During the past decade of war there, billions of dollars of US spending have been stolen, squandered, or have simply disappeared into well-intentioned projects that were inappropriate for Afghan needs.
So what is the US up to now? Planning more spending, even after US troops depart at the end of next year when it will have even less ability to monitor and account for spending than it does now.
This year the US is planning to spend $10 billion on Afghan "reconstruction" alone. While US plans for the country may begin to get some attention given the fight in Washington over slashing spending, raising taxes, or doing both, US plans for Afghanistan seem to be on auto-pilot. And some, frankly, seem utopian given its experiences there.
Take USAID's announced plan to spend some $300 million on Afghan women's rights over the next five years (which has been in the works for more than a year, with for-profit companies scrambling for the spoils). Considering past problems, the prospect that all this money will be spent wisely, or spent at all, is very low, with US and other foreign troops scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014. At that point, traveling the country at the behest of the US telling Afghans they need to change their culture will become even more dangerous than it is today.
But even if every nickel was spent as the US government intended, it's still a bad idea. And it reveals the fact that the US, after a decade of war there, still doesn't seem to understand Afghanistan, either in terms of culture or its basic needs.
The cart before the horse
After US forces drove the Taliban from power in 2002, Afghanistan remained a land where warlords wield power in their home districts, where the principal business of government officials is the collecting of rents and the direction of patronage to friends and family members, and where the massive US military presence is nothing so much as an ore-body to be mined, relentlessly, until it's tapped out.
In the absence of law and order, quality health care, and economic opportunity (Afghanistan's GDP is largely driven by aid spending and the opium trade), $300 million on women's rights in isolation seems like a folly. If you can't enforce basic order, or find a way to finance the government beyond foreign handouts, or make major inroads into high maternal and childhood mortality rates (US claims healthcare successes there to the contrary), how are hundreds of millions of dollars going to make any difference?
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Afghanistan's women "we will not abandon you." Well, members of Congress are probably not going to start tabling bills to allow Afghan women to emigrate to the US to escape harsh conditions in their home country. And when it becomes too dangerous for young, well-meaning foreigners to travel across Afghanistan explaining to local folk how they're leading their lives in the wrong fashion, what then?
Read this sentence from the USAID proposal and see if you can count the management-speak buzzwords: "WLD will enable women to develop urgently needed leadership competencies that will create a prominent group of female role models and change agents in all sectors who will serve as models for girls and younger women.”
"WLD" stands for "Women's Leadership Development," a $20 million chunk of the USAID plan, and it is highly unlikely it will "enable" much beyond the careers of a few aid workers.
Positive role models are nice and all, but the problem for women and girls in Afghanistan isn’t that they’re unaware that women can have successful careers. It's that sometimes they get killed by their male family members for participating in programs like this, or are targeted by groups like the Taliban. In Afghanistan's Laghman Province, the local director of women's affairs, Naija Sediqi, was assassinated last December. She had been on the job for five months, following the assassination of her female predecessor Hanifa Safi.
The USAID document soliciting bids for this large women's rights project acknowledges it isn't just the Taliban that are hostile to their overall goals, noting that a clerical code of conduct for women endorsed by the government "condones wife beating under certain circumstances and aims to restrict women's mobility, causing many Afghan women to fear that transition will herald a reversal of their decade-long struggle for safety and rights." Afghan President Hamid Karzai last year defended his endorsement of the code, saying "it is the sharia law of all Muslims and all Afghans."
USAID's document makes clear that a primary goal of this effort is fundamental social and cultural change: "Achieving a critical mass of women in leadership roles in government, civil society and the economy will make the phenomenon of women seeking and acquiring such roles less unusual, less inappropriate and viewed as a more “new normal” pattern of behavior. When applied to women, the critical mass theory is quite specific about how the advantages of women’s leadership contributions accrue to and thus become apparent to and accepted by family, community, company, and country."
Are women treated appallingly in Afghan society? Clearly. But is USAID up to the task of rendering cultural change in a place that bristles at interference from foreigners?
Even in less contentious areas, aid spending in Afghanistan has a spotty track record, at best.
The Monitor's Ben Arnoldy reported in 2010 on the mismanagement of USAID in Afghanistan, a litany of failed promises: A claim that electricity had tripled for two communities that saw almost no increase in power at all; a road paved for $2.5 million that disintegrated back into a dirt track within three months; huge sums of aid money directed to the protection of engineers and other workers, a necessary response to insurgency, but on that so most goals for development fall short.
Will USAID's plan to use "small-group interventions [to] create large-scale social change through the impact that specific participants have on
those within their personal and professional spheres of influence" work? Well, that's their theory.
From the perspective of women's rights, large-scale social change would be very welcome. But the Afghans may not agree. The one thing Afghanistan (and Iraq) should have taught the US by now is the limits of its own power.
Programs like this one show the US still hasn't learned that lesson.
The news today of two more US soldiers killed by an Afghan soldier armed and trained with American resources is a reminder that the US war there has gone off the rails.
For more than a decade now, the US public has been told the US was transforming Afghanistan from a place that once hosted Al Qaeda into a stable and more or less pro-American country that wouldn't harbor terrorists. That hasn’t ever really been true, but lately, with the United States preparing to leave and Afghans well aware of that fact, American efforts there have begun to take on a particularly futile hue.
Remember “the surge” masterminded by Gen. David Petraeus?
That came quietly to end last year, with little change in the political facts on the ground.
The two soldiers killed this morning, along with two Afghan officers and three cops, were murdered on a US base in Wardak – the troubled province on Kabul’s eastern flank. President Hamid Karzai recently ordered US Special Forces out of Wardak after accusing them of torture and murder in the province.
The orders – from the man the US installed as Afghan president all those years ago – came amid a string of anti-US rhetoric from him in recent months. Today was the deadline for those US troops whose job is to train Afghan soldiers and work with them to track down insurgents, to depart the province.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s pleading with Mr. Karzai on a visit yesterday to relent on Wardak apparently fell on deaf ears.
Or maybe Karzai didn’t hear him over his own insults against the US. Karzai blamed the US for conspiring with the Taliban to conduct two suicide bombings that claimed 19 lives on Sunday.
“The explosions in Kabul and Khost yesterday showed that [the Taliban] are at the service of America and at the service of this phrase: 2014,” Karzai said in a nationally televised speech. “They are trying to frighten us into thinking that if the foreigners are not in Afghanistan, we would be facing these sorts of incidents."
While Karzai’s near-constant stream of anti-American jabs might seem a strange case of biting the hand that feeds him, his comments make domestic political sense.
The US military presence is unpopular among Afghans, and since Karzai and everyone else knows the US is leaving, he needs to make his own arrangements for his long-term political and financial survival.
With the gravy train pulling into the station he’s going to have to wheel and deal with the Taliban, Pakistan, private armies established thanks to US convoy protection contracts, opium lords, and prominent members of Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups, including his own Pashtuns.
Oh, and elected local politicians, too.
So with everyone in Afghanistan setting the table for the departure of most US troops by the end of next year – and perhaps all of them since there isn’t yet a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and Afghanistan that would grant US soldiers immunity from Afghan prosecution, a necessary condition of a continued US military presence – hard questions need to be asked about what’s being bought with the blood of US soldiers in the interim.
There will be lots of talk in the coming months of not squandering all those lives already lost, all those billions of dollars sprinkled across Afghanistan.
But how many more lives and how much money will be required to ratify all that's already been lost? Will a few hundred more American dead change anything? Almost certainly not. Afghanistan’s president doesn’t seem to like the US, many of its soldiers seem happy to turn their guns on the US troops training them, and corruption is rampant.
Former Monitor South Asia bureau chief Ben Arnoldy wrote last week about Badakshan, considered one of the safest provinces in the country, noting that it’s also a hive of intrigue and backstabbing between local police and officials over control of drug-trafficking routes into Tajikistan.
Violence is rising there for much the same reason that violence rose on the streets of Chicago during Prohibition, though there might be even less distance between the Afghan gangsters and the government than there was between Al Capone and City Hall.
If Badakhshan has been one of those “safe” provinces where the transformative, nation-building magic of the US-led coalition was supposed to do its work all these years, imagine what it’s like in Wardak.
In early February, a leaked white paper from the Obama Justice Department caused a small stir, because it laid out an expansive set of circumstances under which the president could order a citizen killed abroad. In September 2011, the US killed Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both US citizens, and a few weeks later a US drone strike in Yemen also killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman.
Early claims from US officials were that Abdulrahman was over 21 and a fighter for Al Qaeda at the time of his death, though those were walked back after relatives in America provided a birth certificate that showed he was born in Denver in 1995. It's not clear if Abdulrahman was specifically targeted or merely collateral damage in a strike that killed an adult and another teenager.
Meanwhile, the UK is stripping people it alleges of having joined militant groups of their citizenship, some of whom have gone on to be killed in US strikes. Stripping people of their citizenship, strips people of whatever protection they theoretically had as citizens under UK law.
An investigation by The Independent newspaper out today says that since 2002, when a law allowing dual nationals to be stripped of their citizenship for doing something "seriously prejudicial" to the UK was passed, 21 people have had their citizenship taken away. That pace has dramatically increased under the current government, with The Independent reporting that 16 of that total have had their citizenship taken away by the order of Home Secretary Theresa May since 2010.
The paper quotes political opposition and human rights activists as being appalled at the practice. Liberal Democrat legislator Simon Hughes said he would call for a review of the practice and human rights lawyer Gareth Pierce said the government's actions "smacked of medieval exile, just as cruel and just as arbitrary.”
The paper recounts the cases of Bilal al-Berjawi and his friend Mohamed Sakr, who traveled from the UK to Somalia in 2009 and apparently joined up with Al-Shabaab, a militant group there with ties to Al Qaeda. The paper reports that the men were stripped of their citizenship in 2010. In June 2011, Mr. Berjawi was injured in a US drone strike, and was eventually killed along with Mr. Sakr by the US in 2012.
In January 2012, The Long War Journal cited a press release from Al-Shabaab describing Berjawi was a British national who had been killed in a drone strike on the 21st of that month. The website wrote:
Berjawi, who is also known as Abu Hafsa, "was second-in-command" to slain al Qaeda leader Fazul Mohammed, a US intelligence official who closely tracks al Qaeda in the Middle East and beyond told The Long War Journal. Fazul was the leader of al Qaeda in East Africa and a senior Shabaab commander. He was killed by Somali troops at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mogadishu in June 2011.
The drone campaign, dramatically stepped up under President Obama, will continue to raise questions about whether the legal protections for even citizens are being skirted, with limited if any judicial oversight of "targeted killing" orders and what appears to be a very broad definition of who and what constitutes an "imminent threat."
Stripping alleged combatants of citizenship is a step that the US hasn't yet taken, and probably won't, given the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution's right of due process. But it's a strong, and unusual, step for any Western country to take.
There is form for it in some countries though. Saudi Arabia, for instance, stripped Osama bin Laden, who'd been a conduit for arms and money from the country to Mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later to participants in Afghanistan's civil war, of his citizenship in 1994 after he had called for the fall of the monarchy.
Though that's far from the US position on the Syrian civil war, the tepid support the US has promised for elements of the Syrian opposition in the past couple of days bring Mr. Kissinger's comments to mind. The half-hearted backing will likely lead to an opposition that is harder to defeat, but still lacking the strengh to win the war.
After almost two years of fighting and 70,000 dead, Syria is as polarized a nation as could be imagined. There are strong sectarian overtones to the fighting, with the core of Bashar al-Assad's strength lying in the Alawite minority he hails from, and the oppositions strength lying in the Sunni community that is the country's majority. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party, has taken up arms for the regime while some Lebanese Sunnis, including jihadis, have fought alongside the rebels.
The prospects of major sectarian reprisals if one or the other side wins decisively are high – and allegations of sectarian butchery against both rebels and Mr. Assad's army have already been made with alarming frequency. Further afield, Assad's staunchest backer is Shiite Iran, while its old opponent for regional supremacy, Sunni Saudi Arabia, has been providing arms to the rebellion.
