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The Way Out of Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai; drawing by John Springs

For the 100,000 American forces, 40,000 NATO troops, and their commander, General David Petraeus, it’s Year One of the Surge in Afghanistan. For many Afghans it’s Year Nine of the US Occupation—or, to be kind, Year Nine of the US-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

US officers say that the war is finally on the right footing, with enough men and equipment to hammer the Taliban in their bases in the south. For US and European diplomats there are larger imponderables. The strategic policy review released by President Obama on December 16 is extremely cautious, noting that recent gains in the south remain “reversible.” The report says the strategy “is setting the conditions” to withdraw a small number of US troops in July 2011, but it does not specify how many of the 100,000 American forces might leave. A Western ambassador posed the problem to me clearly: “Are we creating a sustainable government, are we getting the politics right, will there be an Afghan army and civil service to take over when we leave?”

In Kabul the foreigners breathe a little easier after several months with no suicide attacks. Kabulis say that the protective blast walls and concrete barriers that line the streets are now twenty feet high, suffocating them and eating up their road and living space.

War is always a mixture of different, conflicting stories, depending on whether you are crouching in a ditch or sipping tea at the presidential palace. To have dinner with Petraeus and tea with President Hamid Karzai is a central part of the story, as is journeying to the edge of the city to tiny, unlit, unheated flats to talk to former senior Taliban officials who want to explain to you how the Americans and the Taliban can make peace. Everyone tells you the endgame has started in Afghanistan but nobody can tell you how it will end.

The world is obsessed with the big picture of the Afghan war, not the domestic details that make it so difficult to end. The NATO summit in Lisbon on November 19–20 was a clear example. It tried to clarify the vision of a Western withdrawal but also created confusion. The NATO leaders—speaking for the organization, not the US—said that they planned for a phased transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces and the end of NATO’s combat role by 2014. They were committed to stay after that in a supporting role, while the US warned that its forces would continue fighting beyond that date if the security situation deteriorated. Clearly, the US and NATO are on two different timetables.

To confuse Afghans even further, President Barack Obama also added that some US troops would start withdrawing from Afghanistan next July. That date, announced in January 2010 as the US surge began, has proved deeply embarrassing to the White House. It has been challenged by the Republicans, dismayed the Afghans, and created enormous uncertainty among regional countries such as Pakistan and Iran.

Obama’s final words in Lisbon were extraordinarily vague. Apparently speaking about the NATO decision to withdraw in 2014, he said, “It is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort that we’re involved with now,” but “it’s hard to anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary.” He added, “We are much more unified and clear about how we’re going to achieve our ultimate end state in Afghanistan.”

What Is the End State and How Do You Get to It?

None of the attempts at rebuilding the Afghan state over the past nine years have really worked. What assurance is there that they will work by 2014? The dates and debates in the White House tell only half the story. Afghanistan is going through a series of domestic crises, which will determine whether there will be a functioning state by 2014 or not.

The most immediate issue has been the parliamentary elections, which were held on September 18, but whose final results were delayed until the end of November. After the rigged presidential elections in 2009, which Karzai won after immense controversy and international embarrassment, the United Nations and NATO were reluctant to hold parliamentary elections so soon. However, Karzai insisted—hoping that his preferred candidates would win a majority in the 249-seat lower house of parliament, which would prepare the way for it to endorse Karzai’s peace talks with the Taliban.

Again rigging took place on a huge scale—except this time it was done by individual candidates, not by the government. Karzai’s handpicked Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversaw the poll, stunned everyone by acting remarkably independently. It invalidated 1.33 million votes for fraud, or nearly a quarter of the 5.74 million cast, and in mid-November disqualified twenty-four candidates who had been declared unofficial winners, including a cousin of the President. The IEC asserted itself but left behind an intractable problem.

Turnout among the Pashtuns of southern and eastern Afghanistan, who make up some 40 percent of the population, was very low. The Taliban, who are largely Pashtuns, had threatened the Pashtun voters, telling them to boycott the polls. As a result the Pashtuns lost between 10 and 20 percent of their seats to ethnic minorities, especially the Tajiks and Hazaras. In the last parliament Pashtuns held 129 seats and now they are down to around ninety. All eleven seats in the important province of Ghazni, which has a mixed Pashtun-Hazara population, were won by Hazaras, a result that infuriated both the Pashtuns and Karzai. Ghazni’s results were announced after much delay and the eleven Hazaras were declared winners. Earlier the results were challenged by the attorney general, who ordered the arrest of several IEC officials, and there were demonstrations in Kabul for the failure to announce the results.

