 undisputed Islamic scholars" and their fatwa to discredit Sayyaf and the government-sponsored Islamic Scholars conference.
The primary reason that the Taliban militants view Sayyaf's remarks, and condemnations by the international Islamic scholars, as an existential threat to their survival is simple. For almost a decade, the Taliban have relied on skewing the interpretation of Islam's religious texts to justify their violence, especially the use of suicide bombing, which had no precedence in Afghanistan until the mid-2000s. But while Afghans abhor the use of suicide bombings, despite extensive propaganda campaigns by the Taliban to justify it on religious grounds, Afghanistan's religious scholars have yet to strongly and consistently counter the militant group's religious justifications for violence -- until now. Since Sayyaf's "challenge" to the Taliban's religious narrative, the militant group appears to have found itself outgunned in the battle for ideology, something which is far more important to them than winning a military campaign. This is because Sayyaf has established religious credentials from Sunni Islam's most prestigious school, the Cairo-based Al-Azhar University, which allows him to speak with authority on religious issues. He is also a charismatic and gifted orator, which brings him coverage in the local media, and he maintains political influence through his traditional networks in some key northern provinces of Afghanistan, as well as in some of the former Taliban heartlands in the south, which adds to his leverage. Because of this, the Taliban want Sayyaf dead -- in fact, Afghanistan's intelligence agency recently announced that it had foiled a Taliban plot to assassinate Sayyaf only days after his speech in early September of this year.
Sayyaf is not a saint to Afghans. Nor is he considered a moderate Islamist. His involvement in human rights abuses, especially during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, is well documented by Human Rights Watch. Yet his current stance, effectively challenging the Taliban on their own ideological and religious turf, is something significant for both the international stakeholders who are attempting to end the war in Afghanistan, and for regional Islamic countries that are searching for ways to rescue the peaceful message of Islam from the dark interpretation espoused by violent extremists. After all, the Taliban and other militant groups are expected to step up their terror campaign inside Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops at the end of 2014. To do so, they need their religious narrative to hold, enabling them to bring in new recruits to maintain their ranks and sustain their violence. Sayyaf, despite his own violent past and infamy, appears to be taking the lead in challenging this narrative, making him "Public Enemy No.1" to the Taliban and other extremists in Afghanistan and beyond.
Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former NPR producer in Afghanistan.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
The frenzied phase of registration for the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan ended Sunday with more names on the roster than expected, more last-minute horse-trading than anticipated, and more questions than answers about what is already shaping up to be a hectic but vibrant process leading up to the critical ballot next April.
Nominee registration began as a trickle and ended as a deluge of presidential hopefuls submitting their paperwork. Finally, 26 men and one woman -- some known political figures, others untested -- presented their running mates (consisting of 45 men and 9 women), and took advantage of the media glare to present their core campaign slogans to millions of enthused, but bewildered Afghans on live television.
Of the 27 candidates, it is expected that some aspirants will be disqualified by mid-November for failing to meet eligibility conditions -- which include putting down a hefty registration deposit and submitting 100,000 eligible voter endorsement cards -- most probably resulting in a shortlist of no more than half a dozen serious tickets.
The biggest challenge in an overcrowded field will be to engage in another cycle of coalition building during or after elections to strengthen team-building and to realign agendas and policies that are not fundamentally contradictory or contrary.
The Karzai factor
Most contenders tried until the last minute to form multi-ethnic tickets, at times breaking up their own fragile alliances, to garner support from perceived owners of both small and large "voter banks." Some seem to have succeeded, others seemingly not, and the rest had to contend with leftover constituencies that might not tilt the balance in their favor after all.
However, after months of political wrangling and chai-sipping, what is certain is that while the Afghan political arena may look dynamic and lively on the surface, in essence it is more fragmented and mismatched than at any other time in the past decade.
Part of the reason lies with President Hamid Karzai who has ruled the country for the past twelve years, and the inner clique he has relied upon to do his bidding. Karzai, masterful at domestic political intrigue and maneuvering, and consumed by his own future political leverage, legacy, and place in history, is eager to be the ultimate kingmaker in next year's presidential vote.
More importantly, although Karzai believes he has transcended ethnic and factional lines, he has publicly shown disdain for organized political movements and resisted any attempt to promote and nurture democratic party-based politics over the years. With encouragement from his loyalists and key members of his family, he has applied clan-style politics at the national level, relying largely on tribal and local power-brokers with monetary and factional influence.
Although this approach appears to have served him well, it has increasingly undermined the professionalization of politics, where a constitutional order underpinned by platform-based political activity could flourish.
Additionally, there are indications that Karzai may have overplayed his hand with regard to the 2014 elections, and inadvertently facilitated the formation of a muddled setting that may undermine his own legitimate aspirations. There are real fears among Afghan political elites that Karzai could be urged by his cronies to attempt at influencing the election process, in less obvious and more subtle ways than the 2009 presidential election debacle, should the outcome of the vote not tilt in their favor.
Although the president once again reiterated on Monday that he will remain impartial and will not allow government interference in electoral matters, Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province, alleged later that same day that the president's camp had a few days back offered him a "blank check," along with the top vice presidential position, to secure his support for Karzai's candidate of choice.
Karzai now has to make do with a fragmented polity and too many horses in the running, most of whom may engage in destructive mud-slinging. More significantly, in the event that no winner emerges with the 50%+1 requirement in the first round of voting, Karzai can stealthily orchestrate a major showdown during the second round by forcing re-alignments, perhaps even tapping into Taliban and external pools of support.
