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.

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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

Pakistan’s internal and ever-lasting war

PAKISTAN’S INTERNAL AND EVER-LASTING WAR

 

The attacks of Monday are a reminder of how terrorism continues to be the main challenge for Pakistan and how Islamabad has more than one reason to embrace a non-ambiguous and effective policy of counter-terrorism

 

On Monday morning, the Pakistani city of Quetta became (once again) the theatre of a brutal terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 64 people and wounded dozens more. The target of the attack was a gathering of lawyers who had gone to a local hospital where a colleague of their – the President of the Balochistan Bar Association, Mr Bilal Anwar Kasi – had been brought after being shot while on his way to work.

The terrorist attack was claimed within some hours by spokesmen of both a branch of the Pakistani Taliban and of ISIS. Nevertheless, whoever the actual responsible is, what the attack of Monday pointed out is that – despite the shy improvements in terms of crackdown made by the Pakistani government – terrorism continues to be a major source of internal insecurity for Pakistan and a major threat for the Pakistani population.

 

The terrorist threat, embodied mainly by the Tareek-e-Taliban Pakistan but also by emerging groups such as the South Asian branch of ISIS, is particularly problematic in volatile provinces such as Balochistan (where the city of Quetta indeed is). Here, in fact, the central government has always faced difficulties in extending its control due to the existence of tribal insurgence movements who reject Islamabad’s legitimacy – and this has made it easier for terrorist groups to find ground for recruitment, training and action.

 

However, in order to understand how this state of things has come into being and has evolved one cannot only look at Islamabad’s difficulties in controlling the country’s tribal areas (with FATA being the most emblematic case) but needs to look deeper into the government’s traditional approach to regional terrorism.

As far as terrorism is concerned, in fact, Islamabad has always played a dangerous “double game”: elaborating a non-sense distinction between the so-called “good Taliban” who operate within Afghanistan and the so-called “bad Taliban” who are instead active in Pakistan, Islamabad has traditionally maintained an opposite approach to the two groups. On the one hand, it has (not even too covertly) supported the Afghan Taliban and, when needed, given to them a safe haven where to hid and re-organize. On the other hand, instead, the Pakistani government has always considered the presence of terrorists in Pakistan as a major threat and a destabilizing factor and has tried to act militarily against them (or at least keep them confined to peripheral areas only).

 

But what are the roots of Pakistan’s double approach to the jihadi terrorism espoused by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban? For that, one needs to look at the country’s historical relations with its immediate neighbours – Afghanistan and India.

With respect to Afghanistan, Islamabad has always tried to exploit the threat posed by the Taliban to Kabul’s credibility and the destabilizing effect of their activity in order to turn the Afghan government into a puppet eager to follow Islamabad’s guidelines (read impositions), such as the undiscussed acceptance of the 1893 Durand Line (the line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan for a length of 2640 km) and the adoption of an anti-India foreign policy. This last element is especially important: Pakistan, indeed, has always tried to use the Taliban and to take advantage of their presence in Afghanistan in order to gain strategic depth in an anti-India logic.

In other words, treating the Afghani Taliban as “good terrorists” and sustaining (or at least not refraining) their activity so as to weaken Kabul has always been part of Pakistan’s calculations to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the Indian enemy and turn in its favour the regional system of alliances.

 

However, what the wave of attacks that has been hitting Pakistan over the past years highlights is that Islamabad is now paying the price (and an extremely high one) of its “double game” with terrorism. Over the past years, the country has become a preferred target for many terrorist groups operating in the region and this is now starting to make Islamabad aware that no such distinction between “good” and “bad” can exist when terrorism is concerned and that a single approach aimed at its defeat is rather needed.

 

Pakistan today cannot escape the reality of facts that a serious fight against terrorism is vital to protect its own national security and its international credibility.

 

In addition – as if the above was not enough – Pakistan now has also economic motivations to pursue a harder line against terrorists, and this is evident if the Pakistan-China relationship is taken into consideration.

China is not only a long-time political ally of Islamabad but it is also the number one investor in Pakistan’s economic development, with a recent plan of a 46-billion-dollar investment for the construction of ports, railways, roads, telecommunication and energy infrastructures.

Thanks to these massive investments, Pakistan would see its potential of economic development fuelled and it could retrieve the levels of economic growth that it had known in the past and that had led many to see in it the next Asian economic power. However, nothing of this will become reality if Pakistan does not create a stable and reliable security environment: the waves of terrorist attacks, in fact, risk discouraging China from proceeding with its investment plans and if this were to happen and China’s projects were stymied, Pakistan economy would lag behind that of the other Asian countries for the next future.

