Summary: Karzai’s confusing behaviour in blocking the Bilateral Security Agreement evokes historic patterns of previous Afghan rulers
Some good thoughts from The Economist, worth recording and reading in full here:
IT IS hard to say what is most infuriating about Hamid Karzai: his kleptocratic entourage or his profound ingratitude to the Western soldiers whose blood has kept him in power. But his talent for producing the wrong sort of surprises must also be a strong candidate.
A loya jirga, an assembly of some 2,500 Afghan elders, specially convened by Mr Karzai, has voted unanimously for a security pact that provides a legal basis for 8,000-12,000 American and NATO forces to stay in Afghanistan after 2014, when they cease combat operations. But the Afghan president has suddenly decided to imperil the deal, which had been hammered out over many months, by saying that he would not after all be signing it himself. Although he knows the Americans insist on everything being done and dusted by the end of 2013 (so they can start making plans), he now argues that his successor should be the one to sign it, which means waiting till after April’s presidential election. Susan Rice, America’s national security adviser, ended a bad-tempered visit to Kabul last week by saying that, without a prompt signature by Mr Karzai, preparations would begin for the “zero option”—the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan after 2014.
That would be disastrous for Afghanistan. Under the deal, Americans and their allies will “train, assist and advise” Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), who already take the lead in nearly all actions against Taliban insurgents. The Americans’ presence is critical for the logistics, air support, intelligence and “medevac” they provide and for the continued flow of military and development aid. The bulk of the $4 billion needed to sustain the ANSF every year will come from American coffers, while other international donors have promised a similar amount for civil programmes.
Without a security agreement all of this is in jeopardy. The last time a superpower withdrew its army and cut off payments to Afghan forces fighting an active insurgency (Russia, in 1992), the country was ripped apart by a destructive civil war. That prospect is enough to terrify most Afghans. The gains of the past decade in terms of education (especially for girls), health care, a vibrant media, new businesses and the emergence of competent young Afghan professionals could be lost.
Why should Mr Karzai risk that? The old rogue may be trying to hang on to influence until he leaves office. Or it may just be accumulated fury with the Americans. He often paints the war as a conflict between America and the Taliban in which Afghan civilians are the victims. He especially hates raids on Afghan homes by foreign forces. He is cross about the way his allies depict him (“They don’t trust me and I don’t trust them”, he told the loya jirga cheerfully). Above all, he reckons that his country matters too much for the Americans to walk away.
Talk to his successors
Mr Karzai is dangerously overplaying his hand. Most Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan has achieved little, and would be only too happy to be shot of the place. But Mr Karzai is right about one thing. It is not in the West’s interests to allow Afghanistan to fall apart and become once more a base for jihadist extremists. Al-Qaeda, holed up in Pakistan’s tribal badlands, is down but not out. Retaining a counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan is too important for it to be thrown away in a fit of pique. As the loya jirga showed, most Afghans want America to stay; so do the two leading candidates in the presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, a former foreign and finance minister respectively. The Americans should start drawing up plans with them and pro-agreement ministers. Mr Karzai will be gone soon.
Barfield’s excellent “Afghanistan, a cultural and political history” has the following to say about past and future leaders of Afghanistan:
“Rulers whose power rests on the protection of foreign troops were naturally suspect, and the weaker their governments, the greater the risk of rejection…Afghan history portents an unhappy end for such a ruler, whether at the hands of his foreign patrons or his own people…The country’s past suggests that to be successful, such a ruler will need to convince the Afghans that he will not be beholden to foreigners, even as he convinces these very same foreigners to funs his state and military. In the absence of such a figure, and the departure of foreign forces, Afghanistan will not survive as a unitary state. The most likely event in that case would be a sundering of the country along regional lines, since these have always been the true bedrocks of the country.”
This perhaps serves as an explanation for Karzai to some extent (he is leaving soon, after all, and “legacy” might now be more of a concern than survival at this stage) and a warning for the next president. A difficult balancing act…
Summary: Transparency International rate Afghanistan against alongside Somalia and North Korea as equally the most corrupt nations in the world – again. The Asia Foundation opinion poll confirms this as a major concern for the population, right up there with insecurity.
