In writing up a post on Afghanistan considering reintroducing stoning adulterers to death to its legal system I came across several references to an old chestnut that's been peddled for years by Western officials. The claim is that war is good for longevity. Namely, that Afghan life expectancy has increased by 20 years since the US-led invasion in 2002.
I first came across that claim in 2011, when US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker made the assertion to the hawkish Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl. I wrote skeptically about it at the time, arguing that life expectancy rarely, if ever, improves dramatically in countries at war and that, at any rate, good statistics are hard to come by in Afghanistan.
The claim is still being bandied about, usually to support the case for an extended military effort in Afghanistan. Adm. James S. Stavridis, recently retired as supreme commander of NATO, wrote in August: "Sixty percent of the population has access to health care (up from less than 10 percent under the Taliban), and life expectancy has risen from 42 to 62 years over the past two decades, the largest rise the United Nations has ever seen in such a short period of time."
The data compiled at Hans Rosling's Gapminder has Afghanistan's life expectancy at birth at 61 years for 2012 and at 56 years for 2003. While a 9 percent improvement in a decade is nothing to sneeze at, it's not a 48 percent increase.
But that's hardly the most interesting part. In September 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which persisted through the start of 2002. What happened to life expectancy in those years? Well, life expectancy at birth rose from 53 years in 1996 to 56 years in 2002 - a 5.7 percent gain. Should this statistic be used to argue that the Taliban should be restored to power?
Of course not. But the steady improvement in life expectancy in a country that has been wracked by war for decades, and is among the world's poorest, is not a reminder that correlation is not causation. Afghanistan's gains track similar gains across South Asia. Both Pakistan and India have made similar, linear strides in life expectancy. In the 1980s, when Afghanistan was wracked by civil war, Gapminder data shows life expectancy improved from 41 years to 48, an astonishing improvement of 17 percent. Was the Soviet Union therefore a better foreign steward for Afghanistan than the US during its decade-long occupation?
What's at work here are regional and global trends: The spread of vaccines, cheaper food, and better understanding of hygiene combined with growing wealth. So, yes, Afghan life expectancy has soared while NATO has been in the country. Just as it soared when the Soviets and the Taliban were in charge.
Human Rights Watch reports that a draft of the new penal code being produced President Hamid Karzai's justice ministry contains provisions for stoning people to death for the crime of adultery. Unmarried people found to have engaged in sexual relations will have it a little easier – 100 lashes.
The rights group's Asia director, Brad Adams, called the proposal "absolutely shocking" and added, "President Karzai needs to demonstrate at least a basic commitment to human rights and reject this proposal out of hand."
Perhaps Mr. Karzai will. But these kinds of practices are very popular in Afghanistan, and have remained so during the 11-year NATO war there. While press releases often toot triumphantly about gains in basic rights for women that have been accompanied by foreign aid and influence, claims of great progress often aren't seen much beyond the outskirts of Kabul.
Karzai is seeking to incorporate the Taliban, a movement that elevated stoning from an informal cultural practice to the law of the land when they began to rule Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Karzai apparently doesn't see much of a problem for women in that incorporation. In October, he said that Afghan women have nothing to fear from the return of the Taliban. The country's legal system under Karzai has routinely violated the rights of women – for instance, the practice of jailing women for "adultery" (many of whom in fact are simply young women or girls trying to run away from arranged marriages) has been prevalent.
At least 172 women were in jail across Afghanistan in 2012. Of those, 101 were in jail in Herat Province. The significance of that? Herat's chief prosecutor is Maria Bashir, the only woman in that role in the country. She explained away her comparatively higher rate of prosecutions for adultery on the proximity of Herat to "permissive" Iran, the influence of which leads to more adultery in her province.
Ms. Bashir's standing is often cited as evidence for how much better Afghanistan has become for women since the Taliban were toppled in 2002. The Obama administration gave her an "International Women of Courage Award" and Time Magazine wrote in 2011 that Bashir is "establishing precedents that will become the foundations of a just and equal society."
