Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
For a leader who has come to own the Afghan war, U.S. President Barack Obama’s first trip to Kabul and the military headquarters in Bagram since he took office 15 months ago was remarkable for its secrecy and surprise.
He flew in late on Sunday night, the blinds lowered on Air Force One all the way from Washington, and left while it was still dark.
It tells you more about the state of the eight-year war than anything else in recent weeks. Imagine visiting a country in the dead of the night, calling on its president sometime soon after and then flying out before the sun rises.
Here’s a Reuters story on how the six-hour trip was orchestrated.
One encouraging sign though: a Washington Post poll released just as Obama made the trip to the war-shattered nation showed that Afghanistan is still the one issue where Americans are behind him.
If you can’t beat the Taliban, buy them out. At last week’s conference in London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s Western backers endorsed his latest attempt to lure away low level Taliban fighters with money and jobs, committing themselves to a $500 million fund to finance the re-integration plan. The logic is that a majority of the Taliban , 70 percent actually according to some estimates, are the so-called “$10 fighters” who do not share the leaders’ intense ideological motivation. They are driven to the Islamists because they are the only source of livelihood in a war-ravaged nation. So if you offered them an alternative, these rent-a-day foot soldiers can easily be broken.
Quite part from the fact that several such attempts have failed in the past, the whole idea that members of the Taliban are up for sale just when the insurgency is at its deadliest is not only unrealistic but also smacks of arrogance, Newsweek magazine notes in an well-argued article. It quotes Sami Yousoufsai a local journalist “who understands the Taliban as few others do” as laughing at the idea that the Taliban could be bought over.
President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will begin pulling its troops out Afghanistan in 2011 provides a good opportunity to look back and study history. This will, after all, be the second time Afghans have bid farewell to a superpower, and Nikolai Gvosdev in Foreign Affairs offers an interesting take on what happened the last time, when the Soviets pulled out in 1989.
The man the Soviets left in charge was Mohammad Najibullah, who clung to power for three more years, then sheltered for another four years in the U.N. compound in Kabul, before finally ending up strung up by the Taliban from a Kabul traffic lamp in 1996. Najibullah’s grisly end means his career hardly seems like one that President Hamid Karzai would want to emulate. Yet Gvosdev’s account is a reminder that Najibullah actually held on to power far longer than most in the West expected. His government in fact actually outlasted the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed in 1991.
In Gvosdev’s account, the key to Najibullah’s success lay in part in lavishing funds on tribal and provincial chiefs. That tactic became impossible after the Soviet Union disintegrated and the money dried up. Even so, Najibullah might have still hung on had Pakistan not been given free rein by the West to back the Mujahideen that unseated him.
In his inauguration speech on Thursday, Afghan president Hamid Karzai promised to combat corruption and appoint competent ministers, heading off the growing chorus of criticism from the West that his government is crooked and inept. Unsurprisingly, the Western dignitaries in the audience declared that they liked what they heard.
We predicted ahead of time that we would hear positive words about Karzai this week. After all, Western governments need to convince their own voters back home that the veteran Afghan leader’s government is worth sending their sons and daughters to die for. This autumn’s election debacle made Karzai look bad – a U.N.-backed probe found that nearly a third of votes cast for him were fake — but now that’s all over and the West needs him to look as reliable as possible.
On the eve of Hamid Karzai’s inauguration as Afghanistan’s president, the obvious question to ask is what happens if he, or more crucially his Western backers, fail to turn back a resurgent Taliban the second time around.
Steve Coll, journalist and president of the New America Foundation, sets out four consequences of failure in Afghanistan in a blog in The New Yorker, which speak to those especially in America who question its involvement in the first place in this far-off “graveyard of empires.”
That sure was fast.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told American TV audiences that Afghan President Hamid Karzai needed to take steps to fight graft, including setting up a new anti-corruption task force, if he wants to keep U.S. support. Less than 24 hours later, there was Karzai’s interior minister at a luxury hotel in Kabul — flanked by the U.S. and British ambassadors — announcing exactly that. A new major crimes police task force, anti-corruption prosecution unit and special court will be set up, at least the third time that Afghan authorities and their foreign backers have launched special units to tackle corruption.
There are just a couple of days left before Karzai is inaugurated for a new term as president. Perhaps a few more days after that, U.S. President Barack Obama will announce whether he is sending tens of thousands of additional troops to join the 68,000 Americans and 40,000 NATO-led allies fighting there.
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have questioned before the value of the "AfPak" label, which implies that an incredibly complicated situation involving many different countries can be reduced to a five-letter word.
Having spent the last couple of days trying to make sense of the suicide bomb attack in Iran which Tehran blamed on Jundollah, an ethnic Baluchi, Sunni insurgent group it says has bases in Pakistan, I'm more inclined than ever to believe the "AfPak" label blinds us to the broader regional context. Analysts argue that Jundollah has been heavily influenced by hardline Sunni sectarian Islamist thinking within Pakistan which is itself the product of 30 years of proxy wars in the region dating back to the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan towards the end of the same year.
The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), made up mainly of Westerners, has published its findings into Afghanistan’s disputed, fraud-beset presidential poll.
Now Afghans must determine their political future using the bureaucratic legacy of lists and numbers the ECC has left behind.
On a hilltop in central Kabul, the relics of Soviet armoured vehicles sit in the shadow of an incongruously vast and empty swimming pool. A tower of diving boards looks down into the concrete carcass built by the Russians. Boys play football there and on Fridays the basin is used for dog fights; combat is the only option for the canine gladiators, as they cannot climb up the sheer, steep sides. From the vantage point you can see the city’s graveyards, its bright new mosques, the narco-palaces of drug-funded business potentates and the spread of modest brick homes where most Kabulis live. It’s a favourite spot for reporters when they need to escape the press of urgent events and get cleaner air in their lungs.
For years journalists have sought to tell stories that go beyond the conflict in Afghanistan. We’ve tried to portray this country – the crossroads of central Asia, the summer home of Moghul emperors, the cockpit of clashing empires – as more than a place of blood, deprivation and extremism. Amid the dust and the heat it has its oases of tranquility, its laughter and its charms. From the market stalls of sweet pomengranates that line the road in autumn to the rose gardens newly planted in central Kabul, Afghanistan is a place of thorny history, cultural complexity and spartan beauty.