The State of Latin America

If 2020 has taught us anything about Latin America, it’s that it cannot easily shake off the fetters of its history. Despite all attempts to the contrary, it is a continent that remains firmly ensconced within the parameters of its past. Whether it’s the growing spectre of authoritarianism, staggering levels of inequality, assaults on the dignity of indigenous people, or demonstrations against inept leaders, the patterns that have defined this year are mere shadows of long, sweeping historical processes that have accompanied Latin America since the very beginning. Lockdowns managed to briefly quell the roaring fires that swept across Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia during the previous year, but this always was to be an ephemeral phenomenon. As this year progressed, these fires roared back to life. The question now is: what is the state of Latin America? And what happens next?

History’s presence is perhaps no more strongly felt than in Peru and Chile, who spent this year struggling to come to terms with their authoritarian past. Both countries spent years under the grip of despotic leaders – with Alberto Fujimori ruling Peru between 1990 and 2000 and Augusto Pinochet ruling Chile between 1973 and 1990. Both leaders produced new constitutions – granting more power to the President and, in the case of Chile, enshrining a doctrine of free-markets and privatization. The consequence has been an utter hollowing out of democracy and escalating cronyism in both nations. Last year, acquiescence turned to revolt in Chile, with massive protests rocking the country and a chorus of voices demanding economic justice. Sparked initially by a rise in transportation fees, demonstrations escalated quickly from secondary school students evading metro fares in Santiago to confrontations with the Chilean army and what some have described as the worst civil unrest since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Demands for better wages, welfare reforms, a new government and a new constitution continued into 2020. Seeing no other choice, President Piñera yielded to the masses and agreed to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution. Two months ago, that referendum passed. Chileans are now waiting for April to arrive, where another vote will take place, allowing citizens to select the drafters of the new constitution. An air of optimism has finally descended on the coastal country, coming as a relief after decades of ineffectual governance and rising inequality. 

Although Peru faces its unique challenges, deep parallels can still be drawn between Lima and Santiago. The spirit of Fujimori looms large in Peru, who curtailed the independence of the judiciary, breached the law, and set a precedent for corruption in the country during his rule in the 1990s. Today, nearly 70 of the 130 members of Congress are under investigation for bribery, money laundering, and other criminal activity. It was in response to this scandalous set of affairs that Martin Vizcarra defined his Presidency when he assumed power in 2018, promising to act within the law and stamp out the corruption that was so endemic in Peru. Although impeded at every turn, Vizcarra managed to make good on some of his promises, and for this he remained popular among Peruvian citizens (indeed his approval rating remained high even during the worst months of the pandemic – which struck Peru with especial voracity). But this all changed last month. President Martin Vizcarra was ousted as President by Peru’s Congress, in an impeachment vote that accused the President of corruption and mishandling of the pandemic. Although Vizcarra immediately resigned, outsiders saw the situation for what it was: a flagrant power grab that amounted to nothing short of a congressional coup. Like the action of fare-evading in Chile last year, this move lit a spark. Several cities burst into protests, with Peruvians targeting their anger at corruption in the country. It quickly became the largest set of demonstrations the nation had seen in over two decades. Although Vizcarra’s replacement, the much-loathed far-right Manuel Merino, has resigned – this does little to combat the institutional problems plaguing the country. The situation is still unstable, and it will be for the foreseeable future. This is exacerbated by an absence of stable political parties in the country. In every Presidential election since 2001, the winner belonged to a party that either did not exist or was marginal. Parties often change names, change identities or dissolve altogether. This often leaves politicians campaigning on what they are against (usually the previous administration) as opposed to what they are for. It also leaves voters bewildered and, ultimately, disenchanted with the political process. One can hope that Peruvians will use their momentous wave of anger and objection to support a new, more rejuvenated political system for Peru, one that engenders a new constitution, an end to corruption, and contends with inequality and poverty. 

The legacy of despotism also informs much of Brazilian politics today. Bolsonaro’s success emerged from a harkening back to Brazil’s era of military rule – which he describes with halcyon language as a time of law and order. In a nation as rife with violence as Brazil, this message was convincing. But, contrary to the opinion of many, Bolsonaro did not overthrow democracy. Although he speaks like an old school proto-fascist from the 20th century (frequently conjuring the phantom of communism as an existential enemy), he has largely remained hemmed in by Brazil’s democratic institutions. However, this is little consolation, as Bolsonaro’s real nefariousness arises from the subtle, day to day function of governing; from the slow erosion of environmental regulation, to the creeping encroachment on indigenous sovereignty. Most notably, he has completely failed at dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to innumerable deaths across the vast country. Recent municipal elections appeared to provide a sharp rejoinder to his leadership – with Bolsonaro’s candidates facing major setbacks, and Brazil’s so-called “Big Centre” seeing considerable gains (which, despite their misleading moniker, is a loose coalition of conservative forces). Yet all is not what it seems. Municipal and federal elections are two different species, and President Bolsonaro’s approval rating is currently the highest it’s been since he first took office. Indeed, he is so popular that over 70 election candidates registered their nicknames as “Bolsonaro” on municipal ballots. Why is this? The answer is simple: money talks. His emergency relief program comes as a substantial form of aid to poorer Brazilians. This, of course, is a contrast to Bolsonaro’s typical economic agenda, which has long been dogmatically free-market in its orientation (it’s important to recognize that Bolsonaro originally wanted emergency aid to be 1/3 of what it was, only being pushed to increase the amount by Congress). If Bolsonaro continues to earn support from the poor and working class, which he is likely to do with his upcoming “Citizens Income” initiative to disperse further emergency funds,  it is entirely possible he could win the 2022 general election. 

Brazil is an exception, in that it is one of a very few countries in the region with a popular right-wing government. Chile’s leader is embattled from years of protests, and likely to lose his next election. Argentina’s right-wing government was voted out last year for fomenting poverty and inequality. Then there is the case of Ecuador, Colombia and Guatemala, all three of whom share right-wing leaders who have had to face immense surges of opposition to their rule. We can begin with Ecuador, which is a somewhat odd case given that it’s leader Lenín Moreno ran as a left-wing candidate and was a disciple of the popular leftist leader Rafael Correa. President Moreno’s decisive neoliberal turn came as a betrayal to those who voted him into power, and by 2019, fostered enormous protests and riots against his decision to cancel fuel subsidies, along with a litany of other austerity measures. Like in Chile, outrage culminated in something tangible: the measures were reversed. Things have since calmed in the country. How long this relative tranquility will remain undisturbed is another question. Given that President Moreno recently approved a $6.5 billion IMF loan, one can only wonder how much time will pass before a new round of austerity is implemented and protestors re-emerge. The fact that he has recently announced his intention to postpone elections will only exacerbate the chances of a revolt.

Like Ecuador, neighbouring Colombia’s streets were teeming with demonstrators in 2019. The basis for these protests was more amorphous than in Ecuador, with voices being raised against a whole host of issues from income inequality, to police brutality, to corruption. Nonetheless, what buoyed the mass demonstrations was a general sentiment of dissatisfaction with President Ivan Duque, who saw his approval ratings plummet. Like in Ecuador, neoliberal economic reforms had a large part to play in this. But that is merely scratching the surface. What has defined President Duque’s tenure has been increased violence towards unarmed civilians, ex-guerrilla fighters, union leaders, and community activists. 261 indigenous leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered in 2020 alone. The trend is disturbing but hardly foreign to the people of Colombia, who suffered through the infamous “false positives” scandal – where the military lured poor or disabled civilians into remote parts of the country, murdered them, and dressed them up as guerrilla fighters to increase the body count against the FARC and ELN. Recent estimates claim the number of victims to be nearly 10,000. To mitigate further violence, President Duque must respect the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC and ensure that the government maintains its commitments under the peace deal – especially with regards to protecting ex-rebels from violence. His decision to engage in talks with ex-FARC leaders last month is an encouraging sign, but much has to be done to move forward towards peace.

