Saturday, March 13, 2010

How We Lose Afghanistan

Afghanistan today is really little more than an unresolved civil war in hiatus. We have interceded between the main protagonists, the Northern Alliance warlords, and the Taliban. In the process we have handed over the levers of power to the brutal, corrupt and treacherous warlords of the Northern Alliance while we stepped into their shoes to give battle to the Taliban.

While the warlords have certainly entrenched their cancerous hold on Afghanistan, we have fought a half-hearted, short-sighted war against the Taliban that has seen the 'bad guys' return as an insurgency that morphed into a full-blown rebellion, holding or controlling territory that is supposed to belong to the regime in Kabul.

If we believed we actually had a chance at defeating the Taliban that's what we'd be doing. But we know - and they know - we're not going to defeat them and so, in a war where there is no Option "B", we've decided to go with Option "B" and seek to bring "the Taliban" into a power-sharing arrangement with their Northern Alliance brethren.

As I said at the outset, there is no Option "B" and there never will be. Option "B" is at best a fantasy, at worst a dangerous delusion. Option "B" presumes the existance of a valid central government onto which we can graft the Taliban. Afghanistan has no valid central government, merely a "criminal enterprise" based on a nexus of a corrupt administration and a narco-economy undermined by warlordism and tribalism. We can't even get that to stand up on its own much less graft something else onto it.

Option "B" also presumes we can somehow get these disparate groups to set aside their rivalries and join to form a harmonious, marginally democratic government that will be compatible with our own geo-political interests in that region. We want a proxy state and nothing less. We want a pro-Western Iraq to the west of and a pro-Western Afghanistan to the east of Iran. We want a fortress with which we can contain not merely Iran but also the energy hungry appetites of China and Russia. We want it all.

We want the unreliable Karzai out. He knows it. He knows that Britain and the United States are going behind his back to erode his support among Afghan leaders. We know it. He knows it. Iran knows it. China knows it and Pakistan knows it. Iran and China are moving vigorously to consolidate their positions in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants in too, especially as Karzai has tested the winds and knows there is much to be gained by dumping Islamabad's rival, India, in favour of an Afghan-Pakistan alliance. Iran, China and even Pakistan may have a great deal to gain by backing Karzai, particuarly if that drives a deep wedge between Kabul and Washington and London.

They know our Achilles' Heel - time. Time is not on our side. We can't sustain public support for the Afghan war much longer. The longer Karzai and his backers can dig in their heels, the weaker becomes our hand. We need momentum, they need only inertia.

This might be an ideal moment to fall back on our own default option when dealing with an intractible puppet regime - a military coup. Unfortunately in our eight years of warfighting in Afghanistan we've failed to build an Afghan army capable of taking control of the place.

If nothing else, Afghanistan will have been a terrible expensive object lesson. It has taught us that overwhelming military firepower is no cure all for lousy political leadership.

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