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Saturday 26 July 2014

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In December 2011, many Iraqis went out to the streets to celebrate the exit of US military troops from their country – describing the American soldiers as occupying forces.  But, they could have never imagined that only three years after the exit of the last US combat soldier, their country will witness a brutal sectarian civil warcausing deaths to thousands of Iraqis within a very short period. The rise of the militant extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has already resulted in the fall of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and a number of other cities in Anbar province. The ISIS militants already control the border crossing with Syria and have a stated objective of creating an Islamic state in Syria, Iraq and beyond.

When the last US soldier crossed into Kuwait, President Obama officially declared the end of the Iraq war and described the overall American engagement in the nation as ‘victorious’, something which supposedly provided the right to self-determination to the people of that nation. With the US military involvement in Iraq coming to a gradual end, Obama decided to concentrate his military resources in Afghanistan and ordered a troop surge in 2008. As history would tell, none of the strategies seemed to have worked for either of the countries.

The stated objective of the Iraq war was to overthrow a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, who allegedly had ambitions for chemical and nuclear weapons. The power vacuum created after the exit of Saddam was filled up, under US support, by an exclusive and corrupt Shiite dominated government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The resulting regime openly favored Iranian policies and marginalized Sunni groups. On the other hand, in Afghanistan; theUS strategy was simple - use force to dismantle Taliban infrastructure. Again, that objective was hardly achieved and the net tangible outcome of all these years of US involvement in Afghanistan was that the Taliban now have an official address in Qatar; while the Americans, who claim to never negotiate with terrorists, released five top Taliban commanders from Guantanamo bay.

The situationin Afghanistan might not be similar to that in Iraq.But if the next Afghan government does not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and Americans withdraw all its combat troops after 2016, then thereis a high likelihood that Afghanistan might experience what is currently going on in Iraq in the form of another civil war. Although, unlike Prime Minister Maliki, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was able to create an inclusive government that included former Jihadists and power brokers; but in the pursuit of political inclusiveness, President Karzai failed to devote much attention towards nation-building and creation of a progressive government infrastructure. Indeed, his strategy of sharing power for establishing an inclusive government dramatically promoted patronage networks and nepotism and eventuallyfrustrated any hope of building a functional governmentor deliver good public services to the Afghans.

With no solid government institutions in place and an informal political environment based on patronage and favors; Afghanistan as a nation remains extremely vulnerable to ethnic fragmentation. And as evident from the 2014 Afghan election campaigns, faultlines arealready getting visible among the nation’s diverse ethnic groups and without a determined approach towards delivering an inclusive development oriented government, these cracks are only going to widen. And as history suggests, ethnic violence has always been a very real threat to the Afghan society.

In a nutshell, for deterringany future ethnic conflict, Afghans should remember the bitter experiences of the past and the ongoing turmoil in Iraq should only act as an eye-opener for the future leader of Afghanistan about the consequences of not having a strategic agreement with US. Afghanistan still needs more time to become self-dependent and strategically, it is vital for Afghanistan to develop a long term strategic partnership with the United States. The presence of US troops and continuation of US assistance will help Afghans buy that much needed time to become self-sustainable. At the end of the day, the life and prosperity of ordinary Afghan citizens are at stake.

Director at Research and Advocacy Organization for Development, former Visiting Fellow at Ash Center, Harvard University.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed are those of its author and not representative of TOLOnews.

Blogs & Opinion - Opinion

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In the run-up to the Afghan presidential election an air of excitement and rumors of secret deals and strategic alliances had gripped Afghanistan, including the diaspora.

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Blogs & Opinion - Opinion

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I am often asked which candidate I would vote for in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections. My standard answer has been that I do not need to make it public unless I decide otherwise, since a ballot in a democratic system is a citizen's personal covenant.

My answer usually is followed by a caveat, wishing that – not unlike many other Afghans – the two current frontrunners, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, had found more common ground prior to April's first round of voting to enable the formation of a more pluralistic government, garnering a wider mandate to govern.

That alliance did not take place for a series of reasons, the most compelling of which have to do with political history, leadership styles and character, and ever hardening posturing since the early days of the campaign season.

With the campaign period for the runoff election ending today, I am now ready to share my view publicly.

The differences between the two contestants should not be overly personalized nor viewed as atypical, but as a natural part of open and competition-based democracies. What is crucial though is that political contest be accompanied by tolerance, civility and some level of inclusivity for the sake of national good.

Both Afghan candidates have unique strengths, but are also not without shortcomings and limitations. Both have complex yet engaging personalities that reflect their different upbringing and life experiences.

Without playing psycho-analyst or fortune teller, the opinion I hold has been shaped by observation, personal interaction and analysis of the candidates since the mid-1990s.

