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.
Summary: A media report describes convincingly a senior Afghan Taliban leadership meeting in which they discusses the weaknesses in their insurgency campaign and the likely need for peace talks. The Taliban themselves denouce this report as propaganda from intelligence agencies
A very interesting report from the Daily Beast, by Ron Moreau on 1st November, to be instantly and aggressively countered by the Taliban themselves. The article purported, through a “senior Taliban source” to describe a very significant Afghan Taliban leadership meeting in Pakistan which heatedly discussed the state of the insurgency (and its weaknesses) and approaches to peace talks.
Here is the gist, quoted from the report:
The Daily Beast: In a top-secret ruling council meeting in Pakistan’s capital, the Quetta Shura has agreed to pursue a political solution with Afghanistan rather than stepping up insurgent attacks.
The top-secret pow-wow, which was exclusively described to The Daily Beast by a senior Taliban who witnessed the gathering, was attended by the insurgency’s 10 most influential leaders, including Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, arguably the movement’s top military man; Maulvi Hassan Rahmani, a key southern commander; and Abdul Rauf Khadim and Mullah Gul Agha, who are believed to be close to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s leader and founder. Abdul Qayum Zakir was the only senior Shura member who was absent for unknown reasons…Some Shura members had been arguing that as the U.S. and its allies continue to wind down combat operations, which presumably will end at the end of next year, now is not the time for peace negotiations. Rather it is the time to increase the size and tempo of guerrilla attacks…
Others held that despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s abrupt and histrionic breaking-off of the peace talks even before they began in Qatar last summer—a move which the guerrilla leadership saw as a serious slap in the face—the pursuit of peace is the only realistic option for the insurgency. They argued that while the Taliban explored peace options the guerrillas in the field should not escalate but continue to wage the low-intensity insurgency as it is now, largely featuring roadside bombs and suicide attacks…
It was widely agreed that ramping up the pace of the armed struggle through this winter and into next spring would be fruitless, only leading to more casualties without scoring a breakthrough. “We know our strength,” says the senior Taliban official who was at the meeting and is not authorized to speak to the press. “Even the speeding up of attacks would not make much difference on the ground.” There was, the Shura concluded, no military solution. “Most agreed that after more than 12 years of war searching for a political solution would be the best option,” the senior Taliban official went on. “We can’t suddenly gain magical strength that can guarantee our takeover of Kabul.” “Even if we did somehow capture Kabul, it would not end the war,” he adds.
Analysis and Outlook
It is difficult, as with anything connected with the Taliban inner circle, to pass judgement on the credibility of the information – information which, if accurate, is very powerful, revealing and something that intelligence agencies of all colours would give a lot for.
The debate described here seems to plausibly echo previous reports of Taliban calculations and considerations. Unless there is some major strategic shift in power between factions and the international community (eg a collapse in international funding, the fragmentation of Afghan army and/or a re-emergence of powerful Afghan warlords contesting for power) that Taliban have little chance of recapturing Kabul. And neither would capturing Kabul necessarily indicate political or military “victory” of any measurable kind. Clearly these are deliberations, regardless of the outcome, that the Taliban would not like exposed. Even if these internal talks, as reported, are broadly accurate, seeing some of this pragmatic recognition that military victory is unlikely turn into a coherent strategy for political engagement (and, in the longer-term, “reintegration” into Afghan society), will be problematic. As an indication of the sensitivities with which the Taliban view discussion of such issues, the Taliban media apparatus rushed to deny, denounce and deflect the news article – coming out with an official media statement on their website, two days later, which I quote in full:
Yesterday, ‘The Daily Beast’ newspaper, which pursues a malicious intelligence agenda and is run by famous intelligence agents, published a far from reality, purely propaganda based and fabricated report regarding the Islamic Emirate which stated that some leaders of Islamic Emirate had met in the Pakistani city of Islamabad, showed their inclination towards peace and other such nonsense…….
We reject every aspect of this report. The assertions cited by ‘The Daily Beast’ are contrary to the policy and manifesto of the Islamic Emirate and similarly the talk about conflict between the leaders of Islamic Emirate in also propaganda and devilish scheme of the said newspaper which has no substance. We urge all media outlets to be cautious of such pure propaganda which has no reality to it and is the work of intelligence agencies.
We have designated spokesmen and a dedicated website for our activities from where anyone can contact us to attain access to information. Attributing false statements to the Islamic Emirate and associating unknown figures with us violates the basic principles of journalism. In our view these are vengeful attempts by certain identified persons who wish to spread their own personal agendas through these reports and we ask all independent media outlets to refrain from publishing these baseless reports. We would also like to point out that ‘The Daily Beast’ has on several occasions published such baseless reports to advance their agendas. They also regularly attribute their statements to ‘Zabiullah’ so as to portray it to be me, Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman of Islamic Emirate. The truth is that neither I have ever spoken with this media outlet nor has any other official within the Islamic Emirate ever corresponded with them.
The spokesman of Islamic Emirate
A very real sense of the Taliban protesting too much here – either because they are wrong-footed by this level of very personal information emerging without their consent, or because – equally plausible and not necessarily an exclusive explanation – their media machine is still quite crude and old-fashioned. This was quite an immature response (and one they have repeated over the years) where perhaps silence as a demonstration of refusal to be drawn in might have been a more sensible response. My personal sense is that, with both main military sides (a US-backed Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban) still in the field and willing and able to fight, a form of military stalemate over the next few years is very plausible unless key players energise this slight recognition that perhaps no-one is able to “win” and push for coherent talks.