Kerry’s Surprise Visit to Afghanistan Yields Draft Agreement

A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter flies over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, November 26, 2009
A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter flies over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, November 26, 2009 (David Alvarado)

Negotiations over an agreement for some American forces to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 have been stalled for some time but an unannounced visit to Kabul by Secretary of State John Kerry seems to have yielded some progress — and a draft agreement.

Among the major differences holding up the negotiations for a Bilateral Security Agreement are longstanding Afghan demands for greater control and better access to American intelligence as well as the stipulation that remaining forces not be subject to Afghan law. Additionally, Afghan are concerned that the agreement lacks a security guarantee to protect the country from Pakistan while permitting the United States to conduct unilateral operations in Afghanistan. Read more

Tajikistan’s Islamists Back Secular Candidate to Send Message

Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon in Thailand, May 17
Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon in Thailand, May 17 (Presidency of Tajikistan)

The outcome of Tajikistan’s November presidential election is easy to predict. Emomalii Rahmon will be reelected in a landslide. However, the ballot will also list Oynihol Bobonazarova, a secular lawyer and human rights activist recently tapped by the opposition, including Central Asia’s single legal Islamist party, to run against the first and only president of the former Soviet republic.

Bobonazarova is at first glance an odd choice for the United Reformist Force, an opposition coalition comprised of Islamists, social democrats and several nongovernmental groups.

The Islamists boycotted the 2006 election and failed to put up a candidate for a 2011 by-election for a vacated parliament seat, saying in conjunction with the boycotting social democrats that until election laws were changed, government officials will always be able to manipulate the outcome in advance. Although the Islamists did not encourage their members to boycott the 2011 election, it is clear the opposition forces in Tajikistan are dejected about their chances of electoral victory in any settling.

The upcoming presidential election marks a potential breaking point for perennial president Rahmon. Elected in 1994 and again in 1999. A 1999 referendum extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and a 2003 package of constitutional amendments included a provision permitting a second consecutive term. Although the limit of two terms exists on paper, supporters of Rahmon argue that the limit only applies to elections following the 2003 adoption of the amendments. Rahmon is set to run again this November.

Even the coalition putting Bobonazarova forward doesn’t expect her to win. The Islamist leader said, “we might lose the election but we can use this opportunity to send out out message.” That message may fall on deaf ears internationally where the word “Islamism” tends to conjure up images of terrorism. The Tajik party’s support for Bobonazarova is therefore an image move — to prove its moderation and brevity; its willingness to “work with other democratic forces outside the country.”

The message might resonate outside Tajikistan but it is more likely that it will be lost in the global din. Despite the flurry of excitement around Bobonazarova’s nomination, and everything it represents — moderation, cooperation — the state controls the media and Rahmon is the only candidate with widespread name recognition. Although the political elites of Tajikistan will steer the election results anyway, the argument is ready made that Bobonazarova is a nobody, unknown beyond the human rights and NGO communities.

But Bobonazarova will run. Government tactics of pinning opposition candidates with trumped up criminal charges will not easily fly against a female human rights lawyer with a clean record (except for a conviction for being a member of an opposition party in the early years of independence). Akbar Turajonzoda, a religious figure in Tajikistan and former Islamist party leader, doubts that the government will move to charge Bobonazarova with anything, even if campaign staff report obstacles being put up to impede Bobonazarova’s run.

Other candidates have not been so lucky. In May, Zayd Saidov, a businessman and opposition leader, was arrested on charges of fraud and polygamy. The relatively unknown opposition leader Umarali Kuvatov was conveniently arrested last December in Dubai at the behest of the Tajik government, also on charges of fraud.

The Islamists, if they are able to reap any benefits from their support of Bobonazarova, will have to wait for many years for a real chance at electoral success. Either Rahmon dies or he serves two more full terms. At 61, it is plausible that Rahmon lives out two more terms and then faces the hurdle of amending the Constitution again. For the Islamists, building up evidence of broad appeal, political moderation and a willingness to cooperate with secular institutions will prove useful when a real opportunity at power emerges.

