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Volume 26 - Issue 24 :: Nov. 21-Dec. 04, 2009
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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WORLD AFFAIRS

Military morass

JOHN CHERIAN

Afghanistan: The election has left President Hamid Karzai more isolated and his foreign backers more confused than ever before.

RAHMAT GUL/AP

An Afghan soldier standing next to a burning fuel truck after an attack on a NATO convoy near Jalalabad in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, on November 8.

THE election fiasco, coupled with the rapidly escalating violence, has shattered whatever little credibility the occupation forces had in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) had to concede finally that more than a million votes cast in the presidential election were fraudulent. Besides, last October was among the most violent months since the 2001 invasion – the United States Army suffered its highest casualty in a single month and then there were the audacious attacks launched by the Taliban in the heart of Kabul.

The suicide attack on a United Nations compound came soon after the announcement that there would be a second round of the presidential election. The attack on the U.N. personnel has had serious political ramifications. With the morale of the U.N. shattered, Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon announced the withdrawal of more than half of its personnel. War-torn Afghanistan is largely dependent on international humanitarian aid. The U.N.’s active involvement in the sham election process had made its personnel a target for the Taliban.

The second round was belatedly called off after Abdullah Abdullah’s refusal to run. Hamid Karzai’s challenger said that the second round would be as fraudulent as the first. The U.S. and the international community represented by the U.N. wasted no time in recognising Karzai as the legitimate winner. A second round, according to most observers, would have been a bigger charade than the first.

According to international observers, very few Afghans voted in the first round in August anyway. Karzai would have emerged as the eventual winner if the run-off had gone ahead. The incumbent President had stitched up a wide-ranging coalition of warlords and power brokers, which delivered him the vote in bulk in the first round. The Taliban stepped up its violence dramatically after the Election Commission’s initial announcement of a run-off. Even more Afghans would have stayed at home in a second-round voting.

SHAH MARAI/AFP

Abdullah Abdullah, who quit the presidential race ahead of the proposed second round, at a press conference on November 4, where he alleged that President Hamid Karzai’s re-election had no legal basis.

Meanwhile, the Barack Obama administration is still debating whether to accede to the demands of the U.S. military establishment for another troop surge in Afghanistan. The military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has been publicly lobbying for an additional 40,000 troops. In a report submitted to the White House, he has argued that the only way to avoid defeat in the Afghanistan war is to increase American boots on the ground.

There is no longer much talk emanating from Washington about the “good war” in Afghanistan. Now more emphasis is being devoted to engaging the “good” Taliban and buying off insurgent fighters, as was done with some success in Iraq. The U.S. military has now been authorised to pay Taliban fighters who renounce violence. A clause in the annual U.S. Defence Appropriation Bill authorises the American army in Afghanistan to help financially those Afghans who want to “reintegrate into society”. Around $1.3 billion has been earmarked for this purpose.

The election fiasco, which played out for more than two months, has left President Karzai more isolated and his foreign backers in a state of confusion. Key Western leaders no longer even accord him the respect due to a head of state. While congratulating him on his re-election, President Obama upbraided him on the corruption that characterised his earlier stint in office. Obama told reporters in Washington that he had warned Karzai that there should be “a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption” and that “the proof is not going to be in words, it should be in deeds”.

Stories leaked by the U.S. administration about Karzai’s younger brother Ahmad Wali Karzai being on the Central Intelligence Agency’s payroll and profiting from the drug trade figured prominently in the American media. The Obama administration wants Karzai to take action against prominent warlords such as Rashid Dostum and the Tajik leader Mohammed Fahim. The Uzbek and Tajik warlords are Karzai’s close political allies. Both of them expect to inherit lucrative Ministries, and not jail terms, during Karzai’s second term.

