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Afghanistan

Tag Archives | Afghanistan

Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer

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President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

This old cliché is still apropos in President Barrack Obama’s saber-rattling standoff with President Vladimir Putin.

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

In Europe last week Mr. Obama said that Russia was a declining “regional power.” In seizing Crimea, Mr. Putin was expanding Russia’s influence over Ukraine–part of the lost former Soviet Empire–was the inference. I am sure Mr. Putin is still fuming over those remarks. For the U.S. the annexation of Crimea is not a national security threat as was the Cold War era. Containing Russia’s further incursion into Ukraine is important however the most pressing foreign security issues are the control of Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical stockpile. Mr. Putin is the key to both issues.

Mr. Obama needs to spend time with Mr. Putin, to better understand his goals–at least his thinking. The Crimea takeover could have been averted. Reversing its integration into the Russian Empire probably will not happen. Western allies wringing their hands and seeking punishing sanctions will not change the takeover. What we don’t want to do is push Mr. Putin into annexing Ukraine. This would begin a more regional conflict and draw in neighboring countries.

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Not a new Cold War

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"If at this moment it has been decided to invade the Ameer's territory, we are acting in pursuance of a policy which in its intention has been uniformly friendly to Afghanistan"

Suddenly the talk is of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, as Crimea is quietly written off as “lost” for the foreseeable future and the diplomatic focus moves to preventing a further—and potentially devastating—move into eastern Ukraine.

“If at this moment it has been decided to invade the Ameer’s territory, we are acting in pursuance of a policy which in its intention has been uniformly friendly to Afghanistan”

While an understandable metaphor, though, this is a dangerous one. The Cold War, for all its brinkmanship and proxy conflicts, was a relatively stable and even rules-bound process. Instead, in this new “hot peace,” perhaps a better, if less comfortable analogy would be the Great Game, that (since mythologized) nineteenth-century era of imperial rivalry over Central Asia between Britain and Russia,, the freewheeling nineteenth-century struggle for authority in Central Asia.

One of the particular characteristics of the original Great Game was that there was little real distinction between the instruments of conventional conflict and competition such as wars, diplomatic missions and treaties and those of the informal realm, from subsidized bandit chieftains to third-party intelligence freelancers.

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Afghanistan’s Day of Truth

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Afghan women register to vote during a meeting in the Tarnek Wa Jaldek district in Zabul province, Afghanistan, Sept. 18, 2013

Thomas Paine once quipped that “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.” In a similar vein, a nation once awakened politically cannot revert back to dormancy.

Afghan women register to vote during a meeting in the Tarnek Wa Jaldek district in Zabul province, Afghanistan, Sept. 18, 2013

Despite decades of war and ravage, Afghanistan, while still continuing to suffer from all sorts of injustices, afflictions, and violence, is on the march toward democratization. Yesterday – April 5, 2014 – the country convulsed with exhilaration and jubilance, as millions of Afghans sallied toward the polling stations to elect their new president.

The current situation cannot be disregarded: the country is still swelling with uncertainty, owing to the American troops’ exodus later this year. However, the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the alacrity of Afghans to show up at the polls in the face of personal dangers furnish me with hope for a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Afghanistan. From all across the country, men and women, old and young came out to perform their civic duty and vote for their favorite candidate.

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Marshal Fahim’s Death will not Affect Afghanistan’s Political Stability

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Marshal Fahim pictured with former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in Kabul

Afghanistan’s first Vice President Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim passed away a few days ago, March 9th, 2014 of natural causes. Reports say that he died of a heart attack.

Marshal Fahim pictured with former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in Kabul

Mr. Fahim was a complex political figure. A native of the Panjshir Valley, he joined the late Commander Ahmad Shah Masoud in the fight against the Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan in the 1970s. Having established himself as a fierce fighter, he continued his struggle against the Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan in the 1990s as Commander Masoud’s top deputy. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, and with Commander Masoud having been assassinated by al-Qaeda on September 9, 2001, Fahim emerged as a crucial force in helping the United States remove the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001.

His sudden death has prompted many Afghan leaders and prominent politicians to believe that with Fahim gone, Afghanistan’s instability will intensify. Those writing about the vice president’s passing are too kind to him. Society often looks very kindly upon the dead, regardless of their actions while they were alive. Fahim was a corrupt politician, lacking scruples and integrity.

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Iran and Pakistan – It’s complicated

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Photo of Iranian guards at a border crossing in southeastern Iran’s Milak region which borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Source: Press TV

The recent kidnapping of 5 Iranian soldiers serving along Iran’s border with Pakistan, and their subsequent alleged captivity in Pakistani territory has shed light on the complex relationship between the two states.

