On Tuesday, I noted that Mutasim Agha Jan had gone missing in Dubai while attempting to work toward negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. Multiple outlets now are reporting on the Peace Council having confirmed that Mutasim was indeed detained by authorities in the UAE. Here is Khaama Press on the confirmation:
The Afghan High Council has confirmed that the former Taliban leader Agha Jan Mutasim has been held in United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Agha Jan Mutasim has been missing in United Arab Emirates during the past several days. He was a senior Taliban leader and was supporting the Afghan peace process with the Taliban group.
Afghan High Peace Council following a statement said the detention of Agha Jan Mutasim clarifies that certain elements in the region are disrupting the Afghan peace talks.
The statement further added that those individuals, who are struggling to resume Afghan peace process, have been victimized.
The High Peace Council insisted that Afghan peace talks should take place inside Afghanistan and negotiations have taken place with the UAE officials to end limitations and resolve the issue of Agha Jan Mutasim.
Note that the High Peace Council accuses “certain elements in the region” of “disrupting the Afghan peace talks”. We also get a similar accusation from Karzai’s office. From today’s Washington Post, there is this:
“Known and secret enemies of peace in Afghanistan continue sabotaging our peace process,” Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman, said Thursday. He did not specify who he thought was responsible, but Afghan officials often accuse neighboring Pakistan of abetting insurgents and stymieing peace efforts.
In that regard, it is very interesting to see an opposition political figure in Pakistan speaking out today against Pakistan’s military supporting the Afghan Taliban: Continue reading
Saturday will mark the first time Afghanistan has gone to the polls to choose a new president since the US overthrew the Taliban and put Hamid Karzai in charge. This will hardly be an accomplishment to herald in the US press, although I am sure the military will attempt to get major outlets to tout it as so after the fact. In fact, even the rosy “look what has been accomplished in Afghanistan” fluff piece published today in Khaama Press cites a paltry list of accomplishments, such as 50 television stations and not quite half a million Afghans on Facebook. Tellingly, though, a closer look reveals that the piece is attributed to Dr. Florance Ebrahimi. It turns out that even though she is originally from Kabul, she practices in Sydney. And why shouldn’t she? Afghanistan is tied with North Korea and Somalia at the very bottom of the list when countries are ranked for their level of corruption. And it appears that even before the election takes place, ten percent of the planned polling stations have been closed due to security concerns. And what of the candidates? The top three are profiled here by the New York Times. All three of the leaders have already pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, keeping US troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year–and thus assuring the maximal continuing flow of US funds to fuel even more corruption. The candidates are noteworthy to me only in that two of them have running mates that would rival Dick Cheney as the most notorious war criminal to be Vice President of a country in the past 15 years.
Today’s New York Times piece cited above on the closure of polling places due to anticipated violence is devastating. For example:
One of the few polling centers in this part of Logar Province is the government’s district headquarters, a building so devastated by rocket attacks and Taliban gunfire that it looks more like a bomb shelter than an administrative office.
As the body count for security forces has risen over the past few days in this embattled district, a stretch of dusty farmland surrounded by mountains, it has become clear that no one here is going to vote on Saturday, either for president or for provincial council delegates.
So far, that has not stopped security officials from proclaiming the district open for voting: It is not among the roughly 10 percent of 7,500 total national sites shut down as too dangerous to protect. The Charkh district center has been pumped full of security forces to keep the vote a nominal possibility, but residents know that within a day or two after the elections, the guards will be gone and the Taliban will remain.
“The government has no meaning here,” said Khalilullah Kamal, the district governor, who was shot two times in the stomach a few months back while speaking in a mosque. “If there is no expectation that we will arrest people who break the law, then how do we expect the people to come and vote?”
Think about that. The polling place in this passage looks like a bomb shelter and life has gotten so violent there that it is clear nobody will vote there Saturday. And yet this site isn’t included among the 10 percent of sites that won’t be open Saturday. Further, “government has no meaning here” reflects the utter failure of US efforts to establish a unified government in Afghanistan. But does that apply only to a small area? Hardly. Consider that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated back in October that it is likely that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to SIGAR (pdf) to carry out oversight functions (and the State Department warned them that the 21 percent figure may be overly optimistic) by the end of this year.
