10 February 2013

Is Afghanistan A Country Stuck in the 13th Century?

Mohammad Qayoumi, an Afghan-American Professor who is the President of San Jose State University, recently wrote about the common perception of his home land:
On a recent trip to Afghanistan, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox drew fire for calling it "a broken 13th-century country." The most common objection was not that he was wrong, but that he was overly blunt. He's hardly the first Westerner to label Afghanistan as medieval. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince recently described the country as inhabited by "barbarians" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." Many assume that's all Afghanistan has ever been -- an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills. Given the images people see on TV and the headlines written about Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, many conclude the country never made it out of the Middle Ages.   
He said that the country in which he grew up was nothing like that. And provided some pictures from that era. You can see all of them in the article to which I linked (or if you don't want to subscribe to Foreign Policy, here is an alternate Web site).

As I found them fascinating, let me show you a small sample.

Pencil skirts and record stores in Kabul.

Student nurses at Maternity Hospital.

Biology Class at Kabul University

City playground

A modern Textile factory

Sarobi hydro-electric dam

Kabul at night

Store windows

These pictures are certainly very different from what we normally see, namely this:

I sometimes wonder if Charlie Wilson's war was worth it.

08 February 2013

Hamas Fatah Unity Talks

My tiny but well-informed readership is quite aware of my healthy obsession with Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas. For almost a year now, I have been claiming that he was steering Hamas towards a peace process with Israel.

A couple of days ago, Meshaal gave an interview to the BBC to announce reconciliation talks with Fatah (the political formation behind the Palestinian Authority). He said that "they were forging ahead with reconciliation" and preparing the groundwork for presidential and legislative elections. The interview gave the impression that what the goal was the formation of a national unity government:
"We are consulting about forming a government of national accord. Preparations for presidential, parliamentary and executive council elections are under way. We are reinvigorating the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and organising its meetings until new national council and executive committee are elected."
Perhaps more telling about the interview was the way Meshaal approached the subject of Hamas' two patrons in the region, Syria and Iran.

If you read my earlier posts on the subject, you might remember that, last year, Meshaal moved his offices from Damascus to Qatar and distanced himself from Bashar al-Assad. The Prime Minister of Hamas in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, on the other hand stayed close to both Syria and Iran.

This is what Meshaal said to the BBC:
In relation to Syria - a long-time ally of Hamas - Mr Meshaal said the party had been forced out of Damascus because it disagreed with how President Bashar al-Assad was dealing with the conflict.

"There is no doubt that we have disagreed with the Syrian regime on the manner with which they managed the crisis, and their resorting to the security-military option," he said.

"The massacre taking place in Syria pains us very much. We were forced to leave Damascus even though the regime used to support us. We also had differences with Iran on what goes on in Syria." [my emphasis]
This is a very clear statement about Hamas' future. 

If Meshaal remains in power, Hamas will align with the Sunni axis in the region. As you know, that axis is led by Turkey as the ascending regional power and financed by Qatar (and, of course, by Saudi Arabia). 

The reconciliation talks are interesting from another perspective. It is as if Palestinians are mirroring the post-election situation in Israel. In one, Netanyahu is trying to form a large and representative unity government to (according to me) relaunch the peace process. In the other, Meshaal is trying to form a national unity government to face the new Israeli administration in these talks.

In that process, Meshaal the politician, is in a good place. 

In the past, Meshaal indicated that he would be willing to work under Mahmoud Abbas' leadership if that is what it takes to achieve unity. And I think these talks will yield such a formula: A united PLO (encompassing Hamas) led by Abbas, negotiating with Israel. 

If these talks are successful (as I believe they will have to be), Meshaal will become a selfless hero and possibly the man to replace Mahmoud Abbas shortly after the new Palestinian state becomes a reality. 

If, they fail, Meshaal will become the undisputed leaders of Palestinians, as the failure of the peace process will prove to them that Abbas' moderate approach is simply futile. 

As you know, I consider this latter outcome quite unlikely. 

04 February 2013

Do You Know Who John Kerry Called on His First Day at the Office?

He called five people.

He called Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Palestinian Authority.

He called Shimon Peres. (Not Netanyahu.)

He called Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs.

He called John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, America's closest ally, its northern neighbor and a member of NAFTA.

He called Jose Antonio Meade, Mexico's Minister of Foreign Affairs, America's southern neighbor and a member of NAFTA.

No UK, no EU.

Canada and Mexico are given.

But what does the rest of the list tell you?

Is Turkey Drifting Towards Asia?

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan appeared on a local TV program. One of the journalists asked him about the stalled Turkey-European Union (EU) relations.
Erdoğan joked that Russian President Vladimir Putin once poked fun of him by asking, “What business does Turkey have in the EU?”
“I responded to him, saying, ‘Accept us into the Shanghai Five, and we’ll forget about the EU,’” said Erdoğan.
Shanghai Five is Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Its members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan (which are the original five) and Uzbekistan. Turkey is a "dialogue partner" in the SCO. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have all expressed interest in joining SCO.

By the way, this is the second time Erdogan is using the same joke even though he made it sound he was referring to his most recent December meeting with Putin. He used it first six months ago.
Erdoğan, who was in Russia 10 days ago to meet with Putin, noted that the Russian prime minister joked with Turkish officials from time to time, saying the EU was no place for Turkey. “Why don’t you then allow Turkey into the Shanghai Five [the former name of the SCO]? Then we would be prepared to let go of the EU,” Erdoğan said he told Putin jokingly.
Clearly, this is partly a rebuke to the EU. But it is also indicative of a new reality.

Turkey became an Associate Member of the (then) European Communities (EC) in 1963. And it formally applied to accede to the European Union in 1987.

When the AKP government came to power in 2002, EU membership was their first priority, because EU membership would remove the risk of a coup d'etat. Moreover, they assumed that joining the EU would create a much more permissive environment for religious freedoms in Turkey than the prevailing secular legal code (burqa's for women or Islamic headgear for men were punishable with fines since the late 1920s, though the laws were rarely enforced).

They implemented institutional reforms, grudgingly removed discriminatory, sexist and archaic laws from the books and worked with EU institutions towards accession. But things moved slowly. In the meantime, EU accepted 10 new members.

It became clear that EU was reluctant to take Turkey in. But by then, the AKP government lost interest in EU as well. They won their fight against the army. They also won the domestic cultural war with the secularist forces. And the so called headscarf issue was no longer a problem.

In October 2012 AKP held its 4th Congress. Erdogan gave a long speech and for the first time in AKP history, he did not mention the EU in his speech. Not once. Not even bypassingly. Moreover, take a look at the foreign guest list:
President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi, President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama Nuceyfi, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Vice President of Iraq Tareq Hashimi, Pakistani Chief Minister of Punjab Mian Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, Palestine’s Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and, last but not least, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq.
Anyone from the West?
Representing the West was ex-Prime Minister of Germany Gerhard Schroeder, a personal friend of Erdoğan.
The presence of regional leaders is understandable given Turkey's ascending power status. But the presence of the President of Kyrgyzstan is unusual. Yet, when you think of SCO it makes a lot more sense.

Is Asia the Future for Turkey?

Perhaps the better question is, how important is Turkey for Eurasia?