Chinese Leader Follows Silk Road, Signs Energy Deals

Dusk in Xi'an, China, August 17, 2011
Dusk in Xi’an, China, August 17, 2011 (Jack Zalium)

While the American “pivot” to Asia seems stalled in light of the Syrian crisis, China’s pivot west, to Central Asia, is in full swing. Crisscrossing the region, in a path reminiscent of the Silk Road, President Xi Jingping has been making numerous well received speeches and deals from Ashgabat to Astana.

Unsurprisingly, many of the agreements arising from this trip relate to the energy sector. In Turkmenistan, the Chinese leader helped inaugurate the start of production at the world’s second largest gasfield, Galkynysh, while also finalizing a deal for the Chinese state-owned energy corporation, China National Petroleum Corp, to build facilities which should process 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year. Read more

Breakdown in Afghan Security, Taliban Peace Talks Predictable

United States Marines man their vehicle in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, February 18
United States Marines man their vehicle in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, February 18 (US Marine Corps/Corporal Alejandro Pena)

The breakdown in both the bilateral security agreement talks between the Afghan government and the United States and the peace talks with the Taliban were far from unexpected. The issues of sovereignty and power remain central to both Afghan and Taliban concerns. While the primarily American concern is the war, and its ending, the main Afghan and Taliban worry looks toward the peace.

Nominally, it started on Wednesday with the raising of a Taliban flag — black lettering on a white banner — and the revealing of a name plate reading “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in Doha, Qatar. Though the opening of a physical Taliban office was heralded by many as a progressive step toward reconciliation, it was also at the heart of the breakdown.

The opening and use of a Taliban office provides the perception of political legitimacy, and therefore legitimate competition, which the unsteady administration of President Hamid Karzai can ill afford.

In addition, continued American steering of the peace process illustrated time and again the lack of confidence in the staying power of the Afghan republic.

The Afghan National Security Council commented on halting the security talks: “there is a contradiction between what the American government says and what it does regarding Afghan peace talks.”

The Afghan government would rather the United States remain concerned with fringe issues, such as prisoner exchanges, and out of the broader negotiations. Although President Barack Obama has said that only Afghans can decided whether the peace and reconciliation process can start, the Americans repeatedly involved themselves in the process, highlighting a lack of confidence in the Afghan republic.

The underlying current and unstated narrative is that both the Taliban and the United States expect to be around as 2014 closes and Western troops depart by the thousands whereas President Karzai will no longer be in office. Afghan elections scheduled for the first week of April 2014 will be the true test of whether a stable peace can be achieved.

The Taliban continue to operate as if the main barrier to their political control of Afghanistan is the United States. However untrue this assumption may be, it drives the group to sideline the government in Kabul, at least in public. Until the Taliban can be convinced that the Afghan government will endure beyond the end of Karzai’s presidency, they will continue to function as a competing authority rather than a piece of the Afghan political quilt.

It is as important for there to be a legitimate transfer of presidential power in 2014 as it is for President Karzai to establish the individual sovereignty of the government of Afghanistan now. His comments against the United States are not for an American audience. He remains concerned primarily with the stability of his own regime and perhaps the lasting stability of Afghanistan.

Afghan Factions Meet in France as NATO Prepares Withdrawal

Representatives of four Afghan groups met near Chantilly, France this week. While the meeting, organized by the Foundation for Strategic Research, is nowhere close to a negotiation, the gathering at least presented an opportunity for the various sides to talk.

Members of the Afghan High Peace Council, the Northern Alliance, Hezbi Islami and the Taliban came to France for the talks.

“If you want peace, it’s usually between people who don’t agree,” said France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius ahead of the meeting, “and over there they don’t talk to each other. So there will be discussions but it won’t be negotiations.”

2012 dawned with the hope that peace talks between the Taliban and the United States would progress. The former agreed to open a political office in Qatar and the Americans opened up to discussions about the release of prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Then, in March the talks stalled over the details of the Guantánamo prisoner transfer among other sticking points. The Taliban accused the American negotiators of being “shaky, erratic and vague.”

