Thursday, August 27, 2009

Afghan elections wrap-up

(Sorry for the length of this post, but the elections have elicited some interesting revelations and commentary, which I extract below - lovingly edited, as always.)

Preliminary reports are now saying that, with 17% of votes counted, Hamid Karzai has a lead over Dr. Abdullah of 45% to 35%. Let's look at some of the more interesting reports and commentary on the election.

Malalai Joya presents what seems to be a common view of Afghans on the street:

Why Afghans Have No Hope in This Week's Vote
by Malalai Joya

Like millions of Afghans, I have no hope in the results of this week’s election. In a country ruled by warlords, occupation forces, Taliban insurgency, drug money and guns, no one can expect a legitimate or fair vote.

Among the people on the street, a common sentiment is, ‘Everything has already been decided by the U.S. and NATO, and the real winner has already been picked by the White House and Pentagon.’ ...

Hamid Karzai has cemented alliances with brutal warlords and fundamentalists in order to maintain his position. Although our Constitution forbids war criminals from running for office, he has named two notorious militia commanders as his vice-presidential running mates...

Deals have been made with countless fundamentalists in Karzai’s maneuvering to stay in power. For example, pro-Iranian extremist Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, who has been accused of war crimes, has been promised five cabinet positions for his party, and so he has told the media he’s backing Karzai. A deal has even been done with the dreaded warlord Rashid Dostum – who has returned from exile in Turkey to campaign for Karzai – and many other such terrorists...

The two main contenders to Karzai’s continued rule, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, do not offer any change; both are former cabinet ministers in this discredited regime and neither has a real, broad footing amongst the people. Abdullah has run a high profile campaign, in part due to the backing and financial support he receives from Iran’s fundamentalist regime...

Democracy will never come to Afghanistan through the barrel of a gun, or from the cluster bombs dropped by foreign forces. The struggle will be long and difficult, but the values of real democracy, human rights and women’s rights will only be won by the Afghan people themselves... (link)
Jean MacKenzie, who for some years has headed the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Kabul and has managed to get out to the less-visited places of Afghanistan with some regularity. Her frank assessments of the war have often presented some surprises, and she does not disappoint this time, bitterly explaining many of the short-comings of the Afghan election:
Afghanistan's Sham Vote
By Jean MacKenzie - The New York Times

AUGUST 25 - The dust had barely settled on the Afghan elections before the U.S. government, the United Nations and the European Union were hailing them as a success, commending voters for their heroism and election workers for their relative efficiency.

This would be laughable if it were not such a great shame. The elections were severely marred by violence and widespread fraud, and the results are unlikely to placate a population already frustrated by eight years of mismanagement and corruption.

The haste with which U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide held a press conference to say that Aug. 20 was “a good day for Afghanistan” merely served to underscore the central, if unappetizing, truth about the Afghan poll: It was never meant for the Afghans.

Instead, it was intended to convince voters in New York, London, Paris and Rome that their soldiers and their governments have not been wasting blood and treasure...

If last Thursday was, indeed, a “good day,” one would have to wonder what a bad day looks like. There were three explosions in Kabul by 8:00 a.m., and several more during the voting period.

Reporters calling in to our news bureau from the south were dodging rockets all day — we could hear explosions in the background as they filed their stories. By day’s end 14 rockets had fallen on Helmand Province, 17 on Kandahar.

At least 30 people died, and possibly many more. How many we do not know exactly, since the Afghan government imposed a news blackout on reporting violence during the elections.

Turnout was minimal. Even in Kabul, polling stations were half empty. During parliamentary elections in 2005, barely 36 percent of registered voters in the capital went to the polls. What I saw last Thursday fell far below even that modest threshold. Nevertheless, the Independent Election Commission is claiming the turnout was between 40 and 50 percent.

The figure is merely notional. For one thing, in a country where there are no voter rolls, there are not even approximate figures for how many voters there actually are. The I.E.C. can say with confidence that there have been about 17 million voter registration cards issued in Afghanistan since 2004. But many voters have multiple cards, or have lost their old ones and acquired replacements.

Media sources claim that 7 million people voted last Thursday. What they actually mean is that 7 million ballots were cast. This is far from the same thing. Voting requires merely the number of a voter registration card. There are no signatures, no thumbprints. Tribal leaders (who in many cases were administering polling stations) have been collecting and copying voter registration cards for weeks, telling villagers that it was necessary in order to register them for material assistance.

All that was needed on election day was a low voter turnout. If by day’s end, for example, 100 people had voted, but there were actually 500 registered cards in a district, the polling center administrator could cast up to 400 ballots for the candidate of his choice.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on what is, essentially, a charade. But that is not the real tragedy of these elections. What the international community has done is demonstrate to Afghans that democracy is a sham. Trust in these elections has been very low among Afghans from the outset... (link)
While MacKenzie's piece notes the elections were "seriously marred by violence," much of the mass media seems uninterested in that story. Time Magazine is an exception, thanks to journalist Jason Motlagh:
"Raging gun-battles in Baghlan province resulted in the deaths of at least 21 militants and forced polling stations to close. Overall, however, the south fared worse. Just one voting station opened in southern Helmand province..." (link)
Agence-France Presse expands on some of the issues put forth by MacKenzie:
'Biased' Afghan vote commission under fire
By Emmanuel Duparcq

KABUL, Aug 24 (AFP) - Afghanistan's election commission, which is due to release Tuesday the first results from contested polls, has come under fire for bias and allegedly colluding in fraud to the advantage of President Hamid Karzai.

Suspicion emerged two years before the election with a presidential decree appointing Azizullah Lodin, a former academic and Karzai advisor in the western province of Herat, head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC).

His appointment was announced on January 3, 2007 and Karzai repeatedly ignored calls from political opponents for Lodin to be approved by parliament.

On election day, Lodin went before the media to congratulate the country on "massive" turnout despite reports from independent observers that participation was the worst of any election in recent memory.

The commission predicted turnout at 50 percent. Monitors put participation as low as 10 percent in some Taliban strongholds -- a dubious achievement even for the first election organised by Afghans themselves since the 2001 US-led invasion.

One Western diplomat slapped aside 50 percent as a "joke," pointing to weak turnout in the south and southeast, where Taliban insurgents are strong and where they threatened death for voters who went to the ballot box.

The IEC has yet to publish official turnout figures. It should start trickling out partial results from Tuesday but the final result is not expected for another two weeks.

Analysts have raised concern about the length of time before the results are announced, warning this might further raise suspicions against the IEC...

From the outset, US-based group Human Rights Watch said the independence of the IEC was compromised by Karzai's appointment of Lodin without parliamentary oversight and accused Lodin of displaying "clear bias".

This was manifested against "some opposition candidates, including attempts to pressure the Electoral Complaints Commission to exclude certain candidates and publicly criticising the calibre and mental health of others," it said.

"There have also been complaints made by candidates and monitoring officials also have raised questions about the impartiality and behavior of some of the commission's field staff," said HRW.

The election commission and its staff have also faced accusations of massaging the process in favour of Karzai on polling day.

"There were reports from some provinces that the commission exerted pressure on its staff in a manner which raised questions about its impartiality," said a preliminary report from the EU mission monitoring the election.

Leading local monitors, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan which deployed nearly 7,000 observers on election day, also quoted witness accounts denouncing IEC staff for pro-Karzai attitudes... (link)
If it were not enough that official voting rates are a "joke," and that the actual rates were "a dubious achievement," two AP reporters find that the elections may signal a setback for women:
Afghan elections seen as a setback for women
Nahal Toosi and Noor Khan

KABUL, Aug 24 (AP) - For women, Afghanistan's recent elections appear to have been more of a setback than a step forward.

Early reports strongly suggest that voter turnout fell more sharply for women than for men in Thursday's polls. Election observers blame Taliban attacks, a dearth of female election workers and hundreds of closed women's voting sites.

Some worry the result could be a new government that pays even less attention to women's concerns in a country where cultural conservatism already restricts female participation in public life...

At least 650 polling stations for women did not open, according to the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent vote monitoring group.

In the southern province of Uruzgan, only 6 of 36 women's polling stations opened, the group said. That was partly because authorities couldn't find enough female staffers... (link)
Showing no small amount of bravery in the face of government bullying of the press, Pajhwok Afghan News reports on voting fraud:
At a polling station in Gardez Girls High School, some monitors alleged minor girls cast votes. Torpikai, head of the 5th polling station, said most of the girls were aged between 12 and 15.

She griped security forces did not bother preventing the girls from entering the polling station. Election workers allegedly told the girls the names of several candidates they should vote for.

Pajhwok Afghan News saw the voter registration card of a 12-year-old girl... (link)
Pajhwok also ran another story which raised questions of voting irregularities. It cites the Asian Network for Free Elections and their criticisms of the polling:
ANFREL observers believed lack of awareness among females and security problems reduced the number of women casting votes, the chairperson added.

The influence of tribal elders, misuse of government resources in favour of a specific candidate, use of low-quality ink, multiple registration cards and the participation of ineligible people were some of the irregularities noted by the delegation.

Afghanistan being a fledgling democracy could not be expected to show the highest standards of democratic values, he remarked, acknowledging election violations existed everywhere.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan also spokes of violations and low turnout in the elections.

ANFREL observers suggested Independent Election Commission officials should be appointed through a balanced system by parliament and not by an individual. There were complaints of the IEC workers demonstrating partiality, he concluded. (link)
The Toronto Star's Rosie Dimanno also runs down the sins of the Afghan election:
What the observers saw: Underage voters, illiterates being told who to mark their ballots for, monitors ejected from polling centres, men acting as proxy voters for women and, in at least one case, somebody hauling a pre-stuffed ballot box into a polling station... (link)
Lastly, Patrick Cockburn, who possesses a remarkable depth of knowledge, sums up the more general situation. He writes that the US/NATO war has become both an intervention on one side of a civil war, and an occupation which has little chance of winning over the population:
The Truth About The Afghan Election

In Iraq and Afghanistan American and British forces became participants in civil wars which their own presence has exacerbated and prolonged. The US and UK governments persistently ignore the extent to which foreign military occupation has destabilized both countries...

Foreign military presence was originally acceptable to Afghans in a way that it never was in Iraq. This is partly because Iraq was occupied outside Kurdistan, but most of Afghanistan was not. While only 25 per cent of all Afghans say they support attacks on US or NATO/ISAF forces, this figure jumps to 44 per cent where people report shelling or air strikes in their areas according to an ABC News/BBC/ARD poll. Contrary to Washington’s plans, just 18 per cent of Afghans say they want foreign forces in Afghanistan increased and 44 per cent want them decreased. The Taliban, once vilified as Pakistani puppets, are having some success in re-branding themselves as Afghan nationalists.

One of the many depressing aspects of the American and British campaign in Afghanistan is that so few of the lessons of Iraq have been learned. One is that foreign military occupation is unpopular and tends to get more so. Iraq and Afghanistan are both countries with deep ethnic and sectarian divisions and foreign occupiers end up, willy-nilly, on one side or the other in civil strife...

