Quick, Before The Quagmire Sets

Iraq seems, at last, yesterday’s war. Now the Forgotten War in Afghanistan, the one that’s been going on longer, has become — again — the Just War.

Barack Obama says he will change the character of the war against a resurgent Taleban, at the pointy end of the desert wastelands of the Pashtun south. But two centuries of foreign engagement in Afghanistan suggest it is going to take considerably more than the confident word of a young president. From the 1842 massacre of Elphinstone’s army and the Soviet adventure of the 1980s, armchair strategists insist foreigners have no business in Afghanistan, that it’s a graveyard of lost causes and good intentions.

But should past disasters in Afghanistan be the measure for this conflict? And do we have the luxury of not trying to assuage this deleterious land? Or is Afghanistan irretrievable, and to be avoided at all costs?

Eight years and $30 billion after the US invasion that followed the 9/11 attacks on America, Afghanistan isn’t much different from the basket-case failed state abandoned by the Taleban.

Here are seven points that might help save Afghanistan from becoming ‘Obama’s Vietnam’ and to address some of the mistakes of the past eight years.

1: Get rid of President Hamid Karzai

The ‘Mayor of Kabul’ — his writ has never extended much beyond the capital — has been pretty much a disaster as president. Karzai’s leadership model seems to be to don a stately chapan, complement his salt-and-pepper stubble with a traditional karakul for his bald pate, then repeat by rote, ‘We must do more for education, we must provide electricity’ often enough for people to believe it has happened. True, there are now more Afghan kids in schools (not hard off a near-zero base from Taleban times), but lessons are conducted in classrooms that Neanderthals might recognize. Karzai blames foreigners for his failures — an explosion of crime, corruption and poppy production — and he’s partly right. But it’s also a distraction from his inability to limit corrupt ministers and his grasping family, whose fiefs keep Afghans in rags.

Most Afghans, and increasingly, the new Obama White House, scorn him. Witness the recent election date fiasco. Karzai decrees a snap poll for April instead of the planned August hoping he has caught his opponents on the hop. Bad idea, choruses everyone, including the US. The emasculated Karzai meekly acquiesces, but warns of a ‘constitutional crisis’ because his term officially expires in May. Constitutional crisis?! Would that this was the most pressing of Afghanistan’s myriad crises. No one cares. Karzai could step down now and only his billionaire brother and cronies would notice him missing.

A likeable man, Karzai should gracefully retire while he can as ‘the statesman who brought democracy to Afghanistan’, and join Gorbachev — now showing: ‘Why Afghanistan is a Tough Nut to Crack!’ — on the globaloney circuit. Why get yelled at by Richard Holbrooke and other rude Americans, arm-wrestle pesky Pakistanis and always be dodging assassins — I had to negotiate seven layers of security to interview him in 2006 — when he can get his Wimbledon-hued robes laundered daily at the Four Seasons Milan while Tom Ford and Anna Wintour secure the front row by the Prada catwalk for their exotic Eastern friend. Karzai could become a Kabuli Jimmy Carter (more effective out of office than when in it) monitoring elections in Zimbabwe, and let Obama pick someone else to be Afghanistan’s president.

2. Jail the warlords

To these thugs, 9/11 was a business opportunity, the most surprising thing that happened to them. The Taleban had thrashed them into exile during the long post-Soviet civil war, but now they were back with — God must be great — George ‘anyone-but-the-Taleban’ Bush as their bagman. And, struck dumb by the horror in Lower Manhattan, the rest of us went along with it.

Bush lavished millions on them and suddenly men who would gouge each others’ eyes out for sport were doing the buzkashi cha-cha in sleek Chevy SUVs and getting seats in government, their salaries paid by the west’s taxes. Karzai’s cabinets have always been bipolar; half the ministers technocrat returnees from long exile in the West, half warlord cavemen, the two united not by faith or a hatred of the Taleban but by a no-longer-relevant anti-Soviet feeling, which pleased their veteran Cold Warrior sponsors in DC.

