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Default [Afghan News] March 16, 2012 - 03-17-2012, 06:41 AM

NATO helicopter crash kills 16 people in Afghanistan
By Hamid Shalizi and Jack Kimball Fri Mar 16, 2012
KABUL - (Reuters) - A NATO helicopter crashed into a house on the outskirts of the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Friday, killing 12 Turkish soldiers on board and four Afghan civilians on the ground, Turkey's military and a senior Afghan police official said.

The crash came amid growing unease among NATO partner countries about the increasingly unpopular and costly war nearly 11 years into the conflict as most foreign combat troops set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

"Twelve of our military personnel on board the helicopter have been martyred," the Turkish general staff said in a statement in Ankara. A team had been sent to the scene to investigate, it said.

Wreckage as well as corpses and body parts littered the site. Relief workers and Turkish soldiers covered bodies with red and purple blankets on a ground in front of a smoking hole in a two-storey house.

Two women and two children were among those killed when the helicopter crashed into the house, an Afghan police officer said.

The officer said the cause of the crash appeared to be a technical fault. NATO's International Security Assistance Force said earlier that the cause of the crash was still unknown but that there had been no reports of insurgent action in the area.

Turkey's foreign minister also said the cause was apparently a technical fault.

"Both the location and the way the crash happened makes the impression that it's due to technical failure," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Istanbul.

"It's a cause of great pain, I am sending my condolences once again to the families and the general staff."

Turkey's mission in Afghanistan is limited to patrols and its soldiers do not take part in combat operations. It has more than 1,800 soldiers serving in the country, most of them around the capital.

Unlike other NATO countries, public opinion in Turkey has been less critical about having troops in Afghanistan, given their non-combat role. Nor is there as much resentment among Afghans over the Turkish presence, because they are fellow Muslims and due to the historical links between the countries.

In January, six U.S. Marines were killed in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan, which followed the death of 30 American personnel, including 22 Navy SEAL commandos, in eastern Afghanistan in August last year.

An investigation into the August incident confirmed the Taliban had fired a rocket-propelled grenade that hit one of the rotary blades and exploded, sending the helicopter plummeting to the ground and bursting into flames.

On Thursday, in a blow to NATO hopes of a negotiated end to the decade-old war, the Afghan Taliban said they were suspending nascent peace talks with the United States, following the massacre of 16 civilians by an American soldier.

The U.S. government said it remained committed to political reconciliation involving talks with the Taliban but progress would require agreement between the Afghan government and the insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Reuters TV in Kabul, and Jon Hemming and Ece Toksabay in Turkey; Editing by Rob Taylor and Robert Birsel)

Karzai Sharply Criticizes U.S. Over Shooting Inquiry
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG and SHARIFULLAH SAHAK The New York Times March 16, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai chastised the United States on Friday, saying that he was at “the end of the rope” over what he termed the United States’ lack of cooperation in investigating the American soldier accused of going on a rampage earlier this month and killing 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan.

Mr. Karzai had previously dispatched a delegation to investigate the killings in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, and he said on Friday that American officials did not cooperate with the Afghan inquiry. He made the comments after meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul with relatives of those killed.

The Afghan leader also questioned whether only a single American soldier was involved in the massacre, which took place on March 11. He said the accounts of villagers — many of whom have claimed multiple soldiers took part in the shootings — did not match the American assertion that the killings were the work of a lone, rogue soldier.

The Afghan leader’s comments were likely to intensify the sense of crisis that has begun to permeate the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan in recent weeks. The two allies look increasingly at odds over basic elements of the strategy to fight the Taliban , and widespread Afghan resentment at the presence of foreign troops appears to be rising amid a series of American missteps — from Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters to soldiers burning Korans.

The killings in Panjwai have left both sides grasping for a way to stabilize the deteriorating relationship. President Obama and other senior American officials have repeatedly apologized, but the expressions of regret have done little to placate angry Afghans, including Mr. Karzai.

On Thursday, Mr. Karzai demanded that the United States confine its troops to major bases by next year, apparently in a bid to accelerate the end of NATO’s combat role in Afghanistan. But the move would effectively reverse two main elements of the American strategy: getting its forces out into the villages to better combat the Taliban’s influence, and having them train Afghan soldiers by living and operating alongside them throughout the country.

Then came Mr. Karzai’s comments Friday about the Panjwai killings. “This has been going on for too long,” he said. “This is by all means the end of the rope here.”

“This form of activity, this behavior, cannot be tolerated,” Mr. Karzai was quoted as saying. “It’s past, past, past the time.”

Mr. Karzai emphasized that he wanted a good relationship with the United States, his chief foreign backer. But he insisted that the relationship must be predicated on American respect for Afghan culture and laws.

He appeared to be reacting in part to word that the American soldier behind the killings had been flown out of the country. Afghan officials had demanded that he be tried in Afghanistan, not in an American military court.

Mr. Karzai also seemed to be making a point about night raids by coalition forces, which American commanders say are among their most effective tool against the Taliban. Mr. Karzai has long objected to them, saying storming into a home at night violates Afghan culture. Many Afghan civilians have died in night raids as well, exacerbating the divide over the operations.

Although American officials have stressed they do not see the Panjwai killings as a night raid, the distinction is not shared by most Afghans. In fact, some villagers have said that they did not resist the soldier because they thought at first that a night raid was taking place.

Separately, earlier on Friday a Turkish helicopter crashed into a house in Kabul, killing at least 12 NATO service members and two civilians, the American-led coalition and the Afghan police said.

The coalition said in a statement that the cause of the crash was under investigation. It did say that there was no insurgent activity in the area when the helicopter went down.

A Turkish official confirmed Friday that the dead service members were all Turkish and that the crash represented the largest loss of life for Turkey in Afghanistan.

Later, President Abdullah Gul of Turkey expressed his condolences for the deaths and signaled that Turkey would not withdraw from Afghanistan. “The Turkish army, within the framework of its mission on behalf of humanity, has been providing serious contributions to the Afghan people together with our other institutions,” he said. “Turkey will continue supporting our Afghan brothers and friends.” The country is dispatching a team to collect the bodies and bring them home.

The Turkish official said the service members were not involved in combat, but provided services like security, and that Turkey would investigate the cause of the crash.

Turkey has taken part in the NATO coalition since 2003. It currently has 1,845 service members stationed in Afghanistan, according to figures posted on the coalition’s Web site. Its main presence is in and around Kabul, and Turkish forces also lead Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Wardak and Jawzjan Provinces.

The crash destroyed much of the three-story house in the eastern part of the city, and police officers and firemen were digging through the rubble, said Saifuddin Nangeyali, the police chief of the area where the crash took place. He said that another Afghan civilian was injured along with the two killed in the crash.

Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting from Istanbul.

In phone call, Obama talks to Karzai about demand for NATO to pull back from Afghan villages
By Associated Press,
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — President Obama has telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss Karzai’s call for NATO troops to withdraw from rural villages.

Spokesman Jay Carney says that during the early-morning call, the leaders agreed to talk further about the demand. Karzai has told reporters in Afghanistan he’s standing firm. If so, that throws a wrench in the current U.S. strategy.

Carney says the leaders reaffirmed their “shared commitment” to a gradual transition to an Afghan combat lead next year. He was briefing reporters as Obama flew to a fundraising appearance.

Karzai’s demand followed the weekend massacre of 16 Afghans. The suspect is a U.S. soldier who was stationed at a rural outpost.

Karzai’s demand sowed confusion among U.S. officials, but Carney says the two leaders are “very much on the same page.”

American frustration exposed over Afghan war leads to Afghan anger
by Abdul Haleem, Yangtze Yan
KABUL, March 16 (Xinhua) -- In an apparent chain reaction to the shooting spree by a U.S. soldier in south Afghanistan, Washington and Kabul both wanted to speed up the security transfer from NATO troops to Afghan army, coupled with a Taliban decision to suspend talks with the United States on Thursday.

Afghan analysts believed that the killing of non-combatants at mid-night by a U.S. soldier in Taliban birthplace Kandahar and the following events speak the irritation of foreign soldiers fighting endemic war thousands of miles away from their land and the annoyance of Afghan people over the tragic event.

In the painful incident described by many Afghans as "carnage" happened last Sunday morning when a rogue U.S. soldier came out of his base in Panjwai district and entered a few houses at nearby, opened indiscriminate fire leaving 16 people dead including women and children and nine others injured. Some affected families even recalled that several soldiers entered houses at 02:00 a.m. on March 11 and brutally shot dead civilians and burned some of the bodies.

"Although, killing is natural in any war, the arbitrary and intentional killing of civilians in Kandahar is different from any incidents in the past and speaks of the soldiers' frustration over the protracted war," said Faizullah Jalal, a Kabul University professor and a political analyst.

Reports said the serial killer had mental problems and was unhappy of his deployment to the war-zone Afghanistan.

"It is very important for the U.S. statesmen to thoroughly examine the serial killer and fellow soldiers and find the reasons that motivate the soldier to kill so many civilians without any logic reason," Jalal told Xinhua.

The bloody incident have withdrawn wide condemnation at home and abroad and triggered series of demonstrations in Afghanistan calling for public punishment to those behind the alleged massacre in Kandahar.

"Punishing those responsible for the massacre, apologizing to the victims' families and compensating affected families would help reduce the anger among Afghans," Jalal hoped.

On Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to step up the pace of security handover saying that "both sides should work together for a security handover from international forces to Afghan troops to take place by 2013 instead of 2014."

Karzai also told Panetta that the United States should pull out its troops from Afghan villages, where they have military camps and outposts, and relocate them in their bases across the country.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday said that the NATO forces in Afghanistan will shift to a support role in 2013, a year ahead of the scheduled date to complete troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.

Americans' public support to the decade-long war in Afghanistan has dropped and more people are backing early withdrawal of U.S. troops from the militancy-plagued central Asian state, said a survey by the Washington-based Gallup Daily News company.

The research, conducted two days after the shooting tragedy in Kandahar, indicated that 50 percent of Americans say the United States should accelerate withdrawal from Afghanistan, while 24 percent prefer sticking to the current timetable to leave by the end of 2014. Another 21 percent say U.S. should stay as long as it takes to accomplish its goals.

Back in Afghanistan, the awful killing incident has badly hurt the feelings of the Afghan people. Both the Wolesi Jirga and Mushrano Jirga or Lower House and Upper House of the Afghan parliament in sharp reactions strongly denounced the gruesome incident and demanded public punishment for those behind the callous act.

Taliban militants fighting Afghan and NATO-led 130,000-strong force with some 90,000 Americans have condemned the killing and vowed to take revenge on U.S. soldiers. The militants in a separate statement announced to suspend their talks with the United Stetas in Qatar.

"Harming civilians by U.S. soldiers would boost up the idea that long-term presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan would mean more killing of Afghan civilians," said Daud Sultanzoi, a political analyst and a former parliamentarian.

Official: Afghanistan slaying suspect headed to US
By GENE JOHNSON | Associated Press
SEATTLE (AP) — The soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers was on his way to a U.S. military prison, a senior defense official said Friday, as the soldier's attorney spoke of the impact the fighting had on his client.

The defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security surrounding the move, said the soldier was en route to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the military's only maximum-security prison.

The Kuwaiti military said in a statement carried on the state news Friday that the soldier had left Kuwait. He had been moved there from Afghanistan on Wednesday because, officials said, there was no appropriate detention facility to hold him in Afghanistan.

The U.S. defense official said the suspect's move does not necessarily mean a decision was imminent on announcing formal criminal charges.

The soldier's attorney, Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, told The Associated Press on Friday that he and the judge advocate general had to cancel a 6 a.m. PDT video conference with the soldier because the suspect was either preparing to fly or was en route.

Browne said either he or his legal partner, Emma Scanlan, will meet with the soldier at Fort Leavenworth next week.

Browne said that the day before the rampage, the soldier saw his friend's leg blown off. Browne said his client's family provided him with details of the injury to another U.S. soldier. The details have not been independently verified.

"His leg was blown off, and my client was standing next to him," he said Thursday.

It isn't clear whether the incident might have helped prompt the horrific middle-of-the-night attack on civilians in two villages last Sunday. Browne said it affected all of the soldiers at the base.

The suspect had been injured twice during his three previous deployments to Iraq and didn't want to go to Afghanistan to begin with, Browne said.

Browne declined to release his client's name, citing concerns for the man's family, which is under protection on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma. But he said the soldier has two young children, ages 3 and 4.

FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich in Seattle said the agency and the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin Thursday about the possibility of homegrown extremist retaliation for the shootings, but she said there's no specific target or credible information about an imminent attack.

The soldier, a 38-year-old originally from the Midwest, deployed last December with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, and on Feb. 1 was attached to a "village stability operation." Browne described him as highly decorated and said he had once been nominated for a Bronze Star, which he did not receive.

He said the soldier and his family had thought he was done fighting. The suspect was training to be a military recruiter before his deployment to Afghanistan, Browne said.

During tours in Iraq, the soldier suffered a concussive head injury in a car accident caused by a roadside bomb, Browne said, and he suffered a battle-related injury that resulted in surgery to remove part of his foot.

He was screened by health officials after the head injury before he redeployed, Browne said. He did not know if his client had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but said it could be an issue at trial if experts believe it's relevant.

He and the rest of his brigade had initially been told they wouldn't have to go to Afghanistan, Browne said.

Browne and his co-counsel, Scanlan, said at a news conference at their Seattle law office that they had met with the soldier's wife and other family members, and Browne said he spoke briefly by phone with the soldier, whom he described as stunned and distant.

His family was "totally shocked," he said. "He's never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He's in general very mild-mannered."

U.S. investigators have determined that the suspect had been drinking alcohol before leaving the base that night, a senior U.S. defense official said Friday. The official discussed the matter on condition of anonymity because charges have not yet been filed. Drinking is a violation of a U.S. military order that bans alcohol in war zones.

The defense official provided no further details about the role of alcohol and said the matter remained part of the criminal investigation.

Browne said he knew little of the facts of the shooting, but disputed reports that a combination of alcohol, stress and domestic issues caused the suspect to snap. He said the family said they were unaware of any drinking problem, and described the couple's marriage as "fabulous."

The soldier is accused of going on a shooting rampage in villages near his base in southern Afghanistan early Sunday, killing nine children and seven other civilians and then burning some of their bodies. The shooting, which followed a controversial Quran-burning incident involving U.S. soldiers, has outraged Afghan officials.

The soldier asked to be represented by Browne, a well-known Seattle defense attorney, when he was taken into custody, the lawyer said.

Browne said he's spoken with the soldier, but did not discuss the substance of the allegations. He said the soldier had no prior events in his Army dossier indicating misbehavior.

Browne once defended serial killer Ted Bundy and recently represented Colton Harris-Moore, a youthful thief known as the "Barefoot Bandit."

Browne said he has only handled three or four military cases before. The soldier will also have at least one military lawyer.

Military lawyers say once attorneys involved in the initial investigation of an alleged crime involving a service member have what they believe to be a solid understanding of what happened and are satisfied with the evidence collected, they draft charges and present them to a commander.

That person then makes a judgment on whether there is probable cause to believe that an offense was committed and that the accused committed it.

That commander then "prefers" the charges to a convening authority, who typically is the commander of the brigade to which the accused is assigned but could be of higher rank.
___

AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

Gene Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle .

Karzai Criticizes U.S. Over Shooting Probe
March 16, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has accused the United States of failing to fully cooperate with an investigation into the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers, allegedly by a U.S. soldier.

Karzai said that a delegation he sent to investigate the shootings in the southern province of Kandahar did not receive the cooperation the Afghans expected from American officials.

Karzai, speaking in Kabul, also questioned whether more than one U.S. soldier was involved in the slaughter.

The March 11 killings have raised fresh tensions between Kabul and Washington.

The massacre came shortly after the accidental burning of Korans at a NATO military base, which sparked angry protests across Afghanistan.

As a result of the killings, Karzai on March 15 called for NATO troops to withdraw from Afghan villages.

With AP and Reuters reports

Lawyer: U.S. Soldier Accused Of Massacre Reluctant To Deploy To Afghanistan
March 16, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
The lawyer who's been asked to defend the U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers, including nine women and three children, said his client was reluctant to leave on his fourth deployment.

John Henry Browne said that the soldier had been injured twice during three previous deployments to Iraq and that he and his family thought he was done fighting.

"He was told that he was not going to be redeployed," Browne said. "The family was counting on him not being redeployed. And so he and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over. And then literally overnight that changed. So I think that it would be fair to say that he and the family were not happy that he was going back."

Browne said the day before the shooting in the southern Kandahar Province on March 11 the soldier had witnessed one of his fellow American soldiers getting his legs blown off in an explosion. The lawyer described the wounded soldier as a friend of the shooter and said the incident affected all U.S. soldiers at the military base in Kandahar.

Browne said the soldier's family was shocked at what happened and said he had no animosity toward Muslims or people from the Middle East or South Asia.

"Oh, they were totally shocked. He's never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He's never said anything antagonistic about Middle Eastern individuals," Browne said. "He's, in general, been very mild-mannered. So they were very shocked by this."

Browne said he knew little of the facts of the shooting but disputed reports that a combination of alcohol, stress, and domestic issues caused his client to "snap."

The lawyer declined to release his client's name but said the 38-year-old soldier has two young children.

Fearing possible retaliatory attacks, the soldier's family has reportedly moved to a military base south of Seattle.

Browne described the soldier as highly decorated and said he had once been nominated for a Bronze Star, a prestigious medal for bravery.

The shootings in Kandahar Province on March 11 have raised fresh tensions between Kabul and Washington. It also came after the accidental burning of Korans at a NATO military base, which sparked angry protests across Afghanistan.

As a result of the killings, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for NATO troops to leave Afghan villages and to remain on major bases.

Karzai also told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the Kabul government wants to take control of Afghan security from NATO forces in 2013 -- not in 2014 as planned by Washington.

Meanwhile, the Taliban announced it was suspending preliminary talks in Qatar with the United States aimed at building confidence for full-scale peace negotiations.

A Taliban statement accused the United States of having a wavering position. It also said the Taliban rejects talks with Karzai's government.

Reacting to the Taliban announcement, Washington said it remains committed to political reconciliation involving talks with the Taliban. But Washington said progress would depend on agreement between the Afghan government and the insurgents.

