Behind the Afghan Fraud

All frauds have a purpose, mostly to relieve the unwary of their wealth, though occasionally to launch some foreign adventure: the 1965 Tonkin Gulf hoax that escalated the Vietnam War comes to mind.

So what was the design behind “Operation Moshtarak,” or the “battle of Marjuh,” in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, the largest U.S. and NATO military operation in Afghanistan since the 2003 invasion? That Moshtarak was a fraud was obvious from the start, a con job that the U.S. media enthusiastically went along with.

Marjuh was billed as a “fortress,” a “city of 80,000” and the Taliban’s “stronghold,” packed with more than 1,000 “hard core fighters.” But as Gareth Porter of the Inter Press Service revealed, Marjuh is not even a city, but a district of scattered villages. As the days went by—and civilian deaths passed military casualties—the number of “hard core” fighters declined to 750, then 500, and then maybe 100. In the end, it was barely a skirmish. “Hardly a single gun was captured by NATO forces,” tribal elder and former police chief Abdul Rahman Jan told Time.

According to Porter, Marju is “either a few clusters of farmers’ homes or a large agricultural area covering much of the southern Helmand River Valley.” Marjuh actually embraces about 125 square miles, an area big enough to simply swallow the 10,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan Army troops assigned to the offensive.

The area was also billed as the “linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network.” Marjuh is indeed an area with significant poppy cultivation, but according to Julian Mercille, a Lecturer at University College Dublin and an expert on U.S. foreign policy, the Taliban get “only 4 percent of the trade.” Local farmers reap about 21 percent of the $3.4 billion yearly commerce, according to Mercille, while “75 percent of the trade is captured by government officials, the police, local and regional brokers and traffickers.” In short, our allies.

And the word “linchpin” soon dropped off the radar screen as it became obvious that Operation Moshtarak would not touch the drug trade because it would alienate local farmers, thus sabotaging the goal of winning the “hearts and minds” of residents.

In some ways the most interesting part of the Marjuh operation was a gathering that took place shortly after the “fighting” was over: President Barak Obama called a meeting Mar. 12 in the White House to ask his senior staff and advisors if the “success” of Moshtarak would allow the U.S. to open negotiations with the Taliban. According to Porter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposed talks until after a similar operation aimed at Khandahar is completed this summer.

The Khandahar offensive is being pumped up as a “blow at the Taliban’s heartland” and the “fulcrum” of the Afghan war. Khandahar is, indeed, where the Taliban got its start and, at 600,000, is Afghanistan’s second largest city. Whether a military operation will have any more impact than the attack on Marjuh is highly unlikely. While Time was predicting the Taliban would make a “bloody stand,” the insurgents have never engaged in a standup battle with the U.S. and NATO. As they did in Marjuh, they will simply decamp to another area of the country,or blend in with the local population.

However, the White House gathering suggests that the administration may be searching for a way out before the 2012 elections. With the economic crisis at home continuing, and the bill for the war passing $200 billion, Afghanistan is looking more and more like a long tunnel with no light at the end.

Certainly our allies seem to have concluded that the Americans are on an exit path.

The Karzai government and the UN have opened talks with some of the Taliban, as well as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party. Pakistan—correctly concluding it was being cut out of the peace talks—swept up 14 senior Taliban officials, including the organization’s number two man, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The Pakistanis claim they are simply aiding the U.S. war effort, but the former head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, bitterly denounced the arrests as nothing more than effort to derail the on-going negotiations. What seems certain now is that whenever talks do open, the Pakistanis will be at the table. “You cannot achieve stability in Afghanistan without Pakistan,” the country’s Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani told the Financial Times.

If Islamabad is in on the talks, that means the Taliban will have a presence in whatever peace agreement emerges, a fact that has distressed India. Not only is it likely that India will lose much of its influence with the Karzai government—and see more than a billion dollars in aid go for naught—its traditional enemy, Pakistan, will almost certainly regain much of its former influence with Kabul. “Pakistan wants to exercise tutelage over Afghanistan,” former Indian foreign minister Kanwal Sibal told the Financial Times.

The push by the U.S. to find a political solution is partly driven by the rapidly eroding NATO presence. The Canadians are sticking by their pledge to be out by 2011, and when the Netherlands tried to raise the possibility of Dutch troops remaining, the government fell. The British Labor Party, behind in the polls but catching up to the Tories, wants to rid itself of the Afghan albatross before upcoming elections and has been supportive of Karzai’s negotiations.

The U.S. is also discovering that the Afghanis play a mean game of chess.

When the Obama Administration demanded that the Karzai government reinstate an independent electoral commission, plus end corruption—in particular, dumping the President’s larcenous half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai who runs Khandahar like a feudal fiefdom—the Afghan president flew off to Teheran to embrace the President of Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and meet with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Given that the U.S. is trying to isolate Iran in the region, Karzai’s Iran visit was not a happy moment on the Potomac.

Yet Iran has influence over the Northern Alliance, which will need persuading to accept the Taliban into a coalition. Rather than isolating Iran, Karzai has made it central to a peace agreement that the U.S. and NATO want.

For the past five years the U.S. has been wooing India as a bulwark against China, but because Washington needs Pakistan to broker a peace, the Americans agreed to sending F-16 fighter-bombers, helicopter gun ships, and reconnaissance drones to Islamabad. A better-armed Pakistan, however, hardly goes down well in New Delhi, particularly because the Indians see their former influence in Kabul on the wane.

So India promptly went off and met with the Russians. Ever sympathetic, Moscow offered New Delhi a bargain basement price on an aircraft carrier and a passel of MIG-29s tossed in. That dealt a blow to another aim of U.S. diplomacy: keeping Russia out of South Asia.

The same week as Pakistan’s foreign minister was in Washington with a laundry list of goodies for “helping out” in Afghanistan, Karzai jetted off to Beijing to talk about aid and investments. So much for the plan to keep China out of Central Asia.

This is beginning to look like checker players vs. chess masters.

But there does seems to be a developing consensus that the war must wind down. If that is the direction, than the Karzai government’s upcoming “peace jirga,” set for late April or early May, takes on greater importance.

While the administration appears to be divided over how, when, and with whom to negotiate, “withdrawing” doesn’t mean the U.S. won’t leave bases behind or end its efforts to penetrate Central Asia. The White House recently announced an agreement with Kyrgyzstan to set up a U.S. “counter-terrorism center” near the Chinese border.

The danger at this juncture is seeing peace talks as a zero-sum game: if Pakistan gains, India loses; if the U.S. withdraws, the Taliban win; if Iran is helpful it will encourage nuclear proliferation.

The bottom line in Afghanistan is the Afghans. What they want, and how they get it, is not the business of Washington, Brussels, New Delhi, Teheran, or Islamabad. The “graveyard of empires” has claimed far more Afghan lives than those of the invaders. As U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McCrystal told the New York Times, “We have shot an astounding number of people.”

Indeed, we have.

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