Week in Review, 10/11-10/17

I assumed this post would be about the announced results of the election audit, but the world is still waiting on an announcement, which the BBC says will come some time “this weekend”. So I’m going to hurry up and get this week’s review posted before all the election talk becomes old news.

Unfortunately, the news this week is full of hearsay, speculation, and denials on all fronts–especially about the election. Tea-leaf readers seem to agree that a runoff is likelier than ever–the BBC, for example, finds “senior sources” reporting a “flurry of diplomatic activity” by Westerners trying to convince Karzai to accept a second vote. Laura Rozen of Politico reports the same thing, and is more specific: “Deputy US Ambassador Frank Ricciardone was seen leaving the house of leading opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah last night”, and Zalmay Khalilzad is in Kabul to talk to Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

It’s also been widely reported that the audit will put Karzai at 47% (see the Post, here) or 48% (see the Wall Street Journal, here), triggering a runoff, but it’s not clear that this rumor has any actual connection to the work of the Independent Electoral Commission. What makes this seem plausible, though, is the fact that Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai, a member of the Electoral Complaints Commission widely seen as a Karzai loyalist, threatened to resign, claiming that the Commission (which is a UN body, remember, and only 2/5 Afghan) was biased against Karzai. Karzai rejected the resignation, but this incident has been widely interpreted to mean that the ECC’s report will be unfavorable to Karzai. Moreover, Afghan Ambassador ot the U.S. Said Jawad was the first administration official to admit that a runoff looks likely, although people closer to Karzai’s campaign have been more circumspect.

Karzai and Abdullah’s camps haven’t changed their public stances on the election’s legitimacy, leaving observers to guess at their strategic calculations. The AP quotes an Afghan MP claiming that Karzai will accept a unity government after the results are announced, citing “international pressure”; the WSJ cites anonymous Afghan officials making the same claim. According to the Journal, the deal wouldn’t involve a cabinet position for Abdullah (who has consistently denied wanting one) but some guaranteed number of positions for his backers. EurasiaNet speculates that Abdullah would be willing to accept a “reconfigured power-sharing arrangement that reduced the powers of the presidency”. While that might sound like weak tea, it’s important to remember that Abdullah only holds so many cards–a runoff, after all, might be just as corrupt as the first round and Abdullah might not improve his vote share in any case. This leads Martine van Bijlert to guess that Abdullah “wildly over-asked” in negotiations with Karzai, leading Karzai to call Abdullah’s bluff by indicating his willingness to settle matters with a runoff. The government’s public rhetoric has been all about the international community respecting the democratic process–read: abiding by the presumed Karzai victory–and Said Jawad has been downplaying talk of a coalition government.

As I said last week, it’s hard to imagine how the prospect of another election in two to four weeks strikes the voters of Afghanistan. The Times interviewed some Kabul residents and found them untied in the belief that the second round would solve nothing, whether for the reason that it would be just as fraud-tainted or the first or that it would be an opportunity for the United States to “impose its own candidate”. Agence-France Presse, meanwhile, interviews some of Karzai’s supporters in the Pashtun tribes and finds them equally skeptical–and unwilling to risk their lives to vote a second time when they see the first election as having been legitimate and sufficient.

The White House did some backtracking of its own this week after the BBC reported that the U.S. had privately notified the U.K. that it planned to announce an Afghan “surge” before next week’s meeting of NATO defense ministers. Said Jawad indicated in an interview that he found this extremely likely, but Robert Gibbs denies that a decision has been made. The U.K. announced this week that it would deploy an additional 500 troops to Helmand Province if (among other conditions) other NATO nations increased their troop commitments, which was the alleged motivation for the U.S.’ wink-and-nod. An actual announcement by President Obama is expected some time this week or next. Notwithstanding reports earlier in the week that the administration had ordered 13,000 additional support troops to the country, it appears that no decisions have been made–those troops were apparently part of an earlier deployment ordered by President Bush.

John McCain continues to warn that delay is dangerous in Afghanistan, and some Democratic senators–notably hawks like Dianne Feinstein of California–seem to agree that implementing McChrystal’s recommendations is an immediate necessity. Andrex Exum, though, is less worried that Obama is taking a serious look at all his options–but he hopes that American diplomats are making good use of the delay to remind Karzai that he needs us more than we need him. Tom Friedman feels the same way, but worries that the election debacle has left us without the local partner we’ll need for a protracted counterinsurgency campaign. Says Friedman: “I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people.” I suspect Obama doesn’t have that luxury–at best, he’ll be able to wait until we know the election’s final outcome. But even if he were to extract some promises from Karzai, we’d have no way of knowing how well Karzai would follow through.

Back to my theme of rumors and denials, the Times of London had an incendiary report on Friday that the Italian secret service had bribed Taliban commanders in Herat and Sarobi without notifying its ISAF allies. Last August, ten French troops were killed by some of those same insurgent leaders after the departure of the Italian force. From the story:

“One cannot be too doctrinaire about these things,” a senior Nato officer in Kabul said. “It might well make sense to buy off local groups and use non-violence to keep violence down. But it is madness to do so and not inform your allies.”

“Madness”, because the French troops believed they were being deployed in a relatively peaceful area. Italy, naturally, has been quick to deny the report and the U.S. government hasn’t made a public statement on the issue yet, as far as I can find.

