Afghan Withdrawal Symptoms

On the evening of Wednesday (June 22nd), President Obama delivered a speech in which he said:
“…starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”
This follows on from the news, announced by Afghan president Hamid Karzai on June 18th, that U.S. officials had been involved in direct talks with the Taliban. The United States’ readiness to converse with the Taliban has been an open secret for some time, with reports in the New York Times and Washington Post suggesting that “moderate” Taliban were being primed to play a role in Afghan political life. In April 2010, writing in the Post, Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid stated that Hamid Karzai was looking for support from the U.S. administration in his diplomatic efforts to bring the Taliban back into the fold.
In October last year, NATO was reported to have been involved in negotiations between the government of Hamid Karzai and Taliban members who had engaged in preliminary peace talks. One such Taliban leader involved in these peace talks turned out to be an impostor, leading to embarrassment for all concerned.
On June 19th this past weekend, a day after Karzai made his announcement, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that American diplomats had been directly engaged in negotiations with the Taliban, saying:
“I think there's been outreach on the part of a number of countries including the United States, I would say that these contacts are very preliminary at this point.”
Gates suggested that talks had begun only a few weeks previously, but added:
“My own view is that real reconciliation talks are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter. I think that the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure, and begin to believe that they can't win before they're willing to have a serious conversation.”
On Wednesday Ban Ki-moon, United Nations chief, affirmed his support for negotiations with the Taliban. He said:
“There should dialogue and negotiations even with the Taliban and other insurgent armed groups. I believe and I support the Afghan led process of negotiations with Taliban for peace and stability while the international community led by ISAF has clear exit plans by 2014.”
He claimed that the United Nations was not directly dealing with the Taliban in the current talks, but said that the UN would provide technical support if necessary.
Almost a year ago, Hamid Karzai had openly stated that he wished to downgrade the terrorist status of several Taliban members, effectively legitimizing them. He apparently hoped that by removing from terror lists, they would be able to act as representatives for a less extreme Taliban. Around the same time, Pakistani president Ali Asif Zardari was said to have personally met and offered assurances of support to captured Taliban members in Pakistan.
The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan militarily has been on the cards for some time. In December 2009, after announcing a 30,000-troop surge to be deployed in Afghanistan, President Obama justified his decision by telling military cadets that the strategy would
“allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.”
Exactly a year ago, CBS commentator Brian Montopoli wrote:
What appears most likely to happen in July 2011 is a drawdown of some and perhaps all of the 30,000 troops that were part of the surge - political pressure from the left may simply be too significant for the White House not to make at least some concessions to their deadline.
The president’s announcement of a withdrawal from Afghanistan is worrying on many levels. There is room to be cynical, as there will be an election next year, and American voters have a great sense of frustration with the situation in Afghanistan. The length of conflict in Afghanistan surpassed that of Vietnam on June 7, 2010, making this the longest war in America’s entire history. No-one in the modern age would wish to revisit the record breaking wars of Europe’s past, such as the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648) or the Hundred Years War (1336 – 1453).
Pandering to public frustration with a prolonged and seemingly endless conflict far away is one thing, even if a cynic may argue that Wednesday’s announcement was merely an early election broadcast (British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced yesterday that there will be no U.K. troops in Afghanistan by 2015, which is also an election year in Britain). It is another issue entirely to place any trust in the security forces of a corrupt and mismanaged nation, expecting these to fill the breach that will be left behind once the might of the American military has departed. President Obama stated:
In Afghanistan, we've inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongholds. Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilize more of the country. Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities we have already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people. In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war.
The notion that the Afghan government will even attempt to risk conflict with the Taliban by militarily defending girls’ schools is an expression of magical thinking. The ideologues of the Taliban follow the doctrines issued by the Deobandi movement, which maintains that girls should not be educated beyond the age of eight. With Hamid Karzai apparently planning to embark on a process of power-sharing with the Taliban, it would be more likely that schooling for girls would generally involve only young children. In the cities of Kandahar and Kabul, there may be chances for girls to be educated to a higher level, but for girls in far-flung rural areas the opportunities of receiving any education seem no more than pipe-dreams.
