Colombia’s only way out of war

 

 

Why the agreement reached by Santos and the FARC is the best option Colombians have to leave their bloody past of civil conflict behind and build a future of peace and growth

 

After 52 years of a civil war that cost the life of 220,000 people, after long-drawn and tiring negotiations, and after a referendum that in October seemed to have halted the whole process, the Colombian Senate and Congress approved a revised peace agreement (to which 50 changes have been introduced with respect to the former version) reached by the government led by Santos and the FARC guerrillas led by Timoshenko.

 

However, despite the importance of the Congress’s approval in pushing the peace process forward, opposition to the agreement among Colombians still remain.

Led by former President Uribe, many Colombians who have never seen their country at peace, consider the deal reached by Santos too lenient, since it grants amnesty to FARC members who have blood on their hands and it allows FARC leaders to take part legitimately in the country’s political life.

 

Confronted with such opposition, if Santos wants the agreement on which he has spent so much time and so much energy to become effective and to be enforced, he has to embark with seriousness, patience, and constancy in the most difficult challenge of all: explaining to his fellow citizens -many of whom have suffered (or seen family members and friends suffer) at the hands of the FARC- why a peace agreement is the best option on the table and the only way out of war.

 

After half a century of civil war that has torn the country’s stability apart and severely reduced its potential of growth, it is clear that the Colombian army cannot succeed in winning against the FARC militarily.

As the events of the past years have shown, the best that the Colombian army can hope for is to win battles against the FARC, but winning the war is another matter and one in which the possibilities of success for the country’s regular forces are simply too low to be credible and too weak to stand as foundations of an effective strategy. Due to both flaws of the Colombian army in terms of training, corruption and technological development and due to the fighting capabilities of the FARC and the free movement that they enjoy in many parts of the country where the government’s protection umbrella does not reach, the asymmetrical war between army and guerrillas is thus one that -if let free to continue- will likely condemn the country to other 50 years of death and suffering.

 

In this context, it is thus evident that an alternative to a military confrontation which is doomed to stalemate needs to be found, and the only viable alternative rests in an agreement. Recalling a classical mantra of political affairs, if you cannot win against your enemy you cannot but sit down with him and work on a solution acceptable to both.

In the case of the FARC-government confrontation, the only solution is a political deal capable of halting the conflict and encouraging the FARC to give up weapons. However, for this to be possible and to encourage the FARC to move along a path that goes “from bullets to ballots” some concessions need to be made, and it is here that amnesty and participation in the political process find their explanation and justification. Without granting to the FARC amnesty and without allowing the FARC leaders to take part as a legitimate force in the country’s politics, it would in fact be impossible for Colombia to obtain the cessation of hostilities and fighting to which it and its people aspire.

As the experiences of other countries have shown, (from post-apartheid South Africa to the agreement singed last October in Afghanistan between Ghani and Hekmatyar) complex processes of national pacification always come with a price, and necessarily require the population to come at terms with its bloody past, to forgive and at times to forget, in order to build a peaceful future.

 

Clearly, the Colombian case is one of a costly and painful do ut des, but one that is necessary if the aim is to achieve peace. Therefore, what Santos needs to explain to his people is that, even if it seems that it is the government that is conceding the most, if the peace agreement is given a chance it will be the country and not the FARC to win the most.

 

 

[Picture: The Economist]

Bibi’s great refusal

 

The proposal of dialogue coming from Paris has revealed all the difficulties inherent in an effective revival of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, with the Israeli front led by an extreme-Right coalition not interested in dialogue and a Palestinian front that claims to be disposed to talk but which is actually too weak to

 

The last attempt made by third parties to encourage a revival of the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians was made in 2014 by a then hopeful –but soon disillusioned- John Kerry, and collapsed a few months later after the reconciliation agreement reached by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) and a Hamas that the international community has always resented to regard as legitimate and reliable partner in attempts at dialogue and peace-building.

Two years after the failure of the Obama administration, it was France who proposed over the last months to promote a new Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, but once again hope has soon been replaced by resignation. Last Monday, in fact, during the visit in Israel by France’s envoy Pierre Vemont, Netanyahu voices his neat and irrevocable refusal to take part in any such dialogue as proposed by Paris and the PM’s “no” seems to have curbed the French proposal for good.

 

On the background of a Middle Eastern scenario ever more dispiriting –with Yemen and Syria doomed to an endless civil war, and an Iraq over which the threat of ethnic and religious sectarianism is looming again as the battle for Mosul goes on- Netanyahu’s “no” becomes the last piece of a bleak puzzle and the latest proof of how any prospect of an open, sincere and credible dialogue within the Israeli-Palestinian context is ever more utopic.

 

In particular, Netanyahu’s refusal reveals in an undeniable and worrying way how the Israeli government is dominated by an extreme-right coalition that conceals its extremism behind weak justifications and pretexts. Despite Netanyahu’s government justifying his stance with respect to the French proposal saying it is open only to initiatives coming directly from the Palestinians and only to proposals for a bilateral dialogue, Tel Aviv’s refusal is nothing but a clear closure to any possibility of dialogue. The refusal to convene in Paris, in fact, cannot be seen as an incentive to encourage the Palestinians to direct and bilateral dialogues with Israel (despite this being the Israeli government’s rhetoric) but only as a rejection of any initiative that aspires to promote negotiation and to address the demands of Palestinian nationalism.

 

To counterbalance Netanyahu’s refusal came instead the acceptance of the French proposal on part of Abbas and Erekat, who declared their openness to a multilateral dialogue encouraged by a third party.

Clearly, Abbas’ “yes ” is ot enough to make of the Palestinian front the ideal partner in a dialogue as complex as the one between Tel Aviv and Ramallah.  Indeed, within the Palestinian political picture there continue to exist deep divisions between the PA and Hamas (with a series of minor parties and groups to complicate internal factionalism) and this rises doubts on the Palestinians’ capacity to select for the process of dialogue figures truly capable to represent the whole Palestinian people and all the colours that make up its social and political reality.

 

Paris’ proposal, thus, failed in changing the stalemate in which the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue has been for the past two years, but it has nonetheless contributed to make light on the difficulties that continue to obstruct dialogue and on the subsequent steps that the international community should take. From this point of view, as far as the Israeli front is concerned, USA and EU should use their diplomatic and economic leverage to induce the Israeli Right that is currently ruling the country to moderate its stance and its most controversial policies (above all that of settlements in the occupied territories). On the other hand, as far as the Palestinian front is concerned, it would be necessary to encourage truly inclusive elections, capable of giving to the Palestinian people that undivided and legitimate voice that is essential for dialogue to start.

 

Until this is done, the Israeli “no” will remain an immovable obstacle and the Palestinian “yes” an empty assent.

 

 

[Picture rights: Atef Safadi/Reuters]

The ignored war of the Middle East

 

Assessing the reasons why the world’s major powers pay little attention to what goes on on the Yemeni front

 

In the Middle Eastern geostrategic dynamics and in the international media establishment a dangerous phenomenon is steadily consolidating: while everyone’s attention is focused on crucial battlefields such as Mosul and Aleppo, Yemen continues to be the theatre of a forgotten –or rather ignored- civil war.

But why is it so? Why is a civil war that in just two years has caused one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of our time so little spoken of?

The reasons are essentially two.

 

First of all, there is the complexity of the Yemeni war that makes it difficult to give a clear reading of the conflict, to reach a true understanding of its political and sectarian causes, of its evolving dynamics, of its array of actors and interests, and of its regional impact.

Yemen’s conflict -broken out in 2014 when the Houthi rebels of the north forced President Hadi to leave the country and seek exile in Saudi Arabia- is indeed particularly challenging to be understood in all its dimensions because it lacks the black-and-white contraposition that characterizes other regional conflicts. Since its outbreak, the war has been defined by a wide multidimensionality: it is a Yemeni internal confrontation between the Houthi/Saleh front and Hadi; it is a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (with its GCC allies) and Iran; and it is a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni forces. Therefore, understanding the war in Yemen requires understanding these many intricate and at times overlapping levels of conflict, but since applying different keys of reading to a single theatre is not an easy task (neither for policymakers nor for analysts) this has contributed to Yemen’s marginalization in the global public debate.