With AP, AFP, and Reuters reports

Some 100 Inmates Go On Hunger Strike At Notorious Afghan Prison
March 15, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
KABUL -- Officials from Afghanistan's largest prison say some 100 inmates have gone on hunger strike over their alleged mistreatment at the facility.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official from the Pul-e-Charkhi prison told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on March 15 that the prisoners had sewn their lips and refused food for the past three days.

Inmates at the prison have said they are suffering from overcrowding and malnutrition, and have had their Korans confiscated.

The prison's warden, General Khan Mohammad Khan, denied the allegations.

The notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison, a high security facility outside Kabul, houses an estimated 3,000 inmates, most of them former Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, convicted murderers, and drug traffickers.

Afghan Local Police Abuses Worry UN Chief
March 15, 2012 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed concern about human rights violations by Afghans who increasingly are taking over security as foreign troops withdraw.

In a report released on March 15, Ban raised particular concerns about Afghan local police -- some of whom are accused of extortion, extra-judicial killings, and other human rights violations.

A NATO-backed Afghan government program now pays and arms local Afghans to defend their villages in a bid to formalize local protection networks in areas with a strong Taliban presence.

Ban said such local police groups need clear lines of accountability, command, and control to tie them to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.

The report comes ahead of a UN security Council vote next week needed to renew the mandate of the UN's mission in Afghanistan.
With reporting by Reuters

U.S. Rebukes Afghan Jail Over Searches of Female Visitors
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG March 16, 2012 The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan — Women visiting relatives at a notorious men’s prison on the edge of Kabul have in recent weeks been subjected to invasive body-cavity searches at the order of the prison’s commandant, who has told guards and American officials that the measure is needed to keep out contraband, Western and Afghan officials said.

Most male visitors get into the American-financed prison with a mere pat down. Almost all female visitors, meanwhile, undergo a vaginal search without reasonable suspicion or recourse.

“It was killing me to go through this disgusting way of body search,” said a woman whose husband was imprisoned at the Pul-e-Charki prison, Afghanistan’s largest detention center, and who after dozens of visits is still being searched. “I was telling the female prison guard, ‘this is against all human values and dignity.’ ”

American officials agree, as do some Afghan officials, and they have repeatedly pressed Interior Minster Bismillah Khan Mohammadi and the commandant of the prison, Gen. Muhammad Khan, to stop the practice.

Having been repeatedly rebuffed, the Americans on Thursday tried to use the best lever they have: they cut off all American financing to Pul-e-Charki until they can confirm that the invasive searches have stopped, two Western officials said. The United States has spent about $14.2 million on improvements at the prison since June 2009.

But with no word yet on what impact the latest American move has had, Western officials and rights advocates here are viewing the hard line as a troubling sign: not just of waning Western influence as relations have worsened, but also for of maintaining hard-won gains in rights for women in Afghanistan as the prospect of a speeded-up American withdrawal has become a greater possibility.

This is not an oversimplified case of high-minded Westerners versus conservative Afghans. The West’s role in Afghanistan empowered many Afghans to champion women’s and minority rights in the past decade, and those home-grown reformers have helped establish most of the social changes that have been seen as encouraging steps here.

Yet the Afghans at the forefront of pressing for those rights are already finding themselves increasingly marginalized as Afghanistan’s old guard flexes its muscles. In fact, the official in charge of all Afghanistan’s civilian prisons, Gen. Amir Jamshid, has tried and failed to stop the invasive searches of women, his objections overridden by Mr. Mohammadi, the interior minister, Afghan and American officials said. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending their Afghan counterparts.

Other worrying signs have appeared. President Hamid Karzai in December removed outspoken members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which is appointed by the government but acts independently. Then earlier this month, Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious authority, released a “code of conduct” that suggested it was permissible for a man to beat his wife under certain circumstances. President Karzai endorsed the code last week, in a move seen as part of his efforts to reach out to hard-liners among the Taliban ahead of an American withdrawal.

“There has been important progress made on human rights in the last 10 years largely due to brave Afghans inside and outside the government,” said Heather Barr, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But they’ve needed international support and without it, they may see their work become impossible.”

American officials cautioned that trouble at one prison did not herald the overall collapse of Western influence, and that they believed they could still effect change, especially a Pul-e-Charki, which houses about 7,000 convicts.

But they have so far failed to stop the invasive searches, which were first noticed by American mentors at the prison in mid-February, according to multiple American and Western officials.

The Americans have since then twice received assurances the practice would stop — once from General Khan and then later from Mr. Mohammadi, the minister. It has nonetheless continued, and the American Embassy said this week it was still discussing the matter with the Interior Ministry. It is not clear whether women face the same kinds of searches at Afghanistan’s other civilian prisons.

Since June 2009, the United States has earmarked $26.8 million for renovations at the prison, and just over half of that has already been spent. “I don’t think we’d be facing the same kind of resistance if this was last year or the year before,” said one American official in Kabul. “We’re going, and they know it.”

A request from The New York Times to visit Pul-e-Charki was turned down by the Interior Ministry.

Saturday is the next visiting day at Pul-e-Charki, which is run by civilian authorities. General Khan, who comes from the police force, said in a telephone interview the searches would continue. “Stopping somebody hiding narcotics or mobile phone or banned items, that’s not a violation of their rights,” he said.

The prison, he said, was thick with Taliban detainees and rife with contraband and needed to be brought under control. He said Taliban commanders held there were plotting attacks in Kabul, a view shared by American officials.

General Khan said the invasive searches would stop once America bought an X-ray machine for the prison — a purchase American officials say they have no plans to make. He added that men suspected of smuggling could also face a similar kind of search. And he insisted that the searches were only conducted on “suspicious” women.

That account was countered by a female guard at the prison and by Western and Afghan officials familiar with the situation.

“We have been strictly ordered to search genital areas of all the women who are visiting the prisoners,” said the guard, who asked not to be named for fear of losing her job. She added that even the prisoners, all of whom are men, are only patted down after meeting visitors.

She said that the guards sometimes find phones or drugs in some searches, but that she was still uncomfortable with the blanket order to search all women. She said many of her fellow guards felt the same, and they sometimes let women pass without a search when they can.

The Afghan woman who had been subjected to the searches said the practice had been going on since at least last year, though it had gotten stricter in the past few months. “I have been subjected to this humiliating type of body search more than 20 to 25 times,” said the woman, who did not want to be identified because she felt ashamed.
Sangar Rahimi and Habib Zohori contributed reporting.

What Is Plan B in Afghanistan?
The New Yorker By Steve Coll March 14, 2012
The sound coming from Afghanistan these days—painfully familiar to those who have travelled there over the past three decades—is of fabric ripping. Periodically, Afghanistan unravels. The country remains very weak after decades of continual violence, emigration, upheaval, return, clandestine war waged by neighbors, and overt war waged by international powers. A pair of horrifying events—the accidental burning of Korans and riots in reaction, followed by a rampage by an American sniper who killed sixteen villagers in rural Kandahar—have now called into question the Obama Administration’s exit strategy and the assumptions on which it is based.

Over the weekend, General John R. Allen, the Marine general who leads all NATO forces in Afghanistan, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “The campaign is sound. It is solid.” But saying so does not make it so. At the White House, according to the Times, there is talk of perhaps speeding up the rate of American troop withdrawal, so that another ten thousand or even twenty thousand troops might leave sooner than planned. But even these proposals sound only like speeded-up versions of the same plan that General Allen is now carrying out.

What if the NATO transition plan for Afghanistan is based upon faulty assumptions or has created fissures that are being ignored because they are unnerving or inconvenient? Does NATO or the Obama Administration have the capacity to honestly reassess the plan, identify its mistaken premises, and adjust? Or do politics, fiscal limits, and the sheer exhaustion of Western governments with Afghanistan’s intractable problems mean, in effect, that the choice comes down to the success or failure of a plan set in place several years ago, one that is still on a kind of automatic pilot?

The ebbing of political will and energy about Afghanistan is evident in Western capitals beset by economic troubles. The impulse is to blame the Afghans for taking up the corrupting incentives of massive international spending, and, equally, to blame Pakistan for allowing the Taliban to regroup—as if NATO were not complicit in both failures.

Afghanistan is not, in fact, being consumed, at the moment, by a raging fire; it only feels that way. There are some aspects of the war that are not going terribly. Territory taken by international military forces in the south is being held against the Taliban, although it’s not clear how durable those achievements are. Security for civilians in the big cities, even Kandahar, is generally better than it was a couple of years ago. The point is only that despite the shocks and despair of the past few weeks, it is at least conceivable that there is enough time and space to rethink the assumptions on which the current exit plan is based, with an eye toward making sure that it does not fail spectacularly.

Some of the assumptions of the original Obama plan have turned out to be simply wrong. The most glaring one is that NATO’s surge in 2009 could induce better governance and decisively improved international-aid performance. There are at least two other dubious assumptions. One is that Afghan politics will be cohesive and stable enough in 2014 to bear the pressures of a dramatic reduction of foreign troops. A second is that Afghan security forces will be capable and politically unified enough to take on the burden assigned to them.

NATO has lately been tearing up its earlier plans for Afghan forces that might have cost eight to ten billion dollars a year to maintain; now the goal being discussed is for a force that might cost two or three billion dollars annually, subsidized by outside governments. When your accountants are changing on the fly the scale and shape of institutions that are pillars of your exit strategy, it is not a good sign.

