On Wednesday August 29, the dismissal of Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil was officially confirmed. The news, which first began circulating some 48 hours earlier on BBC Persian, was met with shock by many Afghans in the capital city of Kabul.
A majority of the members of the lower house of Afghanistan's parliament were so outraged by the news that they immediately began drafting a demand letter to President Karzai to ask him to clarify the logic behind the dismissal, so widely respected was Nabil's tenure.
Some Members of Parliament (MPs), including the acting speaker of the house Haji Zahir Qadir, a Pashtun strongman from eastern Afghanistan, went further, demanding that Nabil be reinstated as the head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS).
Around the capital, many social media outlets published opinion pieces expressing the widespread fear that Nabil's dismissal would be disastrous for the national security of Afghanistan.
Many Afghans wondered why in a time of growing insecurity, evidenced by the increase in terrorist attacks in and around the capital, the president would deal such a blow to the nation's main defense against the insurgency.
According to Nabil himself, his dismissal was routine. President Karzai, he indicated, wanted to change the NDS head every two years, and because he was aware of this he did not contest the action.
Other high-ranking officials corroborated Nabil's account, although they would not go on the record.
The official account, however, fails to reconcile the fact that Nabil only served some eight months in the position. Also notably absent from the statement about the dismissal was the fact that Nabil's appointment was approved by an overwhelming majority of the lower house: 208 out of a total of 249 votes. It is the apparent inconsistency between the official account and the reality that has perplexed so many Afghans and left them wondering whether there are other unstated reasons that led to Nabil's dismissal.
Nabil's accession to the highest ranks of the Afghan government was not typical to say the least. Unlike most high-ranking officials, he had no family connection to President Karzai. He began his ascent to the top serving as a junior staffer in the Presidential Palace, eventually making his way to the top of the President's Protection Force (PPF), where he served for six years. During that time he remained a virtually unknown figure outside of the innermost presidential circle.
Inside sources say that because of his quiet efficiency in the PPF, Nabil was President Karzai's first choice to replace his predecessor at the NDS, Amrullah Saleh, who had resigned over disagreements with Karzai.
According to those who have worked closely with Nabil, he is widely respected for his frankness and honesty, traits that are not always apparent, as he is reluctant to promote himself and his achievements.
Nabil also refuses to take ethno-centric positions, making him something of a lone ranger in a capital often consumed by tribalism and clannishness. While many Afghans who have watched him closely have taken comfort in his lack of ethnic or sectarian partisanship, his objectivity may have left him vulnerable, without the type of inside supporters on whom he could rely to promote his cause inside the president's inner circles.
Moreover, prior to Nabil's dismissal he had intensified efforts to rout out suspected Pakistani and Iranian spies at the highest levels of the Afghan government, making him a possible target of some of Afghanistan's neighbors and their emissaries inside the country.
Earlier this month some Pakistani senior officials went so far as to accuse the NDS of plotting to attack strategic targets inside Lahore and Islamabad. Although there was no proof offered to support these claims, the Pakistani reaction itself may have been telling. Whatever it was the NDS under Nabil was doing, it was enough to ruffle the feathers of these various Pakistani officials.
Some Afghan analysts believe that it was the pressure that such outside powers were able to exert on the Afghan leadership via their domestic interest groups that led to Nabil's demise.
Other Afghans believe that Nabil's departure is just one of many upsets that are slated to take place. In the past month, rumors of other possible high-ranking changes have surfaced daily on Facebook, Twitter, and in other media. On August 4, for example, president Karzai issued a decree that replaced Nabil by Asadullah Khaled, the current minister of tribal affairs; Interior Minister Bismillah Khan by Mojtaba Patang, deputy minister of Afghan Public Protection Forces will replace; Bismillah Khan is named as the minister of defense; while there are speculations that further changes will occur with the president's chief of staff, Karim Khorram, will replace Fazal Ahmad Manawi, the head of the Afghan Independent Commission (IEC); and Manawi will be made Attorney General.
This long list of changes is seen to be the beginning of a broad transformation of the country's political landscape that will culminate in the presidential elections of 2014. From this perspective, Nabil's dismissal is regarded as part of the president's survivalist overhaul, which some see as his attempt to block what should otherwise be a stable and democratic transfer of power. They see an Afghan president trying to concentrate power in the hands of the Karzai or Popalzai clans, a move similar to what Vladimir Putin did in Russia with Dmitry Medvedev.
In this scenario, there is speculation that President Karzai is looking to Qayom Karzai as his successor, or if he meets with too much opposition, perhaps paving the way for an alternative Popalzai or Kandahari president.
