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How Could This End Well?

Short Cuts in Afghanistan

by TARIQ ALI

It’s been a bad autumn for Nato in Afghanistan, with twin disasters on the political and military fronts. First, Kai Eide, the UN headman in Kabul, a well-meaning, but not very bright Norwegian, fell out with his deputy, Peter Galbraith, who as the de facto representative of the US State Department had decreed that President Karzai’s election was rigged and went public about it. His superior continued to defend Hamid Karzai’s legitimacy. Astonishingly, the UN then fired Galbraith. This caused Hillary Clinton to move into top gear and the UN-supported electoral watchdog now ruled that the elections had indeed been fraudulent and ordered a run-off. Karzai refused to replace the electoral officials who had done such a good job for him the first time and his opponent withdrew. Karzai got the job.

Karzai’s legitimacy has never been dependent on elections (which are always faked anyway) but on the US/Nato expeditionary force. So what was all this shadowboxing about in the first place? It appears to have been designed in order to provide cover for the military surge being plotted by General Stanley McChrystal, the new white hope of a beleaguered White House. McChrystal seems to have inverted the old Clausewitzian maxim: he genuinely believes that politics is a continuation of war by other means. It was thought that if Karzai could be painlessly removed and replaced with his former colleague Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik from the north, it might create the impression that an unbearably corrupt regime had been peacefully removed, which would help the flagging propaganda war at home and the relaunching of the real war in Afghanistan. For his part, Abdullah wanted a share of the loot that comes with power and has so far been monopolised by the Karzai brothers and their hangers-on, helping them to create a tiny indigenous base of support for the family. Did the revelation that Ahmed Wali Karzai was not simply the richest man in the country as a result of large-scale corruption and the drugs/arms trade, but a CIA agent too come as a huge surprise to anyone? I’m told that in desperation Nato commissars even considered appointing a High Representative on the Balkan model to run the country, making the presidency an even more titular post than it is today. Were this to happen, Galbraith or Tony Blair would be the obvious front-runners.

Citizens of the transatlantic world are becoming more and more restless about the no-end-in-sight scenario. In Afghanistan the ranks of the resistance are swelling. The war on the ground is getting nowhere: Nato convoys carrying fuel and equipment are repeatedly attacked by insurgents; neo-Taliban control of 80 per cent of the most populous part of the country is recognised by all. Recently Mullah Omar strongly criticised the Pakistani branch of the Taliban: they should, he said, be fighting Nato, not the Pakistan army.

Meanwhile the British military commander, General Sir David Richards, echoing McChrystal, talks of training Afghan security forces ‘much more aggressively’ so that Nato can take on a supporting role. Nothing new here. Eupol (the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan) declared several years ago that its objective was to ‘contribute to the establishment under Afghan ownership of sustainable and effective civilian policing arrangements, which will ensure appropriate interaction with the wider criminal justice system’. This always sounded far-fetched: the shooting earlier this month of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman they were training confirms it. The ‘bad apple’ theories with which the British are so besotted should be ignored. The fact is that the insurgents decided some years ago to apply for police and military training and their infiltration – a tactic employed by guerrillas in South America, South-East Asia and the Maghreb during the last century – has been fairly successful.

It’s now obvious to everyone that this is not a ‘good’ war designed to eliminate the opium trade, discrimination against women and everything bad – apart from poverty, of course. So what is Nato doing in Afghanistan? Has this become a war to save Nato as an institution? Or is it more strategic, as was suggested in the spring 2005 issue of Nato Review:

The centre of gravity of power on this planet is moving inexorably eastward … The Asia-Pacific region brings much that is dynamic and positive to this world, but as yet the rapid change therein is neither stable nor embedded in stable institutions. Until this is achieved, it is the strategic responsibility of Europeans and North Americans, and the institutions they have built, to lead the way … security effectiveness in such a world is impossible without both legitimacy and capability.

Whatever the reason, the operation has failed. Most of Obama’s friends in the US media recognise this, and support a planned withdrawal, while worrying that pulling troops out of both Iraq and Afghanistan might result in Obama losing the next election, especially if McChrystal or General Petraeus, the supposed hero of the surge in Iraq, stand for the Republicans. Not that the US seems likely to withdraw from Iraq. The only withdrawal being contemplated is from the main cities, restricting the US presence to the huge air-conditioned military bases that have already been constructed in the interior of the country, mimicking the strongholds of the British Empire (minus the air-conditioners) during the early decades of the last century.

While Washington decides what do, Af-Pak is burning. Carrying out the imperial diktat has put the Pakistan army under enormous strain. Its recent well-publicised offensive in South Waziristan yielded little. Its intended target disappeared to fight another day. To show good faith the military raided the Shamshatoo refugee camp in Peshawar. On 4 November I received an email from Peshawar:

Thought I’d let you know that I just got a call from a former Gitmo prisoner who lives in Shamshatoo camp and he told me that this morning at around 10 a.m. some cops and military men came and raided several homes and shops and arrested many people. They also killed three innocent schoolchildren. Their jinaza [funeral] is tonight. Several people took footage of the raid from their cell-phones which I can try to get a hold of. The funeral of the three children is happening as I’m typing.

How could this end well?

TARIQ ALI’s latest book, The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom and other Essays,  has just been published by Verso.