So this does not appear to be a situation where either side is in a mood for the compromises that would be required for a negotiated settlement.
But that appears to be what the US is hoping for by making the rebels stronger, but not too strong. Secretary of State John Kerry said today in Rome the US would supply "non-lethal" aid – food, medicine, and possibly things like communications equipment – directly to the Free Syrian Army and a further $60 million to the political wing of the uprising.
Earlier in the week, there were rumors that the US was considering providing military training to rebel units, but those failed to materialize today. On Feb. 25, citing "American and Western officials," The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia began directly arming rebels in December. The Times report said Saudi Arabia was purchasing large quantities of rifles, machine guns, mortars, and other infantry weapons from Croatia, and delivering them to rebels in Syria via Jordan. The Times asserts that the weapons went primarily to secular groups and side-stepped the jihadi militias like Jabhat al-Nusra, which was added to the US terrorist list last year.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia are two of the Arab militaries closest to the US, and relying as they do on US arms (and in the case of Jordan, US aid) it's safe to assume their activities have the tacit approval of the US.
All of this remains far short of the massive intervention by NATO and others in Libya in 2011, in which weapons and trainers flowed to Libyan militias fighting Muammar Qaddafi and NATO airpower paved the way for their march on Tripoli, the capital.
The light weapons and the aid from the US will certainly help the rebels. The blogger Brown Moses, who closely tracks the Syrian civil war, started reporting in mid-January on the growing numbers of weapons from the former Yugoslavia (which Croatia was a part of) turning up in videos from the Syrian battlefield. He's noticed Yugoslav-made rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, and grenade launchers.
Someone – a current player? a new one? – was giving a big boost in weapons to the insurgents.
Since then, the Free Syrian Army has succeeded with a series of surprise attacks, capturing several towns, border crossings, and roads. They then repeled tank convoys, airstrikes, infantry invasions, and even paratroopers...
The weapons are being brought in from outside Syria and put into the hands of Free Syrian Army units, rather than the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra or other factions distrusted by the international coalition supporting the opposition.
Mr. Kerry told reporters after his meetings in Rome that “I am very confident from what I heard in there from other foreign ministers that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals.”
But not everyone was convinced.
Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), complained at a joint press conference with Kerry of an "international decision to prevent arming Syrian rebels with quality arms" and said, "Plenty of people focus more on the length of a fighter's beard than on the scope of the regime's massacres."
That's a reference to the fear that jihadis, kissing cousins of Al Qaeda in Iraq that caused so many problems for the US occupation there, are a major component of the fight against Assad, and could come out on top after his eventual defeat. Those are people who, while they may be fighting Assad, the US decidedly does not want to see win.
It appears for now that the Obama team, with Kerry in the lead, is hoping to shift the balance of military power and fear in Syria sufficiently that Assad is convinced to make concessions and that some of his backers abandon him. While Iran, locked in its own nuclear standoff with the US and with few friends in the region beyond Assad's Syria, is unlikely to call off its support, Russia has also been a steadfast supporter of Assad, but has far less to lose if he goes down.
The AP reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled a possible shift away from support for Assad today, telling reporters at a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande, "We should listen to the opinion of our partners on some of the aspects of that difficult problem." France has been a major proponent of removing Assad from power.
Will this war and its truly horrific casualty rate continue to grind on, making all Syrians inevitable losers? Or is the cautious approach of the US, and the Saudis, enough to nudge all this to a faster conclusion? Time will tell – but it has been more than two years so far of false dawns.
Army Pvt. Bradley Manning admitted in a court filing Tuesday to leaking at least some of the classified US military and State Department documents that made Julian Assange's Wikileaks a controversial sensation three years ago, in an apparent bid to get an opportunity to explain his motives.
Part of a filing of his was read during a pretrial hearing yesterday, in which he said he'd provided classified material to WikiLeaks hoping to "spark a domestic debate on the role of our military and foreign policy in general."
Private Manning's guilty pleas, however, are not to the crimes he's been charged with and will not effect the prosecutions ongoing case. They're to lesser offenses, and will have no impact on whether he's convicted on the more serious charges sought by Army prosecutors. So why do it? Manning, who has only been allowed to speak during the pretrial process once before and who has been kept largely isolated from the press, friends, and supporters during his over 1,000 days in detention since his arrest in Iraq on May 28, 2010, wants to expand on the political motives that moved him to commit his acts.
Judge Denise Lind has ruled during the pre-trial process for Manning that he will not be allowed to testify as to his own motives for his actions, deeming that irrelevant. That has left Manning, who is charged with aiding the enemy, theft of public records, computer fraud, and 19 other charges, effectively muzzled. According to Nathan Fuller, a spokesman for the support network that is paying for Manning's defense, his offer to plead guilty creates an opportunity for him to speak to Judge Lind in open court tomorrow.
"It's taking responsibility for the release of WikiLeaks but criticizing the way the government has targeted it… [this] is an alternative way to get his [ideals] into the public record," says Fuller. He says that while the military prosecution has insisted that Manning is, for instance, guilty of aiding Al Qaeda because he would have known that the documents could be accessed by the group, "this is an opportunity for Manning to make the statement that WikiLeaks is a conduit to help the American people."
During Manning's detention, the government has been very effective in keeping him from getting his views out into public. Even the details of his written statement yesterday only became publicly known because of the objections of prosecutors to its admittance at all, arguing that Manning's explanations for his actions are irrelevant to the case. The prosecutions read small portions of his statement to argue the point. Generally, Judge Lind has refused to release court filings in the case or even transcripts (earlier today, the Pentagon released 84 documents from the Manning case after months of intense pressure from transparency advocates and press groups).
Manning's motives have long been fairly clear, and it's hard to see how his expanding on them will do his case any good. The US military, after all, isn't in the habit of letting soldiers decide what's classified and what isn't. And the indiscriminate release of tens of thousands of documents running over the course of years is hard to paint as an isolated case of "whistleblowing." (Unlike, say, leaking a video that clearly showed US forces killing a group of unarmed men.)
