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Entries in Taliban (7)


UPDATED Afghanistan Eyeball-to-Eyeball: Obama Administration v. Karzai

UPDATED 1740 GMT: "He's an SOB, but He's Our SOB." Spencer Ackerman picks out the most striking passage --- compromise or climbdown? --- from the US/NATO acceptance of the authority of Ahmed Wali Karzai:

"He is also one of the area’s biggest entrepreneurs, with business and real estate ventures across southern Afghanistan. 'One thing, he is a successful businessman,' the senior NATO official said. 'He can create jobs.'"

UPDATED 0745 GMT: Compromise, Climbdown, or Both? Another article by Dexter Filkins in The New York Times offers the latest in political manoeuvres and signals: "Despite Doubt, Karzai Brother Retains Power".

The gist of the piece is that the US and NATO want Ahmed Wali Karzai removed from Afghanistan's second city, Kandahar, where a US-led military offensive is soon expected but that they cannot force this:

“My recommendation was, remove him,” a senior NATO officer said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But for President Karzai, he’s looking at his brother, an elected official, and nobody has come to him with pictures of his brother loading heroin into a truck.”

So the spin now is that Ahmed Karzai, who has been on the CIA payroll for many years despite his alleged connections with drug distribution and insurgent movements, will now be used "to help persuade Taliban fighters to give up".

Afghanistan Special: Mr Obama’s Wild Ride — Why?

Finish the sentence: "Can't live with him...."

Remember how on Monday, as we were trying to sort out the Obama flying visit to Afghanistan, we concluded, "There is no more political space if Karzai continues to be a corruption/drug/ mismanagement/backroom-dealing problem."

Well, check out the spin, as both Americans and Afghans try to frame the outcome of the Obama encounter with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Tuesday's article by Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler in The New York Times:
This month, with President Hamid Karzai looking ahead to a visit to the White House, he received a terse note from aides to President Obama: Your invitation has been revoked.

The reason, according to American officials, was Mr. Karzai’s announcement that he was emasculating an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in Mr. Karzai’s re-election last year.

Incensed, Mr. Karzai extended an invitation of his own — to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who flew to Kabul and delivered a fiery anti-American speech inside Afghanistan’s presidential palace.

“Karzai was enraged,” said an Afghan with knowledge of the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. “He invited Ahmadinejad to spite the Americans.”

The dispute was smoothed over only this week, when Mr. Obama flew to Kabul for a surprise dinner with Mr. Karzai. White House officials emphasized that the most important purpose of Mr. Obama’s trip to Afghanistan was to visit American troops there.

But the red carpet treatment of Mr. Ahmadinejad is just one example of how Mr. Karzai is putting distance between himself and his American sponsors, prominent Afghans and American officials here said. Even as Mr. Obama pours tens of thousands of additional American troops into the country to help defend Mr. Karzai’s government, Mr. Karzai now often voices the view that his interests and the United States’ no longer coincide.

Let's decode those opening paragraphs....

US Side: Karzai has been a naughty boy. We had to slap him down with the non-invite to Washington. (And, if you go by Monday's spin, President Obama went a step further with the warning to Karzai in their 20 to 30-minute meeting: No More Corruption.)

Afghan Side: You're trying to slap Karzai down? Didn't work.

The Times piece is laden with this conflict. Their chief US source, "a senior official", spoke in serious tones, “We’re trying to find this balance of keeping pressure on him, without setting up bluffs that can be called. We’re coming to terms with dealing with the Karzai we have.” Filkins and Landler add, however --- presumably reflecting the American officials --- "Mr. Karzai has resisted all but the most feeble gestures" in fighting graft.

Nothing new in that theme, however. Go back to Hillary Clinton's effort a year ago to clip Karzai with the warning that the Obama Administration would not accept continued failure in governance; if it continued, the US would be looking towards a more effective Government. (Newsflash: all that Washington pressure ended in a Karzai win in a suspect election.)

No, what distinguishes this article are the Afghan sources. Consider this picture:
In January, Mr. Karzai invited about two dozen prominent Afghan media and business figures to a lunch at the palace. At the lunch, he expressed a deep cynicism about America’s motives, and of the burden he bears in trying to keep the United States at bay.

“He has developed a complete theory of American power,” said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.”

Mr. Karzai said that, left alone, he could strike a deal with the Taliban, but that the United States refuses to allow him. The American goal, he said, was to keep the Afghan conflict going, and thereby allow American troops to stay in the country.

The description of the lunch was largely affirmed by two other Afghans who attended and who also declined to be identified. The person who described the meeting said some of the participants urged Mr. Karzai to reconsider his views and his plans to be more assertive with the United States. “We are a poor country,” he said. “We are depending on the United States.”

There are two theories racing amongst US observers of Afghanistan. One is that the sources are Karzai allies who are putting out the President's message that he is not bowing to Washington. The other is that the sources are not part of Karzai's inner circle and are talking to US reporters because they are worried the President will alienate the Obama Administration once and for all, leaving Kabul to face the insurgent threat on its own.

Pick either and the central message is still the same. Karzai is confident enough and angry enough (and arrogant enough?) that he is not necessarily going to carry out the repentance that was supposedly demanded by Obama on Sunday. On the eve of the reported US offensive to break the insurgency in Kandahar, he is going to complete the phrase for Washington, "Can't live with him....

....Can't live without him."

The Latest from Iran (24 March): Regime Confidence, Regime Fear?

2210 GMT: Neda Propaganda Overkill. You might think it would be enough for Iranian state media that Caspian Makan, the reported fiancé of Neda Agha Soltan, had met Israeli President Shimon Peres (see separate entry). But, no, Press TV has to go much, much farther:

One of the suspects believed to be involved in the killing of a young woman during Tehran's post-election violence last year has visited Israel.
Caspian Makan, who claims to be Neda Agha Soltan's fiancé, has met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, during his stay in Israel.

Makan was also interviewed as a guest on an Israeli TV channel.

Agha Soltan was shot dead far away from the riot scene on June 20. Western media accused Iranian security forces of killing her, but police rejected the allegations and said Neda was shot with a small caliber pistol which is not used by the Iranian police.

They have described the killing as a premeditated act of murder "organized by US and Israeli intelligence services."

NEW Iran: The Controversy over Neda’s “Fiance”
NEW Iran: An Internet Strategy to Support the Greens? (Memarian)
The Latest from Iran (23 March): Inside and Outside the Country

2140 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Gooya reports that more than 900 Iranians have signed a petition calling for the release of imprisoned student Omid Montazeri.

Montazeri was arrested in January after he approached the Ministry of Intelligence following the detention of his mother and guests at the Montazeri house.

2015 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. On a slow news day, Parleman News has not one but two features around Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The top story on Rafsanjani's latest declaration is not that earth-shaking: the former President issues another fence-sitting declaration that "the majority of protesters are loyal to the regime", which allows him to back some public pressure on the Government while maintaining his own position of backing the Supreme Leader. No real change there.

More intriguing is the appearance of Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani's daughter. The content of the interview is not very subversive. Hashemi talks about her education and passion 4 women's sports as well as making the far-from-controversial assertion that her father wants the common good of society. It's the timing that matters: the interview comes a few days after the regime tried to shut Hashemi up by arresting her son, Hassan Lahouti.

1440 GMT: Sanctions Rebuff. Turkey, a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has added to the obstacles for tougher international sanctions on Iran. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "There is still an opportunity ahead of us and we believe that this opportunity should be used effectively. Not less, but more diplomacy (is needed)."

(I am beginning to suspect that these moves might be political theatre, accepted if not directed by Washington. The Obama Administration's approach seems to be a public posture of the international route, primarily as a response to Congressional pressure, while carrying out the meaningful initiatives in bilateral talks with other countries and even with individual companies.)

