Afghan women are needed in the peace process

The Afghan peace talks being held in Doha, Qatar represent a glimmer of hope for the people of Afghanistan. They offer the prospect of a possible cessation of the daily violence and atrocities the people of Afghanistan face and the establishment of a stable governing body, returning fundamental rights to all Afghanistan’s citizens, especially its women. While the host of issues being discussed in Doha are crucial, women’s rights is an issue that is consistently avoided and swept aside.

The issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan has had plenty of media coverage over the years, with various governments and international organisations denouncing the lack of rights for Afghan women. The lack of basic rights for women is as detrimental to Afghan society. Women and girls have borne the brunt of violence and instability throughout the years of conflict, only to be heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the era of Taliban rule that commenced in the second half of the 1990s, women were active members of Afghan society. At that time 70% of teachers in Kabul were women. Once the Taliban came to power, women’s fundamental rights to education were revoked and the co-educational system in Afghanistan was dismantled, making multiple state run schools into all boys schools. One of the Taliban’s edicts in 1997 called for a nationwide ban on public education for all women and girls. As a result of this, and despite efforts by many women intent on educating their daughters despite the restrictions, literacy rates in the country fell to some of the lowest in the world, 13% in urban areas and as low as 3% in some rural areas. Some women set up schools for girls in private homes despite the increasingly oppressive environment and increasing violence toward those who dared oppose the Taliban and their restrictions.

The Taliban didn’t just restrict the right to education for women and girls but also the right to seek employment. In 1997, the Taliban banned women from working in public places. Bans on the freedom of movement and degrading access to health care for women made matters worse. With a majority of hospitals destroyed during the civil war and the rest located only in urban centres, infant mortality rates increased along with the chances of a mother dying during childbirth.

Despite more than a decade passing since the Taliban were removed from power, equal protection and rights for women still seems a long way off. This, coupled with the seemingly imminent withdrawal of foreign troops, means that the issue of fighting for women’s rights may be put on the back burner in Kabul, undoing considerable work done by women to achieve some progress on the issue. 

Despite the international community hoping for the US to play a more significant role in pushing for women’s rights in Afghanistan they have largely failed to do so. In the recent 2020 Afghanistan Conference, the US encouraged Afghanistan to prioritise the “protection of the rights of women and girls”. The problem however arises when this commitment remains an encouragement on paper and does not translate into actual policy. The Trump administration just this past February signed a deal with the Taliban which in summation focussed on a ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces, intra-Afghan negotiations and counter-terrorism measures. Unfortunately, amongst all these points, there were none that ensured a commitment to working toward the betterment of women’s rights in Afghanistan. A reduced US presence in Afghanistan may pave the way for a greater role by other powers. Countries such as China, Iran, India, Russia and Pakistan already play a role in Afghanistan and a greater commitment on their part to further stability and creating an environment where women’s issues can be heard and worked on would go a long way, not just for Afghanistan but also for creating a more prosperous region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not made things easier for women in Afghanistan. A UN women study showed how the pandemic has affected women and girls disproportionately as compared to men, in terms of employment, health, migration, unpaid care and education. The exposure that the pandemic has given to economic and social vulnerabilities is especially stark in the case of Afghan women. While access to health care has been a challenge in Afghanistan for years now, the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Most women already had reduced access to health care and most are now unable to find any access. Moreover, due to the restrictions and complexities caused by the Taliban with regard to women’s employment, most of them now work in the “informal sector”. Unfortunately, one of the largest tolls of the pandemic has been the loss of work for many in the informal sector, which in this case has been a majority of Afghan women. About 63% of women who were surveyed claimed to have lost their informal sector jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. The pandemic has also had an adverse impact on education for girls, which was already problematic in various regions in Afghanistan. The girls that were finally enrolled in school, due to the pandemic, are now most often at home, as a consequence of school closures disrupting their education. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown just how essential it is that women are included as part of any new government in Kabul so that issues that concern women are effectively highlighted and acted on. 

