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Taliban call to reject and resist elections.

March 13, 2014

Summary: Taliban state the Afghan presidential elections are rigged and must be rejected and resisted by all Afghans.  They are unlikely to achieve a significant disruption to the ballot (due 5th April).

Photos of Afghan maps 006In case there was any doubt, the Taliban have come out with a strong line against Afghan participation in the Afghan presidential elections, due to take place (and still seemingly on track) on 5th April.  The Taliban’s official statement hits three themes:

  • The election is a con because it is all being rigged by the US to “install a head of state who appears Afghan but will have an American mentality”
  • All educated and prominent Afghans – scholars, elders etc – must denounce the election
  • All aspects of the election must be “disrupted” by the Taliban: “use all force at its disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections; target all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices”

Interestingly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of one of the other two insurgent groups, has called upon his own supporters to take part in the election and vote for Qutbuddin Helal, a senior Hekmatyar loyalist.

The Taliban’s reminder of the risks of collateral damage comes last:

Taliban flag“We once again call on all of our countrymen to keep away from electoral offices, voting booths, rallies and campaigns so that may Allah forbid, their lives are not put into danger. If anyone still persists on participating then they are solely responsible of any loss in the future.”

Dr Abdullah Abdullah’s election camapign started badly when two of his campaign officials were killed.  Further to this, in a previous report I noted Michael Semple’s assessment that the Taliban, although opposed to the elections, still watched the process with great interest and internal discussion, with actual actions to be taken to disrupt the election a little unclear and open to the interpretation of local commanders – not everyone is going to be blowing people up.  Unless the Taliban get very lucky, it remains difficult to see them preventing the election from taking place or even significantly disrupting it.

Vice President Fahim Khan dies of natural causes…

March 9, 2014

Fahim Khan

Need to think about implications in slower time.  Don’t think this radically changes anything:

 

BBC One of Afghanistan’s two vice-presidents, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, has died of natural causes aged 57, a government spokesman has said.

The Afghan government has called for three days of mourning, during which flags will be flown at half-mast.

Marshal Fahim was a leader of the Tajik ethnic minority and a former warlord.

He was part of the alliance that ousted the Taliban in 2001 and served first as defence minister, before becoming vice-president in 2009.

President Hamid Karzai’s office told the Associated Press news agency that Marshal Fahim died from an illness.

The war continues (only less noticed than before): Afghan security force casualties are higher than 13,000

March 7, 2014

Summary: Afghan army and police casualties are high – over 13,000

ANSF mass funeralIn case anyone doubted the level of combat still ongoing inside Afghanistan, now that US, UK and other ISAF forces are more or less confined to barracks and packing up, the Afghan MOD has released figures significantly higher than previous estimates – note that numbers of wounded are an extra 16,500:

New York Times, 3rd March 2014:

KABUL, Afghanistan — More than 13,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed during the war here, far more than previously known, according to Afghan government statistics.

Most of those losses occurred during the past three years as Afghan forces took over a growing share of the responsibility for security in the country, culminating in full Afghan authority last spring.

The numbers also reflect an increased tempo to the conflict. More clashes have taken place as insurgents test the government forces, without as much fear of intervention from the American-led coalition as it prepares to withdraw.

A statement released late Sunday by President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, the Council of Ministers, put the total number of people in the Afghan security forces killed in the past 13 years at 13,729, with an additional 16,511 Afghan soldiers and police officers wounded.

Overrunning isloated checkpoints and positions remain a favoured Taliban tactic.  We should note also the potential for higher levels of casualties in specific incidents, given an Afghan military tendency to prefer to hunker down in outposts rather get out and “dominate the ground”:

The Guadian, 23rd February 2014:

The Taliban killed 21 Afghan soldiers on Sunday at a remote outpost near the border with Pakistan, and took at least five others prisoner, in a show of military strength just weeks before a critical election.