Currently, the Karzai-led government has little control over rural regions, and foreign aid workers risk their lives to provide the medical, ophthalmic and dental treatments that the national infrastructure fails to provide. Tribal traditions still apply in rural regions, and these conventions are not dissimilar to those upheld by the Taliban. Tribal councils of elders, called jirgas, provide archaic justice. Girls rarely get treated equally at such “courts.” In Pashtun regions, a tradition called “swara” (known also as “vani” in Pakistan) uses girls as bartering chips. If a male has transgressed, he can attone for his crime by giving away a daughter or a sister in marriage to those he transgressed against. Such compensation marriages frequently involve underage girls, who have no rights to refuse such bargains, and are rarely accepted with warmth by their new in-laws.
Between March 2009 and April 27, 2011, a total of 48 NATO troops and military contractors had been killed by “friendly” Afghan military and police personnel, in at least 16 staged attacks. Between April 13th and April 27th, there were four attacks on NATO forces by rogue Afghan “allies” which happened within an Afghan government compound. With such failings in basic procedures of vetting, and with these lapses of discipline, it seems unreasonable to expect the Afghan military or police forces to become efficient bodies, staffed by conscientious individuals. It is not rational to expect Afghanistan’s security forces to act with integrity when the national government seems incapable of setting standards of probity.
Financially Afghanistan is in a mess. On June 30, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder arrived in Kabul to urge his Afghan counterpart, Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, to wage a campaign against corruption. At that time, Aloko was accused of allowing senior figures to embezzle funds and escape corruption. Just before Holder’s visit, Mohammad Siddiq Chakari, the Afghan Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs, was accused of collecting Saudi bribe money intended as sweeteners for companies wishing to operate pilgrimages to Mecca. Chakari fled to London rather than stand trial. Despite the seriousness of the charges against the former minister, and the president’s public proclamations of fighting corruption, it was reported on Monday June 13th this month that Hamid Karzai had met with Chakari at a hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan. Afghanistan’s Tolo News reported that:
“With the meetings taking place in Islamabad there are rumours that Mr Chakari will re-join the Afghan government. Previously, there were speculations that Mr Chakari had spent some money in president Karzai's presidential campaign which is why he managed to escape the country despite being under a travel ban.”
Chakari was one of numerous cabinet ministers to be accused of corruption who all evaded punishment. Recently colleague Gary H. Johnson Jr. pointed my attention to an article by Jon Boone, who relates that nearly one billion dollars have disappeared from the Kabul Bank via unaccounted loans and mysterious property acquisitions in Dubai, yet no-one has been charged. The bank had been run as a “giant pyramid scheme.” Boone wrote:
One of the world's poorest nations, Afghanistan has to finance a $820m bailout of the bank and the ministry of finance is ramping up its tax collection efforts to pay for it. Public confidence in the banking system, non-existent under the Taliban, has been shattered – 24,000 safes were sold during the run on the bank last summer, as people hoarded cash at home. Of all the problems in Afghanistan the role of people close to the president, Hamid Karzai, in the scandal has soured support for the war in the US Congress. Foreign donors are refusing to make aid payments until the mess is cleared up to the satisfaction of the International Monetary Fund. If a deal isn't reached soon, the Afghan government will, within a month or so, struggle to pay civil servant salaries.
Recently, Hamid Karzai has been threatening to expel NATO forces from Afghanistan. Even though an ending to a protracted war with the Taliban which has thus far cost the lives of 1,634 Americans and 909 other NATO personnel may seem desirable, the financial burdens are likely to continue long beyond the withdrawal. So far, the war has cost American taxpayers $450 billion.
The most potentially costly drain upon American taxpayer’s resources could come from projects related to a plan to build a new city between Bagram and Kabul.
This proposed conurbation, called Dehsabz City or New Kabul City, is intended to be completed over the next fifteen years and should become a home for 3 million people and cover 540 square kilometers (210 square miles). Kabul has suffered excessive overpopulation and with failing infrastructure, plans to build Dahsabz city from scratch will necessitate massive foreign investment. Plans to attract foreign investors began in earnest in June 2008, even though an independent organizing board had been set up by Hamid Karzai in 2006. Most of the design and strategic planning of the city was commissioned from European planners, with additional assistance provided by Japan. A job description from the Dehsabz City Development Authority (DCDA) from eight months ago (pdf) stresses the need for the applicant to be aware of, and prepared to act against, potential corruption. In addition to the city there will be a commercial and agricultural zone (Barikab) and the Chinese are expected to provide employment through plants processing copper from the nearby Aynak deposit. There are even plans to exploit the tourist potential of the proposed new city.