Keeping in mind the years women have spent facing the hardships and consequences of Taliban created rules, it is essential that the peace talks in Doha pay greater attention to the issues women in Afghanistan face on a daily basis. The role the international community has played in Afghanistan as well as the power they hold to push certain policy objectives should stop them jeopardising the few freedoms women in Afghanistan have finally secured for themselves. Given the especially taxing year many women have had due to the pandemic, these talks should push for a stable Afghanistan in conjunction with greater inclusion for women in society and less tolerance for gender based violence and discrimination. 

Afghanistan: Give Peace a Chance

The NCF weeps for those students attacked at Kabul University this week, and appeals to all to give peace a chance to allow the next generation to build a prosperous future for all in Afghanistan.

This week’s attack at the University in Afghanistan’s capital, saw 19 killed and 22 injured when gunmen stormed the building in a siege that lasted over four hours. This attack adds to the escalation in violence seen in the country in the past month. On 24th October a roadside bomb killed 9 civilians on a bus that was travelling from Kabul to the Eastern city of Ghazani. The following day 30 students, some as young as 15, were killed by a suicide bomber, at the Kaswar-e Danish education centre in Kabul. These attacks ended a month of rampant attacks across the country. October had the highest civilian death toll in a single month since September 2019.

This surge in attacks comes against the backdrop of ongoing talks in Doha, between Afghan government negotiators and the Taliban, aimed to end decades of war through political settlement. These negotiations were initiated after the US signed a troop withdrawal deal in February, however in the six months since the deal was signed, 12,000 Afghans have been killed and as many as 15,000 injured, and today’s tragedy adds to these sorrowful statistics.

This week’s violent attacks target the youth of the country, those that are the backbone of the nations’ future; they target the confines of establishments in which minds and ideas are nourished to learn and develop a vision for the country’s future. These violent attacks attempt to disrupt dialogue that aims to pave the way to future peace. It is time to give peace a chance by ending this continual onslaught against Afghanistan’s future.

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.

The situation in Afghanistan – a personal perspective

This article expresses the views of Paramount Chief and senior member of the NCF, Ajmal Khan. The Next Century Foundation’s Summer Conference includes a session on Afghanistan. Should you wish to attend click here for full details and the chance to register. The Taliban say that “with the exception of the Presidency or high ranking positions in the judiciary, there will be no restrictions on a woman’s career prospects” in the new Afghanistan.  But when asked to differentiate between themselves and ISIS, the Taliban say that the main difference is that they are Afghan and ISIS are not. Can this really be the way to go? To surrender control of Afghanistan to one of the most feared and dangerous groups on the planet? After years of losses in blood and treasure is there no better outcome for much mauled over Afghanistan? To listen to the personal views of the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General on the subject click here. The views of Paramount Chief Ajmal Zazai Khan are as follows in his words. Neither his words nor those of the NCF Secretary General represent the views of the trustees of the Next Century Foundation:


The so-called ISIS of Afghanistan has no connection with the one in Iraq or Syria. The Afghan ISIS, which declare itself as the ISIS wing of Khorasan, has two parts. One part is based mainly in the eastern parts of Afghanistan, consists of the Pashtun tribes of Waziristan and Khyber agency, and is fully run by the Pakistani ISI. Only recently did the US carry out thorough operations against them, which wiped out much of the group. The other part of ISIS is based in the north and north-eastern parts of Afghanistan, and mainly consists of Chechens, Daghistanis and Chinese Muslims. This part of the Khorasan ISIS was created by the FSB and, according to some reliable sources, anywhere between 25,000 to 35,000 fighters are based inside Afghanistan. They are living among the villagers in the most remote parts of the country. This deadly group was created to take the insurgency to a second phase, which would be far deadlier than what we witness right now.


After spending nine years in Iran, Hamza Bin Laden (the son of Al-Qaeda’s late leader, Osama Bin Ladin) returned to Afghanistan, and this shaped Al-Qaeda strategically. The US claimed that they had killed Hamza bin Ladin in a drone strike in Waziristan some four years ago, but it is confirmed that the US missed.
Hamza Bin Laden is now the leader of most elite terrorist organization that stretches across many countries. Hamza bin Laden is working closely with Sarajuddin Haqani in the southern and south-eastern parts of Afghanistan. All fighters of Al-Qaeda are North African Arabs, from Libya, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

The insurgency against the US & NATO

The forces are divided into three groups:

  1. The Pakistani ISI is running the Taliban & Haqani Network.
  2.  The Russian FSB is running ISIS.
  3.  Irani Al Quds is running Hamza bin Ladin Al Qaida.

