Obama, Karzai and an Afghan mirage
Last year, under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan slipped three places on a widely respected international index of corruption and became the world’s second-most corrupt country. It now ranks 179th out of 180, a place long held by Somalia.
According to a United Nations report published in January, Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribes in 2009, roughly a quarter of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (not counting revenue from the opium trade). The survey, based on interviews with 7,600 people, said corruption was the biggest concern of Afghans.
On the military front in a war more than halfway through its ninth year, attacks on U.S. forces and their NATO allies totaled 21,000 in 2009, a 75 percent increase over 2008, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) a week before Karzai’s visit to Washington. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, noted that Taliban insurgents had set up a “widespread paramilitary shadow government…in a majority of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.”
The Pentagon, also in advance of Karzai’s visit (in the second week of May), reported that Afghans support his government in only 29 of the 121 districts the U.S. military consider most strategically important.
“The insurgents perceive 2009 as their most successful year,” the Pentagon said. “The Afghan insurgency has. ..a ready supply of recruits drawn from the frustrated population, where insurgents exploit poverty, tribal friction and lack of governance to grow their ranks.” As to corruption: “Real…change remains elusive and political will, in particular, remains doubtful.”
In case all this has led you to the conclusion that the Afghan glass is half empty at best, that’s not the way President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton portrayed it during Karzai’s visit. Yes, there were difficulties ahead, they said, but overall things were looking up. “We are steadily making progress,” Obama said. “Progress in Afghanistan is real,” echoed Clinton.
Was this a matter of two leaders seeing a mirage, or a 21st century version of the “we see light at the end of the tunnel” assurance Americans heard during the Vietnam war? Or was it simply overdue recognition that Obama is stuck with Karzai no matter how unpopular he might be or how much credibility he lacks?
Karzai’s visit was almost cancelled after he responded to public rebukes from American leaders with anti-American and anti-Western tirades so over the top that one of his most prominent detractors, the former United Nations deputy chief in Afghanistan Peter Galbraith, raised questions over the Afghan president’s stability. “He’s prone to tirades, he can be very emotional, act impulsively,” Galbraith told the U.S. TV network MSNBC.
OPPOSITION TO WAR
That prompted a flurry of international headlines on the Afghan leader’s mental state that did little to win support for the war. Polls show that slightly more than half the American public think the war is not worth fighting for. In Britain, Canada, Australia, France and Germany, the biggest contributors to the 43-member coalition, poll after poll has shown majority opposition to the war.
One of the problems in convincing reluctant partners to spend blood and treasure in Afghanistan is the lack of a clear answer to the question “what is success?”
Even a Washington think tank friendly to Obama, the Center for American Progress, singled out the absence of “clarity of purpose” in a report on the future of Afghanistan. “The Obama administration remains vague about what progress looks like in Afghanistan and what our objectives are over the next two to five years,” the Center said.
There has been no vagueness about the cost of the enterprise. It has been rising steadily as forces in Afghanistan were built up and troops in Iraq drawn down. In February, Pentagon monthly spending on Afghanistan exceeded spending on Iraq for the first time, $6.7 billion ($233 million a day) compared with $5.5 billion. Congress is almost certain to approve an additional $33 billion in the current fiscal year to fund the troop increase Obama announced last December.
It was his second escalation of what he calls a war of necessity. He ordered the first, of 21,000 troops, a few weeks after taking office. His rationale then: they were needed to secure the Afghan presidential election which, in the end, were so massively rigged that a U.N.-backed complaints committee threw out about a million Karzai votes.
That’s past history and no longer a subject, now that the Obama team has decided they need to live with Karzai, warts and all. What will be a subject is a promise, made halfway through his visit, that he would work for better government. It’s not the first such pledge.
Will word match deed better than in the past? That will be watched closely both in Washington and in Afghanistan. There, in the words of General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander, people “believe more of what they see than what they hear. Only when they experience security…and only when they benefit from better governance, will they begin to believe in the possibilities of the future.”
The chances of that happening by July next year, the date Obama has set for the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, are close to zero.