Tag Archives: War in AFghanistan

Back From Kabul: impressions

Smog in Kabul (Image: FRE/RL)


I recently got back from three weeks in Kabul.  Here are first two impressions. More to come later.

1. Until last week, it had not rained or snowed in Kabul. For the Kabulis, if nothing else hurts them the environment will. Pollution in this  small city is at extreme degrees. During the day, particularly in the afternoons, visibility beyond 20 meters is impossible due to dust and smoke. Quite a depressing situation. To imagine that people on the streets breath this air 24/7 is a dark reality. Cars are abundant on the street, vast construction creates tremendous dust, and on top of all that you have at least 2-3 stoves in every home that burn material ranging from wood and coal to diesel and trash.

2. The extent of women involvement in public life is much more visible. One small example speaks for it: at the airport, you see as many young female workers doing the routine security checks as male workers. Most of them in their 20s, a representation of the vast potential in Afghanistan. I hear that close to 60% of the country is between the ages of 18-35, which is quite a heartening statistic.

As dusk took over Kabul Airport and I walked up the stairs to board the plane, there were workers at the bottom of the stairs, checking the boarding passes one last time. One of them was a petite and pretty young lady, wearing a lime fluorescent jacket on top of her blue uniform. Her hands in the pockets of the her jacket, she paced about with an air of tremendous confidence. It was a fantastic little scene, very telling of some of the progress in the country.


Richard Holbrooke

Seasoned diplomat Richarad Holbrooke, President Obama’s Special Envoy to Paksitan and Afghanistan, passed away in Washington on Monday. He was 69 years old.

Mr. Holbrooke left a strong legacy of diplomatic achievements, most important of which being the Dayton agreement to end the bloody conflict in the Balkans. He also served as Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton.

A lot of expectations came with the job that Mr. Holbrooke took under President Obama– to coordinate the efforts in Afghanistan. Having established a reputation of being a tough negotiator,  the Ambassador was entrust the responsibility of working towards a solution in Afghanistan. But during his time, Mr. Holbrooke found it quite difficult there, causing tremendous strain in President Karzai’s relationship with the Obama administration.

One of the reasons given for why Mr. Holbrooke was frustrated in Afghanistan was his assertive– and at time bullying–style of diplomacy. It worked in the Balkans, but Afghanistan was different. The Ambassador was quite confident of himself and usually would not tone down his criticism of the players involved, particularly Karzai.  Jean Mackenzie at GlobalPost sums it up nicely:

Holbrooke’s last post, as the Obama administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will most likely not figure among his finest hours. Long-time friend and colleague Peter Galbraith, who served as ambassador to Croatia while Holbrooke was negotiating an end to the Balkan war, told the BBC Monday evening that the Dayton Accords, signed in 1995 and effectively putting an end to hostilities in the three-year conflict in Yugoslavia, would serve as Holbrooke’s legacy….most observers acknowledge that Holbrooke was a problematic figure in both Kabul and Washington.

But one has to wonder whether it was Holbrooke or the awkward role that he was assigned that created the tensions. The Ambassador repeatedly declared that the military solution was not viable in Afghanistan, yet he found himself working a long side a massive military operation and trying to coordinate his efforts in that shadow. Perhaps, he would have been more effective if  reconciliation had been given a more prominent place in the policy, and if face to face negotiations with the Taliban had been taken up, what many intellectuals and experts are calling for right now.

While Mr. Holbrooke would have hoped for more concrete achievements in Afghanistan, his frustrating time there was not completely ineffective. He put tremendous pressure on President Karzai’s administration to cut down on corruption, and he spoke repeatedly for tackling the save heavens across the border in Pakistan. Above all, he assiduously spoke of a political solution, which might as well be the only way out of the war in Afghanistan..

Nick Kristof over at NYT pays  a heartfelt farewell to the Ambassador:

I’ve never met an abler diplomat, or a smarter one, than Richard Holbrooke. He was inevitably the brightest guy in the room, and usually the most pragmatic and hardest-working – and he was also a friend whom I admired hugely. His death today is a tremendous loss for all of us who knew him, and for the country as well. Richard never achieved his dream of becoming secretary of state, but he leaves a legacy around the world – from Bosnia to East Timor, from AIDS clinics in South Africa to his legions of followers in the United States – that exceeds that of many Secretaries of State. He was simply a legendary public servant, and an inspiration.

The Constitutional Struggle Over Election Results

Tensions are high over the results of parliamentary elections in Afghansitan (Photo: ToloNews)

On October 6, I went against the current and showed optimism in the parliamentary elections. I thought that in the given context, the voting process had not been as bad as certain news outlets made it to be. But I highlighted that the main challenge lay in how claims of fraud are dealt with. I wrote:

The next stage, of how the fraud is dealt with, is incredibly critical.

For a second time in a year, ordinary afghans have braved the threats to cast their votes. They have played their part in this flirt with democracy, but if serious action is not taken to ensure them that their voices matter, they will lose hope.  The future of the democratic system in Afghanistan will be in peril.

It is crucial that this time around the Afghan leadership really crack down on those who were involved in the fraud. For the sake of saving any hopes of democracy, the government and the leaders need to forget about their pride. They need to man up and accept that there were enormous shortcomings. Rather than questioning its extent and blaming others, they need to take action: punish those who committed systematic fraud, ban them from participating in politics, and perhaps even redo the voting process in certain districts with tighter security and anti-corruption measures. The people need to know that democracy is not corrupt and rotten, but individuals are. If this message is not clearly given to the Afghan people, any hopes of a democracy in the future will be childish.

