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Christopher Langton on Security and Elections in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Christopher Langton
Interviewer: Esther Pan
August 25, 2005

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On September 18, Afghans go to the polls to elect a lower house of parliament and councils in all thirty-four provinces. However, a recent spate of attacks by members of the deposed Taliban and foreign fighters could disrupt the electoral process. “If [the Taliban] are successful in the run-up to the elections, it means that after the elections, they and their supporters will be able to show they had some success against what has been a U.S.-promoted, i.e. externally promoted, campaign to democratize Afghanistan—which is what they don’t want,” says Colonel Christopher Langton, head of the defense analysis department at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and a research fellow on Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. He was interviewed by Esther Pan on August 25, 2005.

What do you think is responsible for the recent rise of violence in Afghanistan ?

Well, I think it was relatively predictable, inasmuch as the Taliban had at the very outset planned to try and get inside the electoral process to disrupt it—particularly prior to the election. That’s the first thing. Now, the second thing is, of course, the continuing violence by jihadists—foreign fighters in Afghanistan—parallel to the Taliban insurgency.

Is this particular surge of violence directed specifically at the upcoming elections?

Not specifically, but it provides a useful target date for the Taliban—some of whom are taking part in the election, we ought to add—[to show results], and that’s always important for an insurgency. If they are successful in the run-up to the elections, it means that after the elections, they and their supporters will be able to show they had some success against what has been a U.S.-promoted, i.e. externally promoted, campaign to democratize Afghanistan—which is what they don’t want.

When you say some Taliban members are participating in the elections, do you mean they’re running for office?

Yes. These are people that President Hamid Karzai, in his plan to try and bring some of the Taliban out of the mountains by giving them amnesty, has allowed to run in the elections on the condition that they disarm. The former Taliban foreign minister [Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil] is contesting a constituency in Kandahar , for example.

What do you expect to happen in the upcoming elections?

If you look at the presidential elections in January [2005]—where there was a high turnout, a lot of enthusiasm, and very little violence—I am hoping and expecting that [situation] will repeat itself in the parliamentary elections. But that isn’t, in my mind, the real issue. The real issue is what happens after the election, when Afghanistan forms a proper government. The people who are voting in these elections will be looking for some fairly swift reforms and changes to take place, to deliver on the social and economic reforms that have long been promised but haven’t really [materialized].

Will a newly elected government be more effective than Karzai has been?

Well, Karzai is the president and will remain the president. The government is not going to reflect political parties as much as ethnic and factional groupings in Afghanistan. Of course, some people would say that means there’s going to be very little change, because you would still have a group of Pashtun politicians, a group of Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks…and they will vote—in the elections and in parliamentary debate—according to their ethnicity and their faction. Now this is where Afghanistan has to move into more party-based politics if democracy is to grow. So in that sense, effectiveness may be limited because of the factors I’ve just mentioned.

Will the new government make any moves toward this party-based system that you’re talking about?

There are some positive signs. Yunus Qanuni, the leader of the Tajik opposition and a former education minister, is proposing that Afghanistan move to a more party-based government. He is a senior Tajik who will probably have a post in the new government. So if we can start getting some of the thinking going, then the debate on this party-based system may be able to start to work. However, Pashtuns will remain the majority ethnic group in the country. They will remain the group most affected by insecurity, inasmuch as their provinces in the country are where the Taliban operate from. So they will continue to feel much more ethnically-centered, can I say, than being disposed toward making any change until they can see things improving in their area.

How is the training of the police and army going?

Security-sector reform is probably the core issue. In some people’s eyes, the police have been neglected. The police remain heavily corrupted and poorly paid. Many people believe they are involved in crime rather than helping to solve it. At the same time, they are the main players in a new program to disarm illegal armed groups. But their weakness limits their effectiveness in carrying out that task. So in recent weeks, there has been a vastly increased effort toward reforming the police as quickly as possible to enable them to play a much better role.

On the other hand, the Afghan National Army, which now numbers some 27,400 troops, actually has a relatively respectable position in the minds of both the population, and the coalition and U.S. forces who are training them. They’ve gained a reputation for being effective on operations and not corrupt. So the Afghan National Army is a relatively positive [case].

What accounts for the difference?

They are two separate organizations with two separate ethos. There is more esprit de corps, generally, in most armies than you would find in most police forces. And the Afghan National Army has been nurse-maided to a large extent by its foreign friends. It has been formed from scratch [and] trained from the very beginning under the gaze of coalition instructors and led on operations by U.S. and coalition forces. It’s a new creation, whereas the police force has been there all the time. The police are much closer to the population, and in many ways are engrained in the population at a very local level. So they are in the hands of local criminal elements who tend to buy them off.

How does the relative weakness of the police affect efforts to disarm the militias or eradicate the poppy crop?

Well, this is the big question, and these issues—disarmament, poppy [cultivation], etc.—are all inextricably linked. This is a very long-term process. We’re talking about issues right at the heart of Afghan tradition, culture, and history, and they simply cannot be transformed or changed in any way very quickly. For example, poppy cultivation has been going on for a very, very long time in Afghanistan . And it has been the means of achieving prosperity for a very large number of people. Poppy farmers get the least amount of the proceeds. It is the organized criminals, the warlords, the bandits who tend to get the most. So if you eradicate the poppy—without being able to replace the income that came from it to these farmers—you are actually damaging the poorest people in this trade. Therefore, to cope with this problem, there has to be a much longer-term view than simply saying, “Let’s eradicate all the poppy-growing.” It’s not going to work. People have to have a way to live. And if that means poppies, you have to replace them. 

