Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Two thirds of Afghans suffer mental disorder

Reuters relays a shocking statistic:

66% of Afghans mentally afflicted: Official

KABUL, Apr 21 (Reuters) - Scarred by decades of turmoil and grief, 66% of Afghans suffer from depression or some form of mental disorder and an increasing number are turning to illegal drugs, a health official said.

Afghan deputy health minister Faizullah Kakar said mental illness and drug abuse were the most urgent health problems that the country needs to tackle. ...

"Depressed people like to take drugs and get more depressed. It's a vicious cycle."

Afghanistan is the world's number one producer of opium, from which heroin is derived. It had an estimated 920,000 drug addicts a few years ago. "This may be greater now," Kakar said. ... (link)

Guns and aid don't mix

Canadian Doctor James Orbinski is a former president of Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the subject of a new documentary called Triage opening in Toronto. He's featured in the Toronto Star:

Canada confusing political, aid relief goals in Afghanistan, MD says

April 22 - [...] He says the "war on terror" has allowed governments to sell the public on warfare as a life-saving operation. ...

Despite many near-death experiences over more than a decade in conflict zones, Orbinski rejects Ottawa's argument that the military can help to create a safe space for humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

"This is part of a dangerous confusion of humanitarian action with the political stakes that are at play in a war," he says. "Humanitarian relief is focused on relief of suffering. That's what it does. It's not rebuilding, reconciliation or gender equity. It's not a political project."

He adds, "when that clear, limited goal is obscured with other objectives, what suffers the most is the people who need assistance. They don't get it."

The best thing that Ottawa could do for Afghanistan is to "decouple" humanitarian programs from military objectives, he insists. "That would dramatically affect the lives of Afghans." ...

[T]he rules of war – the Geneva Conventions created to protect human rights – have been undermined by the U.S.-led "war on terror," he says.

"Distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, proportionality of military response, respecting people's right to humanitarian assistance, and the obligations of occupying armies to allow for (aid) to flow freely, those have been lost in a post 9/11 world." ... (link)
ACBAR, an umbrella agency dealing with Afghan aid efforts says in a report:
... PRTs have often overshadowed and in some cases assumed the responsibilities of local government. Thus, they have slowed the emergence and development of state institutions at local level ...
Writing in Guardian, a British writer with experience in international aid says "Six years into the occupation, it is clear that the PRT strategy has failed."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Indian soaps banned while death penalty lives

Radio Free Europe has the story:

TV Stations Ordered To Stop Broadcasting 'Un-Islamic' Content

April 22 - The Afghan government has ordered independent television stations in Kabul to stop broadcasting programs deemed "un-Islamic"or that "undermine Afghan culture."

Indian soap operas, hugely popular among Afghans, are among the shows that have been branded "un-Islamic," and television stations have been given orders to take them off the air.Abdul-Qadir Mirzai, chief news editor for the private television station Ariana, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Ariana has had to stop airing "Kumkum," a popular Indian soap opera. ...

Mirzai insists the Indian soap opera, based on the love story of a Hindu couple, does not undermine Afghan culture or corrupt young Afghans' morals. Indian movies and television series do not usually include sex or nude scenes. ... (link)
President Karzai has reportedly defended the ban:
Asked about the move, Karzai told a media briefing his government was committed to media freedom.

But, "like the rest of the countries in the world, we want our television broadcasting to be in line with our culture, based on our society moral standards," Karzai said. ... (link)
You can watch a clip of Kumkum, the banned soap, on Youtube here.

President Karzai has also revealed that he dislikes the death penalty, but will not move to abolish it:
Karzai rejects call to end death penalty

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - President Hamid Karzai expressed reservations Monday about imposing the death penalty but rejected calls to abolish capital punishment in his country.

"I am very slow in approving the orders for executions," Karzai said. "I prefer life sentencing because that would serve as a better lesson."

The Supreme Court recently upheld rulings by lower courts to sentence about 100 people to death, despite concerns that the fledgling legal system does not ensure fair trials. Karzai must give final approval for executions to take place.

However, in cases such as kidnappings and killings of innocents, Karzai said he would follow Shariah, or Islamic law, which sanctions capital punishment. ... (link)
Draft law mirrors Taliban regime.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Conservative women's leader calls for negotiations

Fatana Gailani, head of the Afghanistan Women Council, has some hard-won anti-Taliban credentials. Back in 1998, she and her husband (more on him later) found themselves on a Taliban-inspired hit list. Amnesty International was among those who came to their defense. At the time, they were living in exile in Pakistan's Pashtun city of Peshawar. Fatana had started her organisation there after her family fled from the communist regime in Afghanistan in the late 1970's. Thus, she has some serious anti-communist qualifications as well.

Gailani also has human rights credibility. Profiled on the website of Amnesty International (Canada) as a defender of human rights, she says:

"Amnesty International members are my friends. Our shared work is very important for people, especially the women. We still have hope for the future." (link)
In 1998, Gailani was a recipient of the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Co-recipients of that Spanish prize that same year included Rigoberta Menchu and Graca Machel, the only woman to have been married to two different heads of state (Mozambique's late President Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela).

Gailani was also featured in a 2002 story in Oprah's Magazine.

Yet that is not all. Gailani also has some serious conservative bona fides. Recently she took part in a demonstration in Kabul called to protest against the Dutch and the Danes. The Dutch on account of the film Fitna and the Danish for newspaper Jyllands Postens, which recently republished the famously offensive cartoons depicting Muhammad.This week, according to the Afghan news site Quqnoos, Fatana Gailani called for negotiations with Taliban insurgents:
Women's group supports Taliban peace talks
Head of women's assembly urges UN to sponsor peace negotiations
Quqnoos, April 19

... Fatana Ishaq Gailani said women were vital to the success of peace talks between the two warring sides.

At a meeting on Thursday, Gailani called for the UN to support the [Afghanistan Women Council] in its search for a peace deal.

Gailani blamed foreign interference for the long war in Afghanistan, and called on foreign countries to help the Afghan government to restore peace and security in the country.

She told foreign troops to stop searching people’s houses during military operations and criticized the lack of co-ordination among the various foreign forces based in the country. ... (link)
Gailani has an interesting family background. Her husband is Ishaq Gailani, head of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan. He is a nephew of Pir Ahmad Gailani, who is the leader of the Qadiriyya Sufist order. Pir Gailani is also the head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA).

During the jihad against the Soviets, NIFA, a royalist movement, had the favour of US conservatives such as the Heritage Foundation and Freedom House. In those days, NIFA was a loose coalition which included such luminaries as General Abdul Rahim Wardak and Kandahar strongman Gul Agha Sherzai. Wardak, head of the leading family of Wardak Province, is a US-trained officer who has served as Afghanistan's Minister of Defense both the pre- and post-Taliban eras. Similarly, Sherzai was appointed post-Soviet and post-Taliban governor of Kandahar but has since been moved to Nangarhar in order to keep him out of trouble.

We have covered various aspects of calls for negotiations (see especially here), but we'll leave the last word (for now) to the leading English language expert on Afghanistan, Barnett Rubin. Writing on his blog, Rubin has some choice words for American opponents of negotiations, both left and right:
... Curiously, both right-wing and left-wing critics of U.S. policy are now speaking out against these talks, in the apparent hope that Afghans will continue to die fighting in an endless war to solve the whole world's problems. ...

There are indeed dangers in these negotiations, but I wonder what scenario for ending the conflict the critics of negotiations have in mind? The Afghan insurgency, loosely affiliated to the Taliban, is not a marginal extremist organization that can be destroyed by force. ... (link)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Canadian Army's low retention and new CF ads

The problem:

Keeping soldiers now tougher task
Army has almost double the attrition of Forces average

OTTAWA, Apr 17 (CP) - Keeping soldiers in the military is proving to be a difficult task as the country settles in for three more years of fighting in Afghanistan — one that is demanding more and more attention from top commanders, newly released documents reveal.

Briefing materials prepared for Defence Minister Peter MacKay show army attrition — the number of people choosing to retire or not renew their contracts — has reached 13 per cent, almost double the average for all three branches of the military.