The US Intel are aware that a peace deal with the Taliban will not guarantee total peace or an end to the war in Afghanistan. The US military believe that they would have to maintain their presence in Afghanistan to fight Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Hezb-i- Wallayat (Taliban), but the regional powers believe these are just excuses made by the US in order to prolong its military presence in Afghanistan.
Regional powers believe the US’ prolonged military presence in Afghanistan has something to do with regional powers (Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan & Turkey) and not with ISIS or Al-Qaeda, as claimed by the US & NATO.

The concerns of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan

Russia: Kremlin believes that the US is driven to curb the vast influence of Russia on Central Asia by bringing western-style democracies to the region, and empowering westernized leaders to free them of Moscow.

China: Beijing treats Afghanistan as it’s backyard and they are certain that the US’ prolonged presence in Afghanistan seeks to stop China’s huge economical “One Belt, One Road” project, which connects 118 countries and costs $3 trillion. China believes that from their positions in Afghanistan, the US and U.K. have tried to create an uprising inside China using the Chinese Muslims to create a civil war which could eventually weaken China from within.

Iran: The Iranian regime openly accuses the US and U.K. for interfering in their country by creating unrest within Iran. The Iranian regime fears that the US might send Iranian armed militants through the Afghan border in order to topple its regime in Tehran.

Pakistan: Although Pakistan was considered a friend and an ally by the US for a long time, it has been over 25 years since Pakistan tightened its ties with China and no longer trusts the US. Pakistan is a nuclear state and they feel threatened by deepened US-India relations and, of course, by Kashmir. The Taliban and other Islamic militant groups (Jaish Mohammad, Lashkar Tayba) are the core of ISI. Maybe at a later stage these groups will fight Pakistan’s holy war in Kashmir. The US’ prolonged military presence in Afghanistan might have some severe consequences for Pakistan as well, as Pakistan think that the US and NATO might begin supporting the separatists of Pashtunistan and Baluchistan. The separation won’t stop there, however, as Sindh also wants freedom and this could mean the end of Pakistan’s existence.

The above-mentioned countries, plus Turkey, are also part of the inner circle of the Shanghai summit. They make up one block and are all tied into a strategical alliance, doing anything in their power to turn Afghanistan into a second Vietnam for the US forces.

Qatar’s Peace Deal

The main objective of Qatar’s Peace Deal was to minimize insurgency by shutting down the Taliban, but this has not worked because the Taliban insist on the complete withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership is well aware that the US is not going to fully withdraw its forces, as they are making excuses of Al-Qaeda and ISIS being active in Afghanistan. The Taliban have categorically assured the US that Al-Qaeda and ISIS are their problem and that they will deal with them, but the US will not listen and instead blames the Taliban for having ties with Al-Qaeda. The UN Security Council’s report that the Taliban has deep ties with Al-Qaeda and other militant groups made  the US’ claim even stronger.

Ever since this peace deal was signed in Qatar back in February, the insurgence has escalated by more than 300% throughout Afghanistan, and Afghans continue to be killed. It does not appear that the Taliban will adopt a ceasefire in the near future.

About a month ago, Sarjuddin Haqani (the military commander of  the Haqani Networka, deputy of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Hibatullah, and the son of late Mullah Mohammad Omar) openly expressed their determination for carrying JIHAD against the US invaders in a propaganda video. They conveyed a message to their fighters to carry on fighting and discredited the Qatar peace deal.

Right after the Qatar peace deal was signed between the US and Taliban, a large number of Taliban formed another group called Hezb-i- Wallayat, and it is believed that many who oppose the Qatar peace deal will join this new Taliban resistance.

