This week’s review starts with a story that sounds like something out of…well, like something out of last week’s review. On Monday, villagers in Kunar claimed that a NATO airstrike had killed six civilians; on Thursday, NATO acknowledged the deaths but maintained that the attack also killed four insurgents. General McKiernan expressed his regrets, though that’s very little consolation; Abu Muqawama is frustrated and calls this “the kind of thing that’s going to lose us the war”. (That’s doubly true in Pakistan, where the government claims that unmanned air strikes kill about forty civilians for every militant.)
There were a few curious signals from Iran this week. First, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki claims to be developing some kind of plan to deal with the “Afghan crisis”, though he offered absolutely no details; Iran has also apparently offered to help train Afghan police to combat drug smuggling, but I think that’s unrelated to Mottaki’s announcement. Second, Motohide Yoshikawa, Japan’s equivalent to Richard Holbrooke, suggested that Iran wil have a role in helping to stabilize Pakistan. (Japan’s ambassador to the U.S. is visiting Yale this week; I’d like to ask him about Iran and Pakistan if I get the chance.) Both of these events took place at a conference in Tokyo where Pakistan’s donors and allies hashed out regional issues. Meanwhile, those benchmarks for American aid to Pakistan that I mentioned a few weeks back don’t seem to be forthcoming; it’s not clear how the United States is actually going to coerce Pakistan through conditionality. Just this week, President Zardari signed a bill effectively ratifying Taliban control over the Swat Valley, a development that did not go unnoticed in the Afghan press. Swat is now an effective rest stop for the Taliban, which will only make attacks–like this raid on NATO container trucks–easier and supply lines more vulnerable.
A couple developments in the presidential election this week, some symbolic and some substantive. First, Ummat, a Karachi-based daily, has a vaguely worded story claiming that the United States is trying to broker a deal that will help a preferred candidate, Ali Ahmad Jalali, defeat Karzai; his competitors would then be rewarded with ministerial positions. I report this not because it’s true or even necessarily plausible, but because it was picked up by several Afghan dailies and seems to epitomize the difficulties of conducting a legitimate election under the present circumstances. On Wednesday, for example, the Arman-e-Milli daily editorialized against non-citizen candidates (presumably a swipe at Jalali, who is an American citizen); on Tuesday, the Weesa Daily criticized the deputy U.S. ambassador for allowing presidential candidates to hold meetings at the embassy. Laura Rozen reports that while the Americans are merely trying to “level the playing field” rather than back an anti-Karzai candidate, Afghans may not see things the same way:
“The U.S. wants it to be a wide open election,” a former U.S. official knowledgeable about South Asia said. “But whenever they have told some would-be candidate, ‘Yes, you should run,’ the person interprets that as backing. People are busily running around saying, ‘Holbrooke has given me backing,’ when that’s not the case.”
That encapsulates the difficulty nicely.
In other election news, Dr. Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former foreign minister, will be the opposition National Front’s candidate for the presidency; I had reported this a couple weeks back but it apparently wasn’t official then. Abdullah was one of several candidates, including Ashraf Ghani and current finance minister Anwar ul Haq, who met with American officials to criticize Karzai’s use of state capacity to promote his candidacy. The Front isn’t united behind Abdullah, however; former Vice President Qaseem Fahim is dissenting, and current VP Ahmed Zia Massoud is apparently neutral. Basically, this is a very fragile coalition and it’s not clear how united the opposition will actually be. Meanwhile, two Hazara parties have agreed to support a common candidate, but it’s not clear whom just yet; the Hazaristan Times speculates that party leaders are holding out for a possible Zalmay Khalilzad candidacy.
Finally, the Shia Family Law continues to dominate American and British coverage of Afghanistan this week. The protests and counterprotests in Kabul were front page news, and prominent critics are coming out of the woodwork; Afghanistan’s only female governor, Habiba Sarobi of Bamiyan (profiled here by EurasiaNet) has been vocal, and Foreign Minister Rangin Spanta has drafted a petition against the law. Ayatollah Mohseni (profiled here in The Guardian–worth reading the whole thing) shows no signs of toning down his rhetoric, tossing gems like this one:
“If a woman says no, the man has the right not to feed her.”
That quote explains the difference between Mohseni and the Taliban; Mohseni is arguing that a woman who does not wish to have sex with her husband could work to support herself–a practical impossibility in much of the country, but something the Taliban would not have countenanced. In better news for women’s rights and the rule of law, Afghan police have arrested two men in conncection with the killing of Sitara Achakzai, a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council. Achakzai had organized peace protests for International Women’s Day earlier in the year.
Miscellaneous links and news:
Earthquakes hit Nangarhar province this week, killing at least 21. It seems like aid distribution isn’t really set up for a situation like this and has been slow in arriving.
UNAMA is still pushing for polio vaccination; Taliban continue to insist charmingly that they aren’t “necessarily opposed” to vaccination.
More coverage of the Wardak experiment in the Times and the Journal. Both pieces detail the negotiations between the military and Pashtun elders, who have been subjected to a barrage of threats and promises from the Taliban. The Christian Science Monitor adds that this situation is creating a worrying dynamic of ethnic conflict, since Pashtuns are underrepresented on the “Afghan Public Protection Force”.
The Afghan cricket team’s Cinderella run ended with a loss to Canada. This has been headline news in various Afghan outlets all month, but I havent been reporting it because I don’t understand cricket and am not even sure what they’re competing for.
An incredibly depressing story about the plight of Afghan addicts from NPR. It’s terrible to be an addict anywhere, of course, but imagine being a woman whose husband won’t let her leave the house for treatment.