A presentation given last fall by the army chief, Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, shows the overall size of the land force declined by 1,846 soldiers between May 2005 and May 2007, despite the success in recruiting fresh troops. ...

Many veterans will tell you their experience in the war-torn country is so rewarding that they would happily return. It’s the time spent in home bases back in Canada that seems the most taxing, especially for those serving with comrades or commanders who’ve never seen combat. ... (link)
The solution:
Latest Canadian Forces ads omit Afghan mission

OTTAWA, Apr 17 (Globe and Mail) - One thing is missing from the Canadian Forces' latest generation of TV recruitment ads unveiled this week: any mention of Afghanistan or overseas combat.

It's an odd omission given that Canada is engaged in its biggest military operation since the Korean War in Afghanistan, a mission that has revitalized the Forces and driven a lot of its new equipment spending.

Instead, the two new TV ads - Hard Landing and Drug Bust - paint a job in the Forces as an exclusively domestic career: rescuing survivors of a downed airplane in the Canadian North and catching drug smugglers off the East Coast.

"These ads will be seen on television throughout the spring - including in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs," the Department of National Defence announced this week.

Peter Donolo, a partner with the polling firm the Strategic Counsel, said the minority Conservative government is likely trying to play down the controversial Afghanistan mission in case it is defeated and must go to the polls, while playing up two issues it has long championed to political acclaim: Arctic sovereignty and border security. ...

More than 12,000 Canadian troops - regular force and reservists - have been through Afghanistan in six-month rotations of roughly 2,500 each since the latest deployment to the Afghan province of Kandahar began two years ago. ... (link)
See the ads on Youtube: Hard Landing and Drug Bust.

Kambakhsh's appeal: hope for condemned journalist

Bloomberg carries a bit of good news:

Condemned Afghan Journalist Wins Right to Appeal Death Sentence

April 16 (Bloomberg) - A young Afghan journalist, sentenced to death in January for spreading feminist criticism of Islam, has been granted an appeal, according to one of the international organizations monitoring his case.

The writer, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, 23, was transferred on March 28 from prison in the remote province of Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, to the capital, Kabul, according to Jean MacKenzie, program director in Afghanistan for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. The London-based Institute is an international advocate for press freedom.

The move, Mackenzie said in a telephone interview, was accompanied by promises from officials in the government of President Hamid Karzai that Kambakhsh would be freed.

MacKenzie credited international protests in the wake of the death sentence as a key factor in getting Kambakhsh out of the control of regional religious and secular authorities. She also said that within Afghanistan, protests in several cities organized by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a banned group, had made local citizens aware of the case.

"There is a belief that the charges were trumped up as a political move," MacKenzie said. She added that Kambakhsh and his brother, also a journalist, had been outspoken about the rise of warlords in the north and the breakdown of centralized government authority. ...

On Jan. 31 Kabul demonstrators, organized by RAWA, marched in support of Kambakhsh, shouting "Long live democracy!" and demanding his release, ending up in front of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.

"This case is not an anomaly," MacKenzie said. "It is symptomatic of what is happening in Afghanistan, the weakening of power at the center and the rise of local powerbrokers.

"It's entirely possible that if things continue this way," she continued, "Afghan society will not look that different from the way it was under the Taliban." (link)
The Independent (UK) quotes Kambakhsh's brother, Ibrahimi, who was arguably the indirect target of Kambakhsh's arrest. Ibrahimi is a journalist with a tendency to criticize the government:
"It is a warning to the whole of the Afghan people. The Afghan judiciary shouldn't have the ability to pass the death sentence. The whole system is corrupted... Lots of people are facing the death penalty for no reason.

"Maybe there are people who should face the death penalty, but they are in power, in government. The people on death row are the people who could not pay enough to get out." ... (link)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Draft law mirrors Taliban regime

In the summer of 2006, Human Rights Watch expressed its concern that Afghan President Karzai's cabinet had approved a proposal to reestablish the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Taliban regimes' brutal and arbitrary morality police.

"Afghan women and girls face increasing insecurity, and it’s more important for the government to address how to improve their access to public life rather than limit it further," said an HRW researcher.

A female MP told HRW that she was worried that such a development could spur violence and repression. "The only hope is the Parliament," she said. (For more, see Appendix below.)

Fast forward to this week, when legislators in that same Afghan parliament have proposed their own set of Taliban-like restrictions:

Afghan parliament committee drafts Taliban-style moral law

KABUL, Apr 16 (AFP) - An Afghan legislative committee has drafted a bill seeking to introduce Taliban-style Islamic morality codes banning women from wearing make-up in public and forbidding young boys from wearing female fashions.

The draft, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, needs approval by both chambers of the Islamist-dominated parliament and President Hamid Karzai signature to become a law.

"Women and girls are obliged to not wear make-up, wear suitable dresses and observe hijab (veil) while at work or classrooms," said one article of the draft.

It also aims to ban women dancers performing during concerts and other public events as well as on television. ...

In a similar move the parliament, which is dominated by former anti-Soviet Islamist warlords, called earlier this month for a ban on dancing and Indian soap dramas on private television networks.

Men and young boys must avoid wearing bracelets, necklaces, "feminist dresses," and hair-bands, the draft reads.

The proposals also demand an end to dog and bird-fighting, pigeon-flying, billiards and video games, all past times favoured by many Afghans.

It demands separate halls for men and women during wedding parties, while loud music is banned at such gatherings. Afghans hold big and costly get-togethers for weddings, usually in a public hall with music.

If the proposals are passed, violators could be fined 500 Afghanis (10 dollars) to 5,000, according to the draft.

The plans mirror many of the laws introduced by the extremist Taliban regime, which ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 with strict Islamic Sharia law. (link)
ANI, the Indian news sevice adds the following sketch:
The legislation would ban:

• Men from wearing bracelets, designer jeans, necklaces, earrings and T-shirts

• Men from growing their hair long, “like a girl’s”

• Pigeon flying, animal fighting and playing with birds on rooftops

• Men and women from talking with each other in public, unless they are related

• Loud music and loud speakers at weddings and restaurants

• Betting in snooker clubs

• Shops selling “revealing” clothing

• TVs, radios and cable companies from airing programmes that are anti-Islamic and detrimental to the young

• People from selling, keeping or importing DVDs or photos of naked or semi-naked women

• People from swearing at children or women in public
Girls would also have to start wearing the Hejab “properly” by covering all of their hair with the shawl. (link)
In other similar developments, the Afghan Supreme Court has approved some one hundred death sentences, thus putting the question of their approval before President Karzai:
Supreme Court issues 100 death sentences

KABUL, Apr 15 (AKI) - The Supreme Court of Afghanistan has in the past few weeks confirmed 100 death sentences issued by provincial courts. ...

"The court proceedings are carried out behind closed doors, without the presence of defence attorneys, and often without the presentation of any proof on the part of the public prosecutor," said Wadir Safi, a jurist and law professor at the University of Kabul.

"In essence, we can say that justice in our country does not work and the accused do not enjoy any form of guarantee." ... (link)

Appendix: The Department of Vice and Virtue was in fact reinstated, according to Rina Amiri of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and George Soros' Open Society Institute. Testifying before Canada's Standing Committee on National Defence (January 30, 2007) she observed:

The fact that the ministry of vice and virtue has now been reinstated as a department in the government is because of the pressure from the conservatives.

... [The vice and virtue department is] keeping a low presence and [Karzai] did this as a means of appeasement to the religious community.... (link to pdf)

The picture is muddied a bit when we read that the department was reinstated much earlier in Karzai's government:

Afghan Women Wary Of Vice & Virtue
AFGHANISTAN, Oct. 7, 2002

[A]s CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey reports, in a development Washington is watching closely, the Kabul government has re-instituted the department of vice and virtue to safeguard Islamic values.

