China can help in Afghan solution

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 October, 2009, 12:00am

Increasingly, the hubbub and murmurs in Washington are that Afghanistan is becoming a new quagmire for the US. Afghanistan is certainly proving a treacherous testing ground for President Barack Obama, who needs to begin thinking outside the conventional boxes, and talk to President Hu Jintao .

Eight years ago this week, the US and its allies launched 'Operation Enduring Freedom' in Afghanistan. How sadly misplaced such code names are: hundreds of deaths later, the country is far from any kind of peace, let alone freedom. Worse, what is most distressing is the woolly thinking in policymaking.

To come straight to the point, why bother with poor, isolated Afghanistan, which is far from anything of importance? The reason for going in, in 2001, was to bring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists to justice after the September 11 attacks.

But, these days, al-Qaeda's operatives have melted away from their original hideouts to the Pakistan side of an unpatrolled border. Some have migrated to Somalia and other battlegrounds.

The record is relative success in pinning al-Qaeda back within a failure of the mission to capture bin Laden, but surrounded by a greater failure to win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan, where the Taliban now has a permanent presence in 80 per cent of the country.

Some experts claim that, in spite of daily bombings and deaths of soldiers, al-Qaeda is no longer the problem in Afghanistan.

So the best policy is for the US to do a deal with 'moderate Taliban', pull out troops and concentrate the pressure on bin Laden and al-Qaeda by using remote drone attacks rather than wasting lives and boots on the ground.

This has the advantages of being cheap, will lead to less direct bloodshed and will be popular at home, where people want to see 'their boys' return alive, not in body bags. The same sentiments apply in Britain, the second-biggest supplier of troops to the 42-nation International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), where 56 per cent want their troops out, and in many of the European nations.

Scenes of dead soldiers being brought home have diminished the Western passion for war. After eight years, 1,446 Isaf soldiers have died. The Afghan death toll is less well documented, but the UN recorded 1,013 civilian fatalities in the first six months of 2009. While every combat death is a tragedy, these figures are dwarfed by the 60-70 million deaths in the shorter second world war.

A policy of withdrawal would be cheaper, but as US Defence Secretary Robert Gates pointed out, it would be a body blow to the US reputation as a superpower and reliable ally.

It would be risky. In the short term, the Taliban would take power, with disastrous consequences, especially for women and children; but, in the medium term, it would let loose a kaleidoscope of potentially clashing forces, some small and tribal, others with bigger ambitions, including al-Qaeda, which would come back into Afghanistan. Neighbours, including Pakistan and Iran, would almost certainly become involved.

China and East Asia might seem far away, with nothing to worry about from this distant war, but China shares a 76-kilometre border with Afghanistan. China is becoming involved economically, and China Metallurgical Group last year paid US$3 billion to prospect for copper deposits worth some US$88 billion in Afghanistan's Logar province.

Afghanistan's relationship with China was brought rudely home this week when an al-Qaeda leader urged Uygurs to launch a holy war against 'oppressive' China. 'The state of atheism is heading to its fall. It will face what befell the Russian bear,' Abu Yahya al-Libi threatened on an Islamist website.

But if Obama and his allies are to wrest control back in Afghanistan, they have to do more than put fresh boots on the ground - they have to remember their brave promises of enduring freedom.

Honesty is essential, which means admitting that Afghanistan's August presidential election was fraudulent. The outraged comments of Peter Galbraith, sacked as the UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan after protesting against widespread fraud and claiming that up to 30 per cent of votes for President Hamid Karzai were fake, ring all too true. But the UN has put its faith in the Karzai-appointed election commission, and has pussyfooted around allegations of vote rigging.

But even if the election had been fair, the Karzai regime is one of the world's most corrupt. Bluntly, how can the Americans claim to be fighting for the good guys when they are working for Karzai and a gang of warlords with reputations for drug dealing, private armies and atrocities? And even if some allegations of corruption may be overblown, the Karzai government has proved itself to be incompetent, as witnessed by the Taliban's widespread inroads.

It is not that the Afghan people - even if anyone gave them a choice - like the austere Taliban practices, but the Taliban have proved to be more efficient in government.

American and British military commanders have called - embarrassingly, for their political masters, in public - for substantial reinforcements if they are to be able to do their job properly.

But all the foreign troops in the world will not be able to hold Afghanistan unless the day-to-day civil governance is improved and freed from the shackles of corruption.

Obama has to urgently think unconventionally and commit more resources to improve government and get the economy moving. He should widen his search for allies, search for any moderate Taliban who might participate in a national government, and talk to China, India and Pakistan about helping to promote economic opportunities.

Afghanistan has rich mineral resources and people who have proved adept at outwitting foreign troops. The Chinese have shown that economic development can cover many political sins. Get them on board.

Kevin Rafferty first visited Afghanistan 40 years ago