But after a decade of war the argument that "not Taliban" equals "good for women" has been accepted far too readily. The Taliban were a catastrophe for women, of course, but the Taliban were also an organic, Afghan movement that ironically, perhaps, began in part to rise in the mid-1990s after lawless Afghan gangs began raping women across the country, willy-nilly, after the Soviets pulled out.
The Taliban attitudes toward women stem from widespread cultural beliefs, as Tom Peter pointed out last year after a mother-in-law strangled her daughter-in-law to death for giving birth to a daughter, rather than a son.
Many in the international community are quick to blame such behavior on the Taliban or its influence, but the group appears uninvolved. Mistreatment of women is common across Afghanistan's political and ethnic spectrum and incidents like the latest murder stem from traditional practices in Afghanistan that predate the creation of the Taliban. The recent conviction in Canada of wealthy Afghan immigrant Mohammed Shafia, who murdered three of his daughters for not following his strict rules, was another reminder of such traditions.
... While murders like the one in Kunduz are at the extreme end of the spectrum, violence against women is widespread. According to a recent report by Oxfam 87 percent of Afghan women reported experiencing physical, psychological, or sexual abuse or forced marriages.
Gains for women have not been the only "successes" that aren't all they are cracked up to be after further examination. Improvements in health care, for instance, have frequently been overstated.
But as the US and its NATO partners continue to lean on Karzai to approve a bilateral security agreement that would keep foreign troops in the country beyond 2014, they should remember that the government they support will frequently condone practices that their constituents at home find abhorrent.
"HIV rates and heroin use (in Greece) have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 ($950) per month and faster admission on to drug-substitution programmes."
As a picture of economic despair, what could be more poignant or horrifying than legions of Greeks infecting themselves with an incurable disease that is frequently deadly?
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Press outlets quickly ran with the story. The past day has brought dozens of headlines: "Greeks self-inject HIV to claim benefits," wrote Al Jazeera. "Half of HIV infections in Greece are self-inflicted," said Fox News. "Price of fiscal austerity: Greek's self-inject HIV to claim €700 in benefits," was the headline in the Kremlin-controlled news outlet Voice of Russia.
A properly skeptical take on this claim, however, might have been more along the lines of, "Really?... No, I'm serious. Show me the evidence."
It turns out, as the WHO acknowledges today, there is no evidence – because the statement isn't true. "This statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the report," the WHO writes.
Where did this tale come from? It started with a note published in The Lancet (a UK-based medical journal) in October 2011. "Health effects of financial crisis: omens of a Greek tragedy" was a review of recent developments in health care and infection in Greece. The authors wrote (emphasis mine):
A significant increase in HIV infections occurred in late 2010. The latest data suggest that new infections will rise by 52% in 2011 compared with 2010 (922 new cases versus 605), with half of the currently observed increases attributable to infections among intravenous drug users.19 Data for the first 7 months of 2011 show more than a 10-fold rise in new infections in these drug users compared with the same period in 2010.20 The prevalence of heroin use reportedly rose by 20% in 2009, from 20 200 to 24 100, according to estimates from the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs.
Budget cuts in 2009 and 2010 have resulted in the loss of a third of the country's street-work programmes;21 one survey of 275 drug users in Athens in October, 2010, found that 85% were not on a drug-rehabilitation programme.21 Many new HIV infections are also linked to an increase in prostitution (and associated unsafe sex).22 An authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes.22 These programmes offer access to synthetic opioids and can have waiting lists of 3 years or more in urban areas.
At the end of the day, what we have are "accounts" of a "few individuals" in an "authoritative report" becoming a claim hundreds of people are deliberately infecting themselves. Following the footnote bread-crumbs rather than blindly trusting the WHO when it made an absurd on its face claim would have shown it wasn't true.
There's been some speculation in the wake of an interim agreement between Iran, the US and others on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program that the thaw in relations could lead to progress on other matters of dispute, like the civil war in Syria.