The night raid was one of the deadliest single attacks in recent years on the Afghan military, who are stronger and more disciplined than the police and less often targeted directly by insurgents.   Five other soldiers taken prisoner in show of strength against Afghan army just weeks ahead of critical election

We should also remember some pretty sickening stories about the treatment (or lack of) given to wounded Afghan soldiers:

Digital journal, 29th July 2012: A Congressional investigation has uncovered “horrifying” details about a US-funded military hospital in Afghanistan in which patients were kept in what was described as “Auschwitz-like” conditions. A US House subcommittee heard shocking testimony of conditions at the Dawood Miltiary Hospital in Afghanistan. According to Buzzfeed, the allegations include bribery and surgery without anesthesia. Top retired US military officials also made the grave allegation that there was an attempt to block the investigation into conditions at the hospital. According to Rep. Jason Chafetz (R-Utah), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations, the standard of medical care at the hospital was one of the most “horrific, horrendous things I’ve ever seen.” He said: “Allowing surgery to go on without anesthetics, gangrene, open wounds that aren’t being dressed.”

Combat is likely to intensify in and around the coming election period.  Although the Taliban will not be able to stop the election taking place, there will be efforts to undermine, derail or prevent voting taking place across the country.

Semple, Taliban, elections…

February 6, 2014

Summary: Michael Semple paper highlights standard Taliban rejections of the election and the prospect of increasing violence as a result.  But the Taliban are also watching the process with interest.  Might 2019 see a Taliban candidate test their popularity?

Semple paper, Taliban electionsAn interesting short paper from Michael Semple looking at the likely position of the Taliban on the upcoming Afghan presidential elections.  His conclusions as follows:

  • The Taliban publically reject the legitimacy of the elections and call upon its commanders inside the country to disrupt them
  • But the Taliban take interest in electoral developments and monitor it closely
  • The Taliban will be able to increase attacks during the election period but will be unable to derail it

Semple has a long track record of engagement inside Afghanistan and is always worth reading.  When deputy EU Special Representative, he was famously thrown out of the country by President Karzai for talking members of the Taliban in 2007.  He appears to retain strong personal contacts within members and associates of the Taliban

There are no surprising revelations in his useful piece but his analysis of the distinction between the official rhetoric and the reality of Taliban interest in the electoral process is worth thinking about.  He highlights the differing views amongst the diverse commanders on the ground and the friction between “pragmatists and hardliners”.

“Despite the robust top-level rejection of the process, comments from many Taliban leaders and mid-level officials suggested that they follow the election process with interest and curiosity through broadcast media…The most prevalent view among the Taliban, that the Americans will pick the winning candidate, is a belief shared by many non-Taliban Afghans as well…A former senior minister gave a Shariat-based defense of the institution of elections but lamented that the presence of foreign troops robbed the process of legitimacy.”

The Taliban still have dilemmas over how many civilians they should kill in order to achieve the official goal of disrupting the elections.

“Some eastern field commanders expressed dissent about this guidance – not because they favour the elections, but because their operating ability depends upon maintaining local popular consent”.

An increase in violence, Semple suggests, will likely have the impact of reducing voting in the south and east, lessening slightly the chances of the Pushtun candidates who depend upon these areas for their voting base.

In the last few months the other main insurgent group, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) have indicated that they will be advising their supporters to take part in the election and vote for a HIG-approved candidate (although they have yet to state who they favour).   This is possibly a half-way move towards future political re-engagement.  The parallel with the Taliban is not precise – HIG were an organised Afghan political party before the Taliban were born – but the Taliban may well also look sideways at HIG and see how this plays out.  With the infidels likely departed by the time of the next Presidential election – due in 2019 – perhaps we might see Taliban candidates venturing to test their popularity with the ballot box vice the gun next time round?

They might find testing their policies and popularity levels in full public gaze a bit of a shock…

Killing sports players in Afghanistan?

January 26, 2014

Summary: A possible new trend in the killing of sports players in Afghanistan?

Photos of Afghan maps 006No sooner are the words “new trend” scribbled or uttered in the context of violence in Afghanistan, then they are either immediately disproved or nothing else happens for months.  I saw this report and wondered what it might mean:

Khaama Press, Sun Jan 26 2014: Unknown gunmen shot dead two young men while they were returning from a sports complex in north-eastern Takhar province of Afghanistan.  According to local security officials in Takhar province, the two young men were shot dead by unknown gunmen in Cha’ab district.  Santullah Temori, spokesman for the provincial police commandment, confirming the report, said Afghan security forces have launched investigations to arrest those involved behind the incident.  This comes as militants carried out at least two attacks on young men who were busy with the sports games in southern and eastern Afghanistan.   At least three young men who were playing football were killed after militants attacked a football ground in Maiwand district of Kandahar province earlier last week.   Gunmen also assassinated five young men in eastern Laghman province of Afghanistan while they were playing volleyball.   The incident in Laghman province took place on Thursday in Alingar district, after a group of unknown gunmen opened fire on the boys in the playground.

No group has so far claimed responsibility behind the incidents.

No idea on this one – a coincidence of incidents?  Otherwise, the Taliban had a reputation for banning all manner of sports inside Afghanistan during the 1990s (kite flying being the obvious one).  A trend might suggest some confident assertion of extreme Taliban-style values?  One to watch…?

Red lines and the Taliban

January 24, 2014

Summary: A Taliban suicide attack on a restaurant in Kabul kills twenty civilians.  Can an enforceable red line be drawn against future Taliban behaviour?

No red line here...

No red line here…

On Friday 17th January, the Taliban attacked the Lebanese restaurant, La Taverna du Liban, in the middle of the diplomatic quarter in central Kabul.  They directed a suicide bomber against the gates to blow them down, followed up by two gunmen to kill anyone they could find in the compound.   In a matter of minutes, they killed twenty Afghan and international civilians.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network has provided one of the best (and very timely) pieces of analysis of this incident, including details of the scene inside the restaurant, together with the statements from the Taliban themselves.  The Taliban claim that the attack was a reprisal for an incident two days earlier where a joint ISAF/Afghan army combat operation reportedly killed a number of Afghan civilians.

I have some analytical points to make regarding the attack:

  • Like the AAN, I am sceptical that the Taliban have the capability to put together a moderately complex operation – including essential prior reconnaissance – so quickly.  It seems more likely that they have pulled in a recent ISAF/ANSF incident potentially involving civilians in order to act as partial justification for the deaths of the civilians that they were planning, in anticipation of the popular backlash against such an attack.
  • I also sense that, in order to maintain a flow of high media-profile incidents in the capital city, the Taliban are having to find “softer” targets – restaurants, civilians, etc – because Kabul is now highly protected and those doing the protecting are becoming increasingly experienced at responding to and dealing with such insurgent operations.  The nature of the Taliban attacks are, dare I say, quite predictable, even if not always preventable.  Is it proof that the Taliban are struggling to sustain operations?
  • Finally – and leading on to the next part of my piece – Taliban terror attacks are not particularly new.  If it does represent a shift in tactics (presumably in the sense that the Taliban are becoming more extreme and inclined towards terror), it is a shift that has been evident for some years.  Over the years they have attacked hotels, schools, teachers, aid workers, internet cafes, the Red Cross, civilian NGOs, supermarkets, restaurants, sporting events (Kandahar wrestling match in 2007, 21 Afghans killed), mosques and the Koran and assassinated the senior member of the High Peace Council.  Many of these attacks have included foreigners.  I’m detecting an unpleasant pattern here…

But the purpose of this piece is to take up a comment, or rather an expression, that Kate Clark used in her piece and throw it open for questions and discussion.

The title of the AAN piece started off with “Another Red Line Crossed…”,  and I wanted to ask what “Red Line” means here, in the context of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.

Q: What happens when a red line is crossed?

A: Nothing

What does “red line” mean?  What should it mean, if anything?  Does it mean unacceptable and illegal behaviour that when it takes place, should be confronted, punished or sanctioned in some way?  And I mean beyond “standard” messages of condemnation.  The AAN have perhaps put their finger on a key problem – the international community and Afghan government have no red lines, no “teeth”, or credibility.  They do not even attempt to draw lines in the sand (I am mixing my metaphors here).  Even if “Red Lines” or “Lines in the Sand” were drawn, they would likely be worthless which, once crossed, would mean nothing and go unenforced.

