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The Afghanistan Impasse

Mike King

The Afghan Elections

Pakistan’s safe havens for the Afghan Taliban have been to a large extent responsible for their revival and growing dominance across Afghanistan and for the rising death toll among NATO forces. But the Taliban were not the major cause of the political crisis that enveloped Afghanistan after the August 20 presidential elections.

US officials told me in April 2008 that President Bush had been warned by his military commanders that Afghanistan was going from bad to worse. More troops and money were needed; reconstruction was at a standstill; pressure had to be put on Pakistan; the elections in April 2009 should be indefinitely postponed. Bush ignored all the advice except for asking the Afghans to postpone the elections until August.

He left everything else to his successor to sort out. When Obama took over in January, the crisis was much worse and Pakistan and Afghanistan immediately became his highest foreign policy priorities. Obama added 21,000 more troops, committed billions of dollars to rebuild Afghan security forces and speed up economic development, and sent hundreds of American civilian experts to help rebuild the country. He has attempted to make the anti-narcotics policy more effective and to involve neighboring countries in a regional settlement. It’s an assertive and possibly productive new strategy, but the Obama administration has had neither the time nor the resources to implement it.

The depth of the opium problem, for example, has recently been exposed by Gretchen Peters, who in her book Seeds of Terror describes how opium sales have ballooned since 2001, because of either a lack of a coherent strategy by the US or the constant bickering over a strategy between the US and its NATO partners, particularly Britain. Bush refused to use the US military—the only capable force on the ground—to interdict drug convoys in Afghanistan and arrest or kill drug lords, many of whom were easily identifiable. Only last year did the Department of Defense agree to use the military for these purposes. During the last six months there have been a series of raids by US Special Forces and Afghan commandos that have netted large amounts of opium, chemicals that turn it into heroin, and many of the drug traffickers. Afghanistan today provides 93 percent of the world’s heroin. As Peters shows, from the poppy growers, to the Taliban and other local powers, to the drug lords and their allies in government, the influence of opium money pervades Afghan life.

In fact, most of this year has been taken up with preparing for the Afghan elections and trying to ensure sufficient security for them. Everything else has had to be put on hold. In private moments Holbrooke has regretted how the elections have distracted attention from putting into effect Obama’s new strategy. At home Obama has not had the time to show that his policy is the right one to follow, and now the elections themselves are being exposed as riddled with fraud.

Another complicating issue for Obama has been the troubled US relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who in the spring was convinced that Obama and Holbrooke wanted to replace him and hold the elections under a caretaker president. That was never the case, but Karzai’s paranoia, which is fostered by some of his aides and brothers, who drum up astounding conspiracy theories about US or British intentions, got the better of him.

That the elections were subject to extensive rigging by Karzai’s supporters was partly the result of his belief that the Americans were backing one of the two strongest opposition figures, either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, which was again not the case. In fact, with so much now invested in Afghanistan, Obama and Holbrooke had every incentive to ensure that the election results were credible. What is now clear, however, is that the flagrantly dishonest elections have undermined the government and its Western backers, jeopardized future Afghan trust in democracy, and given the Taliban more reason to claim they are winning.

For much of this year the Taliban have been on the offensive in Afghanistan. Their control of just thirty out of 364 districts in 2003 expanded to 164 districts at the end of 2008, according to the military expert Anthony Cordesman, who is advising General McChrystal. Taliban attacks increased by 60 percent between October 2008 and April 2009. Forty-seven American soldiers died in August, making it the deadliest month in the war for the US Army. Forty-four were killed in July.

In August, moreover—as part of their well-planned anti-election campaign—the Taliban opened new fronts in the north and west of the country where they had little presence before. On election day in Kunduz in the far northeast of the country, considered to be one of the safest cities in Afghanistan, the Taliban fired fifty-seven rockets. The US military has acknowledged the gravity of the situation. “It is serious and it is deteriorating…. The Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated” in their tactics, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN on August 23.