Since the US has already formally handed over security operations to the Afghans, what are they doing to make the election safe? On Tuesday they announced that 60,000 “fresh” (I presume this means newly trained? How well were they screened?) Afghan National Army troops were deployed across the country for election security. Then, on Wednesday, the figure was increased to 195,000 total security personnel when ANA figures were joined with security personnel from the Afghan National Police and the National Directorate of Security. That’s quite a force. So for roughly 7500 polling stations, that gives about 26 security personnel guarding each site if they are distributed evenly. Oh, and to protect Westerners before the election, places where they tend to gather have been closed.
Whatever the outcome on Saturday, I see little reason to be optimistic that there will be any improvement in living conditions for the average Afghan citizen.
Afghanistan’s Vice President Muhammad Qasim Fahim died yesterday, in what the New York Times described as a heart attack. Fahim was a warlord with a checkered past and had ties, through a brother, to the looting and downfall of Kabul Bank. Because of his death, Afghanistan has declared a three day pause in campaigning for next month’s election to replace Hamid Karzai. The Taliban has taken advantage of this pause to warn Afghan citizens against voting and to threaten violence against those who do vote.
The Times brings us more of Fahim’s history:
Though Mr. Fahim was at the center of Mr. Karzai’s government, the two shared a tumultuous history. In the mid-1990s, when Mr. Fahim was in charge of the Afghan intelligence service after the fall of the Soviet-backed regime, he ordered the arrest of Mr. Karzai, then the deputy foreign minister, on suspicion of spying for a rival faction within the government. The future president managed to escape when a rocket hit the prison where he was being held.
Nearly a decade later, Mr. Fahim backed Mr. Karzai’s bid to lead Afghanistan after the Taliban’s fall, and in exchange was named defense minister. But within months, as Mr. Karzai began moving to sideline Mr. Fahim, American officials picked up intelligence that the defense minister was considering an attempt to assassinate the president, according to current and former Afghan and American officials with firsthand knowledge of the episode. To head off the threat, the Americans quickly replaced the Fahim loyalists who were guarding Mr. Karzai with United States Army Rangers.
But they did not replace Mr. Fahim, concluding that the young Afghan government was too weak to risk a confrontation with one of Afghanistan’s most powerful warlords. American and Afghan officials instead settled for vague statements that suggested Taliban threats had led to the bodyguard swap.
Reuters brings us the threat to the election issued by the Taliban:
The Afghan Taliban said on Monday next month’s presidential election was being manipulated by the United States, which had already chosen the winner, and threatened to use “full force” in attacking anyone taking part.
Two campaign workers have already been killed and at least one presidential candidate has been assaulted during campaigning for the April 5 poll, the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history.
The Taliban said the proceedings were being stage-managed by the United States.
“The people should realize that the election will bear no result because the real elections have taken place in CIA and Pentagon offices and their favorite candidate has already been chosen,” the Taliban said in a statement.
“…All fighters are given orders to disrupt this sham elections by full force and bring under attacks election workers, activists, volunteers and those providing security everywhere. If someone takes part in this (election), they will be responsible for the bad consequences themselves.”
What stands out to me in this statement from the Taliban is that they claim the US (through the CIA) has already chosen the winner of the election, but they don’t say which candidate has been chosen. Just last week, Hamid Karzai’s brother withdrew from the campaign and threw his support to the candidate Karzai is said to favor. But this article on that development from The Guardian shows that there is no clear frontrunner and that the Karzais’ chosen candidate has little current backing: Continue reading
In what is virtually certain to be a new example of why he continues not to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to react with anger toward the US strike this morning that killed five Afghan soldiers in an outpost in the Charkh District of Logar Province. Already, it is being pointed out that the US had to know about the location of the outpost. From the Washington Post:
“The coalition knows the location of every Afghan outpost,” said Abdul Wali, the head of the Logar Provincial Council. “How can such incidents happen?”
But BBC points out that it is even worse than that:
District governor Khalilullah Kamal, who has visited the scene, said the strike was carried out by a US drone.
“The post is totally destroyed,” he told the AFP news agency. “The Americans used to be in that post, but since they left the ANA [Afghan National Army] took over.”