The ‘New Afghanistan’ turned out to be not so new at all. You can’t buy an Afghan, so the saying goes, but you can rent one, and for Nato and its allies, renting warlords meant fewer military widows back home, and a lair meant one fewer province to police. The Taleban might not have allowed his daughter to go to school, but the average Afghan often despised the warlords more than he did the Talebs, who at least gave him security to rebuild his house that sociopaths like the Uzbek gangster Dostum and friends the Taleban had earlier trashed a dozen times in the seesaw battle they fought until Osama took out the World Trade Center.

That warlords were a big source of Afghan grievances, not least with their addiction to heroin, didn’t matter to the West. As the Atlanticists saw it, Afghan history began on 9/11 and there were 3,000 deaths to avenge. Besides, the Taleban equalled al-Qaeda and burqas and the Dark Ages, and the warlords, well, they didn’t equal al-Qa’eda anyway. But Washington’s Cold War ‘They’re sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches’ argument shouldn’t hold here. Afghanistan’s warlords are criminals and the Hague’s courtroom is where they belong, not the country’s leadership.

3. It’s the economy, Abdullah

The best foreign investment decision made in Afghanistan in recent times wasn’t under Karzai’s government, it was made at the fag end of Taleban rule. They let in a mobile phone company funded by New York fast food operators. Few planners, meddlers, do-gooders or consultants got involved. It was raw business, and Afghans are better at it than many. When the Taleban fell, others followed to create one of the country’s largest tax bases, giving Afghans a basic service they needed and were able to pay for.

Presidential contender Ashraf Ghani, a World Banker and former finance minister who was sacked when he started pointing fingers at corruption in the cabinet, is right when he says the war is equally fought in the economy as in Helmand. After eight years and more than $20 billion in aid, 60 per cent of Afghans live below a poverty line calculated for their miserable circumstances and lag in the bottom five of most every human development indicator. But a lot of people have got rich in Afghanistan since 2001, notably importers of fuel to fire the generators needed because the state can’t — or won’t — provide adequate power.

The aid community has done well too, and wasted a lot of your money. Foreign ‘experts’ — some barely out of college and with no practical experience of what it is they are advising on — can earn $1,000 a day and more in danger money to work in Afghanistan. Very little makes its way to the local economy, save the tony bars and restaurants that have sprung up to serve them.

One of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in Kabul was a surfboard circling the airport baggage carousel, which belonged to an American jock working for consultant Bearing Point. This was his first job out of college, and he loved that he could escape all-expenses-paid to Sri Lanka for a week a month, and could boast to his college chums that he was earning six figures in a war zone.

Ashraf Ghani once told me he wouldn’t hire, on merit, 75 per cent of the ‘advisors’ foisted on the government. This is probably an underestimation. There is massive corruption in Afghanistan, and not all of it among Afghans. A lot of money that should be spent on new schools and power stations is paying for first-class home leave to Peoria.

And here’s a bonus point. Do a Switzerland on Dubai. Force the Emirati sheikhs to open the books like the gnomes in Zurich are having to. There’s millions salted away in Dubai’s banks and a lot of that loot was yours.


4. Chum up to Iran

It seems obvious. Iran is Shia, and doesn’t much care having Sunni madmen as neighbors, be they Iraqi to its west or Afghans to the east. Shias are good allies against al-Qaeda, and fair-minded Iranians — most of them — really couldn’t care about Palestine, an Arab issue as they see it. Tehran loved it when George Bush took out the Taleban in 2001, and knocking Saddam Hussein off 18 months later was an unexpected bonus. Suddenly, Iran’s flanks opened up without effort and Tehran’s spooks and businessmen filled the vacuum. But if the Sunni crazies of al-Qaeda are the enemy, much the better for Iran and the West to chum up.

The embassy siege was 30 years ago now, about the same time China, another one-time pariah, opened up. And the Mossadegh coup was almost six decades ago. The Shah is dead, so is the Ayatollah, so it’s time to get over it. Rapprochement would be manifold; calm Iraq and much of Afghanistan, counterbalance the Russians, mitigate radical Wahabbism in South Asia and restore Persians to their rightful role as regional leaders instead of outcasts and facilitate energy to Afghanistan.