 

Islamabad’s double game has thus security and economic costs that cannot simply be ignored.

 

 

 

[Picture: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2016/08/pakistan-mourns-victims-hospital-attack-160809070245225.html%5D

Race and Politics in post-apartheid South Africa

 

How the latest municipal elections have marked a shift in South Africans’ approach to politics

 

One could hardly find in the world a country as complex and contradictory as South Africa.

Twenty-two years ago -under the untiring leadership and the unshakable determination of Mandela- the country was walking its way out of the apartheid regime that for 56 years had kept South Africa’s black majority in a condition of discrimination, oppression and fear.

Twenty-two years ago, the South African people was writing one of the brightest chapters of the world’s recent history: Mandela’s rise to power came to symbolize the rise to freedom of all oppressed people worldwide and had a significance and an impact that went much beyond the borders of South Africa.

Twenty-two years ago, Mandela became South Africa’s first black President and the African National Congress (ANC) became the dominant party in the country’s political landscape.

Nevertheless, contradictions did not take long to emerge.

The ANC, in fact, was a black-dominated party whose political legitimacy was based on having defended the rights of the black people against the white minority and having defeated apartheid. And this rhetoric was further strengthened over the years: as other parties emerged, the leaders of the ANC went back to the fight for black equality to secure the support of the black voters and to weaken parties such as the mostly-white Democratic Alliance (DA) that could not refer to any comparable achievement as the defeat of apartheid was.

The result was thus the emergence of a South African political landscape in which allegiance to parties is mostly ethnically based and political views are mostly racially justified. These perceptions have constantly defined the political interactions between the country’s diverse ethnic groups and have paradoxically made of a “rainbow nation” that had long fought for equality one in which race still influences politics.

All this, though, is now about to change.

In the municipal elections held on the 3rd of August, in fact, new dynamics have taken shape and have come to redefine the country’s political environment.

For the first time since 1994 votes were not influenced by history but rather by a concern over future, and people cast their votes not on the basis of traditional ethnic affiliation but on the basis of their assessment of politicians’ performance.

What the elections made clear is that a new approach to politics and a new political sensitivity has gradually emerged among voters – and the consequence of this new awareness was a blown for President Zuma’s ANC and a success for Maimane’s DA. Tired of a political establishment dominated by corruption, scandals and lack of transparency, tired of a stagnating economy with unemployment at 26%, and tired of a poverty whose “face is still black” and of a persistent inequality between poor black workers and wealthy white employers, many black voters who in the past had loyally supported the ANC and all it represented turned their back to it and voted for the DA.

It is thus in this changing political context that Zuma found himself paying the price of his poor political performance and that the DA obtained a stunning success winning in cities as relevant as Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela Bay and challenging the ANC in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

What took place on the 3rd of August was the biggest shake-up in the country’s post-apartheid’s political order and the most impressive change in the people’s political awareness since 1994.  This new approach to politics, to the significance of voting, and to the accountability of politicians marked in fact a real turning-point for a country in which -despite apartheid having formally ended twenty-two years ago- race and politics actually continued to go hand in hand.

In 1994, black people went to vote for the first time as free and self-aware black citizens. Today they have gone to vote as informed and self-aware South African citizens.

A new chapter has thus begun for South Africa – one in which the past is past and apartheid memories have been consigned to history.

 

Which future for Gaza?

One month after the Turkish-Israeli agreement and the arrival of the first Turkish aid in Gaza, the issue of what future lies ahead for the Strip under a blockade regime that Israel is not intentioned to lift remains open and debated

 

After the agreement between Tel Aviv and Istanbul with which the two countries retrieved their bilateral relations, in early July a cargo ship delivering Turkish aid reached Gaza. Indeed, when the deal was reached, among the Turkish requests there was the end of the blockade imposed by the Israeli government on the Strip. However, among the Israeli positions there was the refusal of any significant change to the blockade regime. Therefore, a compromise was necessary and this was found in the consent given by Israel to Turkey to send aid towards Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod, where any cargo directed to the Strip needs to be inspected by Israel before it can reach its final destination.

Due to this agreement, thus, on the 3rd July the vessel Lady Layla reached Ashdod and from there Gaza City, where it transferred 11 tonnes of aid, among which food, clothes, toys, products for personal hygiene and other goods of first necessity. Once in Gaza, the aid was put in the hands of the Ministry of Social Affairs, in charge of distributing 75% of all aid to the 75,000 poorest families who depend on subsidies (the remaining 25% is administered by the Palestinian Red Crescent).

 

In the words of Etimad al-Tarshawi (Secretary General of Planning and Development in the above-mentioned Ministry), this aid –even if only a small part of what Gaza needs- is extremely important for the families that receive it, since it helps to cope with an economic situation which is desperate to say the least.

