The Afghan-led peace process: reality or illusion?

 

How to read the just reached agreement between Kabul and Hekmatyar in the framework of a broader Afghan-owned peace process

 

When looking at a map of Afghanistan, the first geographic feature that comes to one’s attention is the mountainous landscape. Especially in the North East of the country –there where the high peaks of the Hindu Kush are- the landscape is made of harsh mountain passes, hidden caves, and isolated provinces where tribal allegiances still regulate daily life and where Kabul’s arm cannot reach.

Since the civil war that tore the country apart in the ‘90s, these geographic features have rendered the north-eastern regions of Afghanistan an attractive hideout for terrorist groups and warlords seeking a secure base. After 1989, many political and military leaders who refused to recognize the government established in Kabul managed to exploit the physical isolation and the political tribalism of the country’s North East to settle there.

 

Among those warlords, a special role was played by Hekmatyar, a powerful Ghilzai Pashtun who in 1977 had founded the group Hizb-i-Islami and who was one of the most prominent and most controversial protagonists of Afghanistan’s civil war. As many other warlords, when in 1996 Kabul fell to the Taliban Hekmatyar left the capital and found a secure base for his group in the Eastern regions of Kunar, Paktia and Laghman. Since that moment on and even after the Taliban’s fall, Hizb-i-Islami became one of the many groups that, exploiting secular ethnic-tribal ties and the disaffection of the local people with a central government incapable of providing security, compete with Kabul for influence and power.

 

Yesterday, though, a turning-point was reached as Kabul and Hizb-i-Islami reached a peace deal.

According to the agreement, Hekmatyar commits to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial support to terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to Hemkatyar (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the civil war’s years), to encourage international actors to lift any sanction and restriction against the group, to release several members of Hizb-i-Islami who are currently in jail, and to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in elections.

 

As soon as the agreement was announced, it was met with enthusiasm and optimism worldwide. Spokespersons for the EU and the US praised the agreement as a crucial step towards Afghanistan’s stability and the defeat of terrorism, and as a proof that “peace is possible” and that a “new narrative” is now being created in the country.

However, within Afghanistan, voices were less optimistic and many protesters took to the streets to denounce the agreement. Many Afghans, in fact, regard the deal as the unjustified forgiveness of one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest warlords and as the dangerous inclusion in the country’s politics of one of Afghanistan’s most controversial political figures.

 

As in most such cases, the truth lies probably in between.

Over the past few years, Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami have played a limited role in the Afghan insurgent dynamics, that were rather dominated by the Taliban’s re-emergence and by ISIS’s appearance. In this context, Hizb-i-Islami did not expand beyond its powerbase in the North East and limited itself to giving support to one warring group or the other according to the moment’s convenience. Due to this limited active role on part of Hektamyar’s group, it is difficult (and somewhat naïve) to think that yesterday’s agreement will bring Afghanistan closer to stability and peace.

Nevertheless, the agreement cannot and should not be dismissed as Ghani’s latest vain effort at peace.

Firstly, the deal is important because it was reached without any UN or international mediation and was the result of a long-waited Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peacebuilding effort.

Secondly, the agreement has a crucial symbolic value: in the eyes of the Afghan people, the deal strengthens the credibility of Ghani as security provider and his image as President capable of healing the factionalism of the Afghan politics and of pursuing inclusiveness; in the eyes of the international community, the deal reinforces the perception of Ghani as reliable partner of a peace process centred on dialogue and negotiations.

Finally, the agreement is especially commendable because granting immunity to Hekmatyar and allowing Hizb-i-Islami to participate in the political process it might encourage other insurgent groups to put down the arms and seek dialogue with Kabul.

 

For this to happen, though, a simple signature on a sheet of paper is not enough and the real challenge lying ahead for Ghani is the implementation of the deal. In order to make the rapprochement to Hizb-i-Islami acceptable to all Afghans and attractive to other insurgent groups, in fact, Ghani will have to follow a two-pronged action: on the one hand, give to Hekmatyar’s faction the promised access to the country’s political system; on the other hand, prevent the delicate -and by some contested- inclusion of Hizb-i-Islami from turning into a further cause of instability and stalemate.

