Monthly Archives: October 2010

Secretary Clinton: Iran “Entitled to Peaceful Civilian Nuclear Power”

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

October 29, 2010

After Iran started loading fuel to its nuclear energy reactor in Bushehr on October 26, the most surprising reaction came from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “[The Iranians] are entitled to peaceful civilian nuclear power. They are not entitled to nuclear weapons.”

We’ve heard the latter part of that statement before. But it’s a first that a high-ranking U.S. official has accepted Iran’s right to nuclear energy so openly. And Mrs. Clinton’s right on both counts: as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is not entitled to nuclear weapons and but has every right to a nuclear energy program.

But while the Iranian government also says just that – its nuclear program has only peaceful aims – there’s more. Coupled with its vigorous ballistic missile systems, Iran’s nuclear program makes other Middle Eastern countries quite nervous: and not only the Israelis but also the Iran-friendly Turks. High-ranking Turkish officials, who had brokered a deal jointly with Brazil last summer to ship out 1,200 kg of enriched Iranian uranium – more than half the stockpile, are beginning to voice serious concern behind closed doors about both the drift of the Iranian program and the current standoff.

Unfortunately, the United States and the international community missed a great opportunity last summer by ignoring the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian treaty and passing a new set of sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. The exchange deal certainly wasn’t perfect (Iran could’ve agreed to ship out more uranium) but it could’ve formed a firm basis for broader talks.

At the moment, the United States and Iran are the only two countries that are party to the nuclear talks but have no diplomatic relations. In other words, the United States and Iran talk, but they’re not really talking to each other. That dilemma is the crux of the problem.

The current standoff between the United States and Iran can be resolved only by remedying the mutual distrust between them. Washington has to pitch the gist of Mrs. Clinton’s words to Tehran more forcefully, more frequently, and more eloquently. The Obama administration has to separate the two issues – the nuclear energy program and the nuclear weapons program – and tell the Iranians that there is a way out of the current impasse: give up nukes (or the intention to develop them) and you can keep the electricity.

Last summer’s sanctions demonstrate that the Obama administration is still uncertain about whether it should extend its hand to Iran or wave a clinched fist, which confuses Tehran even more.

As such, to help Washington and the international community, Tehran has to be a lot more transparent about its nuclear program than it has so far. In recent years, foreign governments have detected two major nuclear facilities in Iran, which had not been declared by Iranian authorities. Under international law, the Iranians had to announce those facilities only six months before they become operational. So they were within the law by not coming forward with what they had.

But being legally right is not enough for Iran’s neighbors and the international community anymore. Iran’s neighbors do not want a nuclear arms race in the region. At a time when the countries of the Persian Gulf are shoring up relations with the United States (and spending billions of dollars on U.S.-made weapons), the Iranian government would be better off respecting those concerns.

Another major reason why Iran and the United States do not get along is their frequent use of belligerent rhetoric: “Great Satan,” “axis of evil,” etc. Thus, beyond the nuclear issue, as Scott Harrop, an expert of Iranian affairs, has pointed out, the United States and Iran have to start respecting each other if they really want to avert another catastrophic Middle Eastern war.

The people of the Middle East are entitled to that.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Letters from Afghanistan – Part IV

“Public Restroom on a Hill-top”
Some Thoughts on International Development Efforts in Afghanistan

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

October 21, 2010

Foreign overbearing has poisoned reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Despite their (mostly) good intentions, foreign governments and international NGOs have pretended to know Afghanistan’s needs better than its people. And that is one major reason why the international presence resembles the Soviet occupation of the south-central Asian nation in the 1980s.

In the absence of Afghan input, many lofty but somewhat useless projects have sprung up around the country. Take, for example, the public restroom on a hill-top in one of Kabul’s poorer districts. Allegedly sponsored by a European NGO, the said project aimed to provide the residents of the area with clean water and sanitary facilities. The problem, though, was location: The restroom was not built in the middle of the neighborhood but further atop the hill, which was not a very convenient spot for the local folk.