The idea, popular in some Washington think tanks, that a few obvious tactical innovations won the war in Iraq, and can do so again in Afghanistan, is wholly misleading and will lure the US and Britain further into the morass. (link)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Electoral fraud and intimidation of the press

We saw in a recent blog posting about the August 20 presidential and provincial elections that the US is said to be negotiating with Ashraf Ghani to manoeuvre him into some as-yet-unspecified prime minister type position in the Afghan government. The reason being that "the United States might be interested in an Afghan government with a more technocratic bent."

We saw that locals in Kandahar are accusing Hamid Karzai's brother of vote-rigging by buying voter cards. It is also believed that many women living in conservative areas will be prevented from voting by their husbands.

Meanwhile, journalists are reporting increased pressures coming from government sources. "There are continuing problems with the insurgents, but a lot of our problems end up being with government," says the owner of Tolo TV.

There is more that we can add to the growing list of irregularities. In Herat, locals report outright coercion by government officials trying to get the vote out as well as suspected efforts to fraudulently use voters' unused voting cards:

Herat Officials Accused of Dirty Tricks
In parts of the province, bribery and intimidation are said to be rife

HERAT, Aug 16 (IWPR) - [...]

"I was threatened by a local commander named Samadi," said a village elder in Kajabad [Herat province]. "He said that I would face very unpleasant consequences if the villagers do not vote for Karzai. I am doing what they tell me. [Karzai] is the most powerful person in our country. How could I resist, and put myself in danger by not following orders?"

From every part of the district, the stories pile up. Bribery and threats seem to be the preferred tactics.

Jan Gul (not his real name) owns an auto parts store in the district centre. He is a popular man, and said he had been courted by campaigners for his influence among the people.

“People come to me all the time asking me to campaign for Karzai,” he said. “I participate in gatherings and read a speech that has been written for me. Powerful people have forced me to do this. I have been threatened. I have to follow orders.”

Eight years after the United States-led invasion that sent the Taleban packing, Afghanistan appears to be in worse shape than ever. The insurgency is growing rapidly, seemingly undeterred by the ever increasing numbers of foreign troops determined to put an end to their movement...

[Regarding the voting system:] Anyone with a card can cast a ballot, and the poll worker just notes down the number. No signatures or thumbprints are required.

The suspicion is that if local officials have copies of the registration cards, those inclined to falsify the vote would be able to cast the ballots of people who fail to show up at the polling station...

If the government cannot guarantee the security of polling stations, local elders may be allowed to relocate voting to their homes, according to the Independent Election Commission, IEC.

This has raised fears of massive fraud, since there will be almost no observers. Ballot boxes will be dropped off in the morning and collected at night, with little information about what happens during the day... (link)
Local notables are not the only ones feeling the pressure of extortion by government functionaries. Journalists from all over Afghanistan have spoken to Amnesty International about threats from government officials:
Journalists caught between government, Taleban
Amnesty International

AUGUST 15 - Days before the Afghan presidential elections, journalists from thirteen provinces in Afghanistan have told Amnesty International that they had recently been threatened by Afghan government officials because of their critical reporting...

“Afghans have made government corruption and failure to implement the rule of law as key aspects of the current election campaign, but some government officials want to respond to criticism by silencing the journalists who monitor government conduct and provide vital information to the voting public,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.

In some cases, government officials have initiated criminal proceedings against journalists for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression and information. In other cases, government forces have even directly attacked journalists. For instance, in July 2009, five journalists were beaten by police officers in Herat for reporting on a public demonstration and police corruption.

One reporter from Ghazni, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told Amnesty International, “People working on the Karzai election campaign are calling me and other journalists and threatening us if we report on corruption or anything bad that Karzai’s government is doing. Taleban and other groups contact me and threaten me, telling me I must stop writing any positive news stories about the elections because they don’t want people to support the elections. I am caught between these two sides.” ... (link)
Another report from IWPR reveals deeply disillusioned voters in Herat:
Young Heratis Have Little Faith in Elections
Many believe outcome of ballot will be determined by foreign powers
By Mohammad Shafi Firozi

HERAT, Aug 16 (IWPR) - “Everybody knows the United States will choose the next president of Afghanistan,” said [university student] Shah Rahman Afzali. “We should not participate in sham elections.” ...

Among Herat’s intellectual elite, it is widely believed that NATO countries will determine the outcome of Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial council elections, scheduled for August 20.

Herat, which sits on Afghanistan’s border with Iran, is one of the country’s most cultured and developed cities. But political disaffection is rife, particularly among the most highly educated segment of the population.

“We are imprisoned,” said Wajiha, an economics student. “Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy control us. They claim that Afghanistan is a democracy, but this is not true.”

Another student, who did want to give his name, agreed, “I will never vote as long as foreign countries decide everything in Afghanistan.” ... (link)
In a similar vein, the BBC reports that many Afghans feel the heavy hand of US influence will be the real deciding factor in the elections: "It is a generally held belief here that foreigners in general and Americans in particular will decide next week's election."

Finally, veteran Afghanistan correspondent Jason Straziuso confirms earlier reports of a black market for election cards and reveals evidence of massive fraud in Afghanistan's south eastern provinces:
Fishy voter list sparks doubts
Seemingly inflated registration, busy black market for polling cards threatens to put results in doubt
Jason Straziuso

KABUL, Aug 14 (AP) –Voting observers expect fraud during next week's Afghan presidential election and warn that cheating will likely take place in remote or dangerous areas where independent monitors can't go.

A suspiciously high number of women – far more than men – are registered to vote in culturally conservative provinces where President Hamid Karzai expects to do well, a leading election monitor said this week. And an adviser to the top U.S. military commander said she bought voter registration cards on the black market and could have bought hundreds more.