Since June 2007, indeed, when Hamas won administrative control over Gaza, Israel has imposed severe restrictions to the movement of people and goods from and to the Strip. The Israeli policy –justified by the government as a measure which is necessary to prevent weapons from being delivered to Hamas and to prevent extremists from entering the Israeli territory and endangering the country’s security- did not succeed in weakening the group, that continues in fact to administer the Strip and to enjoy a broad popular support thanks to the services it provides to the population. On the contrary, the Israeli policy had the only effect of obstructing any possibility of economic development for the Strip, thus paving the way to the emergence of a thriving black market that benefits those who manage the smuggling networks and condemns instead to poverty the civilian population. Following the Israeli policy, in fact, the almost 2 million civilians who live in Gaza are confined within the borders of the Strip, prevented from moving to other places in search of job, and left without means of subsistence and without hopes of a future improvement.

Moreover, because of the blockade that prevents construction materials from reaching Gaza, houses, schools, and hospitals that had been destroyed in 2014 during the last conflict have not been rebuilt yet.

 

According to the UN, if this situation does not change in the short run, Gaza will become “uninhabitable” by 2020. Similar warnings have also come from the World Bank which has defined Gaza’s economy as being “on the verge of collapse”.

 

 

In light of this grim economic situation, it is clear how the aid coming from Turkey is vital to Gaza and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the agreement between Turkey and Israel (and in particular the section related to Gaza) has given rise to discordant reactions on part of the Palestinians.

On one side, there are those who have stressed the positive impact that Turkish aid can have on the conditions of Gazans and have underlined the necessity and the hope that Turkey continues its policy of concrete support made possible by the recent agreement. In this group, there is also Hamas that presented the agreement as a turning-point that can make Turkey more active in pressing Israel to lift the blockade.

On the other side, instead, there are those who criticize the terms of the agreement because they regard it as being not only insufficient but even counter-productive as far as the lifting of the blockade is concerned. What many civilians and analysts settled in Gaza maintain, in fact, is that the agreement fails to reckon the difference between embargo and blockade and that its efficiency is limited exclusively to the former. As far as the latter is concerned, in fact, the agreement merely allows the transfer of aid to the Strip but does not guarantee the opening of Gaza to international economy, risking in this way to crystallizing the blockade rather than paving the way to its lifting.

 

This stance highlights an important element: despite the undeniable importance of humanitarian aid for an area of the Levant where the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world, what Gaza really needs are development projects capable of revitalizing its economy. It is necessary a long-term and broader approach, capable –through initiatives and in loco development projects- of giving to Gaza a real economic structure and to the population residing there possibilities of work and self-sufficiency.

Without this kind of approach, Gaza will continue to be dependent on aid and its population will continue to be excluded from development, with the consequent risk that the territory might become a hotbed for extremism. Without alternatives and in a socio-economic context made of alienation, poor education, unemployment, and lack of direct contacts with the outer world -in fact- radical religious and political groups and organizations voted to violence and terrorism might easily exploit the despair of young Gazans to win support and attract recruits.

 

A situation of this kind would serve no one’s interests: it would not benefit Gaza, its population, Hamas, nor would it benefit Israel and Egypt – the countries responsible for the maintenance of the blockade.

With the Strip radicalized and exposed to the risk of proliferation of terrorism, Israel would find itself having at its borders a serious threat to its security – much more serious than the one that, according to the government’s rhetoric, there would be if Gaza was enabled to have its own economy and to maintain economic, trade and financial relations with the outside world.

A similar discourse applies to the Egyptian case: if a Gaza forcibly kept isolated and underdeveloped became an operative ground for extremist and terrorist groups, the Sinai would see itself exposed to a direct threat to its security and stability, and from the Sinai (that already is for Egypt the most volatile region and the most difficult to be controlled from Cairo) the threat would rapidly extend to the rest of Egypt.

 

However, within the Israeli establishment this reality is reckoned only by few, among whom Maj. Gen. H. Halevy. In a recent speech, he underlined how “if there is no improvement [of Gaza’s situation], Israel will be the first one to pay the price” and warned the Knesset that the reconstruction of Gaza is actually the best (and perhaps the only) way to avoid the risk of a future war.

 

It is thus in the hands of the international community the responsibility of using all the possible economic, political and diplomatic leverages to convince Israel that keeping Gaza underdeveloped does not serve its; to push Israel to include in the distension of relations with Turkey the lifting of the blockade; and to induce Egypt to modify its policy of support to the blockade.