Photo of Iranian guards at a border crossing in southeastern Iran’s Milak region which borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Source: Press TV

With western media analysis firmly focused on continued negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme and Pakistan’s internal troubles, there is little written about the relations between the two neighbours who share a 900km border running through the heart of the Baluchi cultural region. This is a relationship that contains myriad complexities and the potential for conflict and cooperation, ranging from tackling Baluchi separatism and drug trafficking to pipeline politics, Afghanistan and the ever present spectre of US and Saudi interests in the Middle East and beyond.

Despite the complexities, relations have been good up until now, showing the pragmatism of both states and the importance both place on the relationship. However, the recent comments of Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, who has threatened unilateral action inside Pakistani territory as a means of maintaining Iran’s security and that of its soldiers serving along the border, demonstrate the potential for a rupture and the necessity for pragmatism to prevail.

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The Case for the U.S. Staying in Afghanistan beyond 2014

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A U.S. soldier speaks to a local in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters

The war in Afghanistan has been expensive. Thousands of American lives have been lost, and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are still being spent there on a daily basis.

A U.S. soldier speaks to a local in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters

My hope is that this war – the longest in American history – will teach the next generation of foreign policy leaders a few lessons about conflicts and foreign interventions. However, this war was necessary. Those behind the terrorist attacks of September 11 had to be brought to justice, and they have been. Moreover, for Afghanistan to become a stable, democratic, and prosperous country, the United States must continue its involvement in the country because the consequences of a sudden withdrawal would be cataclysmic.

The Obama administration knows this well, of course. This is why Secretary of State John Kerry and other high-ranking officials have been visiting Kabul frequently in recent months. We do not have to wait to see what would happen in Afghanistan if the American troops were to leave; the fallout from the Iraq withdrawal provides a sufficient cautionary tale. To say that Iraq is unstable is to state what is overwhelmingly obvious. The sectarian tension between the Shia and Sunni insurgents in Iraq has intensified to such a degree that it is threatening the survival of the current democratic regime. Certainly, hope has not died in Iraq, and most likely, the nation’s ample resources and great potential for economic growth will eventually enable the country to recover from its present instability. However, it is abundantly clear that the withdrawal of U.S. troops has greatly compromised the country’s ability to weather political shocks.

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A New Great Game in Central Asia?

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Drillers from Central Asian Mining Services collect samples from the North Aynak mineral zone outside Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Alexandra Zavis/Los Angeles Times

Is there a new “Great Game” springing into existence in Central Asia?

Drillers from Central Asian Mining Services collect samples from the North Aynak mineral zone outside Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Alexandra Zavis/Los Angeles Times)

Drillers from Central Asian Mining Services collect samples from the North Aynak mineral zone outside Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Alexandra Zavis/Los Angeles Times

Many pundits and journalists who write on the region and its global importance argue that there is. In fact, after the Cold War and the birth of the five republics of Central Asia, this debate has dominated much of the analysis of the region. Just in Afghanistan alone, its mineral wealth could prove to be invaluable. Nathan William Meyer observed in International Policy Digest in 2012, that “Afghanistan’s mineral resources are hard to underestimate and current projections border on the hyperbolic. In June, 2010, the Pentagon confirmed reports that Afghanistan’s massive deposits could make it a major world producer of iron and copper. The lithium deposits in Ghanzi Province may rival Bolivia’s for the title of world’s largest. The country’s Samti gold deposit is estimated to hold 20-24 metric tons and according to the US Geological Survey a single million ton deposit of rare earth elements (REE) in Helmand Province gives Afghanistan the world’s sixth largest REE reserves.”

Captain Arthur Conolly, a British officer of the Sixth Bengal Native Light Cavalry, coined the concept of the ‘Great Game’ in the 1830’s. Later, the English writer Rudyard Kipling immortalized the concept in his 1901 novel Kim. In basic terms, the Great Game was simply a struggle for power, territorial control, and political dominance between the Russian and British Empires in Central Asia in the nineteenth century. This competition of maneuvering and intrigue between the two empires came to an end in 1907, when both nations were forced to focus their resources on more serious threats. The British had to gear up and contain the rise of an assertive Germany in Europe, and the Russians were locked in a fierce struggle with the Japanese in Manchuria.

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Afghan Artist Meena Saifi Explains her Craft

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Afghan artist Meena Saifi

What is art? It depends whom you ask. Tolstoy wrote that the activity and aim of art was to “evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling.”

Afghan artist Meena Saifi

An artist’s task is not only to communicate his/her own feelings to a wider world, but also the sufferings and pains of those in society. John Galsworthy in his essay on “Art” defined it as “that imaginative expression of human energy, which through technical concretion of feeling and perception, tends to reconcile the individual with the universal, by exciting in him impersonal emotion.” Above all, it is this quality (linking the individual’s experience with the universal) that has rendered art perpetual in our cultural and social existence. Like poetry, there are many definitions of art. While there may be differences in what it means to different people, its power, its ability to move people, and its capacity for igniting feelings of freedom, love, and hope remain firm in us.

