Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Buying out Taliban foot soldiers a long shot

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If a shopkeeper from Quetta impersonating as a Taliban commander made a mockery of President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to seek reconciliation with the insurgent leadership, a parallel programme to lure away foot soldiers  too made little headway last year. A bottom-up reintegration of  low to mid-level fighters back into society was meant to complement the top-down approach of seeking a compromise with the leadership. In the event, while there is little sign of  any engagement, at least in the public domain  ( although it has to be said for a peace process to be meaningful it probably has to be conducted away from the public eye), only a handful of rebels have stepped forward to lay down their weapons.

A year into the reintegration programme, less than 800 insurgents agreed to end the fight, according to  Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman. That makes up for less than 3 percent of the estimated militant strength of 30,000. At this rate it will take a decade to peel away the rank-and file, assuming the overall strength remains constant.  More disappointingly, the men who signed up for the programme weren’t even hard core Taliban. They were mostly low-level community-defense forces, Ackerman quotes British Maj.Gen. Phil Jones, the NATO official in charge of enticing the insurgents, as saying.

Most of them were from the relatively peaceful west and north of the country, and not from the south and east where the insurgency is at its deadliest since the war began in 2001. Again, have to enter a caveat that the north has heated up in recent months as well, so the gains perahps shouldn’t be dismissed altogether.

The big problem in the reintegration process  is lack of trust, says Jones.  The rebels are looking to return to the mainstream with honour and dignity and protection from the Taliban who are sure to seek retribution.. Last year they killed a dozen men who had signed up for the process in the northern province of Baghlan. If the government  cannot guarantee protection, and that is not very easy especially in the south, then all its offers of jobs and education will be meaningless.

A kinder, gentler Taliban

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Afghanistan’s Taliban have had a change of heart , and are no longer opposed to education for girls, according to the Afghan government. It’s the sort of shift that opens up the possibility of talks with the insurgents whose treatment of women  has in  the past drawn revulsion worldwide and made  a deal that much harder.

Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak  told the Times Educational Supplement that the upper echelons of the Taliban appeared to have softened their stance on education including schooling for girls . “It is attitudinal change, it is behavioural change, it is cultural change.” He didn’t say what had led to this profound transformation in the Taliban and how far they were willing to go to grant women rights.

US military surge: the view from Kandahar

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The U.S. military has stopped the Taliban momentum in southern Afghanistan, and is probably starting to reverse it following the surge, according to a study we wrote about this week here. The view from the ground, though, is much less rosy.

Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy has published a paper under its Afghan Voices series looking at how ordinary Afghans view the current round of military operations centred around Kandahar.

from Tales from the Trail:

Training may be the U.S. way out of Afghanistan, but hurdles high

One of the strongest messages that U.S. officials tried to convey during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Afghanistan this week was that the American mission in the war-torn country is changing from combat to training, so that Afghan forces are ready to provide security for their own country after decades of upheaval, invasion and foreign occupation. AFGHANISTAN

Biden made a stop at the Kabul military training center, an expansive site about six miles northeast of the city center, where U.S. forces are teaching members of the Afghan National Army how to be part of a modern military. On 22,000 acres of  bare terrain surrounded by mountains and dotted with cement walls and the ruins of Soviet-era military equipment, Afghan soldiers are learning everything from marksmanship to logistics. The facility has even had two all-women officer training classes, the first in the deeply traditional Muslim country, not for combat but for functions such as finance and logistics.

Is the tide turning in southern Afghanistan ?

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The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War  has a new report out that says rather unequivocally that the United States is starting to turn the war around in southern Afghanistan following the surge. Since the deployment of U.S. Marines to Helmand in 2009 and the launch of an offensive there followed by operations in Kandahar, the Taliban has effectively lost all its main safe havens in the region, authors Frederick  W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan argue.  

The Taliban assassination squad in Kandahar has ben dismantled, the insurgents’ ability to acquire, transport and use IED materials and other weapons has been disrupted, and narcotics facilitators and financiers who link the drug market to the insurgency have been aggressively targeted.  Above all,  NATO and Afghan forces continue to  hold all the areas they have cleared in the two provinces, arguably the heart of the insurgency, which is a significant departure from the past.

Karachi key to Pakistan political dogfight

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Pakistan’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, the dominant power in the nation’s financial capital of Karachi, has agreed to rejoin the federal coalition after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani agreed to reverse a  fuel price rise mandated under an IMF assistance programme.

The party, which mainly represents the Urdu-speaking descendants of immigrants from India following the creation of Pakistan in 1947,  said it had decided to return to the ruling coalition so as not to trigger a crisis at a time when the country faced many challenges. But it said it would not immediately return to Gilan’s cabinet, indicating it was holding out for more concessions.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the enemy within

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m1Steve Coll, the president of the New America Foundation and a South Asia expert, has raised the issue of the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the wake of the assassination of the governor of most populous Punjab state by one of his bodyguards. It’s a question that comes up each time Pakistan is faced with a crisis whether it a major act of violence such as this or a political/economic meltdown or a sudden escalation of tensions with India obviously, but also the United States.

Pakistan’s security establishment bristles at suggestions that it could be any less responsible than other states in defending its nuclear arsenal, and its leaders and experts have repeatedly said that the professional army is the ultimate guardian of its strategic assets.

Graffiti art brightens Kabul

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A group of women in burqas rises from the sea to symbolize cleanliness, while further down a factory wall a bus with no wheels and crammed with passengers is a stark comment on war-torn Kabul’s appalling public transport.

A new Afghan art collective called Roshd, or “growth,” has brought street art and graffiti to the conservative Muslim nation’s capital, starting with a mural on a three meter (10 feet) high wall in an industrial park. Soon they hope to take their creativity and commentary to the dusty city center, where blast walls, scrawled advertisements, political propaganda and armed guards are more usual sights.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law strikes fear in minorities

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 Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law has been in the spotlight since November when a court sentenced a Christian mother of four to death, in a case that has exposed deep rifts in the troubled Muslim nation of more than 170 million people. While liberal Pakistanis and rights groups believe the law to be dangerously discriminatory against the country’s tiny minority groups, Asia Bibi’s case has become a lightning rod for the country’s religious right.

 On Tuesday, the governor of the most populous state of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who had strongly opposed the law and sought presidential pardon for the 45-year-old Christian farmhand, was gunned down by one of his bodyguards.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

In India-Iran oil spat, nuclear row trumps Afghan war

khatamiNot too long ago, you could have predicted relatively easily how regional rivalries would play out in Afghanistan.  Saudi Arabia would line up alongside Pakistan while Iran and India would coordinate their policies to curb the influence of their main regional rivals. 

But that pattern has been shifting for a while -- the row over Indian oil payments to Iran is if anything a continuation of that shift rather than a dramatic new departure in global diplomacy.  And as two foreign policy crises converge, over Iran's nuclear programme and the war in Afghanistan, the chances are that those traditional alliances will be dented further. It is no longer a safe bet to assume that rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran will fit neatly into Pakistan-India hostility so that the four countries fall easily into two opposing camps come any final showdown over Afghanistan.

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