Public Finance International report on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions index:
The three most corrupt countries in the world are Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia, according to the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, published by the Transparency International.
The index, which is based on expert opinions of public sector corruption, ranks countries based on how corrupt their politics, administration and institutions are perceived to be. More than two-thirds of countries around the world scored below 50, on a scale between 0 and 100, with 0 indicating the most corrupt and 100 meaning a very clean government is been run.
Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia all scored 8, this year, with no change from 2012 as the worst performers. I am not entirely sure how the definitions work – I would have had North Korea down as brutal/barking mad dictatorship, but not necessarily corrupt per se…?
By contrast, Pakistan scores 28, Iran 25, Turkmenistan 17, Uzbekistan 17, Tajikistan 22, the UK 76 and Sweden 89.
The recent (officially out today, more on this later) polling by The Asia Foundation highlights the population’s concern over corruption:
this year corruption was the second most frequently mentioned major problem facing Afghanistan as a whole, right after insecurity. Survey results reveal that Afghans see corruption as a major problem in all facets of life and at all levels of government…The situation in which respondents most frequently encountered corruption in the form of an obligation to pay a bribe is when seeking public healthcare services (38%). Around a third of respondents also report encountering corruption when applying for jobs (31%), interacting with the judiciary/courts (33%), receiving official documents (28%) and in dealing with the Afghan National Police (31%). The lowest experience of bribery is recorded for contact with the Afghan National Army (21%).
Summary: SIGAR has highlighted $36Bn spent on a US military headquarters in southern Afghanistan which is apparently not needed. This issue perhaps highlights the problems of long term planning for a future international military presence. Even if a mistake was made, with so many uncertainties (BSA, ANSF capabillities, elections, fighting seasons) it might be better to mothball it “just in case” rather than convert it into a cinema.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) – essentially a US government “watchdog” focusing on the effectiveness (or otherwise) of expenditure of US money in Afghanistan – have come up with another interesting case study:
Washington Post, 4th Dec 2013: Army general’s report defends decision to build $36 million headquarters in Afghanistan
This past summer, the Army began investigating why the military spent nearly $36 million to construct a well-appointed 64,000 square foot headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan that commanders in the area did not want and has never been used.
The two-star Army general in Kabul who conducted the inquiry has determined that the decision to commission the building was appropriate — and recommended that U.S. troops move in, after more work is done on the facility.
“The Army built us an enormous white elephant, and now, to save face, we’re being told to waste more money and time to move into it,” said a senior Marine officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the investigation. “We don’t need it. We’re packing up there.”
The Marine general in charge of the southwest said earlier this year that he wanted to stay out of the giant facility to “end the money drain.”…
…The decision reflected the U.S. Central Command’s “strategic vision” for Afghanistan at the time, which anticipated an “enduring base” in southwestern Afghanistan.
That, however, appears to have been an erroneous assumption. The principal long-term force options the White House is considering — assuming Afghan President Hamid Karzai agrees to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States — do not involve keeping Camp Leatherneck open a year from now.
SIGAR are good at putting a spotlight on inefficient use of money in Aghanistan. The base certainly seems quite a waste if no one is prepared to use it, and I can certainly buy into the notion of administrative failure. But I can’t help thinking – as hinted at in the last paragraph – that this sort of problem might be a symptom of the wider cause. There are inherent difficulties in strategic planning for a foreign military presence in Afghanistan in this 2013 – 2015 period. Even now, the “Zero Option” is still being floated, the US Bilateral Security Agreement remains unresolved and the number and locations of international troops beyond 2014 unclear. We have a potentially volatile and destabilising insurgency. Ditto with the fast approaching electoral process (judging by the 2009 process at any rate). The Afghan Army may have had a “reasonable” fighting season this year (well, no obvious ANSF failures or Taliban successes, anyway) but they will be tested again and again in the coming months and years with less international support. What if they did suffer a reverse or two in the south next year and required the insertion of an ISAF expeditionary force of some sort to stiffen their capabilities?
