Afghanistan News and Views


AFGHANISTAN: Cashing In on the Decision to Keep U.S. Troops in Afghanistan, Oct. 30, 2015, original

In August, the nation’s top military officer came to President Barack Obama and bluntly asked him to break a promise to bring the last American troops home from Afghanistan by the time the president left office.

Obama had been repeating the vow for years, but Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States needed to keep at least 5,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 to ensure that the Islamic State didn’t take root there and to prevent al Qaeda from moving back into the country. In July, the Pentagon discovered that the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks had been running a pair of large training camps in southern Afghanistan, including one that covered nearly 30 square miles.

The president, anxious to prevent Afghanistan from turning into another Iraq, told Dempsey that he was willing to consider the troop request. First, though, he wanted the general to tell him the “no kidding” cost of keeping U.S. forces there — including what the Pentagon would pay the thousands of contractors needed to house, feed, and support U.S. military personnel. Wisened after years of overseeing two wars, Obama didn’t want to let the additional cost of contractors escape him, particularly since the military rarely includes it in its proposals. The exchange was first reported by the Washington Post. The White House declined to comment on the president’s decision-making.

That Obama even factored “in contracting costs marks an evolution in the way leaders think,” said Sean McFate, a professor at the National Defense University and the author ofThe Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. “Just 10 to 15 years ago, contracting costs came as an afterthought,” he said. “Now they are part of strategic planning. This makes sense, since the majority of ground personnel are contracted.”

This is certainly true in Afghanistan, where there are 30,000 contractors working for the Defense Department, according to the latest Pentagon tally. Of these, roughly 10,000 are U.S. citizens. The rest are local or third-country nationals from states like Nepal. The Pentagon figures don’t include the thousands of other contractors working for the State Department, USAID, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

That means Obama’s decision to extend America’s longest warwon’t just keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan longer than had been expected; it will also keep thousands of contractors there, ensuring that the gold rush sparked by the 2001 invasion continues for the next several years.

That’s good news for companies like Fluor Corp. and DynCorp International, which have been providing U.S. troops with things like electricity and laundry services on their Afghan bases for years. They and the other contractors working for the military stand to earn billions of dollars per year.

It also means the U.S. government is going to have to continue to provide close scrutiny of their work, as major contractors have been accused of overbilling the government, failing to deliver what they promised, abusing their labor force, and, in some cases, committing outright fraud.

But contractor wrongdoing will be even harder to detect in the years ahead because the ongoing military drawdown will make it extremely difficult for government auditors to travel the country and check on specific projects. U.S. civilian personnel conducting contractor oversight only have access to about 10 percent of the country today, according to an official in the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

“With the drawdown of [coalition] forces in Afghanistan, the ability of U.S. government personnel to go out and kick the tires in order to provide proper oversight is limited,” said John Sopko, the current head of SIGAR, in a statement to Foreign Policy. “With less of the country accessible, it means the American taxpayer is footing the bill for billions of dollars in projects that a U.S. government employee may never see.”

While Obama may have gotten a clearer picture of the costs of an extended mission in Afghanistan, the American public did not. There was no mention of how much money it would cost to delay the drawdown when Obama finally announced in early October that he had decided to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through most of next year before reducing that footprint to 5,500 for 2017 and beyond. (Under Obama’s original 2014 proposal, only 1,000 troops, all based in Kabul, were scheduled to stay in the country beyond 2016.)

But Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has come up with a good back-of-the-envelope way of estimating the cost of operations in Afghanistan based on funding trends from 2005 to 2013.

When analyzing the data over that time period, Harrison discovered a linear relationship where the total annual cost of operations in Afghanistan equals the number of troops deployed multiplied by $1.3 million — the cost per year of keeping each soldier or Marine in the field — plus $6 billion in fixed costs that don’t vary with the size of the force.

This means the additional cost of keeping 5,500 troops in Afghanistan in fiscal year 2017 is about $13 billion. That would come on top of the money Washington would be spending on American reconstruction projects and to pay for the Afghan security forces.

“So all in [all], it would probably end up being about $20 billion,” Harrison said. A large portion of that would go to contractors who are involved in everything from maintaining weapons for Afghan forces to building new infrastructure projects across the country.

That doesn’t mean that’s the number you’ll see the Obama administration requesting for its war budget though, Harrison noted.

In recent years, the White House has used its war spending bill — also known as the Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, fund — to finance the purchases of $20 billion to $25 billion worth of weapons and other programs that really belong in its base budget. That has allowed it to effectively hide the true cost of some of its procurement efforts. But, Harrison noted, it means the “OCO budget is no longer a good indication of actual war costs.”

As for contractors, the number in Afghanistan has been steadily falling from its peak of 117,000 in 2012, as the number of U.S. troops on the ground shrinks. There were 15,000 more contractors working for the Defense Department in the country last October than there are today.

But with Obama’s announcement, that steady reduction will come to a halt, especially among the major contractors who directly support U.S. troops by providing them meals, doing their laundry, and keeping the lights on at the bases in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Bagram. In Afghanistan, the big players are DynCorp International, based in McLean, Virginia, and Fluor Corp., based in Irving, Texas.

The hundreds of millions of dollars these contractors stand to gain because of the delayed withdrawal in Afghanistan mirrors the lucrative deals the Pentagon has signed with the companies charged with supporting the expanding American troop presence in Iraq. There, contractors like SOS International are winning bids to provide everything from meals to perimeter security at Iraq’s Besmaya Compound and Camp Taji.

The contractors stand to pocket even more in Afghanistan because more U.S. troops are deployed there and the reconstruction effort is ongoing. In early October, DynCorpwon a $154 million one-year contract modification to continue providing support to American troops in Afghanistan. According to the company, the contract covers everything fromproviding the bases with electrical power to sewage and waste management and even food and laundry services.

DynCorp’s original contract for base support in Afghanistan had been awarded in 2009 and has earned the company more than $6 billion.

The State Department has also relied heavily on the company to perform work in war zones, especially in Afghanistan. Of the $4 billion the State Department spent on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013, DynCorp won 69 percent, or $2.8 billion, according to an April 2014 SIGARreport.

But DynCorp is not without controversy. It has been chargedwith overbilling the government millions of dollars. SIGAR is also investigating the company, along with Fluor, in connection to reports of human trafficking in Afghanistan. The inspector general has collected evidence that shows that third-country nationals from India, Nepal, and elsewhere have been enticed by labor recruiters to pay improper “recruitment fees” and “kickback payments” to obtain their jobs working for these companies on U.S. bases in Afghanistan.

In a statement to FP, DynCorp said it has put policies and procedures in place to educate employees about and prevent human trafficking.

“The company has developed a strict code of ethics and business conduct, which includes a zero tolerance policy on human trafficking; created a position of chief compliance officer; introduced global training programs; and has taken a number of additional steps to ensure a compliant, ethical, [and] successful workplace,” a spokeswoman for the company said.

Fluor said it also strictly adheres to a policy of zero tolerance for human trafficking.

“We take any alleged violation of that policy very seriously,” a Fluor spokeswoman told FP.

Fluor said it promptly responded to a request for information from SIGAR in July 2014 and has not heard from the inspector general’s office since.

The company will “proudly continue” to support U.S. and coalition forces “in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world as directed and for as long as there are requirements,” the spokeswoman told FP.

KBR, formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton, used to play a much bigger role in Afghanistan, but after years of winning contracts without having to compete for them and facing charges of fraud and overbilling — not to mention failing to protect soldiers from harmful chemicals in Iraq — the Pentagon decided to change things up and let other companies compete for the business.

While KBR is not providing base support to American soldiers in Afghanistan, it still is working on American military contracts in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and other countries.

The Supreme Group, headquartered in Dubai, has also seen its business in Afghanistan dry up. It used to feed up to 130,000 troops a day in Afghanistan, raking in a total of $6.8 billion, but lost its multibillion-dollar contract in 2012 to one of its competitors, Dubai-based Anham FZCO.

Then, in December 2014, executives from the Supreme Group pleaded guilty to major fraud against the United States, admitting it had overcharged the government hundreds of millions of dollars for food and water. It agreed to pay $389 million in fines and damages.

In a more staggering case of Washington’s quid pro quo economy, retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Dail was hired in 2008 as president of Supreme Group’s U.S. branch, after giving the company the New Contractor of the Year award in 2007 when he was serving as head of the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversaw the company’s contract in Afghanistan.

The Supreme Group has continued to provide fuel to U.S. and NATO forces, even after it lost its giant food contract. British military police are now investigating claims that the company may have overcharged as much as $700 million in fuel contracts, the Guardian reported last month.

Meanwhile, Anham’s contract is valued at $8 billion. In 2013, the company admitted to the U.S. Commerce and Treasury Departments that it had shipped some of its supplies through Iran because the main route through Pakistan had been closed.

These are just some examples of why close scrutiny of overseas contractors is needed, but SIGAR warns that oversight in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly restricted because of security reasons.

American civilians are only allowed access to areas in Afghanistan within a one-hour round trip of an advanced medical facility. Because of this, U.S. government officials — from the Pentagon, the State Department, and USAID — cannot visit reconstruction projects that altogether total more than $725 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars.


AFGHANISTAN: Pakistan and Afghanistan: The new Great Game

 The Peshawar school attack was widely condemned.   Image copyright EPA

Ever since the Pakistan Taliban massacred 132 schoolboys in a Peshawar school last December, the Pakistan army has been confronting some of the country’s militants, with unprecedented determination.

But the campaign is still patchy. While the Pakistan Taliban have been forced on to the back foot, other Pakistan-based militant outfits have been left undisturbed.

Publicly, Pakistani officials insist that they no longer make a distinction between the “good” Taliban (proxy forces of the Pakistan state) and the “bad” Taliban (which mount sectarian or anti-state attacks).

But privately they argue the army has to prioritise which groups to confront first. The immediate, urgent task, they say, is to fight the militants who have caused tens of thousands of deaths within Pakistan itself.

Afghan attacks

It means militant groups such as the Haqqani network, which focuses most of its efforts on Afghanistan, can fight on unimpeded. The group, which is based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, is believed to have mounted a series of attacks on Kabul this summer.

It has been a devastating campaign. In the first six months of 2015, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented the highest level of civilian casualties in the country since it began keeping authoritative records in 2008.

Similarly, the Afghan Taliban have stepped up their military activity – most recently in the city of Kunduz in the north of Afghanistan.

Kabul for years has complained that many Afghan Taliban leaders live in and around the Pakistani city of Quetta.

When asked about the issue, Pakistani military officials say that, with as many as three million Afghans in Pakistan, it is difficult to be sure who is living where.

The lack of an outright denial is deliberate. The perception that Pakistan controls the Afghan Taliban gives Pakistani officials diplomatic leverage. If the West wants peace in Afghanistan, they are implicitly suggesting, it will have to secure Pakistani co-operation to deliver it.

In fact, history suggests that the Afghan Taliban, while happy to accept Pakistani support, are quite capable of ignoring Islamabad’s instructions and formulating their own policies.


When the new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, won power in 2014, he said improving the relationship with Pakistan was a top priority: if Islamabad would cut its links with the Afghan Taliban, then Kabul would try to prevent anti-Pakistan forces finding sanctuary in Afghanistan.

The two countries, he suggested, could only find stability by working together.

But for all the hope that President Ghani engendered, Islamabad and Kabul have reverted to hurling accusations at each other. And the distrust seems set to continue.

Geostrategic concerns

Senior Pakistani military officers say one of the reasons they have a continued interest in Afghanistan is because India is extending its influence there.

