The fact that 60 percent of Pakistanis voted in parliamentary elections, thereby defying Pakistani Taliban intimidation, is a good sign. So is the likelihood that Pakistan will see the first succession since the country’s founding in 1947 from one elected government to another after the first government had completed its full term in office.
But we should not expect much change in foreign policy from presumptive prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who got his start in politics as a protégé of the Islamist military dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. In the 1990s, during an earlier stint as prime minister, he was a supporter of the Afghan Taliban and has remained cozy with Islamic militant groups ever since; during this campaign he refused to come out strongly against the Pakistani Taliban, which helps to explain why that group did not attack rallies held by his Pakistan Muslim League party. Although Sharif is said to favor better ties with India, his most famous act as prime minister occurred in 1998 when he approved Pakistan’s first nuclear test, thereby ratcheting up tensions with India.
You’ve got to hand it to Hamid Karzai. He is nothing if not brazen. Other world leaders might be embarrassed if caught accepting bags of cash from the CIA. Not Karzai. Instead, he is bragging to reporters that the CIA money was “an easy source of petty cash” and reassuring anyone who will listen that he will continue on the CIA payroll.
The question is: What is the CIA getting for its (read: our) money? I am not opposed in principle to the CIA paying off the leaders of other countries; it has certainly done so before. If intelligently used, cash can be a valuable part of an influence operation; it can be a vital source of support for strong pro-American leaders such as Ramon Magsaysay, the president of the Philippines from 1953 to 1957.
I am not an optimist when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States lost the Afghan war the second President Obama issued a public timeline for withdrawal and when diplomats offered to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials endorsing such timelines—too often out of political perspicacity rather than military wisdom—are culpable in setting the stage for defeat. Momentum matters in Afghanistan more than spin, as Afghans have never lost a war: they simply defect to the winning side.
The White House may believe its spin, but no one in Afghanistan does. Whereas the Taliban once embraced the narrative of the First Anglo-Afghan War, describing Mullah Omar as Dost Muhammad and Hamid Karzai as Shah Shujah, with the implication that ISAF forces would play the role of the British heading into a disastrous retreat, the historical allusions have changed in recent months as Afghans filter events through the living memory of the Soviet withdrawal. Hence, Hamid Karzai has become Najibullah in the current Afghan narrative. Najibullah, of course, was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. True, Najibullah managed to hold onto power for three years following the Soviet withdrawal, but he fell as soon as the rubles—about $3 billion per year—dried up. Afghans recognize that most of the money promised in the past years’ series of international donor conferences will never get delivered.
Further, when the World Bank estimates the foreign assistance that Afghanistan will require to stay afloat, they too often assume that the Afghan mining industry will be far more advanced than reality will dictate. In the past year, real estate prices have dropped 20 percent in Afghanistan as Afghans recognize that the long-term prospects for rule of law are dim.
If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.
In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.
Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak Province following reports—rejected by U.S. forces—that they were involved in the disappearance of nine people. Karzai’s decision—and the apparent willingness of U.S. forces to go along with it—really do signal the beginning of the end. U.S. forces will withdraw not with a mission accomplished, but in defeat. Political and military claims to the contrary are nonsense, and show a profound ignorance of Afghanistan and Afghan history more than a decade into our latest involvement in that country. The defeat need not have been though; it was far more a political decision on the part of the White House than the result of any military weakness.
As my AEI colleague Ahmad Majidyar—hands down the best analyst of Afghan politics there is in the United States right now, and someone not limited by security to ISAF headquarters or our many Forward Operating Base or otherwise sucked into the military-information bubble—notes Wardak is the gateway to Kabul, the path which Taliban fighters use to infiltrate Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks. The security situation in Wardak has been declining in the past year. The Taliban have prioritized moving into Wardak as foreign forces leave.
I fully agree with Max Boot: Obama emboldened the Taliban with his timeline for withdrawal. Such statements may run afoul of the White House spin machine, but it’s important therefore to see how Afghans perceive the speech. From Kabul’s 1TV in Dari today with a translation from the Open Source Center, here’s former deputy interior minister General Abdol Hadi Khaled:
Insurgency has now spread to almost all parts of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is very insecure. Threats to the security of Afghanistan and the region have increased by a long way. There is a very high level of interference by the neighbors, especially of Pakistan and Iran, in Afghanistan’s affairs. Their withdrawal at this time is a decision they have taken and their decision is not their reaction to the realities on the ground in Afghanistan and the region.
Afghans have never lost a war: They just defect to the winning side. The Taliban may have steamrolled through Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. But they relied more on momentum and defection of their enemies than on their own military prowess. This time, the civil war will likely be worse: There are more power centers, and both Iran and Pakistan are emboldened. Rather than aim for victory, it seems Obama is determined to bring defeat.
President Obama’s announcement that half of the 66,000 US troops now in Afghanistan would be pulled out over the next year is not as bad as it could have been. He could have announced that the 34,000 troops would be pulled out by September—just as he had previously set a deadline of September 2012 to pull out roughly the same number of surge forces. This would have been especially unfortunate because September is still part of the “fighting season” in Afghanistan and taking them off the battlefield at this time cedes an important advantage to the enemy.
