|What Do Afghans Want? Withdrawal - But Not Too Fast - and A Negotiated Peace
In his major speech on Afghanistan on 4 September, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown emphasized Britain's self interest in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan: 'We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain.' In this, he was only following the lead of US President Barack Obama, who launched his new strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan at the end of March with the warning that: 'if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban - or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged - that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can'.
Neither the Prime Minister nor the President often speak of the wishes of the Afghan people. But these wishes, so far as they can be known, ought to be at the centre of British policy.
What we know is that the majority of people in Afghanistan (77%) want an end to the airstrikes that have killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Afghan civilians. We also know that the majority of Afghans (64%) want a negotiated end to the conflict, and are willing to accept the creation of a coalition government including the Taliban leadership.
We also know that a majority of Afghans oppose the Obama surge that is increasing the number of foreign troops in the country. 73% of Afghans think that US-led forces in the country should either be decreased in number (44%) or 'kept at the current level' (29%). Only 18% of Afghans favour an increase.
Fear of the Taliban
These are the results of a nationwide poll commissioned by the BBC, ABC News (USA) and ARD (Germany), in which 1,534 Afghans were interviewed in all of the country's 34 provinces between 30 December 2008 and 12 January 2009.
The poll found enormous hostility to the Taliban. 82% of people said they would prefer the present government; only 4% favoured a Taliban government. 90% of people said they opposed Taliban fighters. The Taliban were seen as the biggest danger to the country by 58% of people; the United States was in fourth place with 8% (just ahead of 'local commanders' - a euphemism for US-backed warlords).
'Who do you blame the most for the violence that is occurring in the country?' The Taliban came top with 27%; al-Qa'eda/foreign jihadis were next with 22%. In third place were 'US/American forces/Bush/US government/America/NATO/ISAF forces' with 21%.
69% of people thought it was a good thing that the US-led forces had come to Aghanistan to bring down the Taliban. (Down from 88% in 2006.)
64% of Afghans thought (in January 2009) that 'The Taliban are the same as before', and had not grown more moderate.
Despite all this, a solid 64% of Afghans thought 'the government in Kabul should negotiate a settlement with Afghan Taliban in which they are allowed to hold political offices if they agree to stop fighting'. However, Afghans favoured preconditions to such talks: 71% said the government should 'negotiate only if the Taliban stop fighting'.
64% of British people also think 'America and Britain be willing to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to achieve a peace deal'. (Sunday Times, 15 March 2009)
Talks are only meaningful if the other side is willing to play their part. It seems, in the case of Afghanistan, that there is serious interest in a national reconciliation process on the part of the Taliban and the Karzai administration - but that these negotiations are being blocked by the United States and Britain, who are determined to achieve a military victory.
The Taliban position
The Taliban's current demands were set out in a New York Times article on 20 May: 'The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.'
A negotiator said the Taliban leaders also added two more conditions: an end to the drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, and the release of some Taliban prisoners.
On 2 April, the Independent reported that preliminary talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban seemed to have 'yielded a significant shift away from the Taliban's past obsession with repressive rules and punishments governing personal behaviour.'
It was said that the Taliban were now prepared to commit themselves to 'refraining from banning girls' education, beating up taxi drivers for listening to Bollywood music, or measuring the length of mens' beards.'
Burqas would be 'strongly recommended' for women in public, but not be compulsory.
The Taliban's wider political demands appear to have also softened considerably since 2007, when they demanded 'control of 10 southern provinces, a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops, and the release of all Taliban prisoners within six months'. (Guardian, 15 October 2007)
The Taliban 18-month withdrawal schedule fits in with Afghan opinion. In the BBC/ABC/ARD poll, 21% of Afghans said US-led forces should leave immediately; 16% said between 6 months and a year from now; and 14% within two years.
So 51% of Afghans want withdrawal within two years.
In May 2007, the upper house of the Afghan parliament voted for a military ceasefire and negotiations with the Taliban, and for a date to be set for the withdrawal of foreign troops. (AP, 10 May 2007)
A staged withdrawal also fits in with British opinion. In a Guardian/BBC Newsnight poll, published on 13 July, 42% of voters wanted British troops withdrawn immediately; and a further 14% wanted withdrawal "by the end of the year" (ie within five months). (36% of people said they should "stay until they are no longer needed".)
A Times poll published on 22 July showed that two-thirds of those polled believed that British troops should be withdrawn either now (34%) or (33%) 'within the next year or so' (ie within 12 months).
