Obama, Karzai and an Afghan mirage

By Bernd Debusmann
May 14, 2010

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.

11 comments

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“roughly a quarter of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (not counting revenue from the opium trade).”

Other than reminding everyone Afghanistan produces heroin, what’s the point in not including revenue from opium? It’s estimated to be 3.5 billion, which increases Afghanistan’s GDP from 10B to 13B. That changes the percentage from 1/4 to 1/5. It’s still sizable, so why make a point of not including it?

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

The people who lack credibility are:

1. Galbraith, who stole US$100 million from Kurdistan

2. US troops led by McChrystal, who promised to cut night raids, but then tripled them (among other things).

3. You and all other journalists who insist on writing about Afghanistan even though you obviously know nothing about it.

Afghan leaders have rarely, if ever, controlled anything outside Kabul. Karzai is no exception.

Karzai may very well be corrupt. But he’s not as corrupt as the United States contractors running the show over there. This is why Afghanistan ranks so poorly on transparency international’s rankings.

You know this, so why aren’t you reporting it accurately? What are you now, a US apologist, selling US propaganda?

The United States is responsible for its own failure in Afghanistan not because of Karzai. It just can’t handle the fact. Because the US military strategy is totally stuffed up, and the reason that little problem exists has everything to do with the way Washington works, and nothing to do with how Kabul works.

And of course, Washington would never be the way it is were it not for stuffed up columnists like you.

Posted by myob | Report as abusive

I find myself wondering exactly WHY we are still in Afghanistan in the first place. Bin Laden hasn’t been a priority for our leadership for years now. Karzai is busy badmouthing the only people who seem to think he deserves his position.

He needs to be left to his own devices. Let him handle his own security. The money spent on this war should be going to help fix the problems we have here at home.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

Is there a politcal party out there that would end senseless wars? No there is’nt but there is a perenial presidential candidate who would end the squandering of your taxes on wars, foreign aid,military waste,etc and bring back benevolence. His name is Ron Paul.

Posted by paceman | Report as abusive

The people who profit from wars and deal drugs as a sideline are not going to allow peace in Afghanistan any time soon. Karzai, Clinton and Obama are three of their puppets. Stanley McChrystal is one of their agents.

Afghanistan was less corrupt before their arrival, and will be better again after their departure. From this earth.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Afghanistan is a quagmire, just ask the Brits or the Soviets. They want to be left to their own devices, and should be so. Yes, there will be an atrocious Taliban regime established soon after the withdrawal, but if properly isolated, it will keep the atrocities to their own.
Yes, it will be necessary to keep it in check. To that extent, it will be enough to have a sufficient number of pilotless aircraft circling it any time of the day, and a sufficient number of B-52 or like on standby with full bomb load in case something more serious than Hellfire missile is deemed necessary. Will be cheaper than keeping boots on the ground, even if counting only $. The savings in servicemen lives? Priceless.
This is where we could get Russians engaged. The bases in their former Central Asian republics, and possibly even a few of their heavy bombers participating in the blockade – in exchange for trade agreements that are long overdue anyway. Isolating Afghanistan is in their best interest, too – a good portion of Afghan heroin ends up on the streets of Russian cities.

Posted by An0nym0us | Report as abusive

We all know that America is eventually going to give up on Afghanistan without achieving victory, but only certain politicians are prepared to throw away the lives of young soldiers purely so that the retreat doesn’t happen on their watch. Bush, Obama & Co are personally responsible for these wasted lives.

Posted by Osomec | Report as abusive

Why the nonsense about heroin? Mullah Omar’s government reduced opium production to 80 tons per year, mostly in Russia’s Northern Alliance area. It grew to 7000 tons a year because the USA needed the support of the heroin lords. If you fight the moral majority, you need the support of the immoral minority. Every US soldier in Afghanistan is fighting for freely available heroin. Why do you think narcoNATO refused Russia’s recent request to stop opium growing in Afghanistan? I don’t suppose you would have read a statement by the Australian Army that they would only oppose opium poppies when Afghans could make no money growing it. It’s not as if this is the first time the USA financed a war with drugs – the Nationalist Chinese 20th division after it retreated to Burma, the CIA’s Hmong (Meo as the French called them) “secret” army in Laos, the Nicaraguan Contras with the CIA flying cocaine to Noriega in Panama and dropping off money and guns to the Contras. The CIA plane was even shot down and the pilot captured by the Sandinistas. The pilot was released so that the US media could expose their government if they wanted to report the truth. The Burmese and Laotian Govts have now established sufficient control in their countries to crush the USA drug trade. The same thing will happen in Afghanistan if the Taliban don’t have to worry about a US comeback.

Posted by DonaldThomson | Report as abusive

“What are you now, a US apologist”
-myob

I can assure that whatever else he may be, Bernd is not an apologist for the US.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

The US has the military capability to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan but not the political will to use that capability. The same thing occurred in Korea and Vietnam. The US certainly had the power to defeat countries like North Korea and North Vietnam, but chose not to do so. Why not?

Posted by DavidMac1556 | Report as abusive

@avid
Perhaps you should try to clarify the so called ‘capability’ which the USA has but was not able to defeat the so called enemy in Korea and Vietnam?
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive