Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Reading papers on an airplane (amended)

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

A little press review by an analyst trying to catch up with the news after a few days off: the Obama review, terrorist threats in Europe, Dubai’s well-informed taxi-drivers, the inventors of waterboarding, a not so crazy Afghan project and Germany’s still grotesque discussion about whether that’s a war going on in Afghanistan.

Thanks goodness, the German papers on the outbound plane from Dubai are of the day before. That still gives me a summary of the eagerly awaited US government’s strategic Afghanistan review. ‘US consider al-Qaida weakened’, reads the headline of the German Financial Times Deutschland. Its leadership ‘in Pakistan’ [hear hear!] is reported to be weaker than ‘at any other point of time since their escape from Afghanistan in 2001’. In Southern Afghanistan, the daily quotes from the review, ‘NATO troops have pushed back the Taleban and won the trust of the population’. Well, maybe, the Taleban have been pushed out of two districts or three, temporarily. But ‘trust of the population’? With Abdul Razeq’s and Wali Karzai’s militias on the rampage? Ah, here it comes: ‘Some observers suppose that there is purposeful optimism (‘Zweckoptimismus’) behind the White House report.’

In the English-language press, there is not much about the review anymore, two days after its publication. Afghan news, it appears, have already developed a shorter half-life, with 2014, inteqal and all on the horizon.

Only the International Herald Tribune meets my expectations andcomments bluntly: that ‘not a lot of comfort or clarity’ could be found in the review, that there is ‘no excuse’ for the failure ‘to explain how the administration plans to deal with two of its biggest problems’, Pakistan and the Afghan government’s ‘corruption and incompetence’ and that it also fails to even implicitly renew President Obama’s earlier warning to Karzai to address these issues. It points to ‘murkiness’ and the ‘mixed picture’ about the current security situation and the claimed ‘military gains’. And that it is ‘even harder to judge the administration’s claims about “disrupting and dismantling” Al Qaeda’. The paper’s leader concludes: ‘Right now, we need a lot franker talk from Mr. Obama about what is really happening on the ground.’

Indeed. We read a lot about killed and captured Taleban and Haqqani network fighters in Afghanistan and scores of killed people by drone attacks on the Pakistani side of the border. But we really have not gotten a satisfactory explanation about the Afghan insurgents’ real link with OBL’s outfit – not in this review and not in most of the latest papers on al-Qaida’s post-9/11 metamorphoses. Yes, the Taleban or their Haqqani sub-network have links with al-Qaida. But they are not identical. Still, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is actually led against the Taleban, Afghan and Pakistani.

The Tribune also mentions that actually only an unclassified version of the review has been published. Maybe, the unedited one contains more detail about this. About what al-Qaida really looks like today. About whether there really is an independently acting al-Qaida, apart from some surviving but isolated leaders, beyond franchises’ in different countries – like Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia or Lashkar-e Tayba in Pakistan – and copy-cat suicide bombers like the one from Time Square or currently in Stockholm. But, even if, we will most probably have to wait to read it at least till Julian Assange is allowed to shed his electronic shackle and starts wikileaking again.

In the meantime, our governments can tell us about real and imagined terrorists what they like. As science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar tells us in Berlin’s tageszeitung: ‘In science, one has to verify phenomena, and as long as this doesn’t happen, the final prove remains lacking. Every one of us, for example, can check the law of gravitation him- or herself but in the world of terror apparently there are other rules: When security agencies talk of […] a higher risk [for example…]. No one of us citizens can control whether all of this is true.’

And if one does not follow things extremely closely, sometimes important details slip through. A well-informed Indian taxi driver in Dubai tells me that one of the most spectacular terrorist attacks attributed to Muslim terrorists, against the Samjhauta express (linking Pakistan and India) on 19 February 2007, apparently was committed by an extreme Hindu group, Abhinav Bharat. Later that day, on board of the plane, I read Indian Congress Party leader Rahil Gandhi warning that ‘radicalised Hindu groups’ maybe be a bigger problem than Islamist groups.

Talking about taxi drivers. Those in Dubai, are mostly from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pashtuns or Punjabis, well-informed and opinionated. One of them, nevertheless, came up with the question whether I would deem it possible that the Americans themselves have blown up the Twin Towers on 9/11, after all there are a number of ‘inconsistencies’. (This echoes a conversation with a taxi driver in Washington recently who had seen George W. Bush grin in a Youtube video happily after he received the news sitting in that Southern school and one that I had … errrrr … with a neighbour who popped in after my return home.) It is astonishing how globalised that mistrust of the Americans is. Does that all come from the clear blue sky? No, surely Washington’s likewise globally dispersed spin on events in Afghanistan and elsewhere (now even by the hope-and-change man Obama) contributes to it, too.

(Yogeshwar also meets a taxi driver, in Hamburg, an Afghan: He tells him that ‘the Americans and the Brits cooperate with the Taleban. Afghanistan has many valuable natural resources including uranium, and that they want to lay their hands on. Terror attacks, that’s all humbug.’ We hear that a lot in Afghanistan, too.)

