Published: November 15th, 2010
Author: Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger
Afghanistan Update 11/12/10: Council on Foreign Relations Releases Af-Pak Review
The Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) has just published a policy paper on U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 70 page report documents the challenges the U.S faces in the region; it puts the Afghan war in a regional context and provides recommendations for policymakers going forward. This is an important document that contributes to a needed and necessary debate on the US strategy in Afghanistan. However, as with most major strategy reviews, the paper has both strengths and weaknesses.
On the plus side, the paper is very forthright about the challenges facing the U.S. in Afghanistan. In particular the report cites the rising violence, the lack of popular support for the Afghan government, and weak political institutions as major road blocks to a successful military strategy. Although CFR endorses the Obama approach, it is a “qualified endorsement”. Most significantly, the report recommends a real December Strategic Review.
“If [ the] review shows that progress is not being made, the United States should move quickly to recalibrate its military presence in Afghanistan.”
This brings up an important weakness in the paper. It asks the question “has there been progress in Afghanistan?”; but it does not really answer it. Given the evidence presented through news sources, several of the metrics presented in this paper to gage progress have seen deterioration. There has been little progress in “building local security and civilian capabilities” even in areas where the military offensive has garnered some positive results. Although areas of Kandahar have seen some security gains, the insurgency remains as potent as ever. The report acknowledges that 2010 will be the most violent year of the war. Meanwhile the government remains as corrupt as ever. The lone bright spot seems to be the training of the Afghan National Army, but Afghanistan won’t be able to take over security from NATO forces until 2014 according to NATO’s civilian commander.
Based on this evidence, you would think the CFR would spend more time discussing feasible alternatives to the current strategy. Instead, their portrayal of the alternative “light footprint” strategy is incredibly pessimistic. The paper claims (p.58) that a light footprint would empower global terrorist networks, lead to a destabilizing civil war, and possibly escalate into a full-scale nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan. There are problems with the assumptions the paper makes; but if you do make these assumptions, it is hard to then argue for a “recalibration” of strategy in the next section.
Perhaps the most disappointing section of the paper is on U.S. strategic objectives. In one of my previous posts I said there was a growing consensus that al Qaeda does not pose a security risk to Afghanistan. Put simply, al Qaeda is unlikely to leave its relatively safe sanctuaries in Pakistan. This argument has been made by experts such as Afghanistan Study Group Member Paul Pillar and Counter-Insurgency strategist David Kilcullen. The Council on Foreign Relations is behind on this issue, arguing
“The United States needs to stop Afghanistan from once again becoming a sanctuary for these groups…if the Taliban consolidates its position in large portions of Afghanistan, it could create new space for these dangerous groups to plan attacks against the United States”
There is a lot here that is manifestly wrong. First, terrorists already have a sanctuary in Pakistan so it is hard to see how a Taliban victory would affect the operations of the group. More worrisome, this passage shows a fundamental lack of understanding on how these terrorist groups operate. They recruit members globally. The idea is not to gain territorial “space”, but rather to connect various radical groups to a common cause. Forcing al Qaeda off of a piece of territory does nothing. The U.S forced al Qaeda out of Sudan in the 1990s, but guess what, the group still had “space” to “plan attacks” on 9-11.
A serious strategic objective discussed at length in the paper, is preventing civil war in Pakistan:
“Turmoil in Afghanistan—possibly even a bloody civil war—could produce a refugee crisis, draw in regional competitors, and destabilize Pakistan and the region”.
This is purportedly a description of “what could happen” if the Taliban gain a stronghold, although it seems to describe the war environment today. The real question is whether regional stability is enhanced by large NATO forces in Afghanistan or hindered by it. Most evidence suggests the latter as foreign occupying forces and drone strikes fuel radicalism in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ensuring that Afghanistan does not devolve into a bloody civil war is, however, a legitimate concern. The Afghanistan Study Group argues that a “fast track” peace and reconciliation process is the key to avoiding civil conflict. This is one area where the CFR report makes two interesting and useful arguments. Firstly they argue for a more broad-based peace council:
The present Karzai led reconciliation process is insufficiently representative of the wide spectrum of Afghan interests. It is raising fears among many of these groups and spurring concerns throughout the region, particularly India. The process requires greater U.S. guidance and regional consensus building”
This blog has long argued for a more inclusive reconciliation process. For example, participation of women in the Peace Jirga to ensure safeguarding of women’s rights. With that said, there is a danger of having too broad a peace council. With too many opposing interests a peace deal may be harder to reach. In general this recommendation makes sense.
