Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Varnish It & Call It "Victory"

Hey, we won! The Taliban have announced they're ready to negotiate with the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai.

I know, I know - it smells a lot like a piece of crap but if you throw enough varnish on it and polish it up nice it's not so bad.

What stands in the way of a deal? That would be us or, to be precise, Washington. You see, the Afghan conquest was pitched to us as something it never was. Our side went in to help the Good Guys send the Bad Guys packing. The trouble is, there was never all that much difference between GG and BG, even though we needed to believe there was to keep this farce going for six years.

From the outset we treated the Taliban as evil incarnate and our side, the GGs, as something much better. Why? Good question. Both sides were full of nasty, murderous thugs but, when it came to our side, we had this guy Karzai - a nice guy, enlightened, pro-West, English-speaking, the whole package.

Beginning the new government with Karzai was a good move. His own dad was killed by the Taliban. Who could be more reliable than that? However there was a fatal flaw in our plan, one that remains fatal to our delusional image of a new Afghanistan. This flaw was the guys who would become Karzai's key lieutenants, those with whom he would have to share power, the warlords of the Northern Alliance.

We didn't like these guys. The Americans put their names on a list of villains Karzai was absolutely never, ever, ever to appoint to key government positions. Karzai appointed them anyway. Why? Because we gave him no other choice. We abandoned Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan's future to these warlords and that sealed his and his country's fate. Why did we abandon Karzai? For the same reason that the White House abandoned the fight against the Taliban when they had them on the ropes - Iraq.

Without warlord support, Karzai was little more than the mayor of Kabul. The US and NATO needed to bolster Karzai, to establish him as a legitimate, national leader. We didn't. Why? Because that would have meant toppling the warlords, our former allies, and bringing their provinces under federal control. We didn't want another war, especially not with these thugs, so Karzai had to buy their support by handing them the reins of power.

If you don't think these guys are murderous thugs and criminals, consider this: their most significant legislative achievement has been to grant themselves total amnesty for their monstrous crimes in the past and virtual immunity for their crimes to come. In the West, we chose to put lipstick on this pig and trumpet it as "democracy".

Six years on and we're still fighting the resilient and now resurgent Taliban. Once we had them on the ropes then we gave them breathing room and they used it to come back, retake territory and destabilize Kabul. Karzai is no fool. He looks around him and sees his government and his security services infiltrated with corruption; his "national" army a loose and temporary amalgamation of warlord militias; Bush on the ropes at home; Blair gone; NATO fast losing interest; his countryside increasingly falling under the control of insurgents, drug lords and his own warlords; his nation's economy now dependent on narcotics; long-promised civil reconstruction floundering; and Pakistan, whose assistance Afghanistan desperately needs, hostile and in disarray. Now, pretend you're Hamid Karzai sitting in your office in Kabul and then do the math.

What to do? How about we start by giving up the fantasies that have brought us to where we are today? Truth Number One: we're not in this to win, we never were. The US and NATO combined still have a paltry fraction of the force needed in Afghanistan to provide essential security for the central government. Take the city of Toronto, fire 80% of the police officers and what do you think would happen? Not good but, then again, it's only Toronto.

Truth Number Two: The Taliban are neither as evil nor as threatening as we've made them out to be. The Taliban didn't support al-Qaeda, it was the other way around. Six years after they were driven out of Kabul no one has come up with any direct link between the Taliban and 9/11 other than that they permitting al-Qaeda to run some camps up in the hills. There's not been a shred of evidence - nothing, nada, zilch - that the Taliban had the faintest idea that America was going to be attacked by bin Laden's gang. We've had their books for six years. Plenty of them have defected to our side. Still nothing linking the Taliban to international terrorism. Quite remarkable that, eh?

Truth Number Three: The Afghans are not ready for Western democracy. In the days since their last king they've reverted to theocratic medieval feudalism. We can't drag them out of that. They will have to find their own way out. That's a trial and error process that they're going to have to endure - just as we did.

That's not to say they can't start with some of the trappings of democracy. Even the Taliban are willing to concede the right to free elections within the framework of an Islamic state.

Truth Number Four: We, the West, need to engage the Taliban. Karzai isn't strong enough to do this on his own, especially given his vulnerability to the warlords within his camp. We didn't stand up for Karzai before, we can't afford to fail him again. This time all interests, warlords included, have to be represented at the bargaining table.

Look, we know there's no military solution to Afghanistan's problems. When we're pressed on the point we admit that. Despite that begrudging acknowledgement, we're still going around as though we can defeat the Taliban with our air power, artillery and tanks. The solution to this country's problems has to be political and that inevitably means some sort of accommodation and reconciliation.

This isn't about defeatism. If we wanted the big win we would have - at the very least - deployed the resources needed to win long before now. We've been playing this on a shoestring all along so don't give me any crap now about "cut and run" or "staying the course" or giving in to the terrorists.

At this point almost any accommodation that can bring real peace to this troubled country is a victory, a genuine achievement. Time we realized that.

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