A poor neighborhood in western Kabul

Of course, not all international aid projects – not even a majority – are so flawed. But the case of the “restroom on a hill-top” illustrates the biggest dilemma that the international community faces in Afghanistan: Without Afghans providing direction, international efforts cannot succeed. But getting Afghans to take the initiative in running their own affairs is hard because they’re not really ready to do so.

One important reason why the international community is hesitant to hand over responsibility to the Afghans is the country’s lack of skilled labor (a concern which Afghans themselves share). The war, now entering its 31st year, has forced educated Afghans to flee to Europe and North America. At the moment, there are simply not enough electricians, masons, machine operators, ironsmiths, or nurses to run the country.

Corruption is another problem. International donors are unwilling to hand over their funds to Afghan officials in the face of rampant corruption in the country. (The majority of Afghans agree: 59 percent of the population sees corruption as the greatest problem facing the country; a problem even worse than lack of security.)

In this context, many foreign benefactors – governments and NGOs – have aimed to make a “quick” impression on their own constituents as much as on the Afghan people by executing “quick impact” projects. Otherwise known as “QIPs” (water wells, police outposts, clinics, and small schools), these ventures don’t take a long time to plan, don’t cost much, and can be finished in a few months. The problem is that so many of these projects have been built since 2001 that, as a leading international development expert has pointed out, “QIPs” are actually slowing progress in Afghanistan. “Quick impact = Quick collapse” is an equation heard quite frequently in Kabul these days.

So long as we’re going to use lack of trained personnel or corruption as excuses to postpone “Afghanization” and continue “QIPs,” we’re going to frustrate the people of Afghanistan in the end. The following story relayed to me by an American expert in Wardak province is quite telling: While they were enlarging a mountain road leading to a village, American engineers realized that a significant portion of an irrigation canal would have to be moved as well in order not to cut the village’s water; something that would take time. Unimpressed, Afghan villagers shot back: “You’re Americans! You put a man on the moon! Surely you can move the mountain!”

Afghans’ patience with foreigners is understandably decreasing.

So, what should we do?

As noted by the historian Artemy Kalinovsky, an expert on the Soviet occupation, in 1986, Moscow had suddenly decided to withdraw its civilian advisors in order to end the complacency within the Afghan leadership. Reminiscent of our times, the lack of trained Afghans was compensated by thousands of Soviet experts. And the withdrawal initially made the Communist government in Kabul more self-confident. But without Soviet help, Afghans began facing trouble operating their own economy, especially the gas fields in the north, which was the government’s main source of revenue.

Flash forward to 2010, international experts should gradually scale down their responsibilities in Afghanistan. Nearly nine years after the Taliban, Afghans have a decent idea about what works and what doesn’t. In the mean time, rather than withdrawing, foreign specialists would be better off if they train young Afghans to replace the current cadres. 

Afghanistan will initially experience some turbulence but that’ll ultimately give the Afghans a real incentive to put their house in order. At any rate, they probably won’t build another restroom on a hill-top.

* The author’s travels in Afghanistan were sponsored by the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Turkish Embassy in Kabul.

The author is grateful to the following for their invaluable help:

His Excellency Ambassador Basat Öztürk, former Deputy Chief of Mission Onur Katmerci, Second Secretary Onur Şaylan, Military Attaché Colonel Can Bolat, and Kemal Doğan of the Turkish Embassy; Didem Büner and Burçin Gönenli of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; former Civilian Coordinator Türker Arı, agricultural expert Osman Kabacaoğlu, TİKA expert Mikail Taşdemir, and Mahir Akhüseyinoğlu of the Turkish Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak province; General Levent Çolak, Colonel Ali Bilgin Varlık, and Colonel Ramazan Akyıldız of Kabul Regional Command; TİKA Vice President Mustafa Şahin, TİKA’s Kabul representative Özay Özütok, and TİKA experts Adem Urfa, Talha Kaçar, and Ahmet Dayı; His Excellency Governor Halim Fidai of Wardak Province; State Department Representative Jeff Stanton and USAID expert Douglas Blanton in Wardak; Mark Ward, former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan; Prof. Abdul Iqrar Wasel, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University; Prof. Yusuf Altınışık and Prof. Gulamresul Karlog of the Department of Turkish Language and Literature at Kabul University.

