Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

The ICG Report and the Government’s Search for a New Narrative

Martine van Bijlert 14 min

A report by the International Crisis Group on Afghanistan’s upcoming transition has triggered a hostile response from the Afghan government. The ICG report is described as an attempt to weaken Afghanistan’s resolve in the face of the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership negotiations and as a means to pave the way for foreign interference in the upcoming Presidential elections. This defensive reaction lays bare the suspicions felt among much of Afghanistan’s governmental elite towards their Western allies and the tendency to view the Western media and analysts’ scene as guided by (covert) policies of their respective governments. And although the government’s response has also attracted domestic criticism, describing it as an attempt to deflect international scrutiny and pressure, some of the sentiments are more widely shared. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look.

The ICG report titled “Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition” was released on 6 October 2012. It discusses the weaknesses of Afghanistan’s political and electoral system and calls for urgent attention and reforms, warning that catastrophe will strike if problems are not addressed. It is very critical and phrased in stark terms, but as usual few will have actually read the document (1), and ultimately it is not the substance of the report that has provoked the strong reaction. What mainly seemed to have triggered the President and his entourage was a quote before the release of the report, stating that it was only a matter of time before the government would collapse and that the ensuing chaos and violence could be worse than it had been in the 1990s. This seems to have overshadowed any other messages the report may have had.

There has been a barrage of government messages in response. The Cabinet called the report part of psychological warfare; Foreign Affairs Minister Zalmay Rassoul and NSC head Dr Rangeen Dadfar Spanta denounced Western media organisations and think tanks as lacking in professional independence and accusing them of being a conduit for intelligence networks to undermine other nations; Palace spokesman Aimal Faizi said the report aimed to pave the way for foreign intervention in the upcoming Presidential elections; deputy presidential spokesman Hamid Elmi dismissed the report as “nonsense”, “baseless rumours” and “empty thoughts”; and a formal statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the report more a reflection of “the sheer ignorance of its authors than the true state of affairs in Afghanistan” and posited that “the Afghan people will preserve and advance further their historic and transformational successes of the past decade”.

This reaction did not come out of nowhere. When the ICG report was released, the Afghan government was just in the middle of trying to counter the narrative of post-2014 catastrophe. Earlier this month, on 2 October 2012, the Council of Ministers instructed the Ministry of Information and Culture to “take prompt measures with regard to misleading propaganda.” The statement, aired on Afghanistan’s national television, clarified that although in a democratic system analysts and experts have the right to criticize the government’s performance, they should take the country’s national interests in consideration and make sure they don’t damage national values. This message was echoed, almost word for word, in the President’s press conference on 4 October and in later government communications.

The response to the MoIC order was mixed. Media organisations like NAI and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) denounced is as vague and open to abuse, and called on the President to specify exactly which programs were against the mentioned national interests. The government then backed down somewhat: Palace spokesperson Aimal Faizi clarified that this was not a new law or order, but rather a request, while the Minister of Information and Culture told journalists that neither the Ministry, nor the President had any intention of censoring the media. But there were also signs that the sentiments that inspired the move, as well as earlier similar attempts to shape the tone of media reporting (2), were more widely shared. For instance Abdul Hamid Mobarez, the head of the National Union of Journalists who had criticised the order, argued that some media outlets and experts were indeed supported or influenced by regional intelligence agencies, that they gave views that contradicted the country’s national interests and that the Ministry should have acted on this long ago. Arman-e Melli, an independent daily, published the following editorial on the day that the Council of Ministers released their statement:

“People are concerned about possible developments after 2014. The opinions of some political analysis have badly affected public opinion in the country. The fact that some domestic media convey and reflect the opinions and comments of international sources and media, which do not conform to our society, have increased people’s concerns about their future. Some media do not have to reflect the opinion and stance of an international media outlet, but they think that they will gain credit by reflecting the international media’s comments and analysis. … Taking into account the unrealistic analysis by some political analysts and programmes of some media, the people think that the country will slip into a chaotic situation after 2014, and terrorists will return to power and take control of the people’s destiny by reintroducing lashings, beatings and ignorance. … However, it is possible that nothing will happen after 2014. … Taking into account these observations, the political analysts and the media should not try to increase people’s concern. They should pay serious attention to their comments and programmes, otherwise the enemy will take advantage of their comments and programmes. Meanwhile, the government bodies responsible for propaganda should put an end to the people’s unrealistic concern and encourage them to become optimistic and hopeful about their future.

Two days later, on 4 October, Karzai called a press conference in which he addressed (a) the “psychological warfare” waged by international media outlets (mentioning the New York Times, the BBC and CNN by name), calling on the national media not to damage the self-confidence of the Afghan people and asking them to apply whatever propaganda they can to strengthen the trust of their countrymen; and (b) the thorny issues relating to the upcoming elections, in particular the constant speculations that the he may seek to postpone the elections, calling on the international community not to interfere in the electoral process. In hindsight, the press conference was, at least partly, an attempt to counter the waves the ICG report was already making before it even had been released and to preempt its possible impact (3). The full transcription of the press conference can be found here (translation by BBC Monitoring).

This is not just a quarrel over the veracity of a report. Populist politicking aside, the controversy reflects the sense of irritation and suspicion within the government with regard to the constant negative media reporting. It also reflects a long-standing belief, of the President and the people around him, that Western media outlets – and now also researchers and analysts – are explicitly part of their governments’ policies and dirty tricks. A highly critical report is thus treated as an indication that a plot is being cooked.

The Palace and the Council of Ministers have thus made it clear that they believe the ICG report, and other reports speculating about the government’s lack of staying power, to be aimed at weakening Afghan resolve in the wake of the negotiations on the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), so that it will agree to the US terms – a view that is probably most clearly expresses in a radio address by the President shortly after his press conference, presented below (4). Alternatively, there is the view that the release of critical reports is linked to the upcoming Presidential elections. Palace spokesman Aimal Faizi (quoted by Bakhtar News Agency) said the ICG report had been debated in the cabinet meeting, which described it as politically-motivated and aimed at pursuing certain political objectives, and that it aimed to “[pave] the way for foreign interference in the next presidential election in Afghanistan because some circles in the West have recently been airing slander and lies, distorting the situation in Afghanistan and misleading public opinion.”

The fierceness of the response is largely unprecedented. Earlier controversies that come to mind and that are in some way similar include the emotional reaction in 2007 to the re-launch of the 2005 Human Rights Watch report “Blood-Stained Hands” (the controversy was framed as an insult to the memory of the jehad and as a plot to politically sideline the mujahedin, and inspired the drafting of the amnesty law by Parliament), and the government messaging since 2008 around the issue of Private Security Companies, branding them as covers for intelligence networks. But this is of a different flavour and it is hard to say how ugly it will get. If the – unfounded – denouncement of the ICG, and media/analysts in general, as intelligence-linked organisations continues, the remnants of the allegations are likely to stick and to build on the impact of earlier anti-Western rhetoric.

What further emerges from the government messaging is the systematic attempt to craft a new Afghan-centred transition narrative. Important elements in this narrative, as illustrated in Karzai’s press conference, his interview with Lara Logan and the recent MFA statement include Afghanistan’s long history as a nation, its ability to defeat empires, the fact that the transition is on track, and the assertion that both the security situation and people’s living conditions have improved in the areas that have transitioned to Afghan control (see below under footnote (5) for a commentary that was read on state channel RTA and that seems to neatly sum up the new narrative). The message of the Afghan government is clear: “Afghanistan’s challenging but steady transition to a normal, peaceful, secure and prosperous future is irreversible. Those who doubt this truth or deliberately attempt to cast doubts about it are wrong and harbour ill will towards Afghanistan and the Afghan people.”

The government’s reaction to critical reports is overly hostile and the optimism it offers in return is exaggerated, but it is not alone in its irritation over the bleakness of the reporting on Afghanistan. Most Afghans are deeply concerned over where their country may be going, as expressed in countless conversations AAN has with people from all walks of life (see also this earlier blog). But the fact that it always seem to be the foreigners voicing sombre predictions in public and with such adamancy, seems to be what ignited a fairly unified public backlash – even from people who share the concerns and criticisms that are raised (6).

The impatience is most palpable among the young intelligentsia. They are annoyed that the international discourse on Afghanistan is dominated by foreign analysts and experts, some of whom rarely visit, and that they phrase their criticism of ISAF and the Afghan government in terms of no-hope scenarios for the whole country. Some of them genuinely believe their country is going to be alright – or should at least be given the chance to be.

(1) The ICG report was discussed in in the Wolesi Jirga during its earlier sessions (and also in the Meshrano Jirga, which called on ICG to apologise for concluding that the Afghan government would collapse). In today’s WJ session the only mention was a suggestion by young Herat MP Naheed Ahmadi Fareed to first read the report carefully and compare it to the reality, before reaching conclusions – which must be considered progress.

(2) Over the past years there have been regular admonitions to the media from, among others, the NDS and Ministry of Information and Culture to alter their reporting so that it would not “disturb the population” and in doing so strengthen the hand of their enemies.

