Ray McGovern: If Obama gets this wrong, Afghanistan will be his Vietnam. At a meeting in Paris on Sunday, top-level representatives of Afghanistan,
December 15, 2008

Ray McGovern: If Obama gets this wrong, Afghanistan will be his Vietnam.

At a meeting in Paris on Sunday, top-level representatives of Afghanistan, its neighbours and world powers met to agree to put the country to rights.

"There can be no long-term security and peace in the region without a stable, secure, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan," they said in a statement released after a one-day conference in Paris.

The envoys "expressed their support for existing initiatives to reinforce cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours (and) committed to the effective implementation of these initiatives."

But, apart from a vague agreement "to work more closely to strengthen border security as a key component of counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism," no concrete measures were announced.

All talk and no action, especially when you consider that the most significant neighbor, Pakistan, needs to be "a stable, secure, prosperous and democratic" nation first before Afghanistan can become one -- and no one has a blessed clue how to accomplish that in the teeth of an entrenched feudal and military elite who see Afghanistan as simply the biggest of their decades-long proxy battlegrounds with another neighbor, India. The third significant neighbor, Iran, didn't even turn up in Paris because Sarkozy was dumb enough to repeat the old lie about Ahmadinejad wanting to wipe Israel off the map. That'll help.

All of this noise signifying nothing is symptomatic, though, of Western leaders who seem happy to fiddle while Kabul burns. All are quite willing to put lipstick on the pig publicly, pretending that Pakistan is co-operating when it's doing exactly the reverse in every important way and that Afghanistan isn't slipping fast into chaos. Bush, for instance, landing in Kabul secretly at 5 a.m. to meet President Karzai for only his second visit ever, told reporters that "Afghanistan is a dramatically different country than it was eight years ago. We are making hopeful gains." What is the guy drinking?

The truth, as reported better in the Canadian and British press than by American media, is that Afghanistan is wondering where it's going and why it is in a handbasket. Bush had to fly from Bagram airbase to Kabul - the military couldn't have guaranteed his safety by road. Rampant corruption among the Afghan government and police force, along with heavy-handed aggressiveness from allied troops, have largely made the cities and military bases islands in a Taliban sea. "The Americans and the Afghan army control the highway, and five meters on each side. The rest is our territory," one Taliban commander told the Guardian's Ghaith Abdul Ahad. The Taliban are the only form of order in many rural areas.

Hemmet and other Taliban commanders I met explained the Taliban's sophisticated network of military and civilian leadership. Each province has its own Taliban governor, military leader and shura [consultation] council. Below them are district commanders like Hemmet, who in turn divides his force into smaller units. Many say the civilian apparatus of the Taliban-run districts operates a more effective justice system than the government's, which is corrupt and inefficient. Nominally, all the councils look to Mullah Omar for guidance. In reality each province and district has its own dynamics.

Mullah Muhamadi, one of Hemmet's men, arrived later wearing a long leather jacket and a turban bigger than all the others. "This is not just a guerrilla war, and it's not an organized war with fronts," he said. "It's both." He went on to explain the importance the Taliban attached to creating a strong administration in the areas it held: "When we control a province we need to provide service to the people. We want to show the people that we can rule, and that we are ready for the day when we take over Kabul, that we have learned from our mistakes.

That's an enormously significant statement, if it reflects reality rather than Taliban wishful thinking. Counter-insurgency doctrine says that no amount of military force or even bribery can remove an insurgency from an area where it is supported by the general populace. But it would also pave the way for a negotiated settlement with Taliban who were willing to stop fighting, instead becoming a relatively non-oppressive local government. The UK and other allies have become convinced that this is the only path to "success" and eventual withdrawal left open and have already had some successes in that regard.

However, the Taliban are even more widely supported in Pakistan's border areas - and have the support/direction of at least large chunks of the military and ISI intelligence agency to boot. They've already proven they can hit Western supply lines with impunity, at a cost of millions of dollars, and can strangle the Western military presence in Afghanistan should they wish to. We're back to the thorny problem of nuke-armed Pakistan, from which 75% of the world's terror plots emanate. A general invasion is not an option and it's highly unlikely that anything less than an invasion will have an appreciable effect. Thus it seems that all Pakistan and the Taliban have to do is out-wait the inevitable Western collapse as the occupation loses support and authority. Canada has said it doesn't wish to still be involved after 2011, the mainland Europeans are clearly reluctant to get sucked in to a treasure and blood draining quagmire, and even British politicians are saying staying in the hope of half-assed 'success" isn't worth it.

Kim Howells, the former foreign office minister, thinks so: he predicted in the Commons last week that as conflict grinds on "the people of our country will express concerns that we have heard little about to date", particularly following Taliban resurgence in areas from which they were supposedly eradicated. They would increasingly ask why British lives should be risked to preserve an Afghan regime he described as riddled with corruption.

The Tories apparently scent a change of public mood, too, threatening last week to oppose any fresh deployment unless their conditions were met on everything from better kit to a bigger role for Nato allies.

... Howells argued last week it was unlikely the Taliban could ever be totally expelled and Pakistan's refugee camps would remain fertile recruiting ground for extremists. It was "daft" to suggest Britain could pursue this war for decades, he said, "however much we try to rationalise it by arguing that it is better to fight al-Qaida over there than over here".

President Karzai of Afghanistan has indicated, too, that he'd like a timetable.

Into all this will come, from January 20th, President Barack Obama. And he doesn't have any better ideas so far either. His primary plans involve beefing up the US military presence, creating more targets and more wedding bombings, while also turning a more belligerent eye on Pakistan, which will react by pressure up a notch or six in the border areas and on supply lines. He does have a secondary policy of better targeted aide to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but no details on how he'll prevent the corrupt governments there from siphoning all the money away from areas that need it or how he'll convince them to mend their many nefarious ways. Meanwhile, the Taliban will go right on being the only order many Afghans know.

Even if Obama's plan doesn't work, it will need a tax increase and a bigger army. But to be fair, I've no better ideas. I don't think anyone does, other than to accept defeat, pull out then try to contain the sore that is Pakistan and Afghanistan as best as possible (and that would require Iran's co-operation) . At the moment that's politically unacceptable, even if as we've seen things are changing. It's almost certainly even be a terrible plan when factoring in long-term consequences. Staying is a bust, going is a bust. The best thing anyone can say about untangling the region's knotted problems is "well, I wouldn't start from here." But this is where Bush leaves off and Obama will take over. Steve Clemons writes:

We shouldn't allow corruption scandals and other silly posturing on Sunday morning shows to distract us from the reality that we are on a quite negative trajectory in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) right now -- and we need whopping game-changing moves there that are as significant, if not more, than challenges about America's auto sector.

But if Steve has any game-changing ideas he's not being forthcoming with them either. What he does worry, though, is that Afghanistan "will be the place where the dreams and hopes of the Obama Presidency are buried."

I fear he may be right on that.

Crossposted from Newshoggers

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