Conflict update: April 15-17 2017

Happy Easter again to everyone who celebrated, and Pesach Sameach to those observing Passover, which ends tomorrow. And if any Egyptians happen to be reading this, happy Sham el-Nisim.


The weekend’s biggest story was, as expected, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I’s formal coronation. By a slim margin, also as expected, Turkish voters on Sunday approved a referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The changes will be phased in over the next two years, but when the process is complete full executive authority will be concentrated in the office of president rather than split between the presidency and the prime minister’s office (with the PM, which is disappearing under the new system, actually the more powerful of the two positions). Erdoğan, who could now serve as president through 2029 under these changes, and will presumably try to change the constitution again in a decade if he wants to stay in office beyond that, will have vast new powers to control Turkey’s state bureaucracy, judiciary, military, and legislature.

Juan Cole writes at length about something I brought up on Friday, which is that many of these changes, on their face, are not particularly anti-democratic or authoritarian. On paper, when these changes are fully implemented Turkey’s government won’t look that much different from France’s, for example, or America’s–both of which have their own problems, don’t get me wrong, but neither of which could be called a dictatorship at least at the moment. The problem with Turkish democracy is, as it’s been at least since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan. Especially since last summer’s failed coup gave him an excuse to institute a permanent state of emergency, Erdoğan has been able to purge his political rivals, imprison his political opposition, stifle independent media, and rule Turkey as a one-man show for several years now under the current system, so all this change will do is make it easier for him to keep on keeping on.

Do these changes take Turkey back toward something resembling the Ottoman Empire? Stephen Cook says yes, but even he acknowledges that this is only really going to be the case when the president and parliament both come from the same party. The potential for an opposition parliament to check the president is there. The problem is that it’s impossible to see how an opposition parliament can ever be elected when Erdoğan has thoroughly stifled the Turkish press, has stocked the judiciary with his political appointees, has purged Turkish academia of anyone who dares to criticize him, and won’t let opposition parties mount anything approaching an actual political campaign (and likes to throw their leaders in jail just for good measure). And he didn’t need these amendments to do that. Does this result make Erdoğan a dictator? I would say no, but only because he pretty much already was one.

Also, while we’re mourning the demise of Turkish democracy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that it has always–and here I’m not just referring to the Erdoğan Era, but to the entire history of republican Turkey–had an authoritarian edge to it. You can go all the way back to the days of Atatürk and right through the decades during which another military coup seemed always to be just around the bend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time when there wasn’t tension between the will of the Turkish people and the will of the few actors at the top of the Turkish political system.

So what happens now, as in right now, before 2019? Continue reading

Afghan rivals agree to temporarily postpone tearing country apart

Over the weekend, the two main rivals in the recent Afghan presidential elections finally agreed to put aside their differences and signed an agreement to implement a unity government along the lines of the one that had been suggested by John Kerry about a month ago, one that figures to hang together for at least a few hours after it officially takes power. Former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, who seems to have won the election (the fact that turnout for the runoff was up 1.5 million voters from the first round does seem kind of inexplicable, but auditors claim that even accounting for the “large-scale fraud on both sides,” Ghani won), was in fact declared the winner and will assume the office…well, someday. Seriously, nobody actually seems to have picked a date for his inauguration.

Ghani’s rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, agreed to stop contesting an audit of the runoff in exchange for being installed as prime minister, an office that has been defunct in Afghanistan since shortly after the Taliban were overthrown. Except he won’t be called “Prime Minister,” but instead he’ll be the “Chief Executive Officer” of Afghanistan, because that doesn’t sound completely ridiculous and because Afghanistan is now a publicly-held corporation, I guess?

The thing is, while the CEO is supposed to manage the day to day affairs of the new government, nobody can seem to agree where his authority should end and the President’s should begin, which ought to make for a fun first few months on the job for everybody. The President in the Afghan constitution has a considerable amount of power (again, they haven’t even had a “prime minister” since Hamid Karzai came to power as head of the transitional government at the end of 2001), but Abdullah clearly didn’t agree to this power-sharing deal under the assumption that Ghani would have all the power. On a purely personal level, Ghani and Abdullah, aside from having just bitterly contested a presidential election and recount, reportedly can’t stand each other from back when they were both in Karzai’s cabinet, and wouldn’t even show up for their own joint press conference on Sunday after they’d signed the unity agreement. So things are already off to a great start.

There’s a lot at stake for Afghanistan in seeing that these two manage to make the new government work. First and foremost is fighting the Taliban, though both of them seem to be largely in agreement as to how to go about that (both, for example, pledged during the campaign to sign an agreement to keep US and coalition forces in the country beyond the end of the year). Afghanistan’s economy is perpetually lousy and will have to be improved somehow in order to bring the country together and to counter the Taliban’s ideological appeal. Related to that is the possibility that international aid could be cut if it looks like the road to Stable Afghan Democracy is about to take a detour through Broken Government and/or Civil War. Best thing for everybody is that Ghani and Abdullah make some sacrifices and put aside their personal differences. But we’ll see about that.

A harsh critique?

Just to sum up, in his new memoirs Robert Gates is harshly critical of President Obama because Obama: was insufficiently committed to a war effort that we now know has failed; lacked trust in two of his military commanders, the one who was openly insubordinate to him and the one who ran his military command like a giant public relations operation; and had no faith in the cartoonishly corrupt crime boss we installed as Mayor of Kabul President.

I haven’t read the book, and I’ll give Gates the benefit of the doubt that he’s got some legitimate or arguably legitimate criticisms of the Obama Administration in there, but these don’t make the cut.