 

Nevertheless, there is another, more explicatory, and more worrying reason why the world is paying so little attention to Yemen: unlike what we have been witnessing in places of the Levant such as Syria and Iraq, major international powers such as the US, the EU and Russia are simply little interested in Yemen and in Yemeni affairs. And this is so for three main reasons.

 

Since its emergence out of the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Yemeni Republic has been one of the poorest countries of the entire Arab region.

According to the last report of the World Bank, even prior to the conflict Yemen was facing widespread poverty and economic stagnation: despite enjoying a crucial position with respect to the Mandeb Strait -which is the  fourth most important passage for international oil trade- Yemen always had to face economic difficulties because of the government’s poor management of resources and infrastructures; because of a widespread corruption curbing any entrepreneurial ambition; because of a dramatic and unsustainable population growth; and because of an economy that, unlike that of the other Gulf states, relied mainly on agricultural production rather than on oil export. Due to these economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities Yemen never attracted significant amounts of FDIs, which means that today there is no major world power with crucial and direct economic interests in Yemen to be protected.

Conversely, in countries such as Iraq and Syria, Western powers and Russia have cultivated economic and commercial interests since the late XIX century and the need to protect these interests is today one of the major reasons behind their direct involvement in those countries’ crises and behind the attention they pay to everything that happens in there.

 

Apart from economic considerations, though, there is also another factor that comes to explain the little interest foreign powers have in Yemen and it has to do with geo-strategy. In terms of geo-strategic considerations in fact, Yemen –with its position in the southern-westernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula- has never been considered as a crucial player by foreign powers. Countries deeply involved in the region such as Britain and the US, in fact, have traditionally founded their involvement in the area on alliances with other more influential and more powerful countries. The only interest that foreign powers have in Yemen is that of avoiding the situations that might change the existing balance of power and create instability in the Gulf- and it is in the framework of this logic that the decision of the US and Britain to support the Saudi-led coalition needs to be placed.

Conversely, in the cases of Syria and Iraq foreign actors such as Washington, London, Brussels and Moscow have many and long-time geo-strategic interests because of those countries’ position in the heart of the Levant and because of their physical vicinity to the borders of Europe and Russia.

 

In addition to this, the issue of geographic position is also relevant to understand the final reason why foreign powers are little interested in Yemen and totally focused on Syria and Iraq instead.

Due to Yemen’s already mentioned position in the southernmost tip of the Arabic Peninsula, the war that has been tearing the country apart since Fall 2014 does not constitute a direct threat to the security of major foreign powers. Indeed, despite the number of refugees created by the conflict is dramatically high, most of them have fled to countries of the neighbouring region such as Djibouti, Somaliland, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, the refugees created by the wars in Syria and Iraq have mostly attempted to seek asylum in Western countries – above all Europe, but also the US and Canada – which are more easily reachable for them than for poorer Yemenis.  These flows of refugees have put a burden on the capacity of Western countries to deal with increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies and have created security concerns that contribute to explain why the US, the UK and the EU focus so much on Syria and Iraq while ignoring Yemen.

 

On the background of this general lack of interest, it does not surprise that when Hadi last week refused the latest UN proposal for a peace negotiation few have paid attention to it.

And yet this is a huge mistake on part of the international community. Humanitarian considerations (the number of dead, displaced people and refugees caused by the war in Yemen cannot but deeply touch our human sensibility) and security calculations (the instability and power vacuum of Yemen has inflamed sectarian tensions that could easily spread to other regional countries and has played the game of terrorist groups such as AQAP that have seen their influence grow) call for the international community to use its influence over the Saudis in order to favour the reaching of an agreement capable of bringing about the inclusive government Yemen is desperately needing.

 

It’s time for the international community to start caring about Yemen.

 

 

[Picture rights: Reuters]

The threat of “making Israel and America safe again”

On Wednesday 26th October, in Jerusalem’s Old City (a place born to be the world’s most peaceful but too often turned into the region’s most turbulent) about 250 Israeli-Americans gathered to voice their support for Donald Trump as future US President.

Most of those who gathered there were from the community of 200,000 Israeli-Americans who currently live in Israel and especially from among the 60,000 Americans who live in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

 

The event, organized by Republicans Overseas in Israel, was named “Jerusalem forever” so as to voice the group’s condemnation of the latest resolution adopted by UNESCO that came to condemn Israeli policies with respect to the al-Aqsa compound, and in which reference to the holy place is made exclusively with their Muslim/Arabic names. This made of the event not only a rally in support for the Republican Presidential candidate but a rally in support of an ever more radical Israeli Right.

