Supporting the Status Quo in Afghanistan?
May 15, 2010

Canadians woke up on Monday, April 2 to learn that Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, had threatened over that weekend to quit politics and join the Taliban if western governments continued to pressure him to enact reforms. The Associated Press reported that “Karzai made the unusual statement at a closed-door meeting Saturday with selected lawmakers – just days after kicking up a diplomatic controversy with remarks alleging foreigners were behind fraud in last year’s disputed elections.”

Such comments are considered political hyperbole by many observers, however, as the AP article points out, “it will add to the impression the president, who relies on tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO forces to fight the insurgency and prop up his government, is growing increasingly erratic and unable to exert authority without attacking his foreign backers.”

Two days later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters, “I have not seen the context of President Karzai’s remarks but what I have seen reported is completely unacceptable. We have men and women who are over there putting their lives on the line to help the population in its struggle against the Taliban. These remarks are not helpful and in the context of the dangerous work that our people are doing they are completely unacceptable to Canada and I’m sure the same is true for all of our allies.”

The Mayor of Kabul
Peter Galbraith served as the United Nations’ Deputy Special Representative to Afghanistan in 2009. He helped expose massive fraud in the presidential elections. In early April, 2010, he wrote the following about President Karzai and his government in a Washington Post column:

“President Obama will soon have 100,000 troops fighting a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Their success depends on having a credible Afghan partner. Unfortunately, Obama’s partner is Hamid Karzai.

“In the eight years since the Bush administration helped install Karzai as president after the fall of the Taliban, he has run a government so ineffective that Afghans deride him as being no more than the mayor of Kabul and so corrupt that his country ranks 179th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, just ahead of last-place Somalia, which has no government at all.”

Elections held in Afghanistan last August received widespread criticism for voting fraud, both by inside sources and outside observers. The country’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), which was appointed by Karzai and answers to him, was accused of massive vote-rigging. Reports estimated that at least one-third of the votes for the Afghan president were illegitimate. In response to external pressure, another body, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), later forced a second round of balloting. However, “the IEC ensured that the voting procedures were even more prone to fraud than those applied to the first round,” Galbraith said in his column. He also noted that with parliamentary elections to be held later this year, Karzai has already issued a decree giving himself power to appoint all five ECC members and stripping the commission of most of its powers.

“Many Afghans understandably do not see Karzai as a democratically elected leader. So America’s Afghan partner suffers from a legitimacy deficit in addition to his track record of ineffectiveness and corruption,” wrote Galbraith, adding: “Karzai has responded to this legitimacy crisis not by fixing his country’s broken electoral pro­cesses but by trying to corrupt it further.”

Billions in Aid Stolen?
Unlike Hamid Karzai, Ramazan Bashardost is a name unfamiliar to most Canadians. Disgusted with widespread government corruption, as he saw it, the former minister in Karzai’s cabinet quit in 2004. Since then, Bashardost, who was educated in France, has been vocal about corruption in his native country, where more than half the population pays bribes to public officials, according to a United Nations study released last year.

The U.N. report noted that about $2.5 billion, or about 25% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, was paid out in bribes. David Pugliese of Canwest News Service (and Defence Watch journalist for the Ottawa Citizen) wrote in his April 11 report: “Corruption had eroded any semblance of proper government, he [Bashardost] said, adding that warlords are the real power in the Karzai administration.” According to the former minister, roughly half of the $75 billion in foreign aid that has been sent to Afghanistan has been siphoned off by corrupt officials.
Feb 2010 – Corporal Adam Naslund watches his arcs as other members of the patrol stop to speak with locals in District 9 of Kandahar City.
In an interview prior to Karzai’s comments about joining the Taliban, Bashardost commented on corruption. “With this money,” he lamented, “we can build three or four new Afghanistans. Yet that hasn’t happened. Much of the money has been funnelled off to warlords, corrupt government officials, Karzai cronies.”

The report mentioned Bashardost’s surprise that Canada is not doing more to counter corruption within the Afghan government. “It is Canadian taxpayer money, it’s American taxpayer’s money that arrives in Afghanistan,” he said. “And it’s an Afghanistan mafia group that shares it. It is not for Afghan people.”

U.S. officials recently conducted a covert study which determined that in less than three weeks, $190 million was smuggled out of Afghanistan through the Kabul airport. Last year, two government officials were caught at the airport trying to smuggle out $360,000 in cash. The main airport in Kandahar province, where Canadian Forces are based and carry out their security patrols, is also considered a smuggling hub by American authorities.

