Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran: Selected Recent Reading

Some recent articles about these countries and this region:

IRAN

How Does Stoning Work in Iran?: From the size of the stones to who gets first throw by Christopher Beam (Slate, 2 Aug. 2010).

Who throws the first stone?

“If the conviction is based on the prisoner’s confession, the law says, the presiding judge casts the first stone. If the conviction is based on witness testimony, the witnesses throw the first stones, then the judge, then everyone else — generally other court officials and security forces.”

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AFGHANISTAN

Bury the Graveyard by Christian Caryl (Foreign Policy, 26 July 2010). Although Afghanistan has lately been called the graveyard of empires, was until 1840 it was a ‘highway of conquest’ and for most of its history a cradle of empires. Fighting in Afghanistan did not end Britain supremacy in the world, a myth widely believed, and, the Soviets “were actually getting the better of the mujahideen” in 1984 when “the U.S. decision to send shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance … allowed the guerrillas to stage a comeback.”

Insights from the Afghan Field, an essay with reference to 3 recent books about the Taliban, by Anatol Lieven (Current Intelligence, 6 Sept. 2010).  Lieven reviews  Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (ed. Antonio Giustozzi), “a superb collection of essays;” Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan by Antonio Giustozzi; and My Life With the Taliban, a memoir of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, “most valuable is in its evocation of the world of the Taliban.” He notes that “almost nine years after the US intervened in Afghanistan, the shortage of serious books on Afghanistan in general and the Taliban (as opposed to the plethora of books on “terrorism”) is somewhat astonishing.”

The essay is full of passionate observations, among them:

“As Antonio Giustozzi writes, ‘Every age has its follies; perhaps the folly of our age could be defined as an unmatched ambition to change the world, without even bothering to study it in detail and understand it first.’

“It would be nice to pin all the blame for this on Bush, Blair and their supporters, but this tendency spread much more widely and is much more deeply rooted in contemporary Western culture. An enormous range of groups and interests jumped onboard the US intervention in Afghanistan,” including not only thousands of government departments and contractors, but also “high-minded NGOs, … swarm[ing] around the bloated feast of Western ‘aid to Afghanistan’…”

And later,

“Thus if you strip out all the guff about Hamid Karzai being ‘democratically elected’, being committed to ‘development’ and ‘progress’, and indeed being (in any Western sense) ‘head of the Afghan government’, what we can see in Karzai is a weak Afghan leader pursuing the immemorial strategy of weak Afghan leaders: that is to say, balancing between powerful local forces, maintaining a general hegemony by playing them off against each other, and managing them as far as possible by the distribution of patronage – including, under the new dispensation, sharing out the heroin trade.”

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PAKISTAN

Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan by Mark Mazzetti (NYT, 25 July 2010).

“Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants,” even as its spy agency, ISI,  meets “directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organize networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan” and “plots to assassinate Afghan leaders.”

More articles on the same topic at the BBC (June 2010); theTelegraph (Oct. 2009);  Reuters (March 2009); The National Security Archive (Aug. 2007)

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YEMEN

Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan? by Robert Worth (NYT, 6 July 2010). Really interesting article about a country most of us don’t know a lot about.

Yemen: “The Arab world’s poorest country, with a fast-growing and deeply conservative Muslim population of 23 million. It is running out of oil and may soon be the first country in the world to run out of water. The central government is weak and corrupt, hemmed in by rebellions and powerful tribes. Many fear that Al Qaeda is gaining a sanctuary in the remote provinces east of Sana, similar to the one it already has in Afghanistan and Pakistan. …

“There are few ways to make a living other than smuggling, goat-herding and kidnapping. The region is also, chronically, a war zone. Tribal feuds have always been part of life here, but in recent years they have grown so common and so deadly that as much as a quarter of the population cannot go to school or work for fear of being killed. … Once you’re out of Sana province, there are virtually no signs of the Yemeni state. Every able-bodied man seems to carry an AK-47 rifle over his shoulder. …

“I spoke to a number of American officials in Washington and to a variety of diplomats at the embassy in Sana. They all told me the same thing: no one has a real strategy for Yemen, in part because there are so few people who have any real expertise about the country.”

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REGIONALLY

Should we care about failed and weak states? by Paul Staniland (The Monkey Cage, 8 July 2010). Short answer: For human rights reasons, such as “famine, disease, mass sexual violence, civil war, genocide, refugees,” yes; because they are threats to us, no. Stanliand looks at the 2010 Failed States Index and determines that there are very few “truly major security challenges” to the U.S. in the list simply due to weakness or failure of the state to control its own territory.  Some, like Iran, are problems for us not “due to state weakness or failure” but because they are “a regime we don’t like.  The major threats to US interests are thus primarily derived from regimes that view the US as its enemy – not regimes too weak to control their territory. “

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