So that's 56% wanting withdrawal within months, and 67% wanting withdrawal within a year.
A staged withdrawal also fits in with US public opinion. In a New York Times/CBS News poll, 55% of voters said US troops should be withdrawn within two years (31% said within one year). (24 September)
The BBC/ABC/ARD poll showed that 63% of Afghans supported the presence of US troops in Afghanistan (but 77% wanted an end to airstrikes). Only 8% supported the presence of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
It seems that Afghans want an international presence in the country to prevent rule by the Taliban, who they fear and detest. That international presence ought to be supplied by independent forces uninvolved in the US-led invasion and occupation, and controlled by the UN General Assembly (rather than the US-dominated Security Council).
It is impossible to take the Taliban's position at face value - particularly on social controls - but there seems to be no alternative to a genuine negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict, in line with Afghan public opinion, Afghan parliamentary opinion, and British public opinion.
Britain and the US should halt their 'surge' into Afghanistan, ceasefire, withdraw to their bases, draw down troops and allow a national reconciliation process to take place. The future of the Afghan people must be determined according to the wishes of the Afghan people.
| Afghans tricked into U.S. trip, detained
||The Washington Post
For Ziaulhaq, an Afghan driver who had never ventured outside the borders of his war-torn country, the prospect of a trip to the United States seemed like the adventure of a lifetime. He pleaded with his bosses at a contracting company near the U.S. air base at Bagram to include him on the whirlwind trip to Columbus, Ohio.
But the all-expenses-paid travel — billed as a conference to honor Afghan businesses — turned out to be an elaborate ruse to draw Ziaulhaq and two co-workers to the United States. Prosecutors wanted them here as witnesses in a bribery case against U.S. servicemen and some Afghan contractors.
And what began as a celebration in the summer of 2008 has become an agonizing extended stay for Ziaulhaq, who is not accused of any crime but has been forced to stay thousands of miles away from his sick wife and six children at home. Ziaulhaq and two countrymen have spent more than a year confined to a hotel in a drab industrial area near Chicago's sooty Midway Airport.
Their saga highlights anew the power of a controversial U.S. statute that allows prosecutors to hold people, without suspicion or criminal charges, as material witnesses in ongoing investigations. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, the Bush Justice Department used the law to round up Muslim men, giving rise to a lawsuit against then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft that experts say could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And at least one key Senate Democrat has tried, to no avail, to introduce more safeguards into the material witness process.
Authorities say they want Ziaulhaq's testimony in their prosecution of a bribery scheme at Bagram, an Air Force base 27 miles north of Kabul, in which servicemen accepted kickbacks from Afghan contractors. The servicemen, according to prosecutors, packed the cash in boxes that they sent home by way of the U.S. Postal Service.
But the little-noticed case has been beset by delays and confusion. It has drawn increasingly sharp complaints from lawyers and an Afghan diplomat who say that Ziaulhaq, 39, is a casualty in the U.S. government's efforts to crack down on corruption and military contracting fraud in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Justice Department officials declined to comment on the bribery case, but they noted that the lengthy detention was approved by a federal judge.
'He doesn't know anything'
Ziaulhaq, a slender former veterinary student with a scraggly black beard, came to work as an office aide and a part-time driver for the contracting company because of family ties. He says he had no contact with the military and knows nothing about the case.
"I made him available to both sides and he doesn't know anything," said Michael J. Falconer, a court-appointed attorney for Ziaulhaq, who uses just one name. "Unless there's some surprise waiting in the wings, he won't be a material witness because he's got nothing to say that's material. . . . This poor guy just got swept up in the mess."
Ziaulhaq and his confederates — Bashir Ahmad, 30, and Kiomars Mohammad Rafi, 27 — had been employees of companies that provided concrete security barricades and other materials to the U.S. military at Bagram. Now they spend their days attending prayer services and cooking in their small kitchenette of their hotel, where monthly rates range from $2,000 to $3,000. The hotel sits next to a $3 carwash and across the street from an industrial strip occupied by discount-store distribution centers.
They rarely venture out and are subjected to nightly curfews and calls from probation officers. Prosecutors secured court permission to detain the men as flight risks, arguing that they might never return for trials if they were allowed to go home. A few months ago, however, the Afghans were released from electronic monitoring.
At the same time, some of the men who have been indicted in the case have successfully petitioned a judge for permission to travel to the gym, study English and attend a funeral and a family reunion in Wisconsin, court records reflect.
