Afghanistan Monthly – February

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President Biden. Image taken from Wikimedia.

February Newsletter

The month in Afghanistan rarely passes with few occurrences. January’s newsletter focused on the disappearance of female activists (who have since re-appeared), protests in Faryab and their coverage, as well as the Oslo Summit. February too was eventful. Domestically, the government continues to make modest strides in returning to a semblance of normalcy. Universities, at long last, have opened their doors for male and female students. Moreover, with regard to the role of women in the new Afghanistan, Deputy Minister of Economy Abdul Latif Nazari also met women entrepreneurs. Appointments of women were made as heads of Malalay Maternal Hospital and Shahr Ara Hospital in Kabul, whilst a female official was appointed in Badakhshan as a local representative of women.

Elsewhere, the government was rocked by the Biden Administration’s decision to divide the frozen assets of the Afghan Central Bank between the families of 9/11 victims as well as for “humanitarian assistance”, provoking outrage and fury from government and civil society alike. In the southeast, the convening of a jirga supervised by government officials including Anas Haqqani marks a watershed moment vis-a-vis the current government’s unparalleled level of presence in the countryside.

In Kabul and surrounding provinces, a massive operation featuring house to house searches has been announced. The operation was framed as measures to combat crime yet triggered opposition and, predictably, accusations of ethnically-motivated goals.

Biden Seizes Afghan Assets

On 11th February, an article from the New York Times stunned the world. The Biden Administration, the article claimed, intended on splitting the roughly $7 billion of Afghan assets frozen by the US after the Ghani regime’s collapse in August 2021. Half of the assets would be allocated for trust funds to facilitate humanitarian relief in Afghanistan. More controversially, the second half would be set aside to compensate the families of 9/11 victims in ongoing court proceedings in the US. Sure enough, the same day, a White House Press Release was published, titled: “Executive Order to Preserve Certain Afghanistan Central Bank Assets for the People of Afghanistan.” The US, it said, would “ seek to facilitate access to $3.5 billion of those assets for the benefit of the Afghan people and for Afghanistan’s future pending a judicial decision.” The remaining “$3.5 billion would remain in the United States and are subject to ongoing litigation by U.S. victims of terrorism.” The Press Release went on to boldly laud President Biden’s executive decision as “one step forward in the United States’ effort to authorize the transfer of a significant portion of the funds to meet the needs of the Afghan people.”

Response were damning. Former and current government officials were generally united in condemning the decision; a rare occurrence in an Afghan political spectrum fraught by ideological division. Former President Hamid Karzai labelled it as “an atrocity against Afghans”. Others, including former Minister of Finance Khaled Payenda, labelled the decision as “the greatest…blow to the Afghan economy.”

Afghan policy analyst and researcher Mohsin Amin told The Afghan Eye that Biden’s executive order would, in practical terms, “suffocate the Afghan economy.” The assets, Amin argued, should be transferred to the Central Bank, and those earmarked for the families of 9/11 victims should be contested in American courts. Amin explained the role of the Central Bank assets; these intended to keep the banking sector afloat and provide a level of liquidity to the economy, a liquidity that had slowly dissipated since August, after the assets were frozen.

The freezing of the assets coupled with sanctions had worsened the country’s liquidity, meaning traders were finding it increasingly difficult to conduct imports and exports. This had the effect of increasing prices for food, oil and gas, as well as damaging confidence within the Afghan business community. Investors had become apprehensive. The freezing of the assets only exacerbated the reality prior to the collapse of the Ghani regime; the economy, despite two decades of international assistance, was woefully unproductive and wholly reliant on aid and imports. Mining, agriculture and industry were pitifully underdeveloped. Amin added that the popular outrage in Afghanistan was not due solely to Washington DC’s decision to spend assets whose explicit purpose was to not be spent. It was also due to the fact that the White House, in flagrant violation of Afghan sovereignty, had taken it upon itself to decide how to best spend money that belonged to another country. “It’s an oppressive act,” Amin said.

Interesting too was the Press Release’s assertion that “The United States has sanctions in place against the Taliban and the Haqqani network,” making a distinction between the two; a distinction routinely denied by both the Haqqanis and the Taliban to whom they swear fealty. Self promotion aside (or maybe not), why not read my interview with Anas Haqqani to learn more?

