Their situation being precarious at the best of times, last month was even worse than usual for President Hamid Karzai and the foreign occupation forces in Afghanistan. A day after Kabulreceived pledges of $20 billion in aid from donors at the Paris conference, the Taliban carried out a spectacular raid on the Sarposa prison in Qandahar, releasing nearly 1,200 prisoners, among them 400 Taliban fighters, on June 13. On the same day, four American soldiers were killed in Farah province. A day later, Karzai hurled a rhetorical volley at Pakistan: he threatened to “send his troops” into Pakistan; on June 15 word came from Arghandab province that the Taliban had captured at least a dozen villages and were poised to strike at Qandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city and the traditional home of successive Afghan rulers, as well. The Arghandab story quickly fizzled out, but it points to the challenge posed by the Taliban to Hamid Karzai’s government and the foreign occupation forces.
One can almost see Karzai smashing his karakul (his hat) on the ground in frustration. The jailbreak on June 13 caused huge embarrassment not only to Karzai but also to NATO forces operating in Afghanistan. The Canadians, who are primarily responsible for the area’s security and have a military base within shouting distance of the prison, were particularly red-faced, although General Rick Hillier, the outgoing Canadian chief of defence staff, tried to play down the situation by saying that the escape of 1,200 prisoners is “not significant”. This is patent nonsense, but like much else that has gone on in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in October 2001, reality is often stranger than fiction. The Taliban prison operation looks more like a script from a Hollywood movie.
In order to cover their embarrassment both the Kabul regime and NATO occupation forces announced that they had launched a massive operation to search for escapees. They seem to have had little luck: Qandahar is Taliban territory and the people have readily given the escaped prisoners shelter and protection. Karzai was so rattled by these developments that he lashed out at Pakistan, threatening to “deal with” the militants if Islamabad fails to check their “infiltration”. The prison raid had nothing to do with militants allegedly infiltrating fromPakistan but Karzai needed a scapegoat because his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, heads the Qandahar Provincial Council. He is responsible for the area and should have resigned but did not; nor will Karzai fire him.
There is also another reason for Karzai’s threat. On June 10, the US killed eleven Pakistani paramilitary personnel in a missile strike inside Pakistan. The Americans said it was a “mistake”, but both the Pakistani government and military officials categorically rejected this, insisting it was deliberate. Tensions have escalated between Pakistan and the US occupation troops inAfghanistan recently. The US strike was also prompted by the Americans’ frustration over various security and intelligence failures; several containers carrying helicopter parts that were being transported from the Pakistani city of Peshawar to Jalalabad in Afghanistan have been intercepted and captured by the Taliban. That the Taliban knew of such an important cargo, were able to carry out a daring operation, and succeeded in overwhelming the guards accompanying the convoy confirms their reach, sophistication and competence.
The storming of villages in Arghandab valley, adjoining Qandahar city, caused huge panic as villagers fled in fear of American air strikes, which often result in enormous civilian casualties. This is now so well established that people know for certain that the Americans and their Western allies do not care about Afghan lives or property. Scores of bombed-out Afghan villages and the rapidly expanding graveyards (the only growth industry in Afghanistan) in each village are grim and permanent reminders of American-NATO brutality.
Soon after threatening to “send” troops into Pakistan, Karzai announced that he was rushing them to Qandahar to deal with the Taliban. But Afghan troops are notoriously unreliable; even Karzai does not trust them: so American (not Afghan) guards are assigned for his security. Landlocked Afghanistan is almost entirely dependent on Pakistan for its trade, 85 percent of which passes through Pakistan. Should Afghan forces set foot on Pakistani soil, Afghanistan would not only be brought to a standstill with the interruption of fuel supplies but most Afghans would also starve to death pretty soon. Karzai, of course, does not care about the people; his only concern is to line his own pocket and those of his relatives, friends and the ubiquitous warlords that run the country by dividing it into little fiefdoms.