1420 GMT: Today's Obama-Bashing. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of Parliament's National Security Committee, takes on the daily duty of slapping down the US Government's approach to Iran:
[President Obama's Nowruz] comments were nothing but a deception. They (Americans) have sent several messages during the last year calling for talks with Iran, but at the same time passed more than 60 anti-Iranian bills in their Congress. As long as there is no sense of balance between their comments and actions, offering talks could be only a trick....Obama has lost his prestige among the world's public opinion, therefore his new year message has no value.

1400 GMT: On the Economic Front. This could be significant: The Russian energy firm LUKoil has announced its withdrawal from an oil project in Iran "due to the impossibility of carrying out further work at the field because of the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government".

LUKoil has a 25 percent stake in the Anaran project; a Norwegian company, Hydro, has the other 75 percent. We'll see if this withdrawal sticks: LUKoil also announced in October 2007 that it was pulling out of the project, which encompasses Azar, Changuleh-West, Dehloran and Musian oilfields with reserves at the project sites estimated at 2 billion barrels, but it resumed work two months later.

1200 GMT: We've posted an editorial from prominent reformist journalist Masih Alinejad criticising Caspian Makan, the "fiancé" of Neda Agha Soltan.

0925 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Iran Human Rights Voice reports that writer and women's rights activist Laleh Hasanpour was detained by Intelligence agents on 16 March and taken to an undisclosed location.

0745 GMT: Iran and Afghanistan. Readers have noted the latest wave of allegations, spurred by The Sunday Times of London that the Iranian Government is providing support, including funding and training, to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

I have been cautious in reporting the allegations, in part because The Sunday Times has been a handy channel in the past for those spreading "information" to discredit Tehran. Far more importantly, key US Government officials and military leaders are also playing down the accusation. General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, has said any Iranian Government role in assistance is limited. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates echoes, "There is some [training], but it, to this point, I think, has been considered to be pretty low-level."

Lieutenant Colonel Edward Sholtis said on Monday, "We've known for some time that Iran has been a source for both materiel and trained fighters for Taliban elements in Afghanistan"; however, he added that US officials do not know if the training is "simply something that is happening beyond the government's control".

(hat-tip to an EA reader for raising the story and providing sources)

0730 GMT: With the Green Movement in a quiet phase (defeated, intimidated, or just lying low?), attention is on the continuing battle between elements of the regime and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Iranian authorities released Rafsanjani's grandson Hasan Lahouti yesterday, albeit on $70,000 bail, and they had to let go the former President's ally Hassan Marashi after a short detention. The anti-Rafsanjani campaign is far from over, however.

The latest assault comes from Gholam-Hossein Elham, a member of the Guardian Council. In a lengthy "unpublished interview" which somehow is published on Fars, Elham details post-election subversion. Specifically, he targets Rafsanjani for Friday Prayers addresses which did not support the Government and thus opened the way for illegal protest and manoeuvres to undermine the Islamic Republic.

So a question: is the sustained assault on Rafsanjani a sign of regime confidence that, having vanquished the opposition outside the system, it can move aggressively against challengers within? Or is it an indication that this is a Government which will never feel secure in its supposed legitimacy?

Afghanistan: Return of the Militias?

Sanjay Kumar writes in The Diplomat:

It’s eight in the morning and Nabi Gaichi, or Commander Nabi as he’s known in the Qalaizal district of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, is cleaning his Kalashnikov rifle as he discusses plans for the day’s patrolling duties with fellow ‘commanders.’

Gaichi’s 8-year-old daughter, Ashma, brings us cups of tea and thick Afghani naan bread served with lamb meat as the group spends the next half hour discussing ways to expand patrols in the district.