 

A Turkish Tale

How a failed military coup might lead to a revived national unity

 

Turkey is undoubtedly a country with a troubled history of military coups behind it: since 1960, the Turkish Republic founded by Ataturk has experienced four of them and the military has always been a major force in the Turkish structure of power and influence.

The attempted military coup of Friday finds thus its roots in a trend which has more than once characterized the country’s modern evolution and which has more than once tested its political stability.

 

Everything began on Friday at around 7.30 PM, when army units blocked the Bosphorus and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges in Istanbul; fighter jets and helicopters were reported flying in the skies over Ankara; and gunfire was reported in the streets of the capital. In a statement read on TRT (Turkey’s national broadcaster), it was said that the military had “completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order”, in response to Erdogan’s erosion of democracy.

At 10 PM, the news was reporting explosions at Parliament buildings. However, by 00.45 AM soldiers were surrendering their weapons in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and the picture of soldiers standing next to their tanks with their hands in the air has become the image of the coup’s failure.

On Saturday, the government’s reaction was in full sway throughout the day: a purge of soldiers and judicial officials led to the detention of 2839 military personnel, to the dismissal of 2745 judges from the HSYK (Turkey’s top judicial body), and to the detention of General Ozturk, accused of being one of masterminds behind the coup.

 

In just a few hours, the attempted coup took the life of 265 people (both among the military personnel and among civilians) and ended in a major failure that is probably explained by the absence of the necessary support on three essential fronts: the military, the political and the popular ones. As soon as the coup began, in fact, it became evident that the putsch did not enjoy a widespread military backing, since many among the army opposed it and voiced their condemnation. However, even more important in explaining why and how the coup failed, was the absence of political and public backing.

 

On the public’s side, in fact, people responded to Erdogan’s call and took to the streets to voice their support for the democratically-elected AKP government. This reaction on part of the Turkish public represented a deeply positive (and off-late sadly rare) sign of national unity, a sign of courage and respect for the state legitimate institutions that might turn into the beginning of a national reconciliation that Turkey desperately needs.

 

Equally important, is the unity showed at the political level: after seeing its buildings attacked, the MPs of the four political parties sitting in the Parliament convened in an emergency meeting that stood as clearest and brightest proof of how unity across party lines can be built and rediscovered when a country finds itself through its most difficult hours.

 

 

The unity within the Parliament’s groups and within the people of Turkey is at this point the only reaction that can save the country from itself.

 

Erdogan’s government is not a particularly liberal and illuminate one. Many of the internal policies that Erdogan has pursued over the past months have indeed led to an escalation of tensions, divisions and clashes between Turkey’s political and ethnic groups (with the clashes involving the PKK being the most dramatic expression of this trend). In terms of foreign policy -then- the war in Syria, the attacks against the Kurds, and the diplomatic tensions with neighbours and foreign powers (only recently partially healed thanks to a rapprochement to Russia and Israel) have isolated Turkey and exposed it and its people to unprecedented waves of terrorist attacks.

 

The internal and foreign policies pursued by Erdogan are thus responsible for many of the challenges and problems that Turkey is today called to address, and the President should be held accountable for them. Nevertheless, Erdogan was democratically elected by 52% of Turkey’s population and any opposition to his rule must rely on legitimate political means in order to be effective and beneficial for the country. Only political measures that are constitutionally legitimate can build a credible alternative and a safe path capable of leading to a stronger Turkish democracy.

 

 

 

From Sykes-Picot to the Chilcot Report

The lessons that the West must learn when intervening in the Middle East’s complexities

 

Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attacks led the West to a “war on terror” that ended up creating more damages than those it had aspired to heal and taking more lives than those it had aimed to protect, the Chilcot Report -commissioned by the British House of Commons to assess the government’s decisions with respect to the war in Iraq – brought to light new evidence. The Report is an open (and due) condemnation of Blair’s foreign policy, but –more importantly- is a crucial document containing lessons that need to be learnt to develop more aware and informed foreign policies (especially when it comes to delicate regions that rest on ever more fragile balances such as the Middle East).

 

The UK, under the leadership of then-PM Tony Blair, intervened in Iraq in 2003 following the United States and remained in the country until 2009. Of the Report published on July 6th by Sir John Chilcot, two things particularly stand out. The first is that – contrary to what had been claimed by the USA and the UK governments at that time – the attack against Saddam’s Iraq was not a last resort; the second is that no clear nor informed planning had been made by Blair’s cabinet in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.

 

As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, the Report highlights how PM Blair decided to attack Saddam regardless of the fact that the international community was still trying to deal with Iraq’s putative WMD without resorting to war, regardless of the fact that the UN was still conducting its enquiry, and that the UN Security Council (as well as the majority of the EU partners) was not supporting military intervention.

