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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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On September 18th, Afghanistan will hold its parliamentary election for the lower house, Wolesi Jirga. 2,577 candiates, 405 of them women, have filed to run for the 249 seats. The election was originally set to be held in May, but was postponed due to “lack of security and logistics.” Different factions within the Taliban have threatened to kill those participating in the election, and as last year, they have proclaimed a boycott.  At worst, 15 % of the polling places won’t be open on election day, due to the threats, election officials in Kabul say.

The presidential election of 2009 was a catastrophe.  There were large-scale frauds, low voter turnout, threats from a variety of groups and a general lack of security. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan collected evidence of election fraud, and Afghans working for the BBC found out there was voting cards being sold on the black market on a massive scale. Hundreds of polling stations in areas where governmental influence is low were shut down the day before the election, allegedly because of the fear of insurgent attacks. There is also evidence that bribes were being offered in order to buy significant amount of votes, to influence the outcome of the election. Voting irregularities occurred as well, especially in the southern province of Helmand, where the numbers of voters in one poll suddenly tripled even though the guards at the poll station had seen very little activity that day.

Western officials have been very clear on the fact that there had been election corruption and that people did not show up because of the lack of security and a sense of apathy towards the government. The Parliamentary election in just a few days faces the same issues the presidential election experienced one year ago. This is a massive test for the security forces in Afghanistan, and for the government officials. If they manage to keep corruption, fraud and violence to a minimum we might see a change of atmosphere in the country, and a new attitude toward the decision makers. However, increased violence and heavy fighting the past year does not leave hopes that high, at least not mine.

-Hakon Kristinsen Moe, Global Peace and Security Program Intern

Within the mainstream media, the Taliban in Afghanistan is often portrayed like many other enemies to America…”ruthless killers who are bent on destroying America and providing aide to Al-Qaeda if they are to regain control of Afghanistan.” Granted, this characterization is not completely devoid of some truth. I do think it is entirely fair to claim that they would provide a haven to Al-Qaeda if they came back into power in Afghanistan. However, the characterization of them as “ruthless killers who are bent on destroying America,” undoubtedly leaves me a bit skeptical. After all, waging a war against an enemy has many fronts, including on the front of public opinion, so naturally, I hesitate to believe much of the picture that the mainstream media tries to paint. And my skepticism was justified after I saw this:

Taliban Primp, Sing, Snipe U.S. Troops In Rare Video

The video is an approximately 20 minute documentary film by a Norwegian documentary filmmaker who managed to embed himself with a Taliban troop outfit hiding up in the mountains of Afghanistan, launching repeated attacks on American convoys. The film does not glorify or romanticize the Taliban in my view. It tells the story of the war in Afghanistan from the point of view of the Taliban (albeit a small subsection of it) like it is, which is simultaneously disturbing and fascinating. It portrays “them” as they are and gives particular insight into who they are and why they are fighting. At the very least, the film humanizes them, and while I was watching it, I was frequently reminded of several other war films I have seen of late, the most recent of which being “The Hurt Locker.” I am continually fascinated by the portrayals in this film (and others) of the desensitization of violence that occurs amongst the troops and the  dehumanization of the enemy that takes place so that it’s easier for American troops to kill them in combat without feeling remorse. The reason I was continually reminded of this while I was watching the documentary was because I noticed that the Taliban troops exhibited the same characteristics.

The conclusion I came to after watching this film, of which I think should be the goal that we all aspire to, is to recognize that war is something that needs to be avoided, at all costs, because the result is that it causes us to dehumanize each other when instead we should be recognizing and embracing the commonalities that we all share. After all, if we instead focused more on seeing each other as fellow human beings, we just might have less of an inclination to kill each other.

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.

The Canadian citizen was barely fifteen years old (a minor) when he was arrested in Afghanistan for fighting with the Taliban and allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a young US soldier. When he was taken into US custody, Khadr looked like this [warning: graphic image of battle injuries]. For the past six plus years, Khadr has been held at Guantanamo Bay, where he will turn twenty two on September 19th, 2008.

Despite appeals by UNICEF, Amnesty International, and the Canadian Bar Association, among others, the US has so far refused to hand Khadr over to Canadian authorities. And, to its shame, the Canadian Government has not pressed the US on the issue.