Peace talks between the Syrian regime and rebels have been announced for Jan. 22 in Geneva, the same city that the nuclear talks were held in.
But the key to understanding progress on Iran's nuclear program is this: There was a middle ground available that allowed everybody to get something that they wanted. For Iran and its new centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who took office a little over three months ago with a pledge of more openness to the world and a stronger economy, there is relief from sanctions that have taken a huge bite out of the Iranian economy. For the US, there is a chance of reassurance that an Iranian nuclear bomb isn't looming, and at the cheap price of diplomacy, rather than the dear and uncertain one of war.
While it's far too soon to predict where US-Iran relations will be a few years from now, and whether this is really the first step towards the true detente that many are hoping for, this remains a relationship built on each nation's view of its own interests. And when it comes to Syria, the interests of the US and Iran could not be more divergent.
Syria's civil war has become a proxy for Iranian and Saudi rivalry in the region. The Saudis are eager for the secular-leaning regime of Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam that the Saudi religious establishment views as an assault on the purity of Islam, to fall. They want Syria's next government to be dominated by Sunni Arabs that will at the very least tolerate the flow of money from Saudi donors to jihadi groups in Syria. The US has been tacitly backing Saudi Arabia's play (the Saudis are angry that the US isn't arming Syria's rebels, but the US is on board in public with the "Assad must go" position).
The Iranians, meanwhile, are sending money, guns, and military trainers to help Mr. Assad survive, since his government remains a rare friend in the Arab world and they fear a long-term hit to their regional interests if he falls.
In short, Iran would still see the defeat of Assad as a disaster that could have destabilizing consequences for its only other close Arab friend, Iraq. Saudi Arabia, and the US, meanwhile, would view Assad's survival as a disaster. That doesn't present much ground for compromise.
For the Syrians themselves, it's also hard to see how these planned so-called "Geneva II" talks (following "Geneva I" in the summer of 2012, which accomplished nothing) will change much. The rebels are not willing to compromise yet on Assad remaining in power. Assad is unwilling to go - and there are no signs that his regime is willing to jettison him in exchange for the survival of its core. And the "rebels" aren't really anything approaching a united group - not ideologically, not in terms of command and control, and certainly not in terms of visions for the future. The whole question of who will speak for the rebels at Geneva remains a minefield.
This has been the state of play for some time. I wrote in October of last year that United Nations Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's musings about cease-fires and common ground leading to a negotiated settlement should not be taken seriously. I think that's still pretty much the case:
Brahimi is apparently telling reporters that he hopes a temporary cease-fire around the holiday, which starts on Oct. 24, will form the basis for a negotiated settlement to the war.
If he really believes that he will be sorely disappointed. There are simply no grounds for a negotiated settlement at this point. The rebels will not accept the survival of Assad's Alawite dominated Baathist regime, nor will the foreign sponsors in the Gulf of the increasingly well-armed Sunni Islamist component of the rebellion. Perhaps Brahimi is hoping that Assad and the regime hard core will use the cease-fire to negotiate their own arrests and seizure of their assets? Or perhaps the rebels, after so much bloodshed and threats from the government to lay wasted to their whole families, will decide that the current dictatorship really isn't so bad and pack it in?
Just as there isn't much common ground between Iran and the US on Syria - there isn't much common ground to be found between the rebels and the regime. At least not yet. Nations and groups will carry on pursuing their interests.
This has long been the way of things. If the current six-month nuclear agreement with Iran leads to a more durable breakthrough - one that sees Iran not hemmed in by sanctions, and countries like the US not afraid of possible nuclear proliferation - that will be thanks to focusing on areas of common interest and not the ones of inevitable dispute.
Lawyer Frank Duggan has devoted much time and energy to getting to the bottom of what happened over Lockerbie, Scotland on Dec. 21 1988, when 270 people were murdered when a bomb exploded on Pan Am Flight 103, bound for New York.
In 1989 Mr. Duggan was named liaison to the families of the American victims on President George H.W. Bush's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism and since the work of the commission wrapped he's stayed on as an unpaid legal adviser to the families and as a spokesman for the American victims.
I got to know him a bit in 2009, when the UK decided to release former Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the only man ever convicted in the attack, on "compassionate" grounds, and we've stayed in touch off and on since. Duggan and many of the victims' families were furious at Megrahi's release (he has since died) for a crime they believe was carried out on the orders of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Qaddafi's government eventually agreed to pay over $2 billion in reparations for the families.
Like many sudden, tragic events (the murder of President Kennedy comes to mind today) Lockerbie spawned a cottage industry of conspiracy theories that trundles along to this day. You know, Megrahi was a fall guy, the Libyan's weren't involved, dark murmurs that the killings were some kind of false-flag operation by the US or other states.
Earlier this month New York Magazine ran a quote (in a listsicle on conspiracy theories) that has long been popular among the conspiracy crowd:
"Your government and ours know exactly what happened, but they’re never going to tell.” —An unidentified member of George H.W. Bush’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, to a relative of a victim, according to that relative of that victim.
The problem, Duggan says, is that this never happened. He writes:
This never happened and the story has been peddled for 25 years. I served on the Commission (President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism 1989-90) and was at the meetings held in London and Scotland where the statement was allegedly made by one of us to the father of one of the flight attendants in 1989. We were charged with investigating how it was done, not who did it. Everyone had suspicions, but there was a criminal investigation, at that time the largest ever, that had this responsibility. No one really knew who did it in 1989, since the timer that turned the investigation toward Libyan terrorists was not found until a year later. A father of one of the American victims tried repeatedly to demonstrate that this statement was never made, and offered to show photographs of everyone on the trip to the person who claimed he heard this. The proponents of this fable are not interested in the truth and would rather repeat it to UK tabloids, self promoting bloggers, dubious experts in the case, and assorted nutcases. The story is a lie.
The quote appears in various places on the Internet and appears to originate with Martin Cadman, a British man whose son Bill (a passenger, not a flight attendant) was killed in the bombing. Mr. Cadman has been among the minority of victims' loved ones who say they believe that the attack didn't originate with Libya and that the US was involved in some kind of coverup. When Megrahi died in 2012, Mr. Cadman said: "The only thing I am interested in is getting to the truth. The Americans know far more than they have said.”
But he's never identified who said it to him – or why.
In his 31 years at the FBI, Mr. Marquise said he's rarely seen a "stronger circumstantial case" than the one against Megrahi, who was also caught repeatedly lying to investigators and reporters. "There's nobody else that I'm aware of anywhere in the world that has such evidence pointing to their guilt," he says.
Marquise says that "there were other people that we strongly believed were involved in terms of the planning process and ordering process.... Megrahi was the guy who was assigned to get it done. We think at least six were probably involved if you only had to make an intelligence case, but in terms of making a criminal case, we didn't have strong enough evidence."
Cadman disagrees. But with Megrahi now dead and Qaddafi dead – murdered at the end of the civil war that overthrew his dictatorship in 2011 – those who doubt the preponderance of evidence that pointed towards Qaddafi's regime are unlikely to find the different answer that they're looking for.
The so-called loya jirga has gotten off to a rocky start, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai this morning saying that any bilateral security agreement with the US wouldn't be signed until sometime after a presidential election scheduled for April. A draft accord foresees a US security presence until 2024. Should the loya jirga say no to the deal the result could be a near total US withdrawal from the country at the end of 2014.
What is a loya jirga?
Thomas Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University who has studied Afghanistan since the 1970s, says these meetings are a kind of "invented tradition" that followed the US-backed overthrow of the Taliban. In Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History Mr. Barfield argues that loya jirga are an attempt to provide legitimacy to the nascent Afghan state.