Finally, there is the small nation of Guatemala, who elected the right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei in January of this year. Only a few months into his term, he already confronts a major national crisis. After the passing of a controversial budget, which favoured private interests at the expense of aid to the impoverished, citizens took to the streets in opposition. Poverty is incredibly high in Guatemala, and has only been augmented by the arrival of Covid-19. The passing of a budget that cuts funding for healthcare and education thus appears tone-deaf to the needs of Guatemalans. Indeed, tension fulminated in the capital last month when protestors set fire to the congressional building. The Vice-President has since called on Giammattei to resign. As the nation heads into 2021, it will certainly be plagued by a familiar uncertainty that trails the whole continent. 

But there are glimmers of hope. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, in an effort to revitalize his base, has begun enacting a range of progressive policies – including the expansion of access to medical marijuana and a wealth tax. A bill that would allow women to receive abortions until 14 weeks is also on the table, accompanied by a welfare program supporting pregnant women and young mothers. In Mexico, President Lopez Obrador, although fumbling his Covid-19 response, introduced a bill to provide free healthcare to tens of millions of Mexicans, and managed to depart from almost a century of PRI party rule (which the author Mario Vargas Llosa notably called ‘the perfect dictatorship’). In Bolivia too, there is cause for celebration. After being ousted in what could only be described as a coup in 2019, the MAS party emerged victorious this year, winning the much-delayed election do-over, and putting an end to a year of instability and human rights violations perpetrated by the Añez administration. Finally, even Venezuela exhibits promise for the next year, as upcoming elections are purported to be competitive and feature 14,000 candidates from 107 political organizations (98 of which are identified as opposition parties).

Where is Latin America headed? For one, we will continue to see tension mounting across the region as egregious levels of inequality and poverty remain stubbornly entrenched in their place. The economic situation looked promising at the dawn of the century, thanks to a commodity boom and leaders like Lula de Silva, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa allocating financial benefits across all stratas of society – drastically lowering inequality and poverty. But the situation has changed, and leaders have failed to adapt to them. Policies that continue to ignore the poor will continue to elicit protests and riots. In fact, the current situation largely resembles what the continent endured during its era of “economic restructuring” in the 1980s and 90s, when governments fell into debt and implemented harsh austerity to dig their way out, inspiring large waves of protests in response. To restore stability, governments must restore the economy.

The other worrying trend is a steady deterioration of democracy, something that is inherently fragile to begin with. The continent has long been ruled by strongmen and wealthy landowning families. In the 20th century, nearly every attempt at forging a democracy was strangled in its crib (in which the U.S. played a decisive role). Exacerbating this is a deeply rooted corruption of the political sphere, something that has been inherited from its colonial history. The only way to avoid military rule and despotic leaders is to replenish the public arena of politics. Citizens must feel like they are indeed citizens, and have a role in guiding the political process. A dejected populace is more likely to accept a shuttering of democracy, bedevilled by indifference. On the other hand, when citizens feel like they have a stake in the system, they are more likely to engage in politics and society at large. But this cannot occur with a series of top-down technocratic tweaks, through simple electoral reforms or anti-corruption policy endeavours. To bind the masses back to politics, to suffuse their lives with meaning, to grant them a place in society, means providing them with a life of economic wellbeing. It was Aristotle who said “When there is no middle class, and the poor greatly exceed in number, troubles arise, and the state soon comes to an end.” Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world. If its leaders cannot reckon with this reality, then can hardly be surprised when anger and violence permeate the streets, and when democracy slips into obscurity.

What does a Biden administration mean for the Middle East?

The Next Century Foundation congratulates Joseph Biden Jr. on his victory in the U.S. elections, and we wish him luck during this time of great uncertainty. As a new administration is set to take charge of the White House, we felt it was appropriate to examine President elect Biden’s presumed foreign policy stance on the Middle East. How does he fare in comparison to Trump? Will we witness a radical departure from the Obama era? What does a Biden administration mean for the people of the Middle East?

From Bush to Trump

Much of America’s Middle East policy over the past decade has been a response to the actions of the Bush administration, the consequences of which still reverberate across the region today. Barack Obama campaigned on a message of peace and diplomacy, articulating a desire to withdraw troops from Iraq and rebuild shattered alliances. A few months into his term, he visited Cairo to deliver an enthralling speech aimed at the Islamic world, proposing a new beginning between the U.S. and Muslims globally, based on mutual interest and respect. It’s easy to forget now, but the President’s speech appeared, at the time, to be an extraordinary break from the past. Candid and forthright, and with his usual oratory flair, President Obama signalled a new sense of hope that was so diminished under the Bush administration. The Middle East, for a brief moment, felt inspired. Perhaps the stage had been set for a new America.

But hopes were quickly dashed when it became apparent that President Obama would not prove drastically different in his foreign policy outlook. Granted, he was a more judicious and cultivated presence than the more provincial George W. Bush. But this mattered little when he assisted Europe in toppling Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, leading to a devastating civil war. Obama’s lofty rhetoric also rang hollow when it came to the sheer brutality of his escalated drone strikes policy. Correspondingly, he failed to close Guantanamo and bring the troops home like promised.

The Trump candidacy was likewise a response to the George W. Bush era. The Apprentice star continually admonished Hillary Clinton, perceived as a politician with hawkish instincts who would continue the Bush/Obama doctrine, for voting in favour of the Iraq War. Instead, Trump rallied voters behind a message of ceasing America’s “forever” wars and diminishing its troop presence abroad. After two administrations worth of foreign policy blunders, the message clearly resonated. Donald Trump took home the election, and Washington trembled in its boots. This was someone whose reckless rhetoric and bellicose behaviour indicated a man of uncertain instincts. Would President Trump spell catastrophe for the Middle East?

It turns out: not really. President Trump’s role in the region was a typical exercise in Republican leadership. Although he was initially labelled an ‘isolationist’, this proved questionable as his time passed. Undoubtedly, he often spurned a path of multilateralism and was heavily critical of organizations like the U.N. and the World Health Organisation. But to equate this with a detachment from the world stage would be erroneous. President Trump’s primary goal was, like the Presidents that preceded him, to maintain America’s power globally. He employed an actively hostile posture towards Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, imposed sanctions on countries like Lebanon and Syria, initiated a trade war with China, developed military alliances, and made a concerted effort to embolden the USA’s ally Israel. Altogether, it was not the vast overhaul of foreign policy that pundits expected, much of the speculated fears over Trump’s finger on the nuclear button did not materialize either. But what did change?

For one thing, President Trump certainly appeared more congenial towards authoritarian leaders like Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (even calling the Egyptian President his “favourite dictator”). Boisterous comments like this are indicative of President Trump’s unvarnished populist aesthetic, meant to cast himself as some sort of dramatic rupture in U.S. leadership. But as president, Donald Trump merely vocalized sentiments that always lingered, but were never espoused publicly – dispensing with the pleasantries that usually veil America’s realpolitik agenda. Yes, President Trump extolled President el-Sisi, but the coup that hoisted the Egyptian leader to power occurred on President Obama’s watch, who refused to use the word “coup” and continued to sell F-16s to the Egyptian government. President Obama’s top diplomat John Kerry even described the event as a ‘restoration of democracy’. Yes, President Trump was outwardly more amicable towards the Saudis, but Obama sold billions in arms to the same government (even whilst it was engaged in a deadly war with Yemen) and did little to mitigate its authoritarian tendencies. Iran and Israel were the only significant examples of any major divergence by President Trump, who bowed out of the JCPOA and enforced onerous sanctions on the former, while tightening relationships with the latter by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, along with mustering a peace plan that endowed Israel with large swaths of territory. Aside from these examples, President Trump navigated through the Middle East largely without initiating conflict.

