Long before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, the Americans had started to mutter darkly that Hamid Karzai was not only ineffective, he presided over a government that was corrupt and harbored drug and warlords in Afghanistan. While not all charges are false, Karzai alone cannot be blamed for all of them; it appears like another desperate attempt to shift blame for America’s own disastrous policies. In the past, Pakistan was “not doing enough”; now that its army and air force are attacking civilians in Bajaur, Swat and Waziristan but resistance has still not subsided in Afghanistan, the Americans must find someone else to blame: Karzai. Obama has demanded that he “get out of the bunker” (it was built for him by the Americans, replete with bodyguards!) and govern effectively.
Bombing and killing civilians are not the work of Karzai or his ineffective army and police. Almost all civilian casualties in Afghanistan (2118 were killed in 2008 according to John Holmes, UN emergency relief coordinator) have resulted directly from US aerial attacks. It is these killings that have alienated large numbers of Afghans and pushed them into supporting the resistance. According to the International Council on Security and Development, the resistance now controls at least 72 percent of Afghan territory, up from 54 percent in 2007. And how effective the resistance is can be gauged from the fact that the Taliban simultaneously attacked three ministries in Kabul on February 11 killing more than 20 people.
Obama has made Afghanistan the central plank of his foreign policy goal and called it the “good war”. Not only has he promised an additional 30,000 troops for Afghanistan by June, Obama has also appointed Richard Holbrooke, the tough-talking Balkans mediator who is supposed to bring Afghan and Pakistani rulers to heel to sort out the mess for the Amer-icans. In an effort to lower expectations, Holbrooke has already stated that Afgha-nistan would be a lot “tougher than Iraq”. Testifying in early February before the Senate Armed Servi-ces Committee, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates also tried to lower expectations about creating a “Central Asian Val-halla” in Afghanistan. He warned: “nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience, and money” despite maintaining that the US was in Afghanistan for the “long haul”. So what exactly are US goals in Afghanistan and how long will the “long haul” last?
US officials are coy about spelling out their real intentions in Afghanistan but the contours of Holbrooke’s plan are becoming clear; he wants a regional approach to the problem in which the Americans would talk to not only the Pakistani rulers but also Indians and even the Iranians and Russians. This appears like a repeat of the US approach in Iraq but on a much larger scale; in Iraq, American officials sat in the same room with the Iranians to work out security arrangements. In Afghanistan, they also want the Russians to assist but there would be a price to pay. The Russians are not going to roll over like the Pakistanis.
For quick comparison, the Americans have given $10 billion to Pakistan over the last eight years to assist in the US war in Afghanistan while the US itself has spent $140 billion in Afghanistan and $600 billion in Iraq. Pakistan is not impressed since it has deployed nearly 120,000 troops in the tribal areas and lost some 1500 soldiers. Additionally, half of US payments to Pakistan ($5 billion from 2001-2008) are rent paid for the use of its military bases that is less than what it paid to Kyrgyzstan for its Manat airbase that has just been denied use to the Americans. Many Pakistanis see the Afghan adventure as America’s war and wish to have nothing to do with it. There was a stunning reminder of this on February 4 when a 30-year-old bridge west of Peshawar linking Pakistan with Afghanistan was blown up. Nearly 80 percent of US military and other supplies traverse this bridge. Pakistani army engineers quickly opened a temporary road through the now-dry riverbed but the bridge’s destruction points to challenges facing American supplies into Afghanistan through Pakistan for which it is now seeking routes via Russia and Uzbekistan.
Part of the US plan for Afghanistan includes a $10 billion development package for Pakistan’s tribal areas. Would this be sufficient and whether this would work is a moot point. What is not in doubt is that the US has soured on Karzai and wants him out. And they are not being too subtle about it either. Soon after his inauguration, Obama invited a number of prominent Afghans to meet him in Washington. They included Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister, Dr Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, and Gul Agha Sherzai, governor of Nangarhar province. Pointedly, Karzai was not included. Rumors are being circulated that the Americans would like to see Ghani as the next president of Afghanistan. Presidential elections due in June have been postponed until August 20 because the Karzai government said arrangements would not be completed by June. Perhaps emboldened by America’s cooling off toward Karzai, his opponents have said they would not accept his authority after May 23, 2009, the date on which his term as president officially expires.
Karzai has hit back; hours before Obama was sworn in as president, Karzai announced in the National Assembly that he would seek military help from Russia. A week later, at a military parade attended by the US ambassador and NATO military commander, he announced that he was giving the Americans one month to supply him with planes failing which he would seek them from Russia. He also gave a one-month deadline for the Americans to sign an agreement that future aerial attacks would be coordinated with his troops and that there would no house searches of Afghans. Both policies have profoundly alienated the proud Afghans.
While these political manouvres are underway, there has been a noticeable shift in US policy toward Afghanistan. In a change of strategy, Washington has decided it would fight the Afghan war on its own given the reluctance of its NATO allies, at least on the military front. Americans would like their allies to assist instead with civilian work. During his visit to Ottawa on February 10, Chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told Canadian officials more civilians were needed in Afghanistan. He asked for help in rebuilding schools and houses and training policemen and teachers. This would make it a lot easier for NATO members to sell to their populations at home. In European countries and Canada that have troops in Afghanistan, the war is unpopular. Besides, it has become clear that the resistance cannot be defeated militarily. Any fifth grade student of history could have told the Americans this but they are an arrogant bunch, refusing to learn from history and must be taught the hard way.
Meanwhile, Obama has launched a comprehensive review of US Afghan policy. Included in the review is Washington’s new ambassador-designate to Kabul, retired General Karl Eikenberry, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. The review however is unlikely to be concluded before April. In a new report released early last month (February 3) by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Gilles Dorronsoro, a French expert on South Asia, argued that adding troops would actually be counter-productive because the mere presence of foreign soldiers in Pashtun areas has fueled the Taliban’s resurgence and that the best way to weaken it is to reduce military confrontations. In that respect, “the only meaningful way to halt the insurgency’s momentum is to start withdrawing troops”.
Such advice, however, is not going to sit well with the Americans.