Maybe, the taxi drivers and my neighbour also have read the Gulf News article that the CIA (under Obama) still covers the costs of the two psychologists who ‘created the CIA’s interrogation programme’, waterboarding inclusive. (Is there no Hippocratic oath for that professional group??)

Back to the Abu Dhabi-based The National. Its former senior reporter has nothing better to do than ridiculing the Afghan government’s decision to issue all Afghan citizens with an electronic ID-cum-voter card – project costs: 100 million US$ – as ‘one of the more crazy developments to emerge out of Afghanistan’. Admittedly, it comes a little late, in particular since the minister responsible for the measure had called it a means for fairer and more efficient elections, after the two last flawed ones. But indeed, it would be. We should not forget that the Afghan government was advocating for such cards years ago but that donors – first of all the US which does not have ID cards – have prevented this from happening. If they had not shied away from the costs which still are not much more than half of these of the last elections, maybe, those elections would have been marred by less fraud. After all, electronically based ID/voters’ cards would have made multiple voting and ballot stuffing, the two main methods of fraud, much more difficult. Conclusion: The National’s author hits the bag instead of the donkey.

Moreover, she throws out the baby with the bath water, too, by claiming that the West was ‘obsessed with the idea of establishing a western-style liberal democracy at any cost’ in Afghanistan. Sorry, triple miss. Number one: The democracy-building plan, based on the Bonn agreements, was designed along the pre-1973 Afghan model. Number two: There was not much obsession about democracy amongst western governments whose troops had the not very democratic warlords in tow as their allies and ‘forgot’ to disarm them later. (And do not forget all this gibberish about Afghans not being ‘ripe’ for democracy’.) Number three: At any cost? Declining to finance the project earlier on is an example for exactly the opposite.

To put it short: Post-2001 Afghanistan was not about ‘western-style liberal democracy’ but about opening the road towards an Afghan-style democracy which obviously would not be covered in two or even twenty years. It was about the beginning of a long way, not about democracy ‘in a box’. (That idiotic term was developed later, for local administrations.)

By the way, I also got it confirmed that Afghanistan is not Switzerland reading on my plane, and that by a Swiss newspaper, Zurich’s weekly WOZ(article not on the internet). Afghanistan is even better: It has a law that regulates election and referendum campaign funding (even if it is not implemented), Switzerland doesn’t.

And I learned that Afghanistan is not alone in its misery between Western double-standards and home-made corruption. A reportage from Southern Sudan, again in Berlin’s taz, where a referendum about secession will take place on 9 January could have easily been from Kabul or Lashkargah, you just need to change the toponyms:

‘Infrastructure development seems more to answer the needs of the international community. The tarmaced road ends a few meters beyond the US representation, a bunker-like structure. […] The settlements in the suburbs [of Juba] show that corruption booms, too. Minister and army officers build huge villas there in striking colours and rent them out […] to employees of international organisations […], gigantic buildings in the gardens of which generators rattle. There is no sufficient power to supply the whole city but there is a pricey sushi restaurant for the elite. […] Paying bribes at roadblocks is daily business. South Sudan’s police has confiscated wagon-loads of merchandise [from local traders].’

Meanwhile, back in Germany again I switched on the TV news on the first night at home: Chancellor Merkel and her minister of defence, Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg, on a naturally unannounced visit in Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif where a German general leads RC North. (Guttenberg, a baron and chancellor-wannabe, visited Afghanistan for the eighth time this year, if I did not miscalculate.) One day later, Taleban staged one of their, by now, signature attacks on the local ANA recruitment centre in downtown Kunduz, using multiple suicide bombers.

But the report made me laugh, to be frank. One reporter of the usually quality ARD TV network was thrilled and called Merkel’s third visit to the country the ‘most important’ one yet because she had mentioned – ‘more clearly than ever before’ – the terrible K word, ‘Krieg’ (war). Well, sort of. ‘We don’t have a war-like situation here’ (a term coined by an earlier, unfortunate defence minister but still a Merkel minister), ‘but you [she addressed the soldiers] are involved in fighting like you have in a war.’ It is still not war, just something like it. In German, we have a word for such gibberish: ‘verschwiemelt’ – but I am still looking for an adequate translation of it.

Karzai also liked the meeting with Merkel, in particular because he had been shunned by her last time she came to Mazar in April 2009 when she did not fly to Kabul (officially because of bad weather). ‘That was a very good meeting’, he told the ARD reporter. Surely so, because his visitor – as other leading Western politicians and military brass – has clearly toned down her emphasis on fighting corruption: ‘I believe the President knows […] what is in disorder’. Inshallah, Chancellor.

My favourite feature of that day’s reading, however, was a photo in The National. It shows a number of Muslim women marching through a thick flurry of snow in Stockholm, baby pram included. One of their posters read: ‘No place for terrorists’.


Obama US Dubai Germany International