Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Voting: Democracy or Business in Afghanistan?

Post-2001 Afghanistan holds regular national elections for voting in the President, the Parliament and the Provincial Councils.  This is lauded as a great achievement in Afghan history where power transfer has happened using bullets not ballots.  The democratic voting right theorizes that an individual Afghan’s vote can make a difference; the 50% + 1 elects a President, majority votes elect members of the Parliament and the Provincial Councils.  Ideally, this system sounds good and the voting process should result in a peaceful and democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan.  It should also enable those with the highest popularity and needed qualifications to govern the country.

However, in reality, this is a wishful objective.  The election process becomes a business making deal in which the voter wants more money, and the vote receiver wants to pay less.

Majority of the Afghans living in poverty give or see little real influential value in casting their votes.  Their prevailing thought is that their votes do not count; their leadership is already chosen by external powers or the current power-holders will remain in power regardless of their votes.  As a result, the only value an Afghan may see in his or her vote is the amount of money he can make from the vote.  Its is hard for him or her to see what the vote does.

Afghan wanna-be leaders understand this value.  Their campaigns trails across Afghanistan, therefore, are only formalities; backdoor money exchange makes the real deals.

Ordinary Afghans watch or listen to campaign slogans with ridicule and are convinced they are meant to deceive them to vote for free!  But they are not going to let it happen.  Instead, they prefer making deals with the representatives or their local middle-men to make bigger money on their votes, the votes of their family, their group, their tribe or ethnic group.  If not money, the voters at least expect a good free lunch.  Without the lunch, the representatives or the middlemen will find it extremely hard to gather more than a few old men in a single room.  In essence, the money or the free lunch allures people to vote to somebody they may hate otherwise.

If money is not an option, people are swayed to vote their family, tribe or ethnicity, not the right person!  This happens because Afghan society is a post conflict, diverse society where effective and unbiased national political parties or figures are absent to bring them together or represent their interest.  Politics therefore become a divisive struggle among the diverse groups to vote their kin into the job.  And the right person is the one familiar to them, not the one from the other kin or group. 
Another reason to vote one’s own kin to the job is future expectations.  Personal relations to the governing elites including family, linguistic, tribal or ethnic ties are seen important and a social security.  With the right connections and ties, accessing public privileges including jobs, services and even contracts is hassle free.  If not, it is a nightmare or a miracle to access them without having to pay, accept harassment or waste time and resources.  And so, the voting rationale makes perfect sense. 

The end result is that in the post-2001 era, Afghanistan continues to be governed by those with the right power i.e. money or force.  Unless this changes, business will decide fate of the Afghan people, not democracy. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Scapegoats for the Pakistani State

Moheb Arsalan J.

Relation between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a complicated love affair.  In public, both countries claim being brothers sharing cultural, linguistic and historic values; in private, their policy makers may do whatever fits their purpose for their so called “strategic interests”.  And when relations soar, Pakistan is quick to point fingers to the millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and consider them to be the source of difficulties Pakistan face.  Ironic this is as Pakistan overlooks the significant contributions Afghan refugees have made and still make to the economy of Pakistan.

Nearly 5-6 million Afghan refugees left Afghanistan to live in Pakistan in the 1980s.  Most of the Afghan refugees sent relatives to the West as either immigrants or refugees.  These Afghans in the West sent in remittances to their relatives in Pakistan who spent it on housing, education, clothing and food – all rented out or bought from the Pakistani markets.  Whole new cities, such as Hayatabad in Peshawar were built to profit on the Afghan refugees’ money and need to rent houses.  

Many Afghan are traditional entrepreneurs that brought in their capital and assets to Pakistan.  Afghan businesses in carpets, precious stones, marbles and others sector directly contributing to bringing in more revenues to Pakistan.  The Pakistanis were so happy for this that they voluntarily distributed national identity cards to the Afghan Entrepreneurs.  Major objectives was to cap on the Afghans capital, entrepreneurship and profits.  And even Afghan rugs were tabbed as Made in Pakistan!  

