Afghanistan – surge nears its peak

The recent statement of Afghanistan’s President Harmid Karzai that receiving millions of dollars of cash payments from Iran on a regular was completely normal must have caused dismay amongst all ISAF nations.

1st Nov 2010

The recent statement of Afghanistan’s President Harmid Karzai that receiving millions of dollars of cash payments from Iran on a regular was completely normal must have caused dismay amongst all ISAF nations.

The idea that Iran – or any other donor – hands over bags of cash to help with “expenses” without expecting something in return is laughable. On the other hand, the US is also known to make cash payments to the President and so the official reaction from Washington has been somewhat muted. It is said that there is nothing wrong with taking a bribe if you don’t let it influence your actions.

The fact that Iran seeks to be a player in the internal affairs of Afghanistan should come as a surprise to no one. The two countries share a lengthy border and Iran is home to some two million Afghan refugees who have fled the fighting in their homeland. Given the enmity between Tehran and Washington since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 it is also not surprising that Iran would like to see the withdrawal of foreign troops from the entire region. So payments to the Karzai Government for “reconstruction” could be viewed as a legitimate diplomatic tool.

But without doubt the already tarnished image of the Karzai Government has suffered further damage at a time when the major offensive designed to break the grip of the Taliban around Kandahar is drawing to a close. There is little doubt that the surge in US troop numbers has contributed to an improvement in the security situation, though the real issue is how long this will last.

ISAF military leaders have spoken positively and publicly about the offensive, pointing to the hundreds of Taliban fighters killed and thousands captured during the last few weeks and also about the good performance of the Afghan National Army. In private the views are more qualified, with the judgment that the Taliban might be using their usual classic guerilla tactic of fading away in the face of overwhelming conventional military might, only to return later.

As the West well knows, the border with Pakistan is extremely porous and it is relatively easy for militants to find sanctuary and wait, saying of ISAF “you have the watch but we have the time.” The inability or unwillingness of Pakistan to launch its own offensive against the Taliban and the closely related Haqqani Network means that militants remain free to rest, rearm and plan, knowing that they are safe from cross-border incursions. What they are not free from are Hellfire missile strikes from lurking Predator drones – but the jury is still out on whether such attacks are an effective way of dealing with militants. Noted authority on Afghanistan David Kilcullen believes that the Predators are killing far more innocent civilians rather than fighters and that in fact their use is driving people to support the Taliban.

Another factor contributing to what might ultimately prove to be the illusion of victory for ISAF is seasonal – at this time of year as the climate worsens and foliage used for cover starts to thin out, fighting always reduces in intensity. Time and again during the last ten years Western forces have cleared an area and declared it to be secure, only to discover that fighting flares up again months later when militants come out of hiding or return from Pakistan and resume attacks.

There has also been depressing news on the reconstruction front. A US audit has shown that much of the $55 billion in aid money spent in Afghanistan during the past decade is unaccounted for. It seems likely that almost $20 billion has gone missing, especially since record keeping prior to 2008 was almost non-existent. While some money has undoubtedly been well spent, the amount of wastage in one of the world’s most corrupt countries is staggering and cannot be helping the cause of the West. If rural people who are desperately poor see their Government officials and businessmen lining their own pockets rather than spend money on aid projects it will make them more supportive of the Taliban, who have a reputation for being extremely tough on corruption.

The Karzai Government is at least trying to do something that is widely popular with local people and ban private security contractors. There are around 50,000 of them in Afghanistan at any time and even though they perform some valuable services by guarding convoys and the like, they are largely unaccountable for their actions and have long been criticized by Karzai as a destabilizing influence. But even on this measure he has soften his stance under pressure from Washington and rather than kick them out he now proposes to review their activities.

The only recent development that can give genuine heart to ISAF and President Karzai is the willingness of Russia to begin co-operating on security issues. To date the attitude of Moscow has been at best lukewarm but there are signs that this is changing. Russia has been prepared to work on joint drug busts, motivated in part to the large quantities of high grade Afghan heroin now flooding the market. In addition Russia is said to be considering the supply of additional helicopters – especially Mil-17s – to countries such as Poland that are members of ISAF.

Though speaking of Russia, former leader Mikhail Gorbachev has declared the conflict in Afghanistan to be unwinnable – and he should know.

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