Afghanistan News and Views

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: In Afghanistan, a Struggle to Leave No Woman or Child Behind

Gender-based violence is pervasive in Afghanistan, but activists see a change in the wind.

By Tadamichi Yamamoto, December 4, 2017, for The Diplomat

The ancient Mosque in Mazar-e Sharif, April 25, 2017. Image Credit: UNAMA / Fardin Waezi.

Gender-based violence in Afghanistan can take myriad, often less-than-subtle forms, particularly in the most remote regions of the country. When human rights worker Sadia Ekrami tried to speak about basic rights to a crowd of men in a village in northern Afghanistan, she was threatened with death, and forced to flee for her life. “Fortunately, I talked my way out of them killing me, but it is an example of how women in Afghanistan who speak out can end up dead,” she said.

Sadia, also a social media expert, knows a bit about the problem. She follows every form of gender-based violence in northern Afghanistan. A recent survey, which she conducted, turned up some classic tales of workplace harassment. In one case, a male colleague told a female co-worker that he had fallen in love with a movie actress “who looked just like her.” When he gave her a flash drive containing an inappropriate movie, she was not amused.

Other school girls in the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif, as in large cities anywhere in the world, report being stalked. Indeed, around 87 percent of Afghan women experience at least one form of gender-based violence in their lifetime, according to the United Nations.

Yet, Sadia sees signs of change in the air – and across the region. “Social media has opened up new possibilities for women and girls in Afghanistan,” she said. “Before we didn’t know what to do, but now women are telling their stories.”

The struggle of Afghan women, girls, and boys to overcome abuse, harassment, gender-based violence, and sexual violence has its parallels around the world, and has been addressed in new ways in 2017, particularly through the media. Societal definitions of what constitutes gender-directed violence and sexual violence are under fresh scrutiny. This year’s vibrant global conversation, inspired by new stories in the media about gender-based violence, abuse, and harassment stemming from a willingness of survivors to speak out, has given fresh impetus for change on a global scale.

Annually, the “16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, “ which runs from November 25 to December 10, marks a global campaign aimed at raising public awareness and mobilizing everyone – men, women, and children – to counter all forms of  violence against women, girls, and boys. The theme of this year’s 2017 campaign is “Leave no one behind,” a notion that suggests to me that we need to reach out as families, communities and institutions to confront this scourge in new ways.

As the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan, I lead an assistance mission focused on preventing conflict and making peace, and this also includes addressing the root causes of the violence that shatters the lives of women, girls, and children.

KABUL, 14 June 2017 – UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Kabul’s outskirts met today with some of the 800,000 Afghans displaced by conflict in last 18 months, as part of a one-day visit to the country’s capital. The Secretary-General is visiting Afghanistan to show solidarity with the Afghan people – backing an Afghan-led peace process and supporting the communities most affected by the conflict. Photo UNAMA / Fardin Waezi.

In Afghanistan, gender-based violence takes extraordinary forms, including women and girls traded in a marriage exchanges between families in a practice known as badal, giving away girls to settle disputes, known as ba’ad, and  the practice of bacha bazi, where boys are used as sex slaves.

Fortunately, Afghanistan’s government in concert with the United Nations has already acknowledged that gender-based violence is endemic and needs to be eradicated through, among other means, the rule of law and proper enforcement mechanisms.

Pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, Afghanistan has put in place the Elimination of Violence against Women Law (EVAW Law), including the establishment of the Commissions on EVAW at national and local levels and the EVAW Prosecution Units. It also has seen to the creation of women protection centers and the progressive increase in recruitment of policewomen.

Today, across Afghanistan, there are 205 gender response units, run primarily by women of the Afghanistan National Police, in some of the most troubled parts of the country. Despite the challenges they face in gaining acceptance, I am encouraged by the dedication of these Afghan policewomen. Their motivations to work in the special police force spring from their compassion, concern, and generosity for all Afghans, particularly women and girls.

One new recruit told the UN that she had joined after seeing a woman “killed in broad daylight” in Kabul. Other women, who come from broken and brutal homes, do it literally to stop others from being victimized by the same variety of violence that has ripped through their own lives.

Another recruit told the UN: “My own mother used to face so much violence. The marriage of my mother was a forced one. She used to be beaten by my father daily, and mentally she was abused all her life. Due to all this violence and issues, my mother is not well. She is mentally ill and doesn’t recognize her children, which is painful.”

These women have become heroes in their own communities: They sometimes take victims of gender-based violence into their own homes, acts of valor that put their own lives and families at risk.

Though women in developed countries are also subject to ostracism and further abuse for speaking out, in Afghanistan that can also be accompanied by societal perceptions that the violations of a woman or girl has tainted her for life. She, in turn, can be abandoned by her own family.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has taken a special interest in providing support for media organizations determined to break the silence and help marginalized women, girls, and boys tell their stories. The UN has sponsored forums and athletic events to promote conversation and awareness of gender-based violence and harassment, and has worked with local media outlets to extend these messages across the country.

What I’ve learned from watching our work with the media is that a responsible press is a key to shining a light into dark corners and onto the harsh realities of gender-based violence. Even reporters, who persuade their editors of the need for more in-depth reporting on these forms of violence, are helping to fulfill a promise to all of us.

It is my hope that in the coming year, in Afghanistan and across the region, we can find new approaches to tackling gender-based violence. All of us can take part by promoting a gender-friendly work environment, assessing our own behavior, supporting the hard work of law enforcement, and thinking of creative ways to address what are arguably some of humanity’s most shameful practices.

Tadamichi Yamamoto is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and the Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: Afghanistan in 2017: A Survey of the Afghan People

Report from the Asia Foundation, November 14, 2017

The 2017 Survey of the Afghan People polled 10,012 Afghan respondents from 16 ethnic groups across all 34 provinces, including insecure and physically challenging environments. The annual survey is the longest-running and broadest nationwide survey of Afghan attitudes and opinions. Since 2004, the Survey has gathered the opinions of more than 97,000 Afghan men and women, providing a unique longitudinal portrait of evolving public perceptions of security, the economy, governance and government services, elections, media, women’s issues, and migration.

Despite security and economic concerns in Afghanistan, annual poll of 10,000 citizens reveals slight rise in optimism

Kabul, November 14, 2017 — The number of Afghans who say the country is moving in the right direction has increased and optimism has risen slightly, reversing a decade-long downward trajectory in national mood, according to a new survey released today by The Asia Foundation. At the same time, fears about security and the economy affect attitudes about the future of the country, and a large number of respondents indicate they would leave the country if afforded the opportunity. The findings are based on face-to-face interviews with a national sample of more than 10,000 Afghan citizens representing all major and most minor ethnic groups in all 34 provinces. Read the executive summary, FAQ, and analysis here.

The findings of the 13th Survey of the Afghan People emerge amid the escalation of attacks in Afghanistan and the U.S. administration’s new strategy for the South Asia region. Despite some progress, Afghanistan is still the most fragile and volatile country in the region, and the country most affected by terrorism, second only to Iraq. In this challenging research environment, the annual Asia Foundation Survey is the longest-running and broadest survey of Afghan attitudes on critical issues facing the country. Since 2004, the Survey has gathered the opinions of more than 97,000 Afghan men and women, providing an unmatched longitudinal portrait of public perceptions of security, the economy, governance and government services, elections, media, women’s issues, and migration. The 2017 Survey includes additional questions related to migration and remittances, a significant issue for Afghanistan’s economy.

Despite significant challenges, the Survey was conducted in Afghanistan against a backdrop of increasing life expectancy, rising educational attainment, and expanded access to education, especially for girls. Today, expected educational attainment at birth is 10.1 years, compared to 2.5 years in 2000 under the Taliban. In 2002, Afghanistan had just one million students; today it has 8.7 million, 39% of them female. Life expectancy at birth has increased from 45.3 years in 2000 to 60.7 years in 2017.

“Clearly, Afghans are eager for a better future, and this year’s data reflects a rise in optimism despite the challenging security environment and lack of employment,” said Abdullah Ahmadzai, The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Afghanistan. “After a historic decline in 2016, confidence in public institutions and the Afghan National Security Forces have slightly improved in 2017. The Survey also reveals what Afghans see as their immediate priorities: educational development, agricultural development, good security, and the building of roads and bridges are frequently cited as going well at the local level.”

“The Survey is a map of social change over time, presenting a clear picture of the gains and gaps that Afghans perceive in a rapidly transforming nation,” said David D. Arnold, president, The Asia Foundation. “In this crucial period of political and economic transition, the importance of comprehensive, reliable data cannot be overstated,”

Rise in optimism despite violence, insurgencies, and lack of employment

32.8% of Afghans say their country is moving in the right direction, reversing a downward trend in mood that began in 2013. A desire to rebuild (51.0%) contributed to the slight rise in optimism, and Afghans cite improvements in governance (26.7%), rights for women (14.9%), and the economy (11.6%) as reasons for the uptick in mood, despite the nation’s challenges to maintain security against the Taliban insurgency and the growing presence of ISIS/Daesh. The number who say the country is moving in the wrong direction declined to 61.2% from a 2016 high of 65.9%. Drops in fear were recorded in the East and Southwest of Afghanistan, but in the West fear for personal safety spiked from 67.5% in 2016 to 80.2% in 2017. 70.6% of Afghans say the biggest problem facing youth is unemployment, consistent with 2016 data; this is particularly pronounced in the Central/Kabul region (76.8% of respondents).

Growing confidence in Afghan National Security Forces

Attitudes toward the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA) have stabilized in 2017, which after 2014 sharply declined in all categories of capacity and performance assessed by the Survey. The number of Afghans who strongly agree that the ANP is honest and fair increased by 7.2 percentage points over 2016. The proportion of Afghans who strongly agree that the ANP helps improve security has stopped falling, with a slight uptick of 2.0 percentage points this year in assessments that the ANP is efficient at arresting criminals. Findings for the ANA parallel the ANP data, with a 5.2-point gain since 2016 for “honest and fair,” a 4.6-point gain for “helps improve security,” and a 3.4-point gain for “protects civilians.”

Heightened sense of risk contributes to rising number of Afghans willing to migrate

38.8% of Afghans would leave the country if afforded the opportunity—the second-highest level recorded in Survey history. Men (41.2%) are more likely than women (36.3%) to wish to leave Afghanistan. An increase in casualty deaths, clashes, and attacks in Kabul have combined to strongly influence the willingness to leave—76.3% cite insecurity as a top reason to leave Afghanistan followed by unemployment at 54.5%. Those aware of ISIS/Daesh express a desire to leave at 40.5%, compared to those who have not heard of this group (32.7%). For the first time, this year’s Survey looked at the factors that might encourage Afghans not to migrate; the most frequently cited reason for staying is Afghan identity (82.9%); those who want to stay report “this is my country” and “I feel comfortable here.”

Afghans support women’s leadership and education but the picture is mixed

Women are becoming more visible in the news media and broadcast television, but support for women in leadership roles is mixed. Most Afghans (69.7%) agree women should be able to join a community development council; there is less support for a woman to become a cabinet member (56.0%), a provincial governor (55.4%), and a CEO of a private company (54.6%). In 2016, 74.0% agreed women should be allowed to work outside the home; that percentage dipped slightly this year to 72.4%. In 2006, a record 91.5% said women should have the same opportunities as men in education; this year 82.3% say this. Like last year, more than a third (36.4%) say education/illiteracy is a problem for women, making this the biggest problem facing women cited across all genders, ages, ethnicities, and the rural/urban divide.

Afghans are slightly more confident in public institutions and government performance

After a historic decline in 2016, confidence in public institutions has improved; some remain skeptical about leaders’ abilities to improve living conditions. 56.2% believe the National Unity Government (NUG) is doing a good job, a 7.1 percentage point increase from 2016 data, and 56.9% are satisfied with their provincial governments. 47.1% of urban residents are satisfied with municipal government, an increase from a record low last year of 42.4%, while rural Afghans are satisfied with their district governments, also an uptick, at 55.8%. Afghans are still most confident in their religious leaders (67.3%), followed by the media (65.7%) and community shuras/jirgas (65.7%).