In addition, Afghans living in Pakistan received no support from the Pakistani State either as resettlement allowances, refugee grants or food stamps!  Most Afghans have their own small businesses in which they work hard to earn a living.  Keeping the contributions to the GDP of Pakistan aside, these Afghans contribute services to the economy there as well.  

In the past 10-15 years, Pakistan has built many hospitals in Pakistan that solely run on Afghans seeking better health services in Pakistan.  Millions of dollars are spent by the Afghans in Pakistan on health care facilities that only very rich Pakistani’s could afford.  Not just hospital, Afghans uses local transportation, guest houses and medicine.  All these not for free.  

On top of these, Afghanistan also imports most of its domestic consumption needs from Pakistan reaching millions of dollars a year.  Many Pakistani and Afghan traders deal on daily basis in which Pakistan mostly receives cash and Afghans the Pakistani products albeit of a degraded import quality only.  Some of the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan facilitates these trade relations. 

But, whenever anything bad happens in Pakistan, Afghan refugees are the scapegoat to point at despite them having nothing to do with those issues and contributing so generously to that country’s economy.  And the irony is that many of the Pakistani people, frustrated with the incompetence and dictatorship of their government, agree to it and are fooled in to the propaganda.   

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The War in Syria – Why It Resembles the Afghan War of the 1980s?

Moheb Arsalan J.

From the looks of the lingering war in Syria, I could not help but to think that this war resembles the Afghan War of the 1980s-1990s.  And the current Western requirement for President Assad to go, no matter what, may have similar consequences as those Afghanistan faced later in the 1990s.  If possible, the World must pause and rethink an approach that differs from the status-quo.  They should work with Assad, than without him, in Syria if further crisis are to be avoided and peace is to come and maintained.  It would be almost impossible to have armed groups take over Damascus and expect them run a modern state, peacefully.  The experience in Afghanistan has proven that this may not happen. 

Lessons from the Afghan War can be utilized for peace in Syria.

Leadership - Basharul Assad and Dr. Najibullah

As was Dr. Najibullah, the President of Afghanistan from 1987 to 1992, Basharul Assad is head of a powerful centralized government that owns and maintains a well managed army.  If Assad is gone, so would be the Army and the established political order in the country.  This will cause chaos for Syria and reestablishing that order or the Army may take more blood, time and dollars in the future. To expect the armed opposition groups will unite and agree on post Assad leadership is too simplistic and perhaps misleading.  Having no prior experience than using guns, the groups would find it hard to agree on a president, the defense minister, the foreign minister etc.  Resolving such a crisis would not only be exhausting but also dangerous and eventually turned into violent conflicts that would destroy of what is left of the war in Syria, Damascus in particular. 

Najibullah was President of Afghanistan and led a strong Afghan national army that for a decade had resisted the west backed liberalizing fighters in the 1980s.  However, as soon as Najibullah was ousted, the liberalizing fighting factions could not agree on leadership in Kabul; after a brief political power sharing agreement, they soon found each other not trust-able and a horrific civil war broke out.  The civil war, not the Soviet war, turned the country, particularly its capital Kabul to a war-zone.  Kabul had survived the decade of war fought in rural parts of the country.  The humanitarian and economic crisis caused by this civil war, after Najibullah removal, was more brutal, horrific and destructive then the entire war against the Soviets. 

The Vacuum – After Basharu Assad is Gone

After Basharul Assad is gone, a power and leadership vacuum will be created.   It would be hard, if not impossible, to fill effectively.  The different factions of the free Syrian fighting groups would want power, and more of it!  That will then create a chaotic situation that even the west would not understand and perhaps fail to resolve.  And that will then leave a big political vacuum that could be filled with non state actors.  The proponents to Assad-gone may not like that situation.
After Najibullah in Afghanistan, the warring factions failed to agree to a lasting political settlement; each wanting more power and this and that political offices.  That soon led to the horrific civil war which then gave rise to the Taliban filling the political vacuum and offering a much needed single governance order.  