Recall that in the incident where the US killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border checkpoint in 2011, at least parts of the facility that was attacked appeared to be makeshift structures that easily could have been mistaken for insurgent encampments. That clearly is not the case in the current situation, since the facility was built by and previously manned by the US. It seems to me that there is a good chance that the mistake in this case may have been that the US believed the post to have been taken over by the Taliban when it in fact was still manned by the ANA. Given the multiple reports that drones are often spotted in the area, we are left to wonder if the drones spotted a pattern of activity that prompted the airstrike. Otherwise, since the Afghans claim they did not call in a strike, we are left to wonder just why the strike was carried out and what the mission was believed to be.
Details are still coming out on the incident, with some stories claiming the attack came from a drone and others saying it was an airstrike by manned aircraft. The New York Times contributes this on the question:
A spokesman for the American military said that the incident did not involve a drone, but rather manned aircraft. He did not provide further details.
Even though he says in his statement that the strike was carried out by a drone, the information quoted above from the district governor about the post being “totally destroyed” sounds to me more like the damage that would come from multiple manned aircraft equipped with multiple rockets and bombs, especially if the post consisted of multiple buildings.
I have seen no statements on the incident attributed to Karzai yet. ISAF already issued this embarrassed acknowledgement:
We can confirm that at least five Afghan National Army personnel were accidentally killed this morning during an operation in eastern Afghanistan.
An investigation is being conducted at this time to determine the circumstances that led to this unfortunate incident.
Our condolences go out to the families of the ANA soldiers who lost their lives and were wounded.
We value the strong relationship with our Afghan partners, and we will determine what actions will be taken to ensure incidents like this do not happen again.
Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi is quoted by Reuters:
“We condemn the attack on the Afghan National Army in Logar,” said Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai. “The president has ordered an investigation.”
But in that Reuters article, Kamal, the district governor, seems to contradict some of the information he gave to BBC:
“Right now a discussion in the province is going on between Afghan officials and foreign forces to find out the reason for this attack,” he said, describing the attack as having targeted a new outpost of the Afghan army.
Is Kamal claiming the outpost is new to the ANA since they just took it over from ISAF, or is he saying it is a new one they established and not one previously manned by the US, as he said to BBC? If it is the latter, then it will be necessary to review whether and how the ANA informed the US of the location of the facility.
It is very interesting that the US would move so quickly to claim an airstrike instead of a drone in the statement to the Times. Given Karzai’s previous reactions to US airstrikes that have killed civilians, it is virtually guaranteed that he will reach a new high of outrage over this incident. There was a surge of nationalism over the incident where 21 troops were killed by the Taliban recently in Kunar (see the state funeral footage in this post), so look for Karzai to play off those sentiments in turning that anger now toward the US rather than the Taliban.
As I posited yesterday, Pakistan appears to be putting together a US-style counterterrorism structure. This morning, we see even stronger hints that a full-blown military offensive against the Taliban may soon be launched by Pakistan. Although we have not seen any evidence that they have done so yet, I fully expect Pakistan to include both the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network among their targets in this operation. In fact, the Washington Post article mentions that Pakistan “would ‘not discriminate’ among the TTP, the Haqqani network and other militant groups in North Waziristan, including al-Qaeda”. In return for this offensive, look for Pakistan to get a massive amount of US financial and intelligence assistance. The US also appears to be making a renewed push against the Haqqani network inside Afghanistan and this report from Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart describes that effort while noting that the US wants Pakistan to take on the Haqqanis and any other groups that use Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
These moves by Pakistan and the US make more sense when we see that the US has come to the realization that an ongoing troop presence in Afghanistan is increasingly unlikely. There was significant movement on that front yesterday, with President Obama speaking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the telephone. From the White House readout of the call:
President Obama called President Karzai today to discuss preparations for Afghanistan’s coming elections, Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts, and the Bilateral Security Agreement.
With regard to the Bilateral Security Agreement, in advance of the NATO Defense Ministerial, President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission. Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.
The United States continues to support a sovereign, stable, unified, and democratic Afghanistan, and will continue our partnership based on the principles of mutual respect and mutual accountability. We remain fully supportive of our partners in the Afghan security forces, and we continue to proudly work side by side with the many Afghans who continue to work to ensure the stability and prosperity of their fellow citizens.
