Failure of Security Transition?

My op-ed Outlook Afghanistan published on August 13

Bamiyanis took to streets on Sunday protesting against insecurity on Bamiyan-Kabul roads. Members of provincial council and civil society activists led the demonstration rally. As usual, it did not get due coverage in mainstream Kabul TVs. Slogans on banners warned the Government to maintain security on roads connecting them to the capital, otherwise people will have to take steps for their protection.

According to civil society activists, 32 residents of Bamiyan have been killed during last six months, mostly in Jalrez District of Maidan Wardak and Ghorband District of Parwan on the way to Kabul. They say fuel tankers are torched by Taliban militants. Prices have gone skyrocketing in the province.

In their resolution, protesters have offered volunteer community cooperation to be equipped with ANA forces and maintain security on roads. It shows the declining confidence of people from the most peaceful part of Afghanistan on Government capability and security transition, and must be an alarm for the Karzai Administration as well as ISAF.

Insecurity has increased on roads leading to Bamiyan since the withdrawal of US troops from the Combat Outpost Conlon in Jalrez District in February this year. Bamiyan was the first province to be fully transitioned to the control of Afghan security forces from ISAF troops. With third phase of transition going on across the country, the protest in Bamiyan is an early sign of its failure and alarms of descent into chaos. These incidents are more concerning due to another fact that Taliban militants are particularly targeting individuals from Bamiyan and Hazara ethnic origin regardless of their connection with government or international forces. It could fuel ethnic tensions and seriously undermine perception about capability of Government providing security people in most peaceful parts of the country who have been most supporting and cooperative with Karzai Administration.

Two weeks ago, 11 people were slaughtered by Taliban in Jalrez. Five passengers were taken off a vehicle at Kote Ashro area on Wednesday, August 01. They were brutally tortured, their hands tied behind, eyes taken off and bodies thrown on the highway after beheading. All five were civilians. They were buried in Kabul later. Thousands attended the funeral in Kabul, expressing outrage against the Taliban and Government failure. Speakers were accusing negligence.

Six others were killed in similar brutality on Monday, July 23 in the same area of Jalrez. Their bodies were cut into pieces. All of the 11 civilians butchered belonged to Hazara ethnic group. They were massacred within one kilometer of distance from an ANA check post. Not a single person has been arrested, despite repeated incidents in the same area. Taliban stop vehicles of civilian passengers in Jalrez and Ghorband almost on daily basis. It was always a security risk for government officials and those working with foreign organizations and NGOs, but now ordinary people hesitate traveling to Bamiyan from Kabul by road.

Two New Zealand troops and four agents of National Directorate of Security were killed in a gunfight with insurgents in Shiber, Bamiyan on August 04. Bamiyan is known as the safest province of Afghanistan, but it seems that title no more applies. Insurgent ambushes and IED attacks on ISAF troops and ANSF in the province are limited to Shibar and Saighan districts, which border Baghlan.  However, militants have been able to carry more sophisticated attacks in recent months. Last month in July, the news of ambush on police officials shocked all, marking the worst insurgent attack in Bamiyan with highest death toll in a single attack.

With the local population welcoming and supportive of NATO troops, Taliban have failed to make local presence in Bamiyan. It seems they have started to indiscriminately punish Bamiyanis and terrorize the population. ISAF and ANSF should launch special operations in Shibar, Saighan, Jalrez and Ghorband districts to clear the areas from insurgents.

It must be of serious concern to the Government and ISAF that ordinary civilians from a particular ethnic group are being targeted by the Taliban. The beheadings in Jalrez has already stirred a sense of uncertainty among the people of Bamiyan and Daikundi, increasing their doubts about Karzai’s claims that Afghan National Security Forces can maintain security after foreign troops’ withdrawal. More such incidents can fuel serious ethnic strife. It should be an alarm for the Government to pay serious attention, otherwise the sense of uncertainty can decrease confidence of people and they will prepare for the worst to come.

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Power Transition Key to Post-2014 Stability

Nowadays most analysis and opinion pieces on op-ed pages by Western media pundits talk of Afghanistan returning to civil war after the NATO and US troops’ withdrawal in 2014. They express concerns about the fragile tribal atmosphere and fear fragmentation of Afghan National Security Forces along ethnic lines.

Political stability is prime factor to determine reliability on strength, will and integration of security forces, and continuation of the current democratic process. Security challenges are secondary threats for larger instability and eventual chaos. Our history tells whenever there has been bloodshed that has led to national crisis; it has been caused by political instability, not the traditional domestic security challenges to the writ of state, which has always existed.

The sophisticated Taliban insurgency will remain a challenge. But factors that can lead to fragmentation of ANSF after NATO withdrawal will not be primarily the fact that suicide attacks will increase in Kabul and other cities, and insurgency will grow deadlier. However, unconstitutional attempts for power grab can cause our quick descent into chaos. Political transition in 2014 is equally important in parallel with full security transition to Afghan forces after NATO troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.

The international community, particularly Washington should pay attention to the preparations for a peaceful and transparent political transition in 2014. Political opposition groups express serious concerns regarding President Karzai’s pledges to ensure legitimate transfer of power.

An election campaign is already launched in the Presidential Palace, and meetings are held for bargaining. The upheavals in cabinet and impeachment of key ministers are part of the game.

Domestically, there are preparations and uncertainties about the 2014 polls. It is clear that without strong support—financial, technical, political and security—from the international community, it would be impossible to hold peaceful elections for a smooth transition of power. But political opposition groups fear the Karzai Administration intends to use all state-resources and institutions in favor of their designs for the coming polls.

Only a transparent elections and legitimate transfer of power can ensure political stability and continuation of the post-Taliban democratic process. Any attempt by the current Palace dwellers to clench to power will mean violent episodes of power grab and eventual civil war. The international community should ensure peaceful transition of power strengthening our fragile and infant democratic process.

Washington should pay heed to the concerns of Afghan opposition groups. The recent calls for restoration of credibility to the electoral process are being ignored by the Karzai Administration. Political parties’ demands for amendments in the draft Electoral Law are ignored. The international community should make sure that a free, fair, transparent, credible and independent election is held in 2014.

The new US Ambassador for Kabul James B Cunningham has said the coming Presidential election in 2014 is crucial for stability in Afghanistan. While testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said the international community has key role in ensuring smooth transfer of power in Afghanistan. He further said, “Key to Afghanistan’s future stability will be a credible and inclusive presidential election in 2014, followed by a constitutional transfer of power. President Karzai has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to a peaceful, constitutional transition of power at the end of his second term. All Afghans, whatever their gender, ethnicity or religion, have much to gain from a successful political transition, and the United States is committed to working with  international partners to support the Afghans as they choose their next leader.”

I hope efforts for transparent power transition in 2014 is a priority task for Ambassador Cunningham, as it should be a concern for the next US Administration.

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On the Conflict Mapping Report

My op-ed Outlook Afghanistan published Aug 01

Recently bits and pieces of the report detailing war crimes and atrocities of 80s and 90s has been hitting media. The 800-page report titled “Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan since 1978” is prepared by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and group of 40 international and Afghan researchers over six years of field work. It names about 500 individuals—including former militia leaders who denounced violence after the fall of the Taliban and joined the new setup and democratic process in Afghanistan—in detailed reporting of the evidence of over two decades of atrocities, including mass graves. The report was supposed to be published months ago, but President Karzai and his international backers have supressed its publication fearing backlash from those named in the report, who now hold strong positions in the government, or have mass political backing.

Human rights and civil society activists are concerned if the report will ever be published. Some express fears that publication of the report could lead to serious troubles and ethnic strife, as it names figures like national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud. Some Afghan analysts and human rights activists are calling for a watered down version of the report excluding names of perpetrators, saying ‘something is better than nothing’.

I don’t see any prospects of this crucial report being published under the current Administration. President Karzai’s stay in power is dependent on his alliance with many of the warlords responsible for 90s carnage. Karzai’s promotion of patronage politics has formed the foundations of the current setup in a way that official action on the report means collapse of the system. Those 500 individuals named in the report are all in strong power positions, from Presidential Palace and Parliament to district level.

On the other hand, President Karzai is making efforts for release of Taliban leaders from Guantanamo, including two notorious commanders responsible for the massacre in Mazar-e-Sharif and named in the report. He will not let it be published. When Karzai calls Taliban, who slaughter Afghans everyday, his “brothers” and ask Mullah Omar to contest elections, the entire concept of transitional justice becomes a joke.

The Conflict Mapping report was commissioned under the Action Plan for Peace Justice and Reconciliation in 2005, which later led to parliamentary approval of the blanket immunity bill, the National Stability and Reconciliation Law in 2007. They kept space for themselves even in the Action Plan commitments with vague phrases such as accountability and acknowledgement of Afghans’ suffering with improvement of ‘national unity’. President Karzai will now use that law for negotiations with Taliban.

Besides, there is lack of interest from the international community for publication of the report. President Karzai’s backers, particularly the US, will seek to prevent its publication given the NATO withdrawal deadline and Obama Administration’s rush for a political settlement with the Taliban.

However, the fears that publication of the Conflict Mapping report could lead to serious civil strife are geniune. Far from official action, mere public debate about the report could increase strife given the fragile ethnic atmosphere in Afghanistan. For instance, country’s national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud is one of those named in the report. Every ethnic figure from 90s is hero for one, and villain for the other in public. Our people are highly sentimental on such issues, and it can easily fuel the fire of ethnic tensions across the country.

The report could change minds of some educated urban Afghans about the images created around the ethnic figures, but it can lead to tensions among majority ordinary people who are more vulnerable to the manipulations of warlords, who can take cover behind ethnic walls and fuel strife to protect themselves from accountability.

Under the current circumstances in Afghanistan, with increasing fears of civil war after withdrawal of international troops, and the fact that the Karzai Administration has no will to publish the report, and its international backers shy away, the urgency of it’s release is more important as a history lesson than prospects of justice for victims. It is to tell our people what civil war does, and that, more or less, everyone suffered.

It seems the Karzai Administration will supress the report, but it will come out in public one day, leaked, if not officially. Realizing the fragile atmosphere and fears of increased tensions among people, now rights activists are increasingly calling for publication of the report, without naming anyone as perpetrators. Perhaps that’s better than entirely suppressing the story of our wounds. If justice cannot heal, telling the story might.

