Fall 2014

“Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires,” the Afghan intellectual Mahmud Tarzi iscredited with saying. The story dates to 327 BC, when Afghans repulsed Alexander the Great. Britain’s defeat in the First Anglo-Afghan War 1839–42 is another historical case in point. Long after Tarzi’s time—he was Afghan foreign minister in the early twentieth century—it was the Soviet Union’s turn to suffer ignominy in Afghanistan; the USSR collapsed immediately afterwards.

America’s long military intervention in the country, finally winding down in 2014, is one of the many topics we explore in this issue’s Special Report: Afghanistan’s Fate. In “What Went Wrong,” Edward Girardet, a journalist who has reported on Afghanistan for nearly four decades now, judges Washington’s war to have been a failure. William Dalrymple, author of several books on the region, recounts lessons from the British debacle a century and a half earlier in his essay “Road to Gandamak.”

In our portrait of Afghans, Zahid Hussain, author of two books on Muslim militancy, reports on the resurgence of the Taliban. Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, writes about her fear that significant progress in women’s rights will be in peril after American forces withdraw. Thomas Barfield, a leading scholar on Afghanistan, examines the political chaos behind the choice of Ashraf Ghani to succeed Hamid Karzai as the country’s new president. Writer Qais Akbar Omar pens an evocative memoir of the patriarch of his clan in Kabul. Photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg contributes a photo essay of his remarkable images spanning a quarter century of conflict in the country.

Will Afghanistan be the graveyard of the American Empire? Or will it be Iraq? Nabeel Khoury, a former American diplomat who served in Baghdad among other posts, writes on how the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003—less than two years after the Americans toppled the Taliban—has made Iraq another battleground for Islamic radicals. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration, sees the twin military misadventures as signs of America’s diminishing power in the world. Speaking in The Cairo Review Interview, Wilkerson said: “I think we’re going to continue to muddle and muddle and muddle.”

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor

The Man Behind “Unmanned”

I was reading a newspaper story, I’m pretty sure it was in the New York Times, in which somebody was talking about how drone strikes were only killing bad guys. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division to launch attacks on suspected terrorists primarily in Pakistan but in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan as well. U.S. drone warfare began in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration but strikes have dramatically increased in number under President Barack Obama. As of August, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that the CIA has launched at least 390 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, nearly 90 percent of them on Obama’s watch.

I’m not a military strategist, but I knew from common sense that it was not possible for drone strikes to target terrorists with pinpoint accuracy and avoid killing innocent people. The idea that there was some magical piece of weaponry that was going to solve all of our problems got my antennae up immediately.

While researching the topic, I became aware of a study being done by the Stanford University Law School and New York University School of Law, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan.” The study, released in 2012, presented evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of U.S. drone strike policy. I produced a short video on the study to help reach a different and larger audience than might be reached with a white paper. By then, I had developed a very strong belief that weapons were being used, people were being killed, and we were not being told the full story. I made the decision to go to Pakistan. Eleven months later, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars was completed.

This is the type of work we do at Brave New Films. I have enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, directing commercial film, television, and theatrical projects such as The Burning Bed with Farrah Fawcett, A Woman of Independent Means with Sally Field, Steal this Movie about Abbie Hoffman, and Breaking Up with Russell Crowe and Salma Hayek. Since 2002, I have concentrated on making documentaries that investigate social issues. Thus far, Brave New Films has made eight documentaries and short films that have been viewed by more than 100 million people around the world. They include three other films about America’s recent wars: Uncovered: The War on Iraq, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, andRethink Afghanistan. We are a small group of people working out of a broken-down motel in Culver City. Sharing stories, and representing people who otherwise would not have their voices heard, enables us to keep going even on the darkest of dark days.

Our goals are clear: telling stories others aren’t telling, connecting the dots, and motivating people to take action. We have criticized Democrats and Republicans, and made enemies in every possible place you can think of. Whether it is war or economic inequality, many of the issues we investigate are systemic issues. We talk about how the system works because it is complicated and because it is hard to do and critically important.

Drones in and of themselves are not the problem. The basic problem, and drones are a way to talk about it, is this belief, even with some of the really smart people in the Obama administration, that, “Yeah, we can fix this militarily.” We have a bipartisan agreement on a military, industrial, and legislative complex that works on an assumption that there is no problem in the world that can’t be solved by either invading or occupying or using some new military tactic that will solve it. Of course that’s not true. We see that year after year. Years of research and history and failed operations and dead people show over and over again that this is not the case. Lives are lost, billions are spent, yet it doesn’t seem to shake the essential bipartisan agreement. My colleagues and I don’t agree with that, so it becomes our job to try to tell stories that will question that assumption.

Why is it our job to tell those stories? There was a day when news didn’t have to drive profit like sports and entertainment do. Those days are gone. You have news divisions who are evaluated for their ability to drive a profit. You don’t drive profit by sending precious resources in to cover stories in Pakistan, which takes more time, more energy, more money. Making Unmanned was extremely difficult every single step of the way.

And traditional media doesn’t question the fundamental DNA. They go along with it. That’s why I think that the work we do at Brave New Films is so important. We are questioning those assumptions. We are saying, are you safer because of the use of drones? Are you safer because we added more troops in Afghanistan? Initially the news coverage of drones was awful. Virtually all the news stories simply took Pentagon press handouts—“ten terrorists killed today, twenty terrorists killed today”—as gospel with absolutely no evidence, absolutely no proof, absolutely no indication of who was actually being killed. To their credit, hopefully prodded and encouraged by us and others, more reporters did begin to investigate. And they began to see that many of the people being killed were not High-Value Targets. In fact, many have been innocent, many even children caught in the crosshairs of this war.

Making a Movie
The only thing harder than making a film is raising money for a film, especially for a film that nobody wants to see or have made. That was the case when we started with drones. Brave New Films has a few different sources of funding. The ARCA Foundation gives us general ongoing support. We have some generous donors, and we have thousands of amazing people who give us what they can, be it $5, $50, or $500. To help make Unmanned, there was a great supporter of ours who is very focused on war-peace issues, Guy Saperstein, a former civil rights attorney and past president of the Sierra Club Foundation. We also benefited from the involvement of Jemima Khan (former wife of Imran Khan, the Pakistani politician and former cricket star), who helped us interview key people, helped provide research and also helped us find other financial supporters.

The film cost about $500,000 to make, a relatively small sum even for a documentary. It cost Brave New Films another $150,000 to distribute the documentary and to send it to a variety of groups across the globe—colleges, student groups, peace groups, and even members of Congress. Thanks in part to a large donor we were able to offer the film for free and used this free element as a way to reach people who had not made up their minds on the issue of drones. I am a full-time volunteer, which helps keep costs down. There are multiple people on our team who are willing and able to work for periods of time when they don’t earn what they would make on a reality TV show or some big Hollywood shoot-‘em-up. We were also very careful with our spending. I went to Pakistan alone, because we didn’t have the money (and I was not comfortable having anybody take that risk). My trip was a filming mission. We didn’t have the resources to be able to scout, come back and think about it, and then return to do the filming. I hired a Pakistani cameraman, sound person, and someone to help make arrangements and help with security. From the moment I hit the ground I was filming almost around the clock.

We were able to set up the filming in advance however. Once I’d made the decision to make Unmanned, I started reaching out to people who had been to Pakistan. Everybody came up with the same advice: “You should talk to Shahzad Akbar.” Shahzad is a Pakistani human rights lawyer who heads the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. In 2010, he had begun representing the families of drone victims in Pakistan’s courts. He is in the film, and is the one who helped arrange for some of the drone survivors to talk to me. Shahzad also introduced us to another critical partner, Clive Stafford Smith, who runs Reprieve, a London-based non-governmental organization. Reprieve specializes in aiding prisoners accused of the most extreme crimes including terrorism, in the belief that human rights abuses are more likely to occur in such instances. Stafford Smith has energetically campaigned against the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

The lawyers put me in an obscure hotel—you looked out the window and there was barbed wire completely surrounding the place—because they’d said, “Do not stay at a high-profile hotel in case of a terrorist attack.” We filmed on and off for twelve to fourteen hours each day. We would go where the people were or invite them to a hotel room. Some people didn’t show up, some people changed their mind.

Tariq’s Story
Early on, I came up with the three-act structure for the film. Act one is the story of Tariq Aziz, who was killed in a drone strike in 2011. The soccer-playing 16-year-old died just three days after attending a public meeting in Islamabad that condemned U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. The second act is the story of a so-called “signature strike”—targeting people based on their lifestyle patterns—one drone strike that killed more than forty people attending a jirga, a meeting of tribal leaders, in Waziristan in 2011. The third act is the story of a 67-year-old grandmother, Momina Bibi, who was killed in a drone strike in 2012. At the time, she was gathering okra in a field along with two of her grandchildren, the day before a Muslim Eid.

I came upon the grandmother’s story while I was in Pakistan. I was interviewing the woman’s son, Rafiq ur Rehman, a schoolteacher, along with his young children, Zubair, Nabila, and Asma. These girls were quite amazing, and convinced me that the grandmother’s story should be filled out. You couldn’t look at those children and say their 67-year-old grandmother who was killed by our drones represented a threat to us. There is no possible way to say that.

I filmed virtually all the interviews, but I was unable to go into Waziristan. The Pakistani army and police would have stopped me. This is the region bordering Afghanistan where the Taliban and their allies have sought refuge and established bases. Apart from security concerns, remember that on one side you have Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI, and America’s CIA, who don’t want people filming there, and on the other side you have the Taliban who don’t want people filming there either.

Two incredibly courageous Pakistanis literally put their lives at risk and went into these areas and got some of the footage of Tariq and his friends and family, and also of the schoolteacher whose mother was killed. I don’t want to reveal the names of the Pakistani colleagues because danger still exists. They had connections. One of them came from the area. He had family and friends there who were able to help. I think both of these men were motivated because of their feelings about the losses and the deaths. Neither of them had had a close family member killed, but knew people who had died. We also had another close ally, Neil Williams, a London-based journalist and photographer, who spent time in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan collating drone interviews. He travelled the length and breadth of Pakistan filming footage over a three-month period.

The cameraman and soundman went into Waziristan for as short a period of time as possible, with very specific parameters. There’s nothing like being able to see the grandmother’s family at home, or to talk to Tariq’s brother. A lot of those things were vital to filling out the story so it wasn’t just talking heads. We found a video of Tariq actually playing soccer before he was killed; it took somebody going into the community, talking to a friend of a friend, and obtaining that footage.

Brandon’s Story
Whenever we approached the U.S. government, we would never get answers. They wear you down by not responding, which is a pretty effective technique. They almost never answer except when it serves their needs. We constantly asked the CIA for comment. We asked if they would like to review the film and make comment. We asked at one point if there were any drone pilots they could have us interview. We never heard back from them.

Nonetheless, the story of a former drone sensor operator, Airman First Class Brandon Bryant, became a critical element in the film. Before leaving active service in the United States Air Force, he operated Predator drones from 2007 to 2011. His job entailed sitting in front of computer screens in an air-conditioned container on an Air Force base  in Nevada and later New Mexico and guiding Predators in for their kills some 6,000 miles away in Pakistan. We found Brandon because he had done an interview with Der Spiegel in 2012; he had begun to have misgivings about drone warfare after one of his attacks appeared to have killed a child. We contacted him and made a trip to interview him in June 2013. Two of our people went to meet him in Montana. But at the last minute, he backed out. That’s a huge deal for us on our budget.

Jeffrey Kanjanapangka, one of our associate producers, asked if he could continue trying to build a relationship with Brandon. He did an amazing job of bonding with him. They were playing video games together, Jeffrey here and Brandon where he was in Montana. A week before I absolutely had to lock the film and couldn’t make any more changes, Jeffrey came into the office and said Brandon was ready to talk. It was not an easy decision to delay locking the film. We were running out of time and money. Fortunately, I decided to take the chance.

Jeffrey and Jeff Cole interviewed Brandon for about four hours in a hotel room, and they got that amazing footage that is in the film. Why did Brandon decide to speak out? He was trying to make something good come out of his drone experience. His story became the bookends to the Pakistani stories we tell in the film.

 

Going to America
Our job is not just to make a film. Our job is to get the film seen and acted on. We don’t have the money to buy awareness. So with every film, we’re always thinking and strategizing about what we could do to get attention and maximize impact. I had a strong idea when I was interviewing Momina Bibi’s schoolteacher son, and his young daughter was falling asleep during the interview. If I could bring Rafiq and his family to the United States—not only the cute children, but this guy was a schoolteacher for crying out loud—this could counter the obfuscation and distortion in the official statements on drones and make something clear: here are real people whose innocent relatives are being killed by our drones.

The plan was to have Rafiq and his children testify before Congress about the innocent victims of drone strikes, and make him available for the inevitable press interest in his story—and release the film simultaneously amid the media buzz. I had no idea what we were in for. Some of our people worked for three or four solid months on this. The first step was to reach out and see if Rafiq and his children would be willing to consider it. Shahzad Akbar called them and they agreed. And of course they wanted Shahzad, their lawyer and protector, to come along with them. We then began the incredibly difficult process of getting them passports and visas. In some cases they were not exactly sure of birthdates, which are required for official documents.

No drone survivor families from Pakistan had ever been to the United States and some combination of the CIA and State Department was not exactly jumping up and down for this to happen. One of the most frustrating experiences was trying to work with State Department, a place where you never get the name of anybody. We eventually got elected officials to make phone calls and write letters in support of the visa applications.

Then we had to work on getting somebody in Congress to host a hearing or briefing. Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat representing the 9th District in central Florida, was the one who stepped up. Alan is a man of enormous integrity and principle. He is very articulate on war and peace issues, and is not bound by partisan politics. His involvement was a major case of sticking your neck out. There were many congressmen and women whom I’d talked to who were not willing to come anywhere near this in any shape and form.

All the pieces were coming together. But then we received a blow just a few weeks before locking in the date for the congressional briefing: the U.S. government rejected Shahzad Akbar’s application for a visa. We never got a fair answer as to why. Shahzad received his law degree from the University of Newcastle, and qualified as a Barrister from Lincoln’s Inn. Before focusing on human rights, he worked as special government prosecutor for corruption and money laundering cases, and later joined Farooq Law Associates, a leading legal practice in Pakistan. Shahzad’s biography on the Reprieve website notes that he “likes to cook, sin, read, and daydream.” Shahzad had even previously traveled to the United States numerous times before speaking out as a critic of the drone program. In his human rights work on behalf of drone victims, Shahzad has rightfully been critical of the CIA. We believe that this was the reason that he could not secure a visa.

It looked like our plan for the Unmanned launch was collapsing. Rafiq had stipulated that he would travel to the United States only if Shahzad would accompany him. Shahzad contacted Rafiq, and much to our surprise and delight, was able to persuade him to make the journey anyway. Reprieve sent Jennifer Gibson, an attorney who specializes in counterterrorism abuses, to escort Rafiq and his children in Shahzad’s place.

I went to meet Rafiq and the children at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC. I could only imagine what was going through their minds. Here were people who had barely traveled outside their tribal area in Waziristan now going to Islamabad, then to Dubai, and eventually to Washington, DC. They were held up in customs for two or three hours for reasons we’ll never be able to know. Once they emerged, I thanked Rafiq for coming. I’ll never forget what he said to me. “The people in my village told me not to come, because they told me that because the United States had killed my mother, it might also kill me,” he said. “But I feel as a teacher it is very important to tell the United States what is going on.”

We all ate together on their first night in the United States. Somebody ordered Pakistani food. They couldn’t believe the amount of food that arrived. They were shocked and concerned that it was going to be going to waste. It was a simple reminder of the different universes we are dealing with.

Rafiq, Zubair who was 13 at the time, and Nabila who was nine at the time, were incredible. Their testimony at the briefing literally had congressmen tearing up. People in DC said they almost never had seen anything like it. It was very powerful. We released the film on the day of the congressional briefing. Thousands and thousands of people were seeing it online and passing clips of it around. We proceeded to take Rafiq and the children on an amazing whirlwind of almost non-stop press interviews and photos; the family and their case was featured in over eight hundred articles and television slots. Their visit allowed us to personalize the drone story. If you debate policy in the abstract, it is very hard for most people to get a grasp of it. It seems too distant or academic. But here we had a teacher and his children. They talked about what it meant to be out in the field, and then suddenly their grandmother is killed by a drone strike. I grew very attached to them, and felt enormous emotion when we were saying goodbye as they left from JFK in New York.

On Every Screen
The wonder of having some amazing financial supporters is that we were able to offer the film free of charge. It has been on multiple TV stations in Pakistan. I remember the emails flying back and forth, every station wanting it and competing for it. The film is still available online where hundreds of thousands of people across the globe have seen it.

Our distribution strategy involves almost zero focus on movie theaters. Our goal is to move people, to get them to take action, to reach people who may not know or who may not care, or who may disagree with us. It is one hundred percent impossible to get people to pay $10 to $15 to see a movie when they are uncertain about the issue, uncertain about their political opinion about it, or don’t care about the issue.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love going to movie theaters. I was bought up going to movie theaters. I’ve made movies for movie theaters. But from a political effectiveness point of view, it’s not where you want to put your focus. You want to put your focus on everything from house parties to Twitter to Facebook, and the like, places where you can interact, and where you can get people to take action. The full film is available, sections of the film are available, short pieces are available. We have clips on Instagram and on Twitter. We’re going to have screenings on college campuses through Brave New Films’ Educators program. I would like to have Unmanned shown in every small town, but more importantly I would like it shown on every screen, on every person’s phone, on every person’s home computer, in every church and college and union hall and 4-H club.

We have a very clear goal: to reach many, many people who don’t know what they think about drones and our military policy in general. There are some people who were against drone strikes from the beginning. But when we started making the film, many people including liberals were saying, “Well, they’re OK. We’re getting terrorists.” Our goal is not just to rouse up people who are already with us. Our goal is to reach an extended audience around the world. I’d like the film to be on television, but we’re already on Hulu, on Netflix, on Amazon, and on iTunes. You can watch the film on your phone. That’s where I believe the future of this kind and all kinds of distribution will be. And we are putting enormous effort into it.

We are fortunate in that we don’t have to monetize. Our supporters want us to impact the public. Our supporters want us to create media that will drive people to action. This gives us an extraordinary opportunity that many of my colleagues don’t have.

Unmanned has had an impactful result in many different ways. The conversation has since changed on Capitol Hill and more members of Congress are paying attention and asking the right questions. The media is now actively asking the necessary questions of their sources. Many groups around the globe including the United Nations are using all or parts of the film to engage on this issue. The impact of the film is a combination of five or six different things. If you put together all the press stories about the drone survivor family, and calculate the number of eyeballs we reached, it was an extraordinary number. Some sixty million people have had some access to the story. Then you look at the number of people posting comments, the number of in-depth news stories we had, and the number of follow up stories. It would be great if there was an easy measurement. Or, if the day afterUnmanned came out all drones stopped. But that’s not how social change or social movements work. We know we have certainly made a contribution to what is now widely acknowledged as significant public pressure against drone strikes.

String that Holds the Pearls
Unmanned brought me very close to death, to people who are in great physical and emotional pain because of deaths caused by the policies of my country. That’s something you know intellectually, but when you talk to people who can’t move their legs, or to somebody who has had a relative killed by our drones, when we are being told that they are only killing High-Value Targets, it affects your heart and your soul. It moved me deeply.

This film and our other films on Iraq and Afghanistan have a common overall theme: there are very difficult complicated problems in the world and they can’t be solved by a simplistic militaristic notion. Whether it’s an invasion, whether it’s an occupation, whether it’s an escalation, whether it’s sending in drones rather than foot soldiers. Everyone wishes there was a magic solution to solve all the problems. But year after year, war after war, the magic military solution just doesn’t seem to work. We have got to come to terms with that. Then we will begin to look for other solutions. Yes, there are very dangerous situations in the world. There are dangerous people. There are dangerous organizations. Security is an issue. But we are not making ourselves safer or more secure by a constant knee jerk bipartisan response: “Oh, there’s got to be a military solution to this.”

Almost every person I interviewed in Pakistan would turn to me afterwards and say, “Mr. Greenwald, could you please tell President Obama that we are not terrorists.” I developed a very strong sense of responsibility to tell their stories. I remember what Rafiq testified at the congressional briefing about the drone strike that killed Momina Bibi. He said: “In Urdu we have a saying: aik lari main pro kay rakhna.It means the string that holds the pearls together. That is what my mother was. Since her death, the string has been broken and life has not been the same. We feel alone and we feel lost. We also feel scared.”

Robert Greenwald is the founder and president of Brave New Films. He has produced and/or directed more than fifty feature films, television movies and miniseries, and documentaries. His documentaries include Uncovered: The War on Iraq; Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism; Koch Brothers Exposed; War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State; and Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. On Twitter: @robertgreenwald.

Architecture for All

Despite some progress in the last few decades, researchers remain far from determining the causes of autism, a complex neural disorder that impairs social interaction and communication. Magda Mostafa, an architecture professor at the American University in Cairo, is a pioneer in a related field—applied research on the intersection between environmental stimuli and design that provides practical solutions to the challenges of living with autism.

Mostafa, 41, is an internationally recognized figure in autism design, which recognizes the sensory needs of people with autism in the same way architecture accommodates the mobility needs of wheelchair users. “The idea is building the environment in a way that is cognizant of the sensory input that comes from it,” Mostafa explains. “It’s not just what we see, but what we hear, touch, and smell.”

People with autism have difficulty processing sensory information; their sight and hearing may be over- or under-sensitive; their sense of smell can be overpowering, and they may be averse to the touch of certain materials; they respond better to environments that are friendly to repetitive and routinized behavior. All this, Mostafa says, requires architects to consider several factors of sensory design, such as acoustics, lighting, colors, textures, patterns, furniture arrangement, escape spaces in case of over-stimulation, and multiple rooms of varying levels of sensory stimuli.

Mostafa has spent her professional life pushing values of accessibility, inclusion and awareness in architecture. She helped launch the discipline of autism design in 2004 when she designed a center for children with autism at the Egyptian Advance Society for Persons with Autism and Other Disabilities in Cairo. Later, she developed the Autism ASPECTSS Design Index, a design development and assessment tool that helps score the autism-appropriateness of a building. Her work has led to a steady flow of honors. In August, the International Union of Architects presented Mostafa with an Architecture for All research award for her work on the autism index. She won the 2008 International Award for Excellence in the Design Field given by the Design Principles and Practices Knowledge Community.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities considered Mostafa’s autism index for its international guidelines. Earlier this year, she presented the index at the High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva for World Autism Awareness Day. However, much depends on policies adopted by governments and societies.

Being closely involved with the autism community in Cairo, Mostafa is well aware of the difficulties in securing resources and battling social stigmas. “Special needs in Egypt, in general, is in a collective state of denial,” Mostafa told me during an interview in her campus office. “When it comes to issues of disabilities, our culture is very harsh, cruel, and intolerant to people with special needs and their families.” The few services that exist in Egypt are primarily privately run and prohibitively expensive for most Egyptians. Public schools don’t have resources to accommodate children with autism. According to the World Health Organization, one child in 160 has autism; there are no specific statistics on Egypt, but with a young population of more than 29 million, the numbers could be as high as 500,000 people.

Mostafa is working on a pilot study to implement the Autism ASPECTSS Design Index in a mainstream school. The study will look at the performance of both autistic and non-autistic students in such classrooms and compare them to a control group with no such design. “Architecture,” she says, “has to mold itself around people’s behavior.”

Oriental Hall, etc.

Friends, colleagues and family members paid tribute to the Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif at a memorial in September hosted by the AUC Law and Society Research Unit and Law Department. Seif, who died in August after complications during heart surgery at age 63, earned his law degree in 1989 while in prison for social activism; he gained fame for defending those persecuted in Egypt, including Islamists, liberals, communists, and homosexuals. Among those honoring Seif was his son, activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah. Abd El-Fattah himself was released from prison on bail in mid-September; he has been charged with violating Egypt’s Protest Law—a conviction carries a prison sentence of fifteen years. “He was the most tolerant man I have ever seen, but he was not a superman,” Abd El-Fattah said. “He was an activist like us. When we were young, he talked to us about the law. He told us about how important the law is, and how important justice is.”

The election in May of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi brought a measure of political stability to Egypt after the tumultuous ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. But the economic challenges facing Egypt are mounting, with unemployment at 13.3 percent; some 70 percent of the 3.7 million Egyptians without jobs are between fifteen and twenty-nine years old. A recent panel discussion at AUC’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, “Transforming Public Service: Youth and Employment,” illustrated the depth of Egypt’s labor crisis. Ibrahim Awad, director of AUC’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, argued that safe working conditions, paid leave, and employee rights—in addition to a living wage—need to become standard practice in the country. Only about one in five workers in the formal sector has access to medical insurance, paid holidays, sick leave, and a pension, while half of Egypt’s labor force is in the informal sector with no benefits at all, he said. Another core problem, according to Zeinab Safar, professor of mechanical engineering at Cairo University, is the low—25 percent—participation rate of women in the formal sector. “They are unused human resources,” she explained. “We need a culture that accepts women in leadership positions.”

Sandrine Gamblin is the new director of AUC’s Middle East Studies Center. Among her goals is to adapt to a changing student profile. She said the center’s master’s degree program is attracting more students from the global south. Unlike the center’s traditional mix from Egypt and the United States, the new students from countries such as Mexico and South Korea want to enhance political and cultural relations between their countries and the Middle East. “Students’ career goals are changing, too,” she said. “They are not just interested in going into social sciences and getting PhDs, but into careers in diplomacy and non-governmental organizations.” Gamblin formerly served as an education advisor at the French foreign ministry and coordinated the master’s degree in international relations at the Université Française d’Egypte. She has also been a researcher at the Centre d’Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et Sociales in Egypt, and a consultant with the United Nations Development Programme, United States Aid for International Development, and the International Crisis Group.

Back to the Future

We have all enjoyed fantasy movies like Back to the Future, in which a young man (played by Michael J. Fox) is accidentally catapulted thirty years into the past in a time machine in the form of a sports car. Normally I shun make-believe in real life, but I have to wonder if we Egyptians are traveling backwards in a time capsule. Lately, we seem to have arrived in the 1960s.

In that decade, we had a charismatic leader, a military man named Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became president after events that were variously debated as to whether they were a coup d’état or a popular revolution. Today, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is a military man described as charismatic by many Egyptians; the June 30, 2013 events that preceded his election are being debated by some as to whether they were a coup d’état or a popular revolution. Like the date of July 23, 1952, the date of June 30, 2013 will definitely be recorded in school textbooks as a people’s revolution.

In the 1960s, large numbers of the Muslim Brotherhood were in jail and were barred from participating in politics. They were accused of being traitors and spies and subjected to the worst kind of treatment. As a child, my father, president of the Bar Association, told us stories of how Muslim Brothers were tortured in Nasser’s prisons, causing many a nightmare to keep me up all night. Again the nightmares are coming back.

In the 1960s, the government mobilized people around a grand national project, the Aswan High Dam. Abdel Halim Hafez, one of Egypt’s most popular crooners, lifted hearts with his patriotic Story of a People—it is not simply the story of a dam, the lyrics explained, but the struggle of a nation. Today, the government is mobilizing Egyptians around the Second Suez Canal project. Television and radio ads are calling on Egyptians to hurry up and buy high-yield bonds to help build their country. Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, known as the Imam of Tahrir Square, is preaching that buying the bonds is more important than going on another hajj pilgrimage.

In the 1960s, the government censored and controlled the media, and there were limited opportunities for freedom of speech. Partly due to the advancement in technology and the presence of social media, it is difficult to turn back the clock. But we certainly seem headed in reverse: every other day we hear of columnists being banned from writing, or broadcast channels being closed down.

In the 1960s, we understood that everyone was under surveillance by the police state. At home, we were careful when discussing politics, knowing that the “walls have ears.”  Recently, former Minister of Interior Habib El-Adly bragged during a court hearing that “we tape the phone calls of everyone in Egypt.” Perversely, a TV program with high ratings called Black Box has been airing recordings of private phone conversations. In Nasser’s time, phone conversations were recorded and stored under lock and key; now we are listening to them on television.

In the 1960s, we experienced chronic electricity cuts, especially in the period during and following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. All homes kept a supply of candles as a means of coping with the outages. Today, we are suffering through regular electric cuts—although in addition to the candles, we have learned to keep a supply of flashlights on hand.

In the 1960s, Moscow was our main ally. On the beaches of Alexandria, you could find Russians sunbathing during the summer (and sometimes even in the winter). Today, relations with our Russian friends are warming up again. Our president has visited Moscow and the Russians are helping us diversify the sources of our military supplies.

Nagat Al-Saghira, an Egyptian diva from the 1960s, is still singing today, and she has a new patriotic song, Egypt, Humanity’s Conscience. Welcome back to the future, and enjoy the music!

Laila El Baradei is associate dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

Foreign Policy Mess

Lawrence Wilkerson is a rarity in Washington, DC, a government servant who can admit mistakes, admonish his own Republican Party and even criticize his own president. Since leaving the George W. Bush administration in 2005, he has been one of its harshest detractors. He has expressed public remorse for his involvement in paving the way to war in Iraq—in February 2003, he had headed the task force behind Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations that made bogus claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to Osama bin Laden. In a 2006 interview with PBS, he said: “I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council.”

Wilkerson’s outspokenness is more unusual considering his background. For three decades he was in the U.S. army, an institution that frowns on dissenters; in the 1960s he volunteered to fight in Vietnam, later held posts in Korea and Japan, and retired in 1997 with the rank of colonel. From 1993 to 1997 he was deputy director and then director of the Marine Corps War College. He has had a long relationship with Powell, a four-star general and one of the country’s most distinguished soldiers; he served as a special assistant to Powell when the general was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the George H.W. Bush administration, and as chief of staff when Powell was secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. At the State Department he also served on the Policy Planning Staff with responsibility for East Asia and the Pacific, and briefly as associate director. Wilkerson is currently Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Wilkerson in Rosslyn, Virginia, on August 26, 2014.

CAIRO REVIEW: Start with a critique of the Obama administration’s national security and foreign policy?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: First, one has to realize President Obama inherited a great deal of the foreign policy mess, the lead feature of which was probably one of the most disastrous strategic decisions in the post-World War II era: invading Iraq and destroying the balance of power that we had maintained very precariously but nonetheless successfully since arguably World War II. Certainly since Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf as a vital U.S. national interest and began the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which evolved into the Central Command and became the dominant, unified, combatant command in the U.S. inventory. I, as a military officer, was involved in all of that for thirty years, so I viscerally understand what we tried to do for thirty years, what we successfully did. However one might cite the humanitarian negatives, we maintained the balance of power essentially with the Shah on one side and the Saudis on the other. Then when the Shah went down, we maintained a balance of power between the Arabs on one side and the Persians on the other. Whether we liked either side really didn’t matter as long as they stood each other off. When the Iran-Iraq War occurred, one of the bloodiest wars in the world, certainly the bloodiest war faced since World War II, we sat there and essentially said, “Okay, let’s let it go until there’s one Arab left and one Persian left. Then we’ll give them dueling pistols and let them shoot each other across the Gulf.” That was essentially our military policy and I suspect it was our policy in the highest realms of the land too. Well here comes George W. Bush into office and destroys that balance of power in one fell move. His father [President George H.W. Bush] had the good sense not to do it, not to go to Baghdad in ’91. George W. Bush didn’t have any strategic sense at all and [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s sense was dominating the national security decision-making process. And Cheney’s sense was oil. One can argue, playing realpolitik, that oil is essential and therefore we had to do it. That’s the reason he changed from being totally against going to Baghdad in the first Gulf War to being for it.

CAIRO REVIEW: And Obama?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: President Obama has been dealing with that, at least as part of his problems, ever since. He also inherited a disaster in Afghanistan. Why was it a disaster? Because of Iraq. Secretary [Colin] Powell told [George W. Bush]: “Mr. President, I don’t object to taking Saddam Hussein out, but your timing is bad and you have no international legitimacy, so you shouldn’t do it right now.” The president went ahead and did it anyway. What he meant by timing: he had been the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and I had been his assistant when H.W. Bush gave the American people their peace dividend, that is to say that we cut the armed forces by 25 percent. He had then been the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] for the first year of [Bill] Clinton’s presidency, when that moron came in and cut five to six percent more out of the armed forces. I’m really down on Clinton because of NATO expansion and what’s happening in Ukraine right now, because that’s Clinton’s legacy. He was such a neophyte in foreign and security policy and he had such neophytes around him that he didn’t understand what he was doing by going to Georgia and Ukraine and other places with NATO. Any fool could sit there with any geostrategic cell in his body and know that [Vladimir] Putin was not going to tolerate what we were doing in Georgia, Ukraine, and perhaps elsewhere too. So, Obama has inherited a great deal of this from two very incompetent—security policy-wise and foreign policy-wise—presidents. He inherited a mess, a mess that is now coming to fruition in places like Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iraq. Took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan when we went to Iraq, and it became an economy-of-force theater because we didn’t have enough troops to handle it. Tried to make up for that with 250,000-plus civilian contractors. That didn’t work very well, made a mess out of a lot of things including privatizing the ultimate public function: war.

CAIRO REVIEW: How has Obama handled the mess?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Now, he’s a neophyte in foreign and security policy too. And who did he bring in? A neophyte as secretary of state. I like Hillary [Clinton], but she has no bona fides as a security and foreign policy expert. Now he’s got another guy [John Kerry] in there who is more attuned to emotionalism and spinning this or that policy off the top of his head. He’s not had a lot of help in other words. While I might be critical of his foreign policy and critical of some of his decisions, I certainly understand where it comes from, at least from what he inherited and the people he’s got helping him. It’s hard to critique a man who inherited such a mess.

CAIRO REVIEW: Have these disasters that you describe changed the dynamic of American security policy?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: All of what I just said and more corresponds with a real diminishment of American power in the world caused by two things, probably more than two, but two significant things. One, others rise. The leading character there is China, but we’re also talking about Brazil. I was just down in São Paulo recently, what a country that is becoming. What a powerful, huge, well-endowed country that is. Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] left office after eight years with 80 percent plus in the polls. India. You have a set of powers in the world today that, combined, match ours. Throw the European Union into that with its GDP which matches ours, or surpasses it in any given year, and you’ve got a balance of power developing in the world that we haven’t seen in a long, long time. The second aspect of it is our own stupidity and incompetence and our own arrogance. As Rome did, we are frittering away a lot of treasure, which we should be husbanding, on the peripheries of our empire. It’s disastrous. So, that combination of self-inflicted disaster and other powers rising has caused us to be an ineffective power in the world in ways that feed on themselves. Every time we make a bad decision, we come and reinforce that decision rather than backing away from it and recalculating it and saying, “Whoa, we really don’t have the power to do these sorts of things anymore.” We’ve got to start using instruments other than our hard power, than our military power. Foremost amongst that I would call political-diplomatic power, but also cultural, economic, financial, informational and so forth. We don’t have really smart plans, strategies. So we resort increasingly to the one thing that seems to work, temporarily at least—it hardly ever works in the long run—the military. That’s how empires disappear. By around 2050, we are going to be a middling power. My students are always willing to accept that this all happened throughout history but not that it can happen here. “We’re different, we’re exceptional.” If you’ve read [Thomas] Piketty’s book [Capital in the Twenty-First Century] you know the imbalance of wealth in Europe is approaching 1789, just prior to the French Revolution, and for us, 1929. This is all going to come in my view to a train wreck well before the mid-century. Then our security and foreign policy is going to change dramatically. It’s going to have to change.

CAIRO REVIEW: Does Obama have a security and foreign policy vision?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Democrats since [George] McGovern lost their bona fides in national security and, by extension, in foreign policy. They regained it when Osama bin Laden died. That’s a major political feat and largely that was done by this president. He can’t surrender that, neither can Hillary. So that’s why they go so far the other way. Hillary right now is making statements like she was a neoconservative hawk. They don’t think they can show any ankle at all on any national security issue, and that keeps him making bellicose statements about Ukraine and Putin and about all of the mess in northern Iraq and Syria right now and God forbid may make us start entering the war in Syria. I think he understands intellectually how dangerous it is to continue the path that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney put us on, that is, hard power for almost every problem in the world. And yet, he can’t back away from seeming to want to do that at least from time to time. He’s sort of trapped in his own mess.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why did the United States invade Afghanistan in 2001?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I was getting out of a taxi on that beautiful morning, September 11, 2001. I heard on the radio in the taxi what just happened, and then saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon. It was a visceral reaction, a reaction anyone could’ve anticipated including Osama bin Laden, who did anticipate it. But it started out being a very rational reaction. Powell’s team at the State Department, the very day of 9/11, defied the order and came back into the State Department and began working on the strategy for a riposte. And that strategy was to take positive advantage of the solidarity. The whole world was on our side at that point. Le Monde ran a headline “We’re All Americans Now.” A million people marched in Tehran with candlelight. So Powell wanted to exploit that solidarity to get a lot of things done that needed to get done. Everything from a reasonable relationship with China to fixing the problems he saw in the transatlantic relationship, you name it. The strategy the secretary of state then gave to the president was one that covered the entire world. It had a little part called Afghanistan where hard power was going to be used, and used briefly, to eliminate Al-Qaeda and to bring the Taliban at least to a point where you could deal with it. Nine months to a year maybe. We stayed there how long? We’re still there? So somewhere along the road, and it happened in the Bush administration, this strategy got turned around and instead of world solidarity and taking advantage of that to accomplish a lot that we needed to accomplish, we invaded Iraq and destroyed that global solidarity and found ourselves on the weak side of the power equation and stuck in two long, interminable wars. One thing people don’t understand about the oil business, it’s not about making money for Halliburton or making money for Royal Dutch Shell, it’s about access and price. That’s essentially what my thirty-one years in the military was about, protecting oil. Protecting our and our allies’ and friends’ access to it. I think that has to be the geostrategic backdrop. Afghanistan was a theater in this mess, a theater caused by a passion and a desire for revenge because of 9/11. It started out as a reaction to 9/11, an understandable reaction by the entire world. It morphed into being an occupation, a nation-building effort in a place that is the graveyard of empires, and became the over-commitment of American power in a region of the world that is not strategic to its interests, other than access to and price of black gold.

