The Perilous Triangle #3

(For anyone keeping track, I did attend lecture #2, given by senior Afghan minister Hedayat Amin-Arsala, and I took notes, but the lecture was exactly what you would expect from a senior Afghan government official:  to wit, Afghanistan only has problems because of outsiders, except for the U.S. and its allies who are there now and who should stay indefinitely because the world owes it to Afghanistan to make it whole. That didn’t seem worth typing up.)

The third lecturer in the series was former American Ambassador Peter Galbraith, son of economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He had basically one message: The war in Afghanistan is a war we can’t win, and it’s a war we can’t lose.

A little background on Peter Galbraith, who lives in Vermont:  In 1987, he uncovered evidence of Saddam Hussein’s mass killing of the Kurds. In 1993, he was the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia. In 2000-2001, he was a cabinet minister in the UN transitional government in Timor. And in 2009, he was in Afghanistan as UN deputy overseer of the presidential election between Karzai and Abdullah (and 39 others). He saw fraud coming and tried to have some polling places declared invalid. He was thwarted by others in the UN when he tried to forestall it. Afterward, when he urged a more forceful UN response to the presidential election fraud, he was dismissed from his position.  He described his career trajectory as one of “ever more important positions in ever smaller places.”

Here’s what he told us:

The War in costly. The War in Afghanistan is costing the U.S. $125 billion per year. The U.S. has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and other countries have about 40,000 more.

The main questions to ask about this kind of cost are:

Can we succeed?

Can we justify the costs?

Not much point in asking question #2 if the answer to question #1 is no, which Galbraith believes it is: The War in Afghanistan is a war we can’t win or lose — it’s a quagmire.

If the goal — as it is — is to defeat the Taliban insurgency, we can’t defeat them by killing them off one by one; there are too many and there are more all the time. So, the counter-insurgency strategy — upon which all relevant politicians and military officials agree — is to seek to win over enough of the population to isolate the insurgents, have the leaders ratted out, and then capture or kill them.

The U.S. and allies cannot alone win over the population – this requires a credible Afghan partner due to cultural, language, historical reasons. A credible Afghan partner would include the Afghan Army for security, Afghan police for law and order, and Afghan government for governance and central services.

But do we have a credible local partner? No.

Why We Can’t Win

President Hamid Karzai, who has been in office since 2002, has a clear record of corruption and ineffectiveness. Transparency International ranks Afghanistan as the 2nd most corrupt nation in the world, behind Somalia, which has no government at all. (source – actually, it’s a corruption perceptions index, which “measures the perceived level of public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories around the world.”)

(20 July 2011: Corruption, and Karzai’s role in it, is only increasing.)

Karzai is so ineffective that he’s commonly referred to a the mayor of Kabul. His authority is not accepted in the North among non-Pashtuns or in the South in areas the Taliban controls.

Karzai is further handicapped by the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009; he’s seen as illegitimate.

About that election:

There were 6 million votes cast. Karzai won 54% of the votes that were reported. At least 1-1.5 million of his votes were not cast by voters. 1,200 of the 7,000 polling places were insecure or Taliban controlled so no voters went to them, but on paper they reported results. In fact, at one polling place in Kandahar, each station recorded exactly 500 votes and all were for Karzai.

When this was questioned, the reply was that people in Afghanistan aren’t independent thinkers as in the U.S., they all follow the tribal elders’ lead.  But actually, the tribal elders in the this area had all supported Abdullah Abdullah, the major rival (of 41 total presidential candidates). Galbriath expressed mock amazement that the Afghans were so organised as to vote in blocks of exactly 500.

The ‘Independent’ Voting Commission, composed of 7 members, all appointed by Karzai, were complicit in the fraud, sometimes by perpetrating it and sometimes by turning a blind eye.

That there was wholesale election fraud was immediately obvious.

The Electoral Complaints Commission (composed of 3 UN members, 1 Afghan Supreme Court member, and 1 Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission member) reviewed the reports by the Independent Voting Commission and said the results were questionable enough to require a run-off election between Abdullah and Karzai. This didn’t happen when it became evident that fraud would be even more likely in the run-off.