With so many things up in the air it remains difficult to get the best sense of what is or is not needed now, let alone in 2014 and beyond. If a large international military presence was going to be needed in the south and many other bases being closed down, it is plausible that a large headquarters, consolidating assets and capabilities in one area and minimising the ISAF/foreigners “footprint” was logical at one point. It takes a while to plan, fund and build these sort of military capabilities. An earlier Washington Post report suggested that the HQ was initiated over three years ago. Once you have started, it can often be too costly to halt or reverse. Presumably the condemnations would have been even more damning – and rightly so – if troops were committed to the area after 2014 and facilities were not in place.
Perhaps best not to turn it into a cinema just yet…?
Summary: A DIIS conference of academics specialising in the Taliban highlight the need for more research, the difficulties still lie in understanding the inner workings of the Taliban and the value in looking back at their evolution over the 20 years of their existence. The Taliban are both complex and pragmatic, slowly evolving in several different areas. Their religious rhetoric has toned down and migrated since the early idealism of their birth. They have a complex relationship with criminality (drugs, kidnapping) and have had to make compromises in order to sustain a prolonged insurgency. There are no simple, politican-friendly, solutions for engaging with them but lessons can be learned from their dealings with the international community in the 1990s. Framing the issues correctly is key – how to talk is as important as what to talk about – personal relationships and understanding cultural norms matter greatly.
I attended the Danish Institute for International Studies conference entitled “The Taliban and Afghanistan – Beyond 2014”. It was a topical and highly valuable contribution to the current debate regarding the position of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future direction and included some “premier league” academics, experts and writers: Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn, Michael Semple, Anand Gopal and James Fergusson. Under the Chatham House rules of the day, I will not give the more detailed reading of the individual presentations that I would normally do, but, instead, give an overview of the key themes and issues arising.
Researching the Taliban
What came across quite early on and remained as a theme throughout, was little was still known and understood about the Taliban, even 20 years after the movement emerged. Rigorous academic research was difficult for a range of reasons (security problems, difficulty of accessing individuals, cultural, lack of written info…). There are still major analytical challenges with only a few analysts in-country undertaking this necessary fieldwork. The Taliban are shrouded in secrecy – which, to some extent, they appear to deliberately cultivate. It is still nearly impossible to represent the inner workings of Taliban thinking processes. New sources are only slowly emerging – other Talebs are writing memoirs (and the archive of Taliban radio broadcasts from the 1990s resides in the Radio archives in Kabul). Each speaker, in different ways, underlined how complex the Taliban were and are – major problems have been caused over the years by a failure of the international community to appreciate this and a tendency to crudely categorise them with extreme labels of one kind or another (eg “criminals”, “terrorists”, “religious fanatics”, “proxies of Pakistan”, “intractable”…). Not only this, the speakers noted ways in which the Taliban had evolved in various phases from the early 1990s. Much pragmatism can be observed as the Taliban attempt to deal with the international community and the dilemmas caused as ideological theory clashes with the challenges of governance in the latter part of the 1990s.
Evolution of the Taliban
Speakers noted distinct phases in the development of the Taliban:
94 – 96: a small, localised, ideological group shaped on the front lines in Kandahar fighting the Soviets, acting according to the few things they really understood – how to fight and religious ideology. Talebs like to emphasise this history in preamble – long accounts of individual performance during the jihad, this is important. The Kandahar front of fighters insisted on studying Islam while fighting the Soviets.
96 – 98: rapid expansion, greater interaction with the international community. Taliban greatly disappointed not to be recognised by the IC and treated in the same way as the corrupt warlords that they, from their perspective, were trying to remove.
98 – 01: increasing splits, divisions and internal and external pressures in the 98 – 01 period. Increasing split in foreign policy approaches within the Taliban between Kabul and Kandahar circles over what relationship to have with the UN and the US. There was increasing isolation of the Taliban.
Important to understand the internal structures of the Taliban and why they matter – 2 – 3 different centres of power in the 1990s – Kandahar, Kabul, Mullah Omar.
The Taliban have embraced pragmatic decisions as the years have gone on. The use of religious rhetoric has reduced, following recognition that the loftier ideological aspirations of earlier, Kandahar years just cannot be applied and enforced across the country at present. But, conversely, suicide bombing has increased, once the military benefit of this tactic in an asymmetric conflict became clear.