The election drama will continue. The non-Pashtuns are broadly against any peace deal with the Taliban, resent Pashtun dominance, and want to amend the constitution to introduce a parliamentary system in place of the current presidential system, which gives Karzai enormous powers. Karzai is trapped. If he accepts the election results, as he eventually must, he faces a parliament dominated by non-Pashtuns and his political opponents, which could scuttle his talks with the Taliban. Yet if he declares the elections null and void on account of the rigging and orders them redone, he could face open defiance from the ethnic minorities.

These election results have brought the unresolved ethnic problems to the forefront. Nine years after 2001, the divisions between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtun nationalities that make up the complex weave of the Afghan national carpet are worse than ever. The notorious corruption and incompetence of the Karzai administration are still seen to have benefited the Pashtuns. The American development efforts have focused heavily on wooing the Pashtun south and east where the Taliban insurgency is based, to the neglect of the minorities in the north and west. Non-Pashtuns are furious that an estimated 70 percent of all development funds are being spent in just two provinces in the south to woo the Pashtuns away from the Taliban.

The non-Pashtuns mistrust Karzai’s talks with the Taliban. Despite several attempts by Karzai to arrange a national consensus, the non-Pashtuns are deeply suspicious that any Karzai–Taliban deal will only strengthen Pashtun hegemony in the country and further reduce minority rights. As a result non-Pashtun leaders from all the ethnic groups have launched political and grassroots movements to oppose talks with the Taliban.

Meanwhile the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and Turcomen minorities have achieved advantages that cause immense resentment among the Pashtuns. For the first time the Tajiks and Hazaras dominate the upper officer class in the army and police even though US training and recruitment includes a strict parity between all ethnic groups. Traditionally the Afghan officer class has been Pashtun. Pashtun representation in the army is lower than its proportion of the population, and only 3 percent of recruits are from the volatile south.

The minorities who dominate the north and west have opened up roads and trade networks, imported electricity and gas supplies, and created other profitable links with their neighbors—Iran and the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Afghanistan’s drug trade—30 per- cent of which travels into Iran and Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan—has also enriched local elites. All this has improved lives for ordinary people, provided independent sources of wealth for local warlords and elites that are not dependent on Kabul, and given them political power. Meanwhile the Pashtuns in the south are stuck with the power of their neighbor Pakistan, which supports the Taliban and has done little toward improving their lives.

Tajik and Uzbek warlords have become so rich and powerful in the north that they now barely listen to Karzai. Governors of northern provinces have created their own fiefdoms that are left alone by NATO forces based there, because removing them would create further instability. You may not know it from press reports, but the most powerful man in the country after Karzai is probably Atta Muhammad Noor, a Tajik general who once fought the Taliban and is now the governor of Balkh province bordering Uzbekistan. He and his fellow northern warlords are rearming their militias in preparation for what they fear will be a long war with the Taliban.

The fear is justified because the Taliban have already arrived in the north, setting up bases, appealing to local populations, attacking NATO and Afghan forces, and infiltrating militants into Central Asia. For the first time, say US officials, there is evidence of the Taliban winning support from not just northern Pashtuns but even Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Making the Transition

Amid these worsening political problems there is the complex question of transition. After years of neglect, the US and NATO are at last trying to invest more in the numbers, equipment, training, and mentoring of the Afghan army. This year the US alone will spend $11 billion on the Afghan security forces—the largest single item in the US defense budget. The Afghan army has reached its first target of 134,000 men and will expand further, according to US officers involved in the training program. The police now number 109,100.

Yet these figures are seriously deceptive. The attrition rate from the Afghan army is still a staggering 24 percent per year. Some 86 percent of soldiers are illiterate and drug use is still an endemic problem. The Afghan police are even worse. (As a recent report on 60 Minutes showed, they are plagued by elementary incompetence, illiteracy, and corruption that make the creation of an adequate police force one of the country’s most intransigent problems.) Although 80 percent of army units are working with NATO units, no single Afghan unit is ready to take responsibility on its own in the field. Afghan forces are only in command in Kabul, but this is largely because there is a sizable NATO presence there.

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