The US is currently prosecuting Khadr for war crimes in a Guantanamo-based military tribunal. Khadr is the only person on trial anywhere for war crimes allegedly committed while under the age of eighteen. Human rights organizations frequently refer to Khadr as a former child soldier, which I think is the only description that makes sense for someone was a child when he was arrested on a foreign battlefield.

Even if Khadr is guilty, he was just a kid at the time he committed his crimes, and he was fighting for what was then a Government-sponsored armed group. He shouldn’t have been treated differently than any other child soldier in any other armed conflict. No sane person would ever advocate that brainwashed Burmese child soldiers made to gun down innocent civilians in Karen State, or Ugandan teenagers made to commit all kinds of atrocities by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army should face years of jail time and criminal prosecution, nevermind closed military trials!

Acknowledging that the Taliban regime was the government of Afghanistan at the time of the US-led invasion in 2001 isn’t downplaying how bad the Taliban were (and still are.) In fact, that the crimes committed against innocent Afghans during the Taliban era were sanctioned and carried out by the state, and not by some rogue militia, actually makes them worse in the eyes of the law. Khadr may well have done some terrible things, but he was a child soldier –one of many– under the command and influence of powerful superiors.

The tape released today of Khadr being interrogated at Guantanamo by a Canadian intelligence agent  in 2003 isn’t gruesome –Khadr isn’t beaten or even yelled at (on the tape anyway)– but it is sad. A hysterical sixteen year old Khadr sobs uncontrollably. He tells the interrogator in a very, very sixteen year old way, "you don’t care about me!" and makes nonsensical statements that indicate that he was really out of it during the interrogation. He  pleads for help, he asks to be sent back to Canada. He takes off his shirt to show the interrogator the wounds he sustained in Afghanistan, which he says aren’t healing properly, and he cries and cries.

What does the Bush Administration think it is accomplishing –other than making itself look cruel– by continuing to hold Khadr?

UPDATE: Amnesty International points out something I missed, embarrassingly, in the Khadr video: Khadr does not have legal representation at any time during the interrogation. Amnesty is calling for him to be immediately repatriated to Canada. I honestly don’t see that happening until a new administration is in office, and even then, only if it’s a Democratic Administration. John McCain would no doubt happily allow Khadr to spend the rest of his life in prison, or have him executed following his closed trial. The death penalty is not being sought in Khadr’s case. Small mercies, right?

As reported Sunday by David Sanger in the New York Times, it has been revealed that advanced nuclear weapon blueprints were part of Pakistani Addul Khan’s notorious weapons ring of the early twenty-first century. These blueprints, as described by the Times, are far more advanced than Chinese knockoffs that had been thought of as the previous standard in the black market. It has raised serious concerns across the security community as a result, and also cast deeper shadows on Pakistan’s already questionable ability to control access to its nuclear program.   

Subsequently, there are calls from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai that he is strongly considering sending troops over the border into Pakistan to curtail cross border attacks by Taliban and tribal forces. Sunday we heard some of the strongest language from Karzai in addressing the issue, and could conceivably be drawn from an incident earlier this week.

US air strikes in Pakistan killed 11 Pakistani soldiers, and raised questions as to whether it was merely faulty intelligence or the US military targeting known Taliban collaborators inside of the country. There is little doubt insurgents have crossed the border time and again to engage coalition forces, and as such, it’s clearly in the interests of NATO security policy to halt these advancements at the line, which has been done.

Video Courtesy of the Pentagon via the BBC

The real question that everyone is thinking: what happens next? I’m not taking either side in this particular issue but merely doing my best to layout different perspectives.

When analyzing US interests, for many it’s not hard to justify support of Afghan action against Pakistan. There has been considerable incursion across the border and actions against coalition forces, and it simultaneously draws resources away from the internal security mission. Whether or not there is Pakistani support for such endeavors is irrelevant, as the attacks need to be curtailed. If the government does not take a proactive approach, the only alternatives lie outside of the country itself.

The US should be careful in how it addresses this issue, and do so with much humility. In the 1970’s and 80’s the US supported the Taliban against the Soviet Union and encouraged Pakistani villages on the border to welcome them into their homes, marry into their families, and support their actions. One might even say they are still doing exactly what the United States requested (the Pakistanis), as strange and convoluted as that might sound. Any action against the Pakistani border needs to be tempered and full consideration of civilians and infrastructure needs to exceed the normal standard for military operations.

