Small Arms, Big Problem

Apparently, we’re missing a lot of guns in Afghanistan and have no idea where they are:

“We’re not talking just handguns and M-16s and AK-47s,” [John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction] told TIME correspondents over lunch on Friday. “We’re talking some high-powered stuff — grenade launchers, RPGs, machine guns — anything that one person could use.” His new report says the U.S. recorded improperly, or simply failed to record, the serial numbers of 43% of the nearly half-million small arms the U.S. has supplied Afghanistan over the past decade. Sloppy U.S. record keeping is compounded by Afghanistan’s indifference to the congressionally mandated U.S. oversight of the weapons’ whereabouts.

Dana Liebelson has more on the inspector general’s report:

According to SIGAR, the US is also supplying Afghanistan with too many weapons.

It estimates that the Afghan security forces have a surplus of over 80,000 AK-47s, 5,800 grenade launchers, and 2,500 Russian PKM machine guns. Defense Department officials told investigators they do not currently have the authority to repossess excess weapons, but they said that “DOD will remain engaged in addressing these critical weapons accountability issues.” The Pentagon did not respond to comment for Mother Jones.

SIGAR concludes that, without confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to account for weapons, “there is a real potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of insurgents, which will pose additional risks to U.S. personnel, the ANSF, and Afghan civilians.” It’s certainly happened before—in 2009, the New York Times reported that “of 30 rifle magazines recently taken from insurgents’ corpses, at least 17 contained cartridges, or rounds, identical to ammunition the United States had provided to Afghan government forces.”

A Breakthrough In Kabul, Ctd

An inside look at John Kerry’s brokering of a deal to resolve Afghanistan’s election crisis illuminates how high the stakes really were:

It was a dangerous moment, and not just for the Afghanis. Without an agreement between second place finisher Abdullah Abdullah and the election’s declared winner, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan was at risk of an implosion like the one that enabled the Taliban to take power in 1996—creating a safe haven for Osama bin Laden to plot the 9/11 attacks. And Kerry’s visit defied the advice of other Obama officials who warned any diplomatic intervention on the U.S. part held “the risk of complete failure,” in the words of a senior official. …

By mid-July, Abdullah’s supporters had threatened to create a kind of protest government. Rumors swirled of an armed rebellion, with the potential to ignite dormant ethnic and tribal rivalries. “We will accept death but not defeat,” Ghani’s running mate, the notorious ex-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, had recently vowed. “It was pretty frightening. People were preparing for civil war,” says one official.

“Still,” Steve Coll cautions, “the pressures over the next several weeks will be great”:

The loser of the vote audit is sure to doubt the result’s authenticity. That suspicion will create fresh pressure on the part of Kerry’s plan that is designed to empower the second-place finisher—and that part of the deal seems worryingly vague and incomplete.

Karzai is scheduled to leave office on August 3rd, but it is not likely that the vote audit will be finished by then. On Afghan social media and in the streets, feelings are running high between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, and along other historical fault lines. The country still looks uncomfortably close to the brink. The question facing what used to be known as the Shura Nizar, or the Northern Alliance, is whether, if Abdullah loses the final count, the alliance can achieve more by compromise than by coup-making. The objective answer is yes, but there will be those of senior rank who will argue otherwise.

A Breakthrough In Kabul

In a deal brokered by John Kerry, the two sides in Afghanistan’s seemingly intractable election crisis have tentatively agreed to radically transform the structure of the country’s government, moving toward a more parliamentary system with an empowered prime minister to check the authority of the presidency (NYT):

The candidate who is declared president after a complete vote audit in the coming weeks would then appoint either the loser, or that candidate’s nominee, to become a “chief executive” for the government, with powers to be agreed on later. Then, in the following two or three years, the Constitution would be amended to create a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister as head of government and a president as the head of state. That timeline puts important decisions off into a very indefinite future, and will revive a debate that deeply divided Afghan officials a decade ago, with some arguing then that a parliamentary system risked instability.

On balance, Mataconis decides this is the right call:

For the most part, Karzai fulfilled the role that he was supposed to play notwithstanding the well founded criticisms against him during his time in office. Now that he’s leaving, though, it seems clear that the government structure that was created a decade ago, seemingly with Karzai in mind as the person who would be the powerful President, is not going to work going forward.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious, of course. While Karzai may have been able to unite the nation’s various ethnic groups during his time in office, this election made clear that this isn’t going to be possible going forward. There are competing passions and interests, and a system that results in all of the power being vested in one side even if they only win by a narrow margin in a disputed election isn’t one that’s likely to last very long.

The parties have also agreed to a comprehensive audit of last month’s runoff election. This is all to the good, but Nishank Motwani warns that it’s too soon to breathe easy:

While the political crisis has been dampened momentarily, the increasing number of attacks by the Taliban on Afghan National Security Forces in recent weeks bodes ill for the country’s security transition. The Taliban, it appears, have been exploiting the political instability in the country and the drawdown of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force to instill fear and uncertainty in the population. Moreover, the Taliban stand to gain from an escalation of the political crisis because the ensuing instability would be far more destructive than what violence alone can deliver. Such a condition would play to their strengths as political opponents; tribal leaders and Afghans would look for an ally — even if the Taliban are undesirable — who could protect them from a crumbling, yet predatory, state. The intensification of Taliban attacks is also meant to demonstrate to the Afghan government and its security apparatus that they are far from a spent force.

There Go Those Pesky Aligned Interests Again …

Iraq isn’t the only place where America and Iran are fast becoming best frenemies. “When it comes to Afghanistan,” Michael Kugelman argues, “Tehran and Washington tend to see eye to eye on many core issues, including the Taliban”:

There’s good reason to believe that Tehran wants a stable Afghanistan. Greater instability would intensify narcotics trafficking. Additionally, it would lead to further influxes of Afghan refugees (only Pakistan has more). In recent years, these immigrants have been increasingly unwelcome in Iran, and many have been deported. Tehran also likely worries that a deteriorating Afghan security environment would embolden anti-Shia forces, including the Pakistani organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose commanders vow to march into Afghanistan when international troops depart. Though Iran publicly opposes any U.S. troops in Afghanistan, in private it would probably happily accept the presence of a residual post-2014 force.

Tehran also shares the U.S. objective of an Afghanistan that is more integrated with South and Central Asia. Iran has pursued rail, pipeline, and trade projects meant to better link Central Asian states. It is also cooperating with India on the construction of a port that would facilitate more Indian trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia (the Chabahar port would enable India to bypass longer routes through Pakistan). These efforts dovetail with Washington’s “New Silk Road” initiative, which aims to develop regional energy markets in South and Central Asia and more broadly to boost cross-border trade and transit across these regions. However, U.S. sanctions on Iran have prevented Tehran from obtaining international financing for some of its projects. Phasing out these sanctions — a possible upshot of improved bilateral relations — could bring in more financing, and allow regional integration initiatives to truly take off.

Afghanistan Gets Worse

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Reid Standish relays a troubling new report from the UN that shows violence there is on the rise again:

According to newly released United Nations data, the number of civilians who were injured or killed in Afghanistan rose by 24 percent over the first half of 2014, compared to the same period in last year. In total, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injuries during the six-month span.

The U.N. data indicates that ground combat has overtaken improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as the leading cause of civilian deaths. Ground combat — which can include the use of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms — was responsible for 39 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in 2014, accounting for 474 civilian deaths and 1,427 injuries. The number of casualties caused by ground combat rose 89 percent from the previous year.

Reading the same report, Keating highlights the particularly grave danger women and children are facing:

Child casualties more than doubled and the number of women casualties increased by 60 percent. The reason is the changing nature of the violence. For the first time, more civilians were killed by crossfire in battles between government and anti-government forces than by improvised explosive devices. Suicide attacks are also down this year. This means more violence is taking place in heavily populated areas where women and children are likely to be found. As one U.N. official put it, “the fight is increasingly taking place in communities, in public places, near playgrounds, and near the homes of ordinary Afghans.”