"It was a demand by some groups and we have accommodated it, but the real trend in Afghanistan is to move toward a civil society," says presidential spokesman Saeed Fazul Akhbar. ... (link)

Also, Indian journalist Aunohita Mojumdar wrote the following for Asia Times in 2006:

[T]he reality is that the department was never closed down by the Karzai government after it came to power, but lay dormant. Another little-reported fact is that the department was first set up under the mujahideen, though the Taliban upgraded it into a full-fledged ministry. ... (link)

Scott Taylor on Canada and NATO

Scott Taylor is the editor of Esprit de Corps magazine. He does the math (and history) on the Canadian demand for 1000 more troops:

... Back in January, just one week before Manley tabled his report calling for an extra 1,000 NATO troops, U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates announced that the U.S. would be temporarily bolstering its troop presence in Afghanistan with 3,000 marines.

Of that number, 2,000 of these combat troops were to be deployed in Kandahar — but only until this November. When critics asked whether or not the 2,000 marines added to the NATO force in the south would fulfil Manley’s reinforcement request, we were told that this was a separate issue and that NATO still needed to add another 1,000 soldiers. Accepting that to be true, and relying upon it, how can anyone in their right mind conclude that NATO has complied with Manley’s reinforcement condition, which was to be the prerequisite for extending our mission until 2011? ...

Like a petulant child, Canada demanded [in 2005] that our troops be given the volatile Kandahar region — even after many of our NATO allies politely suggested that it might be too much for our meagre military resources.

Once we were deployed, and realized that we were in over our heads, we began demanding assistance in the form of more troops and someone else’s helicopters — "or else we’re going home."

What our NATO partners see in Canada is one of the richest nations in the world, pointing to our significant body count of troops as proof of our commitment to a mission we cannot sustain without their assistance.

[At the recent NATO summit in Bucharest] Germany and France moved to block a proposal put forward by Canada and the U.S. to fast track NATO membership for the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine. ...

Canada’s interest in pushing forward Ukraine’s entry was purely motivated by our own desire for reinforcements in Kandahar. Canadian military officials have been privately strong-arming the Ukrainians to send a 1,000-strong infantry force to Afghanistan. In doing so, it would seem that our commanders have forgotten to read up on their Cold War history. From 1980 to 1989, Ukraine deployed a significant portion of the Soviet Union’s occupation force in Afghanistan. Some 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the fighting, and another 30,000 severely wounded. ... (link)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Negotiations: supporters and opponents

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai affirmed the right of rival parliamentarians from the United National Front (UNF) to hold negotiations with Taliban insurgents. While the Karzai government has been holding talks with insurgents for several years, the UNF has reportedly been speaking with them since last year. In response, a Taliban spokesperson denied that the group had ever had talks with the government or the UNF.

Other Afghan leaders are also adding their voices to the growing calls for a negotiated settlement. Recently representatives of a peace jirga based in eastern Afghanistan and comprised of governors and tribal leaders visited Karzai in Kabul to impress upon him their wish to see talks with insurgents. Similarly, leaders of the main Kandahari tribes recently drew up a manifesto which reportedly labeled NATO troops "occupying forces" and called for comprehensive negotiations.
Meanwhile, efforts toward negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban begun by newly-elected governments on the other side of the Durand line have proceeded quite far under the initiative of ethnic Pashtun socialists the Awami National Party. The ANP's Haider Khan Hoti, Chief Minister of Northwest Frontier Province, recently affirmed that party's commitment to a peace process:

We are convinced that there is no military solution to the complex issues and challenges vis-à-vis peace and security intensified over the years due to flawed policies. We are therefore, essentially looking for political solutions for dealing with these issues and challenges we are all faced with. Our stance on politically negotiated settlement of the issues has received an overwhelming support by the people and we are committed to our promise to the people. ... (pdf link)
This approach is in line with the thinking of humanitarian agencies. A recent conference report from officials of various international NGO's, including a pair of highly respected Afghan women, noted civil society support for negotiations with Taliban insurgents and called for a comprehensive peace process.

Other outsiders have joined the call. German Social Democrat Party leader Kurt Beck has, like NDP leader Layton, been targeted with vicious criticism for his suggestion of talks to end the conflict. Conservative German reactions to Beck's suggestion are especially revealing when one considers that German intelligence agents held secret talks with Taliban insurgents back in 2005. Canadian Archbishop James Weisgerber, responding to popular pressure, recently affirmed his support for negotiations too.

Of course, there are some rather powerful forces which oppose efforts toward peace talks - chief among them the Bush administration. It seems that Bush has not backed off on his opposition to negotiations with the Taliban, expressed very early in the war: "When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations," he told the press in October 2001. Indeed, American resistance to dialogue has been a consistent feature of the occupation of Afghanistan since that time.

Also joining the fight against parleys has been the Harper government, a loyal ally of the Bush administration. And while the British Labour government has risked the ire of the US in its vigorous pursuit of talks with insurgents (while simultaneously proclaiming its opposition to talks), the British Conservative opposition's defense critic has objected to the policy. "We cannot negotiate with people who are killing our troops," insisted Liam Fox. These conservative voices, though rather extreme in their rejections, are not without their vocal backers.

Enter the advocacy group called Canada-Afghan Solidarity Committee (CASC), which is perhaps best described as the West coast's answer to Canadians for Afghanistan. While both groups were founded in December and have similar aims and perspectives, the latter is largely the work of a Conservative Party functionary turned lobbyist and the former is chiefly a vehicle for two B.C. writers known to grab attention with heated right-wing rhetoric.
CASC professes a sincere commitment to the wishes of Afghans, as expressed in their web page devoted to "Our Principles":
We recognize that human rights are universal, and not culture-specific, and we are listening to the demands of Afghans for human rights, the protection of women’s fledgling rights, and the desire for a democratic system of governance. ... (link)
Their principles also urge everyone to "pay attention to Afghan public opinion". However, CASC founding member Terry Glavin reveals just how hollow such claims are when he rather proudly asserts the group's opposition to negotiations toward a settlement:
You might not find much support for the "negotiated solution" bit - especially from the women among the membership; I can't see anything to negotiate with the Taliban except their surrender. (link)
This pose is quite remarkable. Not only does such an assertion ignore the banal fact that nearly all military conflicts end in negotiations, it plainly dismisses the wishes of the Afghan population.* In a recent public opinion poll commissioned in part by the BBC, a majority of Afghans expressed support for negotiations with Taliban insurgents. In particular, respondents in Kandahar province were 88% in favour of negotiations.

Lauryn Oates, a founding member of CASC, is nonetheless vehement in opposing negotiations. An Op-Ed penned for the Globe and Mail attempts to counter calls for sitting down with elements of the Taliban:
Don't share a table with Taliban
Lauryn Oates
Globe and Mail - Nov 3, 2006

Afghanistan is spiralling into further chaos as donor governments, which have poured millions into the country, are scratching their heads in bewilderment. Some critics have called for alternative responses to the conflict that has taken the lives of more than 40 Canadian soldiers. One of the propositions gaining traction is the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, bringing them to the table for peace talks and giving them a place in the country's fledgling government. ...

Opting for negotiating with the Taliban at this stage shows an incredible lack of creativity when thinking about how to approach peace-building in Afghanistan. It is also hypocrisy of the worst kind. ...

Allowing the Taliban to have any role in the governance of Afghanistan is a victory to the forces that brought Afghanistan to its knees in the first place. ... (link)

Nowhere in the piece does Oates even pay lip service to the old-fashioned notion that "[a]llowing the Taliban to have any role" is a decision that Afghans should make, not Oates or her audience.

More recently, Oates reiterated her aversion to negotiations in remarks to Inter Press Service reporter Paul Weinberg. Yet she couldn't resist insulting those calling for talks:
[Lauryn Oates] told IPS she parts company with peace advocates who are pushing for talks with the Taliban. "No one is talking about talking to ordinary Afghan civilians. This is a small group of so-called experts in Canada that is just sort of deciding among themselves what should happen in Afghanistan," she said. ... (link)
Oates' pretension has a practical purpose, as it allows her to ignore the wishes of Afghans when their dreams don't match her desires. She is hardly alone in her ability to not hear about Afghan opinion; no major Canadian newspapers reported the results of the poll cited above, where Afghans generally favoured negotiations. But, if those Afghan majority voices ever get a hearing in our media, perhaps Oates will be given space to berate them for their "hypocrisy of the worst kind".