But while that's one side of the coin, the other has been his frankly appalling treatment since his arrest.
A speedy trial? Military rules call for arraignments for accused soldiers facing a court martial within four months, yet Manning was arraigned only after 20 months in detention. (Earlier this week, the defense issued a motion to dismiss his case because of that missed deadline; Judge Lind ruled that the 16-month delay was acceptable).
At one point he was kept in solitary for 23 hours a day for months, an isolation from human contact so intense it drives many men mad. He was kept on long-term suicide watch against regulations, which denied him bed-clothes, the right to sleep in the dark, and forced him undergo frequent naked inspections. In 2011, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley had to step down after calling Manning's treatment “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."
In early January, Judge Lind basically agreed, ordering that any sentence carried out against Manning be reduced by 112 days to reflect 9 months of illegal pretrial punishment he suffered while detained at Marine Corps facility in Quantico, Virginia. Lind said Manning's conditions of confinement were "excessive in relation to legitimate government interests."
Is it a legitimate government interest to prevent Manning from describing his own motivations and state of mind? Well, it is probably irrelevant to his guilt or innocence in a strictly legal sense. But the prosecution has gone to great lengths to keep Manning shut up. What is there to be afraid of?
(This article was edited after first posting to correct the name of Nathan Fuller).
Was the war in Afghanistan going better in 2012 than it was in 2011?
At first, it seemed clear the answer was yes, with a claim from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in January that last year, attacks by the Taliban against foreign and Afghan government troops had fallen 7 percent from the previous year.
But that report was later quietly withdrawn from the ISAF website (ISAF is the US-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan). And on Tuesday, NATO said there was no decline in Taliban attacks, the final year of President Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan, after all.
Statistics about the Afghan war have long been a spin game, with consistent efforts made out of ISAF and elsewhere to argue that major gains are just around the corner. When the data shows improvement, it's trumpeted as evidence. When the data shows the opposite, well, improvement is still assured.
ISAF spokeswoman Erin Stattel told the BBC Tuesday in an interview about the revision of the statistics: "In spite of this data adjustment, our assessment of the fundamentals of campaign progress has not changed ... the enemy is increasingly separated from the population and the ANSF [Afghan National Security Force] are currently in the lead for the vast majority of partnered operations."
Her comments appear to be approved talking points, given that Pentagon Spokesman George Little said precisely the same thing to reporters in Washington yesterday. Speaking earlier to Robert Burns of the Associated Press, whose prodding led ISAF to admit the error, Mr. Little, likewise, insisted that the failure of the attack figures to show progress should be discounted. "This particular set of metrics doesn't tell the full story of progress against the Taliban, of course, but it's unhelpful to have inaccurate information in our systems," Little said.
The incorrect claim has inflected much of the US military and Obama administration commentary about the war. Speaking to reporters on Dec. 18, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was asked about an apparent increase in violence in Afghanistan. He responded:
Well, you know, the reality is that, in the period that was included there, there was a slight increase in attacks, but the overall numbers – if you look at the entire year, the level of violence is down. It's down by almost 60 percent in Kabul, it's down by almost 50 percent to 60 percent in other populated areas where we've made the transition. The violence levels are down.
The fact is that the Afghan army, the Afghan police have gotten much better at providing security in those areas that we transitioned to... the Taliban is resilient, and they will continue to try to conduct attacks. They'll continue to do IED attacks. They'll continue to try to do high-profile assassinations. They'll continue to try to do what they can to draw attention to their efforts. But overall they are -- they are losing. They have not been able to regain any territory that they've lost.
Does accurate reporting matter?
Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former director of intelligence assessment in the office of the US secretary of Defense, had long argued that it does, in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Last June, in a long piece assessing the probability of a successful transition in Afghanistan, he took square aim at the credibility of progress reports from the war, saying they're hurting whatever chances there are of success.
The Afghan government, the US and its allies, and aid donors have not made enough collective progress to assign a clear level of probability.... If they are to succeed, major improvements must take place in the depth and quality of planning and analysis, as well as in the transparency, credibility, and integrity of reporting within the US government, allied government, ISAF, and international institutions. To date, all have failed to properly meet these tests; and most public studies and reports have relied on hype, skewed reporting, vague analysis, and good intentions. This may cover the needs of domestic politics and provide for a de facto exit during 2013-2015, but it cannot support an effective transition.
Cordesman's assessment on Jan. 23 of this year was bleaker still, when he opened by writing: "The more one looks at Afghanistan today, the more likely it seems that transition will at best produce a weak and divided state and at worst a state that either continues its civil war or comes under Taliban and extremist control. In that report, Cordesman is particularly scathing of ISAF assertions that a decline in "enemy-initiated attacks" is evidence of Taliban weakness.
For instance, in the case of Helmand, a province where US and British troops have fought hard for years and that was a major focus of the surge, he argues that a decline in attacks started by the Taliban does "little more than show that the insurgents stopped making attacks they know would result in major losses during the peak of the surge in 2010. This 'positive' trend largely vanishes in 2011 as the insurgents focused on attacks that would give them political visibility or which they thought will produce favorable results."
It is of course possible that fights with the Taliban could decline completely, but not necessarily be great news ahead of an impending NATO military withdrawal at the end of next year. The Taliban are Afghans and they live there. We don't. If they can avoid fights with tactically superior foes while they wait for a chance to take on an Afghan military and police that have less direct support from NATO, that might be a wise course of action.
And pressure from foreign troops is already declining. President Obama expects the US troop presence in Afghanistan to be cut in half by the end of this year, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been taking steps lately to limit what the US can do – this month banning Afghan forces from calling on NATO for air support, and ordering US Special Forces out of Wardak Province, which borders Kabul and has significant insurgent activity.
Halting the Taliban's "momentum" was a stated goal of the just-completed surge, which was promised by Obama in a speech at West Point in December 2009 and ended last fall.
Here's what the president said in 2009: "We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future."
