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By Tahira Saleem, GPS Issue Analyst on Iraq and Afghanistan

The Afghan President Hamid Karzai has recently announced the formation of a new Peace Council headed by the former President Burhanudin Rabbani. The new peace council is another effort for reintegration of the Taliban in the country’s political system. The earlier Kabul conference and London conference had similar aims of brokering peace with the warring factions in Afghanistan. But the question arises about whether this new council promises any hope for the war-torn country.

The peace council, the brainchild of Karzai, has neglected the Afghan traders, intellectuals, and the members of civil society. All of its 69 hand-picked members are Afghan warlords; the key figure among them is Burhanudin Rabbani, who is implicated in war crimes of killing and displacement of Afghan people.

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About 40 % of the Afghan population are Pashtuns, and there are 4 million Pashtuns living in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is a nation divided, a nation that holds the key to security in the region. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pasthun native, has to some degree neglected the Pasthun population the past 9 years, and while keeping up a tight relationship with India, Pakistan is stirring up the Pashtuns in order to undermine the Afghan government.

The relationship amongst the Pashtun people is one of the reasons why the U.S. objective of a secure and stable Afghanistan has failed so far. Pashtunwali, the Pashtun social code, was one of the reasons the Pashtun population of Baluchistan, FATA and the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan gave shelters to the Taliban and al-Qaeda warriors, and thereby letting them regroup and conduct operations, rest and recreate, and train from inside their bases within Pakistan. This creates a situation that makes it difficult for the U.S. and NATO to achieve their goals in Afghanistan, as most of the main insurgent groups have their bases in Pakistan. The provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Kunar are the most violent regions in Afghanistan, and the insurgents in these provinces conduct their operations from Pakistan (e.g. the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network)

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Just a follow-up to Wednesday’s post on flooding in Pakistan. Here is an interesting article from Ron Scherer at the Christian Science Monitor. He argues that the tepid response to the disaster is, at least in some respects, a direct result of corruption in the Pakistani government. Many Pakistani-Americans, Scherer reports, have declined to donate money because they fear the Pakistani government will divert money away from relief efforts. Their fears are probably not unfounded – indeed, it sometimes seems every natural disaster is followed by allegations of officials attempting to profit from relief funds.

That said, the situation in Pakistan is particularly dire and stands only to get worse in the near-term. Moreover, a number of international nonprofits are currently collecting funds to support their own relief efforts. While there can be no guarantees, it would seem that donations made through these organizations are more likely to reach their intended recipients.

Three internationally recognized relief organizations with strong track records for effectively delivering aid are: Oxfam, Care, and World Vision. Each of these organizations is accepting donations for flood relief, which can be accessed here, here, and here. Giving your dollars to these organizations would be a wise choice and a good deed.

Hi all, I’m Erick Ford, the AIDemocracy Southeast Regional Coordinator at George Mason University.  Last Friday – March 26th 2010 – over 100 members of the George Mason University community welcomed Former UN Ambassador Ahmad Kamal of Pakistan to the Fairfax campus for a discussion about building sustainable peace and security for future generations.

This was the second year in a row that Ambassador Kamal made the trip to George Mason. The forum was hosted by GMU’s Global Relations Organization, Americans for an Informed Democracy, the Public and International Affairs Department, Global Affairs Department, and the Office of the Provost, with support from the Student Government President Devraj Dasgupta.  The purpose of the forum was to bring the leaders of tomorrow an opportunity to ask and learn directly from today’s global leaders.

Ambassador Kamal spoke on various subjects including the Middle East peace process, Iran, nuclear proliferation, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Russia, US debt, the WTO, global concentration of wealth, welfare states, access to water, and the role of the US and the UN in maintaining global peace and security.