Islamabad fears that, among other things, Delhi is using its presence in Afghanistan to build a closer relationship with Baloch separatists, who for a decade have been fighting to split away from Pakistan.

The issue is especially sensitive because of Pakistan’s plans to construct the China Pakistan economic corridor. The planned trade route will run through Balochistan, close to the Afghan border, down to the new deep-sea port of Gwadar.

Pakistan is hoping the corridor could generate billions of dollars of revenue.

It is a highly complex geostrategic situation.

Put at its most succinct, Pakistani strategists are supporting Islamist militants to counter Indian intelligence officers working with Baloch nationalists to thwart Chinese traders.

It all shows the extent to which the Great Game, in which outside powers struggle for control of Afghanistan, is alive and well.

The Great Game

  • Strategic rivalry between the British and Russian Empires for control of central Asia during the 19th and early 20th Centuries
  • Officially ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Persia into three zones, declared Afghanistan an official protectorate of Britain and said that neither Russia nor Britain would interfere in Tibet’s internal affairs
  • Britain’s Capt Arthur Conolly is generally considered to have coined the term
  • Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel Kim is set against the backdrop of the Great Game, which brought the phrase into the mainstream

As has so often been the case in the past, the stability of Afghanistan depends on it being left alone. But the regional powers all see the country as a place that can cause them problems.

The result is that many of Afghanistan’s neighbours sponsor local, tribal and religious militias so as to prevent anyone else’s proxy getting control.

It is a process Afghan civilians recognise all too well because, more often than not, they are the ones caught in the crossfire.


AFGHANISTAN, DEVELOPMENT: The Next Refugee Crisis: Afghanistan


WASHINGTON — With the war in Afghanistan heating up, thousands of Afghan refugees are fleeing their country. But Iran and Pakistan, which house most of the Afghan refugees from previous cycles of violence, are increasingly unwelcoming. So the new exodus has begun to flow toward Europe, already inundated with Syria’s refugees.

Yet these Afghans have attracted little attention from Western policy makers; they do not seem to recognize the Afghans’ desperation, and the challenges their flight poses for Afghanistan, its neighbors and Europe. For Afghans, it is a recurring nightmare. Like previous exoduses going back to the 1970s, this one is stripping the country of precisely the professionals who are vital to its future as a modern state.

President Obama has an opportunity to change that on Thursday by putting the issue high on his agenda, and calling international attention to it, when he hosts Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in Washington.

The new surge of refugees began with the Taliban’s offensive this year, and intensified after fighting reached populated areas like Kunduz. Last month, employees at Afghanistan’s passport agency said they were issuing an average of 2,000 passports daily — triple the number of six months ago.

In recent decades, most Afghan refugees have wound up in Pakistan, which now hosts nearly three million. But refugees there complain that this year, officials have been forcing them to return home. The International Organization for Migration says 90,000 Pakistan-based Afghans did just that since January. Now the government refuses to extend identity cards for 1.5 million refugees, many of whom have been in Pakistan for decades, when their permits expire at year’s end.

Iran, too, has been deporting refugees. One reason is fear that Afghans with ties to the drug trade will compound Iran’s own drug-use problems.

Deportation can be a harsh sentence. Some returnees end up in United Nations camps near Jalalabad, a stronghold for former Taliban militants who joined the Islamic State. The danger may be worst for ethnic Hazaras; they are Shiite Muslims, and many fled slaughter by the Taliban.

Afghans cannot expect much help from their own government. One official American report says the State Department stopped funding a training program for Afghanistan’s refugee and repatriation ministry last year after finding the ministry corrupt and dysfunctional.

Helping Afghan refugees is not an easy issue for Pakistani officials, who already deal with a million internally displaced Pakistanis fleeing conflict in their own border areas.

So the Afghan exodus increasingly looks to Europe as its destination, after a perilous trek across Iran, Turkey and the Mediterranean.

According to United Nations and European estimates, more than 20 percent of the roughly 500,000 people who have arrived this year via the Mediterranean have been Afghans.

The flow poses a serious challenge for Europe, which is already experiencing its greatest refugee crisis since World War II and needs no further scapegoats for its anti-immigration demagogues to attack.

But if Europe closes its doors to them, that would only shift the challenge back to Pakistan, where Afghans could be expected to resume arriving in greater numbers. Even in normal times, tens of thousands of Afghans pass back and forth monthly through two border checkpoints, most of them as legitimate temporary visitors. The temptation to cheat at those crossing points would increase even as other desperate Afghans stepped up the flow across more porous parts of the border. That would surely exacerbate a growing public resentment of Afghan refugees, whom many Pakistanis already associate with terrorism, drug abuse and a drag on their economy.

So the world must acknowledge the plain fact that Afghanistan’s refugees need help. Their own government, beleaguered by war and its own dysfunction, is not up for the task, and its two largest neighbors are increasingly indifferent to their plight.

It is unrealistic to expect Pakistan to voluntarily accept more Afghan refugees. Still, it should better help those already there. Mr. Obama should press Mr. Sharif to extend the identity cards about to expire. He should urge a more gradual and humane repatriation process. And he should assure Mr. Sharif that Americans remain committed to financial support for international aid programs that assist Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran — programs now under budgetary pressure.

Iran, which houses the second-largest Afghan refugee population, has extended the visas of 450,000 Afghans. Yet Afghans there also report forced deportations and other bad treatment. According to one recent report, Iranian border policemen shot and killed seven Afghans trying to enter the country. These policies must end.

As for the Western countries, the European nations whose troops took part in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan should ensure that Afghans are included in any European Union quotas that distribute refugees among member states. And Washington should expedite special visas for those Afghans who worked for the United States government or military and say that their lives are endangered. In September, at least 13,000 Afghans and Iraqis with that status were still waiting.

And, if security can be assured, international aid groups should accelerate the creation of safe zones within pacified areas in the country, where the United Nations says the total internally displaced population numbers nearly a million. These people need incentives to stay in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbors should band together to help. Bordering countries in Central Asia, along with Russia, China and Iran, all need more stability in Afghanistan and fear the specter of heavy refugee flows into their countries; they should pool funds to support the formation of permanent safe areas inside Afghanistan, in places like Bamian Province that still enjoy relative stability.

Given the lack of quick fixes for Afghanistan’s violence, corruption and economic distress, safe areas may be the best possible incentive for Afghans to remain in their country. It is only a stopgap, but one that might help keep a dangerous crisis in check.


AFGHANISTAN, DEVELOPMENT: Afghanistan’s Other Security Threat: Brain Drain

m.voanews.comoriginal, by Hasib Danish Alikozai, September 7, 2015

Each day an estimated 7,000 Afghans apply for passports


A family from Afghanistan arrives from the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos to the Athens’ port of Piraeus on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. Photo: AP

Afghans do not apply for passports unless they intend to travel outside the country since they do not use passports for identification at home.

That means more than 200,000 Afghans plan on leaving the country each month — a sudden and dramatic increase.

The head of the Afghan passport distribution directorate, General Sayed Omar Saboori, told VOA the directorate’s central and provincial offices have the capacity to provide only 2,500 passports on a daily basis.

“The system was primarily designed for 1,000 passports countrywide, but in recent months because of the rising demand, we are working both shifts,” said General Saboori. “Thousands of applicants wait all day long, and we can only do so much to meet the rising demand.”

Dangerous journey to Europe

Right now, Afghans are the second largest group — behind Syrians — waiting on the shores of Europe, hoping to embrace a new life on the continent.

Most undertake unthinkably dangerous journeys seeking a better future in Europe.

According to Babar Baluch of United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Hungary, of the 140,000 people who sought asylum in Hungary alone this year, 40,000 of them are Afghans.

“[And most arrive] in ships that can easily capsize because of the overload and a lot of them did, resulting in the tragic death of countless people who drowned in the ocean,” he said.

Zalmai Rasooli, who lives in northern Parwan province, experienced this journey himself.

“Two years ago, I decided to leave the country and reach Europe,” he said. “I went through Iran and Turkey and reached Greece after months of travel and tremendous amount of hardship. I was caught at the border of Greece and deported back to Afghanistan.”

Rasooli recalls seeing a boat capsize. To this day he’s convinced none of its 40 refugees could have survived.

But that immense risk will not deter him from making the journey all over again.

Afghanistan, he says, doesn’t have anything to offer him, and he plans to leave the country soon.

Disappointed youth

On Monday, hundreds of Afghans took to the streets in the capital, Kabul, to protest against the rising unemployment in the country. Protestors were complaining about the lack of employment opportunities and warned of “mass exodus” if the government fails to address the issue.

“If the unemployment issue is not addressed, we will soon witness an empty Kabul,” said Sharif, a protestor, who like many Afghans goes by only one name.

Over 60 percent of Afghans are aged 18-25, making Afghanistan one of the youngest countries in the world.

The Afghan government acknowledges the seriousness of unemployment in the country. Spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Ali Eftekhari, told VOA the government is working on short and long-term projects to address unemployment.

“In the long-run, we will provide enduring employment opportunities for Afghans through building economic infrastructures in the country, but in the short run, we are in discussions with a number of Arab countries that are in need of workers,” he said.

Opportunities for the educated

Hanif Sufizada, a Fulbright scholar who graduated from Cornell University’s Institute of Public Affairs, paints a rather bright picture of opportunities in Afghanistan.

“After graduating from Cornell University in public administration, I came back to Afghanistan to join a newly established National Unity Government because of ample employment opportunities in the area of my specialization,” he said.

One of the 450 Afghan Fulbright scholars who came to the U.S. for education, Sufizada said that some fellow scholars, pessimistic about the direction their country was headed in, chose to remain in the U.S. upon the completion of their degrees. Others returned and are working in various sections of the Afghan government.

Despite the situation of youth in Afghanistan, thousands are employed by the Afghan government and international organizations.

In the last 14 years, tens of thousands of Afghans have left the country in pursuit of academic opportunities. Similarly, tens of thousands graduated from local universities, a potentially tremendous asset for the Afghan economy should they be given the opportunity.

But a young society can be a double edged sword. Employed, young people contribute to the country’s economy; unemployed, they can be a force of instability. As one of those who took part in Monday’s protest in Kabul said, “It’s unemployment that pushes Afghan youth to join the insurgents or use drugs.”


AFGHANISTAN: When It Comes to Afghanistan, America Should Ditch Pakistan for Iran, by C. Christine Fair, September 7, 2015

“The fact is, none of Iran’s actions hold a candle to the things the Pakistanis have already done, and continue to do.”

1024px-thumbnail_5With Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) having now announced her supportfor the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, President Obama has thirty-four senators in favor, making the deal all but done.

Beyond its main purpose, the agreement with Iran affords us a historic opportunity to get right what we’ve gotten wrong in Afghanistan ever since September 11. When we went into Afghanistan in the aftermath of the attacks, we chose to rely on the one country least likely to help us win: Pakistan. Our dependence upon Pakistan to supply the war effort allowed it to play a double game that has cost the lives of thousands of American troops and many more Afghans.

Some U.S. officials counter that we had no alternative. Actually, we may have: Iran.

Iran’s then president Mohammad Khatami strongly supported the war and our efforts to rehabilitate Afghanistan. The Iranians helped us strategize on Afghanistan at the Bonn conference in December 2001, and even insisted upon putting the word “democracy” in Afghanistan’s constitution.