According to the Report, the reason for Blair’s decision was that in the previous year the British PM had pledged to President Bush his country’s unshakable support, and that maintaining such pledge had therefore become unescapable to preserve the Anglo-American special relationship.

 

As highlighted by the Report, though, the mistake was not only the decision to intervene in a war that was not necessary nor unavoidable. The other major mistake (and one that proved to have a dramatic long-run impact) was that no clear plan had been conceived in terms of how to deal with Iraq in the post-intervention phase.  Rather than elaborating an aware and coherent plan of reconstruction before going to war, the UK government missed this crucial step on the basis of the (wrong and unjustified) assumption that Washington would deal with the issue and that the UN would play a major role once the military intervention was over.

 

After the toppling of Saddam, though, none of this happened: the UN revealed little inclination to intervention and the USA had no reconstruction plan.

 

After winning against Saddam’s Baathist forces in a matter of weeks, in fact, the USA created and led a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) within which the UK had basically no relevant say and that failed to serve the interest of the Iraqi population (thus failing to win the people’s support). In a moment of delicate transition in which fair elections were needed to create a government that could give representation to all Iraqis and that could be accepted by Sunnis and Shias alike, nor the UN nor the USA succeeded in supporting the country through its delicate transition. A Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki took power in Baghdad; the tensions between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds were exasperated; Sunni jihadist groups (such as al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq) managed to exploit sectarian divisions to increase their action capabilities; and former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the army was disbanded became easy recruits for jihadist groups.

 

Thus, the result of the war that the Bush administration had pursued and that the UK had decided to support was not a mere regime change in Baghdad but the collapse of the Iraqi state as such.

What the Chilcot Report makes clear, in fact, is that, in the moment in which the UK and the USA intervened in the Iraqi theatre without a clear and informed strategy for the post-intervention/post-Saddam phase, they set into motion a chain of events that paved the way to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and that changed (perhaps forever) the geopolitical map of the Levant.

 

Forced to face the mistakes made by the West back in 2003, what lessons can now be drawn to avoid their repetition and develop more aware foreign policies?

 

If one major lesson can be derived from what is contained in the Report is that, when intervening abroad, three elements are especially crucial.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the theatre of intervention from any point of view: geopolitical, geostrategic, ethnic and religious. This understanding –especially as far as the religious and ethnic complexities of the Iraqi state are concerned- was clearly lacking on part of the UK and the USA in 2003 and explains how it was possible for power to end up in the hands of a Shia-dominated and sectarian government such as al-Maliki’s.

Secondly, it is necessary to develop realistic objectives and to embrace a relevant strategy that deals not only with the military aspect of intervention but also with the political and civilian ones – two dimensions to which the UK and the USA gave little importance when planning their intervention in 2003 and which continued to underestimate thereafter.

Finally, the third necessary step is to elaborate a post-intervention strategy that deals with the long-term and that gives to the country in which intervention was carried out and to its institutions all the support needed in a phase as delicate and crucial as that of reconstruction.

 

With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot – the infamous Agreement with which France and the UK divided the Middle East into artificial states whose ethnic and religious contradictions have exploded over the past few years – we are now painfully reminded that there are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat anymore, and that our approach to the Middle East cannot be successful if History’s lessons are not learnt.

Eid al-Fitr and the challenges ahead for the Muslim world

After having a heavy meal cooked by a Muslim friend with whom I had the privilege to share the joy that Eid-al-Fitr brings with it, and while walking around the old city of Jaffa, where streets and restaurants were full of families dining together in a deeply cheerful and almost magical atmosphere, I could not but look back at the week that has just passed and at its painful events.

 

From Bangladesh, to Iraq, to Saudi Arabia – in fact – the Muslim world has gone over the past days through a series of attacks that have hit its heart, its people, and its symbols.

After suicide attacks in Dhaka on Friday and in Baghdad on Sunday, Monday was the turn of the Sauds’ Kingdom: starting from early in the morning, suicide bombers conducted attacks in Jeddah near the American consulate; in Qatif against a Shia mosque; and in Medina outside the Prophet’s mosque – which is Islam’s second holiest site and that during the month of Ramadan attracts thousands of pilgrims.

 

Despite thus far no official claim for the attacks has been made by any group, all fingers pointed to the Islamic State, considered to be the responsible for the escalation of violence that has tinted with blood the last days of the Muslims’ holiest month.

 

Such attacks, in fact, fully reflect what has been emerging over the past months as the new tactics employed by ISIS. As already underlined at the time of the latest attacks in Paris and Brussels, the group is changing strategy in order to deal with a changing scenario and with declining capabilities.