Afghanistan-Pakistan: The Tragedy of Non-Cooperation

Gaichi, 35, is the head of a 145-member strong private militia in Qalaizal—a sleepy town of mud houses interspersed with a few concrete buildings whose inhabitants, until recently, lived in fear of the Taliban.

In the absence of an Afghan Police Force presence in the area (the case in many parts of Afghanistan) Taliban fighters were levying taxes at will and forcing villagers to grow poppies for opium production in their fields. But six months ago, a village doctor dared to defy the Taliban and was killed for his ‘impertinence’. The killing may well have been the final straw for the villagers and prompted its elders to turn to the militia for help.

"I was working in Hairatan (on the border with Uzbekistan) before I joined this militia," Gaichi says. "I got the invitation to lead a militia from some village elders who were being harassed by the Taliban. I was reluctant at first, but felt compelled by the situation."

Read rest of article....

Afghanistan-Pakistan: The Tragedy of Non-Cooperation

Josh Shahryar writes for EA:

Imagine this scenario: within the space of a single day, two deadly bombs hit two different cities in two different countries. The death toll from each bomb is dozens killed and dozens more injured. Both bombs are placed by arms of the same terrorist organization.

Now suppose these two cities were in France and Spain. The two countries would immediately share all the information they with each other to find a solution to a shared problem. It's common sense. But sadly in this case, the two countries are Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have not understood this logic of sharing information, even after years of being subjected to such terrorist attacks.

Afghanistan-Pakistan: America’s Private Assassination Company

On 12 March, suicide bombings in the Pakistani city of Lahore killed 72 people and injured dozens. On 13 March, a bomb ripped through the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, slaying more than 30 people and wounding dozens more. More bombs exploded in the following days.

Despite the toll, the ability and/or willingness of the Afghan and Pakistani authorities to share information about the Taliban is almost shameful. The clearest example of which is Afghan President Hamid Karzai's belated outrage last Sunday over the detention of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghanistan Taliban's second-in-command, in Pakistan. Mullah Baradar was arrested on 8 February in Karachi but, according to a Karzai aide, the President was in touch with Baradar through different sources and was negotiating for discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

According to the Associated Press:
Karzai "was very angry" when he heard that the Pakistanis had picked up Baradar with an assist from U.S. intelligence, the adviser said. Besides the ongoing talks, he said Baradar had "given a green light" to participating in a three-day peace jirga that Karzai is hosting next month.

The adviser, who had knowledge of the peace talks, spoke on condition of anonymity because of their sensitivity. Other Afghan officials, including Abdul Ali Shamsi, security adviser to the governor of Helmand province, also confirmed talks between Baradar and the Afghan government.

Clearly, there was a mishap. Either the Afghan government did not wish the Pakistani side to know of what they were doing behind closed doors or the Pakistani government decided not to share with the Afghan government the fact that they knew of Baradar's whereabouts. In either case, it demonstrates the fragility of the coalition the US has built to fight the War on Terror.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have a long border, on both sides of which Taliban fighters have found a strong foothold to carry out attacks. You'd think that Kabul and Islamabad would cooperate much more closely, yet gaffes like this are inumerable. Taliban routinely escape into Pakistani territory after carrying out attacks on Afghan soil. Weapons from the Afghan side daily make their way into Pakistan.

If the Taliban succeed in making the border between the two countries a permanent base of operations, the world is going to suffer because next item on their agenda will be assistance to their old buddies, Al Qa'eda. So if Kabul and Islamabad aren't ready to cooperate, the rest of the world, and mainly the US, need to get a stick and start beating some sense into the politicians running the two countries.

Otherwise, the Taliban will have the last laugh.

Afghanistan: Winning in Marjah, Winning Beyond?

Mohammad Elyas Daee and Abubakar Siddique write for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

MARJAH --- Azizullah Khan might be this town's best example of civic-mindedness.

He is a middle-aged farmer here in Marjah, a cluster of shops and low-slung mud walls at the center of a recent large-scale military effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province.

