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Run-off Election in Afghanistan: International vs Local Media

Posted by / 14th June 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

Despite the violence break-outs and the many Taliban threats all around the country, on April 5th Afghans went to the polls and voted in massive and unprecedented numbers. According to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) around 7 million people, 36% of them women, went to the ballot box in order to choose the future president of the republic. Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai turned out to be the leading presidential candidates, but, according to the constitution, the percentage of votes each of them won (45% and 31.56% respectively) are not sufficient enough to proclaim a winner. Therefore, the next step is the run-off election, held today, on June 14th. Will Afghans further support the political process? Will the Taliban threat become deadlier? Will local population and the candidates themselves accept the results? How will the results affect the American withdrawal? How do international media perceive it all? And, local media? Those last two questions have distinctly different answers. The way that the international media understands the democratic process in Afghanistan stands in sharp contrast with what local media understands about Afghan’s interests and expectations.

International media vs. local media: differing view on the same situation

Many international voices have argued that a run-off election between the two head candidates is not the ideal path forward for the democratic process in Afghanistan. Since the country is divided by ethnic groups and both, Abdullah and Ghani, represent different parts of the population, many Western journalists have toyed with the idea of creating a coalition government between the two of them. While Ghani represents the Pashtun ethnicity in Afghanistan and the Uzbeks back him too, Abdullah is more closely identified with the Tajiks of the north who fought against the Pashtun-led Taliban, -even though his father was a Pashtun-, and many Hazarat have recognized they feel represented by Abdullah. Hence, for many, a hybrid government, which reunites the majority of ethnicities within two candidates, is preferable. If the “purpose of the election was to allow Afghans to choose a legitimate successor to Karzai” then we could say that “if Ghani endorses Abdullah, together they can claim the support of 75% of voters, far more than any sole candidate will ever obtain”.

However, ethnicity is not the only argument in favour of a coalition administration. The threat of Taliban attacks during the run-off have increased since the Taliban Spring has already begun and they feel ashamed because their bloodshed campaign during the first round of the election failed. This time they could be deadlier than before due to the fact the Taliban have to prove they can defeat the government and national security forces. This argument was underscored by the latest attempt of attacking the front-runner candidate Abdullah, who recently escaped a car bombing.

There is no doubt that the international community has applauded the Afghan effort of carrying out a rather peaceful and successful first round, but many concerns about security and electoral fraud have been raised for the run-off as well as the possibility of having warlords working extremely close to the new government-to-be. As Massoumeh Torfeh explains in her article “Afghanistan: Time for New Blood”, international circles have criticized both Abdullah and Ghani for choosing their political alliances within human rights abusers and alleged warlords when the majority of Afghans are demanding the end of the realm of strongmen and cronies and the persecution of past crimes committed by senior politicians and current candidates. Nevertheless, and even though the constitution bans “any individuals convicted of crimes against humanity, a criminal act or deprivation of civil rights by court from running for elected office”, the candidates could be accompanied to government by a minimum of four to five warlords. On the other hand, there is also a sense that a new generation of young men and women, working to change the old system of nepotism and cronies, are increasingly relevant. They were born and grew up amidst violent conflict, and they understand the needs and wants of their society beyond ethnicity and gender. Abdullah and Ghani are under increasing pressure to pay attention to such newcomers.

As Ms. Torfeh concludes her article “the second round of elections is a historical opportunity for the next president of Afghanistan to rise up to the challenge of making alliances with this new generation of activists and, at the same time, reducing the number of “warlords” in the cabinet. The presence of more strongmen in government would mean the continuation of most of Afghanistan’s acute problems including disregard for the rule of law, increased corruption, perpetuation of the narco-economy and the impossibility of keeping a check on good governance”.

In opposition to the aforementioned international idea of a coalition or hybrid government, the local media prefers to focus on respect for the constitution. In order to win the democratic battle, their argument goes, Afghanistan has to carry out a new round of the presidential elections, because that is what the constitution demands. In “Let the Afghan Voters Finish The Job” the local news agency Pajhwok Afghan News states that it is rather difficult to believe that there are some “behind the scene” conversations to create a coalition government since “the election has gone remarkably well so far” despite of some complaints of fraud and irregularities –already investigated by the Electoral Complaints Commission- and little violence. Even if some local voices claim that a possible coalition government between Abdullah and Ghani should be considered in order to –as international media has also said – let all major ethnic groups play a part and promote political stability, this is not the mainstream way of thinking among local analysts. Even national senators have encouraged Abdullah and Ghani to honor the constitution and to not ignore the votes of seven million men and women who want democracy to succeed.