Although there is no clear deadline date, this phone call has the hallmarks of a “final warning” to Karzai. If the US doesn’t see movement from him on the BSA soon, look for the zero option of a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan to take place. As noted in the readout, the lack of a signed BSA is causing trouble for NATO, as well. A NATO gathering (called a Defense Ministerial) opened today, but with no BSA in place, Afghanistan planning can’t be done, prompting a very uncomfortable opening press conference for Secretary General Rasmussen.
Earlier this week, I noted that a ranking member of Afghanistan’s Taliban, Abdul Raqib, was gunned down in Peshawar, Pakistan. It turns out that Raqib wasn’t just any Taliban leader, though. He had in fact just returned from Dubai, where he had been participating in peace talks with the Afghan government.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke out against the killing. From ToloNews:
President Hamid Karzai Tuesday condemned the assassination of Taliban commander Mullah Abduil Raqib, calling him a victim of peace. He went on to invite Raqib’s group Tehreek-Islami Taliban to return to Afghanistan.
Mullah Abdul Raqiq was gun downed in the Pakistani city of Peshawar by unidentified attackers on Monday. On Tuesday, a military helicopter transferred his body to his native town in northern Takhar province.
This is not the first time a Taliban leader has been targeted in Pakistan. The U.S. has waged an intensive drone war on Taliban commanders throughout Pakistan in recent years. Karzai has been highly critical of the attacks on Taliban leaders, claiming the U.S.’ aggression has pushed Taliban leaders away from negotiations.
“We saw several green lights from those willing to start the peace negotiation process, but most of them were assassinated,” Karzai’s deputy spokesman Fayeq Wahidi said. “The killing of Maullah Raqiq is part of the coordinated murders.”
Although the ToloNews article doesn’t come out and say it explicitly, a report by BakhtarNews does say that Raqib had been to Dubai for the peace talks and had just returned when he was killed:
President Hamid Karzai condemned the killing of Maulawi Abdul Raqib Takhari member of Tehrek Taliban and called him an open e[sic] victim of the path of peace. Maulawi Abdul Raqib former minister of refugee affairs of Taliban government who has been supporter of peace and understanding in Afghanistan, after participating at the recent peace talks in Dubai led by Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim returned to Peshawar and he was killed there on Monday.
Returning to the ToloNews article, we see that while Karzai had blamed “US aggression”, the attendees of the funeral blamed Pakistan’s ISI for the killing:
Participants in the burial ceremony accused the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) of being behind the assassination.
“People shared their sorrows in the burial ceremony. He was working for peace. People chanted slogans against those killing him; they blamed ISI for the killing,” Takhar Governor Abdul Latif Ibrahimi said.
The Taliban is not a monolithic entity, and Mutasim Agha Jan’s moderate faction is often opposed by more militant members of the group. As might be expected, they are speaking out once again to say that Jan does not speak for them and that they do not condone the peace talks:
The Taliban militants group in Afghanistan denied reports regarding peace talks between the Afghan government officials and Taliban group leaders in United Arab Emirates.
Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban group, following a statement, said Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim does not represent the Taliban group and has not links with the movement.
Mujahid his statement further added that no member of the Taliban group has attended any talks with the Afghan government officials in Dubai.
Clearly, the talks between Karzai’s government and Agha Jan’s group are opposed by the US (as seen here), the ISI (as seen in the funeral comments above) and by more militant factions of the Afghan Taliban itself.
Keep in mind, though, that the US has tentatively reached out to another faction of Taliban figures active in Afghanistan. We saw earlier this week that the US is seeking a prisoner exchange that could free Bowe Bergdahl. In this case, it appears that the Haqqani network is now holding Bergdahl, and so they are the target of the talks. An article in today’s Dawn accounts for what appears to be a new-found urgency on the part of the US to find Bergdahl:
Highly credible sources told DawnNews that during meetings with Pakistan’s top defence and military officials, General Lloyd J Austin, chief of the United States Central Command, sought Pakistan’s help in tracing the kidnapped US soldier before any possible military operation was launched in North Waziristan.