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: Afghanistan’s booming heroin trade leaves trail of addiction at home

By Sune Engel Rasmussen, November 16, 2017, for The Guardian

With the country’s opium production rising by 87% on last year, a former US base in Helmand is now a drug abuse treatment centre

Opium addicts gather to smoke by a wall in a public park in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where half of Afghanistan’s opium is produced. Photograph: Andrew Quilty

For a decade, the office of the British Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand was busy dispersing hundreds of millions of aid dollars across the province.

Now, the base is barren; stripped of everything of value. Occasional moans reverberate down the corridors where gaunt-looking men sleep, belly-down, seeking respite from the sun beating through the windows. All of them are recovering drug addicts.

In one room, an elderly man tumbled off his bunk. “Allah, Allah,” Mohammad Rahim mutters, flapping his arms and legs about as if doing snow angels on the dusty concrete floor. He is fighting through second-day heroin withdrawal.

“We all felt like this when we came,” says his roommate, Khairullah.

An elderly man falls from his bunk at the drug treatment centre in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Photograph: Andrew Quilty

Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of opium and heroin. This year, its opium production hit a new record high, rising 87% compared to 2016, according to statistics from the UN. The increase is largely due to a rapid expansion of territory used to cultivate poppy, following advances by the Taliban who both promote and profit from the crop.

Its production leaves behind a trail of addiction. Although most drugs are smuggled abroad, there are between 1.3 million and 1.6 million drug users in Afghanistan, the UN estimates.

Treatment, though, is poor. In Helmand, where half the country’s poppies grow and where unemployment and poverty perpetuate the temptation of readily available drugs, the government offers only 70 spots at two rehabilitation clinics.

“This is a chronic disease, just like cancer,” says Dr Ajmal Fazli, director of a 20-bed clinic.

The treatment on offer is 40 days of cold turkey. Emotional comfort is found in a sort of brotherhood of fellow addicts. The sole entertainment is a small television in front of two plastic chairs.

Patients are men at the fringe of society: scrawny teenage dropouts, rugged old men and, when the Guardian visited, a young man whose family had arranged his marriage, then postponed it for six years so far, until he gets clean.

Some sport crude tattoos – a rarity in conservative Islamic societies – after stints in prison.

“My brother once had me arrested to help me get clean,” says Juma Khan, rolling up his sleeve to unveil an inked snake and a heart. But jail could not break 10 years of addiction.

Helmand has no clinics for addicted women, although their numbers are said to be growing. A small team of female outreach workers comb through Lashkar Gah’s parks, among throngs of male addicts and drug dealers, looking for women.

“We are afraid of going there. We wear doctors’ clothes, and tell them we are there to talk about vaccines for their children. When we sit down with them, we ask about their drug problems,” said Latifa, a social worker. Her team distributes painkillers and supervises addicts at home for 40 days.

But recently, the ministry of public health told her clinic to halve the number of women it targets to 10, supposedly due to limited resources.

Late one afternoon, on the edge of a mosquito-infested swamp about a mile from the Lashkar Gah clinics, two dozen men sit hunched over pipes, heating crumbled pieces of tin foil with heroin worth about 50p each. In the 45-degree heat, the stench of garbage and urine is oppressive.

Opium addicts gather to smoke by a wall in a public park in Lashkar Gah. Photograph: Andrew Quilty

One man, Hamid Kabiri, was once a member of the police special forces, but now spends his days in the park smoking. His wife has moved in with his father.

Despite $8.6bn (£6.5bn) spent by the US alone since 2001 to fight Afghan opium, the drug business continues to grow. The value of Afghan-produced opiates doubled last year, from $1.56bn in 2015 to $3.02bn, according to the UN. The hub of the trade is Helmand.

Foreign-funded eradication programs have now been all but disbanded. A $14.6m “food zone” project funded by the US and UK to distribute fertiliser and seeds to farmers ended years ago. Nearly all attempts to introduce alternative crops have failed.

Drug seizures are equally inefficient. In the past decade, authorities confiscated about 450,000kg of opium – less than 10% of the 4.8m kilos of opium produced in 2016 alone, according to the UN.

At the Helmand treatment centre in Lashkar Gah, patients who are admitted either voluntarily or by family or tribal elders, undergo a 45 day treatment program. Photograph: Andrew Quilty

In 2001, the last year of its rule, the Taliban outlawed opium cultivation, but they have since reversed course. They now enjoy a growing share of the illicit business, partly due to territorial gains, which allow them to promote and tax poppy.

“Generally, the pattern is that areas under Taliban see more cultivation,” said Devashish Dhar, international project coordinator with the UN’s drug and crime agency, UNODC.

Farmers were extending poppy growth into the desert, he said, installing wells and discarding other, less lucrative crops.

David Mansfield, a researcher with the London School of Economics and the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, said satellite imagery showed areas in Helmand close to Lashkar Gah had reverted to growing poppy after years of being off the crop.

“The recent collapse of the government in some of the areas has allowed people to return to poppy,” he said. New technology such as solar panels accelerated cultivation by reducing costs of pumps and generators for irrigation, he added.

“The Taliban’s interest in poppy is often gaining support from the people, and it is a provocative act against the government. It’s a win-win,” said Mansfield.

Use of drugs, however, is not tolerated in Taliban territory and addicts are imprisoned. When Abdul Shakur, 32, was caught by Taliban fighters with drugs in his car in Babaji, they detained him and beat him with sticks for two months before he escaped, he says.

Detention did not cure Shakur. He was able to smuggle opium inside, and once it ran out he escaped. When he returned to his family, he agreed to admit himself in the government clinic. “It has to end,” he says. “I’d like to be a healthy man.”

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: Street art in Afghanistan targets corruption and hate

By , November 17, 2017, for PBS

Murals are popping up in and around Kabul, aimed at getting people to think about what’s possible.

ArtLords, based in the Afghan capital, grew from a small group of artists and volunteers who wanted to share — in vivid color — the community’s desire to move from war to peace.

It was 2014, and the band of friends noticed that the government and international community were making most of the decisions for Afghans, said Lima Ahmad, one of the original members.

“We wanted to give a voice to the people of Afghanistan who do not have much of a say in what is happening, but they are the most who are suffering — the young people,” she said. In a population of 34 million, about 63 percent are under the age of 25, according to the CIA Factbook.

“We have been in such a miserable situation now for more than 40 years. I was born in that kind of situation — war, corruption, civil conflict, ethnic conflict,” said Ahmad. “We have to have a say in how we run the country.”

Street art offered a way to express their concerns and advocate for change in a non-violent way.

The group, co-founded and run by Omaid Sharifi and Kabir Mokamel, embarked on an “I see you” anti-corruption campaign, said Ahmad, who is currently studying international security and conflict resolution at a graduate school in Boston.

The team arrives at a site at night and with the use of a projector, traces the design on a wall. During the day, they fill in the drawing with paint. As people walk by, the artists explain what they’re doing and answer questions about the subject matter.

“Kabul has a security wall around the city, and (the murals are) a way of converting it with colorful messages,” said Ahmad. “We are putting up messages that can make people think.”

In addition to anti-corruption, the murals depict themes of women’s rights and anti-terrorism. One painting honors those killed in a bomb blast that targeted a funeral procession on June 3.

Since 2001, after the Taliban fell, women began going to school and taking part in public activities. They also began reporting more street harassment, said Ahmad. “It has become now kind of a cultural thing, so this was one of the things we wanted to work on as an issue.”

In order to raise awareness and squash the harassment, the group targeted university campuses, where men and women both attended school, to paint their messages about gender equality. “They should be aware of how much it has become a part of our society. We have anti-harassment and women-protection laws, but I think it’s more of a behavior change,” she said.

In general, people accept the art, especially when they learn it’s not commissioned by the international community, said Ahmad. “We’re not bringing something from outside. It’s a local phenomenon, whether it’s corruption or terrorism. These are things that are present in their lives.”

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: Top US general in Afghanistan: No change in Pakistan’s behavior

By Ryan Browne, November 9th, 2017, for CNN

The commander of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, US Army Gen. John Nicholson, said Thursday that Pakistan had not changed its behavior since President Donald Trump announced his new policy for Afghanistan and the wider region, a policy that specifically called on Pakistan to do more.

“No, I haven’t seen any change yet in their behavior,” Nicholson told reporters following a meeting of the NATO defense ministers in Brussels when asked whether he had seen any increased cooperation from Pakistan with regards to eliminating Taliban sanctuaries.
“You’ve heard the public statements from President Trump, from (Defense Secretary James) Mattis, from (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford) from (Secretary of State Rex) Tillerson, so we are engaging at the very highest levels with the Pakistanis to work together with them against these terrorists that are undermining the stability of the entire region,” Nicholson added.
“Pakistan has fought hard and suffered heavily against those terrorists focused on its government and now we are asking them to focus on the terrorists that are attacking Afghanistan and attacking the coalition,”
“The United States has been very clear about the direction we want to go and we hope to see some change in the coming weeks and months.”
Mattis told reporters at the ministerial meeting Thursday that the Trump administration was enlisting the international community to help encourage Pakistan to crack down on the Afghan Taliban via a series of incentives and disincentives.
“Obviously, there are ways we can reward Pakistan and there are ways we can ensure they are held to account,” Mattis said.
“We are going to work with Pakistan and make this work,” he added.
Last month, Trump praised Pakistan for its role in helping recover US citizen Caitlan Coleman and her family who had been held by the Haqqani network, a branch of the Taliban.
“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region,” Trump said following their recovery.
Earlier on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that 27 non-US members of the coalition in Afghanistan had committed to increase their troop numbers in Afghanistan to help train and advise the Afghan security services.
The plan is to increase the size of the NATO mission in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 16,000 Stoltenberg said, with the goal of having half of those forces come from countries other than the US.
These reinforcements will join the approximately 3,000 additional US troops that were ordered to Afghanistan as part of Trump’s new strategy. Those US troops will support both the NATO mission and a US counterterrorism mission. The US currently has about 14,000 troops in the country alongside approximately 6,000 from other nations.
But despite those additional allied contributions, US military commanders said this week that the coalition still needed more troops to help train and advise the Afghan security forces.
US commanders are specifically looking for allies to provide troops to help train Afghans in their officer academies and military specialization schools, freeing US troops to go out into the field and advise Afghan soldiers at the brigade and battalion levels, where the US advisers can provide support and call in airstrikes to assist Afghan forces on the front line.
“We need the allies to fill these billets and especially things like the schooling system so that Americans can do the things that only Americans can do,” Nicholson told reporters on Wednesday, referring to the new authorities and troops allowing US forces to advise closer to the fight.
But while US military officials acknowledge that pledges from allies fell short of the stated requirement they also said that efforts are ongoing to increase the number of allied commitments, expressing optimism that countries will provide more forces in the near future.
Some countries will require parliamentary approval for any troop increase, delaying a possible decision on additional military commitments.
“It’s not a done deal yet, we are still talking to nations,” Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, told a group of reporters on the sidelines of the ministerial meeting.
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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: Violence is so bad in parts of Afghanistan that Red Cross clinics are shutting their doors

By Antonio Olivo, October 26, 2017, for The Washington Post

A smiling physiotherapist beams in a framed photo inside the Red Cross ­center here, hinting at the radiant personality that charmed her orthopedic patients before a man with polio took out a gun hidden in his wheelchair and killed her.

The slaying of Lorena Enebral Perez at a clinic in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif followed the roadside killing of six Afghans working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and three abductions in the past year, part of a spike in violence by smaller militias and by the Taliban that has led to more than 200 deaths in the past week.

That violence has prompted the international aid agency to shut down two of its offices in the northern part of the country and to scale down operations in Mazar-e Sharif — a decision that will affect hundreds of thousands of Afghans who receive aid from the organization in seven northern provinces.