Whether he will be successful in his power grab is another question. Already, the president's aspirations for 2014 are being challenged by many opposition figures, and by his fellow Pashtuns, some of whom have criticized him vociferously. Haji Zahir Qadir and other leading Pashtun figures outside the Kandahar region, for example, are his loudest critics. If these voices gain support, President Karzai's ploys could backfire and move the Pashtun center of power from the south to the east or in between.
As beloved as Nabil may be in many circles, the National Directorate of Security itself still looms as a dark force in the minds of many Afghans. Ten years of democratic rule have not been sufficient to erase the deep memories of what the organization was like during the previous eras of communist, warlord, and Taliban rule.
To change that image, many believe that it is critical that the NDS cleanse its ranks and replace them with younger, more educated Afghans who do not have the same blood on their hands that many of their elders do. These are the types of changes that Nabil was attempting to make in the organization, the types of changes that earned him the respect of so many that yearn for a more modern and progressive Afghanistan, one that protects their rights and provides them opportunities as citizens, regardless of ethnicity, sect, or tribal affiliation.
They point to the hard work he was doing in places like Ghazni to rout out the Taliban and the insurgents who have been wreaking havoc on the general population there. His plan was to motivate Afghans to join the fight against the Taliban and other extremists in the heartland, and outside Afghan borders.
To many Afghans, Nabil's dismissal is more evidence that they are losing the battle for their country, and a painful betrayal by a democratically-elected president who now seems bent on hurting the country if that will allow him and his kind to keep their monopoly on power. It's a sad time for Afghan patriots and a sadder one for Afghanistan as a whole.
Waliullah Rahmani is an expert on international security and terrorism. He is currently running the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.
Last week's Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia was unsurprisingly uneventful. While not a "head of state" summit -- where traditionally big announcements like the decision to allow new members in would be made -- in the lead-up to the meeting there was a flurry of press about a possible enlargement of the group. But aspirant members and current observers India and Pakistan were not made into full members, and Afghanistan was once again not brought any closer into the club. Generally seen by Western observers as a less threatening entity than before, the organization's inability to move forward on expansion highlights its immaturity and should show outsiders the likely limited role that it will be able to play in post-American Afghanistan.
Initially born as a vehicle through which to resolve long-standing border disputes in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the "Shanghai Five" as it was known (made up of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) formally changed its name in 2001 when it opened up to Uzbekistan and turned into the SCO. Over time, it developed into a forum in which regional players could forge closer links on a variety of issues, including economics, development, infrastructure projects and most recently education.
At the core of its identity, however, remained security concerns, focused on countering what the SCO members describe -- in a clear emulation of the Chinese definition of a threat -- as "terrorism, separatism and extremism." Its biannual "Peace Mission" joint counter-terrorism exercises have been the most visible expressions of this focus, offering opportunities for nations to get together and practice operations usually focused on countering an assault by a small force of well-armed terrorists. In January 2004 it established the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and the next year opened its doors to the leaders of India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan, who all attended the annual summit as "observers." Also present was Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the group agreed to establish the SCO-Afghanistan contact group, "with the purpose of elaborating proposals and recommendations on realization of cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan on issues of mutual interest." However, since then the Contact Group has done very little, and while further countries have joined the constellation of nations interested in becoming involved in the organization (Belarus and Sri Lanka are now "Dialogue Partners" and Turkey has applied to join this club) no further tangible movement has been made.
Yet it seemed as though this might be changing. Earlier this year, the organization celebrated its ten-year anniversary, and at a high-level conference in Shanghai the question of expansion was brought up repeatedly. However, while Russian participants seemed eager for the organization to allow new members in, the Chinese side seemed hesitant, pushing to deepen the organization's economic focus and develop its international profile through official connections with other international bodies before expanding it further. This was reflected in the public discourse ahead of the St. Petersburg Summit where Russian officials backed the Afghan bid for upgrading the nation to "observer" status and openly supported Pakistan's bid for full-membership. Yet nothing happened, and in his official read-out to journalists on his way back from the Summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made absolutely no mention of the possibilities of expansion.