The phrase itself is Pashto, the language of the Pashtun tribes that have long dominated the central government in Kabul (and the ranks of the Taliban leadership). It roughly translates as "grand council." It's often referred to as an "ancient" or "traditional" means of coming to important decisions, but has mostly been used to rubber stamp decisions made by a king or, in recent times, by President Karzai. It's also not that ancient.
Barfield writes that after a jirga chose Ahmd Shah as the new head of the Durrani Empire in 1747 (whose members would rule Afghanistan in one form or another until 1978) the practice was dropped until 1915, when the ruler Habibullah sought backing for staying neutral during World War I. Under Habibullah's successor Amanullah, they became more frequent, though the composition of the meeting was controlled by the ruler, and so was the outcome.
Pashtuns use jirgas to hash out local problems, but raising it to a national level is a sleight of hand. When the NATO powers that helped topple the Taliban in 2001 wanted to install Karzai, an ethnic-Pashtun, as president, an "emergency loya jirga" was hastily assembled. And, in line with tradition, the result was preordained. When some delegates proposed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who had been deposed in 1973, as head of state, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzaid stepped in.
"Only when (Khalilzaid) strong-armed the king into throwing his support behind Karzai did the leadership contest end," writes Barfield. "The obviously forced nature of the king's withdrawal and its embarrassing televised presentation undermined Karzai's legitimacy because to many Afghans it appears that it was the United States that was calling the shots."
Karzai wants to distance himself from the US before he steps down next year. That's why he's called this jirga to vote on the security pact with the US. He's seeking to create collective responsibility for a decision that is unlikely to prove popular with many Afghans. But the US insists on immunity for its forces, and any attempt to undo this protection would be a deal breaker for the Obama administration.
How is it going?
The meeting is being held in a vast tent erected next to Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. At stake is vast US military aid to Afghan forces and the presence of 10,000 American troops in the country beyond 2014. But nationalist anger has grown at the presence of US troops, particularly over raids on Afghan homes looking for insurgents. Karzai told the group this morning that the agreement is in Afghanistan's interests, but that the final decision rests with the delegates.
Most Afghan watchers expect the meeting will end with support for the draft agreement - and powerful tribal chiefs haven't staged mass walkouts that would signal the deal is in major trouble. But there are no guarantees.
What about when it's over?
If the jirga doesn't approve the US security deal it isn't the end of the road. The Pentagon says it needs a deal in hand a year ahead of the current scheduled withdrawal for planning purposes. But the US won't fold up its own tent if it gets bad news over the weekend. There will still be time to finesse a renewed deal.
Even if the jirga gives its approval, Karzai says the Afghan parliament has to weigh in. And then comes the new intrigue over getting the document signed, either by Karzai or his successor. He's been pressing the US to promise heavy weaponry from the Afghan army, so the Obama administration may sweeten the deal in exchange for his signature before stepping down.
After more than a year of negotiations on extending the US military presence in Afghanistan, a draft agreement was reached between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration yesterday. The US gets immunity from Afghan prosecution for its troops. Afghanistan gets an open-ended commitment from the US to train, equip, and fund its security services.
The draft was hailed by Secretary of State John Kerry, and it was left with one last hurdle to full acceptance: the approval of an Afghan loya jirga – a meeting of tribal notables from across the country – that convened in Kabul this morning. Or so it seemed.
Not for the first time, the mercurial President Karzai threw a spanner in the works. Karzai, who rose to power with US military and financial support but has taken to attacking US involvement in Afghan affairs, told the conference that the US is not to be trusted. He also indicated that regardless of the loya jirga's decision, approving the agreement will be up to his successor, who will be chosen in a presidential election scheduled for next April.
That is almost certainly generating a collective, incredulous scream from the White House, State Department, and Pentagon. The US position has been that an agreement needed to be nailed down a year before authorization for troops in Afghanistan expires at the end of 2014, to allow for planning and budgeting.
The US was already disappointed when Karzai announced months ago that he wouldn't sign off on an agreement without the approval of both a loya jirga and the vote of the Afghan parliament. The working assumption was that those two bodies would approve, once the financial and military stakes were made clear to them. But now the question of extension is sure to be a major issue on the upcoming presidential campaign trail.