Afghan media sees the pre-election campaigning as a successful mobilization of voters and a way of re-legitimization of the constitutional order. Just like the international media, local media applauded the first round. This does not mean, however, that the perceived success of the first round of the election is an indication of trust or support in the candidates, something that is much clearer at a local level than to observers around the world.

Security or democracy?

Security concerns are growing once again in the country. Since the recent attack against Abdullah, local media are questioning the stability surrounding the fragile political process, with the Taliban threat on the rise. The attacks have shifted from targeting the Independent Election Commission and its staff to attacking the candidates. If one of the front-runners gets killed, the constitution claims that a new election should be conducted, starting from scratch once again. Nevertheless, the Taliban threat might not be the real dilemma Afghans face: whereas local media do focus on these security issues, international media’s concerns with warlords becoming part of the government and wider political processes seems to be shared by the local population at large.

All of this said, a last minute deal between Abdullah and Ghani, which is unlikely to happen- could lead to a hybrid government undermining the constitution, hence favouring political expedience over democratic principles. It is ironic that Western media- representing democratic nations- seem less concerned about that than Afghanistan’s own media. Further taking into consideration the current alliances both candidates have, any new government would be formed by a dubious sources of political and military support. This, or so the argument goes, makes respect for constitutional fundamentals even more important. From a local media focus, the challenge Afghanistan is facing is the ability (or inability) of the nation to beat the Taliban threats and being able to achieve a rather peaceful political transition. The internal debate on the endemic trend of questionable alliances and more nuanced democratic challenges in government will have to wait.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

U.S. Self-Perception and Foreign Policy

Posted by / 5th May 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , / -

If one thing were ever true about America’s own interpretation of its foreign policy and role in the global arena, it is that it is unapologetic. The American public’s worldview is shaped and informed by selective historical memory that is perpetuated in classrooms nationwide. Such memorializing of particular events fuels an almost messianic national psyche, which provides a basis of popular support for often self-defeating foreign policy initiatives. The disastrous campaign to defend U.S. interests in Afghanistan and ensuing damage caused by drone strikes throughout the Middle East are two prominent illustrations of such failures. This in turn, calls for the diversification of competing historical narratives in America’s public education in order to prevent its population from holding a limited understanding of the past and allowing unreasonable ideology to propel overseas ventures. A more comprehensive understanding of past events may not change the outcome of certain policy measures per se, but it will at minimum provide a more receptive space for debate and thus allow for a diverse range of opinions to weigh in on detrimental policy proposals.

The American National Psyche

Whether it results in a well rounded or even restricted understanding of the past, history is continuously filtered for contemporary interpretation for which may be called selective historical memory. It is the strategic remembering and convenient forgetting of prior events that make societies contextualize the past as if it were a present reality. By strategically selecting interpretations, there are many truths to a single event but never a single truth, therefore designating it the creation of a common history. In the case of nation states like America, it is capturing the trials and tribulations of past events that most vividly contextualize the meaning behind possessing U.S. citizenship. Consequently, the selectivity of events in U.S. history have created a mentality that often fails to take many diverse and often competing narratives into account, which impact the creation of and support for self-defeating policy initiatives abroad.

So what is the collective mindset that every patriotic citizen tends to feed off of in support for U.S. foreign policy measures? It is a mentality enshrined in the concept of ‘rally around the flag’. Americans are vulnerable to the call for action in the form of serving the ideas of liberty and freedom, as they are mistakenly told that these concepts hardly exist anywhere else as much as they do within their borders. Historical events that have been convoluted into self-serving nationally recognized and absolute truths fuel this mentality. And so it is through skewed perceptions of U.S. efforts to end the Second World War, its self-congratulatory response to the civil rights movement, erroneous impressions of spearheading woman suffrage, tolerance of dissent over the Vietnam War, and after traumatizing events like 9-11, they see themselves as the ultimate embodiment of democracy, free speech, capitalism, and equality. Therefore, even through their faults they celebrate themselves for being well-rounded and lenient, understanding and charged with a moral imperative to disperse these ideals throughout the world. In this same sense, they personify the biblical injunction to become a ‘city upon a hill’ as called for in Matthew 5:14 and echoed in the words famously used by John F. Kennedy and then later by Ronald Reagan to depict the enormous trust and responsibility placed upon Americans. In being founded by diverse immigrant populations looking for a better future, U.S. citizens best capture the historical image of well-seasoned veterans that have fought, struggled, and found unification amid differences that cannot be located elsewhere, and that supposedly serves as an example for humankind to follow.