This calculation might explain not only his fixation on courting the Taliban, but also his reluctance to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, even though most Afghans are in favor of seeing the document finalized.
While Karzai has always raised the specter of foreign meddling in the elections, it is, in fact, the domestic wheeling and dealing and infringement mechanisms on the election, through election commissioners he recently appointed and ballot box handlers, that Afghans dread the most.
Frantic realignment and mismatched tickets
However, Karzai is not the only reason for the initial disarray of the nomination process. The other major factor is the flimsiness of ideological and conceptual politics, where the nexus of collaboration lies less with shared ideas, values and policies, and more with interest-driven horse-trading and deal-making at the expense of marginalizing the Afghan people.
This may seem natural in the Afghan context, but when coupled with the insurgency that rankles from one side, and public disenchantment caused by widespread corruption and ineptness on the other, the many candidate choices -- not too dissimilar in terms of their views and past records in most cases - may cause some Afghans to stay away from casting a vote. All key contenders must therefore take voters apathy seriously into account and regain the electorate's trust by engaging in a healthy race.
The dissolution of a number of so-called political alliances at the 11th hour on Sunday also demonstrates the fragility of coalition-building and the weakness of political groupings to gel and offer a common policy platform.
At the end of the day, harsh political realities meant that ethnic voter banks were more valuable than ideological and policy commonalities.
The frantic realignment of political figures over the last few days has in some cases led to the creation of mismatched tickets, where not only old foes joined hands but even decentralization advocates coalesced with backers of a strong central government. It will require a great deal of work for several contenders and their running mates to tie together their visions that are largely incompatible, solidify new alignments, form platforms, and eventually manage a campaign, all in short order.
And, while there is a greater possibility of some fragmentation of voter banks along different ethnic and factional lines, the biggest challenge for vote bank owners will be to maintain the integrity of their followers' vote and ultimately avoid a backlash from their constituents.
Opportunities and prospects
Amid the ongoing mud-slinging, there is an opportunity before and during the campaign season for eligible and visionary candidates to develop their programs and agendas, build up electoral charisma, connect to the electorate, and offer the public real choices and solutions.
These presidential hopefuls need to realize that it is not enough to sign-up, spend money, make backdoor deals, and run in a less-than-transparent election to hold office.
The best choice for Karzai is to not tarnish his legacy, to truly remain impartial and prevent any official intrusion or the use of state resources in the elections.
The political class, especially the current leadership, has had a dismal record for listening to the people's voice. Now is the time to change the stale manner in which politics has been practiced by warlords, technocrats or amateur politicians, engage the electorate, and focus the debate on priority challenges facing the country during and after 2014.
The Afghan people, including the younger generation, expect more from their leaders.
As international security and development commitments diminish, and Afghanistan becomes more self-reliant, elections offer a unique opportunity for Afghans to elect a unifying and competent team that can offer better security prospects, more predictability in the social and economic spheres, more jobs and productivity, better governance, a believable justice system, and stable relations with Afghanistan's friends and allies.
There is no greater calling for contenders and voters than ensuring that the political transition and peaceful transfer of power take place on time, and be inclusive, acceptable and credible. Then it will be time to rise above politics and take the best interests of the country into account by accepting the results, work together and steer the country away from danger.
Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views reflected here are his own.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Name: Wakil Abdul Rahim
The mountainsides that surround Kabul are covered with squatter houses, the homes of people have claimed the land by building on it. They're undeterred by the steep grade; from below, many homes appear to be affixed to nearly vertical mountain faces. Many of the highest houses are inaccessible by car, but to get close you take narrow roads quickly, speeding so you don't stall or lose traction. The steeper and wilder the terrain, the faster you go.
We arrive at the home of Wakil Abdul Rahim and find him welcoming, but formal and severe. He quickly reveals himself to be the most pessimistic person I've spoken to about the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces, though he is also animated by a hatred for the people in power. It's as if he lives up here simply because it's as far away from them as he can get. He ushers us into a living room, serves us juice and cookies, and begins to explain what the international presence has looked like from all the way up here.
The following are the words of Wakil Abdul Rahim, as told to Jeffrey E. Stern and translated by Farima Abrar.
The government hasn't done anything for us up here on the mountains.
I moved up here forty years ago, and back then, there were only four or five houses here. From the bottom of the mountain to up here, there were no houses. But after we were here for a while, slowly people started building more and more.
I could buy a house anywhere in Kabul, but I liked the view up here. But not all people who are living on the mountain are rich people, they're poor people who cannot afford houses down in Kabul. People who are living here on the hills are those who fled the rural areas, places like Panjsher, because those areas were hit by violence, in fighting between the Soviet troops and mujaheddin.
People came to Kabul and left everything behind, so they couldn't afford living in flat areas. They started building huts on the mountains. At night they would build, but during the day, the huts were destroyed by the government because building houses in that area was illegal. So they would put their women and children inside the house so that the government wouldn't destroy them. And sometimes they would build and work on their houses during the day, and then at night, they would sit on top of the roof so that no one else would come and take the land, or destroy the house. They would sit all night on the construction.
I didn't buy this land, but I became the owner because whoever builds a house owns the land. All the mountains are the same that way. Now our government does not have the power to come and tell us anything. Why would they? They themselves came and took so much land! They're all corrupt, so what could they say to us when the government are the worst land grabbers of all?