Perhaps this is recognised and understood by the insurgents at some level and causing the Taliban to conclude that:

  • The international community and the Afghan government are not credible and
  • are so desperate to get the Taliban to the table than almost any Taliban behaviour can be tolerated (eg Rabbani, Head of HPC, was killed by Taliban in a suicide attack in Sept 2011)
  • A small and unintended civilian casualty incident caused by the ISAF forces is much more likely to be criticised by the IC and the Afghan government than any intentional large-scale killing of civilians that the Taliban could do
  • Talks will be conducted how and when the Taliban decide and it will be about returning some form of power to the Taliban

But the main question is whether there are steps that could or should be taken by way of “punishing” the Taliban for the actions?

Can anything be done?  How do you punish the Taliban?  Are we treading too softly around the Taliban?  Can we do anything to signal that they do not have it all their own way?  A quick brainstorm of options reveals not much of any help:

  • Military options?  Increase drones, new surge?  Not very likely or practical
  • Political sanctions? No options? Maybe a UN announcement (website?) that goes beyond condemnation, messaging that the Taliban are looking less like a group that could get involved in running a country (in whatever fashion) – raise issue of war crimes?
  • Social sanctions? No options
  • Economic sanctions? No options
  • Indict for war crimes? Maybe
  • Withhold political dialogue for a defined period?

Would stopping dialogue achieve anything useful?

I think that perhaps the last idea could be explored further.  What would happen if the Afghan government, with the backing of the UN, the US and the rest of the international community were to announce that dialogue with the Taliban will be stopped for a year.  All resources will be put into the ANSF and the counter-insurgency campaign.  Anyone wanting to reconcile individually is still welcome.  Perhaps a tougher version of this would be to say that no dialogue will be initiated until the Taliban prove that they are genuinely interested.

In effect, the Afghan government states that Taliban will just have to do their worst (which they are doing anyway), whilst stressing that they will be killing many Afghan civilians.  The message will be “good luck with your fighting season but the ANSF is stronger and more effective and more experienced as each month goes by…”

Dialogue looks stalled anyway and the Taliban have made little in the way of credible gestures of intent.  The Taliban gained much publicity and profile by announcing they were stopping talks (in March 2012)

Is it possible that international community and the Afghan government might claw back a little bit of credibility – and therefore get taken a little more seriously by Taliban. Perhaps by seizing the initiative the international community and the Afghan government benefits by putting the Taliban on the reactive back foot?  They generally find this uncomfortable and might cause them to reflect.

More questions than answers…

At the moment the red lines do not appear to exist.  But perhaps the international community, in conjunction with the Afghan government, could give thought to this issue, rather than merely ticking off “Another Red Line Crossed” each time.  Maybe proactively announcing an actual “red line” – for example “next time a suicide attack kills civilians we will suspend talks from all quarters” – might be helpful.  Perhaps some credibility is gained – for the benefit of future dialogue efforts – if the Taliban might understand the negotiations will not be dictated purely by them – and regardless of their behaviour…?

There is surely psychological power to be had in the Taliban confronting a year of further combat without respite.  Even more so if the messaging strongly pushes the idea that, for example, the ANSF are preparing for a 10 year campaign (at least) and the Afghan people have decided that they do not want to reconcile with the Taliban – at least to have these idea floated in the media… perhaps backed with a shift in focus to talk more to Hezb-e Islami dialogue regarding their return to Afghan politics with some form of reconciliation.  Losing a year of dialogue that will, in all likelihood, be of limited value anyway – is it worth a small short term loss for a longer-term gain?

So the questions for discussion perhaps look like this:

  • Are there Red Lines for unacceptable Taliban behaviour?
  • Should there be?
  • How would a Red Line be phrased, monitored and applied?
  • What Taliban behaviour would trigger a Red Line? (chemical weapons? mass casualties? civilian airliner shot down? killing the president?)
  • What sanctions could effectively be directed at the Taliban?
  • What would the impact be of suspending talks with the Taliban?
  • Would there be any benefit in suspending (or threatening to suspend) talks as a sanction against the Taliban?

I am very much of the opinion that, ultimately, political dialogue is the only long-term way forward.  But, if one side is able to act with impunity, without fear of consequence or the need to make plausible gestures or concessions towards dialogue, perhaps the dialogue – and the final settlement – is always going to be badly distorted.

Anyone got any thoughts?