The depth of Oates' commitment to democracy is on display in her recent Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail entitled, rather ironically, "We must put the Afghans first":
If we do not urgently refocus our debate and put the needs and interests of Afghans at the heart of our discussions, we will leave a bleak smear in the Canadian history of international interventionism, a smear that will bring us shame in the history books our children will read. We must ensure that we are finding constructive solutions to the underlying problems plaguing Afghanistan and to the issues that Afghans point to as priorities, and not merely to our own insular interests. ... (link)
For Oates, the "needs and interests of Afghans" don't include their actual, stated desires.

Returning to the CASC group generally, it is worth noting that their hostility to democracy, as evidenced above, extends deeper than ignoring Afghans, for Canadians are just as easily dismissed. A poll taken last year found that some 62% of Canadians are in favour of negotiations with Taliban insurgents in order to end the conflict. Of course, the depth of their contempt for the public is apparent in the group's basic motivation: to counter those who wish to bring Canadian policy in line with the wishes of its citizens. When polled, a consistent majority of Canadians say they oppose the war; yet CASC will have none of it.
* Elsewhere, Glavin demonstrates the wisdom of the saying a little knowledge is a dangerous thing when he harangues fellow B.C.-based columnist (and long-time friend) Bill Tieleman over their differences on Afghanistan. Writing in response to Tieleman's good faith attempts at dialogue, he endeavors to educate Tieleman, advising him that "by the way, it's not 'Afghani people'; an Afghani is a unit of currency". Perhaps Glavin's internet connection was down when he wrote that, as a very simple Google search finds a dictionary entry from the American Heritage Dictionary where "Afghani" is defined in part as "A native or inhabitant of Afghanistan; an Afghan." (Also see, for example, this article from the Times of India website which profiles "Afghani director" Atiq Rahimi.) After the requisite mea culpas one would hope that the friendship can be salvaged.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Lawsuit developments

The latest on the efforts of the BC Civil Liberties Assoc. and Amnesty International:

Complaints body may defy Ottawa over hearings

OTTAWA, April 14 - The Military Police Complaints Commission says it may defy Ottawa and go ahead with scheduled public hearings into the handling of Afghan detainees in spite of the Conservative government's attempt to shut the inquiry down.

The commission had planned to begin hearings into the detainee affair starting May 1, but Ottawa filed an application last week in Federal Court to stop the procedures, arguing that the oversight body has overstepped its jurisdiction. ...

"As you know, anytime someone goes to court it delays proceedings," [Lead counsel Freya] Kristjanson said in an interview Monday.

"The commission intends to continue its investigation into these complaints." ...

After a year of investigation, the commission announced last month that it needed to call the hearings because the Foreign Affairs Department had stonewalled requests for information.

MacKay responded that the government is co-operating with the commission and has provided "incredible disclosure," including 1,300 documents and access to 38 witnesses for interviews. ...

"The government is seeking to stop the investigation," Kristjanson said. "They're looking for an order prohibiting the MPCC from investigating the complaint in addition to an order to stop the holding of public hearings." ...

Earlier in the day, commission chair Peter Tinsley said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the government's decision ...

"It's especially surprising given the fact that the government did not challenge our jurisdiction a year ago when we first launched our investigation," he said in a statement.

Last month, Tinsley accused the government of stonewalling his investigation. He said he had to resort to the rarely used public interest process in order to issue subpoenas and allow the commission to compel witnesses to testify and various government departments to provide uncensored documents. ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded that the government was being co-operative with Tinsley's investigation and providing all the information it could under the law. ...

Contrary to the government's stance, the commission maintains that it is within its jurisdiction to conduct the investigation, which was initiated after a joint complaint made by Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. ... (link)
For the background to all this, as well as some interesting revelations about the Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith, see this piece from the Hill Times:
How two advocacy groups effectively brought national attention to Afghan detainees
Simon Doyle
March 24/08

... Frustrated with stonewalling and a lack of information, [BCCLA and Amnesty] launched a Federal Court challenge in February 2007 after they were approached by Amir Attaran, a law professor and human rights advocate at the University of Ottawa, and [Paul Champ, a human rights lawyer in Ottawa, who's been representing the BCCLA and Amnesty while Attaran does research]. ...

Mr. Attaran had been working on the issue for years, and in 2006, through a leak, he and Mr. Champ discovered an arrangement between Canada and Afghanistan on the transfer of detainees. Mr. Attaran approached Mr. Champ for a legal opinion on the arrangement, and Mr. Champ suggested that the Charter of Rights could apply, and that there was a chance of success in court. ...

[The Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith] began working on the BCCLA and Amnesty International's detainee story after they launched their court application. ...

Mr. Smith's work brought national attention to the issue, sustaining prominence in Question Period for weeks. Until then, as Mr. Champ noted, the government had been saying there was no evidence that Canadian detainees were being abused by Afghan authorities.

"Mr. Smith's article changed that, and it changed our case as well, because up until that point we had no direct, first hand information, or second hand information for that matter, on Canadian-transferred detainees," he said. ...

"We've fed him [Mr. Smith] information, and at different times he's assisted us," Mr. Champ said. "We had asked him to swear an affidavit but he was not interested in doing that. He felt that would be crossing a line, but his work has been very helpful to us."

The BCCLA and Amnesty International used Mr. Smith's investigative report to argue for a court injunction, seeking a halt to the transfer of detainees in Afghanistan. ...

On Feb. 7, Amnesty and the BCCLA lost their case ...

That court challenge is now being held in abeyance until the groups decide whether to appeal the Federal Court decision. ...

"As soon as our courts say that the Charter does not apply to the military when it goes abroad, we are essentially giving the military carte blanche to do things that the Americans have done abroad," Mr. Attaran said, pointing to American practices such as wiretapping and detaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. ... (link)

Canada flexes imperial muscle - again

Various news agencies are reporting on Maxime Bernier's rather impolitic effort to have Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid removed from his post. Though Bernier quickly took back his comments, the request is not out of character for the Canadian mission.

Not calling for Afghan governor's removal, Bernier clarifies

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, April 14 - Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier said Monday the governor of Kandahar province needed to be replaced to curb corruption in the region, but withdrew his remarks hours later. ...

Asked what Karzai could do about corruption around the southern Afghanistan city, Bernier said: "As you know, there is always the question of the governor here.

"I think [Karzai] can work with us to be sure the governor will be more powerful, the governor will do what he has to do to help us," he said. "There's a question to maybe have a new governor.

"Is it the right person at the right place at the right time? President [Hamid] Karzai will have to answer these questions as soon as possible."

Shortly after Bernier made the comments in both English and French, members of his staff admitted it was not something Bernier should have said.

Hours later, the minster issued a clarifying statement. ... (link)

Governor Khalid is the man who was recently accused of torturing prisoners, prompting outrage in Canada. The outrage was met with denials by Canadian government and military officials. Bernier's comments are perhaps a tacit admission that the accusations are credible.

It is important to recall that Canada is making a habit of meddling in Afghan internal affairs. To review:

It was Canada who suggested the appointment of a "super envoy" to Afghanistan to coordinate UN and NATO efforts there. Originally, the post was to be filled by Britain's Lord Ashdown, but President Karzai pointedly rejected him. Eventually, the Norwegian Kai Eide, seen to be much less of a take-charge kind of guy, got the job.

The Canadian military wrote words for Karzai to mouth when he visited Parliament in September of 2006. A Canadian Forces document spells it out:
Team prepared initial draft of president's address to Parliament 22 Sep(tember). It was noted that key statistics, messages, themes, as well as overall structure, were adopted by the president in his remarks ...
Also, we must not forget Canada's Strategic Advisory Teams embedded in Afghan government ministries. According to one veteran defense journalist the SAT's, a brainchild of General Hillier, are a "unique project – well beyond the normal realm of military operations".

The meddling doesn't stop there. From the Toronto Star:
The police chief in Zhari district is on his way out, in part because of Canadian complaints about his performance.

"He was probably more part of the problem than the solution," [Canadian Colonel] Juneau said.