It's different here than in the U.S. or in Germany, because there, the houses up high are more expensive than the houses down below. But here, most people do not really want to live on the mountains. The facilities on the mountains are very little. It's far from the city, and we have nothing, we didn't even have water. Whatever we need, we have to walk all the way down. Everyone used to go to collect water from the bottom of the mountain, carrying the water on sticks with buckets on each side. And our women -- you would see 50 or 60 women walking up the mountain carrying water on their heads.
Now at least we have water, but not because of the government; the government did not do anything. There is a company that came and collected from each house 20,000 Afghani (approximately $360) and then they put pipes in. But they made so much money off of us, because now there are so many houses up here, and the company took money from each of us before they brought us water. And recently we got electricity. Not all the time, but sometimes we have it.
I used to have cows and sheep and horses up here too. Only recently I sent them back to Panjshir. We used to get grass and feed for them from down below. But now it's costly to get grass and feed for them, so I was not able to keep them here. Four or five years ago, it was cheap. But because of insecurity -- Talibs are attacking on one side, the government itself is like a robber on one side, and the conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan is on one side -- it became more expensive. Before Karzai came, things were cheaper.
Our government is weak; these problems have nothing to do with Americans. Americans helped us, Germans also helped us, but all the benefits went to Karzai. It's not your problem as Americans, or Germans, or everyone else, it's our own government's problems. If you travel to Shamali in the evening, there will be robbers and people who attack you, it's not secure at all.
I don't see any change, the international presence didn't impact our lives, their money went to the pockets of the thieves like Ustad Sayyaf, Vice President Khalili, General Fahim.
Any high-rise building you see down there, it belongs to those corrupt people. Even the changes that you see up here on the hills, they are just for individuals who are linked with someone in the government. The people who go at 9am to their office and by 1pm they will be in their house relaxing, they do nothing for the country. These people don't work for the betterment of our country, they just work for themselves.
I challenge you that the next time you come to Afghanistan, see what the situation will be. It will not be the same. The situation will be bad, and once the international forces leave, it will be just like it was in the past. Next year, I'm thinking of leaving Afghanistan. In one year, Afghanistan will be like the 1990s.
I think Karzai himself is like Taliban. I think he is supporting them. After the international community leaves Afghanistan, I think Karzai will give our country to Taliban people. He will divide our country into two parts, Pashtuns and Tajiks, and everyone else. The places where Pashtuns live, those areas will be Talib area.
One hundred percent I'm sure that in our future, the situation will be worse than what we had in the past. The suicide bombers, every day we can see the explosions. These things make us think that our life in the future won't be better than the past. Because the government can't do anything. And the only reason now we have a better life is because international forces are here. At least our government during Russian times, and Taliban times, was stronger. In these periods of conflict, the thing that worried me was a lot of people escaping to other countries, or other parts of this country. That's how you know how tense people are: people moving because they think the situation will get worse. And I'm seeing people leaving again.
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 appeared in Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jeffrey E. Stern/Author Photo
This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Narges, who asked to only use her nickname, is soft-spoken and always colorfully dressed, usually opting for rich, dark fabrics. Her affect is, at first glance, demure, almost passive. But it belies a fearlessness and a clever wit, both of which she deploys constantly as an ardent defender of women's rights who says she thinks her country has it all wrong, and who has maintained and defended this view, though there is little support for it even within her own family.
Narges speaks slowly and carefully in English, and in her native language with an Iranian accent (which she believes is proper and her friends poke fun at as haughty), but she takes her words seriously and believes the message she has is worth delivering with precision. Besides, her accent is the result of two decades spent in Iran and she doesn't see the use in spending much energy trying to change it.
The following are the words of Narges, as told to Jeffrey E. Stern.
My mother always told me a story about her life, that they were afraid to express their religion because they were Shia and their neighbors were Sunni, and Shia people were a minority in Herat and in most of the provinces of Afghanistan.
So why did they choose to go to Iran? Because the government was, is, Shia, and they thought: "If we go to Iran, we won't have any problem. They will understand us, they will treat us as human!" But what they thought about Iran was totally wrong. We faced so many limitations because we were always seen as Afghan. For example, for education, that's the reason I left Iran and left my family, because I wasn't allowed to go to university. So I had a big interruption in my education. For five years I couldn't continue my education, because they banned us from the university, all Afghans.
And you don't know the policy of Iran. Never, you will never understand the policy of Iran. Sometimes they allow you to go to university, sometimes they don't. It's like that. Sometimes you have movement limitation -- Afghans cannot buy houses or cars, they cannot travel in other cities, only because they are Afghan, even though they have good resumes, even though they have been in Iran for 30 years.
I was born in Iran. So my first time in my own country was 2010. It was strange. I faced so many difficulties because my accent was Iranian, and Afghan people, they don't have a good attitude toward Iranian people and the Iranian government because they believe that Iran is misusing Afghans. Afghans are doing hard work in Iran, but they have no rights, they are not treated as humans. They thought I'm Iranian, so I'm like the government. They ridiculed my accent.
I was here in my country for two years and then I got a scholarship, so this is the third year that I haven't seen my family. I hope next year I can visit them. I tried to get a visa to go see them in Iran, but the Iranian government didn't give me a visa. I'm just a student! But they didn't give it to me. They said that "you will stay here, you won't go back."
