When we come across first-rate journalism, we are always tempted to post it regardless of its topic because the quality is so rare.
Admittedly, this is a prejudice of people who read larger quantities of journalism than most do.
So, why choose to include an article about Afghanistan based on interviews with "a group of Afghan Pashtuns" written by a Brazilian who lives in Hong Kong? Or an article about Afghanistan written by and Englishman who is a longtime resident of Beirut?
Well, for one thing, as far as we know, the first, Pepe Escobar, coined the term "Pipelinestan," a key political economic concepts for anyone who wants to understand why so much American blood and treasure has been spent and will continue to be spent in Afghanistan.
The second, Robert Fisk, is the dean of English-speaking Middle East correspondents, who has written, in addition to decades of daily journalism much of it from war zones, four major books on the region.
Perhaps we read journalists that are not "embedded" so that we don't have to suffer the cognitive dissonance associated with Pentagon flak informing us that we are there to train Afghani troops to defend their own country against terrorists, etc. etc.
US troops are there to teach Afghans how to fight Afghans? We are led to assume that they never thought of that themselves in the whole history of Afghanistan. And that's forgetting for the moment about invaders, particularly infidel invaders.
In a society now awash with advertising, PR spin and more over propaganda, all of which is intensified in a presidential election year filled with heated debates in shadowy halls. All we can do as a responsible editorial board is select the journalism that at least doesn't stem from absurd premises.-- blj
Does China hold key to the Afghan puzzle?
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
Just like Lazarus, there were reasons to believe the Afghan peace process might have stood a chance of being resurrected this past Monday in Islamabad, as four major players -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China -- sat together at the same table.
The final communique though was not exactly ground breaking: "The participants emphasized the immediate need for direct talks between representatives of the Government of Afghanistan and representatives from Taliban groups in a peace process that aims to preserve Afghanistan's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity."
A week before the Islamabad meeting, while in the Persian Gulf, I had an extremely enlightening conversation with a group of Afghan Pashtuns. After the ice was broken, and it was established I was not some Sean Penn-style shadowy asset with a dodgy agenda, my Pashtun interlocutors did deliver the goods. I felt I was back in Peshawar in 2001, only a few days before 9/11.
The first ground breaker was that two Taliban officials, currently based in Qatar, are about to meet top Chinese and Pakistani envoys face to face, without interference from the US. This fits into the strategy laid out by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China and Russia, according to which the Afghan puzzle must be solved as an Asian matter. And Beijing definitely wants a solution, fast; think Afghan chapter of the New Silk Roads.
The post 9/11 Afghan War has been going on for an interminable 14 years; taking a cue from Pentagonese, talk about Enduring Freedom forever. No one is winning -- and the Taliban are more divided than ever after the previous peace process collapsed when the Taliban announced Mullah Omar had been dead for two years.
That good old "strategic depth"
Still, it all hinges on the complex interplay between Kabul and Islamabad.
Take the see-saw movements of Afghan CEO (yes, that's his title) Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. He juggles between Tehran -- where he emphasizes terrorism is a threat both to Iran and Afghanistan -- and Islamabad, where he discusses peace process arcana with Pakistani officials.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for his part, never skips a beat renewing his commitment towards peace and economic development in Afghanistan.
When an attempt towards a peace process actually started -- informally -- in Doha, in 2012, including eight Taliban officials, the Taliban was furious that Kabul actually privileged talking to Islamabad. The official Taliban position is that they are politically -- and militarily -- independent from Islamabad.
As my Pashtun interlocutors emphasized, most people in Afghanistan don't know what to make of all that Kabul-Islamabad talk, including what they regard as dangerous concessions, such as sending young Afghan military to be trained in Pakistan.
Islamabad plays a highly leveraged game. The Haqqani group -- which Washington brands as terrorists -- finds safe harbor inside Pakistan's tribal areas. If the Taliban is seated at the table at any peace process that will be brokered by Pakistan -- which still enjoys a lot of leverage over those Taliban clustered around the new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
My Pashtun interlocutors are adamant; the Taliban and the ISI remain indistinguishable. Their strategic alliance is still in place. All Taliban in Doha are monitored by the ISI.
On the other hand, there seems to be a subtle shift involving the Pakistani military and the ISI (which knows everything there is to know, and is complicit on much that happens concerning the Taliban). Last month, Pakistan's army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif went to Afghanistan by himself; so that could mean the military will privilege real peace on the ground instead of manipulating Afghanistan as a "strategic depth" Pakistani pawn.