"It's just terrible," Falconer said. "They do not have any identification, so they can't do anything. They can't even go to a health club or cash the checks they get for witnesses' fees."
Nearly a year ago, court-appointed lawyers exhorted a federal judge to schedule depositions, giving the Justice Department and defense attorneys a chance to question the three witnesses so they could return to their families. But the judge deferred a ruling. Another bid in June to hold an "emergency" deposition for Ziaulhaq passed without action.
A letter to the Justice Department by Afghan Ambassador Said T. Jawad expressing his concern about "the lengthy and unwarranted detention of three Afghan nationals" received a reply but did not accelerate the pace.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers are blaming each other for the delays.
"Since the return of the indictment, the United States has sought to expeditiously move this case toward resolution," Justice Department antitrust division chief Christine A. Varney wrote to the ambassador in August.
The Justice Department does not control the trial date in the complicated case, a spokeswoman added. But court-appointed attorneys for the witnesses and lawyers for the Afghan contracting companies are questioning why prosecutors lured the Afghan men into the country, only to wait nine months before expanding the criminal charges in the case and adding new defendants, all of which meant further delays.
The Afghans are hoping that a court proceeding later this month could finally pave the way for their return to their homeland.
"He is not a criminal," said Zuriden, Ziaulhaq's brother, in a telephone interview from Afghanistan, conducted in English. "More than one years he is in America. I don't know what is his problem. There is not anyone to help him."
Adding to the mystery of Ziaulhaq's long confinement is a recent statement in a court filing by prosecutors that they would need to interview him for only an hour, raising questions about how critical his testimony is to the case. The other two men detained as material witnesses may have more relevant information because they had more contact with people at Bagram, according to lawyers involved in the matter.
The path to Chicago was a serpentine one for Ziaulhaq, Ahmad and Rafi. They arrived at O'Hare International Airport on Aug. 25, 2008, after 36 hours of flights that took them from Kabul to Delhi and Tokyo before they landed in Chicago. The men — accompanied by some of their supervisors who have been charged with bribery and other crimes — thought they were en route to Ohio, where they would be feted in an event marking the seventh anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom at a dinner aimed at "honoring the past and building the future."
"We have been very busy here gearing up for what promises to be a great conference and chance to honor those of you who have helped us make such great strides in building the future of Afghanistan," wrote a man identifying himself as a "special programs coordinator" for the Defense Department in a 2008 e-mail to the Afghan contracting company.
Just days earlier, prosecutors had secured grand jury indictments against several military men, Afghan business owners and their companies for allegedly paying and accepting bribes to grease the skids for contracts at Bagram.
Court documents said the material witnesses had each worked for the contractors who had been charged and had "gained information, engaged in conversations and/or performed acts that constitute . . . evidence against one or more" of the defendants.
Three of the U.S. servicemen pleaded guilty to bribery last summer. Air Force Master Sgt. Patrick W. Boyd, who doled out contracts for concrete bunkers and asphalt paving, admitted to accepting $130,000 in bribes, prosecutors said in court papers. The government pegged its losses in the case of former National Guard Maj. Christopher P. West at $400,000 to $1 million. A friend of West's pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property — at least $100,000 that West mailed from Afghanistan in 14 boxes.
The case against the foreign companies and the four Afghan men who owned them continues.
Gina Talamona, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to disclose exactly how much authorities had paid to keep the three witnesses in hotels, although prosecutors last month called it an "extraordinary effort and expense." The men earn $88 per day to cover witness fees and incidental expenses, according to one source. But an attorney for Ziaulhaq said that cashing the government checks is "cumbersome" because his client does not have an identification card to show the bank teller.
Talamona noted the Justice Department's efforts in an ongoing multiagency task force to crack down on international contract corruption. The department's antitrust division brought 11 cases last year alleging criminal fraud schemes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"How long a material witness will be held is determined by the court," she said, adding that, when it is possible, the department will ask a judge to expedite a witness's release using a deposition to gather the testimony.
Chuck Aron, an attorney for Ahmad, said he does not discuss pending cases. Matthew Madden, an attorney for Rafi, declined to comment.
"These people have no constituency," said Kirby Behre, a District-based lawyer at the Paul Hastings firm who is representing Assad John Ramin, an owner of one of the companies named in charges. Ramin denies the criminal charges against him.
"This is clearly abusive, but perhaps because these are Afghan nationals and not Americans, nobody seems too concerned about the treatment these men are receiving," Behre said.
Staff writer Kari Lyderson in Chicago contributed to this report.