Both before and after the elections there were highly visible Taliban attacks in cities including Kabul and Kandahar, along with well-laid ambushes, attacks against security forces, and extensive use of IEDs. A month before the elections thousands of US, British, and Afghan forces launched an offensive in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in order to regain territory, block supply routes from Pakistan, and release villagers from the clutches of the Taliban so that they could vote.

Instead, voter turnout was estimated by Western officials who had done their own investigation at between 1 and 5 percent in most parts of Helmand and Kandahar—before high-intensity ballot stuffing for Karzai began in the late hours of August 20. According to Western diplomats, Karzai loyalists also created hundreds of fake polling sites, from which many thousands of votes were recorded in favor of the incumbent. In one southern district, the polling sites were shut down and the entire vote of 23,900 ballots was forged for Karzai. In Babaji, a town in Helmand that was reclaimed by British forces with the loss of four soldiers this month, only 150 people voted, out of 80,000 who were eligible. The British suffered thirty-seven dead and 150 wounded in the six-week Helmand campaign— ostensibly to provide security for the vote. It will be difficult to maintain the morale of Western troops for long under such circumstances.

The Taliban had threatened to derail the elections and, to a considerable degree, they did, because much of the terrified population did not vote. The turnout is expected to be between 30 to 40 percent, much less than the 70 percent who voted in 2004. There were four hundred Taliban attacks on election day and many polling stations never opened.

How Could the Rigging Have Happened?

Forty candidates ran against Karzai. His main opponent, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and other candidates produced overwhelming evidence of cheating. By the end of August the Electoral Complaints Commission had received over 2,500 complaints, of which more than 570 could directly affect the results. It will take weeks to go through all these claims.

Still, within hours of the polls closing, the US, NATO, the European Union, and the UN congratulated everyone on a successful election. Their words were aimed at the Taliban, who had failed to stop it; but they sounded hollow and deceitful to Afghans who were more interested in the credibility of the election.

The rigging defied expectations. There were hundreds of foreign observers from the US and other embassies. Both UN officials and a European Union delegation were assigned months ago to make sure this would be a credible election. Afghans and other experts were warning the embassies about possible rigging. Abdullah Abdullah painted a bleak future for the country if the West did not recognize the fraud. “The fact is that the foundations of this country have been damaged by this fraud, throwing it open to all kinds of consequences, including instability. It is true that the Taliban are the first threat but an illegitimate government would be the second,” said Abdullah to reporters in Kabul on August 29. Yet the entire Western community in Afghanistan was caught napping by the widespread fraud. In fact, as I recently wrote elsewhere, the fraud was assured months ago when Karzai began to align himself with regional warlords, drug traffickers, and top officials in the provinces who were terrified of losing their lucrative sinecures.

The biggest mistake may have been made by the UN in not running the elections as it did in 2004 but instead handing them over to the Afghan-run “Independent Election Commission,” which was beholden to Karzai, who appointed the members. On September 8, a UN-backed commission announced that it had found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud” and ordered a partial recount of returns that claimed Karzai had received 54 percent of the vote. If Karzai does not receive over 50 percent of the vote in the final count then there will be a runoff election in October. If Karzai wins over 50 percent his legitimacy will be doubted by many Afghans while the credibility of the US and the other nations involved in the elections will be even more damaged.

An October runoff between Karzai and Abdullah may win back the credibility of the democratic process if that election is more tightly run, but it will leave the country paralyzed for most of the next two months. During that time there could be severe ethnic tensions. Karzai is a Pashtun while Abdullah’s mother is a Tajik. We can expect local conflicts, assassinations, and a breakdown in law and order—while the Taliban will further justify their condemnation of democracy as an infidel conspiracy. The best option would be for the US to pressure Karzai to accept a national government that would include Abdullah and other opposition candidates.