“Long ignored by the Canadian, U.S. and other western embassies here, Bashardost has been warning diplomats for years that the Afghan president is unfit to govern and that Karzai has turned his back on democracy,” wrote Pugliese.

Buying off the Taliban
“Taliban to be ‘bribed’ with jobs and houses in £330m plan to stabilise Afghanistan,” screamed the headline of a major British newspaper in January. ­“Taliban fighters will be handed jobs and free homes under plans to crush the insurgency in Afghanistan. Even Mullah Omar, their fugitive leader, could be rewarded with property if he renounces violence and severs links with Al Qaeda,” the Daily Mirror reported.

A similar report in the Washington Times said, “The United States and its allies are stepping up efforts to persuade Afghan insurgents to put down their arms by ­negotiating with representatives of Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban commanders and offering cash and jobs to low-level fighters, according to Pakistani, Middle Eastern and U.S. officials and analysts.”
11 March 2010 – Canadian Engineers spent two days assembling the Mabey Johnson bridge in the area where two locals and an ISAF soldier were killed and three locals were injured when a suicide bomber drove his car into an on-coming convoy.
In January, President Karzai was quoted in the New York Times: “We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers.” In the next month, he reportedly invited Taliban leaders to a tribal assembly to try to persuade them to lay down their weapons and support the government. The report said, “Mr. Karzai’s proposal went much further than the strategy preferred by many American officials, who favor luring back low- and mid-level Taliban fighters. The Obama administration is in the middle of a spirited debate over the implications of negotiating with top Taliban leaders who sheltered Osama bin Laden and still have ties to Al Qaeda.”

The plan to effectively buy off the Taliban – for as much as $500 million in Canadian funds – has not only been rejected by the insurgency’s more militant leaders, but is offensive to many Afghans. According to the New York Times, “Dangling jobs and money before the Taliban could breed resentment among other poor Afghans who have little to show for their loyalty to the government. And it could deepen ethnic divisions with minorities like the Tajiks and Hazaras, who fought the Taliban for 15 years. They may see the rewards as an unfair windfall for the Pashtuns, who make up most of the Taliban’s recruits.” Hamid Karzai, by the way, is Pashtun.

“Among former Taliban members who have taken part in previous government reconciliation programs, there is deep skepticism that a new program will be any better than earlier versions, which left them impoverished, jobless and at risk of being attacked by their former comrades,” continued the New York Times.

“Everyone understands that this ‘reconciliation’ process is just a name because they leave us in the lurch,” said Mullah Abdul Majed, a former Taliban commander quoted in the Times report. Majed laid down his weapons in 2008 only to find himself abandoned by the Afghan government. After voluntarily disarming, he and 12 of his fellow fighters were each given about $140 and promised housing. But when they returned to their home province, Kandahar, there was no housing, jobs or protection from Taliban reprisals. Last year, the Taliban killed one of their friends and injured another. The message was clear: traitors to the Taliban cause will be dealt with severely.

In October 2008, Britain’s most senior military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, said that the war against the Taliban cannot be won, and suggested that Britons prepare themselves for the fact that a deal with the insurgents will be sought. The commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade said it was necessary to “lower our expectations” and added that the challenge was about reducing conflict to a level that is not a strategic threat to the Karzai government and can be managed by the Afghan army. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) 15 months later, President Karzai said there was a need for “peace at any cost” to avoid further bloodshed in Afghanistan.

Conditions on the ground not good
It is no secret that countries with military forces in ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, want out of the commitment. Canada’s military mission ends in July 2011 – when the Obama Administration would like to start bringing American forces home. In an address at the West Point military academy in early December, the U.S. president said, “taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.”

Conditions on the ground are not good.
Three months after President Obama’s speech – and with thousands of additional U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the “surge” – Taliban militants staged a brazen attack, including a suicide bombing, in the heart of Kabul, killing 20 and wounding 57. The Wall Street Journal reported: “The daylight attack in Kabul’s heavily guarded center highlighted the dire security situation in the country a day ahead of the scheduled arrival of [U.S.] envoy Richard Holbrooke.”
The report explained: “The Taliban has been gaining dominance in rural areas and far-flung provincial centers where the government’s writ is weak or nonexistent, but Wednesday’s attack showed the group’s ability to reach beyond those strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan. It isn’t clear how the attackers breached a maze of cement barricades and sandbagged checkpoints manned by armed guards. That they reached the city’s center suggested Taliban infiltration of the Afghan security forces, a persistent problem that has plagued the U.S. effort to undermine the insurgency, said a Western diplomat in Kabul.”
2009 – Major Tom Higgins, mentor for the Afghan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC), briefs pilots Major Besmullah Zadran, Major Jangha Wordak, and Flight Engineer First Lieutenant Ahmadshah Kahstan prior to conducting a flight in their MI-17 helicopter at the Kabul Airport.
According to Britain’s The Independent newspaper in March, “Corruption, desertion and drug abuse within the Afghan police are threatening its ability to take over the fight against the Taliban and the UK’s chances of an exit from the country, government documents show.”