Iran also has two ports—Bandar Abbas and Chabahar—that would have enabled us to resupply our troops in Afghanistan. Had we seized upon Khatami’s early support, we could have given ourselves more options, and avoided being solely dependent upon the perfidies of Pakistan. Instead, after only two months, the Bush administration cast Iran into the “Axis of Evil,” at which point Tehran became increasingly opposed to U.S. efforts.

Critics of the U.S. nuclear agreement charge that we can’t deal with the Iranians because Tehran is a malicious actor bent on nuclear proliferation, and whose proxies thirst for American and Israeli blood. Yet we have spent the past fourteen years paying the Pakistanis—who already have nuclear weapons—no less than $30 billion to draw real American blood on the fields of Afghanistan. Pakistan has used Islamist militants as tools of its foreign policy ever since 1947, and harbored notorious enemies of the United States from the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to Osama bin Laden himself.

Like the Iranian regime, it is not our rhetoric so much as our real policies that do us the most harm. We refuse to collaborate with governments we dislike, even in the service of defeating common enemies. That has hamstrung us in ways that may cost us victory in Afghanistan, and have greatly strengthened the rampaging hordes of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The prospect of cooperation with Iran, even if slow and tentative at first, could help considerably on both fronts.

If we were to mend fences with the Iranians, we could ship supplies to our troops and the Afghan army through Chabahar, and the road and rail links that connect that port to Afghanistan that the Indians helped build. Instead, we continue to rely on Pakistani supply routes—rendering us unable to confront the reality that Pakistan takes our money and kills our troops in Afghanistan. Rapprochement with Iran would better position us to take a harder line on Pakistan, a necessary prerequisite to avoiding a near total reversal of our gains in Afghanistan.

We’ve come to this pass in part because we’ve misunderstood our own recent history.

In 1990, three years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, President George H.W. Bush declined to certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon. As a result, the sanctions of the Pressler Amendment came into force, after which Pakistan could no longer receive U.S. military assistance.

Many Republicans and Democrats alike cite the Pressler Amendment as an example of failed sanctions, arguing that the legislation did not prevent the Pakistanis from testing nuclear weapons in 1998. These critics also claim that that the cutoff in U.S. aid resulted in the rise of the Taliban, Al Qaeda’s move to Afghanistan and eventually the events of 9/11.

This reasoning is flawed on both counts. According to former Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar, sanctions would not have prevented the Pakistanis from developing a nuclear weapon in 1990—because they already had one as early as 1980.

In fact, the Pressler Amendment allowed us to resupply the Pakistanis in our proxy war against the Soviet Union, even though U.S. intelligence knew Pakistan was developing nuclear capability. After all, the Carter administration first sanctioned Pakistan for nuclear proliferation in April 1979. From 1982 to 1985, when Pressler was passed, all security assistance required a waiver of those 1979 sanctions.

Second, the 1990 cutoff did not require the United States to outsource our Afghanistan policy to Pakistan altogether. But this is exactly what we did, and it was that decision that ultimately resulted in the rise of the Taliban, their cooperation with Osama bin Laden and the attacks of September 11.

Although we’ve long since swapped seats with the Soviets, we once again find ourselves in a similar predicament in Afghanistan. With our total reliance on Pakistan having denied a clean victory, we now hope Islamabad will help us find a tolerable exit from that war, in exchange for calling the shots after our departure. This is a sure recipe for failure, but Pakistan remains our only other neighboring ally with an available port.

India and Iran share the strong American interest in fighting Sunni militancy in Afghanistan. U.S. and European sanctions on Iran hindered Indo-Iranian collaboration during the very years when we should have done everything in our power to encourage it. The prospect of lifting these sanctions under the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement may be too little, too late. But it will surely be a welcome change for two regional powers we can no longer afford to alienate.


Afghanistan: What Now for China’s Afghanistan Strategy?, by Andrew Small, September 01, 2015, original

Despite the blow to peace talks with the Taliban, China is unlikely to change its approach to Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Men sit amid debris of their properties at the site a truck bomb blast in Kabul, August 7, 2015. Image Credit: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Along with advances in northern Afghanistan by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — the principal host for Uyghur militants in the region — and the Taliban’s own battlefield successes, the strategic situation for China appears to be moving in an adverse direction. Beijing’s longstanding concern that Afghanistan might become a safe haven for “East Turkestan terrorists” is now coupled with worries about the dangers that instability there could pose to Beijing’s various Silk Road economic schemes, particularly in Central Asia and Pakistan. Despite speculation that these might be imperiled by China’s current economic frailty, this multi-trillion-dollarbonanza for Chinese industry is, if anything, only rendered more important.

An inevitable question, therefore, is whether Beijing can be expected to lean on its all-weather friend, Pakistan, to take action against the Taliban. For all that the Afghan government would like China to step up its direct bilateraleconomic and security support, it is Beijing’s leverage over Islamabad thatthey see as its most valuable asset. China played an important role in encouraging Pakistan to bring a reluctant Taliban to the table for the peace talks in Murree. And since the Kabul attacks, the Afghan government has sought Chinese assistance in pressing Pakistan to take the actions demanded in its “non-paper”, such as denying sanctuary and passage to Taliban fighters.

Beijing is well aware that Ghani’s Pakistan opening left him out on apolitical limb. In the absence of deliverables, relations between Islamabad and Kabul are heading into a phase that risks being characterized by “freeze, deep freeze, or hostility,” in Ghani’s words. China has sympathy for the Afghan government’s position, and is certainly concerned to help keep its relationship with Pakistan from breaking down further. But while Kabul’s previous efforts to leverage Beijing’s position of influence in Islamabad were relatively successful, it is now running into the limits of what China is willing to do.

Beijing is cautious about its own relationship with the Taliban. In meetings with its representatives, China has sought to persuade them that a peace deal will be in their interests, but also to keep the two sides’ longstanding ties in good working order. Beijing continues to see the Taliban as a political force that it needs to deal with, and is wary about turning them into enemies. Encouraging Pakistan to twist arms to get the Taliban into peace talks was one thing — any perception that they were pushing Pakistan to take more decisive action against the group would be quite another. Thebacklash China faced after it was blamed for instigating the Pakistani government’s assault on the Red Mosque in 2007 is a cautionary tale that still resonates with Chinese officials.

But it is not just fear of getting on the wrong side of the Taliban that is holding China back. The ISI’s current attempts to help consolidate the position of the Taliban’s new leader, Mullah Mansour, are fully in line with China’s view of its own interests. Beijing does not want to see the Taliban fractured, operating under the control of opponents of reconciliation talks, or actively hostile to Pakistan. China sees the maintenance of a relatively coherent Taliban movement as a necessary evil if a political deal in Afghanistan is ever going to be reached, and if its own arrangements with the group are to remain intact. The internal tensions that have roiled the Taliban in recent weeks are partly a product of their involvement in the Murree talks, and Pakistani pressure to bring them to the table. Havingdelivered on its promise to get them in the room, Beijing is now likely to leave the ISI with the time and space to deal with the resulting fallout.

Mullah Mansour may never have Mullah Omar’s authority, but if the Taliban can be broadly unified behind a figure close to the Pakistanis and willing to approve peace talks — in principle, if not currently in practice — this is about the most that China could currently hope for. Conversely, a scenario in which the Pakistani government decided to turn on the Afghan Taliban (not that this is on the cards) would pose serious risks for the security situation in Pakistan, and likely make China itself into a target too. Beijing has already gone through eight years of this experience with the Pakistani Taliban. And with the rise of forces such as the Islamic State that areexplicitly hostile to China, a cohesive Taliban under Pakistan’s continued influence looks like a safer bet.

In the end, despite the serious hits that the prospects for peace have taken in recent weeks, China still believes that a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan is the only viable solution. Beijing will expect Pakistan, in due course, to do its part to facilitate it. If the Afghan government were facing an immediate, existential security crisis, China’s stance might look different but, although the Afghan National Security Forces have faced a worryingly high attrition rate this year, they continue to hold their own, and there is no looming prospect of the Taliban “victory” that Beijing would certainly not want to see. For now then, China is trying to hold together its existing strategy in Afghanistan rather than embarking on a new one. However unpalatable it might seem in Kabul as civilian casualties reach record highs, that will mean Beijing giving the Pakistanis time, not turning the screw on them.

Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program and the author of the book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.


Afghanistan: Rising to the Afghanistan Challenge, by Timur Urazayev for The Diplomat, September 04, 2015, original

To date, 2015 has sadly been dominathediplomat_2015-09-04_00-27-47-386x257ted by conflicts and suffering. Early in the year, violence in Gaza and Ukraine brought images of destruction to our screens and shook the foundations of international relations and stability. The violent threat posed by Daesh (known as ISIS), Boko Haram (allied to Daesh), and other terrorist groups has destabilized large parts of Eurasia and Africa. Civil wars in Libya and Yemen have cast a dark shadow over the lives and hopes of their citizens and risk widening the conflicts.

The rise of violence in forms of extremism and terrorism represents the greatest threat to global peace and stability. The split of previous national regimes in Libya and Iraq has undermined the entire situation in the Middle East. Syria seems to be next in this paradigm. Without a determined response, there is a real possibility that these countries will be permanently torn apart and Daesh will become a platform for exporting violence, extremism and instability across the entire region and beyond.

As the international community battles against this danger, Afghanistan serves as a sobering reminder of what happens if you ignore the threat. It is also why, despite all the challenges elsewhere, the world should combine its efforts in the political, social and cultural realms to prevent a recurrence of old errors.

Afghanistan today, thanks to the sacrifices of its people and the support of the international community, is unrecognizable from its past under the Taliban. But despite real achievements in recent years and political progress since the presidential elections last year, the country continues to be plagued by threats such as illegal drug production, trans-boundary crimes, and internal insurgency. Moreover, the rise of Daesh and terrorist attacks by the Taliban along with economic hardship tear at the fabric of the nation. Afghanistan also remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with depressingly high levels of child mortality and illiteracy.

We all share a common interesting in building the capacity of the Afghan statehood, strengthening appropriate institutions, including the Afghan National Security Forces, and giving Afghans the opportunity to create a secure, stable and prosperous future. Without this commitment, there is a real risk that the country could descend again into outright chaos and that instability and violence will increasingly spill over its borders. No nation, not even Kazakhstan where extremists have failed to gain a foothold in our moderate and tolerant society, is immune from this threat. That is why it is in all our interests to work together to help Afghanistan.

As part of our contribution, Kazakhstan is already stepping up direct economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. This includes funding the restoration of the Talukan-Kunduz-Shirkhan-Bandar road and construction of schools and hospitals across the country.

We are continuing to finance the education and training of 1,000 young Afghanis for civil professions in Kazakh colleges and Universities. Essential items like vegetable oil, warm clothes, beds, tents, bedding and dishes are being provided to the Afghan people every time a natural disaster happens. We are encouraging Kazakh businesses to enter the Afghan market, and vice versa, to promote trade and economic cooperation. Kazakhstan also intends in the near future to streamline its aid to neighbors and friends under our own official development program, provisionally labeled KazAID.

Together with our regional neighbors, we are also discussing how we can do more to help rebuild Afghanistan as well as improve collective security against terrorism and the drugs trade, which has created crime and misery far beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

Improving regional economic connectivity is key to this goal. Afghanistan can benefit enormously from the new opportunities presented thanks to the modern road, rail and energy links being put in place. The positive impact of this “New Silk Road” will be felt far beyond Afghanistan or Central Asia. Rich in energy and natural wealth and strategically positioned between Europe and the fast-growing economies of the east, improved connections can provide a much-needed boost to global growth.