I had come to Afghanistan with my aunt. She had come from Iran to visit her daughter, so I came with her; I couldn't come alone. First we came to Herat, and I found Herat very conservative. The people are conservative and women are really in trouble in Herat, to get education, to express themselves. I remember when I went to a party, and one of the girls came to me and said she has problems getting an education, because whenever she goes to school, her other relatives -- mostly men -- go to her father and say "you know, your daughter can read and write, she doesn't need anything else and she should get married." She was young, really young.
I think the presence of America in Afghanistan is necessary to help women get education. When America leaves, women will miss this opportunity. Now I have friends, I've gone to Bangladesh for education, I'm studying liberal arts, you know, we're studying humanism and women's rights. We can see we have so many shortages in women's rights, and we have to do so many things. But we don't think government will help us.
I will give an example from my friends. They had a project about combating child marriage, so they went to talk to Parliament members, but the Parliament members told them: "No, we can do it. And we should do it." And one of the Parliament members told them, "You know, these are not only my words. I have so many other friends in Parliament who agree with me."
Many parliament members are people who had been in Afghanistan's wars, they were mujahedeen, and during Taliban times, they changed their policies. Their minds are really old, and now they are in parliament. This is the problem we have. And if foreign organizations don't push them, don't put pressure on them, they won't help us.
I don't know if this news is true, but I heard about the law, the "violence against women" law. We were going to have a law against violence against women but Parliament didn't accept that. But I heard that now the American government is putting pressure on Parliament members. I heard that the American government told them that if they don't support it, if they don't confirm this law, they will cut the budget that they are giving to the Afghan army. So that's good.
This is our problem, we want to improve women's situations, improve child rights in Afghanistan, but if we don't get support from Parliament and America is leaving, how we can improve? How we can have progress?
When America leaves, I know that most of the human rights organizations will leave Afghanistan because of the security. And we need more time. We need America to stay more, so we can, you know, build what we want.
And then they can go. Laughs.
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 appeared in Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jeffrey E. Stern/Author Photo
On the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the ongoing Syrian crisis dominated international headlines. Even in the United States, fewer anniversary memorial events were held to remember the victims of that tragic day. But in Afghanistan, it was a different day and a different story.
Last Wednesday, Afghans poured out by the hundreds onto streets across the country, celebrating the victory of its national football team in the 2013 South Asian Football Federation Championship. Every celebrating Afghan man, woman, and child was filled with unprecedented excitement, joy, and hope. The jubilant cheers of the crowds waving the tri-color Afghan flag were deafening, and it felt as if Afghans had been waiting for more than three decades to unleash their collective joy as a nation. Indeed, the Afghan people have been repeatedly denied any chance of celebrating what they could accomplish in peacetime after years of conflict and devastation.
Although peace has yet to prevail across Afghanistan, many Afghans recalled that Kabul's Ghazi Stadium - one of the places where they were celebrating - had been used by the Taliban as an execution ground 12 years ago. But since then, Afghanistan has made great strides in sports, actively participating in regional and international tournaments, including the Summer Olympic Games, where Rohullah Nikpai won his (and the country's) first and second bronze medals in men's Taekwondo in Beijing and London.
These dramatic successes, within such a short amount of time, have boosted the morale and ambitions of all Afghan youth, participating in all sports. They are now training even harder with a firm determination to achieve more victories for Afghanistan in upcoming tournaments. In these efforts, they have the full backing, not only of their families and friends, but their government as well.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for example, personally followed the recent football matches in South Asia, and encouraged the national team to win for its country. For the championship match between Afghanistan and India, he sent a senior official delegation -- comprised of the ministers of education, finance, and rural rehabilitation and development, as well as Afghanistan's non-resident ambassador to Nepal -- to support the team. President Karzai also spoke by phone to the team's coach, giving them encouragement; personally received the team at the Kabul International Airport upon their return to the country; and awarded the team medals of recognition, as well as financial tokens of appreciation.
Indeed, the credit of victory goes not only to the football players, but also to all those involved with the team's effort. Afghans everywhere closely followed the championship series and appreciated the unity of effort and purpose which its football team and their victory demonstrated. As Khalid Sadat, a Kabul fruit seller, told the Washington Post: "After 30 years of war, the world thinks of Afghanistan as only having wars and violence. Today, we are showing that our young men can become world champions."
However, these visible gains on the sports field fade when Afghans look at their overall achievements during the past 12 years. It is unfortunate that domestic and international media mostly focus on sensational news, at the cost of many ongoing positive developments in every sector across Afghanistan. Such imbalanced, one-sided reporting effectively strengthens the terror campaign being waged by the Taliban, as well as their destructive propaganda, which is focused on creating an environment of fear and alarm as coalition combat forces prepare to withdraw at the end of next year.
Facts which are seldom reported by the mainstream press include:
All of this is helping the country maintain a 10% growth rate, and is creating access to employment for the first time in countless years.
But these and many other achievements are works in progress and works at risk. Therefore, it is essential for the international community to stay the course in Afghanistan. The country's gains over the past 12 years should be consolidated by implementing win-win objectives that have been outlined at the Bonn, Chicago, and Tokyo conferences, as well as through regional initiatives like the Istanbul Process. In effect, winning or losing in Afghanistan depends squarely on whether its allies and friends will actually deliver on the commitments they have made or the strategic partnership agreements they have signed.
Of course, the implications of winning are clear: a sovereign Afghanistan at peace internally and within the region can only prosper and aid economic cooperation and stability. We live in a world that is increasingly interdependent and where zero-sum designs have proven to be failures and disasters. Sincere, results-oriented cooperation is the call of all people in the region and beyond. As the recent victory of Afghanistan's national football team has shown, the Afghan people can succeed. They just need a much reinvigorated partnership with the international community to translate their shared 12-year gains into national, sustainable, institutionalized peace, pluralism, and prosperity.