The views expressed in this article DO NOT reflect the opinions of the above-mentioned or the position of the Turkish government.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Letters from Afghanistan – Part III: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

October 16, 2010

Afghanistan – Land of Legends! Freedom struggles against the British and resistance to the Soviet Union.

The Afghans: a people often oppressed and tormented, but ultimately invincible!

So much for the legends!State and Tribe in Nineteenth-Century Afghanistan

As pointed out by another student of international affairs a few months ago, one of the silliest common beliefs about Afghanistan is its centuries-old fixture as “the graveyard of empires.” Afghans almost buried the British Empire in 1919 and succeeded in destroying the mighty Soviet Union seventy years later. Soon, we are told, the same thing is going to happen to the United States and its NATO allies because it has happened before.

So much for the legends. Let us talk about facts:

Average adult literacy in Afghanistan is 28% (43% for men, 12% for women) while the average Afghan expects to live for 44 years at birth, which is so low because a quarter of Afghan newborns don’t live for more than five years. The country is struggling with massive unemployment (40%), high inflation (30%), and high annual birth rates (2.5%).

It’s a platitude to point it out but the international media outlets and the blogosphere are paying so much attention to “the Obama surge” (and its July 2011 deadline), the Taliban, and Pakistan’s controversial role in Afghanistan that we can’t see the more important dimension of the current situation in the war-torn country: its economy.

“It’s the economy, stupid” especially rings true for Afghanistan’s current problems. An Afghan economy that grows on its own means; one that does not require billions of dollars in international aid (and where the major export is not opium), is what will truly “secure” Afghanistan; not more (or less) U.S. troops.

Since 2002, Afghanistan’s economy has grown by an average 10% (without taking opium into account, of course), which shows that the south-central Asian country has a lot of potential.

To realize that potential further, several issues about Afghanistan’s economic development need to be addressed.

Afghanistan has to be energized. Literally. The country has immense potential for hydroelectricity. Snowfall on the mountains in central Afghanistan supplies 80% of the country’s annual precipitation of 400 mm (about 16 inches), a bit too much for a supposed “desert.” But even nine years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan still imports nearly 50% of its electricity. Not a single hydroelectric dam has been built in the past nine years. Not that it’s easy: Afghanistan formed its autonomous state-held company to oversee electricity production and distribution only last year. It will be some time before the country becomes self-sufficient and powers its burgeoning industry with its own means. But it has to happen sooner rather than later if Afghanistan is to develop economically.

In a similar vein, managing Afghanistan’s precious water resources is vital for reconstruction. In one of my interviews with a USAID expert in Wardak province last March (the U.S. Agency for International Development is the government agency that manages American aid to developing countries), I was shocked to learn that approximately 70% of the water intended for irrigation actually gets wasted in the ditches before even reaching the fields! At a time when more than half of its arable lands cannot be irrigated (merely 12% of Afghanistan’s area of 650,000 km2 / 250,000 sq mi is arable anyway), Afghanistan is not that rich (!) to waste so much water.

Rehabilitating the water infrastructure in the country-side and managing it effectively is extremely important for increasing agricultural production because the livelihood of 80% of Afghans depend on it. Afghanistan, which was self-sufficient in food production before 1979, imports a significant amount of wheat in order to meet domestic demand. By the end of 2010, despite a total wheat production of 4.5 million tons, Afghanistan will import another 700,000 tons from Kazakhstan.

It’s a pity because Afghanistan’s agriculture was a success story before the Soviet invasion. Take Wardak again: famous for its sweet and juicy apple, the province had produced a record 300,000 tons of the fruit in the mid-1970s and had exported most of it. Last year, because of a poor apple harvest in India and rising demand in Dubai, Wardak was able to export about one-third of its apple output of 150,000 tons (half of pre-war levels) to those markets. Another 30,000 tons was sent to a factory in Kabul to produce apple juice.

