While the economic damage wrought by the Bush administration may take a generation to repair, the old regime’s military stratagems are poised to create still further havoc in Afghanistan.
The freshman president has endorsed Robert Gates as Defense Secretary and Gen. David Petraeus as head of Central Command. These Bush-era veterans will soon field an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan’s troubled southern provinces, and are planning to raise tribal militias to face down Taliban fighters at the local level.
American generals admit that 2009 will see an increase in “kinetics," the Pentagon’s euphemism for combat. This is a prospect that critics of escalation view with foreboding, especially due to that other phenomenon cloaked in military jargon, collateral damage - which in Afghanistan has come to mean the killing of civilians on an alarming scale.
One senior Afghan official, who served for several years at the intersection of security exchanges between the Karzai government and its U.S. patron, tells skyreporter:
“People like Gates and Petraeus fail to recognize the best asset they have is the Afghan people. Look at what we’ve seen in the past two years. The more military operations are conducted, the more Afghans are caught in the crossfire."
Requesting that his identity not be disclosed, the official continues:
“Too many U.S. officials haven’t read their history. In the 1980’s, the more the Soviets escalated the military side of their campaign, the more the resistance grew. Gates, of all people, should know that.
“The Americans continue to sacrifice Afghans by focusing on the Afghan side of the border, while treating Pakistan with kid gloves. Yet they wonder why they’re losing support in Afghanistan.”
The Pakistan paradox poses a huge threat to the Obama administration’s hopes of reversing its predecessor’s failures in Southwest Asia. Though the CIA’s drones have pursued a number of notable Taliban and al Qaeda figures in the North and South Waziristan regions of Pakistan’s tribal agencies, their Hellfire missiles haven’t targeted the Afghan Taliban’s top leadership, safely holed up in Baluchistan, further to the southwest.
There, the Taliban’s command and support apparatus has proven its resilience this winter, inflicting the past year’s highest monthly tally of casualties on Canadian troops in December, not the summer months as was previously the case. The Canadians operate in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, directly across the border from Baluchistan.
Similarly, critics of the tribal militias concept say it is aimed at the tail of the Taliban snake, rather than the head, while offering no guarantees that the armed groups will remain loyal to Kabul (see our postings dated Nov. 11th and Nov. 19th in Recent Stories).
U.S. Ambassador William Wood has tried to re-brand the initiative as the “Community Guard Program.” He insists that the U.S. would not arm the volunteer groups directly, but it’s clear that nobody is suggesting an Afghan version of New York’s Guardian Angels. The tribal “guards” would wield assault rifles and RPG’s, not red T-shirts and berets.
As President Obama ponders the mixed prospects of his generals’ Afghan initiatives, he’ll do so with the conflict’s central crisis freshly in mind – thanks to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s textual assault on the Karzai regime in today’s Washington Post.
“The basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it's too little good governance,” he writes. “Afghans need a government that deserves their loyalty and trust; when they have it, the oxygen will be sucked away from the insurgency.
“… we have paid enough, in blood and treasure, to demand that the Afghan government take more concrete and vigorous action to root out corruption and increase efficiency, even where that means difficult political choices.”
That last point is aimed squarely at Hamid Karzai, but Barack Obama and his team must take note, too. Because the Karzai government’s flaws have their roots in the Bush administration’s stewardship - particularly in the domineering, blowback-prone policies of the administration’s former viceroy to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad.
As U.S. Ambassador, Khalilzad “ran” Hamid Karzai, to the point that the putative president on more than one occasion began their morning one-on-ones with: “So tell me, Zal, what am I doing today?”
At some point after this week’s inauguration, Khalilzad will be replaced as Ambassador to the U.N. But that hasn’t stopped him from projecting himself, or at least his preferences, into the preparations for this year’s Afghan elections.
True, the Obama team will boast old hands like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke. None of these are shrinking violets – but neither are they peerless practitioners of foreign policy.
Let’s remember that in January of 2002, Biden said of Karzai: “The guy is sharp. He's smart. He's savvy. He understands. He has the vision thing.” These days, Biden scolds Karzai (and makes sure it gets reported).
As well, Biden voted in favor of Khalilzad’s appointment to the Kabul ambassador's post, evidently unaware of “King Zal’s” past support for ghouls like Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and his advocacy, in the late 1990’s, of talks with the Taliban to make the UNOCAL pipeline a reality.
Will Biden, his president and colleagues recognize how advanced the outgoing team’s initiatives have progressed, and to what extent the Kabul regime’s dysfunctions have their roots in made-in-America doctrine?
For an answer, we can only turn to recent Afghan/American history. And despair.