(3) See also the text of an editorial in Hasht-e Sobh (9 October 2012, translation by BBC Monitoring), which additionally reflects the different minds that people are in when reading such reports:

“Apparently, the recent remarks by the president at a news conference were an answer in advance to the report by International Crisis Group (ICG). According to the report, the Afghan army and police are unable to ensure security in Afghanistan after 2014. (…) It seems that the recent remarks by the president have neutralized the effect of the ICG report to some extent. The report by the International Crisis Group could have had a serious psychological impact on the society; if the president had not given a news conference. (…) When international organizations and institutions want to release reports, they should assess the impact of their reports on the economic, security and social situation in Afghanistan. These organizations should not take irresponsible steps. In fact, the ICG’s report also reflects some facts.(…) The release of reports like the recent one by ICG is to no avail, but it can only encourage the Taleban and other terrorist groups.”

(4) Transcript of President Karzai’s radio address on state radio station ‘Radio Afghanistan’ on 5 October (translation BBC Monitoring):

“Dear compatriots, sisters and brothers, peace be upon you. As I said at today’s conference, the foreign media are again producing an incorrect analysis of the situation after two years in Afghanistan and have embarked on a misleading propaganda campaign. And these foreign misleading analyses are reflected in our media as well.

Dear compatriots. The defence of the supreme national interests is an accepted principle in international relations and each country tries to protect the national interests of its people. Every side tries hard to gain the maximum advantage in international issues or when two sides are seeking to achieve their own interests. It can also conduct propaganda through the media to achieve the objective because it is a tool for implementing the foreign policy. A country uses the media as a tool to implement its foreign policy. Such propaganda is often not based on the facts. We can call it a propaganda warfare to achieve interests. As far as our relations with the international community, in particular with America, are concerned, the issue of signing, preparing and organizing the security pact with America lies ahead. Therefore, the Western media are trying to weaken the morale of the Afghans through a propaganda campaign and publish baseless analysis that is far from the facts about the consequences and the future of our country after the foreign military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Sisters and brothers. Under the strategic pact signed between Afghanistan and America six months ago, both sides must sign the strategic pact within a year, and talks started on this pact between the two sides a week ago. Both Afghanistan and America are trying to gain maximum advantages and retain their interests. Therefore, it has launched a propaganda campaign through the media to gain maximum advantages. Afghanistan is also working hard in this regard. Our today’s statements are part of our country’s foreign policy.

Dear compatriots. With the blessings of God, security situation has improved compared to the past since the start of the security transition and security incidents have decreased in areas where the Afghan forces have assumed security responsibilities from foreign forces. The improvement in security situation indicates that security situation will not worsen, but improve following the withdrawal of NATO and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] from Afghanistan. We will achieve our goal with the blessings of God and support of the Afghan people. Let me reiterate to my beloved compatriots not to trust the misleading propaganda campaign launched by the foreign media. You should not be worried about anything, you should be confident about the country’s future, security, development, democracy and the next elections. God willing, the country will go to polls on time and the people of Afghanistan will elect a new president for themselves. The security situation will improve and the Afghans will defend their country and its water just as they did thousands of years ago. We will live your life with full confidence. I expect the country’s investors and national businessmen to continue investing in the country just as before. Our boys and youth should continue their education. I hope that Afghanistan’s mass media and those, who speak to the media, will not be influenced by the foreign propaganda, but will speak for Afghanistan, its bright future and for boosting people’s confidence. They should make people understand that they have a bright and good future. The beloved Afghanistan will enjoy peace, stability and democracy and will witness elections and make progress. The people of Afghanistan will fulfil their permanent wish for peace, stability, development and peaceful life. We are a nation who have proven themselves in history and will again prove themselves. Good bye until next address.

Be happy.”

(5) Transcript of a commentary aired on national state television channel RTA on 8 October (translation by BBC Monitoring):

[Presenter] Certain international centres that have relations with and carry out their activities on the instructions of particular sources have joined hands with the Western media and embarked on psychological warfare against the Afghan people to weaken their morale by publishing distorted and fabricated reports. They want to instil doubts and pessimism about the future of their country.

A Bakhtar Information Agency commentator writes that the International Crisis Group [ICG], whose central office is in Brussels, has produced a fabricated report as part of the anti-Afghanistan activities. The group has tried to give a wrong impression of Afghanistan after 2014. The group has said in its report that Afghanistan will face a worrying situation following the foreign military withdrawal. It has said that the situation is deteriorating and the Afghan security forces are not ready to independently assume security responsibilities. It has also made other similar remarks.