But this has never been a conventional war, with foreign and Afghan troops battling for physical territory with the Taliban, the sheer denial of which would deliver a crushing blow. The Taliban has learned to adapt and avoid superior foes, and remains powerful. Are its members less capable of overthrowing the Afghan government today than they were then? Hard to say.
Billions of dollars have been spent training and equipping the Afghan National Army, and they're surely more capable then they three years ago. Capable enough? That's the billion-dollar question, quite literally. The ANA continues to rely on the US for financing and logistics, and that's going to remain true after 2014. The US spent $6.5 billion training and equipping and financing the ANA last year.
The status quo between Israelis and Palestinians is, as is so frequently uttered, "intolerable." But rhetorically intolerable things are often tolerated for long periods of time.
So while the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" has been dead in all but name for years now, with Israeli settlement expansion continuing apace in the West Bank, a Palestinian Authority leadership that is incapable of making any concessions of its own in the face of that, and a frustrated and angry Palestinian public, the status quo has nevertheless trundled along.
Predicting a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising, has been a mug's game for years – since practically the moment the second one petered out in 2005. Those predictions have increased in frequency as the prospect of an independent Palestinian state, the promise of 1993's Oslo Accords, have once again receded. But so far, they've consistently failed to be born out by events on the ground.
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This week, there's been intifada talk once again, following the death in an Israeli prison of young Palestinian man Arafat Jaradat over the weekend. Early Israeli reports said the cause of Mr. Jaradat's death could not be determined, but Palestinian groups insist he was tortured in custody and furious protests erupted around the West Bank yesterday during his funeral. Israel arrested Jaradat earlier in February, on allegations that he'd thrown rocks at settlers last November, during Israel's confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
People filled every rooftop, balcony, and open patch of grass surrounding the village square as Mr. Jaradat’s coffin was carried through the crowd, sparking fierce whistling and a few gunshots...
At the funeral today for Jaradat in Sair, just outside of Hebron, supporters of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Brigades chanted, “Let the olive branch fall and let the weapon always lead to victory…. Let Tel Aviv be set on fire.”
Even as a rival cluster of Hamas supporters tried to out-chant the group, others insisted Palestinians were united in their fight against Israel. “Besides Fatah, besides Hamas, we the people of Palestine are all united in challenging the occupation,” said Rami Hijjah, a business student and student council member at Polytechnic University in Hebron who says he hopes “we all will follow [Jaradat] as martyrs.”
There are thousands of Palestinians in Israeli detention, and activists said roughly 3,000 prisoners participated in a hunger strike over the weekend to protest Jaradat's death. While from the outside his death could be taken as a simple tragedy – an angry young man throws a rock, is arrested for assault, and then unfortunately falls ill while under arrest – that's not at all how any Palestinian would see it.
The settlement Jaradat was protesting, Kiryat Arba, is a town of about 7,000 just east of the Palestinian city of Hebron and about 18 miles south of Jerusalem, deep in the West Bank that is supposed to eventually form the core of a Palestinian state.
Israel Defense Forces control most of the roads in the area, with only restricted access for Palestinians. There is also a small settlement of committed religious Zionists protected by the IDF in the middle of Hebron, a city of roughly 100,000 Palestinians that nevertheless the religious right in Israel insists be eventually annexed into the state, since it's home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, where both religious Muslims and Jews believe Abraham is buried.
The local settlements and IDF presence are a constant reminder to Palestinians in the area that they aren't exercising any real sovereignty. Palestinian-settler relations in the area are particularly poisonous, even by the standards of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It was in Hebron that settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians praying at the cave's attached Ibrahim Mosque in 1994, and minor confrontations are common.
So whatever the facts of Jaradat's death – abuse in detention? None at all? – it's a symbol of the root of Palestinian frustration. The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have failed to halt settlement expansion, let alone bring about a state.
Yousef Munayyer, an executive director of The Jerusalem Fund, a DC-based nonprofit that advocates for Palestinians, says that while another uprising is possible, it isn't likely any time soon. But he also cautions that doesn't mean more of the same is sustainable.
"I don’t think we’re going to see a resumption of the kind of armed resistance that we had seen in the past, at that level, any time soon. The control that the PA has over the guns is far tighter now than I think that it’s ever been before, particularly in the West Bank," he says. "With the PA's very sustainability being based on whether Israel or the United States permit funding to get through to them [that] indicates they’re not going to let that happen. That’s not to say the current PA framework couldn’t collapse; and with each passing day we get closer to that."
He says that Jaradat's death is, to Palestinians, the latest illustration of the PA's lack of power vis-a-vis Israel, even though it's authority is pretty much unchallenged among Palestinians in the West Bank. "The crux of the problem is this PA catch 22, where you have this entity that is supposed to advance Palestinian national goals, which of course include self-determination and ending the occupation ... but at the same time it doesn’t have the ability to advance those goals because it exists because Israel and the US permit it to exist and its funding comes either from those sources or because those sources allow that to come through."
That comment is a reference to the Paris Protocol of the Oslo Accords, which calls for the PA's taxes to be collected by Israel, and then transferred. Israel routinely delays transfer of the money as a form of control over the PA. After the Palestinians were successful in obtaining observer status at the UN in November, something Israel stridently opposed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered tax transfers withheld. With those taxes making up about 2/3 of the PA's revenue, it has pushed the nascent West Bank government to the brink of a fiscal crisis.
Salaries have gone unpaid (the PA is the West Bank's largest employer) and that's been a crucial factor in the uglier, more chaotic mood in the area. In response to the unrest over the weekend, Israel decided to release at least some of the tax revenue, apparently at the urging of senior officers.
“We believe there is a connection between the PA’s stability and the ability of its security apparatuses to function and the financial issue,” Haaretz quoted an anonymous senior officer from the IDF's Central Command as saying. “Our position is consistent: Salaries should be paid.”
In a way, that decision, which could cool tensions in the short term, points to the long term dangers of the status quo. Absent unrest, it's very hard for Palestinians to extract concessions from Israelis.