What happens to Damascus?

Currently, Damascus has been remained protected from the turmoil and destruction in rest of Syria.  However, it is largely a peaceful city where run by the Assad government.  If Assad is gone and the gunmen are in and they get into the “turmoil” part, which is the most probable scenario, they will soon turn Damascus into a war-zone too.  And that would not be pretty for the million of humans-beings living there or for the humanitarian and migration crisis it would trigger.

Such a scenario happened in Kabul which largely survived the Soviet War, but the sooner the “liberalizing forces” entered Kabul; the violent power struggle broke out that made Kabul a war-zone showered with bullets and bombs.  The Darulaman Palace and its bullet ridden walls in the west of Kabul is an example to show what happened here.  And that was not the only issue.  Millions of Afghan civilians were forced to flee Kabul or live to the mercy of the gunmen for food and shelter.  Horrific stories of various crimes committed at the time can be read about or heard from Kabulians when you talk to them.

So, What to Do in Syria?

A simple solution is to work with Assad than without him. Although this may not look good for the western and their allies’ ego, but to avoid another, more serious and worse crisis in Syria, Damascus in particular, it is important to work with the existing establishment to end the conflict on terms that are good for the Syrian people and rest of the World, not without it.  Big lesson from Afghan War is that it is unhelpful, dangerous and chaotic to replace an experienced, albeit unliked leader, with gunmen that have no experience in governance. 


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Afghanistan’s New Ambassador to Pakistan: Opportunity for Establishing Better Af-Pak Relations?

The National Unity Government of Afghanistan recently appointed a new ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The choice of President Ghani for this appointment is Dr. Hazrat-Omar Zakhilwal, Ex. Chief Economist and Ex. Minister of Finance.  In addition to being the Afghan Ambassador, Dr. Zakhilwal is titled to be the Afghan President’s special envoy in Pakistan.
Dr. Zakhilwal appointment for this important position says it outright that the new Afghan government values better economic and political ties with Pakistan.  To achieve this ambitious goal, Dr. Zakhilwal is better placed than any other Afghan politician.

Unlike other politicians in the previous Afghan administration, Zakhilwal has already established work-able relation with his Pakistani counterparts especially when he served as the Minister of Finance under Ex. President Karzai.  An example of the cooperation between the two countries has been Dr Zakhilwal's success in attracting cooperating response from Mr. Ishaq Dar, the Pakistani Minister for Treasury, to improve bilateral economic ties.  He succeeded in mobilizing the Pakistani government’s much needed political support for the important Central Asia-South Asia (CASA) 1300 Mega Watt electricity transmission project.  Under CASA, Afghanistan will receive a transit fee for the large amount of electricity transmitted to Pakistan for a transit fee.  This is a significant project that can promote regional integration and prosperity. 

Afghanistan’s President Ghani envisions precisely this sort of economic ties with Pakistan.  He believes that if the two countries are genuine in their relations, each can contribute significantly to the other’s economic development.  President Ghani would like to see a 100+ more CASAs between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And for that to happen, Kabul needs a representative in Islamabad that can help create similar interest and thinking in Pakistan.  Dr. Zakhilwal, for his experience, is a good fit for this purpose.

Afghan Interest in Promoting Political Ties

President Ghani’s administration has also been trying to establish friendlier political relations with Pakistan.  Ever since coming to power in 2014, President Ghani sought support from Saudi Arabia and China, Pakistan’s geo-political allies and traveled directly to Pakistan to gather momentum for renewed trust and ties with Pakistan particularly in quelling the insurgency in Afghanistan. 