So our counter-insurgency partner is ineffective, corrupt and illegitimate. He’s also weird, to use Galbraith’s word:

Karzai repeatedly maintained that he won his 54% honestly until 1 April 2010, when he said that there was massive fraud — not by Afghanistan but by foreigners, namely the U.S. and Galbraith (who can’t believe anyone would think he has the capability of stealing the election, or if he did, the desire to throw it in Karzai’s direction). (source)

Prior to the elections, Galbraith had been worried about the security and viability of the 1,200 polling places and tried to get them ruled ineligible. He was overruled on this by his boss, the Head of the UN mission (a Norwegian who was on vacation most of the time except to come back to overrule Galbraith’s requests, according to Galbraith). Galbraith knew the results were fraudulent on election night. Some areas, for instance, had 200% turnout. But this was suppressed. When Galbraith raised a fuss, he was recalled from his position.

The U.S. paid $200 million of the $300 million bill for the elections. Afghanistan didn’t pay for any of it.

(More on Galbraith’s thoughts on the election here and here)

After accusing the UN, the West, the U.S.  and Peter Galbraith of rigging the election, on 1 April, on 3 April Karzai told Parliament that if they pressed him to hold free and fair elections, he might just go over to the Taliban (source). (More on Galbraith’s thoughts on Karzai here.)

[Galbraith also suggested that Karzai may use more hashish than is socially customary in the culture … (source) This suggestion seems to have been taken seriously (source).]

So, our dilemma is that to succeed we need a credible local partner but we don’t have one.  We have one who’s illegitimate, ineffective, corrupt and erratic. Options:

  1. Karzai could change
  2. We could circumvent Karzai and work with other Afghans.

This is difficult because the Afghan government is one of the most centralised in the world. There is no meaningful local government. All localities report to Kabul ministries. Karzai appoints all the minister and governors.  In Kabul, there is a weak Parliament and a strong Presidency.

So there’s not an institutional way to get around Karzai, nor is there any way ‘on the ground’ to do so. We would have to work with local officials, all of whom are appointed by Karzai, and when corrupt officials are replaced, they continue to exercise authority among the people.

Additionally, there are many local power brokers in the Pashtun areas who operate a mafia state with wide-ranging criminal activities from drug trafficking, skimming off contracts, false contracts, etc.  Many security companies exist (including a big one in Kandahar run by Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai – NB: Ahmed Wali Karzai was assassinated on 12 July 2011) to defend the NATO convoys coming through Karachi to Kandahar to Bagram AFB. But it’s easier for them to pay off the Taliban to allow the convoys through than to actually fight and perhaps die in the process. If one tries to get rid of the private security companies, then they pay the Taliban to attack NATO convoys to show how necessary their services are.

If local authorities are in league with and paying bribe money to the Taliban, how likely will the ordinary person be to rat out the Taliban to their governors? Not.

The Afghan Army is the one bright spot, as they’re somewhat operational but unfortunately infiltrated by the Taliban.

The Afghan Police is a disaster. We’ve spent $10s of billions of dollars to train them with nothing to show for it. 80% are illiterate. They take a 6-week training course to prepare them, part of which includes hygiene education. In southern Afghanistan, 10% are killed each year, so the Police don’t attract the best and brightest.

So, having detailed why we can’t win in Afghanistan, Galbraith moves on to:

Why We Can’t Lose

The Taliban can take over the south and east parts of Afghanistan, and they mostly have. But they can’t take over the North, where the Tajiks are, because there is no support for the Taliban among the Tajiks, and the Tajiks are the best armed of all the ethnic groups. And they can’t take over Kabul, where the Pashtuns are a minority, with Tajiks and Hazaras (who are Shias), in the majority; the Taliban see the Shi’as (or Shi’ites) as apostates who should be killed as heretics.

The situation in Afghanistan is going to get worse soon. In September, Parliamentary elections will be held. Parliament is controlled by the opposition — Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks have a significant voice. Karzai still controls the Independent Election Commission and they will run the Parliamentary elections. The Election Complaints Commission now cannot initiate reviews of fraudulent ballots, and Karzai is appointing all 5 members of it (instead of 3 of the 5).

Galbraith is certain these elections will be fraudulent. If the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks believe the election is stolen, they will resist with arms. The war will likely become more widespread, not just between pro-government and pro-Taliban Pashtuns but between Pashtuns and these other ethnicities.

What To Do

The systemic problem in Afghanistan is that it’s a mafia state. And we’re not addressing the stolen election, which allows everything else to be stolen as well. Corruption.

Abdullah Abdullah (who is half Pashtun and half Tajk) proposed an Iraq-style constitution, with bargaining done within the Cabinet, an incentive for politics instead of violence to settle differences. He would give the Hazara and Tajiks some autonomy. But this isn’t going to happen because Karzai and the Pashtuns won’t agree.