We cannot halt the powerful forces that are changing our world. But through increased cooperation with our partners in the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the UN, they can be channeled for the benefit of all. We have also offered Almaty as a new regional base to host the UN’s efforts and disaster management facilities for the needs of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s people are depending on the international community to pull together to help them. If we do not turn good intentions into positive action, the country risks again descending into chaos. We cannot fail this challenge.

Timur Urazayev is Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan.


Afghanistan tackles hidden mental health epidemic, by Sune Engel Rasmussen, Sept. 2, 2015, original
Dr Fareshta Quedees, project manager at the International Psychosocial Organisation in Kabul, at a training session for counsellors. Photograph: Sune Engel Rasmussen

Mohammad Qassem had been chained to a wall for 13 days. Locked in a tiny concrete cell with his hands and feet shackled, he had 27 days left before he would be declared healthy.

During that period, the keeper of the holy shrine where Qassem was held would feed him only tea, bread and black pepper, ostensibly to rid him of what his family said was insanity. Qassem, a former soldier who spoke hoarsely, with bursts of laughter, said he just had a hashish addiction. “When I don’t smoke hashish I want to kill all foreigners,” he roared, to giggles from a crowd of onlookers from the nearby village who had gathered at the cell entrance.

Related: Afghanistan growing more receptive on women’s rights, says British ambassador

For generations, the Mia Ali Baba Shrine, in a rural part of Nangarhar province, has been renowned for allegedly curing mental illnesses with forced asceticism and spiritual cleansing. “We leave everything to God,” said the shrine keeper, Mia Saheb. “The Earth and the sky have been made by God. God takes care of the patients.”

Qassem, meanwhile, showed off wounds where the chains had gnawed into his wrists. “They need to take me to the doctor instead of putting me in prison here,” he said. “They made me crazier by bringing me here.”

Fourteen years of violence have created a hidden epidemic inAfghanistan of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other war-induced illnesses. It is one of the most enduring damages wrought by the war – one few people understand, and fewer can treat. But a small army of therapists now seeks to change that. And they are led by a woman.

“We are in a vicious cycle of violence and trauma,” said Dr Fareshta Quedees, project manager at the International Psychosocial Organisation (Ipso) in Kabul and the driving force behind training 280 psychosocial counsellors who work across the country.

Half of the counsellors are women, a rare ratio for any profession in Afghanistan, and an acknowledgment that wives and families also suffer from trauma, despite often being removed from the frontline. Domestic violence, for instance, is rampant in Afghanistan, and is often unleashed by trauma.

“Women don’t necessarily face trauma directly but traumatised men are more violent, and that increases family conflicts,” said Fariba Amin from the provincial hospital in Zabul, who, along with dozens of fellow counsellors, had come to Kabul for a five-day training course.

A man chained beneath a tree, as treatment for his mental illness, on the compounds of Mia Ali Baba Shrine in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP

For women, she said, counselling is a rare chance to confide in someone. Afghan women are rarely asked about their hopes and dreams, let alone what burdens them. “That someone sits down and listens to the woman is a treatment in itself,” said Amin.

A UN-sponsored survey found that in 2005, 16.5% of Afghans suffered from mental disorders. The problem is likely to have grown since then.

The Afghan government has made tackling mental illness a priority and developed a national mental health strategy. All provincial hospitals now offer counselling. Counselling is free, and even available online.

Quedees, 35, discovered psychosocial counselling in 2004, while in medical school, during a stint as a translator for a foreign NGO. She found the therapy resonating with ideas she had harboured herself but never articulated. “I was the sort of person who always talked a lot about my feelings, and I remember my friends made fun of me,” she said with a smile.

But Quedees’s counsellors are working against long-held traditions and a culture of stigmatisation of the mentally ill. Faced with mental disorder, many resort to drugs or superstitious practices that often cause more harm than good.

Critics claim the treatment at shrines like Mia Ali Baba is a hoax, which sedates patients suffering from hunger and maltreatment rather than curing them. Still, locals maintain a strong belief in their healing powers. One of them, Nasibullah Subara, said the treatment had helped his nephew.

“Before, he didn’t sleep. He had a short temper and bothered his family. But now he doesn’t have those problems,” Subara said. The $20 cost of the treatment at the shrine is cheaper than medicine or a trip to the nearest hospital. As a result, the shrine’s 16 cells are often full.

Modern therapy is also at odds with the sense of privacy so paramount in Afghan culture. “Many people don’t like the concept of counselling. It is not appropriate in our culture to share intimate matters and family secrets,” said Fatma Dauladzai, a counsellor from Paktia province.

But while the idea of counselling has yet to take firm root, women, especially, are growing more receptive.

Wahid Nurzad, a male counsellor from Herat, recalled a group session for people who had experienced domestic violence, where one 35-year-old woman suddenly started crying: “When these tears of mine are falling, I feel lighter,” she had said. “I forget the suffering I have gone through.”


Afghanistan: Ahmed Rashid: Ghani is running out of options in Afghanistan,
Viewpoint, Ahmed Rashid, September 1, 2015

Image caption A wave of Taliban attacks and offensives have left the country reeling in recent weeks

Afghanistan is in dire crisis as the Taliban battle a weak government, and peace talks with the militants are put on hold, writes guest columnist Ahmed Rashid.

The Taliban have captured most of Helmand province, including for several days a strategic district headquarters, Musa Qala. They are growing stronger in the north and east holding more territory than ever before and mounting ferocious attacks in Kabul in which some 100 people have been killed in the past few weeks.

Talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban and Pakistan are at an impasse following the recent announcement of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in 2013. Afghan criticism of Pakistan for allegedly not reining in the Taliban is increasing daily.

President Ashraf Ghani’s approval rating has fallen from 50 percentage points to 38, while his partner in power Abdullah Abdullah’s ratings are even lower, according to Tolo news. The government is paralysed, apparently incapable of still filling empty slots in the cabinet, while key projects such as identity cards and electoral reforms are on hold and mired in controversy.

Image caption President Ghani’s popularity ratings are apparently in steep decline at the moment

The government has failed to tackle corruption or bolster the economy. There is large-scale capital flight, especially to the Gulf where many Afghans have bought houses. Afghans constitute the third largest group of migrants after Syrians and Iraqis trying to escape into Europe by land and sea.

The international community is delaying or withholding vital financial contributions to a government that has long run out of money. Some government salaries have not been paid for months.

Afghanistan’s army is heroically struggling to contain the Taliban and hanging on to district capitals but is incapable of going on the offensive or regaining lost territory. Officers are struggling to contain sizeable desertions from the army and police by refusing home leave. The casualty rates are the worst ever and according to US officers, “unsustainable”. The remaining US and Nato forces are expected to leave at the end of the year.

According to the New York Times, about 4,100 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed and another 7,800 wounded in the first six months of this year. That is 50% more than the same period last year. Meanwhile warlordism is back with a vengeance as leading figures from the 1980s jihad (holy war), including Vice President Rashid Dostum, Balkh province Governor Atta Mohammed Nur and others raise militia armies across the country.

The country’s best hope in years – opening talks with the Taliban – has been stymied by the leaking of Mullah Omar’s death. Pakistan and some Taliban leaders tried to keep it secret for unknown reasons until the news broke after the first meeting between the Taliban and Afghan officials in Pakistan on 7 July.

Image caption Peace talks have been suspended since Mullah Mansour (right) replaced Mullah Omar

Mullah Omar’s death has created a struggle for power within the Taliban and there is a growing conviction amongst many ordinary Afghans that Pakistan is trying to install its chosen favourite, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, as the new Taliban leader.

It also became clear that Jalaluddin Haqqani, a leading jihadi figure wanted for terrorism by the US and a major Taliban operative also died a year ago.

This lack of transparency has destroyed the trust between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his opening address to the Taliban, Mullah Mansour took a belligerent stance, dismissing talks about peace as “enemy propaganda”. Before that he was seen as a moderate figure.

Meanwhile in Kabul, new anti-Ghani groupings are emerging, especially among those who resent the president surrounding himself with fellow Ghilzai Pashtuns.

In conversations with many Afghans over the last few months there seems to be a growing consensus that Afghanistan’s internal sovereignty is at stake and that the national unity government has not worked. Many feel constitutional changes are urgently needed in order to prevent the disintegration of the country, a coup by one or more warlords or a section of the army, or a power grab by disgruntled politicians.

One popular solution being hotly debated by Afghan intellectuals and politicians is for President Ghani to call an emergency loya jirga that would choose an interim government and president for a period of no more than a few months. Such a grand assembly would then initiate debate and pass constitutional and electoral reforms, as President Ghani and Mr Abdullah had promised to do when they were installed as joint power holders in the national unity government.

Image caption Afghan security forces are battling a resurgent Taliban after Nato combat troops withdrew

These reforms would introduce constitutional amendments to make the country a parliamentary democracy – something that the non-Pashtun groups and many urban Afghans have been demanding since 2001. These reforms could be coupled with a renewed attempt to bring the Taliban into talks or even encourage them to take part in the loya jirga debate. The Taliban have made it clear that they also want changes to the constitution.

Finally after the passage of new electoral laws that would eliminate vote rigging, and the issuance of new ID cards, the interim government would oversee fresh parliamentary elections. The newly elected parliament would then choose a new prime minister to lead the country and a president as head of state, after which the interim government would resign.

Ambitious and difficult though such a path may be, many Afghans are convinced that ultimately Mr Ghani has no choice but to radically shake up the system. If he takes such a risk then who knows – he may remerge as the winner once again.

Ahmed Rashid

  • Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and author based in Lahore
  • His latest book is Pakistan on the Brink – The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan
  • Earlier works include Descent into Chaos and Taliban, first published in 2000, which became a bestseller

Afghanistan: What Could Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Death Mean for the Taliban Talks?, BY , July 19, 2015

Since he fled Kandahar on the back of a motorcycle, in December, 2001, Mullah Mohammad Omar, whom the Taliban he led called “Amir al-Mu’minin,” Commander of the Faithful, never appeared in public. If he was trying to elude pursuers, he succeeded: no one took up the U.S. on its offer of ten million dollars, under the Rewards for Justice Program, for information leading to his location or capture. He communicated publicly with his followers and the world only through statements issued twice a year, on the festivals of Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, at the end of the Hajj. Whether or not Mullah Omar wrote or approved these statements himself, they constituted the most authoritative statements of Taliban policy. The most recent statement, a few days before this year’s Eid al-Fitr, which fell on July 17th, attracted even more than the usual attention, as it endorsed negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Such talks had seemed to start at a meeting in Murree, Pakistan, between delegations of the Afghan government and the Taliban, on July 7th. But then, on July 29th, news filtered out from multiple sources that Mullah Omar had died more than two years earlier. So who was negotiating with the Afghan government and under what authority?The U.S. held intermittent meetings with the Taliban Political Commission from November, 2010, to January, 2012. Mullah Omar had reportedly authorized this political commission to carry out both international and domestic outreach when it was founded, in 2008. The Taliban suspended the talks in March, 2012, after U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales killed sixteen people in their beds, including nine children, in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province, home to many in the Taliban leadership. An attempt to open an office for the political commission in Doha, Qatar, on June 18, 2013, and restart negotiations failed. When the Taliban displayed symbols of their deposed government at the inauguration, the United States asked Qatar to close it. The commission remained in Doha, however, working unofficially.