Getting back the other 150,000 tons (and going beyond that figure) is the challenge. (Re)-introducing modern techniques to Afghanistan – artificial fertilizers, mechanization, pesticides, etc. – can help but the real challenge actually comes from training farmers and helping them access markets. For example, in most provinces, farmers’ unions – which provide seeds, machines, and information to its members – have begun to spring up only recently. In the long run, only an energetic class of farmers can help alleviate the plight of rural Afghans and foster economic activity in the war-torn country. (With a majority of Afghans joining the Taliban for financial gain, the implications of such a positive development on the security situation in Afghanistan are too obvious.)

In the medium run, boosting agricultural productivity in Afghanistan will lead to redundancy in agriculture (read: more unemployment). But that won’t be so bad because releasing some of the labor force from agriculture would give Afghanistan the opportunity to focus its attention on a matter: mining.

According to a New York Times story that came out last June, Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits (namely, iron, cobalt, coal, copper, and lithium) could be worth as much as $1 trillion. (Afghanistan’s current GDP is estimated to be $30 billion so $1 trillion isn’t exactly loose change.) If managed properly (big “if” – the world is full of countries that squander their underground riches), the 21st century can be quite different for Afghanistan than the past thirty years.

Of course, for any of these ideas to bear fruit, the responsibility for running Afghanistan must be turned over to the Afghans. I’m going to discuss this issue at greater length in my next post.

* The author’s travels in Afghanistan were sponsored by the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Turkish Embassy in Kabul.

The author is grateful to the following for their invaluable help:

His Excellency Ambassador Basat Öztürk, former Deputy Chief of Mission Onur Katmerci, Second Secretary Onur Şaylan, Military Attaché Colonel Can Bolat, and Kemal Doğan of the Turkish Embassy; Didem Büner and Burçin Gönenli of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; former Civilian Coordinator Türker Arı, agricultural expert Osman Kabacaoğlu, TİKA expert Mikail Taşdemir, and Mahir Akhüseyinoğlu of the Turkish Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak province; General Levent Çolak, Colonel Ali Bilgin Varlık, and Colonel Ramazan Akyıldız of Kabul Regional Command; TİKA Vice President Mustafa Şahin, TİKA’s Kabul representative Özay Özütok, and TİKA experts Adem Urfa, Talha Kaçar, and Ahmet Dayı; His Excellency Governor Halim Fidai of Wardak Province; State Department Representative Jeff Stanton and USAID expert Douglas Blanton in Wardak; Mark Ward, former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan; Prof. Abdul Iqrar Wasel, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University; Prof. Yusuf Altınışık and Prof. Gulamresul Karlog of the Department of Turkish Language and Literature at Kabul University.

The views expressed in this article DO NOT reflect the opinions of the above-mentioned or the position of the Turkish government.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Letters from Afghanistan – Part II: Why Should You Care About the Afghan Elections?

By Barın KAYAOĞLU

October 4, 2010

The answer is simple: the Afghan constitution gives the parliament significant powers vis-à-vis the president. In fact, the previous Afghan parliament had such strong differences with President Hamid Karzai that it had refused to confirm nearly 1/3 of Mr. Karzai’s cabinet after his controversial re-election last year. As such, only a new parliament that is elected legitimately can give meaning to Afghan and international efforts to rebuild the war-torn country.

I had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan as part of a monitoring mission requested by the Afghan government and sponsored by the Turkish government. Together with four other Turkish observers, I was assigned to the cities of Sheberghan (capital of Jowzjan province) and Mazar-e Sharif (capital of Balkh province) in the north.

Despite concerns that wide-scale fraud may have also tainted the vote on September 18, I actually witnessed a fair and transparent process in action. At the polling stations I visited, every single ballot box was attended by at least half a dozen Afghan observers who were keen to ensure that outcome. At some of the schools that served as polling centers, Afghan observers were so numerous that they could be allowed to come into rooms only in turns.

As candidates, polling officials, observers, and voters, Afghans took the elections seriously. Even though our group was welcomed with traditional Afghan hospitality in all the centers that we visited (historical and religious ties between Turks and Afghans helped), observers and officials asked us to follow the rules all the same. In Sheberghan, an observer asked us to take the pictures of empty ballots from afar (to avoid the possible reproduction of fake ballots later on). In Mezar-e Sharif, one official insisted that we wait on the other side of the room after we accidentally crossed the tape separating the ballot box from the observers’ side. Only after we crossed to the other side did voting resume.