CAIRO REVIEW: Was there a national security interest in the original invasion?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Not really, other than the fact that the United States, as Dick Cheney said, had to demonstrate to the world after 9/11 that it could still do things and still take people out if they hurt us. We knew Al-Qaeda had a base there. We helped them build it, we helped them train, we helped them fund themselves and we helped arm them. Just as we are doing now in Syria and they’re coming now to Iraq and killing us with our weapons and our own training. We helped put all this together. During the attempt in Afghanistan to defeat the Soviets, we grew Al-Qaeda up, we helped it, we funded it. The Saudis were behind them. The Saudis are behind the Islamic State right now. The Saudis were behind 9/11 as much as anybody else. There are Saudis right now who are funding the Salafis and Wahhabis, the worst aspects of the opposition to [Bashar] Al-Assad in Syria. We don’t want to say our chief ally in the region is working against us, but they are.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Two reasons, I think. One, as Powell says, the Saudis always place their money on multiple horses, that’s just Saudi practice. The second reason is they mistrust us badly after [Hosni] Mubarak. They were giving us powerful, constant advice to back Mubarak, we didn’t. Mubarak collapsed and the Saudis think that’s what we will do to them eventually. So they’re looking for different power arrangements, they may even be talking privately, secretly to the Iranians. The power structure in the Gulf is shifting just as the power structure in the world is shifting.

CAIRO REVIEW: So the Afghan invasion was justified on the grounds of national security to destroy the Al-Qaeda infrastructure on the ground?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think so. I think the smart strategy, and there were those who advocated this at the time, the smart strategy was to go in, pound the hell out of Al-Qaeda, try to get bin Laden and his leadership. If you didn’t, so be it. You’d keep hunting. You’d do it mostly with special operation forces and the CIA, you would pound the Taliban a little bit and as you left you would tell them, “Do it again, and we’ll do it again.” That was a very formidable, persuasive, strategic brief and the president rejected it. I shouldn’t say that. The vice president rejected it.

CAIRO REVIEW: You were there—if the focus was going to now be put on Iraq, why didn’t the administration see the logic of getting out of Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I would say at that point there probably weren’t half a dozen people who knew we were going to Iraq. Knew we were going to Iraq. In summer of 2001, Ambassador Richard Haas, my boss at the State Department at the time, blew our socks off when he came in and said, “I just talked to Condi [National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice]. We’re going to war with Iraq.” This was before 9/11. We thought it was kind of nutty. Along comes 9/11, and by January 2002 and February 2002 I’m hearing all kinds of confirmation. There is no national security decision document codifying a decision by the president of the United States to go to war with Iraq. We just did it. We marched inexorably into war.

CAIRO REVIEW: But why didn’t they get out of Afghanistan before going to Iraq?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: The lethargy of government. You’re there, your Pentagon wants to stay there, your Pentagon feels like it can handle the economy-of-force mission it’s given, you got soldiers engaged, you got marines engaged, these Taliban are still fighting us. It’s kind of nice when you get a little theater you can fight around in and get billions of dollars allocated to you.

CAIRO REVIEW: Military-industrial complex?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Precisely. I would call it the military-industrial-terrorism  complex. Counterterrorism has become the art of the day. You know what we’re doing around the world in the name of counterterrorism? We’re doing precisely what we did for some forty-plus years in the Cold War. We’re arming, training and helping dictators to suppress their own people. But we’re doing it under the guise of supporting counterterrorism efforts in that country. It’s astonishing. It’s like we picked up the template for the Cold War—Fulgencio Batista, name your dictator that we supported in the Cold War in the name of anti-communism—we took up that template, scratched out “anti-communism” and put counterterrorism, and we put it back down on the world again.

CAIRO REVIEW: How has Obama handled Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Imagine you’re the freshly elected president of the United States. In walks this be-medaled four-star general who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who now by the DOD [Department of Defense] Reorganization Act of 1986 is the single [military] advisor to the president of the United States. Not the committee anymore, a single individual, and he walks into your office and says, “Mr. President, we got to stay. Not only do we have to stay, we have to surge, and here’s all the expertise behind that.” You sort of hedge your bets, but you go ahead and follow the advice of the guy with all the medals and all the stars.

CAIRO REVIEW: The result?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Stasis. We haven’t changed a damn thing. The Taliban are waiting us out. They know we’re leaving. The most effective thing that’s happened perhaps is the exchange of Bowe Bergdahl for the five “hard case” Taliban who were actually Taliban pre-U.S. attack. That was an attempt, I think, to seed the ground a little bit so that when we do leave, there can be some kind of political reconciliation. Whether or not it happens is anybody’s guess. At least it was an attempt in the right direction to try to do something. Because we know we won’t be able to leave sufficient force there to offset the Taliban for an extended period of time.

CAIRO REVIEW: Should the policy have involved reconciliation from the beginning?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Yes. I think so. Maybe Mullah Omar and others like him are irreconcilable. Maybe you can’t have any kind of political reconciliation with him. In that case, the best policy would’ve been to leave and let the civil war work itself out, however long it takes. It’s been going on for thirty years already. For us the best policy certainly; not the best policy for Afghanistan probably. One has to ask the questions about what we have done. I just read the report by a lieutenant colonel for [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin] Dempsey, who went all over the country on behalf of the chairman, that essentially said, “There’s no way we can succeed with the number of forces we’re going to have left there.” You read between the lines in this report and you see there’s not a whole lot of hope that’s going to be sustainable or ultimately victorious. The more damaging assessment was of the ANP [Afghan National Police] and ANA [Afghan National Army]. How much is it going to cost just to pay them in the numbers we have arrayed right now? Well, you know, 20-35 percent of the Afghan budget. That’s untenable. Is Congress prepared to continue to appropriate that money and so forth? How many of these people do you think will go AWOL the moment we’re gone; they are already going AWOL at an alarming rate. This is not a very pleasant report. This is a report that essentially says that the best we can do is hang on by our fingernails and maybe a 1975 in Saigon retreat won’t be forthcoming.

CAIRO REVIEW: Will history record that Afghanistan was an American defeat?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I don’t see any way that Iraq and Afghanistan can be logged any other way. It is going to be two defeats.

CAIRO REVIEW: What impact will that have? We saw repercussions for America’s international stature and power after the fall of Saigon.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: If we had good leadership, we’d use this opportunity to not just retrench, but to reassess our role in the world, reassess our power against that role. Then come up with a strategy and a way to execute that strategy, and a means to execute that strategy, that would be more fitting to our present position and our present power in the world and more accepting of the fact that, one, we’re not an exceptional nation and two, we can’t continue to keep frittering away our power at the edges of our empire. We simply can’t. That would mean a shift away from a $1.4-1.5 trillion national security budget every year. That’s intelligence, now over $100 billion. That’s Homeland Security. That’s Veterans Affairs. That’s the nuclear weapons, the Department of Energy, and so on and so forth. We are going to have to shift a lot of that money from the hard power, the nukes, the Pentagon, toward the “150 Account” at State [for spending on global economic, diplomatic and humanitarian programs], the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] account, and so forth. Those things have to take place for us in the next ten, fifteen years from now to look around the world and say, “Hmm, we had a modicum of success, we’ve deemphasized the military instrument, we’ve reemphasized the diplomatic, political, economic, financial and cultural instruments, and we’re using them now with finesse, and we’re getting along okay in the world and so are our allies.” Do I think that’s going to happen? Not on your life. No, I think we’re going to continue to muddle and muddle and muddle, and put Band-Aids on problems and use the military. It’s going to be a really difficult psychological experiment. How this nation of 300-plus million people, stretching for three thousand miles from ocean to ocean, figures out that it isn’t exceptional, and that it’s not any different than any other nation that tried to accrue an empire and protect it. That’s going to be traumatic.

CAIRO REVIEW: Has the United States defeated Al-Qaeda?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think the answer is the answer that I read in an intelligence report recently, which I thought was very well done. “Yes. However.” And the however is a pretty bad however. There are quite a few organizations out there who were basically oriented towards their own problems—that is to say, they wanted something in Algeria, they wanted something in Morocco, they wanted something in Mali, they wanted something in Indonesia, maybe Malaysia, and so forth—that have now seen what can be done to the empire. They have also discovered that there’s money in the world to create what they never had before, what we talked about at the CIA immediately after 9/11: global capability. Bin Laden didn’t create this, Al-Qaeda didn’t create this. We did. With our irrational response to the attack on 9/11. We created the recruiting mechanism, the recruiting incentive and the warriors out there to flock to the banners of whomever, whether it’s [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr] Al-Baghdadi, or whoever throws his banner up and seems to be successful a few minutes. Guantanamo continues to be a recruiting tool for them. The problem in Iraq is the Sunnis who Nouri Al-Maliki and his dictatorial political rule made essentially disbelieve the trust that [David] Petraeus built up in the awakening in 2007 and put on our side and to make Al-Maliki’s ascendance to power possible. Now he’s treated them so badly that they’re back helping the Islamic State to try to overthrow his government. We did all of this and we continue to do it. We’re just inept.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is this worse than things before 9/11 in Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: That’s an excellent question. If we have people like General Dempsey and people like my old friend of twenty-plus years [Defense Secretary] Chuck Hagel and people like John Kerry, if they keep painting them ten feet tall and keep deciding to do things that make them appear ten feet tall and giving them all kinds of capabilities they shouldn’t have, whether it’s rhetorical capability or real capability, yes is the answer to your question. Not because of their real capability—they don’t have that capability, they drive around in Toyota pickup trucks with heavy machine guns and shoot people. They’ve proven the peshmerga were never the warriors that everybody claimed they were. They’ve proven the Iraqi military was not worth a crap as long as Al-Maliki was the one in charge of it. If the Iraqi military wanted to fight, it could drive the Islamic State out of Iraq in a month. All of them and put them back in Syria, if it wanted to fight. They’re not a formidable military force. Not anything like what Dempsey is talking about: “apocalyptic.” Yes, it’s a dangerous situation but it’s not a dangerous situation because of the capability of these terrorists, it’s because of what we do in response to them.

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s the solution to this?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: The solution to the particular situation in Iraq is that the Iraqis get their act together and kick these guys out of Iraq. They can do it in a month, but maybe with a little U.S. air power to help them.

CAIRO REVIEW: But ISIS is a transnational threat?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: If we start bombing them in Syria, what are we doing? Helping Al-Assad? What a mess we got ourselves into. They’re shooting at the Kurds—at the peshmerga—with U.S. M-16s and U.S. Browning M2 heavy machines guns.

CAIRO REVIEW: You’ve mentioned Guantanamo as a recruiting tool.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Well, what we don’t see in this country because we’re blind and we don’t want to see it is that it doesn’t matter that we torture one and they slit the throat of four or five, and therefore they are ahead of us in bad deeds. What matters is how the other side perceives what we say and then what we do. That’s a real disconnect. Whether they are part of the 1.3 billion Muslims around the world, and many of them are still trying to make up their minds whether to support these harder core groups or not. Or whether they’re Europeans, or Brazilians or Russians or whatever, judging American foreign policy by our actions and not by our rhetoric. The more we make our actions differ dramatically from our rhetoric, the more they judge us as untrustworthy, as hypocrites, and the more radical elements of them flock to the banners of those who are killing us. We don’t see that. Since 9/11, our rhetoric about human rights, international criminal justice, human dignity, women’s rights, is utterly defied by our actions on the ground and other people see that.

CAIRO REVIEW: Examples?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Guantanamo is a perfect example.

CAIRO REVIEW: You have problems with Guantanamo on moral as well as political grounds?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I have them on efficacy grounds—it doesn’t work. I have that from more than a dozen interrogators. And I have them on moral grounds, yes. It doesn’t matter if it did work. If you say that you are a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and you spent half of your national life, actually since the Civil War, making sure your forces abide by those conventions, and refining those conventions, and now suddenly you throw them out the window?

CAIRO REVIEW: Why does that become American policy?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Because the president was a neophyte and listened to his vice president. He signed the February 2002 memo [denying enemy combatants in Afghanistan rights under the Geneva Conventions] without even reading it at a luncheon with his vice president who told him, “Sign this Mr. President.” A more salient question is why do 53 percent of the American people in polls still show that they would torture if they had to in a national emergency? It’s because we are that kind of people. After all, we ethnically cleansed hundreds of Indian tribes from this country, so we are that kind of people. We’ve always been, and I would argue, and I’m an American, I would argue more so than most people in the world, attuned to violence. Just look at our country, look at the guns across the country. I’m a gun owner. I don’t advocate the number of guns we’ve got in this country today. We’re a very violent people, in many respects we’re a very bloodthirsty people, especially when it comes to our prerogatives being trampled on or our lives being risked, however minutely. That’s who we are.

CAIRO REVIEW: Where do drones fit into this?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Wonderful. We kill them and they can’t kill us. It’s a wonderful technology. It’s like nukes from 1945 to 1949, when Stalin tested his first one. “We have it, let’s use it.”

CAIRO REVIEW: What is the problem with that?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: One, we haven’t developed the international law or even domestic law. Now police forces across this country are talking about arming drones. “Why pop the ‘perp’ later? Get him coming out of the door of the 7-11.” That’s an actual conversation in a county police force in the United States within the last six months. That’s one problem. The second problem is we haven’t developed the ethics around it. That is to say we’re destroying some of our warriors. The latest count on post-traumatic stress is coming from drone operators, as one might imagine. The way it works with soldiers and marines, you got to have some reason for killing for the state. That reason has to be one that the lowest private can accept and live with. The third problem is that other countries, prominent amongst which is China, are developing and arming drones. Anyone who thinks that any tactic, any technology that you use against someone else, isn’t eventually going to be used against you, is smoking something. Wait till you see a Chinese Hellfire missile come down on Times Square. My son is in the air force. He’s a drone guy now. They pulled him out of the cockpit and put him in a drone. I understand this from a perspective that others might not.

CAIRO REVIEW: You describe a very dysfunctional system in the United States for making national security policy. How did this happen?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: We have become a massive bureaucracy that for all practical purposes looks like Louis XIV. When you become that bloated, that huge, that expensive, it becomes a very difficult place to make good decisions. We started that in 1945, when we became the new Rome. Institutionally we started it with the 1947 National Security Act that created the CIA, the National Security Council. The NSC was supposed to give visibility to national security decision-making. Not visibility to the American people, but to the overseers and others involved. It was supposed to make the president have to come clean from time to time about what he was thinking. What we did was build an institutional edifice upon which this bureaucracy could flourish. So now what we have is a true bureaucratic nightmare. Good decision-making in that bureaucratic nightmare is almost an impossibility. There are too many interests, moneyed interests. We have huge food, energy, pharmaceutical and other interests that are counter-productive to good decision-making because they bring incredible influence to bear on that decision-making. Why did Clinton want to expand NATO? So Lockheed Martin can sell missiles and airplanes and guns to a host of countries from Poland to Georgia. “Why are we expanding NATO?” I’m asking Powell. “This is crazy. Jim Baker told [Mikhail] Gorbachev we wouldn’t go any farther east, why are we doing this to the Russians? They are a country of eleven times zones, they have nuclear weapons. I don’t care if they’re down and out right now. We should not be sticking it to them. George H.W. Bush said he was not going exploit the end of the Cold War, why is Clinton doing it?” Frankly, I’m not sure we could decide our way out of the mess we got ourselves in because we can’t make good decisions anymore. You have to have leadership, you have to have management, and an apparatus to be led and managed. We don’t have that anymore.

CAIRO REVIEW: You were involved in the ill-fated presentation that Secretary Powell gave to the UN on going to war in Iraq. How does that speak to this problem?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Perfect example. What Cheney did was capture the CIA. He influenced key members of the CIA including [George] Tenet to essentially give him the intelligence that was necessary to prove a case against Saddam Hussein. Before Bush was even determined to be the president by the Supreme Court, Cheney was picking people for his network. Cheney designed the network. Cheney was a bureaucratic entrepreneur of the very first order. He knew the bureaucracy, he knew this machine I’m talking about, he knew how to isolate segments of it. He put his people throughout it. They were ruthless, they had a strategy, they had a leader, they had a management process and carried out their strategy. And they did it against the rest of the bureaucracy because the rest of the bureaucracy was just that, a bureaucracy. They forced their way through it and succeeded for several years. That’s called tyranny in other places in history. The wresting of power for other than national interests, purposes and so forth, and using that power and abusing that power even—that is essentially what happened in my view. I watched it from up-close and personal.

CAIRO REVIEW: How did you get sucked into the Iraq presentation at the UN?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Powell walked through my door after we had had a fairly lengthy discussion about Iraq and slammed a forty-eight page document [on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction] down on my desk—slammed it— and said, “This is what I’ve got to give at the United Nations in six days and I want you to head the task force to get me ready.” The first thing I said was, “Not enough time. This is nonsense. Count me out.” Then I say, “Let me read the script.” It’s a Chinese menu. It’s everything we know, disconnected, not sourced like an intelligence document would be. I pick up the phone and call my wife, “I’m quitting, I’m leaving.” “No you can’t do that and desert him now.” This wasn’t because I disagreed with the approach or anything in there. It was because I thought the task he had just given me was impossible and I didn’t want to fail or die of a heart attack. Then I became mired in, “I got to succeed.” We went out to Langley and didn’t sleep for five days and five nights. The first thing I did was hand Tenet the script. About an hour into that and only two pages done of the forty-eight page script, I said, “Mr. Tenet, this isn’t going to work. We can’t possibly make this in the time that we have remaining.” I thought I was smart. I was stupid and playing right into their hands. Tenet goes, “The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, that’s what we’ll use.” We got the NIE out, put all the pages up. It was as bad as the script. Anyone reading it today would wonder how it ever got signed, especially on the aluminum tubes, and the mobile biological labs and the existing stockpiles of weapons. But we got caught up in it, just like one gets caught up in any massive bureaucratic effort like that.

I saw the whole presentation for the first time at the UN Security Council, sitting off to the side. I remember thinking afterwards, “Failure to disarm”—f—ing circumstantial evidence out the ass and none of it hangs worth a shit. I think to myself, “I’m going to submit my resignation as soon as I get back.” [Afterwards] people are sending in emails, cards, letters and telegrams saying, “I wasn’t convinced but I am now.” Powell started giving out awards. He comes in to me and says, “What do you want? You want a letter from me or an award or something like that?” I said, “I don’t want anything.” I don’t feel good about it. He disappears into his office, and maybe an hour later he comes in and hands me on secretary of state stationery a handwritten letter thanking me for chairing, honchoing, the task force. There aren’t too many handwritten letters from the secretary of state. I tear it into about twenty pieces and throw it into the garbage can. I take out my resignation letter and stare at it for about twenty minutes. Then put it back in the central drawer. Worst decision in my life was not to submit that letter and go public with everything I knew.

CAIRO REVIEW: You’ve been very outspoken since leaving the government, something relatively rare in Washington.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Edward Snowden proves that it may be rare, but can sometimes be devastating.

CAIRO REVIEW: Has that been hard for you?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Of course it was difficult. It’s difficult because I’m a military man and they don’t speak out, by and large. It’s against protocol for them to do so. And it’s difficult because of Powell, and it’s difficult because I love my country.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why are you speaking out?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I will not subscribe to the theory, “My country right or wrong.” The issue that really fired me up is what I found out about Abu Ghraib. The secretary walked into my office and he said, “There are going to be some photographs coming out”—this is in April 2004—“and they’re going to be horrible, from a place called Abu Ghraib in Iraq. I want you to find out what happened, how we got there.” The Abu Ghraib scandal had nothing to do with the soldiers on the ground and everything to do with Dick Cheney and David Addington and the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department and Donald Rumsfeld. For the first time in American history, the White House and its colleagues had actually ordered the armed forces of the United States and certainly the CIA to torture people. That did it. I decided to go public.

CAIRO REVIEW: What was the consequence of that for you personally?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: FBI searches of my quarters, tapping of my phone, reading of all my emails, and so on and so forth. I’m seventy years old, not a whole lot of courage involved in what I did, because I had no intention of ever coming back to government. I’ve been harassed and that sort of thing, but frankly, I think I’ve been protected by Powell. They think, whoever “they” are, that Powell still protects me, and thus they don’t want to make him angry because he knows where all the skeletons are hidden. I don’t know that he does but I suspect that he does, at least some of them. They don’t want to piss him off.

CAIRO REVIEW: Have you made enemies you didn’t really want to make?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: A few. I got a barrage of emails after an appearance I made on a TV show. My guess is that 95 percent of the emails, letters, telephone calls and so on have been, “Right on, brother,” and they’ve been from the military, foreign service officers, Germans, French, Indonesians, Japanese, Koreans. Probably one of the most common comments I get is, “It’s good to have someone who has been there, done it and who seems to be telling the truth as he sees it.”

CAIRO REVIEW: Does that have any positive effect on the system? Does it give Congress any kind of backbone to fix these kinds of things?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: On the latter part, the answer is no. I’ve been to see a lot of congressmen, other than one or two there is no audience for criticism unless you’re going to make it specifically political, “You hate President Obama,” that sort of thing. Long term, I think I’m educating a group of young Americans who will have a hell of a lot better understanding of what’s happening to their country.

CAIRO REVIEW: You mentioned Snowden—what impact do you think that has had?

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: I think it has been more or less positive. I think there are more whistleblowers out there. I was of mixed emotion until I started reading some of the documents and I started understanding what his motivation was, I think. I think on balance what Snowden did was positive. It got the American people at least to a certain extent aware of things that were going on with their money and in their name. The NSA [National Security Agency] is just off the charts in terms of what it’s doing. One of the things we found out was that if you correspond, or telephone, an overseas location, then everything you do after that is scraped up, vulnerable, put into the stockpile, assessed. Who doesn’t talk or email overseas every day?

Compromise in Kabul

“The Independent Election Commission declares Ashraf Ghani as the president, and thus announces the end of the election process.” This one-sentence statement on September 21, 2014, brought a sudden if inglorious finish to the seemingly never-ending electoral struggle to succeed Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan.

It had begun with a first round of balloting in April and was resolved only after the two runoff candidates, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, signed a power-sharing agreement brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry. Part of a side agreement (backed by the United Nations) included instructing the Afghan Independent Election Commission to withhold figures on the total number of votes cast and the final tally of the second-round results.  Both were subjects of fierce dispute. In June, Abdullah called Ghani’s thirteen-point lead in the second round (Abdullah had won the first round by a similar margin) the product of “industrial-strength fraud.” Ghani responded that the massive surge of two million additional voters in the second round, held June 14, almost all of whom seemed to be drawn from among his Pashtun ethnic support base, was simply due to better campaign organization to turn out the vote. Vote counts that exceeded a district’s known population, or from districts where no polling stations existed, made that claim less than convincing.

The process was thrown into uncertainty as the European Union’s Election Assessment Team (EAT) under UN supervision spent months examining the ballots, or at least some of them. Although EAT reported “clear evidence of large-scale fraud, mainly ballot stuffing,” so little was done about these findings that it was forced to concede “even after this full audit, questions remain on the electoral process and on the final outcome, in particular as the audit failed to bring full clarity on final results.”

This was a polite way of admitting an unfortunate truth: an internationally sponsored election and vote recount costing many hundreds of millions of dollars was now so badly discredited that its final results (whatever they were) no longer mattered because they had no credibility. Ghani dropped his people’s choice majoritarian rhetoric and accepted a deal with Abdullah he had earlier disdained—promising his rival executive authority in the new government if he were allowed to head it. The alternative was a likely civil war or military coup if he attempted to do otherwise. After a dozen years of “democracy building” in the country, Ghani bowed to a much older reality in Afghan politics in which the outcome is always deemed more important than the process that produced it.

Power to the President
The international community had not foreseen such trouble earlier because it treated the 2014 Afghan election as a routine event, until a crisis emerged during the second round. By contrast, Afghans recognized from the beginning that this election would be fraught with danger. While two previous presidential elections in 2004 and 2009 appeared to show that the process of elective democracy was well rooted, this was an illusion. Karzai had come to power as the result of the American invasion and internationally brokered Bonn Agreement in 2001. An Afghan loya jirga had approved his appointment in 2002 and Karzai went on to win two terms as president by election, but the process was largely symbolic. These elections merely confirmed his authority as an existing leader because only the most naïve Afghans believed that a sitting ruler would allow himself to be ousted by a popular vote. In their experience, rulers in Afghanistan were only removed by internal revolts or when their foreign patrons (with troops in the country) ousted them. Moreover the 2004 Afghan constitution gave Karzai vast executive power. He appointed all provincial governors and district administrators, routinely overrode the judicial system through use of pardons and dropped prosecutions, and largely ignored parliament. Levels of corruption were enormously high but such corruption bought the support of powerful personal political networks. While this undermined effective governance (and in the process gave new life to the Taliban insurgency), such benefits were the glue that kept otherwise rival ethnic groups and political factions from turning against his government.

As a result, few people really believed that Karzai was sincere when he proclaimed his intention of abiding by the constitution’s limitation of two terms and promised to step down in 2014. No Afghan leader had ever before voluntarily relinquished power (except as a form of forced surrender to enemies at the palace gates) and conspiracy theories proliferated about Karzai’s true intentions. There was speculation that Karzai’s real intent was to amend the constitution to allow himself to run again, that he would abandon the electoral process and constitute a loya jirga that would confirm his right to rule indefinitely, or that he would ram through his own choice for a figurehead president while continuing to rule from behind the scenes. Even as the election itself came to a close, reports surfaced that Karzai would use its disputed outcome to declare himself an interim ruler until new and more fair elections, years hence, could be organized.

The logic behind such thinking was that nobody would dare give up such a powerful position, in part because it would be too personally and politically dangerous. To have an open winner-take-all election risked upsetting the delicately balanced system of political favoritism and corruption that Karzai had used to maintain power. Even if he were personally willing to retire, the entrenched beneficiaries of his palace patronage were not, and they had every reason to convince Karzai to stay on “for the good of the country.” When that tactic appeared to fail, they (and Karzai himself) threw their weight behind Ghani, who was now running as the representative of Karzai’s ruling Pashtun ethnic bloc and the candidate most likely to maintain the status quo. (Those in power could be sure that Abdullah, long a rival of Karzai and backed by the Tajik ethnic bloc, would dismantle their patronage networks if only to make room for his own.)

Game of Thrones
Ghani has a well-earned reputation as a technocrat—exiled after the communist takeover in 1978, he spent a decade teaching anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, and then another decade as a project director at the World Bank before becoming Afghanistan’s finance minister. But he had already shown his willingness to accommodate the country’s existing power brokers by naming Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious Uzbek warlord turned politician, as his first vice president even though Ghani himself had labeled Dostum a “known killer” when both made failed runs for president in 2009. Evidence that Karzai officials were putting the government’s weight behind a Ghani victory gained substance when Abdullah’s camp released a series of audiotapes in which officials badgered underlings to fix the election in his favor by any means possible. One, though denied by his office, had Karzai’s Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili demanding, “The election outcome must turn in favor of this team [Ghani’s]… even if these means are against electoral mechanisms.” They had the skills since the last presidential election had also been manipulated by massive ballot fraud. Since Karzai’s reaction to complaints raised by the 2009 Independent Election Commission had been to remove all of its international members and personally appoint only his allies to the 2014 Commission, the task was actually easier this time around.

Fixing an election, however, could not guarantee the losing faction would concede. It was one thing to be beaten (even through fraud) by an over-powerful incumbent, quite another to allow the prize to fall (perhaps indefinitely) to those of more or less equal strength. Many democracies recognize this dynamic by employing means to establish coalition agreements that share power in the absence of a clear majority, but this alternative did not exist in Afghanistan. It both lacked legally recognized political parties that might organize such a feat and had a constitution that provided no system of checks on its president. To Afghan eyes, this election always threatened to be less “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and more “Game of Thrones.” Resort to force to resolve the contest always remained in the background and Afghans were keenly aware of a political history the international community never chose to look at.

After the peaceful succession of Emir Habibullah in 1901, Afghanistan never again experienced a single transfer of executive power that was not accompanied by violence. Over the past ninety-five years, every ruler of the country (kings, presidents, commissars, mujahideen and commanders of the faithful alike) were all forced from power only by murder or exile. If Abdullah and his political allies refused to accept the results of a dodgy election, Ghani had no reason to expect that they might not follow this Afghan tradition and end his presidency before it got started. And in the event of violence, it was by no means clear that his electoral political coalition would stay united behind him if some of its leaders received better offers. (Ghani’s Vice President Dostum, for example, had a thirty-year history of opportunistic side switching and was widely hated by the Pashtun bloc that was Ghani’s core support.)

More significantly, state institutions such as the Afghan National Army and its officer corps, as well as the internal security apparatus, had strong non-Pashtun leadership that might easily choose to back Abdullah—an advisor to the late mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Afghan foreign minister from 2001 to 2005—rather than Ghani if politics turned to fighting. (As one international military advisor in Kabul put it to me confidentially, “Who is willing to die for Ashraf Ghani?”)

While the United States threatened to withdraw all aid to the country if any faction took power by force, Ghani could hardly rely on that threat to protect himself since after the collapse of Iraq in the summer of 2014, the Obama administration could not afford a similar debacle in Afghanistan. Abdullah’s faction was also more committed to fighting the Taliban insurgency and its Islamist allies than either Karzai or Ghani, as the ethnic and regional groups they represented suffered from their rule. Thus, while Ghani was the favored candidate of the Western embassies and the UN, their primary goal was to prevent the country from falling apart, and so they pressed him as much as Abdullah to cut a power-sharing deal that Ghani had labeled unconstitutional. In fact it was extra-constitutional—the Afghan constitution gives its president such kingly powers that he is pretty much free to delegate those powers to whomever he wishes.

Room for Reform?
The Afghan presidential election ended with a whimper rather than a bang, but given that the expected bang was a possible civil war, the result brought some relief in a country still seeking stability. Afghans had long stopped putting faith in the electoral processes championed by an international community that always found an excuse to choose expediency over principle when the going got tough. This only highlighted how weak Afghanistan’s governing institutions remained after more than a dozen years of international involvement. Rule of law had not yet replaced the rule of men and the prospects of it doing so anytime soon seemed remote. But largely lost in the reporting of a “power-sharing agreement” that would make Abdullah the government’s chief executive officer was the commitment to convene a loya jirga within two years to amend the Afghan constitution by creating an “executive prime minister.” The new administration also pledged itself to devolve authority within the existing government by “ratifying and enforcing a law on the organization of the basic organs of the state and determination of the boundaries and limits of local administration by legal means.”

This agreement for constitutional reform recognizes that the failed 2014 election was a symptom of political dysfunction rather than its cause. Afghanistan, a country with a diverse population and a tradition of local governance at the village level, had adopted a constitution in 2004 that was ill adapted to that reality. It centralized all power in Kabul and devolved no authority to the country’s regions or provinces to choose their own governors, to raise revenue or to make their own hiring and spending decisions. It was a throwback to the days and times of kings and dictators when the Afghan population was passive and content to let those who held power run everything as long as they maintained stability.

Three decades of war changed that reality because, out of necessity, power had devolved back onto local political actors and Afghanistan’s people no longer showed the automatic deference to leaders in Kabul they had in the past. While this reality was recognized in the 2003 debate over creating an Afghan constitution, it was ignored by the proponents of centralization. Ironically, the United States fully backed this faction on the grounds that in Afghanistan only centralization could preserve stability even though the United States itself had one of the oldest federal constitutions in the world. A decade later it is clear that the centralized model alienated too many of Afghanistan’s people and exacerbated the country’s many problems. If a Ghani/Abdullah power-sharing deal can bring about genuine structural change in how Afghanistan is ruled, then perhaps the new government can better deal with issues of poor governance, corruption, and the challenge of a Taliban insurgency. On the other hand, if the prospect of serious change falls victim to a search for spoils and score settling, then the agreement is likely to be short-lived and the next transfer of power will be even less seemly.

 

Thomas Barfield is professor of anthropology at Boston University and president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. He is the author of several books, including The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 and co-author of Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006 to support his latest book, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.

What Went Wrong

The American-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is proving to be a failure. Against the advice of experienced diplomats, aid workers, journalists, and other analysts at the time, Washington’s decision to invade the country in October 2001 in a “war on terrorism” ignored basic realities as well as history. A top-down military approach exhibiting often astounding hubris hindered efforts to implement a more modest—and savvy—long-term development strategy that could have ameliorated a conflict that was already in its twenty-second year when U.S. and coalition forces intervened. It has been a costly thirteen-year involvement in lives and resources, with very little to show in the way of resolving Afghanistan’s problems. America’s war in Afghanistan may be as undistinguished as the failed Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989. Everything now depends on the ability of the Afghan army, police, and militia to hold their own—and whether the country will succeed in producing a thriving economy based on its own sweat and with a credible, broad-based political system.

Given the overwhelmingly artificial nature of Afghanistan’s post-2001 economy, which has enriched more than a few U.S. security companies plus various Afghan politicians, warlords, and other members of the privileged elite, military downsizing is bound to be devastating to Afghan pocketbooks. In 2011, at the height of Operation Enduring Freedom, as Washington dubbed its involvement, the military occupation of Afghanistan, run by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), stood at over 140,000 troops operating out of 800-odd bases throughout the country. Kandahar in the southeast, Bagram north of Kabul, and Camp Bastion in Helmand had become three of the world’s busiest military airfields: they handled hundreds of daily transport flights to Europe, the Middle East, and offshore aircraft carriers, as well as helicopter sorties against the Taliban and other insurgents.

By the end of 2013, the departure of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) incorporating forty-eight foreign armies, mainly from NATO, but also from countries such as Australia, Tonga, and Jordan, was well under way. Troops and equipment were being flown out daily, while ISAF and related military organizations had terminated most logistical contracts with private local and foreign companies. An indication of just how dependent Afghanistan had become on outside funding, this put more than 100,000 Afghans out of work and eliminated crucial income for up to two million dependents.

Foreign aid—mainly military assistance, and, to a far lesser extent, development aid—accounts for some 90 percent of Afghanistan’s national budget. (The other principal form of income is illicit opium production, now at its highest level since large-scale production first began on Afghan soil in the mid-1980s.) According to the World Bank, Afghanistan will be incapable of surviving without foreign assistance until at least 2024—and then only if sustainable peace and security are achieved.

Afghanistan’s future political stability is also a very open question. By August 2014, the bulk of ISAF’s forces have pulled out and some 40,000 remained on the ground. They are leaving a country still at war. The United States and its coalition partners have failed to contain the insurgency. In that respect, much of Afghanistan is worse off today than following the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. While guerrilla activities had traditionally focused on the southern and eastern regions, this war had spread to most of the country’s thirty-four provinces by June 2011, when President Barack Obama announced plans for a coalition withdrawal.

Today, more than 70 percent of the country is still considered a “security zone,” with many areas, such as Nuristan in the northeast and parts of Helmand and Kandahar provinces to the south, completely “no go”—meaning NATO, the United Nations, and international aid agencies believe it is too dangerous for foreigners, particularly relief workers. It is also considered too dangerous for Afghans affiliated with the government and any of the international organizations. While it seems unlikely that the Taliban and other insurgents will simply retake the country as is often predicted, it is clear that there has to be a political solution if fighting is to be brought to an end. Certain elements within the armed opposition recognize this and have indicated their willingness to talk and even participate in a political sharing process. Others have not. In 2013, the Taliban and Afghan government had attempted to wager a peace deal in Qatar to bring security in the lead up to the presidential elections. But before the Doha talks could begin, they were cancelled for the time being due to the emergence of a Taliban office in the Qatari capital bearing a Taliban banner and flag. While the talks are not discontinued, they are not going anywhere at the moment. There is also suspicion among pro-Kabul representatives that the Pakistanis (who are involved in the talks) cannot be trusted as they are still playing a double game with select intelligence agency support for the Taliban, while Islamabad officially maintains a ‘non-interference’ policy with Afghanistan itself. Meanwhile, there is support for the international community in trying to bring an end to the war. Switzerland, notably Geneva, is often mentioned as a possible neutral arbiter to have real talks. Another is Iceland.