If Pakistan does indeed launch military action in North Waziristan, it appears that the US fears that Bergdahl could be in danger. Pakistan has long been accused by the US of harboring and even assisting the Haqqani network, so it is quite interesting that this potential military action has raised concerns. It isn’t clear whether these concerns relate to Bergdahl simply being in an area of military action or if the US thinks that Pakistan will actually attack suspected Haqqani network hideouts.
The question now becomes why any member of the Haqqani network would show up for negotiations with the US, given the recent death rates for negotiators.
Update: Reuters is reporting that the 65 prisoners were released on February 13.
Without a single hint of awareness of the irony involved, the US military yesterday released a statement decrying Afghanistan’s decision calling for the imminent release of 65 prisoners held at the Afghan National Detention Facility at Parwan, stating that the release would be a “major step backward for the rule of law in Afghanistan”. There are 88 prisoners over whom the US and Afghanistan disagree, but so far only 65 are subject to the current release orders (with the release order for 37 of the 65 dating back to January). Recall that an independent commission, headed by Abdul Shakor Dadras, has been reviewing the status of the prisoners handed over from US control. Despite US bleating that Karzai and Dadras are releasing hardened insurgents bent on returning to battle, it is hardly noted that over 100 of the prisoners have been ordered held over for trial and that the US has not disputed the release of hundreds of others (648 out of 760 reviewed as of January) against whom there was no evidence of crimes.
In their rush to transcribe the complaints from the US military, articles by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times quickly brush over the fact that the results of the Dadras board have been reviewed both by the Afghan attorney general’s office and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, which is the main intelligence agency. In fact, the New York Times doesn’t mention the NDS review at all. From the Los Angeles Times article:
Afghan officials issued a sharp rebuttal, saying the attorney general’s office and the National Directorate of Security – Afghanistan’s CIA – had reviewed the U.S. information and found insufficient evidence to continue to hold the prisoners. “According to Afghan laws there is no information gathered about these detainees to prove them guilty, so they were ordered released,” Abdul Shakoor Dadras, head of the Afghan government committee responsible for the prisoner issue, said in an interview Tuesday.
The New York Times has also posted a document (pdf) purporting to lay out the evidence against the 37 disputed prisoners cleared for release in January. Remarkably, although the military is expressing concern for rule of law, there is a strong reliance on failed polygraph tests in the evidence cited. Of course, polygraph results are so unreliable that they are not admissible in most US states, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the military. Fingerprints and other biometric matches are also cited in the document for some prisoners, but whether these matches are strong or weak is not discussed, even though a court would be very interested in the level at which the match is said to occur. Similarly, evidence of explosive residue is cited for some of the prisoners without any discussion of how conclusive the test result was. Laughably, possession of firearms is cited for many of the prisoners, despite the fact that the country in which they live has been at war for over the last twelve years after the US military invaded.
Back in January, Dadras had this to say about some of the evidence:
Mr. Dadras said in an interview on Monday that he was only being true to Afghan law. He insisted that he had to discard any evidence that was collected without a defense lawyer present, which would appear to include anything in the suspect’s possession when captured. He also said he distrusted evidence collected years after suspects were detained, and was not persuaded when lab analysis found residue from chloride chemical compounds used in explosives. Suspects could have picked up the residue other ways, he said.
“The air is contaminated with chlorides, given the fighting; there is bombing and the wind,” Mr. Dadras said.
Returning to the US military statement, they do acknowledge that Afghanistan’s attorney general’s carried out a review of the disputed cases. However, they dismiss that review: Continue reading
Don’t look for this important bit of news in the New York Times or Washington Post. At least at the time I started writing this, they hadn’t noticed that Senators Jeff Merkley, (D-OR), Mike Lee (R-UT), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Rand Paul (R-KY) put out a press release yesterday calling for a Congressional vote on whether to authorize keeping US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. President Barack Obama and the Pentagon have been bargaining with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for over a year now to get a Bilateral Security Agreement that will authorize keeping US troops there after the current NATO mission officially ends at the end of this year, but we have heard almost nothing at all from Congress. Well, we did have some hypocrisy tourists calling for Karzai to sign the agreement immediately or suffer the financial consequences, but they didn’t call for using their Constitutional role in authorizing use of troops.