Since this may be the last (or second-last) review post before the Obama administration rolls out its new Afghanistan strategy, I thought I’d review some commentary by those pushing for a more counterterrorism focused mission. Skeptics of counterinsurgency are common, but those laying out a comprehensive alternative are much rarer. Two worth reading are the University of Chicago’s Robert Pape and Columbia’s Austin Long. Pape, in good IR scholar fashion, recommends that we rely on offshore balancing in the form of an “over-the-horizon” military presence and support for local groups like the remnants of the Northern Alliance who would keep the Taliban out of Kabul. Pape also recommends buying the loyalties of Pashtun leaders (which we’re already attempting, but he wants funding upped for our “Social Outreach Program”). Long goes into more detail about what that “over-the-horizon” presence would look like; he doesn’t think that offshoring counterterrorism would be viable without a Special Forces component of several thousand troops on the ground and several air bases in Afghanistan (Bagram, Jalalabad, and one somewhere in the south). I think Pape and Long deserve credit for doing more than simply asking tough questions about COIN, but I’m not sure they’ve addressed the major stumbling block for counterterrorism advocates: how will we gather intelligence with a reduced presence? As Bruce Riedel and Michael O’Hanlon argue in USAToday, a reduced presence means that our Afghan allies would be much, much less likely to stick their necks out to help us identify insurgent targets.

2 responses to “Week in Review, 10/11-10/17

  1. The US policy in Afghanistan is fundamentally flawed because the US is trying to create a unitary country out of a mish-mash of ethnic groups who have nothing in common but Islam.

    The problem with Afghanistan is that like Yugoslavia, it is an artificial creation made up of many mutually hostile ethnic groups. The same is true of Iraq to a lesser extent. The consequence of any attempt to establish a uniform unitary state will be the rise to power of Islamic fundamentalism, which is the only political force capable of unifying what isn’t a country other than for administrative purposes.

    This has happened before when the Russians tried to establish a unitary state aligned to itself. The result was that the pro Russian regime was overthrown and replaced by the Taliban regime which formed the first and only stable unitary government in Afghanistan. Under these circumstances, a democratic election that isn’t rigged will lead to Islamic fundamentalists seizing power, after which the country will cease to be democratic, but will continue to be stable. The only politically stable non-Islamic government that can be put in place Afghanistan or Iraq is a dictatorship like in Iraq, but it will be an uphill struggle to establish such a dictatorship in a stable government in the long term, because the dictator will be perceived as a dictator put in place by the US in Iraq or Afghanistan – for some reason people will often tolerate their own dictators, but will oppose it if it seen as a dictator controlled by a foreign power. We have seen this situation repeatedly in the Middle East and elsewhere – for example in the case of the Shah of Iran.

    In the case of Afghanistan, the traditional power base has always been built on tribal warlords. The US should build these tribal warlord leaders into the Afghan political structure by making the country a confederation of small constituencies with strong local powers over security, and its own economy, education, with representatives forming a national government somewhat similar to the Swiss canton system. This will discourage the return of Islamic fundamentalism, and the simple fact is that if people in these Afghani “cantons” are made responsible for their own security, their own economy, and for their education and well being, then they will care about these things. The problem in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the national government and national police force and military are forces dealing with other people’s security, economy and well being, and so they don’t really care about these things.

    The US should also refrain from its traditional policy of taking the side of one ethnic group against another, or at least allowing itself to be manipulated by one ethnic group to do this. Even pressuring of one group to make concessions to the other is a strict no no. If this happens it will kill any chance of future peace, as history has shown that there is nothing harder to resolve within a unitary state than an ethnic conflict. The two groups must also reach the agreement between themselves and with no undue pressure from outside if they are to mutually respect the agreement.

    The policy of holding a gun to someone’s head to force them to sign a treaty is something which will invalidate the treaty in the eyes of one party to the agreement and make the agreement unstable: if someone holds a gun to your head, you will sign a blank cheque for them, but as soon as they let you go, you will call the bank and cancel the cheque. The best policy if two parties can’t agree is to let them run things separately on things they can’t agree on and together on things they can agree on. In time they will agree on more and more things as trust is built up. This policy of, if you can’t agree then run things separately, also makes it easier to reach agreement between groups where one is stronger and the other weaker. In this case, the stronger group is often the impediment to a fair and lasting agreement on sharing power. This is because the stronger group invariably tries to leverage its strength in negotiations to extract as many concessions in its favour as possible. Allowing things that cannot be agreed on to be deferred removes this leverage and encourages the stronger power to make more concessions in order to make the weaker power (which is usually the one that has the most misgivings because of its weakness) feel safe and secure in the agreement.

    The same principles can be applied to Iraq. Iraq is really three countries – the Turkish controlled principalities of Mosul (Kurdish region), Baghdad (Sunni region) and Basra (Shite region). Iraq is awash with weapons which threaten security and are going to feed terrorism. In order for normalcy to return in Iraq, these weapons must be taken out of circulation. For this to happen, people must feel safe if they hand in their weapons. The problem is that after years of brutality under Saddam Hussain, most people do not feel safe leaving their security in the hands of others, who may well turn out to be future Saddam Hussains, so they keep their weapons and support their local militias. In people within a local principality were responsible for their own security (ie. running their own police force, public prosecutor, courts etc.) then they would more readily disarm and take measures to disarm militias in their area. A similar system of Swiss style cantons (maybe larger cantons in the case of Iraq) with strong local powers and a national assembly made up of representatives of these cantons, would probably work better than any other solution in Iraq. It would also allow the US to focus first on stabilizing the key oil producing areas and bringing them into the US sphere, while allowing more time to resolve things in the trouble spots. These oil rich cantons could become democratic havens like Kuwait, and become stable beacons and role models for other more troublesome cantons of what is possible.

  2. Do we think that there is any difference between Karzai and Abdullah?

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