In war planning as in everything else, human beings often get it wrong. It can be tragic to be wrong; it isn’t shameful. What is shameful is to possess the capacity to recognize and fix mistakes but to fail to do so, out of pride, politics, or indifference to the suffering of others—in this case, the potential suffering of Afghans if NATO leaves behind another Somalia. That is the moral and practical dilemma NATO governments face.

Afghanistan has a history of international armies leaving under pressure. Infamously, one exit by a British expeditionary force of about forty thousand soldiers, in 1842, did not go very well. The entire force, but one man, was destroyed on its way to Jalalabad. That long-ago example has perhaps become a cliché of Western thinking about Afghanistan, but it is nonetheless a reminder that the Afghan body politic has long been infused with nationalism and streaks of xenophobia and that Afghans, like lots of other peoples, can alter their collective perceptions of friends and enemies quickly. The timeline here is not likely to be governed by a calendar of international conferences and declarations.

If there is a lesson from the historical examples of armies leaving Afghanistan, it may be that when a foreign army signals weakness or the intent to withdraw, the incentives shaping the actions of Afghan factions under arms can shift rapidly. In any event, that is certainly happening now. In 2009, as the Obama “surge” began, it was apparent to all Afghan actors that the United States and the international community intended to increase their investments in the country— military and otherwise. The Taliban responded to this challenge with asymmetric strategies that have allowed them to fashion a durable stalemate. For non-Taliban factions under arms, the new incentives argued for patience, hedging, and rent seeking while the money was good.

Now the situation has reversed. The West’s ebbing tide may tempt some armed factions to act—to try to control and seize the political and military spaces that NATO has announced it is abandoning. This may tip groups previously neutral to the Taliban side; it may give rise to new violence only peripherally related to the Taliban’s insurgency; and it will certainly create challenges for the 2014 political transition in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to include a presidential election.

What is Plan B? If some or even a majority of the assumptions behind the current exit strategy are flawed, what are the alternatives? I don’t have a confident-sounding five-point plan, I’m afraid; a place to begin would be to withdraw from overweening confidence about the current plan’s analysis. Unfortunately, in the state of exhaustion around the Afghan problem, the choice is typically framed as “stay the course” or “get out faster.” That is not actually the choice. There are many others. (A quick footnote: Thanks to Roland Paris and Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa for sponsoring the lecture from which this Comment is adapted.)

One possible direction, for example, would involve a much more determined accommodation of the declared, broadly based political goals voiced by Afghan leaders, including but not limited to President Karzai. These goals include an end to night raids, greater and faster sovereignty over international military operations, and a review of the arming and supervision of militias. Even the announcement of such a direction might arrest the despair and contention that surrounds the American-Afghan partnership, bogged down for months in increasingly implausible negotiations over a strategic partnership accord.

It might also be possible to turn, much more energetically, to the 2014 election plan, and the related institutions, personalities, and civil-society groups that will be involved, if the election comes off. According to the Afghan constitution, President Karzai must leave office then—or else, Karzai will decline to leave, and provoke a crisis. In 2009, Afghanistan almost miraculously dodged a meltdown after a fraudulent election—because the incentives for holding on as Obama poured money into the country trumped factional interest. That is unlikely to happen a second time.

Focussing directly and creatively on Afghan constitutional politics and the civil society necessary to bolster a successful transition (the parliament is also supposed to be up for election) might be more useful, in terms of promoting unity and cohesion among Afghan groupings, than the provocative talks with Taliban leaders have so far been. Currently, American political strategy is heavily located in these talks. They are valuable, should be continued, and might bear fruit, but they haven’t produced much so far. Their relevance on the road to 2014 and beyond is uncertain.

Of course, many risks would attend any shift in plans—but it is not as if the current course is risk-free. After all the blood and treasure expended, is anyone in NATO or the Obama Administration even scoping out alternatives to the status-quo plan, apart from faster troop withdrawals? Conceivably, such a rethinking exercise might only cause the President to reaffirm the plan he has. But having risked his Presidency on the U.S. military’s promises about what it could achieve in Afghanistan, Obama deserves an opportunity to change course before it is too late, without being instructed that his only choices are Churchillian resolve and ignoble retreat.

When NATO arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, it recognized that its governments had, during the dark nineteen-nineties, ignored the connections between Afghan suffering and international security. An exit of NATO combat forces is now a certainty. Perhaps it is already likely that NATO will leave behind another terrible civil war or a second era of widespread, coercive Taliban rule. The security of Afghans and Americans will remain linked, come what may. There is no reason to march ahead, blinkered and fatalistic, burdened by a plan that may already have failed.

Commander Blasts West's Indifference to Campaign against Narcotics
Fars News Agency March 16, 2012
TEHRAN (FNA)- Commander of the anti-narcotics squad of Iran's Law Enforcement Police General Ali Moayyedi lashed out at the West for its inaction vis-à-vis the harms and damages inflicted by drug production and trafficking.

Speaking on Thursday, Moayedi criticized the Western governments for their inaction in the fight against illicit drugs, and noted, "The countries advocating human rights, especially the Western countries, are indifferent [even] to the wellbeing of their own citizens" and take no measures to reduce the harms that they are subjected to.

He further pointed to the successful experiences of the Islamic Republic in the campaign against illegal drugs, saying other countries are now asking for Iran's aid in their counternarcotics bids.

Earlier this week, Iran submitted three proposals to UN narcotics meeting, including necessity of considering a comprehensive approach toward issue of drugs in Afghanistan including development and strengthening economic and social infra-structures, demolishing of laboratories which convert materials, creation of a mechanism for a serious participation and using regional capacities to fight against narcotic drugs and finally, cooperation of organizations and international community with countries in front line of fight.

According to the UNODC, these days, 93 percent of the world's opium is produced in Iran's neighboring country Afghanistan, 60% of which is destined for the EU and specially the US markets, and the main transit route is Iran, where the country's dedicated police squad risk their lives to make the most discoveries of drug cargoes, disband drug-trafficking gangs and organizations and much more in a bid to rescue not only the Iranian youth but also all those living in Europe and the US.

Iran has always complained about the EU and other international bodies' lack of serious cooperation with Iran in the campaign against drug trafficking from Afghanistan.

Iran spends billions of dollars and has lost thousands of its police troops in the war against traffickers. Owing to its rigid efforts, Iran makes over 89 percent of the world's total opium seizures and has turned into the leading country in drug campaign.

According to official estimates, Iran's battle against drugs cost the country around $1 billion annually. Strategies pursued by Tehran include digging canals, building barriers and installing barbed wire to seal the country's borders, specially in the East.

FBI: Afghan civilian killings could spark attacks in U.S.
CNN By Carol Cratty March 15th, 2012
The alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier could spur retaliatory violence in the United States, a law enforcement advisory by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned.

The intelligence bulletin, which was issued Wednesday to state and local law enforcement partners, says "there is currently no specific, credible threat information" that extremists might strike targets in the United States.

However, the document, which was obtained by CNN, notes the March 11 killings of the Afghans is the latest in a series of events in Afghanistan that could cause anger and possibly lead to violent action.

"The FBI and DHS are concerned that this event could contribute to the radicalization or mobilization of homegrown violent extremists in the Homeland, particularly against U.S.-based military targets," the bulletin said.

The document notes that the soldier suspected of committing the killings is based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, and states that in the past, extremists have viewed military sites as "legitimate targets for retaliation in response to past alleged U.S. military actions against civilians overseas."

The law enforcement advisory also lists other recent events in Afghanistan that could incite violence in the United States, including the February burning of Qurans and other religious texts by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and a video that surfaced in January which appeared to show U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters.

The Quran burning sparked protests that left as many as 40 people dead, including six U.S. servicemembers.

U.S. officials also have promised a full investigation into the deaths of the 16 civilians.

According to the bulletin, it's unlikely that any one of these events alone would lead to violence in the United States, but it noted they will be used in "violent extremist propaganda and could contribute to an individual's radicalization to violence."

The FBI and DHS called on local law enforcement to be vigilant for possible violence, particularly against U.S. military targets.

NATO’s measured exit plan in Afghanistan faces new obstacles
The Washington Post By Ernesto Londoño and Karen DeYoung March 15 , 2012
KABUL - The measured Afghanistan endgame that President Obama outlined this week suffered new setbacks Thursday, as the Taliban suspended peace talks with the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that NATO withdraw forces from the small, rural outposts that are at the heart of its military mission here.

The developments are the latest in a cascade of challenges to the exit that the administration and its coalition partners are planning, including a gradual turnover of security responsibility to Afghan troops, a paced U.S. and NATO withdrawal and a negotiated peace with the Taliban.

Administration officials had steeled themselves for fallout after the burning of Korans by U.S. service members last month and the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians Sunday, allegedly by an Army staff sergeant who went on a rampage.

But Thursday’s statements caught Western officials in Kabul off guard and sparked new concerns that the U.S.-led operation here could unravel as trust erodes between Afghans and their foreign benefactors.

“Afghanistan is ready right now to take all security responsibilities completely,” Karzai said in a statement issued shortly after he met with visiting Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. “To speed up this process, authority should be given to Afghans.”

The statement set no deadline for what it called the “withdrawal of international forces from villages.” It reiterated Karzai’s insistence that foreign troops should not be allowed to conduct night raids on Afghan homes. U.S. commanders rely heavily on these operations to net suspected insurgents.

