War in Afghanistan

A liability Obama can ill afford

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 November, 2009, 12:00am

With a loud clang that rent the night air of the remote countryside, we smashed into an unlit road barrier. Guards came scurrying down the hillside, rifles ready. It was just before midnight, not far from the Afghanistan city of Herat. We trembled, but the guards were relieved that we had stopped to pay the road toll, took our money and waved us cheerily on our way.

No, this did not happen recently. It was exactly 40 years ago, and the start of a crazy adventure twice across Afghanistan en route to Pakistan and India. In a bright orange Land Rover we, six women and four men, toured the country for several weeks. We were gawped at, but never molested - unlike in Iran, where police tried to fondle the women, or Turkey, where our tents were burgled by soldiers. We ate freshly baked bread and haggled furiously in the bazaars, but were always greeted with smiles.

I am not trying to wallow in personal nostalgia, but to point out that Afghanistan is more complex than editorial writers and politicians claim. US President Barack Obama and his allies are in a deep hole in Afghanistan, and need to think unconventionally to get out of the morass.

For most of the last 30 years, 'war torn' has most accurately described Afghanistan, but for 40 years previously, the country enjoyed peace and relative prosperity. Some diplomats described the capital Kabul as 'the Paris of central Asia'.

That was going too far: Kabul was still dustily impoverished. But without over-romanticising, Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s offered a pleasant stop overland to India, and the longer you stayed, the more charmed you became. On several visits, I followed camel trains of Kuchi nomads laden with pots and pans, bicycles and snotty-nosed kids; saw exquisitely pacific Buddha images being excavated near Jalalabad; climbed the hills of Kabul dotted with mud and brick hovels and the most fascinating faces; watched young men and women, some unveiled and wearing short skirts, go to Kabul University; and never saw a single Kalashnikov or any other gun until I went to the palace to interview then-president Mohammed Daoud. My impression was of a proud people fighting impoverishment in a tough land that the imperial dogs of Britain and Russia had mauled.

Daoud pleaded for greater Western commerce with Afghanistan to balance the Soviet influence that he had inspired when Washington lost interest. A few weeks later, Daoud was assassinated by rivals who sought to bring Afghanistan into the Soviet orbit. The US funded fighters to take back Afghanistan for Islam. The rest is history.

To Afghans, Obama is an alien ruler operating through the puppet regime of Hamid Karzai, back in power after his 're-election' this week. 'Re-election' has to go in quotation marks. In any other election anywhere, from school classrooms to grown-up democracies, any candidates or their agents caught cheating are immediately disqualified, probably fined or sent to jail.

Karzai was caught red-handed in widespread and blatant cheating. Instead of jailing him, his backers let him have another attempt, in which he was planning to cheat again, until his challenger pulled out refusing to play a dirty game.

Never mind, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rushed to Kabul to pay court. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disgracefully declared that Karzai gained legitimacy from being prepared to participate in a run-off.

Obama's problem is that Karzai not only refuses to take the puppet master's orders, but runs an administration as corrupt as any in Afghanistan's history and incompetent, with a writ that is being challenged even inside Kabul. It says even less about American judgment that Karzai's brother, allegedly a kingpin in the booming drug trade, is a paid agent of the CIA, according to The New York Times.

Not surprisingly, critics have urged Obama to refuse the demands of General Stanley McChrystal to send more troops or to pull out entirely. It must surely be tempting for Obama, like a good gambler, to cut his losses and get out.

But is he prepared to pay the price? The immediate price is American humiliation of defeat by gangs of crafty guerillas, admittedly backed by money and guns from powerful outside helpers. It would also be a victory for Muslim fundamentalism, which does not reflect Afghan wishes, and for violence that undermines the essential underpinnings of any civilised society. It would be a betrayal, too, of the promises of the West to Afghan women and children.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam. The Taliban are not a government in waiting with wide popular support. They are a series of barely educated gangs, but they might be inspired by victory to unite with their Pakistani counterparts and redraw the maps to create a greater Afghanistan, an AfPak, or to take on India as did Mahmud and Babur centuries ago.

Would China and Russia make accommodations with the new regime and hope that they would turn their attention to India rather than to rescuing their Muslim brethren in the two countries? Would Tehran try to take over the Taliban, co-operate in making mischief over a wider area or fear that an uncurbed Taliban might threaten Iran itself?

Yes, there is a kaleidoscope of ifs, mights and maybes. But that is the potential of the mess of Obama's choice.

He has little room for manoeuvre. Unless he ditches the weak Karzai, he will go down with him tarred with cheating and corruption. One remaining option would be a Loya Jirga (grand council) of Afghan tribes excluding Karzai's warlords, but including Taliban who had renounced violence, if there are any. Let the Afghans really decide. But it would need to be paralleled with a like body of neighbouring powers, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, the US, the European Union and Japan to make promises of aid and reconstruction and to set minimum civilised standards of governance. Sadly, does anyone care about the Afghans or about good governance?

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator