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The language of denouncement? Taliban and the Afghan government unified in protesting too much

October 12, 2012

Summary: A credible international analytical paper warns of the governmental, electoral and institutional risks for Afghanistan and triggers vitriolic denouncements from both the Taliban and the Afghan government. 

By Tim Foxley

On 8th October the International Crisis Group published Asia Report No. 236, a paper overviewing the prospects for the 2014 elections in Afghanistan, entitled: “Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to Transition”.   The paper makes the judgement that: “Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when US and NATO forces withdraw in 2014…steps towards a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse”.  The paper focuses upon the governmental, institutional and electoral problems the country is likely to face up to and beyond 2014.

The Afghan government has responded angrily and has rejected the analysis:

New York Times: Under a photograph of the group’s senior analyst in Afghanistan, Candace Rondeaux, the headlines in the newspaper Weesa screamed: “The head of the International Crisis Group in Kabul is doing espionage here.”

The paper is supported by expatriate Afghans, and its editor, Mohammad Zubair Shafiqi, describes himself as independent.

In the upper house of Parliament, lawmakers on Tuesday denounced the group. “The I.C.G. report is shameless interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, and they want to start a psychological war against our people,” said Senator Gulalai Akbari from Badakhshan Province in the country’s north.

Some lawmakers demanded an apology from the organization; another said that “the hands working behind the scenes to devastate and destroy Afghanistan must be cut off,” according to a rough transcript of the session by the United Nations.

And here:

BBC: The Afghan government labelled the predictions “nonsense and garbage”.

“Our nation was not born in 2002. We have a history of 5,000 years. We have fought against superpowers in the past. Our national police and army are ready to defend the country’s soul and sovereignty,” a statement said.

The Afghanistan Analyst Network (Martine van Bijlert) has a very good analysis of the Afghan government’s outburst, suggesting it comes at a time when the narrative has been slipping away from the Afghan government more generally.

But, interestingly, the Taliban have also responded angrily and rejected the analysis:  

But the start of civil war with the withdrawal of NATO troops is an unrealistic assumption. This issue has been raised in a report of the International Crisis Group (ICG). Some other people have postulated that at the end of 2014 when the invading forces will flee Afghanistan, the woeful incidents of 90s will be repeated. These comments only justify and prolong the illicit invasion and deprive the Afghan nation from the great blessing of sovereignty. Actually they want to say, “Remember O Afghans! If our cruel and barbaric forces left, you will not see any good.”

Analysis and Outlook

The International Crisis Group is a solid analytical body with a good reputation that regularly produces well researched, well-informed analysis.  Their reporting is credible and their methodology sound.  My normal, but minor, gripe with their work in the past is that their recommendations are usually all too easy to make, but all too unlikely to ever happen in the real world.  This paper is a sound and coherent warning of the risks associated with failing to get electoral processes lined up in a timely fashion.  No disagreement there.  And, as the AAN and NYT note, it’s not as if this sort of pessimistic analysis hasn’t been heard before and so the level of over-reaction from the Afghan government and the language used is a bit of a surprise.  Several factors may be at play:

  • The international media zoomed in and exposed the stark term “state collapse” against the rest of the more balanced language from the paper.
  • Karzai under pressure generally over transition/electoral issues – with increasing analytical pessimism from international observers
  • Karzai personally over-reacting (as he has done before on various issues over the years) – ICG report as the final straw?
  • Growing genuine worry over the issues that the ICG raises
  • Afghan society – particularly government – is still not very good at taking criticism from a free press and still broadly expects media of all kinds to supportively reflect government policy.
  • Government, parliament  and local media are still quite immature in many ways, particularly regarding approach to controversial issues

As for the Taliban response, it demonstrates their continued and growing awareness of international debates in relation to Afghanistan and the need to get involved and shape the narrative.  They go on to emphasise that a civil war is unlikely because they have: ”a plan to pave the way for an inter-Afghan understanding and consultation with scholars, national heads, intellectuals, students, civic societies and Jihadi commanders etc. This process will go ahead in the light of mutual understanding and discussions so that a stable government on the basis of the Islamic principles and according to the desires of the people…”.  This tone is not new.  They have made many statements and references to various details of the likely approach to a Taliban-dominated, post-ISAF, Afghanistan.  They do understand the need to “play the game” in terms of government, humans rights, etc.  However, as with previous announcements, the Taliban ideas are only lightly sketched out, with detail highly conspicuous by its absence.

Perhaps no surprise – both Afghan parties demonstrating their media naiveties and struggling with the whole “free speech” thing.   Come on guys, how about a joint statement next time…?

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