Mr. Munayyer says that's one reason he often grows frustrated with speculation about whether an uprising is at hand. "By asking the question in the way that we do, 'are we on the cusp of the next intifada?,' we’re identifying that as crisis mode. But in the absence of an intifada, which is what we have now, there is still the military occupation of millions of people. So we’re contributing to that idea that this human rights crisis is tolerable."
"But why [would Israel] end it? The benefits are high, the costs are low, so until that equation changes they won’t change their approach. It’s unreasonable for us to think otherwise, and it’s dangerous for that myth to lie at the foundation of policy prescriptions because it ends up leading to policy statements like 'well, if we get the parties back to the negotiating table maybe they’ll work things out."
Munayyer's organization takes issue with the reporting of this paper and many others today that a rocket fired at Israel broke the uneasy truce that averted a full scale war in Gaza last November and argues that Israel has repeatedly violated its side of the deal.
At any rate, the status quo is holding for now, with a calmer situation today than yesterday. The intolerable, it seems, will be tolerated for a while longer.
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With ongoing negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement that would govern the possible retention of a sizable US military presence in the country after 2014, Mr. Karzai's belligerent stance toward the US – also the principal financial backer of his government – seems an odd way to go about the negotiation.
But there he was over the weekend, accusing US Special Forces of involvement in torture and murder in Wardak, and ordering them out of the province within two weeks. That came about a week after Karzai banned the Afghan National Army (ANA) from calling on US and other international air support for ground operations after an incident in which he said 10 civilians were killed when Afghan intelligence called up a NATO airstrike.
While civilian casualties in urban areas have been a key driver of Afghan anger at both international forces and the Karzai government, asking Afghanistan's soldiers to fight without that kind of support will surely drive up their own casualty rates. It would also raise questions about what effect it will have on operations against the Taliban by the ANA. The chances that more territory will simply be ceded to the group as a consequence of this order, if he sticks to it, are high. (Writing for the Monitor from Kabul, Paige McClanahan fleshed out the risks of Karzai's action in Wardak.)
Perhaps that's Karzai's point. Most of the Taliban are drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group that Karzai himself belongs to, and with moves afoot to sharply reduce the international military presence (US President Obama said in his State of the Union Address that the current plan is to cut the US military presence from about 68,000 now to 34,000 by the end of the year) negotiation and accommodation are probably on his mind.
US objectives long ago were scaled back in Afghanistan with the recognition that the United State's longest war was not going to end in the total destruction of the Taliban. Warlords of all stripes – members of the Taliban, allies of Karzai – are going to have a seat at the table in determining Afghanistan's future after most international forces leave, and it's hard to fault Karzai for recognizing this reality.
And criticizing the Americans, hugely unpopular in the country after more than a decade of occupation, is smart politics. But it's also dangerous, because Karzai's grip on power rests on both NATO military power and the billions of dollars that flow into the country, which create patronage opportunities and employment for those around him, from the US and its NATO allies.
Wardak borders Kabul to the west, and has become a much more dangerous place in the past couple of years, with US commanders suspecting that attacks inside Kabul have been planned from the neighboring province. The Kabul-Kandahar highway, a key economic lifeline and source of resupply for foreign and local troops alike, crosses through the province, and for years local warlords have profited from convoy protection. Protesters in the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr blocked the highway for a day earlier this month after the body of a local university student, alleged to have been killed by US forces, was found dumped in a local river.
That incident appears to have been among those that caused Karzai to take action. A statement from the president's office over the weekend said: "A recent example in the province is an incident in which nine people were disappeared in an operation by this suspicious force and in a separate incident a student was taken away at night from his home, whose tortured body with throat cut was found two days later under a bridge," the statement added. "However, Americans reject having conducted any such operation and any involvement of their special force."
Is it possible that torture and murder is going on in Wardak? Almost certainly. Torture and murder are commonly deployed by Afghan powerbrokers and warlords on all sides of the Afghan conflict. Could US forces themselves be responsible? It's possible.
But more likely, if there's any truth to what Karzai contends, is that actions have been carried out by other informal militias who work with US Special Forces or formal Afghan commandos who do likewise.
The role of US Special Forces is, by and large, to work with and train foreign armies and militia groups. There have been persistent claims that local forces trained by US Special Forces have been involved in murder and torture down the years. A few thousand US Special Forces were involved in training roughly 16,000 Afghan Local Police (ALP), village-based paramilitary groups that have been accused of killing and torturing detainees, for much of last year and the year before, though that training was suspended to improve vetting after a rash of Afghans armed and trained by NATO killed their foreign colleagues.
Human Rights Watch alleges that ALP members have been involved in "killings, rape, and extortion of Afghan civilians" and explains the genesis of the groups this way:
The ALP was created in 2010 at the request of Gen David Petraeus, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan... The ALP is a loose network of local defence forces designed to mobilise and arm local civilians to defend their communities from the Taliban in areas where the national police and army have a limited presence. ALP recruits are mentored by foreign troops, most frequently US special forces, but in some parts of the country by troops from other nations, including Britain. They are nominally under the supervision of the Afghanistan National Police, but in practice they are sometimes no more than deputised gunmen loyal to a local warlord or members of violent local militias who are given a new uniform
The cooptation of gunmen loyal to local warlords has been consistently attempted throughout the Afghan war, and it makes sense at the local level: Motivated Afghan soldiers who know the local people and terrain can be fairly useful. But given that NATO's stated goal has been to build a strong central government, local tactical efforts have often moved counter to the ultimate goals.
The stakes in Wardak are pretty high, write Bill Ardolino and Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal:
Wardak province, which borders Kabul to the southwest, has been contested by the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the al Qaeda-linked Taliban subgroup, despite US efforts to secure the province over the past several years. The Taliban have been in control of the Tangi Valley, which runs through Wardak, since the withdrawal of US forces from Combat Outpost Tangi in the spring of 2011. US troops turned over the base to the Afghan Army, which immediately abandoned it. The Taliban later released a videotape that showed hundreds of fighters and senior Taliban leaders massing at the abandoned base and conducting a tour.
