Thu Sep 24th, 2009 at 02:34:12 PM EST
In media and in public there is growing sense of failure in Afghanistan for the Western alliance. Leaked report of general McCrystal only confirmed this feeling. Brushing aside biased letters and articles of American conservatives and self-congratulatory speeches of officials of Obama administration I want to concentrate on Afghanistan, let's try to judge what is going on in this country on merit. Is there any chance for success and what is constituted success?
Areas in Afghanistan and FATA in neighboring Pakistan where Taliban operates are among the world's notorious "badlands", so not many in the world can boast of having the first hand knowledge of Taliban. So-called Amir ul-Momineen (Leader of the faithful) Mullah Mohammed Omar never talked to journalists and is known to receive a foreigner (former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi) just once. Such nocturnal habits make it very difficult to form opinion independent from influence of vested interests, be it Pakistani, Russian, Indian, American or even rival Afghani. There are some books though not all of good quality or particularly useful in this regard. Take for example Ghost Wars about CIA-sponsored jihad against Soviets with familiar set of characters like current defense secretary Robert Gates and scores of other politicians, senators, spies in Washington, Moscow, Kabul, Islamabad, etc. From my vantage point in India it seems to me improbable that the fate of Afghanistan was decided in pompous gilded halls of world capitals. Despite the long history of foreign invasions and interference I think that Afghanistan's unfortunate destiny was shaped by Afghans themselves.
Just concluded elections is the clear example how Afghans decide for themselves. It was common knowledge that Obama's administration did not like Hamid Karzai's government and wanted to engineer "regime change" in Kabul. Not through "velvet revolution" but via supposedly democratic and competitive elections with American-style rallies. That's why administration insisted on delay of elections till August to give fair chance to Karzai's opponents. Karzai agreed but rigged elections in his favor. Now election farce became fiasco of Obama's Afghanistan policy. Upcoming winter which will cut off many parts of the country and persistent sectarian and ethnic divisions within Afghanistan will likely force Obama's administration to admit that they have no real choice but to back cunning Karzai once again. And tolerate not only Karzai's notorious brother but also deals with regional warlords that Karzai had cut along the way.
Was the brand new American policy in Afghanistan a mistake? I think there can be no doubts that the answer is yes. Obama made the war against Taliban and Al Qaeda a priority yet since assuming his office in January he did not visit Afghanistan. He had not found time to meet Karzai (sending instead "a bull in chinashop" Holbrooke) and did not give any verbal support which could shelter Karzai from savage criticism of Western media. I know that Western media is independent (like Indian media) but mediapersons usually listen to what political leaders say. Instead of allowing Karzai to be re-elected unopposed in the spring, kicking out Europeans from safe northern provinces (what they are doing there after 7 years of occupation where Taliban did not exist in the first place?), organizing new conference of donor countries to start finally economic development Obama's administration let the things slip away through election circus and now is facing growing skepticism at home, mounting casualties both military and civilian, emboldened Taliban and requests for additional troops from his generals. The precious year is lost.
From press reports it is evident that string of failures has bitterly divided Western policy makers and sent waves of panic (or quiet satisfaction) in some capitals like New Delhi or Islamabad. A powerful group led by vice-president Joe Biden, it seems, advocates gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, reminding about America's goal there - not nation-building but elimination of Osama bin Laden. They were heartened by the news of death of Baitullah Mehsud and other leaders of Pakistani Taliban from rockets fired from unmanned CIA drones. They are not suspicious yet that successful attacks targeted mostly warlords which figure only on Pakistani hitlist, not American or Indian for that matter.
The answer for the question which is eagerly anticipated now (request for additional 30-40 thousands of troops) is ironically not the most relevant regarding the future of Afghanistan and ongoing war. It is purely military question how present Western troops in the country can be better utilized against insurgents and whether they really need influx of new troops. The main question which worry many Afghans is the commitment of international community to rebuilding minimalist state (in words of Ahmed Rashid) especially in the wake of negative publicity surrounding election fraud.
Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist and author of highly acclaimed history of Taliban, writes in Washington Post that he "urged in 2002 Bush administration to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan's minimalist state which had been destroyed by 30 years of war". Experts had calculated that the process of lifting Afghanistan out of desperate poverty and state failure would require just 5 bln dollars a year for 10 years. This modest sum could be spent on agriculture, road and communications and investments in Afghan army and police. However Bush administration soon lost interest in Afghanistan switching over to more exciting prospects in toppling Saddam's regime in oil-rich Iraq and Afghanistan did not get promised help.
It was hardly surprising. Western policy makers too often remember their budget deficit when it comes to help in economic development of the poorest countries. Jeffrey Sachs in "The End of Poverty" narrates how often he and economic ministers from countries whose economy was disintegrating "was told there was no money available to accomplish anything other through military means". Everybody knows how much money is wasted on American army. It is not clear whether blns of dollars spent on their transport, security, weaponry, salaries bring about necessary results or it could be cheaper and more effective to spend even less on economic development, communications, security. That's why I think that question whether Washington should send additional troops or not is rather irrelevant to the outcome of the war against Taliban.
The roadmap for international community in Afghanistan is known long ago, at least since 2002 when armed with UNSC resolutions international forces invaded the country and kicked out Taliban. Taliban retreated to havens in Pakistan where it regrouped, licked its wounds and now harass Western allies. What should be done now? Is it too late to bring about basic state in Afghanistan which can counter return of Taliban? I don't know. It will require not only speedy recognition of Karzai government (India already congratulated him on spectacular victory) but also (rephrasing Ahmed Rashid) rebuilding minimalist state at breakneck speed, further pressure on Pakistan to include in drones hitlist not only colorful characters which are wanted by Pakistani state alone but also other countries' hitlists and pressure on Karzai to bring about inclusive government rather than ragtag coalition of drug traffickers and regional warlords.