President Biden

Advisors to Biden have claimed that the new leader will spend 80% of his time dedicated to domestic policy, his acceptance speech mentioning little with regards to international affairs. This is hardly unexpected, given the engulfing crisis that is the Covid-19 pandemic. But even within the domain of foreign policy, the U.S. has seen a drift away from an interest in the Middle East. Washington insiders are now absorbed with developments in China, which poses the largest threat in terms of rivalling America’s hegemony. But Joseph Biden will still have a role to play in the Middle East. He will most certainly work towards restoring many of President Obama’s policies – including returning the U.S. to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the World Health Organisation. He will rebuild the state department and attempt to restore American diplomacy. Yet what is crucial is how this will translate to concrete action. Joseph Biden is often perceived as another iteration of President Obama – a little more unpolished, granted, but someone who seeks to return to the status quo under the Democrats. But when the Arab world was interviewed, 58% declared that President elect Biden should distance himself from the Obama administration’s policies. It’s evident then, that harkening back to the status quo will not necessarily ensure a fruitful Middle East policy. To come to grips with what a Biden presidency would mean for the region, we can examine a few select countries that might experience the most perceptible changes.

Turkey

Biden has not remained quiet with regards to his enmity for autocratic leadership around the world. He has openly chastised the behaviour of nations like Hungary and China. Turkey also finds itself on this list. Indeed, out of all the leaders in the Middle East, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is perhaps most troubled by the prospects of a Biden presidency. Trump and Erdogan got along cordially, with the former rarely indicating any resistance to the latter’s increasing disdain for human rights and democracy. The same cannot be said about Biden, who has called out Erdogan more explicitly on issues like his aggression towards the Kurds and even partly blamed him for the ascendancy of ISIS in the region. As Vice President, he would often speak openly about Erdogan’s increasing contempt for the public press and free speech in his country. His administration also helped shelter Fethullah Gulen, the man who Erdogan accused of engendering the 2016 coup against him. Biden was perhaps most frank when interviewed by the New York Times editorial board, where he asserted forthrightly that Erdogan was an autocrat and that America should get behind the Turkish opposition in order to remove him from power through the ballot box. Leadership in Turkey worries that Biden will taint the recently strengthened bilateral relationship between the two NATO allies with his human rights rhetoric, and more seriously, threaten their interests in Libya, Syria and the Mediterranean. Questions also remain as to whether Biden will impose sanctions on the country for deciding to purchase Russian S-400s. On the other hand, Biden might tow a similar line to Trump for fear that Turkey could stray from NATO’s orbit. A game of balance will undoubtedly need to be played.

Erdogan has lent Turkey a more assertive role in the region, something that Biden will be forced to address

Iran

Though they maintained an outward ambivalence towards the Biden victory, Iran quietly breathed a collective sigh of relief. The nation has suffered immensely under the Trump administration, which pulled out of the JCPOA and sought to curb the growing regional influence of a then vitalized Iran. The tactic Trump chose was coercion. He did this by strangling Iran’s economy. Oppressive sanctions prevented the country from dealing effectively with Covid-19, taking its mightiest toll on the country’s citizens. In retaliation, Iran abandoned many of their nuclear commitments and hastened its production of enriched uranium. This complicates the situation. Much will have to be done before the two nations can sit down at the table. Biden’s desire is for Tehran to first return to its prior nuclear commitments, while a growingly suspicious Iran might wish to continue its enrichment project if the U.S. does not provide reparations for the betrayal and harm it caused the country over the last four years. Complicating things further is the role of Europe, which has grown wearier of Iran, and will likely demand more concessions from the country before resuscitating the nuclear deal. What is certain is that if Obama’s nuclear deal is re-established, it will likely be followed by echoes of disenchantment across much of the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel perceive Iran to be a threat, and any strengthening of its hand will be considered disconcerting.

Israel and Palestine

It was the night before the 2016 election when leaders of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank gathered in Hebron to pray for a victorious Donald Trump. Their wishes were granted. Israel enjoyed a felicitous relationship with the Trump administration, one that yielded the country a litany of triumphs. In the last four years, Netanyahu witnessed a weakened Iran, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and a Middle East plan that would have permitted the annexation of huge swaths of Palestinian land. Biden will certainly not be as cozy with Netanyahu as Trump was – who shared a special, symbiotic relationship with the Israeli leader. A two-state solution will be back on the table, and Israel will have to navigate with more caution and deliberation moving forward, as Biden is more likely to scrutinize certain Israeli actions, including any steps toward the annexation of Palestinian territory. The potential for a strengthened Iran (if Biden is to ease sanctions) also frightens Netanyahu. But Biden, an avid supporter of Israel, will not attempt to reverse any of Trump’s actions. Jerusalem and the Golan Heights will continue to be recognized as part of Israel. The U.S. embassy will not be moved back to Tel Aviv. Military aid will continue to pour into the country. In all likelihood, the President will preside over an era of continued recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbours. This, to the detriment of the Palestinians, who have suffered egregiously over the last four years. Mahmoud Abbas, along with Palestinians generally, will certainly be relieved to see Biden take the helm of America’s foreign policy. But relief should not be confused with jubilation. Indeed, Biden has indicated he will reverse some of Trump’s more draconian policies against Palestine, by restoring humanitarian support to the country and reopening the PLO mission in Washington. But with Israel so emboldened over the last few years, possibilities for a peace deal remain dim. While Biden has opposed Trump’s methods in dealing with the Israel-Palestine issue (i.e. mostly manoeuvring unilaterally), he has not questioned its outcomes.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Like Israel, Saudi Arabia will not be celebrating on inauguration day. The opposite is true for Yemen. Biden pronouncing a desire to end American support for the Saudi war in Yemen, a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and wreaked havoc on an already penurious nation, has something to do with this. How likely this will manifest into something palpable is another question. The fact that one third of the Pentagon transition team hails from organizations financed by the weapons industry is not the most promising sign. As Vice President, Biden supported the selling of billions worth in arms to Saudi Arabia. What is irrefutable, however, is that Saudi Arabia’s autocratic ambitions will likely be tempered during the next four years, when compared to Trump, who emphatically supported the oil-rich nation. Indeed, it’s safe to say that Biden’s first diplomatic destination won’t be Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohamed Bin Salman will therefore have to practise more restraint when it comes to stamping out dissent in his country, and he will be more reluctant to pull another horrific incident like the Khashoggi affair, which Biden decried, professing that he would “defend the right of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence”. MBS will also express disquiet over Biden’s likely decision to reengage in discussions with Iran – a country that Saudi Arabia and many of its neighbours view as an existential threat. But all this must be taken with a grain of salt. If Biden’s tenure will resemble anything like Obama’s, it is likely that the Saudi Monarchy will still receive the generous support of their American allies. Historically, it has mattered little which party has been in charge. The relationship between the two countries has remained almost unassailable.

Syria

Trump will leave a mixed legacy in Syria. On the one hand, he deviated from Obama’s policy of aiming to overthrow Bashar al-Assad by ceasing America’s support for the armed opposition. On the other, he launched (largely symbolic) missiles on President Assad’s forces and imposed his draconian ‘Caesar’ sanctions on Damascus. He expressed disdain for Syrian ally Iran but was warmer to its ally Russia. Likewise, he threw support towards the Kurds for most of his reign, only to abandon them last year, upon swiftly withdrawing most of his troops from the region. Despite this seeming disarray, President Biden is likely to preserve Trump’s policies in the country. Financial pressure will continue. Troops will remain. And the potential for further intervention is unlikely. Because so many interests are entangled in Syria, much of what occurs in the country will also rest on how Biden gets along with countries like Israel, Turkey, Russia and Iran. Syria will welcome a Biden presidency, as his umbrage towards Turkey will prove helpful in reducing their inimical influence – namely in regard to their promotion of division and extremism in Syria. His less affectionate ties to Netanyahu may also prove useful to Syria, which has continually been pummelled by Israeli rockets from next door. Not to mention that President Assad still recalls Obama’s reluctance to attack the country, permitting Iran to enter and rescue his government, along with Biden’s comments arguing against arming the opposition in Syria. Nonetheless, Biden’s Syria policy remains shrouded in ambiguity. Any mention of the country was scant during his campaign. As other theatres of conflict heat up across the region, Biden will leave Syria on the backburner for the time being.

President Assad’s Syria is a tangled web of interests. How Biden approaches the country depends on his relationship with other regional powers.