 

The above challenge is a crucial one, since a failure in implementing the deal fully and smoothly will translate into a loss of credibility for Ghani and his government, and into a consequent increase of support for those insurgent groups that still reject talks with Kabul and pursue armed struggle.

Reaching the deal was thus just the first step of that Afghan-led peace process that the country desperately needs.

The US-Israel friendship between military agreements and the American elections

The military agreement signed by the US and Israel reinforces not only the military partnership between the two allies but also the tacit support given by Bibi to Trump’s eventual victory

 

Last week, after months of long negotiations and tiring compromises, the US and Israel signed a new military agreement that strengthens their bilateral cooperation in the sector.

 

According to the agreement, which will enter into force in 2019 and will last for a decade, the US will give Israel 3.8 billion $ per year in military support, for a total of 38 billion $ – of which 33 billion devoted to the purchase of armies and munitions and 5 billion destined to missile defense. The agreement implies thus an important increase in terms of financial support, if compared with the 30 billion foreseen in the current agreement and due to expire soon. The latest agreement between the US and Israel –known as Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)- is indeed the biggest military support ever approved by Washington towards an allied country.

Nevertheless, the agreement did not come without a cost for Israel and Netanyahu’s government, that had not only to renounce the initial request of 45 billion $ in ten years but also had to bend to some provisions that raised voices of criticism in Tel Aviv. In the specific of these provisions, Israel accepted not to seek further financial aid on part of the American Congress over the next ten years and to limit expenditures in the Israeli military industry to give precedence to the American one.

 

The just-signed MOU represents thus an important milestone in the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, but it is also a useful lens through which to read the approach of both Obama and Bibi to the upcoming American Presidential elections.

 

On Obama’s side, many analysts and experts have underlined how the American President invested the last months in reaching an agreement with Israel in order to conclude with a diplomatic victory his political legacy – especially in fields in which he has been widely criticized such as of foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics.

In terms of the next American Presidential elections, then, the agreement can be read as the fruit of Obama’s attempt to strengthen the image of the Democratic Party in the eyes of two influence groups of traditional Republican leaning – the arms lobby and the American Jewry. Indeed, the agreement contains provisions that (as seen above) ensure economic advnategs for the American military industry and, being an unprecedented agreement in terms of numbers, it hails the relationship between the Obama administration and those pro-Israel American Jews who have in the past denounced as too cold the President’s approach to Israel.

Specular is then the attempt to delegitimize those voices within the Republican Party that criticize Obama for the tensions that during the years of his mandate have risked damaging the traditional friendship between the US and Israel – a country that large part of the American electorate still regards as Washington’s only reliable ally in the Middle East and as only reliable bulwark against the threat posed by terrorism and radical Islamism.

 

On Netanyahu’s side, instead, the agreement was sought because seen as crucial to preserve the qualitative military superiority of Israel vis-à-vis its neighbors and thus ensure the Jewish state’s security and deterrence capacity.

In terms of the next American Presidential elections, then, the decision of signing the agreement before Obama goes home rises from the uncertainties that surround the choice of the next American President. At this respect, Netanyahu has thus far refused to take an explicit position (contrary to what he did in 2012 when he was a professed supporter of Romney). Nevertheless, it is plausible to assume that in Tel Aviv the ascent of Trump to the White House is seen more favorably than that of Clinton, whose stance on Israel is deemed by Bibi as not sufficiently different from Obama’s and excessively centered on the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and the condemnation of Israel’s settlements.

Now, the recent military agreement goes to reinforce such assumption.