Karzai has a long history of making demands that the international community ignores or implements slowly, and he has cried wolf many times. But if he presses ahead with the demand for withdrawal of NATO forces from the countryside, the U.S. military could face many of the same challenges it contended with in Iraq in 2009, as Baghdad sought to curb the movement and authority of American troops.

The effect in Afghanistan could be considerably more complex and dangerous. Iraq’s insurgency had begun to wane at the time, but militants in Afghanistan remain strong, despite coalition progress in some areas, and Taliban leaders continue to have sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan.

Coalition commanders see the constellation of small outposts in insurgent-plagued provinces as essential to their goal of providing enough security for the Afghan government to take root. That objective remains elusive in much of the country, and the Afghan government, whose military forces are still a work in progress, still depends almost entirely on foreign funding.

In a news conference in Washington with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday, Obama acknowledged “multiple challenges along the way” but said that “in terms of pace, I don’t anticipate at this stage that we’re going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have.”

“If we maintain a steady, responsible transition process, which is what we’ve designed, then I am confident that we can put Afghans in a position where they can deal with their own security,” he said.

The plan NATO adopted in late 2010 has already undergone some changes. Although it had indicated that the turnover of security responsibility to the Afghans would not be completed until 2014, with NATO combat forces withdrawing by the end of that year, the alliance now hopes to transition to a supporting role throughout the country by the end of next year.

Karzai’s statement said the transition should be completed in 2013, and it was unclear whether he was proposing a game plan different from NATO’s.

Obama also said that he expected a U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement to be completed by the next NATO summit, in Chicago in May. But that agreement, designed to set the terms for a reduced but continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, has foundered over the issue of night raids.

Karzai has “just generally always been concerned that night raids are intrusive and heavy-handed, whereas what we’ve pointed out is that they’re central to our ability to degrade Taliban operations and battlefield leadership,” said a senior administration official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations. “We’re trying to find the appropriate course of action.”

Administration officials played down the significance of the Taliban statement suspending peace talks, describing it as part of a roller coaster they have grown familiar with ever since a series of U.S. meetings with the insurgents, most of them in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, began in late 2010.

But the talks have been stalled for nearly two months, and the new announcement further diminished U.S. hopes that progress could be announced at the NATO meeting as planned.

Late last year, agreement was reached between U.S. officials and Tayeb al-Agha, an aide to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, on the exchange of five Taliban suspects being held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a Western official held by the insurgents. The Washington Post has withheld the name of the official for safety reasons, at the administration’s request, since the fall.

Other elements of the tentative deal included what U.S. officials said would be a Taliban statement recognizing the authority of the Afghan government and renouncing international terrorism, and the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar. But the plan faltered when Karzai objected, saying he had not been consulted. He later suspended ties with Qatar, where Taliban negotiators had established a beachhead.

By January, Karzai reversed course, and U.S. officials said the opening of the Qatar office would also mark the moment when the Afghan government would enter the talks. Congress was briefed on the exchange, under which an initial three Taliban prisoners were to be transferred to house arrest in Qatar, with the other two following 60 days later.

Administration optimism rose when an Afghan government delegation visited the Guantanamo prisoners last week and when Karzai announced Saturday that he would send a senior representative to Qatar for talks with that government. But spirits fell again Sunday at news of the massacre of the Afghan civilians.

In the Thursday statement, posted on its Web site, the Taliban said it was suspending all talks “until the Americans clarify their stance.” It accused the United States of breaking its promise on the prisoner exchange and imposing a new “list of conditions” — an apparent reference to the statement on international terrorism that the insurgents have yet to make.

It also reiterated that Taliban would talk only to the “American invaders” and not to the Karzai government.

“Now they say it’s the Americans who are the problem,” said a second administration official, referring to the announcement. “It was too much to expect that nothing would happen” in the wake of Sunday’s incident, he added.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Greg Jaffe in Kabul contributed to this report.

Double blow to west’s Afghan strategy
Financial Times By Matthew Green in Islamabad, James Blitz in London and Geoff Dyer in Washington March 15, 2012
Hopes for a smooth Nato exit from Afghanistan faced twin setbacks when Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, demanded that foreign troops stop patrolling rural areas and the Taliban rejected overtures towards peace talks.

Angered by the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a US Army sergeant, Mr Karzai said foreign forces should leave villages and return to larger military bases to avoid more civilian deaths.

Mr Karzai’s demand injected fresh uncertainty into a western mission reeling from last month’s riots over the burning of Korans at a US base, the deaths of six UK troops in a roadside bombing last week, and the weekend murder spree.

Any move by the Afghan government to prevent foreign troops conducting missions in the countryside would in effect spell the end of Nato combat operations, since the vast majority of fighting takes place in rural districts.

Separately, the Taliban announced on Thursday that it was breaking off contacts with mediators due to “shaky, erratic and vague” US statements, dealing a blow to another pillar of the west’s strategy for winding down the war.

Mr Karzai delivered his surprise message to Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, who flew to Kabul on Wednesday to try to repair the damage to relations done by the massacre, one of the worst atrocities committed by US forces in 10 years of war.

As a consequence of the murders, “international security forces have to be taken out of Afghan village outposts and return to bases”, Mr Karzai said in a statement.

Mr Karzai said the shootings were “cruel” and that Afghan forces were capable of providing security in rural areas “on their own”.

Afghan and western officials played down the likelihood that Mr Karzai would press for any immediate confinement of Nato troops to barracks.

“It’s a reaffirmation of a very important Afghan priority,” said Janan Mosazai, spokesman for the Afghan foreign ministry. “If we can bring forward the transition timetable because of the growing professionalism and capability and capacity of the Afghan army and police then we should do that.”

A western diplomat in Kabul said Mr Karzai may have made his statement to appease public anger at a string of Nato blunders rather than to signal a shift in policy.

“It may be as much an emotional as a rational response,” the diplomat said. “He’s partly playing to his domestic gallery.”

The US said it did not believe the Afghan leader was calling for an immediate withdrawal of Nato forces from rural areas.

“We believe that this statement reflects President Karzai’s strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan,” said George Little, a Pentagon spokesman.

Nevertheless, the tone of Mr Karzai’s latest remarks underscored the frequent divergences that bedevil the US-Afghan alliance and may further dent public confidence among war-weary allies.

Isaf, the Nato-led force in Afghanistan, has begun gradually handing security duties to Afghan forces before the planned end of its combat duties in 2014.

Isaf says that Afghanistan’s army and police is already taking the lead in securing half of the population. The transfer of some of the most dangerous parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan is due to start in the coming year.

Barack Obama, US president, and David Cameron, UK prime minister, emphasised in Washington this week that foreign troops intend to hand over primary responsibility for fighting the Taliban to Afghan forces by the middle of next year.

Nato troops will remain on hand to provide extra firepower where needed until the end of 2014, when the US focus will shift away from counterinsurgency and towards counter-terrorism missions by smaller numbers of special forces.

The Obama administration wants to sign a long-term security pact to allow US forces to stay in Afghanistan until 2024 before a Nato summit in Chicago in May. The talks have been bogged down for a year, but some progress has been made in the past week, raising US hopes a deal might still be possible before the meeting.

It was as western officials parsed the implications of Mr Karzai’s latest statements that the Taliban said it was breaking off contacts with US mediators to protest at Washington’s attempts to involve the Afghan government in the talks.

The movement said it wanted to confine discussions with US representatives to the issue of transferring prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay and opening a Taliban “office” in Qatar to facilitate dialogue.

Nigel Inkster, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the statement might be an attempt at Taliban brinkmanship rather than a sign the talks are dead. “At the moment the Taliban are feeling things are going more their way and are being far more exigent of the US,” he said. “Whether talks have broken down completely remains to be seen.”

New friends race to end an old war
Financial Times By Philip Stephens March 15, 2012
In Washington this week a president and a prime minister declared victory even as they admitted defeat. The US and Britain are getting out of Afghanistan. The rush for the exit is becoming a race. “We’ve been there for 10 years and people get weary,” Barack Obama said. “People want an end game,” Britain’s David Cameron chipped in. What happens next in that benighted country is, well, a problem for the Afghans.

Mr Cameron used to shun talk of the special relationship between London and Washington. His predecessors had been supine. This prime minister was going to be no one’s poodle. Proximity to real power, though, is intoxicating. Misplaced pride melts away. Never mind talk of American decline; for the leader of a middle-ranking ally clinging precariously to past glories nothing beats swanking with the most powerful politician on earth.

The warmth of the presidential welcome was striking. If only Mr Cameron’s aides could keep quiet. “I’m embarrassed for you,” an American friend said after British officials had gushed with adolescent glee about the prime minister’s brief flight with Mr Obama on Air Force One. Apparently it was a first for a foreign leader. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Downing Street boasted, had got nothing more than a trip to a local hot dog stand. School playgrounds come to mind.

The serious business of the encounter revolved around the terms of Nato’s retreat from Afghanistan. On this the two leaders share the same impatience: the sooner the better. If there are differences, they are about precise timing and choreography. Mr Cameron was caught unawares when the Pentagon advanced its departure schedule. The British do not want to be a single step behind the US. The Americans do not want Britain to run ahead.