As the year draws to a close the situation in Afghanistan remains bleak. 2012 was not only plagued by stalled negotiations but by an increase in “green on blue” violence — the killing of NATO soldiers by Afghan security forces — and vague, if any, improvements in security throughout the country. Although the Western alliance doesn’t plan to leave the country before 2014, withdrawals are already underway.

The French government had no direct involvement in the meeting in Chantilly but officials were present. The meeting came at an auspicious time, a week after the French withdrew the last of their combat forces from Afghanistan and the British announced that they will be withdrawing nearly 4,000 soldiers next year, reducing Britain’s presence down to just over 5,000 troops by the end of 2013.

The meeting in Chantilly was not expected to result in any breakthrough toward a peace agreement. As it took place behind closed doors, we might not even learn soon whether anything was accomplished.

A Taliban spokesman said there would only be speeches, no political commitments and no negotiations. This, of course, could mean plenty of talking and no listening. On the other hand, gathering these disparate individuals together and allowing them a safe place to speak their positions is a step in the right direction.

Afghanistan’s Karzai Dismisses Helmand Governor

Governor Gulab Mangal of Helmand Province and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, January 2, 2010
Governor Gulab Mangal of Helmand Province and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, January 2, 2010 (ISAF)

Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in a declared attempt to fight corruption, has dismissed five provincial governors from their posts. Among those dismissed is Gulab Mangal of Helmand Province, a particular favorite of international forces. Mangal’s dismissal does not come as a surprise and makes a certain degree of sense in domestic political terms.

Karzai has tried numerous times to push Mangal out of office but always pulled back at the objections of the American and British forces stationed in Helmand, the largest of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. That he has finally ousted Mangal indicates that Karzai is looking beyond the opinions of Western allies and 2014, when NATO is set to withdraw, with an eye for his own job security.

In place of Mangal, under whose watch Helmand became the deadliest posting for NATO forces, Karzai is installing General Naeem Baloch, a little known member of the Afghan intelligence service and a man more closely allied with Karzai’s inner circle.

While viewed favorably by international forces, Mangal’s term as governor was controversial due to the rising tide of violence in Helmand. One of his predecessors, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, was removed from office in 2005 amid solid rumors of links to drug trafficking and under international pressure.

In 2009, Akhundzada virtually admitted that he had been engaged in smuggling activities but told The New York Times, “at least I spent the money on government and soldiers! Now the money goes to the Taliban and kills British and Americans and Afghan soldiers.”

Violence in the south markedly rose after Akhundzada left the governorship, from one coalition death in 2005 to 62 in 2007, rising to a peak of 290 in 2010. Observers placed a degree of blame on Akhundzada, saying that he encouraged the province’s destabilization in an attempt to sabotage his successor.

Mangal, for his part, could do little to stymie the rising violence. His courting of international forces did not win him many friends and met with little concrete security success. Karzai’s dismissal of Mangal would appear to make sense. He is too close to the international forces busy planning their exit from Afghanistan while Karzai is contemplating Afghanistan’s future post 2014.

The president’s domestic political calculations put him at odds with Western objectives in the country. In an idyllic Afghanistan, poppies would not be the main cash crop and elections would decide authority. But the reality of governance in Afghanistan differs significantly from this vision. Which is not to say that the ideal is wrong but that demanding perfection is naive.

In his book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (2012), Rajiv Chandrasekaran quotes Karzai as asking, in reference to Akhundzada, “Do you want a bad guy on your side or working for the Taliban?”

It seems Karzai has answered the question. His recent shuffling of governors is an attempt to gain greater control. If Afghan history is any lesson, this reflects Karzai’s own naive hopes of maintaining power.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sher Mohammad Akhundzada had been removed from the Helmand governorship in 2008 when, in fact, he left office in 2005.

