Afghanistan: America’s Crucible

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Nasir Shansab, Guest Contributor

Reflecting on his time in Afghanistan as the head of the UN mission in 2006 and 2007, Tom Koenigs, writes in his book, Machen wir Frieden oder haben wir Krieg (“Are We Making Peace or Do We Have a War”), “If people would want to know what I think I have done right in the last two years and what I have done wrong, what has been improved, or if it was worthwhile, these are all questions to which, if I am entirely honest, I know no answers.”

That sentence sums up what has happened—or rather did not happen—in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban in November 2001 and the installation of Hamid Karzai to lead that country.

The Karzai regime and the U.S.-led international community took charge of a devastated country, promising to bring its people security, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, reconstruct its institutions, and establish the rule of law—in short, to engage in “nation-building.”

In his book, State-Building, Governance and World Order in the 21st Century, Francis Fukuyama writes, “…nation-building means the creation of self-sustaining state capacity that can survive once foreign advice and support are withdrawn.” In other words, nation-building entails that failed states reach a degree of security, political stability, sustainable economy, and financial self-sufficiency that would allow them to move on without the support of foreign financial, advisory, and military support. Afghanistan lacks all those attributes. Here is why:

  • 1) The international community pays 90 percent of Afghanistan’s expenses. Without this subsidy, the Afghan government would collapse almost immediately.
  • 2) Afghanistan’s economy depends almost entirely on foreign military and civilian activities. The country itself has no economy to speak of.
  • 3) According to the office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the literacy rate of Afghan security forces is 11 percent and the monthly desertion rate hovers around 4 percent. If 150,000 highly-trained international forces could not defeat the insurgency, it is difficult to imagine how 350,000 mainly illiterate and lightly-armed security forces could prevail.
  • 4) Joel Brinkely, a former correspondent for The New York Times, writes in the International Bar Association’s June/July 2013 publication about infant mortality, another indicator of a failed state: “Afghanistan has the world’s second-highest infant mortality rate; by age five, 26 percent of them are dead.”

Today, Afghanistan is essentially the same failed state it was when the U.S. invaded it in October 2001. The marginal advances in the fields of education and women’s rights have no permanency; they will vanish if the Taliban returns to power or civil war descends onto the country. These are two of the most-likely scenarios once foreign troops have departed.

Things went wrong right from the beginning. In October 2001, in Bonn, Germany, a number of international officials worked to persuade a collection of Afghans to form a government. The plan was to have a government ready to be flown to Kabul as soon as the Taliban were driven out of the capital. The hope was that the immediate installation of a new government would prevent mayhem.

Simultaneously, American Daisy Cutters, the most powerful bombs in the Pentagon’s non-nuclear arsenal, rained on the trenches that the Taliban had dug across the Shomali valley, a stretch of land linking Kabul with the Hindu Kush range, where, the Northern alliance, the only remaining opposition to the Taliban, had assembled its forces at the mountains’ foothills.

The military campaign vastly outpaced the political process. The assembled characters in Bonn felt in no hurry to wrap up their assignment and depart for their war-devastated country. Instead of focusing on the mission, they engaged in endless discussions over a grab-bag of irrelevant matters.

In stark contrast to the slow pace of the political process in Bonn, high-altitude bombing of the Shomali valley swiftly destroyed Taliban positions. After the way to Kabul was cleared, the Northern Alliance’s ragtag army seized the capital.

The Northern Alliance’s rapid seizure of Kabul was precisely what the Bonn conference sought to avoid. To avert mayhem and acts of revenge, the Bonn gathering aimed to form a government consisting of Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups. The Northern Alliance, an amalgam of ethnic minorities, was concerned that it would lose out in Bonn to the majority Pashtun ethnic faction. The capital’s capture, therefore, was of paramount importance to the Northern Alliance. So, despite the generous donations its leaders had received from CIA operatives and promises they had made to comply with the wishes of their American benefactors, the Northern Alliance hurried to occupy Kabul to establish its claim to leadership in a future Afghan regime.

Meanwhile in Bonn, Afghan-born American Zalmai Khalilzad, representing the U.S., ran the proverbial show. Mr. Khalilzad had surrounded himself with a number of his Afghan-American friends, among them Qayoum Karzai, elder brother of Hamid Karzai, who ultimately was chosen to lead Afghanistan.

Mr. Khalilzad and Qayoum Karzai handpicked most of the Afghan attendees in Bonn, mainly men they knew and could control. It was fairly clear from the outset that Karzai would come out on top. Reportedly, he and his brother Qayoum were known to U.S. intelligence personnel. They were also old friends of Mr. Khalilzad, who had close ties to President W. Bush and his neo-con supporters.

In spite of the explicitly chaotic proceedings, the Khalilzad-Karzai team exercised a large degree of control over the event. They knew whom to threaten with obscurity and whom to motivate with promises of American largesse.

In a study entitled “Crime and War in Afghanistan,” published by Oxford University Press in December 2012, the Centre for Crime and Justice of the Australian National University concludes: “The Bonn agreement in 2001 did not usher in an effective ‘constitutional moment’ because it enabled a personalized division of spoils rather than an institutionalized division of power.” The report also observes that the Bonn agreement engendered “a culture of impunity.”