There is, however, a limit to Canada's willingness to stick its nose in Afghan politics. When the Afghan government executed 15 prisoners last fall, Canadian diplomats were at pains to criticize the Karzai government, citing a reluctance to "interfere". The Dutch, on the other hand, called the executions "extremely unwelcome".

RAWA was right

Waleed Aly is a young Australian Muslim lawyer and professor considered to be something of a voice for his generation. Last year he wrote a book, People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West, and writes frequently for The Age:

The Age (Australia)

War without freedom
By Waleed Aly

April 14 - Afghanistan used to be our feel-good war. ...

Perhaps we just assumed all was well.

But it isn't. ...

A recent report by British-based women's rights group Womankind has concluded that Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.

We have no right to be surprised about this. Certainly, the Taliban's resurgence has not helped, but the truth is that if we had bothered to familiarise ourselves with the experiences of Afghan women before we championed their cause, this would have been sadly predictable.

Indeed, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) — the organisation bravely responsible for bringing horrific images of Taliban brutality to the world — opposed the US-led invasion because it understood that their suffering was too complex and deeply rooted to be sheeted home to a singular villainous organism called the Taliban. It is the product of a nation ravaged by decades of war, with all the feudal social structures, entrenched poverty, illiteracy and corrosive brutality that this nurtures. Such dynamics cannot simply be excised militarily. The Taliban was a symptom as much as a cause.

RAWA tried to tell us that Afghan women had already been "crushed and brutalised under the chains and atrocities of the Northern Alliance fundamentalists". That is probably an understatement. The Northern Alliance had killed 50,000 civilians during its rule in the 1990s, systematically raping thousands of women and girls and causing others to commit suicide.

Yet it was the Northern Alliance that would be our proxies in Afghanistan. These were the good guys; our fellow liberators of Afghan women. We should not have been surprised when, soon after the invasion, an international NGO worker told Amnesty International that "during the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh she would have been flogged; now she's raped". ...

The unthinking construction of the Taliban as the singular source of Afghan misogyny was obviously misguided, but it was undoubtedly convenient. ...

Let us now admit the women of Afghanistan were used for their rhetorical potency. Now, their political utility is spent and so is our concern for them. ... Whatever the soaring rhetoric, we did not truly have liberation on our minds. ... (link)
For our coverage of the Womankind report Aly refers to, see here.

See here for a blog post on Women and peacebuilding in Afghanistan.

For some lesser-known reporting on women in Afghanistan, see here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Democracy losing out to warlords

Radio Free Europe talks to Jan Alekozai, former President of the Afghan Association of Ontario (see here). Alekozai has been on assignment in Kabul for the past month.

Radio Free Europe
April 13, 2008
Afghanistan: Warlordism 'Is Winning' Versus Democracy

Radio Free Afghanistan broadcaster Jan Alekozai spent the past month in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan, where he was often approached by students, local officials, and Afghan tribesmen who expressed their concerns about corruption, security, and distrust in the government. He spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about those concerns.

Q: During the past month when you were in Afghanistan, outside of your own efforts to speak with people from different segments of Afghan society, how were ordinary Afghans able to approach you and what were some of their concerns?

Jan Alekozai: I participated, for example, in a meeting [in Nangarhar province]. ... When the meeting was over, hundreds of people approached me -- students from high schools and from universities. They were asking, "Do the Westerners and the Americans know our problems -- that aid money is coming from the Westerners but it goes into the pockets of [corrupt] people in the government offices." ...

Q: What did Afghans tell you bothered them most about the security situation in Afghanistan?

Alekozai: People think now that [troops from] 37 countries or more are there in Afghanistan the security should be much, much better. They should terminate the warlordism and the private militias. [Instead], those people have connections with the governmental officials and they still have protection from the government. ...

People want the international community to stop the private militias -- the groups that are so powerful. ...

We are an international radio [station]. We do something. But our correspondents, even, cannot say something against those warlords because they are very powerful. ...

Q: Who do Afghans think is responsible for the strengthening of warlords in Afghanistan today?

Alekozai: Number one, the international community -- or especially the Americans. They say: "Why have the Americans brought those people into power -- the warlords? They knew they were warlords." And [Afghans] can name them for you -- from the vice president to the deputy ministers and ministers. Quite a few were brought from outside. ...

Q: How do Afghans think the warlords have been able to consolidate this power?

Alekozai: In parliament, 65 percent [of the lawmakers] are warlords. There is no question. A few of them are ordinary Afghans or politicians. But most of them are warlords. They are much stronger than they were six years ago or five years ago, because now they get more money, more security from the international community, more bodyguards. ...

Q: So if there is a conflict in Afghanistan now between warlordism versus democracy, which is winning?

Alekozai: At present, the warlordism is winning. ... (link)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Taliban the next al-Sahwa?

An unorthodox analysis, but interesting:

News analysis: U.S. Needs Taliban to Regain Afghanistan
Jalal Ghazi: Eye on the Arab Media

April 10 - The Taliban are back and stronger and more popular than ever. NATO and the United States will soon have no choice but to negotiate with them six years after driving them out of Kabul. That’s the impression one gets from reading Arab media on the war in Afghanistan. ...

The Afghan people have lost confidence in NATO and the United States. Journalist and political writer Ahmad Asfahani told ANB, “There is a large segment of the Afghan people who will not accept the presence of occupation forces in Afghanistan and will not accept a government that is linked to the occupation.” Many Afghans do not see much difference between today’s occupation and that of the British in the 19th century or the Soviets from 1979 to 1989.

The Taliban has capitalized on this anti-occupation sentiment by establishing itself as the main resistance force against the occupation. Many Afghans are now willing to overlook the Taliban’s rigid interpretation of Islam. “The Taliban movement is no longer just a former regime. It rather represents a large segment of the Afghan population regardless of whether we agree [with its ideology] or not,” said Asfahani. ...

According to [India Today commentator Muhna] al Habil, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the commander for southern Afghanistan, was relieved of his command by Mullah Omar because of his willingness to take money from Arab fighters. This is an indication that the Taliban is trying to operate independently from Al Qaeda. ...

Hani al-Sibai, director of the London-based al-Maqreze Center of Historical Studies, told ANB that he believes the British who have been doing much of the fighting have been simply making deals with the Taliban and handing some areas back to them. “An agreement was made between the British and the Taliban,” Al-Sibai said, “in which Musa Qala was handed over to the Taliban forces.”

The United States did the same thing in Iraq when they handed Fallujah over to a Ba’ath general after intensive fighting did not establish control of the city. Today former Ba’ath leaders are leading Awakening Councils, or Sahwa, against Al Qaeda. Could the Taliban do the same in Afghanistan for the Americans? (link)
On the nature of al-Sahwa in Iraq, see the indispensable Patrick Cockburn here and also this great piece by Dahr Jamail.

Friday, April 11, 2008

War on terror's secret Kabul trials

The NYT has the story. Comment would only blunt it:

Afghans Hold Secret Trials for Men That U.S. Detained
New York Times
By Tim Golden and David Rohde

KABUL, April 10 - Dozens of Afghan men who were previously held by the United States at Bagram Air Base and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are now being tried here in secretive Afghan criminal proceedings based mainly on allegations forwarded by the American military.

The prisoners are being convicted and sentenced to as much as 20 years’ confinement in trials that typically run between half an hour and an hour, said human rights investigators who have observed them. One early trial was reported to have lasted barely 10 minutes, an investigator said.

The prosecutions are based in part on a security law promulgated in 1987, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Witnesses do not appear in court and cannot be cross-examined. There are no sworn statements of their testimony.

Instead, the trials appear to be based almost entirely on terse summaries of allegations that are forwarded to the Afghan authorities by the United States military. Afghan security agents add what evidence they can, but the cases generally center on events that sometimes occurred years ago in war zones that the authorities may now be unable to reach.

“These are no-witness paper trials that deny the defendants a fundamental fair-trial right to challenge the evidence and mount a defense,” said Sahr MuhammedAlly, a lawyer for the advocacy group Human Rights First who has studied the proceedings. “So any convictions you get are fundamentally flawed.” ...

