Kerry’s Surprise Visit to Afghanistan Yields Draft Agreement

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 “Kerry’s Surprise Visit to Afghanistan Yields Draft Agreement”

Tajikistan’s Islamists Back Secular Candidate to Send Message

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. Read more “Tajikistan’s Islamists Back Secular Candidate to Send Message”

Chinese Leader Follows Silk Road, Signs Energy Deals

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 “Chinese Leader Follows Silk Road, Signs Energy Deals”

Breakdown in Afghan Security, Taliban Peace Talks Predictable

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. Read more “Breakdown in Afghan Security, Taliban Peace Talks Predictable”

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

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. Read more “Afghanistan’s Karzai Dismisses Helmand Governor”

Kyrgyz Political Crisis Prompts Premier’s Resignation

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. Read more “Kyrgyz Political Crisis Prompts Premier’s Resignation”

Badakhshan-Tajikistan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency

The response by the Tajik government to the murder of a security official last week — sending troops into the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan — may cause more harm than they anticipated.

Major General Abdullo Nazarov, the head of the regional branch of the State Committee on National Security (formerly the KGB) was apparently stabbed to death on July 22. Two days later, Tajik troops marched into Khorugh, nominally seeking to arrest Tolib Ayombekov, the head of a border post on the Afghan-Tajik frontier and an opposition commander during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, who has been accused of the general’s murder.

Last Wednesday, a ceasefire was declared but the two sides remain at an impasse. Ayombekov’s forces refuse to surrender their weapons or their leader while the Tajik government, headed by autocratic President Emomalii Rahmon, is not perceivably ready to “save face by collecting some weapons and withdrawing.”

Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, was quoted as saying that “any campaign that does not end quickly risks getting bogged down in the harsh mountain winter.”

A letter confirmed accurate by sources close to EurasiaNet paints a grim picture in Khorugh, effectively held hostage by the cease fire.

99 percent of local people support these commanders. It’s a small town. Everyone is related. Everyone is family, friends. There is not a specific group the government is fighting: All local men are involved.

Reports on casualties are varied. Government figures estimate seventeen troops, thirty militants and one civilian while other estimates are higher — particularly concerning civilian deaths. Opposition sources cite two hundred overall casualties.

The most recent reports out of the region are inconsistent. Reuters reported that some rebels have begun to surrender after government threats to resume their assault but the report has not been picked up or corroborated by other news sources and only cites Tajik government officials. The situation remains tense in any event.

The shutting off of Internet, mobile and telephone services to the region makes it all the more difficult to decipher precisely what is happening. Early in the conflict, authorities severed access to YouTube in particular and as of Sunday, the websites of at least one Russian television channel and the BBC were blocked. Read more “Badakhshan-Tajikistan Clashes Risk Sparking Insurgency”

Russian-Tajikistan Base Deal Revealed Prematurely

Russian Ground Forces commander Vladimir Chirkin said recently that Russia and Tajikistan will soon achieve “results that will be advantageous for both sides” from the protracted talks between the two on the fate of Russia’s military base near the capital of Dushanbe.

Chirkin went on to claim that the draft agreement allows for Russian retention of the base for 49 years, rent free, as it has been for the past decade.

The Tajik Foreign Ministry, however, stated that General Chirkin’s claims were “premature” and “groundless,” stressing that negotiations continue behind closed doors.

Tajik foreign minister Khamorokhon Zarifi indicated in a statement on Monday that the negotiations were progressing. He was disparaging about Russian defense officials revealing details of the talks to the public, saying that “in a normal, law governed state, there is a specific responsibility for these actions, as this is disclosure of state secrets and important information.” Read more “Russian-Tajikistan Base Deal Revealed Prematurely”

Clinton’s Apology Reopens NATO Supply Route

Pakistan has agreed to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized for the deaths of Pakistani soldiers during an airstrike last November.

The United States spent an additional $100 million per month to transport supplies to the NATO mission in Afghanistan through Central Asia while the route was shut. The Salala raid, as Pakistan refers to the incident which touched off the closure, topped off a bad year for American-Pakistani relations.

“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military,” Clinton said in a statement that was issued by her State Department. Read more “Clinton’s Apology Reopens NATO Supply Route”