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Karzai’s Manipulations Underway

Op-ed published on Outlook Afghanistan, June 25

There were lots of rumors and expectations of new announcements on reforms by President Karzai before his annual speech to the special joint session of parliament and judiciary. Interestingly, the rumors were hyped by leaks from Palace insiders. From plans of radical reforms against corruption and nepotism to the coming Presidential elections, none of issues expected to be discussed were mentioned by the President. Some informed circles say Karzai might have changed the content of his speech at the last minute.

It was apparent from an disorganized speech, probably due to interruption by MP’s, which , he actually expressed displeasure about when Lower House speaker Ibrahimi asked MP ‘s to be quite and listen, by saying, “In Afghanistan, it is not like the rest of the world.”

President Karzai, in a rare confession, said “corruption, nepotism, tribalism and ethnic-nationalism are all failures of the Government.” Now after almost a decade in power, and two years left to the end of his second term, he cannot actually deny the fact that we have already lost a golden opportunity in Afghanistan’s history to rebuild the country as a modern nation state based on democratic values with socio-economic development.

With uninterrupted flow of billions of dollars and presence of more than 50 countries, today Afghan society is more polarized than any time in history. And, the achievements of last ten years? It is huge, but it is all at risk with an uncertain situation. When people talk of Karzai’s legacy in media, I wonder if there is anything at all that we can credit to the individual leadership and vision of President Karzai, if it was not the push from international community to make the system get working.

President Karzai said nepotism has reached its peak and it must be cured. How? A day before his speech, UK’s the Telegraph newspaper had a report on a 25-year oil extraction deal awarded to Watan Oil and Gas, owned by President Karzai’s notorious cousins Rashid and Rateb Popal, who served nine years in jail in New York in 1990’s on drug charges. Watan and China’s National Petroleum Company will extract an estimated 160 million barrels of oil from three fields in Amu Darya Basin. Now connected to this, Gen. Dostum is being maligned into a smear campaign after National Front’s popular political rallies in North in recent months. The Karzai Administration called him “national traitor” saying local commanders loyal to him are ‘bullying’ Chinese engineers for money.

But it backfired when NF leader Ahmad Zia Massoud said national traitors are those who have looted Kabul Bank, rigged elections and built townships in Kandahar on grabbed lands of Ministry of Defense. A delegation from NDS and Attorney General’s Office are being sent to ‘investigate’ the issue. President Karzai, who is responsible for the culture of patronage politics, has now launched a campaign to eliminate political dissent.

The President talked of huge corruption saying if the US wants to end it, they should handover former governor of the state bank. It is ridiculous. The country is slipping down in all international rankings recently. We are now the sixth failed state in the world. Similarly, our rank at the corruption index is going down.

Not a single case of corruption involving high-ranking officials has been prosecuted. Rather many cases were shut down. When the anti-corruption body launched investigation and Chief Administrator of National Security Council Zia Salehi was arrested, President Karzai personally intervened and he was released. Later, investigations into the corruption case against former governor of Kapisa Ghulam Qawis Abubakr were blocked.

While talking of his Government’s achievements, President Karzai said Afghanistan was back on world stage during the last ten years. He added that his Government has signed strategic partnership agreements with many countries and Afghanistan has smooth relations with countries and organizations from Russia to the US and NATO to SCO. He also mentioned the upcoming Tokyo Conference saying the international community will pledge $4 billion in civilian assistance.

But this time it is not going to be a blank cheque. With the mess of corruption in the Government of President Karzai, and his lack of interest to fight against it and clean up, the international community will not pledge money when they know it will go to luxurious villas of Dubai or mega-million commercial townships owned by bigwigs of the Palace power corridor. The Karzai Administration cannot deliver the expectations of international community.

There are greater worries. Rumors about reforms and new announcements by President Karzai in his much-hyped-but-empty speech also included call for a Loya and the presidential elections.
In April, President Karzai had said he is considering early elections. The Presidential elections are due in 2014. He said it could be brought earlier to 2013 due to the withdrawal deadline of international troops and security concerns. There is a constitutional limit of two terms in office and Karzai cannot run for next elections. All opposition political parties welcomed early elections in case President Karzai resign. However, now it appears the geniuses in Palace have other intentions.

Recently President Karzai had called members of the Committee for Oversight and Implementation of the Constitution for a consultation. If he resigns earlier in 2013, technically he would not be completing two terms, the constitutional limit, would he be eligible to run for next elections, members of the Committee were asked. President Karzai is looking for some solution to the constitutional limit of two terms in office. There are other options too. He will not hesitate to manipulate the constitution through an engineered Loya Jirga, or deal-making with any faction of the opposition groups.

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Supremacists of Academy of Sciences

Op-ed published on Daily Outlook June 20

President Karzai has fired Chief of Afghanistan’s Academy of Sciences and three of its other staffers after publication of the Ethnography Atlas that includes extremely offending and derogatory claims about a particular ethnic group, which has sparked reactions from political circles and ordinary people. The Attorney General has been ordered to launch investigation against the authors of the chapters with fascistic claims that can damage ethnic harmony and fuel clashes.

It is a welcoming and timely move. I hope it can help calm down an expected extreme reaction in Kabul and other parts of the country that could create a serious trouble for the Government and cause dent in the efforts of international community for political and social stability in Afghanistan, particularly at the current sensitive transition period prior to the withdrawal of international troops in 2014.

The Academy of Sciences has published a book titled “Ethnography Atlas of Non-Pashtun Ethnic Groups of Afghanistan”. Its contents are claimed to be a collection and compiling of research papers by certain Afghan authors. The Academy says publication of the Atlas was aimed to promote national unity and increase inter-ethnic cultural awareness and understanding. However, soon after some copies of the Ethnography Atlas were obtained by independent researchers and political circles outside the Academy, reactions have sparked since.

The controversial chapter about Hazaras start from page 600. After seeing the content, one rub eyes in disbelief. While reading some parts, one wonders how such nonsense ever got approved by the leadership of the Academy and went to publication? In some parts, the sentences are referenced with explanations that for the sake of national unity, many lines have been omitted not to ‘hurt’ people of certain ethnic groups. I wondered it was for national unity and promotion of inter-ethnic cultural understanding that the level of fabrication in academic claims were such offensive and humiliating that, if spread among ordinary people, the book could fuel our descent into countrywide chaos of ethnic violence quickly.

The book includes fabricated quotes from foreign sources and Afghan historians such as Faiz Mohammad Kateb. Hazaras are described as “liers, dishonest, unreliable and ignorant people who are always indulged in tribal violence among themselves.” On page 664 of the book, Hazaras are declared sons of Mongo Khan, grandson of Ghengiz Khan living in the mountains of Afghanistan. Going further low, another lines goes, “Hazara women have hair on their head and under armpits. The rest of their body is hairless. Hazara women are superior than their man. Surprisingly, the Hazara man discuss family affairs with women and value their advice.”

The book also includes extremely offensive sectarian claims labeling the Hazaras as Rafizi—something lower than infidels in the eys of Islamic radicals. This branding is an intentional attempt to fuel sectarian hatred and cause enmity among people of different sects. Such claims can fuel Shia-Sunni rifts and conflict in the country, sadly coming from so-called academics who claim to promote national unity and inter-ethnic cultural understanding. One could expect such a supremacist attempt under the totalitarian regime of the Taliban, but it comes from the torch-bearers of liberal nationalism and so-called secular academics.

It is a timely move that President Karzai has ordered immediate dismissal of the Chief of Academy of Sciences Abdul Bari Rashid, his deputy Syed Muhammad Amin Mujahid, Chief of Social Sciences Department Abdul Hakim Safi, Deputy of Human Studies Department Nasrullah Sobman for offending the Hazaras, under the section 13, article 64 of the Constitution.

Some sane voices around President Karzai alerted him quickly to avoid a serous trouble that could spark nationwide conflict and put us on edge of polarization at this sensitive times of our history when Afghanistan has last chance to choose stability after decades of wars and conflicts. The book was published two weeks ago at the cost of $50,000 from public taxes.

However, the fact that biased elements with their ethnic politics and agendas of hate can infiltrate our national institutions, particularly academic organizations to spread their ideology of discrimination, it should be a matter of serious concern for the international community who have sacrificed blood and money to bring stability in this country during the last ten years, which could be derailed overnight by such moves of some fascist elements around President Karzai.

The President has ordered Attorney General to launch investigation against the authors and researchers of the Ethnography Atlas published by the Academy of Sciences and trial them for insulting entire people of a particular ethnic group.

MP and head of People’s Unity Party of Afghanistan Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq in a press conference on Sunday had strongly condemned the ‘offense to Hazaras’, saying it could spark ethnic clash across the country and damage national unity. He demanded full dismissal of the Academy of Sciences and asked for equal representation academic experts from all ethnic group in the Academy of Sciences.
President Karzai in remarks during the Palace meeting about the issue said freedom of expression in Constitution does not mean one can use the language of hate to insult others. He added that Ethnography Atlas published as research work is an offense to all ethnic groups of Afghanistan and the nation.

The Academy was under fire recently for another controversial issue when it published Encyclopedia of Aryana with census statistics. It had shocking figures on ethnic composition of the country. It has put Pashtuns at 62%, Tajiks 12 %, Hazara 9% and Uzbek 4% of the total population of Afghanistan. Political circles have condemned the claims published by the Academy and demanded the Government to dismiss officials responsible for fueling ethnic clash and polarization of the country. The head of Afghanistan’s Statistics Office has dismissed the figures as “unofficial” and “unacceptable” saying that there has not been any census, how could Academy of Sciences publish figures.

Lets hope the dismissal of Abdul Bari Rashid and his colleagues will put waters on the hot temper of reaction among those offended by the Academy of Social Sciences and it can prevent further polarization of our society.

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Political Transition and Calls for Electoral Reforms-II

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published May 16 

Read Part I of this op-ed here.

Heading towards challenging times of power transition ahead, we need radical electoral reforms. The parliament should make the amended draft of Electoral Law, which has to be submitted by the Independent Election Commission soon, top working priority. Fundamental amendments should be introduced into the Electoral Law to clarify parameters of Presidential authority regarding the opening of election campaign, monitoring of polls and certification of results. Nowhere on earth a sitting President ‘certifies’ results of Presidential elections, except in our mobocracy. The Electoral Law also needs further clarification on structure and administrative procedure of the Independent Election Commission and Election Complaints Commission.

In 2009, parliament adopted a law calling for approval of IEC commissioners from parliament. It was rejected by President Karzai. The current commissioners’ political sympathy for President is no secret.

There are serious flaws in the structure and administration of Independent Election Commission. Nomination of its chairman and members should be subject to parliamentary approval. Presidential nominations should be based on consultations with legislative, political parties and civil society. Members should have the authority to vote and elect their Chairman and Executive Body, rather than it being appointed by the President.

Parliament should open debate on other radical electoral reforms such as party laws and overhaul of Single Non-transferable Vote (SNTV). The Proportion Representation System should be adopted. The Electoral Law should clarify and provide for a transitional administration if polling cannot be conducted within the constitutional calendar.

The incumbent President’s term will end on May 22, 2014. Law must provide legal provisions for a caretaker administration. In last presidential election, when polls were postponed, President Karzai simply continued serving in office in contrary to the constitutional provisions. The current Administration has intentionally kept the law unclear on such circumstances.

For some changes, we need constitutional reform on electoral affairs. Schedule of presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections are needed to be amended in coordination with the challenges and limitations experienced in previous elections and with incorporation of new demographics.

It would take pages to repeat the story of 2009 Presidential elections debacle and 2010 parliamentary elections crisis. Results were delayed for months. The last two elections particularly undermined credibility of the entire process. However, in the last six elections held for presidency, parliament and provincial councils over the past decade, we have learned about range of structural flaws, logistical limitations and demographic changes which need to be updated and improved. Our infant dysfunctional democracy has to be institutionalized. For that, we need radical reforms, and electoral process is its fundamental to start with.

It will take years to achieve all requirements of an improved electoral process, beginning with an electoral database. The international community bogged with other issues and priorities in Afghanistan have ignored institutionalization and strengthening of the foundations of a democratic system. For instance, The “Annex II, Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan” of the Bonn Agreement signed in December, 2001 in Germany mentions that the UN should conduct census and develop voter registration, which never happened.

Lack of an accurate census database has slowed down the entire process. Work needs to be started on development of an advanced electoral database with voter registration through biometric ID. All of it can be possible when a census is conducted and biometric IDs issued throughout the country.

One of the constitutional requirements which the Karzai Administration has failed to implement is elections for district councils and municipality. The Government should start it from now, on a phased schedule with most secure provinces first. President Karzai has been appointing his favorites as district governors and mayors, while the constitution requires that these officials come on popular vote.

The parliament should start debate as soon as the new amended draft of Electoral Law is submitted for approval. They should prepare legislation for reforms by the end of the year and changes should be introduced by mid-2013, to bring into effect by coming Presidential polls.

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Political Transition and Calls for Electoral Reforms-I

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published May 15

As we get closer to the withdrawal deadline of US and NATO troops in 2014, security transition and political and economic stability tops among domestic concerns. Despite the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, NATO has an exit schedule but lacks a concrete post-withdrawal strategy. Transitory plans are based on assumptions of success in peace and reconciliation talks with the Taliban for a political settlement. There is not a Plan B scenario when insurgent attacks will increase, getting deadlier, and negotiations fail to reach a breakthrough by 2014. Flawed as it has been, a major blunder made in the negotiations is that political opposition is left out in the entire process. International stakeholders and the Karzai Administration are moving with contrary objectives and interests out of it. The two dominant groups in the Palace circle have their own designs for manipulation of the situation.

However, regardless of the results of peace talks with Taliban, the political opposition that consists of three major blocks—The National Coalition led by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, National Front led by Massoud, Muhaqiq and Dostum and Rights and Justice Party of former leftists and intellectuals—are anticipating a smooth political transition in 2014, the election year when President Karzai cannot participate for third term as per the Constitution.

There are talks of early polls discussed among inner circles of President Karzai. Last month after a meeting with NATO Secretary General Rasmussen, he mentioned possibility of early elections. With huge security threats, the power transition in Kabul is also a challenge for the international community. There is less optimism about talks with Taliban to succeed in a settlement on terms acceptable to of the Karzai Administration, political opposition groups and the international community. Therefore, it is required of the situation that polls be held before the bulk of US and NATO troops withdraw to ensure its security.

President Karzai’s tenure will end in May 2014, and constitution requires the polls to be held by the end of 2014. President cannot change election schedule. However, if Karzai resigns, it is possible to conduct earlier election. He has time and again reiterated that he cannot be and will not attempt to be nominated for elections. But opposition groups have expressed concerns that manipulation designs are underway in the Palace. President’s brother Qayom Karzai might be a nominee. Other options include power-sharing deals with one of the factions of opposition.  It will be welcoming if President Karzai resigns, and supports his brother or bring any other candidate from among his circle, and an earlier election is scheduled. But an adventure with manipulation of the constitution through bogus Loya Jirga-ism or attempts of deal-making with any opposition group to arrange a ‘solution’ for the two-term limit to remain in power would derail the hard-won political legitimacy and credibility of the entire system.

Two important political blocks, the National Coalition and National Front in a joint press conference two weeks ago said changing the election dates is unconstitutional, unless President resigns, which they would welcome. They issued a joint charter of demands with following proposals:

  • Amendments in Electoral Law and the Law of Organization and Authority of the Independent Election Commission (IEC)
  • Computerization of voter lists countrywide
  • Conduct the electoral process in partnership with the international community/UN
  • Security transition plan and US/NATO withdrawal schedule must consider election challenges in particular.
  • National population census and distribution of electronic national ID cards be completed six months prior to elections.
  • As per the Constitution, elections of provincial and district councils, and municipalities must be held before Presidential polls.