Libya and Egypt

Libya is a focal point in North Africa. Nations across the region and beyond endeavour to shift the tides of war in their preferred direction. Despite this, America has been relatively apathetic towards the conflict. Biden himself apparently never wished to enter the country in the first place. American strategy is not likely to shift substantially – although unlike his predecessor, Biden might be more inclined to take advantage of multilateralism and work with the U.N. to foster a peaceful solution to the conflict. When it comes to Egypt, however, there might be a more decisive shift. Trump was a faithful ally of Sisi, pumping funds to the country’s military and security apparatus. Biden has chastised Trump for his chumminess with the repressive leader and regularly spoken out against the human rights violations that have occurred under President Sisi’s rule. If this behaviour continues, it would not be entirely unfathomable for Biden to decrease some of America’s expenditure towards Egypt.

Conclusion

Joseph Biden never attained the enthusiasm that Presidents Obama or Trump received when they ascended to power. Most votes cast for the former Vice President were directed against his opponent. The tremendous hope that tailed Biden’s predecessors is notably absent this time around. Ultimately, this works in Biden’s favour. With little expectation, there is little room to disappoint. But the President-to-be should not take this as an opportunity to play idle. He must summon the political will to do what his predecessors failed at doing and work multilaterally to ease tensions in the Middle East, instigate some degree of peace. The region has confronted enough war. It has sustained enough carnage. Biden must ensure that he ameliorates, rather than exacerbates, these profound problems.

Fighting drags on in Nagorno-Karabakh: is there a way forward?

The world is currently being shaken by a deadly pandemic, turbulent U.S. elections and escalating tensions in the Mediterranean. Among these developments, it is easy to lose sight of the current conflict being waged between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Although clashes between the two nations are not new, the current iteration of fighting has proven more vicious and enduring than previous skirmishes. As of now clashes continue to rock the South Caucasus region. Ceasefires have been established, and broken. The death toll continues to rise on both sides. Pressure is mounting to suspend the brutal fighting and initiate peace talks. But before discussing matters of peace, it is crucial to understand the perspectives of the two nations engaged in the fighting, and to come to some sort of understanding of the antipathy that permeates the region.

Azerbaijan’s case

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia emerged as states in 1918, but were required to forcibly cede their territory to the Ottoman Empire during the very same year. The Ottomans, in turn, were defeated in World War One and signed the Treaty of Sevres, dividing the empire and forcing the Oblast (i.e. “region”) of Karabkh into British hands. What Azerbaijan points out is that The Karabakh National Assembly (which consisted of both ethnic Armenians and Azeris) then voted to exist under Azerbaijani administration, which the British agreed to.

Soon after, the Bolsheviks swooped in and took over the government of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Because Russia was attempting to curry favour with Turkey at the time – who held complete contempt for the Armenians – the Treaty of Moscow was signed. The signatories included the Bolshevik-controlled states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, and stated firmly that the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast would be an autonomously governed territory under Azerbaijan’s protection. In other words, Nagorno-Karabkh was now officially part of Azerbaijan. This was further reinforced with The Treaty of Kars, signed by the same parties (although at this stage they were known as the Soviet Socialist Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan).

Azerbaijan points out that under international law, a country can only gain territory through a few select methods (three to be exact). A country can occupy land that nobody resides on. It can also gain territory if the citizens of the land are thoroughly oppressed enough to warrant self-determination and as a consequence determine to go with them. And finally, it can control land that is ceded to them. Azerbaijan argues that the Nagorno-Karabakh territory was rightfully transferred to them. The Ottomans gave up the territory to the British, who permitted the people themselves to decide who would rule over the region. A vote was held, and the people chose Azerbaijan. This was done legally under international law. Twice.

This status quo held for the remainder of the USSR’s existence. But amid the passing decades, something interesting occurred. The Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabkh swelled. Indeed, by the late 1980s, they made up an estimated 75% of the population. At this point, the autonomous government of Nagorno-Karabakh appealed to the Soviet Union to allow for Armenian rule of the region. This was denied. Violence erupted as a result, and a deadly war was waged over the territory. Azerbaijan’s claim is simple: international law dictates that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to us. Just because a certain piece of land is dominated by a people who desire to secede, does not mean that their wish must be granted. Countless nations across the world deal with this same problem. What kind of precedent would it set if any inkling toward self-determination afforded a right to independence? Finally, Azerbaijan argues that Turkey’s presence in the conflict is not unwarranted or illegal. Article 51 of the U.N. Charter permits its intervention so long as Azerbaijan consents. The only country breaking international law is Armenia, who according to U.N. Charter, are illegally using force against the territory of another state.

Armenia’s case

In 1991, a referendum was held to determine the independence of Nagorno Karabakh, and 82.2% of registered voters voted in favour of independence. Azerbaijan refused to honour this referendum, opting to wage war upon Armenia instead, which resulted in the death of approximately 30,000 people and many more thousands displaced. Armenia argues that Azerbaijan’s actions have repeatedly denied the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh their right to self-determination and their right to live freely and peacefully, from the moment independence was agreed to the present day; and the only way to bring peace to the region is if Azerbaijan recognise this right to self-determination.

The Nagorno-Karabakh is presently controlled by the internationally unrecognised Republic of Artsakh, which functions as a de facto part of Armenia. Although Artsakh has not been recognised as an official state by any UN member state, they have ruled the Nagorno-Karabakh region since 1994 when a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces was called. Artsakh is actively supported by Armenia and run by indigenous Armenians, and the Armenian population living in the region have said that they will never consent to living under Azerbaijan ruling.

The right to self-determination is contentious under international law, with complex and confusing precedent. However, the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been populated by indigenous Armenians for millennia, and Armenia argues that it has a historic claim to self-determination. Chapter One of the UN Charter gives all groups the right to self-determination, which is what Armenia’s case for this right rests on. Furthermore, the Montevideo Convention 1993 restated customary international law on the criteria required for statehood, and Armenia argues that all have been met for Artsakh to be an independent state. The criteria are as follows: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter relationships with other states. Artsakh has a population of around 250,000, with the territory being well-established and defined, not having changed since the 1990s. Artsakh is a presidential democracy and has held fair democratic general elections since 1995, with their most recent being in March this year. Finally, Artsakh has been engaged in eight diplomatic missions in other countries, fulfilling all of the criteria laid down in international law.

The Velvet Revolution in 2018 brought about a change in Armenian attitude, for those in both Armenia and Artsakh, and has ignited the fight for self-determination. For Armenians, it is clear that the fundamental human rights of those living in Nagorno-Karabakh cannot continue to be violated by Azerbaijan.

The current crisis

Violence in the Caucasus region erupted once again on September 27th 2020 along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Conflict, when Armenia claimed that Azerbaijan fired the first shots by launching air raids and attacks. On the other hand, Azerbaijan stated that these attacks were a “counter-offensive in response to military provocation”. This has now proved to be the deadliest fighting seen in the region since the 1990s. With support from Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan forces have been able to make use of many new means of war, deploying drones, sensors and long-range heavy artillery. Reports have also stated that Azerbaijan forces are also using cluster munition, which is explicitly banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions (neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia have signed this treaty, however, the ban on cluster bombs is widely accepted as being reflected in Customary International Law which binds all States, irrespective of whether they have signed the treaty). Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of also using these types of weapons. Around 70,000 people, almost half the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, have been displaced due to this recent outbreak of violence, and the death toll on both sides is now estimated to be in the region of almost 5,000, although the official numbers reported by Azerbaijan and Armenia forces are much lower.

Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, has recently vowed to “fight until the end” if ethnic Armenian forces refuse to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. The fear of a regional conflict is now mounting. Turkey is directly engaged in the fighting, supporting their Turkic allies in Azerbaijan by sending over Syrian mercenaries. Russia has also vowed to back Armenia once the conflict affects Armenia’s sovereignty.

Three ceasefires have thus far been agreed to and subsequently broken by forces on both sides of the conflict; it is clear that a short-term peace solution is not the way forward in mediating the conflict and bringing peace to the Nagorno-Karabakh region and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both sides have refused to recognize how diplomacy may settle the conflict, opting to continue military action instead.