Along with the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Jim Dobbins, I met with Mohammed Umer Daudzai, then the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, on June 25, 2013. (I had been senior adviser to the SRAP since the late Richard Holbrooke, the first to hold the office, brought me on board, in 2009.) With the Qatar office closed, Daudzai offered some ideas on how to continue the search for a political settlement. A man with a trim beard and a mischievous sense of humor, he recounted his efforts to persuade the Pakistani military to arrange a meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders in Pakistan.  The Pakistanis, he said, claimed they did not control the Taliban. Daudzai prodded them, saying that was too simple—There are some Taliban you don’t control at all and who hate you. There are some you can influence, even if they don’t trust you. And there are some Taliban you do control. At least, Daudzai asked, organize a meeting between the Afghan government and some Taliban you control. That seems to be what Pakistan did on July 7, 2015.

Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated as the second president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on September 29, 2014, after a disputed election that was resolved only when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing agreement between Ghani and his competitor, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani, who had left Kabul to study at the American University of Beirut and then Columbia University, where he earned a doctorate in anthropology, was a co-author of the book “Fixing Failed States,” which drew on his experience working at the World Bank and as a special adviser to the United Nations.

Ghani approached the challenge of peacemaking in Afghanistan as, first, an issue between states. “The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with Taliban,” Ghani told an audience in Washington, D.C., in March, 2015. “The problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He immediately set about shaping the environment for negotiations with Pakistan.

Ghani’s first two official visits were to the two countries with the most influence in Pakistan, having provided financial and technical assistance to the country’s nuclear-weapons program. Less than a month after his inauguration, he went to Saudi Arabia, which had been waging an internal war against Al Qaeda for ten years and sought to weaken it further by encouraging the Taliban to renounce its alliance. A few days later, he touched down in China, where the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region had been the site of terrorist attacks connected to a separatist movement, some of whose fighters received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. China had subsequently come to regard the stability of Afghanistan as crucial to its internal security, as well as its economic future. The first wave of Chinese growth was based on labor-intensive exports from the Pacific coastal region, but as it slowed the leadership sought to invest in the central and western regions of the country, including Xinjiang. These landlocked areas could not develop without direct access to energy and raw materials, through routes that instability in Afghanistan or Pakistan could disrupt. At the end of the summit between Ghani and Xi Jinping, in October, 2014, China pledged to support an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace and reconciliation process.

Two weeks later, Ghani visited Pakistan, where he told Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif that it was time to end “thirteen years of undeclared hostilities.” He offered to address all the concerns the Pakistan military had about Afghanistan. Ghani would withdraw a request his predecessor had made for heavy weapons from India, and he proposed unprecedented transparency and cooperation between the two states’ military and intelligence agencies. He ordered the Afghan Army into battle against elements of the Pakistani Taliban that had taken refuge in Afghanistan, and he agreed to a long-standing Pakistani request for Afghanistan to send officer cadets to be trained at the Pakistan Military Academy, in Abbottabad. He also proposed establishing jointly operated border checkpoints, to promote the regulated movement of people and goods.

These concessions went far beyond what Afghanistan’s public, with its visceral distrust of and anger at the Pakistani military, was prepared for. As Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai has said, “People in Afghanistan believe that whoever launches attacks on the security forces, kills tribal elders, and burns schools has roots in Pakistan and they view this as an undeclared war.” Ghani needed equal concessions from Pakistan, including military and intelligence operations to blunt the Taliban’s planned spring offensive and put pressure on the group to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.

But the Taliban leadership avoided and delayed answering Pakistan’s request to enter into direct talks with the Afghan government. Its consistent position had been that it would enter into talks with “other Afghans,” including the government, only after completing confidence-building measures with the United States, including the official opening of the political office and the removal of the Taliban from lists like Rewards for Justice. Instead of complying with Pakistan, on April 24th of this year the Taliban announced its largest spring offensive ever, with no apparent opposition from Pakistan. Former President Hamid Karzai called Ghani’s proposed memorandum of understanding on intelligence cooperation with Pakistan “an atrocious betrayal of the people of Afghanistan.” Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif rushed to Kabul on May 12th in an attempt to halt the rapid deterioration of relations.

Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) hastily did what Ambassador Umer Daudzai of Afghanistan had proposed back in 2013: it flew three former Taliban leaders under its control to Urumqi, China, the capital of Xinjiang. The three—Mullah Abdul Jalil, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani, and Mullah Abdul Razaq—had formerly served as deputy minister of foreign affairs, governor of Kandahar, and minister of the interior, respectively, but they had no connections to the Taliban Political Commission and no current influence in the Taliban hierarchy. On May 19th and 20th, with observers from the I.S.I. and China’s Ministry of State Security present, they met a delegation from Kabul. The Taliban were quick to disavow the meeting, posting an official statement on their Web siterejecting “rumors” that a “delegation of Islamic Emirate met with representatives of Kabul administration’s fake peace council in Urumqi city of China.”

Even as the I.S.I. put increasing pressure on the Taliban leadership in Pakistan to meet with the Afghan government, the Taliban’s official Pakistan-based spokesman reasserted, on June 24th, that the political office in Doha “is responsible for handling all the internal and external political activities related to the Islamic Emirate.” But the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, eventually felt the weight of Pakistan’s pressure and authorized senior Taliban leaders to meet with an official Afghan delegation, on July 7th, at the Golf Club, in the resort town of Murree, outside of Islamabad. The Afghan delegation was led by Haji Din Muhammad, a senior member of the High Peace Council. The Taliban present were Mullah Abbas Akhund, who headed the delegation, Abdul Latif Mansur, and Ibrahim Haqqani. Abbas and Latif Mansur were reputed to have belonged to the Taliban’s liaison committee with the I.S.I., while Haqqani represented a part of the Taliban that Admiral Michael Mullen, the American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had called “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency” in Congressional testimony on September 22, 2011. No member of the Taliban political office attended. The meeting was chaired by a Pakistani diplomat, with observers from the top ranks of the I.S.I. and mid-level observers from the U.S. and China.

According to the Afghan and Pakistani governments, the two sides agreed on the need for confidence-building measures, and scheduled another meeting for after Ramadan. China, the U.S., and the U.N. described the meeting as a breakthrough, the first direct meeting between “authorized” delegations of the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban spokesman based in Pakistan did not comment. Instead, the day after the meeting, the Taliban announced that the Political Commission had been granted “full capacity and agency powers” over negotiations. The commission then issued a tweet stating that it alone was authorized for talks, and had not met with representatives of the “Kabul administration.” In an interview with the pro-Taliban Pashto-language Web site Nun.Asia (Asia Today), the commission’s spokesperson, Naim Wardak, said that the Taliban delegates had participated in the talks as “hostages” of Pakistan. On July 9th, an article was published on the Taliban Web site, only to disappear four hours later. “When the dust settles,” it said, “the much hailed talks between Taliban officials and Ghani-administration officials in Islamabad will be revealed as nothing more than Pakistan delivering a few individuals from the Islamic Emirate to speak in their personal capacity.” The Political Office, too, wanted negotiations, but on the Taliban’s terms, and without the involvement of Pakistan.

For the first time the Taliban, founded to end factionalism, were speaking with multiple voices, some manipulated by Pakistan more obviously than ever. Since only the hidden Mullah Omar could settle which was the true voice of the Taliban, the question of his authority became pressing. Some Taliban leaders, notably Akhtar Muhammad Mansur’s rival Zakir, whom he dismissed as military chief in April, 2014, had for years contested Mansur’s claim to lead in the name of Mullah Omar. On July 1st, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had long recognized Mullah Omar as its amir, issued a public statement asserting that Mullah Omar was dead and shifting its allegiance to the Islamic State. On July 23rd a Taliban splinter group, Fidai Mahaz, posted on Facebook that Mullah Omar had been killed by Akhtar Muhammad Mansur and Taliban finance chief Gul Agha Ishaqzai in 2013. Several Afghan researchers and journalists reported that “a majority of Quetta Shura members have demanded that Mansour should take their representatives to meet Mullah Omar,” to quell doubts about whether he is alive and in command; on July 29th, multiple reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan claimed that he died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2013. The Quetta Shura reportedly was meeting to choose a successor, but it is questionable whether any successor, especially one chosen in Pakistan while the leadership is under such pressure from the I.S.I, would be accepted as legitimate.

Amid these controversies, Afghanistan and Pakistan appear to have tussled about the venue of the next meeting. A spokesperson for the Afghan High Peace Council announced that the next round of talks will take place on July 30th or 31st, probably in China, but ultimately Pakistan announced that it will be in Pakistan, on Friday, July 31st. Holding the talks outside Pakistan would make it much more likely that members of the Political Commission would attend, making the Taliban delegation more credible. That might be needed to deliver Ghani’s main objective, some kind of reduction in violence, such as a ceasefire. A ceasefire, even of limited duration, would enable Ghani to show Afghanistan’s war-weary but skeptical population that they will benefit from his concessions. The credibility of the delegation would make less difference if, as many Afghans think, the I.S.I., and not the Taliban leadership, controls Taliban military operations. In that case, Pakistan could deliver a cease-fire itself with the face-saving appearance of an agreement.

The death of Mullah Omar may allow Pakistan to put leaders it controls more fully in charge of the Taliban. It may also cause the Taliban to splinter. Some may stop fighting and enter the system, while others may join even more extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, and fight the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the two governments cannot gain the willing participation of most of the Taliban in the peace process, Kabul may demand that Islamabad use force to shut down whatever part of the Taliban’s military machine it does not control directly. But the Pakistani Army, which is already overstretched by its posture toward India, and by battles against the Pakistani Taliban, Baloch nationalists, and armed gangs in Karachi, will be reluctant to take on a battle-hardened Afghan group, some of whose members it hopes to use as future agents of influence.

These issues may at least temporarily draw the attention of high-level U.S. decision-makers back to Afghanistan, where they will find that they now need to coöperate closely with China. Till now, Washington has seemed stuck in 2009, entirely obsessed with troop numbers and timetables. U.S. mid-level officials have assisted and supported these talks, but at the highest levels the Administration still seems to view a settlement in Afghanistan as an exit strategy from an area where our interest is declining in step with our troop numbers. If the death of Mullah Omar draws high-level attention back to Afghanistan, Washington might realize that it is impossible to execute a “pivot to Asia” without continuing engagement in Afghanistan.


Afghanistan: It’s Not the Taliban — It’s the Islamic State, July 20, 2015
KABUL — Earlier this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani persuaded U.S. President Barack Obama to slow the pace of a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country by citing the need to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban.

But Ghani is now offering a new rationale for keeping American forces in Afghanistan, suggesting that the Islamic State — which has begun to make its presence felt with bombings mainly in the country’s east — poses a potential threat that must be confronted before it spreads.

In recent talks with U.S. military commanders, Ghani has referred to the Islamic State as an emerging danger. And he has tentatively outlined an idea that Afghanistan — with its battle-hardened security forces — could serve as a key long-term partner to stem the Islamic State in the region, American military officers told reporters Sunday.

By invoking the specter of the Islamic State jihadis, Ghani is providing both U.S. military commanders and Republican lawmakers who oppose the troop pullout with fresh political ammunition.

Opponents of the withdrawal have warned that leaving Afghanistan could produce a repeat of the disastrous experience in Iraq, where the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army suffered a humiliating rout at the hands of the Islamic State only a few years after American forces left the country.

Ghani floated the idea of his country serving as a bulwark against the jihadi group when he met with the U.S. military’s top officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who flew to Kabul on Sunday for talks.

“It’s [Ghani’s] view that, ‘Hey, look, I’m a willing partner in an area where you may not have willing partners,’” Dempsey told reporters traveling with him.