This is time for a new dynamic; economies are weakened and oil prices are low. There might even be an upside for Detroit. Iran has 70 million untapped consumers and their oil — petrol is cheaper per litre than water in Tehran — so it’s the one place that might buy the surplus Yank tanks no one else wants. Sell them to Iranians, to replace their Paykans, Hillman Hunter knockoffs with a fuel efficiency that make Humvees look like nippy Japanese hybrids. Peace gestures would also call the ayatollahs on their own rhetoric, and that could have its own dynamic inside Iran.

5. Time for China, and others, to do some heavy lifting

China is one of Afghanistan’s six neighbors. Beijing frets about Islamism in its restive west. So why is it the only Chinese one sees in Afghanistan are hookers and the occasional geologist sniffing out oilfields? Why are the only non-Western nations with a significant military presence in Afghanistan the almost-European (and Islamic) Turkey, via Nato, and small and secretive platoons from the UAE and Azerbaijan? If terrorism is a threat to us all, as politicians parrot everywhere nowadays, why aren’t some of the victims of it there, like Indonesia or Morocco? Brazil, Japan and India — post-Mumbai — aspire to be permanent members of the Security Council, but Nato war widows could be excused for asking: where’s their commitment?

Russia’s absence is understandable, but is South Africa’s? Nigeria’s? The aid group Care International has pointed out that Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia and East Timor — decidedly less important places than Afghanistan, by global implication — averaged one international peacekeeper for every 65 people, while Afghanistan had one foreign soldier for every 5,380 people. A stronger international spread would also mean less reliance on private military companies, the mostly American mercenaries who careen armed around Kabul; as brash, oafish, monied, bristling and bullying as bodyguards and private militias. The foreign military presence isn’t as unpopular among right-thinking Afghans as many media like to report, but Kabulis hate these guys, and with good reason.

6. Stop bombing weddings

No one likes bombs going off in their country, let alone in the name of ‘helping out’. Civilian casualties are clearly a bitter pill for Afghans to swallow. Bombing by Britain’s enemies supposedly hardened civilian resolve during the Blitz, but how must it feel to get the same treatment from foreigners who still haven’t figured out how to get the electricity running after eight years? They calculate the cost of close tactical support and figure out how many power stations or bridges or miles of new road could be purchased instead.

7. Seal the border with Pakistan

True, easier said than done. Much of the border is mountainous, inhospitable and porous. But with more hands at the wheel, it would be possible to at least limit unauthorized cross-border traffic of Taleban and insurgents. Pakistan is the problem here. Its putrid political culture has allowed corruption and fundamentalism to fester. So if Pakistan is unwilling or unable to stop the flow, you stop it for them, with extra international troops.

Americans have some history of sorting out extremism in fractious countries, methods they could apply to addressing the fundamentalist cancer in Pakistan’s armed forces and intelligence agencies. In my experience of meeting Pakistani military mullahs, about 10.30 at night is a good time. That’s when they’re drunk on whiskey pani in the officers’ mess. Their resistance would be futile, and you’d quickly see the difference in Afghanistan, and maybe Pakistan too. They might even find Osama and Mullah Omar too.

8. Wipe out the opium trade

The Taleban did it when they were in charge of the country and if the Taleban can do it, the combined might of Nato should be able to do it as well. Instead of turning a blind eye to opium production, the allied governments have to get serious about destroying a pernicious evil which does its ultimate damage on the streets of London, Washington, DC and Sydney. Pay Afghanistan’s farmers not to grow it. The Americans and the European Union subsidize their farmers to the tune US$132 billion annually. According to the US Congress Research Service, the Afghanistan and Iran Wars together have cost US$864 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, meaning that on an annualized basis, the US and the EU are spending more money to keep their farmers happy than they are to run two wars. The total cost of Afghanistan’s opium shouldn’t be too much to front, especially since the warlords who encourage its production would have been wiped out by Item 2 above.

It boils down to the three real enemies: desperate poverty, crime and incompetent management and leadership.

Glib? Easy to say, tough to execute? Probably, but given how far Afghanistan has descended since 2001, the alternatives clearly aren’t working. And we’ve seen what neglect can do.

Another version of this by the same author appeared in The Spectator.