Like a great thinker, an artist possesses the ability to unleash uproar in society. Quoting the man who inspired him to pursue philosophy, Nietzsche wrote, “Beware, ‘says [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, ‘when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.’” Artists too exercise such authority in society. Perhaps this has to do with their desire to question calcified traditions. Through their artwork, they raise questions that society considers taboo, radical, and detrimental to social conventions.

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Demographic Difficulties Facing Post-ISAF Afghanistan

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Local Afghans in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan

With the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in Afghanistan winding down attention is increasingly turning to what future lies ahead for the country once it is basically on its own.

Local Afghans in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan

Not surprisingly most attention and speculation is revolving around security and stability questions. Obviously the political/security landscape will be a key determinant of the country’s trajectory over the coming years. However, that will not be the whole story. Other factors will also pose major challenges. Among the most important of these will be demographic pressures. These frequently get lost in the focus on political/security issues, but will be critical. Indeed they will closely impact political/security outcomes.

Central will be the inevitable large population growth that will occur over the coming decades. The latest population projections (medium variant) produced by the United Nations see the current estimated population of 30-31 million people likely growing by around 9 million people over the next dozen years, and then a further 17 or so million by mid-century. In short, not far off a doubling of the population in less than 40 years.

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Review of Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan by Klassen and Albo

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‘Empire's Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan’ by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo. 432 pp. University of Toronto Press

“There is a growing consensus among international relations experts that the war in Afghanistan has reached an impasse or possibly a terminal point of crisis.” – Jerome Klassen

‘Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan’ by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo. 432 pp. University of Toronto Press

Americans tend to think of Canadians as politer and more sensible than their southern neighbors, thus the joke: “Why does the Canadian chicken cross the road? To get to the middle.” Oh, yes, bit of a muddle there in Afghanistan, but like Dudley Do Right, the Canadians were only trying to develop and tidy up the place. Not in the opinion of Jerome Klassen and a formidable stable of academics, researchers, journalists, and peace activists who see Canada’s role in Central Asia less as a series of policy blunders than a coldly calculated strategy of international capital. “Simply put,” writes Klassen, “the war in Afghanistan was always linked to the aspirations of empire on a much broader scale.”

Empire’s Ally asks the question, “Why did the Canadian government go to war in Afghanistan in 2001?” and then carefully dissects the popular rationales: fighting terrorism; coming to the aid of the United States; helping the Afghans to develop their country. Oh, and to free women. What the book’s autopsy of those arguments reveals is disturbing.

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Making Sense of the Recent Suicide Attack in Kabul

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U.S. soldier  provides security from Camp Oqab in Kabul, Afghanistan

Three decades of war and destruction have destroyed the fabric of Afghan society, but one quality that has characterized Afghans throughout their tumultuous history is their resilience, or ability to develop ongoing strategies for survival.

U.S. soldier provides security from Camp Oqab in Kabul, Afghanistan

I have previously painted a very bleak future about the security environment in Afghanistan and concluded that if the US discontinues its engagement with Afghanistan, the country could easily devolve into a brutal civil war. At present, there is an aura of unprecedented uncertainty and confusion pervading the country which is why so many groups and factions, inside and outside of Afghanistan, are gearing up for what is to come. The truth is that no one knows what will happen in an Afghanistan where there is no United States, no NATO troops, no international aid. I asked a friend of mine whose brother is President Karzai’s national security adviser about what his brother thought would happen after the exodus of American troops. His response was startling: “He is more flabbergasted about the future than the ordinary people.” This is a scary situation given that Afghanistan’s economy is in shambles and desperately needs all the help it can receive to develop in multiple spheres in the decades to come.

The recent suicide attack on the Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, which claimed the lives of 21 people, including the head of the International Monetary Fund in Afghanistan, illustrated how fragile the security climate is. However, this barbaric and tragic event has been misinterpreted, in particularly by Nemat Sadat, a former instructor at the American University in Kabul. Mr. Sadat argues in “Why the Taliban Attacked the Taverna du Liban in Kabul” that the Taliban targeted these individuals because they were “the leading figures calling for reform and ready to take measures to dismantle the institutionalized corruption and system of kleptocracy in Afghanistan.” He talks as if these four UN workers were the sine quo non for the elimination of corruption in Afghanistan. The truth is that like every other major malpractice in Afghanistan, corruption is well-established; its removal will take decades of effort and consistent oversight.

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What Happened to a Terrorist Corporation?

