Today, the New York-based Century Foundation International Task Force has released its final report on political negotiations in Afghanistan. While on the surface much of it seems relatively anodyne, it goes further than other prominent reports in describing the outlines of a potential settlement, and proposes a high-level peace process led by a neutral party. More importantly, it represents the final result of a yearlong process of extensive consultations in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. As a result, the report has already generated discussion in diplomatic circles, not least of all because of the speculation as to whether Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN representative in Afghanistan and one of the task force's co-chairs, might be appointed as the international peace envoy whose creation the report advocates.
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The floods in Pakistan in 2010 were massive. The rains affected the length of Pakistan, maximally impacting the provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Punjab, and Sindh as well as parts of Baluchistan. Flooding displaced more than 20 million people and covered about one fifth of Pakistan's arable lands -- an area roughly equal to the U.S. eastern seaboard. This flood affected more people than the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, Hurricane Katrina (2005), Hurricane Nargis (2005), the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. Irrigation systems were destroyed, crops ruined, and seed stockpiles devastated. More than six million heads of livestock (including poultry) were killed. Yet, amazingly, only 1,985 people perished while another 2,946 were injured.
Given the population density of the affected regions, the poor infrastructure, and the baseline level of poverty, these figures are astonishingly low. In spite of the physical destruction, the fact that fewer than 2,000 Pakistanis died suggests that the Pakistani government did something very well last summer. Amidst numerous ongoing internal security crisis, political challenges and shortfalls of international assistance, Pakistani agencies continue to manage this crisis well despite the serious challenges that remain.
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dissection of the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy review
from last year continues, lost in the debate is the reality for Afghans trapped in the middle
of this nine-year war. For them, seeking
assistance provided by either side in the conflict has become almost as
dangerous as going without it.
It's largely taken as a given that all players in the Afghan theater are "humanitarian." The U.S. Army, NATO allies, the Afghan government, and even armed opposition groups all highlight their so-called humanitarian activities as they vie for the hearts and minds of the civilian population.
The U.N. and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission have just issued their statistics and analysis on civilian harm in the first half of 2010. According to their findings, the tactical restrictions put in place by former ISAF commanding General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 and largely retained by General David Petraeus, his successor, are working: the number of civilian casualties caused by "Pro-government forces" (largely international forces) is down. Insurgents are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties (deaths and injuries) - 76% according to yesterday's U.N. report.
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A mysterious blight is devouring Afghanistan's southern poppy crop, with the United Nations predicting that the 2010 opium yield may be down by as much as one-third.
At first glance, this might seem like good news. An enormous drop in the opium yield means drug traffickers, corrupt officials, and the Taliban, who tax and protect the poppy trade, make less money … right?
Wrong. When supply goes down, prices go up. Farm-gate values for raw opium, which had been dropping after years of overproduction, have shot up more than 60 percent, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which tracks yield and values across Afghanistan.
And that's good news for everyone holding large stockpiles of opium or processed narcotics -- the Taliban, drug traffickers, and other power brokers who smuggle narcotics. The UNODC has estimated that more than 11,000 metric tons are stockpiled around Afghanistan and the region. If opium yields are down this year, those stockpiles will gain in value.
Another problem is that poppy farmers are convinced that NATO is behind the blight, which seems to be linked to an infestation of aphids. It's not enough that the fruit-eating bugs are munching through regular crops, too, or that USAID is trying to help farmers save their orchards. In conspiracy-theory-prone Afghanistan, many suspect a Western plot.
NATO troops in the south are trying to build rapport in local communities as part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's population-centric strategy. This bug infestation could breed mistrust instead.
Perhaps worst of all, such a sharp decline in farm output has the potential to cause widespread economic despair in Afghan farm communities, where most people already scrape by at very slim margins. Poppy farmers who depend on loans from opium traffickers may find themselves buried in debt.
History and experience indicates that shifting poor farm communities off narcotics takes time. A report out this month from an Afghan research center has already questioned the sustainability of current levels of reduction.
That said, there may be an opportunity here -- but only if the international community positions itself swiftly to help Afghan farmers. Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC's executive director, is in New York this week, hoping to get U.N. members states to pledge emergency funds to subsidize poor farm families through the coming winter, as long as they pledge not to plant opium next season.
