Week in Review, 4/19-4/25

The disturbing news out of Pakistan sucked up the media air devoted to “Af-Pak” this week, but I’m purposely avoiding writing about developments on that side of the border. If you missed it, the Taliban seized and subsequently withdrew from Buner, prompting some harsh rhetoric from Sec. Clinton and others questioning the Pakistani government’s will to crack down. Part of the frustration has to do with Pakistan’s apparent unwillingness to divert resources from the Indian border to deal with the threat from the Taliban.

Ahmed Rashid has a great column on the subject for the BBC here, which includes this chilling claim:

And despite US President Barack Obama’s plan to deepen the commitment to stabilise Afghanistan, the army insists that the Americans will soon leave Afghanistan and that Pakistan must be ready with a response to help install a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul. That rationale is also motivated by India’s friendship with the present Afghan government.

The Afghan government was apparently happy with Clinton’s tough talk, but it’s not clear what the consequences will be for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

Turning away from Pakistan, candidate registration for the Afghan presidential election officially began today. There are forty-three potential candidates, so get excited!

Of those forty-three, Ashraf Ghani has by far the most western media exposure; here he is giving an interview to Reuters. Ghani has just written a report on Afghanistan for the Atlantic Council in which he proposes a ten-year framework for the country. The most intriguing suggestions are his proposal to use the country’s eight most secure provinces as showcases of democracy and “laboratories for reforms”, and his proposal to expand the National Solidarity Program, which is a kind of project-based community mobilization program.

The “laboratories” idea strikes me as interesting in light of the debate about aid distribution; some, such as Bamiyan governor Habiba Sarobi and Mohammad Tahir of AOP, have argued that aid channeled to stable provinces (like Hazara-majority Bamiyan) will do more good in the long run than aid to insurgent strongholds. Echoing Ghani, Tahir says: “If [people in other provinces] see Bamiyan prospering, they too will want their areas to prosper and perhaps they will finally stop their support of the Taliban.” That’s more or less what Ghani argues, except he’s concerned with democracy rather than development. Ghani’s whole report is available here.

Of course, Karzai remains the clear favorite to win reelection and his position seems to be strengthening weekly; as I mentioned last week, former defense minister Qasim Fahim, a founding member of the opposition National Front, announced his support for Karzai. (Kabul Weekly speculates–I don’t know on what grounds–that Fahim will be offered a VP slot and then disqualified on technical grounds as a sneaky double-betrayal by Karzai.)

Stories about technical difficulties plaguing the election should start to crop up faster and faster in the coming months. This week, the Electoral Commission set up some basic standards for candidacy–10,000 signatures and Afghan nationality, which means that Zalmay Khalilzad has about two weeks to abjure his American citizenship if he’s going to run. Already, though, the Independent Human Rights Commission is warning that there’s no reliable mechanism to keep warlords or human rights-abusers–nominally excluded by the constitution–from running. This quote caught my eye:

“There is a false belief in the international community — if they touch the justice issue then this fragile peace will be challenged as well. Surveys and studies have showed that in Afghanistan it’s actually the other way round,” he said. “People talk about justice and good governance as a means to promote peace. The Taliban are finding their way in the villages and provinces because people are disillusioned with the government officials,” he said.

That sounds plausible to me, though I wish I knew which “surveys and studies” he had in mind. It’s also hard to imagine that the IEC will be able to enforce some of the other electoral laws–such as the rule that campaigning isn’t actually allowed until the month before the election.

Two developments worth noting on the American side this week. First, the Times had an article about snags in the “civilian surge“–namely, a lack of willing and able civilians to serve in “small-business management, legal affairs, veterinary medicine, public sanitation, counter-narcotics efforts and air traffic control.”

…[S[enior Pentagon and administration officials now acknowledge that many of those new positions would be filled by military personnel — in particular reservists, whose civilian jobs give them required expertise — and by contractors.

Joshua Foust is frustrated and sees this as a crippling case of military overreach at a time when our forces have less and less control over large areas of the country.

The second piece of news is Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy’s announcement that the United States will collaborate more closely with the Afghan military to avoid civilian casualties. Flournoy claims that this will include sharing “sensitive” information; I don’t know if this will actually come to anything or if it’s really just a part of the extended process of acknowledging for our last few screw-ups. On the bright side, though, I’m not writing about a botched NATO missile strike for the first time in several weeks.

Miscellaneous news and links:

The Globe and Mail has a fascinating story about the internet tactics presidential candidates are using to reach out to young Afghans–in conscious imitation of Obama. Apparently Ramazan Bashardost is calling himself “Afghanistan’s Obama” now.

Band-e-Amir will be Afghanistan’s first national park. It is, indeed, very beautiful.

The BBC has an article about the war’s influence on Pashtun poetry.

Karzai and Zidari will be in Washington on May 6-7; Obama will attempt to mediate a new trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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