The way forward

The bloodshed and lives lost cannot continue, and a new, fair peace deal must be brokered to end the conflict for good.

First, we must acknowledge that peace is possible in the region. The two states have existed peacefully together far longer than they have been at war. Unlike some reporters who enjoy describing the conflict as an intractable, ethnic and/or religious clash of historic proportions, the truth is that Armenia and Azerbaijan’s disagreements are largely political, and only emerged after lines were drawn across the territory. Thus, an end to fighting can certainly be reached with diplomacy.

Because the flames of nationalism have been stoked so heavily in both nations, both Pashinyan and Aliyev don’t want to risk ending up empty handed. Any one-sided concessions to the other side would be regarded as a national disgrace. Therefore, it is critical that a peace deal is mutually beneficial for both parties. Both leaders will need to begin speaking in the language of deals as opposed to concessions, especially when so many lives are on the line. However, this should not be confused with an abdication of responsibility by both nation’s governments. There must a desire to foster peace and a willingness to reach this goal, and this means softening the pugnacious language exchanged by both sides, along with pursuing a concerted effort to reach out to the international sphere for assistance.

The international community can play a pivotal role in assuaging the conflict and offering a way forward. With both Armenia and Azerbaijan so steadfast in their convictions and rhetoric, the need for outside mediators is more acute than ever. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, France, Russia and the U.S., can work towards making this happen. Specifically, they can refer back to the commitments made in 2016 following a previous period of conflict, which promised to re-initiate a peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is not such an implausible prospect – given that both Pashinyan and Aliyev sat down together to discuss reducing tensions between the two states as recently as 2018.

In order for a peace deal to be reached, the world must be willing to make the conflict a priority. While a host of other issues have justifiably caught the attention of the major international actors, they cannot forget that Nagorno-Karabakh is a powder-keg; one that could conceivably erupt into a far larger and more lethal conflict of global proportions. International engagement must therefore come with a sense of urgency.

Of course, before any longer-term peace deal can be initiated, the first step must be a robust ceasefire. In order for one to be effective, it must be supported by the U.N., and must include an on-the-ground ceasefire monitoring system. But once the guns stop firing, talks must begin immediately. The fact that both parties are beginning fresh talks in Geneva is a promising sign, and already they have agreed to avoid the intentional targeting of civilians. However, both sides must now muster the courage to agree on halting the use of banned weapons, delegitimising military gains as bargaining tool in negotiations, and emphasising the role of international law in the conflict.

Ultimately, when it comes to long-term solutions, both leaders must return to the “Basic Principles” agreed to by both sides in 2009. Also known as a “land for peace” agreement, the basic principles call for, according to the Atlantic Council:

“For the return of Azerbaijan’s control of its seven Armenia-occupied territories surrounding Nagorno Karabakh in exchange for Nagorno Karabakh gaining a temporary legal status, which would be finalized at an indeterminate time in the future by a vote of the region’s population. The ethnic Armenian residents of Nagorno Karabakh would also obtain security guarantees in the form of international peacekeepers and a transit corridor connecting Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia.”

Only a couple of years ago, Armenia’s leader had pledged to see to it that these principles were finalised. Azerbaijan’s leader also appeared to be on board, with both sides agreeing that the next step was to convince their respective populations of such a prospect (a daunting task, granted). It has only been over the past year that this agreement has slipped into obscurity. While disheartening, it also means that there is a potential way forward for the country. Peace and security are not out of reach in the region. Let us hope that both leaders assemble the courage to return to these basic principles and put an end to the cruelty of war.

This blog entry was written by Research Officers Alexander Shah and Lara Ibrahim and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Next Century Foundation.

What’s Next for Afghanistan?

“Whatever countries I conquer in the world, I would never forget your beautiful gardens. When I remember the summits of your beautiful mountains, I forget the greatness of the Delhi throne.”

– Ahmad Shah Durrani, Founder of the Afghan Empire (1747-1773)



Afghanistan sits at a crossroads. For decades, it has endured a ceaseless and brutal civil war that has left the country devastated. It now has the possibility to carve out a path for the future. The U.S. and the Taliban have signed a historic deal earlier this year, potentially putting an end to the bloodshed and chaos engulfing the country of 37 million. But as talks proceed, there are a number of questions to consider. Does a peace deal mean a resurgence of the Taliban? Will a power-sharing agreement really materialize? And what does a future with an absence of the U.S. look like for Afghanistan?  

Witnessing the U.S. government and Taliban exchange words across the palatial halls of Doha was a somewhat surreal experience, given the long-held motto of the Bush administration, which has been an unyielding refusal to negotiate with terrorists. But times have changed. No longer is the U.S. engaged in the early and ebullient years of war. Rather, it finds itself mired in the longest conflict in its history, and President Donald Trump is itching for his country to find the exit door. This is not surprising, as Trump ran on a firm message of ending America’s ‘forever wars’ and ridiculing his competitors for their historic eagerness to support interventions in the Middle East. “A complete waste”, he tweeted back in 2012, “Time to come home!”

But this desire extends beyond Trump. The U.S. has indicated a need to divert focus from the Middle East to Asia since the Obama administration. Why sink trillions of dollars into Afghanistan when a towering China looms larger than ever as a strategic threat? Likewise, it has become increasingly difficult to continue to sell the Afghan War to the American people. The government’s profligate spending and the loss of lives that the military have incurred on what is perceived as a remote conflict in South-Central Asia has rightfully angered a large swathe of the American populace. For years now, even among the architects of the war itself, reasons for remaining in the country have grown harder to define. The U.S. achieved its initial goal, after all, expelling al-Qaeda and killing Bin Laden. Since then, ambitions have become murkier and pressure to vacate the country has escalated. But is U.S. withdrawal really so simple, if desirable at all? The reality is there are numerous repercussions to consider – both for Afghanistan and the realm of geopolitics. 

One of the largest concerns is that current peace-deal negotiations lean far too favorably on the side of the Taliban. The group has already seen the release of thousands of their troops from prison (only having to provide a meagre written guarantee not to return to the battlefield) and they are soon to observe a complete surrender of their primary military threat once the U.S. withdraws its troops. All things considered, if one were to step into the shoes of a Taliban right now, the future would be looking fairly auspicious. But why do the Taliban appear to possess the greater advantage?

This can largely be blamed on the actions of the U.S., who in their years of obstinance and refusal to engage in dialogue, gave up far better opportunities to forge a deal, particularly when America was at the height of its power after driving the Taliban out of power in 2001. Indeed, the U.S. today is coming to the table at a moment of weakness. The Taliban have control over or contest large chunks of the country. The U.S. has even permitted the Taliban to employ the term ‘the Emirate of Afghanistan’ throughout documents that the U.S. has co-signed – even while claiming that it doesn’t recognize the state (The Emirate of Afghanistan being the Taliban’s name for the country when they ruled previously in 2001).

Only 8,600 American troops remain in Afghanistan, a number that is intended to decline over the next 14 months. The Kabul government is frail – largely kept afloat by U.S. support and aid. Perhaps the biggest fear is a complete takeover of the country by the Taliban, with two decades of work in stabilizing the country vanishing instantly. Many have indeed argued that the Taliban are merely using peace talks as a bargaining chip to further their own plans, stalling negotiations to build up their own forces as the U.S. abscond.

Some evidence bears this out. Since talks began, violence perpetrated by the Taliban has only increased. Certain Taliban figures have proven increasingly recalcitrant, vowing to wage jihad until an Islamic state is established. Many point to these actions as a lack of seriousness in attempting to foster peace. What if they’re right? A real fear is a repeat of America’s experience in Vietnam – where the U.S. signed a deal with the North Vietnamese and departed, only to have the North pour in and take charge of the entire country soon after. On the other hand, the Afghan Armed Forces remain standing and well-armed, and will possibly put up a vigorous effort in refusing Taliban encroachment into major cities if push came to shove. Perhaps, then, what is more likely is a situation akin to the Soviet withdrawal of 1989 – an event that precipitated a civil war of cataclysmic proportions.