While in 2011 the group led by al-Baghdadi emerged on the Iraqi and Syrian scene and distinguished itself for its unparalleled capacity to conquest territory and to attract recruits worldwide in a way that no previous jihadist group had been able to do, over the past few months the situation has begun to change. The group, indeed, is continuously losing ground in both Iraq and Syria (where it is hit by regional and international enemies), and the more it loses ground the more the number of recruits decreases. To deal with a balance of force that is no longer leaning in its favour, ISIS is thus exploring new strategies.

 

On the one hand, the group is trying to expand its presence in those territories where the absence of credible and strong state institutions can be exploited to establish a local presence and gain new ground and support. This is what the group is now doing in countries such as Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, where the state institutions are either absent or so weak that it is possible for al-Baghdadi’s group to take advantage of the deteriorating political and security situation to occupy areas and try to win the support of a tired and hopeless local population.

 

On the other hand, the group is trying to compensate its territorial losses with a new al-Qaeda-like tactics. Rather than focusing exclusively on the project of creating an Islamic State in the area known as al-Sham, the group led by al-Baghdadi is now hitting foreign targets as well (the so-called “far enemy” of the 1990s al-Qaeda’s strategy). The aim of this new tactics is to expand the group’s global presence so as to retain the credibility it had gained in the jihadist universe, strengthen its image of success abroad, and obtain the visibility it needs to avoid the number of recruits to drop even more.

 

The attacks perpetrated in Saudi Arabia are fully coherent with this strategy. Through those attacks, in fact, the group tried to obtain visibility; to question the credibility of the Saudis as protectors of Islam’s holy sites; and to undermine the Kingdom’s relations with foreign allies and with its own Shia population.

 

However, the violence disseminated by the group rather than dividing the Muslim world has encouraged Muslims from all countries and all sects of faith to get together in condemning it. The hashtag #PrayforMedina has invaded the Internet, and public figures and groups from the whole Muslim world (Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, the Jordanian government…) have voiced their outrage.

This unity between Sunnis and Shias in condemning the acts of violence perpetrated by what is nothing more than a group of extremists shows how terrorism is the product of given social, political and historical contexts and occurrences and not –as many would like to make us believe – of given religious faiths.

Confronted with extremists such as ISIS-affiliates that threaten many countries’ security and stability, as well as Islam’s legitimacy and image, the challenge for Muslim states and Muslim people (both religious leaders and simple believers) all over the world is to stick united in condemning violence. Only in this way, in fact, it will be possible to use the power of information to spread religious awareness and thus counter the distortions that fanatics promote and prevent youngsters from falling victim of their heinous message.

 

And no day is better than Eid-al-Fitr to start a new year of inter-sect unity and cooperation against extremism.

Afghanistan today

An analysis of the actors, of the dynamics and the complexities of a country in continuous evolution and (for now) at constant war

 

Afghanistan is a country whose political, ethnic, and religious peculiarities have their roots in geography. Indeed, thanks to its privileged position in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan has always been at the core of those routes that merchants used to trade and exchange ware, innovations, and tendencies across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This inevitably exposed Afghanistan to many – and diverse – cultural, linguistic and religious influxes that favored the emergence in the country of a multiform reality, characterized by the coexistence – often tense and difficult – of different identities.

The ethnic and tribal side is where diversity and fragmentation are deep the most: alongside the Pashtun majority, many other groups – such as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Turkmens and Baluchis – do live in the country. In addition, the fact that each area of the country is traditionally inhabited by a specific tribal group gives to the ethnic map of Afghanistan neat and clearly demarcated borders.

However, the impact that geography had – and has – on the country involves also the political reality. Afghanistan, in fact, has a territory which is mostly mountainous and this peculiar topography has historically made it difficult to bring under the control of the central power those areas that geography has doomed to be distant from Kabul. This reality, so inherently fragmented that each area is de facto under the control of local militias and groups, continues to be one of the toughest challenges for the Afghan state (and its allied forces), that struggles to establish an undisputed presence in the whole country.

 

2015 was a year of changes for Afghanistan: ISAF, the mission with which NATO intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, reached its end in December 2014 and the new Resolute Support Mission brought with it a considerable reduction of the NATO forces deployed in the country. The responsibility of defending Afghanistan from the Taliban insurgence shifted in this way (at least to a great extent) to the Afghan forces (ANSF). The ANSF, though, seem not to be ready yet for such a tough mission: despite having significantly improved their operation capacity and having in more than one case retaken territories occupied by the Taliban, there are a series of weaknesses and internal problems that limit their capacity of acting autonomously and efficiently.

