Monday, January 19, 2009

Mired In Afghanistan

Have we just realized we've painted ourselves into a corner in Afghanistan?

You can read that into the views expressed by NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer over the weekend.

Scheffer took a swipe at the Karzai government in Kabul, writing that government corruption was as much a hurdle for NATO as the Taliban. Scheffer's assessment, while it might sound harsh, unfortunately is true but one could be forgiven for asking why it's taken NATO seven years since the initial ouster of the Taliban to realize it?

The worst thing is, it's our fault.

We, the West, and in particular the United States, created the conditions for the evolution of a hopelessly corrupt central government in Afghanistan. The criminal enterprise that is the Kabul government is a creature of our neglect.

America went into Afghanistan to seek revenge on the Taliban and al-Qaeda for the 9/11 attacks. That effort mainly consisted of employing massive US Air Force firepower in support of the Northern Alliance warlords. And that's where the problems began - with American acceptance of Afghanistan's warlords.

The "mine enemy's enemy" thing has its limitations. One of them is that the newfound ally might be a bad dude in the greater scheme of things. You're allies, after all, only because you both want to attack the same enemy.

After the Taliban were sent packing into the mountainous borderlands of Pakistan, there was lip service paid to instituting a democratic government in Afghanistan but no real thought given to the problem of warlordism.

We got the numerous militias to give up their heavy weapons - tanks and artillery - mainly because they had little use for them anyway. We didn't finish the job by taking down the political feifdoms of the warlords which meant that Afghanistan would be ruled only with their consent.

The Americans gave Karzai a list of thugs, criminals and warlords he was absolutely not to appoint to any positions of power in his administration. But the US and the West didn't give Karzai the means to stand up and say no to them. Without our essential support at the outset, Karzai was left vulnerable and unable to say no to a gang upon whose support depended his very survival.

In this way what is today's narco-state headed by a government best described as a criminal enterprise was birthed. Now, when it's too late, everybody is pointing fingers.

Can we start over, please?

No, we can't. It might be wonderful if we could just sweep away the Kabul government and dismantle its corrupt and predatory bureaucracy but it really is too late for such a wholesale do-over. And besides, we don't have the strength to attempt it.

To try to rectify our first, failed experiment, the Western states would have to wipe the slate clean and that would mean occupying the countryside with a massive number of troops. You can't take down the warlords by locking down Kabul. What's worse is that, at this point, they have an option and they know it. They can join the growing and spreading insurgency. They can reform their militias, just as Hekmatyar did, and sign on with the team that's devoted to driving out the Infidel occupiers.

I suppose the first thing that happens when you begin to suspect that you might have painted yourself into a corner is that you look around desperately hoping you can find a way out. When you find that you have indeed painted yourself in a corner, the next reaction is frustrated resignation.

Scheffer's remarks seem to embrace both frustration and resignation. Carping at Karzai is about as effective as baying at the moon. Karzai is not the master in his house. He's widely dismissed as little more than the mayor of Kabul. Outside the capital, power is vaguely apportioned, often in layers, among government agents, warlords, drug barons and the insurgency.

Kabul's reach is steadily shrinking just as the insurgency's is spreading. This hardly seems the moment to be demanding top to bottom house cleaning from Karzai. It's hard to see how he could, even if he wanted to (and he might actually want nothing better).

Obama, perhaps naively, wants a surge in US forces in Afghanistan. That must be, in part, to justify the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. It might also be, in part, political imperative. No one wants to be saddled with the legacy and inevitable finger-pointing that would follow pulling American forces out of both countries.

A recent assessment from Chatham House questions whether a doubling of American ground forces in Afghanistan can truly accomplish much. It also raises the prospect that what may be achieved is simply an increase in violence, more civilian deaths and even stronger public perception that the West is an army of occupation.

It's hard to see the way out of Afghanistan. We can cling to the idealistic fantasy that we're there only until we can train, equip and field adequate numbers of Afghan soldiers and police. That ignores the fact that no army can achieve much if it serves a corrupt civilian regime.

The Dutch are supposed to be out of Afghanistan in 2010 with Canada following a year later. But cracks are beginning to appear in the Dutch resolve and the idea of a further extension beyond 2010 is being discussed, albeit quietly.

Canada doesn't appear to be making any progress toward a 2011 withdrawal either. These things have to be negotiated with the overall force structure, ISAF. Arrangements have to be made for a replacement force to be mustered, trained, equipped and readied to take over. We don't even have a shortlist of countries willing to consider the job. We have no committment from either ISAF or NATO to furnish a relief force. We're as far out on the limb as we've ever been. When Obama comes calling are we really ready to say no?

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