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Since the Christmas Day plot in Detroit, there has been a strong focus on Al Qaeda activities in Yemen. Reports of safe havens and training camps have led many to believe that Al Qaeda members, hounded out of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, have sought refuge in an ungoverned area of the Middle Eastern nation, using the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Essential though this focus may be, the global nature of the fight means that concentrating efforts in one place means neglecting enemy forces gathered in another. This is exactly the case with another branch of Al Qaeda in North Africa – one which has gone largely unnoticed and whose increased capacity to attack presents a real threat to security in Europe and the U.S.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged in the early nineties, and was originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The group was formed as an angry response to the Algerian government’s cancellation of the 1992 elections that would have handed victory to a coalition of Islamic moderates and militants. GSPC operated in a largely ungoverned area of the Sahara desert, along Algeria’s southern and Mali’s northern border, and launched attacks on Algerian government employees and institutions. The group then began to receive funding and training from Al Qaeda towards the end of the decade, and the alliance was made official in 2006 when Al Qaeda’s no. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the “blessed union” in a video published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Since then, the group has been known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has claimed responsibility for its actions under its new name.

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With the December 6 news that it plans to build twenty new uranium enrichment facilities, Iran has dealt a serious blow to hopes of peacefully resolving its nuclear standoff with the West. After months of courtship by the international community, Iran’s announcement appears to be both a rejection of the West’s advances and a signal of its intent to step up its pursuit of a nuclear program. With the US running out of cards to play, many fear that the two countries are on a collision course to military confrontation.

Much like North Korea, the consequences of an Iranian possession of nuclear bomb are dire. The Obama administration has sought to right the wrong of American Cold War policy, when the US provided its then-ally Iran with nuclear reactors in an attempt to curry favor. Preventing proliferation is a priority for the Obama administration and confirmation that Iran has a nuclear bomb would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, with heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to counter Iranian domination in the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would also bring Israel and Iran closer to war. Iran’s anti-Semitic leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicised his hatred of Israel so often that Israeli leaders deem a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat. Just last year an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was narrowly averted after George W. Bush refused to give Ehud Olmert the green light. The Obama administration has since tried to convince the Israelis of the virtues of diplomacy with Iran, but the latest setback means that hawks in Israel and the US will be circling Iran with greater intensity.

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While on the campaign trail for the 2008 election Barack Obama often extolled the virtues of the Afghanistan War, contrasting it sharply with the disastrous Iraq War which he had vociferously protested.  A year after winning that election, he faces arguably his toughest political decision to date: should he send more troops to Afghanistan? The debate within the White House appears to be focused on how Obama should continue this war (more troops or more sophisticated technology such as unmanned drones) as opposed to why he should. In reality, sending in more troops is delaying the inevitable and Obama must put an end to this war as soon as possible.

The first reason to end this war is the lack of clarity over the war’s objective. In March, the President stated that his goal in Afghanistan was to “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda”. Yet most experts will tell you that al-Qaeda is a diminished force which has largely fled Afghanistan. It would be more prudent for the U.S. to concentrate on defeating al-Qaeda in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, which have recently become a hotbed for Islamic extremists, while paying more attention to the tinderbox that is Pakistan. Unfortunately, the U.S. is bogged down in a perpetual battle with the Taliban at huge human cost for all concerned. The War in Afghanistan has evolved into another nation-building exercise, despite the fact that Obama stated that “We are not going to be able to rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy“.

The military is ostensibly in Afghanistan to protect the U.S. from future al-Qaeda attacks, yet how many of al-Qaeda’s most devastating attacks have been organized from Afghanistan? 9/11? Yes. The attacks provided the casus belli for the war. The 2002 Bali Bombings? No. They were planned in Thailand. The 2004 Madrid Bombings? No. They were planned in Spain and North Africa. The 2005 London Bombings? No. They were planned in England. The idea that the War in Afghanistan will protect the U.S. from future attacks is naïve and myopic.

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The recent torching of over 100 NATO military depots, a Pentagon official claimed, ‘has had an overall insignificant impact to date’ in the US’s strenuous effort to stabilize Afghanistan.  The comment couldn’t be further from the truth.

This significant attack did not occur in Afghanistan but on the US’s new front in the War on Terror – the tribal areas of Pakistan.  The Guardian and The Boston Globe identified the Taliban as the perpetrators, while other outlets, like the International Herald Tribune, said ‘Islamic militants’  were too blame.  There is speculation, however, that the attackers had no affiliation to either identity, and that in fact, they were simply Pashtun tribesmen defending their ancestral homeland, their tribal codes of honor, and their religion of Islam.  But how can the US distinguish between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Pashtun militants?  The label of ‘terrorist’ remains loosely defined but yet dangerous as ever.