With NATO out of the picture, 2015 will be a critical test of the effectiveness of the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces. Another challenge is whether Afghans will retain confidence in the Kabul government. After the vote rigging and backroom deals in the 2014 presidential election, the outlook is not promising.

As part of the withdrawal, the coalition armies are taking most of their weapons and equipment, including thousands of trucks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft. The Germans, for example, who were first deployed to Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in the early 2000s, are handing over very little. As part of a zero-footprint policy (highly unpopular with Afghans, as it meant few local jobs), they had brought in everything, including their own food and Filipino cooks. They are now flying everything out, even their human waste. When the German troops first arrived in Kunduz, there was no war there. Now, Kunduz is under increasing attack by the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami, and other insurgents.

The departing armies are only leaving what is considered necessary to equip the Afghan army and police. One fear is that excess weapons and ammunition will find its way onto the black market, or to the insurgents. Yet the poorly trained and largely unreliable police, who constitute nearly half the country’s security forces, lack appropriate weapons to fight the well-equipped insurgents, who possess mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, high-tech communications equipment, and outside intelligence.

To tide them over, NATO has pledged $4.1 billion a year to the Afghan security forces. No one knows to what extent this support will continue once the Western armies are gone. Most NATO bases taken over by Afghans have emerged as little more than empty barracks with office desks, filing cabinets, and generators. In many ways, it is looking more like a replay of the Red Army withdrawal at the end of the 1980s. For many Afghans, including some who have been critical of the NATO occupation, there is fear that the West is abandoning them once again.

Most donor countries claim that, even with reduced aid levels, they will not drop Afghanistan as the Americans did in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. The extreme short-sightedness in the late 1980s, after the U.S. strongly supported the mujahideen against Soviet forces at the end of the Cold War, led to renewed civil war in Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban and, indirectly, the September 11 attacks by Al-Qaeda. The United States, Britain, and a few other countries have asserted that they will provide limited military backing, at least until the end of 2016. For their part, while steadily stepping up their war against Kabul, the insurgents have made clear that they have time on their side. They can wait for the foreigners to depart and the money to dry up.

The United States says that it will retain up to 10,000 soldiers, primarily for training and logistical assistance. These troops, which include special forces, will also intervene on behalf of the Afghan army and police “if and when needed.” British and other NATO armies are expected to leave 12,000 soldiers at most. And these numbers will probably be whittled down to a few hundred, primarily trainers and advisors, within two or three years.

What happens after 2016 is another matter. Up for discussion is Western access to a handful of military bases, which would provide a logistical foothold for emergencies, not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and Iran. Given recent Russian expansionism in the Ukraine, there is now concern that Moscow may reassert its aspirations in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. For the moment, Pakistan is deemed far more precarious than Afghanistan with the rise of local Taliban and other extremists, many cultivated by Islamabad’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The United States has been training American special forces of South Asian background in Pashto and tribal cultural awareness at a center in Montana ostensibly for Afghanistan but almost certainly also for cross-border operations.

The Afghan security forces are now in the process of trying to retain government-controlled areas without the help of Western troops. Last summer, the Afghans engaged insurgents on average 150 times a day in twenty provinces. In some areas, the Taliban are being supported by foreign fighters who fled Pakistan’s June 2014 offensive against guerrilla strongholds in North Waziristan, along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. A worry is that further Pakistani crackdowns will encourage foreign Islamic groups to re-establish a presence in Afghanistan.

Both sides have suffered significant losses, but some Afghan government units have fared far better than expected. In many parts, the Taliban are failing to regain territory evacuated by NATO. At the same time, the insurgents have been stepping up their use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide attacks in combination with frontal assaults on government positions such as police stations. These have produced staggering casualties.

As a fighting force, even if doing relatively well now, the Afghan army, police, and militia support groups will still need to prove that they are capable in the long-term. The desertion rate remains high, and police are notoriously corrupt. Various units are known to have made their own deals with the insurgents. So-called green-on-blue attacks—Afghan army or police killing their own including coalition troops—appear to be on the increase.

Avoidable Mistakes
Afghanistan is America’s longest war. But it is only the latest phase in a conflict that is now in its thirty-sixth year, having begun in 1978 when communists overthrew President Mohammad Daoud Khan’s regime in Kabul. Washington’s initial involvement began when the Central Intelligence Agency started supporting the mujahideen in mid-1979 with limited weapons and funding, a commitment that eventually grew to more than $600 million a year by 1986.

When compared to the nearly decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the American-NATO phase has seen significantly fewer casualties, both military and civilian. During the communist period before the Soviet invasion, the regime of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) used increasingly repressive methods in a bid to put down fast-spreading revolt. This included brutal atrocities, such as the Kerala massacre in April 1979, in which 1,173 allegedly pro-mujahideen men and boys were machine-gunned to death.

However, it was during the Red Army occupation, from December 1979 to February 1989, that Afghanistan suffered its most devastating losses. Up to 1.5 million Afghans are believed to have died, while a further five million were forced to flee the country in what human rights groups have described as “migratory genocide.” According to recent estimates, as many as 25,000 Soviet troops died in the conflict. In contrast, since October 2001 an estimated 20,000 civilians have died in fighting. Nearly 3,500 coalition troops, including about 2,340 Americans, have been killed in Afghanistan. More than 13,000 Afghan military, police, and organized militia are believed to have died.

One of the reasons for NATO’s lower casualties is an approach that differed from that of the Soviet occupiers. Despite using military means to counter insurgent activities, NATO has not sought to make local populations suffer for their support—or fear—of the Taliban. As part of the Bonn Agreement in December 2001, the West also pledged to help Afghanistan back on the road to economic recovery. This was supposed to be part of Moscow’s eventual strategy once the resistance was subdued, but in practice the Soviets focused more on destroying than on building.

Moscow’s policy of migratory genocide created the world’s largest refugee crisis. Thousands of Afghans suspected of opposing the regime were arrested, tortured, and murdered. An estimated 22,000 villages were eradicated or severely damaged. Not only were farmers forced to abandon whole swathes of countryside, but they were also unable to maintain their fragile agricultural systems, such as irrigation canals. If ordinary Afghans had wished to remain, they would have had to accept Kabul’s rule.

There are no reliable figures for casualties among today’s armed opposition despite the body counts issued by ISAF and the Kabul government. Most estimates put Taliban and other insurgency losses, including foreign fighters, at between 20,000 to 35,000 dead. The majority have been killed in military counter-insurgency operations, such as ground offensives and aerial or drone strikes. As in the Vietnam and Algeria wars, there is often confusion as to who is an insurgent and who is not. Mujahideen losses during the Soviet war were thought to number well over 100,000.

When the administration of President George W. Bush, with the backing of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, opted to invade Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, its decision was based largely on an emotional response to punish the Taliban for the September 11 attacks on the United States a month earlier. Amid an atmosphere of McCarthyism, few in the United States dared question what was considered to be America’s right to respond with massive force. As far as Washington was concerned, the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda backers were one and the same.

The fact that Saudis, Pakistanis, and even Americans had been supporting the Taliban did not enter the equation. In April 2001 the Bush administration itself made a $43 million grant to the Taliban government for supposedly cracking down on poppy cultivation—the reality had more to do with the secret stockpiling of opium to reduce availability and raise prices—while the administration ignored warnings that Arab jihadists were preparing a massive terror operation against the United States. Private American oil interests, notably the Union Oil Company of California, whose consultants included Zalmay Khalilzad, later to become Washington’s ambassador in Kabul, also sought to make deals with the Taliban.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the northern leader who was assassinated by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers two days before the 9/11 attacks in order to rid Afghanistan of its last key opposition figure to Taliban rule, had personally briefed American officials on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan while in Paris in the spring of 2001—by then he had lost severely to the Taliban who were in control of up to 80 percent of the country. He wanted more weapons, ammunition and other forms of support. At the time, only the Russians (ironically) and the Indians were backing him. He briefed the Americans on the political initiative that he and Abdul Haq—a fellow prominent Afghan resistance commander killed by the Taliban in 2001—were pushing, and stressed the need to involve the ex-king as figurehead leader and the only Afghan who could command nationwide respect. Massoud specifically noted that the Taliban were already in the process of imploding.  And finally, he warned the Americans about Al-Qaeda and other mainly Arab activities in Afghanistan, noting that a major operation was being planned against the United States. Massoud criticized the United States for backing the Taliban and also for condoning ISI’s involvement with the Taliban, which came in the form of funding, military advisors, helicopter and jet fighter support, and on-the-ground troops (officially referred to as retired military “volunteers”). Riyadh and Arab jihadist groups also furnished financial and logistical backing. When the United States invaded, American troops faced the awkward task of evacuating erstwhile allies—Pakistani and other foreign military personnel—from Afghanistan.

Obsessed by political expedience, Washington failed to understand that it was intervening in a civil war with the Taliban on one side, and Massoud’s Northern Alliance (officially the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan) on the other. The Taliban were not a terrorist force, but rather an Afghan political movement little different from that of a group that the United States and Pakistan had backed in the 1980s—the Hezb faction of Pashtun religious extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The overwhelming majority of Taliban were uneducated militants, certainly not the “scholars” that the term talib suggests. Many, too, were former mujahideen with fighting experience from the jihad days. Few had any idea where America, let alone New York, was situated. Even the movement’s more privileged leadership under Mullah Omar had little or no control over Al-Qaeda operatives. Yet, in true Afghan fashion, they were completely prepared to be bought by Al-Qaeda for funds, weapons, and other forms of support.

From Washington’s point of view, anyone aiding and abetting the Taliban were considered either “unlawful combatants” (a term that does not exist under the Geneva Conventions) or “terrorists.” This included Islamic volunteers from Britain, Germany, and the United States, notably Californian John Walker Lindh, who had come to help the Taliban prior to the events of 9/11—just as various Americans and Europeans had supported the mujahideen during the 1980s. Conveniently, the Bush administration did not regard any official Pakistani or Saudi collaboration with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as unlawful.

The U.S.-led military campaign quickly routed the Taliban in favor of the Northern Alliance. Thousands of Taliban were captured or killed, while thousands more fled or went to ground. Coalition operations also killed or put to flight hundreds of Al-Qaeda operatives. The Americans, however, failed to achieve their principal objective of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden (who was eventually hunted down in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed by U.S. special forces on May 2, 2011). They also completely failed to destroy the Taliban as a movement. The bulk of the Taliban, including foreign operatives, simply evaporated into countryside or across the border into Pakistan.

By 2003, the Taliban and other insurgent groups, such as Hekmatyar’s Hezb, and the Haqqani network, had begun to re-establish themselves, primarily in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. It was this rapid re-emergence of the Taliban that prompted the U.S. and other coalition forces to step up their military commitment to Afghanistan.

Many Afghans initially welcomed the Western intervention. In the northern and western parts of Afghanistan, many Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks had suffered at the hands of the Taliban. Because the Taliban brutally repressed anyone who questioned their dominance, their villages had been burned or otherwise destroyed, or their fruit orchards and crops uprooted; there were also rapes, forced marriages, brutal beatings, and executions.

At the same time, many Afghans expressed a distinct unease with the U.S. military presence. For some, there was no difference between the Soviet intervention on behalf of the PDPA regime and the U.S. invasion to help the Northern Alliance. Among those holding this view was Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Pashtun nationalist and founder of the Haqqani network. During the Soviet war, he had embraced U.S. support against the Red invaders; but when the Americans arrived after 9/11, he perceived them as foreign occupiers who, just like the Soviets, had to be driven out.

The conference in Bonn attended by Afghan leaders in December 2001 appointed Hamid Karzai, a charming but light-weight former resistance public relations officer, as leader of the Afghan Interim Authority; it also launched a national economic recovery plan. Exhausted by so many years of war, what Afghans did not want was more fighting. Nor did they want discredited former jihadists or warlords. Effective rule of law, including a justice system that was not corrupt, was a further concern. Above all, however, Afghans wanted a say in a process that would enable people to return to their homes, even if it meant being run by an interim United Nations administration.

The Americans initially agreed with this approach. However, beset by what can only be regarded as extraordinary arrogance, general incompetence, and poor intelligence, Washington failed to take into account a number of key tenets.

Prior to the invasion, the United States committed its first major mistake by not recognizing the potential of an existing process toward a broad-based political solution led by former resistance commanders, notably Massoud and Abdul Haq. Together with well-informed Westerners, they consistently advised Washington not to get militarily involved in Afghanistan. Even if a political approach might take several more years to achieve, they maintained, it was better than war.

Since late 2000, there had been signs of rising frustration and dissent within the Taliban. Some felt that the group was beginning to implode. Numerous Taliban commanders were becoming disillusioned with the way the Pakistanis, Saudis, and other outsiders were seeking to dominate events. Al-Qaeda was operating as if it owned Afghan territory, while the Pakistanis had permeated the country with advisors and on-the-ground military personnel.

By early 2001, up to half of these Taliban commanders, many of whom had known each other during the anti-Soviet jihad, were indicating a readiness to join an anti-Taliban alliance of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and other fighters together with Massoud and Haq; the former a Tajik, the latter a Pashtun. While not necessarily the best of friends, both men had often collaborated in the past. They had long recognized that the only way to bring peace was through political consensus in the Afghan way, not a process imposed from the outside.

One highly crucial aspect was the involvement of former Afghan king, Zahir Shah, who was in exile in Rome. While no great monarch during his long reign, he represented a nostalgic memory of peace, which is what the overwhelming majority of Afghans wanted, and still want today. Even if only a figurehead leader, Zahir was the sole Afghan capable of commanding nation-wide ethnic and tribal support.

The Americans and British ignored these political overtures, particularly after the events of 9/11. With Massoud’s death, Haq sought to continue with the process, repeatedly urging the Americans not to intervene militarily. With the U.S. invasion underway, Haq remained in Afghanistan trying to solicit support. Probably with ISI connivance, he was betrayed and surrounded by the Taliban. Washington was aware of Haq’s predicament, but refused to order special forces to step in. Having chosen Hamid Karzai as its man in Kabul, they did not want Haq, a widely revered Pashtun moderate loathed by the Pakistanis, to spoil their show. Haq was captured and executed. As a result, the West lost another of its many opportunities to achieve a peaceful solution.

A further serious miscalculation was to allow former jihadists and warlords, carrying their weapons, into the June 2002 loya jirga, or grand assembly, in Kabul. These men promptly intimidated and largely assumed control of the gathering simply with their presence. In the same vein, the West pushed Karzai rather than Zahir, who would have commanded crucial support, even among the Taliban. With only a few years left in his life—he would die in 2007 at age 92—Zahir could have served as interim leader for a broader peace process in conjunction with a UN-backed interim administration. For many ordinary Afghans, particularly women, the loya jirga was their chance to launch a new beginning. Many left disappointed.

Afghans were soon dismissing the Bonn process as a Westernized top-down, Kabul-centric form of government—a system widely regarded as out-of-touch, corrupt, and only benefitting the privileged. Too many Kabul-appointed governors, some of them favored and supported by NATO forces, were little more than mafia-style thugs seeking to enrich themselves. Later, presidential elections in 2004, 2009, and 2014 also largely failed because of rampant graft, the rigging of results, and the favoring of powerful elites.

Throughout 2002 leading into 2003, the new ISAF troops were relatively well-regarded. British soldiers regularly operated foot patrols wearing berets rather than helmets; the Brits designated speakers to greet ordinary Afghans while other troops monitored the surroundings. American forces, on the other hand, would only patrol in heavy armor and in vehicles. They also treated Afghans with deep suspicion and fear, and always at the end of gun. The hiring, too, of foreign mercenaries—military contractors—who had no accountability and often abused locals with astounding rudeness, did little to enhance public perception of these foreign armies. In time, Afghans regarded NATO soldiers as yet another foreign occupation force.

By 2004, Washington’s emphasis on a military rather than a development approach was only leading to a steadily expanding war. The Taliban and other armed opposition groups were fast re-emerging, and the only solution offered by U.S. generals, who were running the show from ISAF headquarters, was to step up counter-insurgency operations. Every year, more foreign troops were deployed, losing more soldiers in the process and achieving few results.

Arab Afghans
A key factor in the West’s failure was a refusal to learn the lessons of history. While one could go back several millennia, a look at the 175 years of Afghan history will suffice. There were clear reasons why the British failed in their attempts to control Afghanistan during the First Anglo-Afghan War, which resulted in the nigh annihilation of their nearly 14,500-16,000-strong expeditionary force in 1842. This was followed by two more largely ineffective punitive efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ultimately leaving British India with the conclusion that, while it could influence Kabul’s foreign policy, it could certainly not control Afghans on the inside.

The principal lesson learned, as one British NATO colonel put it to me at Bagram Airfield in early 2002, was “never occupy Afghanistan.” Nor, he may as well have added, should any foreigner, whether British, Russian, Pakistani, Arab, American or European, ever assume that he can control both this country and its people. Even Afghans have long discovered that political interests will always remain beholden to fickle alliances that can change with staggering alacrity. All depends on local, clan, tribal, and regional loyalties, government payoffs, threats, or whatever happens to be in the best interests of a particular grouping or community at the time. Nothing ever goes to plan.

The Soviets had ignored history with their December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Moscow tried to operate with a 115,000-strong occupation force—well supported, it would seem, by road, rail, and air from Red Army bases and another 30,000 troops north of the border in Central Asia. It also sought to promote the highly unpopular PDPA regime, riddled with factional infighting and ethnic tensions.

The Soviets and their Afghan cohorts used a combination of brute repression, bribes, well-stocked subsidized wheat in the bazaars, and, to a lesser degree, development initiatives, mainly in urban areas, to persuade ordinary Afghans to accept their dominance. But their massive bombings and ground assaults combined with the actions of the hated Khad state intelligence agency, coupled with well-paid local militia, only contributed toward engendering further sympathy for the resistance.

Furthermore, the Red Army found itself dealing with a disparate guerrilla movement involving some 200 local or regional resistance fronts. These operated independently of each other, but also sometimes in coordination as part of loose alliances among different—and increasingly effective—resistance commanders, such as Massoud to the north, Haq to the east, Ismail Khan to the west, and Haqqani to the southeast.

The Taliban and other opposition groups today are much the same. While portraying itself as a movement with Mullah Omar as its spiritual leader, each Talib insurgent front operates much on its own, while accepting the broad sweeps of Taliban direction. Some have embraced harsh, often indiscriminate military approaches, killing innocent Afghans in the process. Despite eroding Taliban support in many areas, such tactics also instill fear and forces acquiescence to their rule. Other commanders are extremely careful about maintaining good relations with local Afghans. They also offer a form of sharia justice, which many, including government and NATO employees, prefer to the corrupt Kabul version, where only money decides.

The Soviets soon realized that they could not control the countryside given the ability of the mujahideen to walk right across the Hindu Kush with weapons and ammunition brought in from Pakistan or Iran, and then to operate at will among the mountains and deserts. Even with their drones, U.S. forces today have proved incapable of fully interdicting guerrilla movement. While the Red Army gradually improved and adapted their tactics—such as with the use of heliborne elite Spetsnaz forces—so did the guerrillas, who soon received better and more weapons, which from 1986 onwards, included the highly destructive Stinger missile.

Soviet efforts to bolster the PDPA regime backfired even though massive efforts toward the end of the occupation to buy off tribal leaders in resistance areas appeared to be making headway. The much-publicized communist “Fatherland” initiative, which included the formation of paid militia to protect villages (an idea later copied by NATO), succeeded in worrying the mujahideen enough to form a resistance government. But once Moscow no longer had the funds to pay salaries, these hired guns simply supported the highest bidders, including the new drug lords.

Loyalty has always been a problem in Afghanistan. During the Soviet period, most party militants and military stuck with them not because of ideology, but rather because of privileges, money, and protection for their families. In fact, the ministries, including military and police ranks, were thoroughly infiltrated by the mujahideen. Both Massoud and Hekmatyar had senior army and air force officers working closely in government bodies.

The situation is not much different in 2014. Soldiers, police, and civil servants need to play all sides as a matter of survival. Everyone seems to have a family member who is in the Taliban, while another works for the government. The Taliban, Hezb, and Haqqani network all have their own people in Kabul and the provincial governments. Many Afghans, too, are grabbing what they can from the system but are also prepared to leave once things start going to hell. Many, including several key Afghan generals, already have bolt holes in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere.

Following the Soviet pullout, the PDPA forces managed to hold on for another three years—that is, for as long as the funds lasted. As soon as the money dried up, everything collapsed. Mid- and senior-level party members disappeared or slipped over to the former resistance parties. Members of the mainly Pashtun Ministry of Interior moved over to Hekmatyar’s Hezb, while those involved with the Tajik-dominated ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs opted for what later became the Northern Alliance under Massoud.

With the Soviets gone, matters became still worse after the United States and its European allies, having helped defeat the Soviets, abandoned the country. As history has shown, one cannot play the field and then withdraw without repercussions. Both the Saudis and Pakistan’s manipulative ISI continued to back Hekmatyar, but then switched to the Taliban when the latter proved to be the wave of the future. War-fatigued Afghans initially welcomed the Taliban because of their ability to instill law and order, but turned against them when mainly southern Pashtuns sought to impose their own highly restrictive form of sharia.

Another blowback today from the 1980s is the indiscriminate support provided by both the United States and Pakistan to leading Islamic fundamentalists within the mujahideen, such as Hekmatyar and Haqqani. By allowing ISI to channel the bulk of U.S. arms and funds to Hezb, the Americans created monsters who would come back to haunt them.

By 2002, Washington’s former ally Hekmatyar had returned from Iranian exile in support of the Taliban cause, but ultimately for his own political interests. The CIA tried to kill him, but failed, in the spring of 2002. In 2014, Hekmatyar still ranks as a leading, anti-coalition insurgent responsible for numerous IED attacks. In early September 2014, the BBC reported Hezb’s intention to join the cause of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This indicated a new globalization of the conflict, which might give cause to both Washington and its NATO allies to re-consider their disengagement from Afghanistan.

Such internationalization of radical Islam is nothing new. During the 1980s, several thousand foreign Islamic fighters from Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, and even Germany flocked in to help. Clearly, many were not there for the Afghans, but rather to benefit from the experience given that Afghanistan was the only active jihad in the world. One of these foreign fighters was Osama bin Laden (who I encountered twice in Kunar province during the last days of the Soviet occupation).

Many of these veteran “Afghanis” later headed off to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, and with them went a radical program of political Islam. They sought to promote the spreading of jihad to all points of the earth. Some of the more experienced ISIS commanders today are believed to have had their first test of combat—and brutality—in Afghanistan. It was partially this ruthlessness, notably the execution by the slitting of throats—a very un-Afghan form of killing—of scores of PDPA prisoners by Arab jihadists that prompted the government to fight so hard once Red Army troops had gone.

Costs of Intervention
In spite of the positive spin Washington, London, or Brussels may put on the Afghan war, it is fair to question whether it has been worth the lives lost and the billions of dollars spent, especially given that other and arguably more viable options were available to policymakers. It is increasingly apparent that a security-based strategy has not achieved much. Even a fraction of the more than $496 billion spent by the U.S. military—not including what the other allies have contributed—could have been used more effectively on intelligent, more carefully tailored development and investment initiatives. Real recovery, such as building roads or creating jobs in rural areas, is a far better strategy.

Today’s international community, in contrast with the Soviet occupation, has sought to implement national development programs. But much of this has been undermined by the war. Relations with the local population were severely compromised by the manner with which the Americans and their allies have killed or otherwise arrested suspected insurgents, or terrorists, often incarcerating them without due process in detention centers at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and elsewhere.

Since 2004, the Americans pointedly have sought to eliminate guerrilla operatives, whether inside Afghanistan or along Pakistan’s border tribal areas, through drone attacks. From a military point of view, these kills might seem exceptionally successful, but as a means of promoting eventual reconciliation, however, they have been remarkably myopic. These unmanned aerial assaults have been killing the very leaders with whom the West needs to negotiate if there is to be a peaceful solution. Many who have replaced these traditional leaders are young, hard line, and almost entirely indoctrinated by the jihadist cause, often with websites openly backing the ISIS cause.

As part of guerrilla strategy, the Taliban’s methods are not much different from those of the mujahideen—multi-assaults combined with inside collaboration. However, there is one major difference, notably the use of IEDs. Apart from Chinese landmines or artillery shells placed in roads to blow up passing Soviet tanks, the mujahideen never used IEDs. Nor did they recruit suicide bombers, now a common element of insurgent assaults.

These indiscriminate forms of guerrilla warfare are foreign imports, primarily introduced into Afghanistan by Arab and Chechen jihadists. Since 2004, up to half the NATO and Afghan government casualties have been inflicted by suicide bombers or IEDs placed along roads, in bazaars, or in areas frequented by government or NATO forces. Often, too, IEDs have been deliberately used to terrorize the local population.

Furthermore, unlike in the Soviet war, today’s insurgency is no longer operating in comparative isolation. It is in constant contact via social media with guerrilla operatives elsewhere, such as in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. IED methods are being constantly updated. The Taliban and other groups have become Internet-savvy with the posting of attacks on YouTube. By routinely videoing these assaults, often from multiple angles, they can counter government claims of victory or promote their own PR interests. Furthermore, they serve as live instruction manuals.

Observers are particularly critical of the manner with which U.S. and British forces have sought to occupy hard-fought villages or positions, sometimes with great loss of life, for a week or two, only to see them fall back into insurgent hands as soon as they pull out. Such pointlessness was aptly conveyed in the U.S.-British documentary Restrepo, which tells the story of how American troops held a village in the Korengal Valley for nearly a year. One U.S. soldier was killed and the mission served absolutely no military purpose whatsoever. The highly publicized 2010 Marja ground assault in Helmand is another example. Not unlike the massive 12,000-strong Soviet-Afghan offensive against the Panjshir Valley in 1982, it achieved little other than to contain the insurgents temporarily. While some were killed, others simply buried their weapons and disappeared, or headed off to fight elsewhere.

It is hard for NATO to argue that it is leaving Afghanistan a better place, or that the mission has succeeded in thwarting international terrorism. Jihadist training camps are likely to reappear in the Afghan landscape. Even with reliable on-the-ground intelligence coupled with satellite or drone monitoring and clandestine special forces operating from Afghan military bases, such activities will prove hard to contain once most foreign troops are gone. All that NATO has really achieved is an extremely expensive holding operation.

For anyone familiar with the nature of guerrilla warfare, America’s “war on terrorism” against the Taliban and other guerrilla fronts has failed, primarily because it has not won. It was much the same for Soviets when they proved incapable of quashing the Afghan resistance. In his war against the Soviets, Massoud, an avid reader of military history, sought to incorporate some of the lessons learned from past guerrilla conflicts, such as Tito’s war against the Nazis (and rival Yugoslavs), General Giap’s in Vietnam, and the Front de Libération Nationale’s in Algeria. He adopted many of their tactics, which, in turn, have been adopted—or perfected—by the Taliban.

To have any decisive impact against an insurgency, the soldier-guerrilla ratio must be 10:1. At best, NATO maintained a 5:1 ratio, and even then, the bulk of its troops have operated in a logistical support capacity. Barely 25,000–30,000 U.S., British and other coalition soldiers were trained in counter-insurgency tactics.

Furthermore, America’s war in Iraq in 2003 led Washington to lose its focus in Afghanistan. This blurred its ability to carefully think through the process, and to decide what the best way forward was to bring about real recovery combined with effective security.

Whether by default or deliberate policy, Washington let the generals call the shots. This included decisions such as the deployment of soldiers as aid workers in the form of “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” (PRTs) designed to combine “hearts and minds” efforts with military clout. Funded primarily by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the British Department for International Development, they dug wells, built schools, constructed bridges, and otherwise involved themselves with local development.

The problem was that the PRTs were military and not humanitarian operations. They were perceived as soldiers and their presence often undermined the neutrality of aid workers. In some areas, too, such as the German PRTs in northern Afghanistan, they only contributed toward attracting insurgent attention. Even more crucial, the PRT soldiers lacked appropriate local knowledge. For example, the management and use of water sources in Afghanistan is based on hundreds of years of tradition. The digging of some PRT wells, which were always good PR for visiting television crews or ISAF information sites, caused rising salination because of excessive water depletion. As Anthony Fitzherbert, a leading British agriculturalist pointed out, “there is a reason why there was no well in the first place.”

The PRT teams, which doubled as intelligence-gathering operatives, were also hampered by six-month deployment rotations. There was little institutional memory. Much depended on the ability of new officers to carry on with what their predecessors had learned. When the PRTs began pulling out from southern and eastern Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013, many programs and their funding collapsed. As with much of the West’s military approach, there was no long-term vision.

NATO forces also found themselves involved in another war: U.S. and British counter-narcotics operations in a bid to eliminate, or least reduce, opium poppy cultivation. One reason for this was to deny the Taliban a major source of income. This interdiction involved a highly unpopular combination of foreign troops, Afghan security forces, armed U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operatives, mercenaries, and militia.

The strategy, which failed to compensate local farmers and openly benefitted those with government ties, including at least a handful of regional warlords and governors, turned many Afghans against the Kabul regime. A far better idea would have been to focus with less money on a more astute, imaginative, and practical basket of agricultural outreach programs as a means of creating a more viable economy.

Cautionary Tale
While the U.S.-led invasion was initially widely supported, the occupation began to lose popular support the longer foreign troops remained. Part of this animosity was the result of the growing numbers of Afghans killed in NATO bombings, ground operations, or shootings, regardless whether deliberate or accidental. To their credit, NATO forces have sought to investigate—and compensate—wherever possible, but public apologies and blood money are rarely sufficient.

A further problem was the manner with which many occupation troops—and foreign mercenaries—interacted with Afghans. This ranged from blatant lack of cultural sensitivity, such as rudeness at road blocks or in the bazaars, male soldiers checking female travelers, or the failure to remove sunglasses when talking with Afghans, thus preventing crucial polite eye contact.

With America’s generals running the show, it was security rather than recovery that dominated. Not only did this military approach undermine the more urgent need for effective development and investment, it inadvertently led to a return of the Taliban.

The Pentagon also ignored warnings that any attempts to deal with Afghanistan should not involve the dumping of massive amounts of funding. As aid analysts noted, any recovery strategy should be based on a carefully implemented twenty- to thirty-year approach. There could be no quick fixes. Furthermore, the focus should be on well-informed development in provincial towns and the countryside, where over 70 percent of Afghans live. Furthermore, a no-brainer, it would come at a fraction of the cost, perhaps 1–2 percent of overall military expenditure.

The policy proved to be far different. The UN, European Union, World Bank, ISAF, and other members of the international community allowed Kabul to be turned into an artificial, bright-lights magnet with over-the-top infrastructure. As with most major players, NATO brought in expat Afghans, such as doctors and engineers, as interpreters at exorbitant salaries, often four or five times the going rate, thus denying the country the very local expertise it needed to bring about sustainable recovery.

The end result was that overwhelming numbers of returnees and job-seekers converged on the Afghan capital. In just over a decade, the population almost tripled to more than three million. Today, the city suffers from overwhelming pollution, housing shortages, traffic jams and, for the first time, outright poverty. An economic downturn fuelled by the military drawdown and diminishing U.S. aid is providing the insurgency with even broader public resentment, particularly among young people.

Much has been achieved, at least in development efforts, since 2002. But the improvements are hardly commensurate to the billions of dollars spent, $100 billion in development aid by the U.S. alone. More than seven million children are back in school, at least one-third of them girls. However, another three million are still not being educated. Theoretically, basic health care is now available within one hour of travel in all provinces, but over two-thirds is private. Most Afghans cannot afford to visit a doctor exceptin extremis and certainly not for preventive care.

While infrastructure improvement has been hampered in active war zones, notably in rural Helmand and Kandahar provinces, significant change has been achieved elsewhere. Numerous roads have been graded or asphalted, electricity installed in many villages, and agriculture has improved, particularly in the eastern provinces along the Pakistan border. Much of this headway, however, was not instigated by donor aid but rather individual Afghan investment. NATO’s military approaches, particularly in hard-line insurgent areas, have been criticized for not allowing recovery initiatives to reach parts held or otherwise influenced by the Taliban. At the same, some insurgent commanders have pointedly refused to allow any aid project that might show international aid workers in a positive light.

So, what next? One idea aimed at promoting a long-term solution is to recognize Taliban dominance in select areas, but then seek to work with insurgent councils in a bid to win acceptance through targeted recovery. The overall objective, proponents maintain, would be to demonstrate what international support can achieve through peace.

Some players, such as the Dutch army, managed to do just this in Uruzgan province. Elsewhere, some non-governmental organizations have made collaborative arrangements with all sides, including NATO, the Kabul government, the Taliban, and others, in order to provide medical, educational, and agricultural assistance. This has proven a minefield, given that such assistance sometimes threatens the control of local warlords, who have been playing on the side of both the government and the armed opposition. Yet, combined with peace talks, such initiatives may prove the most realistic approach after 2014.

Afghanistan’s descent into a new era of chaos following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 is a cautionary tale. Many were surprised by the PDPA government’s ability to continue battling the mujahideen for another three years following the Red Army’s pullout. But the regime collapsed when Moscow could no longer afford to support it. Precisely the same thing could happen with the Kabul government if international donors decide that Afghanistan is no longer worth the price.

 

Edward Girardet is the author of Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan. His 1985 book, Afghanistan: The Soviet War, was republished in 2011. A former correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, he is also co-editor of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan.

The Taliban Question

The fighting season of the summer of 2014 was presumably the last one with American-led combat troops still deployed in Afghanistan. The war that began in 2001 immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States overthrew the Taliban regime in power at the time but has failed to crush the movement. Short of declaring victory, President Barack Obama announced he was ready to “turn the page” on America’s longest war. Although security and combat responsibility will be transferred completely to the Afghan government by the end of the year, the presence of a sizeable residual force, after the signing of a bilateral security agreement by the new administration of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, will keep U.S. forces involved in the Afghan conflict somewhat beyond 2014.

It is unlikely that a limited U.S. presence can guarantee the stability that more than 140,000 U.S.-led coalition troops at one point could not achieve. U.S. strategy seems as confused as it was during the course of the war. Expectations that a weak administration in Kabul could have transformed Afghanistan into a stable state by 2014 and take over border and internal security responsibility is unrealistic at best. With no political reconciliation involving the Taliban insurgents in place, long-term stability in Afghanistan remains a question as the country goes through a landmark political transition.

Among various post-2014 scenarios the least likely one is the eventual return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The group took power in the mid-1990s after the Soviet withdrawal left a power vacuum in the country with the vision of creating an Islamic state. A combination of mujahideen fighters and Pashtun religious students, the Taliban gained favor among the population for providing stability and security. The Taliban provided Al-Qaeda a safe haven during its reign, having formed strong relations with Osama bin Laden during the civil war in the 1980s—a relationship that eventually led to the Taliban’s downfall.

A more likely scenario is a protracted conflict, in which the insurgent militia could gain control over a large swath of the predominantly Pashtun region after the cessation of active combat operations by the coalition forces. This would not only seriously test the mettle of the Afghan national security forces, but also threaten the stability of Pakistan across the border facing its own problem of Taliban insurgency in the semi-autonomous tribal regions.

Having failed to disrupt the Afghan presidential election in 2014, the Taliban stepped up attacks on coalition forces during its summer offensive. In August, for the first time since the Vietnam War, a U.S. army general was killed in a foreign war when an Afghan soldier, apparently a Taliban infiltrator, shot him at a training facility. The killing of General Harold Greene—the highest  ranking member of the U.S.-led coalition killed in the Afghanistan war—underscored the challenge facing coalition forces as they try to wind down their involvement in the thirteen-year-old conflict. Far from vanquished, the Taliban have widened its operations, particularly in the eastern and southern region of Afghanistan where the security transition has completely taxed Afghan forces.

Indeed, for the Taliban, the withdrawal of U.S.-led combat troops is a victory for their resistance. The traditional Eid message of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar this year blended tones of triumph with an offer of reconciliation. While claiming victories on the battlefield, he called for the establishment of an inclusive government protecting the interests of all ethnic factions after the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar seems buoyed by the release of five senior Taliban leaders by the United States from Guantanamo prison in exchange for an American soldier, Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, captured by the group several years ago. Mullah Omar described the deal as a success for the Taliban’s political negotiations in that it constituted a recognition at the international level of the “Islamic Emirate as a political reality.” The deal had been on the negotiating table for more than two years, and the issue was directly linked with the start of a formal negotiation process between the Afghan Taliban and the United States on the future of Afghanistan. The United States changed tactics in 2011, when it believed it had made enough progress against the Taliban to start talks with the group about ending the war. The talks materialized last year, after the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar and the Afghan army officially took over the country’s security.