Conclusion of the Qatar deal

It seems that Trump’s administration will somehow bring the (approximate) 500 Taliban leaders to Kabul to make them part of the current Kabul regime, or perhaps form a new interim government where these Taliban leaders will be part of it. Then Trump will show to the American public that he has ended America’s longest war in Afghanistan and brought soldiers home. According to some reliable information from within the US government, the US will always maintain around 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, regardless of any treaty they have signed with Taliban. That is why regional powers are skeptical of the US and have planned for a prolonged war with the US on Afghan soil.

Afghan partners

Although the US is juggling the insurgency in Afghanistan and larger regional issues, the US and NATO are currently backing the most corrupt regime in Kabul. Ashraf Ghani has lost control of Afghanistan’s government. He is incompetent and weak, and he is driven by individuals within his regime who carry other agendas (those of the FSB, Al Quds, ISI & RAW). Sadly, the US and NATO are fully aware of his incompetence but continue supporting his disastrous regime, which Afghans dislike at large.

At least if the US and NATO could bring about cleaner Afghan government that works for the welfare of the Afghans, more Afghans may resist from joining the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or ISIS.


Possible Futures: Afghanistan

Joe Waters looks into the political climate, as well as potential forces for change, in Afghanistan – a country which has been in a state of tumultuous conflict for most of the last three decades. As large parts of the nation again find themselves under Taliban rule and the U.S. begin their departure, the power vacuum created is one that could be filled in any number of ways: a depressing number of which involve bloodshed. Will the country become a proxy for geopolitical conflict? Will it descend into factional chaos? Or will the Taliban bring an uneasy peace?

By July 15th of this year, there will only be 8,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and, if all goes to plan then, by the end of 2021, there will be none. It is fair to say that success of America’s forays into the region is moot. However, many from both sides of the U.S. political spectrum currently support ending “the forever war.” The question now is less to do with what has been achieved and more with simply getting out quickly. The sense that leaving a nation to fend for itself is preferable to any kind of intervention might have more ground if it were not for the other large nations attempting to advance their own interests in Afghanistan. In 2018, the Washington Post reported that “Russian officials believed the [Taliban] no longer posed a threat to Russian interests […and] like Russia, opposed a long-term U.S. military presence and hoped to extinguish the Islamic State.” Hence, Russia has made attempts to enter into a relationship with the Taliban, to leverage power in the region to their advantage. Similarly, Afghanistan is in the sights of China, who wish to incorporate it into their “Belt and Road Initiative,” in order to increase their dominance in international trade.

But what of America’s supposed aims in the region? The democracy they laid the foundations for is floundering. Only one million, out of the nine million eligible to vote (in a country of nearly 40 million) turned up to the polling booth at the last election. Many believe the low voter turnout is due to disillusionment with the corruption of successive governments. A 2012 UNODC report found that over 40% of adult Afghans were potentially involved in the payment of bribes. Many hoped that this would change after President Hamid Karzai left office, but a 2015 poll found that only 27.5.% were satisfied with current president Ashraf Ghani’s leadership. Public opinion was not bolstered by the 2019 allegations of government posts being granted in exchange for sexual favours. All in all, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current government. To many, they seem both ideologically uninspiring and weak. With more dying in terrorist attacks than of Covid-19 (even as Kabul’s lack of medical provision does lead to terrible loss of life), the current vision of stability and the rule of law is flimsy at best.

Meanwhile, some (depending on who you ask, up to 95% of the population) are coming around to the idea that Taliban rule might actually be more conducive to peace than the current system. Depressingly, this could be true even if just because attacks by the Taliban might stop (“might” rather than “will” because there is more than one faction of Taliban). However, those looking for a resolution push the view that the militants have become easier to deal with in recent years. It has even been claimed, by some close to the former royal family, that they are becoming more liberal with regard to women’s rights and would not prevent women’s education even if they barred women from holding the highest-ranking positions (those Taliban present in the Doha talks draw the line at allowing women to be judges or take the presidency). All of these claims are debatable but it’s still true to say that peace under the Taliban could prove preferable to the alternative. The peoples and factions of Afghanistan are not exactly united. The Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other minorities all have their own conflicting interests. A prevailing view is that, in the absence of a U.S. presence, civil war will break out much like in the early 90s. It is hard not to see the truth in this prediction.