Monitors said they would tolerate a limited amount of fraud in the Aug. 20 balloting.

"If the level of corruption or violation is under 10 per cent, it will be acceptable for me," said Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent election monitoring group...

But questions over fairness raise the possibility that losing candidates and their supporters will not accept the results. That could lead to political turmoil in a country where the government is struggling to exert control in many regions.

Among the questionable election figures is the number of Afghans registered: more than 17 million. The campaign of Abdullah Abdullah – Karzai's top challenger – alleges that is more than the number of eligible voters.

The CIA estimates the population of Afghanistan at 33.6 million, and says half the population is younger than 18. The country hasn't conducted a census since 1979.

The number of women registered over the last year in Paktia, Khost and Logar provinces is also raising eyebrows, Spinghar said.

Men there registered multiple women from their families – sometimes as many as 10 or 15 – saying the women could not register in person because of cultural reasons.

The dominant ethnic group in all three conservative provinces is the Pashtun tribe. Karzai, the leading candidate, is a Pashtun.

Figures from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission show 72,958 women registered in Khost, compared with 38,500 men... (link)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Foreigners struggle to hold territory

We saw in a recent blog post that there is good reason to believe that the US Marines' offensive in Helmand is underperforming expectations. Now it seems that American officials are trying to lay blame elsewhere. The Sunday Times reports that, in the best of cowardly fashions, the Americans have pointed their fingers at the British troops:

Americans say British cannot hold Afghan siege city
The British needed 5,000 men to recapture Musa Qala
Michael Smith - The Sunday Times

Aug 16 - Britain is under pressure to give up an Afghan town where it has fought numerous bloody battles because the Americans claim the army is too overstretched to hold on to it.

US commanders want to take control of Musa Qala in northern Helmand province, arguing that Britain’s forces are already hard-pressed trying to control the so-called green zone further south.

Musa Qala has great symbolic importance for the British, who have lost 18 soldiers there. They seized it from the Taliban in 2006 before pulling out in a deal with local elders. The agreement broke down, however, and it took 5,000 men to recapture the town of 50,000 inhabitants in 2007.

Musa Qala is 50 miles north of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, and is one of the most northerly British outposts.

The recent Operation Panther’s Claw, which cleared the Taliban from 150 square miles of the green zone north and northwest of Lashkar Gah, has left troops exhausted.

British defence sources said they barely had enough men to mount “framework patrols” to secure the cleared area... (link)
Note that the Brits are attempting to hold 150 sq miles of Helmand. I have seen no estimate of the territory which the Americans have cleared after their (apparently completed) Operation Khanjar, though some early reports (NYT, July 3) indicated that they were concentrating on a stretch of the Helmand River some 75 miles long. This appears to be a chunk of land similar in size to what the British are apparently attempting to hold.

So in the province of Helmand, with an area of 22,000 sq miles, the American and UK forces hold perhaps 300 sq miles, or about 1.3% of Helmand's area.

An earlier blog post related the German army's recent post-WW2 milestone of participation in a military offensive. Here's how their offensive in in the northen province of Kunduz turned out:
Situation Worsens in Northern Afghansitan
Taliban Makes Blitz Comeback Near Kunduz

By Matthias Gebauer and Shoib Najafizada in Kabul
Der Spiegel - Aug 3, 2009

Taliban fighters are returning to an area in northern Afghanistan just days after being driven off in a combined Afghan-German military operation. There's growing concern that the Taliban -- and al-Qaida fighters -- are forming strongholds in what had been the relatively peaceful north...

Bad news has been coming out of the region in recent days following the joint Operation Adler, or Eagle, by Afghan and German armed forces to flush out Taliban militants. German officers have heard numerous Afghan reports that the Taliban have been holding virtual victory celebrations in Chahar Dara, the Taliban stronghold in the north.

The main aim of the operation of the last two weeks was to seize the area from the Taliban in order to make it safe for upcoming elections. Operation Adler appeared successful in briefly clearing out the armed insurgents. But it didn't beat them into a lasting retreat. By late last week, parts of the area were again under the "complete control of the Taliban," district chief Khel says...

The Germans have also been noting a return of the insurgents to their stronghold -- undeterred by the Afghan army. The area is far too large to be controlled by a contingent of 300 ANA soldiers. But the German army isn't in a position to stop them, either. They're being forced to watch as the Taliban return to a stronghold located just a 15-minute drive away from the German camp... (link)
And finally, the Toronto Star's Rosie Dimanno reveals the apparent inadequecy of the Canadian contingent for perhaps most of its life in Afghanstan. Canada's commander in Afghanistan blames "insufficient forces in the past" for the Canadian Forces inability "to do the primary offensive operations as well as the security tasks" necessary to pacify Afghansitan:
Taking the fight back to Kandahar city
Rosie Dimanno - Toronto Star

KABUL, Aug 14 - This time, they think they've got it, they've really got it: A plan, a strategy, a clear objective, a hope in hell...

The Americans have come, 4,000 Stryker Brigade troops, nearly double the Canadian component that has been stretched so pitifully, if valiantly, thin these past five years...

For soldiers and their commanders on the ground, there is at least now, with this rotation, some clarity and well-defined goals, more narrowly but also more sensibly drawn on the mission map: To secure Kandahar city and the radiating communities of that heavily populated area; to move into a satellite of outskirt villages, basically living among the citizenry; and to plant themselves in the heart of the Taliban insurgency rather than chase inconsequential fighter cells hither and yon across complicated terrain that favours the opposition...