We — U.S. and other countries — should not commit resources in the scale that we have, to a mission that can’t succeed.  All political and military officials agree that:

  • we’re engaged in a counter-insurgency strategy
  • such a strategy requires a credible Afghan partner
  • Karzai is not credible

But many will not agree that resources should therefore be diverted. Many feel that “it’s so important that we have to do something.”

Galbraith says there are much more important battles out there, e.g., Al Qaeda in Somalia and other African, Asian and Middle East countries.

There is an extraordinary imbalance between the combatants:

The U.S. has 100,000 troops (plus 40,000 NATO and other troops) and spends about $125 billion per year in Afghanistan.  The Taliban has about 35,000 soldiers and spends about $75-200 million per year fighting this war, and much of their money comes from payoffs and bribes to allow U.S. military supply trucks to get through, as well as drug trafficking.  Yet we are in a stalemate.

If this is how we will fight the war on terror, how can we afford it?

From the point of view of the enemy, they are leveraging a lot of resource-use from the U.S. with very little expenditure on their part.

Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan in 2001 but in 2010 Afghanistan is not a major sanctuary for them. The Taliban’s mission isn’t global — it’s to control part of Afghanistan. Other countries should be a higher priority: the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Europe and possibly the U.S. all have more Al Qaeda operatives than Afghanistan does.

Justifications Given for the War in Afghanistan:

** To get Al Qaeda — We can’t justify the war on the threat of Al Qaeda. Actually, fighting in Afghanistan diverts resources from fighting Al Qaeda.

** Because Pakistan could be a threat – Pakistan is a country of 180 million people with 60-70 nuclear weapons and a very unstable government. Yes, Pakistan is a threat and is very important in terms of what goes on in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is not important in terms of what goes on in Pakistan, except in tribal areas.

In 1981, the U.S gave $3.2 billion and some aircraft weaponry to Pakistan, and then billions each year to Pakistan in support of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets. This was an incredible and unbelievable mistake. We gave Pakistan’s leader at the time, a thug (Galbraith’s word) named Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, an Islamist head of a secular state, the opportunity to decide which Afghan groups would get U.S. money, “a blank check to the worst extremists.” We said, if you help us fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, we’ll do whatever you want. We should have said, hey, the Soviets are a lot closer to Islamabad than they are to the U.S.  – would you like our help?

Pakistan is the second largest recipient of U.S. assistance.

The Taliban is headquartered in Pakistan, in Quetta, Peshawar and Miramshah.

Pakistan is split horizontally and vertically, making it unstable ethnically. In the SW is Baluchistan, a large area with a small population that’s alienated from Pakistan. In the SE is the Sindh area, the Bhutto family home, increasingly alienated and making secessionist noises lately. Both these southern areas are not well integrated into Pakistan. Vertically, there’s an elected civil government in office but they don’t have power. The military (especially the ISI) runs the country and has directly or indirectly throughout Pakistan’s short history. The potential threat from India feeds their power.

Pakistan is important because it has nuclear weapons and because the military is irresponsible.

But Afghanistan and Pakistan are separate problems.

What To Do (again):

  • Significantly reduce the U.S./NATO troops in Afghanistan.
  • Redefine the mission to achievable goals:
  1. Protect the North (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks) where there is no Taliban presence. A supporting role, as they have a good supply of arms already.
  2. Help secure Kabul (4 million people), which is reasonably stable now.
  3. Have a counter-terrorism mission, with specific, reliable intelligence, strike at the terrorists. Would require maybe 15,000 troops.

Consequences of these actions:

The Taliban would control the countryside and most of Kandahar, which they do now.

Why Doesn’t the U.S. Leave?

President Obama faces a terrible dilemma and he knows it.

The Democrats called the war in Iraq a war of choice when we hadn’t finished the war in Afghanistan, which they called a war of necessity. Galbraith says this was true then; if more had been done in Afghanistan in 2002-03, we could have captured bin Laden, etc.

Obama, Clinton and Biden all campaigned on getting out of Iraq and returning to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, what could have been done in 2002-03 could not be done in 2009.

The U.S. military and the Democratic foreign policy establishment are al unanimous in support of escalation in Afghanistan. Politically, Obama can’t get out of Afghanistan.

Galbraith sees Afghanistan as a fragmented country in 10 years, with the Tajiks and Hazaras de facto independent and self-governing, formal Taliban control over the Pashtun areas, or perhaps a conservative Islamic party in Pashtun areas in a negotiated settlement.

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