Free and Fair Election Foundation for Afghanistan (FEFA) has also called for reforms in the Electoral Law. IEC has issued a new draft with amendments, which are yet to be presented to the parliament and approved. The amendments do not include major proposals from organizations like FEFA and political parties.

There are concerns about impartiality of the IEC commissioners and its administrative procedure. Opposition parties have expressed concerns on neutrality of five IEC commissioners appointed earlier in January. They are considered supporters of President Karzai. With the amendments introduced in the Electoral Law, the Karzai Administration wants to limit participation of international community in the monitoring and transition process for a free and fair elections.

After the joint press conference and talks of alliance between National Coalition and National Front, the third major group Right and Justice Party also called for major electoral reforms. In a press conference last week, Right and Justice leadership said they would field a consensus candidate for polls. They called for establishment of an Electoral Reforms Commission.

All opposition groups are calling for legal participation of political parties in the elections. It is the biggest crack in our political system that parties have no legitimate role in the electoral process and parliamentary affairs. It is time the Government heed to the demands of opposition groups and take practical steps for reforms. Legal role of political parties is inevitable for political transparency and credibility. It will increase mass political participation and activism, generating awareness, something that an overly centralized concentration of power in the Presidential office, which is more like an electoral authoritarianism, does not want. The international community must push for steps to ensure long-term political stability in Afghanistan, which should not be ignored for transitory strategies.

To be continued…

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Strategic Pact and Uncertainties

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published May 08

President Obama’s short stay in Kabul was more of a symbolic political visit on the eve of Osama bin Laden’s first death anniversary. Addressing Americans from Afghanistan before launching reelection campaign, President Obama reminded them that he sent the Navy SEALs to kill Osama.

He said the tide of insurgency has turned and the Taliban’s momentum has been broken. He spoke to Americans with a victorious tone, about a situation that is more of a quagmire of uncertainties for us in Afghanistan. It shows the sophisticated reach and strength of the Taliban who were successful to launch an attack in Kabul as soon as President Obama’s arrival was breaking news on Afghan media. Several, including some foreign security guards were killed when some insurgents breached the high-security zone of Kabul and attacked Green Village, a compound where foreign aid workers and diplomatic staff live.

Talking about the security transition and Afghan forces taking control, he mentioned the decrease in size of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in 2015, a plan proposed by the Obama Administration to reduce the burden of military costs on the US and its NATO allies. Details of the plan might be endorsed in the NATO Chicago Summit next week.

The size of ANSF is projected to reach 352,000 before October this year, of which 195,000 number of Afghan National Army has already been completed. The Obama Administration is considering a plan to downsize ANSF to 230,000, reducing a third of it starting gradually from 2015 to 2017. It is estimated that the current strength of ANSF will cost annually about $10billion. But the reduced size of ANSF has an estimated $4.2billion annual cost. The United States is urging its NATO allies to contribute about 1 billion Euros to this, while Washington would channel about $3 billion. But among NATO allies, only Britain has pledged $110million annually. It is expected that Afghanistan add about $500million to $1billion annually to the cost of its security forces.

However, Afghan security officials have been critical of the Obama Administration’s plan to heavily downsize the ANSF. Afghan officials say the plans are a conceptual model based on certain assumptions of improved security and a possible deal with insurgents for a political settlement.

Presidents Obama and Karzai also signed the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). After two years of contentious negotiations on Afghan-control of US-run prisons in Afghanistan and the limits of Special Forces’ night raids agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding on the Transfer of US Detention Facilities and the Memorandum of Understanding on Afghanization of the Special Operations, the announcement of SPA was expected to bring a sigh of relief.

But the SPA is a general framework short of specifics. It talks about the generals of US-Afghanistan relations after ISAF withdrawal in 2014. Details of the US military presence and commitment to Afghanistan will be part of another Bilateral Security Agreement to be finalized by next year.

Domestically, the SPA has been criticized. We could not expect more than this from the ruling circle who have made sure to secure their domestic narrow-interests in the SPA. President Karzai at the press conference next day was saying the SPA clearly rejects change of system in Afghanistan.

One instance is the intentional wrong translation of some terms in the English, Pashto and Dari versions of the SPA. At the end of the text, it is mentioned that all three translations are equally authenticated. The original SPA text in English says “Afghanistan shall strengthen the integrity and capacity of its democratic institutions and processes, including by taking tangible steps to further the efficiency and effectiveness of its three branches of state within its ‘unitary’ system of government, and supporting development of a vibrant civil society, including a free and open media.”

In Dari and Pashto versions, they have replaced ‘unitary’ with ‘central’ (markazi). All major political opposition blocks are calling for decentralization of power, with more administrative authorities to local governance bodies and parliamentary form of government. They are strongly criticizing this part of the SPA. But the fact is that our visionless rulers with narrow-interests are playing domestic politics with the strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the US.

It must have been push by the Palace negotiators to avoid a single mention of the Taliban in the SPA. It glosses over by mentioning “Al-Qaeda and affiliates” avoiding the name of Taliban or other insurgents, keeping room for manipulations of Karzai and Co’s power-sharing designs to strike deal with elements of the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami after 2014.

But the question is, why should Afghanistan’s system of Government be mentioned in a strategic partnership agreement with any country? It is a matter of constitutional and internal affairs that can be changed on popular demand, not a concern for our strategic relations with the US.