What, then, is the way out for Afghanistan? Is returning to Taliban rule really the only way? It has been argued that perhaps civil war is not quite inevitable. There is one thing that could prevent it: desire for an end to conflict. While the many disparate peoples of Afghanistan may not identify with each other or their government, what they do identify with is a desire for peace. The tumultuous years of fighting that this nation has lived through would make anyone sane cry “enough!” The mood in discussions of the country’s fate is one of weariness and depression. Many of the parties involved feel crushed by the constant barrage of death and failure their nation has been presented with. Maybe, just maybe, these negative sentiments can be harnessed and used as fuel to take the most radical step possible in the next age of Afghanistan: to do nothing. No more militant, ideological deaths. A collective standing still, a lack of encroachment could just about inaugurate the first step to some kind of valuable peace process. It’s a long shot but it is at least envisionable. And envisioning is the first step in achieving any kind of reality.

Image – U.S. Department of State: “Secretary Pompeo Participates in a Signing Ceremony in Doha”

And do we really want peace with the Taliban?

Well it seems we have fallen into the pit as far as our failed Afghanistan project is concerned. It failed from the start really when we, the Western powers, put a gun to the head of the Afghan King that fateful evening to force him to step aside in favour of our pet Hamid Karzai. Then President Karzai empowered the ex-warlords and Afghanistan never got the liberation it deserved from years of brutal Taliban rule. And now, after the sacrifice of all that blood and treasure we are to let the Taliban rule again.

The following is the text of the peace agreement just reached in Qatar between the Afghan government and an assorted bunch of Talibanista who claim to represent the Taliban fighting on the ground. Whether they do is another issue. This document would be desperately depressing were it not for the fact that it is brought to our attention by one of the more senior Afghan members of the Next Century Foundation, HRH Prince Nadir Naim. If Prince Nadir thinks this document is a way forward then we trust him and will support it wholeheartedly. Sometimes, in the darkest hours, we have a duty to hope against hope. At this moment in Afghanistan’s history that is our duty. So we hope that this will work.

HRH Prince Nadir writes, “My dear friends, We are heading back to Kabul after 2 days of intense dialogue Intra-Afghan with the Taliban regarding the Afghan peace process. The participants in this dialogue consisted of 18 Taliban members and just over forty Afghans including some government officials. All the participants attended in their own personal capacity and were not representative of any political groups or organizations.

“This is the joint statement that all the participants agreed upon. We hope that this is a positive step in the right direction to a permanent and dignified peace in our beloved Afghanistan:

Resolution of Intra Afghan Peace Conference
Doha, Qatar
We, the participants of the Conference hereby appreciate, thank and value the
efforts of Qatar and German Government for organizing Intra Afghan Peace
Conference held on 7 and 8 July 2019 in Doha Qatar and express our deepest
gratitude accordingly.
We express our greatest gratitude from the United Nations, Regional Countries,
particularly, countries who have facilitated the negotiations for USA and intra
afghan peace conference and have taken necessary steps towards the conflict
resolution. We are hoping that these parties will continue their support in a way
that will benefit our country and the nation and result into a real and desirable
From our point of view, dialogue and agreement assists us to reach an
understanding concerning our present and future, be able to tackle the barriers
and obstacles as well as understand each other. Therefore, all participants insist
and emphasis on the continuation of the dialogue.
We the participants of the Doha conference hereby agree on the following points
to reach a sustainable peace.
1. All participants have full consensus that achieving sustainable, throughout
and a dignified peace which is the demand of the afghan people, is only
possible via afghan Inclusive negotiations
2. Afghanistan is a united, Islamic Country and home for all different
ethnicities. Islamic Sovereignty, social and political justice, national unity,
territorial sovereignty, which all Afghans are committed upon.
3. Throughout the history, particularly during the last 40 years, the Afghan
people have defended their religions, country, and culture and sacrificed
immensely for their independent. Afghanistan shall not be the witness of
another war in the country and intra Afghan agreement between different
levels of the society is vital and crucial. All International Community,
regional and internal elements shall respect out values accordingly.
4. Since our nation is suffering daily due to on going prolonged war and its
therefore, necessary that the following steps are needed to be taken so
that we can have an effective Intra Afghan negotiation.
a. The conflict parties shall avoid threats, revenges and conflicting
words, shall use soft terminologies and words during their official
gatherings, and shall not fuel the conflict and revenge.
b. The Doha peace conference participants strongly supports the
current peace talks in doha and believes that an effective and
positive outcome from the negotiations will be fruitful for
5. The following steps shall be taken to create trustable environment for
peace and in order to have our nation safe from the war and its
consequences, violence and devastation shall be decreased: the conflict
parties shall consider these measures.
a. unconditional release of elders, disables and sick inmates.
b. Ensuring the security of public institutions, such as schools,
Religious Madrassas, hospitals, markets, water dams and other
working locations.
c. In particular, respect educational institutions, like schools,
universities, and other educational institutions as well residential
d. Committed to respect and protect the dignity of people, their life
and property and to minimize the civilian casualties to Zero.
6. Assuring women rights in political, social, economic, educational, cultural
affairs as per within the Islamic framework of Islamic Values.
7. Assuring the rights of religious minorities.
8. The participants of Doha conference agrees on a roadmap for peace based
on the following conditions:
a. institutionalizing Islamic system in the country for the
implementation of comprehensive peace,
b. Start of the peace process simultaneously with the accomplishment
of all terms and conditions set forth.
c. monitoring and observation of the peace agreement,
d. Reform in the preservation of fundamental institutions, defensive
and other national entities which belongs to all Afghans,
e. repatriation of immigrants and return of IDPs,
f. support and assistance from donor countries post peace agreement
based on the new cooperation and relations,
g. Insist during international conferences regarding the assurance of
Afghanistan peace agreement.
h. Assurance on zero interference from the neighboring and regional
countries in Afghanistan.
9. We acknowledge and approve the recent resolution of intra Afghan
conference held on 5 and 6 Feb 2019 in Moscow and we urge the Islamic
Conference, UN, Security council, EU and our neighboring countries to
support the peace conferences held in Moscow and Doha.

If democracy has failed, what is the alternative?

Afghanistan is a corrupt, ethnically, divided country that lacks credible leadership.  Nearly half of the country is under Taliban control, and the majority of Afghans are politically silent, neither supporting the Taliban nor the government.

The democratic mission that began with the US’ intervention in the country has failed. Corruption is rife within the Afghan government which is still dependent on international, predominantly US, support in order to survive. President Ashraf Ghani is desperately trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table but does not have nearly enough sway to achieve this.

And the Taliban are in a comfortable position. Their leaders have taken refuge in Qatar. They have monetary support from Saudi Arabia. They have a neighboring ally in Pakistan and their enemy is overly reliant upon a foreign power, the US, whose reputation is ruined within the country. As things stand, the Taliban will become more and more powerful. With the US seemingly distracted with Syria and Iran, it is unlikely America will make the necessary interventions to prevent further Taliban successes. The Taliban have no reason to come to the negotiating table, and so they will not.

A centralised government has failed. Devolving power to tribal leaders may be a more effective means to gain stability within the country. Unfortunately, such an idea will not be countenanced by the West. We won’t change a system we created, especially if it means removing a democracy and replacing it with autocratic, tribal leaders. It would be an acknowledgement that the Taliban has defeated the West.

Any move to tribal leadership would in any case require a strong figurehead to hold the country together. No one currently empowered holds the respect and reputation needed to be able to keep tribal leaders in check. Using the traditional Pashtun ‘Loya Jirga’ process to elect a leader, would certainly have more credibility in the eyes of the Afghan people.

The current system is on life support and will not defeat the Taliban. A move to a more traditional, tribal leadership would be more effective.

