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As I write, Obama is sending more troops into Afghanistan with a supposed end date that his aides quickly explained away by saying that just because Obama is announcing a date for beginning a withdrawal, the president was not setting an end date for the war. In Congress, angry Democrats are registering their supposed opposition to the move by suggesting new taxes to fund the war instead of voting to de-fund it. I checked in with reporter Anand Gopal right before Obama’s Tuesday night speech for a perspective from someone who knows Afghanistan well. Gopal is in the region and has been reporting on the wars and politics of that part of the globe for major US newspapers and other media for several years for major US newspapers. ( RON JACOBS)
Ron: Hi Anand. Well, a lot has changed and very little has changed since the last time we communicated. There was an election in Afghanistan (I use the term loosely) that was wracked with corruption and offered very little choice to the Afghan people since both candidates supported the occupation of their country. As we all know, Karzai continues to rule. What is the overall reaction to this on the Afghan street, as far as you can tell? What do your contacts say, if anything?
Anand: Most Afghans viewed the elections as a major distraction from the more immediate concerns that confront them in their daily lives. There was a widespread sense that the election results were either preordained or at least heavily influenced by foreign countries. When it emerged that the U.N. actively worked to cover up the glaring evidence of fraud, this line of thinking was only furthered. In much of the south and east, where the fighting is, very few voted. But the international community went ahead with the elections anyway and desperately tried to maintain the fiction that the process would be free, fair and representative. Someone once said that the elections were done more for the benefit of the public in the U.S., U.K., Canada, etc., than it was for the Afghans–it was done to show the home audiences that the West is making political progress here. Many Afghans I know saw right through this.
Ron: Has the nature of the Afghan resistance changed? Does their presence seem greater?
Anand: Looking over the past few years, what marked the insurgency this year is that it has more or less reached every Pashtun area. The insurgency started in small pockets in the south and east and has gradually spread over the last few years. By 2008 it started to reach the north and west, and today nearly every Pashtun area in the country has some sort of insurgent presence. With a few exceptions, the Taliban and allied groups still mostly lack the ability to move beyond the Pashtuns and recruit from the country’s other ethnic groups.
Ron: If we define victory as achieving some kind of stable client government in Afghanistan that can produce what is demanded by Washington, is there any chance that the ISAF can achieve any kind
of victory in Afghanistan?
Anand: I think it is highly unlikely given the fact that the government today is barely functioning beyond the cities and towns. To achieve a sort of stable government that can govern the whole country, all of these areas outside the cities would have to be reclaimed (or in many cases, claimed for the first time, since the central government never really had much of a presence in such areas). Many Afghans tell me that they have yet to see a coherent strategy for making this happen.
The problems of the government are more than just corruption or ineffectiveness–they go back to its very founding. The Bonn Conference, which laid the foundation upon which the current government is built, was deeply flawed. It included every major warlord, criminal and human rights abuser except for two–the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It should come as little surprise then that these are the two that are fighting against the Americans today. Across the country, many warlords and commanders that committed atrocities during the nineties were put back into power, and in many cases they treated the local population poorly. We are still seeing the repercussions of that today.
Many Afghans say that they would like to see the whole thing go back to the drawing board–negotiate with the Taliban, form a national unity government, rewrite the constitution, etc. Short of that, they say that the current government can never really be representative and inspire loyalty throughout the country.
Ron: Has the resistance proposed a peace plan? If so, are you aware of the elements in it? Why is this not discussed in the mainstream media?
Anand: They haven’t proposed a serious peace plan that I am aware of, short of demanding that the foreign troops leave the country. There was a sort of "roadmap to peace" that was being talked about between some senior Taliban leaders and their interlocutors in Kabul (former Taliban officials who have made their peace with Karzai’s government). It included a number of proposals: In the first step, the Taliban would stop impeding development efforts if the U.S. stops house raids and releases prisoners. In the next step, the two sides would negotiate directly over the the nature of future unity government. Finally, the two sides would negotiate a timetable for withdrawal of troops. But this proposal never really got off the ground; it was stymied by the simple fact that the key party who would have to agree to all this–the U.S.–was never involved. Moreover, when Obama announced a troop escalation this past spring, it sent the message to the Taliban leadership and their backers in Pakistan that this was not the time to negotiate but rather to bunker down and fight.