In Washington President Obama is under fire from the left of the Democratic Party for becoming another war president and from right-wing Republicans for being overly ambitious in his plans for Afghanistan. Increasingly Americans are getting fed up with a war that has gone on longer than the US involvement in the two world wars combined. For the first time, polling shows that a majority of Americans do not approve of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. Yet if it is to have any chance of success, the Obama plan for Afghanistan needs a serious long-term commitment—at least for the next three years. Democratic politicians are demanding results before next year’s congressional elections, which is neither realistic nor possible. Moreover, the Taliban are quite aware of the Democrats’ timetable. With Obama’s plan the US will be taking Afghanistan seriously for the first time since 2001; if it is to be successful it will need not only time but international and US support—both open to question.

After Obama’s injection of 21,000 troops and trainers, total Western forces in Afghanistan now number 100,000, including 68,000 US troops. It is likely that General McChrystal will soon ask for more. Obama’s overall plan has been to achieve security by doubling the Afghan army’s strength to 240,000 men and the police to 160,000; but these are tasks that would take at least until 2014 to complete, if indeed they can be carried out. Meanwhile the military operation in Afghanistan is now costing cash-strapped US taxpayers $4 billion a month.

Across the region many people fear that the US and NATO may start to pull out of Afghanistan during the next twelve months despite their uncompleted mission. That would almost certainly result in the Taliban walking into Kabul. Al-Qaeda would be in a stronger position to launch global terrorist attacks. The Pakistani Taliban would be able to “liberate” large parts of Pakistan. The Taliban’s game plan of waiting out the Americans now looks more plausible than ever.

For all these reasons it is important to recognize that if Western forces are to regain the initiative in Afghanistan, they must deal with the situation in Pakistan, which needs to eliminate sanctuaries of both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban forces within the country. The Pakistani military will bide its time until the Americans are really desperate, and then the army will demand its price from the US—a price to be measured in financial and military support.


Much has been made of Pakistan as a potential failed state on the verge of breakup, yet if there is even a remote chance of that happening it will not be because of the Taliban, but because of an underlying crisis that has been studiously ignored by the West—the separatist movement in Balochistan. The issue is well described in the best chapter of a new book on Pakistan by Nicholas Schmidle, To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, comprising 48 percent of its territory and sharing a long border with southern Afghanistan; but it is a land of rugged mountains and deserts, with a population of only 12 million people. Ever since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the Baloch tribes have been in revolt against what they see as the chauvinism and denial of their rights by the Pakistani army in favor of Punjab, the country’s most populous province, with 86 million people.

In five major insurgencies against the army, the Baloch have demanded greater autonomy, royalties for the province’s gas, development funds, and genuine political representation. The fifth insurgency began in 2005 and has intensified because of the brutal repression and hundreds of “disappearances” of Baloch nationalists, for which the army under former President Pervez Musharraf was responsible.

Many young Baloch are now demanding their own state. In August, with the start of the new school year, Baloch students refused to hoist the Pakistani flag or sing the national anthem. Ten non-Baloch college principals were assassinated by guerrillas the same month, creating panic among the Punjabi settler population. The Khan of Kalat, Mir Suleman Dawood, the titular chief of chiefs of all the Baloch tribes—whose ancestors once ruled Balochistan—announced on August 11 the formation of a council for “an independent Balochistan”; he rejected any reconciliation with the government unless there was international mediation from the UN. According to human rights activists, hundreds of Baloch nationalists have disappeared—they are believed to have been secretly arrested and tortured by the military but their whereabouts remain unknown.

Schmidle meets the Khan and other Baloch chiefs and, with no small courage, follows them as they are trailed by the ISI. “By the end of 2006, nearly every nationalist leader in Balochistan had been killed, arrested, or placed under house arrest,” he writes. The Khan of Kalat describes Balochistan’s mineral wealth to Schmidle: “We are sitting on gold and anytime we speak up and ask for due compensation, we get a bloody spanking.”

The civilian government under President Zardari arranged a cease-fire with the guerrillas last year but failed to follow it up with serious talks, and guerrilla attacks have resumed. Pakistan’s past military rulers have ignored the fact that their country is a multiethnic, multireligious state and the policies of an overtly centralized military do not work. The army’s refusal to acknowledge this led to the loss of East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—in 1971. Tomorrow it could be Balochistan.