Apart from other factors, the initial U.S. refusal to release the Taliban prisoners was a major reason that the Doha talks never progressed. Mullah Omar intended for all five detainees to be part of the Taliban negotiating team. The Bowe Bergdahl deal may have come too late. There was no indication in Mullah Omar’s Eid message about any prospects for a resumption of direct talks.

Over the years the Taliban insurgency has grown in intensity, spreading to even non-Pashtun Afghan territories. While the Taliban have consolidated its war gains in Pashtun-dominated south and eastern Afghanistan, attacks in northern regions have intensified in the recent years. The Taliban demonstrated their growing strength in the north by launching regular attacks in the provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan, which have been among the country’s most peaceful, and in the provinces of Balkh and Samangan. The Taliban have managed to consolidate their war gains by tapping into widespread discontent with the incompetence and corruption so deeply entrenched among Afghan government officials. In many areas the Taliban have effectively supplanted the official authorities, running local administrations and courts, and conscripting recruits.

In a protracted conflict between the Kabul government and the Taliban, relatively low, but still significant, levels of violence would seriously affect Afghan stabilization and reconstruction. Another consequence of the continued violence and political instability could be a de facto partition of Afghanistan arising from a steady increase in Taliban control in the Pashtun-majority areas in the southern and eastern provinces.

Leadership of Mullah Omar
The revival of the Taliban as a powerful insurgent force having been routed in 2001 should not come as a surprise. In fact, the radical group was never really defeated. Its  fighters melted into the population or took sanctuary across the border in Pakistan among their Pashtun brethren. Afghan refugee camps and radical madrasahs—established after the Soviet invasion in 1979—became a haven for the Taliban fighters. Most of the leadership had survived the offensive and also moved to Pakistan.

In that initial period, senior leaders were fragmented and disunited over what they should do. The shock and trauma of the fall of their regime had paralyzed the leadership. The organization had crumbled. There was no structure with which to regroup and revive. While some were determined to fight, others were more inclined toward exploring negotiated political options. Their isolation had increased as their support among Afghan people declined. Occasional statements and threats from senior leaders condemning the occupation found little response among the Afghans.

In the last period of its power, the Taliban had lost a significant mass support base with its regressive social policies, which included forcing women to wear burqas, banning music and television, and implementing harsh criminal punishments for petty offenses. Initially Afghans at large seemed content and hoped for a better future under the new order installed by the occupation army. A new political paradigm was in play and the Taliban did not hold much appeal for the war-weary Afghan population. There was no serious effort to organize a resistance.

It took more than two years for the Taliban leadership to recover and rebuild its structure. In June 2003, a ten-member leadership shura council was formed and given responsibility to formulate a political and military strategy for the resistance. Led by Mullah Omar, the council, later known as the Quetta Shura, mostly comprised the old guard that had formed the core of the former Taliban regime.

Meanwhile, the Taliban began an organized recruitment effort in the madrasahs—in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Karachi. The Quetta Shura won implicit support from the Pakistani security establishment, which was deeply concerned by the unfriendly government in Kabul (which, in turn, accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban). The new Afghan government was installed after the Bonn Agreement of 2001, signed at a conference hosted by the United Nations; various anti-Taliban Afghan representatives and international actors adopted measures for Afghanistan’s political transition, including the creation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In that early period of revival, the Taliban leadership had not fully developed a clear political or military strategy and merely reacted to circumstances.

The period from 2003 to 2005 was a turning point as the Taliban consolidated their organizational structure and expanded its activities. It was also the time when Afghanistan enacted its new constitution with a highly centralized presidential form of government. Public support for the new political dispensation began eroding as security remained weak, and reports of fraud and corruption increased. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s resurgence was also aided by the strategic mistake by the United States to re-empower former strongmen and warlords, which reprised old ethnic and tribal tensions.

The alienation was greatest in the eastern and southern part of the country populated by Pashtuns, who felt politically sidelined and targeted by the coalition forces and the new authorities in Kabul. This was the bastion of the ousted Taliban regime, and in a repeat of 1994 when the Taliban restored order amid criminal activity and fighting in southern Afghanistan, the local population started contacting the Taliban. People willingly gave shelter to the insurgents. It was a dramatic change from the period after its fall in 2001 when the Taliban could not find any haven in the community. The insurgents later began to get a foothold in the north as well, exploiting the divisions among various power groups within the new Afghan government.

That success spurred momentum for the Taliban in the entire country. As the resentment against the foreign occupation forces grew, the Taliban’s influence increased. Indiscriminate killings and arrests of innocent people added to the alienation and anger felt by local communities. Growing numbers of women and children were also being killed in air attacks. “Each bombing and killing of civilians added to our support,” a senior Taliban commander told me in an interview in 2006 in a Pakistani border region. Police brutality turned even those who had initially supported the new Afghan administration toward the Taliban.

The operations carried out by the Taliban up to 2003 comprised relatively small and targeted attacks. There were very few instances of any large-scale attacks on coalition forces during this period. But, by summer 2006, the Taliban had developed its military and political strategy with an ambition to establish territorial control, particularly in southern Afghanistan.

There was a serious attempt to force the international community and the coalition forces to review their policy in Afghanistan by escalating attacks. The new tactics were to carry out frontal attacks on the Western forces, unleash a massive increase in suicide bombings, utilize improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and wage an aggressive public relations campaign. The full-scale attacks were not very successful and resulted in heavy civilian casualties. Nevertheless, the spectacular acts of violence and growing insurgency in the south and southeast propelled the Taliban propaganda message that Western forces and the Afghan administration were unable to provide security for the local population.

The growing use of suicide bombings dramatically increased the level of violence. Initially most of the suicide bombers were either Pakistanis or Afghans living in Pakistan. But later more local Afghans started signing up. Suicide bombings became a weapon of choice for the insurgents, generating fear and projecting greater capacity than was the actual case.

The escalating civilian casualties also produced a backlash against the Taliban among the local population. This led to a heated debate within the Taliban leadership over the effectiveness as well as religious legitimacy of suicide attacks. That then led to the declaration in 2009 by the Taliban military council that suicide bombing was not a legitimate tactic, although sporadic suicide attacks continue by some insurgent factions.

The Taliban started focusing more on winning over the local population as violence increased in 2008 and 2009. At that time, President Obama took office and embarked on ambitious multiple-level programs that shifted American attention from the U.S. war in Iraq back to Afghanistan. Despite the surge in U.S. forces——numbers moved toward 100,000 by the end of 2009—the security situation deteriorated all over the country. Particularly in the south and southeast, insurgent attacks hit an all-time high as did the number of casualties among Afghan and Western soldiers.

The north also saw a significant rise of Taliban influence during that period. A report by the U.S. military to the U.S. Congress in 2010 estimated that forty-eight districts out of ninety-two surveyed were supportive of the Taliban. According to an estimation by the Afghan intelligence agency, some 1,700 Taliban field commanders controlled anywhere between 10,000 to 30,000 fighters. More than 6,200 Afghan and coalition soldiers were killed or wounded in roadside bomb attacks during this period. The increasing influence of the Taliban in the north was the most significant development.

The insurgents made significant gains in the northern provinces—in particular, Kunduz, Baghlan, Badghis, and Faryab—where active Taliban or associated groups operated. Turning their focus on the north helped the Taliban show that the movement was not confined to only the Pashtun region in eastern and southern Afghanistan. The Taliban reportedly made significant inroads among the Uzbek and Tajik communities as well.

Rise of Young Radicals
Notwithstanding these successes on the ground, the thinking within the Afghan Taliban concerning the future of Afghanistan remains obscure. This perhaps reflects fracture within the group. Although Mullah Omar enjoys absolute loyalty of the leadership council, his influence seems to have waned over the years with the growing radicalization of a new generation of field commanders. Most of them were teenagers during Taliban rule, but now form the core of the resistance. Being out of the field for so long—believed to be operating from the Pakistani side of the border—seems to have turned Mullah Omar into more of a symbolic figurehead.

While the core leadership has formed strong administrative structures, the exact composition of and details surrounding the operational command remain opaque. Field commanders act somewhat autonomously, with little control by the central leadership council. Some reports suggest that the young and more radicalized commanders and lower ranks have even started questioning the decisions of Mullah Omar. But his position as supreme leader is not likely to be challenged publically.

The Quetta Shura administrative leadership structure has evolved over the years. Having begun with eleven members, its number is now believed to have reached thirty-three. Regional Peshawar and Miram Shah shuras also operate under the Quetta council. While the overall leadership lies with Mullah Omar, the head of the shura guides the day-to-day operations. Committees under the provincial shura, however, carry out many administrative functions.

The relationship between the various Taliban committees based in Pakistan and the field commanders in Afghanistan is complex. It is quite evident that the insurgency on the ground is less organized and that decision making is often left to individual commanders. Unlike the top administrative structure, the hierarchy in the field is less clear.

The Taliban may be united under one banner, but the group is comprised of various factions. The most powerful is said to be the Haqqani network, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin. A leading former mujahideen commander in the resistance against the Soviets, Jalaluddin was appointed as the commander in chief of the Taliban militia in the last days before the fall of the regime in 2001. He had joined the Taliban in 1995 after the militia closed in on Kabul for its victory in the civil war. He heads the Miram Shah Shura and has a seat in the leadership council in Quetta.

The Haqqani network, which until recently operated from Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region, has emerged as the most lethal insurgent group fighting the coalition forces in the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika. It has also been involved in some spectacular attacks inside Kabul.

The network wields significant influence and power among the Afghan as well as the Pakistani Taliban. It has gained more power because of its long-standing links with Al-Qaeda, providing Al-Qaeda members a safe haven in eastern Afghanistan. The reported weakening of Mullah Omar’s authority and the arrests and killing of some of the most powerful members of the leadership shura has further strengthened Haqqani’s role in the insurgency.

Sirajuddin has effectively taken over the command of the network as his father has been sidelined because of a prolonged illness. In his early thirties, the younger Haqqani has earned a reputation of being the fiercest insurgent commander. His radical worldview has been shaped by his personal ties with Al-Qaeda and international jihadist groups, in comparison with other members of the Taliban leadership council who did not share Al-Qaeda’s global agenda.

For the Taliban generally, however, the events leading to the American invasion of Afghanistan began fraying the group’s ties with Al-Qaeda. Many mid-level Taliban commanders blamed bin Laden and the September 11 attacks for the U.S. assault on Afghanistan. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaderships largely cut off contact after their retreat across the border into Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters were in a very different situation to the Taliban in Pakistan. It was a complete change of environment for the group to operate in Pakistani tribal regions. The shift in the circumstances meant far more compartmentalization of the organizational structure. Most of the Al-Qaeda leadership and foreign fighters initially made North Waziristan their base; some of them scattered to other areas including Pakistani cities, where they were sheltered by Pakistani jihadi groups.

Bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders had contacts in the area that dated back to the war of resistance against the Soviet occupation forces. Jalaluddin and his clan had developed a strong nexus with the Arab fighters. Most of the Al-Qaeda old guard have either been killed by U.S. drone strikes or arrested by Pakistani authorities; bin Laden himself was killed in a U.S. raid in 2011 on his compound in Abbottabad near Islamabad, where he had been secretly hiding for several years. But a new Al-Qaeda organization, mostly comprising Pakistani militants, has evolved over the years. This new generation of Al-Qaeda now has resumed close links with the Afghan Taliban.

For Pakistani authorities, the Haqqani network remained a useful hedge against an uncertain outcome in Afghanistan. The deep reluctance to take action against the network has been a reflection of Pakistan’s worries about the eventual withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan.

But in an apparent policy shift, the Pakistan military has now for the first time declared that its latest offensive will target all militant groups without discrimination, including the Haqqani network. Most of the fighters associated with the Haqqani network are believed to have moved to Afghanistan before the offensive in North Waziristan began in June. The military has said the group will not find Pakistani territory a safe haven anymore. There is, however, no likelihood of the Haqqanis engaging in any confrontation with their former Pakistani patrons. There is lot of skepticism that Pakistan will seriously pursue the Afghan Taliban.

How deep the divisions within the Taliban really go is not at all clear. There are conflicting views about the state of unity within the insurgency. While one view is that the Taliban is an amorphous collection of groups and factions, other analysts portray the Taliban as a monolithic and organized resistance movement owing its total loyalty to Mullah Omar. Lack of clarity makes it hard to predict whether the Taliban would remain united or split after the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan.

There is strong concern within the Taliban leadership that the end of foreign occupation may lead to a sharp drop in recruitment among the Pashtun who have been fighting a “defensive jihad” against the invaders. A continuation of civil war may not get the Taliban the same level of support. One other point of divide could be the issue of a possible negotiated settlement with the new Afghan leadership.

Some relatively moderate elements in the Taliban leadership favor peace talks with the Kabul government on minimal conditions that may give the insurgents a share in the central government and de facto control over most of eastern and southern Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban would end the war and evict Al-Qaeda from their territory.

For moderates, the thinking appears to be the belief that the Taliban cannot win an outright military victory leading to the conquest of the whole of Afghanistan, or the approximately 90 percent of the country that they held in the summer of 2001 prior to the September 11 attacks and resulting American invasion.

The future of the Taliban will be dictated by the course of events in Afghanistan itself. The different factions of the Taliban will wait to see how things develop on the ground. It will also depend to some extent on the new Afghan president and what legitimacy he holds following the contested presidential election in 2014.

Threat to Pakistan
Whatever happens in Afghanistan will have a direct bearing on Pakistan. With the Afghan endgame looming, Pakistan’s biggest nightmare is the prospect of Taliban control—even only in parts of Afghanistan—after the withdrawal of the foreign forces. The very notion of success of the Taliban across the border may have a cascading effect on Pakistan’s threat matrix.

The fear stems from the fact that it is ethnic Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who have taken the lead in the insurgency. A distinctive Taliban movement known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with strong ties to the insurgents across the Durand Line, has evolved to present a serious threat to Pakistan’s internal security.

Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban are predominantly Pashtun movements and have close ideological and organizational ties. Despite their differences in tactics—the Afghan Taliban leadership does not support TTP’s policy of fighting the Pakistani forces—they share the same objective of establishing a harsh version of Islamic rule. More importantly, both the movements owe their allegiance to Mullah Omar.

The prospect of the Taliban dominating both sides of the border is the one of the most significant threats to regional security. Continued instability in Afghanistan has had significant implications for Pakistan. The long war in Afghanistan has turned Pakistan into a new battleground for Al-Qaeda linked militants, and has also had devastating effects on Pakistan’s domestic economy and political scene, thus threatening to destabilize the country. Thousands of Pakistani civilians and military personnel have been killed in terrorist attacks and in the fighting against the insurgents in the country’s northwestern territories.

The emergence of the Pakistani Taliban is both a consequence of the war in Afghanistan and the military operations carried out by Pakistan forces, which severely undermined the age-old administrative structure in the tribal areas. Members of the tribal councils and chieftains—through whom the federal government established its authority—were either killed or driven out by militants. A new crop of Pakistani militants emerged to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the administrative system in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) over which the Pakistani government had at best tenuous control.

Taliban groups started emerging in FATA and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2004. Those militants forcibly closed down video and audio shops, as well as Internet cafés, declaring them un-Islamic. The Taliban also ordered barbers not to shave beards. People were prohibited from playing music, even at weddings and traditional fairs, which provided some form of entertainment to the public.

The group took a formal organizational shape in December 2007 when some forty militant leaders commanding 40,000 fighters gathered in South Waziristan to form a united front under the banner of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. They unanimously elected Baitullah Mehsud, already their most powerful commander, as emir or supreme leader of the new organization. Almost all the top militant leaders operating in the tribal regions and/or their representatives set aside their differences to attend the meeting.

The shura council not only had representation from all the seven tribal agencies but also from the parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including Swat, Malakand, Buner, and Dera Ismail Khan where the Taliban movement was active. The eight-point charter called for the enforcement of sharia rule and vowed to continue fighting against Western forces in Afghanistan. The TTP also declared what it described as “defensive” jihad against the Pakistani military. The newly formed TTP was in fact little more than an extension of Al-Qaeda.

Its formation followed bin Laden’s declaration of war against the Pakistani state in the aftermath of the siege of Islamabad’s Red Mosque in July 2007. Its charter clearly reflected Al-Qaeda’s new strategy to extend its war to Pakistan. Almost all the top leaders of the new organization, particularly Baitullah, had connections with Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban movement.

The rise of a distinctive Pakistani Taliban movement represents a new and more violent phase of Islamic militancy in the country. Unprecedented violence engulfed all seven tribal regions as well as parts of the northern province. Just days after its creation, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated a few weeks following her return to the country after a protracted period in exile. The militants had finally succeeded in removing the leader who had dared to confront them. Baitullah was blamed for Bhutto’s murder, which was to completely change Pakistan’s political landscape.

The new generation of Pakistani Taliban became more brutal than their Afghan comrades. Beheading and public executions of opponents and government officials became common practice. The videos of those brutal actions were then distributed to create fear. These sadistic actions were unknown in traditional Pashtun culture. This behavior was greatly influenced by Arab and Uzbek militants. The Pakistani Taliban’s creed probably stemmed from the Salafist jihadism ideology espoused by Al-Qaeda. It was also the result of Wahhabism found in Saudi-funded madrasahs, which created a new kind of Sunni radicalization specific to the Taliban.

Successive Pakistani military operations and U.S. drone strikes have hugely weakened the TTP. Over the last few years, it has lost many of its senior commanders and the organization has fragmented into various factions. The long delayed military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal area, which had emerged as the center of gravity of the militancy in Pakistan, has driven out Taliban leaders from their most secure stronghold. Now their ability to launch major terrorist attacks has been badly crippled, but Pakistan’s control over the tribal territories remains tentative.

A key flaw in Pakistan’s strategy in the fight against the insurgency is that it has not taken into account the ability of the groups to regenerate. The government has failed to put in place an effective administration and policing system after successful military operations drove the militants out but left residents under perpetual threat of their return.

Their fear is justified. The militants have shown themselves capable of regrouping and striking back. The Pakistani military has now deployed 100,000 troops in the effort to root out the militants. Yet, despite the increased deployment, militant attacks have resumed in some of the areas that were thought to have been already cleared.

A major challenge confronting Pakistani security forces is that many Pakistani Taliban leaders, including the new TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah (who rose following the U.S. drone strike killings of Baitullah Mehsud and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud), have fled the military offensive and are now operating from bases on the Afghan side of the border. Most of the attacks on Pakistani security forces are being carried out from those cross-border sanctuaries.

Pakistan’s patronage of the Afghan Taliban and particularly of the Haqqani network became a convenient rationale for the government in Kabul to permit sanctuaries for Pakistani insurgents on Afghan soil. There is strong evidence of close links between some TTP factions and Afghan intelligence agencies.

This tit-for-tat policy has had disastrous consequences for both nations. Their age-old legacy of using proxies against each other had disastrous consequences for regional security. The war of sanctuaries has only benefited the militants who have sought to establish their barbaric rule on both sides of the border.

The problem is further highlighted after Pakistan launched the massive military operation against local and foreign militants in North Waziristan. The fleeing insurgents using sanctuaries on the other side of the Durand Line for cross-border attacks has been Pakistan’s biggest security nightmare.

Both countries need each other to cooperate more than ever at this critical juncture as the Western forces prepare to end their combat mission in Afghanistan. Continued instability in Afghanistan is bound to spill over into Pakistan.

Zahid Hussain is the author of Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan And How It Threatens America. A columnist for Pakistan’s daily Dawn newspaper, he is a former correspondent for the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal. From 2011 to 2012 he was the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

New Threat to Afghan Women

Public support for the war in Afghanistan began to wane in 2009 in the United States and even earlier in NATO countries. It was based on war weariness, the cost in money and lives, and the perception that the war had not been worth fighting, the troublesome country not worth saving. Unfortunately, those ideas, which governments and mainstream media have done very little to counter, obscure real progress in Afghanistan since 2002, in particular, notable achievements in women’s rights. The lack of information about those achievements is especially surprising  because many Western countries have been financially supporting programs whose goal has been accessing justice for Afghan women and because the brutal treatment of women in Afghanistan has been considered a cultural disease so deep and so resistant to intervention as to be virtually incurable. It is important that the people of these donor countries know that far from being wasted, the billions of dollars spent to rebuild Afghanistan and the lives lost have served a just cause. The development of the rule of law in Afghanistan still has a way to go, but whatever stability the country now enjoys is due in large measure to the progress on women’s rights.

During the years of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, shocking stories and photographs of the inhuman treatment of women in Afghanistan appeared in the media, often accompanied by lists of human rights abuses: the denial of their education on all levels resulted in a 82 percent illiteracy rate among women; the denial of any medical treatment for a woman or girl by a male doctor resulted in the world’s highest maternal mortality rate. Other abuses included the denial of choice of husband or freedom of mobility, forced and underage marriages, domestic violence that often amounted to torture, forced prostitution, honor killings for adultery, and prison sentences for women running away from abuse.

The world bestowed the greatest blame for this state of affairs on the Taliban and, even if we include the earlier years when the civil war raged and women suffered mightily as social conventions broke down, the subjugation of women would seem to have been a temporary aberration, something that could be turned around once the butchers left and life returned to normal. Of course, some people knew or learned that the warlords and the Taliban were actually capitalizing on traditions that had flourished for centuries in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas, where the majority of the people have always lived. Such traditions had acquired a life of their own; their hold on the people had become stronger than much older and more progressive Islamic teachings on women. The absolute denial of education to females allowed misinformation about Islam to grow deep roots. How could women learn about their rights in the Quran or the concept of human rights in the modern world and their entitlement to those rights if they couldn’t read?

In view of the odds against any progress happening at all, the fact that forward movement on women’s rights has taken place in a brief thirteen years may seem miraculous. But miracles have had nothing to do with it. Progress has happened for one reason only: the Afghan people want it. Afghan women’s rights activists and organizations can claim most of the credit for the transformation, but none of it could have occurred if the majority of Afghans were opposed. That’s the key point. It tells us about the potential in Afghanistan for peace and good governance. If only governments, if only the world, grasped it and understood its importance.

Building the Rule of Law
Women’s rights organizations like Women for Afghan Women (WAW) work with individual women and girls who have been denied basic human rights and who would lack access to justice were it not for the caseworkers and lawyers who mediate with their families, defend them in court, arrange medical treatment for the most grievously wounded, take care of their children, and rehabilitate their lives. We talk and write about individual cases all the time to publicize our work and raise money to support it. But what we seldom get the opportunity to state is that by providing not one but thousands of women and girls access to justice and teaching the population about women’s entitlement to universal human rights, Afghan women’s rights organizations are building the rule of law in a country that a mere thirteen years ago was ruled by laws whose only purpose was to keep the people in chains. They are major contributors to the single most important activity that must take place if a nation like Afghanistan is to become a stable democracy. That achievement would be good for Afghanistan, good for the United States, and good for the world—an idea that gets lost in the rush to leave.

Women’s entitlement to human rights is not frosting on a cake, not a side issue that can wait for attention until all other global crises are solved—although governments often treat it as such. You can read thousands of articles on failures in Afghanistan, on President Hamid Karzai’s instability and untrustworthiness, on the corruption of the government, on the green-on-blue attacks by Afghan troops on Western counterparts, on the corrupt elections, and many dozens about horrific cases of attacks on women. But you will find very few analyses of the progress on women’s rights in Afghanistan and the significance of that progress. The great story, which has not been told, is that the rule of law has indeed been strengthened in Afghanistan due to the support of women’s rights by the United States and other countries and due to the courage and dedication of the women of Afghanistan.

Of the eight million people across Afghanistan who are enrolled in school today, 40 percent are females. This is an immense increase over the number during the Taliban period, when girls were barred from attending school. As fewer girls are forced into underage marriages and more girls continue their education, life spans increase and the national economy improves. Unfortunately, the figures remain low on the primary and especially on the secondary school level, but not because Afghans oppose education for their daughters. The majority of the people live in tiny rural villages where there are no schools or where the schools are too far away for girls to walk to in safety. Or there are not enough trained teachers in the country—or teachers who want to move into primitive rural areas where they may be risking their lives.  For the Taliban continue to burn down girls schools, threaten and actually murder their teachers, and keep schools for girls from opening altogether, especially in areas they control. For example, in Kandahar, a southern province under Taliban control, the overall literacy rate of girls six plus years of age fell from 16 percent in 2005 to 7 percent in 2011, and in 2012, only 300 of over 5,000 students in Kandahar University were female. In other words, one of the poorest countries in the world has to build an educational system for a population of over 30 million from the ground up and has to do it against overwhelming odds.

In 1998, Afghanistan had the highest maternal mortality rate ever recorded, but according to the World Bank, between the years 2000 and 2010, maternal mortality rates decreased nearly 80 percent, from 1,600 to 330 per 100,000 live births. The decrease is due in part to a 36 percent increase in prenatal health care during the same period as women re-entered the workforce as midwives, obstetricians, and gynecologists. In addition, with the criminalizing of underage marriages in the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (LEVAW), girls are less likely to have children before they are biologically ready. The law also criminalizes twenty-one other abuses, including rape (for the first time in the country’s history), the exchange of women and girls to settle a dispute between families, forced prostitution, and psychological abuse.

Today, women across Afghanistan can be found working outside the home in a variety of industries from medicine to technology to government. Afghan women are playing a significant role in the political arena and the stabilizing of the nascent democracy. In the last parliamentary elections in 2010, sixty-nine women won seats in Afghanistan’s 249-seat parliament—the next parliamentary vote will be held in 2015. According to the Afghan Independent Election Commission, 36 percent of the 6.8 million people who cast ballots during the 2014 presidential election were female. This number rose to 38 percent during the second round. Female voters turned out despite an increase in violence leading up to and during the elections. One woman’s vote was so important in the Baghlan province that she managed to get to the polls in the runoff just before delivering a son.

Safety in Shelters
Women in Afghanistan who are victims of violence are becoming aware of and demanding their right to violence-free lives. A 2013 report on the LEVAW by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) notes that the number of women or families who reported abuse and sought help rather than submitting to it was up 28 percent from the previous year. If there were more shelters and other facilities providing services to women and girls in the country, that number would certainly increase. But women know how dangerous it is to run away from home for any reason if there is no place of refuge nearby.

Still, there are about twenty-three shelters for women in the country as well as four WAW transitional houses for women who lack a safe home to return to when they leave shelters and prisons. This fact alone is extraordinary—the first shelter for women in the United States didn’t open until 1972—as is the point that more could open if money were available. Every province in Afghanistan needs Family Guidance Centers (FGCs) and shelters. WAW FGCs house a staff of caseworkers and lawyers and contain rooms where families and their caseworkers and/or lawyers can meet to work out a resolution to their crises. The business of accessing justice for women takes place in FGCs.

When WAW opened its first facility in Kabul in 2007 and announced that we would welcome males in our counseling and mediation sessions—the fathers, husbands, brothers, and other men who violate women’s human rights—most people warned us that this plan would defeat the project. Men wouldn’t set foot in an FGC run by a women’s organization, they said. But we went ahead anyway. Men came from the first day on. They need help too. And they did not interpret our services as Western. After all, our entire staff of more than 620 people are local Afghans. We aren’t foreign interlopers. We aren’t practicing psychotherapy. We talk to men and families about women’s rights in Islam, in other Muslim countries, in the Afghan constitution and conventions signed by Afghanistan. We talk about the damage the abuse of women inflicts on the country. We help them solve their problems. And we help women who have run away reintegrate with families that sign a legal document agreeing to cease their abuse and allow unannounced visits to their home for a year.

In addition to helping individual women and girls, WAW has provided training on women’s rights to 250,000 Afghans from all walks of life, educated and uneducated rural and urban women and men in every province where we have an FGC shelter. People flock to these trainings and often ask for more.

While caseworkers and lawyers are working on their problems, women enjoy safety in our shelters. FGCs are open to the public but, for security, the shelters are hidden in other parts of town. Essential teaching takes place in them: literacy, math, and life skills classes on topics such as nutrition, child-rearing, hygiene, and women’s rights in Islam. In most WAW shelters, there is vocational training in income-generating skills and a kindergarten for children accompanying their mothers. Other local grassroots women’s rights organizations are just as successful. We all have the support of the majority of people, certainly many of the millions who risked their lives to vote in the recent elections.

If the Taliban Return
None of this work could have occurred without the presence of coalition troops. The Taliban threaten our staff every day and even kidnapped two WAW workers, whose lives were saved through the intervention of elderly, conservative Afghan men who admire our work and persuaded the captors to release them. The Taliban know that what we do to empower women to reject abuse defeats their objective, for the subjugation of 50 percent of the population is a direct route to controlling the country. It is not a religious principle.

This means that if the Taliban succeed in taking over the country when the coalition troops leave, as many expect them to try to do, the advances in women’s rights will end and the subjugation will resume. Women and families who have availed themselves of our services and men and women who have worked for women’s rights organizations will be severely punished, possibly murdered. The people must learn a lesson, and terror is the way to do it.

In this scenario, the world will once again be treated to photographs of women being beaten on the street because an ankle showed, and videos of women being executed in public arenas for minor infractions. We will learn that women doctors are not allowed to practice and that women patients are forbidden to receive medical treatment from male doctors. Schools for girls will be burned to the ground and many teachers of girls will be killed. The Taliban have been killing them off for years. Stories like those that shocked the free world just over a decade ago will again flood the media. We know about the potential for these horrors, we know that the Afghan army may not be able to hold back the Taliban, yet we go ahead with the transition plan. And if it fails, if Afghanistan falls because it is not quite ready to assume its own defense, historians, politicians, journalists, and talking heads will develop an industry that attempts to explain what happened.

In not informing their citizens about the progress that has occurred in Afghanistan since 2001, especially about the significant progress on women’s rights, the governments of the free world have made a mistake. Not trumpeting that success or explaining that it signifies the desire of the people for a stable democracy in an area of the world short on that type of government, not linking it to an advance in the rule of law, is an omission with serious consequences. The silence has actually added fuel to a widespread belief that Afghanistan is a worthless country. Ironically in spite of its problems, at the moment Afghanistan seems healthier and more peaceful than Iraq and Syria, and even Egypt.

WAW no longer feels alone as we did a few years ago when we were wringing our hands over rumors emanating from Washington about the plan to withdraw coalition forces. Now many people in the U.S. government, the military, think tanks, universities, and the media agree that it is unwise. They have reminded us that the West abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, leaving a power vacuum that resulted in a long civil war that saw the Taliban install their regime. They remind us that the country was wide open not only to the Taliban but to the Al-Qaeda terrorist group that launched the September 11 attacks and other atrocities. They remind us that we and millions of people in the Middle East are reaping the consequences of having withdrawn from Iraq far too soon and having left the country in the hands of an inexperienced and incompetent leader. They point to the increase in murders of Westerners and suicide bombers in Afghanistan; strong signs of Taliban and jihadist muscle flexing. There is little question that the Taliban have now infiltrated the entire country as coalition troops pack up to leave.

Since the United States made the decision to withdraw its troops, leaving only a small force to advise the Afghan army, events have occurred in the Middle East that severely complicate the situation. Lately, through the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the jihadist movement has grown more powerful and dangerous than ever. Surely jihadist organizations, especially ISIS and Al-Qaeda (not as dead as we once thought), are keeping an eye on Afghanistan. The two organizations have a long history with each other. An undefended or weakly defended Afghanistan will be a perfect base for one or both of them. Together or individually they can wreak havoc throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Women for Afghan Women has a personal interest in declaring that the fight against the subjugation of women in Afghanistan has made strong headway and that women’s attainment of human rights is an essential component of the rule of law and a country’s advance to democracy. We fear we might see our work and the work of other women’s rights activists and organizations and the hopes of the Afghan people melt away in an inferno created by the Taliban or other power seekers. But regardless of what happens, we intend to continue. We have been working with and for the women of Afghanistan, but all along we have wanted the progress that this country has made to inspire women all over the world who are engaged in a similar struggle. It is a struggle against local misogyny and the misogyny of a world that keeps itself deaf to the point. Denying women universal human rights means denying their humanity. We ask the world not to ignore the meaning and importance of the progress we describe. Not to devalue it. And not to let it go.

 

Manizha Naderi is the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, a non-profit organization based in Kabul and New York. She created WAW’s Family Guidance Centers providing counseling and mediation to victims of domestic violence, forced and underage marriages, rape, and sex trafficking throughout Afghanistan.

Road to Gandamak

In 1843, shortly after his return from the battlefields of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the army chaplain in Jalalabad, the Reverend G. R. Gleig, wrote a memoir about the disastrous expedition of which he was one of the few survivors. It was, he wrote, “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”1

Gleig had a point. In the spring of 1839, the British had invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Nearly twenty thousand British and East India Company troops poured through the passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, grandson of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the man usually said to be the founder of the Afghan state. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after little more than two years, the Afghans rose in answer to the call for jihad and Afghanistan exploded into rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain’s greatest imperial disaster of the nineteenth century: an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world routed and destroyed by poorly equipped tribesmen.

For the Victorians, the “signal catastrophe” of the 1841 Retreat from Kabul became the great symbol of imperial hubris, but also, like Dunkirk a century later, of gallantry against the odds: William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated painting of the Last Stand of the 44th Foot—a group of ragged but doggedly determined soldiers on the hilltop of Gandamak standing encircled behind a thin line of bayonets, as the Pashtun tribesmen close in—became one of the era’s most famous images, along with Remnants of an Army,  Lady Butler’s oil of the alleged last survivor, Dr. William Brydon, arriving before the walls of Jalalabad on his collapsing nag.

It was in the winter of 2006, just as the latest neo-colonial adventure in Afghanistan was beginning to turn sour, and the commentators were predicting new Gandamaks, that I had the idea of writing a history of Britain’s first failed attempt at controlling Afghanistan. After an easy conquest and the successful installation of a pro-Western puppet ruler, the regime was facing increasingly widespread resistance. History was beginning to repeat itself.

The closer I looked, the more the West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to resemble the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the war of 1839 was waged on the basis of doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare—in this case, about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe sent as British ambassador, wrote from Tehran: “We should declare that he who is not with us is against us… We must secure Afghanistan.”2 Thus was brought about an unnecessary, expensive, and entirely avoidable war.

These parallels are not just anecdotal, they are substantive: Shah Shuja, so I learned, was a Popalzai, from the same sub-tribe as President Hamid Karzai, while his principal opponents were the Ghilzai tribe, who today make up the bulk of the Taliban’s foot soldiers; the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is from the Ghilzai’s Hotak ruling clan, as was the leading resistance fighter, Mohammad Shah Khan, who supervised the slaughter of the Kabul army in the Khord Kabul in 1841. The same tribal rivalries and the same battles were continuing to be fought out in the same places 200 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies, and new political puppeteers. The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and were being attacked from the same rings of hills and the same high passes.

As I pursued my research, I discovered the degree to which the same moral issues that are chewed over in the editorial columns today were discussed in the correspondence of the First Anglo-Afghan War: should you try to “promote the interests of humanity,” as one British civil servant put it in 1840, and champion social and gender reform, banning traditions like the stoning to death of adulterous women; or should you just concentrate on ruling the country without rocking the boat? Do you intervene if your allies start boiling or roasting their enemies alive? Do you try to reform the blasphemy laws or attempt to introduce Western political systems? As the first Great Game spymaster Sir Claude Wade warned on the eve of the 1839 invasion, “There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against, I think, than the overweening confidence with which we are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of our own institutions, and the anxiety that we display to introduce them in new and untried soils. Such interference will always lead to acrimonious disputes, if not to a violent reaction.”3

Likewise, just as the British inability to cope with the rising of 1841 was a product not just of the leadership failures within the British camp, but also of the breakdown of the strategic relationship between the British envoy and Shah Shuja, so the strained and uneasy relationship of the International Security Assistance Force leadership with President Karzai has been a crucial factor in the failure of the latest imbroglio. Here the U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke to some extent played the role of Sir William Macnaghten.

When I visited Kabul in 2010, the British Special Representative, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, described Holbrooke as “a bull who brought his own china shop wherever he went”—a phrase that perfectly summed up Macnaghten’s style 174 years previously. Cowper-Coles’ analysis of the failure of the current occupation in his book Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign reads astonishingly like a critique of the failures of the 1840s: “Getting in without having any real idea of how to get out; almost wilful misdiagnosis of the nature of the challenges; continually changing objectives, and no coherent or consistent plan; mission creep on a heroic scale; disunity of political and military command, also on a heroic scale; diversion of attention and resources [to Iraq in the current case, to the Opium Wars then] at a critical stage of the adventure; a poor choice of local allies; weak political leadership.”4

Moreover, the poverty of Afghanistan has always meant that it has been impossible to tax the Afghans into financing their own occupation. Instead, the cost of policing such inaccessible territory soon exhausts the occupier’s resources. Today the United States is spending more than $100 billion a year on military operations in Afghanistan: it costs more to keep Marine battalions in two districts of Helmand than the United States is providing to the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance. Then, as now, the decision to withdraw troops has turned on factors with little relevance to Afghanistan, namely the state of the economy and the vagaries of politics back home.