“I want this agreement to be signed after the presidential elections," Karzai told the assembly this morning. "If you agree to sign this agreement with the Americans, we will ask for some time."
Karzai also spoke of the lack of trust between him and the US and complained of how the US has spread negative stories about him "behind my back."
A discussion of signing the agreement "after" elections leaves the door open to Karzai signing the agreement himself – after his successor has been chosen but before his inauguration, which is expected in late May. But that successor, if inclined to oppose a deal, might not take kindly to a lame-duck leader tying his hands.
Karzai probably thinks he's getting maximum leverage. But delay doesn't just create the opportunity for Afghans to seek more US concessions. It also creates the chance for a political discussion about the merits of an extended stay in Afghanistan within the US Congress.
The absence of a public debate in the US on the wisdom of spending billions more on the Afghan military and police, and leaving a large contingent of soldiers in harm's way in a landlocked country, has been striking. In 2011 as Obama tried and failed to get a new agreement extending the US military presence in Iraq (Iraq refused to grant immunity from prosecution to US troops), the topic was a subject of intense media, public, and congressional interest.
But when it comes to Afghanistan, where the US helped topple the Taliban government in 2002, there's been little political will to discuss what the US is getting for its money, and whether it makes sense to continue funding a large standing army in the country. Karzai said today the agreement would see 10,000-15,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan, and the draft text envisions a US "obligation to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of [Afghan security forces]" until 2024.
The US government has already spent $55 billion training and equipping Afghan security forces in the past decade, yet the country does not now have an army that can fund its continuing operations or arrange logistics for itself. Congress is supposed to have control over spending, and there are stirrings of discontent over Obama effectively committing spending to Afghanistan on his own authority.
NBC reports this morning that a small group of senators led by Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon are seeking an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would require a congressional vote on extending the US presence in Afghanistan. Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told a Senate committee last year that the cost per US troop in Afghanistan topped $800,000. Assuming 10,000 troops, that's $8 billion a year before costs for "equipping and sustaining" Afghan troops. The Afghan National Army currently has about 190,000 people. The US military currently has about 40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
While there hasn't been any broad movement to oppose the extension – there is little appetite among either Democrats or Republicans to appear soft on terrorism – the more this drags on, the greater the likelihood that it could become an issue.
And the argument that a large standing Afghan army is central to US security is getting harder to make. Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in a daring raid in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is likewise believed to be living in that country. Sunni jihadis with an interest in attacking the US are on the rise in other states, particularly Yemen and Syria. And whoever leads the Afghan government after Karzai is highly unlikely to provide a base of support to a group like Al Qaeda again, since the government's finances will remain dependent on aid from the US, the European Union, and others.
A draft of a document that could see the extension of the longest foreign war in US history was released today by the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, just hours before Afghan tribal figures are set to meet to vote on the document.
The so-called Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and Afghanistan would govern the rights and responsibilities of US troops in Asia's poorest country beyond the end of next year, when the current legal arrangement expires. The current draft envisions a robust US military presence in Afghanistan until the end of 2024.
For the past year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has played coy with agreeing to a new deal with the US, seeking to extract maximum concessions, including transfers of cash and material. He has repeatedly groused that giving US troops complete immunity from Afghan prosecution - a dealbreaker for the Obama administration - would be a hard pill for proud Afghanis to swallow.
That pill is now half way down.
Article 13 of the draft (or "pre-decisional" document in its own language) that Afghanistan released today says that US troops won't be at risk of prosecution in the country's politically-compromised and incompetent courts. "Afghanistan, while retaining its sovereignty, recognizes the particular importance of disciplinary control, including judicial and non-judicial measures, by the United States forces authorities over members of the force and of the civilian component," it reads. "Afghanistan therefore agrees that the United States shall have the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction over such persons in respect of any criminal or civil offenses committed in the territory of Afghanistan."