Wais Ahmad Barmak is Afghanistan's Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.
M. Ashraf Haidari is Afghanistan's deputy ambassador to India.
PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images
The Afghan national football (soccer) team's spectacular South Asian championship win last week crystalized Afghan patriotic feelings and rallied the country together in a celebratory joy unseen in decades. With a renewed sense of optimism, Afghans are now eager to see their political leaders score a win in next year's presidential and provincial elections as well.
As the critical three-week long candidate registration period kicked off Monday, apathy is slowly giving way to curiosity mixed with concern to see that the presidential elections are held on time, according to basic tenants of fairness and transparency, and involve fresh thinking.
Registration and Support for elections
Compared to the botched 2009 elections, the conditions and candidate criteria set for next April's poll are more stringent. Nominees have to submit at least 100,000 eligible voter card endorsements from more than 22 of the country's 34 provinces, and deposit close to $18,000 with the Independent Election Commission.
Overall, more than 1.2 million new voters have been registered so far (of whom at least 28% are women), and that number is expected to double by the end of the registration period in October. This is in addition to more than 12 million who are known to be holding old voter cards, some of which are known to be counterfeit.
A new survey conducted in five provinces and released this week shows that depending on security conditions, popular enthusiasm for taking part in the elections stands at 79 percent, and overwhelmingly Afghans consider elections as the most credible system for choosing the country's leadership. The survey also reveals that only six percent are in favor of a religious figure re-establishing an "emirate," while just eight percent support a consensus system determined by holding a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly.
As the registration process continues, all eyes will be on the front-runners that might emerge over the next three weeks. Then, the focus will shift to the electoral ticket formations, each composed of a trio (the presidential contender and two vice presidential running mates), before the five-months long campaign starts in earnest.
Afghans are not certain whether a credible team that is less beholden to ethnic and patronage configurations, and more to aptitude and integrity, could emerge in the weeks ahead. Credibility is not only reflected in the inclusive nature of a ticket, but also in its ability to connect to the electorate and offer a program containing fixes to the country's numerous challenges.
Given the level of political intrigue surrounding team-building and the partially dubious management of the electoral process, the questions preoccupying many Afghans today are whether a competent and committed team will emerge before the winter campaign season kicks off, and whether it will be able to overcome the intrusive nature of political forces who favor business-as-usual.
While coalition-building is seen as a positive development -- even if not fully inclusive -- three recent events have raised eyebrows and questions about the veracity of the process ahead: 1) the less-than transparent manner in which 15 candidates (five of whom were appointed by Karzai on Monday) were initially selected for seats on the all-important Election Complaints Commission after a civil society nominee was stonewalled; 2) the sudden dismissal of five high-ranking Ministry of Interior officials by a new acting minister, who had himself until recently expressed a desire to run for the country's top job; and 3) President Hamid Karzai's meaningful hint during a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a regional conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan last week when he pointed to Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul as a future candidate, thereby reaffirming his favorite choice.
Emerging contestants and electability
While Rassoul is viewed as the most benign of all potential candidates, other political actors will not only question Karzai's remarks, but will also have to scramble to re-align themselves because of the financial and patronage networks that will be put in place to back the president's choice.
Meanwhile, a list of potential candidates who may enter the fray is emerging, and they represent four types of contenders:
There is no doubt that ethnicity and regionalism are still elementary factors in Afghan politics, besides access to financial and patronage assets, but based on lessons-learned from the past half century of turbulence, there is also an emerging public view, especially among the intelligentsia and youth, that the country needs to be run by individuals and teams who possess the following qualities and skills, in relative terms:
Since perceptions may differ about presidential aspirants, the role of running mates will be crucial in the elections. Every contender today is seeking to recruit the heavyweights from among a handful of individuals who can boost their chances of winning, either as owners of voter banks, or as financiers, or both.
Coalitions of convenience?
Whereas political parties are still in their infancy and political platforms have yet to mature, contestants have resorted to unprecedented levels of discourse -- both private and public -- and traditional coalition building. The most notable group so far is the Electoral Alliance, made up of political strongmen -- predominantly from non-Pashtun regions of the country -- that have played a role in the ups-and-downs Afghanistan has experienced since the 1980s. This amalgam has considerable political heft but might crumble under its own weight if its members do not agree on a single ticket or expand their reach by joining hands with smaller Pashtun-led opposition groups.
These coalitions represent the dissatisfied and sidelined lobbies that have come together as a result of Karzai's brinkmanship over the last decade, while other alliances are emerging, mostly on the Pashtun side, from a hodge-podge of technocrats, former mujahedeen, and even royalists. These groupings are susceptible to pressure from both ends and will need to decide soon whether they will side with the status quo or offer the electorate a new alternative by coming to terms with other groupings such as the Electoral Alliance. However, Karzai may also opt to break all opposition alliances one more time, either through political recruitment or divide-and-rule tactics.
From specter of fraud to hope
Aside from the threat of violence from the Taliban, the most catastrophic scenario for the Afghan political class and the 79 percent of Afghans who are eager to participate in legitimate elections is the specter of fraud similar to what experienced in 2009.