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Karzai must “actually arrest and prosecute” those who are corrupt. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told him as he began his second term that British soldiers would no longer be asked to lay down their lives for a government steeped in corruption. Brown told the British media that the Karzai government had become a “byword for corruption”. Kai Ede, the head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said in November that Karzai should not take international support for granted. He emphasised that the government in Kabul should shed its corrupt image and stop cohabiting with warlords. Ban ki-Moon also joined in the chorus of criticism while at the same time taking care to legitimise the flawed election.

In the first week of November, the Afghan government belatedly issued a statement rejecting the foreign criticism of Karzai, saying that the criticisms “violated national sovereignty”. However, in a speech he made after being officially named the winner of the presidential election, Karzai pledged to “wipe out the stain of corruption” and work closely with his political opponents.

The sudden concern in the West about the Karzai government’s corruption and deals with warlords reeks of hypocrisy. U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces operating in Pashtun areas have been depending on the help of warlords for some time now. Militias controlled by Afghan warlords have been providing protection for NATO convoys and forward U.S. bases. General McChrystal himself acknowledged that American and NATO ties with warlords were one of the reasons for the alienation of the populace from the occupation forces.

MUSADEQ SADEQ/AP

Karzai at a press conference in Kabul on November 3, a day after he was declared winner.

A report published by the Centre of International Cooperation at New York University (NYU) revealed that General Nazri Mahmed, a warlord in Badakshan province who was said to control “a significant portion of the province’s lucrative opium trade”, was on the payroll of the German military contingent. The report claimed that Western governments were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on contracts with security providers, most of them warlords and human rights violators. The U.N. estimates that there are 120,000 armed men employed by around 5,000 private militias. During the Bush presidency, the CIA armed and financed warlords such as Fahim and Dostum who helped during the 2001 invasion.

The Obama administration’s main goal is to train an effective Afghan fighting force that will eventually do most of the fighting. Given the current state of the Afghan army, this will be difficult to achieve. An internal U.S. report, details of which emerged in early November, describes the Afghan security force as badly trained, largely illiterate and highly corrupt. Recent events have also shown that the Afghan forces have been infiltrated by the Taliban.

In recent months, many Western soldiers were killed by defecting Afghan soldiers and policemen. One out of every five Afghan soldiers recruited leaves within a year. The current strength of the Afghan army stands at 90,000. General McChrystal recommended to Washington in September that the strength of the Afghan security force be doubled within a year. If this target is to be achieved, it will entail the deployment of 15,000 U.S. and NATO trainers. Leading NATO countries such as France and Germany are loath to send any more personnel.

President Obama is delaying his decision to despatch the additional troops urgently requested by the U.S. military brass. His Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has been maintaining that the U.S. is in Afghanistan for the long haul. Obama, in a major speech in August, described the war in Afghanistan as “a war of necessity” against those plotting to attack the U.S. This view is now being increasingly questioned in Washington, and public opinion in the West is increasingly turning against the war. Mathew Hoh, a senior State Department official posted in Afghanistan, recently resigned to protest against it. In his resignation letter, he said that if the U.S. administration’s goal was to thwart Al Qaeda from regrouping, then the U.S. might as well occupy Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, all countries where Al Qaeda is known to have a presence.

Peter Galbraith, the U.N.’s Deputy Head of Mission in Afghanistan who resigned in September to protest against the U.N.’s failure to supervise a fair and free election, has said that Karzai “cannot be an effective partner in Obama’s enhanced counter-insurgency strategy” as the Afghan leader is viewed at home and abroad as “ineffective” and “tolerating corruption”. A former British Minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, Kim Howells, recently called for the withdrawal of the bulk of the British forces fighting in Afghanistan. “It would be better to bring home the great majority of our fighting men and women and concentrate instead on using the money saved to secure our own borders,” he wrote in the Guardian.

American commentators and scholars opposed to the war have urged Obama to stand up against the pressure being mounted by the military, the right wing and the media in the U.S. to escalate the war. Their refrain is that history has shown that Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires”.



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