In order to avoid such an outcome, it is crucial that peace negotiations spend a great deal of time focusing on the Afghan government and state. At the moment, there are floating tensions concerning the prospects of power-sharing, transitional justice, disarmament, and the reintegration of the Taliban into the Afghan security forces. The Taliban have been clear in their desire to re-establish an Islamic Emirate, a clerical system analogous to that which existed the last time they ruled in 2001. Completely against this notion is the Afghan government, who wish for the country to remain a democratic Islamic Republic. But for negotiations to succeed, there must be compromise.

Lingering questions must also be addressed. What, for instance, is to occur regarding rule of law in the country? Or women’s rights? The Taliban claim they have evolved when it comes to permitting girls to attend school, but this comes from the same organization whose previous minister of education claimed that a woman is “like a flower, or a rose. You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell it. It is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled.” And what about the threat of organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, who have a presence both in Afghanistan and near its borders? Without the shadow of U.S. forces as a deterrence, it is entirely possible to see a resurgence of these terrorist groups. The Taliban, for their part, have appeared to ‘clean up their act’ and insist they have reformed. They have composed op-eds in the New York Times, opened up channels of dialogue, and have made efforts to place non-Pashtun ethnic minorities into leadership positions of their organization. An optimist might look at these as positive developments. A cynic, as mere tactics.
 

A peace deal with the Taliban has ignited questions on the fate of women in Afghanistan


Reforms aside, one can nevertheless glance back at the Taliban’s rule in 2001 to discern what the group could do if they achieve power once again. The overwhelming rationale behind their former rule was a strict interpretation of Sharia law that forbade consumer technology like music, television, photography and the internet. Participating in sports, flying kites, and attending films at the cinema were banned. Citizens could not own pets, nor could they celebrate Persian New Year. Women could not work or attend school and were only authorized to leave their homes with a male relative. Beards and turbans were deemed mandatory, so too were prayers. The environment also took a hammering – with massive deforestation efforts and no attempts to restore land. The Taliban enjoy pointing to their successful eradication of opium production in the country – but a systemic disregard of human rights accompanied this accomplishment. This is not to mention the near total collapse of the economy and destruction of the country’s infrastructure. 

When it came to the government itself, things seldom looked better. The Taliban were quick to replace all senior Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara bureaucrats with Pashtuns. Elections were ignored. After all, Sharia dictates that political parties and politics itself is forbidden. Thus, officials and soldiers did not even receive salaries – only food, clothes, shoes and weapons. Rule of law was also distorted to fit the Taliban’s agenda. Medieval punishments were instituted, and politicians and diplomats were murdered. The cherished Buddha statue in Bamiyan, a prodigious monument of history, was blown into pieces on a whim. “Taliban’s should be proud of smashing idols,” claimed Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, “It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them”. 

Augmenting these worries is the fear that the U.S. is intent on rushing the peace process to provide a win for Donald Trump. Illustrative of this is a report revealing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening to cut $1 billion in Afghan aid if the government refused to unite and speak with the Taliban. Beyond this, Pompeo threatened to abruptly withdraw all its troops if the government did not get their act together with respect to the Ghani-Abdullah feud (a situation where both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah claimed to hold the title of President after the 2019 election).

Although hurtling threats has never proved propitious for hastening peace, Pompeo’s words hold a modicum of truth. The Afghan government cannot succeed in negotiations if they are unable to put up a united front. Despite the Ghani-Abdullah discord being resolved, the government remains divided between the two factions. Curiously, a similar issue plagues the Taliban, who suffer from their own internal divisions. Some Taliban have already spurned the idea of striking an agreement with the U.S., for instance. As talks proceed, deep divisions could prove damaging when it comes to crafting a peace agreement. 

But what if peace talks were to fall apart entirely, and the U.S. were to remain in Afghanistan? The likely result would be an elongation of an already endless war between the Taliban and U.S. Any conception of the latter ‘winning’ the war by wiping out the Taliban is quixotic thinking. America has operated in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, why should the next two decades look any different? The country has not earned the moniker ‘graveyard of Empires’ in vain. First off, the country boasts a geography that is hostile to occupation. Its vast, mountainous landscape proves exceptionally difficult to penetrate by the U.S. – who are more adroit at air and sea warfare. Some hailed the introduction of airstrikes as a revolutionary new step in waging the war, but it has done little in furthering overall strategy – only dealing enormous harm in its killing of civilians. Obama’s attempted ‘surge’ of 10,000 troops also peaked a great deal of interest, only to prove futile in accomplishing anything long-lasting. Indeed, kindred to America’s experience in Vietnam, the question of waging war against guerrilla fighters like the Taliban amid tangled geography can never be boiled down to manpower and weaponry.

Teeming with mountains and deserts, Afghanistan’s landscape has never been friendly to invaders

Secondly, the U.S. remains ideologically and culturally distant from the Afghan people, a gulf that has only widened since its initial invasion (recently, it was revealed that Afghan security forces and their American-led international allies have killed more civilians in the first half of 2019 than the Taliban). Any hopes of changing hearts and minds is folly; the Taliban will continue to wield the advantage when it comes to convincing locals to turn against their occupiers. They, in fact, remain quite popular in rural areas of the South and East of the country. Lastly, military solutions cannot dismantle the entrenched ethnic and domestic tensions that permeate Afghanistan. As arduously as America may try, they will never procure the trust of the entire population, thanks largely to deep and historic rifts between the nation’s ethnic group.  

The U.S. has also achieved surprisingly little with respect to security, human development and building democracy in Afghanistan – especially when we look outside major cities. Tragically, since the genesis of the war, over 150,000 Afghans have died. This number does not even include members of the Afghan security forces, as the data is kept hidden by Kabul to avoid lowering morale. The recently released Afghan Papers have also revealed that America’s occupation has been plagued with lies, failure and corruption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it divulged that high-ranking officials admitted the war was ‘unwinnable’, but failed to inform the public.

Endeavours to help construct an Afghan government have also run into problems. The winner-take-all, centralized system has proven divisive in a country that yearns for unity. It also has led to the heavy disenchantment of citizens with politics. For reference: more money was spent on the latest 2019 election than any other in the country’s past – but turnout was historically low. Not even one million of nine million eligible voters showed up to the polls. In order to avoid such high levels of atomization and discontent, power must be dispersed more widely across the country and formal mechanisms must be introduced to better and more fairly share power.  

Stepping outside Afghanistan, there is also the role of neighbouring countries to consider. No matter which direction the country heads in – its future poses broad ramifications for the world at large. If the U.S. were to suddenly depart, an inevitable power vacuum would open up (indeed, America’s gradual departure from the Middle East as a whole has left the region up for grabs – see the actions of Turkey and Russia in Syria). Thinking geo-strategically, it’s little wonder that America has been an occupying force for so long. Possessing over $1 trillion worth of natural resources, many countries have long dreamt of dipping their fingers into the lucrative Afghan market. China, for instance, has a keen interest in Central Asia and the Middle East, viewing Afghanistan as a potential corridor for the Belt and Road Initiative – their massive global infrastructure and development strategy. The signing of the Beijing-Tehran strategic agreement, allowing for joint intelligence sharing with Iran, is one example of China’s growing interest in the region. They have also established a military base in nearby Tajikistan, on the Wakhan border – a strip of land linking China to Afghanistan.

In general, most countries aspire to see stability in Afghanistan. True, nations like Russia and Iran may have some interest in supporting the Taliban – but this has only been to kick the U.S. out of what they perceive as their backyard. It is certainly not in the interest of countries in the region to see a return of the Taliban to power. This would mean chaos at their borders. China has long feared the threat of Afghan-based terrorist groups spilling into their territory, along with the prospect of Uyghur secessionist groups setting up bases in the country. Instability would also mean an unsuitable environment to invest in and build infrastructure. Likewise, China, Russia and India recall when the Taliban were in power before – and their support for Islamic militants in Xinjiang, Chechnya and Kashmir. 

