While Americans commemorate the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Afghans mark an eight-year anniversary of their own: the death of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir”, who was assassinated on September 9, 2001. The anti-Soviet fighter and former defense minister’s legacy was celebrated with a ceremony in Kabul and observances across the country. I can’t help thinking that the timing could have worked out better for Hamid Karzai, who is currently contesting the results of an election against Massoud’s friend and adviser Dr. Abdullah.
More about that election in a second, but I wanted to note the death of another of Massoud’s old associates: journalist Sultan Munadi, who was once the ICRC’s liaison to Massoud’s Northern Alliance. Munadi was taken captive by the Taliban last Saturday while serving as a translator New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, and killed (along with one British commando) in Wednesday’s raid that freed Farrell. Other Times reporters remember Munadi fondly here; one notes that the invariable media reference to him as a “translator” is misleading, since he was an accomplished journalist in his own right. Munadi had previously left the Times to start his own radio station, and the tributes make him sound like exactly the kind of talented, energetic believer in a free press that Afghanistan desperately needs . The rescue that led to Munadi’s death was approved by the British foreign and defense secretaries on the news that the Taliban planned to transfer the two to Pakistan. That last article also has Farrell’s grim account of the captors’ treatment of Munadi, whom they taunted with the example of an Afghan translator who was beheaded by insurgents before the Western reporter he was accompanying went free; that history isn’t lost on other Afghan journalists, many of whom are furious that the raid was carried out–and doubly furious that Munadi’s body was apparently left at the scene for his family to collect.
The BBC quotes an Afghan public radio editor as calling the raid the ” most shocking event to date involving the international forces”; while his anger is understandable, that description seems especially hyperbolic in the wake of ISAF’s recent airstrike on two captured fuel trucks in Kunduz–the incident Farrell and Munadi were investigating–which killed 125 Afghans according to a NATO fact-finding team. The strike was ordered by a German colonel, Georg Klein, apparently out of fear that the tankers could be used in an attack on the Provincial Reconstruction Team or the police station; the decision was guided by footage from an American F-15 and information from an Afghan informant. The German military and Minister of Defense initially claimed that all those killed were insurgents, but now acknowledge that civilians were also killed–possibly civilians conscripted by the Taliban to help offload fuel from the trucks, which were stuck in a river. NATO’s investigation indicated two dozen civilian casualties; the official dispatched by Karzai claimed that 82 people had been killed, including 45 militants; Afghanistan Rights Monitor, an NGO, spoke of “60-70 non-combatants” killed. The Taliban also released their own list of 79 civilians they claim died in the blast.
The airstrike contravened the spirit, if not the letter, of General McChrystal’s new guidelines for ISAF operations, which mandate that airstrikes in residential areas be based on information from more than one informant; the tankers were not in a residential area, but were apparently close enough to one that the Taliban could fetch villagers. McChrystal seems to have learned some lessons about how to defuse the reaction to this kind of event, though; he recorded a video message for Afghan news organizations expressing his concern, and visited Kunduz to meet with local officials at the PRT base. According to Ahmad Nader Nadery of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the rapid reaction has prevented the Taliban from turning the strike into a “populist cause”; indeed, the Afghan officials McChrystal met in Kunduz focused their criticism on ISAF’s percieved leniency with the insurgents–though it’s impossible to say if locals see things the same way.
Internationally and in Germany, though, the fallout is messy. As this Guardian op-ed points out, even if the strike was within McChrystal’s guidelines, several questions remain: If the tankers were stuck in a river, why did the Germans believe the tankers were an imminent danger to NATO troops? How could they have been so confident in the (night-vision) images from the F-15 to declare that everyone on the scene was an insurgent? Andrex Exum adds: “Why, one has a right to ask, did the Germans not deploy a QRF or Ground Assault Convoy to recover the fuel trucks when they were stolen?” McChrystal has questions of his own for Klein, whom he feels was too slow to get troops on the scene, allowing the Taliban to be first out with their version of events. Joshua Foust reminds us of a laundry list of the Bundeswehr’s failures in Afghanistan and comes to the harsh conclusion that Germany “is consistently undermining the allied tasks in Afghanistan and should either reevaluate or withdraw”.