A significant Taliban dilemma is their relationship with crime – they clearly benefit from kidnapping, opium trafficking, etc. This is partly a function of the pragmatic recognition that funding is needed to maintain a long drawn out insurgency – they would have some major rethinking to do if they were to return to some form of governance.
The criminalisation of part of the Taliban is a challenge for those moral Taliban who want an end to the conflict. The Taliban Centre of Gravity is perhaps still aiming at military victory and few are prepared to take the risk of questioning whether the Jihad should continue.
From 2011 we are starting to see fissuring – splits deepening into formal divisions – perhaps intensified by the issue of peace talks and the US targeting of mid-level Taliban commanders. There may be recognition within the Taliban that the Taliban of the 1990s will never return. Others perhaps still see 2014 as the chance for military victory. The UN have started to note “Black on Black” clashes – fighting between Taliban groups.
Understanding and talking with the Taliban
Interpreting their messages is hard – and they speak to different audiences. Many different groups were engaging with the Taliban in the 1990s, with different approaches and mixed results: South American oil companies, the US, Oxfam, the UN, the Swedish Afghan Committee, the Chinese…
Personal relations matter when engaging with the Taliban – establishing a rapport, working relations, trust. Vendrell scored well by these definitions, Lakhdar Brahimi perhaps not so good. Framing the issue is key – to decide how you will talk about something before you decide what you talk about. Avoid discussing matters of principle and get to specifics – eg don’t lecture the Taliban on healthcare, but extoll the value of a polio vaccination programme. China did well in their discussions with the Taliban, while the US fared worse, being seen as merely presenting a list of demands.
Avoid raised expectations for the outcome of a meeting; don’t expect there necessarily to be a specific, defined, end point to the negotiations; don’t consider a major reversal of progress as a terminal setback, but just keep talking. Publically messaging is unhelpful when negotiations are ongoing. Consider how to evaluate Taliban messaging, bearing in mind they are communicating to different audiences. Oxfam’s talking strategy failed, the Swedish Afghan Committee managed to achieve the establishment of girls schools, the US failed to get the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden, the Chinese seemed to get on well with the Taliban.
The day was fascinating of course, but it was still striking how little real understanding there is – even amongst the highest level of expertise – of the Taliban’s inner workings and complexities. And it was gratifying to hear this problem frankly acknowledged several times during the talks. For example it was suggested that the true role of women in the Pushtun south will only come close to being understood when women academics are prepared to spent 4-5 years undertaking difficult field research within these very closed societies.
The tensions between long-term academic research and the need for simple, politician-friendly recommendations were hinted at. As the problems of talking to the Taliban were discussed, I couldn’t help reflecting that the international community was having similar problems with President Karzai, with recommendations the same – try to understand his mindset as he plays to several audiences, don’t assume that the talks have finished and if all else fails keep talking.
It is clear that the Taliban are not one-dimensional, are slowly evolving and are capable of pragmatic decisions based on circumstance. We still do not have a good sense of what vision the Taliban have for themselves after 2014 – a return to an Emirate and dominance or compromise and working within some form of coalition government? In my view, 5 – 10 years of more fighting looks plausible with both protagonists in the field and willing to continue the fight (assuming the international commnity is prepared to continue bankrolling the Afghan National Security Forces). But my sense is that the Afghan society is evolving at a slightly faster rate, with the Taliban in danger of getting left behind with fewer options for engaging and expressing themselves. Does this then push them into a more extremist corner or do they simply dissolve? Helping to develop an understanding through new research combined with analysis of past lessons is important.
But I also can’t avoid the feeling that the emphasis is still very much on how the West is expected to interact with the Taliban with less consideration given to the role that, amongst others, the Afghan presidency, High Peace Council, parliament, civil society, ethnic and political factions and warlords, both ex- and current might play, both in short-term peace talks and longer-term reconciliation efforts. During one of the conference pauses, I idly imagined the floor of a dusty non-descript compound in a Quetta suburb as a Taleb attempted to deliver a talk to the leadership Shura: “Dealing with the international community beyond 2014: lessons learned”. While Western analytical effort attempts to understand the Taliban, I couldn’t help speculating what measures could be taken to assist the Taliban to understand the West and the changing Afghan society – isn’t it better to build a bridge from both directions?
