From election fiasco to escalating war

November 13, 2009

The cancellation of the second round of Afghanistan's presidential elections November 2 intensified the country's political crisis even as the Taliban insurgency put increasing pressure on U.S. and NATO occupation troops.

President Hamid Karzai was declared re-elected after his rival Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from a run-off vote that followed a first-round election riddled with fraud committed by Karzai's supporters. At the same time, President Barack Obama is deliberating with his "war council" on whether and how to meet the demands of his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who wants at least 40,000 more troops on the ground to conduct an intensified counterinsurgency war campaign.

Anand Gopal, a journalist based in Kabul, talked to Lee Sustar about Afghan politics in the context of another likely troop surge by the U.S. and its allies.

WHAT HAS been the fallout of the election fraud?

THE EXTENT of the fraud dealt a blow to the credibility of the Karzai government, the United Nations and the U.S. There were many who said before the elections that it would be impossible to have free and fair elections in a country that is barely functioning and in the midst of a vicious insurgency, but the Western community pushed ahead anyway.

Many Afghans believe that the elections were conducted for the consumption of the home audiences in the UK, Canada and the U.S., not for Afghans. In about half the country, elections barely even took place--the security situation is so poor that almost no one voted in such areas. The whole fiasco has been a huge embarrassment for Washington, and I think they are trying their best to sweep it all under the rug.

IF THE U.S. stopped supporting Karzai, what would be the alternative?

THERE'S ALMOST no alternative, which is why the U.S. will continue to back Karzai. Moreover, Karzai has many advantages. First, he doesn't have blood on his hands, unlike Abdullah, who worked for warlords as they slaughtered thousands in Kabul in the 1990s. Second, he is truly a national figure and has support among parts of all ethnic groups. There is no other comparable politician.

U.S. soldiers rush off a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers rush off a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan (Spc. Marshall Emerson)

THE PRESSURE on Obama to send more troops into Afghanistan began with the leak of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for at least 40,000 more troops. What's your interpretation of what's going on?

THE LEAKING of the report seems to have been a way to push Obama to make a decision. The president is being quite careful and mulling over the options, while an increasing proportion of the military brass feels a massive influx of troops is the only way to stanch the bleeding. In the end, it looks increasingly likely that Obama will follow the advice of his generals and send thousands more troops into the theater.

McChrystal is quite forthright about the problems the U.S. faces here, but many Afghans say that they aren't quite sure how his proposed cure fits the ailments.

The sentiment against the foreign troops is at an all-time high--in the Pashtun areas, where the war is being fought, most people are opposed to the troop presence. A very common complaint you hear from rural Pashtuns is that troops bring insecurity. Whenever they enter an area, the fighting increases, the civilian casualties increase, the roads become littered with roadside bombs, and in general, life becomes hell.

One might think that the Taliban bear as much responsibility as--or more than--the Americans for this. But the rural Pashtuns can't really get rid of the Taliban--they are the brothers and cousins of the local community, and can't be extricated from the village. So they direct their anger towards the Americans, the foreign interlopers who brought devastation to their lives.

Whether we agree with this rationale or not, that's the thinking of many rural Pashtuns. Throw on top of this an indifferent and corrupt government, rapacious local (and government-aligned) warlords, massive poverty and a lack of development, and you have the perfect recipe for rebellion. These rural Pashtuns say that such issues can't be readily solved by throwing more troops at the problem.

Some of McChrystal's other suggestions, such as working to protect the population and minimize civilian casualties, seem positive. But it seems to me that there is one thing that armies do well--kill. To ask them to do anything else might not be realistic.

In the battlefield, it is exceedingly difficult to separate combatants from non-combatants. In many cases, villagers will tend to their farms by day and pick up the Kalashnikov by night. In other cases, the insurgents enjoy support and protection from local communities. In such cases, the whole notion of "protecting the population" becomes murky. What ends up happening instead is that air raids and house raids continue, many die, and anger towards the foreign forces increases.

IS THERE any chance that the occupation forces could reach the strength and performance levels that McChrystal wants?

IT'S CERTAINLY possible that these forces would be able add 40,000 more troops, although the majority will come from the U.S. The larger question is the political effect such a large number of troops will have back home in the States.

Afghanistan has always been a much deadlier battlefield than Iraq (measured by ratio of troops in country to troops killed), but nowadays, it has become the deadliest U.S. war since Vietnam. Nearly a thousand soldiers were badly injured or killed in the last four months. Considering that only a portion of the 100,000 troops in the country go outside the wire, this is a striking number indeed.

WHAT WOULD it take for the Afghan security forces to reach 400,000?

IT WOULD take a lot of time, money and soldiers for training. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is, by and large, progressing well, while the Afghan National Police is not. The ANA conducts joint missions with the U.S. in many cases, and occasionally takes a leading role in those missions.

But armies are only as good as the political institutions that they are meant to protect. There is very little feeling of national identity in Afghanistan or deeply felt fealty towards the Afghan government. So the real question is whether the Afghan security forces would be able to stand on their own, minus the foreign army, and that is very unlikely.

WHAT ARE the prospects for "nation-building" type initiatives as outlined by McChrystal?

THE U.S. has shown here that they are not very good at nation-building. Reconstruction and development efforts have enriched private contractors, but have done little for Afghans.

In the early years, from 2001 to 2004, the U.S. allied with rapacious warlords, who ignored basic aspects of governance, and instead severely mistreated their people. In recent years, the U.S. has moved away from reliance on such warlords (although not completely), but much of the damage has already been done.

McChrystal's proposals spend a lot of time talking about what needs to be done, but don't give many specifics on how to do it.

McCHRYSTAL'S REPORT was frank about the Taliban's success. It also acknowledged that the Taliban is not a homogenous force. Is this description accurate?

IT'S MOSTLY accurate, but the reality is a little more complicated.

The Taliban's Haqqani Network is headed by Siraj Haqqani, whose father is Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former CIA asset. Haqqani operates a more or less independent network based in the southeast of the country, and is considered the Americans' most formidable foe. Mullah Omar's wing of the Taliban has a stronghold is in the south of the country, but has followers everywhere. There are also some other smaller groups, such as Hizb-i-Islami Khalis, which is run by the son of another former U.S. Cold War ally, and operates in the east of the country.

All of these groups are organized in what's called the Quetta Shura, which, as its name suggests, is based out of Quetta, Pakistan. The Quetta Shura Taliban is the main component of the insurgency--and in the Pashtun regions, it probably rules more areas than the Americans or the Afghan government.

In addition to the Quetta Shura, there's a group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (another former U.S. ally) called Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. It has a presence in and around Kabul as well as in the north and northeast.

Hekmatyar isn't part of the Quetta Shura and is ideologically different from them. His ideological origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, which is strongest in parts of the Arab Middle East, whereas the Taliban's is a mix of rural Pashtun culture and the Deobandi school of Islam that is prevalent in parts of South Asia.

SKEPTICS LIKE Vice President Joe Biden and the conservative columnist George Will are opposed to any troop escalation, and call for a Pakistan-focused strategy and a drone-attack approach to Afghanistan itself. Could that work in political-military terms?

THE U.S. has been successfully killing insurgent leaders in Afghanistan for years, but they simply get replaced. There's nearly an endless supply of such local commanders. These assassination campaigns have not halted the Taliban's growth in any appreciable way.

A Pakistan-focused strategy could be even more disastrous than focusing in Afghanistan. It is a modern country with an enormous population and exceedingly complex tribal and ethnic issues. Think of it as a mix between Iraq and Afghanistan.

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