Week in Review, 9/26-10/3

A resignation and a firing were major news in Afghanistan this week, though only one made the headlines in the United States. First, Peter Galbraith was “recalled” from UNAMA by Ban Ki-moon three weeks after his voluntary departure from the country, caused by his split with mission head Kai Eide over the election results. Galbraith, who wanted the mission to pronounce the official election returns “not credible”, has an op-ed explaining his departure in today’s Washington Post. He’s very unhappy with the UN’s decision to announce his firing as the result of a “personality clash” while eliding the issue of the election, which he calls a “foreseeable train wreck”; he cites the existence of hundreds of “ghost” polling stations as well as the IEC’s decision not to follow its published anti-fraud guidelines. Galbraith clearly isn’t the only one who’s unhappy with Eide’s refusal to denounce the fraud openly, since the mission has confirmed least one aide has already resigned in protest, and several more resignations have been rumored. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Abdullah is taking advantage of UNAMA’s public split–he calls Galbraith a “brave individual”, which he is–to question the mission’s neutrality. Meanwhile, the White House has told Karzai that it expects his reelection–whether or not the ongoing recount necessitates a runoff election–according to the New York Times.  The IEC released the first round of provincial council results this week, and Reuters speculates that the recount could be completed “as early as next week”.

The resignation was that of Ismail Khan, Afghanistan’s Energy and Water Minister, who was nearly assassinated by the Taliban in Herat last Sunday. Khan, the target of a car bomb that killed five civilians, hasn’t technically resigned yet, but he claims that he won’t attend any more cabinet meetings until the security situation improves. Khan is a Tajik warlord and a strong backer of President Karzai, which makes his apparent fury at the American forces (rather than his attempted assassins!) somewhat striking: “The fate of the Americans in Afghanistan will be worse than that of the Russians.” Perhaps Khan is feeling nostalgic, since he suggests that Karzai convene a “Shura Council of Warlords” to govern the country. Juan Cole comments: “What Ismail Khan cannot understand is that bloodthirsty warlords tore the country apart in the 1990s, and few want them back.”

The departures of Galbraith and Khan both reflect badly on the Afghan government and the international presence to some extent, but it’s hard to say how these events filter through to the average Afghan. Pajhwok cites opinions from several “gatherings” in northern Afghanistan spurning a run-off election and voicing support for the work of the IEC. The Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times also have good roundups of Afghan opinion on the U.S. presence in general, which suggest that the Afghan public isn’t any more coherent than, say, American voters. What’s clear, though, is that there isn’t a groundswell of opposition to the American presence–just a wide variety of suggestions about how our tactics should change.

Some political developments in ISAF countries bear noting. First, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats were re-elected in German parliamentary elections last weekend, likely with enough seats to form a coalition with the (European) liberal Free Democrats. (The two parties received about 48% of the vote combined, but I take it that Germany’s threshold for representation will give them a majority.) David Francis of World Politics Review argues that the new coalition–which will replace Socialist Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier with Free Democrat Guido Westerwelle–will allow Merkel to make a more credible long-term commitment to Afghanistan, thus reassuring the U.S. Westerwelle is mostly known for his pro-business stance on domestic policy, rather than any foreign expertise, but the head of the junior coalition partner traditionally becomes the German Foreign Minister. (Incidentally, this will also make Westerwelle the most powerful openly gay man in Europe.)

Second, the British Conservatives have started to sketch out their prospective Afghanistan policy. Shadow Foreign Minister Liam Fox hedged on committing more troops for combat but sounded opening to expanding the U.K.’s training presence, and advocated the creation of tribal “auxiliary” forces. Fox and party leader David Cameron met with General McChrystal on Thursday, but the upshot seems to be that a Conservative government wouldn’t differ from Labor on the war–except perhaps in symbolic ways.

While the election fallout continues to cool off, the casualties sustained in  several fatal attacks on Western forces remained high this week. That second link is about a Taliban attack on two American bases in Nuristan which killed eight Americans in the bloodiest day for U.S. forces since last July. But rather than elections or violence, most American Afghanistan-watchers are currently speculating on the relationship between General McChrystal and President Obama. McChrystal spoke face-to-face with Obama for only the second and third times this week, the first by videoconference at Obama’s meeting with the National Security Council and the second on Air Force One during Obama’s ill-fated Copenhagen trip. (Obama’s lack of facetime with McChrystal had become a favorite attack meme on conservative blogs; Andrew Exum and Michael O’Hanlon, among others, agree with the criticism, while Matthew Yglesias and other liberals have noted that there are several officials between Obama and McChrystal and that it’s not clear how a meeting would really improve Obama’s grasp of McChrystal’s views.)

McChrystal will officially submit his request for 40,000 more troops next week; meanwhile pundits are parsing McChrystal’s appearance on 60 Minutes last Sunday and his speech at London’s Institute for Strategic Studies on Thursday. Unsurprisingly, McChrystal stressed the role of counterinsurgency warfare, rejected a counterterrorism-only presence in Afghanistan, and said that the mission is at risk of “failure” if troop levels are not increased within twelve months. McChrystal has also called for a renewed PR offensive against the Taliban, with an increased focus on opinion leaders and word of mouth–a good idea, especially as the absurdity of our present strategy was tragically illustrated this week when a box of leaflets fell on and killed an Afghan girl.

The Afghan government seems fully on board with McChrystal. Within the administration, conventional wisdom portrays Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Holbrooke as the hawks (along with McChrystal’s military higher-ups like General Petraeus), and Vice-President Biden and National Security Advisor James Jones as the advocates of a limited Afghan mission. McChrystal’s critics on the left, such as Michael Cohen and Tom Englehardt, accuse McChrystal (with Petraeus’ complicity) of attempting to eliminate Obama’s options by portraying a surge as the only viable option. On the right, sundry Kagans have applauded McChrystal’s approach; one prominent critic from that direction is Ralph Peters, an unbalanced fellow who calls counterinsurgency “hand[ing] out soccer balls to worm-eaten children” and prefers an approach that kills as many Afghans as possible.

Finally, congratulations are in order for two Afghans. First, Dr. Sima Samar, chair of the Independent Human Rights Commission, who became the first Afghan nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Samar is also nearing a victory on the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, according to the AP, which would “outlaw spousal abuse along with acts like the bartering of female relatives and child marriages”; the legislation is backed by female MPs such as Shinkai Karokhail and Sabrina Saqib.

Second, congratulations to the Afghan Ambassador to the United Nations, Zahir Tanin, who will finally have a permanent facility in New York. According to Pajhwok, the Afghan mission’s new home will be inaugurated by Foreign Minister Rangin Spanta later this month. Ambassador Tanin was kind enough to meet with members of the Yale Afghanistan Forum earlier this year.


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