Afghanistan: Getting the Real Point Of The Marja “Offensive”

His dedication to community under the most trying of circumstances earned him the respect of Marjah's locals, who long depended on his pharmacy in the town's dusty bazaar as their only health-care option.

When news came that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would be visiting on March 7, following the anti-Taliban operation carried out by Afghan and NATO forces, it was Khan who was entrusted to speak for Marjah's residents. With their marketplace in ruins as a result of the offensive, the feeling was that Khan would be well-suited to present their demands and concerns based on firsthand experience.

Addressing the president inside the community's main mosque, Khan peppered his message with salutations and blunt grievances, even reminding the Afghan leader of his oft-repeated promises to step down if he failed to deliver security and services.

"We are not asking you to resign, but our patience is running thin," Khan told the only president that Afghans have ever elected. "For the past eight years the warlords have been ruling us. Their hands have been stained with the blood of innocents and they have killed hundreds of people. Even now they are being imposed on the people in the name of tribal and regional leaders. People are afraid to convey the real feelings of locals because they sense themselves to be in danger from all sides."

Khan pleaded for the government to ensure security, remove any military presence from schools and private homes, compensate locals for losses resulting from the recent fighting, and help rebuild schools, clinics, and irrigation canals.

His most impassioned and telling appeal, however, was for Karzai to avoid repeating a past mistake: Do not hand over control of local affairs to former militia commanders or other "people with influence."

The plea, met with cheers and nods of approval by the hundreds of locals assembled at the mosque, highlights a window of opportunity that has been opened in Marjah, a town that in many ways is a microcosm of what has gone wrong in much of southern Afghanistan.

Early Backlash

War-weary locals initially welcomed the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, but their feelings soon began to change. After finding themselves ruled by former mujahedin commanders installed by the government in 2001, many of Marjah's youth went to the other side, joining the insurgent ranks who paid well and protected the opium-poppy crops on which many of the towns 15,000 farming families depended.

Kabul and its international backers tried to improve the situation. The governor, police chief, and other key officials were removed, and 5,000 British troops were tasked with controlling the area.

The Taliban, however, filled the vacuum of governance. Many locals welcomed the development, preferring the stability provided by the Taliban over the chaos of life under draconian local strongmen. The Taliban enforced hard-line religious edicts and did not tolerate crime or feuds among the communities they controlled. Justice was cheap, swift, and decisive.

But locals were aware of the shortcomings as well. The Taliban offered no education, health care, or prospect of future development. The group was seen as controlled by foreign militants -- Arabs and Pakistanis in particular.

Many of those concerns are only coming to light following operation "Moshtarak," or "together." If it turns out that that locals are confident enough to look past their fears of a Taliban return and toward a better future, the transformation could prove to be the joint military offensive's greatest success.

Familiar Story

Marjah residents appear eager for a fresh start, despite the fact that 25,000 of them have been displaced and scores killed during the recent fighting. But they are clearly voicing their demand that honest local officials -- untainted by corruption and attentive to their needs -- be in control of local affairs.

The man whose return to power they might fear most is 57-year-old former Helmand police chief Abdul Rahman Jan. Jan is typical of the power brokers dominating local affairs in rural communities across Afghanistan. Once an anti-Soviet mujahedin commander, his rise to power in the 1990s and again after the ouster of the Taliban eight years ago led to local suffering. Members of his militia pillaged, raped, and engaged in the drug trade, according to locals.

Since 2007, when the Taliban overran his Marjah stronghold, Jan has lived in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, with his extended family of 12 children and grandchildren. Marjah residents want it to stay that way, but the bearded patriarch is already hinting that he might soon return to his sprawling home and farmland in Marjah.

Jan has formed a 35-member Marjah Shura, or tribal council, in anticipation of renewed control of Marjah. While his return was made possible by the recent offensive, which cleared the agricultural town of insurgents, Jan has been openly critical of the effort's results.