Ghani believes Afghanistan could support counterterrorism operations with the United States as part of “a South Asia hub, not just focused on Afghanistan but on the kind of threats that exist elsewhere in the region,” Dempsey said.

The concept was worth exploring, Dempsey said, as it recognized that the Islamic State presented a danger that transcended borders and could only be defeated through a “transregional” network of allies.

President Obama pledged in May last year to bring all 9,800 U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, arguing that Afghan security forces will be ready to stand on their own after a 15-year American military presence.

Obama then agreed in March to slow the pace of the troop drawdown after American commanders and Ghani appealed to the White House for a more flexible timeline.

But Ghani’s latest tack could force the White House to revisit its public explanations for the planned troop exit, which have been focused on the state of Afghan forces and the nature of the threat posed by the Taliban.

Instead of trying to rally support for a war that has been largely forgotten in NATO countries, Ghani’s reference to the menace of the Islamic State plays on the growing fears of Western governments about the daunting challenge presented by the group.

Since his election last year, Ghani has been welcomed with open arms by the Obama administration after years of frustration with his mercurial predecessor, Hamid Karzai. The new president, a U.S.-educated economist who worked at the World Bank, is viewed by Washington as a key figure capable of steering Afghanistan toward a stable future.

The president’s decision to allow the U.S. contingent to remain at nearly 10,000 troops this year was meant to give Ghani some breathing room as he tackled a host of challenges — from widespread corruption to a dysfunction economy — after his inauguration in September.

White House officials have yet to cite the Islamic State’s nascent activity in Afghanistan as a reason to change course, saying that Obama still plans to pull out American forces before the end of his presidency, except for a small contingent of several hundred troops that would be attached to the U.S. embassy.

However, a senior Obama administration official told Foreign Policy that the United States is aware of the presence of “[Islamic State]-affiliated militants in Afghanistan, and we are monitoring closely to see whether their emergence will have a meaningful impact on the threat environment in the region.”

Ghani’s warnings about the Islamic State could open him up to accusations that he is hyping up the security risk merely to obtain an extension of the U.S. military mission. But the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, told reporters at a briefing Sunday that he takes the threat from the jihadis seriously.

Campbell, who advocated successfully along with Ghani for slowing down the tempo of the drawdown several months ago, is due to issue a recommendation to U.S. military leaders and the president about troop levels later this year.

Campbell said he would take Ghani’s views — and the threat posed by the Islamic State — into account as he draws up his assessment. And he raised the possibility that a proposed civilian-led NATO mission now under discussion could require a U.S. military contribution.

Ghani has discussed the security situation and the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan with Obama via video conference, Campbell said.

“He told the president he knows the promises [Obama] made to the American people, and he doesn’t want to violate that, but conditions here have changed,” Campbell said, recounting Ghani’s remarks.

Ghani envisages Afghanistan forging a cooperative military relationship with the United States based on combating regional terrorism threats, Campbell said.

U.S. officials are still struggling to obtain a clear picture of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which is much smaller than the entrenched Taliban insurgency. While concerned about the group’s presence, officials are not yet ready to say the Islamic State has gained a major foothold.

Having seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria last year in brutal campaigns marked by atrocities, the Islamic State announced its presence in Afghanistan in January, and it remains unclear how much of a danger the group poses to the country.

Campbell, echoing the view of U.S. intelligence agencies, said most of the militants declaring allegiance to Islamic State are former Pakistani Taliban insurgents who have “rebranded” themselves after becoming disaffected with the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistani Taliban’s shift in allegiance to the Islamic State comes just as Afghan Taliban leaders entered into a round of peace talks with Kabul this month for the first time. The peace overtures had angered Pakistani Taliban militants, who favor an aggressive campaign of violence against the Afghan government, according to U.S. military officers.

Suicide bombings and other attacks linked to the Islamic State have occurred mainly in the provinces of Nangarhar, Faryab, and Helmand, with fighting breaking out in some cases between the Afghan Taliban and Islamic State militants, Campbell said.

The Islamic State jihadis “are not an existential threat to Afghanistan at this point,” Campbell told reporters. “Could they become that down the road? I don’t know.”

The contingent of U.S. troops still in Afghanistan is primarily focused on advising the country’s security forces and providing logistical help as well as intelligence from surveillance aircraft. About 3,000 U.S. Special Forces and other troops continue to carry out counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and — more recently — Islamic State militants. A U.S. drone strike took out the purported leader of the group in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month.

It remains an open question how the Afghan army and police will fare once American troops depart from the country.

On the battlefield, the Afghans — particularly police units — are suffering heavy losses. Casualties have soared 60 percent compared to last year, with 4,700 killed and 7,800 wounded so far this year, according to figures from the U.S. military.

The Afghan president has said the country’s security forces are holding their own against the Taliban. But starting with a visit to Washington in March, Ghani has voiced growing alarm over the Islamic State, blaming a number of deadly attacks on the group.

Ghani has warned that the jihadis are spreading their tentacles into the country and will only be defeated by a concerted international front.

Speaking to a crowd in April in the northeastern town of Faizabad, Ghani said: “If we don’t stand on the same line united, these people are going to destroy us.”

0, July 17, 2015

The young people sent back to Afghanistan

Many unaccompanied children who have fled Afghanistan and had their asylum claim rejected in the UK are given until they are 18 before being sent back. For the past seven months the BBC has followed some of these young men. They face life in an unfamiliar and dangerous country, write Chris Rogers and Sue Clayton.

Najib makes his way nervously through the streets of Kabul. At 20, he is alone in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

On every corner heavily armed solders guard communities and government buildings. It is a city on the edge – there has been a surge of Taliban attacks in Kabul in recent weeks. “You can see it’s dangerous,” he says as army helicopters fly low across the city skyline, “It is getting worse here. There are bombs and explosions everywhere.”

As an Afghan, you might expect Najib to be used to the Taliban violence, but the city is as strange to him as it would be to any foreigner.

Najib in Kabul

He spent much of his childhood in the UK. Originally from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, when his father and brother went missing his mother arranged for him to be got out of the country by agents. He spent months on the journey including walking through the mountains between Pakistan and Iran.

But Najib was deported by the Home Office back to his country of birth two years ago.

“I don’t belong here, I wasn’t educated here and I don’t know the culture. Britain is my home,” he says in a strong Midlands accent. Najib still sports a hairstyle that wouldn’t be out of place on David Beckham and is wearing a trendy shirt, jeans and trainers.

He couldn’t look more British, but he says that is a problem. “The Taliban attack the West here, people who work for the British government or even people who just come from Britain and America, It is dangerous here.”

He looks on at the hopelessness around him – dozens of war widows are begging for money and food on their knees, while gangs of young Afghan men scrape a living offering their labour on street corners. There is 40% unemployment in a country struggling to recover from an endless war, and Najib wants out.

“I will leave Afghanistan and go to another country as a refugee,” he says. “There is nothing for me here. Even if I get sent back I will just keep trying to leave Afghanistan.”

Najib later jumps on to a bus out of Kabul with just a rucksack of belongings. He is heading to the border and plans to make his way back to Britain with the help of traffickers. It’s the same 4,000-mile journey he made as an 11-year-old boy.

Since 2006, 5,500 unaccompanied Afghan children have reached the UK and claimed asylum. More than 80% of those who claimed persecution by the Taliban had their cases rejected.

The military attend an incident in a Kabul street

But rather than send them straight back, the Home Office offers them a temporary life in Britain, usually with a foster family until the age of 18, when they must leave the country voluntarily or be deported.

The vast majority of the Afghan children who come to the UK are male. Families believe their daughters are too vulnerable to be sent alone on the path to Europe.

Najib spent most of his childhood in Southam near Leamington Spa with foster parent Linda.

“It was wrong to send him back, they are just pawns in a political process,” she sobs as she flicks through an album of photos showing Najib’s first day at the local school and the Christmases and birthdays they shared together. “He is a number so that anybody who wants to get political gain can say, ‘We have sent this many people back’.

“How can they justify sending someone to a country they hardly remember when they have made a life for themselves here?”

A necklace given to Linda by Najib

Another former child asylum seeker placed in Linda’s care faces deportation any day now. Faisal, now 19, can appeal against his deportation, but he is taking no chances after seeing what became of Najib. He has been in the UK since he was 14.

In a tower block several miles from his foster home, Faisal is making a bed on the floor of a friend’s flat. He has gone on the run, moving addresses every few days. “I’m so scared the Home Office are going to pick me up,” he says as he heads out on to the balcony, scouring the streets below. “I check for them every 20 to 30 minutes during the night. Early in the morning I’ll leave and go and sleep somewhere else.”

According to research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Home Office has deported more than 600 failed child asylum seekers to Afghanistan since 2011. Nearly 500 more are earmarked for removal. Yet the government advises its own citizens not to travel to Afghanistan because of the threat of terrorism and kidnapping.

In a statement, the Home Office says it is proud of its history of giving asylum. “Where people establish a genuine need for protection, or a well-founded fear of persecution, refuge will be granted. Every case is carefully considered on its individual merits.”

Refugee campaigners accuse the Home Office of effectively warehousing Afghan children – dismissing their claims of persecution in Afghanistan with the sole intention of deporting them when they become adults – to keep migrant numbers down.

Juliette Wales, of Kent Refugee Network, has tried to help hundreds of young Afghans appeal against their deportation. “It’s tragic to see these kids who believe they are safe, working really hard and going to college, turn 18 years old and turn into the state they turn into, it’s a waste of life.”

Many of the former child asylum seekers we met are convinced they will be killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but their greatest fear is often losing the life they have made for themselves in Britain.

Nasser in his rented room on the outskirts of Kabul

Nasser, 23, says he enjoyed a typical British upbringing in North London for eight years. He had a girlfriend, a network of friends and had completed his studies.

When we found Nasser in a small, dirty, rented room on the outskirts of Kabul, he had been deported just four days before. “I am not happy here. I feel like I am going crazy here. What am I doing here?” he asks, clearly shell-shocked to be back in a city he hasn’t seen since he was 11.

He says that in the chaos of war he lost touch with his family. “What am I going to do here by myself, alone?” he says.

He is terrified and hasn’t left his room since he arrived. “In this country how am I going to make a life? I can’t go outside. I can’t go outside in case of a bomb by the Taliban, and I am scared something is going to happen. This is our life, and it’s not a life.”

The Home Office does not monitor what becomes of deportees once they arrive in Kabul, but human rights campaigners do. According to a study of 200 failed child asylum seekers, they tend to turn to two options – escape Afghanistan by fleeing back to Europe, or escape reality by taking drugs.

Under a notorious bridge on the River Kabul, where a community of around 300 heroin users live in stream of rubbish and sewage, we find 23-year-old Ahmed. He claims he lived in Manchester for eight years – he’s been back in Kabul living with his mother for 18 months.

“This is not a situation I am proud of. Today I promised my mother this would be the last day I take drugs,” he say. But he admits it’s a promise he has made many times.

Community living under the bridge on the River Kabul

“It eases the pain, this is my escape, I had a life in Manchester, but not here. I pray to God to get me out of this situation.”

His thin, dirty face and soulless eyes suggest months of drug abuse, and he’s not ready to quit escaping reality just yet. He waves goodbye as he makes his way back under the bridge for his next hit.