When the War on Terror began in 2002, the US identified the Afghan government, then controlled by the Taliban, and the terror network they supported, al-Qaeda, as the primary enemies.  Bush invaded Afghanistan, captured Kabul, and overthrew the Taliban stronghold – which eventually found a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Bush also gave millions of dollars to support his military alliance with Musharraf, who eventually conducted military raids in the ‘Talibanized’ tribal areas dominated both in population and culture by Pashtuns.

When the Taliban regrouped after the initial battle for Afghanistan, Bush blamed Musharraf for his lackluster commitment in destroying the terror cells in the tribal areas.  As a result of Musharraf’s poor performance, Bush increased the US military’s presence in the Pashtun dominated tribal areas.  This diplomatic blunder created the greatest mishap of the Bush administrations War on Terror – the little consideration paid to the intricacies of tribal culture and the fierce resistance with which the Pashtuns have historically shown towards foreign invasion.

The Pashtun tribe is the largest ethnic group in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Their geographic region extends along the border from northern Pakistan into southern Afghanistan.  The Pashtuns are historically a fierce and very proud people, as they have ousted the likes of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union from its ancient turf.  The Pashtuns govern themselves on the Pashtunwali, the traditional tribal code that strictly governs behavior and personal honor – it also provides warm hospitality to visitors – hence why their Muslim brothers of the Taliban were welcomed after the overthrow of the Afghan government in 2002.  Moreover, they are proud Muslims and adhere closely to the Islamic law, customs and values.

The Pashtuns today, my colleague Frankie Martin notes, ‘feel threatened by the Pakistani government and military, composed mainly of urban ethnic Punjabis; the government in Afghanistan, composed mainly of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras’.  Recently, the Pashtuns are threatened with the US’s cross border raids into tribal villages in pursuit of terrorists, as well as with US drone attacks that often claim the lives of innocent civilians.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many Pashtuns are identifying and sympathizing with the religious rhetoric and zealotry of the Taliban’s mullahs and al-Qaeda’s charismatic leaders.

Poor diplomacy and culturally insensitive policies towards the Pashtuns have proven to be the US’s achilles heal in Afghanistan.  If Obama seeks to change the direction of the war, he must avoid the disastrous policies initiated by President Bush.

Cornering the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas will be an unsuccessful military maneuver if the US does not win the respect and favor of the Pashtun people.  A surge of up to 20,000 soldiers will only encourage the Pashtuns to defend their culture and religion from outside influences.  Obama should engage in consistent dialogues with Pashtun leaders in an effort to establish a relationship of mutual cooperation.  Listening to the fears and concerns of the Pashtuns can help Obama swing the pendulum away from the Taliban and into the US’s court, a shift drastically needed to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Most importantly, Obama must be extremely careful with how he labels ‘terrorists’.  Will a terrorist be anyone that attacks US or NATO military convoys?  Hopefully not.  The Pashtuns are not terrorists like members of  al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda is a global network that brings terror to other countries.  The Pashtuns simply defend their homeland, their culture and their religion from foreign invasion.  If US or NATO military outposts are attacked on Pashtun grounds in the future, and if the US declares war on the entire Pashtun tribe, Obama should then prepare for a long, arduous and probably fruitless guerilla war.

I’ve worked as a Pennsylvania-certified sexual assault and domestic violence counselor since I was nineteen years old. I’ve counseled women as young as fifteen who have been assiduously cheated by the United States justice system, wandering through the remainder of their lives helpless and destroyed.  I’ve witnessed the way sexual violence breaks a woman’s spirit. But I’ve only done work in the United States, where victims have access to free counseling services and medical attention.  Across the globe, in war-ridden communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women are forced to make do, to piece themselves back together and reintegrate back into society, without such resources.

congo-rape-victim

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rape is an inescapable reality.

Policymakers in the Western world tremble in fury each time news of an honor killing or gang-rape in the Muslim world reaches their ears. Three years ago, when former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf banned gang-rape victim Mukhtar Mai from leaving the country so she wouldn’t “blacken her country’s reputation,”  Washington erupted in rage. Condoleezza Rice personally ordered the travel ban reversed. Mai was vindicated.