For the Afghans themselves, the British defeat of 1842 became a symbol of freedom from foreign invasion, and of the determination of Afghans to refuse to be ruled ever again by any foreign power. The diplomatic quarter of Kabul is still named after the Afghan leader who oversaw the rout of the British in 1842: Dost Mohammad’s son, Wazir Akbar Khan. It is also a measure of the parallels between that war and today’s that one of the main NATO bases in Afghanistan was named Camp Souter after one of the only survivors of the last stand at Gandamak, Thomas Souter, who wrapped his regimental colors around him to prevent them being captured, and was taken hostage by the Afghans who assumed that such a colorfully clothed individual must command a high ransom.

History never repeats itself exactly, and it is true that there are some important differences between what is taking place in Afghanistan today and what took place during the 1840s—most importantly, Karzai has tried to establish a broad-based, democratically elected government which, for all its many flaws and prodigious corruption, is still much more representative and popular than the Sadozai regime of Shah Shuja ever was.

Nevertheless due to the continuities of the region’s topography, economy, religious aspirations, and social fabric, the failures of 170 years ago do still hold important warnings for us today. As George Lawrence, a veteran of that first war, who was taken hostage during the retreat, wrote to the LondonTimes just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War thirty years later, “a new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country… Although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however successful in a military point of view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless… The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul should stand forever a warning to the Statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruit in 1839–42.”

Roof of the World
We in the West may have forgotten the details of this history that did so much to inform and mould the Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule, but the Afghans have not: in village after village on my Afghan travels I found that the names of all the participants in the drama were still alive as if the event had taken place two years ago, not two centuries. In particular Shah Shuja remains a symbol of quisling treachery in Afghanistan: in 2001, the Taliban asked their young men, “Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or as a son of Dost Mohammad?” As he rose to power, Mullah Omar deliberately modelled himself on Dost Mohammad, and like him removed the Holy Cloak of the Prophet Mohammad from its shrine in Kandahar and wrapped himself in it, declaring himself like his model Amir al-Muminin, the Leader of the Faithful, a deliberate and direct re-enactment of the First Anglo-Afghan War, whose resonance was immediately understood by all Afghans.

On my extended visits to Afghanistan to research my book, in 2009 and 2010, I was keen to see as many of the places and landscapes associated with the First Anglo-Afghan War as was possible. In the course of the initial research I visited many of the places associated with the war. In Herat I paid my respects to the grave of Shah Shuja’s nemesis, Dost Mohammad, at the Sufi shrine of Gaza Gagh. On arrival in Kandahar, the car sent to pick me up from the airport received a sniper shot through its back window as it neared the perimeter; later I stood at the shrine of Baba Wali on the edge of town and saw an IED (improvised explosive device) blow up a U.S. patrol as it crossed the Arghandab River, then as now the frontier between the occupied zone and the area controlled by the Afghan resistance. In Kabul I managed to get permission to visit the Bala Hisar, once Shah Shuja’s citadel, now the headquarters of the Afghan Army’s intelligence corps, where reports from the front line are evaluated amid a litter of spiked British cannon from 1842 and upturned Soviet T-72 tanks from the 1980s.

I particularly wanted to retrace the route of the British forces’ retreat of January 1842 and get to Gandamak, the site of the British last stand, where all but a few of the remaining British soldiers were slaughtered.

The route of the retreat backs on to the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border, the Ghilzai heartlands that have always been—along with Quetta—the Taliban’s main recruiting ground. I had been advised not to attempt to visit the area without local protection, so eventually set off in the company of a regional tribal leader who was also a minister in Karzai’s government: a mountain of a man named Anwar Khan Jagdalak, a former village wrestling champion and later captain of the Afghan Olympic wrestling team, who had made his name as a Jami’at-Islami Mujahideen commander in the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s.

It was Jagdalak’s Ghilzai ancestors who inflicted some of the worst casualties on the British army of 1842, something he proudly repeated several times as we drove through the same passes. “They forced us to pick up guns to defend our honor,” he said. “So we killed every last one of those bastards.” None of this, incidentally, has stopped Jagdalak from sending his family away from Kabul to the greater safety of Northolt in north London. On the day we were to drive to Gandamak, I had been told to report at seven in the morning to Jagdalak. Threading my way through a slalom of checkpoints and razor wire surrounding his ministry, I arrived to find Jagdalak being hustled into a convoy of heavily armoured SUVs by his ever-present phalanx of bodyguards, walkie-talkies crackling and assault rifles primed.

Jagdalak drove himself, while pick-ups full of heavily armed Afghan bodyguards followed behind. As we headed through the capital, evidence of the failure of the current occupation lay all around us. Kabul remains one of the poorest and scrappiest capital cities in the world, despite the United States pouring around $100 billion in aid into Afghanistan.

We bumped along potholed roads, past the blast walls of the U.S. Embassy and the NATO barracks that have been built on the very site of the British cantonment of 170 years ago, then headed down the zigzagging road into the line of bleak mountain passes that link Kabul with the Khyber Pass.

It is a suitably dramatic and violent landscape: fault lines of crushed and tortured strata groaned and twisted in the gunpowder-colored rockwalls rising on either side of us. Above, the jagged mountain tops were veiled in an ominous cloud of mist. As we drove, Jagdalak complained bitterly of the Western treatment of his government. “In the 1980s when we were killing Russians for them, the Americans called us freedom fighters,” he muttered as we descended the first pass. “Now they just dismiss us as warlords.”

We left the main road at Sarobi, where the mountains debouch into a high-altitude ochre desert dotted with encampments of Ghilzai nomads, and headed into Taliban territory; a further five pick-up trucks full of Jagdalak’s old mujahideen fighters, all brandishing rocket-propelled grenades and with faces wrapped in their turbans, appeared from a side road to escort us.

At the village of Jagdalak, on January 12, 1842, the last 200 frostbitten British soldiers found themselves surrounded by several thousand Ghilzai tribesmen; only a handful made it beyond the holly hedge. Our own welcome was, thankfully, somewhat warmer. The proud villagers took their old commander, now a government minister, on a trip through hills smelling of wild thyme and wormwood, and up through mountainsides carpeted with hollyhocks and mulberries and shaded by white poplars. Here, at the top of the surrounding peaks, near the watchtower where the naked and freezing sepoys had attempted to find shelter, lay the remains of Jagdalak’s old mujahideen bunkers and entrenchments from which he had defied the Soviet army. Once the tour was completed, the villagers feasted us, Timurid style, in an apricot orchard at the bottom of the valley: we sat on carpets under a trellis of vine and pomegranate blossom, as course after course of kebabs and raisin pulao were laid in front of us.

During lunch, as my hosts casually pointed out the site of the holly-oak barrier and other places in the village where the British had been massacred in 1842, we compared our respective family memories of that war. I talked about my great-great-uncle, Colin Mackenzie, who had been taken hostage nearby, and I asked if they saw any parallels with the current situation. “It is exactly the same,” said Jagdalak. “Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say, ‘We are your friends, we want to help.’ But they are lying.”

“Whoever comes to Afghanistan, even now, they will face the fate of Burnes, Macnaghten, and Dr. Brydon,’ agreed Mohammad Khan, our host in the village and the owner of the orchard where we were sitting. Everyone nodded sagely into their rice: the names of the fallen of 1842, long forgotten in their home country, were still common currency here.

“Since the British went we’ve had the Russians,” said one old man to my right. “We saw them off too, but not before they bombed many of the houses in the village.” He pointed at a ridge full of ruined mudbrick houses on the hills behind us.

“We are the roof of the world,” said Khan. “From here you can control and watch everywhere.”

“Afghanistan is like the crossroads for every nation that comes to power,” agreed Jagdalak. “But we do not have the strength to control our own destiny. Our fate is determined by our neighbors.”

It was nearly five o’clock in the afternoon before the final flaps of naan bread were cleared away, by which time it became clear that it was now too late to head on to Gandamak. Instead we went that evening by the main highway direct to the relative safety of Jalalabad, where we discovered we’d had a narrow escape. It turned out that there had been a battle at Gandamak that very morning between government forces and a group of villagers supported by the Taliban. Nine policemen had been killed and ten taken hostage over a dispute about opium poppies. The sheer size and length of the feast and our own gluttony had saved us from walking straight into an ambush. The battle had taken place on exactly the site of the British last stand of 1842.

The following morning in Jalalabad we went to a jirga, or assembly, of Ghilzai tribal elders, to which the greybeards of Gandamak had come, under a flag of truce, to discuss what had happened the day before. As Predator drones took off and landed incessantly at the nearby airfield, we chatted over a pot of green tea. “Last month,” said one tribal elder from Gandamak, “some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, ‘Why do you hate us?’ I replied, ‘because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair, and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time.’”

“What did he say to that?”

“He turned to his friend and said, ‘If the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like?’ In truth, all the Americans here know their game is over. It is just their politicians who deny this.”

“These are the last days of the Americans,” said the other elder. “Next it will be China.”

  

William Dalrymple is the author of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi 1857 and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839–42, among other books. He is a regular contributor to theNew Yorker, Guardian, and New York Review of Books. He is the New Statesman’s India correspondent. On Twitter: @DalrympleWill. 

 

  1. G. R. Gleig, Afghanistan: The Beleaguered Brigade—An Account of Sale’s Brigade During the First Afghan War (Leonaur, 2008), 182.
  2. James A. Norris, First Afghan War: 1838–1842(Cambridge University Press, 1967), 161.
  3. “Wade to the Governor General,” Auckland Papers, Add Mss 36474 (31 January 1839), British Library.
  4. Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul (HarperPress, 2011), 289–90.

Tray of Candies

One day after school in 1990, two years before the civil war started, I showed Grandfather a slip I had received from my teacher for doing very well on an exam. Grandfather gave me an apple as a reward. We had more than sixty Macintosh apple trees in the courtyard, but receiving one from Grandfather was an honor. Each time any of us earned a reward-apple from Grandfather, we made sure to show it to everyone in the family and bragged about it for days. I was about to leave and find my cousins when I heard knocking on the door.

“Come in,” Grandfather said.

My oldest uncle, Gul Agha, walked in holding some papers. Grandfather had eight sons and four daughters who all lived in his compound along with their wives, husbands, and children. I had more than twenty-five cousins to play with. Of all my cousins, I enjoyed Uncle Gul Agha’s sons the most. Both were several years older than me. They had taught me how to play marbles, fly kites, and ride a bicycle.

Uncle Gul Agha sat in front of Grandfather on a toshak on the floor. He handed the papers to Grandfather.

“What are these?” Grandfather started reading.

“I bought a house.”

“Congratulations! How many rooms?”

“Two bedrooms, one living room, a kitchen, and bathroom, and half an acre of land around the house for gardening.”

“Very good. You should find a tenant for it.”

“I’ve decided to move there with my family.”

“Don’t you have enough rooms here?”

“I do, Father. There are enough rooms in this house even if my sons get married and stay here with their wives and children.”

“Then why would you move out?”

“Because I want to be like you, Father. You started with nothing when you came to Kabul from the village. You were twelve years old. You could hardly read and write. You became the president of the bank. You built this house by yourself. If I continue to live here, what kind of example will I be for my sons?”

“We’ll talk about this over dinner.”

“Thank you, Father.” Uncle Gul Agha left the room.

I found my mother and told her the news. An hour later, everybody in the courtyard had learned about it, and they were whispering to each other. Even our neighbors asked me questions about it when I went out to buy naan from the bakery for dinner.

That evening, we gathered around the tablecloth on the courtyard lawn for an excellent dinner of meatballs spiced with rosemary and cinnamon, along with rice cooked with lamb, raisins, carrots, and pistachios.

After we had finished eating, Grandfather made an announcement. “You all know about Gul Agha’s house and his decision. What do you think?”

Everybody stopped talking and looked at Grandfather, who sat, as always, at the head of the tablecloth. In Afghanistan, every family has a patriarch to whom all the other members look for advice and guidance. In our family, it was Grandfather. He was nearly seventy then and spent most of his time tending his flowers in the garden of our big courtyard when he was not reading books in his room, or receiving guests who sought his help with community issues. My grandmother who had been the love of his life died when I was a year old, and he never married again.

“Basir,” Grandfather looked at my father, his second eldest son. “What do you think?”

“Gul Agha is the eldest son. So far there has never been an emergency that required us to go to him in your absence. But in case that happens, he should be here.”

“You’re telling me that you don’t want to take on the responsibility of the leader of the family if I die?”

Father opened his mouth to say something, but Grandfather interrupted him. “I got your point, Basir. I’ll come back to you later.”

Then Grandfather looked at Uncle Faroq, who was younger than Father. I did not get along with his sons very well, because we were almost the same age and we were  very competitive with one another.

“Gul Agha should do whatever makes him happy,” Uncle Faroq said.

“Why, because you’re the fourth?” Grandfather said. “And it is unlikely that the responsibility will come down to you?”

Then Grandfather asked for the opinions of my other uncles and aunts. The majority said that Uncle Gul Agha should rent his place and stay with us.

When Grandfather had heard from everyone, including all his grandsons and granddaughters, he said, “From all of you I gather that you want Gul Agha to be happy, but you can’t bear the idea of him and his family living far away.”

Everyone nodded.

“Here’s my suggestion,” Grandfather continued. “Gul Agha can live in his house with his wife and children, but he must come here every Friday to have lunch and dinner with us. He continues to bear his responsibilities as the oldest brother and should be here for emergency family meetings. What do you think?”

Before anyone could answer, we heard several gunshots outside. Everybody stopped talking and looked at one another. The neighborhood was silent. Then we heard a few more gunshots.

Grandfather stood up and walked to the main gate. Uncle Gul Agha and Father followed him. I ran after them. My boy cousins followed me. Once we were outside on the street, we heard a few more shots and someone screaming. The noises were coming from Haji Kareem’s house across the street. Haji Kareem had lived there alone until he died of a heart attack a year earlier. We had buried him in the cemetery near the park.

Haji Kareem had been tall and wiry with blue eyes, a bulbous nose, and close-cropped hair. His legs shook as he bent over his cane with a hunched back. He was Grandfather’s best friend. He had two sons and two daughters, but none of them lived with him. His oldest son lived in Chicago with his American wife and daughter. He often showed us their photos. His daughters lived in Italy with their families. His youngest and unmarried son, whose name was Amir, lived for most of the year in Pakistan studying religion in madrasahs but spent his summers living at home with his father. We hardly saw Amir outside, but we often heard him over the walls shouting at Haji Kareem.

While Haji Kareem was still alive, he allowed my cousins and me to play in his courtyard at weekends because it was bigger than ours. Two tall walnut trees in the middle of the garden stood very close together. We raced each other to climb them. At other times we climbed an old mulberry tree at the far end of the garden and dove onto two sandpits below it. Sometimes we made huge sandcastles then jumped on them.

One corner of the courtyard was bordered by a one-story building that had four rooms. A huge fig tree with a massive trunk and spreading branches shaded all of them. Haji Kareem used only one room where he always kept a light on. We did not dare climb the fig tree. He told us that it was full of jinns.

Twice a year, Haji Kareem’s courtyard became the meeting place for the men in our neighborhood. They discussed things that needed to be done in the community. Many family disputes were resolved there, sometimes even feuds between tribes. But after Haji Kareem passed away, our courtyard became the place for those meetings, although people could not sit in a circle because of our many apple trees.

Grandfather walked toward the main door of Haji Kareem’s house.

“Father,” Uncle Gul Agha said, “there must be thieves in there.”

“Stealing what, old couches and rusty utensils?” Grandfather said. “There’s nothing worth stealing in that house. Kareem gave everything away before he died.”

“We should wait for a few minutes,” Father said. “Maybe we should call the police.”

Grandfather ignored him and knocked on the door. “Who’s there?”

Nobody answered. Grandfather continued knocking. Many of our neighbors came out of their houses. My uncles, cousins, and some of my aunts were standing on the sidewalk too.

“Open the door,” Grandfather said. “Come out. Nobody will harm you. We have no weapons.”

We heard nothing. More than a hundred pairs of eyes were fixed on the door. Suddenly the gate opened. A man in his forties ran towards Grandfather. Amir ran after him holding a gun.

The man hid behind Grandfather. “He’s is trying to kill me!”

Everyone fled the sidewalks, but some remained standing on the thresholds of their courtyard doors. Father and Uncle Gul Agha did not move from their places.

“Uncle Jallani,” Amir said, panting, to my grandfather. “Please step aside. I’m going to kill him.”

“Calm down, son,” Grandfather said. “We have laws in this country. A thief should go to jail, not get killed.”

“I’m not a thief, Uncle Jallani,” the man behind him said, trembling. His face was pale. “I’m Kabir, Kareem’s oldest son.”

Grandfather turned around and looked at Kabir. He acted as if Amir were not standing there pointing a gun at his back. He opened his arms for Kabir. They embraced for a long time.

“You’ve changed so much,” Grandfather said. He took a step back. “You were a kid when you left. Now you have gray hair. You look so much like your father, son.”

“Say goodbye to him, Uncle Jallani,” Amir said. “I’m going to kill him now.”

Grandfather turned around and put his hand on Amir’s gun. “Give this to me, Amir Jan, and stop being silly and childish.”

“No, Uncle Jallani.” Amir stepped backward. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Grandfather walked over to Amir, stood in front of him, and slapped him so hard we saw snot fly out of his nose. “Stupid boy. Didn’t your father teach you how to talk to elders? Give me the weapon.”

“No, uncle.”

Grandfather slapped him again, then extended his hand and looked at Amir sternly. “Don’t make me slap you again. You know better than this.”

Amir surrendered the gun.

Several men ran up and held Amir’s hands behind him.

“Don’t hurt him,” Grandfather said as he looked at Amir. “We can use our mouths to talk about this and find a solution, or I can call the police and you’ll have to answer in court. Your choice.”

“Please, someone call the police and the madhouse,” Kabir said. “He’s crazy.”

“Be quiet, Kabir,” Grandfather said. Then he looked at Amir, “Well?”

“Talk,” Amir said softly with his head down.

The other neighbors tried to gather around Kabir whom they had not seen in years, but Grandfather maneuvered the two brothers through the growing crowd into our courtyard. There, he made them hug each other.

That night, after several cups of tea during which Grandfather spoke at length about their father while the sons sat in silence. When it was time to sleep, Grandfather sent Kabir back to his house across the street and instructed Amir to stay in our compound in Grandfather’s guestroom. We all went to bed knowing that tomorrow was going to be a big day. All the men in our neighborhood would gather in Haji Kareem’s courtyard to learn about the conflict between the brothers and find a solution.

Haji Kareem’s House
The next morning, I finished my breakfast quickly. On days when I had nothing else to do, I enjoyed spying on Grandfather. When he saw me, he would lay aside whatever he was reading, open a book by Rumi or Hafez, and read me a poem. Then we discussed its meaning together.

I waited on the bench in our courtyard, looking intently at Grandfather’s room. Finally he walked out. He was dressed in a white shalwar kameez and a cream-colored turban.

“Go tell your father and uncles to come outside. Also, have your mother prepare a tray of candies. Come and sit next to me. You’ll distribute the sweets.”

I ran to every door in our courtyard, knocked, and told all my uncles that Grandfather was waiting for them.

My boy cousins followed their fathers to Haji Kareem’s house. I ran back to our room, where my mother was preparing to leave for her job at the Pashtany Bank. She quickly opened a few bags of candies, put them in a large tray, and gave it to me. By the time I reached Haji Kareem’s house, most of the men of the neighborhood were already sitting on the freshly mowed lawn. The smell of the grass was fresh, but the rest of the courtyard was covered with tall weeds. The branches of the trees hung low and almost touched the ground. The fig tree looked twice as big as I remembered. Though I was now seven years old, a chill ran down my back when I looked at it and thought of jinns. I sat next to Grandfather with my tray of candies. Amir and Kabir were on Grandfather’s left. Everybody was dressed in their best shalwar kameez as if they were celebrating the Nowruzholiday. They were sitting in a large circle on the grass.

“Everybody is here?” Grandfather asked.

“Yes,” Father said. “Except for Jawad, Sabor, Sami, Adil, and Wali. They’ll be here soon.”

“We can start,” Grandfather said. “Haji Kareem wrote a will and sent it to all his children before he died.” He took out a paper from an envelope and unfolded it. The paper was yellow and creased. “In his will, he instructed his children never to sell the house unless they run into a financial crisis. He wants one of his children to live in it or rent it to someone and keep the house in good condition. No one can cut down the trees or destroy the flowerbeds. The rooms can be demolished and rebuilt, but the fig tree is untouchable. The will goes on. The walls surrounding the courtyard and the sewage system should be repaired. The electricity wires should be replaced as well, and so on. If anyone is interested in reading the rest, let me know. I’ll make copies for you. It is very well written and entertaining, like the late Haji Kareem.”

Everybody laughed.

“However, there’s a problem. Amir wants to sell the house. Kabir wants to stick with the will. Amir is the younger son, Kabir is the eldest, as you can see. We’re here today to solve the dispute between the brothers. As you all know, Kabir was not able to attend his father’s funeral. He couldn’t leave his job and come to Afghanistan right away. He might have lost his job and his family may have ended up living on the street. But he sent me money to cover all the costs. Haji Kareem’s two daughters did not come either, because they didn’t have their papers to travel. If they had come, they could not have gone back to Italy, because they are still living on immigrant visas. But they held memorial ceremonies there. Haji Kareem loved parties. He got two more parties in Italy.”

The crowd laughed again.

“A week ago,” Grandfather continued, “Kabir traveled to Pakistan to see Amir and talk to him about renting the house since nobody has lived here for a year. He was concerned about the leaky ceilings. Amir agreed. But when they came here last night, Amir started saying that Kabir hadn’t helped their father when he had needed him; only Amir had. Amir now says that none of his siblings have any claim on the house, and it should belong to him alone.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Amir said. He had grown skinnier and paler since I had seen him last. His beard looked bushier too. “Let them live their luxurious lives in America and Italy. Where were they when Father needed them? I was the one here looking after him, cooking and washing for him.”

Kabir smiled bitterly and began to speak. Grandfather interrupted him, “Neither of you are allowed to talk. You know the rules. You talk when you’re asked questions or told to speak.”

Amir lowered his head, frowning.

Now the storytelling would begin. To provide a context for resolving the brothers’ dispute, everybody would say what they knew about Haji Kareem.

Rahmullah was the first to speak. “Ever since I met Haji Kareem, he smoked a pipe,” he said. Rahmullah was the same age as Grandfather but sounded older because his voice shook when he spoke. Everybody in our neighborhood asked for his help with their gardens because he had worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for many years. “He stuffed his pipe with the worst kinds of tobacco. He used to say with his thick voice, ‘Bad tobacco helped my body build a strong immunity. I can fight any kind of disease. I haven’t had a flu since I started smoking.’ He could be proud of his new clothes for only one day, because the next day they would have a charred hole from the pipe.”

Everybody laughed.

Hamza, the butcher, looked at Haji Kareem’s sons and said, “That bad tobacco eventually made a hole in his heart and killed him. But he was a good man. You two look so much like your father. But you’re not like him. He’d think of any excuse to have a party. While it seems you two just want to have a fight. But maybe this is your father’s way of giving us another party.” Then he looked at the sky and said, “Thank you, Kareem!”

“Your father’s generosity is known to everyone in this neighborhood,” Sayed Hossein the shoemaker said. “Before you two were born, your father had a shop in the corner. My cousins and I went there and bought anything we wanted, but we never paid. He wrote everything in his notebook. Our parents paid him once a month,” he said as he gestured Haji Kareem’s writing his accounts.

“I was your father’s friend for thirty years,” Sayed Hossein continued, “and we didn’t hide anything about our personal lives from each other. He told me that once, when your mother was away, he collected his children’s old clothes and gave them to poor people. Then he asked a friend to tie him to this fig tree. When your mother returned, he told her that some thieves had tied him up and stolen the clothes.”

Everybody laughed. Some said, “Typical of Haji Kareem.”

“Uncle Jallani,” Kabir asked, “What’s all this? Did you bring everyone here to make fun of my parents?”

“No, son,” Ali the baker answered for Grandfather. He owned two bakeries and a public bathhouse in our neighborhood. Sometimes he sat in front of one of his bakeries, playing chess. When my father and I went to his bathhouse, he did not charge me. He said I did not use as much water as Father. “This is how things work here, Kabir. You may have lived a little too long in America. But things are done here the same way as when you were young. The reason we’re saying all these things about your family is that we all know about each other’s lives. We’re like a big family. When one family has a problem and can’t solve it, we’re all here to help them. You know this. Who arranged your father’s funeral? It was Jallani, and we helped him.”

“And let me add one thing,” Baba Sharif said. He was the oldest man in Debori where we lived. He often stood in front of our school gates and told us to collect the loose papers fluttering on the street and put them in a trash can. He told us the papers were holy, and one must not walk on them because they could be used to write God’s names. “The reason you and your brother and sisters are so accomplished is because your father wanted the best for all of you. There was no limit to your father’s ambition. What he couldn’t achieve, he expected his children to achieve. He was a free spirit to the last day of his life and rebelled against every social convention. He didn’t stop working on this garden, though he could hardly bend down. He planted those flowers that now look wilted. He built that terrace with his own feeble hands. It took him three years. Now you two may destroy all of this? What happened to your common sense?”

“I’m not the one trying to sell it,” Kabir said.

“Before you went to Pakistan, you came to my shop almost every day to buy books,” Habibullah said, looking at Amir. He owned the only bookstore in our neighborhood. It was near the grocery shop. I myself often went there on weekends and squeezed myself between the shelves to look at books. I loved their smell and colors. I would pull out a book and read the first few pages. If they caught my attention, I would sit in a corner and read more. I returned to it the next weekend. That is how I read the first part of A Thousand and One Nights. One day I noticed some large books in shiny covers on the top shelves and climbed a chair to reach them. When I found the Kama Sutra, I stopped reading other books. Several weeks later, Habibullah caught me leafing through the pages. He pulled me by my left ear to his desk. “What should I do with you?” he asked me gruffly.

“I want to buy a book,” I said.

He kept staring at me.

I put my hand on a stack of A Thousand and One Nights on his desk. I paid for a copy and left while he was still staring at me. That was the first book I ever bought from my weekly allowance, and I was unable to buy popcorn and ice cream for the rest of the week at school.

Sitting in Haji Kareem’s courtyard, I tried to avoid Habibullah’s eyes. I was afraid he might tell Father or Grandfather.

Habibullah continued, “Amir Jan, for you, reading books was as essential as drinking water. I’m a bookseller. I know readers can be smart and wise people. Why would you defy your father’s will, Amir?”

Amir got up, adjusted his clothing, and looked at everyone. “I’m done here,” he said. “This jirga is over. Nobody owns this house but me.” He walked out of the courtyard.

No one was surprised. Walking out of a jirga is bound to happen when one of the parties grows angry.

“We’re meeting here tomorrow at ten o’clock,” Grandfather said.

Everybody left. I went home with my full tray of candies.

Making Rules
Some people who were absent the first day came on the second day.

“Son,” Grandfather said, looking at Amir. “No matter what you say, you can’t deny your brother and sisters’ shares.”

“Then why aren’t we in court?”

“You can do that, if you want. Sometimes, though, it is better to take care of things before they reach the government.”

“Uncle Jallani, with all due respect to you and everyone here, you’re all wasting your time. I’ll not give a penny to my sisters. They’ve no share in this house. My brother and sisters left when I was ten years old. Now Father is dead, and they all claim their shares.”

“We don’t want a penny from this house,” Kabir said. “Neither I nor our sisters. We only want to keep it in the family.”

“Where were you when Mother died? Where were you when Father needed you?”

“You were not here, either,” Kabir said. “You were in Pakistan, trying to be a mullah.”

“Whatever you say,” Amir said. “Our sisters are out of the will. I’ll give you half of the house and build a wall in the middle and sell my share. But if you try to argue with me, I’ll change my mind. This time I’ll walk out of here and you’ll never see me again. Understood, Professor Kabir, the history expert?”

“I don’t want half the courtyard,” Kabir retorted. “I don’t want anything from this place. I want to do what Father said in the will: rent it or keep it. I can’t come live here, but I’m willing to rent it. The money from the rent can go to Amir for a year, then to each of my sisters for a year, and then to me for a year.”

“Who do you think you are?” Amir said. “Coming here after many years and making rules.”

“I’m your older brother, and I’ll do the right thing.”

“What exactly have you done as an older brother for me? From the time he is a teenager, the older brother should play the role of a father to his younger siblings. Did you do that? Older brothers should always take others into consideration before himself. Older brothers are generous. Older brothers keep watch over their siblings. I never saw you again after I turned seven. Now you make the rules!”

“You’re full of shit,” Kabir shouted.

Nobody understood what he meant. Was Kabir suggesting that Amir had eaten a big breakfast and now should use the bathroom? Everybody looked at one another and raised their eyebrows, confused. They did not know that Kabir no longer thought in Dari. Everything he said had to be translated in his mind from English into Dari. He had lived too long in America.

Kabir continued, “You’re so tiresome with your reproaches. Blaming me and wanting explanations for what can’t be explained. Get over it. Grow up. Remember: who sent Father the money to keep this place in good condition all those years? Who paid for his food and clothes and medicine? Who paid for you to have your kind of lifestyle, with no responsibility, spending year after year in madrasahs in Pakistan? What do you know of the things I have been through in America? You think I had an easy life there? Do you know why my hair turned gray? Why should I explain myself to you?” He stood and left the courtyard.

That meant the meeting was over for the day. Everybody went home.

Again, I took my uneaten tray of candies with me.

Stories About America
After three days and more than a hundred pots of tea, everybody was showing signs of getting tired of all the talking while nothing was resolved. Grandfather and several of the older men stayed late and talked separately with Kabir and Amir. Sometimes we heard shouting over the wall, but we were not supposed to listen to it.

Amir and Kabir took turns staying in Grandfather’s guestroom. One night I looked through the keyhole. Amir was sitting in the dark. He took a match from his pocket and struck it. The light flared. He held the flame in front of him until it approached his fingers, then dipped it into the glass next to him, which was half full of tea. Then he lit another, and another.

My cousins and I enjoyed Kabir. He told us stories about America and his daughter, Sarah. He showed us her photos. Sarah was skinny with blue eyes and blonde hair, smiling in every picture. He also showed us photos of his house. “It is made of wood,” he said.

We laughed and did not believe him, because it looked like the houses in cartoons we watched on television every night before dinner. But when he showed us inside the rooms, they looked like ours.

In one of the pictures, we saw a dog sleeping on the couch in the living room. We also had a dog, but it always slept in his cage at the end of our courtyard.

“Its name is Charlie and it belongs to my wife, Barbara,” Kabir said. “Barbara loves Charlie as much as she loves Sarah. Sometimes she lets Charlie sleep with her in our bed.”

We thought it was very strange, but we did not say anything to Kabir.

Amir did not talk to us at all.  We stayed away from him, because he always looked angry.

“Call It a Deal”
On the fourth day, Habibullah the bookstore owner said quietly “If we don’t come to an agreement today, I think we have to send these brothers to the court.”

Ali agreed. “I have two bakeries and a bathhouse to run.”

“Make patience your companion,” Grandfather chided them politely, as Amir and Kabir took their places next to him.

“Uncle Jallani,” Kabir said. “I have a suggestion. Now everybody knows the situation. In America in a case like this we vote. Whoever gets more votes, he wins. Let’s vote. This’ll save everybody’s time.”

“Let the Americans do things their way in America, son,” Grandfather said. “We’ll use our ways here. We’ll talk as long as it takes to find a solution so both of you can walk out of here satisfied.”

“I’ll be satisfied when I sell my half of the house,” Amir said in a sulking voice.

“What about our sisters?” Kabir asked.

“You can give them some of your half,” he replied with anger rising.

“Do you know how difficult it is to even watch a woman giving birth?” Grandfather asked Amir. His tone of voice had changed. It had become thicker and louder, and he spoke forcefully. “Do you know how much pain a woman goes through to deliver a child? Of course not. You are an ungrateful, ignorant, and privileged person. Children should be named after their mothers. I don’t know how we have stolen that right from women. Now you say your sisters have no shares of the house? Is this why your mother brought you up, so one day you deny your sisters their share? You study religion in Pakistan. You should know better than everyone here. Religion teaches us how to be better human beings, how to be kinder.”

Amir opened his mouth to say something; Grandfather cut him off, “Don’t say a word!”

I rarely had seen Grandfather get angry like this. His eyes lost their warmth. Wrinkles appeared on his forehead.

The courtyard became so quiet, it was as if the eighty men there were statues and had no breath in them.

Grandfather looked at Kabir and said calmly, trying to control his voice, “Tell us what you can offer?”

“My offer is to rent the house.”

“Stop being stubborn, Kabir,” Grandfather said. “Play your role of the older brother.”

“He’s twenty-two years old. He should learn to take care of himself.”

“Kabir, don’t lecture us. Tell us what you can do for Amir. You went away when he was seven. Treat him as if he were still seven years old, which he has been acting like lately. Do your brotherly job.”

“Amir can live here.”

“He can live here whether you want him to or not,” Grandfather said. “He has that right from his father’s will.”

“I can send him the money as I did for Father to look after the house.”

“Again, you have to do that no matter what. What can you do for Amir?”

Kabir did not answer for a full minute. “I’ll talk to my sisters and see if they can send him money for his food and clothes.”

“And what can you do for him? Stop wasting our time, Kabir! Talk like an older brother and a man.”

“I’ll pay for his wedding whenever he decides to get married. But with one condition. He must stop wasting his time in Pakistan. He should come back to Afghanistan, find a job, and hold it. I’m also willing to cover his living costs for the first three years until he fully stands on his feet.”

“And he can live in this house as long as he lives?” Grandfather said.

“Yes. But if I or one of my sisters comes back, we should be able to live here as well.”

“This sounds like a good deal to me.” Grandfather looked at Amir.

Amir did not say anything. Grandfather waited for a few moments, then looked at Amir and opened his hands as if he was expecting Amir to give him something. But Amir still said nothing.

“All right,” Grandfather said. “We call it a deal. We’ll write the contract in the afternoon.”

Grandfather looked at me. I noticed the wrinkles on his forehead were gone and the warmth in his eyes was back. He said, “Qais, get up and give everybody a candy to sweeten their mouths.”

I started to jump up with bottled-up energy to finally do my job. The last time a dispute had been resolved, Uncle Gul Agha’s second son, Nasir, had served the sweets and had bragged about it for weeks. But as soon as I tried to stand, I stumbled. My feet had gone asleep. I rubbed them and tried again to get up, but I was still unable to stand. Nasir took the tray from me as he smiled and brushed the hair that always covered his forehead with the back of his hand. I wanted to kick him. He went to everyone with the tray while I sat there pouting. But I was happy that there would be no wall in the middle of Haji Kareem’s courtyard and I might be able to play there again with my cousins.

Uncle Gul Agha looked at Grandfather and whispered, “Father, I have changed my mind. I think I would feel better if I live at home until my youngest brother and sister get married.”

Grandfather smiled and slapped Uncle Gul Agha’s back gently, as he said “A very good decision.”

 

Qais Akbar Omar is the author of the memoir, A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story and co-author of Shakespeare in Kabul. In 2007, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado, researching eco-sensitive methods of carpet production, and he has lectured on Afghan carpets in Afghanistan, Europe, and the United States. He is a 2014–15 Scholars at Risk fellow at Harvard University.

Eyeing the Generals

Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s government took office in June 2013—with a sizable parliamentary majority—and amidst raised expectations that his party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz party, or PML-N, for short,  would be able to create a positive change on the political and economic scene. But the fractious polity of Pakistan has threatened his tenuous hold on power and thrust his party into a confrontation with the powerful military establishment, even as Sharif is under attack from his civilian political opponents. Nawaz 3.0, his third time in office, has started looking more like Nawaz 1.0. And rumors have begun circulating of an “Egypt on the Indus”—the possibility of a soft coup perhaps leading to the real thing.

First, the political crisis. As Pakistan celebrated its sixty-seventh independence anniversary on August 14, at least two political forces converged on the capital Islamabad to press for change in the government. One challenge came from the relatively liberal Tehreek-e-Insaf of cricketeer-turned-politician Imran Khan; the other from the right-wing religious evangelist Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a resident of Canada who brought his Minhaj-ul-Quran followers to bear on the teetering and confused government. Khan had accused the Sharif government of stealing last year’s elections, which left his party with just thirty-four seats in parliament. The irony of a democrat demanding an extra-constitutional change in the government was lost on Khan and his followers. But the government’s ham-handed approach to his earlier demands for a recount in four districts and then ten districts is partly to blame for Khan’s move to step up his opposition to Sharif. Much more is behind the general and rising unhappiness with Sharif, however. He presides over a sluggish economy and a country that has been hit with severe energy shortages and flooding. Then there is Sharif’s dynastic style of governance, which relies on a kitchen cabinet rather than state institutions to deliver the goods.