A retreat of American troops entails an Afghanistan up for grabs in the eyes of regional powers

Pakistan might be an exception. The Taliban have regularly used their neighbour to the East as a base to hide and maintain cover, straining relations between Kabul and Islamabad. It is largely in Pakistan’s interest to keep the U.S. engaged in a quagmire, as it receives huge funds from America in exchange for providing their troops with access to Afghanistan. The U.S. and Pakistan are already an unlikely and frankly unstable pair of allies, brought together in part merely because of the latter’s border with Afghanistan. If a peace deal were to succeed, and America were to withdraw its troops, it would likely no longer require Pakistan as their ally. Instead, the U.S. would probably shift their focus towards the more relevant India, whom they can work with to contain a rising China. India itself has increasingly felt surrounded on all sides – from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China – making its forging of closer ties with America almost inevitable. 

Let us conclude where we began: at the encouraging signs of a peace deal. It is difficult to tell whether talks will succeed, and even more difficult to envision an Afghanistan not beset by war. What is certain is that Afghanistan must emerge from its state of combative limbo. It must no longer be made beholden to the agonizing logic of war, nor to the dark and harrowing threat of Taliban rule. The fact that dialogue has begun to unfold between the U.S. and the Taliban is a monumental step in this direction. But it is one of innumerable steps to come. Dialogue must continue and compromises must be made. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban must respectively unify and emphatically reject fragmentation. A power-sharing agreement must be the objective – one that grants concessions to both sides and one that, most importantly, grants a voice to the Afghan people, who have largely been exempt from discussions. Is this a sanguine vision of the future? It likely is. But at least peace talks have begun to re-incorporate the language of ‘a future’ back into the Afghan vocabulary. With dialogue emerges infinite possibilities of what lies ahead.

Perhaps it is misleading to liken Afghanistan to a nation sitting at the crossroads. Perhaps Afghanistan is a nation that has found itself floating amid a tumultuous sea, torn by a wind and assaulted by rain. Only now, for the first time in years, have the stormclouds revealed signs of parting. A trace of light, though trembling and ephemeral, touches the surface of the water. The possibilities of which direction to steer seem endless. But the storm will only rest for so long. 

The Opium Epidemic in Afghanistan

The word ‘Opium’ derives from the Greek ‘opin’ or ‘poppy juice’, signifying the herbaceous plant that gives rise to the drug. Opium is a powerful narcotic that, when processed properly, can breed heroin, morphine and a multitude of other synthetic opioids. Its use stretches back thousands of years. Referred to as the “joy plant” by the Sumerians, opium’s popularity emerged in the Mediterranean, quickly spreading to the Assyrians and Egyptians. It soon began to be traded across the Mediterranean, spreading across Asia with Alexander the Great. As knowledge of the plant grew, so did demand. The Portuguese were known to smoke it. Indians and Persians would eat and drink it for recreational use. Europeans would even attribute magical powers to the plant. During the Holy Inquisition, opium was seen as a product of the East, and thus linked to the Devil. Thanks to the vast and elaborate Silk Road network, the drug managed to find its way to China, where the addictive substance eventually proliferated. Local denizens would inhale the vaporized opium through a long pipe, until they lay sprawled on the floor of the many opium dens that dotted the Empire. “Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality”, wrote the Jiaqing Emperor, recognizing its pernicious effects on Chinese society. Two decades later, the drug proved a catalyst for sparking the devastating Opium Wars between China and Great Britain, the ramifications of which are arguably still felt today.

The world has changed a lot since the 19th century. When anyone speaks of opium, they are less inclined to think of China and more likely to consider another country that has dominated headlines for the past two decades. This country, tucked away in the heart of Asia, is the source of more than 90% of the world’s opium supply. I refer here to none other than Afghanistan. But although the country’s title as the number one global opium producer is new, the drug is one that Afghans have long been familiar with. Production methods relied upon by Afghan opium farmers have seldom changed since antiquity. A labour-intensive process, the farmers begin by scratching the young seed pods of the opium poppy plant by hand. This reveals a milky white fluid, which is carefully dried out into a sticky yellowish residue, later scraped off and dehydrated. The drug is then exported for further refinement.

Afghanistan lies amid the Golden Crescent; a name for one of two principal areas of illicit opium production in the world. Located at the crossroads of Central, South and Western Asia, the area encompasses the nations of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Historically, the Golden Crescent was subsidiary to the Golden Triangle – a region in Southeast Asia consisting of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – in terms of opium production. It was only around 1991 that Afghanistan overtook Myanmar as the world’s top opium producer. There are two reasons for this. First, Myanmar had suffered through years of unfavourable growing conditions and faced new government policies that forced the eradication of the plant. Second, during this same period, opium farming proliferated across Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s opium production first gained significant traction in the 1950s in order to provide the drug to neighbouring Iran, who had recently banned its cultivation. This increased in the 1970s as Myanmar and other countries in the Golden Triangle suffered from prolonged droughts, limiting their output of the drug. The Soviet invasion also drove resistance leaders to cultivate the plant in order to fund their operations. More recently, the 2001 U.S. invasion caused opium production in the country to skyrocket. War has a tendency to destabilize local economies, forcing individuals into precarious situations, doing anything they must to survive. The reality is that opium production is a lucrative cash crop and can earn farmers significantly more than other crops (for instance, 17 times more than wheat). Opium is also drought-resistant, easy to move around, and does not spoil. Additionally, for rural Afghans, the only livelihood alternative to poppy cultivation is often joining the Afghan security forces – a far riskier way to make a living. Although it is technically a crime to grow the drug, it provides tens of thousands of farmers with a livelihood. These farmers depend on opium cultivation to feed their families, and planting crops like saffron just don’t elicit enough money. Indeed, opium generates an estimated $600 million for Afghan farmers, and is often claimed to make 30% of the country’s economic output. Even the Taliban, who banned opium growth in 2000 and who vow they will do the same if in power again, also rely heavily on opium revenue.

In recent years, opium production has only continued to rise in Afghanistan thanks to auspicious weather and harvesting conditions, but above all because of the introduction of solar panel technology, which has proved a massive boon to the industry. Early signs of solar panel use were first noted in 2013. Since then, panels have sprouted up all across the country, with installations doubling every year (there are now nearly 67,000 solar panels in the Helmand valley alone). What explains the rapid assimilation of this new technology? For one, solar panels have proved transformative in terms of farm productivity. Traditionally, Afghans have relied on the Karez irrigation method, an ancient system involving tunnels and wells that transfers water over great distances to farmlands. Farmers are also typically forced to buy expensive diesel to power their ground water pumps. These pumps would often break down, resulting in costly repairs. But solar panels changed things. Farmers can now place an electric pump underground and connect it directly to the panels, allowing water to flow easily. The cost of upkeep vanishes.  If a farmer opts for solar panels –requiring an upfront payment of $5000 – they save a great deal of money in the long term. Opium farms can now get up to three harvests per year, and plants can grow in places which were previously thought to be hostile terrain for growth. Indeed, half a million people have migrated to the desert areas of Helmand province in the past five years due to the proliferation of solar panel farms. To truly grasp the enormous impact of the technology on farming, consider that Afghanistan produced 3,700 tonnes of opium in 2012 – right before the introduction of solar panels. Five years later, that number was 9,000 tonnes.

But as opium and heroin production swept across the country, so too did the number of addicts. Indeed, the United Nations reported an estimated 1.9 to 2.4 million Afghans addicted to the drug in 2015, up from 200,000 in 2005. Its ravaging effect on the lives, families and communities of Afghanistan is beyond measure. More recently, women and children have fallen prey to addiction, with nearly 10% of children being active users of the drug in 2015 – likely an underestimation. Drug use also spills into all sectors of society: from government officials, to farmers, to businessmen. The southern region of Helmand and Kandahar provinces are particularly notorious for areas of high drug production, transactions and addiction. 80% of Afghan opium comes from the southern region alone, meaning nearly two-thirds of the global supply.