 

Indeed, as far as Middle Eastern politics and Middle Eastern security dynamics are concerned, Netanyahu and Trump have over the past months revealed to share not few opinions. Just like Bibi, Trump has more than once criticized last year’s nuclear agreement with Iran and he too reads Iran’s economic and political ascent as a major threat to the region’s stability and security. In addition, unlike Clinton, Trump has not made the US-Israel friendship conditional upon Israel retrieveing dialogue with the Palestinians in the framework of a “two-state solution”. Rather, he has even supported Israel’s claim to build further settlements in the West Bank, and scored in this way an important point last week, when Netanyahu to both the Israeli and American public presented the opposition to settlements as a policy of “ethnic cleansing”. As said above, this similarity of positions on part of Netanyahu and Trump is now reinforced by last week’s military agreement. Trump, in fact, has always promoted in his political rhetoric an American foreign policy made of non-intervention and isolationism, and this approach of his goes well with the increased capacity of self-defense that the new agreement gives to Israel and that was largely praised by the head of Israel’s National Security Council. Moreover, the agreement contains provisions that force Israel to buy weapons and munitions from the American military industry. These provisions could thus favor the Trump-Netanyahu relationship if the latter’s desire of securing the best munitions and the best contracts possible led him to seek closer ties with a Republican candidate who is strong of the historical bound between his Party and the arms lobby.

 

Therefore, the military agreement signed last week by Washington and Tel Aviv not only strengthens the US-Israel relationship that in the past few years was more than once questioned, but it also influences Netanyahu’s approach to the American elections.

Two years later: Afghanistan and its National Unity Government

Assessing the security, economic and political situation of Afghanistan two years after the NUG of Ghani and Abdullah was installed in Kabul and thinking of a way out of the chaos

 

 

Two years ago -in September 2014- the months of stalemate, violence and fraud that had characterized until then the Afghan presidential electoral process were brought to an end by an agreement that established a National Unity Government (NUG). According to such agreement, the government would be led by the two frontrunner candidates: Ashraf Ghani – former Minister of Finance and exponent of the Pashtun electorate – was appointed President; Abdullah Abdullah -former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Tajik candidate- was appointed Chief Executive Officer.

When the agreement was signed, many –within Afghanistan, in the region, and in the international arena- saw the NUG as the concretization of the long-held hope that through an inclusive government politically legitimate and truly representative it would have been possible to adopt the reforms necessary to address (and eventually solve) the country’s problems.

 

Yet, two years after Ghani and Abdullah signed the agreement in Kabul, much of that optimism has now faded: most people in Afghanistan have lost any trust in the future of a country where they feel there is no life worth living, and most people abroad have retrieved the usual narrative of Afghanistan as a hopeless country defined exclusively by terrorism, death, corruption and poverty.

 

To be fair, the picture we can trace of Afghanistan on the second anniversary of its current government is not a rosy one, nor one that (for now) leaves much room to hope for upcoming and dramatic improvements.

 

On the security level, the past two years have been extremely worrying: Ghani’s attempt to cooperate with Pakistan and dialogue with the Taliban has ultimately failed, because in Pakistan too many officials still see support to the Afghan Taliban as a way to gain strategic depth and because too many Taliban have not abandoned yet the dream (or rather the utopia) of re-building a Taliban Emirate by means of war; the NATO and the US have reduced the number of forces deployed in Afghanistan without the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police being ready to take over; ISIS has managed to take control of part on Nangarhar and entered into a bloody competition with the Taliban; many Taliban fighters defected to ISIS after the rumour of Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed; the Taliban leadership passed in the hands of new leaders (Mullah Mansour before and now Hibatullah Akhundzada) who see in war and terrorism the most effective ways to retain credibility and thus preserve the group’s unity and support.

On the background of this gloomy security environment, it should thus not surprise that 2015 became the death toll reached record high levels and the Taliban achieved their maximum territorial expansion since 2001.

 

On the economic side, the situation does not look anything better: the data released by the World Bank in the Spring of 2016 report an economic growth of 0.2% only and a youth unemployment at record high levels.

