Unreliable Allies thwart Obama’s War Plans

The hope that U.S. troops will leave behind a newly elected government when they withdraw from Iraq later this year is being rapidly eroded by Iraqi President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is using every means at his disposal to undo the results of the March 7 election. Early in the campaign al-Maliki’s police threw hundreds of prominent Sunnis into prison. Once the campaign was underway a government election commission with dubious authority eliminated 500 Sunni candidates from the ballot, claiming they were Ba’athists sympathetic to Saddam Hussain.

After Al-Maliki’s party won two fewer seats than that of his closest rival, Ayad Allawi, the prime minister demanded a recount of votes cast in Baghdad province, where he could count on the most voter support. Several weeks later the election commission, backed by a three-judge court, disqualified 52 more Sunni candidates, including seven who had won seats. The court, like the election commission, claimed those disqualified were supporters of Saddam Hussain. Alawi has responded by calling for new elections.

The delays in announcing final election results and the political vacuum that has resulted caused a resurgence of violence, including a wave of bombings on April 23 that killed 67 people in Baghdad. The volatile situation could pose a dilemma for Obama, who intends to remove all combat troops from Iraq this summer and shift many of them to Afghanistan.

Tensions increased even further in late April, when U.S. officials and Iraq’s human rights minister disclosed the existence of secret prisons holding hundreds of Sunni prisoners, many of whom were systematically tortured, according to reports documented by Human Rights Watch. Al-Maliki responded by calling the reports "lies," and at the same time pointing to Abu Ghraib. The secret prisons were controlled by the Baghdad Operations Command, which, like the elite Counterterrorism Task Force, was created by the prime minister and is accountable directly to him. Al-Maliki answers charges of human rights abuse by echoing former President Bush and asserting that as commander-in-chief he has the right to take whatever steps he thinks necessary to defend his country.

In Afghanistan the U.S. is at odds with President Hamid Karzai, whose feelings were ruffled by accusations that his reelection was tainted by fraud. He in turn accused Washington of obstructing his efforts to reach an agreement with the Taliban and complained that too many civilians were being killed by U.S. troops. Karzai met in March with leaders of three insurgent groups who said they would work with the present Afghan government until new elections could be held, but only if all foreign troops agree to leave. Karzai called a meeting of tribal heads in May to discuss reconciliation with the Taliban.

The U.S. and NATO have largely ignored Karzai’s peacemaking efforts and are proceeding with a large-scale offensive in Kandahar province aimed at delivering a crippling blow to the Taliban in its home base. The Taliban must be sufficiently weakened, U.S. officials say, before peace talks can begin. The stepped-up fighting has so far had the opposite effect, however, and may end up strengthening the insurgency. The city of Kandahar has become so dangerous that U.N. employees were evacuated or advised to leave. Night raids by U.S. and Afghan troops are killing more civilians, and many people said they are more afraid of NATO checkpoints and convoys than of Taliban bombs.

Villagers also complain that men working in the fields are humiliated when helicopters swoop down on farmers and hover close to the ground while the crew demands that they take off their clothes and hold up their arms to prove they are not armed. In late April an angry mob burned 12 NATO fuel trucks in retaliation for allied military operations.

NATO members stipulated at their April meeting that a competent Afghan police force and a reliable Afghan government must be in place before allied troops can withdraw from the country. Neither goal is anywhere in sight. According to a report in the March 20 issue of Newsweek, the $6 billion-a-year effort by the U.S. to train Afghan police has been "a disaster." Too many recruits are illiterate and undisciplined, and those on the job are often guilty of extortion, assault, and rape.

The Afghan government is no more popular. "The first thing Afghans fear is the coming of more foreign troops, and the second thing they fear is the empowering of the current leadership and administration," said Shahabuddin Akhunzada, a tribal elder in Kandahar. A similar sentiment was expressed by Hajji Muhammed Ehsan, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, who concluded, "The only way out of this conflict is to talk with the opposition, bring them into the system and give them an equal portion."

After nine years of war, and as the number of U.S. deaths reached a total of 1,037, the Pentagon released a report on the last six months in Afghanistan that portrays a spreading insurgency, a government with little credibility, and a nonexistent judiciary. The Taliban, after its alleged defeat by U.S. forces in Marjah last winter, has gradually retaken control of that province. "The Taliban are everywhere," a tribal elder in Marjah said.