This bipartisan group had some pretty strong language about the push to exclude Congress from the decision-making on keeping troops in Afghanistan:
Today, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Mike Lee (R-UT), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Rand Paul (R-KY) announced the introduction of a bipartisan resolution calling for Congress to have a role in approving any further United States military involvement in Afghanistan after the current mission ends on December 31, 2014. The Administration is reportedly negotiating an agreement that could keep 10,000 American troops or more in Afghanistan for another ten years.
“The American people should weigh in and Congress should vote before we decide to commit massive resources and thousands of troops to another decade in Afghanistan,” Merkley said. “After over 12 years of war, the public deserves a say. Congress owes it to the men and women in uniform to engage in vigorous oversight on decisions of war and peace.”
“After over a decade of war, Congress, and more importantly the American people, must be afforded a voice in this debate,” Lee said. “The decision to continue to sacrifice our blood and treasure in this conflict should not be made by the White House and Pentagon alone.
“After 13 years, more than 2,300 American lives lost and more than $600 billion, it is time to bring our brave warriors home to the hero’s welcome they deserve and begin rebuilding America, not Afghanistan,” Manchin said. “We do not have an ally in President Karzai and his corrupt regime. His statements and actions have proven that again and again. Most West Virginians believe like I do money or military might won’t make a difference in Afghanistan. It’s time to bring our troops home.”
“The power to declare war resides in the hands of Congress,” Paul said. “If this President or any future President has the desire to continue to deploy U.S. troops to this region, it should be done so only with the support of Congress and the citizens of the United States.”
After 12 years and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, the Administration has declared that the war in Afghanistan will be wound down by December 31, 2014. However, the Administration is also negotiating an agreement with the Government of Afghanistan that would set guidelines for U.S. troops to remain in training, support, and counter-terrorism roles through at least 2024.
In November, the Senators introduced this bill as an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill, but it wasn’t allowed a vote. In June, the House of Representatives approved a similar amendment to the NDAA stating that it is the Sense of Congress that if the President determines that it is necessary to maintain U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, any such presence and missions should be authorized by Congress. The House amendment passed by a robust, bipartisan 305-121 margin.
But Merkley added yet another zinger. From the AFP story on the move, as carried in Dawn (emphasis added):
“We are introducing a bipartisan resolution to say before any American soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is committed to stay in Afghanistan after 2014, Congress should vote,” Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley told reporters.
“Automatic renewal is fine for Netflix and gym memberships, but it isn’t the right approach when it comes to war.”
Wow. What a concept. Continue reading
For both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the prospect of a future not marred by terrorist attacks is a strong incentive to explore peace talks with the Taliban groups that have fueled the bulk of the violence in both countries. Over the past few years, there have been many attempts to start such talks, but these efforts have not been successful so far. At times, one or more of the many sides involved in the talks has proposed an opening stance that was known to be untenable to another side. Also, parties not involved in particular sets of talks have taken active steps to derail them, such as when Karzai went ballistic over the sign on the door of the Taliban office in Doha (disrupting US-Taliban talks) and a US drone strike took out Hakimullah Mehsud just before he joined a set of talks in Pakistan (disrupting Pakistan-Taliban talks).
Today’s New York Times informs us that Hamid Karzai has been secretly working to establish talks with the Afghan Taliban since announcing in November that he would not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement even though his own loya jirga urged him to do so. This disclosure, mostly communicated to the Times through anonymous sources, but confirmed by Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi, seems to account for a fair amount of Karzai’s behavior while refusing to sign the BSA and taking repeated steps that seem aimed at creating more friction between the US and the Karzai government.
Those providing the new narrative to the Times paint the talks between Karzai and the Taliban as not getting beyond initial contact and into discussion of substantive issues. The reasoning, according to these sources, is that by merely maneuvering Karzai into refusing to sign the BSA, the Taliban can achieve their primary goal of getting the US out of Afghanistan completely, so they would have no incentive to enter into an actual peace agreement with Karzai:
Western and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the peace contacts, said that the outreach was apparently initiated by the Taliban in November, a time of deepening mistrust between Mr. Karzai and his allies. Mr. Karzai seemed to jump at what he believed was a chance to achieve what the Americans were unwilling or unable to do, and reach a deal to end the conflict — a belief that few in his camp shared.