“The places where you have war and insecurity are the places where your help is needed,” said Alberto Cairo, a doctor who during the early 1990s spearheaded the creation of the ICRC’s orthopedic program, which treats 160,000 people annually across the country. “At the same time, you cannot deliver it. If we cannot guarantee the security of our staff, how can we work?”

So far this year, there have been 107 attacks on health facilities, up from 41 last year, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Fifteen aid workers have been killed in attacks, and an additional 43 have been abducted this year, down from 121 kidnappings the year before.

The orthopedic center’s roughly 8,500 patients who have lost legs to war or stray land mines, plus an additional 17,500 who have problems walking because of cerebral palsy, polio and other ailments, will still be able to receive treatment at the Mazar-e Sharif clinic. But the approximately 675,000 other Afghans who rely on the ICRC for food, water or medical aid in
the north will be left without options until the Afghan government or a different aid group fills the gap.

With U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling on Pakistan to help force the Taliban into peace negotiations amid a surge of 4,000 more U.S. troops, the militant group is fighting for a stronger presence outside its southern strongholds.

In that setting, more aid workers in areas once considered relatively safe have become targets for attacks or abductions. Meanwhile, more people need help.

In the past 12 months, 8,000 civilians have either died or been injured by military operations, down slightly from a peak of 8,500 in the previous year, according to the United Nations.

U.N. officials say humanitarian aid groups are trying to strike a balance by limiting their operations in some areas or prioritizing services to meet only the most urgent demands.

“We have to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we can help others,” said Toby Lanzer, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan. “I think, for the time being, you will see a reduction of aid in some of the areas where aid agencies have been hit.”

The erosion of security in the north has multiple causes, security analysts say.

In the hostile province of Kunduz, fighting between the Taliban and government forces has led to instability all around, making it harder for aid groups to know who is in charge. Elsewhere, smaller renegade groups — some of whom claim affiliation with the Islamic State — have taken hold in areas not under firm control of the government or the Taliban.

Those groups are behind many of the aid worker abductions and the attacks on medical facilities, said Obaid Ali, a director with the Afghan Analysts Network, who focuses on security issues in the north.

“They are small groups who work under their own flag, and in many cases, they refuse to obey Taliban rule and honor local culture,” Ali said. In the case of abductions, “it’s really hard, and it’s really dangerous to approach these people and discuss terms with them.”

The increased instability revealed itself to the ICRC in December when a Spanish member of the staff was abducted by a group of gunmen while traveling from Kunduz to Mazar-e Sharif. The man was held for a month before the ICRC negotiated his release.

In February, a group of armed men attacked an ICRC convoy in the northwestern province of Jowzjan, killing six Afghan staff members and abducting two others, holding them until September.

Lanzer said the U.N. humanitarian affairs office is working on how to fill the gap in services
left by the ICRC’s decision to close its offices in Kunduz and Maimana.

There, the organization assisted wounded fighters on both sides of the conflict, connected prisoners with their families, developed clean water and sanitation programs, and referred patients to the orthopedic center in Mazar-e Sharif, which was temporarily shut down after the shooting but will remain functioning at least through the end of 2018.

Lanzer said replacing the two other offices will be challenging if it isn’t clear who is in control.

“I think that with the Taliban, there is a conversation which is manageable ,” Lanzer said. Once services cease in those gray ­areas, “re-engagement becomes very difficult because you don’t know who to deal with.”

In Kunduz and Maimana, local officials lamented the closure of the ICRC offices.

“People will suffer a lot,” said Mohammad Hashim, a parliament member from Maimana. “We have discussed the problems people will face in the parliament and very much hope they will come back.”

Inside the ICRC orthopedic center in Kabul, therapists busily attended to dozens of patients without legs and those with walking disabilities.

In the mornings, as many as 500 people come to the center for treatment and therapy, said Cairo, the doctor.

One was Sayed Rohullah, 16.

He lost his right leg about a year ago after stepping on a land mine in his neighborhood in eastern Paktia province, near the Pakistan border, while walking to a local shop on an errand. After being fitted for a prosthetic limb four days earlier, he was still wobbly, Rohullah said.

But “it will change my life in a positive way because, without it, I will not be able to work,” he said.

Most patients are grateful for the aid. But Enebral’s murder revealed how vulnerable the ­organization can sometimes be while tending to people who bear grudges against other patients or staff members, Cairo said.

“We trust very much that our visibility, our acceptance, the fact that we are useful has always been our best defense,” he said, adding that the shooter was a 21-year-old man who had been receiving treatment since he
was 2.

“It’s like if your child suddenly kills you,” Cairo said. “It comes as quite a shock.”

Sayed Sahaluddin contributed to this report.

 

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: The Man Who Thought He Could Fix Afghanistan

To get something done in Afghanistan, you need to know Scott Guggenheim. But even the ultimate fixer isn’t sure anyone can solve the country’s problems.

By May Jeong, November/December 2017, for Politico

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

On November 9, 2016, Scott Guggenheim, a longtime American adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, rose early with the sun, got into an armored vehicle and headed across Kabul’s fortified Green Zone to the U.S. Embassy. Afghanistan is 8½ hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States, and the American expatriates, Afghan elites and others who had managed to scare up invitations had gathered in the basement of the embassy—a city block-sized, blast-resistant compound as charmless as it is spotless—to watch the results of the American presidential election. The basement was dominated by State Department employees, who are officially barred from political activism while living abroad but tend to support Democrats; some, anticipating a Hillary Clinton victory, were even calling the occasion a party. On the wall hung a Donald Trump piñata.

By midmorning Kabul time, however, Trump had taken a commanding lead, and the mood in the embassy basement began to shift. Ties came undone, breakfast Danishes were anxiously devoured, and under the red, white and blue bunting, a stunned silence settled in. The cover band that had been playing earlier packed up its instruments. Some of the diplomats were typing furiously on their BlackBerrys. Others stepped outside to smoke, leaving behind a more Trump-friendly crowd of uniformed soldiers and veterans who had returned to Afghanistan as private contractors.

Guggenheim recalls thinking of the election outcome: “For Afghanistan, it’s not such a bad thing. But for the United States, it’s a disaster.” Depressed, he returned to bed. A few days later, he saw Ghani at the Gul Khanna, the presidential office. “Will you give me a passport?” Guggenheim asked him, jokingly. Ghani told him he would.

Guggenheim is not a household name, but anyone who knows anything about international development, or Ghani, or the makings of the modern Afghan state will have heard of him, or have worked with him, and might be a little surprised that he didn’t have an Afghan passport already. His title is modest—senior adviser—but his imprimatur is on many major government policies that have come out of the Gul Khanna. If Ghani, a former academic whose lifelong passion has been studying how to fix broken countries, is Afghanistan’s development expert in chief, then Guggenheim is his American alter ego—Ghani’s Ghani.

Guggenheim recalls thinking of the election outcome: “For Afghanistan, it’s not such a bad thing. But for the United States, it’s a disaster.”

Guggenheim has been serving the Afghan state off and on for as long as the United States has occupied it, so long that when he speaks of Afghanistan, he often slips into the collective possessive pronoun—our country, our people—and refers just as reflexively to “you Americans.” He has worked with Ghani since 2002, but the two men have actually known each other for 36 years, long enough that, even though Ghani now holds the highest office in Afghanistan, Guggenheim still refers to him by his first name.

Over that time, amid Afghan politics’ literal palace intrigue and Hobbesian infighting, Guggenheim has somehow become one of the most powerful people in the country. He often functions as a connector—between Kabul and Washington, between Washington and its many allies, and sometimes even among the various branches of the American and Afghan governments. Whatever the Trump administration decided to do on Afghanistan after the inauguration, Guggenheim would play a major role implementing the Afghan side of the bargain.

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

A week after the election, Guggenheim, who is 62 years old, arrived for an interview in the garden of my house in the diplomatic quarter of Kabul. He was disheveled and shiny with sweat from the unseasonably warm autumn we were having, a fleece jacket pulled over a crumpled suit, the wardrobe a metaphor for a man who had spent most of his career as a globe-trotting anthropologist before landing, unexpectedly, at the beating heart of a political culture he had previously known nothing about. Born and raised in New York and also educated in Florida and Baltimore, Guggenheim worked in Mexico, where he picked up Spanish, and Indonesia, where he built his career and his personal life. (His wife is the Indonesian human rights activist Kamala Chandrakirana.)

He has been called “the brain of Dr. Ghani,” but in interviews in the months after the election, he was at constant pains to deflect attention. His business card contains just his name and a Gmail address. This is deliberate. “Ashraf likes having someone who has no political or economic ambition,” Guggenheim told me. He sees his role not as a consigliere but as a kind of a fixer for Ghani, the executor to the president’s blue-skied vision. “Ashraf has a pretty clear agenda. I always thought my job was to help him realize it,” Guggenheim said.

Now, for reasons of friendship, expertise and circumstance, this American liaison has become uniquely essential at this moment in Afghan history—even as he talks increasingly of leaving.

The Afghan state is as much an American experiment as anything else. The U.S. military leads efforts on the war, just as the U.S. government spearheads reconciliation efforts, and the entire venture wouldn’t be possible without foreign donors, who have funded around 70 percent of the Afghan government’s budget since the 2001 invasion. The promise of the early years, of Afghanistan as a modern society that would catch up to regional success stories like India or Iran, never progressed beyond the struggle for basic services such as access to justice and health. Ghani’s takeover from the paranoid and ineffectual Hamid Karzai in 2014 saw a difficult yet peaceful transition of power, the first in modern Afghan history. In the following years, Guggenheim soon observed, however, that the biggest barrier to this goal was not so much the Taliban, or Western apathy, but the vicious jockeying among Kabul elites that threatened to capsize whatever reform Ghani had set out to accomplish.

Into this tenuous situation came another potentially complicating variable: the Trump presidency.

Afghan elites watched the U.S. election keenly, trying to game out what fate awaited them. Since taking office, Trump has offered a reenergized, if still shapeless, American military agenda in Afghanistan, which Guggenheim believed would free up the Afghan government to focus on internal reforms. Theirs was a race against time, to see how long they could cling on before things ran out—money, goodwill, patience, interest. Guggenheim believed not all was lost, but the rising insecurity and political infighting around him gave him the occasional pause.

***

Two weeks after the garden meeting, on a morning in November, I rode with Guggenheim to the Arg-e-Shahi, Afghanistan’s presidential palace. It was 9:30 a.m., and Guggenheim had already been working for hours. “I think he goes from meeting to meeting and sends emails in between meetings,” his colleague, Tara Moayed, told me. His work style hasn’t changed since his days in Indonesia, where he built development projects that began from communities and grew into nationwide initiatives. Guggenheim has long been known in development circles for pioneering the kind of bottom-up approach that rejects the older, headquarters-oriented style of proffering aid. He was the guy you called when you needed a job done that few would say yes to because it was too complicated, too impossible-seeming, too whatever. “I doubt if there is a government office in Jakarta that doesn’t know Scott,” James Gilling, an Australian development official who worked with Guggenheim from 2012 to 2014, told me. “I mean, he is probably a genius, right?”

That morning, Guggenheim was returning from an appointment with ambassadors from four Nordic countries, with whom he had been discussing the mass deportation of Afghan refugees. More than 10,000 were set to be expelled from Europe, and Guggenheim had been tasked with “taking advantage of their moral principles” to delay the returns, as he wryly told me. Guggenheim had spent the first half of his career as an international development expert, advising countries on how best to run their governments. The essential service he provides to Ghani’s government was turning this experience on its head: He is, among other things, Afghanistan’s informal ambassador to the world of foreign donors who fund most of the country’s budget.

“Ghani was a serious young man, starting to organize his thoughts around an enduring obsession over state formation into a 1982 thesis, one that would later inspire a 2008 book called Fixing Failed States.”