Untangling Afghanistan: Proxy wars and geopolitical rivalries

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai recently spoke in an interview of Afghanistan’s need for Russian support. Decrying the US for ‘killing us for 17 years’, he claimed that Russian support was the only means with which peace could be achieved in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is desperately trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The belief of some in Kabul is that the Taliban’s strength is reliant upon Pakistan and, with enough international pressure, Pakistan will withdraw its support. The US was originally supposed to provide this pressure. However, Karzai’s desire for non-US international support, born out of the US’ ruined reputation in the region, is well documented. Russia was not the first country he turned to. In 2017, Karzai attempted to reach out to India for support, suggesting that they replace the US as the military force upholding the Afghan government. He suggested that such action would be in India’s national interest, as it would damage Pakistan. Pakistan’s apparent support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is a permanent stumbling block when it comes to bettering Afghan-Pakistan relations. However, India’s military strength pales in comparison to that of the US. India does not have the means to replace the USA, and many in Afghanistan would regard any Indian intervention as suspect, India being regarded as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  Indeed the core of the Afghan problem is regarded by many as the Indo-Pakistan proxy war being fought out on the streets of Kabul.

The problem with Afghanistan now turning to Russia is Russia’s apparent desire to improve relations with Pakistan. Relations between Russia and India have become strained recently due to burgeoning tensions between India and China. India’s response to these tensions has been to improve relations with the US, who are hoping India will effectively curb China’s influence. Russia has recognised that improved relations with Pakistan will, therefore, put pressure on India, improve relations with China and further antagonise the USA.

This leaves Afghanistan at a disadvantage. Officials in Kabul were celebrating news of Trump’s removal of two billion dollars in security aid to Pakistan, believing this would weaken the Afghanistan Taliban. A minority within Pakistan have blamed the Pakistan military for this, claiming that their tacit support for extremist groups has brought about this decision. Inevitably, Trump’s actions have increased street-level anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. It is therefore unlikely that such action will cause a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. There is a tremendous fear within Pakistan of a ‘pincer’ move by Afghanistan and India. As a consequence, Pakistan’s actions regarding Afghanistan will always be motivated by the desire to ensure Pakistan’s security. Unfortunately, an unstable Afghanistan is more beneficial to Pakistan than a stabilised administration that is allied with India.

China has moved to improve Afghan-Pakistan relations by including Afghanistan in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is part of the Belt and Road initiative, China’s attempt to recreate the Silk Road. However, CPEC is already controversial due to its being built through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. India and Pakistan have constantly fought over the sovereignty of Kashmir, and India does not recognise Pakistan’s control of the Northern half of the state. By extending the offer to Afghanistan, China has faced India with the prospect of losing a regional ally to its economic rival.

Untangling all of these geopolitical relationships is an almost impossible task. If Afghanistan is to have any hope of achieving peace with the Taliban, then their relationship with Pakistan has to improve.  The level of mistrust between the two countries is a major hindrance to the process. As long as it continues, the Taliban will always have a potential ally in Pakistan.  Unfortunately, the mistrust is founded on the conflict between Pakistan and India.  Afghanistan plays a vital geopolitical role for both of these countries. Both are experiencing significant political tensions, not only with each other but with China and the USA as well. Until these issues are resolved, international support for a stable Afghanistan will continue to be deprioritised due to security concerns.

Afghanistan and the Difficult Road to Peace

For more than 17 years Afghanistan has been a nation torn apart by conflict. However, the current President Ashraf Ghani is trying to push for definitive peace and reconciliation between his government and the Taliban. On February the 28th 2018, he made an offer to the Taliban that was seen by some as a ‘game changer’. Ghani would like the Taliban to engage in peace talks and recognise the legitimacy of his government. In exchange, Ghani has said that the Taliban will be recognised as a legitimate political party, may open offices in locations of their choosing, and have some of their prisoners released. The government will also support efforts to remove their leaders from international sanctions lists. At face value, this offer appears to be a turning point, with Ghani pioneering a new vision for Afghanistan’s future. However, is it realistic? Ghani’s offer to work cohesively on peace and reconciliation with the Taliban may be too little too late given the fragility of the current political situation.

