Posted by: Christian | November 24, 2011

Updates and Research

Well, I finally put aside some time to get around Kazakhstan’s internet block on WordPress (the platform I use for this blog). I’m not in Kazakhstan, but here in Kyrgyzstan the internet is provided by Kazakh companies. I guess there were a couple of blogs that bothered the government so they just decided to just block all blog platforms.

Anyways, I’m currently teaching and researching at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. I teach a class on ‘Politics and Security in Central Asia’ for 30 MA students. Teaching just one class gives me time for my research, which is on the “Afghanistan factor” in Central Asia. Basically, does Afghanistan matter to the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia? It’s a security-centric study, and I hope to dedicate the next two years to it. I want to include a detailed social and historical context for the study, and that takes time.

I’m heading back to Australia at the end of this semester and then on to Tajikistan, hopefully for 6 months. I’ll be in Dushanbe for a two month stint and then on to the southern Vakhsh Valley near the Afghan border. After that, I’m not sure. But all my applications for postdoctoral fellowships for fall 2012 include research project proposals geared towards connecting Afghanistan to Central Asia.

My first publication on this theme should be out by next spring, and be focused on northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, the IMU, Russia and the US in Central Asia, etc… In other publication news, I turned some old background work on secondary sources into a historical comparative study. The article is “in press,” but it’s available for download:

“State-building, migration and economic development on the frontiers of northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan,” Journal of Eurasian Studies. Download PDF.

My future publications will obviously be much more oriented to current issues… However, I’m also working on some long term projects: a book on the Uzbeks (Uzbekistan and Uzbeks outside the country) with a co-author and a book on Tajikistan post-independence. I know, I know – pity the poor publisher that has to read drafts of those books. Hopefully any future book on Afghanistan and Central Asia will be somewhat more marketable.

As for Afghanistan, my focus is strongly back on the north…. like it was six years ago.

Nothing else to say. So here’s a picture of Kyrgyzstan from a recent road trip:

I don’t usually post announcements here, but the Central Eurasia Listserv has been experiencing some issues as of late.

The OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (my current home) has two fellowship positions open for teaching macroeconomics and microeconomics (minimum requirement to teach is a Master’s degree) There will be plenty of time on the side to work on your own research (and the language of instruction is English). Announcement info here:

TWO Teaching and Research Fellowships – OSCE Academy (PDF)

Furthermore, applications are open for scholarships for the Master of Arts in Economic Governance and Development Programme (2012-2013). Scholarships are available for Central Asian and Afghan students. More info here.

Contact info can be found in the link and PDF above. Don’t send me any messages, as I’m not involved in these two programs.

Posted by: Christian | September 21, 2011

A Brief History of Negotiating with the Taliban

Three years ago I wrote an article on the history of Taliban negotiations. Anyways, the website I wrote the article for changed formats and  my piece disappeared. In the interests of framing (historically) the assassination today of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the most prominent government negoatiator/contact for talks with the Taliban, I will copy and paste the article here. Additionally, numerous people have contacted me over the last couple of years looking for the article, and I just recently found a copy. So here it is…


A Brief History of Negotiating with the Taliban

October 24, 2008.

Should the Afghan government and the international community seek a negotiated settlement with the insurgency? Recently it seems that every second newspaper op-ed on Afghanistan carries the message that negotiating with the Taliban is the best or only option to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. So I would like to provide the historical context for any potential negotiations with the leadership of the Taliban, particularly its habitual pattern of negotiating in bad faith.

We’ll limit this discussion to domestic and Pakistan-involved negotiations. The ongoing amnesty/reconciliation program whereby Talibs renounce violence and quit the insurgency was openly approved by US senators Bill Frist and Mel Martinez two years ago and recently endorsed by General Petraeus. That’s no secret. In an earlier post I discussed that program as well as the exploratory talks (not negotiations) in Mecca between Afghan government representatives and representatives/proxies for as of yet undefined insurgent groups (rumor mill says Quetta Shura and Hizb-i Islami Hekmatyar, but no mention of Haqqanis or ISI). So, we’ll delimit discussion to commitments made by the Taliban leadership, and their failure to honor them, a pattern that potential negotiators should keep in mind when considering making concessions in exchange for any promise from the Taliban (I’ll skip Hizb in this analysis).

During the 1990s the international community learned quickly that negotiating with the Taliban was anything but straightforward. The negotiations between the Taliban and the UN, NGOs and other members of the international community are well known as having generally been a frustrating and unproductive exercise in futility. Consider Osama bin Laden’s pre-2001 quote: “Our Jihad has two targets. One is America and the other is the Foreign Ministry of the Taliban.”[1] Those were the people with whom the international community often negotiated (and later pointed out as the “moderate” Taliban). The Foreign Ministry of the Taliban was not exactly known as an influential entity. As that is already well known, I’ll address my comments to domestic political negotiations with the Taliban leadership prior to 2001.

Early on the Taliban had shown an apparent eagerness to talk. They had negotiated at the individual level and taken many Khalqi communists into the fold. Hekmatyar, an opponent of the Taliban at the time, claimed that 1600 Khalqis had joined the Taliban, making them a large employer of “reformed” radical communists. The number may be exaggerated, but the presence of Khalqis was well known. However, the Taliban had very short term plans for them: they were needed for their technical military expertise. By 1998 that was no longer required (in my view, because Pakistan ISI officers had replaced them) and they were discarded.[2] The Taliban certainly did not negotiate in good faith with these men at the individual level, a common tactic of marginalizing or discarding short term allies that is by no means confined to Afghanistan.