Wardak has been the scene of numerous high-profile attacks by the two groups, particularly in 2011. The Taliban shot down a US Army Chinook helicopter in Sayyidabad on Aug. 6, 2011. Thirty-eight US and Afghan troops, including 17 US Navy SEALS from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, were killed in the crash. And on Sept. 10, 2011, the Taliban detonated a massive suicide bomb outside of Combat Outpost Sayyidabad, killing four Afghans and wounding more than 100 people, including 77 US soldiers. US commanders later blamed the attack on the Haqqani Network, a powerful al Qaeda subgroup.
President Karzai seems more concerned about the US role in the province, at least in public.The Obama administration is hoping to keep up to 15,000 troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014 as a "residual force" that would focus on training Afghan troops and counterterrorism operations. But one matter yet to be decided is whether Karzai, who is scheduled to step down after presidential elections in 2014, will grant ongoing immunity from US forces from Afghan prosecution. A refusal to do so would probably be politically popular, but would be a deal breaker for Obama, with the specter of US troops hauled before Afghanistan's frequently corrupt courts.
The question of immunity was what eventually ended the US military presence in Iraq. Will Karzai go that far? Friends I talk to who understand Afghanistan far better than me insist that Karzai and the people around him will make a deal, since a lose of US military and financial support would be catastrophic for them.
But recent signs from Karzai are that he's leaning in the other direction.
Egypt's economy has a political problem. And its politics have an economic problem. And the two are feeding each other in dangerous and toxic ways that makes fixing either or both harder with each passing day.
On Sunday, the first trading day of the week, Egypt's benchmark stock index lost 0.83 percent, wiping 5.2 billion pounds ($760 million) of value from the country's publicly traded companies as political opposition to a drawn out, four-stage parliamentary election process, concocted by the country's ruling Muslim Brotherhood last week, mounted.
In theory, parliamentary elections could help break the country's current impasse, in which elected President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood hold almost all of the formal political power in the country, but in which the nation's various other factions and political movements, from socialists to secular-leaning free-market-favoring politicians, are not participating and are agitating to return to the drawing board once more. Some prominent opposition politicians, like Mohammad ElBaradei, have already been calling for a boycott of the polls, scheduled to begin in late April and run through the end of June.
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And even if the elections go forward as scheduled, they guarantee further political turmoil and uncertainty through the middle of the summer, at a time when Egypt's economy can ill afford it. The country's foreign currency reserves fell to $13.6 billion at the end of January, from $36 billion at the start of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak two years ago. That 62 percent decline in hard currency on hand is the simplest measure of the collapse in Egyptian investment, tourism, and international faith in Egypt's new leaders to turn around the situation as you'll find.
The pound had steadily declined since Mubarak was pushed from power with the country's grim economic outlook straining its foreign reserves. Billions in hard currency have been spent by the central bank trying to protect the country directly, as well as on wheat and fuel imports that the government subsidizes for domestic consumers. But notice my use of the word "had." Of late, the pound's decline is no longer "steady." Since about Jan. 13, the pound's decline against the dollar has been precipitous.
That's particularly dangerous for Egypt, since so many dollar-dominated commodities are subsidized by an Egyptian government that receives most of its revenue in pounds. In other words, every bushel of wheat or barrel of oil that the government purchases is far more expensive in domestic terms, which in turn further depletes the government's foreign currency reserves, makes investors even more nervous about the chances of a pound collapse, and so puts more pressure on the pound. The very definition of a vicious cycle.
What happened on in the middle of January? On Jan. 7 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) wrapped up a mission to Egypt, and there were high hopes that the country would reach an agreement on a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan. Yet the IMF balked, judging that Egypt's fractured politics and looming parliamentary elections meant that any promises President Morsi made to the IMF about cutting subsidies and other spending reductions being demanded as a part of the package couldn't be enforced.
The IMF mission departed Egypt on Jan. 7 with a promise of only further discussions. Here's the key sentence in the brief statement IMF Middle East and Central Asia Director Masood Ahmed issued then (emphasis mine): President Morsi and his government "expressed their firm commitment to articulate and implement a homegrown macroeconomic program that enjoys broad support and addresses these challenges."
"Broad support" in this context means political support, a sense that the nation's political elites, and the citizens they ostensibly represent, are willing to accept financial pain for the theoretical long-term good. In particular, the IMF has been seeking a cut in Egypt's blanket fuel subsidies that would target poor consumers, and require big companies and the better off to pay something closer to market prices.
But Egypt's politics this year have been starkly polarized in a way that has crippled the whole notion of a "national consensus" about anything. The Muslim Brotherhood are seen by the revolutionaries who led the uprising against Mubarak as impervious to external input, and no meaningful political dialogue has taken place between the Brothers and their opponents for months. The second anniversary of the revolution on Jan. 25 saw big protests against Morsi, and clashes at Tahrir, in front of the presidential palace, and in a number of other cities beyond the capital. Dozens died across the country that weekend, with the worst violence coming in Port Said, along the country's economically vital Suez Canal.
The Suez fighting followed death sentences handed down to 21 people for their involvement in a deadly riot after a football game in the city a year earlier. A state of emergency was declared in Port Said for a few days and a curfew declared that locals scoffed at and ignored.
That pound chart above should make it clear that any hopes of Egypt "muddling through" its current crisis are well and truly past, and decisive and swift action is needed. But the country's political elites, from Morsi to his opponents like ElBaradei, have been short on concrete suggestions that could address the needs and aspirations of Egypt's poor.
With the government already talking about rationing subsidized bread – and indications from the market that Egyptian wheat stocks and international purchases are declining – further paroxysms of public anger are more likely than not. An Egyptian government that fails to feed its people is one does not persist for very long, and while an IMF loan would at minimum buy Egypt some breathing space, an agreement to sharply cut subsidies from Morsi before the parliamentary elections could prove politically disastrous for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) at the scheduled parliamentary polls. The IMF is scheduled to return for further talks at the beginning of March. But if it continues to insist on "broad support" for the bitter pill it has asked Egypt to swallow, it's hard to see a deal done until the parliamentary elections are over.