For a while the new efforts seemed working and hopes for better ties between the two countries were high.  However, due to the exposure of the surprising death of Mulla Omar, the Taliban Supreme Leader, and subsequent violence in Kabul, bilateral relations went sore and back to square one.  Since then, optimism for a different chapter in Af-Pak relations has seemed as distant as it did during the previous Afghan administration.  this is not in the interest of any of the two neighbors. 

Afghanistan has always expected Pakistan to value its relations with the democratically elected government in Kabul than other non-state groups, and to cooperatively support the war torn country’s reconstruction and development efforts.  Kabul feels this has not happened for a long time and despite numerous exhausting efforts from Kabul.

However, Dr. Zakhilwal’s appointment may be a turning point and an opportunity for generating a different response from Pakistan.  He has proven to already possess the required leadership, understanding of the context, and previous success in building trust with Pakistan.

Considering that years of instability, mistrust and violence in the Af-Pak region has had devastating geo-political and economic consequences for both the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the two countries should seize this renewed opportunity and utilize on it to establish the momentum for a more peaceful, integrated and successful Af-Pak region.  That in turn will contribute to prosperity and security in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

Will this happen, however, remains a big question to be answered in Islamabad.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dealing with Poverty is Another Priority for the New Govt. in Kabul

By: Moheb Arsalan J.

With President Ashraf Ghani’s government finally taking hold in Kabul, it also needs to focus on dealing with Afghanistan real socioeconomic problem: poverty.

Poverty has been a serious issue in Afghan society; a larger number of Afghans live either in poverty or are at risk of falling into poverty if there was a crisis.  This is the case despite Afghanistan having ample natural resources.  According to the World Bank, poverty rate in Afghanistan is at staggering 38 percent.  This figure has remained unchanged since 2008 despite a large sum of development aid injected to its economy.  

The crippling poverty has vicious impact on Afghanistan.  It has been a leading contributor to violence, political instability and radicalization especially in the rural parts of the country where majority of the Afghan people live.  In the rural areas, the Afghans especially the youth live in dismal poverty having minimum access to inadequate education or employment opportunities.  Such circumstances flourish ripe conditions for poverty to prosper causing further grievances in Afghan society. 

Poverty has ruled Afghan society for too long now and it continues to cause troubles due to the nonexistence of a strong political will both in the previous Afghan leadership and within the international development partners active in Afghanistan, non existences of a cohesive human development plan and an effective strategy to fight poverty or focus on effective and inclusive economic development. 

Now that President Ashraf Ghani is in charge and has a wealth of both experience and education in poverty eradication and human development programs, his government should prioritize eradicating poverty and related serious underdevelopment problem in Afghanistan.  

This is no easy task but it is possible if there is a sincere political will to eliminate corruption, boost human capital and capacity, attract investment, use international development aid more effectively, better utilize Afghanistan's natural resources, foster trade and create a conducive environment for the private sector development.  All  of these efforts can contribute to better public and private sectors that can provide jobs and in turn alleviate poverty in Afghanistan.

President Ghani’s unity government should have and implement that political will and enable Afghans to break from the vicious cycle of poverty & violence and instead live in prosperity.  If President Ghani can do this, he would be remembered as the savior for a country that has been stuck in vicious poverty for too long now. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Charlie Hebdo Reveals Failure in Understanding Values

The armed attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris was an act of violence that does not have any justification in human’s civilization anymore.  Those carrying out the attack meant to infuse a vicious circle of hatred and divide, and may have succeeded in doing so.  However, as common citizens of this world we need to avoid pointing fingers and instead unite as the one human race against this vicious aim. 

Violence is not a response to such acts, especially if those targeted are innocent civilians.  If this happens, it perfectly serves intention of those that want to instill hatred.  A more responsible response would be to identify the cause of such incidents and unite together to confront it.   