Caution: pipeline ahead
So, in principle, the Afghan talkfest will remain in effect. The Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- another key player on Washington's Top Ten Terrorist List -- is also interested in the peace process. But HIA says it must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned -- meaning no Pakistani interference. Hekmatyar is clearly positioning himself for a future leading role.
The plot thickens when we turn from the Taliban to ISIS/ISIL/Daesh's advances in Afghanistan. For circles close to former President Hamid Karzai, a.k.a. the former "mayor of Kabul" (because he controlled nothing else), Daesh is a creation of Islamabad's foreign policy, so Pakistan may gain full access to energy-rich Central Asia, China and Russia.
That sounds a bit far-fetched when compared to what's actually going on in Pipelineistan.
Kabul has committed to a huge 7,000-member security force to guard the $10-billion, 1,800 km long Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline within Afghanistan, assuming it will really be finished by December 2018. Optimistically, heavy work on clearing TAPI's passage -- and that includes demining -- will begin in April.
Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov already ordered state companies Turkmengaz and Turkmengazneftstroi to begin building the country's 214-km section of TAPI. The pipeline will also travel 773 km in Afghanistan and 827 km in Pakistan before entering India. Whether all this frenzy will actually materialize by 2018 is open to never-ending question.
Where's my heroin?
Meanwhile, what is the CIA up to?
Former acting CIA director Michael Morell is now spinning ... "the reemergence of Afghanistan as an issue," so "the debate on how many troops we [the US] keep in Afghanistan is going to reopen."
The Pentagon for its part is spinning the need for 10,000 boots on the ground. The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, wants his 10,000 with a vengeance; "My intent would be to keep as much as I could, for as long as I could." Enduring Freedom forever, indeed -- as the Pentagon has been forced to admit, on the record, that the Afghan security forces are incapable of"operating entirely on their own" despite a whopping Washington investment of $60 billion-plus since 2002.
The latest Pentagon reports describe security in Afghanistan going down, down, down. Which brings us to Helmand.
Only a few days before the Islamabad meeting, US special forces shadowing Afghan troops got into a tremendous firefight with the Taliban in Helmand. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook, in trademark newspeak, didn't call it "combat" -- but rather a "train, advise and assist" mission.
The Taliban control more territory in Afghanistan -- no less than four Helmand districts -- than at any time since 2001. Civilians are caught in the crossfire. And yet Pentagon special forces and air strikes in Helmand are just qualified as sightseeing.
In the end, everything comes back to Helmand. Why Helmand? My Pashtun interlocutors loosen up and say it with a mouthful: it's all about the involvement of the CIA in the heroin trade in Afghanistan; "The Americans simply can't let it go."
So here we are delving into perhaps a new chapter in a gas and poppy epic at the heart of Eurasia. The Taliban, divided or not, have come up with their ultimate red line; no talking with Kabul until they get a direct talk with Washington. From a Taliban point of view, it makes total sense. Pipelineistan? Fine, but we want our cut (that's the same story since the first Clinton administration). CIA heroin? Fine, you can keep it, but we want our cut.
My Pashtun interlocutors, about to board a flight to Peshawar, lay out the road map. The Taliban want their Qatar office -- a really nice palace -- officially recognized as a representation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; that's what the country was from 1996 to 2001. They want the UN -- not to mention the US -- to remove the Taliban from its "most wanted" list. They want all Taliban prisoners released from Afghan jails.
Will that happen? Of course not. So now it's up to Beijing to come up with a win-win scenario.
You won't hear it, but news from Afghanistan is bad
Isis men are now fighting in their thousands in the country we arrived to “liberate” 14 years ago, quite apart from tens of thousands of Taliban “pushing” in to their “heartland” around Sangin
The news from Afghanistan is very bad. No one says that, of course. President Ghani has a “national unity government” that “supports a strong partnership with the United States”, according to Barack Obama two months ago. Sure, Kunduz was captured by the Taliban – but then the Afghans got it back (though minus one American-bombed hospital, along with most of its patients and doctors). Sure, Sangin was captured by the Taliban – but now the Afghan army is fighting to get it back. But didn’t more than a hundred British soldiers die to hold Sangin? Sure, but American troops in Iraq died to hold and keep Mosul – and Mosul is now the home of the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And US troops in Iraq died to capture Fallujah, then lost it, and died all over again to recapture it – and Fallujah is now in the hands of Isis.