 

Although attended by merely 250 people, the rally was important because it came to represent a radicalization of views, opinions and rhetoric on part of both Trump and Israeli right-wingers.

 

At the beginning of his Presidential race some months ago, Trump decided to avoid strong and well-defined opinions regarding his eventual Israeli policy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the question of whether the US should move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

More recently, though, he has changed his attitude and in recent speeches Mr Trump has presented himself as the one who, if elected President, will revive the US-Israeli historical friendship. Particularly, he has stressed the interests that Washington and Tel Aviv share when it comes to regional threats and regional security, saying that the US and Israel will stand together to enemies like Iran so as to “make Israel and American safe again”.

In addition, he also came to adopt more outspoken and clear positions on delicate issues such as settlements (that his advisor on Israel David Friedman defined at Wednesday’s rally as being “not illegal”) and the status of Jerusalem, which he recognizes as the indisputably legitimate capital of the state of Israel where the American Embassy should be.

 

Such a rhetorical shift on part of Mr Trump goes along well with the increasing radicalism of Israel’s right-wingers, who are eager to support any candidate with pro-settlement stances such as Mr Trump is showing.

Even if the vote of Israeli-Americans will not have much of an impact on the US elections, still it proves how central the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is in defining future US-Israeli relationship. Moreover, it also shows how the influential community of Israeli settlers approaches any political issue through the prism of “land acquisition/expropriation” in the attempt of legitimizing a situation which remains one of the greatest failures of our times in the application of International Law.

 

 

[Picture rights: Shaina Shealy/Al Jazeera]

Palestine’s lost elections

 

The Palestinian Authority’s decision to postpone the municipal elections in Palestine reveals how deep the fracture between Hamas and Fatah is and warns about its dangerousness for the future developments of Palestinian politics

 

Until 1987, talking of Palestinian politics essentially meant talking of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), of Fatah (the prevailing party within the PLO), and of Yasser Arafat (founder of Fatah and leader of the Palestinian cause). In 1987, though, the sparks of the continuous fights with Israel ignited the First Intifada and the Palestinian political theatre was made more complex by the appearance of a new actor – Hamas.

Founded in Gaza as local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas opposes to the nationalist and secular ideology of Fatah a nationalist and Islamist one; it reacts to Fatah’s claimed abandonment of political violence in 1988 with a Charter that praises armed struggle as sole means for the liberation of Palestine; and it competes with Fatah for the support of the Palestinian people.

Remained in a somewhat marginal position until Arafat’s death in 2004, in 2006 Hamas takes part in the Palestinian legislative elections and obtains a victory that changes in a crucial way the Palestinian political environment and the balances of power within it. Indeed, Fatah’s hegemony is for the first time seriously put into question and the Hamas-Fatah competition becomes so deep that it leads to war and, in June 2007, to an executive duplicity whereby Gaza goes under the control of Hamas while the West Bank remains under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Since that moment on, talking of Palestinian politics means essentially talking of the contraposition between Fatah and Hamas and of the challenges that it poses to the socio-political dynamics of Palestine.

 

 

The irreconcilability of the two groups emerged clearly in 2012, with Hamas’ decision to boycott the local elections by refusing to taking part into them, and again in 2014 with the failure of the attempts aimed at creating a unitary government.

On the background of these dispiriting precedents, a new gleam of hope with respect to the possibility of healing the division seemed to emerge with the prospect of the municipal elections that should have taken place in 416 cities of Gaza and the West Bank on October 8 and to which both Hamas and Fatah should have participated.

However, once again, what was a hope remained such and what was a division deemed by many as irresolvable was confirmed as such. On October 8, in fact, the Palestinian High Court decreed that the elections would take place in the West Bank only, accusing Hamas of attempting to boycott the electoral process by using Gaza’s local courts to cancel nine members of Fatah from the lists.