The formal timetable was set a couple of years ago at a Nato summit. The alliance’s combat troops are to leave by the end of 2014. The US administration, however, intends to front-load the process, handing the lead combat role to the Afghan national army by mid-2013. This would allow an accelerated drawdown of the 90,000-strong American force. Britain does not want its 9,500 troops left exposed to the inevitable Taliban resurgence in southern Afghanistan. The deal in Washington seems to be that they will both come out faster. The exit strategy, as Henry Kissinger has observed, has become all exit and no strategy. Many would say the two men are simply owning up to reality. If the war was ever winnable, it was lost when the US decided to invade Iraq. The Taliban went missing and were mistakenly presumed dead.

Unsurprisingly, voters on both sides of the Atlantic have turned against the conflict – just as with Iraq. A US election looms. Never-say-die conservatives such as Republican Rick Santorum are questioning whether anything resembling victory is any longer possible.

A violent Afghan reaction to the burning of copies of the Koran by US troops, and a murderous attack on Afghan civilians by a serving US soldier have crystallised doubts. The law of diminishing returns has set in: the presence of Nato troops has become the problem.

To this can be added the strategic truth that the Taliban could never be defeated as long as Pakistan refuses to deny the insurgents sanctuary on its side of the border. The US has not found a way to break Pakistan’s determination to see Afghanistan as a vital piece in its eternal struggle with India. The news from Kabul is scarcely better. Hamid Karzai’s government is irredeemably corrupt and as mistrusted by many ordinary Afghans as foreigners.

Mr Obama observed the other day that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the severe damage inflicted on al-Qaeda leadership have robbed the occupation of its rationale. In this he was catching up with the long-held view of his intelligence advisers. The international terrorist threat it is now more dangerously rooted in places such a Yemen and Somalia. As for noble ambitions to uphold democracy and human rights in Afghanistan – well they were discarded some time ago.

Missing in all this depressing logic, is any sense of what Nato will leave behind. We know the Pentagon wants to retain an anti-terrorist capability on Afghan soil. Beyond that? A year or so ago Washington promised a “political surge” to forge some sort of accommodation with the Taliban. US diplomats have been working hard to that end. But talking about a “responsible wind-down”, as did Mr Obama this week, is no substitute for a serious effort at the top to achieve something resembling a regional political settlement. Neither president nor prime minister seems ready to expend the energy.

It is not just Afghanistan. Something of this nothing-to-be-done weariness percolated their talks about Syria. This week marked the first anniversary of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression. Civilians are still being murdered daily. Mr Obama and Mr Cameron wring their hands in unison.

Iran is different. Here the relationship has yet to be tested. President and prime minister do not want Israel to launch an early strike against Iran’s nuclear installations. They also happen to share what could be politely described as a distinctly low opinion of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Netanyahu is viewed as a small man trying to fill the shoes of a big leader – and is dangerous for that.

Mr Obama, though, seems to mean what he says. If sanctions and diplomacy fail then he will indeed send in US missiles and warplanes. After the salutary experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, would Mr Cameron join him in another Middle East war?

philip.stephens@ft.com

West's Afghan Hopes Collide with Reality
The National Interest By Michael Hart Mar-Apr issue February 28, 2012
THE WEST’S military engagement in Afghanistan is entering its eleventh year and has another two years to go before the end of combat operations in 2014. Whatever the result of the international conferences that began last year in Istanbul and Bonn to elicit support for a successor state, one thing is clear: after Western forces draw down, Afghanistan won’t bear much resemblance to the Western vision that fueled the intervention in the first place.

However effective Western military organizations are in transitioning to Afghan control, the country’s future will not be decided primarily by the residual structures and legacies of Western involvement, the current Taliban insurgency or even any formal process of reconciliation. Rather, it will be decided more by the country’s ethnic character, the particular nature of local and national governance, and the influence of neighboring powers with enduring geopolitical and strategic imperatives in the region far stronger than those of the West.

In other words, the future of Afghanistan will be determined by forces that antedate the latest Western effort to direct a turbulent area—and which probably will long survive this and future efforts to dominate the country.

Thus, it is possible to discern a picture of an Afghan future and to predict it will fall far short of the high hopes that attended American and Western engagement there following the al-Qaeda attacks in America on September 11, 2001. These were hopes of an Afghanistan ruled effectively by a central government in Kabul aligned with the West and capable of keeping the Taliban at bay. Instead, Western influence will be severely reduced. The central government in Kabul will probably be weak, as it has been for most of Afghanistan’s history. The centrifugal effect of Afghanistan’s ethnic geography will be exacerbated by intensified involvement, directly and by proxy, of competing external powers. Pakistani, Indian and Iranian influence will increase, as will that of the Afghan Taliban in Pashtun-majority areas and probably within the Kabul political establishment. In the absence of a significant improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan, their geopolitical competition, played out by proxy, could become the dominant ideological conflict inside Afghanistan. Given the weakness of the Afghan national polity, endemic corruption and economic dependence on international aid, the long-term survival of any successor regime is doubtful, even without the challenge of a Taliban insurgency more coherent than the mujahideen insurgency of the 1990s.

Two fundamental strategic questions emerge from this picture of the Afghan future. First, in the event of a failure to manage the insurgency in the South and East, where the Taliban is strong and likely to remain strong, can a non-Taliban redoubt be sustained in northern Afghanistan? And, second, how effectively could influence be projected into the Pashtun South in order to prevent, if necessary, al-Qaeda from reestablishing an operational base in that area?

On the first question, historical precedent suggests a non-Taliban North can be sustained. Before 2001, ethnic connections among Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara, combined with external powers, provided sufficient support to the Northern Alliance to prevent a complete Taliban takeover of the North. But it should be noted that Taliban successes in first Herat and later Kunduz provided an opening for the organization’s later campaign against the Northern Alliance. This indicates that future durability is likely to depend on preventing any Taliban footholds outside the Pashtun-majority areas in the South and East. But given the strength of Iranian connections in western Afghanistan, this probably would mean accepting significant Iranian influence over the outcome.

On the second question, it would appear that sufficient influence could be projected into the Pashtun South and East to prevent the area from reverting to an operational base for al-Qaeda, should that prospect emerge as a danger to the West. In other words, al-Qaeda’s freedom of operation can be disrupted after 2015 on both sides of the Durand Line, the porous and vaguely marked 1,600-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan that bisects the region’s ethnic Pashtuns. That is because the demands of providing support to a major counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan would be significantly reduced after the military drawdown by America and its allies and because the example of the successful campaign which ejected the Taliban from power in 2001 is well understood by all Afghan political players.

Perhaps the key strategic lesson of more than ten years of Western involvement in Afghanistan is that, despite the West’s economic, technical and intellectual strength as well as its sophisticated expertise in counterinsurgency, it can’t effectively compete against neighboring powers such as Pakistan, India and Iran, whose strategic interests in the region make their involvement both nondiscretionary and enduring. If the West wishes to maintain the ability to project power in Afghanistan following 2014, it will have to leverage the antipathy toward the Taliban of non-Pashtun peoples in the northern and western areas. This in turn will require a willingness and ability to work effectively with neighboring players in the region that have significant influence with certain of those non-Pashtuns of the North and West. It will also require a measure of diplomatic humility.

ANY EFFORT to assess prospects for Afghanistan after 2014 must begin with an examination of the current military state of play. Since 2010, it has become possible to assess the military surge in southern Afghanistan, particularly in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and the picture is somewhat positive at the local level. It should be noted, however, that the increased military presence—and the intensified pressure on the Taliban—was never intended to be permanent. The aim was to provide the Afghan government and the international community with sufficient breathing space to allow them to establish governance with sufficiently strong roots and legitimacy to endure and an Afghan security apparatus with the strength to protect it.

Thus far, where Western forces, particularly Americans, are present in strength, the combination of numbers and the professional expertise developed over a decade of counterinsurgency has disrupted—and in some areas reversed—the Taliban’s tactical momentum. The success can be measured in the reduced number of violent incidents where troop densities are highest—down by more than 40 percent since 2009—and in the change in tactics forced upon the Taliban. Before 2008, for example, the Taliban pursued direct engagements, but Western tactics later forced it to make adjustments. In 2009, the balance shifted toward IEDs, and from 2010, with the Taliban increasingly pressured in Helmand and Kandahar, the insurgents turned to assassinations of Afghan government officials and high-profile gun and suicide-bomb attacks in Kabul.

But the Taliban’s tactical adjustments represent a double-edged sword. One edge reflects the effective counterinsurgency campaign pursued by America and its allies. But the other reflects the adaptability and resilience of the Taliban. Indeed, notwithstanding tactical and local gains by America and the West, it is clear that the insurgency, rooted in Afghan Pashtun society and protected by cross-border sanctuaries, will endure well past 2015. As the cessation of combat operations approaches, the ability of Western military forces to control events will wane significantly.

This does not mean that Western actions between now and 2014 are irrelevant. Effective transition to an Afghan security apparatus is essential. For one thing, the institutional reputation of Western armies is at stake. But beyond that, it is clear that without an effective transition, no Afghan successor state can survive long. This makes the style, timing and nature of the West’s withdrawal from combat operations highly significant. Precipitate or sudden withdrawal is likely to damage the fledgling Afghan National Army and will deny time for local police forces to become effective.