The deteriorating security environment, coupled with the NUG’s failure to deliver reforms capable of developing sources of growth and fostering production, is undermining the confidence of the private sector and of foreign investors. To be sure, some economic and trade agreement has recently been signed by Afghanistan and regional neighbours – such as the agreement with India and Iran on the development of the port of Chabahar and the agreement with China for the inclusion of Afghanistan in the Chinese One Belt One Road project. However, despite these agreements entail the potential of attracting investment in Afghanistan and promoting a regional trade of which Afghanistan is part, the security threats to which the country is continuously subject constitute a major concern and a likely deterrent in the eyes of regional trade partners.

 

On the background of this scenario of rising insecurity and lack of economic opportunities, in which daily life is rendered a struggle and violence leaves no room nor time for any hope to flourish, another tragedy has worsened over the past two years – that of the Afghan refugees and internally displaced people.

According to the UN, in Spring 2016 almost 1.000 Afghans every day were forced to leave their homes and almost 180.000 Afghans applied for refugee status in Europe – a data that makes of Afghans the second biggest group of refugees in Europe.

 

All the above-presented crises, though, are the direct expression of what is perhaps Afghanistan’s biggest problem: the NUG’s weakness.

Since coming to power two years ago, the NUG of Ghani and Abdullah has failed to bring about the promised political and economic reforms and has on the contrary remained slave to the paralysis caused by the traditional factionalism of the Afghan politics. Both Ghani and Abdullah, indeed, have been constantly trying to make the interests of their respective constituencies and have proved disposed to sacrifice national good for that of their own groups.

Moreover -as if this factionalism internal to the NUG was not enough to condemn the country’s politics to stalemate- in many rural and isolated regions (especially in the country’s North) there are political and military leaders such as Dostum and Atta who exploit ties of tribal allegiances and long-established networks of local support to compete with Kabul in the exercise of power.

The NUG’s internal factionalism, the ethnic and exclusionary politics it fuels, and the existence of many powerbrokers who act outside the legitimate institutions are all elements that have inevitably reduced the government’s governing capacity and consequently undermined its credibility in the eyes of the Afghan population.

 

Unsurprisingly, the weakness to which the NUG is currently (self) condemned is the country’s most pressing challenge, from which a great deal of the other problems stems. Indeed, it obstructs security, since the people’s little faith in the central government is easily exploited by non-state groups such as the Taliban who offer effective alternative forms of shadow governance; it obstructs economic development, since it affects the capacity of implementing reforms and measures that might create jobs, encourage private entrepreneurship, foster

The two dangerous faces of Bibi’s politics

The increase in the number of demolitions of Palestinian houses and the increase in the number of Israeli settlements reveal a dangerous politics embraced by Tel Aviv that the international community should try to counter

 

 

A recent report published by OCHA (the UN agency that deals with the coordination of humanitarian affairs) on the conditions of the Palestinian population in the Palestinian Occupied Territories shed light on some worrying data that deserve attention and require an immediate political response.

According to the data released by the report, in fact, since the beginning of 2016 there has been an increase in the number of demolitions of Palestinian houses perpetrated by the Israeli State. In particular, OCHA reports 684 building as having been demolished since January 2016 – a figure which implies an increase by 25% with respect to the previous year.

 

These demolitions –though harmful for the Palestinian population as a whole- interest in particular East Jerusalem and Area C (a territory corresponding to 60% of the West Bank that according to the Oslo Agreements of 1993 is under Israeli administration), which since the Six-Day War of 1967 have been one of the most delicate issues in the territorial disputes between Israel and Palestine.

The reported demolitions -that mostly involve private houses but also public buildings such as schools and health centres- are justified by Israel either as punitive measures carried out against families whose members have attempted the security of the Israeli state or on the basis of questionably legal pretexts, chief among them the claim that the demolished houses had been built without the required permits.

 

Regarding this last point, however, it is necessary to underline the difficulties encountered by Palestinians when they wish to build houses and need to submit the requests of the relevant permits to Tel Aviv: according to OCHA’s data, in fact, between 2010 and 2014 Palestinian citizens submitted 2,020 requests of which Israel only approved 33. Moreover, according to the agency WAFA, a Palestinian family may be forced to wait up to 12 years and pay up to 70,000 $ in order to obtain the necessary permits.