Prospects for 2014

January 16, 2014

Photos of Afghan maps 006Summary: Talk of “deadlines” and “endgames” are unhelpful.  With the exception of an electoral transfer of presidential power (Dr Abdullah will likely be the next president), few of the major “issues” facing Afghanistan will be resolved this year, although strong clues will show the way to the crucial 2015 – 2019 period.  Neither Afghan government forces or the insurgency will be able to dominate militarily, but the fighting will continue (albeit at lower levels to the 2010 – 2012 high point) and progress on dialogue will remain minimal.  The international military transition will take place and nothing will immediately fall apart once they have gone.  Uncertainty (evidenced, amongst other things, by a new surge in poppy cultivation) will hamper political, social and economic development – the people of Afghanistan will keep their heads down if possible this year and await what happens.

abdullahIn April 2013, a departing European diplomat, Bernard Bajolet, bemoaned the lack of political, military and economic progress in Afghanistan as he prepared to depart Kabul at the end of his tour:

“I still cannot understand how we…have managed to arrive at a situation in which everything is coming together in 2014 — elections, new president, economic transition, military transition and all this — whereas the negotiations for the peace process have not really started”[1]

Yet another critical year?

2014 has once again been dubbed the “critical“ year for Afghanistan – confirming a pattern (if we are to be slightly cynical) of this as a description of every new year in Afghanistan over the last several decades.  Talk of “deadlines” and “endgames” are unhelpful, both confused and confusing, but inevitable.  Predictably, media commentary fuels this with pieces advocating complete US/international withdrawal or predicting the inevitability of a slide towards civil war.  At the start of 2014, the country remains in a swirl of uncertainty, in which most of the outstanding issues – with the probable exception of the elections and a transfer of presidential power – will likely remain unresolved when the country moves into 2015.

But much of our thinking needs to be tempered with some expectation management and a longer-than-one-year timeframe in mind.  In many ways, it is 2014 which will see the significant political and military transitions initiated, but the years 2015 – 2019 that will determine whether anything is going to work over the long-term.  In particular, whether the current regime will be sufficiently stable to stand up for itself (albeit with substantial international support) or whether a major revision – either peaceful or violent – will cause a new and volatile ten year period of turmoil, conflict and hiatus.

For some years I have been attempting to make longer-term assessments of where Afghanistan is going.  Well, haven’t we all.  In August 2012, I suggested the following for the period 2014 – 2019:

“Although the example of the Najibullah regime is in danger of becoming the default benchmark for measuring prospects of the current government, it may not be entirely helpful.   However, international military and development support will remain crucial to the survivability of the Afghan regime well beyond 2014.  Neither international-backed government nor insurgent groups look likely to achieve decisive momentum.  Over this five year timeframe, a messy, unresolved stalemate – government controlling cities and most communications routes with insurgents and militias dominating less accessible regions – looks to be the most likely outcome.”

I think this still works as my analytical baseline.  For my Master’s thesis, I developed this idea of a protracted military stalemate – Afghan government forces controlling urban areas and key road nets, insurgent groups encroaching into farther-flung rural districts – which seems to me to be increasingly plausible in the absence of progress on peace talks:

  1. With talks going nowhere (see the recent AAN report here) and neither protagonist ready to concede the field of battle, we could be looking at a very protracted insurgency stalemate.
  2. A stalemate could push in two directions – a “positive” stalemate, where the ANSF hold cities and communications routes, Najibullah style, and reforms of political, economic and developmental natures slowly take root, or a corrosive stalemate which undermines the stability of Afghanistan further.
  3. If the latter, the Taliban may dwindle in importance as other Afghan political/military factions (“warlords” for want of a better cliché) intervene unhelpfully, pulling the (very) fledgling Afghan democracy down with it.
  4. A struggle for the control of the army could be pivotal.

With these ideas in mind, here are a few thoughts about the coming year:

Elections – will take place broadly on time.  Fraud and all manner of distortion of the result will be evident but the Taliban will not do anything sufficient to significantly disrupt it.  It will messy to contemplate, but it will probably be “just about OK” as a result.  Karzai will move on and my money would be on Dr Abdullah Abdullah (currently leading the polls) to move into the presidential palace.  Failing that, the capable but personally “tricky” Ashraf Ghani (currently in second place), Rassoul or Wardak might be acceptable.  National and international engagement will ensure that a transition of power takes place.  Risks: too much fraud, leading to the result being contested by force.  Abdullah’s northern supporters feel cheated and instability and violence grows.