"People were very optimistic that this offensive will free us from the clutches of the terrorists, but as the offensive advanced hardly any Taliban [fighters] were killed or captured," Jan laments. "Only two Taliban were killed and one was injured. There were around 470 [small] Taliban groups but none of their members were captured. Few weapons or mines were recovered."

His past might help explain his dour appraisal of the military operation. Formerly allied with Helmand strongman and former Governor Sher Muhammad Akhudzada, Jan was appointed as the provincial police chief after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. After that, Helmand slowly entered a downward spiral as the former mujahedin cabal took the opportunity to recoup financial and personnel losses they had incurred during the Taliban regime, when Jan was chased across Afghanistan by his Taliban enemies.

Haunted By Past

When thousands of UN-mandated British troops moved into Helmand in 2006, Jan was among the first officials fired because most locals were tired of the excesses of his tribal militia.

During the same period, a reinvigorated Taliban made inroads into much of southern Afghanistan from their sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan. Then Marjah and Nade-Ali, an adjacent district in western Helmand, fell to Taliban fighters, who were dislodged only after the arrival of 15,000 Afghan and NATO troops in February.

Locals now see Jan busily lobbying in Helmand and Kabul to be given control of his former Marjah stronghold in return for having kept the region under nominal government control while in power. Many suspect him of using his influence within his Noorzai tribe against the Ishaqzai, who over the years have provided manpower to Taliban ranks to counter his influence. (Both Pashtun clans are part of the larger Durrani Pashtun tribal grouping, which populates much of southern Afghanistan and has played a central role in the country's politics.)

It is clear that when pharmacy owner Khan conveyed Marjah residents' demands to President Karzai, his advice against returning "people with influence" or former militia commanders to power was aimed squarely at people like Jan.

Karzai, who considers southern Afghanistan his home constituency because he was born and raised in a prominent ethnic Pashtun lineage in neighboring Kandahar Province, has indicated that he is listening.

In remarks to journalists after hearing complaints from Marjah residents for more than two hours on March 7, the president appeared to understand their concerns.

"They felt as if they were abandoned, which in many cases is true, and this sense of abandonment has to go away," Karzai said. "We have to address their problems, we have to give them what we have not [given them] so far, and provide them with the security that they require."

Anxious Days

But this new attempt to provide good governance is fraught with difficulty as well, as the provincial government's appointment of one of Marjah's own to run the town's affairs has shown.

The candor of Haji Abdul Zahir Aryan, who was chosen to be Marjah's governor, appears to have won over the town's residents. The appointment has caused a stir outside Afghanistan, however, where reports have alleged that he served four years in a German prison after being convicted of stabbing his stepson.

Largely due to a name variation, the details remain murky. The Washington Post, which has investigated the reports, writes that the case being cited corresponds to that of a "an Afghan man who went by Abdul Zahar" while in Germany.

Brushing aside any talk of controversy, the soft-spoken 60-year-old Marjah elder tells RFE/RL that he indeed lived in Germany for years, legally and with a visa. But he categorically denies having been convicted of or serving time for such a crime.

Looking ahead, he says the future of Marjah and its residents depends on how Kabul responds to their demands.

"As far as issue of the return of the Taliban is concerned, it depends on the performance of the government," Aryan says. "If the government continues to deliver on its promises and to carries on reconstruction and wins over Marjah's people, then the Taliban will find no space here in the future. But if the government turns its back on Marjah, as it did in the past, then the Taliban will rebuild their sanctuary here."

Aryan's message, seconded by people like Khan, clearly carries weight among Marjah locals. For Afghanistan's international backers, the message -- and the messages of others from a region largely silent in recent years -- will be tainted until they know for sure who is delivering it.

It's a tightrope that Kabul and its NATO allies must walk as they try to develop a formula that can work not only in Marjah, but throughout southern Afghanistan.