In front of such state of things, thus, it is not surprising that most Palestinian families proceed with the construction of their houses without waiting for the compulsory but unobtainable permits.

 

The rise in the demolition of Palestinian houses, then, is accompanied by another policy in worrying ascent: the construction of Israeli settlements in those same areas (especially around Hebron and Nablus) where the Palestinian houses have been demolished and where Palestinians are prevented from building.

According to OCHA, today 600,00 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – a number which has more than doubled since the Oslo Agreement and which is in continuous rise: as reported by the watchdog Peace Now, in fact, only last Tuesday the Israeli government approved the construction of 285 new settlements in the West Bank.

 

The reasons for this double-faced Israeli action (now on the rise with the government in the hands of politicians such as Netanyahu, Liberman and Bennett) are of political nature and find their roots in the political calculations of the current establishment.

 

As far as East Jerusalem is concerned, the growing demolition of Palestinian houses is part of the broader politics embraced by the current government and aimed at removing Palestinians from the city by forcing them to build somewhere else, and cancelling any physical, historical and socio-cultural link between the Palestinian population and Jerusalem in order to make of the city an undisputed Jewish urban centre.

As far as the West Bank is concerned, the coordinated policies of demolition and settlement clearly aim to grab as much land as possible and increase the number of Israeli-Jewish inhabitants.

 

By so doing, the same prospect of having in future a Palestinian state is put into question and the legitimacy of the Palestinian national vindications is badly weakened. If the Palestinian population has no land nor houses in East Jerusalem and in the Area C of the West Bank, in fact, how can it justify in the eyes of the international community its quest for a national state comprising the whole of the West Bank and having East Jerusalem as its capital?

Moreover, by so doing, the credibility of the Palestinian leadership (both before the international community and before the Palestinians themselves) is questioned – and this is an aspect of the story in which Israel is particularly interested. Indeed, the more the Palestinian leadership has a faltering credibility and a disputable internal legitimacy, the more it will struggle to elaborate a clear political line and coherent demands, thus making Bibi’s game.

 

From what said thus far, it emerges how the main consequence of Israel’s politics is the weakening of any realistic prospect of a two-state solution. Indeed, with the constant demolition of Palestinian houses, the expulsion of their inhabitants from ever wider areas, and the construction in their place of Israeli settlements where Tel Aviv incentivizes as many Jewish Israelis as possible to settle, the possibility of having a Palestinian state comprising the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the whole of the West Bank becomes ever more difficult to be demographically justified.

In other words, the more Israel drives the Palestinians away the more the two-state solution itself is pushed away.

 

Among the other consequences of Israel’s politics, we should then consider the embittering of the political-diplomatic relations between Israel and a Palestinian Authority that finds it (reasonably) difficult to see in the Jewish state a partner sincerely committed to a bilateral solution; and the weakening within the Palestinian political realm of the more moderate factions to the advantage of the more radical fringes opposed to any negotiation and compromise.

 

The data released by OCHA shed thus light on a worrying reality, behind which it is possible to see what is Israel’s de facto policy of annexation.

Nevertheless, these data have received little attention: the international community, and in particular actors close to Israel such as the USA and the EU, are in fact focused on other and more pressing issues in the Middle East –namely, the war in Syria, the deterioration of the security scenario in Lybia, and the threat of the jihadist terrorism embodied by the so-called Islamic State.

Yet, Washington and Brussels, when approaching the Middle Eastern political reality, should remember that what happens in Israel-Palestine has inevitable consequences on the balances of the whole region and therefore deserves constant attention. Acknowledging this, the USA and the EU should exploit the diplomatic influence and the economic and commercial leverages they have with respect to Israel, so as to prevent dangerous dynamics that might not only exasperate the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority but also come to involve in a spiral of insecurity other actors (state and non-state alike) that are active in the region.

 

[In the picture, Ariel, one of Israel’s settlements in the West bank]