Since 2002 the Bush administration has pressed foreign governments to prosecute the Guantánamo prisoners from their countries as a condition of the men’s repatriation. But many of those governments — including such close American allies as Britain — have objected, saying the American evidence would not hold up in their courts.

Afghanistan represents perhaps the most notable exception.

Although President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a decree law drafted with American help that would have allowed Afghanistan to hold the former detainees indefinitely as “enemy combatants,” the Afghan authorities have now tried 82 of the former prisoners since last October and referred more than 120 other cases for prosecution.

Of the prisoners who have been through the makeshift Afghan court, 65 have been convicted and 17 acquitted ... (link)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Clamouring for negotiations

Lately, we have seen (e.g., here) that calls for negotiations with the Taliban have been coming from various Afghan politicians and observers. Now, there is the claim by the United National Front - Afghanistan's closest thing to an opposition party - that they have in fact already begun talks with Taliban insurgents:

Afghan opposition courts Taliban
By Anand Gopal - Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Kabul, Afghanistan, April 3 - The country's most powerful opposition group announced last week that they have been engaging in peace talks with the Taliban. The move signals both the growing divisions within the Afghan government and the increasing possibility that elements of the insurgent group could be drawn into the political process, say analysts.

If successful, officials argue that the talks will change the way the United States deals with Afghanistan, by forcing Washington to contend with the opposition.

Representatives of the United National Front – an assemblage of ministers, members of parliament, and warlords led by former Northern Alliance commanders – say they have held secret talks with the Taliban for at least five months.

"Leaders of some Taliban sections contacted us," says Front spokesman Sayyid Agha Hussein Fazel Sancharaki, "saying, 'We are both Muslims, we are both Afghans, and we are both not satisfied with the government's performance.' "

The government, which has had a series of secret talks with the "moderate Taliban" since 2003, has in contrast taken a different approach to negotiations. It insists that the Taliban must first surrender completely – disavow armed insurrection and accept the foreign presence.

But some observers say this strategy is too stringent and will not produce fruitful talks. "Why are they negotiating with Taliban who aren't fighting?" former Taliban official turned political analyst Wahid Muzjda asks. "The problem is with those who are fighting the government, and yet the government refuses to speak to this group." ...

Perhaps to avoid being outmaneuvered by the opposition, Mr. Karzai's office responded by stating that both houses of parliament can negotiate directly with the insurgent group. The response marked a shift from previous policy in which Karzai tightly controlled the negotiation process. ...

The Front formed last year when former Mujahideen commander and president Burhanuddin Rabbani organized other strongmen and former Northern Alliance commanders in opposition to Karzai. ...

Regardless of their intentions, experts say that recent declarations of negotiations help draw the Taliban into the political process and convince all sides that a powersharing agreement is possible in the future.

"All these talks have the net effect of legitimizing the Taliban and weakening the rationale for foreign presence in Afghanistan," [Professor Antonio] Giustozzi says. ... (link)
The Globe and Mail has a piece arguing the merits of peace talks with the Taliban:
Talking to the Taliban: when and why
Special to Globe and Mail - April 7, 2008

... Whereas Dutch NATO forces engage in dialogue with Taliban in Uruzgan, and the British in Helmand, Canada's position has mirrored that of the United States: “We don't talk to terrorists.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose government we are supposedly supporting, has repeatedly stated a desire to negotiate with the Taliban and other armed opposition, but has received little evident support from NATO. The terms of the United Nations engagement, set by Western allies, contains no peace mandate.

Let us make some clear assertions. This war, which is partly a continuation of the pre-2001 Afghan civil war, cannot be ended through military means. The Taliban and other armed opposition groups have some war goals we would regard as illegitimate (for example, ending female education and institution of a Taliban regime) and some we should seriously consider as legitimate (for example, ending the categorical exclusion of one faction from the political process and eventually having foreign troops leave the country).

There is also a regional dimension to the Taliban's war goals. Many insurgents express concerns about what they see as excessive Iranian influence promoting structural discrimination against Pashtuns. It is also interesting that [Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith] uncovered distrust for Pakistan's intentions among Taliban foot soldiers. They hold this in common with the Kabul government, which sees Pakistan as supporting the insurgents. ...

Supporting peace dialogue does not mean acceding to measures Canadians and the Afghan constitution would regard as illegitimate. It means seeking common ground and working from there. It does not mean immediate foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Most Afghans agree that in without a peace process, this would bring a disastrous escalation of the civil war. Military peace support functions are necessary while a peace process unfolds. ... (link)
Next door in Pakistan, there is now what appears to be some serious momentum toward negotiations with insurgents. The recent elections there resulted in victories for Bhutto's PPP and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, as well as the avowedly socialist Awami National Party, who are Pashtun nationalists. Both the PPP and the PML-N are at least lukewarm on negotiations with Taliban insurgents at war with the Pakistani government. The ANP, however, appears to be already engaged in negotiations, and further emphasizes that they see negotiations as vital for dealing with the Afghan Taliban as well:
Jirgas only way to defeat extremism: Asfandyar
Friday March 28, 2008

[President of the Awami National Party Asfandyar Wali Khan:] “We want to resolve the issue [in Afghanistan] through our customary Pashtun ‘Jirgas’; that is the only peaceful way of resolving the issues, and we are in contact with those with whom we want to have dialogue,” he added.

“We believe in peaceful resolution of all issues including Kashmir through dialogue, but it is sad that when we talk about dialogue we are labelled as ‘traitors’ and Indian agents,” he added. ... (link)
Whereas Wali is labelled a traitor to Pakistan for his efforts, in this country a political leader's stated commitment to peace earned him the vicious nickname of "Taliban Jack". (Considering that Afghanistan's Karzai has sought negotiations, it is revealing that we haven't heard any Western commentators deriding "Taliban Hamid"; somehow I doubt we'll hear about "Taliban Wali" either.)

Pakistani newspaper The Nation has more:
[Asfandyar Wali Khan] also underlined that the United States had agreed that Pakistan’s Parliament is the body to settle issues, including that of war on terror. “All the political parties of the country have agreed that there should not be any military operation in the name of war on terror as Pakistan faced more loss than any other country of the world did”, he added.

Responding to a question, the ANP chief said that peace could not be restored in FATA until the end of so-called war on terror. He said that hundreds of people had been killed, arrested and tortured in the name of war terror. ... (link)
The ANP's chief minister-designate of Northwest Frontier Province, Amir Haider Khan Hoti sheds further light on the approach:
Our policy is very clear. The way this issue has been handled so far, in our opinion and in our assessment, was not the proper way to deal with it. In any society, more so in our Pashtun society, no issue is ever resolved through the use of force and power. Issues are always resolved through dialogue, jirgas and negotiations. Even beyond Pakistan, countries which have had conflicts had to eventually return to the negotiating table to resolve their problems. In England, for instance, the British government had to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army, which it had previously dubbed as a terrorist organisation, and worked out the Good Friday Agreement. ...

[I]f we, the parties to this conflict, do not sit together and talk to each other, this problem would not be solved. This problem is not going to be solved by my going to talk to the elders only. That may be good. But unless we somehow approach the one who has taken up arms, or is involved in suicide bombing or has gone to the other extreme, and reach an understanding with him, the problem would not be solved. You have to approach and sit with those elements. We may not sit with them directly. We may involve elders to approach them. But they will have to be approached and engaged in negotiations.

But having said this, I understand that this is an uphill task. There may be some forces who would want to sabotage this process which in any case is a very complicated process. ...

[The Americans] should understand our problem. We don’t want them to help us resolve our issues. What we want them to do is to let us solve our problems by ourselves. And I hope they will understand. ... (link)
Notice that Hoti foresees talking even with those involved in suicide bombings - perhaps an indication that the ANP has no intention of limiting talks to what others call the "moderate Taliban".

Pakistan's oldest English-language paper, Dawn, has still more:
ANP gets in touch with local Taliban
By Zulfiqar Ali

PESHAWAR, March 29: The Awami National Party and the local Taliban have formally made contacts to negotiate peace and find a solution to the growing militancy in the NWFP and tribal areas. ...