Just this week Ghani met with senior diplomats in Uzbekistan to discuss the next steps required in Afghanistan peace talks. The Taliban were absent. They have remained notably silent in response to Ghani’s offer. This could be regarded as indicative of the possibility that the offer may have sparked some kind of conversation amongst Taliban officials and senior members. However, whilst this may be true, it does not mean that there will be a positive outcome. The Taliban are somewhat fractured in their views. Some accept that peace negotiations could happen in Washington however the majority have a deep dislike and distrust of US intervention. A response to Ghani’s offer may not be put on the table for some time. One Taliban southern military commander said that there needs to be a huge descaling and step back by foreign interveners before the Taliban can even participate in talks. This in itself is problematic as the USA has given its unwavering commitment to supporting Afghanistan whilst President Trump has made it very clear that he is unwilling to engage with the Taliban at all. The US is not the only other actor in Afghanistan right now. The Taliban continue to engage in a fatal back-and-forth with ISIS forces that has left many dead. The presence of various different agents in Afghanistan, whether positive or negative, contributes to the complexity of the situation, a complexity that Ghani’s offer does not reflect.

The political situation in Afghanistan is one that is not conducive to peace talks between a ‘legitimate government’ and the Taliban. The government wishes the Taliban to recognise the Afghan government’s legitimacy. However, this current government came into being after 2014 elections that were fraught with accusations of voter fraud on both sides. The US ultimately stepped in and brokered a deal between Ghani and his opposition. Whilst Ghani has a clear and positive vision for his nation, this stands on shaky grounds. Furthermore, the current extension of the parliamentary mandate has been criticised as illegal by some. Parliamentary elections were meant to take place in 2016 but were then pushed back to July 2018 with the predicted date now set for October 2018. Most in the international community do not even see 2018 as a possibility. This due to multiple problems surrounding organisation of elections and disagreements within the government. Consequently, a picture emerges of a less than strong government. This is compounded by the Taliban’s continued growth in control and influence over parts of Afghanistan. Their control has doubled since 2015. The government is therefore speaking to a sizeable group that operates outside of their authority. The government is  not as strong as their offer implies.

Once you frame the offer from Ghani within this context, suddenly nothing about peace talks in Afghanistan seems clear or straightforward. He presents the incumbent government as the future for Afghanistan but the reality is that the situation is incredibly complex and conflict continues. The only way forward is for Afghanistan’s government to work with the Taliban and whilst Ghani’s offer seems like a positive step, one has to question its viability at the present moment.

Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf


Poland’s authoritarian turn?

The recent decision by Poland’s government to pass a law that weakens the judiciary’s independence raises concerns on the overall soundness of the Polish democratic system. The law by which the government acquires de facto control of the Supreme Court represents a heavy blow dealt to one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary.

Such a decision is a cause for great concern as it represents the pinnacle of a more general trend of recent reforms that are dismantling the democratic tissue of the Country. Since 2015, Law and Justice, also known as PiS – the ruling right-wing populist party in Poland – has been implementing policies and reforms aimed at limiting civil liberties, controlling media and dismantling some of the major checks and balances in place since the end of the Soviet era. While the European Union is closely looking into this delicate issue and threatening the activation of a sanctions mechanism, protests broke out all over the country in response to this illiberal conduct from the Polish government.

Such an immoral turn for Polish politics, however, was hardly unexpected. The PiS is an unorthodox populist party whose members are unpredictable mavericks with no sense of responsibility. Playing games with people’s rights is standard procedure for them. The most glaring example is the controversial immigration policy in force in the country since 2015. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq have been progressively denied asylum in Poland on a simple matter of religious belief. Poland indeed is one of those eastern European countries which has recently engaged in the contentious strategy of favouring Christian refugees as eligible for their resettlement scheme.

While a blade, a bullet or a bomb does not make any distinction between a Christian or a Muslim refugee making all men equal when faced with war or persecution, the enlightened leaders of Poland cynically reserve the right to decide on the fate of thousands of innocent lives on the grounds of their religious faith. Fairly odd for a country which suffered similar discrimination and illiberal laws not such a long time ago and whose social identity is proudly claimed to be based on Christian values. But as we all know, people have a bad memory and they learn very little from history. Do not be surprised if democratic countries such as Poland in 2017 still impose limits on civil liberties, still exert control over media or judiciary, still discriminate against people on grounds of religion. Sit down and make yourself comfortable, a new era of populism is about to start.