The insurgency – will struggle to sustain the operational intensity of the 2010 – 2012 period (harder to motivate and recruit for Afghan vs Afghan combat) but will remain very active and capable and will continue the policy of announcing and conducting an official spring offensive.  Neither internationally-supported Afghan security forces nor insurgent groups will be able to decisively dominate the battlefield.  It will become harder to understand the level of Taliban influence and the course of the conflict as information from the districts dries up in the absence of international information gathering capability.  Risks: a lucky strike takes out a key political figure and causes the country to destabilise; Afghan security forces capability declines and their ability to dominate urban areas and communication routes dwindles.

Peace talks – Don’t expect any significant tangible progress – much of the year will be focused on elections and the aftermath.  A new president will take time to get to grips.  Risks: beware of any “deal” that looks quick, easy and sounds too good to be true.

International transition – Most of the international military forces will have left by the end of the year and financial and political support will become the main interface between most Western countries and Afghanistan in the future.  But some form of security agreement will be made between the US (and some other Western national) forces and the Afghan president – whoever that will be – such that the US will retain some residual military, training, intelligence and counter-terrorist capability.  Risks: Karzai provokes the US too much in his final months; a new president refuses to endorse; a new civilian casualties incident tips the balance and the government turns against a US military presence; US population/Congress finally have enough.

Neighbouring countries – Pakistan will continue to “hedge” its investment of political and military effort into Afghanistan.  Its concern if a Tajik leader became president might see slow increases of support to favoured insurgent groups.  India and Iran will mix constructive economic engagement with some forms of covert support for favoured political and ethnic groups.  China will focus on engagement purely intended for its own economic gain and defence against Islamic insurgents influencing across Afghan borders into western China.

Economic situation – hesitancy, uncertainty and corruption will likely characterise the economic and investment climate this year. A new UN report highlighting a resurgence in the cultivation of opium poppy is a good barometer of the uncertainty experienced by the population at presence.  Opium cultivation will remain a problem with no real solutions other than solid economic and security improvements over years/decades.  Expect no significant efforts to deal with this in 2014 – the issue will be discreetly avoided.

Civil Society – although not really an issue for a one year ahead look, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of this “theme”.  The increasingly young Afghan population will continue slowly to develop in terms of its, expectations, understanding of the world, grasp of technologies (particularly communications), desire for education and choice, be it political, social, cultural and economic.  The youth demographic is slowing advancing forward with its “world view” seemingly at a slightly faster pace than insurgents and warlords – how these two different forms of Jihadi groups recognise, understand and respond to these challenges is genuinely crucial.  The emergence of civil society is unlikely to make significant leaps in this year (and in fact the uncertainties of the time will probably slow forms of social changes).  Most options for popular political engagement will remain dominated by the warlord-dominated old school political elites.  But Afghan society is changing (ultimately for the better) in ways that the old guard seem to struggle to comprehend and are reluctant or unable to support.  Risks: increased instability and a return to renewed Afghan-wide conflict will disperse the educated youth crucial for developing Afghanistan – a renewed migration and “brain drain”.

Conclusions

This will be a complicated year in which important issues abound, but few issues will be resolved in a way that “endgame” media commentators seem to need.  I feel that the election and transition of presidential powers – however corrupt and technically flawed as it inevitably will be – could give the tiniest cause for optimism.  Otherwise, expect more of the same: minimal incremental “talks about talks” with the Taliban and on ongoing cocktail of insurgent attacks, assassinations and local powerbroker violence exacerbated by national and local government corruption and lack of capacity.  Any attempts at political, economic and social progress this year will be greatly tempered by the widespread uncertainty: most of the population just want to keep their heads down and see what emerges.  By the end of the year, the answer will still be “not much yet”.  Important of course, 2014 will give us clues to the character of the 2015 – 2019 period, but the year will not be “decisive”.


[1] Rubin, A., ‘Departing French Envoy Has Frank Words on Afghanistan’, New York Times, 27 April, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/world/asia/bernard-bajolet-leaving-afghanistan-has-his-say.html?_r=0

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