The etymology of the word Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, is derived from the Persian Badkube, meaning “city where the wind blows,” probably because gale-force and yearlong winds lash the city unrelentingly.
Reflecting on his time in Afghanistan as the head of the UN mission in 2006 and 2007, Tom Koenigs, writes in his book, Machen wir Frieden oder haben wir Krieg (“Are We Making Peace or Do We Have a War”), “If people would want to know what I think I have done right in the last two years and what I have done wrong, what has been improved, or if it was worthwhile, these are all questions to which, if I am entirely honest, I know no answers.”
With the victory of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the election of Nawaz Sharif for an unprecedented third term as prime minister in May 2013, it seemed as though Pakistan was about to usher in a new era. Sharif had been prime minister in the 1990s, but he was famously ousted in a 1999 coup d’etat, led by the military under General Musharraf, and exiled to Saudi Arabia.
NATO’s scheduled withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 has some people worried the country will sink back into the political and economic disorder that blighted the country after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Others, more hopeful, feel the nation can survive the pullout and gradually become stronger and self-sufficient. Either scenario, it seems, could play out with equal likelihood, but several factors could tip the balance in one direction or the other.
When it comes to profiling Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani, most analysts have been cautious about his seemingly moderate ideology.
Rouhani has been close to Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian leadership throughout his political career for a number of reasons, but none so obvious than the fact that he has been there since the beginning. Rouhani was an active part of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah, and was arrested in 1964 and again in 1977 for revolutionary activity. He was good friends with Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1960s after meeting on a train, and they worked closely together in Paris during the critical early days of the revolution. Rouhani's most important role in politics came right after the revolution, when he was elected MP in 1980 and then Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Iran from 1992 to 2000. During the presidency of then centrist, now reformist President Rafsanjani in 1989, Rouhani was appointed the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, which meant that he designed Iranian defense policies; this would set him up for his later role as chief nuclear negotiator. He left these positions following the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005.
Four years ago, Iranians poured into the streets chanting, “where is my vote?” Last week, they poured into the streets chanting, “we took back our votes.” And many, more emotionally, chanted, “Mousavi, Mousavi, we took back your vote”.
Watching the outpouring of joy, it occurred to me that in Iran, people do not “vote.” A “vote” has a clear meaning. It is a decision that just gets counted. It is the decision.
In Iran, people “input.” Every four years, they go to the polls, and give input into the government’s black box. The government receives that input, considers it, evaluates its own strength, its sense of self confidence at that moment, and an output comes out of its black box.
Pakistan has been bombarded by wars and political unease for years, but the country has made headlines around the world recently for its first ever transition from one democratic regime to another. In the wake of the elections, Alex Thier, former Assistant to the Administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and now the agency’s Assistant to the Administrator for Policy, Planning, and Learning, discussing governance opportunities and challenges for the incoming Pakistani administration, made three critical points about Pakistan and its future.
Pakistan remains dramatically short of reaching its potential.
While on periodic travel to Afghanistan over the past two years I had the rare opportunity to travel ‘outside the wire’. Beyond the Hesco walls and concrete barriers of military installations guarded by heavily armed men is the real Afghanistan that the country’s thirty-some million inhabitants call home. In great contrast to the dusty camps that are all most civilian contractors and military service members get to see of the country, Afghanistan is a land of vast beauty with a richer cultural heritage than many visitors ever fathom, let alone have the opportunity to explore.
Regardless of troop surges, Taliban offensives and defeats, and high-level international negotiations about their futures, many Afghans’ lives have remained largely unchanged for the past decade, and some for longer than that. Many areas of the country are so remote that they were barely impacted by Taliban control, and have similarly remained little affected by developments since their fall.
The opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan has been squandered, and America is losing the war. Since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, Afghanistan has not evolved into a functioning state. Democracy never had a chance to take root. Without exception, the country’s elections were rigged, allowing the worst elements of society to rise to the top. Warlords have retained their power. Institutions have stayed weak and ineffective. The government is infested with corruption and nepotism.
Kim Howell, a former minister at the British Foreign Service overseeing Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan, once accused the Afghan government of being corrupt “from top to bottom.” And on April 4, 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported the result of a survey that the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime has carried out. According to this survey, Afghan citizens paid about $3.9 billion in bribes in 2012—twice the amount of the country’s tax revenue.
“Tell Mr. Obama not to leave us alone,” said Marjan, a 28-year-old political science student in Kabul. She spent five years at home—from the age of 12 until the Taliban were toppled in 2001, when she was 17. Under Taliban rule, women were forbidden from leaving their homes without a male companion. When Marjan turned 12, she could no longer leave her house without being noticed, so to protect her from being harassed by the Taliban, her family forced her to stay home for five years. “I have fair skin and bright eyes. I don’t look like a lot of Afghans. A Mullah asked my family for my hand in marriage when I was 13. He was 50. My family was repulsed. But most girls are doomed.” She was homeschooled by her parents, an opportunity not available to her friends with illiterate parents.
Marjan’s story is not unique. A large number of middle class Afghan women, who were teenagers during the Taliban era, are now attending universities in Kabul and other cities, taking advantage of the improved—albeit still much troubled—situation for women in Afghanistan. Regardless of their political learnings, their misgivings for the government of President Hamid Karzai, or their views on the use of drones in targeted killings in Afghanistan, the women with whom I have spoken could not hide their fear of a post-2014, post-ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan.
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