Guggenheim first met Ghani in 1981, when Guggenheim, who was living in Brooklyn while working on an anthropology dissertation for Johns Hopkins, was urged by a former professor to seek out Ghani, who was working on his own thesis at Columbia. Ghani was a serious young man, starting to organize his thoughts around an enduring obsession over state formation into a 1982 thesis, one that would later inspire a 2008 bookcalled Fixing Failed States, which would again find new form as a campaign manifesto during the 2014 presidential election, and yet againas the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework, a document that outlined how Afghanistan was going to go from 70 percent dependence on foreign aid to between 40 and 50 percent. The two men ended up talking for two hours at the Hungarian Pastry Shop several blocks from campus before moving over to Ghani’s graduate student housing, where Guggenheim met his wife and children. “I was impressed,” Guggenheim told me. “Here was a guy who really understood big theory, someone who had read the original texts.” Later, when the anthropologist Sidney Mintz asked Guggenheim for recommendations for a teaching position, Guggenheim suggested Ghani. “He got the job in time to sit in on my Ph.D. exam,” Guggenheim said. “He asked all the hard questions.”

 

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

Ghani and Guggenheim were both working at the World Bank when, in 2001, U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Guggenheim was in Indonesia running a World Bank-funded community development project. That November, he was climbing a mountain in East Java when his mobile phone rang. “It’s me, Ashraf,” said the voice on the other end. The U.S.-led NATO coalition was setting up a new Afghan government in Kabul to replace the recently ousted Taliban. Ghani would be named finance minister. “I want you up here in January,” Ghani told Guggenheim.

Guggenheim said yes—partly out of personal loyalty and partly out of intellectual curiosity. As an academic, Ghani had obsessed over the question of how to get the state to better serve the public. Afghanistan, emerging from decades of civil war and misrule, offered a country-sized laboratory. As for Guggenheim, he had watched other countries work through seemingly intractable problems and wanted to try his hand at the most impossible-seeming of them all. After a lifetime spent far from the center of power, here was a chance to end his career at the top, where decisions that affected the poor he had set out to help were being made. For both men, Afghanistan was a chance to implement some of the theories they had discussed during countless conversations at weddings, backyard swims and garden parties across decades. The George W. Bush administration had gone to war in 2001 promising to improve the lives of Afghans but spent most of its tenure hunting down Al Qaeda and inciting further violence. That original promise had faded from the minds of many, but Guggenheim remained its most formidable proponent. “Remember, the goal is still poverty,” he told me.

“For both men, Afghanistan was a chance to implement some of the theories they had discussed during countless conversations at weddings, backyard swims and garden parties across decades.”

In January 2002, Guggenheim landed at the Kabul airport, its runway still cluttered with unexploded ordnance. “Welcome to Afghanistan,” said Ghani, meeting him on the pockmarked tarmac. The drive from the airport to the United Nations office, the only suitable lodging for visiting foreigners at the time, was a post-apocalyptic tableau of artillery shells and burned-out tanks. It reminded Guggenheim of Weekend, the Jean-Luc Godard film famous for its seven-minute shot of a traffic jam, replete with destroyed vehicles and dead bodies, the thin membrane of civility peeling off right before the viewer’s eyes. Guggenheim fell asleep that first night in a U.N. guest room heated by burning sawdust. For three months, he slept on a thick mat on the floor, read by the light of kerosene lamps, attended meetings in parkas and helped Ghani put up the scaffolding of a state.

Guggenheim had arrived in Afghanistan knowing little beyond what he had read in “The Man Who Would Be King,” the 1888 Rudyard Kipling story about two British adventurers who appoint themselves rulers of an Afghan province. His first job was to set up what would become the National Solidarity Program, which grants money to communities to build wells, roads or hospitals and is still cited as a rare success story in Afghanistan, a nation more often held up as a poster child for failed development projects.

Guggenheim spent 12 years flying in and out of the country while working for the World Bank, visiting to check up on his programs or to assist Ghani with whatever his old friend needed doing. Then, in June 2014, Afghanistan held a bitterly contested election—the first democratic transition of power in its history. The new president was Ashraf Ghani.

Ghani inherited not just a fast-fracturing state, but also a set of impending, and existentially imperiling, deadlines: 2014 was the year NATO troops were scheduled to pull out, and foreign donors began slashing funding. One of the first calls Ghani made after becoming president was to Guggenheim, who had since returned to Indonesia. Guggenheim—who generally insists on wearing colorful Indonesian shirts even in official meetings—got three suits made and arrived back in Kabul in October.

***

That November morning, Guggenheim’s car inched through Kabul traffic and arrived at the first of many checkpoints surrounding the Green Zone, a cordoned-off area of downtown Kabul that is home to NATO headquarters, embassies, news bureaus and other foreign outposts. The gated community had been carved out of the city without the city in mind, and the resulting interminable traffic is, for Afghans, a daily reminder of the second-class status they endure in their own country. While we waited to be let into the palace grounds, a convoy carrying the U.S. ambassador drove by, coming from the embassy a mile away—an imposing structure that Guggenheim derisively called “Fort America.”

The original Arg-e-Shahi was built by Abdur Rahman Khan, the “Iron Emir” of Afghanistan, in 1880, after the Second Anglo-Afghan War destroyed the previous royal residence. Each invading army added another building, and today, its catholic architectural styles reflect the sedimentary layers of outside influences that have shaped—or failed to shape—the country. Once inside the security perimeter, we headed for Kot-e Baghcha, “the house of the small garden,” the building where Guggenheim was then living. We passed through an archway adorned with floral discs that harkened back to the time of Alexander the Great. This, Guggenheim explained, was the Afghanistan he had fallen for—a country with a real presence of history. “Somewhere up here is where they strung up Najibullah,” he added. Afghanistan’s last Soviet-backed president, Mohammad Najibullah, was overthrown and spent four years in seclusion before being castrated and dragged to death behind a Taliban truck in 1996, his body put on display hanging from a noose of piano wire, with imported cigarettes and rolled-up dollar bills stuffed in his mouth.

For most of its existence, the palace compound has been the center of not just the country’s political life but its social life too. President Hamid Karzai, after taking up residence in the Arg, used the building similarly, hosting group dinners for as many as 700 supplicants and opening up the royal mosque to anyone who wanted to join him for Friday prayers. Ghani, whose solitary disposition is legendary, preferred to dine with his wife at home. The only people living on the 80-acre grounds when I visited, aside from Ghani and his wife, were Guggenheim and two of his colleagues.

Ghani, as president, keeps a small kitchen cabinet of perhaps two dozen people, with Guggenheim as its nucleus. (When Ghani was looking around to assemble his team in 2001, then-World Bank President James Wolfensohn told him, “What you need is $100 million and one Scott Guggenheim.”) The two old friends maintain a routine of regular email correspondence and hold frequent in-person meetings. Guggenheim’s portfolio, in White House terms, would be split between the president’s chief of staff and the national security adviser. Ghani is known for barking out orders that his staff does not understand, which Guggenheim then translates. When he is not doing that, Guggenheim makes rounds of embassies, persuading foreign governments to fund the Afghan state directly. The current model, he argues, creates parallel structures of power, which in turn undermines the overall project, which has always been legitimacy through autonomous rule. The very presence of donors, and their dollars, was the thing that Guggenheim had been hired to render unnecessary. Ghani gave him sweeping authority to do things like restructure the budget to reflect actual needs instead of interests; figure out how to collect taxes; or come up with strategies for fighting corruption. Making Afghanistan fend for itself was a generational endeavor; Guggenheim’s mission was to start a process that would outlive any of us.

Above all, though, Guggenheim saw his most essential duty as keeping Ghani accountable. Ghani, who often gives the impression that he is suffering fools, was not an easy man to approach, let alone steer. Guggenheim was among the few who could reliably access the president, and among the even fewer who actually advised, instead of capitulating.

When Ghani was looking around to assemble his team in 2001, then-World Bank President James Wolfensohn told him, “What you need is $100 million and one Scott Guggenheim.”

Guggenheim’s unparalleled access to the president has occasionally been a source of discord among Ghani’s other staff members. “He draws a lot of criticism because it is more like there is an individual who is doing things rather than the system doing things,” a finance ministry colleague told me. “They say, ‘Oh, there is this American guy who is running around the palace, there is a Scott that does things.’” Afghans who have never met Guggenheim but have heard the name Scott are sometimes surprised to learn that he is one man instead of an acronym for an entire office.

In a country rife with well-earned paranoia about foreign—and particularly American—influence, Guggenheim is easy fodder for conspiracy theories; during a protest in Kabul on June 2, posters appeared with his face and text in Dari that read Ghani ba ehsara-e en shakhs meraqsad: “Ghani dances on the order of this man.” If anything, Guggenheim’s sympathies run far closer to Afghanistan than the United States. He sees Afghanistan as a victim of modernizing struggles. “What the British achieved was turning one of the oldest civilizations into warring tribes,” he told me. “What the Americans did was empowering the mujahedeen without thinking through the consequences. In the second round, the Americans brought back warlords. How do you lose a popularity contest against the Taliban? They found a way.”

A decade and a half of American occupation, Guggenheim continued, produced “democratic institutions with the outward appearance of a democracy, but all about patronage,” he told me. “Is the Parliament of Afghanistan really representative of the country, or is it a bunch of warlords dividing up national rent? This is what American foreign policy in Afghanistan has created. The institutions they built up are deeply corrupt. They do have elections, but in terms of power structure, it is a deeply flawed version of democracy.” Meanwhile, Guggenheim said, the U.S. government’s ambitions for the country’s reconstruction had steadily diminished to a single narrow question: “What will take us to the end of the administration without a major blowout? It was never about how do we stabilize Afghanistan. It was about making it to the next election.”

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

As the 2016 U.S. election approached, Afghanistan’s diplomats in Washington kept in touch with both the Republican and the Democratic parties, dispatching observers to both conventions. A Clinton presidency would mean “another four years of Holbrooke and his legacy,” Guggenheim told me last November, referring to the late Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat who, until his death in 2010, was President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Guggenheim did not care much for the former president’s policy in Afghanistan. “Obama didn’t have a clear policy,” he told me. “His policy was to get out.”

Trump, for Afghanistan, represented an unknown quantity. What little he had said about Afghanistan was unspecific and contradictory: He had called Afghanistan “a complete waste,” a nonsense war that America needed to leave so as to “rebuild the USA,” but he had also pledged that he would “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” an Arab creation that was nonetheless finding fertile ground in Afghanistan’s chaos. Clinton’s policies, which many Ghani supporters considered a failure, were regrettable, but also predictable; they offered something to plan around. So when Clinton lost, the future seemed a mystery.

***

Ghani first spoke with Trump on December 3, 2016. Their phone conversation was brief; Ghani sat in his usual chair and took his own notes. According to Guggenheim and others who spoke with Ghani afterward, Trump first brought up counterterrorism, and then Ghani raised the issue of mining. Trump wanted to know how the Afghan state could generate more income. He asked about its lithium reserve. He wanted to know why the mining sector hadn’t been developed, how American businesses could invest in Afghanistan, and why Afghanistan was giving away mining rights to Chinese companies when America had companies, too.

Beyond that, however, Trump’s interests in Afghanistan were as hard to fathom as they had ever been. So, in early December, a month and a half before Trump’s inauguration, Guggenheim visited Washington to figure out what was going on.

“It was surreal,” Guggenheim told me after the trip. He made the rounds of the usual Republican foreign policy stalwarts, but Trump and his inner circle did not have many contacts in that world, so the stalwarts did not know much. “I want you to know, Donald Trump and I are not friends,” Senator John McCain told Guggenheim when they met, and the Arizona Republican spent the rest of the conversation distractedly fielding phone calls about new nominations, Guggenheim told me. (McCain did not recall the comment, according to his spokeswoman, Julie Tarallo.)