The article also promises that US troops will not be placed at risk of being handed over to any international body like the International Criminal Court in The Hague. "Afghanistan and the United States agree that members of the force and of the civilian component may not be surrendered to, or otherwise transferred to, the custody of an international tribunal or any other entity or state without the express consent of the United States."
So far, so good, from the perspective of the Obama administration. But the deal will still require the agreement of the Loya Jirga scheduled to start tomorrow.
That meeting of tribal figures was given formal responsibility for approving a deal with the US by Karzai. The reason is that the president doesn't want be on the hook for what may prove an unpopular decision. The men and women (note: an earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated there are no women on the jirga) on the council have a tough choice to make. Do they want the presumed indignity of a large contingent of US troops, not subject to Afghan law, remaining in the country? Or do they want to turn off the spigot of US money, which greases the Afghan government and goes into the pockets of various warlords and businessmen?
There is also the small problem of the Taliban, who remain powerful and undefeated throughout much of the country and would have a much better shot of gaining territory if the Afghan military was denied US training, logistical support and funding.
The agreement makes it clear that Afghanistan will get a lot in return for allowing US troops - likely to be around 10,000 - to stay.
"The United States shall have an obligation to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of (Afghan security forces), so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend it self against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world."
Leaving aside the irony of the US being obligated to pay and "sustain" an Afghan military that is described as "independently security." For the past decade, the US has spent over $55 billion on a military that can't be sustained out of an organic Afghan government budget and doesn't currently have the logistical ability to operate on its own. The US is spending about $5 billion on Afghan security forces in the current fiscal year. Absent that money, the wheels would come off the Afghan military almost immediately, leaving the position of President Karzai - and many of the men gathered for the Loya Jirga - extremely tenuous.
To be sure, Obama hasn't got everything he wanted. Karzai has made a big show of concern about US raids of Afghan homes and accused US troops of war crimes. He had insisted that any new agreement would deprive US commanders of the authority to raid Afghan homes any longer - and appears to have carried the day.
"Unless otherwise mutually agreed, United States forces shall not conduct combat operations in Afghanistan," the document says. "Parties acknowledge that US military operations to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates may be appropriate in the common fight against terrorism. The Parties agree to continue their close cooperation and coordination toward those ends, with the intention of protecting U.S. and Afghan national interests without unilateral US military counter-terrorism operations."
Now the ball is in the Loya Jirga's court. The presumption is that they'll stare into the abyss that would be an end of direct US military involvement and sign. But anything is possible.
The killing of Nasiruddin Haqqani, an important fundraiser for an Al Qaeda aligned militant network in Pakistan that bears the name of his father, the notorious warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, in an Islamabad Pakistan suburb last week makes one wonder if the country's hard-earned reputation as a safe spot for mortal enemies of the US is coming to an end.
The Pakistani military may have received $17 billion in US aid since 2001, largely in the name of fighting terrorism, but that didn't stop the garrison town of Abbottabad near Islamabad from playing home to Osama bin Laden and his entourage.
The US-government funded Radio Free Europe carries a piece today that asserts that Haqqani had a better deal than Bin Laden, who was reported at least to never leave his compound and to avoid contact with outsiders.
Even compared to bin Laden, who hid in a safe house within sight of a prestigious military academy in Abbottabad, Haqqani's case stands out. He appears to have been living luxuriously in Islamabad, with several homes there, and often frequented the capital's markets and restaurants.
Retired Pakistani Army Brigadier General Mehmood Shah says the circumstances of Nasiruddin Haqqani's death -- he was shot on the street as he bought bread at a bakery -- are deeply troubling for Pakistan.
"The big question now is what was he doing in Islamabad?" Shah says. "We were assuming that the Haqqani network only operated in [the remote tribal region of] North Waziristan. And even there they were thought to be based close to the border with Afghanistan."
