Week in Review, 4/26-5/2

As I mentioned last week, Presidents Karzai, Zardari, and Obama will be meeting in Washington this Wednesday and Thursday. Clinton and Gibbs promise “intense” talks, but it’s not clear–to me anyway–what the outcome will be. A common strategy? A joint statement? Presumably, the tense question of the gathering will be: just how committed is Pakistan to halting the Taliban’s advance? Afghan Ambassador Said Jawad broached that question this week when he accused the Pakistani military of being intransigent and uncooperative. I don’t know how much credence to put in this poll‘s finding that Pakistanis see the American presence in Afghanistan as a greater threat than either Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but that would seem to suggest it’s not just a military issue. At Registan, Joshua Foust often suggests something similar–while disclaiming alarmist rhetoric about Al Qaeda getting its hands on the nuclear arsenal. According to Foust, the tendency to view the Taliban through the lens of the recent past (the Musharraf era) leads moderate Pakistanis to underrate the threat. That’s not to say that civilian government in Pakistan isn’t under threat, even if there’s no imminent danger of Qaedistan: Fox reports that General Petraeus is privately claiming that the next two weeks will be a test of the civilian government’s viability.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Mahmood Qureshi, was in Kabul this week to discuss the talks’ agenda. Those talks apparently addressed “common challenges” like narcotics, insurgents, etc.; at the same time, policymakers in the U.S. and abroad continue to debate whether talking about “Af-Pak” as one entity makes much sense. Pakistani P.M. Gilani says no, pointing to the countries’ “distinct political traditions”; British P.M. Gordon Brown says yes, releasing a new Af-Pak strategy on the model of Obama’s.

Meanwhile, whether or not Af-Pak exists in a meaningful sense, it continues to pose problems; five coalition troops were killed in an attack on Kunar this week, the deadliest attack since last August. No one expects the volume and scale of attacks to do anything but increase. The Taliban are promising a bloody summer offensive, and the massive casualties they’ve apparently begun to sustain make it seem like they’ll make good on the threat.

The other big schism in informed opinion about Afghanistan–aside from the Pakistan question–is what to do about opium. This piece from EurasiaNet illustrates the dilemma nicely: Balkh province, which eliminated opium production two years ago, is now relatively stable but desperately poor. The piece focuses on the tendency of NGOs and aid donors to focus resources on conflict-torn areas–something I talked about last week–but the opium angle is also relevant. The British in Helmand are going to focus on opium eradication, according to the Times of London, rather than only engaging in eradication incidentally in pursuit of other objectives; Dexter Filkins reports that the Pentagon is moving in the same direction.

There are several questions here: is opium as important a source of Taliban funding as we’ve been led to believe? And what will replace opium’s huge role in the economy of rural Afghanistan? “$200 million for infrastructure improvements” won’t cut it. Finally, where does the opium crackdown leave population-centric counterinsurgency? Or, for that matter, the “civilian surge“?

Turning to domestic news, Karzai has done an inelegant less-than-a-180 on the Shia Family Law, claiming he wasn’t aware of the ramifications when he signed it and promising to amend it. The backlash has continued apace among clerics and some Hazara MPs; the Belfast Telegraph cites several expressing surprise at the ferocity of the reaction to the law in light of its relatively uncontroversial passage.

Finally, since candidate registration is still ongoing, election news continues to unfold faster than I can blog it. The two big developments: Karzai will run for reelection (no surprise), and Gul Agha Sherzai will not. His withdrawal came on the heels of the announcement that Ahmed Zia Massoud, first V.P. of Afghanistan, would be supporting his candidacy. Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar, had been assumed to be one of the preferred candidates of the United States–the kind of guy people who want the U.S. to find the right Pashtun strongman would turn to. So I’m no fan of Sherzai, but with his withdrawal Karzai’s road to reelection is that much easier.

Miscellaneous news and links:

Joshua Foust mocks Robert Kaplan’s half-baked geopolitical analysis of the history of Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The Institute for War And Peace Reporting on the “part-time” Taliban; the part-timers earn pocket money and the Taliban avoid risking seasoned fighters in skirmishes.

This is a great idea; Afghan Lessons Learned, a blog (by troops) for troops being deployed to Afghanistan. Everything from history (“If you think of Afghanistan as an individual, this would be a person who has suffered repeated blows to the head and suffers from TBI and PTSD”) to culture (“Do not confuse illiteracy with stupidity”) and basics (“Bring bar soap”).

Obama and Gates oppose putting Afghanistan benchmarks in the war supplemental; still not clear when we’ll see any benchmarks or what they’ll look like. They’ll have to be “flexible“, apparently.

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