Karzai had gone to Paris seeking $50 billion in development aid over the next five years. One must give him credit at least for thinking big. He got pledges of $20 billion but it is not clear how much of this will ultimately make its way to Afghanistan: of the $25 billion pledged at the Bonn Conference at the end of 2001, only $15 billion have been delivered. International donors are notorious for making highly publicised pledges at international conferences but not fulfilling them; or they “recycle” their so-called aid by using it to pay the salaries of “experts”and “aid-workers”, and by selling expensive equipment to recipients who have little use for it. Most aid-workers live in luxury while the Afghans suffer poverty. According to the UN Human Development Index, Afghanistan ranks fourth from the bottom on a list of 178 countries. It also produces 93 percent of the world’s heroin, according to UN statistics on drugs.
Government corruption is so widespread that even international donors have had to tell Karzai repeatedly to take steps to control such practices. In the absence of proper accountability, donors feel money given to the country is being wasted. The foreign occupation forces, especially the Americans, are not above striking their own deals with warlords either. Many warlords are on the Americans’ payroll and, as long as they do not attack them, the warlords are pretty much free to do as they please. In such an environment, it is unfair to blame Karzai alone for the mess in Afghanistan.
But there is more to the shady deals, especially by the Americans and the British, and now it would seem even by the Canadians, than meets the eye. For instance, the British had struck a well-publicised deal with the Taliban in Helmand province in 2006 in return for maintaining peace there. The Taliban could do whatever they liked as long as they did not attack British troops. This arrangement worked for more than a year before the Taliban retaliated for British treachery and ended the “military-political” deal.
After seven years of fighting, the US and its Western allies have finally admitted that there is no military solution to the “Afghanistan problem”, and that a political solution (underpinned by economic development) must be worked out. On June 11 NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels said as much. This is a long way from the heady days of November 2001, when the “sole superpower” appeared invincible as the Taliban were banished from Kabul. Also on June 11, Colin Kenny, chair of the Canadian senate defence committee, proposed that Canadian military and diplomatic staff begin negotiations with the Taliban to persuade them to not fight. The Canadian government, run by rightwing ideologues, is loth to accept such a proposal publicly, but this may change because their neocon allies in Washington are already busy working on a grand deal involving none other than Ghairat Bahir, the son-in-law of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, leader of the Hizb-e Islami. Bahir was released from the notorious US-run Bagram prison at the end of May after spending nearly six years there. Since then he has been feted and dined by Karzai, and urged to work for a “grand reconciliation”. Karzai has told Bahir that the Hizb can have any ministries it wants, provided it gives up fighting.
Both Hikmatyar and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, have demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan before any deal can be made. This demand has also now been repeated by Jalaluddin Haqqani, another veteran mujahid commander who gained fame by fighting against Soviet occupation in the nineteen-eighties. Haqqani was the target of a US missile strike in late October 2001. He was offering early morning prayers at a mosque in Jalalabad when the missile struck; he was badly injured but pulled out of the rubble alive. He has now joined the fight against NATO occupation troops and has achieved notable successes in recent weeks.
The idea of a “grand reconciliation” is being floated at a time when Karzai is blamed for all of NATO’s failures. He is accused of being weak (which he is), but the failures are not entirely his. The Americans and other foreigners micro-manage almost every aspect of life in Afghanistan; Karzai can hardly be blamed if things go wrong. Further, NATO has demonstrably failed to defeat the Taliban; if anything, the resistance has become stronger and better organised. That explains why NATO’s allegations against Pakistan have become so shrill, demanding for instance that it stop “infiltration” across its border. General Dan McNeill, the US general who commands NATO troops in Afghanistan, admitted last month that even if Pakistan were able to completely seal the border (a very big if), that would still not end the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Under such circumstances, the only viable option is for the foreign occupation troops to leave and let the Afghans make their own grand reconciliation, something they have done many times before. The people of Afghanistan have suffered enough and the foreign do-gooders can do them one last favour by leaving them alone.