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Afghanistan

Photograph of old presidential campaign buttons

The president’s recent diagnosis with Covid-19 sent the US presidential election race into a tailspin. As Donald Trump and Joe Biden jockey to regain control of the media narrative at a crucial phase of the campaign, speculation about a possible “October surprise” is widespread. Today, the term refers to any news story that breaks late in an election cycle and has the potential to affect the outcome of the election. Yet its origins are firmly rooted in foreign policy. In particular, the phrase describes a sitting president’s alleged propensity to manipulate events to boost their electoral prospects. The president’s recent tweet calling for all remaining US forces in Afghanistan to return home by Christmas has fueled suspicions that Trump is playing politics …

Pakistan was born a paradox. Its partition from India was considered necessary to ensure a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. However, its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, always believed that Pakistan should be a secular state, tolerant of minorities; a homeland for Muslims but not an Islamic state. Unfortunately, he died shortly after partition and the dream of a secular and peaceful Pakistan was stillborn. 66 years after the establishment of the nation, the religious factor underpinning Pakistan’s creation and statehood has now become the principal source of its greatest national tragedy.

Last week saw the first convoy of trucks carrying NATO containers, which first travelled the road to Afghanistan eleven years ago, making their return journey through Pakistan. This was a sober reminder of a harsh reality: The West is finally quitting Afghanistan in spite of their failure to militarily win the war; a war that has been expensive in both human and material terms.

In January 2009, Pakistan’s Swat valley was fully under the control of a Taliban affiliate, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi(TNSM), and its leader Sufi Muhammad had issued a decree banning female education in the area. Only a handful of schools there had escaped the Taliban’s destructive wrath. While fear gripped the entire valley, Malala Yousafzai, an eleven years old girl from Swat’s Mingora town, began telling the world her innocent tales of surviving the Taliban’s ban on education.

With the military campaign in Afghanistan in the middle of its eleventh year, NATO has firmly moved from what is idealistically desirable to what is realistically achievable in the war-torn country. Over a decade ago, NATO intervened in Afghanistan with post-Cold War ambition. But the experience in Afghanistan, where the battle with Taliban-led insurgents is far from over, has put many off protracted peacekeeping missions. The US, who went into Afghanistan with a neoconservative mission of turning a tribal system upside down, is finally settling for an imperfect yet “responsible end” to a prolonged, unpopular, costly and deadly war. At the recently-held summit in Chicago, NATO leaders announced an “irreversible” three-stage security transition plan. Under the plan, Afghan National Security Forces …

Ahmed Rashid, the veteran Pakistani writer on the conflict in Afghanistan and Central Asia, has authored another book, titled Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan. A sequel to his four earlier books on the subject since mid-90s, especially Descent into Chaos (2008), the study underlines the precariousness of the Pakistani state’s chances for survival and the urgent need for policy resolutions. It also explains the causes of the recent deterioration in US-Pakistan relations and how they can be rectified; pinpoints factors responsible for the failure of the Obama Administration’s approach towards Pakistan and the Afghan war; and suggests ways to stabilise Pakistan and achieve a lasting peace in Afghanistan, amid the withdrawal of US and …

Compared to the Taliban era of the 1990s, Afghanistan has made impressive gains in the sphere of human rights, especially women’s rights. The Afghan constitution prohibits discrimination between citizens “whether man or woman”. Consequently, Afghan women have a visible presence in parliament, cabinet, civil administration and media. As pillars of civil society activism, they have played a crucial role in expanding female education across the country. For the moment, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission keeps the government under scrutiny and the country’s vibrant media promotes a culture of free enquiry in what is still a predominantly tribal society. What Afghanistan has been able to achieve in the middle of a war, with international help, was virtually unthinkable over a …

Sir Graeme Lamb is not fond of theorising. However, the former Director of the UK Special Forces can claim to have played an important part in the initiative that pacified large parts of Iraq after 2006. Much of what he argued for is now part of the official US counterinsurgency strategy. But while it is easy for academics and other observers to demand that armed forces should ‘reach out’ to insurgents, there is precious little guidance on the practicalities of initiating a meaningful conversation with the people determined to bomb the foreigners out of their homeland. Lamb shared his insights as part of Emma Sky’s seminar series in Oxford on 25 October, jointly hosted by the Changing Character of War …