Meet Our Afghan Ally

Just when President Barack Obama looked as if he might be railroaded into sending tens of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan the American envoy to Kabul has warned him not to do so.  In a leaked cable to Washington sent last week, the US ambassador to  Afghanistan, Gen Karl W. Eikenberry, argues that it would be a mistake to send reinforcements until the government of President Hamid Karzai demonstrates that it will act against corruption and mismanagement.     General  Eikenberry knows what he is talking about because he has long experience of Afghanistan. A recently retired three star general, he was responsible for training the Afghan security forces from 2002 to 2003 and was top US commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.   

There is a dangerous misunderstanding outside Afghanistan about what ‘corruption and mismanagement’ mean in an Afghan context and a potentially lethal underestimation of how these impact on American and British forces.  For example, the shadow British Defense Secretary Liam Fox argued that though ‘corruption and establishing good governance’  are not unimportant, ‘we need to recognize that Afghan governance is likely to look very different from governance as we knows it in the West.’    

Leaving aside the patronizing tone of the statement, this shows that Mr Fox fundamentally misunderstands what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan.  Corruption and mismanagement do not just mean that the police are on the take or that no contract is awarded without a bribe. It is much worse than that. For instance, one reason Afghan villagers prefer to deal with the Taliban rather than the government security forces is that the latter have a habit of seizing their sons at checkpoints and sodomizing them.     None of our business, Mr Fox, who may be British Defense Secretary by this time next year, would presumably say. We are not in Afghanistan for the good government of Afghans: ‘Our troops are not fighting and dying in Afghanistan for Karzai’s government nor should they ever be.’ But the fact that male rape is common practice in the Afghan armed forces has, unfortunately, a great deal to do with the fate of British soldiers.     

There was a horrified reaction across Britain last week when a 25-year old policeman called Gulbuddin working in a police station in the Nad Ali district of Helmand killed five British soldiers when he opened fire with a machine gun on them. But the reason he did so, according to Christina Lamb in The Sunday Times, citing two Afghans who knew Gulbuddin, was that he had been brutally beaten, sodomised and sexually molested by a senior Afghan officer whom he regarded as being protected by the British.    

The slaughter at Nad Ali is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan. It is why Mr Fox is wrong and General Eikenberry is right about the dangers of committing more American or British troops regardless of the way Afghanistan is ruled. Nor are the events which led to the deaths of the young Britoish soldiers out of the ordinary. Western military officials eager to show success in training the Afghan army and police have reportedly suppressed for years accounts from Canadian troops that the newly trained security forces are raping young boys.     

Mr Fox’s approach only makes sense if we assume that it does not matter what ordinary Afghans think. This is what the Americans and, to a lesser degree the British, thought in Iraq in 2003. They soon learned different. I remember visiting the town of al-Majar al-Kabir in June 2003, soon after six British military policemen had been shot dead in the local police station. The British army had unwisely sent patrols with dogs through one of the most heavily armed towns in the country, famous for its resistance to Saddam Hussein, as if the British were an all-conquering occupation army.    

The Americans and British eventually learned the unnecessarily costly lesson in Iraq that what Iraqis thought and did would wholly determine if foreign forces were going to be shot at or not. Mr Fox claims the US and Briton will not be in Afghanistan in defense of the Afghan government, but if we are not doing that, then we become an occupation force. A growing belief that this is already the case is enabling Taliban fighters, who used to be unpopular even among the Pashtun, to present themselves as battling for Afghan independence.

General  Eikenberry expresses frustration over the lack of US money being allocated for spending on development and reconstruction after Afghanistan’s infrastructure has been wrecked by 30 years of war. The ambassador has not even been able to obtain $2.5 billion for non-military spending, this though the cost of the extra 40,000 US troops requested by General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is put by army planners at $33 billion and by White House officials at about $50 billion over a year.     

This is one of the absurdities of the Afghan war. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Some 12 million out of 27 million Afghans live below the poverty line on 45 cents a day, according to the UN. “Afghanistan is facing a food crisis which will turn into a human catastrophe if donors do not act promptly,” said Karim Khalili, the second vice president, often denounced as a warlord, earlier this summer. Yet the lower estimate for each extra 1,000 US troops is $1 billion a year.    

An  Afghan policeman earns around $120 a month. In return for this he is forced to do a more dangerous job than Afghan soldiers, some 1,500 policemen being killed between 2007 and 2009, three times the number of deaths suffered by the Afghan army. Compare this money and these dangers with that of a US paid consultant earning $250,000 a year — and with the cost of his guards, accommodation and translator totalling the same amount again – lurking in his villa in Kabul.     General Eikenberry is rightly sceptical about the dispatch of reinforcements to prop up a regime which is more of a racket than an administration. The troops may kill more Taliban, but they will also be their recruiting sergeants. As for the Afghan government, its ill-paid forces will not be eager to fight harder if they can get the Americans and the British to do their fighting for them.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘ and ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘.                                       


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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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