Chris Rogers reports for Our World: Deported to Afghanistan broadcast on the BBC News Channel on 18 and 19 July at 21:30 GMT. It will also be broadcast on BBC World News on 17 July at 23:30 GMT, 18 July 11:30 and 22:30 and 19 July at 17:30. You can catch up via the BBC iPlayer

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Almost 1,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan conflict during the first 4 months of this year

UN News Center, 8 June 2015 – The conflict in Afghanistan is resulting in thousands of people being killed or wounded, forcing families to leave their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring communities, according to Mark Bowden, the UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative in the country.

“As of 30 April, 1,989 Afghans were injured as a result of the conflict and 978 Afghan civilians killed, throughout the country,” Mr. Bowden said on Sunday, noting that the number of wounded at the Emergency Hospital in Kabul illustrates the devastating impact of the conflict.

“The doctors there told me that they are seeing a 50 per cent increase in the number of civilians injured this year compared to the same period last year,” he noted.

Speaking at the Second Independent Media and Civil Society Forum in Kabul, the UN envoy, who is also the deputy head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said the intensifying conflict in 2015 is taxing humanitarian capacities.

“At this period of increased need, it is particularly disturbing to note that humanitarian aid workers are increasingly becoming targets themselves,” he said, while calling attention to the crucial role civil society plays in holding non-state actors accountable for their actions.

“It is through its engagement with the media that civil society can advocate more strongly about the conflict and the resulting humanitarian situation,” he stressed. “The relationship between civil society, media and humanitarian action is strong.”

UNAMA is mandated to support the Afghan Government and relevant international and local non-governmental organizations to assist in the full implementation of the fundamental freedoms and human rights provisions of the Afghan Constitution and international treaties to which Afghanistan is a State party, in particular those regarding the full enjoyment by women of their human rights.


Afghanistan: Progress Reported on Women’s issues in Informal Afghan-Taliban Talks, by Rod Nordland, 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two days of informal talks between Afghan government and Taliban representatives produced a series of agreements that, while not binding, raised the prospect of advancement in Afghanistan’s long deadlocked peace process, judging from a summary of the talks released by the organizers on Monday.

Both sides agreed that the Taliban should open a political office in Doha,Qatar, which would serve as a place where future negotiations might take place; the government of Afghanistan had previously opposed that. Both agreed that the Constitution of Afghanistan was up for discussion; that had once been a so-called red line for the Afghan government.

The Taliban signaled that they might be willing to drop their demand that all foreign troops, such as the residual American and NATO force of 13,000 trainers and counterterrorism troops, would have to be withdrawn before peace talks could take place.

“In general, the peace process should be speeded up!” read a summary of the talks issued by the Pugwash Conferences, the international organization that hosted them in Qatar on Saturday and Sunday. “Some would welcome the possibility of talks between the Taliban and the government.”

The Taliban also joined with Afghan government figures in committing to education for women, which the Taliban had mostly stamped out during their years in power.

“The value of education for both men and women was underlined by everybody,” the Pugwash summary of the talks said. Pugwash, a Nobel Prize-winning organization that promotes world peace, has hosted several conferences involving indirect talks between the Afghan parties, known as “track two” talks.

This was the first one, however, in which the parties seemed willing to publicize their points of agreement.

While everyone involved emphasized that the talks were among individuals and represented their personal opinions, those present included leading figures from the Taliban ranks, as well as important government officials and allies.

In a separate statement, the Taliban denounced the American role in the country and demanded a withdrawal, but did not appear to make that a precondition for peace talks, as they often have in the past.

“Peace cannot be achieved just in talks and slogans,” the Taliban statement, posted on the group’s website, read. “There is a need for determination and good intentions.” They also appeared to dismiss a role for Pakistan in future talks, criticizing “peace talk offers that are usually made to neighboring countries.”

Pakistan has long allowed the Taliban’s senior leadership to take refuge on its side of the border and has been wary of peace overtures that its government does not control.

“Everybody agreed that foreign forces have to leave Afghanistan soon,” the summary of the talks said. But it added, “Some expressed concern that there should be an agreement among Afghan political forces before the departure of the foreign forces.”


Afghanistan Reconstruction: Fact vs. Fantasy

John F. Sopko , Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City , May 5, 2015

Full Speech


For both humanitarian and national-security reasons, the U.S. mission to reconstruct Afghanistan is critical. And with $15 billion currently awaiting disbursement, with billions more to follow, there is both need to improve the effectiveness of the effort, and time to make a difference in the outcome.

We must not kid ourselves about Afghanistan. It will be a long struggle. Defeating a determined insurgency, improving health and education, altering attitudes toward women, reducing corruption, and building governmental competence are not casual, short-term undertakings. Impatience driven by temperament, election cycles, or fiscal-year budgeting can only impede progress.

We can also safely say that the struggle in Afghanistan won’t be shortened, much less won, by official happy talk and cheerleader-style press releases. Improving the likelihood of mission success requires, as a start, accurate, verifiable, and pertinent data-accompanied by a recognition that some key indicators require subjective evaluation by experienced and independent observers in the field. Let me emphasize the independence issue. Poor data and disregard of nonquantitative assessments that is biased by self-interest and turf protection can only lead to unrealistic judgments, unjustified hopes, and outright fantasies with no link to reality.

The 19th-century American humorist Josh Billings said, in the manner of Socrates, “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.”[28] SIGAR’s clinical examination of American reconstruction operations in Afghanistan has persuaded me that we know a lot more than nothing, but a lot less than we think. Budgeting, planning, oversight, course corrections, and decisions to adjust the targets, duration, and intensity of U.S. efforts there all require reliable information. At the moment, that is all too often a scarce commodity and, accordingly, our programs as we go forward may be based more upon fantasy than reality.

SIGAR will press on in the years ahead to carry out its assignment of pinning down facts; calling out fluff, felonies, and fantasies; and recommending improvements. We welcome your interest and support in that mission, as I welcome your comments and questions. Thank you.


Afghanistan: Meet the Afghan Photographers Telling Their Country’s Stories

Original article found on: TIME

Laurence Butet-Roch on May 1, 2015

With the strengthening of Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan in the 1990s, came the end of a long photographic tradition. At the turn of the 20th century, the ruling royal family practiced photography as a hobby, and a serious one at that. Habibullah Khan, the Emir from 1901 to 1919, set up a studio in the palace while organizing competitions and exhibitions. Decades later, box cameras had made their way into the streets, popularizing the postcard-format family portrait. Yet, today, an entire generation is left without pictures of their youth, let alone a visual history of their nation.

“A country without photographs, is a country without identity,” says Najibullah Musafer, a photojournalist who took great risks to document his homeland despite the prohibition. After seeing b-roll from Afghanistan that challenged their perceptions of the war-torn region, Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, two American filmmakers, felt it necessary to connect with storytellers from the area committed to sharing more nuanced accounts of their country. Their curiosity prompted the documentary Frame by Frame.

The cast is composed of photographers that distinguish themselves not only by the compelling nature of their work, but also by their enthralling personalities. Beside wholehearted and wise Musafer, considered the grandfather of modern photojournalism in the country, there’s the trailblazing, industrious and thoughtful Farzana Wahidy, her calm and astute husband Massoud Hossaini, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, and Wakil Kohsar, the soulful up-and-comer.

“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of a movie,” says Wahidy. “At the time, I was trying to keep a low profile, mainly for security reasons and so that I could continue to do my work with as few hurdles as possible. But when I saw that they were going ahead with it, and with three men, I felt it was my duty to be in it.” The documentary makes clear how difficult it can be for her to gain access, especially given that photographing women, which she’s specialized in, remains highly taboo.

As the camera follows the quartet in their daily lives, and as they share stories from their past — the very stories that inform their gaze and shape their voice — a larger layered narrative emerges; that of a disrupted nation.

“Originally, we thought it would be a short film,” says Bombach. “But, as we were conducting the interviews, the complexity of what was happening, of what each photographer was going through, the heaviness of their past and how that affects how they shoot now, it became clear that it needed to be a feature length that would use human narratives to give a much better sense of what’s been going on in the past thirty years.”

Take Kohsar. As he shares memories from his childhood – fleeing Panjshir and seeking refuge in Iran – the plight of Afghan refugees under the Taliban regime comes to light. The footage of him working offers glimpses of issues such as the prevalence of drug addiction and of political disillusion. And, his struggle with an official who suggest that he takes a staged photograph of voters getting their election card – rather than allowing him in – is telling of a country where misinformation is widespread.

“I hope that an audience gets to see what it means to be a storyteller, to be seeking truth when people are putting barriers in front of you, to uphold your responsibility to your craft no matter what’s thrown your way and to seek beauty and justice through photography,” says Scarpelli, who was greatly inspired by how much humanity is bursting from each and every one of the protagonists’ images.

Frame by frame, these four photojournalists, as well as their colleagues, are building an indispensable visual history of these tumultuous times. “Afghanistan is in a very particular and uncertain place right now. Everyone is holding their breath,” says Scarpelli, echoing Hosseini’s worries, expressed in the documentary, that the world might forget Afghanistan again. Frame by frame, the movie reminds us why we should not.

Frame by Frame‘s international premieres is this week at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival.

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

Original article found on: TIME


Afghanistan: Thirty-Two Photos of the New Afghanistan

Original article found on: Global Voices

By: Aaquib Khan on March 3rd, 2015

Indian photo-journalist Aaquib Khan arrived in the rapidly changing Afghan capital Kabul in 2014. He shares some of his pictures and his insights with us in this post. 

Afghanistan is widely seen as a country torn between bullets and religious bullies, a no woman’s land, a pre-modern place where neither young nor old can have hope for a better future. The image in my mind was no different, until I landed in the country’s capital, Kabul last year.

Though much of the Kabul’s imagery conformed to my understanding of the country, there were many other moments that cameras rarely capture. Old and new, traditions and modernity, are locked in a struggle. Afghans, slowly and steadily, seem to be the winners.

Kabul is a place of hope, aspiration, warmth and hospitality, all of which shine through when Afghans saw my blue passport. ”Oh, you are Indian? I love Indian movies!”

Posters of Indian film stars decorate the country’s music shops. There is a mall named after Delhi’s famous Select City Walk. Alumni of Indian universities in the metropolises as well as small Indian towns bump into you on the fringes of crowded market places.

Afghanistan is far from monolithic. Walking beside burqa-clad women are schoolgirls strolling to school. Young women on their way to university, while CDs and DVDs of Bollywood and Hollywood movies can be heard playing in the background, a far cry from the blanket bans on entertainment of the Taliban period. In the land where the Taliban brought down the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan, mannequins in Kabul’s shop windows don extravagant bridal wears.

Then there are the competing mobile service provider advertisements, FM Radio stations, 24-hour TV Channels, numerous talk shows discussing women’s rights. There are hookah bars, where hookah and coffee is served. No women or alcohol, but plenty of young men dancing to loud music.

Vehicles honk past you and leave you in a trail of dust. Afghans complain of increasing pollution in Kabul. Security personnel man the streets, helicopters hover over pedestrians.

Amid the exuberance, there is apprehension: what will happen when the remnants of the US army finally withdraw? But young Afghans believe their country is gathering strength after decades of weakness and division.

They shout a slogan which translates as: “One Afghanistan. No Tajik, No Hazara, No Pashtun”.

Original article found on: Global Voices


Afghanistan: Teach Men that Education is not a Threat

Original article found on: Skoll World Forum

By: SAKENA YACOOBIFounder & CEO, Afghan Institute of Learning

December 26, 2014


Many in the international development community focus on the education of women and girls, sometimes to the exclusion of educating men. While I believe it is vital to educate women and girls, I also believe it is a mistake to leave men out of the process.