What's going on here? The Killing of Haqqani on Nov. 10 was just a week after a US drone strike killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud - a killing that infuriated the Pakistani government, at least in public. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the US killing of Mehsud would get in the way of peace talks between Pakistan and the Taliban.
But while the government says it wants to end the war with Taliban militants in the country's lawless northwest, it seems that Al Qaeda fellow travelers who operated mostly in Afghanistan find the convenes of Islamabad more congenial.
Haqqani's death is a reminder that Pakistan remains a safe and happy place for finance and resupply for the Afghan militants determined to kill NATO forces in Afghanistan and upend their plans - $17 billion a year or no $17 billion a year.
Financial losses from tropical cyclones and other severe weather have surged in the past few decades, even as the man-caused release of carbon into the atmosphere has similarly increased and the science for why we're living on a warming planet has been nailed down.
So global warming is causing stronger, more frequent storms right? Wrong. At least, as far as anyone can make out, there's no evidence of that yet.
Historical Global Tropical Cyclone Landfalls, an article in the July 2012 Journal of Climate, argues that no evidence yet exists that climate change is to blame for more dangerous tropical cyclones – the generic name for hurricanes and typhoons. The authors constructed a database of hurricane-strength landfalls of tropical cyclones over the years, but found that "The analysis does not indicate significant long-period global or individual basin trends in the frequency or intensity of landfalling (tropical cyclones) of minor or major hurricane strength."
In other words, no consistent pattern, and no evidence that storms are growing stronger or more destructive globally. Why more damage? Because more people are living in flood plains and near the coast and building more things there. Also, there's a lot more of us around today: In 1960, the planet held 3 billion people. Today, it's more than 7 billion.
This is not to say that a warmer climate won't lead to more powerful and damaging tropical cyclones. Warm surface ocean temperatures are linked to stronger cyclones. But it's just that it doesn't appear to have done so yet. While the conventional wisdom on this often feels driven by people seeking to use to the latest storm headline to push back on global-warming denialists, the ends still don't justify the misuse-of-information means.
It's a popular position that tropical cyclones are more damaging now. For instance Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, wrote this morning:
"Increasing Intensity of the Strongest Tropical Cyclones," published 2008, demonstrated that disasters like Haiyan becoming more common.— Jeffrey D. Sachs (@JeffDSachs) November 12, 2013
That prompted a response from Roger Pielke, one of the authors of the paper referenced at the top of this post. In a blog post on the matter, he acknowledges the paper referenced by Dr. Sachs found some change in some places, but not the sort of evidence of a global trend claimed. He also teases out regional data from the Landfalls paper for the western North Pacific basin, where Haiyan formed and which he writes is the most active for tropical cyclone formation.
If anything, the trend since 1950 has been towards fewer strong tropical cyclones in the area (though he warns that doesn't mean much either since there's such high year-to-year variability).
The paper Dr. Pielke contributed to (the lead author was Jessica Weinkle of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado) isn't exactly an outlier. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) surveyed the scientific literature on stronger or more frequent cyclones in a working paper in September of this year. It found:
Current datasets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century and it remains uncertain whether any reported long-term increases in tropical cyclone frequency are robust, after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities (Knutson et al., 2010). Regional trends in tropical cyclone frequency and the frequency of very intense tropical cyclones have been identified in the North Atlantic and these appear robust since the 1970s (Kossin et al. 2007) (very high confidence). However, argument reigns over the cause of the increase and on longer time scales the fidelity of these trends is debated (Landsea et al., 2006; Holland and Webster, 2007; Landsea, 2007; Mann et al., 2007b)... No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin.
None of this should suggest a warmer climate isn't a threat – or won't very clearly threaten more lives and livelihoods when powerful storms strike land. Rising sea-levels will make more and more places inhabited by people flood prone – which means more devastating storm surges. And human beings continue to love to live along the coast – whether for livelihood reasons for the poorer among us, or for the views and lifestyle among the rich.
But Haiyan isn't provably a result of a warmer planet. Nor is there yet strong evidence that global storms are more destructive.