"There were insufficient forces in the past to conduct a proper counter-insurgency," [Brig-Gen. Jon] Vance said. "We didn't have the capacity to do the primary offensive operations as well as the security tasks, all those things that encourage proper governance and development."

Canada sacrificed treasured lives establishing far-flung outposts (distance is relative when 70 kilometres from the airfield is the Wild West) to expand what was in fact a lightly indented footprint...

"We were able to address only part of the problem," Vance sighed. "With some of those small combat outposts, the net effect didn't establish security. We were fixed and the insurgents were able to move around us."

In hindsight, that was not the best use of Canada's limited resources... (link)

Achtung: German army on offensive

It is rather disconcerting that the German army has turned a corner and now openly engages in offensive operations. It is disconcerting, at least to me, not because the Germans are particularly special in their Krieggeist but because in the post-war era, Germans are arguably the most "morally serious" nation, to quote Norman Finkelstein.

Der Spiegel - July 23, 2009
Afghanistan Offensive 'Dispels German Illusions'

In a step that marks a major psychological milestone in postwar Germany, Bundeswehr soldiers are now on the offensive in Afghanistan. Some German commentators are angry; others saw it coming. But they all agree that Germany can not preserve its "special status" within NATO forever.

The days of German troops only conducting defensive operations are quickly becoming a thing of the past. In a press conference in Berlin on Wednesday, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung announced that 300 German soldiers were backing 1,200 Afghan army troops in a major offensive against the Taliban in northern Afghanistan...

At the beginning of July, US marines launched a surprise offensive in southern Afghanistan. And, as of Sunday, the Germans -- alongside the Afghan soldiers they trained -- are on the offensive in the north.

In Wednesday's press conference, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Germany's highest-ranking officer, stressed the precedent-setting importance of the actions, describing it as "probably the biggest" deployment by German forces in Afghanistan. And he underlined how the soldiers are now using heavy weapons, such as mortars and Marder armored infantry vehicles, in a fight that involves "house-by-house searches and looking for the enemy." SPIEGEL ONLINE has also reported that German fighter jets are firing missiles at suspected insurgents for the first time.

For Germans, having their military on the offensive for the first time since World War II involves passing over a major psychological threshold. And it takes place in the context of a war that has grown more unpopular over the years, after having initially received widespread support...

[Der Spiegel goes on to review the German press' reaction to the development:]

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

... "An exit strategy is required -- including for the Bundeswehr. A few years back, Germans might not have opposed the deployment, but a majority of them do today. This stance has nothing to do with things having not being sufficiently explained to them. On the contrary, some of the attempts at explaining things have made them very angry. So-called experts say that the Bundeswehr forces in northern Afghanistan need to show their NATO allies that they're willing to fight. What a load of nonsense: waging war just to show that you can."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"In the beginning, the German government in power at the time was very adamant about having a strict separation between ISAF's support and security tasks…. In particular, it opposed having a combined command structure for them, though Germany finally agreed with NATO -- for practical reasons -- to let this happen."

"At the time, it was already clear that Germany's ISAF contingent would sooner or later be drawn into the fighting. Since then, you couldn't help but notice that developments were also going to make offensive military actions unavoidable. But with these actions, Germans have to give up the legal fiction of 'self-defense' (used to justify Germany's deployment in Afghanistan), which only puts the soldiers in a more dangerous legal standing and increases the risks they face."

"The operation will eventually turn into a full-on military conflict as part of a larger civil war that goes beyond international boundaries and involves foreign participants -- as has happened in all previous wars of this type..." ... (link)
See a nearby post for the underwhelming results of the German forces' assault.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Quagmire in Helmand: 'They don't trust us'

The US Marines have launched a new operation in the north of Helmand province dubbed Eastern Resolve 2. The immediate results were violent, as Oliver North (yep, that one) writes: "they were confronted by well-armed, dug-in Taliban fighters, who employed improvised explosive devices, mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons and snipers". (Recall that Operation Khanjar, launched in early July, moved into its second phase in late July and appears to be finished. )

The pedigree of the newest operation's title reveals the quagmire that this war has become:

The offensive follows Eastern Resolve 1, the Marines' initial push out of Naw Zad in early spring. This first move was of limited effect, because U.S. troops were too thinly spread... (link)
Readers may recall the Spring 2008 Marine campaign which resulted in that force holding a tiny piece of ground, with "scores" of insurgents holding down thousands of extremely well equipped American troops. Yet the American forces did not seem to learn much from that experience, as evidenced by Eastern Resolve 1.

The start-stop nature of their efforts is not the only indication that things are not going well for the much hyped US surge:
Dearth of Capable Afghan Forces Complicates U.S. Mission in South
Ann Scott Tyson - Washington Post

GARMSIR, July 25 - [...]

The Afghan troops here, heavily dependent on Western forces, are hesitating to take on greater responsibilities -- and, in some cases, are simply refusing to do so.

The Afghan National Police officers mentored by [Marine 1st Lt. Justin] Grieco's team, for example, are resisting a U.S. military effort to have them expand to checkpoints in villages outside the town center of Garmsir as the Marines push farther south, taking with them the Afghan Border Police officers, who currently man some of those stations...

The border police, too, have resisted taking up new positions...

Shopkeepers and residents eyed the [joint American-Afghan border police] patrol silently and did not respond to greetings in Pashto. An Afghan boy swore in English at one of the Marines, who responded: "Go home."

"They're still a little hostile towards us," [civilian police adviser Stephen] Woods said. "They will throw rocks. They will give you that look. They don't trust us." ... (link)
A Reuters dispatch spells out the personnel challenges faced by the occupation:
A rule of thumb in counter-insurgency doctrine is that around 20 to 25 soldiers or police are needed to maintain security among every 1,000 members of the population.