Having known both candidates and worked with them as a diplomat and government official at different phases during their tenure as Ministers, I have seen them in collaboration as well as in disagreement over policy issues.

As members of Hamid Karzai's cabinet, they were the most expressive and thoughtful of ministers, at times seeing eye to eye and at times at odds.

I succinctly remember preparatory meetings for the 2002 Tokyo conference held at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul during the first days of the Karzai administration, where Abdullah asked that Afghans should ask donors to fund priorities in areas such as capacity and institution building, water management, agriculture and power generation.

Everyone agreed on road-building as a priority, but Ghani offered a different perspective, stressing on rural development, counter-narcotics and use of foreign technical expertise to help the nascent government agencies cope with years of neglect.

His proposals, supported by some in the NGO and donor community were adopted, underfunding the key sectors of agriculture and power generation for at least five years.

With the help of hundreds of highly paid foreign consultants, several politically-connected ministries received the bulk of foreign aid for several years, at the detriment of other sectorial ministries.

Events surrounding Afghanistan of the 1980s and 90s have shaped their world views.

Ashraf Ghani spent that period, first as a politically progressive bookish student in Lebanon, then in the United States, and then as scholar and World Bank anthropologist assisting the development sector until 2001.

He kept a low profile during the Soviet invasion period, but gradually became more visible during the 90s as Afghanistan underwent factional warfare and the Taliban/Al-Qaida takeover. He spent a year studying the history of Islam and militant groups before joining the UN as an advisor to the Bonn conference that paved the way for the post-Taliban government.

Dr. Abdullah, in contrast, completed his medical studies in Afghanistan in the initial stage of Soviet occupation, before seeking refuge in Pakistan in the mid-80s, where he helped refugees. Shortly thereafter, in 1985 he moved back to Afghanistan where he joined the Mujahedeen front commanded by the late Ahmad Shah Massoud in the country's northeast. He never left that front as he rose to prominence as a trusted and committed advisor and companion to Massoud.

First as defense ministry spokesman and then as foreign affairs envoy, he came to be known as the face and representative of the Afghan resistance in the 90s. He played a critical role in the smooth transfer of power from former President Burhanudin Rabbani to Hamid Karzai in 2001.

I served as Spokesperson and advisor at the Foreign Ministry (2002-2004) during Abdullah's tenure. From my vantage point, he served faithfully and with integrity. He defended the constitutional order and, contrary to rumors, was loyal to his boss until he was targeted by insider intrigue.

He listened well, consulted professionally, was a team-builder and applied meritocracy. He was an able diplomat who stood firm on national interests and did not waver. He was also intolerant of fraud and corruption, and adopted a reformist agenda. My colleagues at the ministry can attest to these attributes.

I remember clearly the day when a courier brought a list of land plots that were being allocated by one of his close comrades at the notorious Sherpour district in Kabul. Abdullah became furious and told him to take his name and the names of everyone affiliated at the foreign ministry off the list. He went against the tide of corruption, as he forcefully expressed his disapproval of the land grabbing scheme to those who were behind it, including his closest peers.

The biggest challenge facing Abdullah will be to become the national arbiter, building bridges where needed and staying away from users. To do so, if he wins, he will need an all-inclusive team of competent and honest brokers and practitioners to help him navigate a difficult transition facing Afghanistan.

Ghani, on the other hand, is undoubtedly a scholarly figure with few contemporaries in Afghan society today. But he did not play a significant role prior to 2001, nor does he possess the grassroots connectivity that Abdullah has experienced over the last 30 years. His temperament as a political leader is questioned by many who worked with him, although he is a reformist and attentive as a micro manager and planner.

He was relatively successful as the Minister of Finance, but did not excel as the Chancellor of Kabul University, where he had a smaller budget, no foreign expertise and was not eager to deal with personnel issues.

He deserves credit, however, for handling the thorny US-Afghan bilateral negotiations (that has yet to be signed) and the overall security transition with positive results.

Dr. Ghani's handicap as a politician is his tendency to affiliate himself with individuals and groups that are known to stand for ethnic and ideological agendas that undermine national unity and inclusiveness.

Both men are committed to democratic governance, the rule of law and gender rights. Both bring qualities and shortcomings to the job.

However, my vote will go to Abdullah for his level-headedness, his belief in team work and fairness, his anti-discriminatory stance, his yearning to seek a just peace as a stakeholder, his energy to serve, his leadership skills and his vision for the future.

Both want to serve Afghanistan and love their country. That is why they might meet again on that high road, after credible election are held, the result is respected by all sides and the country has its first historic peaceful transfer of power. Inshallah.

Omar Samad is senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).

The views expressed in this Op-Ed are those of its author and not representative of TOLOnews.

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