More research needed.
As a military defeat of the Taliban prior to the NATO pull-out in 2014 seems ever more unlikely, there is increasing openness to thinking about the Taliban as a movement that must be factored in when considering Afghan politics after 2014. This development requires us to abandon the predominant one-dimensional concept of “the enemy” – as tied to earlier military objectives – in order to better understand: How is the Taliban of 2013 different from that of the 1990’s? Which role might the Taliban play over the coming years? Will they negotiate for political power, and over which issues? And could they play a role in stabilizing Afghanistan?
Look at the list of speakers:
- Alex Strick van Linschoten
- Felix Kuehn
- Michael Semple
- James Fergusson
- Anand Gopal
Tomorrow will be a very valuable series of talks addressing a crucial issue and I am quite excited.
So you would do well to keep an eye on the Danish Institute for International Studies as they do put together some consistently good Afghanistan- and Pakistan-related talks.
“Between me and the Americans, there is no good trust. I don’t trust them.” BSA Loya Jirga – the roller coaster ride continues…
Summary: The ongoing Afghan Loya Jirga assembly to endorse a post-2014 US military presence is not a done deal…
The Afghanistan Analysts Network give a very useful sense of the proceedings of the roller-coaster ride that is the ongoing Loya Jirga in Kabul. Kate Clark’s piece is well worth reading in full. The Jirga has been convened with the intention of debating, amending, approving – and, dare we say it, perhaps even signing – the Afghan/US Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). The BSA will define the level and extent of US military engagement in Afghanistan beyond 2014 (for example, and in particular, the numbers and legal status of US troops that might remain in the country after that year). In essence, President Karzai’s keynote speech – in which he was expected forcefully to urge the assembly to endorse the draft agreement – has been assessed as highly lacklustre, with strong hints of unhappiness about the deal. If not an outright rejection, Karzai apparently made his disinterest clear and strongly suggested that the draft should not be signed until after the Presidential elections next year (currently scheduled for April 2014) by his successor.
AAN, 21 November 2013: “The consultative loya jirga, convened to scrutinise the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, has begun with a draft that was only agreed at the very last minute, confusion over the exact status and proceedings of the gathering and a lacklustre speech by President Karzai. The president made little attempt to really sell the agreement to the 2500 delegates; he mentioned some benefits, criticised the Americans and, with little passion or conviction, said it was up to the jirga to decide whether to support it or not”
Some international effort will be required to clarify what is going on. A further delay to the signing of the BSA is understood to be unacceptable to the US.
“This is not just the killing of one person, it’s the death of all peace efforts,” Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said.
Pakistan summoned the US ambassador to protest over Friday’s drone strike that killed Mehsud. It came a day before a Pakistani delegation had been due to fly to North Waziristan to meet Mehsud. Hakimullah Mehsud was killed a day before Pakistani officials say they were scheduled to send a three-member team to start peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a local TV news channel, Geo, that the drone strike was an attempt to “sabotage” Pakistan’s peace talks with Taliban.
But many believe Mehsud’s death will leave the field open for groups that are known to have publicly favoured a rapprochement with Pakistan.
Contemplating the impact of the death by drone of the Pakistani Taliban’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, I was reminded of the response Ahmed Rashid gave to me two years ago when I asked what the impact would be of the death of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He made the following observations:
- The death of Mullah Omar would be detrimental to the peace process – if you eliminate him the Taleban fragment.
- All major Taleban policy decisions need the blessing of Mullah Omar, if he is dead, there is no one to bless a peace agreement.
- Other insurgent leaders (Haqqani?) have signed allegiance to Omar, this allegiance would probably disappear if Omar died.
- Also the killing of many mid-level commanders makes a peace process very difficult – “who do you talk to?”
- The death of Omar fragments the Taleban and keeps Afghanistan unstable.