Helmand, among the most restive of Afghanistan's provinces, has about 1.3 million residents, indicating that 26,000-32,000 troops and police should be on hand to sustain security.

Britain, the United States and other NATO allies have a total of about 14,000 troops in Helmand. Afghan soldiers and police are nowhere near numerous enough to make up the deficit... (link)
The Washington Post interviews some skeptical locals in Helmand:

In Helmand, Caught Between U.S., Taliban
Ann Scott Tyson - Washington Post

MIANPOSHTEH, Aug 15 - U.S. Marines pushing into Afghanistan's southern Helmand province are running up against a skeptical Afghan population heavily influenced by Taliban insurgents, signaling a long campaign ahead.

Afghan villagers, many of whom fled the Marines' advance, say they feel caught in a tug of war between U.S. forces and the Taliban, and are fearful of both. The Afghans, primarily illiterate farmers who tend livestock and crops in the irrigated lands alongside the Helmand River, often say they simply want to be left in peace.

The Afghan government and its forces, meanwhile, are nonexistent in large parts of Helmand where the Marines are operating, undermining efforts to bolster governance and development...

In surrounding villages, the ambivalence of Afghans is palpable amid the lack of security.

During a recent patrol with MacDonald's squad, he was met with an exasperated look from Abdullah, an elder with a dark green turban and dishdasha.

"What are you doing here?" he asked through an interpreter. "What are you doing in Afghanistan? You should go back to your country."

"What do you mean, what am I doing here? I'm here to get the Taliban out of here," MacDonald replied.

"There is no Taliban here," the elder said, contradicting earlier statements about being afraid of the Taliban. Others nodded, shaking sets of worry beads.

After half an hour of this debate, MacDonald had had enough. "Alright, listen to me right now," he told the farmers gathered here. "You all are not cooperating. . . I am going to believe right now that the Taliban does come here and you are on their side."

Promising to return, MacDonald left with his squad... (link)

And, another vignette from Helmand provides some more vital context to the US surge:

Pushing south into Taliban territory, well beyond the "limit of advance" set by higher-ups, [USMC Sgt.] Harris spotted a compound flying the white Taliban flag and stopped to talk with an Afghan farmer. "The Taliban are coming next to our compound and fighting you. We don't like that," said Haji Noor Mohammed, who has a family of eight. "We want peace. Maybe you should go from here." ... (link)

Finally, Ron Jacobs has an eloquent plea to end the quagmire:

Time to End the War in Afghanistan
Unconditional Negotiations, Now!
By Ron Jacobs

It's time to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan. . .

In the recent press coverage of newsman Walter Cronkite's death, one of the moments in his storied career often referred to was his editorial comment on February 27, 1968 when he stated quite firmly that he believed that "it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." He went on to call for negotiations to end the war . . .

The fact that Washington has been leading a military campaign to subdue the people there and create a friendly regime for almost eight years without success is enough reason to take the path of negotiations. . . If the killing and special ops designed to win the Afghan people's hearts and minds have not worked in seven years, why would an upsurge in killing work now? This is an especially important question when one considers the inverse relationship between the increase in killing and the ebbing of support for the US occupiers. . .

[T]he only honorable and reasonable way to end the sad and murderous exercise known at the Pentagon as Operation Enduring Freedom is to negotiate, without conditions and with the only expectation being that US/NATO troops will leave Afghanistan before they become further entrenched and that much of the bloodshed will end as a result. . . (link)

Rape law passed with Canadian help

Afghanistan's infamous "rape law," which received some polishing from lawyers which Ottawa sent to Afghanistan, has finally been passed it seems. The result is, well, another rape law:

Karzai sells out Afghan women over law-rights group
By Jonathon Burch

KABUL, Aug 14 (Reuters) - A leading rights group accused President Hamid Karzai on Friday of selling out Afghan women by ratifying a Shi'ite law, which has drawn wide condemnation over its harsh provisions on women, before next week's election...

An amended version of the Shi'ite Personal Status Law was submitted last month and published in the official gazette on July 27, bringing it into effect weeks ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential poll, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

"Karzai has made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in return for the support of fundamentalists in the August 20 election," said Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW.

"So much for any credentials he claimed as a moderate on women's issues," he said in a statement.

The legislation is meant to govern family law for minority Muslim Shi'ites, who make up about 15 percent of Afghanistan's roughly 30 million people...

HRW said the amended law did show "some improvements" but still contained some of its "most repressive" articles that directly contravene the Afghan constitution, which bans any kind of discrimination and distinction between citizens.

The amended law gives a husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance from his wife, including food, if she refuses to obey his sexual demands and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work, according to HRW.

The law also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers and effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying "blood money" to a girl who was injured when he raped her, HRW said... (link)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is the US funding the Taliban?

Director of National Intelligence and Obama appointee Dennis Blair back in April replied to a Senator's question that Iran is funding the Taliban:
"Iran is covertly supplying arms to Afghan insurgents while publicly posing as supportive of the Afghan government." That includes the provision of small arms, mines, rocket-propelled grenades, rockets, mortars and plastic explosives. Ironically, Blair also noted that Iran has been assisting Afghanistan with developing their security capabilities through the "construction of border security facilities." ... (link)
It should be noted that Blair has been caught in a lie before, according to investigative journalist Allan Nairn. Nairn revealed earlier this year that documents revealed that Admiral Blair lied about a meeting he had back in 1999 with an Indonesian general in Hawaii. Blair claimed that he had heard nothing of a recent massacre in East Timor when he had met the general and offered him US support and military aid. Nairn revealed that unearthed documents showed that Blair's aides had in fact spoked at length about the massacre which happened two days before the 1999 meeting in Hawaii.