Speaking of former communists (but not Khalqis), Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader of Junbesh, was already wary of the Taliban because of their execution of the former communist leader Najibullah when they captured Kabul.[3] This had a strong effect on him, as it foreshadowed what could be his fate if he surrendered or was captured.[4] The Taliban confirmed these suspicions when they conferred death sentences on Ahmed Shah Massoud, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Dostum.[5] This was at odds with the Pakistani leadership’s strategy at the time to have Dostum remain in control over the north, with minimal Taliban authority over the area, in order to placate Russia and the Central Asian states.[6] However, Pakistan’s attempts in 1995 and 1996 to persuade their Taliban clients to allow Dostum his continued autonomy in the north were a failure, as they refused any suggestion of sharing power there.[7] As a result, Dostum joined Massoud, Rabbani, Karim Khalili, and others in an anti-Taliban alliance known in the Western media as the Northern Alliance.[8]

However, one Uzbek leader, Dostum’s second-in-command Abdul Malik, was persuaded to cooperate with the Taliban. This occurred after he had received guarantees from Pakistan, who sent in ISI officers and diplomats to Mazar to settle the final terms of an agreement (Malik was also motivated by the belief, shared by many, that Dostum was behind his brother’s assassination). The Taliban promised to put Malik in power in the north, until elections could be held, in return for his cooperation. He complied and allowed Taliban troops to go through his defensive positions and into Mazar, the de facto capital of the north, causing Dostum to flee the country.

The terms offered to Malik were never implemented. The Taliban reneged on their agreement almost immediately, and the power-sharing quickly morphed into an unconditional surrender. The Taliban refused to share power with Malik and instead attempted to assign him the minor post of Deputy Foreign Minister (see bin Laden’s quote above). The Taliban did all this despite Pakistani attempts to persuade them to at least renegotiate, if not honor, their agreement. Everything in Mazar fell apart when the Taliban attempted to disarm Hazara militiamen, who knew, based on the previous treatment of Shia Hazaras, what to expect. The short version goes like this: Hazaras fight back, Uzbeks join in, Dostum returns, Taliban heavily defeated, Taliban return the next year, Taliban orgy of rape, murder and torture. The end result for Malik was the destruction of his forces and exile in Iran.[9]

This incident was an obvious final warning to any leader who thought that the Taliban would negotiate in good faith. Massoud took all this into account and never entertained Taliban overtures up until his assassination by al Qaeda.

Tragically for one leader, this lesson had been learned several years earlier during the battle for Kabul. In 1995 Massoud’s forces attacked the Hazara Hizb-i Wahdat positions, resulting in the Shia cleric and political leader Abdul Ali Mazari meeting with and attempting negotiations with the Taliban who were then advancing from the south. While Mazari was a guest or guest-turned-prisoner (depending on the version) of the Taliban, the Akbari faction of Wahdat showed that it was in no mood to surrender its positions and the Taliban had to engage a number of Wahdat militiamen as it entered the city. The sources vary on the story at this point but most agree that the Hazara Shia leader Mazari was killed while in the custody of the Taliban. Either you believe that the elderly Shia cleric was summarily executed, killed while attempting a Rambo-style escape or, as others maintain, you believe that Mazari was put on a helicopter bound for Kandahar, then thrown out when at a sufficient height.[10]

What lessons does this hold for any prospective negotiations today? The Taliban leadership, if one can speak of a single entity (which one really can’t these days), does not feel the need to negotiate honestly with Shia “heretics”, former communist “atheists” and “hypocrite” mujahideen. I think it is safe to put foreign “infidels” and Afghan government “puppets” in that same category. And, most definitely, the Pakistani government has a horrible record of guaranteeing anything in regards to the Taliban.

As for contemporary negotiations, I’ve already offered my skepticism and gone into the details, as have Troy at Abu Muqawama and Josh Foust at Registan. You could also look to Pakistan’s negotiations with their Taliban to gauge what the “Taliban’s” strategy may be. Christine Fair’s excerpted opinion:

Pakistani negotiations with the Taliban have been “ratifications of defeat on the ground.” Without “any ability to verify” Taliban compliance. They were a joke, a separate peace, legitimizing Taliban leaders. In the tribal areas, “the so-called jirgas often held up as a pathway to peace have been fundamentally eviscerated” and replaced by religious and Taliban figures. “I’m dubious, especially in the tribal areas,” that negotiating with the Taliban in Pakistan could be productive, “since their goals are antithetical to the state.”

Most pundits advocating a negotiated political compromise never get beyond merely stating that this conflict cannot be won and therefore a political solution with the Taliban is required. The hypothetical details of any prospective arrangement are very rarely provided. An antedote to these superficial statements can be found in a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid. They advocate, as part of a broader diplomatic initiative, “a political solution with as much of the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies as possible, offering political inclusion…” But they are cautious about propsective negotiations and any “guarantees” that may be offered:

The guarantees these interlocutors now envisage are far from those required, and Afghanistan will need international forces for security assistance even if the current war subsides. But such questions can provide a framework for discussion.

The entire article is required reading, as the analysis offers many qualifications. The most important, beyond the “guarantees,” deal with the relationship with al Qaeda and the Taliban’s “retrograde social policies.” Clearly Rubin and Rashid are advocating cautious negotiations with elements of the insurgency. But many questions still remain. Some of which were discussed by Josh Foust. The technical details and “what abouts?” still need to be filled in.

The Taliban (Afghan and Pakistani) pattern of behavior will hopefully be in the mind of any negotiator who finds himself opposite a Taliban representative claiming to deliver on the ground in Afghanistan. Assuming those at the negotiating table can actually make their field commanders comply with the political leaderships’ decisions, the Afghan government/coalition would be foolish to offer too much up front.

At the moment there is great speculation about exploratory talks and negotiations, up to and including a comprehensive negotiated settlement. Beyond the issue of the Taliban’s history of neglecting to deliver on agreed terms is this question: why would a force on the rise negotiate honestly and seriously with a force that still appears to be on the decline? I don’t believe in assigning a rigid pattern of behavior to any social/historical entity and then expecting predictions based on that to be completely accurate. Variables, sometimes unseen, can change. However, the recurring pattern of the Taliban failing to honor agreements should instil wariness in any potential negotiator.


1. Wahid Muzhda, quoted in Robert D. Crews (2008), ‘Moderate Taliban?’, in The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan. Robert D Crews and Amin Tarzi (eds.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 238.