“A series of internal Foreign Office papers obtained by The Independent lay bare the deep concerns of British officials over the standard of recruits to the Afghan National Police (ANP), ranging from high casualty rates and illiteracy to poor vetting and low pay. The memos, which warn that building an effective police force ‘will take many years,’ also reveal how non-existent ‘ghost recruits’ may account for up to a quarter of the purported strength of the police force, often the front line against the Taliban insurgency. The attrition rate among police officers – including losses caused by deaths, desertion and dismissals, often due to positive drug tests – is as high as 60 per cent in Helmand province.”

Six months ago, a British government briefing document noted, “The scale of the challenge is immense. Building an independent, professional and accountable police force will take many years and require considerable international support.” In November, a “situation report” revealed that half of the latest group of Afghan recruits had tested positive for narcotics. An October memo prepared for then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that up to 25% of the Afghan National Police (ANP) force were probably ‘ghost police,’ non-existent officers whose salaries have been pocketed by corrupt local commanders.

Since 2002, $7 billion has reportedly been spent by ISAF countries to train the ANP. In April of this year, Canadian defence minister Peter MacKay reiterated that after the military mission ends in 2011, Canada will continue to train Afghanistan’s police force. A total of $8 billion has been spent by the international community to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) during the past eight years. Despite the huge investment, a Pentagon report last year revealed that one in four Afghan combat soldiers deserted their units. Since 2002, there have been numerous news reports about the widespread use of narcotics by ANP officers and ANA soldiers. Needless to say, this has complicated training and called into question their effectiveness as protectors of Afghanistan’s citizenry and the Karzai regime.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, has called for the ANA to increase to 240,000 personnel. Data released by the U.S. military six months ago showed that the total number of people assigned to ANA units as of September was 82,000 (with a turnover of 19,000). The ANA AWOL (Absent Without Leave) rate is reportedly 9% (almost 7,400 personnel). According to the Associated Press, nine out of 10 Afghan recruits are illiterate, which makes building security and military forces significantly more challenging.

In January, President Karzai told the BBC that Afghanistan “needs outside support for security forces to 15 years.” In April 2005, then-Major-General Andrew Leslie told an audience in Orillia, Ontario that he believed “Afghanistan is a 20-year venture,” and that Canadians should prepare for a long mission so that Afghans could break out of “a cycle of warlords and tribalism.” Whether that cycle will ever be broken is questionable.

Can the Taliban wait us out?
Nearly all of the Taliban are Pashtun, and the Pashtun in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan are 30 million strong with roots dating back several centuries. Three days after President Obama outlined his administration’s strategy for Afghanistan at West Point, The Independent newspaper in the U.K. ran this analysis of the new U.S. “surge” strategy:

“Now we know what the American President intends to do about Afghanistan, it is worth reflecting for a moment on what the enemy's strategy is likely to be. This is best summed up by a remark recently made by a Taliban sympathiser to a senior American official in Kabul: ‘You might have all the watches, but we have all the time.’ By this he meant that, for all the technological wonders available to NATO forces, from unmanned Predator drones to satellite imagery, the Taliban enjoys one great advantage against which the West simply cannot compete. Our leaders are subject to the fickle support of their electorate, while the Taliban are under no such constraints.”

As Canada and other NATO countries begin to withdraw their military forces, the reality is that Karzai, the ANA and ANP as well as other elements of the Afghan government will increasingly have to deal with the Taliban. Given the corruption, drug use, illiteracy, desertion, tribalism, and problematic religious and political dynamics that Karzai is all too aware of, his timeline to keep his country from returning to full-blown civil war is shrinking. With this awful probability in mind, Karzai has been behaving in a manner bewildering to citizens of ISAF countries such as Canada.

Civil wars in Afghanistan have gone through various iterations over the last 32 years, including the Soviet invasion in late 1979, but have never ended.

Since the anti-Taliban war has been deemed unwinnable by most military experts, the option that President Karzai is pursuing in order to avoid massive blood-letting in Afghanistan after Canadian and other NATO troops pack up and go home is to work out a power-sharing deal with the Taliban, who are not leaving.

Blair Watson, a defence writer, is based in B.C.
© FrontLine Defence 2010