This has left Morsi between a rock and a hard place. His track record so far has been to tend to the political needs of the FJP as a first order of business, but while subsidy cuts are unpopular, so is the strain the collapsing pound is putting on the household budgets of millions of Egyptians.
The uprising against Mubarak, and the prospect it brought of a democratic Egypt in the most populous Arab nation, was rightly greeted as a breathtaking and possibly transformational moment. But that optimism is now coming up against the reality of greater public suffering. And the clock is winding down.
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About a year ago, Julian Assange's WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that became a global sensation with the release of tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables and military field reports, said it had hit paydirt again: Seven years worth of emails from the private consulting firm Stratfor, about 5 million in all, that were stolen by hackers.
It had been 24 months since the big leaks, which the US alleges were orchestrated by Pvt. Bradley Manning, a soldier currently detained awaiting trial by the army on charges that include aiding the enemy, theft of public records, and computer fraud. On Saturday, Private Manning will enter his 1,000th day of detention. Mr. Assange has fared relatively better. Neither he nor anyone at WikiLeaks has been charged with the release of the US documents, but after losing an extradition battle in the UK over sexual assault allegations he faces in Sweden, he fled to Ecuador's London embassy, where he's lived for the past 8 months.
Nevertheless, most of his energy and that of WikiLeaks have been tied up in his fight against extradition to Sweden (he insists that the allegations, stemming from complaints from two women, are spurious and part of a conspiracy between the US, UK, and Sweden) and leaks have been few and far between.
He had hoped that the Stratfor emails would get WikiLeaks back on track, and trumpeted them as a major anti-secrecy coup. But he and his supporters don't appear to understand that Stratfor, its own PR to the contrary, is less of an intelligence player and more of an analyst of open sources. Few of the thousands of emails of Stratfor's that WikiLeaks have released in the past year have garnered much press attention. That's mostly because, unlike the US cables, they aren't very interesting.
Assange thinks he's hit paydirt again, with seven years of emails stolen from the Texas-based Stratfor, a company that provides intelligence and geopolitical analysis. Stratfor says it generates its own intelligence for reports, though it also relies heavily on open-source data collection. I've read dozens of their reports over the years. I've found some wildly speculative, others accurate but banal, and still others intriguing.
And while I've found some Stratfor analysis to be flat wrong, and so perhaps harmful if conclusions are taken by policymakers at face value, I've never seen anything nefarious or dangerous. Yet today, the Internet is filled with claims that the Stratfor is some kind of "shadow CIA," with ominous warnings about its hidden influence and function.
Today comes a rather humorous example with a potentially alarming undercurrent (that I'll explain in a minute). Today WikiLeaks released some new Stratfor emails (it's labeling the Stratfor dump, rather self-importantly, the "Global Intelligence Files.") That caught the eye of a supporter who tweeted "New #Stratfor docs: US soldier stealing $22M from Iraq?" This was duly retweeted by the main WikiLeaks account.
That's pretty eye catching, right? Well, until you open the file.
It begins with a wry comment from a Stratfor employee, who was forwarding something on to his colleagues "Now they're getting really creative - anyone want to help a poor soldier get rid of some money?" The forwarded text has the subject line "Dear Friend," and begins:
My name is Sgt.Walter Evans, an American soldier; with Swiss Background, serving in the military of the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq with a very
desperate need for Assistance. I and my partners moved one of the boxes containing funds which we believe is belonging to Saddam Hussein in March 2003, the total fund in this box is (TWENTY-TWO MILLION UNITED STATE DOLLARS), this fund had been moved via a safe Diplomatic Courier Service to a secured security company...
Basically since we are working for the American government we cannot keep these funds, we are Three (3) persons in involved. This means that you will take 25% percent and 75% will be for me / my partners.
Anyone who has used email since the mid-1990s will immediately recognize this for what it is: a variant of the Nigerian scam, a con-artist come-on that always revolves around some prince/lucky treasure hunter/disgraced politician/international banker who promises you an enormous financial windfall if you'll just come to his assistance with some money up front (to facilitate the eventual transfer of the loot to his "dear friend.") This isn't intelligence, it isn't even analysis. It's spam. And that's obvious to any media literate person who reads the first two sentences.
Now we get to the alarming part. When WikiLeaks released the US embassy and military documents, it failed to take steps to protect the identities of confidential sources to US officials, putting people in country's across the word at potential danger for reprisal killings or arrest. That's one of the reasons the army charged Manning (still not convicted of any crime) with aiding the enemy.
While I'm of the opinion that the odds of anything potentially dangerous being found in the Stratfor emails is very, very low, this release is a sign that there's next to no vetting going on. Since WikiLeaks, unlike me, believes there's big secrets lurking in this stuff, shouldn't they be taking steps to read stuff before they release it? And if they are, how on earth did this get by them?
It's been a rough time for Mr. Assange and his organization. Earlier this month, Jemima Khan, an associate editor of The New Statesman in the UK, became the latest in a string of stalwart supporters of Assange to abandon ship. She was one of the people who had posted bail for Assange while he fought extradition and lost the money when he fled to the Ecuador Embassy. On February 7, she wrote:
It may well be that the serious allegations of sexual assault and rape are not substantiated in court, but I have come to the conclusion that these are all matters for Swedish due process and that Assange is undermining both himself and his own transparency agenda – as well as doing the US department of justice a favour – by making his refusal to answer questions in Sweden into a human rights issue. There have been three rounds in the UK courts and the UK courts have upheld the European Arrest Warrant in his name three times. The women in question have human rights, too, and need resolution. Assange’s noble cause and his wish to avoid a US court does not trump their right to be heard in a Swedish court. I don’t regret putting up bail money for Assange but I did it so that he would be released while awaiting trial, not so that he could avoid answering to the allegations.
She concluded her piece by writing that "it would be a tragedy if a man who has done so much good were to end up tolerating only disciples and unwavering devotion, more like an Australian L Ron Hubbard." The Stratfor emails, for now at least, are not going to do much to turn things around for Assange.