2. Larry Goodson (2001), Afghanistan ’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban, Seattle : University of Washington Press , p. 120.

3.William Maley (1998), ‘Interpreting the Taliban’, in William Maley (ed.) Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, New York: New York University Press, pp. 10-11.

4. Rieck, Andreas (1997), ‘Afghanistan’s Taliban: An Islamic Revolution of the Pashtuns’, in Orient, Vol. 38, No. 1, p. 137; Sreedhar, Mahendra and Ved (1998), Afghan Turmoil, New Delhi: Himalayan Books, p. 59.

5. Ahmed Rashid (2000), Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, New Haven , CT: Yale University Press, p. 50.

6. Maley, op. cit., pp. 10-11.

7. Ahmed Rashid (1998) ‘Pakistan and the Taliban’, in William Maley (ed.), Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistand and the Taliban, New York: New York University Press, p. 82.

8. Rashid (2000), op. cit., pp. 52-3; Sreedhar, Mahendra and Ved (1998), op. cit., p. 59.

9. Rashid (2000), op. cit., pp. 57-63; Amin Saikal (1998), ‘Afghanistan’s Ethnic Conflict’, Survival, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 114-126., p. 120; Maley (1998), op. cit., p. 11; Angelo Rasanayagam (2003), Afghanistan : A Modern History, London: I.B. Tauris, p. 153; Sreedhar et al (1998), p. 39. See also Human Rights Watch: The Massacre in Mazar-i Sharif.

10. Peter Marsden (2001), Afghanistan : Minorities, Conflict and the Search for Peace, London: Minority Rights Group International , p. 23; Saikal (1998), op. cit., p. 34; Rashid, op. cit., p. 35; Anthony Davis (1998), ‘How the Taliban became a Military Force’, in William Maley (ed.), Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, New York: New York University Press, pp.56-58.

Posted by: Christian | September 15, 2011

Afghan Documentary Films

There are so many projects related to Afghanistan that produce little to nothing for us “consumers” to read or  view. Community Supported Film is different. They have produced quite a few documentaries, and made them immediately available to view online – for a limited time. Their documetary film collection Fruits of Our Labour looks great. Here’s their spiel:

Leading up to 9/11, Community Supported Film is releasing one Afghan-made film per day from the collection The Fruit of Our Labor.   As we reflect on the impact of 9-11 and the October 7th US-led invasion of Afghanistan on our lives, Community Supported Film is providing an opportunity to also reflect on the situation from an Afghan perspective.

The Fruit of Our Labor  is a collection of intimate stories made by Afghans and about Afghans’ survival in their war-ridden country.  Each documentary short offers a personal and first-hand point of view rarely seen or heard in the US, even after 10 years of intense media coverage.  As a series, these films bring to life Afghans’ daily efforts to address their challenging social and economic conditions – providing an insider perspective behind and beyond the battlefront.

In the interest of amplifying the voices and expertise of Afghans, Community Supported Film conducted an intensive 5-week training of 10 Afghans in documentary production in the fall of 2010.  After three weeks of rigorous exercises, each student was required to develop and produce a character driven short documentary.  The resulting films are gathered in this collection, The Fruit of Our Labor.  For many of them this is their directorial debut as a documentary filmmaker.  CSFilm continues its training and production program in Afghanistan.

Check out this one-minute excerpt:


For the full documentary, and many others, check out their website. The films are available to watch online for free until October 7th.

Posted by: Christian | September 9, 2011

Tajikistan at 20

Over at I’ve written a blog post on Tajikistan to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the country’s declaration of independence.

The very slow blogging schedule here will continue as I’m in Central Asia at the moment and will be here for 6 of the next 8 months. I’m sorta busy with research and a little teaching on the side, but I’ll occasionally find time to say something here…

Posted by: Christian | August 15, 2011

Governor Salangi: Afghanistan’s Cancer in Action

Yesterday in the Province of Parwan there was a rather dramatic attempt to kill the governor, the police chief and some NATO advisers. The Guardian reports:

A machine gun-wielding provincial governor took part in tackling a team of Taliban suicide bombers on Sunday when insurgents launched another brazen attack on a government facility in Afghanistan.

Officials said 18 people were killed, including three policemen and 10 local government workers, and 35 were wounded, some badly enough that they had to be transported to Kabul for treatment. A Taliban spokesman claimed credit for the violence in Charikar, a city where they had made barely any inroads in the last 10 years.

Abdul Basir Salangi, governor of Parwan, had been in his office holding a meeting with the province’s police chief and Nato foreign advisers when the six-man insurgent squad drove up to the compound in a Toyota Corolla.

There are two versions of the event at the moment; one where Governor Salangi is Rambo and one where he cowers in a bathroom

The Guardian provides background on Governor Abdul Basir Salangi by describing him as “a former guerrilla commander who fought as an insurgent himself back in the 1980s” and “a close ally of Hamid Karzai.” Meanwhile, the New York Times allowed him to frame his own stature in Afghanistan:

“The enemy wanted to kill the governor who is the head of jihad and resistance, here in Parwan, which is the center of jihad and resistance, and we fought them off,” Mr. Salangi said, referring to himself, and his role fighting the Soviets and later the Taliban. It was at least the third assassination attempt on Mr. Salangi by the insurgents.

What I did not read anywhere (yet) in regards to this incident is Basir Salangi’s reputation amongst Afghans who see him in a rather bad light. Where do I start? I’ll do this in chronological order…

In 1997 the Taliban were in a mood to conquer the north of the country. There is, however, a little problem: geography and Rashid Dostum. In the northwest it was not possible to just waltz through Rashid Dostum’s positions, and from Kabul it would be suicide to just drive up the Salang. You could defend that pass just by rolling rocks down, as one Russian general noted. Indeed, in the previous year the Taliban were pummelled when they attempted a trip up the Salang [John F. Burns, New York Times, 10 Oct 1996]. So the Taliban and the Pakistanis paid off Abdul Malik, a vassal of Rashid Dostum, to let them leisurely approach Mazar-i Sharif (he was also promised a high-ranking ministerial post). And for the Salang Pass, the Taliban found a rather eager-to-cooperate Basir Salangi, ostensibly a loyal commander of Massoud’s Shura-yi Nazar. The eponymous Salangi gave the Taliban passage through the Salang. He only made the deal once the Taliban had seized Mazar (and before the Hazaras ejected them).