"My strong wish is for the international community to support the farmers who give a pledge to not grow opium," he told me.
That won't be at all simple to administer or regulate, as Costa himself admits, and there could be opportunities for deception and corruption, particularly in remote areas.
But not helping the farmers is an even less palatable option because financial desperation could drive them into the arms of the traffickers and the Taliban.
Right now many Afghan farmers suspect the international community has secretly caused this blight. The challenge for NATO and the West is to shift perceptions so that Afghan farmers see them as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Gretchen Peters is the author of Seeds of Terror, How Drugs, Thugs and Crime are Reshaping the Afghan War.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to better reflect the nuances of the mysterious blight.
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By Brian Katulis
On Thursday, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan announced that it would relocate hundreds of foreign staff out of the country in response to an attack targeting a U.N. guest house in Kabul last week. U.N. spokesman Dan McNortan told reporters that out of a total of 1,100 expatriate workers, 600 will be temporarily relocated for security reasons.
The United Nations has a presence of about 5,600 personnel in Afghanistan, the vast majority of whom are Afghan nationals. Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who heads the UN mission in Afghanistan said, "We will do what we can to avoid disruption of work."
What exactly does the United Nations do in Afghanistan? It conducts the sort of work that top U.S. and NATO commander in the country Gen. Stanley McChrystal and key U.S. policy leaders on Afghanistan have identified as essential to the effort of stabilizing the country -- carrying out reconstruction and relief efforts, and provides advice on internal political processes, among other things. (See more details on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan here.)
The timing of this decision to pull out personnel comes at a sensitive juncture for the Obama administration, as it gropes for an updated strategy to replace the one it announced in March. And it comes at a time when the United States has started to implement a "civilian surge" aimed at getting more personnel to work some of the very same issues -- reconstruction, development, and building governance structures -- that the U.N. staff now set to leave the country were doing.
The 600 U.N. staffers who are being relocated is about the same number of people the Obama administration is set to send as part of the civilian surge in 2009. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew late last month briefed reporters and told them that the Obama administration plans to have just under 1,000 civilians with the State Department and USAID in Afghanistan by the end of the year, up from 320 at the start, meaning that the civilian surge by the United States is about 600. So just from a numbers perspective, depending on where the U.N. staffers are relocated and for how long, the U.S. civilian surge to Afghanistan -- if it indeed goes through as planned -- may simply just cancel out the loss of U.N. workers being pulled out.
Now that's just an interesting note about the simple numbers game -- there are more complex dynamics involving specific tasks and projects. U.N. agencies have certain tasks that they conduct, and the United States and other countries engaged in Afghanistan on development and governance have their own efforts. There are some coordination mechanisms between these efforts, but many observers have noted that the coordination between the development and governance efforts in different parts of Afghanistan is weak.
Which raises a broader question -- what is the comprehensive strategy for making sure that all of the efforts planned by international agencies and individual countries on the development and governance fronts are coordinated? Since weak governance and corruption have been identified in both the strategy reviews and strategic communications of the Obama administration on Afghanistan, it makes sense that some sort of action plan -- coordinated among all of the countries and international organizations in Afghanistan -- should be developed to address these threats to Afghanistan's stability. But where is that plan?
As I mentioned in an article earlier this week, the draft metrics floating around Washington, DC earlier this fall shouldn't leave anyone optimistic about how well advanced the strategy for development and governance efforts in Afghanistan is, which is a major problem. In many ways, the simpler policy question is whether or not to send more troops -- the more difficult questions are those related to these other components of a possible integrated strategy in Afghanistan, because of a lack of resources and capacity in U.S. civilian agencies. Additionally, the simple fact of the matter is that governance and economic development have a direct impact on internal power dynamics in Afghanistan -- who we choose to partner with impacts the internal fights among Afghans for power, for better or worse.
Another issue is the question of leverage and how to best shape the calculations and actions of Afghan leaders to align with the interests of global security. The U.N. decision on Thursday seems mostly about security concerns, but Eide curiously sent an interesting "don't take us for granted" message to Afghan leaders: "There is a belief among some, that the international community (presence) will continue whatever happens because of the strategic importance of Afghanistan," Eide said. "I would like to emphasize that that's not true." Whether this "tough love" message matters remains to be seen.