The U.S. has attempted, in vain, to decrease opium production in the country. After the yearlong ‘Iron Tempest’ campaign to end the Taliban’s lucrative drug trade (which makes up an estimated 65% of their income), the American government suspended their efforts at targeting drug labs and networks in 2018. The U.S. initially began launching targeted airstrikes on opium facilities in 2017, when production had soared in the country. They noted that over 500 drug labs were strewn across the country, pumping massive amounts of money towards the Taliban insurgency. Yet hundreds of airstrikes later, and barely a dent has been made on the opium industry. The U.S. has spent nearly $8.9 billion in counter-narcotic efforts since 2011. The result of America’s investments in smashing the drug enterprise has been abysmal: opium production has reached record highs in recent years, more than double what existed when the U.S. first invaded in 2001.

If aggressive counter-narcotic efforts have failed miserably to thwart the opium epidemic, then what other solutions are on the table? Some have argued that legalizing the drug could perhaps offer a way forward. After all, history teaches us that banning a substance does not make it go away (à la prohibition era America). Sometimes, quite the opposite – black markets and drug cartels multiply. With such lucrative profits to be made, it is understandable why banning a substance can lead to phenomena like the opium gangs of China in the early 20th century or the rise of cocaine kingpins like Pablo Escobar. In Afghanistan, the Taliban function largely like a cartel – siphoning hundreds of millions from the opium economy. On the other hand, when we examine countries like Switzerland that dealt with a heroin epidemic in the 1980s, we bear witness to a government that chose the path of harm reduction. Centers were opened to help addicts and widespread treatment was offered. The epidemic came to a halt.

But we must be cautious in citing this as an example that a nation like Afghanistan can emulate. The legalization and/or decriminalization of drugs has indeed proved fruitful in dealing with the problem across many Western nations. But this method can only blossom when there is a system in place to provide for harm reduction. Nations like Switzerland and Portugal have enough financial resources to provide pharmacies and treatment centers. The same cannot be said for Afghanistan, as the infrastructure is simply absent. Furthermore, putting taxes on the drug to fund government services could work in EU nations that are relatively corruption-free. But seldom can this be applied to the notoriously corrupt government of Afghanistan – which has itself engaged heavily in the opium business for years (President Karzai’s late brother famously being a key figure in the illegal drug trade). Likewise, even if Afghanistan were to legalize the drug, it would still remain illicit across other nations – meaning the Taliban would still reap a significant profit by buying locally and transferring the drug outside its borders. Indeed, demand for the drug stems largely from other countries in the first place and most of the trade revenue flows are outside of Afghanistan’s border. In this sense, the Taliban are not an international heroin cartel, as most heroin shipments are passed on to criminal organizations as soon as they leave Afghanistan. Nations like Pakistan and Turkey have a large reach when it comes to heroin trafficking in particular.

While on the subject of opium demand outside Afghanistan’s borders, it might prove helpful to examine the ruinous effect of the drug on a country that has suffered considerably at its hands – that of neighbouring Iran. Iran was one of the world’s top exporters of opium by the late 19th century – sending the drug as far as China and earning massive revenues from taxation. Naturally, in a country so saturated with opium, addiction grew to be a national problem. By the 1950s, it is said that 1.5 million Iranians were addicted to the drug (out of a population of 20 million!). At this point, the government began to crackdown on its production and use. The livelihood of hundreds of thousands of farmers were destroyed with little to show for it – as addiction rates remained high. It didn’t matter if production slowed in Iran – opium was simply smuggled in from Turkey and Afghanistan. Still today, Iran serves as a crucial transit country – where opium headed to Europe (a continent with an estimated two million heroin addicts) passes through. Because of this, Iran’s borders have become exceptionally dangerous territory. Violence is common between Iranian border guards and Afghan drug runners, with thousands of casualties being recorded over the years on both sides. Iran has seized and destroyed more opium and heroin from drug traffickers than all other countries in the world combined. It has spent countless millions more on monitoring its border with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, nearly 80% of executions in Iran are also related to drug trafficking. Many have compared the tragic situation with the Colombian war on drugs – only with Iran lacking the billions of dollars in funds from the U.S. Despite Iran’s efforts, cheap opium still manages to flood the country on a daily basis. The nation continues to struggle with the fact that it has the largest prevalence of opiate consumption as a population globally – with close to 450 metric tonnes being consumed each year.

The opium crisis in Afghanistan cannot be addressed solely as a drug issue. This myopic approach has only led to failure in dealing with the problem. Counter-narcotic policies and legalization cannot be the final answer – instead, the issue must be contextualized in a much broader picture. Opium cannot be contended with meaningfully unless the structures that give rise to the opium epidemic are dealt with. The Afghan government, the police, the farmers, and the Taliban all have something to gain from the industry – and all are involved in a deeply connected process that involves bribery and flouting the rule of law (by some estimates, government officials are involved in at least 70% of opium trafficking). Opium is therefore deeply entrenched in all facets of Afghan society. To deal with the problem would mean untangling the web of corruption and violence, engendered by decades of war and instability. That does not start with the drug itself, but with the entire system. Afghanistan’s opium crisis is a crisis born out of war and despair. To transform the opium epidemic means transforming Afghanistan. It means peace rather than war, freedom instead of poverty. Afghanistan has suffered immensely and shed both blood and tears. But the heart of Asia will keep beating, and in this we cannot lose hope.

Restoring Dialogue in Nicaragua

The following has been submitted in the format of an Oral Statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Right’s Council, and was prepared by Next Century Foundation Research Officer, Alexander Shah.

Since his electoral victory in 2007, President Ortega of the Republic of Nicaragua has made significant advances in reducing levels of poverty and crime in his country. However, this has been paired with a concerted effort to increase his grip on power. Most concerning is Ortega’s increased level of control over the Supreme Electoral Council, responsible for holding free and fair elections in the country. The move echoes that of the authoritarian Somoza regime that President Ortega originally took down decades ago.

With the 2021 general election looming large in the Republic of Nicaragua, it is crucial that President Daniel Ortega allows the participation of international election monitoring bodies. Transparent elections are the only way to ensure that the protests and violence that have dogged the nation for the past two years are not further exacerbated, and that Nicaragua does not slide into further instability. The government must ensure that the country does not see a repeat of the 2016 elections, which were mired in accusations of fraud and voter intimidation.

The Next Century Foundation urges the government of Nicaragua to resume cooperation with international human rights bodies, and to allow journalists, news outlets and NGOs to navigate freely within the country. We ask the government to also heed the demand of its citizens and reverse its ban on protests and release its political prisoners in order to ease tensions across Nicaragua. Finally, we ask President Ortega to begin to engage in negotiations with the opposition in order to establish guidelines for a free and fair election next year.

Covid-19, Sanctions and Venezuela

The following has been prepared by Next Century Foundation Research Officer Alexander Shah for submission by the Next Century Foundation as a statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council:

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has suffered over the past decade. Poverty rates have skyrocketed, basic goods have become scarce, and millions have fled the country. Covid-19 presents a dangerous new challenge to the country. The Venezuelan healthcare system is under tremendous pressure, having to deal with hospital overcrowding, insufficient equipment, and a limited ability to conduct testing. Only a quarter of doctors in the country have access to a reliable supply of clean water and two-thirds lack soap, gloves or masks. A new surge in Covid-19 cases could prove disastrous for the already collapsing healthcare system. 

Venezuela is hindered from delivering a rapid and efficient response to the Covid-19 crisis because of crippling sanctions imposed by the United States of America. The U.S. has continually ignored appeals by the Venezuelan government to ease sanctions, despite their clearly deleterious effect on the state’s citizens. 

Prior to any easing of sanctions, the United States has demanded that Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, accused of authoritarian abuses of power, step down in order to hold new elections. The U.S. has charged President Maduro with the crime of “narco-terrorism” in an attempt to further this process. This move has further embittered President Maduro and narrowed the potential for discussion. 

The Next Century Foundation calls on the United States of America to end its debilitating sanctions on Venezuela in order to enable the country to adequately deal with the Covid-19 crisis. Likewise, we call on President Maduro to engage in discussions with Mr. Juan Guaidó, leader of the opposition, over how to effectively tackle the pandemic, and to potentially come to some sort of democratic power-sharing agreement as a precursor to free and fair elections.