On the one side, there are external challenges such as the tactic difficulties inherent in the deployment of forces on a territory whose geographic characteristics – as seen above – make connection, the movement of troops and military communications hard. On the other side, there are internal problems, such as the declining recruitment and and the growing problem of the so-called ghost soldiers. In addition, the withdrawal of American trainers and advisors has deepened the problems related to leadership within the army, where most appointments to the highest ranks are still largely influenced by political calculus and tribal affiliations.

If to all this, then, the qualitative and quantitative limits in terms of equipment and weapons are added, it is possible to find an explanation for the losses suffered by the Afghan forces throughout 2015 and the low credibility of the national forces in the eyes of the population (especially in those rural and peripheral areas that are most difficult for the army to reach).

 

Conversely, the reduction of NATO and American presence benefited the Taliban. Taking advantage of the lower number of foreign forces active on the ground and of the limits of the Afghan forces, Mansour founded the cohesion and credibility of the Taliban on a series of military victories and territorial conquests that have interested not only the usual provinces of the south, but also a number of provinces in the north. Under the leadership of Mansour, thus, the Taliban obtained major successes (emblematic the temporary occupation of Kunduz) and achieved the maximum level of territorial expansion since 2001: to date, the group controls seven districts in the provinces of Paktika, Zabul, Kandahar and Nimroz, and threatens crucial urban centers such as Lashkar Gar and Mazar-e-Sharif.

This Taliban resurgence, moreover, led also to a rise in the number of terrorist attacks. These attacks – from which not even Kabul was spared – confirm how the capacity of planning and operation within the Taliban front has been growing over the last year, and they also remind how the Taliban find a significant strength in the blind ideological-religious commitment of their combatants.

 

2015 saw an increase in the number of civil and military casualties, revealed the weaknesses of the ANSF, and highlighted the Taliban’s resilience. This trend seems likely to protract throughout 2016, but its future development will depend on four main factors:

 

  • The cohesion within the government – Two years after the formation of the National Unity Government of Ghani and Abdullah, many of the programs and reforms that had been promised are still in stalemate, reminding how the Afghan policy continues to be conducted largely on the basis of personal and tribal bonds, and how state institutions and their functioning are dependent on such bonds. This incapacity on Ghani’s part of breaking with the traditional rules of power has inevitably widened the gap between Kabul and the Afghan population. In particular, in many rural and peripheral areas the central government lacks credibility, and the Taliban have often exploited such state of things to win the locals’ support through institutions of shadow governance. Only a central government cohesive and independent from power games could thus gain the people’s trust and thus cancel the support that the Taliban have in many areas and that allows them to expand influence and territorial control.
  • NATO and USA presence – The reduction of the Western presence in Afghanistan was accompanied by a serious deterioration of security within the country, with an Afghan Army and an Afghan Air Force not ready yet to fight autonomously (or at least not fully and not everywhere) against resilient and ideologically-motivated enemies such as the Taliban are. This situation led Gen. Nicholson (USA commander in Afghanistan) to ask President Obama a re-thinking of the American plan to further reduce the troops on the ground. An immediate revisal of both the NATO and the American strategies is indeed necessary to avoid the future collapse of the Afghan state, and it should take into account not only the military dimension but also the civilian and the political ones. Only in this way it is possible to prevent the legitimate non-intrusion in the Afghan affairs from becoming a dangerous de facto abandonment.
  • The cohesion within the Taliban – The election of Mansour as “commander of the faithful” in summer 2015 caused divisions and defections on the Taliban front. To deal with this situation, Mansour tried to strengthen the cohesion of the group and the credibility of his own leadership by rejecting the dialogue with Kabul and embracing instead a brutal strategy. His killing last May came thus at a delicate point of the Taliban’s life, and the future developments in Afghanistan will depend in large part on the level of cohesion that the new leader Akundzada will be able to give to the group: the more Akundzada is able of making the group united, the more difficult it will be for the ANSF to sustain the fight.
  • The role of Pakistan: “terrorist haven” vs. “peace broker” – Since the first days of his Presidency, Ghani has made of the rapprochement to Pakistan one of the firm points of his foreign policy, to build a cross-border cooperation in the fight against terrorism. However, Islamabad’s commitment to induce the Taliban to negotiate and to deny them any safe haven has appeared more than once to be weak and dubious. An increased and less ambiguous commitment on part of Pakistan would play a crucial role in changing the balance of forces and the international community should push in this direction, aware that no victory can be obtained as long as the Taliban enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan.