This inaction is somewhat perplexing to outside observers. The organization was fundamentally founded to clarify borders so as to counter a transnational terrorist threat that most would agree has had a regional home in Afghanistan, and yet the SCO has done surprisingly little in direct terms to help the nation. Individual members have given support and money, but the organization itself has not. The idea of membership, or at least "observer" status, would theoretically tie Afghanistan more closely to regional players and bolster the current administration in Kabul. Yet by this same token, admitting Afghanistan to the group would mean taking sides in a conflict whose outcome remains uncertain. No one yet quite understands what the American withdrawal in 2014 will actually look like, and SCO members are unsure whether they want to become too entangled in a nation that has already subdued at least one SCO member in the past (Russia). And atop all of this there is the capacity question: the SCO has no standing forces and controls few direct funds. Consequently, as a diplomat at the Secretariat in Beijing put it to me last year, "what would you have us do?"
Other potential members face different problems: unwilling to take sides, the organization would most likely have to open its doors to both India and Pakistan at the same time -- something that would also have the effect of bringing into the organization all the disagreements they share. The question of upgrading Iran is one that has taken something of a back seat of late following President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's failed attempt to be admitted last year. The reason for this blockage seems to be a general desire amongst SCO members to not overtly antagonize the United States. Mongolia would seem to be a relatively natural member, but given the precedent that letting a nation in would set, it continues to be obliged to sit on the sidelines.
And so the question remains: Why, in the run-up to the St. Petersburg Summit, was there such a flurry of interest in possible expansion? One explanation is that Islamabad has for some time been trying to bolster its regional partnerships in an attempt to counter-balance American anger and perceived fickleness. Russia also appears to be behind a lot of talk of expansion. Concerned about the in-roads China is making in its Central Asian periphery, Moscow perhaps hopes that expanding the SCO, something seen as primarily a Chinese vehicle, might stretch it beyond its ability to function. While the SCO may not have done much yet, it has laid the foundations for a more weighty future -- a long-term vision that accords with China's approach to foreign policymaking.
Whatever the case, the end result is that another high-level SCO Summit passed with little tangible forward movement. Seemingly obvious achievements like upgrading Afghanistan or Turkey continue to be avoided, while outside China there is little evidence that the regional powers are willing to invest too much into the SCO. All of which is welcome news to those who worry about the organization becoming a "NATO of the East," but less positive to those who hope it might be willing to take on a greater role in Afghanistan when the United States makes its move in 2014.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation. His writing can be found at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.
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On a day of suicide attacks in Quetta and bomb threats againstPakistani airliners, Ali Akbar Salehi's September 7 arrival in Islamabad attracted predictably little media attention in Pakistan.
For Pakistan's government, however, his visit was freighted with importance. Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, was in town for a meeting of thePakistan-Iran Joint Economic Commission (JEC). The two-day talks produced agreements on technical, financial, and media cooperation, with additional steps taken to strengthen cooperation on energy, money laundering, and trade.
This economic summit came on the heels of intensive efforts by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to reach out to Tehran. He visited Iran in late June for a two-day conference on terrorism, and then returned just a few weeks later. Both times, he was received by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And on both occasions, the rhetoric flowed freely. At the first meeting, Zardari praised Iran as "an important friend and player in the region," noting that bilateral ties "are rooted in historical, cultural, and religious bonds." During the second visit, Khamenei lauded Pakistan for being "a great nation with [a] long and deep background of struggle."
Shortly after the JEC meeting, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani traveled to Tehran. Talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad culminated in outcomes both symbolic (designating Multan and Rashtas sister cities) and substantive (pledging to boost bilateral trade from $1.2to $10 billion -- which would approach the $15 billion trade volume Pakistan seeks with China). On September 12, Gilani declared that his and Zardari's successive visits to Iran underscore the "highest importance"Islamabad places on relations with Tehran.
At first glance, Pakistan's courtship of Iran is puzzling. The two nations have rarely seen eye to eye in Afghanistan; Tehran has sided with the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban elements of the population (particularly Shia Hazaras), while Islamabad was once one of the fewnations to accord the Taliban full diplomatic recognition. Iran has also enjoyed a legacy of strong relations with India. Baluchistan province in Pakistan has long served as a sanctuary for Jundullah, an Iranian Baluch militant organization that Washington designates as a terrorist group and regularly attacks Iran's government and military. Perhaps most importantly, Shia Iran is regional rivals with Sunni Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan's most crucial allies.