Unsurprisingly, the ruling of the High Court was met with harsh accusations of partiality on part of Hamas, that refused to consider the ruling legitimate and underlined how its nature was political rather than judicial. Indeed, the ruling of the High Court seems to stem from the fear of Fatah about experiencing again a defeat such as that of 2006; from the PA’s convenience to postpone the elections in a moment in which its popularity is extremely low; and from Abbas’ worry that the elections (seen in the West Bank as a referendum on his person) might lead to his definitive political defeat.

New complexities emerged then on October 4, when the PA replied to the High Court’s decision declaring that there would be no elections without the participation of Gaza, but that –to make such participation possible- Hamas should “neutralize” its position. For the moment, being Hamas and Fatah incapable of finding an agreement that could restart the electoral process, the elections have been postponed for four months.

 

The ruling of the High Court came thus to disappoint the Palestinians’ hope in a future national unity, since it revealed the merely rhetoric value of Hamas’ and Fatah’s declarations in support of reconciliation and confirmed instead the permanence of an intra-Palestinian division which is territorial, demographic, and political.

The consequence of this division is that the two parties –each busy trying to affirm its superiority over the other- are actually weakening the Palestinian political front and the feasibility of the Palestinians’ aspiration to a nation state. Indeed, incapable of healing their divergences and of confronting each other in a legitimate and democratic electoral process, Fatah and Hamas are depriving their people of the right to express their voice through the vote and are obstructing the elaboration of a Palestinian political position which is representative of the popular will, cohesive, coherent, legitimate, and credible.

In front of the current situation, two paths are thus possible. In the best possible scenario (that though the latest events make now look somewhat utopic) the hope is that Hamas and Fatah succeed in addressing the problems that have led to the current stalemate; in retrieving the electoral process by participating both into it; and in cancelling that dangerous separation between Hamas-Gaza and Fatah-West Bank that is endangering the realization of the Palestinian cause. Conversely, if this is not done and Hamas and Fatah maintain their irreconcilability, the current division would transform into a real fracture, with the social and political system of Palestine torn between Gaza and the West Bank and the prospect of a state unity ever more faltering and ever farther.

 

 

[Picture rights:Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

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Islamabad and the fight against terrorism in FATA

 

A travel through the FATA to understand the geographical, political, economic and social peculiarities of the region; the role played by jihadist terrorism; and the answers of Islamabad to this complex set of interconnected issues

 

THE TRIBAL AREAS OF THE NORT-EAST – FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is a semi-autonomous region of north-western Pakistan, bordering Pakistan’s provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan on the east and south, and Afghanistan to the west and north. Geographically, FATA is crossed by the Hindu Kush, one of the world’s highest mountain ranges This mountain range, which has in Pakistan some of its highest peaks, is characterized by rocky where impervious passes are often the only transport route for the region’s inhabitants.

Demographically, FATA has a population of about 4.5 million, the majority of whom belong to the ethnic Pashtun group and to the Sunni branch of Islam. The almost totality of FATA’s population lives in rural areas, where it has been possible to preserve a century-old tribal lifestyle and historic clan ties. However, this rural anchoring has hindered FATA’s industrial and urban development and the region is today Pakistan’s poorest and most underdeveloped one.

On the political-administrative level, FATA is divided in seven Tribal Agencies and six Frontier Regions, administered by the Pakistani federal government according to laws known as Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that date back to 1901. These laws were introduced by the British Colonial Empire to make of FATA a sort of “buffer” along the border with Afghanistan, so as to protect British India from the threats of Russian expansionism. Since then, the FCR have placed a significant degree of power and autonomy in the hands of local tribal and religious leaders and they continue today to make of FATA an exceptional case of semi-autonomous government within the Pakistani political system.

fata_pakistan

TRIBAL AREAS AND JIHADIST TERRORISM – A considerable gap exists thus between FATA and the rest of Pakistan. FATA is characterized by exceptionally high rates of poverty, underdevelopment, and illiteracy; by a rural population mainly Sunni and Pashtun that is still organized according to old clan bonds and that lacks the ethnic and religious diversity observed in other areas of the country; and by an administrative semi-autonomy that renders FATA’s people excluded from constitutional rights.