If Pakistan wants to avoid increased hostilities, it would be in their interest to lockdown the border to Afghanistan as much as possible. Granted it’s a hugely difficult task, but even a valiant attempt would go along way to demonstrating the government does not support such militia actions. It needs to be much more aggressive then it has been in the past, and understand that no attacks into Afghanistan on coalition forces would give them serious political leverage against any action by Afghanistan and the US. It would also maintain current borders, which if increased hostilities did occur, might face uncertain consequences.

There are political and diplomatic solutions to this looming confrontation, and should be explored by both sides. A potential solution could be cooperative where US and coalition forces spearhead efforts within the mountains on the border, while Pakistani forces focus on internal security methods within the cities and town. This one is probably too much of a long shot given sovereignty issues and Pakistan’s lack of success thus far, but it could merit exploration.

No conflict serves both interests more fully than all out engagement, and with the looming question of nuclear ambiguity on the part of Pakistan, it only serves to raise the temperature of an already fragile region.

An Afghan student journalist named Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh has been sentenced to death for insulting Islam. Reports conflict about exactly what he did that was deemed insulting by the court that convicted him in Mazar-e-Sharif, but most agree that it had something to do with his possession of articles about roles of women in Muslim societies. However, that’s not the point. Insulting or questioning religion –any religion, anywhere, by anyone– shouldn’t be a crime.* 

Kambakhsh has been waiting on death row for three months when he shouldn’t have been punished at all. Below is a photo, from Kabulpress.org, of Kambakhsh in jail.
Sayed_parwiz_kambakhsh_3

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told worried Afghan journalists that he believes Kambakhsh won’t be harmed, but that’s hardly reassuring, given Karazi’s limited power and the general lawlessness of Afghanistan beyond Kabul.

On February 4th, Afghans marched in the streets of Kabul to condemn Kambakhsh’s sentence and call for his release, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. One female demonstrator told IWPR, "The international community spends so much money on Afghanistan, they
should guarantee freedom of expression. They cannot let an innocent
person be put to death."

Agreed, completely.

I’ll be posting updates on this story as it develops.

* Actively calling  for or condoning violence against followers
of a particular religion, something different altogether from "insulting" religion, certainly should be a crime, and is in many countries with broad press freedom.

This post is from AID’s Grove City College leader Bethany Egan:

I had the incredible opportunity this week to view two really moving videos that I want to share with you and AID!

The first is called Osama and it is the first movie to be filmed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime. The movie portrays the hopelessness and despair brought by the regime through the eyes of a young girl, who must be disguised as a boy to keep her family from starving. This is by no means an entertaining film, but it is extremely artistic and presents a strong message. It’s an MGM film, so I don’t know what the issues are with copyrights and whatnot, but its worth looking into.

The second film I wanted to share with you is called Invisible Children. I had the chance to watch this with about 100 Grove City College students today and I cant even express to you the impact it had on my heart and mind. This movie is a rough cut documentary put together by college students who decided to travel with no plan and no money in search of Sudanese refugees. The story they ended up finding and following instead was the plight of Ugandan children who are being abducted and forced to join the rebel army of Northern Uganda.

Forcibly desensitized to death and violence, these children are stripped of their innocence, handed a gun, and turned into 5-12 year-old killing machines. Those who are not abducted are in constant fear that their turn is coming, so they walk for miles into the city to sleep outside in bus areas every night, where they feel “safe.”

As a result of this documentary, there is a whole organization emerging to support the efforts to aid these “invisible children” and the Ugandan people as a whole. They started as a grassroots organization with a bunch of young, motivated, passionate people and have an excellent message to spread to the world, just like Americans for Informed Democracy. I hope that you will be inspired, as I have been, to aid this project in its humanitarian efforts.

Some college students are touring the country to spread awareness of this documentary and the organization that sprang out of it. Tonight they came to my campus, Grove City College. After the showing, I told them about you and about Americans for Informed Democracy and gave them your name and phone number, as well as the AID website. I really believe the entire “Invisible Children” project is in line with AID’s mission and would fit well among the efforts of AID. Please consider backing them in their endeavors in whatever way possible.

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