What happened next depends on who you talk to. But what is certain is that Hazara fighters fought the Taliban (or rather massacred them) in Mazar. This made Abdul Malik (or his men) rethink their new alliance and the Uzbeks also joined in the rout of the Taliban. However, the Taliban force that had gone through the Salang was only as far as Pul-i Khumri. Hearing that their brothers were being massacred, they beat a strategic retreat. As they retreated, Basir Salangi attacked them. This is where it gets murky. Some say Salangi had planned this all along. I argue otherwise. I seriously doubt that he had coordinated with Hazaras in Mazar and Uzbeks in Faryab. He was just going with who he perceived to be the winner, like so many others have done.  Once his new friends started to lose he turned on them and acted like it was his plan all along. [Sources: here, here, here, here, here and here]

Fast forward to the post-2001 era. Salangi is appointed as Chief of Police in Kabul Province. While Chief he was very unhappy with the international forces patrolling Kabul:

But in Kabul, the security patrols of the international force are barely visible and clearly unpopular with the new Northern Alliance masters of the city. “There’s no need for them,” said Lieutenant- General Basir Salangi, a former alliance warlord who is now security chief of Kabul.

“We don’t have any contact with them and we’re happy they don’t interfere in our affairs. If they do interfere, we’ll tell them we had 23 years of war because of such interference.” [The Guardian, 18 January 2002]

He didn’t want them there because he was looting the place, taking care of his burgeoning mafia business and securing his position of power. The Wall Street Journal (Asia) scoffed at his unhappiness with the international forces in Kabul and made this comment: “Straight-faced professions of fear that peacekeepers will prolong war would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that Gen. Salangi and friends control the guns and don’t want to give them up.” [24 January 2002]

While chief he made this comment to US News and World Report: “We know bad people from their faces. If I see a criminal, I know. So my work is very easy.” He was probably looking into a mirror. He was one of the biggest criminals in Kabul. He was most notorious for stealing land, bulldozing people’s houses and then selling the land for personal profit.

What else can be said about Basir Salangi? While police chief in Kabul he presided over the jailing of women for “moral crimes.” Basir’s spokesman stated: “They were in detention for various moral crimes, such as fornication, running away from home, having love affairs and other things.” [Ottawa Citizen, 11 November 2002].

He soon starts to show up on Human Rights Watch’s radar. Aside from the usual shake-down of motorists by his men, there was the brutality:

Human Rights Watch also documented a case in Kabul, in late May 2003, in which Kabul police arrested and beat several students after they organized a small protest in the medical school at Kabul University, complaining about nepotism in the university’s grading system. A witness to the arrests said that the police beat the students while arresting them, punching and kicking them. Later, after the students were brought to the Kabul main police station, the chief of Kabul police himself, Basir Salangi (a Jamiat-e Islami commander and member of Shura-e Nazar) beat two of them. The beatings occurred in Salangi’s office, after Salangi interrogated one of the students, whom he thought was a leader of the protests:

Basir Salangi got very furious and ordered his guard to drag [the first student] out of the door, and while his guard was pulling him out of office, Basir Salangi himself stood up and quickly came out from behind his desk and kicked him strongly to his stomach and then held [the student’s] head down and beat him with his knee in his stomach and punched him many times in his kidney. Salangi’s guard was also beating [the student] during this time. [The student] was holding his hands around his face to protect his face from harm. They beat him for about two minutes. Then Qadous Khan [the police chief of district three in Kabul] came in and pointed out [another student] to Basir Salangi, and said that he was, in his view, the notorious troublemaker. Basir Salangi then turned towards [the other student], who was sitting on a sofa in the office, and hit him, hard, with a slap on the face, so much that he fell down and was dizzy. Then Basir Salangi kicked him, as he [the second student] was holding his face, and then Basir Salangi picked up a small table, used for putting down cups of tea, to beat [the student], but fortunately the other people who were in the office held him and did not let him beat the guy with the table.

Other students confirmed this account. Some were released that same day, but the two who were beaten by Salangi were held for another three days.

And the theft of land? This is the worst incident, wherein people who had lived in an area of Kabul for 30 years had this done to them:

The government sold 4,300-square-foot lots to the officials and commanders for about $1,000 each.

Miloon Kothari, a special housing consultant for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, said some lots were resold for more than $80,000 in Kabul’s hot real estate market, which has ballooned with the influx of thousands of foreign journalists, advisers and aid workers.

Six months ago, the residents, most of whom had worked at the base and had built their homes on abandoned land without asking for clear title, were told they would have to move. Defense officials promised to help them find new land, but help never came.

The residents said they had no warning before police Chief Salangi staged an assault with earth-moving equipment and 100 baton- swinging officers early Sept. 3.

As one UN rep in the story noted:

“Incidents like this seriously affect the credibility of this government,” Kothari said. “Unless this land-grabbing is arrested, you’re sowing the seeds for decades of conflict.” [Knight Ridder Newspapers, 05 Oct 2003]

The Independent has a decent description of Basir Salangi’s tactics:

To the disgust of the United Nations, Basir Salangi, the Kabul police chief, has begun flexing his muscles, underlining tensions between the US-backed Afghan authorities and the international community.

His target comprises one-room mud-brick homes that he says were built in violation of the law and the city plans – a fragile concept in a country blighted by war, corruption, a collapsed infrastructure, dismal or non-existent services and a massive opium trade. Thirteen families have so far been evicted by police from homes in one of the city’s richest areas, the Wazir Akhar Khan neighbourhood, where monthly rents run into four figures in US dollars. The families say they have lived there for three decades. This did not deter Mr Salangi. He has declared that the homes are not part of the “master-plan of the municipality”. This may surprise many of its residents, who negotiate the pot-holed streets and face routine power cuts.