Amrullah Saleh says by avoiding mention of Taliban, some Palace elements are furthering the agenda of their neighboring foreign patrons to ignore the safe havens of insurgents and their leadership across the border. He adds that after ten years of ruling, the Palace has no definition of national security for Afghanistan and a vision for enemy and friend.

Besides all these, the NATO summit in Chicago was supposed to come up with concrete security plans and commitments after its fundamentals were to be detailed in the US-Afghanistan SPA, but uncertainty seems to loom for another year.

The US and NATO are in rush with an exit formula, but without a concrete post-withdrawal strategy. It is not clear how many US troops will stay in Afghanistan. There are no clear US commitments on military and economic support to Afghanistan in the SPA, and it will not be any clear in the NATO Chicago Summit too. NATO countries should come up with clear pledges of continuation of aid to Afghanistan.

The decrease of ANSF strength should be based on ground realities and conditions of improved security. Long-term stability and security should take precedence over cutting costs in determining US support for ANSF. It cannot be based on assumptions of success in talks with Taliban and better cooperation from Pakistan. There is no Plan B for a scenario when insurgency will increase much deadlier after 2014 while Afghan forces will be reduced to half and the bulk of US and NATO troops will withdraw.

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Persecution of Minorities in Pakistan: A Failed State

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published May 03

Persecution of minorities is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. After partition from India  as a movement of ‘equal rights for the Muslims of sub-continent’, religious and ethnic minorities were not only declared third-class citizens through state legislations, but they have also faced brutal violence since the day of Pakistan’s birth.

Religious radicalism was promoted as a state policy on a very fundamental level. School text books taught a whitewashed history, promoting hatred against non-Muslims, particularly Hindus. Christians were never accepted more than a social class of sewerage-drain sweepers in Pakistan. Terror groups were created for intervention in Kashmir, and Jihadi radicalism was let grow deep in society.

The first ideological blow to the crack was independence of Bangladesh in 1971, when the majority Muslim Bengalis separated after more than a decade with the Punjab-dominated military and bureaucracy that controlled the then East and West Pakistan. Though troubles had erupted consecutively in parts of Balochistan and Sindh too, junta dictatorships that ruled for more than half of Pakistan’s age have suppressed it through military operations.

After secession of Bangladesh, another radical downward spiral for Pakistan as a state was when its National Assembly declared Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslim in 1974, not only making them third-class citizens deprived of many rights and systematically discriminated against in state laws, but also invoking the wrath of religious radicals grown loose in the last two decades, particularly the Kashmir-oriented Jihadism during the first and second Indo-Pak wars in 1948 and 1971. Since then, Ahmadis have been persecuted routinely, both by mobs and courts in blasphemy cases. The violence against Ahmadis has increased in recent years. Last year Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was murdered for his defense of a Christian women Asia Bibi accused of blasphemy. He was killed by one of his own security guards, who later confessed that the Governor was killed because of his advocacy for the Christian woman.

The small numbers of Hindus are another minority community facing discrimination on every level in Pakistani society. Recently human rights activist Marvi Sirmed in a press conference in Islamabad highlighted the large-scale kidnapping and forced conversion of Hindu girls to Islam in Sindh. Many Hindus have migrated abroad during the last decade from rural parts of Sindh and Balochistan.

Rivalry with India has been the mindset behind Pakistani security establishment’s promotion of religious extremism. The decade-long rule of General Zia-ul-Haq promoted radicalism to its peak. Followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Jihadism started with state sponsorship had now spread to every nook and corner of Pakistan. And during that era, sectarian terror groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were created, and Shias became another Jihadi target in Pakistan after Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. Thousands have been killed in the merciless sectarian violence during last few decades. Leaders of these terror groups roam free around the country. Pakistani Supreme Court recently released Malik Ishaq, leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an Al-Qaeda allied banned outfit.

One ethnic minority group under routine sectarian attacks in Pakistan is the Hazaras of Quetta. According to media reports and human rights organizations, more than 700 members of this community of 600,000 people have been killed since 2001. LeJ claims responsibility for all attacks. The previously targeted attacks on professionals and activists have now taken a new merciless turn on ordinary people with suicide attacks in residential areas.

Their visible racial features make them a turkey-shoot for LeJ operatives who are on a killing spree with impunity. Victims from Quetta tell me the routine attacks have traumatized people. The besieged minority community members have stopped traveling from one part of the city to another. Thousands have migrated abroad, many taking the deadly routes to western countries through illegal ways to seek asylum. Over a hundred have been killed in recent incidents of boat-drowning in sea waters of Indonesia and Australia.

The extent of violence has affected an entire ethnic minority group. In the poorest region of Pakistan, when the only breadwinner is killed, the entire family suffers as no one remains to feed them. Locals tell me they are living under constant threat and fear.  In a spate of attacks during last three weeks, about 40 Hazaras have been killed.

The question is, how can Pakistan’s security institutions fail to stop such a systematic killing which some have started calling a genocide-in-making? A bunch of sectarian terrorists besiege an entire community, and the whole state security apparatus fail. It is mind blowing. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding before the civilized world, but they have chosen to close their eyes and remain silent about it. In 21st century, such a brutal persecution of a minority group is nothing less than the severity of Jewish Holocaust under Nazis.