This situation, made of a dangerous mix of chronic poverty and political vacuum, has created over the past decades a fertile ground for various terrorist groups seeking a safe haven in South Asia. Especially after 2001, the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan forced the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other linked groups such as the Haqqani Network to abandon their Afghan bases and seek a safe haven somewhere else. This safe haven was found in the AfPak area and, in particular, in FATA. Here, in fact, those terrorist groups could find an ideal ground for their settlement thanks to two main elements: the mountain passes that allow an immediate connection between FATA and the Taliban traditional bases in eastern Afghanistan; and the limitations imposed by the FCR upon Islamabad’s possibility of control and intervention in FATA.

Moreover, the Tribal Areas have revealed to be also an ideal ground for recruitment for those jihadist groups. Exploiting the poverty of the local people; the lack of any prospect of economic improvement; the low schooling rate and weak religious awareness; the alienation towards Islamabad due to the exclusion from constitutional rights; and the absence of reliable judiciary institutions, the groups led by Mullah Omar, bin Laden, and Shirahuddin Haqqani found in FATA many new recruits and broad popular support. These groups, in fact, were able to provide to the locals an alternative to the low-paid work in the fields and to set up satisfactory structures of shadow governance capable of providing the lacking health, education and judiciary services.

The Taliban, in particular, also managed to exploit their decade-long relationships with the local imams of Sunni madrassas to spread their message of religious extremism, so as to obtain from FATA’s people a strong ideological support.

 

CHANGE OF ROUTE IN ISLAMABAD… – In March 2004, after the pressures coming from an American power just hit at its heart and an international community ever more sensitive to the threat of jihadist terrorism, the Pakistani government had no choice but that of intervening with the army in FATA against the terrorist groups hidden there.

The series of military campaigns that the Pakistani army has carried out since then has curbed the process of Talibanization that was interesting the Tribal Areas and has driven out of FATA many terrorist cells. Nevertheless, the fight against terrorism in FATA is not completed and the recent attacks perpetrated across Pakistan by groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have reinforced in Islamabad the voices of those who were calling for a political approach to be combined with the military one in dealing with FATA.

On the wake of this new approach, in November 2015 the government established an ad hoc Committee (FATA Reforms Committee) that after ten months of discussions proposed to integrate FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; to extend to FATA the Pakistani jurisdiction; and to suppress the FCR. The laws of the British Raj should be replaced partly by the Pakistani laws applied to the rest of the country, partly by a set of laws based on local Riwaj (traditions).

 

… AND ATTEMPTS AT HIJACKING – However, the proposal of integrating FATA is opposed both outside and within Pakistan.

Among the external opponents, there is Kabul. Afghanistan in fact never accepted the 1893 Durand Line that marks the border with Pakistan, so that accepting the inclusion of FATA in the Pakistani administrative and political system would be for Kabul a diplomatic defeat and would imply a cost in terms of internal political support that Ghani cannot afford to pay.

Within Pakistan, the main opposition comes from FATA’s tribal, political and religious chiefs. These local heads, in fact, do not want to cede to Islamabad the advantages obtained thanks to the FCR, since those laws placed in their hands almost unchecked powers. To this, it is then to be added that local religious and tribal leaders are worried about losing the advantages (in terms of influence and military edge) given to them by the relations that they have established with extremist and powerful Pashtun militant groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

 

It thus emerges that fight against terrorism in FATA cannot succeed until other steps are taken:

 

  • Pakistan should embrace a strategy of fight against terrorism that aims not only to physically eliminate terrorist groups but also to cancel the popular support they found in FATA. To do so, it is necessary to take measures such as a tighter control over the religious messages promoted in local madrassas; the implementation of development plans so as to avoid situations in which local youth see in terrorism the only way to earn an income; the promotion of a secular education; the spread of non-extremist religious narratives…

 

  • Pakistan and Afghanistan should abandon the dangerous distinction between “Afghan terrorism” and “Pakistani terrorism” and rather initiate a dialogue aimed at addressing jointly the common problem of terrorism in the AfPak area, so as to avoid that terrorist groups continue to exploit the porosity of the Afghan-Pakistani border to conduct attacks in one country and find easy refuge in the other.

 

  • The international community should be more active in helping Pakistan (not only financially but also in terms of shared expertise) to cancel the popular support that terrorists still find in some areas of the country, emphasizing in particular how religious moderate leaders and the civil society can positively work with the Pakistani government in countering terrorism.

 

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]