Those officials who remained were in acting positions and were expected to leave once Trump was in power. The South Asia desk at the National Security Council, Guggenheim told me, referred him to an intelligence officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He met Rob Williams of ODNI at Sette, an Italian restaurant on D.C.’s 14th Street. The intelligence community, which traditionally plays an active role during the transition, had been cut out of the process by a president who did not trust spies; Williams confessed to knowing little and asked Guggenheim questions instead. “They kept asking, ‘What do you think their views on Afghanistan are going to be?’” Guggenheim told me. “And I kept saying, ‘I traveled halfway around the world to find out! Isn’t this your job?’” After four days, Guggenheim left Washington thinking, “I don’t know anything, and they don’t know anything either.”

Clinton’s policies, which many Ghani supporters considered a failure, were regrettable, but also predictable; they offered something to plan around. So when Clinton lost, the future seemed a mystery.

Soon after the call between Trump and Ghani became public, the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C., began receiving the first of many inquiries from potential investors. They wanted to know how they might do business in Afghanistan. The embassy dug up decade-old maps by the U.S. Geological Survey marking mineral deposits across the country.

The State Department, the traditional bastion of Afghan policy, was soon to be gutted, and many of the relevant officials were already on their way out. By December, Guggenheim intuited that there was nobody there to talk with who had any real authority.

In the absence of civilian leadership, the generals stepped in. On February 9, three weeks after Trump’s inauguration, General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, requested a troop increase. The Department of Defense and the National Security Council—which by late February were being led by retired General James Mattis and Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, both of whom had served in Afghanistan—began putting together the new government’s Afghanistan policy.

In April, McMaster traveled to Kabul to meet with Ghani and his team. The night after McMaster flew out, Guggenheim stopped by the Gul Khanna, where he found Ghani in a good mood. McMaster, Ghani told Guggenheim, “asked all the right questions. We have a counterpart who really gets strategy.” He wanted to discuss long-term planning—an improvement, Ghani told Guggenheim, over Obama, who had campaigned on the promise of bringing troops home. In practice that meant “not fighting a 16-year war, but a one-year war 16 times over,” Guggenheim said.

McMaster was also good at calling out whoppers. “Our side would try some standard bullshit on how we have great plans to fix everything,” Guggenheim said, “and McMaster would say, ‘I heard all this in 2012. Tell me what’s new.’” 

For the Afghan government, McMaster’s arrival marked an inflection point in otherwise uncertain times. His 18-month tenure in Afghanistan put him well ahead of most American policymakers, who, even after the United States’ decade and a half in the country, did not know basics facts about Afghanistan—that the afghani is a unit of currency, not the people, or that the country’s official languages are Farsi and Pashto, not Arabic. His arrival also marked an unmistakable shift in who would be leading the Afghanistan portfolio. Under Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been deeply engaged, but with a seemingly uninterested Rex Tillerson leading the State Department, the generals took over almost completely. That was just fine with Ghani, who had been suspicious of the State Department ever since it facilitated an agreement in which he had to share power with his campaign rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who became the country’s first chief executive officer.

The security situation, however, was disintegrating at an alarming rate. Soon there might not even be a state to reform or build up or fight over. On May 31, a truck bomb at an entrance to the Green Zone in Kabul killed more than 150, the largest bombing since the beginning of the Afghanistan War in 2001 and the first ever to penetrate the Green Zone. The explosion left a 13-foot crater and shattered windows of the nearby Arg. Later that week, presidential guards shot at demonstrators who had gathered to protest the government’s inability to protect its citizens, killing as many as seven. At a funeral the next day, a suicide bomber blew himself up among the mourners, killing 20. The message from the insurgents was clear: By striking what had long been considered an impenetrable fortress of security, they were signaling that nowhere would be safe.

H.R. McMaster, Ghani told Guggenheim, “asked all the right questions. We have a counterpart who really gets strategy.”

This news alarmed McMaster, and also Mattis, who had personally assured Ghani in Dubai in mid-May that the United States was renewing its commitment to Afghanistan. Both generals wanted more troops, but Trump was skeptical, and privately fumed about his lack of options. Steve Bannon, Trump’s since departed chief strategist, pushed for his own solution, bringing in two businessmen—private security company Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince and Steve Feinberg, who owns majority shares of the private contracting firm DynCorp, among others—who pitched Trump on their plans for privatizing the war. As his aides argued for months over Afghanistan, Trump reportedly threatened to fire Nicholson, whom he still hadn’t met, and whom he seemed to blame for not winning the war there.

Then on July 28, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who lost a son to the war in Afghanistan, replaced Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff, and the Washington debate shifted decisively in favor of the generals. The final blow to the Bannon camp came on August 18, when Prince was barred from joining discussions at Camp David. Shortly after, Trump signed off on a strategy much like what the generals had been pushing for all along: more troops, no deadline for withdrawal, effective immediately.

The following Monday, August 21, in a nationally televised speech at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, Trump announced his war plan. He did not mention the Taliban, the main reason for remaining at war, by name until halfway into the speech; referred to an Afghan “prime minister” who does not exist; and delivered what Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin ripped as “an incoherent wish list unmoored in political reality or principle.” The president called the enemy in Afghanistan “nothing but thugs, and criminals, and predators, and—that’s right—losers,” and promised the American public that “in the end we will win” against every designated foreign terrorist organization active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He did not explain in detail what winning might look like, sowing confusion among Washington’s foreign policy elites. “Is our goal to destroy all of them?” former State Department official John Dempsey asked. “How many are a direct threat to Americans? Are they Al Qaeda-like organizations trying to launch attacks in New York or just five guys and a donkey? How are we going to determine we’ve killed any terrorists? We will never know. And shouldn’t we be focusing on building up Afghan institutions to be able to handle this themselves anyway?”

But the speech was met with great praise by both Ghani’s and Abdullah’s factions of the Afghan government, which often blames Pakistan for most of its ills. “Of course, yes, we are happy. The main thing to be happy about is the pressure on Pakistan. We have been waiting for this,” Arg spokesperson Najibullah Azad told me. “It is what we needed,” echoed Abdullah’s spokesperson, Javed Faisel. “It will boost confidence as there is commitment for a long-term support of Afghanistan. It will boost morale of the ordinary Afghans and those soldiers fighting in front lines. And most importantly, there is a clear understanding of the problem now. In his speech, we found out that the problem was very well identified, which is the support of Pakistan for the Taliban.” After Trump’s speech, Abdullah and Ghani, whose animus toward each other is famous, were seen hugging, united in their relief at the prospect of continued American support.

Guggenheim thought the same, despite his usual skepticism. America’s extended presence, he said, would free Ghani’s team to carry out some of the long-term reform plans it had wanted to work on. “Since the Obama government prioritized the unity government, they always pushed for restraint on anything that would threaten that unity,” Guggenheim explained. After Trump came to power, and the generals took over, the Afghan military had proposed to double the size of its special forces, which would require thousands more American trainers. Guggenheim said this would not have been possible under Obama who was reluctant to be seen expanding the American presence in Afghanistan. “President Obama had publicly made a commitment to withdraw American forces. We had to gain his confidence literally a month at a time,” Ghani said in a statement.

After Trump’s speech, Abdullah and Ghani, whose animus toward each other is famous, were seen hugging, united in their relief at the prospect of continued American support.

There was also no denying the ancillary benefits of the new approach: Ghani could consolidate his power against a growing political opposition without being weighed down by the need to build consensus, as the now-neutered State Department has urged. Ghani planned to first go after the Interior Ministry, which is dominated by his political adversaries, to clean up corruption. It would also strengthen Ghani’s hand.

What was noticeably absent in Trump’s speech, however, was just what those additional troops would mean. “What he didn’t say was if you buy more ammunition, you also need to buy more body bags,” John Nagl, a retired Army officer and counterinsurgency expert, told me. Few who have studied or served in Afghanistan expect the new infusion of troops—only a few thousand—to turn the war’s downward trajectory around.

***

The Trump ramp-up was likely to benefit Ghani, but over the course of our conversations, Guggenheim’s longstanding doubts about the fate of the whole Afghan project seemed to be deepening. For some time now, he had been thinking hard about whether to stay or go. Many of the reforms he had been pushing for hadn’t materialized. Guggenheim had signed on to Ghani’s state-building project because he saw it as an opportunity to wrestle with big questions of democratic governance. But he spent the better part of the year complaining to me about a seemingly simple administrative issue—his attempts to get Ghani to hire a secretary who could manage the president’s schedule better. Guggenheim told me he considered this, and a few other asks, a goodwill gesture that would demonstrate to him how serious Ghani was about solving the bigger problems of his presidency—which were, in brief, delivering on the promise of a modern state he had run his campaign on. A vote for Ghani was meant to be a vote for progress, for reform, for equality, for human rights, and a sense of Afghanistan joining the rest of the world. Instead, Ghani’s tenure has been marred by rising insecurity, elite infighting and the constant threat of a coup from his political rivals.

In recent months, the worsening situation in the country was beginning to affect their decades-long friendship. Guggenheim expressed frustration that Ghani couldn’t even make small fixes, like hiring the secretary. (In a later conversation with Politico Magazine, he downplayed the importance of the issue.) Watching his otherwise no-nonsense friend give in to the undertow of Kabul politics, Guggenheim seemed to be asking himself whether democracy and reform were contradictory objectives. “There is tension between being authoritarian and being democratic,” Guggenheim told me. “There is chaos in government. It is deeply fragmented. The Kabuli elites are so polarized that getting the reform agenda through has been almost impossible. The temptation to be a strong authoritarian leader who says you cannot challenge authority is very strong. Why doesn’t he take that route?”

If that happened, Guggenheim speculated, the United States would keep funding this more authoritarian version of the Afghan state, just as it had done with autocratic regimes like those of Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet and Arab dictators before the Arab Spring. Afghanistan had no tradition of a Western-style democracy; the Taliban’s Manichean rule was the closest any regime had ever come to realizing its ambitions in Afghanistan. The only way to carry out the reform agenda, it seemed, was through a similar use of force, which would negate the spirit of the reforms.

“What you are doing is doomed,” Guggenheim said. But isn’t that the story of life? And so, you do it anyway.”

His sardonic wit made it easy to miss, but Guggenheim had always struck me as an optimist as long as I had known him. In recent times, though, the very thing that had drawn Guggenheim to Afghanistan in the beginning—the impossibility of the project—was now thwarting him. He had good days and bad days, but overall, he seemed to be losing faith in his ideals and his ability to implement them. It wasn’t clear whether this was because the aid system was broken, which it was; or because Ghani had modeled his vision for Afghanistan after Western versions of capitalism and democracy, which were coming undone; or because of the simple fact that “he has never manned a big organization or a big project before.”

Around then, the death threats that had become a regular fixture of daily life in Kabul had increased in frequency and specificity, and the posters with Guggenheim’s face on them now loomed larger in his mind. “I don’t really like living in Kabul, because I live under a lock and key and with a death threat, so that is not my best place,” he told me. “But I am willing to do it as long as that agenda is there. It is a fucked-over country with people I sort of like. If it is just spinning wheels, I would rather go live in my little apartment down in Brooklyn.” When I reached him in July, Guggenheim sounded defeated by events. “It’s the hardest place I’ve ever worked in,” he said. “The chances of success are middling at best.” Back in November 2016, on one of the first occasions I spoke to him, I had asked Guggenheim why he bothered at all. “What I’d like to see is countries with deep historical legacies, that are struggling, pull it off,” he said then. “Some sense that they will finally get their act together and they are going to be democratic and there is going to be basic freedoms. Kids can go to a movie theater and not worry about being blown up, that sort of thing. I’m still a deep idealist on those scores.”

“What you are doing is doomed,” he said. “But isn’t that the story of life? And so, you do it anyway.”

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: Ex-Refugee Who Slept Rough in Rome Now Runs Several Businesses, Dreams of Rebuilding Afghanistan

By Nicole Valentini, 26 October 2017, for Global Voices

Asharaf Barati in Venice with his friend and colleague Yasin Tanin. Photo by Basir Ahang.

On an autumn night in 1994, the Taliban were getting ready to conquer Afghanistan. Only two years before, a terrible civil war had broken out among the different Mujahideen factions that had defeated the short-lived pro-Soviet government, turning the country into a wasteland of terror and despair.