Thomas West

On 15th February, just days after Biden’s Executive Order, the U.S Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West attended a virtual USIP conference. During an hour-long discussion Thomas, possibly in an attempt to present a softer face to the Administration, notably focused on what he perceived to be positive developments under the new government. The new government, he said, had improved the access for humanitarian aid that was very important and very limited in the past; only five provinces were previously accessible, whereas this had now expanded to all 34 of the country’s provinces. Elsewhere, West highlighted that the government had staffed the Central Bank with professional technocrats. The significance of this too, amidst the furore over the Central Bank’s reserves, should not be understated. It indicates the new government’s ability to lure such technocrats and demonstrates an understanding of the need to interact with global stakeholders in a professional manner. Finally, it perhaps addresses, at least to some level, the common criticism of the government’s heavy inclination to staff its offices with mullahs.

West pointed out the range of media outlets continuing to operate in the country; a possible allusion to the widespread charge against the government’s alleged crackdown on media. One reason for this perception is the cascade of media outlets closing since August. This usually neglects to mention that this was caused more so by their foreign support drying up than government policy. Nevertheless, whilst West did point out the increase of women reporters, he also highlighted reports of journalists being beaten, intimidated and having their reporting curtailed.

The final issue was Daesh. The government, West said, had made significant gains against the group, despite showing no willingness to cooperate with the US in doing so. This raises two points. First, that cooperation with the US is not an absolute prerequisite to fighting Daesh. Secondly, and more importantly, it shows that officials in Kabul are keenly aware as to how cooperation with the US against Daesh could actually strengthen the group’s propaganda.

Popular jirgas

On a more grassroots level, one event above all can signify hopes and a better trajectory in the realm of local community governance and women’s rights. On 21st February Anas Haqqani tweeted an image from Khost. The image was, as the caption indicated, from a local jirga. The institution of the jirga, one of near sanctity particularly in the Pashtun tribal belt, was a mechanism through which disputes were resolved, especially in areas where the state’s jurisdiction was traditionally weak. Not anymore, it seems.

Anas’ tweet was part of a thread. In it, he stated that he and the governor had attended the jirga upon the invitation of tribal elders, who had gathered to make a series of sweeping decisions regarding women’s rights. These were, listed by Anas, as follows:

  1. In the instance of a murder, the murderer would be punished. Revenge killings were henceforth banned.
  2. Dowry was a bride’s right, and would not exceed the new limit of 350,000 Afghanis. The current rates of dowry, Anas continued, had been “causes for oppression and corruption.”
  3. The practice of aerial ammunition fire in front of girls’ houses to prevent their marriages to others would be strictly banned. Anyone found guilty of doing so would henceforth be subject to “severe punishment.” Any family threatened in such a way could wed their daughters as they had initially planned and saw fit.
  4. The practice of wedding women to secure truces amidst family/tribal feuds was now punishable
  5. Widows were entitled to, according to the Sharia, remarry as they pleased

Finally, Anas said, these rules had incorporated existing edicts by the Amir Hebatullah Akhundzada, and their implementation would be overseen by a tribal council.

This was significant. Such an event taking place locally and semi-independently of Kabul demonstrates the exercise of agency by communities long marginalised by the past decades of superpowers and their imposed elites in Kabul. Secondly, the fact that government officials were invited to the council, as opposed to having ordered its gathering, highlights a government that could potentially be content to take a back seat in local community concerns, content to play the role of facilitator.

Finally, and most importantly, Kabul’s lack of presence in rural areas has long been a characteristic of all Afghan governments; such a presence eluded even the relatively strong Musahiban from 1929 – 1978. Firmly rooted rurally, the Taliban are not just an aberration as far as history is concerned, but also uniquely placed to streamline the longstanding irregularities across the country, particularly between cities and villages.

Clearance operation

On 25th February, Zabihullah Mujahid, Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, announced the beginning of what were called “clearance operations” by the order of Deputy Minister of Defence, ex-Guantanamo detainee Mullah Fazel Mazloom(yar). The announcement stipulated that the clearance operations would take place in “Kabul and the surrounding provinces to eliminate thieves, kidnappers, mischievous elements, and other criminals”. The announcement also stated that operations were being carried out by the General Directorate of Intelligence, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defence.

It wasn’t long before accusations were made that the operations, which included house to house searches across Kabul, were motivated against ethnic minorities and other communities. Those whom these operations were targeted against, it was alleged, were Tajiks, specifically from the provinces of Panjsher, Kapisa and Parwan. Such concerns were echoed by the Ambassador von Brandt, the European Union’s ambassador to Afghanistan.