The final cost of the scheme is expected to be 34 billion dollars, with the Afghan government raising 11 million and private/public consortia and foreign investors providing the rest. If Afghanistan does not have a secure and stable society, where corruption is dealt with severely, the costs of trying to build such a new city would be vastly increased. Such a venture is bound to attract those who would use extortion and siphoning off of funds. If the country descends into a situation of semi-civil war with NATO forces gone, the city could never be completed.  It is likely that the developing city will, at best, become a black hole for foreign aid.
Already American funds are employed by USAID to bolster the infrastructure of Afghanistan. USAID, for example, is engaged in tunnel repair, road construction, clinics, solar-powered lighting for schools and villages, providing clean drinking water and numerous projects throughout Afghanistan. While USAID provides these services, the Afghan government is being given valuable assistance which it should ultimately be prepared to provide by itself. Hamid Karzai may threaten to command American troops to leave the country, he would be reluctant to do without the services of American aid. Judging by his track record, Hamid Karzai will still want American money. The Afghan government will probably continue to receive U.S. funds long after the last troops have left.
During the current economic crisis, it would be an act of folly to engage in nation-building in Afghanistan. There will be no direct returns for the American taxpayer. There will certainly be no proven and foolproof means to prevent impoverished (or middle class) Afghans from becoming Taliban or jihadists in the future.
Whatever the war was for when it began in 2001, it was never about nation-building. It was about crushing the Islamist government of the Taliban that had provided shelter to Osama bin Laden. Over the last three centuries, successive attempts to nation-build in Afghanistan have failed dismally. If American troops are to pull out on the president’s current schedule, such a withdrawal must be seen as an acknowledgement that remaining there was bringing no benefits to anyone. If the agencies from Japan and Europe wish to waste their time and funds trying to build an urban Utopia, let them also take the responsibility for providing aid and development for the irredentist ambitions of the Afghan government.  With foreign troops withdrawn, funds and charitable donations will still be made by the current administration.
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said yesterday that troop withdrawal “does not mean the United States is abandoning Afghanistan.’’ He told elders in one district of Nangargar province: “For nine years, the international community has been in front. Beginning now and over the next three years, the Afghan people will be in front.”
Later, Eikenberry said to a press conference:
“I tell them [the Afghan people]nothing has changed. We have a continuing commitment to Afghanistan and the Afghan people. . . . We seek a long-term partnership and an enduring friendship.”
The president’s schedule of speedy withdrawal has been met with criticism from both sides on the Hill. Generals who wished to see a delay before withdrawal were ignored. Senator John McCain said:
“Just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners - the president has now decided to deny them the forces that our commanders believe they need to accomplish their objective.”
Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said of the president’s decision:
“We are hearing from people that this is the beginning of giving in to the demands of the Taliban. And there is a real concern that a quick and premature withdrawal could prompt civil war.”
The prospects for civil war are very real. Grand schemes requiring large amounts of foreign investment, such as the proposed city of Dehsabz, would be doomed if civil war broke out. The Afghans experienced civil war when the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, a civil war that ended when the Taliban won and imposed a thuggish and archaic system of control on the larger population centers.
For all his verbose rhetoric, it seems Obama is not really that interested in the long-term future of Afghanistan. His speech may conjure up Kumbayah scenarios of happy Afghans adopting the principles of civic responsibility. However, it is all too easy for those with cynical eyes to see his proposals for a quick withdrawal as being designed for the benefit of neither the Afghans, nor for the U.S. military, but for his own political chances in 2012.
The issues in this article will be discussed in the BlogTalkRadio show, Global Security Matters, which airs at 6pm Eastern Time today.

blog comments powered by Disqus

FSM Archives

10 year FSM Anniversary