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Dark days in Afghanistan

Violence is on the rise as Obama sends in a new American general and President Hamid Karzai faces August polls. Passport gets the prognosis from longtime Afghanistan correspondents Charles M. Sennott and Jean MacKenzie.




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Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of the Correspondent Call with Charlie Sennott and Jean MacKenzie.



Passport: Welcome everybody! It’s June 29 and I'm David Case, the editor of GlobalPost Passport at the GlobalPost newsroom in Boston. The topic of today's call is Afghanistan. Dubbed "the graveyard of empires," Afghanistan has exacted a heavy toll from the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th. Now a new American president has committed troops and treasure-- not to turn it into a democracy, but to tame America's enemies within it. The Bush administration was accused of neglecting Afghanistan, redirecting resources to Iraq, and embracing regional warlords to control the country on the cheap. The results weren't impressive.


Today, a resurgent Taliban controls much of southern and eastern Afghanistan. Development projects have faltered. The first week in June was the most violent since the invasion nearly eight years ago. Washington's long honeymoon with Afghan president Hamid Karzai appears to be over and in the run-up to the elections on August 20, the Afghan people are disillusioned.
With us to discuss the situation are two very experienced Afghanistan watchers. GlobalPost executive editor, Charlie Sennott, former Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe, recently returned from a reporting trip to the country for GlobalPost and BBC's The World. Also with us is Jean MacKenzie, our Kabul correspondent who lives in Kabul, but who is joining us from Dubai today. Jean has traveled widely in Afghanistan for the past almost 5 years as the director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. She has reported for CNN, the CBC, and many others.


Before we jump in, I have a few announcements today. First, remember the call is being recorded and will be posted on Passport's website. Regarding the format, I lead a Q and A for about 20 minutes. Afterwards, we'll open up the lines for questions. The call will end after about 30 minutes. All of your phones are now muted. Prior to the audience question period, I will explain later how to un-mute your phones.


First question to Charlie.

Passport: Charlie, you've been covering Afghanistan now for about 15 years. Can you tell us about your M.O. for the latest trip? Where did you go and what did you see?

Charlie Sennott: Well, I was in Pakistan to start off in Islamabad and then went to Peshawar from there. The strategy on this trip was to do a return visit to the places I've been before because when you parachute into a place as complicated as Pakistan or Afghanistan, I don't think you can get very much done in the two weeks I had. So I went back to one of the madrassas in Peshawar that was really where the Taliban got its start. Very close to the refugee camps taking in the Afghan refugees from the war in Afghanistan at that time, in the mid-90's. Those camps were full and the madrassas were full. I wanted to go back there and see what that looked like, how I could use that dateline as a way to understand where the Taliban began and what its become. When I went back to that madrassa what I saw was that it had largely shifted, but the refugee camp, which it grew up alongside of, was completely full of refugees, this time from the Swat Valley, from the Pakistani military's offensive in Swat had pushed these refugees back into these camps. So you could literally see the old mud brick walls that had fallen from the old Afghan refugee camps and right behind them were the shiny new white UNHCR tents for the new internally displaced people or refugees coming out of Swat. And there was a new madrassa, with a new group of students also being forced to memorize the Koran just like I saw back in 1995. And I think there's a sort of interesting full- circle kind of history there that the place out of which the Taliban was born has created a new refugee crisis largely created by a war against the Taliban in Pakistan.

In Kabul, the reporting I did there was also very much intended to revisit places I had been before, particularly involving one story concerning a girls' school. I had written a story about a woman named Sally Goodrich who had opened a school for girls in Logar Province in honor of her son who was killed on September 11. Sally's an educator, this was a great school, thrilling to see it open, but now that little village in Logar is very much under the control of the Taliban and the fate of that school hangs in the balance. And I thought it was an interesting way to look at one of the front lines in that conflict, which is education. And in addition to that I wanted to go back and interview Taliban officials from the former government, the now-deposed Taliban government and Jean, who is based there, helped me a lot with accessing that and doing that part of the reporting.

Passport: Ok, very good. Jean, you've been there for a while now. What changes have you seen in Afghanistan since the new administration took office in Washington? Have they been positive or negative?