My father was a successful businessman, well respected in the community. Though he was illiterate, he insisted that his children attend school. As the eldest child, I began learning to read at a local mosque. Soon, I was attending school.

I loved learning. After high school, I had the opportunity to attend a university in the United States, and my father was my biggest supporter. Though he was not what most people would think of as “educated”, he was knowledgeable, wise, very open-minded, and a just and honest man; because of this he was often chosen to mediate disputes.

After completing my studies in the U.S., I returned to work with my people in the Pakistan refugee camps. I found my people struggling with a lack of education, knowledge, wisdom and open-mindedness. Years of war had devastated our culture and torn apart the education and health systems, leaving people unable to adequately care for themselves and their families. The only thing they knew was survival and war.

Helping Afghans improve their lives through education

Working with refugee camp leaders, we began to train teachers and establish schools for boys and girls. I founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) and began supporting secret home schools for girls inside Afghanistan. Once the Taliban fell, we were able to operate openly and began working closely with communities to establish Learning Centers for women and older girls.

Our goal is to help Afghans improve their lives. In our schools and centers, students not only study the established curriculum, they also learn critical thinking skills, open-mindedness, wisdom and ethics – all qualities that my father, an “uneducated” man, had in abundance.

My father’s insistence on education forever changed the course of my life, and so I believe that a well-rounded education is the best way to improve people’s lives and to make lasting change for everyone – women, girls, men, boys, young, old. Educated, wise women help their families financially and raise educated, wise children. Educated, wise men do not abuse women or children and recognize the worth and value of women and children.

Boys demand education too

Let me tell you a story. One day in early 2002, I went with my female staff to visit one of our Women’s Learning Centers in rural Kabul. Suddenly a group of teenage boys with weapons appeared, blocking the road.

Our driver stopped the car and asked what they wanted. Pointing to me, they said, “We want to talk to her.” Although my heart was pounding, I opened the door, got out of the car and asked them what they wanted. Their leader said, “Every day we watch your car come and visit your centers for women and girls. They are learning to read. What about us? We have been fighting and living in caves since we were little boys. Now we are too old for school, but we want to study. What can you do for us?”
At the time, we only had funding for females, and I had no idea where to find funding for boys education, but I said, “Give me a week.” They said, “We will be waiting.”

I went back to my room, praying and wondering what to do. Suddenly my phone rang. It was a donor who was very supportive of our work. Listening to my voice, she asked, “What is wrong?” I told her. She said, “Start your center for boys. I will find the funds.”

And she did. Those boys went to school, studied hard and also learned about human rights, cleanliness, manners and ethics. Their parents were so happy! Soon they were able to transition into regular school.
All graduated from high school. Many went on to university or to study computers. Then and now, they have made sure that AIL has no security concerns in their communities. Today their daughters are going to school.

Open minds will make lasting change

There are those in Afghanistan who do not want women and girls to be educated. If we are to make lasting change, we need to open the minds of all who are still ignorant. They need to see that an educated girl or boy is not a threat to their culture, but is someone who will help to improve the whole community.

The women who come to our centers feel the same way. Men and boys need to be educated, not ignored. They need to be included in workshops and seminars with women and girls so that they can listen and exchange ideas and know that education is not a threat to them but is something that improves the lives of everyone.

Original article found on: Skoll World Forum


On the Media, Afghanistan: Reporting open data in Afghanistan

Original article found on:

By: Catalina Albeanu; February 18, 2015

Credit: By Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Credit: By Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“A lone man data journalist is not very tenable anywhere, let alone in some developing countries and conflict environments.”

So says data journalism adviser Eva Constantaras, who has been running data journalism workshops for local media in countries such as Afghanistan, as part of her work with the NGO Internews.

One project developed after Internews’ workshops is an investigation into Afghanistan’s drug trade by Rohullah Armaan Darwish, an investigative reporter at PAYK.

The first story in the series, looking at the country’s opium eradication programme, was published last week.

Constantaras told part of Internews’ aim is helping media outlets in developing countries make the most of open data movements and platforms that are being set up, and also prepare for digital conversion.

She said the combination of low data literacy and an independent media landscape that’s not fully established yet means citizens in countries like Afghanistan are not demanding data driven stories from news outlets.

The workshops in Afghanistan were set up with the aim of getting journalists “more engaged in the accountability and transparency process,” and to showcase tools they can use to tell stories with data.

Internews works with journalists who want to explore subjects in-depth and who usually have a history in feature writing or investigations, said Constantaras.

She added that the best data journalists aren’t necessarily those who “are very good at math”.

“Really they might have never heard of data journalism but they’re already looking for the tools for actual quantifiable information about a sector or about a subject,” she explained.

Constantaras highlighted the language barrier as one of the main challenges journalists in Afghanistan face when working with data. There is a “crazy level of linguistic isolation,” she said.

“I’m not talking about they can’t code in Python. [With] most tools, the menus are in English. Even if the data is about Afghanistan, the data is still in English.”

Even if the data is about Afghanistan, the data is still in English
Eva Constantaras, Internews
She explained that even in the case of survey data where the questions were asked in the local language, the results are often translated into English before publication.

As most Afghani journalists do not speak English, she said, tools highlighted during the workshops include Infogram and Excel, whose menus are available in local languages, while Google Translate features heavily in their work.

Most data scraping programmes are also designed to work in English, she added.

While investigative or data-driven stories are published from Afghanistan, they are more likely to appear in English, targeted at an international audience.

But stories such as the drug trade investigative series address angles that would interest an Afghan audience, said Constantaras.

They are also designed to present a story in an accessible format – usually in print or on the radio, she explained.

She added that quality data-driven stories increase a media outlet’s credibility and reputation.

“Open data is a really new concept in Afghanistan. Can we channel that through trusted information channels, so through radio and some print [outlets] in Kabul, and have people access that information and make better decisions and be more aware of what the government is doing?”

While the workshops run by Internews cover tools like Infogram, which enables users to embed interactive graphics into online stories, Constantaras said reporters often save their data visualisations as static images to be published in print.

“That’s how people are consuming their news,” she said.

“[But] we also want them also to know how to make interactive data visualisations. It will just make them more competitive when digital conversion does happen.”

Original article found on:


On the Media, Afghanistan: Violence, threats and insecurity – The challenges of reporting in Afghanistan

Original article found on: IFEX
By Alexandra Theodorakidis
5 December 2014
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
This statement was originally published on on 1 December 2014.


Violence against journalists in Afghanistan has been steadily increasing in 2014 with the withdrawal of foreign troops and a decrease in international aid. Five journalists were killed in the first four months of 2014. As control over Afghanistan’s national security transfers from international to Afghan forces and peace talks continue with the Taliban, there has been some uncertainty as to what will happen to the media and free expression in the country, especially as it underwent presidential elections.

CJFE’s 2014 Tara Singh Hayer Award winner Kathy Gannon was one journalist caught in the crossfire. She and her longtime friend and work partner, photographer Anja Niedringhaus, were covering the run-up to the elections in April 2014 when an Afghan police officer suddenly opened fire into the back of their vehicle. Niedringhaus was killed instantly, while Gannon was severely injured.

The latest upsurge in violence against journalists follows a short period of opening and development in the media. Pre-9/11 Afghanistan under Taliban rule had restricted access to independent media, both local and international. There was one Taliban-controlled radio station, used for state announcements and religious proclamations. Things began to change after the US invasion of Afghanistan that saw control lifted from the Taliban and transferred to an ostensibly more democratic system. In 2014, there are “175 FM radio stations, 75 TV channels, four news agencies, and hundreds of publications, including seven daily newspapers, Internet cafés in major cities and mobile phones in the hands of about half the population of 29 million people.”

While Afghan journalists have made great strides in establishing media outlets and providing Afghans with comprehensive coverage of local and national events in recent years, there are still many challenges being faced by local and foreign journalists alike, namely, harassment, threats and lack of support from government authorities.

Afghanistan currently ranks sixth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Global Impunity Index. According to CPJ, fatalities are higher among foreign journalists than local journalists. Many Afghan journalists have been specifically targeted, kidnapped or intimidated by the Taliban, local warlords and on occasion by Afghan government or security officials. The situation is particularly bad if they are associated with Western media, which is being increasingly smeared by the Taliban and similar armed groups. Nai, a non-profit organization supporting open media in Afghanistan, reports 52 incidents of violence against journalists so far this year.

British-Swedish journalist Nils Horner was killed in March 2014, targeted while reporting on a suicide bombing that had occurred earlier in the year in Kabul. A Taliban-splinter group claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that Horner was not a journalist but a spy working for MI6. However, there is no concrete evidence that this group actually carried out the murder. Cilla Benkö, the director general of Horner’s employer Swedish Radio, said that Afghan authorities have not been very active in seeking the actual perpetrators of this crime, likely because Horner was a foreign correspondent.

Journalists not only face threats and attacks from terrorists but also intransigence from government officials who are uncooperative and withhold access to information. Authorities have been known to make threats in order to deter journalists from pursuing a story. The situation is even worse for women who are still largely underrepresented in the Afghan media.

According to a female journalist who heads a radio station in Balkh province, being a female journalist is particularly challenging. They face sexual harassment and threats from officials, strangers and sometimes even family members. Cultural constraints on women in Afghanistan often restrict them to work inside the office, instead of venturing out to do field work. In many places in Afghanistan, the idea of women undertaking public roles and working is considered taboo. Additionally, there is pressure on women working in the media from family elders to quit their jobs in order to avoid wider repercussions for the entire family, or because they view the career as unseemly. Lack of training and resources for women in the media is also a serious issue.

In September 2014, Palwasha Tokhi Meranzai, a female Afghan journalist, was killed inside her home by an unknown assailant. She had received a death threat relating to her reporting about a month before her murder; despite evidence that the motive was tied to her profession, Afghan security services persist in treating it as a robbery.

Since early 2013, press freedom organizations have noted a decrease in the number of women currently working as journalists in Afghanistan due to the culture of fear created by religious militants such as the Taliban and related organizations. Shaffiqa Habibi, director of the Afghan Women Journalist Union, told CPJ in 2013 that she estimated that 300 of the 2,300 professional female journalists had stopped working out of fear for their personal safety.

While there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of a free press in Afghanistan and the safety of journalists working in the country, many are taking steps to ensure they will be safe in their work. In August, 20 female journalists in the northern province of Jawjzan formed the first union of female journalists in Afghanistan. The union aims to promote women’s rights in the region and provide training and support specifically geared to women in the field. Similar unions have been established in other provinces across the country.

There is also evidence that the current Afghan government might be softening towards journalists; a New York Times correspondent, expelled from Afghanistan earlier in 2014 over a story he wrote on the presidential elections, was recently allowed to re-enter the country. Matthew Rosenberg was told to leave Afghanistan by the administration of former President Hamid Karzai after he penned an article stating that a group of government officials had formed an interim government in the hopes of seizing power during the election’s stalemate.

On October 5, Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai, an adviser to newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, said in a statement that if a journalist has a credible source for a story, they should be allowed to write it, as per the law. Although there has been a spike in violence over the last year towards journalists working in Afghanistan, there remains cause for optimism that the country can continue to develop a strong independent press. If the current government continues its commitment to protecting the rights of journalists and freedom of the media, Afghans may be able to avoid returning to the oppression and censorship they experienced under Taliban rule.

Alexandra Theodorakidis is a former CJFE intern and current freelance journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @AlexandraTheo.

Original article found on: IFEX

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