We don’t do “bad news” from Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s like a movie, replayed over and over again each Christmas. Just two weeks ago, General John F Campbell, the US commander of American and Nato forces in the country, admitted that Isis has surfaced in Afghanistan. There could be 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 Isis men who are now trying to consolidate links to their “mothership” in Iraq and Syria; note the Hollywood language here. Isis wants to establish its pre-Afghan “Khorasan Province” in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
But Obama assures us that America’s “commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures” and Afghan forces are “fighting for their country bravely and tenaciously” and “continue to hold most [sic] urban areas”. Taliban successes were “predictable”, the US president says, but almost 10,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan – even though the war is over – and 14 months ago, David Cameron told our own chaps that their achievements in Afghanistan “will live for ever”. Not any more.
As our very own ex-chief of the general staff, General Dannatt, said last week, he was “not surprised” by the fall of Sangin. Not at all. After all, “we always knew that the situation once we left Sangin would be difficult. We left Afghanistan in a situation where the Afghans were in control and the future was in their hands. It is not a great surprise that the Taliban have continued to push in southern Afghanistan, it’s their heartland.”
So Isis men are now fighting in their thousands in the country we arrived to “liberate” 14 years ago, quite apart from tens of thousands of Taliban “pushing” in to their “heartland” around Sangin (so much for Cameron’s stuff about achievements living for ever). And yet Obama tells Americans that in the corrupt Afghan government, the US has “a serious partner”, a “stable and committed ally” to prevent “future threats”.
It was in 1940, when German soldiers were swarming into France – a rather more dangerous swarm than the one Cameron obsesses about in exactly the same area today – that Churchill decided to tell Britons the truth. “The news from France is very bad…” he began. And British soldiers, in their thousands, were dying to stem the invasion. Their “achievement” was not victory, but Dunkirk.
Yet we are not permitted to use this same expression – “very bad” – about Afghanistan. No, Cameron had to talk about an “achievement”, and now the mother of a terribly wounded soldier speaks of her “desperate sense of waste”. For Gen Dannatt, the future’s up to those Afghan army chappies now. No big deal; we always knew the Taliban would fight on.
You only have to read Afghan journalists’ reports from the country to know that even the old Churchillian “very bad” is a bit on the optimistic side. Take the case of the Shia Muslim Hazara Afghans taken from a bus on the way to Kabul this year. The lads from Isis stopped the bus, abducted 30 Shias and wanted to exchange them for family prisoners – Uzbeks, it seems – in Afghan government hands. The captives were subjected to the usual Isis treatment: at least one beheading, days of beatings, more videos of the Shias wearing suicide belts. Only after nine months were they freed, after an armed assault on their Isis captors by the Taliban. Yes, the bad guys suddenly turned into the good guys, the same bad guys who have captured Sangin, but are now fighting the even-more horrid bad guys. If this wasn’t tragic, it would be farce.
And, just for good measure, take the recent local story in Afghanistan about poor Qais Rahmani who, along with his family and four-month-old baby, set off among the refugee army to Europe and in Turkey boarded a boat to Greece which almost immediately sank. Qais’s baby died in his arms. Just another Alan Kurdi, you may say, but what struck Afghans was that Qais was a well-known television presenter, his wife and family university-educated. The Rahmanis were not from the poor and huddled masses. They were middle class, the very people who should have wanted to stay and build the new Afghanistan and to work for their government, which is – I quote Obama again – “working to combat corruption, strengthen institutions, and uphold the rule of law”.
So just stand back and look at the script. The Taliban ended the lawless regime of the Afghan militias and controlled almost all of Afghanistan by 1996. But it also sheltered al-Qaeda post 9/11. So we invaded Afghanistan to destroy both al-Qaeda and the vile misogynist, murderous and undemocratic Taliban. But the Taliban was not conquered. And now it is winning. And today, we surely want it to fight against the even more vile, misogynist and murderous Isis. Which is why, tucked away at the end of his peroration to the American people, Obama said that everyone should “press the Taliban… to do their part in the pursuit of the peace the Afghans deserve”. So the horrid Taliban can become the good, brave Taliban again. Truly, the news from Afghanistan must be very bad.