Despite numerous public assurances from Karzai that he is committed to a relatively fair and transparent election, and that he will not allow interference by national and local authorities in the process, there are serious concerns that the ruling clique is not prepared to submit to the people's will and may be tempted to subvert the process.
If that happens, history will blame Karzai for what comes next.
Karzai understands that his legacy and immunity rest on the manner in which the elections are held. Therefore he should aim to be the defender of the country's democratic values, and refuse to allow anyone to dash the hopes of millions of Afghans who, with much hope, bravery and enthusiasm, first voted him into office in 2004.
That is what is expected of a national team leader, as Afghanistan's prized footballers so successfully demonstrated last week.
Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, the President of Silkroad Consulting, and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Name: Omara Khan Massoudi
Omara Khan Massoudi is the Director of Afghanistan's National Museum, guarding its treasures in various positions for more than four decades, and is the reason it has been brought back to life. He is an elegant man and old-fashioned in his habits, but his gentle air belies a ferocity with which he has fought to preserve the country's archeological history, keeping the museum doors open even when there was no roof over head, no visitors in the halls, and hardly any artifacts in the display cases.
The museum has a grandeur about it, and its well-tended grounds evoke the garden city Kabul once was. But this is a recent development. The museum sits next to Tapa-e Scud -- Scud Hill -- so named for the missiles that were placed there and then left behind by the Soviets, and which helped turn the area into a strategic one for any army trying to control the city. The mujahedeen also paid special attention to this place, going up and down the main road firing all kinds of artillery, leaving roofs collapsed and walls freckled with rounds of various caliber. In this part of the city, buildings survived decades of war but barely, and the collapsed domes of the once-opulent Darulaman palace -- visible from every front-facing window in the museum -- speak powerfully to the condition of a country whose rich cultural heritage is still visible, but in skeleton form.
The following are the words of Omara Khan Massoudi, as told to Jeffrey E. Stern.
In 1973, when I graduated from Kabul University I find a job as a teacher. For four years I was teaching history and geography. When the period of revolution came in Afghanistan in 1978, it was a little bit difficult how to teach the young people. At my school, they were really intelligent students, they studied too much, but after the period of revolution, unfortunately, slowly slowly their attention to the learning was day-by-day getting weaker. Especially these young people, these young students, when they had relations with political parties, sometimes they didn't come to their classes.
That was difficult for me so I took that decision to change my job. At that time I was 24 years old, 25 years old. I come to the Ministry of Information and Culture, for four months I did my job over there, then there was a position here at the national museum. The museum staff gave me some training, day-by-day my interest was too much, I stayed here, and worked. And continued up to now.
Maybe you know that in 1987 or 1988, when the Soviets left Afghanistan, we Afghan people, we predicted that the Communist party will have to transfer the power to the mujahedeen. Everybody predicted that. Sometimes in the non-developed country, when political changes is coming, sometime there is political gap also. And I think it was the museum people's responsibility to safeguard all the artifacts which were here. In my opinion, the cultural property, the -- how to say, can I use "capital of nation"? -- these artifacts not only belongs to us. We keep these things, but really, they belong to the people all over the world.
So we thought about if the situation is getting a worse, what should we do? How to protect artifacts here?
As you know this museum is located around 10 km far away from the center of the city. So we predicted that if something happens one place -- if there was fighting -- maybe the second or third places will be safe. We shared this idea with our minister at that time, he kindly accepted, he said: "This is good idea," and he shared it with the president. He also accepted. He ordered that "any place the museum people say, I will give order to them, so they can shift the artifacts where they want."
So for safeguarding all these artifacts, we shifted to two places and decided to not give any information to anyone that we shifted these important pieces.
In the end of 1992, the situation in Kabul got worse; day-by-day the civil war started between different groups of mujahedeen. First, the artifacts that remained in this present building were looted too much. I remember, when this museum was looted, nearly 70 percent of our artifacts, they looted from this museum.
Some journalist asked about the Bactrian treasure because not a single piece of gold had come out on the black market: "Many artifacts come to the black market, but there is not a single piece of Bactrian treasure. Where is it?" We had shifted all of it, all the golden coins, golden pieces; we shifted from this museum to a vault. But we didn't give any information. "We don't know where is it," we said; "Is it here, or there?" We keep silent our mouths.
Some newspaper wrote some article about these pieces. I remember one article in Le Monde newspaper in Paris, they write that the Soviet Union forces shipped all the Bactrian treasure to Moscow. It was not true! It was wrong! But we didn't write the answer for that.
During the Taliban, at first they pay attention. Not only to the museum, but the ancient site, and historical monuments also. They protected them, they paid attention, especially they pay attention how to stop the illegal excavation. I remember, I was a member of a delegation that went to an ancient site which was, by illegal excavation, it was being looted. We got the artifacts which were over there, we got them shifted from there to here at the museum.
But unfortunately, in the beginning of 2001, the Taliban changed their mind. They destroyed all these pieces.
When international forces came, the museum was in very bad condition. It had been looted, it had took fire, believe me there was no windows, there was no roof, there was not even doors in front of the storage.
Day by day, we went on with the rebuilding; I contact the U.S. embassy, the director of planning department, and we had a meeting with the cultural attaché of U.S. embassy here in Kabul. He promised to pay around $100,000 for reconstruction of this building. I was too much happy. We started from zero point, but day-by-day, day-by-day, the reconstruction went on.
In September 2004 we had an opening ceremony, our president Karzai came and attended with some cabinet members. Then slowly we are moving, up to now, you can see this museum is open for the public always, there are tourists coming to this museum.