MacKenzie: Well, I think they're both, not to be too equivocal. But in Afghanistan, as in much of the rest of the world, there was a tremendous outpouring of hope and goodwill when Obama took office. It had been a very rough seven years up till then. And I think some people in Afghanistan placed some highly unrealistic expectations on the new American president, hoping that he could solve all of the problems immediately, or at least in a month or two. What we've seen is a very rapid disillusionment with the new administration and it seems from the point of view of the Afghans that nothing really has changed, that it is more of the same old policy. What we're seeing is a gap, perhaps, between the rhetoric of the new administration about the centrality of Afghanistan, the importance of Afghanistan, the gap between that rhetoric and what we're actually feeling and seeing on the ground. So I think that in the early days, in January/February there was a lot of excitement about the possibilities of the new administration and a very quick decline in excitement so I think now we're seeing a lot of fatigue, a lot of disillusionment and indifference to what is going on now.

Passport: Okay, very good. The next big event on the horizon is the elections, let’s talk about those for a few minutes. Before the 2005 elections, Afghan voters were very optimistic about the future. Why has the mood of the country changed so fast this time around?

MacKenzie: Well, I think we're seeing the normal progression of the things you referred to at the beginning. Development has been slowed, the promises that Afghans felt had been made to them have not been kept. We have an incredibly corrupt government, none of this is particularly new. And Afghans are convinced that whether they vote or not, nothing is going to change. I've heard many, many people say that the outcome of the election has already been decided, that it doesn't really matter if they go to the polls or not, they are not willing to risk their lives to take part in this process that they feel is hopelessly flawed. I think there is a tremendous rise in apathy in many of the Afghans that is really covering a sense of hopelessness and I think that is the difficulty with these elections. And the danger is that because of the difficulties that Afghanistan is facing now, they are in danger of becoming disillusioned with the whole democratic process as a whole.

Passport: In the U.S. we have a habit of mistaking elections for democracy itself, but the creation of democracy only comes with the creation of strong civil institutions. Jean, as you travel around the country, are there any signs that such institutions are taking root?

MacKenzie: I don't know if we can talk about them taking root. There are tremendously strong civil society institutions in many parts of the country, specifically in the south and the east, these are just not civil society institutions that we would like to recognize. Afghan society, particularly in what we refer to as Pashtun-dominated areas has a very strong civil society structure that are called shuras, tribal elders. These are institutions that have kept the society together, but they have very little to do with what we would classify as democracy and they may or may not have an influence on these elections. Over the past six months, we seen the frontrunner, who is undeniably the President, Hamid Karzai, go from a nearly hopeless case to a nearly certain victor in this electoral process. And I think that is very troubling and very puzzling to many Afghans. He has lost credibility over the past seven years, he has kept very few of this promises and many Afghans are blaming him for the problems of the society, but he has managed to put together an alliance, a series of alliances, using in some cases, these shuras, these tribal structures, specifically in the south and the east, that seem fairly likely to deliver to him a fairly certain victory.

Passport: President Karzai is one of 41 candidates running for president. Are any of the others seen as being important? You've already mentioned that he's almost certain to be the winner.

MacKenzie: Yes, there are several important candidates. I would say the top four candidates would be President Karzai himself, there is Dr. Ashraf Ghani who is the former finance minister, who is maybe in the number two slot right now. He's mounting a very active challenge to Karzai. He has asked him to debate him, which Karzai initially agreed to and then withdrew from, and he's a very strong and viable candidate. We also have Dr. Abdullah, who is the former foreign minister, very closely associated with what we call the Northern Alliance. And Ahmed Shah Massoud, he is another one of the frontrunners. And then in a distant , but still an important spot, we have Ramazan Bashardost who is the former Planning Minister, who seems to be the maverick in this election. He's got a populist rhetoric, he's running around the country going to some of the most unstable provinces in a truck, his election headquarters is in a tent pitched outside the parliament. And because he has very little hope of actually winning the election, he's allowed to say things and do things that other candidates might not-- calling other candidates corrupt and worse, but bringing up very important issues. People seem to love him, but he is of course a very distant prospect. I would say those candidates are the most visible and the rest of the pack... there's a middle group of viable candidates, of men and women who would be good candidates if this were not such a hopelessly muddled process. And then there are 15 or 20 candidates that really have no business participating in the electoral process and are doing it for their own personal reasons.