Another reason to be hopeful about the recent election was its competitiveness. Many – if not most – of the incumbents faced significant upsets and the possibility of losing their seats. Throughout the country, nearly 2,500 candidates, including 400 women, ran for 249 seats. In Jowzjan, 47 candidates competed for their province’s 5 seats in parliament.

The 68 seats that are reserved in the Afghan parliament for female candidates were also a positive feature of the election. I’m against “reserved female quotas” because I believe that women throughout the world deserve real equality without special privileges. But in Afghanistan, where drastic measures are necessary to advance the status of women, the quota is not such a bad idea. More women assuming important responsibilities in national politics will make a positive impact on the lives of Afghan women in the future.

To be sure, as suggested by Mr. Staffan de Mistura, the head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, these elections were “Afghan and not Swiss elections.” Although not a problem in urban centers, security and fairness was a significant problem in the country-side. Even some districts in the north couldn’t hold elections because of insurgent attacks. And elsewhere, some observers have reported cases of voter intimidation by government officials.

I witnessed other shortcomings in the quiet and orderly north. Voters were only asked to bring their voter registration cards and not their IDs, putting honest voting at risk. Although registration cards are obtained by submitting an ID prior to the election, bringing an ID together with the registration card would’ve saved the voters and officials from a lot of headaches.

Another problem that I witnessed was with the supposedly durable ink in which voters had to dip their index fingers to prevent successive voting. The ink wasn’t really durable and after leaving the polling centers, many voters cleaned off the ink, in some cases simply by wiping their fingers with handkerchiefs. A majority of Afghans cleaned their fingers not to vote again but out of genuine fear from the Taliban, which had threatened to chop off inked fingers in past elections. The practice of inking fingers should either be scrapped altogether or a genuinely durable chemical must be used.

Despite the odds, voter turnout in Jowzjan and Mezar-e Sharif was around 40-45%, while the figure throughout Afghanistan is expected to stay somewhere between 25 to 35%. But in the face of last year’s fraud, the security situation, and Afghans’ frustration with slow recovery since 2001, even a 35% turnout should be seen as a success and not a failure.

In the final analysis, the positive things I’ve seen may not represent the bigger picture in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan is still far away from being an exemplary democracy with an unblemished electoral system, my experiences on September 18 show that, in the right circumstances, Afghans can hold decent elections with little outside intervention. After suffering from war for 30 years, that may not be such a bad thing for Afghanistan.

— 

* The author’s travels in Afghanistan were sponsored by the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Turkish Embassy in Kabul.

The author is grateful to the following for their invaluable help:

His Excellency Ambassador Basat Öztürk, former Deputy Chief of Mission Onur Katmerci, Second Secretary Onur Şaylan, Military Attaché Colonel Can Bolat, and Kemal Doğan of the Turkish Embassy; Didem Büner and Burçin Gönenli of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; former Civilian Coordinator Türker Arı, agricultural expert Osman Kabacaoğlu, TİKA expert Mikail Taşdemir, and Mahir Akhüseyinoğlu of the Turkish Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak province; General Levent Çolak, Colonel Ali Bilgin Varlık, and Colonel Ramazan Akyıldız of Kabul Regional Command; TİKA Vice President Mustafa Şahin, TİKA’s Kabul representative Özay Özütok, and TİKA experts Adem Urfa, Talha Kaçar, and Ahmet Dayı; His Excellency Governor Halim Fidai of Wardak Province; State Department Representative Jeff Stanton and USAID expert Douglas Blanton in Wardak; Mark Ward, former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan; Prof. Abdul Iqrar Wasel, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University; Prof. Yusuf Altınışık and Prof. Gulamresul Karlog of the Department of Turkish Language and Literature at Kabul University.

The views expressed in this article DO NOT reflect the opinions of the above-mentioned or the position of the Turkish government.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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