Well, it turns out that I was overly optimistic. The post-voting process has been a complete shit-show. It is developing into a constitutional crisis.

The problem began with the province of Ghazni, where contenders from the ethnic minority Hazara won all the seats. The Pashtoon candidates claimed this was unfair for the fact that in most districts polling stations remained close due to Taliban threat. They claimed that a minority group could not represent the entire Province of Ghazni. President Karzai publicly sympathized with them, asking the Election Commission to find a legal solution that ensures “national unity.” Over this and many other, a massive heated and public argument has erupted between the Attorney General’s Office, the Election Commission and and the Electoral Complaints Commission .

The Attorney General’s office released arrest warrants for several members of these commissions and asked the Supreme Court to declare the election results as void. The Election Commission, in return, has questioned the legality of the Attorney General’s involvement in this matter. They claim that no authority can overrule their final announcement of the results.

Initially, the Election Commission remained calm and calculated in its response to the Attorney General’s calls. More recently, however, they have responded in very bold words. Fazel Ahmad Manawi, head of the commission, in his recent press conference accused the Attorney General’s office of “bullying that can lead to instability in the country.” He scorned the charge sheet sent to the supreme court which recommends the highest form of punishment [execution] for the 14 members accused.

Where will the legal argument lead? Does the Attorney General’s Office have the authority to question the results of the elections? Many believe  it does. The AG has presented criminal cases of fraud against top election officials as well as winning candidates. This seems within their bounds of authority. But Mr. Manawi, himself a former Supreme Court Justice, has challenged their authority on the grounds that the election law only gives the Election Complaints Commission the authority to call the results void.  Him being a prominent legal scholar and a former justice, one is tempted to believe that he,too, has strong reasons for his position. How will this public argument end? Hard to predict, but expect it to get eve more messier.

During all this, President Karzai has remained very quiet. Yes, he did sympathize with the losing Ghazni candidates, but since then he has said nothing bold. Waheed Omer, his spokesman, has insisted that the President will take no measures against the constitution. Yesterday, he declared more precisely that the President does not have the authority to call the results void. But is the Attorney General’s office doing his work for him? It seems so. The Attorney General has almost always acted in line with the President’s wishes. In this case, too, the President seems like he is raising his concern through the AG while maintaining an uninvolved public image.

The Clever Mullah

Was it him?

It’s been a week of accusations and blame games in Afghanistan. The Clever Mullah who duped the Afghans and NATO is all over the headlines. He got his money, and quite possibly in tens of millions of dollars, and disappeared. But the shame remains, for NATO and the Afghan leadership.

How did an ordinary shopkeeper from Quetta, Pakistan manage to cause so much excietment, to make it all the way to the Presidential Palace, and to piss all over the hopes of an entire nation that was playing into the hype around high-level talks?

The easy way out: blame the British.

In an interview, Mohammad Umer Daudzai [Karzai’s chief of Staff] said that the British brought a man purporting to be Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a senior Taliban leader, to meet Karzai in July or August but that an Afghan at the meeting knew “this is not the man.”

Daudzai’s comments were the most direct assignation of blame so far, though U.S. officials have also said that the fake Mansour was primarily a British project. U.S. officials have long characterized the British as more aggressive than the Americans in pushing for a political settlement to end the war.

The false Mansour was “the Brits’ guy,” said a senior American official familiar with the case. “It was the British who brought him forward.”

While the British have messed up several times in Afghanistan, particularly in the

Mullah Zaif, on his iPhone: "we got'm real bad. LOL"

Southern province of Helmand, its harsh to lay the blame entirely on them. After all, NATO seemed entirely on board with this. General Petraeus openly said that NATO was securing the highway so Taliban leaders can make it to Kabul for Talks.

“And indeed in certain respects we do facilitate that, given that, needless to say, it would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul if ISAF were not witting and therefore aware of it and allows it to take place,”
The Guardian, in its Sunday issue, had some insightful comments about the Clever Mullah from the former Chief of Afghan Intelligence, Amrullah Saleh. Mr. Saleh said that “his agency first vetted the man, who claimed to be a representative of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, one of the highest-ranking figures in the Taliban, in mid-2008, but rejected him after he was unable to prove his credentials.”
Mr. Saleh puts the blame on the Karzai government:
“This became so exciting that even certain figures were thinking of either an Afghan Dayton agreement or Good Friday agreement for Afghanistan,” he said. “It shows the desperation of the leadership in Kabul, detachment from the reality and lack of sophistication on the most sensitive issues.”
And the Guardian also takes a swing at the US and NATO:
Western sources say that the UK did play a role in the debacle, with MI6 acting as a key intermediary because the CIA is not authorised to talk directly with insurgents. However, the decision for the British to proceed was taken by General Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.
And, to end on a light note, Foreign Policy has a nice suggestion on how to avoid these kind of episodes in the future. They have a checklist of how to tell the fake mullahs from the real ones:

10. Keeps asking if the peace talks can be held in the Maldives

9. Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting

8. Introduces himself as “Colonel Iqbal from the ISI”

7. Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul

6. Wife angling for a spot on “The Real Housewives of Kandahar”

5. Claims to be texting Mullah Omar but is actually just playing Angry Birds the whole time

4. Offers to settle Afghan War with a game of Jenga

3. Turban made of an actual towel

2. Wears trench coat, offers to sell the letters O and U

1. Agrees to trade Osama bin Laden for Justin Bieber