Another trend that has alarmed international observers is the increasing amount of heroin that is produced inside Afghanistan . In the past they would export the raw material and people outside the country would make it. But now, precursor chemicals for making heroin are entering the country in fairly large quantities. In answer to the question, “Is it getting better?”—not only is it not getting better, but it is changing its shape due to what some people would call the market research of the executives of the heroin and opium trade.

Does that mean, if heroin labs are now operating in Afghanistan , that the production of drugs is getting more sophisticated within the country itself ?

I think so. Typically with drug dealers—whether they be in Colombia, Thailand, Laos, or Afghanistan—are very wised up to the market. They know what they need to do, and they have the resources, and they have the protection, which we talked about, the armed people to protect them—they’re paid. So you could locate and destroy laboratories, but it’s probably better to try to interdict the raw materials, the precursors. And indeed there is an operation being conducted by Afghanistan and its regional neighbors, called “Operation Topaz,” to do just that.

Is there a sense among the Afghan people that these problems can be addressed and that progress is being made?

I think you would get a different view depending on where you went in the country now. Somewhat disturbingly, in the northeastern Badakhshan province, which borders Tajikistan , the flow of heroin and opium has increased. And that is right in the heart of what you could loosely term coalition-controlled, disarmed, peaceful territory. I don’t think people are actually seeing an improvement in tackling this trade, which has in fact gone on for many years. So, I suppose the short answer is no.

Do you think regular Afghans feel that things will get better in their lives after the elections?

I think they’re cautiously hopeful. It’s after the elections that’s the critical point.

What kind of faith do people have in President Karzai?

There is a great deal of respect for Hamid Karzai. I think, truthfully, Afghans would like to see him be more independent of the United States . He knows that, and he is beginning to show more independent thought. The difficulty for him is twofold: Firstly, culturally—although he is a Pashtun, and therefore representative of a majority of the group, he’s not from a family with a huge power base in the Pashtun heartland. Some Pashtuns see him as a rather, if I can say, “junior Pashtun.” Now culture in Afghanistan , as in Iraq , is extremely important. It cannot be underemphasized. So that [perception], psychologically, has an effect.

The second issue is how he is regarded within his own administration. I think some people see loyalty in slightly different ways than, shall we say, the way we define loyalty. Because loyalty—even if you’re in the government, under the president—your loyalty might still be to your ethnic group and not to your president. And this, of course, is a limiting factor on Karzai and how he can deliver on his initiatives.

And what is the long-term view in Afghanistan of U.S. and coalition forces? Do Afghans want them to leave?

I think the British experience in the 19th century and the Russian/Soviet experience in the last century, have taught us quite clearly what I think we already know: that ultimately foreign forces on Afghan soil should not be there longer than necessary. You will recall in May the riots in Jalalabad, which arose very, very quickly, almost instantaneously—I was actually there at the time—after the Newsweek story [saying U.S. forces were desecrating the Quran in the Guantanamo Bay detention center] was published. That just shows how close to the surface the issue of unpopularity of foreign forces is in Afghanistan . It’s tolerated at the moment, because people generally understand the reason for their presence. But if that presence turned into a more permanent-looking aspect of daily life, then I think we might see a certain change.

In many ways this is what gives the Taliban—whose culture and history are sworn to overthrow any foreigner in Afghanistan—motivation to continue. And it’s a motivation they can inculcate into their lower ranks when they’re being trained in the borderlines with Pakistan. It’s a very easy thing to put across to a Pashtun or a Taliban, “There are foreigners in your country, therefore you fight them.” That’s all they need to know, nothing else. That is the problem in the southern provinces.

Then how does the Taliban justify the attacks on other Afghans—say, election workers or road workers?

Because they’re representative of the foreign presence. The road workers are working for a foreign company using foreign money. Election workers are trying to carry out a U.S. plan to democratize the country. And the way [the Taliban] has justified not attacking the polling stations is by saying the U.S. and Afghan governments have deliberately placed those polling stations in very densely populated areas, and they don’t want to risk causing unnecessary civilian casualties.

Do Afghans buy that argument? The Taliban never seemed to shy away from civilian casualties before.

Well, funnily enough, they have. The Taliban, if they do something that looks like an accidental strike causing civilian casualties, are very quick to apologize. Now, cynically of course, this is to give them sort of a moral position. Because, they know that, sadly, some of our own people [ U.S. and U.K. forces] don’t do that because they feel it is an admission of guilt or something like that. [The Taliban] are quite willing and able to put a bomb in a place where civilians might be killed or injured—provided the target is not the civilians themselves, but, as was the case in Kandahar, a chief of police. But they don’t do what the Iraqi insurgents do, which is just to go around randomly blowing up people to sow some kind of chaos. They normally have a target.

Are they popular with the Afghan people?

A lot of people remember the Taliban regime, which doesn’t make them very popular. And their support is probably more distorted loyalty. In other words, a lot of people who would give safe haven to Taliban, in the south of the country in particular, would do so not because they like them or support them from their hearts, but simply because they might think the Taliban are going to be here longer than the U.S. or the coalition, and it’s much better to support the side that’s going to win out in the end.

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