Kyrgyz Political Crisis Prompts Premier’s Resignation

Former prime minister Omurbek Babanov of Kyrgyzstan
Former prime minister Omurbek Babanov of Kyrgyzstan (Kyrgyz Embassy)

Kyrgyzstan is once again in political crisis. The product of a stagnating economy, accusations of corruption and the failure of the government to rapidly deliver promised prosperity, the latest iteration of the Central Asian republic’s political turmoil highlights both weaknesses that are inherent to parliamentary democracy and the latent potential of Kyrgyz civil society.

Often hailed as a democratic success in a region that is ruled by autocrats, Kyrgyzstan’s political instability inhibits economic and societal progress.

Twice since independence has Kyrgyzstan removed its president from power. Askar Akayev, elected as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, was pushed out of office in 2005’s largely nonviolent Tulip Revolution. Riots and demonstrations two years ago forced Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to flee the country. A referendum subsequently approved the switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system under a new constitution.

Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary democracy was erected to prevent the concentration of power in a single person or party, doing away with presidential immunity and allowing only a parliamentary majority to select the prime minister. In the event that no single party has a majority in Kyrgyzstan’s unicameral legislature, the president selects a party to initiate coalition talks.

Last December saw Kyrgyzstan’s first successful transfer of power, from the interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, to the newly-elected Almazbek Atambayev, former leader of the Social Democratic Party. Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and one of the country’s richest citizens, became premier.

At the time, many analysts were hopeful. The new parliament and cabinet were stuffed with experienced professionals. But there was also reason to be skeptical. Many members of the government had served in previous administrations. The system had changed but many of the players remained the same.

Elections in October 2010 had brought five parties to parliament, four of which formed a government. In late August of this year, two parties quit the coalition, the socialist Ata-Meken and the pro-Russian Ar-Namys, while levying allegations of corruption and calls for resignation at Prime Minister Babanov. He resigned on Saturday. A spokesman said that the decision was made because the “formation of a new coalition has practically been decided.”

President Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party has been charged with forming a new coalition. It is likely to pull in Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys but leave out Babanov’s Respublika.

The only party left out of the previous government, the right-wing Ata-Zhurt, has held a plurality of the seats in parliament since 2010 and enjoys wide support among Kyrgyz nationalists, particularly in the south. It was the only political party to call for Bakiyey’s reinstatement after the riots of 2010. Whether it will be invited into the new ruling coalition is uncertain. The remaining three parties don’t need it to find a majority.

Kyrgyz political analyst Mars Sariyev notes that “Babanov is a businessman. He has carried his aggressive business style into politics. It’s beneficial for him to move into opposition and maintain forward momentum.” But momentum will be difficult for Kyrgyzstan to achieve if its political leadership remains susceptible to corruption, partisanship and an inability to compromise.

The country’s present political crisis contains many of the themes of previous rounds of unrest. The recitation of political grievances is close to rote. Every ousted leader has been accused of the same crimes by their opponents and successors — corruption, cronyism and a failure to deliver on promised economic improvements.

Kyrgyzstan has a multitude of issues to juggle, from a struggling economy build almost entirely on gold and remittances to great power pressure from Russia and the United States — both of which maintain military bases in the country — from a history of ethnic tension and periodic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to a national habit of rejecting governments that don’t deliver on pipedream promises.

It can be reasonably hoped that the practice of even imperfect democracy in Kyrgyzstan will instill the attributes needed for successful government in the future. Though built to encourage compromise, parliamentary systems can make room for endless political stagnation — see Belgium’s 541 day epic journey to form a coalition. But the parliamentary system also allows for political parties to break up an unsatisfactory government without resorting to public protests, which have been the method of ousting every Kyrgyz president to date.

While neither of the country’s two revolutions were exceedingly violent or protracted, that is no guarantee that the next one won’t be, especially given rising tensions between the country’s minority Uzbek population and the ethnic Kyrgyz.

Peaceful change of power means that there is hope for Kyrgyz democracy but the country’s politicians have to move beyond petty squabbling to the difficult business of tackling corruption, ethnic tension and economic woes, sooner rather than later.