That is not what Obama did, however: He backloaded the withdrawal, with only 6,000 troops coming out by the end of May, another 8,000 by the end of November, and the remaining 20,000 in February 2014. That at least gives Gen. Joe Dunford, the new US/NATO commander in Kabul, the majority of the existing forces to work with during the 2013 fighting season, even if it does mean that US forces will be so denuded by April 2014 that they will have a hard time securing the presidential election which is scheduled to be held then—and which could prove of great importance to Afghanistan’s long-term stability.
When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.
The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.
Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:
First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.
Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Malala Yousufzai, the Pashtun schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt in Pakistan’s tribal region, today has left the hospital. Her recovery is not yet complete, and she will also undergo facial reconstruction surgery. The Pakistani government—which once tried to cut a deal with the same groups that targeted Malala and tried to deny her and her peers education solely on the basis of their gender—did the right thing by appointing her father to the Pakistani consulate so that the family might stay in the United Kingdom for the near future.
Malala’s ordeal should be a wake up call for the West. Momentum matters. Obama’s plans to withdraw “on schedule” from Afghanistan will imbue the Taliban with power they have not seen for more than a decade. They will claim that they have defeated two superpowers, and no amount of White House spin or historical fact-checking will change that perception among their Islamist followers. The idea that the Afghan government will stand on its own replicates the Soviet dream that Najibullah would last forever. As Najibullah learned, as soon as the foreign money runs out and the international community starts negotiating with his enemies, all is lost.
Who, you ask? Were it not for the valiant agency Morning Star News, which specializes in documenting the persecution of Christians around the world, even fewer news consumers would know the name of this angelic-looking, 71-year-old Swedish lady who was gunned down in the Pakistani city of Lahore:
Shot by two armed men outside her house in Lahore’s upscale Model Town as she returned from her Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA) office in the Kot Lakhpat area, Almby died at about 10 p.m. Pakistan Standard Time at Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, FGA Bible School Principal Liaqat Qaiser told Morning Star News.
Almby, director at the FGA Technical Training Institute and also a teacher at the FGA Bible School, was shot in the chest, and the bullet damaged her left lung. Initially she was taken to Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital, where doctors removed the bullet and said her condition was critical because of excessive bleeding.
She had served the Pakistani Christian community for 38 years.
“Almby will be missed dearly,” Qaiser said. “She spent a long time serving the poor and downtrodden Christians in Pakistan, and every Christian is very sad at her demise. But she is in a much better place now.”
On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued the Islamist movement’s official statement in Pashto, which the Open Source Center translated:
1. Obama should fully utilize the new opportunity preventing the United States from acting as world police, focusing on solving own problems, and not allowing the country to burn in the fire of world’s hatred.
2. Obama realizes that Americans are now tired of the war and useless military expenditure. Therefore, he should take into account the demands and expectations of his people, and end the meaningless war. He should not let the United States become notorious by committing more war crimes.
3. Obama realizes that the American nation is tired of the war losses and back-breaking economic crisis. Therefore, he should immediately withdraw his troops from the country and prevent deaths of more US troops.
4. The elements who are currently supporting the United States in our country are indeed the most disgraceful and unwanted faces. Relying on such elements will cost the United States more financial and human losses.
5. Perhaps Obama has now realized well that he has lost the battle in Afghanistan. Therefore, instead of wasting time and telling lies, he should immediately leave our sacred soil and think about his country and people’s lives.
The joy with which residents of Kabul have greeted a championship boxing match in their city–won by Hamid Rahimi, a German of Afghan extraction–is further evidence that there is little desire in Afghanistan for a return to Taliban rule. The Taliban, after all, were the crackpots who banned boxing, music, kite flying, and other forms of entertainment. They did allow soccer matches, but would come out at halftime to execute or amputate their victims–a poor alternative to marching bands and cheerleaders.
Amid all of Afghanistan’s problems, its people are embracing professional soccer, boxing, and other amusements that would be unthinkable under Taliban control. Admittedly, Kabul is hardly representative of the entire country–it has always been the most Westernized of Afghan cities. But cities like Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad and even Kandahar are no more friendly to the resumption of Taliban control. The Taliban do have some support in the Pashtun countryside, but even there the Taliban’s draconian edicts–such as forbidding schooling for girls–go too far even for most conservative farmers.
Why do reporters bother to write formal news stories? The best, most illuminating accounts I read are those in which the reporter dispenses with the conventions of “objective” journalism and writes in the first person, telling readers what he or she saw. Exhibit A is this blog post by New York Times Kabul bureau chief Alyssa Rubin. Rubin had earlier published a news story attempting to get to the bottom of what happened recently when American and Afghan soldiers exchanged fire with one another, killing six men. She could not figure out the real story–were the Americans simply jumpy or were the Afghans actually trying to kill them?–and so the story was inherently unsatisfying. But her blog post on how she reported the story is the best single snapshot I have seen of real security conditions in Kabul and its environs.