The unfortunate incidents in Paris, however, outlined two important lessons that all need to learn:

First is for the liberal western world where freedom of speech and the press are hard earned values.  While every human-being has a right to express their views, this freedom, even in humor, should responsibly encourage respect, unity, understanding and trust among the entire public, not otherwise.  Freedom of speech could be more effective if it is address resolving social issues such grievance, inequality and discrimination. 

Second is for the Muslim world that constantly faces incidents of offensive media messages regarding their faith.  Such messages or drawings are usually produced by non-Muslims who have limited understanding of their Abrahamic religion.  The response to such messages or drawings cannot and must not be violence.  Islam does not allow that.  Instead the Muslim world should respond to such incidents with care, respect and tolerance.  

They could be much more effective if they start educating and show to the non-muslim world that their religion is peace and that it is the same as that of Prophet Abraham, who built the Kabba in Mecca.  And that Muslims recite five times in their prayers every day that “Oh God! bless us Muslims as you have blessed Abraham and his sons.”  Also, that it is our faith not to depict the prophet or God for it can lead to worship of human made idolatry, forbidden in Islam.

If all sides learn these lessons and put more effort into building their understanding of each others values, we may be able to unite against violence and live in a peaceful and just world, otherwise, even cartoons can incite violence, fear and divide.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Time is Ripe for a New Chapter in Af-Pak Relations

Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s new president has provided hope for peace and stability to the troubled nation.

Even in his first weeks in office, President Ghani, a former World Bank technocrat and professor in leading American Universities, has embarked on sweeping reforms from tackling corruption to resolving the issues of the prisoners in Kabul’s Puli Charkhi prison. Ghani seems serious and an ideal leader for a post-conflict country such as Afghanistan where people want swift actions from public leaders and are usually frustrated by lack of action.

President Ghani has yet to nominate his cabinet and governors of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The general perception in Afghanistan is that together with his Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, he will nominate one soon, and it could be a more technocratic one than compared to his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Ghani’s minister selection will be important for delivering on his campaign promises and furthering the tasks he has started in Afghanistan.

Among the many policy issues facing Ghani, a major one is how he tackles Afghanistan’s troubled relations with its eastern neighbor, Pakistan.

Afghanistan and Pakistan share a long border of nearly 2,600 kilometers (1,615 miles) named as the “Durand Line.” Pakistan recognizes this line as an “international border” crossing inherited from British India; Afghanistan, however, recognizes it only as a temporary boundary that was agreed to between British India and the Afghan Emir more than a century ago. Borer disputes have resulted in serious mistrust between Kabul and Islamabad, and both sides have failed to capitalize on the enormous economic benefits they can reap from establishing cordial relations.

Hamid Karzai, the outgoing Afghan president, labeled Pakistan as one of the key stakeholders to peace and stability in Afghanistan. However, he also outlined that his nearly 20 state visits to Pakistan and many efforts failed to result in any constructive outcome.
Now that there is new leadership in Kabul and that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is keen on contributing to a more stable region, it might be the right time for both sides to turn pages and open a new chapter in Af-Pak relations.

Unlike the past, President Ghani should take lead and propose a more compromising approach that builds trust and enables Pakistan to see more benefits in Afghan stability. One thing that President Ghani should make sure to avoid is to break from the past where most of Afghanistan’s problems are blamed on Pakistan.
Instead, President Ghani’s government should opt for a policy that recognizes the need for mutual Af-Pak relations, defies issues of mistrust and promises good will for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This policy should also focus on promoting regional economic cooperation that in turn can foster mutual respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Pakistan’s leadership should also respect Afghan’s desire for stability and actively engage with Kabul on overcoming political and security challenges. Unlike the past, Pakistan’s strategic depth policy should seek closer economic ties with Afghanistan and understand that building better and more trustful relations with Afghanistan’s legitimate government in Kabul is better for Pakistan’s future stability.

If both Afghan and Pakistani leaders can make this shift in their foreign policies, the two Asian countries can benefit from significant economic and political relations, and collectively contribute to more prosperous societies in the region.
This article is also published at SGV at