But the transition, however it unfolds, is unlikely to define the long-term Afghan future. That future will emerge from deep historical, political, cultural, economic and geopolitical forces and trends, both in Afghanistan and across the region. These forces and trends almost inevitably will sap Western influence in the region as the influence of Afghans and their neighbors will increase. This can be best understood through an examination of the country’s ethnic makeup; its weak central government; the tribal and other cultural elements of the South and East dominated by Pashtuns, and of the North and the Hazarajat, largely anti-Pashtun territory; and the geopolitical imperatives of Afghanistan’s neighbors.

ETHNICITY IS a key determinant of identity in Afghanistan. It also affects how neighboring countries interact with Afghans. The country’s population includes Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, Baluch, Kuchi and Uighurs. The largest ethnic group is the Pashtun, with about 44 percent of the population, most of it concentrated across the southern areas of the country (and in northern Pakistan). There are also a number of Pashtun enclaves in northern Afghanistan, established by the British in the nineteenth century. The Uzbek and Tajik populations are centered north of Kabul, the Hazara in the mountainous areas to the west of Kabul.

This ethnic geography carries immense weight in determining the Afghan future. After Western withdrawal, the Taliban will probably not be able to exert effective control over the whole of Afghanistan. Essentially a Pashtun phenomenon, it will be difficult for the Taliban to command sufficient support in non-Pashtun areas to hold sway there. But the Taliban is strong enough amongst the Pashtuns to rapidly exert control over large areas in the South and East if residual structures fail.

Afghanistan’s central government also poses a big question mark for the country. The government almost surely will be weak—a consequence in large measure of President Karzai’s two terms in office. His government has been undermined by corruption, familial and Pashtun nepotism, and a failure to engage consistently with the wider Kabul polity. At the provincial level and below, Karzai’s political situation is not much better. Lack of effective government and the Taliban challenge have undermined his standing, and his support among Pashtuns in the South has declined precipitately.

There are surface parallels between Karzai’s attempt to function as a national leader and the leadership of Mohammed Najibullah, head of the Soviet successor state in Kabul. Najibullah also sought to bring the nation together through his national reconciliation and pacification program of the late 1980s. But Najibullah was a far more effective national leader who understood and engaged with the wider societal and political issues of the day in a manner that Karzai has not been able to do. His People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was a political party with national reach; the Karzai years have not spawned any such party organization with comparable influence. The 2011 formation of the Truth and Justice Party, which seeks to represent a broad range of ethnic groups and ideological positions, is a belated attempt to put this right. But however rapidly the party develops, it isn’t likely to challenge successfully the well-established local and regional power brokers or take on the Taliban in the South and East.

Still, the events that preceded Najibullah’s fall in 1992 have a depressing contemporary resonance. His government fell after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the end of Soviet support for the Kabul regime. But even before that, the country’s extended crisis contained elements of corruption, financial collapse, scarcity of resources and chronic overdependence on foreign support. In 1988, 75 percent of Afghan state revenue derived from projects dependent on Soviet support. And in 1991, internally generated revenue provided just 30 percent of a declining GDP. The inability of today’s Afghanistan to generate the revenue to meet the financial burden of maintaining an expanded national army and police force is eerily reminiscent of the immediate post-Soviet era, after the abrupt collapse of Soviet support left the country economically on its own.

A joint Afghan and World Bank report issued in November 2011 stated that, assuming effective development of Afghan minerals and national economic growth of 5–6 percent a year for a decade, expenditures would still exceed GDP by some 25 percent, or $7.2 billion a year. Even when the cost of maintaining the security forces is removed, spending exceeds income by 11 percent. And this is based on the assumption that security will improve sufficiently to allow for the exploitation of mineral resources. That may not be a realistic assumption. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a similarly pessimistic report. The international community may make available greater support than the USSR was able to give Najibullah, but it still may not be enough to offset the weakness of any national government following Western disengagement, not to mention the existence and durability of the Taliban. A more ideologically coherent opponent than the mujahideen of the late 1980s and early 1990s, today’s Taliban is the dominant indigenous Afghan political influence in the South and East.

Then there are the twin issues of personality and deeply ingrained behavioral patterns at the national level. One might think that the civil war of the 1990s and the subsequent Taliban government, followed by the Taliban overthrow, would have brought new governmental and political players to the fore. But the Afghan national polity seems to be dominated by the same people as before, and it is striking how difficult it is for outsiders to break into it, even in the face of these major traumas. Many of the key figures have been major players in Afghan national politics far longer than Karzai, which may account for some of his difficulties. With the exception of Ahmed Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani, both killed by the Taliban, almost all the key players of the 1990s remain active today.

But another important reality is that none of these men has obvious credentials as a potential national leader. They are distinctly ethnic or regional players. The result is that there has been a dearth of alternative potential national leaders. This reflects, in part, the ethnic and local nature of Afghan society and politics. But deliberate policy comes into play as well. Karzai raised concerns among American policy makers in 2010 when he sacked two top governmental officials—Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh—after they failed to prevent an attack on a Kabul peace council. Such actions belie any idea of an orderly political succession. Thus, the collective behavior of the Kabul polity is likely to revert to that of the early 1990s—jockeying for individual and ethnic advantage as well as the formation of unstable, shifting alliances susceptible to external exploitation and military pressure.

It should be noted that, in Najibullah’s day, the expectation that Soviet withdrawal would precipitate a large-scale and successful mujahideen offensive effectively undercut Najibullah’s policy of national reconciliation. When the mujahideen failed to capture Kabul following a military defeat at Jalalabad, the idea of reconciliation temporarily gained renewed momentum. A similar pattern could emerge today as imminent Western withdrawal is sensed. But a major Taliban defeat in southern or eastern Afghanistan isn’t likely. Without active Western military partners, it is doubtful the Afghan National Army will prosecute a successful counterinsurgency campaign against the resilient and resourceful Taliban. Once the extent of Taliban political control over the hinterland becomes plain, the national army’s Pashtun soldiers could leave en masse. That would mean the struggle taking on an ethnic cast, as the residue of trained Tajiks (overrepresented within the officer corps), Panjshiris and Uzbeks assume the bulk of resisting any Taliban spillover from the Pashtun areas. Thus there is a strong possibility that the country will return to the politics and conflict of the 1990s, characterized by ethnic and geographic divisions and passions.

It is premature and perhaps unduly pessimistic to talk of a Taliban protostate in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But after 2015, the Pashtun South and East will almost inevitably come under increased Taliban influence. Taliban strength and resilience are based as much on a natural affinity with the population as on intimidation or the Kabul government’s weakness. Before 2010, each successive attempt to extend control and governance was followed by Taliban success in retaking that territory. Away from the areas of direct Western military control, Taliban “shadow governance” is far stronger than the writ of Kabul. It is true that the surge of American forces in southern Afghanistan has produced significant tactical gains, and Afghan forces, mentored by Western soldiers, have begun to perform more effectively. But once Western military forces are removed, Taliban influence and control will likely expand once again. The models of provincial governance imposed or attempted by the West are not sufficiently deep or rooted to endure in Pashtun-majority areas.

In Helmand, the residual British model, based as it is on an external technocrat, effectively relied upon one man, Governor Gulbuddin Mangal, for several years. Even without a Taliban challenge, in the absence of Western military forces, local rivals with genuine roots in Helmandi society such as Sher Muhammad Akhundzada would have rapidly engineered Mangal’s removal. These men draw their power and authority as much from business interests, including narcotics, as from any traditional tribal structures or patronage networks, which were substantially destroyed in the Soviet occupation. However, despite their ability to raise and arm militias, they are unlikely to be any more effective in resisting the Taliban’s political and religious appeal and military power in 2015 than they were in 1994–96. By 2011, the structures of governance underpinning Mangal were more resilient, but their viability in the absence of the security provided by Western soldiers remains questionable.

There are few reasons to anticipate durability in the U.S. model in the Pashtun areas of eastern Afghanistan. The practice was to install a strongman from outside the province as governor. In Nangarhar, Governor Gul Agha Sherzai established a credible level of security. But then bombings in a Jalalabad bazaar in 2010 demonstrated just how tenuous that security really was. The resurgence of Taliban influence was starkly illustrated by an attack on Kabul Bank in Jalalabad in early 2011. Residual tribal structures are stronger in the East than in the South, but there is little evidence that tribally based militias could resist a reversion to Taliban control. Western withdrawal would thus almost certainly be followed quickly in both the South and East by restored Taliban influence.

The Taliban will probably also increase its influence in areas of mixed ethnicity, such as Wardak and Logar, near Kabul. In the 1990s, these areas formed the initial boundary between Taliban and governmental forces. Since 2008, the Taliban, using the capabilities of the Haqqani network, has infiltrated suicide attackers through Wardak and Logar to targets in Kabul. The influence of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his militia, loosely affiliated with the Taliban, is also strong in the area.

EVEN AT the apogee of its power, the Taliban never fully subdued the North, and there is little appetite for a return to Taliban rule in northern and western Afghanistan or the central Hazarajat. Given their experience with Taliban government, Uzbeks and Tajiks aren’t likely to accept future Taliban domination. A similar reluctance to accept Taliban control amongst the Shia Hazara can only have been increased by the brutal attacks on Shia pilgrims celebrating Ashura in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif in December 2011. This antipathy could provide the basis for efforts to limit Taliban influence in northern and western Afghanistan.

