A couple follow-up points on last week’s post. First, the decision to postpone the presidential elections until August seems to be gaining legitimacy, at least if the coverage in local Afghan papers is any guide. (Most of these aren’t published online in English, except for a few like the Daily Afghanistan. But UNAMA does a great job aggregating the headlines, though unfortunately not the stories themselves.) Karzai has apparently been reaching out to elders of various ethnic groups for approval and creating some kind of a consensus. The new battleground is the role of the media in the campaign, which I quoted Ashraf Ghani worrying about last week. Karzai has apparently been delaying a law that would make RTA (the state broadcasting agency) independent of the Ministry of Information and Culture. The administration defends itself by pointing out that the law has been sent to the Supreme Court for review–apparently there’s a troublesome “national security” clause–but Reuters makes it sound like journalists are strongly behind the law. Combine that with this disturbing story from Reporters Without Borders about two TV reporters arrested for “anti-Islamic” programming–a media worker was sentenced to death last year for a similar offense–and you get a sense of the situation. That’s a big reason why Ghani claims that “600,000 to 800,000 votes will be stolen”. (Speaking of Ghani, he was interviewed on NPR this week. He chastises Karzai and Bush for allowing corruption to run rampant and failing to promote civil society.)
Second, the backlash against the Shia Family Law continues unabated. Shortly after I posted last week’s summary, Karzai announced that the law would be “reviewed” to make sure it doesn’t contravene Sharia or the Afghan constitution; Karzai has also suggested that the uproar stems from a poor English translation of the law. Shinkai Karokhail, the female MP who has been fighting the law for months, isn’t buying that line and accuses Karzai of signing the law for political gain; she and other human rights activists worry that the “review” is a delaying tactic designed to let U.S. and NATO furor blow over. Meanwhile, Mohammad Asif Mohseni, the Shia cleric who pushed the law, plays the victimhood card and accuses Western critics of “cultural invasion” and rejects the idea of a review. Mohseni, of course, more or less ignores the domestic critics of the law like Karokhail and Human Rights Commission chairwoman Dr. Sima Samar.
Two stories that didn’t get a lot of play in the West were front page news all over Afghanistan this week. About 45 Afghans suffocated to death in an airtight shipping container on the way from Chaman to the Iranian border. Amazingly, several survived, and there are some terrible testimonials. (On a smaller but still appalling scale, an Afghan man fell to his death trying to escape from a Hungarian refugee camp; 27 other refugees are on hunger strike in an attempt to avoid being transferred to a Greek camp where conditions are apparently abysmal.)
The second story concerns the killing of four Afghan civilians in a U.S. raid in Khost. A fifth woman was also shot and her unborn child killed in her womb. The coalition forces again damaged their credibility by claiming that the victims were “armed militants” and having to backtract in a press release. Several of the dead were relatives of a high-ranking official in the ANA. Karzai condemned the raids, of course, but Afghan Ambassador Said Jawad is surprisingly dismissive, claiming “If there is a proper apology…I think the people understand.”
It’s not clear what American policy is in these situations; Secretary Gates has stressed the “first-apologize-then-investigate” approach, and the apology was indeed quick in coming this time. Joshua Foust is critical, arguing that this tactic saps coalition operations of legitimacy and that apologies won’t suffice to make night raids or airstrikes more popular. Instead, Foust cites the recent operation in the Alasay Valley–in which French troops set up a “combat outpost” and focused on humanitarian work, tribal outreach, and logistical support for the ANA–as a model campaign. Foust claims that this military success, rather than negotiations, induced some “persuadable Taliban” to give up the fight. If that’s the case, this story about Richard Holbrooke’s deputy contacting an envoy of Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar doesn’t seem like a hopeful sign–it certainly indicates desperation rather than success, which Foust believes must precede negotiation.
In domestic news, President Obama submitted his $83.4 billion dollar war supplemental to Congress; $7 billion of that goes to State and USAID and the rest to Defense. $1.6 billion of this will fund the “civilian surge” that I mentioned two weeks ago, and $1.4 billion to Pakistan. Speaking of Pakistan, P.M. Gilani and Ambassador Husain Haqqani are unhappy with the new conditions placed on American aid to Pakistan. Haqqani has a difficult job; he has to put the best spin possible on each successive militant advance in the FATA and the NWFP, like this week’s raid on Buner.
The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office releases some seriously disturbing figures, claiming that attacks on NGOs are up 95% this year and that the February-March attack increase was the largest recorded one-month jump. 33 aid workers died in Afghanistan in 2008, still 12 fewer than in Somalia.