 

Further variables that should be taken into account in evaluating the balances of forces in Afghanistan are:

  • The role of the Northern power brokers – Especially in the North of Afghanistan there are political and military leaders (such as Dostum and Atta) who – being each strong of the support of his own tribal group – fight against the Taliban and compete among themselves for the role of security providers and the locals’ support. Their preeminence on the local scene is thus the manifestation of two realities: the persistence of secular ethnic-tribal bonds, and the incapacity of the government of ensuring security to its people. Getting closer to those power brokers is thus necessary for the government if it wants to strengthen its legitimacy and to make more efficient and coordinated the fight against the Taliban;
  • The role of the Haqqani network – Since the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as deputy of Mansour, the role and influence of the Haqqani Network within the Taliban has been growing and has led to an increase in the number of attacks against civilians. The recent death of Mansour and the ascent of a new leader will difficultly reduce the role of the Haqqanis, who – being traditionally hostile to any negotiation and supporting instead a total war against Kabul – could exploit new rooms of actions created by the current stage of transition and exasperate even more the security scenario;
  • The presence and strength of ISIS – After entering Afghanistan with the name of ISIS Khorasan, ISIS is now the common enemy of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Afghan government. At the moment, its presence in the country is still limited, but a future expansion of its ranks might lead the NATO and the USA to rethink their presence in Afghanistan, and – in the long run – it might even lay the foundations for a dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban, on the basis of their common interest in defeating ISIS.

Life after Mansour: Afghanistan’s new act

What next in Afghanistan now that the Taliban have lost their leader (again)?

 

On Sunday 22 May, a US drone strike killed the leader of the Taliban Mullah Mansour in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, thus marking the opening of a new phase in the development of the AfPak region’s political dynamics. The killing of Mansour, in fact, not only will force the Taliban to go through the delicate process of appointing a new leader, but it will also have a major impact on the relations between the Taliban and the Afghan government – and therefore on the future of Afghanistan.

 

It was less than a year ago when the news of the death of the group’s founder Mullah Omar was released and the Taliban had to appoint a new leader. Far from being a smooth process, the debate on whom to appoint caused deep rifts within the Taliban, and when the final decision fell upon Mullah Mansour many denied to pledge allegiance to him and many others left the Taliban to join ISIS-Khorasan. In July 2015, thus, the Taliban had lost its traditional cohesion and appeared – to enemies and supporters alike – as a weak group.

Faced with such delicate and vulnerable situation, the new leader embraced a strategy made of deadly attacks across Afghanistan, continuous fights with the national forces, and rejection of any prospect of talks with Kabul so as to increase its credibility among the Taliban (as well as among enemies) and give to the group renewed cohesion.

 

Now that Mansour has been killed, the challenge the Taliban face is that of appointing a successor approved and recognized as legitimate by everyone within the group. A failure in this sense would make the Taliban even less united, with more splinter groups conducting their independent actions and attacks, and this would have tremendous consequences for the prospect of peace talks.

What last summer’s shift in leadership made clear, in fact, is the impossibility of having negotiations when one of the parties involved in them is internally divided. After a first round of talks held in Murree, what made it impossible to go ahead was that the internal division caused within the Taliban by the appointment of Mansour did not allow Kabul to identify in a clear and unambiguous way who its interlocutors were. With the group divided and led by a leader not recognized by all members, it became impossible for the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to have a clear picture of which leaders/members were supporting the talks, to what extent, and how representative of the whole group they actually were.

From this point of view, thus, the killing of Mansour opens the possibility of having a new, legitimate and broadly accepted Taliban leader who could make the group more cohesive and thus make it possible for Kabul to at least identify whom pressure has to be put on to push the Taliban to talk.

 

For Ghani’s government, thus, the death of Mullah Mansour is of crucial importance both politically and militarily. Indeed, the death of Mansour represents for the Taliban a major blow in reputation and credibility capable of boosting the morale of the Afghan national forces that are involved in daily struggles against them and that had to see the terrorist group achieve important successes in 2015. Deprived of their leader, the Taliban are now immersed in the appointment process, which implies the Afghan national forces can take advantage of this temporary respite from fight to better organize themselves and strengthen their holdings on disputed regions and provinces.

In addition, Mansour’s death has not only affected the credibility of the Taliban’s operative capabilities. It has also shed light on how the Taliban’s war-based approach is inherently shortcoming if the group aims to territorial control and political say, and how the rejection of peace talks comes at a price for the group.  Many among the Taliban used to reject talks because relying on the belief that war was the only way to political influence. The killing of Mansour has proved them wrong and might now strengthen the position of those Taliban most prone to talks.

 

However, until the Taliban’s new leader is appointed it is not clear which future lies ahead for the perspectives of negotiations. The only certainty is that the death of Mansour has opened a new chapter in the AfPak’s turbulent story. The way in which the story will evolve is now dependent on the intra-Taliban decisions and on Kabul’s capacity to adapt its political and military strategy to them.