She begins by noting that living in Kabul, as she does, can give a misleading impression because, “despite the blast walls and checkpoints and rubble, there’s still some normalcy there,” with “restaurants that cater to us [Westerners], clothing shops, grocers — even a couple of neighborhoods where you might run into each other on the street.” But if you drive just 35 miles out of the capital into Wardak Province, an area that has never been truly pacified, the scene changes alarmingly: “The road empties out, and the few trucks and minibuses bounce over the scars of I.E.D. blasts every mile or two. ” Further, she writes:
On Wednesday, Mullah Omar, the elusive leader of the Taliban, released a message for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which this year falls on October 26. Omar’s message is well worth reading, especially against the backdrop of Obama administration efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.
As Ahmad Majidyar—probably the most astute Afghanistan analyst in the United States—points out, Mullah Omar used his address to redouble his commitment to a complete military victory. “We will continue to wage Jihad against the invaders who have invaded our country until the occupation ends completely,” he declared. Obama and Governor Romney might both have reaffirmed the 2014 pullout date during their most recent debate, but let us hope that they did so fully cognizant that no amount of spin will convince Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbors that the withdrawal is anything but a Taliban victory.
Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ right to education, has done more to de-legitimize Taliban rule and the radical Islamist ideology for which it stands than any Western diplomat or multimillion dollar de-radicalization program. How disappointing it was, then, that in last night’s debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney saw fit to pay tribute and provide a shout-out to this bold little girl.
Obama argued that his administration strategy was predicated on fighting radicalism:
Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engaged these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their governments aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they’re treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.
The words are empty, however, as the Taliban declares itself on the verge of a great victory, and when the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to send women back centuries. Even in Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of Obama’s closest friends, has seen the situation of women decline precipitously. To this, Obama appears oblivious.
One of the more frustrating exchanges in the vice presidential debate this past week was the one about Afghanistan. Vice President Biden thinks he won the point by insisting that the United States was simply pulling out: “We are leaving Afghanistan in 2014, period. There is no ifs, ands or buts.” By contrast, Paul Ryan’s position was more nuanced, expressing a clear desire to end the American military role in the war there but criticizing the administration’s decision to announce a firm deadline for the pullout that has told the Taliban that all they need to do to triumph is to just wait for the U.S. to bug out. Ryan has the better argument, but at a time when fatigue with foreign wars is high, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Biden’s position might be more popular.
That sentiment reflects not merely the wish to extricate U.S. troops from a bloody and difficult task but a desire to ignore what happens to Afghanistan and its people and to treat the conflict as irrelevant to American interests. That position was more fully articulated in today’s lengthy lead editorial in the New York Times. The piece, titled “Time to Pack Up,” takes the position that the United States should not even wait until 2014 to abandon Afghanistan but flee within the next 12 months leaving the country to the tender mercies of the Taliban. Ironically, the Times underlines Ryan’s fears about what the administration is about to do in Afghanistan. The paper, which in this case probably speaks for most liberals on the issue, treats the Taliban’s eventual victory as perhaps regrettable but unavoidable. They concede defeat to the Islamists but seem to think that admitting this will strengthen rather than hurt American interests in the region. They could not be more mistaken.
The barbarism of the Taliban is occasionally disguised but never very effectively and never for long. The latest example of them showing their true colors is the horrifying assault on Malala Yousafzai, a precocious 14-year-old-girl from the Swat Valley of Pakistan, who has emerged as an outspoken champion of girls’ education–which is anathema to this violent fundamentalist movement. Taliban gunmen answered her temerity with a bullet to the head, leaving her in critical condition. What makes this heinous act even more shocking is that the Taliban took no effort to hide their involvement. As the New York Times reports:
A Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed by phone Tuesday that Ms. Yousafzai had been the target, calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.”
“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” Mr. Ehsan said, adding that if she survived, the militants would certainly try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson.”
So in the eyes of the Taliban, advocating for women’s education is a capital crime.
We can be thankful that most Obama administration officials have finally abandoned their silly notion that an inane and bigoted film was responsible for the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and the well-coordinated assault on several American embassies and consulates. The attacks were premeditated and motivated more by ideology than by grievance.
Perhaps it’s time the Pentagon accept that the same holds true with “Green on Blue” violence or “insider attacks,” in the new Pentagon parlance. (As an aside, it’s always a bad sign when the Pentagon spends more time fighting over what to call American enemies than to defeating them; the amount of time spent during the Iraq war arguing about whether the insurgents were “insurgents,” “anti-Iraqi forces,” “terrorists,” or “jihadists” was downright silly).
It’s been a tough few days in Afghanistan.
On September 14, the Taliban attacked Camp Bastion—a giant Anglo-American base in Helmand Province—and managed to destroy six Marine Harrier jets on the ground and to kill a Harrier squadron commander. This was a well-planned, well-executed attack that caused more than a hundred million dollars in damage.
On September 18, a suicide bomber rammed a bus near the Kabul airport, killing 12 people, mostly foreign crew members working on charter flights to support USAID and other agencies in Afghanistan.