But, we had a lot of serious problems. The remaining pieces, all of them, needed urgent treatment, they needed cleaning. For years, by the leaking of water, they were damaged; some of them were in very bad condition. Believe me, there was nothing. There was no table, there was no desk, there was no chair for my staff to sit on. Our restoration department was too weak. This current building doesn't have some necessary things which is much important for museums all over the world. Like security signals, we don't have. Also we don't have heating system, we don't have humidity control system. We don't have fire barricade system here in this building, the lighting system is not good. The building is also too small, it's not big enough for a national museum.
We have some serious problems, but I believe we can solve them. Not very soon, but day-by-day we'll be able to solve these problems. We want to have a new building. We'll have technical x-ray machine, now it's too difficult to physically check the ladies, the women, the kids. This is not a polite way, but what to do? The situation in Afghanistan is like this.
I'm optimistic that foreign countries will take part to support this. I hope we will have these things in the future. But all these serious problems I mentioned, it will be solved in the new building.
I think usually I am a gentleman that is optimistic. We have to always think positive things. I hope this will be not a dangerous year for us, that we will have a good election, that we will have a good government, and also that foreigner countries will support Afghanistan. If this is the case, I'm optimistic. Our people must tire from this long war. Three decades war, in my opinion, it is too long. And also, it is too boring for our people. Even all the people, the ISAF and NATO people, they know that very well. I hope that they will support Afghanistan in future also. The peace will come. I'm not afraid too much that the civil war will again start. This is our responsibility, the Afghan nation is responsible. We have to be careful, we have to not go back to 1990s. What happened to this country, what happened in Kabul, this old experience, we have to not repeat it.
We have to learn some things from the history.
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
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.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
With U.S. and coalition forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, all eyes are on the country's presidential election, scheduled for April of next year. The country's post-Operation Enduring Freedom future is at stake, and the elections will -- potentially -- mark the first peaceful transfer of power between civilian governments in Afghanistan's history. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has the chance to establish his place in history as the arbiter of that transition, the father of the new Afghanistan. But he may have just signaled how far he is willing to go for leverage, and the results could be grim.
Speculation over who, if anyone, Karzai will support in next year's election has been building for months and with formal nominations due in less than a month, the guessing game is reaching a fever pitch. Last Wednesday, for example, Afghanistan's Pajhwok news service reported that during a meeting with political party and jihadi leaders, Karzai had endorsed Abdul Rasul Sayyaf for president, a 67-year-old Pashtun Wahabist commander who is allegedly responsible for, among other things, the 1993 Afshar massacre, an operation Human Rights Watch calls a war crime. One week later, the same media outlet cited Karzai's denial that he is backing any specific presidential candidates, though sources present at the initial meeting say his support for Sayyaf stands.
According to a source inside the presidential palace, Karzai's prospective ticket also includes two vice presidential nominees who enjoy credibility mostly, if not solely, from their time as jihadi commanders fighting against both the Communists and the Afghan Taliban. "Marshal" Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who currently serves as Karzai's first vice president, and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, an on-again, off-again political candidate, both came to prominence fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. The ticket, in other words, is a caricature of Afghanistan's jihadist past and an homage to the old way of assigning political legitimacy just when it appeared to be expiring.
The good news, however, is that this ticket has virtually no chance of winning.
Tajiks and Hazaras won't vote for Sayyaf because of his war record, and his conservative religious views will likely make him unpopular among women and the more technocratic part of his own Pashtun ethnic community. Even in the most conservative, ethnocentric Pashtun areas, political support for Sayyaf will be weak, because those are the areas where the Taliban and other insurgent groups like Hezb-e Islami are popular. In those militant groups, Sayyaf is regarded as a traitor since he sided with the Taliban's avowed enemy, Ahmad Shah Massoud, up until Massoud's assassination on September 9, 2001. Sayyaf does have religious authority (he has the title mohadith, an expert in the acts and sayings of the Prophet), but he has no political base.
The bad news is that Karzai almost certainly knows this, so there is more to the endorsement than meets the eye.
Consider first that Karzai himself is at a critical juncture. One cannot lead a country like Afghanistan, especially during a decade like the one it's just completed, without making some enemies. Karzai faces legitimate, justifiable concerns about his legacy, his property, even his safety, any one of which might be in jeopardy once he no longer enjoys the protection and immunity afforded by the presidency. Afghanistan, after all, has not historically been kind to its former leaders, so Karzai is playing the cards he has; cards that include an administrative system that spans from the grassroots to the presidential palace -- think of it like a tribal "get out the vote" network -- and the ability to mobilize resources for the candidate he chooses. Karzai's endorsement could be decisive for the right candidate, so his decision to endorse Sayyaf is a stark reminder to anyone paying attention that Karzai is not to be trifled with. He's established the stakes, and now we're waiting for the ransom demand.
Meanwhile, until the demands are made and met, we can expect Sayyaf to exert an influence disproportionate to his actual political prospects. Some of the other names that have been circulated as potential presidential candidates are accomplished technocrats with sophisticated visions for their country's future, but standing on a debate platform next to an Islamic scholar with jihadist credentials, they will likely be compelled to apologize for their records, rather than compare their policies. Take, for example, Mohammad Hanif Atmar and Ashraf Ghani. Atmar has a sterling record running three different ministries, and Ghani is an accomplished academic, presidential advisor, and the man who literally wrote the book on fixing failed states.