Khalid Zadran, spokesman of Kabul Police, denied claims that local police were disproportionately targeting ethnic minorities. “There is nothing of the sort…No one is mistreated on the basis of ethnicity,” Zadran told The Afghan Eye. House searches were conducted in coordination with local figures, including representatives and local imams. In the instance of mistreatment or misconduct, Zadran elaborated that there were avenues and contact details given according to which complaints could be filed. So far, Zadran said, he had received two complaints. Both are being dealt with, and none were filed on the basis of ethnic discrimination.

Others saw it differently. The Afghan Eye spoke to one Kabul resident about his experiences with the clearance operation and house searches.
Yusuf (pseudonym) is originally from Parwan and lives in Kabul’s Taymani neighbourhood in the city’s fourth police district. He told The Afghan Eye that his house was searched in the afternoon of 28th February. The police, Yusuf recalled, asked for permission to enter the house. Women were requested to go into a separate room so the search could commence. The searches followed a synchronised pattern: the eldest male of the house was asked for his name, his father’s name, and which province they were from. Anyone appearing nervous during this initial round of questioning attracted suspicion. Their properties thoroughly searched. Residents were given the option to declare their possession of any armaments. Weapons found thereafter “would be treated seriously, and they take the resident with them,” Yusuf added. The search units were vigilant; anything found that was remotely related to military activity, even uniforms and boots, provoked suspicion and thorough searching.

Yusuf continued that “there are different groups amongst [the search units].” Some of these, he said, were gentle in their general approach. Others were “harsh”. Although Yusuf did not say so, it could be a possible observation resulting from the involvement of different government organs involved in the operations, including the Ministries of Defence, Interior, and Intelligence. Regarding those whom he deemed harsh, Yusuf added “For them, it doesn’t matter if a person is Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara, or whatever…Wherever they go, they search houses inch by inch.”

Alluding to the allegations of racial profiling, Yusuf explained that areas such as Khayrkhana in which residents from Panjsher, Parwan and Kapisa are predominant, were targeted specifically. Searches there were generally more comprehensive and stringent. Yusuf’s friend, a fellow Parwani living in Karte Parwan neighbourhood, had his house thoroughly searched, for seemingly little reason. The house of a Kabuli native from the same neighbourhood, on the other hand, had his house merely lightly searched. In another instance, a gun was found in house in Karte Parwan, which led to the search units conducting a comprehensive search that included digging the garden.

Yusuf explained the search of his own house. Despite being from Parwan, he said, his house was lightly searched. The same was true for his predominantly Panjsheri neighbours in his apartment block. Given the irregularity in experiences across the city Yusuf surmised that “I can’t use the word ‘discrimination’ in general or with one hundred percent [confidence],” to describe the operation in its totality.

Overall, Yusuf said, he was “very happy. [The search units] were very honourable people.”

Elsewhere, the searches uncovered notable caches of weapons and ammunition. This was the case with the Pashtun strongman Mullah Tarakhel; reported to have kept equipment in the madrassas under his jurisdiction. Searches were also comprehensive in areas inhabited predominantly by Hootkhel. The Hootkhel, together with the Tarakhel, are historically nomadic Pashtun tribes with strongholds in Kabul’s east.

Two issues, however, remain. One of these is the lack of judicial process and warrant in clearance operations involving house searches that look like they will be expanded to provinces across the country. For a government basing its rule on the sanctities of Islamic law and norms, such an approach can be self-defeating.

Such an approach could also be problematic; night raids were emblematic of the War on Terror and served as a key recruitment tool for the Taliban, who could now be argued to have subsumed their underlying rationale. This is despite the fact that the clearance operation and house to house searches cannot meaningfully be compared to the night raids for which occupying forces became notorious.

February

That was February. Afghanistan remains in the throes of a humanitarian and financial crisis. There is some optimism, however, after the US Treasury’s recent issuance of licences allowing commercial transactions with Afghanistan. Universities have opened for both male and female students. The next step is March, which the government has promised is when it will open schools, at long last, for both boys and girls. Popular jirgas, convened semi-independently of government, can provide for a strong level of grassroots engagement in communal affairs; one can (cautiously) hope that such endeavours would continue.
Finally, ethnicity, as detailed in January’s newsletter, remains a key lens through which outside actors view events in the country, and a key tool through which elements on the political spectrum seek to gain traction. Irrespective of intertwined and multi-layered nuances unveiling on the ground.