It is not mere failure of Pakistani security institutions.  Quetta is the provincial capital of Balochistan. Pakistan Army has a Corp of over 60,000 troops stationed in the city. The strong military intelligence Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has its regional station there.  The city is also home to headquarters of the paramilitary Frontier Corps and Police. Victims accuse, if it is not complicity, how a bunch of LeJ terrorists can kill with impunity in such huge presence of security institutions. I cannot believe that Pakistani intelligence agencies are unaware of the hideouts of LeJ operatives.  But not a single killer has been prosecuted in last ten years of consecutive systematic killings.

Due to lack of coverage of such a horrible humanitarian crisis in international media, there has not been due reaction. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have released several reports about the crisis, but the champions of human rights in Western capitals have chosen to remain silent.

There have been protest demonstrations across cities in Europe, Australia and Asian countries during last two weeks. Former British Home Secretary and current Labour MP Alan Johnson joined such a protest in London on Monday, April 30. He said, “I am here to stand in solidarity with Hazaras who face ethnic cleaning in Balochistan yet the government of Pakistan is showing no concern. In the last 10 years more than 700 Hazaras have been killed which is a scandal. The government doesn’t seem concerned and has shown no interest in catching the killers.” Another demo is organized on May 4 in front of the UN Headquarters in New York. The international community should raise voice to pressurize the Pakistani Government and stop a genocide-in-making in 21st century.

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Our Brothers

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published April 24, 2012

The recent Taliban attacks targeting Western embassies and parliament in Kabul, and government buildings in other provinces on April 15 has caused a revived confidence, support and pride of ordinary Afghans for our National Security Forces. The fact that Special Forces units and police gunned down 36 terrorists with minimum ISAF air support and least civilian and security forces’ casualties show the increasing capability of our forces, particularly the elite Special Forces units who are no less in performance than special operation forces of other regional countries.

It took the Special Service Group (SSG) of Pakistan Army nineteen hours to clear the Generals Headquarters in Rawalpindi when it came under attack in October 2009 by a group of nine militants. Nine commandos and three civilians were killed. Similarly, the bunch of LeT terrorists took Mumbai city hostage for three days killing 164 people in 2008 attacks. Of course the Afghan forces cannot be compared, but we have to keep in mind that It has been just a decade that the Afghan Security Forces were established. The Special Forces units are as new as a few years. But they have been performing extraordinary.

There is a perception that our forces are being trained by the best military mentors—NATO—in the world, but the US strategy of building Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) during the last ten years has had deep flaws, mainly focusing quantity rather than quality. Even now with the rush of withdrawal strategy, they are still reluctant to build our Air Force and provide ANSF with best equipment. The Special Operations units have been trained well and we see the result. It is a separate topic to be addressed.

In the war of perception, the latest attacks in Kabul generated greater support for ANSF among ordinary Afghans. For the first time, I see volunteer youth groups campaigning to cover the walls of Kabul with billboards, posters and banners praising ANSF with pride. The larger public perception was reflected in media reports. The widespread photo of one commando with his bloodied knees after the fight with insurgents has emerged as a symbol of ordinary Afghan’s pride and confidence in our troops. One particular photo viral on social media among Afghans portrayed something deeper than symbolic heroism. A photo of Taliban suicide bomber in women dressing was titled “Karzai’s Brother”, next to the photo of the wounded commando titled “Our Brother”.

Actually it’s not surprising that President Karzai, despite the continued bloodshed of militants, once again called them “brothers”, a day after the April 15 attacks. If I was a soldier with ANSF, I would wonder why I am fighting the “brothers” of my Commander-in-Chief.

In spite of all its problems of lack of professionalism and resources, the ideology and will to fight the enemy is the most important factor to hold our national security forces strong institutionally. Some analysts fear disintegration of ANSF after the US and NATO withdrawal in 2014 and our descent into chaos. With such a Commander-in-Chief, the concerns of fragility of our forces are very valid. When our President calls militants—who our forces are trained to fight—”brothers” in public, the definition of enemy gets blurred. And this cracks the very foundation of our security institutions.

When the news flashed on screens that Kandahar MP Naeem Lalai Hamidzai has taken position on the rooftop of parliament and fighting next to ANA troops against the militants who had stormed an under-construction building beside parliament, I was glad. I thought it was an important but symbolic public message of showing support to our forces by fighting beside them against the enemy.

However, later I watched the video of MP Lalai Hamidzai holding a machinegun, with a cup of green tea put beside him, opening burst of firing to every direction. A group of ANA soldiers and his private guards are laughing, while an officer on walky-talky urging the MP to stop firing as it could kill police who were engaged with militants inside the building, while one of Hamidzai’s guards filming all this drama. Then I realized it was a publicity stunt, as stupid as the Taliban commander in Paktika who had turned self in for $100-reward on ‘wanted’ poster.

President Karzai’s public remarks about his “brothers” are no surprise as he does not trust ANSF. Former NDS Chief Amrullah Saleh in an excellent analysis of politicization of our security forces on BBC Farsi and Al Jazeera has written; “When the president ventures out to pay a visit to a unit of the national police, national army, or intelligence, his personal security detail, called the President Protection Service (PPS), disarms everyone in advance. It sends the message that the only loyal unit to the president and the system is the PPS, comprised of 750 people who guard and protect him.”

The latest Taliban attack is a late reminder that our National Security Forces have been long deprived of the much-important, even if symbolic, public support. It is a reminder that we, ordinary Afghans, need to rally mass awareness campaign of support for our security forces, no matter if our President blurs the difference between “brother” and enemy.

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