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Tracking Al Qaeda's financing is a complicated process

“For money is the oxygen of terrorism. Without the means to raise and move money around the world, terrorists cannot function.” – Colin Powell

Tracking Al Qaeda’s financing is a complicated process

Al Qaeda thrived on plenty of oxygen. We imagine them as a rag-tag jihadi gang laundering money from any black market sympathetic to their Islamic state – charities, mosques, cartels, or rich relatives. If this image is in any way reality, then Al Qaeda’s more consistent ransoming, such as the kidnapping of a South African couple Yolande and husband Pierre Korkie, seems like just another sleazy scheme. But, the reality of the financial structure of Al Qaeda is too banal to imagine: it has been fueled through a diversified portfolio of investments, investors, money transferred through banks, and employment – of the legal kind.

In other words, Al Qaeda dollars have been funneling through the same monetary system David Cameron uses to buy his silk blue ties. In this regard, it has been analogized by Western media to a “multinational corporation.” In an interview from September 28, 2001, Osama bin Laden stated, “Al Qaeda is comprised of such modern educated youths who are aware of the cracks inside the Western financial system.” If they are so well aware of these cracks, then why is ransoming increasing? Al Qaeda’s increase in kidnapping shows they are desperately gasping for oxygen.

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Why the Taliban Attacked the Taverna du Liban in Kabul

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An officer with the Afghan National Police at a checkpoint in Kabul. Photo: Mauricio Lima

Last Friday’s Taliban attack in Kabul, Afghanistan was the deadliest attack (on foreigners) in the last twelve years inside Kabul’s highly guarded Ring-of-Steel. Last year, a number of attacks in Kabul left countless dead.

An officer with the Afghan National Police at a checkpoint in Kabul. Photo: Mauricio Lima

Behind the tragedy that claimed the lives of 21 people (including the IMF head and several UN officials), there is a deeper story everyone must know. I was a frequent visitor of Taverna du Liban during the time I lived in Afghanistan. These locales catering to affluent Afghans and expats have never been on the radar of the Taliban. Why? Because the owners of these establishments pay a monthly “bribe” to corrupt Afghan police who then indirectly purchase a security guarantee from the Taliban to remove these locations from targeted hit lists. (Recently the New York Times wrote about Afghan police who have not been paid since last November). In 2010, the western media reported on how USAID indirectly paid the Taliban billions not to attack incoming logistical convoys traveling from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

So what is happening now? According to Afghan officials, pro-Pakistani ISI Afghans have embedded themselves in the central government in Kabul. While the US and international forces are running for the exits, these Afghans are desperately trying to secure their future in a post-2014 Afghanistan. Pro-Pakistan Afghans appear on the surface to be pro-Western but they have robbed American taxpayers and Afghans while simultaneously working with Pakistan. Why? They are buying an insurance policy to make sure they remain in power if and when the Taliban retake Afghanistan. This is a deadly strategy. How ironic that last Friday’s Taliban attack was more precise than a surgical drone attack by the Americans. It wasn’t just a random coincidence. The identity and itinerary of the victims were relayed and the killings were well orchestrated with pinpoint precision.

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Karzai’s Delay on Security Agreement Causing Confusion and Concern in Kabul

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul

The prolonged and unpredictable saga of President Karzai’s dealing with the Afghan-U.S. Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) has left many confused and concerned.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul

Confused because they cannot understand President Karzai’s rationale in refusing to sign the agreement and concerned because they understand the benefit of a long-term agreement with the U.S. The longer President Karzai stalls, the more pronounced both the confusion and concern will become. Afghanistan is at a strategic inflection point. If President Karzai fails to act, others might and the U.S. may simply just lose interest.

The lion’s-share of Afghans appear to want the BSA signed as evidenced by the Consultative Loya Jirga and many simply do not understand President Karzai’s rationale. They are also disappointed that he is not making any real effort to explain himself. Top Afghan leaders are pressing him and the Obama administration has backed off its 31 December 2013 deadline believing he will ultimately see reason and sign. Senior American military officials are worried about the loss of cumulative gains against the Taliban resulting from a U.S. withdrawal and there is evidence of reducing U.S. support for the idea.

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Afghanistan, the Sequel?

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Afghan villagers in Helmand province

The Loya Jirga confirmed through the Bilateral Security Agreement the Afghan intent to have a longer security relationship with the United States and has put into doubt any thoughts of a wholesale U.S. pullout in 2014.

Afghan villagers in Helmand province

It seems clear what the Afghans want although it is less clear why President Karzai is stalling before signing the agreement despite pressure from many U.S. officials. What should the response of the Obama administration be to Karzai’s dithering? President Karzai wants Afghanistan secured by the U.S. military before the deal is finalized. He is referring to the Taliban influence, which is quite substantial in many parts of the country.

Before considering any prolonged U.S. engagement our ultimate goals in Afghanistan and any options other than military should be explored. In a paper in March of 2011 I suggested three approaches to help the Afghans repair their country: enemy-centric, people-centric and leader-centric.

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