Monday, May 24, 2010

Robert Kaplan on Afghanistan

Robert Kaplan writes:

“Afghanistan was a cakewalk in 2001 and 2002,” says Sarah Chayes, former special adviser to McChrystal’s headquarters. “We started out with a country that hated the Taliban and by 2009 were driving people back into the arms of the Taliban. That’s not fate. That’s poor policy.” We enabled an administration, led by Hamid Karzai, that is less a government than a protection racket, in which bribery is the basis of a whole chain of transactions, from small sums paid to criminals at roadblocks in the south of the country to tens of millions of dollars smuggled out of the Kabul airport by government ministers. The myth is that the absence of governance in Afghanistan creates a vacuum in which the Taliban thrive. But the truth, as Chayes explains, is the opposite. Karzai governs everywhere in the revenue belt, synonymous with Pashtunistan, in the south and east of the country: the Taliban succeed in these very places, not because of no governance but because of corrupt and abusive governance.

Referring to the evolution of the former mujahideen commanders into gangster-oligarchs under Karzai, an Afghan analyst, Walid Tamim, told me: “Warlords like Rabbani, Fahim, Sayyaf, and Dostum have all been empowered by Karzai and the U.S. government. Why is [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar any worse than these guys?” Ashraf Ghani, the country’s finance minister from 2002 to 2004, explained: “The core threat we all face is the Afghan government itself. About two-thirds of revenue is lost to abuse. This isn’t like corruption in Indonesia, where money is stolen but things still get built; here it is all looted, because the warlords are insecure about what may come next in Afghan politics.” Even as American officers talk publicly in bland clichés about partnering with and improving the performance of the Karzai government, the grim reality of Afghan public life is distinguished by corruption, criminality, and poverty.

I knew and wrote about Karzai in the 1980s, when he was a representative in Peshawar of the pro-Western mujahideen faction of Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. Mojaddedi had very little military presence inside Afghanistan; he and Karzai were no threat to anybody. Karzai had impressed me as personable, enlightened, sensitive, and, now that I think about it over the distance of time, weak. I genuinely liked him. But alas, he is said to be bored by actual governance. As Ghani points out, “He is not an organization man with the requisite management abilities,” and thus he lacks the skill to build a popular power base like the one the late Afghan Communist leader Babrak Karmal was able to build in the late 1970s and early 1980s, or even like the one the Soviet puppet Najibullah built later on. And without a power base of his own, and with the Americans distracted since 2003 by Iraq, Karzai has had few others to rely on but the warlords and his own knee-deep-in-graft family.

And on ethnic and tribal loyalties:

What does it mean to work with the tribes, Churchill-style; what does it take to overcome the geographical and human terrain here? The story of Colonel Chris Kolenda, of Omaha, Nebraska, is instructive. Kolenda, a West Point graduate with the sharp-eyed, comforting manner of a family physician, commanded the 1st Squadron of the 91st Cavalry from May 2007 to July 2008 in northeastern Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan. When Kolenda’s 800-soldier battalion arrived, armed violence was endemic. Coalition headquarters in Kabul blamed a Pakistan-based insurgency. “The conventional wisdom was wrong,” Kolenda told me. “Almost all of the insurgents were locals who fought for a whole variety of reasons: they were disgusted with ISAF, as well as the government in Kabul; their fathers had fought the Soviets and now the sons were fighting the new foreigners.”

Then there was the “psychodrama of interethnic and clan frictions,” abetted by the fractured mountainous landscape. The area was populated by Nuristanis, Kohistanis, and Pashtuns, all of whom harbored disdain for the Gujars, migrant farm workers from over the border, who, in their eyes, were “not real Afghans.” (So much for the argument that there is no Afghan national identity.) The Nuristanis, in turn, were divided into the Kata, Kom, Kushtowz, and Wai clans. The Kom were split into hostile and well-armed groups whose current divisions stemmed from the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, when some of the Kom backed the radical forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known as the HIG, or Hezb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin, and other Kom sub-clans were loyal to the moderate National Islamic Front of Afghanistan. The Kata, meanwhile, were generally loyal to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (“Army of the Righteous”), which carried out major attacks against India from bases in Pakistan. The Pashtuns themselves were divided in some cases, on account of blood feuds, into five elements.

Kolenda apologized to me for “getting down in the weeds,” but explained that until he’d learned who was who, and who was fighting whom, his battalion couldn’t make progress and escape the cycle of ferocious firefights that had characterized the first three months of its deployment. “People were often giving us tips about bad guys who weren’t really bad guys, but simply people from another faction with whom the tipster had a score to settle.”

Interesting and thoughtful article throughout.

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