Afghanistan Study Group: Week in Review

Iran and Hamid Karzai:

Afghanistan Study Group Member Stephen Walt argues in a blog post that the reaction to the Iran money scandal is overblown.  It is only natural that Iran would want to influence one of its neighboring countries with financial aid.  On Afghan side, why shouldn’t Karzai accept money from Iran?  As Walt points out, when you are in the business of buying off warlords, “cash on hand is a pretty useful asset.”  Lastly Walt points out what a trifling sum of money is being sent to Karzai.  “$1 million a year is really chump change,” he writes.  Compared to $119 billion the U.S. plans to spend in Afghanistan next year, $1 million really is a minuscule quantity of money.

Steve Clemons on the News Hour Tuesday makes a similar argument, saying it would be “naïve to think that Karzai in Afghanistan wouldn’t be finding ways to cut deals with all of their neighbors.”  Clemons, a member of the Afghanistan Study Group debated co-guest Ali Jalali on the U.S. approach towards the Karzai regime.  Clemons argued that policymakers should be open to the possibility of other leaders in Afghanistan and not be so committed to Karzai.  He went on to argue for institutions-building approach, centered on injecting civil society into the political system.    In contrast, Jalali said that Karzai-bashing is counter-productive, especially as there is no potential alternative leader to take his place.  Both views have merit.  Over the short term, Karzai is the president of Afghanistan.  Replacing him would just create greater instability; however the lack of legitimacy is a serious issue.  If Afghanistan cannot develop more inclusive political institutions, the U.S.-Karzai partnership is bound fail.

David Cortright on Afghan Women

Afghanistan Study Group member, David Cortright has just co-authored a major new study on women in Afghanistan.  The report illustrates the fragile political environment in which Afghan women find themselves.  On the one hand, there have been undeniable gains for women across Afghanistan, since the overthrow of the Taliban.  From representation in parliament, where women are now guaranteed 25% of the seats in the Wolesa Jirga (lower parliament) and 17% of the seats in the Meshrano Jirga (upper parliament), to the right to vote—women made up 44% and 38% of the vote in 2005 and 2008 elections respectively—the political situation for women is unambiguously better than it was under Taliban rule.  Furthermore, women have made social gains.  They now have improved access to education and health services—37% of primary and secondary school enrollees are now girls—which was nonexistent for women under the Taliban rule.

The picture for women is not totally rosy, however.  As the insurgency has intensified, women have seen an erosion of the gains made since the toppling of the Taliban regime.  Violence against women has increased, female members of parliament are now under constant threat of assassination, and schools for girls have been pressured to close.  Economic hardship has led many Afghan families to force arranged marriages on their daughters.  In Kabul, laws protecting women have been uneven.  A recent law legalizing marital rape epitomizes the challenges that feminist Jirga members face against widespread societal opposition.   There are also reports from Human Rights Watch that prostitution and human trafficking of women are on the rise.   It is hard to attribute the erosion of women’s rights completely to the re-emergence of the Taliban or the expansion of the war.  As Paul Pillar points out, there is also a cultural factor to the treatment of women, independent from the resurgent Taliban or the increased insecurity.

Women find themselves between a rock and a hard place.  While the fighting continues, their rights are likely to continue eroding.  On the other hand, there is widespread unease about negotiating with the Taliban.  Fatima Gailani, the president of Red Crescent asks rhetorically: “what will we have to sacrifice with reconciliation?” Cortright argues that the reconciliation process should go forward, but that the inclusion of women is essential to protecting their rights.  He calls for a sustained international troop presence to provide security as U.S. forces are drawdown.  Lastly, he pushes for greater emphasis on development, promoting what Nicholas Kristof has called the Dr. Greg approach after Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, whose schools dot the Af-Pak countryside.  Kristof has argued that development should emphasize working within local social structures so that locals feel ownership of the development projects.

There is no guarantee that Cortright’s recommendations will work, but they are the best hope to protect the fragile status of women in Afghanistan.

Scott Atran on Negotiations with the Taliban

Scott Atran from France’s National Center for Scientific Research has produced an excellent Op-Ed on the prospects of reconciliation with the Taliban.  The Op-Ed comes on the heels of several contradictory news reports describing the state of the war.  The pentagon has been touting progress in Kandahar, where once contested regions are seeing increased security for the first time in years.  Taking a wider view, it appears that members of the military and intelligence community have concluded that the campaigns have not broken the back of the insurgency; the Taliban is proving far more resilient than some military planners had once thought.

Part of the problem, argues Atran, is that the Pentagon is operating under the false premise that escalating the war will force the Taliban to the negotiating table.  This premise is incorrect for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the U.S. is operating in a strategically weak position.  The insurgents know they can outlast the foreign occupation—timeline or no timeline, the Taliban recognize that public support for the war in the U.S. has its limitations.  As time passes the U.S.’s bargaining position is therefore almost certainly going to weaken.  Secondly, the success of recent operations in killing Taliban commanders may paradoxically make negotiations more difficult.  As Matt Waldman and Jenna Jordan have also demonstrated, moderate midlevel commanders are being killed and replaced by more radical younger insurgents, and the willingness of the Taliban to compromise has continued to diminish.  Related to this argument, the ability of Taliban commanders to control the insurgency has also eroded over time, as Atran’s anecdote about the murder of a Taliban cleric makes clear.   Atran argues that reconciliation holds greater promise for two reasons.  Firstly the insurgents have indicated they may be willing to take a hard stance against Al Qaeda.  In fact, as Washington Times correspondent and Afghanistan Study Group Member Arnaud de Borschgrave reports, there is a long history of animosity between Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar dating back to before 9-11.  The second reason to be optimistic, argues Atran, is that tribal linkages, particularly between the Haqqani network and Karzai’s Popolzai Clan can be exploited to jumpstart the talks.  In comparison to a military strategy built on faulty premises and with no hope of success, there seems to be great promise in potential peace talks, but the U.S. has to change course.

Elsewhere on the Blogosphere from Afghanistan Study Group Members

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

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