But the police chief underscored his point by sending in the bulldozers, which apparently flattened the houses while the families’ possessions were still inside. He now has plans to throw out another 250 families – more than 1,000 people. He says they have been offered compensation, which they refused; they deny this.

The UN is livid. Its spokesman, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, has accused him at a press conference of “excessive force” and of causing a “humanitarian emergency”. [via The Belfast Telegraph, 5 September 2003]

After this enthusiastic round of house and land theft, the pressure was too much and Karzai moved to sack Basir Salangi (while ignoring the other culprits: Fahim and Qanooni, according to the AIHRC). But like a pedophile priest, Salangi was just shuffled to another assignment. Local TV reported that he was sent to the “personnel office.” [BBC Monitoring, 17 September 2003].

But clearly, any new assignment shouldn’t be in an area with many Pashtuns. Why? Well, take this Basir Salangi comment for example:

In the post-Taliban phase of the war, the bombing has been concentrated for the past month on the south and south-eastern areas by the Pakistani border where support for the Taliban was strong. General Basir Salangi, a former Northern Alliance commander who is now Kabul’s security chief, says the Americans should carry on bombing the Pashtun south: “If they’re not al-Qaida, they’re the people who supported al-Qaida. They should be bombed just to frighten them.” [The Guardian, 12 February 2002]

Nevertheless, he soon turned up in Wardak as the top police commander in April 2004 [BBC Monitoring Afghanistan Briefing 12-14 April 2004]. Later in the year Basir Salangi’s “posh green mansion” served as a meeting place for Team Qanooni. [Pamela Constable, The Washington Post, 26 September 2004]. He was still popping up in the news in 2005, for example when his men shot and killed demonstrating students. [Carlotta Gall, NYT, 13 May 2005]

Unsurprisingly, some locals in Wardak were not happy with their police chief:

The man didn’t realize who he was talking to. Or maybe he didn’t care. Asked about the government here in Wardak province, Mohammed Daud, 42, was blunt. “The governor seems like a good guy,” the owner of a small trucking firm declared. “But the police are always trying to take money from us.”

Daud’s questioners: the provincial governor and provincial police chief themselves — plus Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

Police Chief Basir Salangi shifted uncomfortably on his feet. But the moment passed. Salangi, Eikenberry and Wardak Gov. Abdul Jabbar Naeemi moved on to ask more ordinary Afghans about their lives near this village about 35 miles west of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

It was another episode in Eikenberry’s relentless campaign to find out what’s really going on in Afghanistan, a quest that occasionally creates awkward moments for local officials such as Salangi. [Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY, 13 July 2005]

In 2006-2007 Basir Salangi was sent to Nangarhar Province as top cop. God knows what he got up during his tenure in Nangarhar.

Whatever the case, in January 2007 Salangi was euphemistically “removed or reshuffled as part of the Interior Ministry’s police reform programme.” [BBC Monitoring South Asia, 13 Jan 2007] Of course, the comedy routine would just not end and Salangi was made deputy governor of Parwan province later in the year. Within a couple of years he would become governor of Parwan.

That fact that such an obvious predator and parasite such as Abdul Basir Salangi has been allowed to be a powerful figure for so long demonstrates how truly broken Afghanistan is. He probably creates new insurgents everywhere his foot touches the ground. However, what should be not take from this blog post is any notion that this is the standard Panjshiri/Shura-yi Nazar/Jamiat bashing (e.g., this old post for example). It’s not. I could do this for Pashtuns and members of Hizb-i Islami just as easily. In fact, I did just that over 4 years ago. Or one could easily point to guys such as Sherzai and the late brother Karzai. Or any number of shady governors, police chiefs and generals…

Anyways, it’s mostly just deck chairs on the Titanic at this point. Carry on.

Posted by: Christian | July 12, 2011

How to be an Afghan Expert

To be clear, I DID NOT WRITE THIS. A friend sent it my way and I asked if they wanted to turn it into a blog post. She/He wants to preface the list by saying that she/he “wishes to remain anonymous in the hope of shilling for the Pentagon for $1000/day.”

Here it is, all the advice you need to be an expert on Afghanistan…


How to be an Afghan Expert (and/or enjoy a think tank sinecure along the way):

