by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 5, Rajab, 1431)
This was evident during the one-day conference when officials from 70 countries converged on Kabul to talk about Afghanistan’s future amid growing concern for intensified violence and the growing strength of the resistance.
It seems western warmongers have suddenly become committed peaceniks. They would protest that they were always committed to peace, only the manner by which they wanted to achieve it — bombing their way to victory — was at variance with what would normally constitute peaceful means.
After nine years of war in which countless Afghan civilians have been murdered, their lives given no higher value than insects, the Americans and their western allies have realized that the Afghans cannot be subdued by guns and bombs. There is now renewed emphasis on talking to the Taliban. Even Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon who attended the July 20 international conference in Kabul said it was vital to talk to the Taliban to achieve peace in Afghanistan. This is a far cry from the racist comments by the former Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier who said in 2005 that he was going to “kill the scumbags” (referring to the Taliban) in Afghan-istan. Hillier is now history but the Taliban are still going strong. Also, in 2006, when Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada suggested talking to the Taliban, he was immediately dubbed “Taliban Jack”. Now everyone wants to talk to the Taliban, including “Taliban Larry”.
This was evident during the one-day conference when officials from 70 countries converged on Kabul to talk about Afghanistan’s future amid growing concern for intensified violence and the growing strength of the resistance. The delegates did not see even Kabul, much less the rest of the country. They sped in armour-plated vehicles from the airport to the foreign ministry building, a distance of four kilometres. The dust filled streets were emptied of people for fear of Taliban attacks. Kabul, the supposed utopia at the base of the Hindukush Mountain, was turned into a ghost town.
In his opening remarks to the conference inside the fortified ministry that looked like a bunker even if its steps were decked with colourful Afghan carpets, President Hamid Karzai said: “Today, I invite us to elevate our vision above the din of the battle with our common enemies and to focus on our noble goal: a peaceful, prosperous and stable Afghanistan.” Nobody would argue with that but the basic question is, like the one posed by the mice: who will bell the cat?
Karzai’s address was a rehash of what he had said during his inaugural speech last year after he rigged the presidential elections: peace talks with the Taliban and government reform to end rampant corruption. He added a few new items to the list: gradual assumption of control by Afghanistan of billions of dollars in foreign aid, as well as responsibility for security but not before 2014. What happens until then was left unsaid but clearly implied that he needed foreign troops to stay for another four years. Given rising casualties among western occupation forces — two Americans were killed in Mazar-e Sharif on the day of the conference, a US helicopter was shot down on July 22 and two US soldiers were captured by Taliban inLogar province on July 24 — citizens of countries with troops in Afghanistan are now wary of prolonged deployment. In fact, a clear majority in most countries — the US, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, etc — want their troops out as soon as possible. Canada has announced a February 2011 withdrawal date and although there are hints that Canadian troops may stay in some capacity, it will not be in a direct combat role. Even holding the July 20 conference in Kabul, the first ever, and without any disruption was seen as a victory for Karzai.
“Today was a real turning point,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at the conference without elaborating for whom. If she meant Karzai’s commitment for his troops to take responsibility for security, it is contingent upon the US and other foreign troops training the Afghans. It is not their fighting ability — Afghans are born fighters; you do not teach the fish to swim — that is the real challenge. Their loyalty is suspect. More than 25% of Afghan recruits disappear, often taking the weapons with them. Most join the Taliban. Optimistic statements are meant to reassure irate citizens back home who want an immediate end to this unwinnable war. It has also drained their economies leading to recession and high unemployment.
The transition plan for Afghan forces to take charge of security would proceed from one province to the next. But even the expected date of those first steps has receded. NATO foreign ministers who met inEstonia last April expected that some provinces would be chosen for Afghan control by November, at another NATO conference in Lisbon, according to diplomats and NATO officials in Kabul. The question is, if highly trained and heavily armed NATO troops have failed to subdue the Taliban in nine years, what chance do the poorly-trained and ill-motivated Afghan troops have in four? Reality, it seems, was left at the entrance to the conference hall.
“The transition process is too important to push off indefinitely. But this date is the start of a new phase, not the end of our involvement,” Clinton said. With the deteriorating security situation, NATO officials now expect it will be at least the summer of 2011 before the first provinces shift to Afghan control. “It’s going to be a very lengthy process. Transition is not going to happen overnight,” said Shaida Mohammad Abdali, deputy national security adviser of Afghanistan and chair of the interagency committee that drafted the conference paper on transition. “When you have a province you want to be transferred, there are going to be specific criteria, specific standards required.” Abdali was clearly hedging his bets, aware that such criteria can never be met and at the end of the transition period, the Afghan government would be able to say that under such circumstances, their troops could not possibly assume responsibility for security.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Manou-chehr Mottaki noted that the result of nine years of increasing foreign involvement in Afghanistan has been “more insecurity.” More foreign military operations are “not the solution,” taking a swipe at Obama’s troop surge, urging that the conference should be “seeking alternatives.” There were also plenty of calls to end “foreign interference”. Each country has its own enemy list. For the Americans, no foreign interference means, no Iranians; for the Indians it is the Pakistanis and vice versa. Yet few wanted to talk about the elephant in the room: the presence of 150,000 foreign occupation troops from 43 countries. Their presence is the source of all instability and mayhem. Once they leave, things will return to relative normalcy in Afghanistan.
The World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was even more direct in voicing frustration that too much time has been spent talking about progress without achieving it. “I think we should not have any more conferences until we’ve given time to see results,” she said. In Afghanistan, results are hard to come by primarily because the government has no authority. Even its foreign backers use Karzai as a door mat. Barely 10% of foreign aid goes through Afghan government channels yet Karzai is accused of not rooting out corruption. True, there is corruption and plenty of it but it is the foreign contractors that are involved in the most pervasive forms of corruption. The US and other foreign troops also have warlords on their payroll; NATO commanders pay warlords for safe passage for their convoys. Talking about benchmarks and progress in such circumstances is meaningless.
Ms. Ngozi could be forgiven for asking for results before holding more conferences. Such conferences are held precisely because there is no progress elsewhere; conferences serve as a substitute. There is too much shuffling and shaking but little else. There is no longer talk of bringing democracy to Afghanistan, only democratic features. And no one is talking about victory either. Everyone is looking for an exit strategy while Karzai is seeking survival through a deal with the Taliban that he calls “reconciliation”. It sounds good.
The only problem is the Taliban are not willing to come to dinner. They have no reason to. They are winning and they know it; so do the Americans and their NATO and other partners in the “coalition of the willing” who are all looking for a way out of Afghanistan.