I have always been skeptical of US claims that Iran is funding the Taliban. And it seems I am not alone, as Vikram Singh Obama's advisor says that any such support is not "substantial." In saying this, he sounds very much like fellow Obama advisor and leading authority on Afghanistan Barnett Rubin.

Now another authority on Afghanistan weighs in with a very interesting take on Taliban funding. Jean MacKenzie of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting is an extremely well-placed observer who has provided revealing commentary in the past:
Who is funding the Afghan Taliban? You don’t want to know
Jean MacKenzie

KABUL, Aug 13 — It is the open secret no one wants to talk about, the unwelcome truth that most prefer to hide. In Afghanistan, one of the richest sources of Taliban funding is the foreign assistance coming into the country.

Virtually every major project includes a healthy cut for the insurgents. Call it protection money, call it extortion, or, as the Taliban themselves prefer to term it, "spoils of war," the fact remains that international donors, primarily the United States, are to a large extent financing their own enemy.

"Everyone knows this is going on," said one U.S. Embassy official, speaking privately...

Up until quite recently, most experts thought that drug money accounted for the bulk of Taliban funding. But even here opinion was divided on actual amounts. Some reports gauged the total annual income at about $100 million, while others placed the figure as high as $300 million — still a small fraction of the $4 billion poppy industry...

The new feeling is that less than half of the Taliban’s war chest comes from poppy, with a variety of sources, including private contributions from Persian Gulf states, accounting for much of the rest...

Anecdotal evidence is mounting that the Taliban are taking a hefty portion of assistance money coming into Afghanistan from the outside.

This goes beyond mere protection money or extortion of "taxes" at the local level — very high-level negotiations take place between the Taliban and major contractors, according to sources close to the process.

A shadowy office in Kabul houses the Taliban contracts officer, who examines proposals and negotiates with organizational hierarchies for a percentage. He will not speak to, or even meet with, a journalist, but sources who have spoken with him and who have seen documents say that the process is quite professional... (link)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Behind the elections

The August 20 Afghan election for president and provincial councils is fast approaching and readers no doubt want the lowdown on what is going on there. We start with some American machinations:

U.S. Officials Talk New Post With Karzai Rival, Aide Says
Joshua Partlow - Washington Post

KABUL, Aug 10 - Senior American officials are expressing renewed interest in a post-election plan for Afghanistan that would establish a chief executive to serve beneath President Hamid Karzai if he wins a second term next week, Afghan officials said Monday.

The latest U.S. overtures have focused on Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who is challenging Karzai for the presidency. A campaign aide to Ghani said Monday that both Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and regional envoy Richard C. Holbrooke had made recent visits to explore the idea, a sign that the United States might be interested in an Afghan government with a more technocratic bent.

... Ghani has no plans to drop out of the race before the Aug. 20 election. He has been actively campaigning for president and plans to visit six provinces in the next eight days.

"I've been approached repeatedly; the offer is on the table. I have not accepted it," Ghani told reporters over the weekend, according to Reuters. He has not ruled out a position in the government if he loses...

In a poll released Monday, Karzai led with 45 percent of the vote among decided voters, compared with 25 percent for Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister. The U.S.-government-funded poll by Glevum Associates, conducted July 8-19, had Ghani fourth, with 4 percent of the vote. (link)
Note Partlow's flat assertion that "the United States might be interested in an Afghan government with a more technocratic bent." As if it is the United States' natural responsibility to baldly shape the governments of other countries.

The Times, though seemingly skeptical of the alleged American role in the rumored reform of the Afghan government, ends up basically confirming American influence:
Sources close to the Ghani campaign denied that the United States was driving the deal, but confirmed that US diplomats had offered assurances that the Karzai offer was 'genuine'... (link)
And what of the nature of that Afghan government which we are propping up? The Times has the story:
President Karzai’s supporters ‘buy’ votes for Afghanistan election
Tom Coghlan - The Times

KABUL, Aug 12 - Supporters of President Karzai are preparing to rig voting in next week’s presidential elections in unstable parts of Afghanistan’s south as Taleban violence threatens to intimidate voters and hit turnout in his traditional support base.

The Times has talked to several witnesses whose reports will bolster suspicions within the international community that there will be electoral fraud across the south, some of it allegedly orchestrated by Mr Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai...

One tribal elder in the Marja district of Helmand alleged that the vote rigging was being organised by members of Mr Karzai’s family and local tribal allies, particularly Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, the former governor of the province.

"I am one of the people responsible for collecting cards in Marja. We bought the cards for $30 (£18)." ...

Alex Strick van Linschoten, a research analyst in Kandahar, said that there were reports of similar schemes in several districts including Zarai, Panjwai and Maiwand, with local police participating in the process.

The Afghan Independent Election Commission has accredited 160,000 observers to attend polling stations. However, the country’s main monitoring agency, the Afghan Free and Fair Elections Foundation, said that it would have observers at only 70 per cent of stations because of security concerns.

Western diplomats said that precautions designed to prevent fraud would be ineffective in insecure districts of the south, where election monitors could not go. (link)
So, in large parts of the politically important south there will be no election observers due to the Taliban insurgency, while locals say that Hamid Karzai's family are attempting to buy the vote there in any case.

And not just buying votes but shutting down the press:
Afghan gov't orders shut down

KABUL, Jul 19 (AP) – The Afghan government has blocked access to four Web sites with President Hamid Karzai's name in the addresses that are critical of the Afghan leader or have links to sites advertising locally taboo subjects such as online dating and mail order brides.