Passport: Ok, let’s talk about the war for a moment. In mid-june, General Stanley McChrystal was sworn in as the new US commander for Afghanistan. What are the chances that he will achieve a Petraeus-style transformation of the war there and will the surge help? Charlie, do you want to address that one?

Sennott: Sure. I think that if McChrystal and Petraeus define it as an iraq-style surge, they're doomed to fail. There is no blueprint you can take from Iraq and apply to Afghanistan. I think that is the most worrisome aspect of their plan. I think that General Petraeus had great success in Iraq because he paid very close attention to the parameters and details of what needed to be done in a largely urban war fought through tribal connections that were manageable through cash. And that really is the truth of how they made that surge work. That and an increase of US troops, which allowed for security to be obtained and allowed for civil society to at least breathe, if not take root. I think in Afghanistan the challenges are really different. I think we haven't seen proof yet that Petraeus, Holbrooke and company, including the President, understand that, but I also think its a bit early to judge. I think if they're going to be successful, they're going to have to carefully assess this as a largely rural war that will be fought in extremely difficult terrain, and that it'll be about building institutions. It'll be about building roads, building schools, and succeeding in bringing this largely rural, very traditional society to its side through that old phrase, winning the hearts and minds.

Passport: Charlie, during your recent trip, you were able to interview a number of Taliban insiders. What are the prospects for meaningful talks between the Taliban and the US?

Sennott: well, I think the Taliban is more than one thing. It’s many, many things, as Jean knows and I was learning on the ground. And i know that you have to think of the Taliban at least on these terms: there are about ten percent of what General Petraeus would call "irreconcilable" meaning these are hard-core militants, they're never going to come in from the cold. There are ten percent who are open to a sort of dialogue with the Afghan government and maybe even the United States. And then there are 80 percent that exist in the middle who have these varying shades and leanings depending on their villages and tribal allegiances. So I think that its a very nuanced terrain, but I think there is room right now, as the US begins to shape its policy as the Taliban is actually strong right now, and it can bargain from a position of relative strength. That leans in favor of negotiations being productive. The pending elections would also suggest its a good time to talk, if indeed the Karzai government wants to allow these elections to happen with less violence. So, I feel like the conditions are right. We heard interesting, on the record observations about some progress that they've made, but I still think the US needs to be actively engaged and they're not there yet on this process.

Passport: Jean, we just got a question in by email from one of our Passport members. Tell me, if you were to summarize the political and military situations, where do you think they'd be in, say, six months time?

MacKenzie: I think it’s very difficult to say what the political situation is going to be right now before the elections. Militarily, in six months time, I think we are going to have been through a very difficult period. The troop surge, out of necessity, is going to bring on a lot of violence, there are going to be offensive battles throughout the south and the east and we might have a much more difficult situation militarily in six months from now than we do now, depending on how much care is taken with civilian casualties, how much damage is done to property. Experience has shown that these offensive maneuvers are not very good at winning hearts and minds. So I think that six months from now, the situation could be very, very difficult. Politically, I think it depends on what happens with the elections, how the elections go. If they go smoothly, if they are seen to be free and transparent, I don't expect any big dramatic upheavals on the political front in the next six months.

Passport: I want to ask two more questions, then I'll open it up to questions from the audience. First, Jean, what gains have been made on the status of women over the past seven years?

MacKenzie: That’s a very difficult question to answer because we tend to look at numbers and we want to have those numbers say something that I'm not sure that they can say. Certainly, we now have women in the government where we did not have before. We have 68 seats in the parliament reserved for women, so we have women in parliament, we have a woman governor, we have a woman mayor and we have a woman minister, of course (that’s the Minister of Women's Affairs). There are girls in school, of course, many more girls in school than there were under the Taliban. But when you start out from zero, it’s very easy to make appreciable progress. So things are in place that can benefit women. Structures are in place that can benefit women, but real progress has been very slow in coming. Because real progress is not dependent so much on the numbers as in a change in consciousness of the society. And I don't think we have seen a shift in the consciousness, so women are still having a very, very difficult time. So I would have to say, yes, on the surface of things, progress has been made, but on a deeper level, that progress is much smaller than we would like to think.