Against the backdrop of a growing political crisis, tensions have been rising between the civil and military institutions over an apparent assassination attempt on one of the country’s most popular journalists. Hamid Mir, a reporter for the Geo TV news channel, is a leading critic of the country’s military-intelligence complex. When Mir accused the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate of being behind the attack, well-organized public demonstrations quickly erupted in favor of the head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Zahir ul-Islam. Mir claimed that the ISI was unhappy with his criticism of the intelligence agency.

Nawaz Sharif paid Mir a visit in the hospital where he was recovering from six bullet wounds. At the same time, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif visited ISI headquarters in a show of support for ul-Islam. The following day, the Pakistan Ministry of Defence called for Geo TV to be shut down for smearing the ISI. After veiled critiques of the military continued from within Sharif’s government, General Sharif responded during a conference of corps commanders: “While our country is faced with multiple internal and external challenges, Pakistan Army upholds the sanctity of all institutions and will resolutely preserve its own dignity and institutional pride.” Defence Minister Khawaja Asif issued his own rejoinder noting that the parliament was supreme and that no institution should violate the sanctity of another, implying that the army had trespassed into civilian territory. Then, inevitably, the corps commanders weighed in to express their “displeasure” over Asif’s remarks.

To Coup or Not to Coup
Prime Minister Sharif has gone out of his way to repeat the mantra of previous civilian governments that the government and army are “on the same page.” Yet he has spawned a full-blown crisis by allowing events to escalate into a public slanging match with a military whose public opinion ratings were rising—even as the prime minister’s were shrinking. Rumors have surfaced of an imminent coup, but this may not be as easy to achieve as in earlier instances of a military takeover. Pakistani politics has reached a stalemate. The army cannot mount a coup without support from the people or without another political party waiting in the wings that is allied to the military and has a strong enough base to justify and uphold the military’s actions. Nor does it have the latent support of the judiciary or large parts of the mass media that shape public opinion. For its part, the government has a powerful base in the Punjab but not in Pakistan’s other three provinces—Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan—and so it too must contend with a newly empowered judiciary and civil society, and media. Consequently, the posturing persists but no serious breach of constitutional norms will occur unless some major economic or political crisis erupts that demands immediate action.

Within his first year in office, Nawaz Sharif was in a position to select a new army chief, historically the most powerful military position in the land. Given his bad luck with previous choices and clashes with past army chiefs when he was prime minister in the 1990s, there was speculation that he would seek to alter the balance between the civil and military in a substantial way. But, his performance indicates that though much has changed inside Pakistan’s polity, much also remains unaltered. The military continues to dominate discourse on key issues of national interest that properly lie in the purview of the civilians, namely internal security, foreign relations with neighbors and the United States, and nuclear policy. This is not likely to change.

Time is limited for the civilian government to exert its constitutional supremacy over the military; to do so, it must improve governance and partner with the strengthened positions of other national institutions: the media, civil society, parliament, and the judiciary. If it does not achieve supremacy rapidly, the army chief is likely to acquire greater power within his own institution as he selects his new crop of senior generals to fill slots vacated by retiring officers.

This dynamic can be explained by the principal-agent theory. The civilian government (as principal) could impose itself on the military (as its agent) if it employs closer monitoring of the military’s actions, and brings the military under public scrutiny via other actors in Pakistani society that have established themselves as autonomous actors in the past decade or so. The key would be a modulated oversight of the military that is not too intrusive. The patterns of past civil-military conflicts in Pakistan appear to bear out this theory. Benazir Bhutto’s attempt to take over the ISI by appointing a retired general backfired, as did her husband Asif Ali Zardari’s attempt to bring the ISI under the Pakistan Ministry of Interior. Nawaz Sharif himself suffered in his earlier tenures the ill-effects of trying to influence army chiefs to promote some of his favored officers, thus treading upon a purview that army leaders were prepared to defend.

No Blueprint for Change
Sharif’s third time as prime minister shows that he has not progressed much on the scale of governance. His team remains largely the same as in his previous terms in office, which ended in October 1999 with the coup d’état of General Pervez Musharraf. Returning to power, his immediate instinct was to consolidate key ministries under his direct control: defense, foreign affairs, commerce, among others. Only reluctantly did he let go of the defense and commerce ministries to meet the demands of the courts, and the need to engage in trade talks with India at the ministerial level.

Sharif continues to rely on a Punjabi cabal of advisors to make key decisions. A flurry of meetings took place with the military on the need to move against militants in North Waziristan but the prime minister, under advice from his ministers, chose to open talks with the militants instead. The military was dumbfounded by this change of tactics. In the end, the military launched the attack in North Waziristan and succeeded in destroying the bases of the militants in that border region. But this tactical gain may be hard to sustain nationwide without civilian planning and participation in the counterterrorism campaign.

The absence of direct and disciplined civilian oversight of the military contributes to an imbalance in how the military perceives civilians. Moreover, on governance, no major bill has been passed in parliament. Trade negotiations with India have ground to a halt. U.S. relations are moving slowly and Afghanistan has been left largely to the military to manage. The Sharif circle did not appear to bring a blueprint for change, for example on broadening the tax net or integrating the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), despite having been out of government for fifteen years and having ruled the Punjab for the previous five years.

The only major sector in which the Sharif government attempted to move rapidly has been energy. It paid off the accumulated circular debt that was contributing to a downward spiral in energy output. Energy users, including the government’s own agencies, refused to pay their bills in return for which energy producers cut back on production. But the public criticism centered on the fact that the creditors were largely the oligarchs, who supported this government, and that there has been no visible increase in energy production since that initial payout and instead, a steady increase in the circular debt yet again. What could have strengthened the government’s claim of good governance ended up being criticized by its opponents in the civil and military as crony capitalism.

War on Terrorism
Most opinion polls in Pakistan place terrorism and militancy high on the scale of public concerns, second only to economic concerns.  According to a Pew Research Center poll in May 2013:

Roughly nine-in-ten Pakistanis believe the country is on the wrong track, and about eight-in-ten say the economy is in poor shape... Meanwhile, concerns about extremist groups have increased markedly. More than nine-in-ten Pakistanis describe terrorism as a very big problem, and about half now say the Taliban are a very serious threat to their country. For the first time since the Pew Research Center began polling on these issues, the Taliban are essentially considered as big a threat to Pakistan as longtime rival India.

In the Punjab, the Sharif family bought off its Islamist opponents with strategic electoral alliances in central and southern Punjab. As the Economist subsequently noted in an interview with Punjab chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, on February 3, 2014:

Mr. Sharif does not confront the terrorists directly, while vociferously attacking “America’s war”; they return the favor and leave Punjab alone. Were he to take on the Taliban now, that deal would obviously break down, threatening to bring high levels of violence back to Punjab.

The Sharif government’s talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, using a changing team of interlocutors, were marked by a lack of public clarity of aim and remained largely focused on the FATA bordering Afghanistan. No direct discussions took place on the Punjab, Balochistan, or Karachi, the three other hubs of militant activity. The military is concerned about operating against the Punjabi Taliban, most of whom come from the same region in Central and Southern Punjab where the bulk of the military’s own recruits originate. Military leaders therefore have to be careful in continuing to use Islamic and nationalistic rhetoric to define their aims in order to keep internal discipline intact, even while they adopt a more pragmatic policy towards terrorism.

If the Sharif government can more sharply define the war against terrorism and militancy and work with the military to bring it on board, it may be in a good position to let the military take the initial lead as a willing “agent” of the civilian “principal” in this effort. Over time this should help establish civilian leadership in this field.

The drafting of the first National Internal Security Policy under the Interior Ministry seemed to be a chance for the civilians to show their ability to lead. But the draft, released in February, appeared less comprehensive than expected and did not define the respective roles of the civilian government and the military. By socializing this policy among other civil society actors, the government may be able to muster support that would help in its negotiations with the military. A challenge will be to help the military in owning the strategy, at least in its early stages, allowing the civilian principal to exert greater control over time as its prepares to take over governance of cleared territory from the military. A key weakness of the new strategy is the absence of a clear policy toward the future of FATA and the restoration of civilian administration to the territory under the same principles as apply to other autonomous territories in Pakistan’s control. The army has maintained a studied public silence on this policy and needs to be drawn much more into its discussions so that better coordination on intelligence can be organized at the federal government level while building up civilian capacity in this field.

Foreign Policy Files
The military continues to regard relations with the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, and immediate neighbors India, Iran, and Afghanistan as its major interest. This is a legacy of years of military rule and the willingness of civilian rulers to allow the military an unduly large role in foreign policy formulation. The Sharif government has continued to cede a virtual veto to the military in foreign relations without taking the lead itself. This old habit has made it hard for the Sharif government, like its predecessors, to exercise full control over key foreign relations. Hence military intrusion in this domain continues.

The relationship with the United States remains an important one. Strong anti-Americanism and suspicion pervades the junior and middle ranks of the Pakistan military even though their superiors need and demand better U.S. weaponry and continued assistance. But as Aqil Shah noted in Foreign Affairs, “By continuing to treat the Pakistani military as a state above the state, the United States only reinforces the military’s exaggerated sense of indispensability and further weakens civilian rule.”

Civilian-military differences remain on the issue of India. The civilians under Sharif want improved ties. The military favors ties and the absence of hostilities, but wants resolution of key disputes including Kashmir to remain high on the agenda and it seeks to keep the public on its side on these matters. Prime Minister Sharif wishes to engage with India on trade but will have to convince the military of the benefits to its own commercial enterprises and logistics operations of open borders with India. The government has failed to educate the military or the general public of the issue behind these negotiations and even on the issues pertaining to water cooperation and climate change on which much groundwork has been done already. A new Indian government under a strong prime minister, Narendra Modi, will be in a better position to deliver on trade and other agreements, while keeping the threat of force to punish Pakistan for any deviation from the path of cooperation or if it foments terrorist activities across the Kashmir or Indian border. If Nawaz Sharif succeeds in building trade and boosting the Pakistan economy by working with India, he will be able to create a huge vested interest group among the Pakistani business community and general population that will fortify him against the military’s recalcitrance.

Afghanistan remains a major issue for the civilian and military institutions in Pakistan. A powerful vestige of the past remains the role of the ISI in Afghanistan and FATA and in treating some Taliban elements as assets. Though the agency does not have the assured control that it seeks or imagines, it continues to use that aspect of its relationship with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as influence against any potential government in Kabul that might turn against Pakistan. The absence of any overt Pakistani involvement in the recent Afghan elections may be a good sign that reflects a partial victory for the civilians who see Afghanistan as an opportunity rather than a threat. Sharif sees trade and economics as key to changing the situation with Afghanistan and through it with Central Asia. The army still sees threats of Afghan nationalism, and an Afghanistan-India axis to support Baloch separatists and sandwich Pakistan between two hostile armies to the east and the west. The emergence of a powerful Indian nationalistic government in the shape of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party will validate the army’s fears.

Sharif Against Sharif?
What might precipitate a conflict between the two Sharifs? Poor governance and lack of tough decisions on the economy might send the economy into a downward spiral, reducing the resources available to the government and the army to continue the fight against domestic terrorism and potential external threats. Street unrest resulting from energy shortages or spiraling inflation may bring the army out in aid of civil power, as was the case in August 2014 when the army was given legal cover to operate in the capital region under Article 245 of the constitution. Afghanistan-based guerrilla attacks on Pakistan may provoke a major incident on the Afghan border. Similarly, jihadi attacks in Kashmir or inside India might provoke sharp Indian punitive actions under a muscular Modi government responding to its right wing base, leading to a potentially wider conflict. A successful jihadi attack on the Pakistan army may lead to a sharp military response, broadening the war against terrorism beyond the boundary of FATA. The military could provoke a crisis under such conditions and orchestrate enough public support to justify a coup along the Egyptian model.

The trial of former army chief and president Musharraf is often cited as a potential flashpoint in the civil-military relationship. Many among the senior ranks of the army feel Musharraf refused their advice in returning from exile to Pakistan. There are murmurings of unhappiness among the younger officers and soldiers that a former army chief is being humiliated. But the army has no leg to stand on in opposing this trial. Nawaz Sharif has handled the issue deftly. The court can let Musharraf go and continue with the trial in absentia. Or it can convict him and allow him to appeal the sentence. This all may take time. But Musharraf’s trial is unlikely to produce widespread public unrest.

Civil-military relations will remain tenuous at best for the next year or two. Both sides have to do well in their respective fields to avoid conflicts between them. There remains a faint hope that civilian supremacy will become a reality over time, provided it is accompanied by good governance. Nawaz Sharif’s performance to date does not inspire confidence in his ability to manage the civil-military relationship successfully. So long as he dithers in taking strong decisions in the national rather than personal interest, the betting will grow stronger against him.

Shuja Nawaz is the founding director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. He held numerous posts during a thirty-year career at the International Monetary Fund, and served as a division director at the International Atomic Energy Agency. He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within and numerous reports, most recently, “India and Pakistan: The Opportunity Cost of Conflict,” with Mohan Guruswamy.

Scramble for Iraq

Nearly a dozen years after the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, an extremist group called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has swept through the Sunni populated areas of Iraq. The dramatic turn of events demands answers to a number of questions: To what extent did the U.S. invasion change the broader region? And how will ISIS’s campaign affect future developments in the Middle East?

To start with, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad certainly unleashed sectarian and extremist forces that the Iraqi dictator had hitherto suppressed and/or prevented. The attempt to build a democratic system in Iraq led ultimately to a new constitution and to the institutionalization of political forces that had not had the opportunity to participate in the country’s political life before 2003. The rivalry, as well as the occasional collaboration between those political forces, for good or bad, became part of the new and complicated political dynamic that followed the fall of Saddam. Regional powers, primarily Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Syria and Turkey, were sucked into the vacuum left by the ouster of Saddam—and this created a new regional dynamic that has become part of life inside Iraq. What happens in Iraq, the past decade has shown, does not stay in Iraq. Conversely, what happens in the region now flows directly into Iraq and becomes a part of its political reality.

The American Project
When we put aside the question of whether Bush administration officials genuinely believed that Saddam possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), building democracy in Iraq becomes the predominant remaining motivation for the American invasion. Indeed, if we parse the conflicting official pronouncements along with the accusations and analyses from administration critics, the building of a democratic system emerges as a co-equal rationale for the war—along with the destruction of the presumed WMD and the defeat of terrorism. President Bush stated it very clearly, in a speech before the Philadelphia World Affairs Council in 2005: besides the defeat of terrorists and the training of Iraqi security forces to keep fighting them, “a vital element of our strategy [in Iraq] is our effort to help the Iraqi people build a lasting democracy in the heart of the Middle East.”

One would have to judge the overall mission as unfulfilled, if not an outright failure. Al-Qaeda recruitment rose to an all-time high during the first two years of the American presence in Iraq. This led to the establishment of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which, under Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, wreaked havoc all over the country; AQI killed American soldiers, blew up Iraqi ministries, and murdered Iraqi Shia on camera and placed the videos of these deeds on the Internet for the world to see. True, the American occupation of Iraq cannot be blamed directly for regional developments that could have taken place with or without the presence of U.S. troops, but elements of the occupation undeniably contributed to such developments.

The first two major policy decisions taken by the Bush administration were the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the purging of Saddam’s Baath Party loyalists from the Iraqi public sector—so-called de-Baathification. Both decisions were rooted, theoretically and practically, in the overall goal of building democracy—on the grounds that you could not build a new political system without fully destroying the old one. Bush administration strategists believed that the die-hard supporters of Saddam (“dead-enders,” in the view of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) were ideological enemies of democracy, and therefore rooting them out was critical to securing the future of the new Iraq. Sadly, both decisions led to a power vacuum—particularly on Iraq’s borders, which could not be protected adequately by the relatively small number of foreign coalition forces in the country—and to an internal bleeding and the sowing of deep divisions between the country’s eclipsed Sunni minority and its newly empowered Shia majority. Had de-Baathification remained focused on the uprooting of Baathis from the upper echelons of the party and high level state officials under Saddam, it would not have had such a far-reaching impact on social cohesion. In the hands of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), it turned instead into a McCarthyist campaign against Sunnis at all levels of government and in a wide variety of professions. The sense of victimization among ordinary Sunni citizens had much to do with their apathy towards the spread of AQI in their main cities. The gate was open for AQI’s seductive appeal for jihad against the “new-age crusaders,” and Muslim fighters from all over the Middle East flowed into Iraq.

The rapid growth of AQI had domestic and regional consequences. In a sectarian environment, inside and outside Iraq, the rapid growth of Sunni extremism logically and inevitably led to the counter growth of Shia militias. Given the strong desire to protect their holy shrines and their worshippers from AQI, and given the willingness and readiness of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group to assist in the matter, the rise of armed Shia militias did not take very long. Along with the already trained and Iran-supported Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), soon came Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army as well as Kataib Hezbollah  and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, the latter two funded by Iran and trained jointly by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah. The bitter and bloody civil war that ensued in 2006 was a natural consequence of the sectarian polarization.

The election of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki brought a brief lull. In his first term of office, it seemed that his use of the carrot and stick approach was succeeding in getting these militias to put aside their weapons and join the political process. But it turned out to be the calm before the Arab Spring storm of 2011 and the bloody struggle that erupted in neighboring Syria. Shia militias made a comeback in 2011, encouraged by Al-Maliki, to support the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria. More recently, these militias have again been called on to help fight off the onslaught of ISIS in the face of a woefully inadequate Iraqi army.

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom
The goal of replacing Saddam’s dictatorship with a democratic republic was certainly taken seriously by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Administrator L. Paul Bremer and the young men and women who filled the CPA’s ranks from the U.S. bureaucracy—mainly Department of Defense contractors—and from the allied governments who agreed to share the burdens of governing Iraq with the United States.

The cost of governing Iraq, along with the growing risk to civilians, led the CPA to speed up the transition to an independent Iraqi government. Between the summer of 2003 and March 2004, the date that the Transitional Administrative Law was signed into law by the IGC, political parties, civil society organizations, and women’s organizations were encouraged, facilitated, and sometimes financed by the CPA. Sensitive to the criticism that the CPA was fostering the transition from foreign occupation to the rule of a few Shia Iraqi leaders, handpicked from opposition to Saddam that had largely lived abroad for at least the last ten years of Saddam’s rule, the CPA tried hard to broaden political participation and find, in particular, Sunni leaders that might be acceptable to the Shia community and yet credible enough with the Sunni population of Iraq—a near impossible task. At the same time, given the eagerness of Iraqi Kurds for autonomy, and the partiality of American and British diplomats to Kurdish leaders, the principle of federalism was pushed early on into any discussion of transitional constitutional documents. Amid all the discussions of elections, constitution writing, and good governance, one had to keep an eye on religious sensitivities and clerical interventions. To that end, the Delphic pronouncements of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani from Najaf had to be taken seriously when made, and solicited when not forthcoming. In addition, the politician-clerics within the IGC also pronounced on the appropriate phrasing of the role of sharia law in the framing of constitutions, temporary or otherwise.

With the ability of Iraqis to organize and voice their opinions in the absence of an overpowering authority, nearly a hundred political parties and hundreds of civil society groups were formed in addition to new religious groups, media organizations, and, of course, the militias. This sudden blooming of pluralism, while of critical importance for the launching of a democracy, was also problematic for securing the very same goal. The ethnic, religious, and political diversity came with inherent contradictions, tensions, and unhelpful and undemocratic attitudes and intentions. The more fundamentalist among the various religious groups had no desire to share power with those of different religious faiths or with extremely secular views; the Shia groups in general, weary of years of oppression under Saddam, had no interest in sharing power with Sunnis, and the latter in turn did not trust the Shia majority to treat them fairly.

To this day, Middle Eastern critics of the occupation blame the United States (and the West) for deliberately sowing the seeds of conflict in Iraq. This is an unfair accusation. The CPA certainly did not create the current and various divisions, interests, and shades of opinion. Diverse identities were part of the social fabric of Iraq. The mutual suspicion and conflicting political goals were the result of years of suppression, a lack of experience in shared government, and a deep uncertainty about the future. The American invasion, and the ensuing democracy project, naturally unleashed these forces, and the CPA, in trying to build an inclusive, yet secure transition, unwittingly facilitated the eventual political and violent clashes that followed. To be sure, there were critical voices, particularly in the State Department, that warned of the sharpness of the divisions and the dangers that might result. The architects of the invasion, however, believed that the divisions and clashes could be managed.

The current turmoil in Iraq, keeping aside the regional aspect of it for the moment, continues to be a manifestation of the multiplicity of organizations with conflicting goals and interests. Hence, the parliamentary nature of the Iraqi system, decided on largely during the CPA days, reflects the difficulty of forging coherent coalitions between the close to fifty political parties still competing for power. Since no one political party is large enough to secure a majority of seats in parliament, elections do not offer a clear way ahead as to who governs the country. Hence, the 2010 parliamentary election results—though giving the Iraqi National Movement (led by Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya party) a two-seat edge—enabled Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition to outmaneuver its rival and form a broader coalition (albeit with some regional prodding and facilitation) and earn the right to form a cabinet and rule the country. Instead of negotiating in good faith with his Sunni opposition, Al-Maliki proceeded to hurl accusations against their leaders and treat sit-in organizers as terrorists, totally alienating the Sunni community in the process. Correcting the destructive course embarked upon by Al-Maliki in 2006, and before that by the IGC, is a difficult, long-term challenge.

The federal question, unleashed by the removal of Saddam and the attempt to placate the Kurdish sense of identity and their need for autonomy, is, after a few years of abeyance, returning to the fore in potentially explosive arguments and opposing policies and stands. Disagreements arose from the start, as discussions and negotiations took place over the new Iraqi constitution. The Kurds pushed hard for a loose federal structure which would grant their region wide economic, political, and security autonomy, while the predominantly Shia parties pressed for a more centralized government—so much so that the very word, federalism, took on the meaning of dismemberment of Iraq in the Shia street. The discussion has not been merely academic. In the security sector, the Kurdish peshmerga had a favored status among most American officials. The Kurds had, after all, actually fought alongside the United States and helped defeat Saddam’s army.

Further, the peshmerga had the reputation of being more disciplined and more interested in securing the Kurdistan region than in attacking any other region in the country. There were two problems with making an exception for the Kurdish militia in the attempt to disband all militias in favor of a new central Iraqi security system. First was the image problem of favoring the Kurds over other Iraqis, and second was not looking into the future and how inter-sectarian and inter-ethnic relations might evolve. The disbanding of militias was discussed in the context of agreements between the various leaders, that is, that the disbandment would be voluntary. Within the CPA, the understanding was that exempting the peshmerga would be conditional on their staying within their federal borders, well north of the capital. This failed to address the logical fear that the gray areas, such as the city of Kirkuk, would at some point have to be fought over if no consensus was reached as to their status. In recent years, Al-Maliki, angered by the Kurds exporting oil from their territory to Turkey, cut off funding public programs in the Kurdish areas from the federal budget. As a consequence of the ISIS sweep of northwestern Iraq, the Iraqi army largely abandoned Kirkuk; the peshmerga, citing the fear of leaving the city to ISIS, moved in and replaced the retreating Iraqi army—some Kurdish officials asserted publicly that they would never leave.

Hence, the failure of the American project was double edged. Politically, the CPA failed to negotiate an agreement on militias that would be acceptable to all sides. Militarily, it failed to build a professional, reliable, and sect-neutral Iraqi military. One result: the Iraqi army, regarded as a hostile force by the Kurds and as an occupation force by the Sunnis west and north of Baghdad, proved unable to meet the jihadist threat coming across the border from Syria.

The Regional Factor
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 created a vacuum right at the center of the Gulf and the Arab world, but more importantly at the center of the struggle for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Regardless of what one may say about Saddam himself or about his authoritarian regime, Iraq was a bulwark against foreign incursions and an impregnable rock between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraq has been, and still is, a must-win zone over which there can be no compromise. With the Syrian conflict splitting Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq as supporters of opposing camps, Iraq has turned into a theater for the Syrian war and Iraq’s internal divisions have been exacerbated by Syria and the regional conflict swirling around it.

The Iran-Saudi rivalry dates to the 1960s as the two Gulf giants naturally competed for influence in the region, politically, economically, and sometimes militarily. During the time of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two monarchies were sometimes on opposite sides of conflicts, such as in the Dhofar rebellion in Oman. Occasionally, the two disagreed on oil policies and prices. Yet, as pro-Western regimes, they found themselves on the same side more often than not, particularly when Iraqis overthrew their own monarchy in 1958 in favor of the Arab nationalist Baath party.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the contest between the two countries took on classic characteristics of a cold war, with ideological, religious, political, and economic aspects. Iran became a revolutionary Islamic republic while Saudi Arabia remained a monarchy; Iran sought to speak for the downtrodden and, at least rhetorically at first, encouraged revolts against monarchies in the region and lent support to Shia minorities in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, thought of itself as the center of the Muslim world, a defender of Sunni communities and preferred a stable regional status quo. On foreign policy, Iran sought independence from the United States and the West, and accused Saudi Arabia of being the gateway for American neo-imperialism in the region.

In classical cold war fashion, the two powers sought to avoid a direct clash, while competing for influence via assistance to favored groups and regimes, and weighing in on the side of their respective protégés in times of conflict. In recognizing certain limits in their conflict, Iran and Saudi Arabia tried to maintain a civil tone in talking about one another in public and tried in particular to mitigate sectarian rhetoric, though it was not easy at times given the difficulty in controlling mutually antagonistic clerics on both sides. Saudi Arabia, being the host country for the annual hajj pilgrimage, remained open to Iranian pilgrims, though the latter were at times politicized and tried to use their visit to Mecca to publicize political issues—necessitating discussions and ultimate coordination between the two countries to prevent the issue from leading to violence.

The balance of power was maintained between the two during the first two decades of the Islamic Republic, with the regional status quo remaining largely stable. The one event that could have changed the balance was the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, which each side saw as an attempt by the other to upend the balance in its favor. The war ended in a stalemate. Changes occurred during the events of 2003 and later 2011, which raised the ante and heated up the conflict considerably. The U.S. invasion of Iraq knocked out a regime that, for better or worse, had held Iraq together for thirty years and had a very strong army that could defend its borders from regional threats. The dismantling of this center of power left the conflict arena for these two giants empty—a situation with mixed results for both. For Iran, the removal of Saddam was a welcome development as was the American intention to establish a democracy, which in sectarian terms meant the replacement of a Sunni/Baathist regime with a Shia-dominated one with obvious historical ties and sympathies to Iran. The downside was the presence of American troops so close to Iran’s borders and under the command of an administration that could in principle attempt to duplicate the experience with a march on Tehran or Damascus.

For Saudi Arabia, the removal of Saddam, after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait and at least implicit threat to roll into Saudi Arabia, constituted sweet revenge. The replacement of Saddam with a Shia-led government, however, was an entirely different matter. Saudi hopes for a strong role in shaping the future of Iraq were frustrated by the Americans’ seeming indifference to Riyadh’s concerns and interests. Concern turned to alarm when the intent to pull troops out became certain, particularly when the Obama administration put a serious deadline on it. Miffed, the Saudis did not send an ambassador to the new Republic of Iraq until 2012, and only after pleadings from Washington and in particular from the U.S. military, which needed a good regional intermediary with Iraq’s Sunni community. The Saudis may have never had a real chance to influence events in Iraq, but missing out on the four formative years of Iraq’s history under occupation did not help matters. Iran used the ties it had built with Iraq’s Shia leaders while they were in opposition outside the country to good advantage, brokering deals and lending support to favored groups and individuals. Hence the main power blocs, Dawa, SCIRI, and the Sadr Movement came to depend on Iran and to seek Iran’s advice. By contrast, Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister from 2004–05, a Shia with good ties to the Sunni communities, was favored by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation countries, but did not succeed in leading the country, either during the last days of the American mandate or after the 2010 elections in which his party failed to form a majority coalition in parliament—one of several tests of will between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Iraqi theater, won by Iran.

It is not entirely clear what Saudi Arabia’s strategy was in trying to gain influence over Iran in the region or indeed inside Iraq. It was abundantly clear during the 2006 Iraqi civil war, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, and the 2009 Israel-Gaza war, that Iran had established tight connections with non-governmental militias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine—militias that could make a difference on the ground. In 2005, after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Saudi Arabia supported and encouraged the March 14 Coalition in Lebanon to lay the blame on the Syrian regime, and to seek justice as well as the dismantlement of Hezbollah’s war machine via an international tribunal and a United Nations resolution—two goals that proved totally impractical, and therefore gained Saudi Arabia no victories over Iran in the Lebanese theater. Iran, in the meantime, augmented its alliance with Bashar Al-Assad and Lebanese Hezbollah with money, arms, and a joint defensive strategy that strengthened both allies and formed a formidable tripartite axis in the region. When the Arab Spring began in late 2010, and turned particularly bloody in Syria a few months later, Iran and Hezbollah quickly committed to assisting the Syrian regime with money, arms, training, and intelligence—a combination that has proved successful in keeping Al-Assad afloat to this moment. Saudi Arabia tried to be a player by sending funds and weapons to Syrian rebel forces but, once again, had no troops on the ground, no strategic skills or advice to offer, and failed to recruit Western help for the rebel forces it championed against Al-Assad.

In addition to the Free Syria Army (FSA), Saudi Arabia and Qatar relied on Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq to help the opposition to Al-Assad in Syria. The Saudi allies, however, have been notoriously unsuccessful in fighting in Syria. Iran, in contrast, working with the Al-Maliki regime and Shia militia organizations in both Iraq and Syria, has been able to use Iraq to its advantage in the struggle for Syria.

The ISIS Factor
The ISIS sweep of northwestern Iraq during the summer of 2014, in the context of the regional cold war, is a critical, if complicated factor. The group, born in a merger of AQI with other jihadi and salafist groups during the 2006–07 civil war (an umbrella organization called Mujahideen Shura Council was created for that purpose), established ties to some of the Sunni tribes and youth who were frustrated with the new Shia-led government in Iraq. Bested in fighting and squeezed out of Iraq’s main cities by U.S. and coalition forces, the group’s leaders mostly fled to Syria and seemed to have disbanded during the last two years of the American occupation of Iraq.

The group re-emerged as American troops pulled out of Iraq and the Syrian uprising faced a bloody crackdown by the Al-Assad regime. The group’s return-with-a-vengeance to Iraq certainly complicates the domestic political scene and makes it difficult to even advocate a democratic outreach in the heat of battle, even though it makes perfect sense for the central government to smooth over its difficulties with Sunni and Kurdish oppositionists. The several thousand ISIS fighters should not on their own be able to fight the entire Iraqi security structure, not to mention the now revived Shia militias, the Kurds, and those Sunnis still interested in helping sustain the state of Iraq. The fact is, not only was a seriously disgruntled Sunni population in Anbar province sympathetic, and therefore hospitable, to ISIS, but a tribal fighting force whose numbers are currently difficult to estimate actually joined ISIS in its sweep. The Kurds, whose military help is essential in the Sunni areas adjacent to Kurdistan, took advantage of the retreat of the Iraqi army from Kirkuk to take over the city, certainly with the aim of denying it to ISIS, but also without even the pretense of denying that this also settles the question of who controls/should control Kirkuk once and for all. For the central government of Iraq, even under the leadership of newly elected Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, disarming Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish militias and putting Humpty Dumpty together again will be very challenging to say the least.

Regionally, with absent American forces and antagonized Sunni and Kurdish communities, Iraq’s Shia leaders have become even more dependent on their Iranian patrons, for whom Iraq has become the perfect theater for regional competition—an even better one than Lebanon, given its proximity to Saudi Arabia. On a purely mathematical basis, Iran has more cards to play in this game than does Saudi Arabia. Iran’s assets, aside from its influence within the Iraqi government and army, include the Shia militias. Iran also possesses the IRGC, a force that is already familiar with the Iraqi turf and is willing, ready, and able to assist directly as needed. Syria, with encouragement from Iran, has also leant material and military support to Iraqi forces against ISIS. By contrast, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have any real champions on the ground, unless one considers the tribes of Anbar—who previously received more American than Saudi support, but are currently not funded and are largely sympathetic to ISIS, or at least willing (until a better deal is offered by the post-Al-Maliki government in Baghdad) to look the other way as the group takes over Iraqi cities. The Shammar tribe of northwestern Syria, though used by the Saudis in the early days of the Syrian uprising to funnel money and arms to Syrian rebels, doesn’t have a known unified fighting force and, on its own, is not likely to become a factor in the current struggle.

The International Factor
Despite the alarm of the Obama administration over the ISIS sweep and the rush to deliver previously purchased military hardware and dispatch an initial tranche of advisors, U.S. assistance, as has been described by the Obama administration, is not likely to make much difference on the ground. Since the beginning, President Obama has repeatedly said there would be no boots on the ground in any assistance to the Iraqi government, and the airstrike campaign, though enlarged to include several Arab countries and NATO allies, is not sufficient in and of itself to dislodge ISIS from territory it has gained in Syria and Iraq. Iran, by contrast, has sent not only advisors to assess Iraqi needs, but also a small fighting force, with the promise to send more as needed. The IRGC, which could easily put several hundred fighters on the ground very quickly, is more likely to be a key player in the fight. Qassim Suleimani, the IRGC military commander, was dispatched to Baghdad where he is reportedly directing the battle against ISIS—having already gained experience from doing the same thing in Damascus. Iran, unlike the United States, has no qualms about sending in its own military into Iraq should they be needed. Additionally, Lebanese Hezbollah, which has made the difference between success and failure for the Syrian armed forces against the multitude of Syrian rebel groups, has promised to send in five times the forces as were sent to Syria, should the Shia shrines come under attack. This commitment of advisors, troops, and money—when combined with the familiarity of Iran and Hezbollah with the Iraqi terrain and its Shia fighters—makes any promise of American assistance seem a marginal undertaking at best.

The U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS, involving pushing for political reconciliation in Iraq and getting Kurds and Sunnis to help the central government of Iraq fight the extremists, is something that was urgently needed at least five years ago—years wasted in mollycoddling Al-Maliki when he could have been pressured to do the right thing by his own people or resign much earlier than he did. Better late than never.  Nevertheless, the strategy is neither global nor comprehensive. The Arab states joining the fight have been playing a largely symbolic role via contributing redundant air power and no boots on the ground. Turkey and Jordan, the states most concerned because of their common borders with Syria and Iraq, have an as yet undefined role, and the FSA training is to take place in Saudi Arabia, far from the battle zone and with Saudi trainers who themselves lack the critical battle experience needed to do the job well. In addition, the U.S.-Iran understanding over the fight against ISIS is far from clear and has obvious limitations, should boots on the ground, whether American or Turkish, become necessary and find that they have to go up against the Al-Assad regime.

Russia, no friend of Sunni extremism and already a strong ally of the Al-Assad/Iran alliance, has stood ready to supply weapons to the Iraqi government (albeit it at a price). News of the first air strikes by the Iraqi government against ISIS was publicized as having been executed using newly arrived Russian Sukhoi jets. Given the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and the impending pull-out from Afghanistan, the perception in the region is that of declining U.S. influence and a relative gain for the Russians in the region.

When the Dust Settles
One can safely say that the American project in Iraq has failed. Putting aside the issue of WMD, the goals of building a stable democracy in the country and reconstructing its security system are now both in deep trouble, with the security system in almost total collapse and the political one stalemated. In a best-case scenario, Iraq is back to square one, back to the situation after the fall of Saddam in 2003. In a worst-case scenario, Iraq could be driven back to the bloody days of 2006–07, only this time without the presence of U.S./coalition troops to back up Iraqi forces and to act as a buffer between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Is the American project responsible for the chaos, or would it have happened anyway? What does this state of affairs mean beyond Iraq’s borders, considering how Iraq has become the main front in the battle for the heart, soul, and body of the region?

It is impossible to answer the first question in any scientific or factual way. If we had to offer an educated guess, most observers would probably agree that had the United States not invaded Iraq in 2003, Saddam, or his children, would still be ruling the country today. Saddam’s control of Iraq, though brutal, would have most likely acted as a strong buffer against incursions into Iraq by AQI, and by extension, ISIS. For one thing, the Sunni community, feeling somewhat privileged under him, would not have created as hospitable an environment for Al-Qaeda and ISIS as has been the case under the Al-Maliki/Shia majority rule. The American project created a power vacuum that Iran, Al-Qaeda, AQI, and ISIS, among others, naturally filled. We cannot, however, blame the negative changes in the region on the U.S. invasion of Iraq—nor credit the positive ones to the invasion for that matter. Political Islam has been growing in strength for the past two decades, largely due to the failure of secular Arab nationalism to meet the needs of an increasingly frustrated Arab youth. The Arab uprisings, a major development in the region, would still have happened regardless of Iraq. Growing frustration with Arab dictatorship, lack of responsiveness of the rulers, and failure to solve basic social, economic, and political problems are responsible. It is interesting, for example, that in most cases, the youth who started spilling onto streets and public squares in January 2011, carried and chanted slogans that rarely touched on the United States, Israel, or any foreign policy concern.