In 2009, Washington had an opportunity to introduce urgently needed changes in the way it managed the Afghan problem. First, America’s new administration inherited a war that was not of its making and had a free hand to reshape the country’s policy towards that war. Second, President Karzai’s mandate in Afghanistan was coming to an end and new presidential elections were to be carried out.

When President Obama held discussions with his national security team to chart out a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, every participant knew that a trustworthy and capable government in Kabul was essential to effectively execute the American strategy. In his book Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward quotes National Security Adviser James Jones as saying, “The plan is not executable without changes in governance—fundamental changes.” According to Mr. Woodward, in another meeting in the White House, General Petraeus said, “I understand the [Afghan] government is a criminal syndicate.” Thereupon, Vice President Biden asked, “If the [Afghan] government is a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will troops make a difference?” The question remained unanswered.

The one important step that should have been taken in 2009 was to remove the Karzai regime. But no one in Washington was prepared to seriously think about that possibility or even to discuss it publicly. In private conversations, the matter was explained away on grounds of sovereignty. That argument, however, did not apply to Afghanistan in 2009 (nor does it apply to Afghanistan today). In 2009, Afghanistan lacked (as it lacks today) the necessary prerequisites to claim sovereignty. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen once said Afghans were not yet “masters in their own house.” Francis Fukuyama writes in his above-mentioned book, “State sovereignty was a fiction or bad joke in the case of countries like Somalia or Afghanistan, which had descended into rule by warlords.”

NATO had concluded in 2009 that the Taliban controlled 70 percent of Afghanistan, effectively rendering fair and free elections impossible. Yet, the Obama administration agreed to let Mr. Karzai have his elections, which cost the U.S. and its allies $300 million and brought Afghanistan to the verge of another civil war.

Subsequently, UN Chief Representative Peter Galbraith made public the massive vote rigging of Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential elections. Otherwise, the deception probably would have remained unknown. Ambassador Galbraith lost his job for his honesty.

Today, Washington is once again at a crossroads, and could either correct its handling of the Afghan problem or continue its failed policy of the past.

Mr. Karzai’s mandate, such as it is, ends in May 2014. In the last few months, his government’s control over the country has further deteriorated. Washington should realize that free and fair elections are impossible when the government has no presence in large areas of the country and at best a tenuous hold over the rest. Yet, in a speech on July 23, 2013, before the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS), Ambassador James Cunningham declared that the next presidential election would be “crucial for the future stability of Afghanistan.”

Before the Obama administration decides to pay another $200 to $300 million for another rigged election, it should give the following some thought:

First, in the early 1990s, the U.S. outsourced its Afghanistan policy to Pakistan. The result was the creation of the Taliban. This time, India is being groomed for the job. However, India’s administration has neither the money nor the administrative capacity to play savior to a discredited Afghan regime. Despite having promised to spend $2 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, India has as of this year spent only about $200 million, and most of its projects are years behind schedule. In September 2011, a state-controlled consortium of seven Indian companies bid for the rights of Afghanistan’s largest asset, the Hajigak iron ore mine. They failed to fund their own proposal.

Since 2011, India has been running large trade deficits and the Indian rupee has lost more than 20 percent of its value relative to the dollar. India will need many years to get out of the economic hole it finds itself in, and would probably be relieved if it were not expected to take responsibility for Afghanistan’s security after 2014, when most U.S and NATO forces will have left.

Second, as long as Pakistan’s leaders are convinced that India is their enemy, India’s larger presence in Afghanistan will enhance Pakistan’s paranoia and its determination to foment unrest there. And because of its preoccupation with a potential war with India, Pakistan feels the need for a “strategic depth,” which means access to Afghan territory. As long as this mindset prevails in Pakistan, it will oppose a secure and strong government in Afghanistan.

Third, the talk about negotiations between the Karzai government and the Taliban is unrealistic. The Taliban will remain hostile to any government in Afghanistan that is based on the country’s present political setup. The Taliban believes it is fighting for God and thus perceives no time pressure. Convinced that this war could last for generations, ups and downs on the battlefield are meaningless to it.

Fourth, no matter what Mr. Karzai utters publicly, he knows privately that the Taliban will not come to terms with him. He understands that Afghanistan needs American military and financial support. He realizes he made a mistake when he publicly announced he would not tolerate an American military presence after 2014, if the U.S. insisted on legal immunity from Afghan law for its troops. He is desperately searching for an opening to retreat from that position.

Fifth, as long as its present leaders rule Afghanistan, nothing will change. They are products of chaos and have thrived by it. They abhor the rule of law and would do anything to thwart it. Under these conditions, elections would be meaningless and the country will gradually but inevitably slide into mayhem, and possibly be split into a southern Pashtun part and a northern Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek area.

The only way to get out of the present vicious circle is to declare Afghanistan ungovernable and put it under the protection of the international community. An interim government should be installed and assisted to undo within a predetermined time frame what has gone wrong in the past 13 years.

Nasir Shansab was once one of Afghanistan’s leading industrialists until he was forced to leave in 1975. In recent years he has returned often to view the country’s struggles firsthand. His novel, Silent Trees, was published earlier in 2013.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s September/October 2013 print edition.