Secondly they argue that reconciliation and constitutional reform should go hand in hand.
“The national reconciliation process also offers a potential opening for constitutional reform. Insurgent leaders have explicitly rejected the present constitution and are unlikely to reenter Afghan politics without certain amendments. The two political initiatives—reform and reconciliation—should therefore be managed in tandem”
This is an excellent point. Oftentimes when experts discuss the reconciliation process they worry that the insurgents will change the constitution in ways that will undermine human rights. This is a very real worry. Opening up the Afghan constitution for debate is also a potential opportunity to change parts of the constitution, which undermine governance in the provinces. For instance the constitution allows Karzai to appoint provincial governors; a rule which makes zero sense in a society with such stark regional, ethnic and sectarian divides. The Peace Jirga may decide that eliminating some of these poorly thought out rules would be a step towards peace with the Taliban.
In conclusion, it is impossible to cover this entire CFR paper—I would love to discuss some of the interesting ideas on Pakistan—in a single blog post. The Council on Foreign Relations has produced a useful paper. If President Obama focuses on the good suggestions such as taking the December Review seriously and thinking about ways to implement reconciliation more effectively, the CFR will have done great service.
Published: October 29th, 2010
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
- Juan Cole attends a scathing critique of the Karzai government and U.S.’s military policy.
- Paul Pillar discusses the growing threat of home grown terrorists.
- Mosharraf Zaidi is terribly disappointed that Pakistan has failed to make institutional reforms following the terrible flooding this past summer.
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger
Published: October 28th, 2010
Author: David Cortright and Sarah Smiles Persinger
Published: October 26th, 2010
Author: Matt Hoh
I had the pleasure last week of being interviewed alongside noted author and human rights advocate Ann Jones. The conversation focused on reports of negotiations (real or otherwise) in Afghanistan and quickly moved into a discussion on the centrality and importance of women’s rights in any negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict.
In the south and the east of the country (and, unfortunately, increasingly over the last two years in parts of northern and western Afghanistan) the most pressing concern to women and their families is the daily and constant violence. Achieving a settlement that addresses and resolves the political causes of the fighting is, of course, the priority for southern and eastern Afghanistan. A woman’s primary concern right now is the very real and current possibility of her family being killed by an errant missile or roadside bomb, as opposed to any promises of future cultural, educational, or economic advancement.
In the northern, western and urban parts of Afghanistan, it is commonly believed that gains have been realized for women since the fall of the barbaric and excessive Taliban regime in 2001. So, any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan would seemingly need to see protections of such gains as a priority. However, it is not that simple, since the notion of such gains has limits. This is because the role of women in all parts of Afghan society, not only in the conservative south, cannot be divorced from generations upon generations of misogynist traditions anchored by cultural and religious roots. In contrast to popular narrative in the United States, none of the sides in the multi-dimensional and multi-layered Afghan conflict are champions of women’s rights. This is a point highlighted by Kabul resident, Anita Sreedhar, in her recent essay “Dinner Plans in Kabul”:
“Like all local women in the neighborhood, I can’t leave the house alone. People outside of Afghanistan are shocked to hear this – “but the Taliban have left, no?” Yes indeed, but the Taliban did not make these rules. Many of these rules were actually enforced and created during the time before the Taliban by warlords who, bloated with arms and cash from Pakistan and the US (in order to defeat the Russians), fractured the country.
After the Taliban were defeated, those same warlords were brought back into power by the US. The Karzai government resumes must read like a list charges at an international tribunal. The human rights’ violations are endless. And it is thanks to them (and not the Taliban) that I have to live in a capital city shuttered by extreme conservatism.”
A negotiated settlement is needed to end the Afghan conflict, not just to stop the mindless and pathological infighting between several generations of Afghans, or to guarantee the disassociation of Afghan militias from political and religious groups with trans-national terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda, but also to enable structural and institutional assurances of progress for future generations of Afghans, most especially women. David Cortright, an Afghanistan Study Group member and the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has co-authored a report entitled, “Afghan Women Speak”. The report, to be presented to the United Nations Forum on Security and Human Rights in Afghanistan on October 28th, provides recommendations for a way forward for reconciliation and women’s rights in Afghanistan.
As the Afghan war continues to worsen and prospects for a better future appear hopeless to many Afghans, it is proposals like David’s, as well as the Afghanistan Study Group, that should be at the forefront of discussions in Washington and Kabul.
Matthew P. Hoh
Director, Afghanistan Study Group
Published: October 22nd, 2010