  1. Cite your most recent trip to the region where you saw – with your own eyes, absent the media’s blinders – irrefutable progress. Add points if you spoke with some cigar store Afghan who confirmed this for you. Add double points if you attended an actual jirga. (Subtract points if you were actually at a shura and mistook it for a jirga).
  2. Imply that if only the clearance-less masses were privileged enough to see the same “high side” intelligence that you do, they would know the truth about our progress. Add points if you have an actual clearance and didn’t just look it up on Wikileaks.
  3. Visit a bazaar. Chat with friendly merchants. Lots of salaams, lots of right-hand-over-your-heart greetings. Buy a (warm) orange Fanta. Note – often and loudly – that this bazaar was closed until ISAF forces arrived. Add points if you can drive to this bazaar, versus flying. Add double points if you can wear armor and helmet without looking like some parody of an obese war tourist.
  4. Align yourself with a “centrist” think tank. If you stray too far to one side or the other, you will not be able to provide “objective” analysis, and your income will suffer as a result (see #5).
  5. Play down the fact that you are paid roughly $1,000 a day to “advise” the military and deny that there is any subsequent conflict-of-interest when you come home and write flattering (yet objective; see #4) things about our progress in Afghanistan.
  6. Make sure that you can be counted on for a glass-is-half-full quote when contacted by a journalist. Add points if you can get your op-ed published in the Times or the Post. Add double points if said op-ed isn’t subsequently savaged in a blog and you somehow avoid being accused of “shilling for the Pentagon” or being a “think tank hack.”
  7. Whatever you do, avoid spending too much time in Afghanistan. In addition to acquiring language skills and some measure of cultural understanding, you risk becoming cynical and perhaps even despairing of our odds of success.
  8. Adopt a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” approach to the region. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and amid the protests of others who have spent years on the ground (cynics; see #7), imply that through sheer force of will and maybe a Jedi mind trick or two, we shall overcome. Add points if you can beat the other experts in latching onto some insignificant scrap of “evidence” supporting “progress.” Add double points if you are the first to tweet about it.
  9. If pressed on the deteriorating security situation, offer some babble about “the night being darkest before the dawn” and tie it into a tortured thesis about how escalating violence is actually a sign of counterinsurgency success. Add points of you can maintain a straight face making this point while citing vastly improved “kill ratios.” Subtract points if your “analysis” is eventually compared to an ISAF version of the 5 O’Clock Follies.
  10. Write numerous “analytical reports” with phrases such as “The Way Forward” or “How to Win” in the title. No one, not even your colleagues in the think tank world, will actually read these, but they will be cited widely as a substitute for reading something substantive, that might offer actual insight into Afghanistan. Add points if you can deride previous scholarship on Afghanistan as “Orientalist.” Add double points if you can actually name one such Orientalist author (note: Ahmed Rashid does not count).
  11. ‘The Grand Slam’ – authorship of a COIN pamphlet that gainsays the holy trinity: Petraeus, Nagl and Kilcullen. If pressed on the apparent failure of COIN in Afghanistan, cite some obscure insurgency – The Malayan Emergency is a good choice – and note how long success took to occur.
  12. In case you ever write a book and need a jacket photo, make sure to get a photo of yourself rocking a full beard, a pakool, and a dastmaal. Subtract points if you insist on maintaining this appearance once you return to DC.


And that is how you do not make friends with the Man.

This year’s edition was delayed as I’ve been quite busy finishing off my dissertation.

I’m not sure when I’ll publish the next edition. It takes a lot of time and effort, and I may be busy (I hope) for the next couple of years. But if I get tossed into unemployment or idleness then another edition will be issued in a timely fashion.

Posted by: Christian | June 5, 2011

No Chechens Here

So I blogged a couple of weeks ago about foreign fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly about Chechens. Of course, the idea that there are a bunch of Chechens in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a silly myth that keeps trotting along. At the time I mentioned a widely reported “Chechen” incident that had just occurred in Pakistan. Apparently a bunch of Chechens were killed at a checkpoint in Pakistan. I knew they weren’t Chechens, but the media kept reporting it a such. Anyways, a Russian diplomat has now confirmed, after a delay in information being provided, that none of the 5 Russian citizens killed are ethnic Chechens.

So they are not Chechens at all. That’s because there are no Chechens in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Unbelievably, the Pakistani government was refusing to provide information to the Russians. The Kremlin had to summon the Pakistani ambassador before they relented. The Russian newspaper Kommersant (Russian link) has done a lot more digging on the background of those killed. First of all, one of them is from Tajikistan. That leaves the other four as Russian citizens.

First up are the women (link to a photo of one of the women dying on the ground). One of the dead women is named Patimat Magomedova, she’s from Dagestan. The other woman is a 19-year-old woman from Siberia named Olga Schroeder (ethnic Germans in the former Soviet Union speak Russian and take slavic first names). She had moved to Moscow for university, but dropped out to convert to Islam and marry an older Muslim. She was seven months pregnant when killed. Her page on “Odnoklassniki” (a sort of Russian facebook-type website) is filled with condolences from friends, as well as apologies and regrets at not being able to save her. She seems to have embraced the most violent, extreme jihadi version of Islam. Her last post on her page is a link to a lecture by Alexander Tikhomirov, the half Buryat-Russian convert (Buryats are Buddhists or into shamanism) who became a popular terrorist leader in the north Caucasus. He was killed last year by Russian forces in Ingushetia.

Interfax (Russian link) reports that the two males killed are named Abdul Aziz (I doubt that’s his legal/full name) and Khatimat Magomedov (obviously Patimat’s husband). These guys are from the north Caucasus, but aren’t Chechen.

Anyways, I still expect people to misidentify people as Chechens, especially when they are dead.

Number of confirmed Chechen fighters/terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 9/11? Zero.

Earlier blog entries on Chechens in Afghanistan:

The International Crisis Group has published a report on Tajikistan:

International Crisis Group, “Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats”, Asia Report No. 205 (24 May 2011). Download PDF.

The ICG’s assessment is generally pessimistic. The report starts with this paragraph:

Tajikistan, by most measures Central Asia’s poorest and most vulnerable state, is now facing yet another major problem: the growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies. After his security forces failed to bring warlords and a small group of young insurgents to heel in the eastern region of Rasht in 2010-2011, President Emomali Rakhmon did a deal to bring a temporary peace to the area. But he may soon face a tougher challenge from the resurgent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group with a vision of an Islamist caliphate that is fighting in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban.

And this line is the shortest summary of the ICG’s worries over Tajikistan:

Tajikistan is so vulnerable that a small, localised problem could quickly spiral into a threat to the regime’s existence.

Already I am in broad disagreement with the ICG. The local threat has receded and the over-estimated  “external threat” shows little interest in threatening Tajikistan any time sooon. As for the IMU, the pervasive exaggeration of this group is not confined to the analysis provided here by the ICG.

Pic from 1993: Back to the bad old days? (via Magnum):

I’ll sort through all of these points throughout this post. I’ll spare you the nitpicking and skip the small problems I have with terminology and history. These are the issues I have with the ICG’s assessment of Tajikistan:

1. Rasht: The (Unjustified) Focus of Concern?

Is the instability in the broader Rasht region (alternately Qarotegin or Gharm) a vital security concern for the government of Tajikistan? The ICG definitely feels so. Since 2008 the Tajik government has been attempting to assert a higher level of control over the region. Basically, since the end of 1992 the government of Tajikistan has been slowly been gaining control over the country. It has had to contend with not just the opposition insurgency, but unhappy allies who have at times taken up arms against the central government. Areas outside central control control have slowly been brought to heel by President Rahmon’s government. And Rasht has been the last of these areas.