But the overall point here is that if there is one positive thing about the messy election process in Afghanistan, it is that it has brought governance and anti-corruption more closely to the center of the policy debate on national security, which is quite amazing. The experts knew for years that these issues were problems, but now these problems have helped to some small degree reframe the national security debate on Afghanistan to something beyond just how many boots on the ground there are. Now the challenge for the Obama administration is to come up with concrete policy actions that can effectively deal with these problems of weak governance and corruption, and whether we have a coordinated international strategy to do so.
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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It was not so much the announcement itself that was shocking as the manner of its presentation.
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai stood at a podium on Tuesday afternoon to announce that Afghanistan would hold a runoff election between himself and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah on Nov. 7, he was flanked by three ambassadors, one U.S. senator, and the U.N. special representative.
"It was like some sort of political love-in for Karzai," said one international election observer, speaking privately.
At the very least, it was an overwhelming demonstration of support for a president who had for days stood "like a brick wall," as one diplomat put it, in the way of holding a second round of elections. Several days of fevered negotiations were required before Karzai backed down and agreed to accept the legally mandated decisions of the election oversight bodies.
This earned him plaudits and kudos from a host of international actors, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who sent Karzai a letter commending him for his decision.
"[President Karzai] showed statesmanship by deciding to move forward, embracing the Constitution and the rule of law," said U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.).
The Afghan president stopped a bit short of that lofty goal, however. In the hour that he stood on the dais, Karzai never once uttered the word "fraud," or acknowledged in any way that he was not the outright victor in the first round of elections on Aug. 20. Preliminary results gave him nearly 55 percent of the vote, to 28 percent for Abdullah.
"I will leave it to the Afghan people ... to decide whether or not I was the winner," he said.
But it was the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) that robbed him of his coveted victory, by ordering the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to disqualify almost one-third of the votes cast for Karzai.
The IEC could barely conceal its consternation at having to order a second round.
"His Excellency Hamed Karzai has received 49.67 percent of the total valid vote and is recognized as the leading candidate," said the press release. "Although the IEC has some reservations regarding the decisions of the ECC, considering time constraints, the imminent arrival of winter and existence of problems in the country, the IEC announces that the second round of elections will be held on Nov. 7."
To the end, Karzai maintained that the reports of widespread ballot-box tampering were nothing more than "defamation of the Afghan elections."
We have been told that 1.3 million votes were "suspicious" most of which -- more than one million -- were in the south," he said, subtly playing the ethnic card. The south is dominated by Pashtuns, his main base of support. "We should investigate deeply why these votes have been disrespected."
Karzai justified his willingness to accede to a second round as a selfless desire to put the interests of his country ahead of his own.
But judging from the smiling faces surrounding him on Tuesday, he got more than a warm glow from agreeing to the runoff. He got the unquestioned and open support of the international community. Ambassadors from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France joined Kerry and U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide in showing the world that this time, there would be no mistakes.
"I look forward to a dignified campaign and a fair result," said Eide, smiling broadly at Karzai.
Eide has been under pressure for weeks, amid mounting evidence of fraud in the first round. The U.N. special representative was a champion of the "process" and staunchly defended the IEC even as the latter openly flouted its own rules and included suspicious ballot boxes in Karzai's totals. Eide's deputy, Peter Galbraith, was more outspoken about allegations of malfeasance, which got him sacked and led to a very public, and extremely damaging, assault on the UN's credibility and impartiality in the election.
Now the country is braced for a second round, in just over two weeks. It will be very nearly impossible to organize a valid vote in that time, given Afghanistan's geography, security problems and the general anger and disaffection of the population.
"The second round may well be worse than the first," said one election expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There will be very few international observers, the security could be worse, and the turnout will probably be minuscule."
In August, barely 30 percent of registered voters made it to the polls. In November, that number is likely to plummet.
"Why should anyone care about these elections?" grumbled one young doctor in Kabul. "It will be the international community who decides what will happen next."
Gazing at the faces around Karzai on Tuesday afternoon, this may not be far from the truth.
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