These ideals are reinforced in the tolerance of ethnic diversity, religious freedom, strong racial and gender equality standards, and the ongoing desire of so many foreigners that attempt to cross over its borders. Thus, people who have filtered through the education system are parented by the baby boomers and the “American dream(ers),” who see their country as a land of opportunities, where an endless work ethic knows no bounds in the quest for material success and having the mere chance to live free from fear and persecution because you may be different. To this extent, Americans advertise themselves and their resolute frontier as a safe haven. Though undoubtedly well intentioned and honorable in its original quest, these American ideals are often vocalized through a preference for positive historical narratives. The resultant American national psyche has a tendency to overstep the boundary from national pride to idiosyncratic provincialism, exemplifying the hazard in not having competing narratives that better educate the popular public support for foreign policy initiatives.

A downward spiral

With such enamored manifestos being present in most countries, the problem with the American psyche then becomes its tendency to give a false impression of its own importance, dangerously straddling the line between national political self-interest and a moral imperative. We have all heard the “U-S-A” chants and witnessed the on-and-off again preoccupation America has with overseas conflicts, as it curiously self-appoints itself as the globe’s psychiatrist. This Wilsonian diagnosis is not new. What has become a recent trend is how this memorialized psyche has transformed into a militaristic platform for oxymoronic foreign policies that are overly aggressive.

The repercussions stemming from U.S. involvement in Afghanistan are substantial and can be directly tied to the selective historical memory and lack of competing classroom narratives. There is little doubt that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 unsettled every American. And for good reason. The traumatic image of the collapsing twin towers, a lack of information surrounding the emerging Taliban terrorist faction, and a controversial national debate over the urgent need for a proper response presented the American psyche with its first millennial challenge to personify its originally good virtues and properly rehabilitate transgressing neighbors. Yet, what matters is not whether the actions of the U.S. were justified by moral discernment, but rather how this populist mentality harmed its national interests in nation building and seeking security. By targeting the Taliban and its allies, America declared war on a terrorist faction and not even a sovereign state. What’s more, the U.S. neglected the ongoing civil war taking place within Afghanistan, amongst other colossal challenges. But when God is on your side, every adversary can only be the devil. Therefore, a failure to eradicate the region of their Taliban and later Al-Qaeda adversaries, the subsequent substantial loss of military personnel, the generation of anti-Western sentiment in streets across the globe and among foreign elites, and the trillions of tax dollars that went down the drain made the decision to go to war a self-defeating policy – one that could have been more properly calculated had the American historical narrative been more objective in its approach. It is erroneous to claim that the U.S. public would have altogether abstained from the blunders that followed in Afghanistan had they not had such an engrained national psyche, but at least the breadth of opinions leading up to the war would have varied.

The destructiveness that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq reinforced the assumption that the U.S. was peddling global hegemony, but overlooked the subsequent asymmetrical warfare tactics (i.e. the Predator and Reaper drone attacks) as America’s way of projecting its selective historical memory onto the international scene. President Obama’s rhetoric surrounding the 2013 drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, underscored the fact that these “signature strikes” were targeting adversaries not necessarily for what they had already done, but because they displayed key patterns of terrorist behavior. This sounds an awful lot like the reflection of the American psyche that endorses the saying that, “America does not negotiate with terrorists.” The downward spiral of America’s unchallenged supremacy that it enjoyed following the collapse of the Soviet Union is partly the result of this rather cloudy approach to war that has moved from conquering foreign adversaries to their total obliteration, as they are seemingly attacking America not because of what it does, but rather what it represents. In return, the U.S. has somehow made perfect sense of complicated identity practices surrounding terrorist factions and engaged in the parallel: killing its enemies for who they are and not necessarily for what they do. In a moment of introspection, Obama later observed:

“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”

This demonstrates how recently, America’s foreign policies that were originally designed to fortify and grow their regional clout have failed partly because of a lack of rational analysis of alternative historical narratives. By demonizing the enemy in such a way, the U.S. has managed to create foreign adversaries all over the Middle East, undermining America’s image as a sincere force for freedom and social justice. So if Obama’s caution is to be realized, Americans must cautiously expand the scope of competing historical narratives in the classroom in order to ‘make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom’.

If history can teach us one thing, it is that every state has a pinnacle of success followed by downfall. Being a relatively young country that has yet to experience true national blunder strengthens America’s perpetuated historical narrative as one of dignified successes, supplying the national psyche with evermore justification to buttress foreign policy initiatives that demonstrate the same moral authority and economic power as in the 19th century Manifest Destiny fervor. Reinforced by past triumphs, the collective mindset of the U.S. has moved from a once self-serving yet successful nationalism that suffused the “American dream” to a self-defeating motivation that has generated oxymoronic foreign policy moves.

By diversifying the amount of competing narratives in American history education to include different perspectives on how and if an event actually occurred, pluralism will logically take its course in filtering and often correcting the memories of past events. Furthermore, it will help prevent U.S. public opinion from engulfing itself in a narcissistic view of America’s role in the globalizing world at large. Until that day, past events such as the war against terror in Afghanistan and extensive drone strikes across the Middle East remain tokens of the dangers of U.S. selective historical memory that loom over its foreign relations, undermining the democratic rationale that it traditionally sought to champion.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Report: The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Posted by / 31st July 2013 / Categories: Reports / Tags: , , , , , / -

The withdrawal of most United States combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 not only is an important symbolic moment for Washington’s foreign policy which will effectively close the book on the post-9/11 “War on Terror”, it will also have major repercussions on Afghanistan and its neighbours in Central Asia. The void that Western forces leave behind is likely to be filled by more local-centred interests and other major international players such as China and Russia. Afghanistan has always been a geopolitical battleground, and the 21st Century will prove no different. The extraction and transport of natural resources, zones of influence, religious and ethnic strife, concerns about local terrorism and its proximity to other geostrategic hot-spots such as Iran and Pakistan- all combined with a lack of internal sovereignty-means that Afghanistan is unlikely to escape the clutches of external meddling.

ReSeT has written a series of articles by its experts on what the post-withdrawal future will bring for the most important national actors involved, and on how this will affect international relations during the coming decade.Through one article per country, we will analyse the impact that the new Afghan situation will have on:

 

Afghanistan (Carmen Alonso Villaseñor): The conflict in the Central Asian country is a prime example of the complexities involved in New Wars. The inability of the superpowers to understand and address them has historically led to defeat in the arid mountains of this country. Beyond the particular failed policies of the consecutive invaders, Afghanistan represents the inaptitude of the international system of states to deal with modern challenges.

Pakistan (Balder Hageraats): Afghanistan’s future is intimately linked with that of Pakistan because of cross border identities and interests. Both countries’ complicated and ambiguous relationships with the US will become even more strained after 2014, and Islamabad will shift its focus towards Beijing and other local players. The West is likely to be marginalised in this process, and may need to shift its focus back to India.

Iran (Ricard Boscar): Despite mainstream thought in policy and security circles in the West, Iran could play an important role in the stability of Afghanistan and the region. Teheran has enough resources, ranging from cultural to economic assets, to cast its influence eastwards. How Iran decides to use them is linked to the future arrangement of interests in the region and depends on the US stance towards the ayatollahs’ regime.

Russia (Alberto Pérez Vadillo): The American withdrawal will force Moscow to recalibrate its policy towards Afghanistan and across the region. Much of what Russia can achieve depends on its relations towards the various Central Asian states. Regarding this, Moscow’s room to manouver will be constrained by both the presence Washington chooses to preserve and Beijing’s ambitions.

China (Carmen Alonso Villaseñor): The growing weight of China in international geopolitics has gotten to a point of no return. But the new superpower is still reluctant to assume the responsibility and burden that its position implies. Beijing’s economic diplomacy is already strong, but to secure its interests, China will have to adjust its foreign policy, and Afghanistan after 2014 will be an important thest of this.

The United States (Balder Hageraats): The United States, after licking its wounds from two unwinnable wars and economic crisis, will need to scale back it global ambitions, and particularly those in Central Asia, where it will no longer be able to compete with other more local competitors. Washington policy will focus on specific goals, such as national resources security, rather than maintaining its more expansive agenda of the last decade.

Read the whole report here: ReSeT Report: The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

 

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Changing Places: Sino-American Rivalry and Cooperation in Central Asia

Posted by / 8th July 2013 / Categories: Reports / Tags: , , , / -

When most United States’ combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, it will symbolize the end of a war that has dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape in Central Asia. In particular it will highlight the demise of Western influence over the region, and the rise of Asian players, especially The People’s Republic of China. In this paper we will analyse the main geostrategic shifts that are visible in the area, and how the main global protagonists, namely the United States and China, are likely to adapt to them. Even though the situation clearly requires major changes in policy with respect to Central Asia in both capitals, there are internal obstacles in both countries that will likely weaken their respective positions. Other local players such as Russia, Iran and India are likely to benefit from a failure by the two global rivals to adequately react to the changing circumstances.

The ability, or lack thereof, of China and the U.S. to find and accept this new balance of powers between them will decide the future of the region. Cooperation, rather than confrontation, would benefit both powers as well as enhance local stability. If there is a resurgence of the “Great Game”, with geopolitical competition manifesting itself in Afghanistan and its surroundings, China and the U.S. are both likely to lose terrain to other regional actors. Therefore, their main challenge will be to overcome internal obstacles to clear the way for an effective power balance in the region.

Read more: Changing Places in Central Asia Panorama 2012

 

This paper was published in Panorama 2012, and written by Balder Hageraats and Carmen Alonso Villaseñor.

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