Schmidle has written a picaresque book about what Pakistan looks like today. Like a good film director he presents extraordinary pictures of political mayhem and violence interspersed with dialogue, solid character actors, and tightly focused close-ups of bad guys such as Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Swati Taliban—“a short man with large gaps between his teeth,…wavy hair,…a bulky, black turban and a goofy smile.”

However, like many movies, Schmidle’s book lacks a coherent plot. Each chapter serves up a separate scene or subject, but no common thread or larger themes and ideas link the chapters together. In fact there is little that sets the book apart from the best recent Western newspaper reporting on Pakistan. Schmidle’s prose can be brilliant but fails to describe the undercurrents of life in Balochistan or provide the analysis that is needed.

As early as page 8 he heralds his arrival in Pakistan with an analysis that could have been culled from any US magazine over the past three years—Pakistan as the most dangerous place on earth:

From what I gathered, there were a few essential things to know about Pakistan: the army was perpetually in charge, the intelligence agencies were a brooding and ubiquituous force, the Islamists threatened to take over, ethnic problems portended more Balkanization, corruption plagued human interaction and a modest arsenal of nuclear weapons all combined to make Pakistan the most dysfunctional—and most dangerous—country in the world.

After reading such a statement of the obvious we expect some further insights. Instead, at the end of the book, Schmidle is still asking the same questions, having found no answers:

The political, social, economic, and religious dynamics embedded in Pakistan seemed to become more and more complicated—and volatile—with time, and less and less solvable.

Foreign correspondents should not make too much of their own intrepid adventures, but this is not the case with Schmidle. He opens the book with a graphic account of his deportation from Pakistan, warning us that the book is going to be as much about him as about Pakistan. We are often told about his looks and his physique—he is six feet two with blond hair—and about the personal dilemmas that obsess him: What clothes should he wear? What color should he dye his hair? Would it be better to pretend to be Canadian rather than American? Such worries only trivialize his story.

The son of a Marine general, Schmidle, in his mid-twenties and married, arrives in Pakistan in February 2006 under a two-year grant from a Washington think tank. To his credit, he learns Urdu and travels extensively. His time in Islamabad coincides with the most tumultuous events in the country’s history during the dictatorship of General Musharraf. The heart of his story is his meetings with Islamic extremists. He befriends the bespectacled, soft-spoken yet lethal religious leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who ran the radical Red Mosque in the center of Islamabad. Ghazi opens doors for Schmidle that lead him straight into the heart of the Islamic militancy that was beginning to grip the country in 2006. Ghazi himself is a complex character:

While Ghazi relished his al-Qaeda connections and the confidence such friends might have lent, I still found him to be surprisingly sensible and pragmatic. His eyes didn’t burn with fervor. Nor did his rhetoric emanate hatred. He calmly explained the rise of anti-Americanism around the world as a product of the United States’ “missed opportunity” to act as a benevolent, global leader.

Ghazi’s story ends with his martyrdom once the army, after procrastinating for six months, storms the Red Mosque. One hundred militants die but hundreds of Ghazi’s young followers escape the siege to become the suicide bombers that have since torn through the heart of Pakistan’s cities.

Ultimately the book’s strength lies in its cinematic descriptions, for example its account of the quarter in Karachi run by the political leader Altaf Hussain and his party, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which advocates preserving the ethnic identity of the Urdu-speaking minority that emigrated from India:

Whitewashed apartment blocks lined the surrounding streets. Billboards modeled Altaf’s face more than they advertised products, and the MQM’s white, green, and red-striped flag fluttered from lampposts, traffic lights and car antennas. Sputtering Suzuki hatchbacks circled around a dried-up fountain, the color of rain clouds. A sculpture of a clenched fist rose from the top of the fountain.

Unfortunately, strong description is not enough. Whether Pakistan’s army and political leaders can deal with the threat from the Taliban and other violent forces they have themselves sustained over the years is a question that needs to be addressed more urgently than ever as the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan deteriorates further.

—September 10, 2009

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