Ghazni, Afghanistan. Photo by ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office. Members from Ghazni Provincial Reconstruction Team visited Old Ghazni City April 18, 2010, located in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. (Joint Combat Camera Afghanistan; Photo by Tech. Sgt. James May). CC-2.0

At that time, in a small village in Ghazni province in central-eastern Afghanistan, Asharaf Barati, a 13-year-old boy from the Hazara ethnic group was having his final supper with his family. Even if his mother didn’t express it, she knew she would not see her son again for a long time—possibly ever. The boy’s departure was set for dawn. His uncle was to pick him up and take to the smugglers.

Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of the Hazara-dominated Hezb-e-Wahdat political faction had just been assassinated by the Taliban, and many Hazaras felt suddenly vulnerable. The Taliban, renowned for their hatred of the Hazara, was closing in. Hazaras were leaving the country en masse, some for Pakistan, others for Iran.

Days after his escape, Asharaf found himself in Pakistan. For a few years he worked in a coal mine, a job that left him sick and exhausted. After that he took his meagre earnings and went to Iran, where he found himself once more in a foreign land among other refugees, carrying mortar sacks heavier than himself for a living. Then, as now, the plight of Afghan refugees in Iran was one of hardship and exploitation.

“It was a tough situation,” recalled Asharaf in an interview with Global Voices. “We (Afghan refugees) were living in the empty building site we were working on, there were no services and no heat, we put some nylon on the open windows to try not to die from cold during the night.”

After four years, Asharaf left his undocumented life in Iran behind and readied himself to travel to Europe. Following a perilous journey by sea, he found himself castaway on a tiny, uninhabited Greek island. In 2002, after being turned down for asylum by the Greek authorities, Asharaf finally reached Italy.

Asharaf wandered the streets of Rome for a while, homeless, sleeping in parks and having meals in a church that distributed food to the less fortunate twice a day. While it is true that Italy has become something of a second-chance destination for failed asylum seekers due to relatively high approval rates, it is also true that the conditions into which asylum seekers are received are dire. According to the NGO Civil Liberties Union for Europe, “the system suffers from a general lack of transparency. The huge majority of asylum seekers is hosted in the more than 3000 ‘extraordinary reception centers’, which are improvised structures in the hands of unqualified and unprepared staff.”

According to Italian law, asylum seekers can access accommodation centers only after they are formally registered, a process that can drag on for months after an asylum application is initiated. During this period, people who can’t afford to pay for accommodation must seek recourse to friends’ hospitality, or resort to sleeping rough.

This is the fate that befell Asharaf.

 

But his irrepressible spirit prevented him from being down and out for too long. After years working in

Asharaf Barati in front of”Casa Fiori”, one of the hostels he owns in Venice. Photo by Basir Ahang.

various jobs in the construction sector, Asharaf poured his savings into a establishing a hostel in Venice.  It was such a success that after a while he opened a second hostel and a takeaway restaurant.

Asharaf Barati’s story is now the subject of a documentary called “Behind Venice Luxury – a Hazara in Italy”, directed by Amin Wahidi. The film won the 24th Venice City Award in 2017.

In Italy, entrepreneurs, especially those who are not Italian nationals, face an uphill battle. Red tape, high taxes and access to credit are among the major obstacles.

According to an unofficial estimate, there are around 20,000 Afghans in Italy. For many the country is a stopgap option en route to other European destinations. But in recent years a number of Afghan-run businesses have sprung up, including tailoring establishments, travel agencies, hotels and restaurants. Some Afghan restaurants have won acclaim in the Italian press for their excellent cuisine.

In Venice there is the restaurant Orient Experience, the brainchild of Hamed Ahmadi, where the waiters and kitchen staff are mostly refugees from various parts of the world. They tell the story of their journey to Italy through Afghan, Iraqi, Turkish and Greek dishes on the restaurant’s menu. Afghan entrepreneur Ali Khan Qalandari has established a new restaurant in Padua called Peace&Spice, and Afghans are also behind the Kabulogna pizzeria in Bologna and a Sushi restaurant in Rome.

But Asharaf’s own ambitions stretch far beyond the Italian hospitality and retail sectors, back to the land he left under duress as teenager.

“Where there is risk there is opportunity,” Asharaf says with a smile. “I want to invest in Afghanistan, I have never forgotten my country and I can’t live happily knowing that my people are suffering. I am planning to start a project for the farmers of the poorest provinces of the country, especially women. They comprise half of society and must have the same opportunity as others.”

Asharaf also has plans to open a factory in Kabul where people can to learn packaging and conservation practices. “In this way,” he says, “they will be able to sell their surplus products to the market and improve their financial situation.”

The journey of the successful entrepreneur follows a path from insecurity and doubt to stability and prosperity. Having made that journey himself, Asharaf now wants to help Afghanistan make it too.

 

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: Pakistan Mocks US Military Mission in Afghanistan

By: Ayaz Gul, October 26, 2017, for VOA News

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is greeted by Gen. John Nicholson, right, commander of Resolute Support, with Special Charge d’Affaires Amb. Hugo Llorens, as he arrives, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

 

America’s security “failures” in Afghanistan are evident from events of the week when visiting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could not move out of a U.S. military base and invited Afghan leaders to his “bunker” for talks, neighboring Pakistan said Thursday.

“This situation tells the whole story of U.S. failures, despite fighting in the country for 16 years,” Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said. He was briefing a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs in Islamabad.

Pakistan is seeking “transparent” relations on “equal terms” with the United States and is ready to offer its “full cooperation” in fighting terrorism, but “without compromising its sovereignty” and scapegoating Islamabad would not be acceptable, the minister said.

Tillerson visited Afghanistan on Monday for two hours. He held talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and top leaders of his unity government at the U.S.-run Bagram military base, about 60 kilometers north of the capital, Kabul. Officials cited security concerns for arranging the meeting at the base.

On Tuesday, Tillerson visited Pakistan and held detailed talks with Pakistani civilian and military leaders led by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

Tillerson reiterated U.S. President Donald Trump’s message that Pakistan must increase efforts to eradicate militants and terrorists operating in Pakistan and sought Islamabad’s cooperation in promoting Afghan peace and reconciliation efforts.

FILE – Weapons and ammunition seized are presented to the media along with insurgents suspected of being from the Haqqani network at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) headquarters in Kabul, May 30, 2013.

Pakistan is accused of sheltering and maintaining secret ties to the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Both militant groups are waging a deadly insurgency in Afghanistan. Asif said Pakistan’s influence on the Afghan Taliban has lately diminished because it has moved its bases to the Afghan side of the border

​On Wednesday, Asif briefed the lower house parliament on talks with the U.S. delegation, describing them as “frank” and held in a “cordial” atmosphere without an exchange of allegations.

He said Pakistan told the U.S. delegation if Washington provides actionable intelligence, Islamabad will take action against any militant group on its soil, and again denied his country is harboring safe havens.

“However, if they want that we act as their proxies to fight their war … this is unacceptable,” said Asif. He added that Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts have produced results and led to improved security around the country.

“We told them [the U.S. delegation] there are influential players in the region, which might not have good relations with America but have a stake in the Afghan dispute,” Asif said.

He was apparently referring to Russia and Iran. Both have acknowledged publicly they maintain ties with the Taliban.

The role of those countries has become indispensable as far as solving the Afghan conflict, he added.

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AFGHANISTAN NEWS AND VIEWS: How Taliban are evolving to compete in Afghanistan

By: Scott Peterson, October 26, 2017, for CSMonitor

A SHIFT IN THOUGHT  – The once mostly Pashtun insurgency is broadening its ranks, amending its tactics, and seeking political relevance, even as it advances its campaign of violence and intimidation against Afghanistan.

A Taliban insurgent is presented to the media after he was arrested with car explosive devices in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 15, 2017. (Omar Sobhani, Reuters)

The final Taliban threat was the most chilling, the culmination of months of pressure built against a single Afghan policeman – and it worked.

Introducing himself as “the scholar,” the Taliban operative warned that it would be the last phone call, the last threat to convince Ahmad, a veteran of frequent battles with the Taliban with calluses on his shooting hand, to leave the police force.

“He was younger, absolutely illiterate,” Ahmad says of the man who called him a few weeks ago. “He said: ‘If you don’t leave your job in the next two or three days, we will find you and behead you.’ ”

Within hours, the five-year veteran of the Afghan National Police – who asked that his real name not be used, for his own security – told his commander he was going on holiday, and left his base in Logar Province south of Kabul to find a new job in the Afghan capital.

Though the Taliban intimidation campaign was intense, in a region where Ahmad says insurgents are “becoming stronger day by day,” the fact that this Afghan policeman was not killed outright is but one illustration of how analysts say the Taliban have evolved in recent years from the uncompromising hard-liners who in the late 1990s ruled their self-declared “Islamic Emirate.”

Sixteen years after being toppled from power by US-led military forces – and that many years of insurgency later – the Taliban have been attempting to re-forge themselves into a more ethnically diverse and politically relevant national Islamist movement.

Taliban suicide bombers stand guard during a gathering of a breakaway Taliban faction, in the border area of Zabul Province, Afghanistan, in August 2016 (Mirwais Khan/AP)

Once a rural movement almost exclusively rooted among ethnic Pashtuns from the south, the Taliban today are religiously trained fighters, native to an area, who can understand and accommodate local politics and needs.

“This new generation is of course different from the Taliban of the 1990s,” says Obaid Ali, an insurgency expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) in Kabul.

“They are locals, they are more radical, they are more religious-educated young people,” says Mr. Ali. “These people, while they study in religious schools, at the same time receive military training in Pakistan, and from there return to their home town, not only as a mullah, but also as a military commander.”

Battlefield gains

While the evolution has presented challenges as well as opportunities, it has coincided with significant battlefield gains for the Taliban, especially in 2015 and 2016. Today they control as much territory as they have since 2001 and control or contest at least one-third of the country, some estimate far more – including Ahmad’s district in Logar, where he says even his neighbors served as spies, alerting the Taliban when he returned home after work.

Ahmad’s story is far from unique. The Afghan army and police are suffering “disastrously high attrition” rates and shrinking recruitment as a result of Taliban intimidation, infiltration, and attacks, notes one Western official in Kabul.

And even if one facet of the Taliban’s evolution is to spare the lives of captured soldiers and police, the usual Taliban methods of targeting security and government facilities have inflicted record casualties in 2017.

According to numbers tabulated by The New York Times in August, 31 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed each day this year on average.

A wave of suicide attacks claimed by the Taliban, carried out on two days last week in every corner of the country, left more than 120 Afghan soldiers and police dead.

“There are two types of people in Afghanistan now, those who will take those risks of joining the security forces, and those who won’t,” says Masood Karokhail, head of The Liaison Office (TLO), a Kabul-based group that facilitates peace and rebuilding efforts. “One reason urban centers are becoming congested is because having a government job and returning to your village is not that easy.”

The Taliban have nevertheless tried to strike a balance between attacking the government for ideological reasons while demonstrating they do not just destroy everything that comes their way, says Mr. Karokhail.

“When the Taliban don’t claim responsibility for mass casualty attacks, like the Islamic State does … they are trying to posture themselves for a political deal at the same time,” he says. “They want to be a relevant political force in this country, so their propaganda mechanism … even announces it will not attack development programs, and large-scale infrastructure like schools and roads.”

A more modern approach

When the Taliban were in power two decades ago, they banned education for girls and even photographs of people. Taliban checkpoints were festooned with billowing clouds of unspooled video and cassette tapes confiscated from drivers. Mosque prayers were compulsory, with beatings as punishment.

Today the new generation is familiar with high-tech means of propaganda, and uses smartphones with social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and WhatsApp.

Since 2008 the Taliban also began to portray themselves as multiethnic, and since 2014 began recruiting ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and even Shiite Muslim Hazaras, says Ali from AAN. Large offensives were launched, even as US and NATO troops withdrew. And with opium smuggling and local taxation already locked down, attempts were made to control mineral and other self-sustaining resources.