As for the impact on the region, the ISIS sweep and reactions to it will likely further tip the regional balance in favor of the Iran/Hezbollah/Al-Assad axis. From an Iranian point of view, the situation in Iraq is too tempting not to jump into. After defeating ISIS forces and driving them out of the areas they now control, Iran would be left more deeply embedded inside Iraq than ever before. Having better control of Iraq gives Iran direct access to the Saudi border, with the potential of lending direct, or at least more effective, assistance to the Shia community in eastern Saudi Arabia. Add to that the increasing power and influence of the Houthi tribes in Yemen, just to the south of the Kingdom, and Iran’s growing influence with them, and the regional balance tips heavily in favor of Iran.

The challenge for Iraq, even presuming an eventual victory over ISIS, will remain one of governance. Anbar, once cleared of ISIS forces, would still be a disgruntled region of the country and the Kurds are likely to cling more than ever to their drive for more autonomy, if not total secession and independence. If fighting off ISIS causes much death and destruction to Sunni civilians and towns, as it well might, and drives the wedge further between Baghdad and Kurdistan, the job of forming an equitable, all-inclusive government in Baghdad will be harder than ever, once the dust of battle settles.

Nabeel Khoury is senior fellow for Middle East and National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a visiting scholar at the Middle East and North Africa Studies Program at Northwestern University. He spent twenty-five years as a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service, serving in various posts including: deputy chief of mission in Yemen; consul general in Casablanca; deputy director of the State Department Media Outreach Center in London; and director of the Near East South Asia Office of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In 2003, during the Iraq war he served as State Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. He has contributed to the Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, and Middle East Policy. On Twitter:@khoury_nabeel.

Transnational Climate Change Governance

Transnational Climate Change Governance. By Harriet Bulkeley, et al. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014. 250 pp.

At the end of July, the State of California and Mexico signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance joint cooperation on a variety of climate change-related priorities. The MOU signing ceremony included a joint appearance by Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, Mexico’s energy secretary, and California Governor Jerry Brown. Despite the fact that California is not empowered by the American Constitution to conduct its own foreign policy, no one thought this initiative was peculiar.

Indeed, the agreement fit into a pattern of forward-thinking activity by the state, spurred in a large part by the failure of climate legislation at the federal level, as well as the disappointment felt by many in the lack of progress made through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). California operates one of the United States’ only two carbon emissions trading programs. In 2013, it entered into a similar pact aimed at combating climate change with Oregon, Washington, and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Two of its cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, participate in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of megacities around the world dedicated to emissions reduction.

Such efforts represent a change in the perspective of international relations. While the frame of reference has long been centered on intersections between nations, the world has opened new avenues for studying events and actors below the surface of high politics. The focus on the transnational has risen partly out of the “bottom-up” historiography of the 1960s and 1970s. But it is also due to other factors: the realities of globalization, which have accelerated in the past three decades with political and economic openness within post-communist countries, and the diffusion of technology that has lowered barriers to competition.

How this new perspective changes our understanding of the global effort to fight climate change is the subject of Transnational Climate Change Governance, a collaboration of ten American and European scholars. At the heart of this study is a database of sixty initiatives, screened by the authors and organized into a series of analytic categories. The initiatives encompass cross-border efforts by a variety of actors to mobilize some sort of action against the challenge of climate change, broadly conceived. These actors include not only governments on the federal, state/provincial, and local level, but also private enterprise, non-governmental and civil society organizations, and global governance organizations such as the World Bank. All of these actors, to some extent, seek to “govern” reactions to climate change, by which the authors mean how networks of actors go about “establishing and contesting what the legitimate social purpose of responding to climate change entails.”

Transnational Climate Change Governance proceeds on two tracks: one empirical and the other theoretical and discursive. The empirical track interrogates the database, attempting to discern patterns with the current snapshot of governance efforts. Along the way, the authors puncture a lot of conventional wisdom about what the constellation of transnational climate change governance efforts looks like. For example, initially one might think that the bulk of these initiatives is centered on the long-standing industrialized countries in North America and Western Europe. After all, not only do they bear the lion’s share of historical carbon emissions, suggesting an opportunity to “make amends” through various policy avenues, but they also possess significantly more expertise, financial firepower, and a well-developed civil society and NGO infrastructure. That is certainly a causal factor as to why many high-income countries initiate these efforts (only one out of the sixty initiatives under study includes more than two Global South countries among its founding members). Yet, the database shows that participation is quite broad—77 percent include at least one actor from the developing world.

Nor is there some grand pattern or schema behind how actors chose which issues their governance efforts will address, including how those efforts are actually organized. While the database identifies four major concentrations—energy, carbon markets/finance, carbon sequestration/forests, and infrastructure—no single category of actors dominates participation in any of them. If this gives the impression that transnational climate change governance is an unstructured space, with projects cutting across one another in a way that does not suggest much efficiency, then the authors have likely conveyed the truth of the matter.  The universe of transnational climate is still in its infancy, and, as the UNFCCC process continues to be hampered by disputes between developed and developing nations, efforts will continue to proliferate in an anarchic and iterative process. Had the authors done nothing but compile and parse their own database, the book would have been a valuable contribution.

The second track attempts to further unpack the meaning behind these trends through the use of three distinct theoretical lenses. One is an agency lens, which focuses on how actors consciously conceive of their interests and fashion specific strategies to meet them. The second is a social and system dynamics one, which takes a broader view, attempting to show how actors fit within the world around them—the institutional frameworks, mores, and discourses that set up the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable behavior. Lastly, there is a critical political theory perspective, which warns that much of the progress on advancing transnational climate change governance serves only to reinforce dominant orthodoxies. In particular, many initiatives may advance the interests of the global market economy, which allows for the bare minimum of effort to combat climate change but fundamentally does not alter the insatiable quest for natural resource-fed economic growth that put our planet on this path in the first place.

While one suspects that some combination of the collaborating authors is sympathetic to one of these lenses, they refrain from trying to make overreaching judgments, given the admitted limitations of the sample, as well as the relative newness of the subject itself. Each lens has something interesting to say about the issues covered, the rules that govern these initiatives, and the extent to which transnational governance has advanced the debate about how the world should respond to climate change. While it is far too early to accurately assess the actual impact of these initiatives on the climate, it is clear that our understanding of what constitutes climate change governance has shifted.

The authors have succeeded in their central aim: they have “offered an initial step in the right direction.” Further academic studies on the subject will be incomplete without relying on their database. For those in the policy community, the questions at the heart of this study will hang over not only the kinds of projects that currently populate the transnational climate governance space, but also future efforts to build networks to fight climate change. In setting out an ambitious line of inquiry, Bulkeley et al. have given us a solid foundation for future work.

 

Neil Bhatiya is a policy associate at the Century Foundation in New York, focusing on U.S. foreign policy in South Asia. He was previously a research fellow at the Streit Council for a Union of Democracies. On Twitter: @NeilBhatiya.

Among the Ruins

Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present. By Christian Sahner. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014. 256 pp.

Six years ago, before the uprising-turned-civil-war, saying that “all of Syria is ruins” meant something else. It was a refrain I heard often, as a matter of national pride, on road trips around Syria—in a bus along the Mediterranean with a beaming Kurdish driver, or in a little rental car on a dusty desert road near the Euphrates, through territory now controlled by the jihadi militants who call themselves the Islamic State. “All of Syria is ruins,” architects, historians, farmers, tour guides, shopkeepers, and other Syrians proclaimed of their country, with its remnants of so many civilizations and empires stretching back five thousand years: Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and various Islamic ones, from the Umayyads to the Ottomans.

Today, of course, much more of Syria is in ruins, not because of time but because of barrel bombs and shelling by President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, and fighting between regime forces and scattered rebels in contested neighborhoods from Aleppo to Damascus. In that gap between new and old ruins, however, is an under-examined reality of Syria’s long history and recent tragedy—and perhaps even a case for some hope amid the carnage.

That’s because Syria’s long history is in part one of social, political, and religious accommodation and evolution. For Christian Sahner, studying medieval and early modern Syrian history was a way “to understand a society in a near constant process of change,” as he writes at the outset of Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present. “By dint of its strategic location between Europe and Asia and between the traditional domains of Christendom and Islam, it had experienced its fair share of cultural and political shifts through the centuries. Amidst these changes, Syria had become a witness to the manner in which old begets new, and new preserves old.”

A hybrid travelogue, memoir, and history, Sahner’s book is a young historian’s long view of the Syrian civil war, based on his years, from 2008 to 2013, living on-and-off in Syria and Lebanon, where he studied Arabic and researched the Byzantine and early Islamic periods. Sahner contrasts the sectarianism of the civil war with the reality of religious layering and mixed identities that mark Syrian culture.

His account of connecting Syria’s past to its present is often told through the country’s rich urban and architectural heritage, interspersed with his own stories of life in Damascus during the city’s more recent and relative prosperity. In the late 2000s, the capital’s Old City was busily being refurbished, its Ottoman-era courtyard houses made into boutique hotels and restaurants. That newfound prosperity, for some, along with all the foreign students cradling Arabic books by day and Lebanese beers at night, created the “strange ecology” of the Old City’s Christian quarter, known as Bab Touma, where Christians and Muslims got along, but “much was left unsaid.”

Sahner carefully recorded everything in a leather journal—an object lesson in writing things down. After the regime’s suppression of peaceful protests in 2011 slid the country into civil war, his notes became a record of something else. From his perch in Beirut—the French Institute, where he was studying, had relocated there from Damascus—Sahner realized that the journal “formed a picture of Syrian society on the cusp of a huge upheaval.”

While his effort to mimic travel writers from an earlier era goes awry at times—“the voice of the muezzin at the mosque wasn’t particularly mellifluous,” he confesses of his Old City neighborhood—he often returns to the simple but vital idea that “the deep past exerts a powerful influence on the present” in Syria. That is easy to forget as the country’s borders appear to disintegrate and the conflict descends into a combination of the civil wars in Lebanon and Iraq. But it is necessary to see Syrian history as defined by that long and essential experience of diversity and exchange, a place of Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Druze, Jewish, and various Christian religions as well as Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen, Armenian, and other ethnicities spread widely across the land. It didn’t create some idealized cosmopolitanism, but rather a busy, religiously mixed, multiethnic society that is now being systematically undone, as more than 191,000 people have been killed and millions, including many religious and ethnic minorities, displaced.

With an academic expertise in late antiquity in the Middle East, Sahner gives even the seventh and eighth centuries important proximity. In light of the re-emergence of nihilistic and extremist language from the likes of the Islamic State, which promotes a distorted version of Islam’s past, Sahner’s history is all the more important. “Syrian society then—as today—was divided by linguistic, regional, and sectarian differences,” he writes of the country on the eve of the Islamic conquest, when it was something of a Byzantine backwater. “There were tensions between city and countryside; between Greek metropolitan society and the Syriac culture of the villages; between the Chalcedonian Christianity of the imperial capital, and the Jacobite Christianity of the local ‘non-conformist’ churches. These tensions created a stunning array of ‘micro-climates’ in Syria, but they also made it a difficult place to rule.”

It’s there in the architecture. The Krac des Chevaliers, an intact crusader castle near Homs, is a singular example of medieval architecture, a combination of Frankish and Islamic styles, as it passed from the Knights Hospitaller to the Mamluks in the late thirteen century (though the knights, for their part, took the original fortress from Kurds). Or consider Damascus’ iconic Umayyad Mosque, built atop a first century Hellenic temple to Jupiter and a later Christian church. Of course, the Al-Assad regime and the ruling Baath Party—like other authoritarian governments in the Middle East—have long attempted to co-opt Syria’s culture for their own uses. A plaque outside the Umayyad Mosque commemorating restorations done under Hafez Al-Assad in the 1990s refers to Syria’s former Alawite strongman as al-ra’is al-mu’min, “the believing president.”

That same president didn’t hesitate to flatten the historic city of Hama in 1982 to suppress a Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt—and Bashar has followed his father’s lead. Amid so much violence, Sahner asks: for all of Syria’s differences, is the country’s history one “of unity arising amidst diversity, or unity destroyed by cleavage and division?”

The last three-plus years point to the latter. In the midst of another historical change in Syria, he fears “that much of the country’s past will be forgotten.” From the systematic and wholesale destruction and theft of antiquities in the war to the flight of entire communities, there may be too much to recover.

Frederick Deknatel is an associate editor at World Politics Review. He has written for the Nation,Los Angeles Review of Books, New Republic, and the National, among others. He was a Fulbright Fellow in Syria studying Arabic language and literature from 2008 to 2009. On Twitter: @freddydeknatel.

The True American

The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas. By Anand Giridharadas. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014. 336 pp.

Anand Giridharadas doesn’t tell you the story you expect him to. Tracing the trajectory of two men who collided violently in the days after the September 11 attacks, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas at first appears to tell a story of violence, hate, and forgiveness, and though it does that, it also weaves a deeper tale of American life in the twenty-first century and the state of the American dream.

Raisuddin “Rais” Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi immigrant who had abandoned a career in the Bangladeshi Air Force to come to America to seek his fortune. After attempting to find work in New York, he accepted a friend’s offer of a job at a gas station convenience store in Dallas. On September 21, 2001, he was working the morning shift when Mark Stroman, a white supremacist with a history of drug use and theft convictions, entered the store and demanded to know where Rais was from. Before Rais could answer, Stroman shot him in the face with a shotgun. Rais barely survived.

Stroman’s other victims weren’t so lucky. Outraged by the 9/11 attacks, Stroman had anointed himself America’s avenger and gone looking for Arabs to attack. He found none. Instead, he found a Bangladeshi (Rais), a Pakistani, Waqar Hasan, murdered on September 15, and an Indian, Vasudev Patel, murdered on October 4, whose brown skin made them, in his eyes, suitable victims.

For his part, Rais saw the 9/11 attackers as non-Muslim “heathens,” a disgrace to the Islamic faith who were “disqualified by their deed.”

Arrested after the murder of Vasudev Patel, Stroman was charged with capital murder, which carried a sentence of death by lethal injection in Texas. Had he been charged with a hate crime, Stroman would’ve gotten a lesser sentence of life. But, because it was capital murder, committed as part of another crime—robbery—the sentence was more severe. After shooting Patel, Stroman had tried to take cash from Patel’s cash register. Had the motive been hatred (or “counter-jihad” as Stroman himself characterized it) instead of robbery, the death penalty would not have been an option. Because robbery had not been a demonstrable motive in the shootings of Bhuiyan and Hasan, prosecutors decided to leave their shootings aside and focus on the murder of Patel. This led to a situation in which Stroman’s defense attorney actually argued that he was not a robber, but merely a racist terrorist, in order to spare his life.

Stroman and Rais both wanted their America—the America of their dreams. Stroman however wanted it “as it was,” or as he thought it once was, and should stay—not one perennially remade with new waves of immigrants bringing new ways, new foods, new faiths. Rais dreamt of the America he had heard about back in Bangladesh, where anyone could remake himself with hard work and dedication. The difference is that Rais could, and did, constantly leave and move on to (hopefully) better opportunities—first from Bangladesh to New York, then to Dallas. Stroman, on the other hand, was anchored in his particular milieu.

Rais’ faith in this America was already shaken by his inability to find sufficient work there, and battered even more by his treatment after the attack. Not having health insurance, he was dumped out of the hospital, shortly after his attack, as an outpatient. Efforts to save his sight put him deeply into debt, and he became imprisoned by his inability to pay his bills. “What Rais was perhaps discovering,” writes Giridharadas in a key passage, “was that the liberty and selfhood that America gave, that had called to him from across the oceans, could, if carried to their extremes, fail people as much as the strictures of a society like Bangladesh.”

This was the case with Stroman. A product of a broken home, with few family ties and no support network, for Stroman “freedom” was its own prison. Giridharadas makes the point that no one who knew Stroman—not his friends, not his ex-wife or kids, certainly not the jurors who sentenced him to death—had a full picture of this man, and had “only peeks” into various aspects of his life. This is something the author, a New York Times reporter, sets out to correct, by first telling the story of Stroman’s background and then the story of how he sought redemption while on Death Row, seeking to make some sense of his life.

Stroman came to see himself as part of the tragedy of 9/11, not a hero of it, not a victim, either. A key relationship in the book is that between Stroman and Israeli filmmaker Ilan Ziv, who heard about Stroman’s case and came to meet him in the hope of interviewing him.

Encouraged by Ziv to take up blogging, Stroman’s writing became a way for him to form a new relationship with a global audience, many of whom began to write to Texas authorities to spare his life.

Based on his own experiences serving in the Israel Defense Forces, Ziv recognizes how “anyone can cross moral lines” into the sort of ultranationalist chauvinism that drove Stroman. Raised in Israel, Ziv emigrated after becoming disillusioned by his experiences  enforcing the occupation of Palestinian lands, with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 being the last straw. Ziv serves the narrative as a useful outside observer, seeing in Stroman the mirror image of the American dream Stroman’s victims had been pursuing. Through engagement with Ziv, and his family’s history with the Holocaust, Stroman recognized the error in not seeing individuals, but only groups.

Meanwhile, Rais was also trying to make sense of what had happened to him. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, he decided to publicly forgive Stroman for the attack, and to join the campaign to have his death sentence commuted. Suing the State of Texas for denying him the chance to speak to his attacker, and therefore achieve some closure, Rais cited his belief in Islamic sharia law, and claimed that denying him a visit with Stroman in order to forgive him violated his right to practice his religion. In a twist, Stroman joins this lawsuit, and thus did a one-time “counter-jihadist” end up pleading with the state to apply sharia law in Texas.

Unsurprisingly, the appeal failed, and Stroman was executed in July 2011. In a moving epilogue, Giridharadas reports on Rais’ efforts to reach out and help Stroman’s daughter, who is herself locked in a similar cycle of addiction and poverty that trapped her father.

On the surface, this outstanding book is about a clash between cultures. On a deeper, and much richer level, though, it’s a story of how American freedom and individuality comes with both costs and benefits, and how American society continues to fail those born at a disadvantage, offering them far too few options for escaping their circumstances.

Matthew Duss is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, DC. Previously, he was a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, where his work focused on the Middle East and U.S. national security. He is the co-author of the center’s 2011 report, “Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” On Twitter: @mattduss.

The Son Also Rises

The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. By Gregory Clark. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2014. 384 pp.

In January 2014, as business leaders and politicians congregated in Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum, Oxfam released a report on inequality that would generate headlines around the globe. The charity’s figures showed that the richest eighty-five people share a combined wealth of $1 trillion, equivalent to the total wealth of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion individuals.

Since the 2008, financial crisis there has been growing consensus that inequality is a bad thing. This might be one of the few points of agreement between the protesters who camp outside Davos every year and the canapé-cruising delegates within. Yet opinions quickly diverge on what to do about it.

Concerned policy makers can deploy two strategies. The first favors equality of outcome, through redistributive tax and welfare policies. The second promotes equality of opportunity, a perspective that at its most extreme suggests that in a perfect meritocracy, income inequality would not be a problem. European countries have leaned towards the former, but America’s nation-defining dream is an expression of the latter: anyone willing to work hard should be able to make their fortune.

The statistics tell a more complicated story, however. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Italy have the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world—in these countries over 40 percent of the economic advantages high earning fathers have over low earning ones are passed on to their sons. So what should be done?

Conventional wisdom would suggest reforms to education, to ensure that low-income children can access high quality schooling, or perhaps quotas in the workplace or higher inheritance tax to chip away at unearned wealth. But Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, argues that when it comes to social mobility, mainstream thinking has got it all wrong.

In The Son Also Rises (his previous book, Farewell to Alms, is also a Hemingway pun), Clark argues that standard measures of social mobility are inadequate. Economists have tended to quantify intergenerational social mobility by comparing an individual’s educational attainment or income with those of their parents; in a perfectly mobile society the correlation would be zero as your parents would have no impact on your success. The problem with this method is that it cannot discount for the randomness that shapes most people’s careers: they happened to perform well in that interview, or they flunked their exams because they weren’t feeling well. It is also one-dimensional: it could suggest that the son of an oil tycoon who becomes a university professor has slipped down the social ladder, although his career is arguably of higher status.

To remedy this, Clark proposes a measure that takes into account profession, education, income, and wealth and that tracks mobility over multiple generations—indeed over hundreds of years. His method is ingenious: he studies surnames.

Surnames can be very effective markers of socio-economic background. In medieval Britain, for instance, the artisanal classes often took their name from their profession: Baker, Plumber, Potter. The elites were usually named after their ancestral home, and the “super-elites” could trace their names to the Norman conquerors listed in the 1086 Domesday Book: Sackville, Percey, Neville. By the late 1300s these surnames were often inherited, so by studying the names of those attending the grand medieval institutions of the church, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and parliament, Clark can estimate how often Bakers and Plumbers escaped their class background.

It turns out that Medieval England was no less socially mobile than modern Britain, or indeed Sweden or the United States. The UK’s slow but persistent rate of social mobility was, curiously, unaffected by even radical changes such as the industrial revolution and the introduction of universal education. Simply knowing that a British person is related to someone born in 1830 who died wealthy is enough to predict that they are six times more likely than average to study at Oxbridge. “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” the proverb goes, yet in reality this process takes between ten and fifteen generations.

Clark deploys similar techniques to study social mobility in the United States, Sweden, Japan, Korea, Chile, India, and China. In America, for instance, he identifies surnames associated with Native Americans (a fine selection including Manygoats, Goldtooth, and Twobulls). It turns out that Native American surnames only occur at 6 percent the expected rate on the American Medical Association’s Directory of Physicians.

Clark’s surveys are painstakingly detailed, but his conclusions are strikingly broad. All countries possess the same slow but steady underlying rate of social mobility. “Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait such as height,” Clark writes, and it is here that his argument becomes a little problematic. He refrains from concluding that social status is a genetic trait, but argues it does behave like one. An individual’s social status is little affected by the number of siblings they have or their country’s school system, which Clark believes implies that “nature” rather than “nurture” is a greater determinant of success—but few biologists would agree that such a sharp distinction exists between the two.

Families possess an “underlying social competence,” to which individuals regress over ten to fifteen generations. For reasons he can’t fully explain (though he suggests it is a useful area of research), the “underlying social competence” of some groups is higher than others: that of Coptic Egyptians in America is extraordinarily high, while that of African Americans is lower.

This conclusion feels deeply uncomfortable—for a start, the term “competence” suggests that low status is a problem internal to individual family members. It seems it must be partly socially determined: the oldest Americans to be born after the Civil Rights Act will turn fifty this year, and discrimination can have a long-term affect on mobility.

Clark’s book is an extraordinary work of scholarship, and one that poses a challenge to those concerned we are entering a new Gilded Age. As well as prompting several new questions—not least around his observations that some groups possess higher “social competence”—it offers one immediate and important conclusion. Given that government policy appears to have no effect on social mobility, those concerned with inequality would do best to focus on redistributing income between rich and poor. Whether it’s through chance or genetic inheritance, there will always be people with low social status—but considering the starkly different social welfare policies in the two countries, it’s better to be at the bottom of the pile in Sweden than in the United States.

Sophie McBain is an assistant editor at the New Statesman. She has written for the New Republic, FT Weekend, Guardian, Monocle, and Spear’s. From 2008 to 2011 she worked as communications assistant for the United Nations Development Programme and a consultant for the African Development Bank based in Tripoli, Libya. On Twitter: @SEMcBain.

The United States in Afghanistan

Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against Al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.

We are joined in this operation by our staunch friend, Great Britain. Other close friends, including Canada, Australia, Germany, and France, have pledged forces as the operation unfolds. More than forty countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and across Asia have granted air transit or landing rights. Many more have shared intelligence. We are supported by the collective will of the world.

More than two weeks ago, I gave Taliban leaders a series of clear and specific demands: close terrorist training camps; hand over leaders of the Al-Qaeda network; and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens, unjustly detained in your country. None of these demands were met. And now the Taliban will pay a price. By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans.

Initially, the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places. Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive, and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice.

At the same time, the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies. As we strike military targets, we’ll also drop food, medicine, and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan.

The United States of America is a friend to the Afghan people, and we are the friends of almost a billion worldwide who practice the Islamic faith. The United States of America is an enemy of those who aid terrorists and of the barbaric criminals who profane a great religion by committing murder in its name.

This military action is a part of our campaign against terrorism, another front in a war that has already been joined through diplomacy, intelligence, the freezing of financial assets, and the arrests of known terrorists by law enforcement agents in thirty-eight countries. Given the nature and reach of our enemies, we will win this conflict by the patient accumulation of successes, by meeting a series of challenges with determination and will and purpose.

Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril.

I’m speaking to you today from the Treaty Room of the White House, a place where American presidents have worked for peace. We’re a peaceful nation. Yet, as we have learned, so suddenly and so tragically, there can be no peace in a world of sudden terror. In the face of today’s new threat, the only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it.

We did not ask for this mission, but we will fulfill it. The name of today’s military operation is Enduring Freedom. We defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of the people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear.

I know many Americans feel fear today. And our government is taking strong precautions. All law enforcement and intelligence agencies are working aggressively around America, around the world, and around the clock. At my request, many governors have activated the National Guard to strengthen airport security. We have called up Reserves to reinforce our military capability and strengthen the protection of our homeland.

In the months ahead, our patience will be one of our strengths—patience with the long waits that will result from tighter security; patience and understanding that it will take time to achieve our goals; patience in all the sacrifices that may come.

Today, those sacrifices are being made by members of our Armed Forces who now defend us so far from home, and by their proud and worried families. A commander-in-chief sends America’s sons and daughters into battle in a foreign land only after the greatest care and a lot of prayer. We ask a lot of those who wear our uniform. We ask them to leave their loved ones, to travel great distances, to risk injury, even to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. They are dedicated, they are honorable; they represent the best of our country. And we are grateful.

To all the men and women in our military—every sailor, every soldier, every airman, every coastguardsman, every Marine—I say this: your mission is defined; your objectives are clear; your goal is just. You have my full confidence, and you will have every tool you need to carry out your duty.

I recently received a touching letter that says a lot about the state of America in these difficult times—a letter from a fourth-grade girl, with a father in the military: “As much as I don’t want my dad to fight,” she wrote, “I’m willing to give him to you.”

This is a precious gift, the greatest she could give. This young girl knows what America is all about. Since September 11, an entire generation of young Americans has gained new understanding of the value of freedom, and its cost in duty and in sacrifice.

The battle is now joined on many fronts. We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail.

Thank you. May God continue to bless America.

Remarks by President Barack Obama on the Way Forward in Afghanistan (June 22, 2011)
Source: The White House

Good evening. Nearly ten years ago, America suffered the worst attack on our shores since Pearl Harbor. This mass murder was planned by Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan, and signaled a new threat to our security—one in which the targets were no longer soldiers on a battlefield, but innocent men, women, and children going about their daily lives.

In the days that followed, our nation was united as we struck at Al-Qaeda and routed the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then, our focus shifted. A second war was launched in Iraq, and we spent enormous blood and treasure to support a new government there. By the time I took office, the war in Afghanistan had entered its seventh year. But Al-Qaeda’s leaders had escaped into Pakistan and were plotting new attacks, while the Taliban had regrouped and gone on the offensive. Without a new strategy and decisive action, our military commanders warned that we could face a resurgent Al-Qaeda and a Taliban taking over large parts of Afghanistan.

For this reason, in one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve made as president, I ordered an additional 30,000 American troops into Afghanistan. When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives: to refocus on Al-Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country. I also made it clear that our commitment would not be open-ended, and that we would begin to draw down our forces this July.

Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment. Thanks to our extraordinary men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals. As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.

We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength. Al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11. Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of Al-Qaeda’s leadership. And thanks to our intelligence professionals and Special Forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that Al-Qaeda had ever known. This was a victory for all who have served since 9/11. One soldier summed it up well. “The message,” he said, “is we don’t forget. You will be held accountable, no matter how long it takes.”

The information that we recovered from bin Laden’s compound shows Al-Qaeda under enormous strain. Bin Laden expressed concern that Al-Qaeda had been unable to effectively replace senior terrorists that had been killed, and that Al-Qaeda has failed in its effort to portray America as a nation at war with Islam—thereby draining more widespread support. Al-Qaeda remains dangerous, and we must be vigilant against attacks. But we have put Al-Qaeda on a path to defeat, and we will not relent until the job is done.

In Afghanistan, we’ve inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds. Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilize more of the country. Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities we’ve already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people. In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war.

Of course, huge challenges remain. This is the beginning—but not the end—of our effort to wind down this war. We’ll have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we’ve made, while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government. And next May, in Chicago, we will host a summit with our NATO allies and partners to shape the next phase of this transition.

We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement. So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban. Our position on these talks is clear: they must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from Al-Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution. But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.

The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe haven from which Al-Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies. We won’t try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures—one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.

Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We’ll work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us. They cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.

My fellow Americans, this has been a difficult decade for our country. We’ve learned anew the profound cost of war—a cost that’s been paid by the nearly 4,500 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq, and the over 1,500 who have done so in Afghanistan—men and women who will not live to enjoy the freedom that they defended. Thousands more have been wounded. Some have lost limbs on the battlefield, and others still battle the demons that have followed them home.

Yet tonight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We’ve ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.

As they do, we must learn their lessons. Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force—but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we’re doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny.

In all that we do, we must remember that what sets America apart is not solely our power—it is the principles upon which our union was founded. We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination. That is why we have a stake in the democratic aspirations that are now washing across the Arab world. We will support those revolutions with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.

Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens here at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource—our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industries, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach.

America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.

In this effort, we draw inspiration from our fellow Americans who have sacrificed so much on our behalf. To our troops, our veterans, and their families, I speak for all Americans when I say that we will keep our sacred trust with you, and provide you with the care and benefits and opportunity that you deserve.

I met some of these patriotic Americans at Fort Campbell. A while back, I spoke to the 101st Airborne that has fought to turn the tide in Afghanistan, and to the team that took out Osama bin Laden. Standing in front of a model of bin Laden’s compound, the Navy SEAL who led that effort paid tribute to those who had been lost—brothers and sisters in arms whose names are now written on bases where our troops stand guard overseas, and on headstones in quiet corners of our country where their memory will never be forgotten. This officer—like so many others I’ve met on bases, in Baghdad and Bagram, and at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital—spoke with humility about how his unit worked together as one, depending on each other, and trusting one another, as a family might do in a time of peril.

That’s a lesson worth remembering—that we are all a part of one American family. Though we have known disagreement and division, we are bound together by the creed that is written into our founding documents, and a conviction that the United States of America is a country that can achieve whatever it sets out to accomplish. Now, let us finish the work at hand. Let us responsibly end these wars, and reclaim the American Dream that is at the center of our story. With confidence in our cause, with faith in our fellow citizens, and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America—for this generation, and the next.

May God bless our troops. And may God bless the United States of America.
Speech by President Hamid Karzai at Georgetown University (January 11, 2013)
Source: Office of the President, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Mr. President DeGioia, Dr. Magrab, this is my second time in this lovely hall. The first time was quite a few years ago, and when I was very popular in the U.S. The second time is more real-time. And this university is also the one that has honored me with an honorary doctorate. And I thank you once again, President DeGioia, for that. It is hanging in my living room with the expectation that my son one day will be studying here. So I keep telling him, “Georgetown University.”

But, ladies and gentlemen, a journey that we began together in 2001—that is, Afghanistan and the United States—was for a great cause: freeing the world from terrorism and radicalism, liberating Afghanistan from a creeping invasion and that tyrannical, obscurantist rule by the Taliban.

The first one—in reverse order—the first one, freeing Afghanistan, happened within a month and a half to two months. And subsequent to that, Afghanistan began its journey towards democracy, the rule of law, progress in all aspects of life, as all societies desire. It went all right. It went reasonably good under the circumstances, and, without a doubt, with the help of the United States and our other allies around the world.

The second part, freeing us all from terrorism and radicalism, didn’t work as smoothly as we expected. There were serious bumps along the road, and setbacks.

Now, the Afghan people, regardless of where they stand ideologically on all these issues, recognize that Afghanistan could not have made the progress that we have made in the past ten years without the help that we received from our allies, led by the United States of America. In more closer terms, the U.S. taxpayers’ money. It did contribute massively to Afghanistan’s upliftment: the return of women to the workplace, to society, to polity; the return of young girls to education and boys, of course; the return of universities, roads, communications, mobile phones, computers, all of that. Mobile phone wasn’t a joke. I meant it.

When we started in 2001, we barely had telephones. My office was given a few walkie-talkies by the United Nations in orange color. That was the means of communication we had. Today, Afghanistan’s population of nearly thirty million has telephones available to eighteen million of it. Not one or two or three companies, but many more—four or five. And they own them all. So the country has made progress.

Now, the War on Terror has been costly. It has been costly to you in America. So many of your men and women in uniform and civilians have lost life. It has been costly to our other allies. It has also been costly massively, massively to the Afghan people. We have lost, in the past ten years, tens of thousands of our civilians to violence. This year alone—I mean last year; this year has just begun—each month we lose—we lost—250 of our servicemen and women to terrorism, and nearly 450 casualties in our civilians each month. So the cost has been immense.

Therefore, complaints on both sides. It has been a difficult journey—a journey in which, at times, expectations are not met. And when that doesn’t happen, both sides complain. I am aware of the complaint in your media; you are aware of my complaints.

But the journey continued, the relationship continued, out of a reality that Afghanistan would always be better off in close contact and partnership with the United States. And that is why last year, when we convened the Afghan Loya Jirga, or the Grand Council of the Afghan people, what you call caucus, the Afghan people voted overwhelmingly for partnership with the United States. But the Afghan people voted overwhelmingly for partnership with the United States as a sovereign country, and expecting that that sovereignty will be respected by our allies.

Today I am glad to report to you, ladies and gentlemen, that as the Afghans and the United States government agreed on a format for expanding our relationship into the Bilateral Security Agreement by which the United States will reduce its forces in Afghanistan, will stay beyond 2014 in a limited number in certain facilities in Afghanistan, and that the United States will continue to train and equip and assist Afghanistan, and that Afghanistan will be responsible for its own security, protection of its own borders, and all that comes with it.

So is the future certainly good for us? Does it have dangers on its way? Are we certain to move forward? Will this partnership work? Yes.

What you hear in segments of the analytical work, the NGOs, or the various bodies informing you on events in Afghanistan, the media—if I watched television in the United States, or in Europe, and then if I judged Afghanistan from that perspective, it would be a disaster. I would lose all hope. But if I came from Afghanistan, with all the traffic jams there, with all the pollution there now, with all the phones ringing there, with all the television channels there, with all the media there, with all the hustle and bustle of life, and the young people going to education and studying and working and making life move forward, the wheel go forward, I would give you a different perspective. I would say Afghanistan is definitely moving in the right direction: 2014 will be a good year for us, and the years after will be even better, and that this country will have its third presidential elections in a year and a few months from today. I’ll be a retired president. There will be a new president elected by the Afghan people. The economy will move further; it has already been growing at 8 to 9 percent annually in the past ten years, from a mere $180 of income per capita. Today, we are speaking of nearly $600 to $700. From a mere, I don’t know, $200 millions of our reserves—today, we are talking of—I don’t know if I should tell you that, because the U.S. government will hear me and not help us anymore—$7 billion in our reserves. More than thirty universities, private and public. Roads. Electricity. The future holds clear in progress and prosperity, by the standards of our region and Afghanistan.

Now, will Afghanistan, ten years from now, be a very prosperous country? Will Afghanistan, ten years from now, have resolved all its difficulties? Will Afghanistan be a superpower? No. But Afghanistan will be a country that will be moving forward. Education will draw better—thousands of our students will have graduated in our own universities; thousands more will come from studies abroad, who are now studying abroad. The democracy and the institutions that democracy requires will grow further. There will be more elections. There will be more parliamentarians coming. There will be more institutional reform. There will be a better civil service. There will be better governance. But Afghanistan will continue to face problems. There may be violence. There may be other impediments on the way forward. But this wheel of progress will move in continuity and not stop.

Will Afghanistan remember the United States as a country that helped, or a country that did not help? Definitely, Afghanistan will remember the United States as a country that helped. Definitely, Afghanistan will remember that it was the U.S. assistance that brought so much to Afghanistan. We will forget the less pleasant aspects of our relationship. We will move forward in the gratitude of the help that the United States has provided to Afghanistan and also our other neighbors.

But from today onwards, as we move forward, will this relationship be emotional, as it was at times—and you’ve heard us all in the past many years; will this relationship be emotional or will this relationship be more mature? This relationship has already grown mature. We recognize the United States’ interests in Afghanistan and the region, and the United States recognizes that Afghanistan is a good old entity there and has a life of its own, has a law of its own, has a social context of its own. And within that social context, Afghanistan will move forward in partnership with America and also in partnership with the other countries of NATO that have helped us in the past many years.