The peace contacts, though, have yielded no tangible agreement, nor even progressed as far as opening negotiations for one. And it is not clear whether the Taliban ever intended to seriously pursue negotiations, or were simply trying to derail the security agreement by distracting Mr. Karzai and leading him on, as many of the officials said they suspected.
So we now have a complete reversal of stances from early last summer. Recall that US diplomats had quietly worked for over a year to establish talks with the Taliban, with the Taliban going so far as to open an office in Doha. However, Karzai felt that the office presented too many of the trappings of a government in exile and he managed to scuttle those US-Taliban talks. I held out hope for the ascendance of a more moderate faction of the Afghan Taliban in the aftermath of that fiasco. Whether the secret approach to Karzai came from these more moderate elements is an interesting question worth considering, especially since only a few month elapsed between Karzai’s tantrum over the office in June and the secret communications starting in November. At any rate, we have gone from the US appearing to promote the talks and Karzai disrupting them to Karzai promoting talks and the US releasing information that seems aimed at scuttling them.
If the US truly cared about bringing peace to Afghanistan, an interesting new bargaining position would be to threaten both Karzai and the Taliban that they intend to stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of the year even if Karzai doesn’t sign the BSA, but that if a peace agreement is reached, the US would leave and provide a portion of the funding that the US now dangles as incentive for signing the BSA. Such a position by the US would allow the Taliban and Karzai to unite behind their one common goal–the removal of all US troops. With public opinion of the US effort in Afghanistan at an all-time low, promoting a full withdrawal would be a welcome development in the US.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the issue of peace talks with the Taliban is as muddy as it is in Afghanistan. Consider how the first screen of today’s Washington Post story on the talks loaded on my phone this morning: Continue reading
As the US military bumbles and stumbles toward an ignominious exit from Afghanistan that is looking more and more like it will follow the script from the Iraq exit, it appears that the final ploy from Washington is an effort to paint Afghan President Hamid Karzai as detached from reality. This current ploy seems to be serving two purposes. First, it attempts to set the stage for an end-run around Karzai in a last-ditch effort to get some other party to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement allowing US troops to stay in Afghanistan after the end of this year. Second, it is obscuring yet another incident of indiscriminate US air raids and affiliated operations resulting in civilian casualties. Totally missing from these US actions is any awareness that Afghans cooperating with the US in this operation could well be motivated by the upcoming elections or an appreciation that the willingness of some Afghan citizens to participate in fabricating charges against the US isn’t necessarily an endorsement of the Taliban as much as it represent the intense desire of many Afghans to get the US out of their country after 13 years of war.
The current circus was precipitated by the January 15 incident in the Ghorband District of Parwan province. As I noted right after it happened, distinctly different accounts of what happened appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post. Karzai appointed a commission to investigate the incident. Leading the commission was Abdul Satar Khawasi. He is a member of the Afghan Parliament and represents Parwan. He also is known to be anti-American, and articles about the commission’s report from both ToloNews and the New York Times mention a video in which he appears and:
Mr. Khawasi is heard urging a crowd of angry Afghans to wage a holy war against Americans, saying, “Anyone who sits silent is a traitor.”
The Times pointed out just after the report was released that at least one photo in the report was from 2009, but now the entire report is being questioned by the Times because of that one photo:
The CD-ROM contains nine other photographs, all of which appear to be frames from a video clip on the disk. The video purports to show the funeral of villagers who were killed in the airstrikes and houses that were destroyed. The graphic images include some of a woman whose face is gone.
The Times’ examination found no physical clues in the video that would help determine where or when it was shot. The file’s creation date is Dec. 18, nearly a month before the raid, though it may not be accurate; digital time stamps on the accompanying photos say they were created in April 2014, and the video’s embedded data could be similarly unreliable.
Even if the video is actually of a funeral in Wazghar, some Afghan and Western officials said there was no way to tell from it whether an airstrike or some other gunfire or explosion had killed the people seen being buried, or who was responsible.
But even though an Afghan villager was brought out to “identify” fellow villagers in the false photo in question, this whole episode of discrediting the commission’s report still has one major problem: Continue reading