Crucially, the Taliban also began “to be more flexible with locals, with local concerns,” notes Ali. That included mediation with elders that resulted in the safe release of captured policemen and soldiers, instead of “killing them straightaway, without mercy,” as had been policy until 2014, he says.

Yet undermining the government has also meant continuing well-honed tactics to intimidate and strong-arm police and army recruits, regardless of any newfound flexibility.

One method especially potent among Pashtuns is to make their target – and the target’s family – feel impure about working for the government or taking any security job, says Rahmatullah Amiri, a TLO researcher focusing on the Taliban and other Afghan militants.

Diversity brings challenges, too

While such mechanisms work among Pashtuns and others as a local tactic, strategically the Taliban’s increasing ethnic diversity has been a double-edged sword.

“They are not as united as they were before, and the more they grow the more they face internal problems,” says Mr. Amiri. “The more they capture areas, the more difficult it is for them to control.… They need more support; there are new people with new ideas.”

Challenges include the growth of the local branch of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan, and internal Taliban divisions have been more pronounced since their former leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was killed in Pakistan by an American drone strike in May 2016.

Lack of a regional coordinating body and increased reliance on local funding sources – as past channels of cash from Pakistan and Persian Gulf countries dry up, or become more diffuse – have added to Taliban command and control problems.

“The fact that the Taliban continue to take territory out in the districts means that individual Taliban commanders and the Taliban as a whole are richer, because they have more smuggling rings,” says the Western official in Kabul, who asked not to be identified further.

Opium, hashish, white marble, timber, and lapis lazuli can be smuggled out more easily, he says, just as weapons and material can also be brought in more easily.

“That makes it hard to get peace negotiations started, because as much as diplomats and military officials keep insisting that we are in a stalemate, if ordinary Taliban commanders see that last week they had [control of] two villages, and this week they have three, they don’t consider that to be a stalemate – so they don’t have a huge incentive to negotiate,” says the official.

Trump’s new policy

Another challenge to the Taliban, however, is the more aggressive US policy announced by President Trump in August, including the deployment of extra US troops and his declaration that he would not set a deadline for withdrawal before “victory” is attained.

The new US strategy “absolutely gives a window of opportunity to the government. But the government should do its homework, it should win locals’ trust [and] work better for the people,” says Ali, the AAN expert.

That homework is what is lacking in Logar, where ex-policeman Ahmad finally gave in after receiving Taliban threats on his phone each week for months, and where he found letters pasted at night to the front door of his house, warning his family that all would die if he kept his already dangerous job.

“The government was unable to control this area,” says Ahmad. “Now they [the Taliban] are very serious. Many of my friends left their jobs. The Taliban put checkpoints on the main roads; their intelligence is everywhere.”

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AFGANISTAN: This 1972 Photo of Women in Miniskirts Convinced Trump to Remain in Afghanistan

By: Mattie Kahn, August 28, 2017, for Elle

Photo: Amnesty.org

Last week, hours after President Trump announced in primetime that he would—despite his initial instincts—recommit American troops and resources to the war in Afghanistan, news broke that it was this 1972 photo that had swayed him.

According to The Washington Post, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, had for months cautioned the President that withdrawal from Afghanistan would have disastrous consequences. McMaster, the Post explains, effectively framed his appeal to Trump, well, culturally. Desperate to prove Afghanistan wasn’t doomed to its current circumstances, McMaster showed Trump a black-and-white photo of Afghan women, strolling through Kabul in miniskirts.

Every few years, photos like this one ricochet across the web, especially on Facebook and Twitter, where they’re shared both by the well-intentioned who’ve watched with horror the erosion of women’s liberties in Afghanistan and across the Middle East, and by arch conservatives, who, as The Guardian points out, express concern for women in the Middle East in order to better silence progressive feminist voices at home.

ISN’T IT POSSIBLE THAT “THE ONLY [FACTOR] THAT COULD MOTIVATE THIS PARTICULAR PRESIDENT IS A LITTLE THIGH”?

And yet while the images predictably crop up on social media, they’re seldom used as cornerstones of foreign policy. Rosa Brooks, professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and the author of the book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, isn’t surprised. Perhaps, she muses, McMaster knew he needed to frame the situation in terms Trump could understand—that is, miniskirts. And it’s rather horrifying, but admit it, Brooks presses, isn’t it possible that “the only [factor] that could motivate this particular President is a little thigh”? Couldn’t it be that, “Donald envisions a happier Afghanistan where everyone looks a bit more like Melania?”

Still, Brooks concedes that there’s a more generous read. When she served in the Pentagon under President Obama, photos like the one McMaster showed Trump weren’t uncommon. “Not only that particular picture, but also pictures of [young women] sitting in classrooms and of women doctors and of women giving lectures at conferences and pictures of Afghan men, too, engaged in ordinary activities in mixed groups,” Brooks recalls. The photos were meant to demonstrate that “the Afghan people are people like everyone else,” she says, and that the current “quote-unquote” culture in Afghanistan has been imposed on its populace by the Taliban. It’s an important reminder. “It’s just false to say Afghanistan has always been the way the Taliban wanted it to be,” Brooks continues. “It hasn’t. it changed before; it could change again.”

“IT’S JUST FALSE TO SAY AFGHANISTAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE WAY THE TALIBAN WANTED IT TO BE. IT HASN’T. IT CHANGED BEFORE; IT COULD CHANGE AGAIN.”

Within Afghanistan, the point stands. Rina Amiri, who was born in Afghanistan, served as a senior advisor to the late U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and is now a scholar at the NYU Center on International Cooperation, explains that well before 2001, even before the Soviet invasion in 1979, “there was a robust debate” between the country’s moderates and traditionalists over whether to experiment with democratic ideals, including the full enfranchisement and civic participation of women. That’s why, according to Amiri, so many Afghans open up their own family photo albums and insist, “Look, this is already who we are. You’re not necessarily bringing democracy to us. You’re not creating this. We have an authentic history that’s our own.

“These were the lives of our mothers and fathers,” Amiri continues. “They couldn’t have dreamt that Afghanistan would be where it is now.” To wit, when Amiri’s mother visited her in Kabul while she was dispatched there for the U.N., she didn’t recognize her own childhood home. “It had changed so drastically,” Amiri says. “She was just dumbfounded.” The photos are talismans, Amiri continues, proof that the situation in Afghanistan now may be just an “aberration.”

Of course, that appeal of this visual call to arms, however well-meaning, isn’t a plan—much less a military strategy. A photo doesn’t tell us how to win a war or how much it will cost or how successful the United States can be overseas, whatever the motivations of the official who brandishes it. But it can at least push back on the narrative that Afghanistan is somehow beyond repair. Maybe it’s a paternalistic approach, Brooks allows. But it resonates.

And yet whatever spurred Trump to rule as he did, whatever it was in the women’s lives or looks that “moved him,” it didn’t elicit a real commitment to advancing women’s circumstances under the Taliban. Last week, Trump emphasized the United States would not be “nation-building” again, but “killing terrorists.” And when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked point blank whether the United States would demand that the Taliban restore women’s freedoms in any potential peace settlements, Tillerson countered that “it’s not for the U.S. tell them that it must be this particular model, it must be under these conditions,” adding, “I think that’s what the President says when he means we’re no longer nation-building.”

That is, a photo of women in 1972 may have convinced Trump to remain in Afghanistan, but it failed to inspire him to seek a course of action that would take into account the condition of women there in 2017.

Amiri, for one, would have preferred McMaster show Trump photos of those who battle for women’s freedom now. “He wouldn’t have to date back,” she says. “Today, you could find thousands of pictures of Afghan women in government, Afghan women in senior positions, Afghan women as ambassadors and leadership positions at the local level. These pictures exist.” And the women in them don’t need to be stripped or saved. They need to be supported, to be empowered to decide for themselves what future they want.

Brooks, too, stresses that the United States should seek the perspectives of women in Afghanistan, precisely because a misogynistic culture has made it so difficult to publicly hear from them. She cites a recent New York Times story on a female-led social media movement under the hashtag “#WhereIsMyName,” a catchall initiative that aims “to challenge women to reclaim their most basic identity, and to break the deep-rooted taboo that prevents men from mentioning their female relatives’ names in public.” Especially in Kabul and in bigger cities, Brooks maintains, there are many, many Afghan women who want to be heard. Amiri sums up the frustration: “So many of the discussions are actually a very narrow debate” about say, troop numbers, drone strikes, or deployment: “But where do the Afghans themselves come in?”

“We’ve been having the same limited conversation,” Amiri continues. “We’ve been talking about the same limited course of action, and there isn’t a quick win.” Trump may claim that he’s interested only in “killing terrorists,” but those who’ve worked in Afghanistan for decades know that there is no annihilation without support for institutions that can fill that vacuum. “This is the work that doesn’t get attention,” Amiri says. And certainly not from Trump.

Since he was elected, Trump has demonstrated an almost total disinterest in the health, wellness, and enfranchisement of women not only in Afghanistan, but around the globe. In his first week in office, he expanded the anti-abortion Mexico City Policy. Later, he cut off funds to initiatives that benefit women in the world’s most vulnerable areas, including one housed at the U.N. that reached nine million people in crisis situations in 2016 alone, providing “HIV/AIDS prevention services, domestic violence counseling, pregnancy checkups, safe childbirth as well as midwife training, prenatal care and safe delivery services.” And while the White House eventually retreated, in May 2017, a memo circulated that suggested the administration was prepared to end Michelle Obama’s landmark “Let Girls Learn” education initiative. So: relative peace in Afghanistan at the expense of women’s freedom—how could we be surprised to see Trump strike that deal?

For what it’s worth, Brooks and an entire school of research warns against that thinking. The evidence, she explains, “suggests very, very strongly that when you try to buy stability or peace at the price of women’s rights, it does not endure, whereas there’s a ton of research on the direct correlation between the enfranchisement and inclusion of women and girls in politics, in peace negotiations, in education, and reduced levels of internal and external conflict.” What Trump and Tillerson have proposed now—”it’s a short sighted tradeoff,” not to mention “a real betrayal” of the Afghan women whom he supposedly recommitted to this war to protect.

But then, it wouldn’t be the first time he used women as a prop.

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ON AFGHANISTAN: National Solidarity Program Transformed Scores of Lives in Kandahar Province

The National Solidarity Program is the reason CSFilm director, Michael Sheridan, first went to Afghanistan to document Afghan initiatives from the Afghan Perspective. It remains a gold standard for integrated disarmament, economic and social development. A number of our Afghan trainees/filmmakers did storys on the NSP such as Knocking on Time’s Door, http://csfilm.org/films/fruit-of-our-labor/#knocking

Submitted by ABDUL QAYUM YOUSUFZAI 07/20/2017 to The World Bank

Not so long ago, 15 years to be exact, I remember when people in the districts of Kandahar used animals to transport their agricultural harvest to the provincial center. There were a few, if any, motorable roads, and we had a limited number of health centers and schools in the province. Most of the infrastructure laid in ruins. But worst of all, the economic condition of the average Afghan was quite bad with little or no access to income, opportunities, and facilities.

The National Solidarity Programme (NSP) improved lives of millions of Afghans across rural Afghanistan. NSP’s successor, the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project aims to improve the delivery of core infrastructure and social services to participating communities through strengthened development councils. Photo Credit: Rumi Consultancy/World Bank

Things have changed since 2003. While many development projects have been implemented in Kandahar Province, the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) has been one of the most popular and high impact. Running from 2003 to 2016, NSP was implemented in 16 of 17 districts and set up 1,952 Community Development Councils (CDCs), which implemented over 3,300 projects.

In Kandahar, communities are very conservative, and, overall, the province is highly traditional. When the program was launched, people in Kandahar were not interested in establishing CDCs through holding elections at the village level.

