Bold move to save Afghanistan, Bring back a king–LONG OVERDUE IDEA–2010

If the United States values stability more than democracy, it will recognize that restoring Afghanistan’s constitutional monarchy is the only thing that will prevent Taliban rule and victory in the war.

US forces in Afghanistan just got another competent military commander in Gen. David Petraeus. However, the current US strategy that General Petraeus must enforce only guarantees mission failure in the long run because it bolsters an unpopular Afghan government. This, in turn, ensures increased support for the insurgency led by the Taliban, who love to boast that they have Allah and time on their side.

It’s time that Western leaders answer a politically incorrect but vital question: Do they care more about establishing democracy than stability? Because if the mission is still about ensuring that Afghanistan – as a relatively cohesive state – remains free from Taliban and Al Qaeda, then the West should be willing to consider a dramatic step: reinstatement of a constitutional monarchy.

Pushing for a constitutional monarchy runs counter to America’s traditional antipathy toward monarchies as a form of governance, but in the case of Afghanistan, it’s probably now the only alternative to the Taliban rule that seems almost inevitable once NATO forces withdraw.

After weathering nine years of war, the Taliban have grown stronger, not weaker. Fueled by money and support from Pakistan and the Arab Khaleej states, they are getting more brazen in their attacks. Girls increasingly resist going to school, terrified that their classes might be bombed, or acid thrown in their faces, as they walk home. Shopkeepers have stopped selling videos and other “un-Islamic” items.

Meanwhile, the Karzai government, which won reelection amid wide reports of ballot fraud, continues to lose popular support. Corruption is rife. The drug and smuggling mafias are back and many are closely affiliated with the Afghan government.

In this environment, Afghans are hedging their bets. They don’t want the Taliban to return to power, but they understand that survival means siding with the winner.

It didn’t have to be this way.

In 2001, most Afghans welcomed US forces as saviors, not crusaders.

Thanks to their presence, Afghans were able to resume cherished pastimes banned under the Taliban: They played soccer, flew kites, danced the Attan, and, most importantly, they laughed out loud. Afghans could tend to their beloved rose gardens, or drive their buses and cars, blaring loud music. Woman could seek medical help, and widows could find employment, without running the risk of being beaten, or worse: stoned or shot to death in the soccer stadium.

After the fall of the Taliban, the overwhelming majority of Afghans – across ethnic lines – wanted to reinstate the constitutional monarchy that had served Afghanistan so well in the past.

During the long reign of King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), Afghanistan blossomed into a modern state. It became the largest exporter of raisins in the world, and was renowned in the region for its carpets, fruits, melons, and semi-precious stones. Kabul rivaled Islamabad as a city of modernity and culture, and was considered by Westerners in the 1960s as the Geneva of Asia.

There was relative stability in this historically strife-ridden state, which enabled completion of large-scale development projects like dams and roads. Most important, the only “Taliban” were religious students who studied the Koran.

Afghans saw their king as fair and inclusive. Under Zahir Shah, the central government established Afghanistan’s first professional standing Army, yet generally left the provinces alone in their handling of day-to-day affairs. Kabul did not try to force its “modernization” program upon the conservative elements, especially in the Pashtun belt inhabited by proud tribes who were deeply skeptical of anything “foreign” being imposed on them.

So memorable was this period that Afghans at the Bonn Conference in 2001, which was set up to plan the future of Afghanistan’s government, clamored to reinstate Zahir Shah and the 1964 Constitution that set forth equal rights for all Afghans before the law.

Yet this broad desire was stymied.

What happened? Washington sought the counsel of certain expatriate Afghans with self-interested agendas in 2001 that had long divorced themselves from their people and culture. Their heeded advice did not mirror the hopes and aspirations of Afghans who had stayed behind to endure the brutality of the Soviets, the warlords, and then the Taliban. So Afghan-American kingmakers thrust Hamid Karzai as the new head of government, relegating Zahir Shah to photo-ops for the Western press.