The Taliban have welcomed the ANP’s victory in the elections and congratulated the party leadership. “Greetings have been extended to the ANP leadership and Mullah Omar has praised party’s victory in the elections,” said a senior officer-bearer of the ANP.

However, he said he did not know exactly whether Mullah Omar of Afghanistan had greeted the party or it was a local Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. ... (link)
To get a sense of how this is being interpreted by articulate Pakistani opinion, check out this editorial in the Daily Times:
Editorial:Taliban conditions for talks

[Pakistani Taliban] leaders, including Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, Maulvi Sher Bahadar, Dr Muhammad Ismail, and party spokesman Maulvi Omar, said they were ready for talks with the government if Pakistan were “to give up its pro-US stance first”. ...

[They] also demanded implementation of sharia law and the jirga system for their territory “according to tribal traditions”, assuming that sharia law was not in force in the rest of Pakistan. They added, however, that “jihad against America would continue in Afghanistan”, but that they were ready “to end their activities and improve law and order in Pakistan if the government showed flexibility”. ...

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said on Saturday that fighting terrorism would be his top priority but offered to hold talks with those militants who laid down their weapons ...

The answer to the prime minister’s own "condition" offered to the Taliban of laying down arms was given at [a recent Taliban leaders' meeting] through the resolution that the Taliban would not lay down arms in Pakistan "as long as the US army was present in Afghanistan". This makes clear the possible modality of negotiations between the Taliban and Islamabad. Before Pakistan sits down at the table with them, it will have to at least announce that it is no longer supporting American policy in the region. It will also have to waive its condition that the Taliban lay down their arms. ... (link)
The latest development: Chief Minister Hoti has spearheaded the drive to make good on the pledges above in the NWFP:
Cabinet body to negotiate peace in Swat

KABUL - April 8 (PAN): The NWFP cabinet, making good on its election campaign pledge, Tuesday constituted a committee to initiate dialogue with pro-Taliban miscreants in the troubled northwestern valley of Swat, a private Pakistani TV channel reported.

Formed at a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the committee is jointly headed by senior ministers Bashir Ahmed Bilour of the Awami National Party (ANP) and Rahimdad Khan of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). ... (link)

And there are attempts at negotiations afoot in Pakistan's Balochistan province:
Balochistan government in contact with dissidents

KABUL -Apr 7 (PAN): In an effort to bring normality to the resource-rich southwestern province, bordering Afghanistan, the Balochistan government has decided to initiate peace talks with local militants instead of pressing on with military means alone. ...

Dawn quoted [Governor Nawab Zulfiqar Ali] Magsi as saying a stop to the military sweep and restoring peace in the restive province would be the new governments priority. The use of force over the past five years not failed to yield any breakthrough, he argued. ...

He went on to justify his initiative by saying: The crux of the problem is that no one has tried to talk to the Baloch dissidents in the past. Instead of engaging them in a continuous process of talks, the government resorted to the unabated use of force, which further alienated the people. (link)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Afghans speak

The BBC website has extracts of interviews with four Afghan men from four different provinces - Balkh, Herat, Kandahar and Ghazni (see map). Excerpts:

Afghans speak: Dangers and security

The BBC asked people from four Afghan provinces for their views on security there and the impact of foreign troops.

KANDAHAR PROVINCE: Anwar Imitiyaz, student

The first thing people need here is security. People are unwilling to go out and about, even to go shopping. ...

This is the problem the security forces face: they can't distinguish insurgents from ordinary city dwellers. Insurgents come to the city, put on city clothes and fade in by imitating the culture of those in the city.

But really these insurgents resent me just as much if not more than they hate Americans. ... This is because I am educated and I work for a foreign organisation. ...

The insurgency for Kandaharis means more than bomb blasts. It means shooting, kidnap and robbery. Foreign troops make no difference to that. What can they do? If anything, they cause problems. All of this happens because foreign troops are present. I don't believe they provide any security to the people.

The fight against the insurgents is also managed poorly. Foreign troops and Afghan troops don't co-ordinate well. Every activity being run inside and outside the city is directed by foreign troops....

GHAZNI PROVINCE: M Zaki Shahamat, journalist

Ghazni is a mixed province home to many of Afghanistan's different ethnic tribes. We have Hazara, Pashtun and many Sikhs as well. Life should be harmonious.

But the Taleban have announced an insurgency in this province.

While national and international organisations do try to reconstruct life here, Ghazni does not get the kind of help that Kandahar and Helmand does. There is little comparison when looking at the level of aid.

There are American troops stationed in the centre of the province on the outskirts of the city. It is very difficult to see what development work they have undertaken. ...

Foreign troops do very little in the outlying districts. When they do get out of the city, they do not aim to provide security to the people. They sometimes carry out unpopular operations. At night they search homes for suspected terrorists or foreigners.

They have their own strategy.

BALKH PROVINCE: Naqeeb Poya, television producer

... In Mazar-e-Sharif city, there is strong security presence. The police are supported by the Polish forces and they are well equipped.

Because of this relative safety, when I go to other provinces I really do feel the fear.

International forces are needed and I would vote for them to stay for longer. They are a very important part of the area. ...

HERAT PROVINCE: Anonymous man

Life in Herat has changed a lot since a year ago. The security situation has deteriorated. ..

Seven years ago, people were extremely positive about the deployment of international forces and everyone felt like the bad days had come to an end.

I am thankful to the international forces who sacrifice their lives to bring peace for us. I, however, believe that those deployed in Herat did not manage as well as they could have if they had better understanding of the situation.

The position of international community in general and foreign forces in particular is not at all clear to me. There is neither a clear strategy on fighting the so-called terrorism nor on assisting Afghan government.

The Taleban insurgency is not the major concern for people. It is general lawlessness that has put people on high alert. Everyone is so stressed. ... (link)
Also on the BBC website there is a video of an interview with The Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini (pictured, with friends). He seems to have much more faith in NATO forces than most of the men quoted above. Mind you, Hosseini does not live in Afghanistan; his childhood was spent there but he has lived in the US since he was a teenager.

At any rate, he makes an important observation about the situation of women in Afghanistan:
I think it's undeniable that the status of women has changed in pockets - particularly in an urban place like Kabul...

But in many parts of the country the situation is still dismal. Particularly in the very tribal, conservative regions where women are still - and this is not something the Taliban brought about; this goes back centuries - where women are still invisible from public life or they still live in seclusion ... (link)
Over at Cafe Babel, we find a short transcript of an interview with one Mujahideen Khan in the Panjshir Valley which Estonian journalists recorded last year. Khan is a former jihadi fighter who claims to have fought against Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden. Excerpts:
The Taliban are not human - they kill themselves with bombs! Meanwhile, US forces were bombing our provinces, killing our people whilst thinking they were killing the Taliban, thus paving the ground for the latter. We do not know who the Taliban is right now - maybe we will face them again. ...

When Hamid Karzai became president in 2001, we thought Afghanistan would become a great, reconstructed country. I think that the UN didn’t need to come and help. They should have set up a good interim government in Afghanistan led by Afghans, not foreigners. There are more bad things in Afghanistan than there used to be. ... (link)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

More than 30 civilians thought dead in NATO bombing

An update on the incident from the weekend:

Probe of Afghan 'civilian deaths'
BBC - 2008/04/07

The Afghan government has launched an investigation into reports that up to 33 civilians were killed in a US and Afghan army operation.

The deputy governor of the eastern province of Nuristan told the BBC they died in heavy fighting at the weekend.

The US military said several insurgents were killed but that it had no reports of civilian deaths. ...

The provincial deputy governor, Mohammad Aleem, said women and children were among those killed in the operation in Dohabi district. ... (link)
Pajhwok Afghan News reported the number of civilians killed to be up to forty.

War and business

We featured (second hand) the views of Nelofer Pazira last week. Today we feature a short piece she did for CBC Television where Pazira takes a camera crew with her as she visits an arms sales show. Various corporate sales weasels try to weasel their way through short conversations with Pazira, who grew up in Afghanistan amid the violence of war and occupation.