Will Afghanistan, beyond 2014, be a country that you can visit as tourists? Yes, it will be. Will Afghanistan suffer the consequences of terrorism? It might, on occasions. Will the peace process work? Yes, it will. Will the peace process take us back to times where the Afghan woman could not go to work? No. Will we keep our progress and the achievements of the past ten years, in spite of the peace, in spite of the return of Taliban to the Afghan social and political life? Yes. And this assurance is important today, to give through this forum where the Afghan Women’s Council was created many years ago, that Afghanistan will have peace, but that peace with the Taliban will not drive us away from the gains that we have made. Rather, those gains will definitely be consolidated and those gains will remain with the Afghan people.

Today, as I’m talking to you, Afghanistan has a standing army and police of 350,000 people. Afghanistan has a banking sector. Afghanistan has a strong agriculture. You’ve all heard of pomegranates—they come from Afghanistan. You’ve all heard of grapes—they come from Afghanistan, the ones that come from Afghanistan; I know you have them in California as well.

So, ladies and gentlemen, there is a country in Afghanistan. Just like here in America. Just like in the rest of the world. There are weddings and wedding halls. There is music. There’s cars honking. There are buses. There are donkey-driven carts. There are—there is life. There is society. This society is as lively and moving forward as any other society. And it is this that I would like you to remember when you think of Afghanistan: a country of 5,000 years’ history, at least; a country that has produced thinkers, philosophers, poets; a country that has had a good past; a country like all other countries, has also suffered in its history. And I can tell you that the most recent period of the suffering of the Afghan history is behind us.

A new period is beginning—has already begun—and that new period will be consolidated with 2014 coming, where your sons and daughters will no longer be burdened protecting Afghanistan, where the Afghan sons and daughters will take the mantle and will move forward.

We will have plenty more to do. And that plenty more can best be described by Frost. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” and miles to go before we sleep in Afghanistan.

Thank you very, very much, ladies and gentlemen.

Speech by President Hamid Karzai to Inaugural Session of the Fourth Legislative Year of the Afghan Parliament (March 7, 2013)
Source: Office of the President, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

In the name of Allah, the most merciful and most compassionate.

Your Excellency Speaker of the Lower House and chairman of the Session, vice-presidents, speaker of the Upper House, chief justice, jihadi personalities of Afghanistan, chairman of the Constitutional Oversight Commission, chairman of Afghanistan Council of Ulema, senior state officials, members of both Houses of Parliament, representatives of the international community, media members, ladies, and gentlemen!

It is such a proud moment for our great nation that, despite all the problems, interferences, and conflicts, managed to continue to build up on the democratic setup in the country.

In the rich history of a nation like Afghanistan, ten years is too short a time for these huge developments to happen. But at the same time, problems too persisted along the way.

Over these past years, considerable progress has been made towards reinforcing the sovereignty, state institutions, and ensuring stability. However, this journey of our people’s long-held desires has been full of ups and downs.

Distinguished representatives, senators, ladies, and gentlemen!

Over the past eleven years, despite all our economic, social, political, and cultural achievements, we could not achieve peace.

On daily basis, our children, women, mothers, elderly, youth, and members of our armed forces are martyred. Mosques, schools, homes, and state institutions are destroyed. In view of this situation, the most urgent desire of our people is to see the war end in their country and peace prevail.

Although achieving peace is not easy, it is still possible but through patience and caution. We will remain focused with Allah’s help on our goal to achieve a lasting peace. We are very well aware of the efforts hatched to hurt our peace endeavors and to deviate the process out of Afghan control—that we see as the only guarantee to the continuity of our political system and protection of our achievements—into fragmented individual or group level effort.

There are countries that by backing and encouraging such efforts want to see Afghanistan slip back into conflicts, unrest, and lawlessness of the nineties.

Distinguished participants!

At national level, our efforts throughout the past several years for peace were followed with good results. Those of the Taliban who are Afghans and Muslims with a feeling for their country have now come to the understanding, we are told, that they desire peace for their country and that they know their country is being destroyed by their own hands. However, there are efforts by outsiders who don’t want to see Afghanistan have a government and system and that it be at the service of others, be bankrupt, in need, and divided among individuals and groups. It therefore requires all of us to join hands and pursue peace as collective demand of our nation.

The High Peace Council represents people from every tribe and corner of the country and I therefore very much hope that the Afghan parliament and our politicians stand fully behind our Peace Council as a unified and single body to move the peace efforts forward. We have no problem with the Taliban entering into talks with various elements, politicians, parties, and political personalities. They are welcome, they are also Afghans, there is no problem in seeing and sitting with an Afghan anywhere in the country, but if we engage with foreigners as a broken and fragmented nation, it could have dire consequences. It is therefore not a problem to talk anywhere among ourselves, with the Taliban, it is good, they are Afghans.

The peace process has its foreign dimensions as well, considered to be also very important. In view of all this, it is imperative for us, the people of Afghanistan to stand united and proceed with our peace efforts through one single body which is the High Peace Council. I therefore hope that all of us support and back this.

Distinguished participants!

Afghanistan agreed with the establishment in Qatar of an office for peace negotiations with the Taliban. This agreement is subject to conditions to be worked out between the High Peace Council and the Taliban. The conditions include protection of our gains of the past many years and respect to the constitution. I would like to call again upon the Taliban who are Afghans and Muslim and are from this land. Brothers! You must have now come to the understanding especially in the past few weeks that the guns are used by foreigners against the people of Afghanistan and through these guns placed on our [your] shoulders, they destroy development, security, and prosperity of Afghanistan and impedes our country’s progress. My Taliban brothers! You must understand that you are being used to serve foreign interests, you are used against your own soil and your own home. So, the time has come for you to have the courage to speak out.

Why I am saying all this? Because they [Taliban] have told us in the meetings about their problems and are scared to come out. I call upon them to come to their own land and rid themselves of the problems.

We too have problems. It is not as if the Afghan government is a need-free government. I wish it was. It is not a government standing yet on its own feet. Foreigners still pay our salaries, they equip our forces. However, despite all the needs and dependence we have to the world, we still have our own independent policy when it comes to our national issues.

Sisters and brothers!

I would repeat my call upon the Taliban. It is not like only you have problems, we too have our share of problems. However, despite all the major problems this country has, it still acts on its policy options independently and on the basis of national interests. We have many instances where foreigners who are here to help have wanted us to do it a certain way, but we acted our own way. So, if you cannot come forward due to fears of outsiders, remember that this fear you have will end up treason. I call you to come out of foreign homes and come to your land and save it.

Distinguished representatives and senators!

As you all know, a lasting peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan requires strong will and sincere cooperation by our neighbor Pakistan. However, sadly, no practical action has been taken to this end. The people of Afghanistan want that the government of Pakistan to earnestly help with peace in the two countries. Fanning the flames of war and violence in Afghanistan favors nothing but deepening of the crisis in Pakistan and the region. Today, Pakistan itself has turned into a scene of tragic terrorist attacks. Its major cities from Karachi to Islamabad, to the military bases, command centers, and its civilians all are falling victim to the direct threat of terrorism. The space now created by the presence of sanctuaries, training and financing grounds that terrorists enjoy in Pakistan have today not only led to terrorism in Pakistan itself but it is also exported to other countries in the region. I would like to once again remind [everyone] that terrorism is the most serious threat [that] has menaced our entire region. For the sake of peace, stability, and economic prosperity for the region, it is an imperative for both Pakistan and Afghanistan to closely help each other.

Any instrumental use of terrorism will produce nothing but a backfire that will devastate its own promoters. I would like to reiterate, from this hall of the National Assembly, on the determination of the people and of the government of Afghanistan for a sincere cooperation with Pakistan in order for peace, unity, and stronger economic, transit, and cultural interaction to materialize in our region.

Representatives, senators, ladies, and gentlemen!

One of the other topics high on our agenda is to work to complete the process of transition of responsibilities to Afghan government, the fourth tranche of which is well underway and will provide for Afghan forces to secure over 87 percent of the entire population. Our experience of the transition over the past two years shows that our security forces have now gained the sufficient capability to provide security. In all areas where Afghan government has taken over for security responsibility, the situation has improved and we have no problems.

The people and the government of Afghanistan are committed to complete the process of transition at the soonest and take over the responsibility themselves. The completion of transition process means having Afghan people take the responsibility for their own affairs and country—a long-held aspiration we persistently try to fulfill. We can only protect this land with God’s help and the ability of its own youth. As our brave ancestors have defended and protected this land throughout history, we too carry that responsibility and will hand an independent and prosperous land to the next generations. Relying on our own force and confidence to the ability of this nation and the aspirations of our people inspires us to move forward in ensuring stability and development. This requires that our politicians and our political elite learn from the lessons of the three past decades and help one another in moving this country forward to peace, stability and national unity.

The national unity in Afghanistan and reliance on the unbreakable unity of this land are the only assurances that can open the way for peace, stability, and progress. The people of Afghanistan, in a system elected by the will of its people, must be able to enjoy all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution. Respect to human and citizen rights of the people are the high values we all must remain committed to.

Over the past three decades, our people never felt safe against the common practices of harassment, annoyance, torture, and illegal imprisonment as well as the deprivation of their basic freedoms. I am personally committed and bound by the respect to human and citizen rights of the people of Afghanistan, respect to their privacy, and respect to all freedoms and security of the people. That was exactly on this reason that I remind our security forces and state institutions to treat as their priority the rights and freedoms of the people of Afghanistan. No violation can be tolerated.

Distinguished participants!

The truth is that the governments of Afghanistan over the past three decades have continuously oppressed our people either through serving foreigners or through a totalitarian way of ruling. We, on a daily basis with no exception, are in some sort of a struggle with the international community on our quest for people’s rights, for the human rights of our people, on issues like the bombardment of our homes and inflicting harm to our children. No villages should be hurt, no one should be harmed and imprisoned. We keep hearing that our own forces, the Afghan government forces engage in violating people rights, it is simply not forgivable. The Afghan nation has the right to hold each one of us accountable, from me to the parliament, to the government, cabinet, and security agencies.

Our homes are still not safe, how can I blame foreigners if we ourselves engage in violating our people’s rights and torturing them at homes or in our prisons. We have sworn in to serve this country!

Sisters and brothers!

When I meet my security officials on daily basis, I continuously ask them to make sure that people’s rights are protected and I want the same assurance from this house of the people and to assure back to our people that the government of Afghanistan, the Ministry of Interior, the National Directorate of Security, and all other state institutions are there to serve and protect the life and dignity of the people. We are duty bound to fight the powerful and irresponsible wherever they are, whether inside or outside the government. Wherever there is warlordism, they definitely derive their power from the government, or the contracts given by foreigners, it is either of these that serves as the source of power for these people to engage in harassing public.

We therefore commit ourselves once again to the people to ensure their safety at their homes. But we will treat criminals as criminals. Rule of law has to be ensured, for which we need your serious oversight as the representatives of the people. If we cannot stop our own practices of torture and harassment in the administration, we won’t be able to stop others. Presently, it is just the opposite. While we managed to stop foreigners, we unfortunately heard of signs of such practices by ourselves. When the UN released a report of torture in the Afghan prisons, I initially did not believe the findings as I was in contact with the relevant officials on daily basis. We first rejected the report, but then decided to look into it fearing it could be true. I assigned a delegation led by Mr. Adalatkhwa, deputy chairman of the Constitutional Oversight Commission, to investigate the issue. They carried out an all-out probe and the result was not what the UN report said, but still, it showed that there was harassment and abuse at the time of arrest by foreign forces and their Afghan partners, who are part of our forces. We decided that such practices must stop and for that, cameras be installed in the places of investigation and interrogation.

I hope that the government of Afghanistan takes the required measures as per my order and report back to the parliament and to myself.

Mr. Chairman and distinguished representatives!

Based on an agreement reached with NATO in Lisbon, they would be leaving Afghanistan as per the agreement and Afghans welcome that for the good of the country.

In the coming spring, Afghan forces will be taking the lead for security across the whole country. We want that, as per our agreement in Washington, ISAF and NATO troops start pulling out of Afghan villages into their bases.

Afghanistan is entering into a new phase of relations with NATO and would like to achieve our objectives set for 2014. What are the goals? The goals are that Afghan forces ensure security of the entire country and the population, and protect Afghanistan territory, and provide security for people in a manner that ensures the civic and human rights of the people.

Our efforts of many years finally yielded result in claiming the control over the foreign-run prisons, with the Bagram prison set to be transferred next week. I hope the Americans do not delay the transfer any further. Once they did promise to transfer the prisons but did not do so.

The transfer will take place on Saturday. Did you hear? The prisoners will be transferred to Afghanistan on Saturday.

Dear ladies and gentlemen, listen!

After the transfer is over. We know there are some innocent people held in those prisons. Though I would be criticized, I will instruct to immediately release those innocent so that they go back home. However, those who are involved in bombings and killings of our people must be punished.

We will manage the foreign presence in Afghanistan on the basis of mutual relationship, where our national sovereignty, mutual respect, and our states’ equal footing are fully taken into account. That’s why, we move forward with much care in our talks with the United States of America on the security agreement, while considering the sovereignty and national interests of Afghanistan as the keystone of our negotiations.

The day before last, the secretary general of NATO came to meet me. He said that many countries wanted to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Listen carefully, ladies and gentlemen. It is a very important national issue for Afghanistan.

I told NATO Secretary General during our discussions that any country seeking to stay, provide assistance, and keep their military forces here beyond 2014 must reach an agreement with Afghanistan bilaterally. Having received our agreement, it can keep military presence here but no country can do so arbitrarily or under the NATO framework.

We have our own deal with NATO on its military presence beyond 2014. Any country willing to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 will need to seek our agreement and meet our conditions. Then, it can stay here based on our conditions. We are having such negotiations with the United States of America.

I know that foreign presence here beyond 2014 undoubtedly have benefits for Afghanistan too but we will pay a price for it. This presence is not only in our interest but in their interest as well. Therefore, it is not a unilateral deal but a bilateral agreement. We will have our own interests in any post-2014 military presence but their interests will also be taken into account.

Honorable ladies and gentlemen.

All the deals, whether with the United States or any other country, could only be made based on the determination and decision of our people. The government of Afghanistan is not authorized to undertake such a great affair. So, it is up to the Afghan nation, the National Assembly and Jirga of Afghanistan to make such a decision.

Once the people agreed, the National Assembly of Afghanistan then can pass the public decisions. However, I give you this assurance that we are so prudent in our talks in this regard. No aspect of those agreements would be left without scrutiny. In this respect, I want to reassure our public through you that we are working very carefully and strictly in this regard.

As the chair pointed out to this issue earlier, we are in a very sensitive and risky juncture of our modern history.

During the past ten years Afghanistan has founded and established a democratic political system. That is to say: the State of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—a political system established based on Islamic rules, democracy, inclusive public participation, freedoms of speech and press, and obligations to obey human and civil rights of the people.

A prosperous future for our people could only guarantee the survival of democracy in Afghanistan. According to the Independent Electoral Commission’s program, free and just elections for president and provincial councils are scheduled to be held. We all will try inevitably to conduct a fair and free election.

After one year, if we were alive beyond today and if God give us a chance to live, I will be your ex-president. A new president elected by your votes will come to power.

Members of the National Assembly of Afghanistan!

What will be good for me as the incumbent president and my honorable vice-presidents, who are here and who have accompanied me during the past ten years, and for all officials of the government? Will it be good for us to hold good, dignified, transparent elections so that a new president will come to power with major legitimacy where I will live peacefully at home or not a transparent election that will result in controversies and problems? If it is not the right election, people will blame me, saying that the elections are spoiled because of me? Logically, what type of elections will I want? I will definitely want the first one, the good elections which will yield me good reputation and dignity, and the history will name me “good.”

So, I will try my best to hold a peaceful, free, and independent election for the people to vote for a new president as well as the leader and members of provincial councils so that our country moves toward stability and progress. Undoubtedly, good elections will bring better stability to Afghanistan. Insha’Allah! No doubt, everybody wants it.

Now some individuals raise criticisms but on the day of the elections, everyone will seek good elections. We all wish this because bad work is in no one’s interest. Good work and free elections are in interest of our people. Be sure it is beneficial.

So, we wish to move forward through joint cooperation and collaboration in order to conduct our elections well.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a very important point to note! In today’s Afghanistan, one of the main reasons for constant crisis is unsustainability of the political systems that destroyed or ruined our homeland. Every few years or decades, Afghanistan suffered coup d’états or fell victim to insurgencies or wars arising from foreign invasions and interferences. People lost their rights and freedoms and the country was turned into a battlefield of blood and fire. For that reason, I speak very explicitly here that Afghanistan is not a political lab that could be used by individuals who rise up and put forward their desires and wishes or foreigners’ objectives under the disguise of public demands, thus jeopardizing the survival of the system, national unity, and territorial integrity of Afghanistan.

The Afghan constitution is our national honor that has set a framework, and is a social and legal instrument, for guaranteeing sovereignty, rights, and freedom of our citizens. Any reform in the political system must be made based on the constitution and be an effort deriving from the determination of our people that strengthens our national unity, protects state sovereignty, territorial integrity and provides safeguards for human and civil rights of both our men and women. If so, it is good and we are absolutely ready for that.

Ladies and gentlemen, here I would like to reiterate that the forthcoming elections for president and provincial councils would be held according to the constitution and on the dates announced by the Independent Electoral Commission.

Candidates should manage and run their electoral campaigns as per the laws. The government has to ensure security for the elections so that our people would be able to freely participate and cast their votes in the elections across the country. All relevant institutions of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan have been instructed as required in this respect and the work remained is still ongoing to this end.

The international community and the United Nations had a clear role in the conduct of our past elections. It is unfortunate to say that their involvement not only resulted in running the election costs very high for Afghanistan—a poor country in the world—but also paved grounds for widespread foreign interferences in the electoral process.

Due to the high expense of arrangements and organizing of our last parliamentary elections, every single vote cost around $40 for Afghanistan. In a great country like India, every single vote costs less than one dollar while every vote costs around $40 or $30 for us. Our poor and needy nation must spend according to its incomes. We must manage, Afghanize, and conduct our elections efficiently. The ex-director of IEC is present in here, the current director of the Commission, and Mr. Najafi, who was the head of the IEC Secretariat are also here. They are well aware that how much the elections cost us.

So, I wish that we Afghanize our elections and reduce electoral costs in the future, adjusting its arrangements in accordance with our means and capacity. Afghanistan’s elections also must not be a funding source for salaries paid to the staff of international organizations. We should take into account the realities of our country. We should manage to avoid unnecessary and additional expenses by Afghanizing the way elections are conducted and organized here.

Honorable chair, MPs, ladies, and gentlemen,

In the past ten years, we have had great economic achievements and great gains in governance. A few days ago, I was informed that Afghanistan has secured second rank in transparency of budget management among South Asian states. An international body has announced that, and our minister of finance is aware. It is good news for us. It means we have improved our capacity and day by day we are further developing it. Our gross domestic income has increased from 183 billion Afs in 1384 to one trillion Afs in 1391. One trillion is equivalent to 1,000 billion. So, we have increased our gross domestic income from 183 billion to 1,000 billion Afs. So, it is good news for our country. If our country continues to develop so for another ten years under a new president, under a new government with a new thinking, we are confident that we will witness a twofold or threefold increase in our incomes.

Fortunately, today we have $6.5 billion in our bank reserves. In principle, it means that if a country has funds to cover its costs for six months, the country is successful. We have funds to cover our expenses for nearly one year and a half or two years. God forbid, if anything goes wrong and if Afghanistan has no income, it will be able to survive very well on its reserves for one year and a half, or two years.

Honorable representatives, senators, speakers of both Houses of Parliament,

Our country is once again at the threshold of a very sensitive stage of history, transition from such a critical phase as well as peace and stability depends on the collaboration and cooperation of state institutions of Afghanistan.

I absolutely believe that with full knowledge of their legal responsibilities, representatives of our people in both houses of the National Assembly would not spare any efforts to this end.

The electoral bills and other draft laws that would be part of the working agenda of the National Assembly are of significant importance for continuation and consolidation of our legal system. Remarkable attention to this issue will enable us to fill our legal gaps, strengthening and solidifying more than ever a law-abiding system through the rule of law.

To fulfill this desire, we inaugurate the third year of the sixteenth legislative session of the National Assembly in the name of Almighty Allah and based on the provisions of our constitution.

I thank God for giving our nation this blessing of being able to take its political destinies on its own.

Availing this opportunity here, I thank the people of Afghanistan for their sacrifices, bravery, patience, and tolerance, and for going through much hardship and devastation of this war on terror, and the loss of their and their families’ lives. I also appreciate all losses and self-sacrifices of Afghan security forces that fight with patriotism and valor to protect their country, life, and property of the people. I am grateful to all those of our security forces who have even sacrificed their lives until now and  to many of our scholars, elders, mothers, and sons lost lives in the past years.

Our representatives at the National Assembly of Afghanistan—both Lower and Upper Houses [Wolesi Jirga and Mishrano Jirga] and provincial councils, state officials, judges of our Supreme Court, attorneys, all the people of Afghanistan, and all state institutions have made sacrifices on this path.

Undoubtedly, the sacrifices we have made are not wasted. Results of those sacrifices are the newly blossomed flowers of progress and prosperity of our nation that we are approaching day by day.

We thank the international community represented by diplomats and officers here who helped Afghanistan in education and development in the past ten years.

This year, the [Afghan] government has increased its ad hoc budget to $15 million in scholarship for higher education for our youth to study abroad. Increasing the budget from $5 million to $10 million during the last one and half year and from that to $15 million this year. Through this program, our highly educated fellow-country youth will return home.

We thank our youth and international colleagues. Long live the nation of Afghanistan! We hope that we spend this year at service of our homeland and conduct such elections that will be good for the people.

You are most welcome! All the best! Thanks a lot!

Source: The White House

Afghanistan Since 1700

1709: Gilzai Pashtun tribal leader Mirwais Khan (1673-1715) wrests control of Kandahar from Persian Safavid dynasty; establishes Hotaki dynasty.

1747: Pashtun commander Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722-1772) establishes the modern Afghan state with the capital in Kandahar; the Durrani dynasty eventually controls an area from Persia to India.

1803: Shah Shuja Durrani (1780-1842), brother of former rulers Zaman Shah and Shah Mahmoud, becomes leader amid civil tensions.

1809: Shah Shuja signs a treaty of alliance with the British East India Company against a possible Franco-Russian invasion of India; weeks later Shah Shuja is deposed by Shah Mahmoud and the rival Barakzai clan.

1826: Dost Mohammad Khan (1793-1863) assumes rule in Kabul as the Barakzai clan defeats the Durrani clan.

1839: British forces occupy Afghanistan, oust Dost Mohammad and restore Shah Shuja as ruler; First Anglo-Afghan War ensues as rebellion spreads across the country; Dost Mohammad surrenders and is exiled to India.

1842: Afghan fighters loyal to Dost Mohammad kill 4,500 British and Indian troops as they retreat from Kabul; Shah Shuja is assassinated and the Barakzai clan takes power.

18781880: British forces invade Afghanistan in the Second Anglo-Afghan War after Emir Sher Ali Khan (1825-1879) strengthens ties with Russia; after Sher Ali flees and dies, his son and successor Mohammad Yaqub Khan (1849-1923) signs the Treaty of Gandamak giving Britain control over Afghan foreign affairs; Yaqub Khan abdicates and Sher Ali’s cousin Abd Al-Rahman (1844-1901) becomes emir.

1919: Emir Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) declares independence from Britain; Third Anglo-AfghanWar erupts after Afghan troops cross border into British-ruled India; fighting ends with the Treaty of Rawalpindi granting Afghanistan independence and giving Britain friendly relations with the country.

1923: Amanullah Khan promulgates Afghanistan’s first constitution, establishing a monarchy and limiting powers of tribal leaders.

19261929: Political and social reforms trigger popular unrest; a tribal revolt forces Amanullah Khan to abdicate.

1929: British-backed former general Mohammad Nadir Shah (1883-1933) of the Barakzai clan declares himself king; adopts a new constitution in 1931 granting tribal leaders more authority.

1933: Nadir Shah is assassinated in a family feud; his son Mohammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007) is crowned king; during a forty-year reign he maintains Afghan unity against foreign threats and develops the country with aid from the United States and the Soviet Union.

1953: General Mohammad Daoud Khan (1909-1978) becomes prime minister and strengthens relations with the Soviet Union; he introduces controversial social reforms such as abolishing the practice of keeping women from public view.

1963: Daoud Khan resigns after his vision for a Greater Pashtunistan prompts tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

1965: Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) holds first congress.

1973: Daoud Khan overthrows Zahir, abolishes the Afghan monarchy and declares himself president of the Afghan Republic; aims to limit dependency on the Soviet Union and weaken the country’s leftist groups.

April 27, 1978: PDPA coup d’etat overthrows and kills Daoud Khan in the Saur Revolution; Nur Mohammad Taraki (1917-1979) becomes president; new regime is paralyzed by infighting and violent opposition from mujahideen rebels.

February 14, 1979: Gunmen kidnap and kill U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs; soon afterwards the U.S. cuts all assistance to the Afghan government.

July 3, 1979: President Jimmy Carter authorizes Operation Cyclone, providing non-military support for the mujahideen including aid for propaganda and medical supplies.

December 1979: Following internal coups, an assassination attempt on a PDPA president and growing resistance to the PDPA across the country, Soviet forces eventually numbering 100,000 invade Afghanistan to stabilize the regime and bolster the communist government against the mujahideen; Babrak Karmal (1929-1996) becomes president.

1980: Disparate mujahideen militias attack Soviet forces; Carter authorizes the CIA to deliver arms to the mujahideen, who also receive military support from Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia and European states, among others.

January 1981: President Ronald Reagan increases aid to the mujahideen, totaling more than $3 billion over the next six years.

1982: The number of Afghan refugees fleeing to Pakistan and Iran reaches nearly 4.5 million.

1983: Congress passes joint Resolution 237 calling on the president to “support the people of Afghanistan in their struggle to be free from foreign domination” and “provide the Afghans, upon request, with material assistance” and pursue a negotiated settlement for an end to war.

1984: Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) joins fellow Saudis and other Arabs in Afghanistan to fight alongside the mujahideen.

1985: Mujahideen factions in Peshawar form alliance against Soviet forces; approximately half of the Afghan population is now displaced by the war.

1986: CIA provides mujahideen with Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships, shifting the balance of the war.

November 1986: Afghan secret police head Mohammad Najibullah (1947-1996) replaces Babrak Karmal as PDPA leader; becomes Afghan president the following year.

1988: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announces the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan;Soviet Union, Afghanistan, the U.S. and Pakistan reach a peace accord in Geneva; bin Laden forms Al-Qaeda at a meeting of jihadists in Peshawar, Pakistan.

1989: Soviet troop withdrawal is complete in mid-February; an estimated 1.5 million Afghans and 25,000 Soviet troops were killed during the ten-year occupation; war continues as the mujahideen push to defeat Najibullah; bin Laden returns to Saudi Arabia and resettles in Sudan in 1991.

1992: Guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud (1953-2001) leads mujahideen into Kabul and deposes President Najibullah.

19921995: A power-sharing agreement makes Burhanuddin Rabbani (1940-2011) president; Afghanistan collapses into civil war amid fighting between mujahideen factions loosely pitting Islamist group Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1947-) against Massoud’s fighters.

November 1994: The Taliban, a mainly Pashtun mujahideen faction headed by spiritual leader and commander Mullah Omar, rise to prominence when it enters Kandahar to fight criminal gangs.

1996: Bin Laden is expelled from Sudan and relocates to Jalalabad, forges close relations with the Taliban against Massoud’s Northern Alliance and issues a declaration of war against the U.S. for basing troops in Saudi Arabia; Taliban forces capture Kabul, execute Najibullah, and establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; Taliban impose draconian Islamic law, including banning women from public life and reintroducing stoning and amputation as punishments.

1997: Pakistan recognizes the Taliban government, which controls nearly two-thirds of Afghanistan; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates follow suit.

1998: Taliban massacre at least two thousand civilians of the Hazara ethnic minority in Mazar-e-Sharif and kill seven Iranian diplomats stationed in the city; Tehran moves troops to the Afghan border; bin Laden and Egyptian militant Ayman Al-Zawahiri announce formation of World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders; in a coordinated attack, Al-Qaeda terrorists bomb U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; President Bill Clinton retaliates with cruise missile strikes on suspected terrorist compounds in Afghanistan and Sudan; bin Laden is indicted in the U.S. for his role in the Africa bombings.

1999: United Nations Security Council adopts Resolution 1267 imposing financial sanctions on the Taliban regime.

March 2001: Taliban destroy sixth-century Great Buddhas of Bamiyan statues as “gods of infidels.”

September 9, 2001: Two suspected Al-Qaeda operatives posing as a TV crew assassinate Ahmad Shah Massoud in a suicide bombing.

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda terrorists hijack four commercial airliners and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people; President George W. Bush blames Al-Qaeda for the deadliest attack on American territory in history.

October 7, 2001: U.S. and British forces invade Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom after the Taliban refuse to extradite bin Laden; the military coalition expands to include Turkey, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, France and others.

November 13, 2001: Airstrikes and ground attacks by coalition forces enable the Northern Alliance to capture Kabul and topple the Taliban regime.

December 5, 2001: Afghan leaders meeting in Germany adopt the Bonn Agreement forming an interim Afghan administration with Hamid Karzai (1957-) as chairman.

December 7, 2001: Kandahar falls to the Northern Alliance, followed by Zabul province two days later; Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces retreat to the Tora Bora mountain range and eventually to Pakistan; bin Laden’s whereabouts are unknown.

December 20, 2001: UN Security Council Resolution 1386 establishes the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), tasked with helping an Afghan interim government maintain security.

2002: A loya jirga appoints Karzai interim president of the Afghan Transitional Administration; high-ranking Taliban officials surrender to the new government, and are granted amnesty.

March 20, 2003: U.S. launches invasion of Iraq after accusing Saddam Hussein of amassing weapons of mass destruction and coordinating with Al-Qaeda.

May 1, 2003: U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declares an end to “major combat” in Afghanistan.

August 11, 2003: North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) takes control of the international peacekeeping force in Kabul.

January 26, 2004: Karzai ratifies Afghanistan’s new constitution after it is drafted and adopted by a loya jirga.

October 9, 2004: Karzai wins the first direct presidential election in Afghan history with 55.4 percent of the vote from a field of eighteen candidates.

May 23, 2005: George W. Bush and Karzai sign the Joint Declaration of the United States—Afghan Strategic Partnership, which commits the U.S. to long-term security, reconstruction and democracy building in Afghanistan.

September 18, 2005: Six million Afghans vote in elections for parliament and provincial councils; despite allegations of fraud, U.N. monitors confirm the validity of the results; 27 percent of the members of parliament are women.

December 8, 2005: NATO agrees on an expanded role for the ISAF, enabling it to take over full command of international military forces from the U.S.-led coalition.

April 15, 2007: Human Rights Watch says nearly 670 Afghan civilians were killed in armed attacks by Taliban insurgents and 230 by NATO airstrikes in 2006, making it the “deadliest year” since the 2001 invasion.

July 11, 2008: U.S. airstrike kills forty-seven Afghans in a wedding party, prompting Afghan government anger over rising collateral civilian deaths.

September 9, 2008: Bush announces an additional 4,500 U.S. troops to respond to the uptick in Taliban-related violence and roadside bombs.

February 17, 2009: President Barack Obama orders the deployment of an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

March 27, 2009: Obama announces a new Afghanistan strategy that links success in Afghanistan to stabilization in Pakistan; it includes an increase in U.S. security assistance to Pakistan and deployment of an additional 4,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

August 20, 2009: Allegations of fraud delay the results of presidential elections; preliminary results show Karzai winning with 54.6 percent; Independent Election Commission (IEC) declares Karzai the winner in November after his rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah (1960-) withdraws before runoff balloting.

December 1, 2009: Obama announces the temporary “surge” deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops for a total of 100,000 to slow Taliban insurgents.

December 30, 2009: A Taliban suicide bomber, posing as an informant, infiltrates Forward Operating Base Chapman near Khost, killing at least eight people including seven CIA officers.

February 13, 2010: Fifteen thousand NATO and Afghan troops launch Operation Moshtarak against Taliban strongholds in Helmand province, the biggest offensive since the start of the war.

November 20, 2010: NATO Lisbon Summit Declaration envisions Afghan security forces “assuming full responsibility for security” in the country.

May 2, 2011: U.S. Navy SEAL team kills bin Laden at a hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan; Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri (1951-) is later declared Al-Qaeda’s new leader.

June 22, 2011: Obama announces a U.S. pullout from Afghanistan by 2014; an estimated 1,500 American soldiers have died in the war.

September 20, 2011: Taliban suicide bomber assassinates Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and a key mediator in talks with the Taliban.

October 4, 2011: Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sign a strategic partnership agreement in New Delhi that outlines India’s financial, development and security commitment in Afghanistan.

November 19, 2011: A loya jirga agrees to peace talks with the Taliban and endorses a strategic agreement with the U.S. that would maintain some U.S. forces beyond 2014.

January 3, 2012: Taliban announce they will open a political office in Qatar for future negotiations, dropping a demand that U.S. troops withdraw before the start of peace talks.

March 11, 2012: U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales kills sixteen civilians, including nine children, in Kandahar; a U.S. military court later sentences him to life in prison.

May 13, 2012: Unknown gunman assassinates Arsala Rahmani (1937-2012), a former Taliban leader and member of the High Peace Council.

May 21, 2012: ISAF member countries meeting at a NATO summit in Chicago reaffirm the Lisbon timetable to withdraw foreign troops by the end of 2014.

February 4, 2013: Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari agree to cooperate against Taliban resurgence.

June 18, 2013: NATO forces hand over command of military and security operations in the country to the Afghan army; an estimated 3,400 foreign troops and 20,000 Afghan civilians have died in the 2001 to 2013 period.

June 19, 2013: Karzai suspends talks on a security agreement with the U.S. after the Obama administration and the Taliban announce direct talks in Qatar excluding the Afghan government.

April 5, 2014: Afghans vote in presidential and provincial elections.

April 26, 2014: IEC declares Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani (1949-) as top vote-getters in presidential elections to compete in a second-round runoff; commission estimates nearly seven million Afghans voted, with nearly 45 percent for Abdullah and 31.5 percent for Ghani.

May 27, 2014: Obama announces that 9,800 American troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to support Afghan and NATO allies, and will withdraw by 2016.

June 14, 2014: Amid violence Afghans vote in a second round of presidential elections; IEC estimates voter turnout at seven million; results are inconclusive as accusations of vote fraud emerge.

September 21, 2014: Ghani and Abdullah sign a power-sharing deal brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry that names Ghani president and Abdullah the country’s chief executive officer.

September 29, 2014: Ghani is sworn in as Afghanistan’s second elected president.

September 30, 2014: U.S. and Afghanistan sign long-term security agreement allowing American and NATO troops to remain in the country after the formal end of the international combat mission at end of year.

Images from a Land At War

I arrived in Kabul for the first time in May 1988. The scene was strikingly beautiful: clear high-altitude air, turquoise blue skies, and snow-covered mountains in the distance. I had come to cover the Soviet army’s withdrawal from the Afghan capital after a brutal ten-year occupation. A half-hearted crowd waved paper communist flags as a long convoy of troops and armored vehicles rumbled out of the city.

Mujahideen attacks on Kabul became more frequent after the Soviet departure. In January 1991, I watched the American flag being lowered at the U.S. embassy. Washington had supported the mujahideen’s jihad against the Soviets, but Afghanistan’s descent into civil war prompted the U.S. to abandon the country. Other foreigners who chose to remain in Afghanistan—hundreds of jihadi fighters from around the world—would later haunt U.S. policy. I had met them months earlier when I visited the Arab-Afghan training camps run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Pashtun warlord, and his Saudi ally, Osama bin Laden. I returned often to Afghanistan, and once again to cover the American-led invasion of 2001 in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks orchestrated from the country by bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda group. After the United States diverted its attention to toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, the effort to rebuild Afghanistan seemed to drift.

Afghanistan is a complex country with layers of diversity, nuance and sensitivities. The astonishing resilience of Afghans has enabled them to live in constant limbo. While photographing the warlords and fighters, I also gravitated to recording how ordinary people were affected by the violence. A million or more Afghans died during the Soviet occupation; thousands more have perished since the Americans deposed the Taliban. In documenting the invasions, and the civil conflicts pitting Afghan against Afghan, I have always hoped my images would pose questions about what is being depicted and demand the viewer’s attention. In Afghanistan, this land of perpetual war, I came face to face with the fragility of the human condition.

Robert Nickelsberg was a TIME magazine contract photographer for twenty-five years and based in New Delhi from 1988 to 2000. During that time, he documented conflicts in Kashmir, Iraq, Sri Lanka, India, and Afghanistan. He is the author of Afghanistan: A Distant War. His photographs have been exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography in New York City, and the New America Foundation in New York.