So why was Rasht left so late? Because it is so insignificant. The north, Dushanbe and Hisor/Tursunzoda have the overwhelming large share of industry and economic assets, while the Vakhsh Valley and Tajikistan’s piece of the Ferghana Valley hold the lion’s share of the country’s agricultural output. Rasht is the periphery. There is really not much to speak of up there. It was not worth it for the government or their self-interested commanders to fight hard for a place that has such little value.

The ICG takes pains to point out that the Rasht region, which they define broadly to include places such as Darvoz/Tavildara, is “highly attractive terrain for any guerrilla organisation.” I would say instead that it was the only option for the opposition as they were heavily defeated in the areas they focused their initial efforts on: Dushanbe and the Vakhsh Valley.

During the war the Rasht region, despite coming right next to the capital, was never a launching-pad for any force significant enough to threaten the regime. In fact, the most significant threat was from an unhappy ally (Khudoyberdiev). How about more recently? Well, the chance that any of those grumpy commanders (Ahmadov, Ali Bedaki, Ziyoev, Mullah Abdullo, etc…) could have left their high valley base of operations and threatened the government’s hold of the country were about as good as Tajikistan’s chance of winning the World Cup are presently.

Pic from 2006: Reading the laws of warfare up in the hills (via Red Cross):

What the ICG is/was worrying about (the occasional fighting since 2008) are/were security operations on the periphery to bring down the last recalcitrant commanders, not a fight that will lead to guys with big beards marching through Dushanbe. And why the hype over the actual fighting? Mullah Abdullo is dead, Ali Bedaki is dead, Mirzo Ziyoev is long dead and Mirzokhuja Ahmadov (the opposition commander turned police chief) turned on the anti-government forces. The ICG maintains that “The deal with Akhmadov seems more like a surrender of authority than a cunning political move. Akhmadov remains the area’s power broker.” The government has been doing this for years, and these temporary deals have served them well in the face of no better alternatives. I would think that Ahmadov might see the fate of Abdullo, Bedaki and Ziyoev and decide that he is too old for this sort of thing.

Of the above-mentioned commanders, only Ali Bedaki and Mullah Abdullo were the ones actively involved in fighting the government recently. Losing a couple of Kamaz trucks’ worth of conscripts plus the transport helicopter crash that killed a good number of men from the Alfa unit was quite harsh, and it was the worse round of losses of government forces in quite a long time. But the men responsible for that are dead, and there is not exactly a good supply of these guys. This is not like killing Taliban commanders in Helmand and seeing them immediately replaced by competent insurgents.

It’s almost as if this report was written before the death of Abdullo and Ali Bedaki, and then only begrudgingly updated.

2. Where’s the input from a broader range of expertise?

There is a lack of engagement with academic literature (and beyond) in the ICG’s report on Tajikistan. Neither academic works on Tajikistan, nor  anything that comes vaguely close to referring to the broad range of literature on state failure, social movements, violent conflict, military studies, etc… is included in the report (aside from a quick point by Kamoludin Abdullaev). When the report discusses the supposed fragility of Central Asian governments, it writes that “Events in Tunisia and Egypt have destroyed the fallacy that one can predict the survival or collapse of an authoritarian state.” Any perusal of expertise inside academia or the political risk industry would reveal that fallacy does not exist. The report does not deal with the great number of analyses on the resiliency of authoritarian and/or “weak” states. Inexplicably, it doesn’t even refer to the work done on Tajikistan. The field may be weak compared to other regions, but there are still many good sources to work from. Works by John Heathershaw, Sophie Roche and Heathershaw, Jesse Driscoll, Anna Matveeva (PDF), Gunda Wiegmann (PDF), these people (PDF) and others (i.e., a broader range of local analysts such as Parviz Mullojonov) would help the ICG to look at the country in a new way. This stuff is not too hard to find (e.g., the first issue of Central Asian Survey this year is a special issue dedicated to Tajikistan or this list of experts).

Of course, the ICG by its own admission is dominated by “prominent figures from the fields of politics, diplomacy, business and the media…” It might be  that the paucity of experts from academia, the political risk industry and from NGOs that work on issues of conflict are holding back the ICG’s analysis. The group has good access to local and foreign officials, but that is only a fraction of the views on Tajikistan.

The ICG has neglected to include the two most insightful articles from 2010 on the recent troubles (here and here). The authors (Roche and Heathershaw) base much of their analysis on their time in the area of concern. The ICG should know who they are and seek out their opinion. Roche and Heathershaw again wrote an article at the beginning of this year. They wrote that:

In the villages of Rasht, support for the uprising was also minimal.  Although some individuals joined the Mujahed groups, only 2 to 3 people per village left for the mountains. Moreover, the declarations of both the militants and state officials that the rebellion is somehow supported by the Taliban and other global Islamist groups is one that must be viewed with great suspicion. What is true is that the Mujahed did call for help and do have links to a world-wide network, but the conflict is not (yet) of global or even regional significance. […]

The military conflict in Rasht may now have ended.  But it cannot and should not be fully explained in terms of militant Islam. It has complex roots in Tajikistan’s political and economic struggles. What is more, the Government’s response to the conflict may increase the likelihood of outbreaks of Islamic militancy in the longer term.

So not a bed of roses, but no need to panic any time soon.  BTW, Heathershaw’s book on Tajikistan is now available in paperback.

3. Where’s the analysis on Russia?

Russia does not get much attention in the ICG report. This is a little strange as nobody has been as involved as Russia has in Tajikistan – not just in the past (i.e., the civil war and the border until recently), but presently and in very likely in the future as well. Russia has enduring interests here and it knows the country, unlike the US and China (which features in the report). No power is as important to Tajikistan as Russia is – economically, militarily, socially, etc…

Pic: Medvedev and President Rahmon visit Russia’s 201st “base” in Tajikistan (via

The military force that has bases and troops deployed throughout the south of the country should get more attention than it gets in this report. The 201st “Don’t call it an MRD, we’re a base” will always play the dominant role in Tajikistan’s security. That needs to be acknowledged and analyzed.

4. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

In the vast majority of analysis out there, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is the undying bogeyman of the terrorist/insurgency world. This report is not much different, although it does acknowledge that the information available on the IMU is a little shaky.

Pic: He’s dead, but how’s the rest of the IMU doing?

These are the relevant excerpts on the IMU:

Since at least 2009, there have been steadily increasing reports of Central Asian guerrillas operating in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Most are described as members of the IMU, founded in the late 1990s in the Uzbek areas of the Ferghana Valley.

What is clear is that the movement has over the past decade evolved into an ethnically diverse movement, embracing jihadists from across Central Asia, the former Soviet Union and possibly Xinjiang in China.

Some analysts feel that the IMU guerrillas are not at this point interested in challenging the regime. They may prefer an enfeebled regime that allows them to maintain a discreet presence and gradually expand their presence in regions of interest, like Isfara, on the Kyrgyz border to the north-east, or Rasht. […] Other analysts believe, however, the IMU may be tempted to take a more active line. If for any reason the IMU felt the need to demonstrate its strength, it might choose to do so in Tajikistan: the country increasingly looks, an experienced international observer remarked, like an “easy knock-over”.

These excerpts are then decorated with some anecdotes and very dodgy rumors and about IMU members hailing from former Soviet republics. So I’ll just say it: those “IMU” fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are allegedly from the former Soviet Union are instead overwhelming locals. The Pakistani and Afghan security forces want to blame foreigners for everything. And many in the US government and military are blindly consuming this. There are Tajiks, Turkmens, and Uzbeks in the Taliban who are from Afghanistan (this has been discussed for a while already: e.g.,  PDF and PDF). There are fighters from the former Soviet Union, but I strongly believe that they are a small minority.

I won’t repeat what people with experience on the ground in the north tell me (I would first ask permission to even just quote anonymously). So I’ll go to a recent article by Kate Clark wherein she analyzes the claims that local insurgents are part of the IMU:

It is highly unusual for […] an Afghan to be a member of the IMU. The latter appears to be a fairly routine allegation for ISAF to make when Special Forces kill or capture any Afghan who is an ethnic Uzbek whom they suspect of being a Taleb. […]

Labelling dead ethnic Uzbek Afghans as IMU adds to the narrative of an external ‘terrorist’ threat and makes whoever was killed or captured sound extremely dangerous. From our point of view, it just underlines that international security forces have a blurred picture about whom they are opposing and that not much is known about IMU and its links to the Taleban, al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist organisations.

Of course, Afghan and Pakistani officials love making the same type of allegations. This is not an ISAF thing only.

How about the IMU presence north of Afghanistan in former Soviet Central Asia? Well, there must be quite a significant presence of IMU operatives and supporters since the security forces in these countries are always making this allegation when they arrest someone, right? No, not right. Security forces in the region arrest all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons and they tend to label people as being members of the IMU. But if the IMU is so omnipresent in Central Asia, then they sure are inactive. Or, we could just surmise that the authoritarian governments of the region are labeling people as IMU members with the same accuracy that Gaddafi labels his opponents as being members of Al Qaeda.

I would love to take the time to write a long report on the IMU, but for now I’ll just say that the IMU threat is exaggerated. The second part of this brief qualification by the ICG should have been front and center: “Now most ballpark estimates put its fighting force in the low thousands. These seem not much more than guesses, however, and little is known about the IMU’s organisation or aims.”

5. Underestimating President Rahmon?

The authors of this piece underestimate Emomali Rahmon. Whether you like it or not, the man has beaten all expectations. When he was appointed Chairman of the Supreme Soviet in November 1992 (the top leadership position at the time), nobody gave him much of a chance. But since then his power and grip on the country has, with some blips, seen a linear increase in strength. This recent “crisis” is laughable compared to what he has dealt with in the past.

Pic: President Rahmon meets a couple of his friends (via State Dept):

The report, in my opinion, is more so making moral judgements as opposed to making a pragmatic, realist assessment of Rahmon. And the focus on Rahmon neglects to analyze who else in Tajikistan has a stake in him continuing to be the leader. It’s more people than this report acknowledges.

6. The US role?

So how about America’s role in Tajikistan?

The outside forces most interested in regional security – China, Russia, the U.S. in the first instance – might then, like it or not, find themselves forced to become involved.

China will do little more than those joint SCO exercises, Russia I already discussed, and the role of the United States is an ongoing uncertainty.

Pic: Virginia National Guard training Tajik soldiers in 2007 (source):

I agree with the ICG here:

The U.S. timeframe in Central Asia is probably much shorter than that of China and Russia. One can argue that much of its security interest in the region is coterminous with its presence in Afghanistan.

But when the topic turns to security assistance the report quickly jumps to a bunch of very unreliable variables:

An equally acute challenge, however, comes from the declining social and economic situation in the country – ageing infrastructure and the government’s failure to address the poverty, unemployment and social alienation of its seven million people.

Again, the massive disconnect from work done by academics, certain NGOs, and those working in political risk is readily apparent.

6. How about the report’s recommendations?

Well, the recommendations are OK. But I really doubt the ability of the international community to use aid (even smarter aid) to get authoritarian governments to do what they think is best. That flag pole is one giant obvious metaphor.

So that’s about it. I won’t get into a line-by-line level of criticism on the report.

I am obviously not as worried as the International Crisis Group. I don’t see any prospective Islamist insurgents getting the support they would need. But to be honest, I don’t know what will happen over the next few years. There are more than one ways for a state to fail.  I do hope that things will get better….

Photo: enough with the powerful people, here’s a nice scene from Tajikistan (credit):

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