While Pazira is not always eloquent, she manages a few great pull quotes:

It seems that we are more interested in wanting to sell these [military] products than engage in a conversation about what would be left behind when these products are taken to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

If we are thinking that possessing all of these heavy duty machinery is going to help us win the war in Afghanistan I think that is something we have to rethink.

... What I am suggesting is a different way of thinking... A different way of thinking about war is not to think of it as associated with winning, with victory, and with heroes. Because war at the end of the day is not about heroes. It is about death and destruction.
Pazira's preferred counterinsurgency approach is that of the Dutch contingent of ISAF operating in Uruzgan province, citing this New York Times article by Chris Chivers which touts the superiority of their brand of war fighting. She rather earnestly cites the glowing self-reviews made there by various NATO commanders and spokespeople.

But, to return to those weasels. Here's the most cringe-worthy performance:
Man: It's not an easy thing for a commander to decide to do... Because you know that that person is totally innocent but you've got your team and your troops here which are probably more important. Why? Because eventually you need them to protect [that innocent person] later on. So you take that chance and you say, 'I'll minimize [the risk] the best I possibly can because I'm using all this technology here.' That is going to pinpoint it and throw something through that window and just blow up that particular house or that area.

Pazira: You've had to do it?

(Grinning) Yes.
You can see the video here.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bucharest summit in review

Veteran British journalist Patrick Seale is one of the world's leading Middle East correspondents. He writes in Beirut's Al-Hayat on the heels of NATO's Bucharest summit:

NATO needs an Exit Strategy in Afghanistan
Patrick Seale - Al-Hayat - April 4, 2008

... At their summit meeting in Bucharest this week, NATO heads of state have discussed how to boost the Alliance's war effort in Afghanistan. They should instead have debated how to reach a peace settlement with the insurgents -- and how to get out.

NATO has evidently got itself into a colossal muddle in Afghanistan. Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong. It is far from clear why the Alliance is fighting there at all, and what it is seeking to achieve. Talk of 'victory' is a dangerous illusion.

In 2003, there were 20,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. By 2007, this number had trebled to 60,000 - and is shortly to increase further with the arrival of another 3,200 U.S. Marines and a further 1,000 French soldiers (as President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to the anger and dismay of the Socialist opposition. That he chose to make this pledge in the British Parliament, during his recent state visit to Britain, rather than in the French National Assembly has not helped his cause.)

Has this vast increase in troop levels brought added security to the country? ... Alas, quite the contrary.

... As Westerners are often targeted [by insurgent attacks], they live in fear, restrict their movements and therefore cannot help much with reconstruction and development. ...

A leading French expert on Afghanistan, Professor Gilles Dorronsoro, believes that NATO's key blunder has been the attempt to impose a Western model of modernization on Afghanistan, where it is inevitably seen as a foreign import. The goals of democracy, of a market economy and of gender equality may be embraced by a small elite in Kabul, but are rejected in much of the countryside, where they face incomprehension and hostility.

President Hamid Karzai's state is a fiction. It controls only 30 per cent of the territory - the rest is in the hands of warlords or insurgents - and has only a tenuous grip on the economy.

In Afghanistan, fundamentalist Islam is a form of nationalism. The two are indistinguishable. The West may seek to demonize the Taliban as medieval barbarians, alien to Afghan society. The truth, however, would seem to be that they are very much a home-bred product. Although originally almost exclusively Pashtun, the insurgency has now spread beyond the Pashtun areas, pointing to the Taliban's growing support.

In 2006-7, there was a notable change of sentiment in Afghanistan. The idea took hold that NATO and the Americans were losing the war. This alone should have persuaded the heads of state gathered in Bucharest this week that it was time to bring this thankless neo-colonial military adventure to a close. ...

[NATO/US airstrikes] have inevitably caused the death of hundreds of Afghan civilians and much material 'collateral damage.' Breaking into homes, ignoring local customs and showing disrespect for ordinary Afghans has also created immense anger. The result has been to bring large segments of the population over to the Taliban side. As in Iraq, far from pacifying the country, U.S. strategy has created an enemy bent on revenge.

There is much talk in Washington these days of taking the war to the Taliban in the tribal areas of West Pakistan. Already, U.S. air strikes pay no attention to the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is as if the frontier had ceased to exist. Even Barack Obama, the leading Democratic presidential candidate and a stern critic of the Iraq war, has spoken of 'cleaning out' Pakistan's tribal areas.

This is dangerous talk. Pakistan is seething with angry opposition to the NATO campaign in Afghanistan and, more generally, to U.S. President George W Bush's 'War on terror'. Some experts believe that a large-scale Western ground incursion into Pakistan's tribal areas could split the Pakistan army, bring down President Musharraf, and put an end to any security cooperation with the West.

On a visit to Islamabad in late March, John Negroponte, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, was surprised to hear that the leaders of Pakistan's new coalition government - former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari (the late Benazir Bhutto's husband) - want talks with the Taliban rather than military strikes. ... (link)
The Toronto Star's Mitch Potter is NOT one of the world's leading Middle East correspondents. He too writes on the aftermath of Bucharest:
NATO leaders lower Afghanistan expectations
By Mitch Potter - Toronto Star

BUCHAREST, April 6 ... Reading between the lines leaves little doubt that the bedraggled mission in Afghanistan is coming to the conclusion that lowering its lofty goalposts is the only way out.

French analyst Etienne de Durand – who just returned from a research mission in Afghanistan, where he spoke to Canadian, American, British and French commanders – puts it this way: "We lower the needs and raise the means. We close that gap. That is what the Bucharest summit was all about."

Explains de Durand, who is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the French Institute for International Relations: "From the beginning, there has been a huge gap between the ambitious objectives for Afghanistan and the means that the world provided to deal with the reality.

"But the truth is, we are not going to create a model democracy in the Hindu Kush. That is a myth and absolutely let us dispel it. ...

Estimates vary, but Afghan military manpower is a bit more than halfway toward NATO's goal of 80,000 trained troops by 2010. ... (link)
Potter might have cited the estimates he mentions to give readers a more realistic picture. One of the more authoritative estimates is that offered by ISAF's commanding general, the American Dan "Bomber" McNeill. In a September interview with Der Spiegel he relayed estimates that the Afghan National Army consists of just 22,000 soldiers (link). (For a heavy dose of criticism of Potter, see this revealing exchange between Potter and ZNet's Justin Podur.)

Potter's deferral to power is of course regular fare for readers of our national press, as CP reporter Murray Brewster illustrates:
Stephen Harper, the new face of Canada's war in Afghanistan
Murray Brewster

OTTAWA, April 6 (CP) - Somewhere along the way Stephen Harper realized that the war in Afghanistan wasn't about us, it was about them - them being the Afghans. ...

"What we've actually found is: when you argue our self interest, that's actually less appealing to Canadian public opinion than the argument that we are actually concretely helping the Afghan people with their lives," [Harper] told a panel discussion of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, an American policy group, in Bucharest.

It was a surprisingly candid admission for a prime minister with a hawkish reputation.

Some on the Conservative benches would argue that's the message they've been trying to get across all along. But the fact that they'd been hopelessly inarticulate about it was one of the main findings of the advisory commission headed by former Liberal minister John Manley.

It didn't help that former defence minister Gordon O'Connor once told an Edmonton audience that our presence in Afghanistan was about retribution for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
If Brewster were more critical - or more knowledgeable - he could have pointed out that revenge is not a legal justification for the use of force. Since the aftermath of the Second World War, it has been illegal under international law to mount armed attacks for purposes of retribution. Brewster evidently has no problem with the fact that our former Defense Minister was apparently motivated by criminal intentions.
... Insiders recount how, a few weeks ago when six female Afghan MPs visited Ottawa and sat in the public gallery of the House of Commons, Harper turned to Industry Minister Jim Prentice and gestured to the visitors.

"If we don't succeed in Afghanistan, the Taliban will return and they'll face execution," he said. (link)
Here, Brewster's lack of critical faculty prevents him from making an obvious and timely observation: that female Afghan MP Malalai Joya has herself received death threats from fellow Afghan MPs whom we are effectively supporting. A competent and critical journalist might have made the connection and not simply repeated the government's feeble scare tactic.