Passport: Ok, and the last question I'm going to address to both of you... I want to finish by quoting from one of Jean's articles. You wrote, "the long and vicious ballet between the great powers over the fate of Afghanistan has continued for 170 years. All too often it has resulted in war, death and destruction for all parties involved." Briefly, starting with Jean, can you tell me, what would success look like in Afghanistan?

MacKenzie: Well, I think that depends on if you're looking at success from our viewpoint or the Afghan's viewpoint. I think that I would like to see an Afghanistan that is stable, that can stand on its own, and be a viable state on its own terms. That might not be the state we envisioned when we came into Afghanistan seven years ago. So I'm going for stability, a viable state, and Afghanistan being able to run its own affairs.

Passport: How likely is that to happen?

MacKenzie: Well, its not looking very promising right now, but I'm not willing to give up on it, so we're hoping that things will turn around and that Afghanistan will become a viable state on its own terms, perhaps not our terms.

Passport: Okay. Charlie, you want to take a stab at that one?

Sennott: Well, I think Jean laid out the core question and that is, whose perspective are you going to judge success from? And to take it from a purely American perspective, I'm going to say its going to be not making the mistakes of empires past, which is trying to impose some sense of control on the place. That’s just never going to happen. So the sooner we recognize that and we understand that what we need to do is build civil societies, structures that are indeed their own and truly their own. Schools, roads, functioning ministries that can deliver electricity, that can deliver an agricultural policy that’s viable. Those are the things that are going to determine not just success for the Afghan people, but the conditions on which we get out of Afghanistan. And I would define success as getting out sooner rather than later.

Passport: Okay, we have about ten minutes, I'd like to open up the call for questions.

Caller 1: Hello?

Sennott: Hi.

Caller 1: Hi, I'm calling from the United States, from New Jersey. I'm a former Afghan citizen. I've been listening to the program so far. You know, the Afghan point of view has been discussed as much as I would have liked to. Briefly speaking, for the last 150 years, perhaps a little bit more, the Afghans have been managed, run the government, and they have not been an independent country. The foreign powers especially, the British have chose who the leadership will be, and they have for their own benefit, chosen some tribal groups from the south and helped them because they were more pliable and they had no real great culture, I'm speaking of the Pashtun especially, and given them carte-blanche, and doing what they want to the rest of the nation. (Indecipherable) and Afghanistan is their natural country, it is their natural country, and ever since, for the last 150 years, Afghanistan has been ruled by this group, and the British in the 19th century, all the way up to the 20th century, have kept some of these people, the (indecipherable) of these groups, and in colonial India and when they were disappointed with one who was incompetent or they didn't feel they were doing what they were supposed to do, they would bring another member of the same family, and they kept that on and on and on until the beginning of the 21st century. And as you know, the last 100, 120 years or so, only one Afghan ruler has died in office. They were all killed or got rid of. Now these elections, and these so-called Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) anyone who is called an election has won it and anybody who has called a Loya Jirga has won it. And this election that we're doing, I don't know if you're aware, nobody knows how many people are there in Afghanistan, all these numbers that are being thrown around... if you look at these - you will see that the state department, the CIA, the ministry, the department of public culture, they all, plus the UN, they all have different statistics of how many Afghans are there?

Passport: Can I jump in, for a second, sir? That's a very interesting point. Can you address that Jean? Is there too much emphasis on Pashtun control? As our caller says?