The shutdown order comes ahead of the country's Aug. 20 presidential election. An Information Ministry spokesman initially said the original complaint about two of the sites came from the Karzai campaign. Karzai's campaign spokesman agreed, but later called back to deny involvement.

Afghan coverage of the presidential race has been dominated by Karzai, while his 40 opponents complain they've received scant attention in state-run media... (link)
Support for such serious accusations comes from journalist Nathan Hodge who is in Afghanistan to cover the election:
In advance of my trip here, I received a copy of the Afghan election commissions “code of conduct,” to be signed by journalists who want to be accredited to cover the upcoming vote. It's a pretty interesting read. Among other things, journalists are to “avoid printing, broadcasting and publishing of scandalous advertisements and disgrace reports about [a] candidate's personality or behavior which could affect the election results.”

[Hodges adds:] Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists is in Kabul, and he recently spoke with Jahid Mohseni, CEO of the Moby Group, owner of Afghanistan's popular Tolo TV. Mohseni notes that harassment and intimidation against the media is on the rise. “There are continuing problems with the insurgents, but a lot of our problems end up being with government,” Mohseni says. (link)
Meanwhile, an Afghan reporter with IWPR reveals the reality of the Afghan vote for women:
Right to Vote Limited for Women
By Mohammad Ishaq Quraishi

HERAT, Aug 9 (IWPR) - [...] Government officials and human rights organisations say that the turnout among women could be much lower than during previous ballots in 2004 and 2005 because fewer men will allow the female members of their families to go out to vote...

Afghanistan is a land of deep beliefs and traditions, many of them inimical to women’s rights. It is considered shameful in some of the more conservative areas to let one’s women even be seen by outsiders.

“How can I let my wife vote when there are so many men around in the polling station?” said Mullah Hussain, who preaches in a mosque...

“My husband won’t let me and my daughters out of the house, so how would he let us vote?” said Ahoo, who is around 50 years old and the mother of eight. “Only the men vote here. But if my husband would allow me, I would be very happy to go.” ...

Ahoo’s husband is not eager to talk about the rules of his household. “I know about the rights of women, but I can’t let my wife and daughters use them,” he said, “If they go out and vote, it will damage my reputation.”

Sufi Jawaher, 65, lives in the Darb-e-Iraq area of Herat city, in an extended family of 43. She is called “Sufi”, a man’s title, because she has had to make her way like a man, sitting on local councils and earning her living as a midwife. But her comparatively liberal lifestyle has not benefited her five daughters-in-law, who will be staying home on August 20.

“My sons do not want their wives to participate in the election,” she said. “That is why my daughters-in-law will not be voting.” ... (link)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

'You will be targeted'

Over these past few years, we have seen numerous cases of injustices visited upon the Afghan civilian population by foreign forces. Even leaving aside airstrikes, Afghans have been subject to host of imposed terrors and harassments. It is certain, for instance, that the residents of Salehan in the Panjwai district will not soon forget the ear-splitting sound of Canadian artillery and tank fire from the testing range near their homes where troops frequently trained.

Now it seems that US forces in eastern Afghanistan are adding another form of peril for the population:

U.S. Threatens Afghans Over Kidnapped GI

JULY 16 (CBS) - At least two Afghan villages have been blanketed with leaflets warning that if an American soldier kidnapped by the Taliban two weeks ago isn't freed, "you will be targeted."

Villagers near the border of two volatile provinces, Ghazni and Paktika, tell CBS News' Sami Yousafzai that aircraft dropped the leaflets during the past several days.Military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias confirmed that the leaflets were produced at Bagram Air Base, the primary U.S. installation in Afghanistan, and distributed in the region. She told CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark, however, that they were distributed by hand, not aircraft.

The papers show on one side an image of a soldier with his head bowed so that his face is not visible. A message in the local Pashtun language over the image says, "If you do not free the American soldier, then…"

On the other side, an image shows Western troops breaking into a house. The rest of the message is printed across the photo: "…you will be targeted".

According to the military, the translation of the last word in the sentence is "hunted," not targeted, but CBS News' independent translators say the word also means "targeted". (link)
In the spirit of Summer re-runs, I want to reproduce a bit of an essay I did a while ago which speaks to a related topic:
According to ABC News, US military units [in Kunar province have] employed "a new tactic - sanctions" which are aimed at residents of the Korangal Valley, who are open supporters of the insurgency. These locals, mostly subsistence farmers, endured a blockade on essential items such as sugar, tea and cooking oil. But the blockade of the Korangal wasn't limited to staple goods. A Himalayan Times correspondent spoke to one local who explained their predicament: "[W]e cannot even go to the hospital as the forces have blocked the road to the south of the valley. We cannot move our lumber which is our main source of sustenance".

Captain Hansen, commander of the American unit involved, explained the brutal logic of the blockade: "They are going to need all those things that make their lives just a little bit better. We are providing them with the hard decision. Either you work with the government of Afghanistan or you have the effects of not working with them. It's in their court."

The tactic of collective punishment is a part of the Canadian arsenal as well. "Any people that are found to have been helping the Taliban will have their houses seized by the government, their property seized. They will be left with nothing," promised Lieut. Craig Alcock, a Canadian platoon commander. This statement aroused zero commentary. Yet, as numerous reports indicate, civilians "helping the Taliban" are often doing so against their will. And this concern is prior to the question of whether this threat, if carried out, would violate Geneva Convention prohibitions against collective punishment. Article 33 of the Fourth Convention (1949) says, in part: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed." ... (link)