Away from the Pashtun South and East, individuals such as Atta Muhammad Noor, governor of Balkh, have established security, provided the basis for local stability and economic growth, and denied the Taliban a foothold. This model of governance, rooted in local conditions and society, is inherently more sustainable than models imposed by the West. Governors such as Noor command respect and raise effective militias, and warlords such as Ismail Khan in Herat have sufficient authority and capacity to provide the basis for coherent resistance to Taliban encroachment. Crucially, they also have overriding personal and ethnic incentives to do so.

As Western military disengagement approaches, preventing the Taliban from persuading individual northern power brokers to change sides will be critical. This gives added significance to the northern Pashtun pockets and eliminating Taliban shadow governance within them. In its mid-1990s advance, the Taliban established almost unstoppable momentum by developing local shadow governance before launching military operations. This expedited its military success. In this way it captured Herat (which cut direct links from Iran to the Hazarajat and Mazar-i-Sharif) in September 1995, and then reinforced the Pashtun pocket of Kunduz (by air from Kabul) in 1997. This laid the foundations of its campaign against Mazar-i-Sharif.

The revival of the National Front after the assassination of Rabbani indicates an appetite to prevent Taliban dominance of the North and the Hazarajat. The prospect of containment after 2015 depends on preventing the development of such Taliban momentum, which may persuade individual northern leaders that their best interest is achieved by cutting deals with the Taliban. Taliban shadow governance across the North, the West and the Hazarajat must be undermined and preferably removed before any pullout of international forces. Another imperative is the defeat of the mini-insurgency in Kunduz, which contains the seed for wider Taliban success in the North and provides a linkage with Uzbek militant groups. The security of Herat also is crucial, but this is most likely to be achieved by Iranian soft power preventing Taliban control of the area.

History suggests that whilst the West’s preferred policy may be to support a national successor regime in Kabul, there is a valid alternative: support effective leaders in northern Afghanistan in order to provide a non-Taliban redoubt based in the Panjshir Valley, Mazar-i-Sharif (which dominates trade routes to central Asia), the Hazarajat and Herat. This approach is likely to be more fruitful than attempting to sustain a successor regime of limited strength and uncertain durability in Kabul.

LIKE NATURE, geopolitics abhors a vacuum. The looming cessation of full Western military engagement will precipitate intensified encroachment of Afghanistan’s neighbors on the Afghan polity, economy, society and, in some cases, the insurgency. Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia have the ability to project influence and power into Afghanistan. Their geographical proximity and political, economic and cultural linkages with Afghanistan ensure depth and durability in their engagement. Their motivations range from ethnic and cultural affinity to complex interrelationships with external strategic issues such as Kashmir, which acts to drive both Pakistani and Indian policy in Afghanistan.

Western withdrawal will force Iran to consider its policy choices. Before 2001, it regarded Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a major threat. Thus it deployed troops to the Afghan border and provided military support to the Northern Alliance. Once confronted with the reality of Taliban influence in southern and eastern Afghanistan, Iran will sharpen its ethnic, cultural and religious links with the Shia Hazara and its memory of Taliban repression of the Hazara in 1998–2000. Its ethnic interest will be to ensure that the Taliban remains confined to the Pashtun South and East. This could manifest itself in an agreement to allow a level of Taliban influence in western Afghanistan in return for nonrepression of the Hazara and the Hazarajat. But indirect intervention to ensure the security of Herat cannot be ruled out. Iran attempted that through Ismail Khan in the 1990s.

The strength of Iranian soft power in Herat and the Hazarajat gives Iran a level of durable influence in Afghanistan that the West cannot hope to match. Iran additionally remains well connected to the Kabul body politic and is adept at using political and economic levers (such as the periodic threat to expel Afghan refugees) to achieve political ends. This combination gives it significant influence over the sustainability of post-2015 governance in Afghanistan. In the context of Afghanistan’s future, Western engagement with Iran—including American engagement—could become a necessity.

But it’s possible that Iran’s ethnic interest in Afghanistan could coincide with the geopolitical interest of the West. Whether Iran’s supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will allow ethnic interests in Afghanistan to override ideology and drive geopolitical behavior is a separate question, particularly if formal strategic-partnership agreements between Western powers and Afghanistan leave Western bases within the country. It is likely to depend in large part on external factors such as the state of tensions over the Iranian nuclear program, nervousness about the implications of the Arab Spring for Iran, wider relations with the United States, and Iran’s perception of the level of U.S. threat after the departure of American combat forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Engagement with Pakistan is equally essential. Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan is well chronicled and includes the willingness of elements of the Pakistani state, in particular its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to support or at least provide sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban. There is little evidence that the Pakistani military establishment has fundamentally changed its perception that the Afghan Pashtuns, particularly the Afghan Taliban, are the most effective Pashtun political force north of the Durand Line, providing essential strategic depth against India, as does the Kashmiri group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Personal relationships between ISI officers and senior Afghan Taliban leaders are deep and enduring. Western pressure is unlikely to change this. Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead Pakistan to seek to ensure Taliban control of the South and East and to gain as much influence in Kabul as possible, not least to ensure Indian influence is limited and the specter of Indian encirclement, whether real or imagined, is mitigated.

Following the fillip to Taliban morale that the cessation of full Western military engagement will undoubtedly provide, and notwithstanding the hope that the establishment of an Afghan Taliban office in Qatar will reduce Pakistani influence, Pakistan is likely to be the only external power with significant influence over the Afghan Taliban leadership. Whether or how the Pakistani government wishes to exercise such influence is a moot point. In the immediate aftermath of a Western withdrawal, viewed as a victory by elements of Pakistan’s political and military elite and a significant majority of the Pakistani population, vague warnings of future destabilization will have limited effect. Like Iran, Pakistan is likely to regard any strategic partnership between the West and Afghanistan with deep suspicion, as it does the agreement signed between Afghanistan and India in November 2011.

One line of argument that may have potential in Islamabad is that Afghan Taliban control of southern and eastern Afghanistan, combined with a continuing Pakistani Taliban insurgency in the tribal areas, would threaten to bring about the de facto creation of a cross-border Pashtunistan and cross-fertilization between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani militant groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. This will probably not be sufficient to deter the ISI (whose attitude toward both the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba suggests it is institutionally inclined to ride the tiger), but the potential threat it poses to the Pakistani state may offer pause for thought among Pakistan’s military commanders and political classes.

Like Pakistan and Iran, India will be forced to recalibrate its Afghan policy as Western military operations cease. It is unlikely to reduce its involvement. Increased Taliban power will deprive New Delhi of its influence in southern and eastern Afghanistan and its intelligence on Kashmiri militants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba fighting and training in Afghanistan. Thus, India will probably seek to bolster Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara opposition to Taliban expansion. It may also increase support to Baluch separatists operating from Afghanistan against Pakistan and consider action against Kashmiri militants operating in Afghanistan. Continued and intensified Indian involvement in Afghanistan can only reinforce Pakistan’s determination to ensure Pashtun influence in Kabul and on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. It is also likely to reinforce Pakistan’s perception that this will best be achieved by an Afghan Taliban proxy. In the absence of a radical improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan, which is itself probably dependent on a political shift in the Kashmir dynamic, the prospects for Afghanistan’s future after 2015 are likely to be undermined by the strategic competition between the two powers, which will be carried out inside Afghanistan by well-resourced proxies.

Other neighboring powers also have enduring interests. Russia has strong ethnic and political links with Uzbeks and Tajiks in Afghanistan. After 2014, any atavistic attraction of watching the West “bleed” in Afghanistan may be usurped by the impending geopolitical reality of the potential for southern Afghanistan to develop into a neo-Taliban state with the power to export jihadism into Central Asia. Russia is therefore likely to provide material and political support to Uzbeks and Tajiks. Turkey has both ambitions as a regional Eurasian power and strong links with Afghan Uzbeks and will provide support to them.

China will secure its economic interests, particularly minerals, such as the Aynak copper mine, and probably protect ethnic Uighurs in Badakhshan. Uzbekistan has an incipient insurgency of its own and therefore has little interest in seeing a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan on its southern border. Similarly, Tajikistan’s ethnic interest in northern Afghanistan is likely to translate into tangible support for Afghan Tajiks.

HISTORY SUGGESTS that Afghanistan ultimately always follows its own path, guided in arcane and often obscure ways by powerful competing forces of ethnicity, tribalism, religion, geography, regional feuds, a fervor of national protectiveness and unbending obstinacy. For centuries these forces have militated against a strong central government in Kabul and all manner of foreign incursion.

So will it be with the latest Western effort to fashion and direct the Afghan future. A measure of stability is possible following the decade-long Western involvement, if the Taliban can be confined to majority-Pashtun areas, if the non-Taliban North can resist Taliban incursion, if the influence of neighboring countries can help maintain an equilibrium of competing forces, and if Western nations—particularly America—exercise deft regional diplomacy combined with a measure of restraint commensurate with their ability to influence regional events.

After ten years of efforts to shape Afghan society in ways favorable to Western interests, the long-term societal and geopolitical consequences of Western engagement are very different from those envisaged in 2002.

Michael Hart is a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer who served in Afghanistan from 2008–09 and was director of defense studies for the RAF from 2010–11. The views expressed in the article are his alone and do not represent those of Her Majesty’s Government or the UK Ministry of Defence.

This article was derived entirely from open-source, unclassified material. The author is happy to provide his extensive original footnotes and bibliography upon request.


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