MacKenzie: Well, it is undeniably true that the leadership has been dominated by Pashtuns for several hundred years. I don't know where that emphasis is coming from... its very easy to say that all of Afghanistan's affairs have been regulated from outside and from foreign powers, from the British and the Soviet invasion, and now the US, but I don't want to bring up the census question, because it gets very contentious very quickly. It is true that no one knows how many citizens there are in Afghanistan, how many voters there are in Afghanistan and no one knows the ethnic breakdown to a scientific degree. But almost all estimates will put Pashtuns as the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, running from 45 percent to slightly over 50 percent. So it’s perhaps, not surprising that Pashtuns have dominated the leadership.

Caller 2: Jean, it’s Susan Orbeston at CBC in Canada.

MacKenzie: Hi Susan!

Caller 2: Hi Jean. I'm interested in what your thoughts are about how President Karzai has gone from his position as not being a top contender to a frontrunner, obviously part of it has been his team that he's managed to put together, but what about the U.S.? They were not very happy with him, they probably still aren't, how have they been interested in having him as the frontrunner?

MacKenzie: That's a very interesting question. Anyone who was in Afghanistan this winter noticed something very, very strange that happened about the middle of February. As you know, President Obama was not a big fan of Karzai, before Obama's election and he was very open in his criticisms of President Karzai. When Obama was elected and then sworn in, many people in Afghanistan thought that spelt the end of Karzai's political fortune. But, in the middle of February, the United States Embassy, we've heard this from many sources, the United States Embassy received directives to back off of criticism of Karzai. And they went from calling for change and renewal in Afghanistan to calling for continuity of government and this change happened very, very quickly. And very suddenly. Why that happened, we can't say, but we did observe it here. And since that time, since the middle of February, Karzai's political fortunes went on a radical upswing. So there seems to have been a recognition. What sparked it, I cannot say. That the other candidates were perhaps not as viable as one would have hoped and that some accommodation may have to be reached with President Karzai since he seems likely to have a smooth election. And then Karzai has played a very, very deft political game, he has made alliances, he has brought tribal leaders on board, people who are able to influence the vote in their districts, he's promised various people various political privileges and gains for supporting him, and he's seen as a very, very strong contender at this point. And of course, in Afghanistan, if you're seen to be a winner, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because everyone wants to be on the side of the winner, and people are rushing now to support him.

Passport: We have one more question?

Caller 3: I'm Scott Lucas from, but I'm calling from Britain. What I wanted to ask about was the effect of certain military activity, notably air attacks, and how that's going to play in here. I'm thinking in particular, in terms of Afghanistan, regarding public trust, the episode last month in Western Afghanistan where about a 140 people were allegedly killed in that. The US military stalled and stalled and finally said that only 26 had died. And I'm thinking of course of the drone attacks in Pakistan where you have several dozen people, in fact, die just last week and according to the local authorities, at least half of them were civilians. And I'm wondering how that fits in with the purported goal of the Obama administration and the military is to build public trust and the US counter-insurgency strategy.

Sennott: I'll jump in on that, if that’s okay. This is Charlie and I think the place you're talking about is in the Farad Province. And I think that attack had great impact in the Obama administration. And I think it’s the reason that McKiernan, the former commanding general, was so unceremoniously sacked and McChrystal was put in his place. At least the timing was extremely interesting of when that attack happened and when the change in command was announced. And I think you put your finger on one of the greatest challenges as the Obama administration begins to shift its focus to Afghanistan and increase troop presence there and talk about a reconsideration of its counterinsurgency strategy. One of the things it can't do any longer are those kinds of air strikes, that kind of conventional approach to this counterinsurgency campaign is doomed with failure. On the Pakistan side of the border, the drone attacks are the incredible focal point of the anger of Pakistanis of the presence of US military in Afghanistan and to some extent, creeping over the border. As if it’s like Cambodia was to Vietnam. And I think that in Pakistan, if we have more of those drone attacks, even those that are considered effective, or announced as effective, its not going to matter, they're going to work against the broader goals. And I think Pakistan has engaged in its own fight against the Taliban, against the Pakistani Taliban, and we should be very actively encouraging that, assisting in that, but canceling out the drone attacks because it’s not going to be productive.

Passport: Very good. I think we're going to have to leave it at that, I would like to encourage all of our guests today to visit to read about the benefits of Passport membership. Thank you all for joining the call.