But Atmar fought with the Communists while Sayyaf was leading a group of mujahideen against them and Ghani never fought at all. He studied in America, received his PhD, and became a professor, while Sayyaf was taking up arms to defend his country. Sayyaf, by his mere presence in the race, has the power to make serious candidates look like bad Muslims who shirked their duties.
Karzai's move is not a stupid one, and he is not necessarily deserving of scorn for simply doing what he can to protect his interests. But the problem it creates goes beyond Sayyaf's presence in the race for the presidency. Even once Karzai changes tack and endorses a more reasonable ticket -- which he likely will -- it's unlikely Sayyaf will go quietly into the night. He is a seasoned veteran of this game, and he will demand his own guarantee of influence in the next administration.
Karzai, then, is presenting everyone involved in Afghan politics -- especially serious candidates -- with two equally bad options: either standby and let Sayyaf reduce the political debate to a contest of jihadi prowess and Islamic piety, or perpetuate the mafia-style politics of influence-peddling to get him out of the race.
The real cost though -- the one Karzai may not himself be considering -- is what happens after his plan is realized, after he gets whatever guarantees he is seeking, and convinces Sayyaf to withdraw. When Sayyaf drops out of the race, Fahim and Mohaqiq, Sayaff's two vice presidential candidates, will look like they were strung along just so Karzai and Sayyaf could get what they wanted. They'll be compelled to save face, and they'll do what others have done before them in similar situations -- they'll rile up their ethnic bases (Fahim is a Panjshiri Tajik; Mohaqiq is Hazara) and stoke anger against Pashtuns, of which Karzai and Sayyaf, they will claim, are only the most recent examples. The same scenario unfolded during the 2009 elections, when Gul Agha Shirzai, a popular provincial governor and a Pashtun presidential candidate, dropped out of the race and his two non-Pashtun vice presidential nominees, Ahmad Zia Masoud (brother of famed Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masoud) and Sayyed Hussain Anwari (a famous Shiite warlord) claimed it was a conspiracy.
While endorsing Sayyaf may seem like a harmless tactic for Karzai to extract guarantees for his future, if he doesn't dispense with it soon, it could become destructive. In a country with an already uneasy stability, the Sayyaf ploy could eliminate any chance the election has of being more than just a civil war fought along ethnic lines. And if that happens, the election may not represent the first peaceful transition of power between civilian governments in the country's history, but the spark that ignites a new era of ethnic violence.
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. Reporting for this piece was made possible by the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The opinions are the author's own.
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Despite the recent repudiation of elections by the Afghan Taliban's fugitive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and despite the increased bloodshed experienced by Afghans this year, there is a growing public desire to see the election process move forward and a historic and peaceful transfer of power and legitimate order.
Signs of growing enthusiasm are not only detected among the political elites and interest groups, but also in civil society, youths and women groups, the private sector, rural community councils, and in the way new and traditional media are covering the issues.
If we assume that next year's presidential and provincial elections will take place as planned, one of the main challenges that Afghanistan will face is security, and making sure that enough polling centers are open across the country to assure the viability of the exercise. Another test will be maintaining the positive momentum that is rising, investing as many Afghans as possible in the process, and making the vote as inclusive and transparent as possible.
This effort not only requires widespread public awareness programing, but also overcoming the public trust deficit that exists toward Afghan political and electoral institutions. Above all, it requires political will by the country's leadership not to hinder the process or constitutional order.
Thus far, it appears that the newly formed Independent Election Commission (IEC), responsible for managing the elections, is making a sincere attempt to regain the public trust and avoid a repeat of the 2009 electoral debacle.
The head of the IEC, Yousuf Nuristani, in an in-depth interview with TOLOnews this week, conveyed several key points that give hope and are essential to the successful management of elections:
Nuristani has raised the bar for electoral oversight and now has to deal with three types of pressures:
As Mullah Omar's Eid message clearly indicated last week, any hope that may have existed for Taliban participation in the elections should be dashed. The message stipulated that not only do the radicals within their ranks continue to want to impose their will on the population through power-sharing deals with other ethnic groups, but that their supporters outside the country are leery of seeing a democratically elected government emerge in Afghanistan.
Contrary to the wish of most Afghans, the message also made it clear that the Taliban will go to any length to prevent a continued U.S./NATO presence, albeit small and for a non-combat role, in the country post 2014.
Another sign of forward-moving impetus in the country's political life is its political dynamism. Political actors realize that time is not on their side, and they need to interact, form teams, and eventually build coalitions that could introduce candidates for the presidential election by early October, when the nomination process will be complete. Forming these teams and coalitions will not be easy unless some contenders are ready to lower their expectations of being at the top of a ticket, and instead focus on agreeing to work on common reform agendas.
To offset this political drive, Taliban diehards have and will continue to use psychological tactics, including the use of violence, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations, to dampen the enthusiasm that is emerging in the country. We have seen several troubling examples of such tactics lately with attacks on members of parliament and their families.
With a segment of society disinterested in the political ruckus, the Taliban are aiming to either draw them to their side or enlarge the pool of neutral observers, and by doing so undermine the 2014 elections.
It is now up to motivated political elites and institutions such as the IEC and ECC to build up the nascent momentum, counter the Taliban narrative, and rebuild the public trust through legitimate decisions and practices. The Afghan people, as well as the international community that has invested heavily since 2002, are watching. The country's political actors cannot afford to lose either or both.
Omar Samad is Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, President of Silkroad Consulting, and former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.
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