What the ICG said in its report is nothing new. The Western media and some Western political associations daily discuss concerns about Afghanistan after 2014 at a time when the Afghan people and their leadership have an in-depth knowledge of the situation and are waiting for the foreign military withdrawal. Some Westerners are concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. However, a large number of Afghans are ready to assume security responsibilities. They have completed two phases of the security transition and the third phase is being carried out. They have made arrangements to complete the fifth and sixth phases. The Afghan forces have currently assumed security responsibilities for 75 per cent of their country. Afghan forces carry out night raids and are successfully carrying out operations in a number of provinces, including border regions, to ensure security and expand the government’s rule. So why should we be worried? Political analysts believe that the Westerners are confident that the Afghan security forces are capable of overcoming those security challenges, which have foreign factors, and creating a peaceful atmosphere for their compatriots.

The foreign military presence in Afghanistan is a recent phenomenon that will end soon. When foreign forces came to Afghanistan under an international agreement 11 years ago, their withdrawal was predicted because they cannot permanently stay in Afghanistan and the Afghans stressed that they themselves would defend the country. And now this idea and wish are being implemented.

The ICG’s statements are aimed at forming and promoting an opinion because such centres and organizations are not independent, but act based on the instructions and suggestions they receive from abroad. Otherwise, why are the facts about the defeat of world superpowers in Afghanistan not reflected? Afghanistan is a country that existed prior to the arrival of international military forces. It is the country that stood against the export of terrorism with a strong religious belief and national spirit. Also, it resisted the foreign military attacks that started from the northern borders of the country [Soviet invasion of Afghanistan]. There is no doubt that Afghanistan will again firmly stay united following the foreign military withdrawal in 2014.

The recent remarks by the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Hamed Karzai, deliver a clear message about the future of Afghanistan. Holding the future elections on time and his emphasis on restoration of permanent stability in the country indicate that the country is moving towards stability and national unity. In his speech, Hamed Karzai said that security and living conditions have improved in areas where the Afghan security forces have assumed security responsibilities. These remarks have emanated from the [president’s] confidence and trust in the national security forces and are praiseworthy.

Also, some senior NATO officials have recently spoken about the withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan prior to [2014]. These announcements were immediately rejected by senior NATO officials. However, the Afghan Defence Ministry announced that if foreign forces left the country prior to the date agreed, the national army forces would be ready to assume more security responsibilities and there was no concern in this regard. Moreover, senior Western officials, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have stressed that the withdrawal process will be carried out gradually and in line with the programme and that the Afghan security forces are ready to assume security responsibilities. British Prime Minister David Cameron has also called for the capacity building of Afghan forces and has said that it will lead to optimism about the future. He has also expressed optimism about Afghanistan’s situation after 2014.

Senior Afghan officials reacted to the ICG’s recent report and have stressed that the national security forces are capable of defending their national values and interests. Hamed Elmi, the deputy presidential spokesman, has said that [reports about] the government’s collapse after 2014 is baseless and nonsense. Therefore, the ICG and other similar organizations should realize the facts and stop their psychological warfare and not make such self-cantered statements against a nation that has fallen prey to foreign interests for many years but is still confident about its future despite facing foreign interferences, helplessness and deprivations

(6) There has also been public push-back on the government’s reaction, including the following:

Independent daily Hasht-e Sobh on 10 October 2012: “It seems that the government has been reflecting the discussions and its differences with the USA over the signing of a security pact in the media. (…) The spokesman for the president’s office for administrative affairs has also said that the government will not give up its conditions for signing a security pact with the USA. (…) It would be better if the government does not turn its differences with the USA over the draft of a security pact into a political and propaganda issue. (…) President Karzai and the government, in general, should pursue a lenient policy.”

Private daily Mandegar on 10 October 2012: “The new report released by the International Crisis Group suggests that the Afghan government could collapse after 2014. (…) The report by the ICG cannot be considered a report without political objectives, but these are the facts which have been tangible for the Afghan people in the recent years. (…) Whatever the report says are the realities which have been brought about by the government’s lack of know-how over the past decade and the passage of time will confirm these findings and realities. However, the government’s denial is like a ridiculous effort which will only result to their disgrace.”

English daily Outlook Afghanistan (10 October 2012): “The International Crisis Group report which has created a fuss in international media and caused harsh reaction from the Government provides a good narrative of the issues related to elections due in 2014, with solid policy recommendations. It is just unfortunate that the Government has rebuffed it (…) The analysis in ICG report is nothing new, but a narrative of the concerns and demands of political groups in Kabul. The issues raised have been discussed in our local media before. The genuine worries about polls and post-2014 crisis does not equate interference into internal affairs of Afghanistan, or aimed at any psychological war, but cautions about challenges and how to prepare our institutions and system to face. Empty, sensational and accusatory reactions are like the dove that hides its eyes with its wing, thinking everyone will see dark.” (Full article here).


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Martine van Bijlert

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