Today, President Karzai is derisively called the “mayor of Kabul,” as his mandate barely extends outside the cities. The 2004 Constitution does not mirror the hopes and aspirations of its people. The Afghan National Army is dubbed “The Northern Alliance Forces” by Pashtuns. And Kabul tries to exert control over the provinces by direct fiat, defying their history of fierce independence.

At this stage, Washington and its coalition partners have tough choices: 1) Leave or 2) Fix the political mess they helped to create.

The US military surge that Petraeus now directs will probably just delay the descent into chaos once NATO begins pulling out in 2011. Saving Afghanistan now requires encouraging Karzai and his political and military leadership to accept some painful options that might include comfortable exile. It requires holding another Afghan loya jirga (grand council) to determine if Afghans want a constitutional monarchy reinstated under a charismatic descendant of Zahir Shah.

His lineage would serve as a reminder of what was, and what can be. It would be a public relations nightmare for the Taliban. If NATO is serious about its mission it needs to ensure that Afghanistan’s commander-in-chief is seen as legitimate in the eyes of Afghans.

Shireen K. Burki is currently completing a book on state-society relations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. An ethnic Pashtun, she served at the United States Marine Corps’ Center For Advanced Operational Culture Learning from 2006 to 2008 as an expert on South Asia and Southwest Asia.


Russia Readying for the Kill in Syria?

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Is Russia Readying for the Kill in Syria?


Russia is likely preparing for a major assault on Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliated groups in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

Russian army soldiers are seen with their vehicles at their military camp known as the International Demining Center in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 5, 2016.

Russian army vehicles sit at a military camp overlooking the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on Tuesday. Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

By: Al-Monitor Week in Review for Al-Monitor


Russia may be preparing to back a renewed assault by Syrian government forces to retake Aleppo, and perhaps even Raqqa, from Jabhat al-Nusra and allied groups in the coming weeks.

Mohammad Ballout wrote, in Al-Monitor’s partner publication As-Safir, “The Russians will put their Sukhoi fighter jets to the test and bet on direct ground offensives to weaken rather than defeat Syrian armed factions. It should be noted that isolating Jabhat al-Nusra from other armed factions, which is a difficult and complicated objective, would strike a painful blow to those factions since Jabhat al-Nusra’s military and ideological might form the backbone around which those factions unite.”

Officials in Moscow have made no secret of their intention to target Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, as well as those groups that have sought to make tactical alliance with it, such as Ahrar al-Sham. Russia has offered a pause in its bombing campaign for groups such as Ahrar al-Sham to distance themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra, but it seems so far to no avail, as Ahrar al-Sham, in particular, has continued its collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra.

The United States has found itself conflicted between, on the one hand, its partnership with Russia, which has led to an unprecedented — if fragile — cessation of hostilities and renewed — if tentative — intra-Syrian talks, and on the other hand its regional partners, which are loath to rein in their proxies with President Bashar al-Assad still in power, even if those proxies run with Jabhat al-Nusra.

This column supported the United States taking up the Russian offer to coordinate its military attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS), while sorting out those groups that should be spared from the seemingly imminent Russian and Syrian offensive. Our view is that such an agreement would be a blow to those terrorist groups, and a way of putting Russia on notice regarding its targeting of opposition groups backed by the United States.

But Russia’s patience has appeared to wear thin, and its next move might include Raqqa as well as Aleppo, according to Ballout. Vitaly Naumkin writes, “The United States is also hoping to avoid a situation in which Raqqa would be freed by the Syrian army with the help of Shiite militants from Arab countries, along with Russian air support. Russia knows that it would be unacceptable for its American partners in combat against IS if Damascus established its control over the territories freed from IS. In other words, Americans prefer the Kurds (as well as Assyrians, Arab groups, Armenians and Turkmens) over the Syrian army. However, as an anonymous senior source from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units told Al-Monitor, that part of the Kurdish movement is not going to abandon its objective of unifying the three Kurdish cantons for the sake of capturing Raqqa. Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, ‘Moscow is willing to coordinate its efforts with the US-led coalition and Kurdish militia in Syria for the purpose of freeing Raqqa.'”