The U.S. government has taken similar actions in Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries. But why have our policymakers not exercised the same resolve to aid women in the DRC, a country with the highest rate of sexual assault in the world? Up to 70 percent of Congolese women are estimated to have been raped at some point in their lives.

Stories of their ordeals are nothing short of horrifying. Many women are reported to have bullets shot into their vaginas, others raped by multiple soldiers. Still others are sexually assaulted using tree-branches and bayonets. Rape in the Congo has evolved into a war strategy, utilized by various rebel groups to force their enemies into submission.

Last fall, Vice-President-elect Joe Biden co-sponsored the International Violence Against Women Act, a bill that will provide one billion dollars over the course of five years in U.S. aid to international programs that deal with sexual violence.

Both President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect  Joe Biden have demonstrated their commitment to supporting the I-VAWA and providing aid to the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo. President-elect Barack Obama personally wrote a letter defending the legislation and rebutting a group’s claim that the I-VAWA is an example of anti-male, anti-family propaganda. He also wrote a letter to Condoleezza Rice, urging her to take action on behalf of the rape victims languishing in this central African country.

So, while it remains to be seen how the Obama team addresses violence against women in the DRC, perhaps there is hope. It would be a shame if our concern for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence continued only to extend to countries of geopolitical and strategic interest.

With revelations that Pakistani intelligence services planned the July 7th attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, the continent is quickly approaching what may turn out to be a confrontation of massive proportion. While this may come to no surprise as the two nations frequent headlines over Kashmir and other incendiary issues including religion and territorial encroachment, India and Pakistan have long been at odds and may be facing another enormous hurdle to avoid hostilities. How the United States factors into this relationship may prove to be a critical factor in determining the course of action.

The U.S. has played both sides of this conflict for sometime now, correctly recognizing India as the more natural ally (English speaking, democratic, free market) but acknowledging that combating terrorism in the region would be incredibly difficult without the support of the Pakistani government.  No matter who occupies the President’s desk it has been critical to have the military and political support of Pakistan, given its proximity to Afghanistan and the Middle East as a whole. However as the last year of conflict has revealed, Pakistan’s support may be tongue in cheek. With the revelation of a conspiracy to attack the Indian embassy and the orchestration by Inter-Services Intelligence in Pakistan, it appears to be another step in the direction of open confrontation.

Sooner or later Washington will have had it’s fill and begin to (as it already has) construct a strategic plan for increased levels of engagement in the region. It has been left with little alternative given the attacks on the border to Afghanistan and the deaths of allied forces. Falling to both the department of defense and the intelligence community, it would go far beyond the border engagement that has already taken place, and delve more at the heat of the problem: the inner workings of the Pakistani government.

ISI has been working to undermine US interests abroad. Whether or not the plans against the Indian embassy (and others that may or may not be discovered) had support at the top from Director General Nadeem Taj and President Musharraf, it must be made clear to Pakistani forces they must not continue to engage the US and its allies in anything close to resembling a proxy war. Doing so casts the nation in the same light as Iran, which is not in its best interests if the nation wishes to progress. If it cannot control elements of its military and intelligence divisions, the consequences may be as severe as to warrant stronger military engagement inside the borders of Pakistan.

The US would reach out to India and encourage cooperative action against Pakistan, and given their history it may not take much to convince Prime Minster Singh that it is in the best interests of India to help stabilize the region. Given the revelations of the attack on the embassy, it would also allow for significant political willpower to successfully mobilize both the public and military for increased action. However, Prime Minister Singh is a deft politician and scholar who oversaw huge economic growth during his years in the government. He may wish to avoid any potential hostilities that could spiral out of control, although will most certainly face a call for action from the right given the Kabul bombings.

What form of action and the level of engagement remains to be seen, but at this point in time and given the cards on the table it’s hard not to seriously consider a stronger alliance with India working to target elements in Pakistan that have either gotten out of Musharraf’s grasp, or were never under his control in the first place. The best response may be coordinated efforts between the intelligence agencies of the US, India, and UK to identify those responsible and respond accordingly. These actions, in coordination with state diplomacy holding Musharraf accountable, may be enough to address the conflict while avoiding the beginning of a conventional war that surely would not end as one.

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