In Germany, the political repercussions are even more dramatic. The German public is heavily opposed (about 3-to-1) to the war, but mainly seems to object to the actual fighting–not the deployment of German troops for development or peacekeeping, say. Germany, of course, does not actually consider itself at war; hence the announcement this week that German prosecutors are considering opening a homicide investigation into the airstrike. Insofar as this incident reminds voters what war involves, it puts Chancellor Merkel and her allies on the defensive in advance of this month’s elections. It seems that only the far-left parties are attempting to capitalize on that discontent, though; in this sense, Merkel is fortunate to have her foreign minister as her main opponent. Thomas Rid notes, however, that whoever forms a government will need broad support to reauthorize Germany’s ISAF mandate by December 15, and suggests that McChrystal “have a chat with his political advisors” about not publicly embarrassing his ally.
The same tension between avoiding political awkwardness and honestly assessing the situation in Afghanistan is also evident in the Western reaction to the recent elections. The present situation–a narrow “win” for Karzai (presently with 54.1% of the vote) marred by massive and credible allegations of fraud and ballot-stuffing–is the worst possible scenario for Karzai’s international allies. Domestically, the Electoral Complaints Commission and the Independent Electoral Commission tangled over the results, with the IEC reversing a decision to employ certain electoral safeguards when it looked like those safeguards would keep Karzai below 50%, and the ECC ordering a recount of “ballot boxes where turnout was exceptionally high or where one candidate won 95 percent or more of votes at polling stations that had at least 100 ballots cast”. The ECC also invalidated ballots from several polling stations in Ghazni and Kandahar, as well as ALL ballots from Paktika. (The IEC is not allowed to certify the election until the ECC’s work is done; the IEC is a government body, while the ECC is UN-funded and chaired by a Canadian, Grant Kippen.) But the IEC is apparently dragging its feet, since it announced a new round of results only hours after the ECC’s recount order–blaming a poor Dari-to-English translation of the ECC’s order!
So how have Western governments reacted? Well, the main strategy has been to make noises about not wanting to pass judgment until results are official, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from floating trial balloons. British Foreign Minister David Miliband, for example, spoke of a “consensus administration”, generally interpreted to mean a unity government. That’s an idea no Western government is likely to endorse explicitly, especially after Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry got into a spat with Iranian ambassador Fadd Hossein Maleki over his suggestion that a coalition government will be necessary. David Cameron, on the other hand, was less circumspect than Miliband, criticizing the election’s “naked corruption”. Karzai’s opponents at home are growing bolder as well, with one endorser of Dr. Abdullah, Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Nur, accusing the government of distributing weapons to supporters and warning of possible violence. (This article from The Times of London contains the disturbing tidbit that “the price of Kalashnikovs has almost doubled in recent weeks”.) Karzai was philosophical, shall we say, about the election in a recent interview with Le Figaro: “Alas, it [fraud] is inevitable in a nascent democracy.”
As Jim Hoagland argues, massive fraud allegations are doubly troubling–they not only sap the government’s legitimacy, they indicate that the tribal leaders making the allegations likely feel the need to appease the Taliban by making it clear that their areas are not, in fact, unanimously behind Karzai. So how can legitimacy be salvaged and the tide turned? In the New York Times, Jon Krakauer and Ansar Rahel suggest that the foreign institution of presidential elections should be replaced with the Afghan tradition of a loya jirga at which a consensus decision would be reached. (I’m skeptical of both claims–that the elections were seen by Afghans as illegitimately Western, as opposed to simply fraudulent, and that a loya jirga would be recognized by all as an authentic and indigenous solution.) Spencer Ackerman wonders aloud if NATO wouldn’t be better off circumventing Karzai as much as possible and delivering aid and services from the ground up. Andrew Exum grimly notes that “we cannot be successful in [a counterinsurgency campaign] if the host nation government is seen as increasingly illegitimate”, but maintains that he doesn’t see withdrawal as an option–and so worries that the elections will let “the chorus for withdrawal will grow louder”. Matthew Yglesias, increasingly skeptical of our commitment to Afghanistan, suggests that we recognize our leverage over Karzai–who, for all his bluster about the U.S. “manipulating” him, needs our presence–and allow him and Dr. Abdullah to work out a solution between them rather than “micro-managing Afghan politics”.
Again, many suggestions but few comprehensive solutions after an election that everyone agrees left Western interests–not to mention Afghanistan–in a much worse position.
A last note: as a tribute to Sultan Munadi, I wanted to mark a rare piece of good news for journalists out of Afghanistan. Parwiz Kambaksh, a journalism student who was arrested for distributing an article questioning Islam’s treatment of women, was pardoned by President Karzai and has been freed. Kambaksh had been sentenced to 20 years in jail and has since left the country to avoid reprisals.