In 2005, as an engineer with UN-HABITAT working as a Facilitating Partner with NSP, I ended up travelling to many districts in Kandahar. One of these was Arghandab district. In my interactions with locals there, I realized they were not ready to accept women as equal decision-makers.

To address this, NSP conducted social awareness trainings and encouraged people to join the program for overall development and infrastructure management. These trainings encouraged some villages to establish CDCs and they realized that working with women eased the implementation of projects in their villages. This encouraged a behavior shift in neighboring villages as well.

Gradually, other villages and districts became eager to establish CDCs and join NSP too. Village by village and district by district, NSP became one of the most popular programs in the province. Most importantly, NSP accessed the very remote villages in Kandahar, where residents did not even have Tazkiras (national ID cards), and linked them with government departments.

Between 2003 and 2016, the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) provided block grants for over 3,000 development projects in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar Province. Over 1,952 Community Development Councils (CDCs) have been elected to decide on their respective community needs as well as to oversee and monitor project implementation. With support provided by the World Bank, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund and other donors, NSP ensured citizen engagement and meaningful development with decisions being made at the grassroots level. It brought communities closer, one project at a time.

One of the biggest achievements of this program has been increasing women’s participation in the overall economy. CDCs brought women out of their homes and provided them with an opportunity to take part in the development of their villages.

I have been working as a Provincial Director with the MRRD for four years now. When NSP was active, I had more than 400 visitors per day in the office, including women. They were all CDC members from different parts of Kandahar and they were eager to implement more projects in their villages. Most of the CDCs had active female members and the men listened to them.

Now when I compare Arghandab district in 2003 to 2016, I can really see the improvements and development. In 2003, Arghandab had hardly any roads, culverts, schools, or bridges. Villages were not connected to markets and some villages were insecure. There were no women participating in the decision-making process. But now, we have women members in CDCs and there is not a single village in Arghandab left untouched by NSP development activities.

During my visit to Arghandab district recently, Saleh Mohammad, head of the Mirab Khoran village CDC told me, “We are happy that we accepted NSP. We built a bridge that connects both sides of the village and made transportation easier for all villagers.”

At the initiation of the Government of Afghanistan, the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project (CCAP) replaced NSP. The objective of the CCAP, a social contract between the government and CDCs, is to improve the delivery of core infrastructure and social services to participating communities through strengthened development councils.

In terms of resources, we already have well-functioning CDCs with full representation of men and women and over 13 years of experience in implementing projects. For the first round, we will implement CCAP in the three districts of Spin-Boldak, Takhta-Pul, and Panjwayee. Under CCAP, we want to implement the projects equally in all the districts of Kandahar and work on improving coordination to make our work more effective.

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AFGHANISTAN: Time for Pakistan to walk the talk on Afghanistan

Opinion: Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, former Pakistan ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

…Given the perversity of our [Pakistan’s] political and decision-making processes, we have consistently opted for the mug’s game. As a result, we frittered away the enormous Afghan goodwill that Pakistan had accumulated during the Soviet occupation. After the Soviet defeat and withdrawal, we (wittingly or unwittingly) unleashed a ruinous civil war and imposed a barbaric and medieval Taliban upon the hapless Afghan people.

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AFGHANISTAN: Thanks to this Afghan woman, 6,000 imams have taken gender-sensitivity training – CSMonitor.com

Jamila Afghani, who has battled discrimination since childhood, uses Islam to empower women in Afghanistan. She is committed to continuing the work despite threats and other obstacles.

Today, according to Afghani, about 20 percent of Kabul’s mosques have special prayer areas for women, whereas only 15 years ago there were none. The sermons delivered by imams about the importance of education have also helped many women persuade their families to let them study. In fact, some 6,000 imams in Afghanistan have participated in Afghani’s training program.

This is all because of a woman named Jamila Afghani and the gender-sensitivity training program she has created.

Source: Thanks to this Afghan woman, 6,000 imams have taken gender-sensitivity training – CSMonitor.com

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AFGHANISTAN: A ‘continual emergency’, as war drives record numbers from their homes

The so-called Islamic State has created a new conflict and 2016 saw unprecedented amounts of people fleeing to displacement camps

Bibi Mariam was milking her cow when it suddenly let out a wild howl and collapsed in a pool of blood.

The so-called Islamic State and the Taliban were fighting near her village in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. The stray bullet that killed her cow finally convinced Mariam to flee – joining a record number of Afghans displaced by conflict.  Read more

Source: IRIN Afghanistan now a ‘continual emergency’, as war drives record numbers from their homes

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AFGHANISTAN: In Afghanistan, Women’s Rights Still Struggle to Take Root · Global Voices

Girls in Afghanistan

Girls in Afghanistan. (DFID UK Flickr)

By Nilofer Tahiri, globalvoices.orgNovember 12th, 2016

‏معاون شورای علمای کابل: زنان ناقص العقل اند.
#نكته: پس تو بد بخت كه از يك #ناقص العقل به دنيا آمدي هيچ #عقل نداري.

Being delivered into this world by someone brain-defected, the deputy to the Kabul clerical council must himself be without a brain.

Posted by Nilofer Tahiri on Saturday, November 12, 2016

In a 2011 survey by Thomas Reuters Foundation, Afghanistan was identified as the most dangerous place for women to live due to high mortality rates, limited access to doctors and a lack of economic rights.

Women in Afghanistan trail men in part due the absence of intellectual and institutional support for a women’s rights movement, even as over a quarter of MPs and the governors of two provinces (Dykundi and Bamiyan) are women.

Some female politicians have gained a reputation for speaking out against social injustice:

سیلی غفاری زن شجاع و دلیر افغان که همیش در جنایت کاران را در برنامه های سیاسی تلویزیون های با حرف هایش مانند مشت اهنین پولادی کوبیده است.

Posted by Sayed Paise Kunari on Saturday, April 25, 2015

(MP )Selay Ghaffari is a courageous Afghan women who always criticizes the criminals with her words in the TV debates.

Posted by Sayed Paise Kunari on Saturday, April 25, 2015

While such political positions should not be easily dismissed on the back of the five-year reign of the staunchly conservative Taliban government wherein women played no role in public life, they still feel somehow symbolic in a country where many still view male superiority as inherent.

Restrictions on women are most pronounced at the semi-urban level. In rural Afghanistan women are equally active in working outside of the house as men are, often toiling unveiled in the field as opposed to their counterparts in provincial towns where the religious establishment and patriarchy are more powerful.

In urbanized regions of the country due to higher rates of education and social security, women enjoy broader opportunities, even as sexual harassment has stayed a persistent problem.

How to change the environment for women’s rights in the country?

As education becomes more and more prized in Afghan institutions, it is critical that universities and think tanks as well as progressive elements in government explicitly identify with and support feminism.

Currently there are few publicly visible institutions fighting for women’s rights, while notable exceptions such as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which partially carries out the role of a court in dealing with domestic violence and other abuses of women, remains isolated in the overall institutional framework.

One way in which women have been able to earn dignity and respect In Afghanistan is by quoting Islamic religious texts, citing passages from the Koran or the work of Muslim scholars, in order to prove that abuses against women are un-Islamic.

But a dialogue on women’s rights based on religion alone can only uphold the rights of women so far. There will always be some like the deputy of the Kabul clerical council, who are ready to turn scripture against women again.

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AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan May Have to Accommodate 1.5 Million Refugees in 2016

Strain of new arrivals adds to government’s challenges

Source: Afghanistan May Have to Accommodate 1.5 Million Refugees in 2016

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ON MIGRATION, AFGHANISTAN: Dying to Get to Europe | Inter Press Service

They are not just data or numbers for statistical calculations. They are desperate human beings fleeing wars, violence, abuse, slavery and death. They hear and believe the bombastic speeches about democracy and human rights and watch the many images of welfare and good life in Europe. They are so desperate that trusting the promises of human traffickers comes almost naturally to them. After all these human traffickers are the very people who lure them to

Source: Dying to Get to Europe | Inter Press Service

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AFGHANISTAN: To be born a women to burn in hell

Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the rate of female suicide is higher than that of men, and in the province of Herat almost 100 women a year burn themselves alive. 

 

Same Old Story for Woman 1Yanet Medina Navarro

 

The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.

Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.

Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.

She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.

mujer velo islam musulman pixabayAccording to the British organisation Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.

The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.

They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.

religion mujer vejez anciana viej pixabayAlthough the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.

85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.

80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.

Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.

Mujeres afganas y violencia1The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.

Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.

Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.

After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.

Salma a woman's journey 11Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.

Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.

Photos: Pixabay   –   (Translated by Eleanor Gooch)

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AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan: Ghani, Hekmatyar sign peace deal

NEWS AFGHANISTAN: 

Afghanistan: Ghani, Hekmatyar sign peace deal

President Ghani inks deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in first peace treaty since the war with the Taliban began in 2001.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has formalised a peace treaty with Hezb-i-Islami, an armed group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a deal the government hopes will lead to more agreements with other fighters.

Hekmatyar also signed the agreement on Thursday via a video link into Kabul’s presidential palace. The ceremony was broadcast live on television.

It is the first peace treaty the Afghan government has completed since the war with the Taliban began in 2001.

READ MORE: Hekmatyar’s never-ending Afghan war 

The accord with the largely dormant Hezb-i-Islami has been welcomed by the international community as a possible template for any future peace deal with the Taliban, who have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government for 15 years.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Thursday, praising the deal.

“Pakistan has consistently emphasised that there is no military solution of the conflict in Afghanistan. Politically negotiated settlement through an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process is the most viable option for bringing lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan,” the statement said.

It also said the deal was encouraging and wished achievement of durable peace to Afghanistan.

Years after Taliban, central Afghanistan remains neglected

The president of Afghanistan said earlier: “This is a chance for the Taliban and other militant groups to show what their decision is: to be with people and join the respected caravan of peace, like Hezb-i-Islami, or confront the people and continue the bloodshed.”

Ghani also pledged to lobby the US and the UN for the lifting of international sanctions on Hekmatyar, who was designated a “global terrorist” by the Washington for his suspected ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Once international sanctions are lifted, Hekmatyar is expected to return to Afghanistan after 20 years in exile. He is believed to be in Pakistan.

The head of his delegation in Kabul, Amin Karim, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he believes the sanctions could be lifted within weeks.

File: Gulbeddin Hekmatyar was designated by the US as a “global terrorist” in 2003 [Reuters]

Once branded the “butcher of Kabul”, Hekmatyar was a prominent anti-Soviet commander in the 1980s who stands accused of killing thousands of people when his fighters fired on civilian areas of the capital city during the 1992-1996 civil war.

Human Right Watch, the New York-based watchdog, last week branded Hekmatyar “one of Afghanistan’s most notorious war crimes suspects” and said his return would “compound a culture of impunity” that has denied justice to the many victims of warlords’ forces.

The 25-point peace agreement gives Hekmatyar and his followers immunity for past actions, and grants them full political rights.

READ MORE: Hezb-i-Islami armed group signs peace deal

In a speech greeted with chants of “Long Live Hekmatyar” from his supporters, who had gathered in the presidential palace, he called on the Afghan government to start peace talks with the Taliban.

“I call on all sides to support this peace deal and I call on the opposition parties of the government to join the peace process and pursue their goals through peaceful means,” Hekmatyar said in his message.

Afghan government signs peace deal with armed group

“We hope that the day comes when foreign interference has ended, foreign troops have departed fully from Afghanistan, and peace has been achieved.”

Alexey Yusupov, Afghanistan director at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, a German think-tank, said the deal was highly symbolical but it was unlikely to result in a peace agreement with the Taliban,

“Although you could say Hezb-i-Islami is the second largest insurgent group, their importance for what is going on in the Afghan battlefield this year is fairly non-existent,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The peace deal, although … showing that there is something that the Afghan society and Afghan political actors can actually achieve without foreign mediation and intervention – and this is something very important – that doesn’t mean that we will see a decline in violence, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that a real peace process with the Taliban will happen any time soon.”

The Taliban did not immediately comment on the agreement.

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