How Crippled Is Afghanistan’s Democracy? Ctd

The preliminary results of the Afghan presidential election are out, but they promise only to deepen the country’s political crisis:

[W]hile the numbers show former World Bank official and finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai a winner in a landslide, his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, has been positioning himself for weeks to reject the outcome, complaining that he suspects electoral fraud and tampering by members of the independent election commission could have skewed the outcome. Election results were delayed to allow for more auditing – something Mr. Abdullah welcomed – but in an interview on July 2 he also said that if fraudulent votes were winnowed out, the result would be “very different from what is perceived at this stage.” At that time, Mr. Ghani was felt by many to be in the lead. The results released today give Ghani just under 4.5 million votes, 56.4 percent of the total, with Abdullah’s share 3.46 million, or about 43.6 percent. …

It’s hard to believe the results will not lead to increasing ethnic tensions, since Abdullah estimated that about 2 million fraudulent votes need to be thrown out. That could be enough to overturn Ghani’s 1 million-plus vote lead at the moment (though some fraudulent votes certainly went to Abdullah as well). But it’s hard to see Ghani and his supporters accepting a situation where a huge lead in the preliminary results ends up being overturned.

Aarthi Gunasekaran sketches out what happens now:

Thousands of supporters have called on Abdullah to form his own parallel government, with Abdullah responding that this “is a demand from the people of Afghanistan [and he] cannot ignore this call” and that he would consult with his advisers and make an announcement in a few days.

Though an adviser to Abdullah told the BBC on Tuesday “we don’t believe in setting up parallel government,” the candidate’s comments were still met with sharp concerns. Secretary of State John Kerry declared there was no justification for “extra-constitutional measures” and will be meeting with key parties on Friday, July 11th.

The U.S. government underscored this sentiment stating that any action that would alter constitutional legalities could result in Afghanistan losing the financial and security support of the United States and the international community. This would plunge Afghanistan into a deep economic and security crisis as foreign aid constitutes for over 95 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and in 2013, government revenues accounted for less than $2.5 billion of that year’s $7 billion adopted budget.

Abdullah’s claims of shenanigans have some merit, though:

In the eyes of Abdullah supporters, it is easy to question how Ghani could have more than doubled the number of votes he received in the runoff (going from about 2.2 million votes to over 4.4 million) while Abdullah, who had been far ahead, only added about three hundred thousand votes (going from 3.2 million to 3.5 millon). Somehow, we are supposed to believe that Abdullah has the support of only 44-45% of the Afghan electorate, no matter how many show up and that Ghani was able to magically obtain the vote of every Afghan who voted for someone other than Ghani or Abdullah in the first round while also getting 56% of those new more than one million voters who turned up for the runoff.

Drug War Fail: Afghanistan Edition

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Beauchamp illustrates how little our opium eradication efforts have accomplished:

From 2008 to 2013, when the US anti-opium campaign hit its apex, the US only managed to eradicate 3.7 percent of the land devoted to poppy cultivation. The total amount of land devoted to poppy cultivation was a third higher in 2013 than in 2008 … Now, it’s true that the total amount of opium produced in Afghanistan has declined from its 2008 peak. But, according to the UN, that’s because of “plant diseases and bad weather” — not the war. There’s more land devoted to poppy cultivation, but it’s less productive because of natural conditions. Drug eradication doesn’t appear to have much to do with it.

Why has the campaign against opium failed so epically?

There are plenty of reasons, including widespread Afghan government corruption and the fact that 95 percent of poppy cultivation happens in the country’s insecure, Taliban-filled southwestern provinces. But the most important one is the most basic — Afghanistan runs on opium. Opium-related activities make up half of the country’s GDP; the legal economy depends on its proceeds to function. As Fabrice Pothier, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s European branch and an expert of the Afghan drug trade, explains in an absolutely staggering passage, opium is more than 50 times as important to Afghanistan as cocaine is to Colombia[.]

Dan Murphy concurs with Zack’s takeaway:

To be fair, trying to wipe out opium production in Afghanistan would have been a Sisyphean task no matter what strategy was deployed. It’s a lucrative business, and poppies are easily cultivated, generating far more money for poor farmers and corrupt middlemen than any feasible substitution crop. During the height of the American counterinsurgency effort, winning over the general population to the side of the government and foreign forces was a big focus. The US found that tearing up crops and impoverishing farmers wasn’t very popular.

The early eradication strategy was largely abandoned in favor of going after big opium dealers and encouragng farmers to grow other crops. But that really hasn’t worked, either. The country’s opium and heroin trade is a top earner, and with the military effort winding down, the business opportunities associated with aid and foreign military spending are set to decline.

Meanwhile, In Kabul

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah is alleging widespread fraud in last weekend’s runoff election against a former finance minister, Ashra Ghani:

Despite pleas from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Ghani to give the [Independent Election Commission] time to conduct its count and review complaints, Abdullah is not accepting the second round election antics. In fact, it appears that he considers the IEC anything but ‘independent,’ and in many ways an instrument that remains loyal to the wishes and manipulations of Karzai.

If the vote’s credibility is shattered, Sune Engel Rasmussen warns that the ramifications could be very serious:

The consequences of an electoral failure go far beyond the immediate power struggle in Kabul. European and American officials have set a relatively clean election as a condition for the billions of dollars in aid on which the Afghan economy depends. And the ethnic tensions, as represented by the Abdullah and Ghani camps, could boil over.

Ghani, a former World Bank official educated in the U.S. who has served as finance minister and headed the security transition under Karzai, is Pashtun. To appeal to people in the North, he chose Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious Uzbek warlord, as his running mate. Abdullah, for his part, is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity, and commands a lot of support from the Northincluding from Atta Muhammad Nur of the Balkh province, one of the most powerful governors in the country and a longtime rival of Dostum. Early Wednesday morning, Nur posted a Facebook photo of Mujahideen tanks rolling toward the frontline during the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The accompanying text read, “To become president, Ashraf Ghani has to cross this border. Passing this border is impossible. A second generation of jihad is coming.”

Oy.

A Shot At Self-Determination For Afghans

James Stavridis and Craig Charney call the Afghan presidential election, the second round of which was held successfully on Saturday, a major sign of progress:

The Taliban’s impotence was obvious during the first round of this year’s elections, which they had promised to violently disrupt — and failed to. Their inability to engage in large-scale disruption was underlined last week by a desperate attempt to abort the runoff by killing Abdullah in a suicide bombing, which left the candidate unharmed in his armored car but killed a dozen passersby and bodyguards.

This failure is also echoed in the 90 percent drop in coalition casualties since 2010 and the rise in attacks on “soft targets” by frustrated insurgents. The Taliban may be a continuing problem, but they do not seriously threaten a military takeover of the country. Afghans noticed the change: In the Dec. 2013 polling, nearly two-thirds rated local security as good. In fact, security no longer tops their concerns. Rather, the leading issues are the economy, infrastructure, and corruption — as in other poor South Asian countries.

Emily Schneider summarizes the news from election day, which saw no major acts of violence:

During the first round of voting, about 375,000 votes were disqualified because they were deemed fraudulent. Camps for both candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have said that fraud would be the only reason for their candidate’s defeat, so getting the campaigns, and their followers, to accept the final results may prove challenging.

While the voter turnout was high, scattered violence was reported throughout the country: the country’s Interior Ministry reported that 10 Afghan soldiers and at least 20 civilians died in gun battles and bombings; After the polls closed, authorities in Herat Province reported that the Taliban had cut off the fingers of 13 people who had voted  (CNN,AP). But, as the polls closed, it appeared that the Taliban had failed to carry out any major attack in an urban area.

The final results will take weeks to come in. In a preview of the runoff last week, Kevin Sieff profiled the two remaining candidates:

[I]n the absence of concrete platforms, Afghans are looking closely at the biographies of Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, speculating about what their lives say about their ability to lead. Afghan politicians are still judged to a large extent by their roles in the nation’s recent history, particularly the anti-Soviet uprising of the 1980s. At that time, Abdullah was an aide to the mujahideen leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a relationship he advertises in speeches and campaign posters. Ghani, on the other hand, was launching an impressive academic career that led to professorships as well as World Bank positions. From those experiences, their supporters and detractors have drawn conclusions. Abdullah is seen either as a patriotic war hero, willing to die for his country, or a representative of old-school Afghan politics, based in muscle rather than policy. Ghani is seen as a well-educated reformer, or a Western intellectual without deep Afghan roots.

Regardless of who wins, Scott Smith wants assurances that the US will continue to support the Afghan government:

If the next Afghan government is seen as vulnerable because it lacks international support, the predatory currents of Afghan politics will combine with the unhelpful rivalries of Afghanistan’s neighbors conditioned to use Afghanistan as a proxy battlefield. This, in combination with a still-resilient Taliban, may prevent the government from functioning, leading to a breakdown of order. Every major actor, including the Taliban, is basing their strategies and next moves on their perception of whether the government in Kabul will hold together. Much of that perception hinges on whether or not the Afghan government will have sustained international backing.