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A tenuous deal in Afghanistan

A tenuous deal in Afghanistan

It's the decision that could kickstart intra-Afghan dialogue, and pave the way to ending the US occupation in Afghanistan after 20 bloody years.

On Sunday, after days of deliberations that involved thousands of Afghan delegates packing into one tent (what's COVID again), President Ashraf Ghani agreed to release hundreds of Taliban prisoners from government jails. The move opens the way to intra-Afghan dialogue under a deal that the US brokered directly with the Taliban earlier this year.

The Trump administration has touted this development as a major step towards peace, but after nearly two decades of war, the relevant players are still miles apart when it comes to laying out a common vision for the conflict-ridden country. What do they all want?


The Afghan government: Power brokers in Kabul have articulated some guidelines for a way forward after decades of war: In exchange for disarmament and a commitment to anti-terrorism measure, the Taliban could remain a visible force in public life and compete in elections.

Some analysts have compared this vision to the 2016 deal reached between the Colombian government and FARC rebels after years of conflict.

Indeed, while President Ghani and other influence peddlers in Kabul support the system of electoral democracy that emerged in the wake of the 2001 US invasion, critics point to tribal divisions and endemic corruption as reasons for widespread lack of confidence in the current political system.

The Taliban: The militant group's vision for a post-settlement Afghanistan remains murky. Ambiguous commitments about ceasing its violent activities — and offering protection for women— have only engendered greater fear among the Afghan population and mistrust among the political elite.

To date, the group has done little to show its willingness to embrace meaningful compromise. It has, in fact, intensified its violent insurgency in recent months, waging attacks that killed at least 42 government forces and 41 civilians in the week leading up to August 6.

Crucially, while the Afghan government backs the political status quo, the Taliban wants to reimpose the Islamic Emirate brand (enforced when they ruled the country from 1996-2001) as a system of governance — essentially, a theocratic state ruled by extreme interpretations of Islamic law. How the two sides might reconcile these disparate world-views within the framework of a power-sharing agreement remains… unclear.

The US: For the Trump administration, any political progress in Afghanistan will make it easier to follow through on its promises to reduce the number of American troops in wars in far-flung places around the world. This mission, popular among a war-weary US public, has renewed urgency now that polls show his Democratic opponent Joe Biden running full steam ahead.

Presumably, that's part of the reason for the Pentagon's announcement this week that the number of American troops in Afghanistan would be cut to below 5,000 by the end of November, despite the fact that the atmosphere surrounding intra-Afghan negotiations, and prospects for reconciliation, remain bleak. (There are around 8,600 American troops still in Afghanistan.)

What do the Afghan people want? Undoubtedly, the Afghan people have borne the brunt of insurgent violence, weak government, and economic stagnation over the past few decades.

But a recent survey by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies found that 68 percent of respondents prefer the current political structure, however flawed, to Taliban rule.

Over 80 percent said they think the people should directly elect the country's leaders, while the same number of respondents also expressed support for liberalization, including greater emphasis on women's rights and freedom of expression — concepts at odds with the Taliban ethos. (Many Afghan women fear that gains made towards their integration into Afghan society over the past 18 years will disappear in a flash if the Taliban joins the government.)

For years, warlords and criminal networks have squandered foreign aid intended to stimulate businesses and jobs. In the country deemed the most dangerous place in the world to be a child, it's no surprise that most Afghans simply want to be freed from the destructive cycle of corruption and violence that has sapped the promise of Afghanistan's economy.

Is there any hope? Almost two decades after the US invasion of Afghanistan there is an opening for peace, but making real progress will rely on meeting the demands of all of these groups in a way that has so far proven disastrously elusive.

Meet Ian Martin, an English Professor from Glasgow who is now head of Communications for Eni's International Resources. Approaching his work in the same way he used to hold his lectures, Ian is dedicated to listening and making people around him comfortable. Having working in both Milan and London, Ian utilizes his ability to communicate in different languages and cultures to prepare Eni's global messaging strategy. "Communication is a transfer of humanity," he says, and his job is as much centered around people as it as around language.

Watch Ian's human approach to communications on the most recent episode of Faces of Eni.

How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.

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While recent news from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the efficacy of their respective COVID vaccines is encouraging, it has also given rise to bidding wars between wealthy countries trying to secure the largest supply of the new drugs for their citizens. Meanwhile, many governments in emerging market economies, where healthcare infrastructure is generally weaker, are worried they'll be kicked to the back of the line in the global distribution process. Indeed, history bears out their concerns: while a lifesaving HIV treatment hit shelves in the West in the mid-1990s, for example, it took years to become widely in Africa, which saw some of the worst HIV outbreaks in the world. But here's the catch: even if wealthy countries manage to obtain large supplies of vaccines to immunize their populations, the interconnected nature of the global economy means that no one will really be out of the woods until we all are. Here's a snapshot of how many COVID vaccines select countries have already purchased.

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.

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Two weeks ago, Russia secured a deal to build a naval base in Sudan, its first new military facility in Africa since the end of the Cold War. The accord is a major milestone in Moscow's wider push to regain influence, and income, on a continent where the Kremlin was once a major player.

But with the ideological and military contests of the Cold War long over, what is Moscow doing in Africa today?

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Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year. Watch on Friday. Dec 4 2020 12 noon - 1 pm ET

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