However, the strategic sands in South Asia have begun to shift, creating new opportunities for Pakistan and Iran. The latter's view of the Afghan Taliban has softened, with some observers arguing that Tehran now perceives it less as a virulent Wahhabi Sunni threat, and more as a welcome anti-imperialist group that shares Iran's strong desire to expunge America's military footprint in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, India's relations with Iran have taken a tumble. Several times in recent years, India has backed American positions on U.N. Security Council resolutions and International Atomic Energy Agency votes on Iran's nuclear program and human rights violations. Additionally, tighter international sanctions against Tehran have undercut India-Iran energy relations, a pillar of the bilateral relationship. India used to pay Tehran for crude imports through an opaque "clearing house" system, yet last December the sanctions prompted India to renounce this method and to request a more transparent arrangement. Tehran refused, and in July briefly suspended crude supplies to New Delhi. India immediately turned to Riyadh, concluding a deal this past summer that provided Indians with 3 million barrels of Saudi crude in August -- and sparked talk of a potential "strategic energy partnership" that could yield a 30-year oil supply contract.
Against this backdrop, Islamabad's diplomatic forays into Tehran can be seen as both politically and strategically driven. On the one hand, at a time of strained relations with Washington, Pakistan's government undoubtedly relishes the opportunity to thumb its nose at America by embracing what the latter regards as a pariah state. Pakistan may also wish to capitalize on Iran's pro-Pakistan gestures over the last year. These include the withering criticism Khamenei has directed at India's policies in Jammu and Kashmir, and the flood relief aid furnished byIran since last summer (Iran recently vowed to provide support to internally displaced persons (IDPs) until they are "completely rehabilitated").
Strategically speaking, deeper ties with Iran can enhance electricity-starved Pakistan's energy security. Islamabad is well aware that construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline has not begun, and has underscored its desire to expedite the construction of a pipeline with Iran -- which could be operational by 2015. The project is slated to provide 750 million cubic feet of natural gas toPakistan daily, and its power generation capacity is expected to approach 5,000 megawatts -- roughly equivalent to Pakistan's energy shortfall.
Furthermore, Pakistan badly needs allies in its efforts to forge a regional stability arrangement amenable to Pakistani interests, and it sees Iran as a key collaborator in formulating a political solution to the Afghanistan imbroglio.
It would be a mistake, however, to read these developments as the portent of a new strategic partnership. Pakistan's vital relationship with Saudi Arabia--undergirded by five decades of intelligence-sharing, military cooperation, and deep mutual trust -- precludes any such possibility. So does the House of Saud's largesse. According to the Center for Global Development, Riyadh's average annual grant assistance to Pakistan between 2004 and 2009 totaled nearly $140 million -- more than any other country aside from the United States. And the U.N. reported last November that the Saudis had provided $100 million in aid to deal withlast year's crippling floods -- again, more than any nation save America at the time.
The Pakistan-Saudi partnership has stayed strong even amid the geopolitically volatile Arab Spring. Recall how Pakistani organizations likely tied to the state dispatched security forces to Bahrain to help the Saudi-allied Sunni regime suppress anti-government protestors -- members of the country's Shia majority whose demonstrations have drawn strong support from Tehran. According to Al JazeeraEnglish, "at least 2500" former Pakistani servicemen deployed to Manama this spring, enlarging Bahrain's riot police and national guard by about 50 percent.Pakistan's decision reportedly prompted an infuriated Tehran to summon a high-level Iran-based Pakistani diplomat for an explanation.
Predictably, Zardari boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia soon after his return from Iran in July. His visit was billed as an effort to reduce tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, though it was likely also meant to assuage Riyadh's concerns about Pakistan's Iranian embrace. And if there was any lingering doubt about Pakistan's determination to smooth ruffled Saudi feathers, Gilani followed up with his own trip -- with the explicit objective of getting ties back on track. Predictably, he emerged from his meetings gushing rhetoric about the renewal of the partnership. Then, late last month, Riyadh committed 10 billion rupees (justover $114 million) to help repatriate IDPs in Pakistan's tribal areas, a gesture that Pakistani media identified as another sign of a revitalized relationship. And just a few days later, Riyadh officially endorsed the Taliban reconciliation process that Islamabad fervently supports. Tehran has not followed suit.
Tellingly, while Islamabad has soothed Riyadh,it has acted cautiously toward Tehran in recent days -- in deference to Saudi Arabia, but perhaps also to America. At the JEC meeting, Pakistan, "fearing the consequences" of international sanctions, demurred when Iran offered to help construct the Pakistan portion of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. And Pakistani media reports now speculate that Washington may succeed in persuading Pakistan to abandon the pipeline altogether.
Foreign Minister Salehi and his delegation may have arrived in Pakistan last week laden with gifts and offerings, with Gilani impressively calling on Tehran barely 72 hours later. Yet at the end of the day, the Iranians will continue to play second fiddle to Saudi Arabia in Pakistan's strategic calculus.
MichaelKugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centerfor Scholars. email@example.com
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On Aug. 1, Pakistan's military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said the Army and its intelligence agencies are not involved in so-called "kill-and-dump" operations in the restive province of Baluchistan. Kayani was speaking in Quetta, the provincial capital, where Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that Islamabad "should immediately end widespread disappearances of suspected militants and activists by the military, intelligence agencies, and the paramilitary Frontier Corps."
The report follows similar findings by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Human rights watchdogs have repeatedly called on Islamabad to stop unlawful killings in Baluchistan, where hundreds of political activists have been killed in separatist and sectarian violence involving both homegrown and regional insurgents.
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As revolutions and counterrevolutions spread across the Middle East, regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia are troubled by the potential for domestic instability and the survival prospects of their respective allies. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, along the outer perimeter of the greater Middle East, the political class and military-intelligence establishment are comfortably nestled in the verdant foothills of the Himalayas, home to the nation's capital and army headquarters. Despite the seemingly infinite troubles afflicting Pakistan, in the short-to-medium term, political change is only likely to occur within the game of musical chairs among its power elite.
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As Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi finds himself in a pitched battle to maintain his over 40-year rule, like the final man in a cricket match, some Pakistanis are thinking about what to do with about Qaddafi Stadium, a cricket ground named after the Libyan leader in 1974.
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With the release of President Barack Obama's review of his administration's Afghanistan strategy review, the editors of AfPak Channel asked our own contributing experts to weigh in on the state of the war in Afghanistan. Below is a brief "review," an assessment of the on-the-ground views of international forces in some of Afghanistan's most dangerous areas, a look forward at political reforms, and the possibility of a regional economic strategy to bring stability to the country:
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A famous cartoon from Victorian Britain shows a nervous Afghan ruler standing between a lion and a bear, both of which are looking at him hungrily. The caption says, "Save me from my friends." The animals represent the British and Russian empires, both of which wanted to get their political paws on Kabul.
Afghanistan's neighbors are a different set today, but the cartoon still depicts one underlying truth. Impoverished, landlocked Afghanistan remains deeply vulnerable to regional tensions, including those between India and Pakistan. Yet, in the time of empires, it managed those tensions to its own advantage. It can do so again today, and in doing so help the United States' exit strategy. A political process is the key; but economics can make a contribution.
Afghanistan's vast mineral deposits have never been more valuable. China's top copper producer foresees a global shortage of the metal next year; in 2009 it consumed 60 percent of the world's supply of iron ore. How fortunate, then, that just to its west Afghanistan has plenty of both: one of the world's largest unexploited copper mines at Aynak, and 1.8 billion tons of iron ore at Hajigak. China has already invested more than $3 billion in leasing and developing the Aynak mine.
The fact that China, which is Pakistan's closest ally, now has an investment in Afghanistan gives Pakistan a strong incentive to keep at least part of the country stable -- a stronger incentive, perhaps, than even American pressure can provide. (Even the Afghan Taliban has, over the years, generally shown itself keen not to offend China.) This goes with the grain of the thinking in at least part of the Pakistani military establishment, who see that prolonged instability in Afghanistan would make Pakistan's internal problems worse.
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1. In late May, then-top commander General Stanley McChrystal said there is "clear evidence of Iranian activity" in training and providing weaponry to the Taliban in Afghanistan. What are Iran's core interests in Afghanistan, and how have they evolved in the last nine years? How do those complement or work against what the U.S. and NATO are trying to achieve there?
Iran has a strategic stake in Afghanistan that has not changed in the last nine years. Tehran's overriding interest is to prevent Afghanistan (with its long and lawless border with Iran) from being used as a platform from which to attack or undermine the Islamic Republic or to weaken Iran's standing as a regional power.
To prevent Afghanistan from being used as an anti-Iranian platform, the Islamic Republic has worked, over many years, to form relationships with Afghan players who could keep Iran's Afghan enemies (principally the Taliban but also other anti-Shiite and anti-Persian groups) and their external supporters (principally Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two of Iran's most important regional antagonists) in check. To this end, Iran has worked to strengthen and unite Afghanistan's Shiite Hazara and other Dari/Persian-speaking communities (which together comprise about 45 percent of the population) as a counterweight to anti-Iranian, pro-Saudi, and pro-Pakistani elements among Afghan Pashtuns (roughly 42 percent of the population). The Hazara and other Dari/Persian-speaking communities were, of course, the core of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban during the 1990s, and were supported by India and Russia as well as Iran.