As we reported last week, the United States has struggled to appease Turkey’s alarm about the disproportionate role of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), despite the YPG, and by extension the SDF, being the most effective ground force in Syria battling IS. Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups have suffered a series of recent setbacks against IS. Semih Idiz writes this week that “the ultimate dilemma for Turkey, however, is the fact that it has ended up in what appears to be an ineffectual situation in Syria, even though it is one of the countries bearing the biggest brunt from this crisis.”

There is an obtuse argument in some Washington circles that the collaboration of some of these groups with al-Qaeda requires the United States to make an even more substantial commitment to back opposition forces. According to this rationale, those groups on the fence in aligning with Jabhat al-Nusra would not do so if only the United States would display an even more substantial commitment to toppling Assad. Those proposing this giant step on the slippery slope of escalation suggest that a heightened US commitment would somehow make everything better, rather than scuttling the fragile gains of the US-Russia collaboration and prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people, which seems to us a more likely outcome.

Such argumentation reflects a long-standing misunderstanding about Syria, including an unnerving sectarian bias and agenda. We do not feel the need to fill the page reminding our readers of the record and intentions of al-Qaeda, and how Jabhat al-Nusra is helping the terrorist organization regain its footing as a center of international jihad. We have warned since December 2013 that the mainstreaming of Salafi and jihadi groups among the armed Syrian opposition would be a disaster for Syria. Their heavy role among the armed groups is the result of foreign interests seeking to keep a sectarian edge to a conflict that began five years ago as a popular demand for secular and democratic reform, not Islamic rule. The Syrian uprising of 2011 is not served by making a place for jihadis and Salafists who can easily slide in and out of alliance with al-Qaeda. And to sharpen the point, these groups run with al-Qaeda not because the United States has not done enough to show its mettle in the Syrian sectarian crusade against Assad, but because they are cut from the same cloth — a commitment to Sharia rule, sectarian governance and hatred and persecution of minorities — as their al-Qaeda brothers-in-jihad.

On that score, some in the mainstream media reported the resignation of chief opposition negotiator Mohammed Alloush from the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian opposition with little or no mention that Alloush represents Jaish al-Islam, which is among the most notorious and radical jihadi movements. We refer you here to the definitive piece by Ali Mamouri on the ideology of the late Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush, who was killed in an airstrike in Syria on Dec. 25, 2015. This column reported in April on the UN investigation into the alleged use of chlorine or chemical weapons by Jaish al-Islam against Kurdish groups in Aleppo in April, in addition to our ongoing coverage of violations of the cessation of hostilities by Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and other armed groups, sometimes in coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra. In the past week, the Russian Ministry of Defense has documented repeated cease-fire violations by Jaish al-Islam, and that Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have again collaborated in attacks on Sheikh Maksoud in northern Aleppo. The Institute for the Study of War reported that Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other armed groups attacked Dirkhabiyah on May 26.

This column has focused since November 2015 on the battle of Aleppo as possibly the beginning of the end in the Syria war. In January, we wrote, “The give and take over which opposition parties and individuals are represented in the peace talks may in the end be a sideshow for the real trend in Syria, which is the progress of the Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, in retaking territory from the Islamic State (IS), Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed groups. … A Syrian government victory in Aleppo could be the beginning of the end of the sectarian mindset that would have been alien to the city prior to 2011.”

The United States should coordinate its military operations with Russia to bring about an endgame in Aleppo and throughout Syria; avoid sectarian biases and entanglements that have ripped Syria apart; and discard, for good, confused arguments and advocacy that call for accommodation with al-Qaeda fellow travelers.

By Riada Ašimović Akyol