Jack Nitschke on Afghanistan.
In September of 2010 Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a rare act of personal honesty, broke down crying whilst delivering a speech at a Kabul high school. He spoke of his only son Mirwais, and his personal fear that his son may be forced to spend his life in exile as a foreigner. Of those assembled, some were moved themselves and could be seen wiping away tears; plenty of others could be seen awkwardly eyeing the ground as the President broke down. Although it was once a common enough rhetorical device, weeping has ceased to become a common feature of political speeches. When it does occur, one can view it as a rare moment in which politicians actually perpetuate something approaching legitimate honesty. For all his faults, Hamid Karzai became immediately a sympathetic figure, a father fearful of the perhaps inevitable exile into which he may one day have to usher his child.
This outburst raises many questions: firstly, what exactly prompted it? Was it just fatherly affection coupled with the stress that must inevitably accompany the Sisyphean ordeals that come with being President of Afghanistan, or was it something else? Maybe Hamid Karzai knows something the rest of us don’t. Maybe he sees Afghanistan’s frantic efforts to become a functioning state as just a futile gesture in the face of an inevitable Taliban comeback. Maybe for Hamid Karzai, a future in European or American exile seems closer than it might to others. Few doubt that if foreign troops were to leave today, the Taliban would eventually triumph over Karzai’s ragtag state. However, as the President pledges Afghan control over the whole country by 2014, it is getting harder and harder to err on the side of cautious optimism; the more malicious cynic might be tempted to tell Mr Karzai ‘just who do you think you’re fooling’. But even if one is inclined to think the Afghan government doomed to oblivion, it is important to hope that Karzai’s plan works for the simple fact that no better plan exists; thanks in no small part to the complacent stupidity of the foreign forces who squandered their early momentum and popularity amongst Afghans by diverting their attention to Iraq and giving the Taliban a chance to regroup.
The only real alternative now is to pull out all foreign troops and let the Taliban do their worst; nobody should want that (except the Taliban themselves of course). Karzai’s government may be weak, incompetent and more corrupt than not, but compared to the Taliban their continuity looks a great deal more attractive. Having been so long since the Taliban were first driven from Kabul, it is easy to forget just what insane fanatics they really are. These are a people that when in power illegalised kite flying, all television, radio and music with instruments, enacted a law which required men to grow long bushy beards, treated women like devious slaves, and who enforced a far harsher version of Islamic law than ever existed under Mohammed or any of his successors. Even cults like the Medieval Assassins pale in comparison to the Taliban, an organisation that repudiates the very idea of a state or anything that owes itself to the social and political progress of the last 1400 years. The most frightening thing about the Taliban is that they don’t do any of these things with malicious intent; these are men who genuinely believe that what prevailed under Taliban suzerainty is truly the best way in which anybody can possibly live.
At least the Karzai’s government loosely resembles a modern democracy and could conceivably evolve into one given the right conditions. However, if it is to do that, it requires a number of things that it is unlikely to get:
First it needs a better President. After two dubious elections and a record of inability and corruption, Hamid Karzai has absolutely no credibility. A better president might placate the tribes by offering better infrastructure to rural areas, might hold foreign forces to closer account for the continuous stream of collateral damage incidents that provoke the ire of civilians (one should recall an incident that occurred recently when a US airstrike mistook twelve adolescent boys collecting firewood for Taliban). A savvier president might be seen to be actually doing something about such tragic incidents (something in the realm of eliciting a personal apology from foreign commanders alongside financial reparations). The fact is, Karzai has little going for him as a leader. Should anyone more competent arise on the Afghan political scene, Allied nations would be wise to encourage a change in leadership and to resort to less than democratic methods to remove Karzai if need be.
Secondly, Afghanistan needs a functioning, well-trained professional army. Much has been made of the continuing trials of trying to forge such a force in the current climate. Many Afghan soldiers defect to the Taliban (who pay better) as soon as they get a chance, taking precious military equipment with them. There have also been numerous incidents of soldiers embarking upon rampages and murdering people. This all indicates dangerously low morale and lax discipline. After thirty years of war, most of the men recruited have no motivation to serve the Afghan state that they see as little more than a self righteous instrument for cronyism.
Thirdly, the public perception of the Afghan Government needs to shift dramatically. People need to believe that the government is a body manned by competent, incorrupt officials who are working in the long term interests of the nation. The best way to accomplish this would be for the powers that be to conduct a thorough purge of corrupt government officials and to establish effective institutions with far reaching powers to prevent corruption in the future. The government should also find a way to effectively finance itself; the best way to do this would be to establish an effective taxation system and offer rural Afghans a real alternative to cultivating opium in addition to purchasing from farmers that opium that has already been produced. This would give farmers the financial means to attempt the cultivation of different crops and provide an effective stopgap to opium production nationwide (also giving the Afghan government better means to dispose of the opium produced). Measures such as these would go a long way towards building credibility for a government that has long since ceased to be taken seriously by most Afghans. It could also make it considerably easier to accomplish the first two points if there were an even remotely competent, credible institution in place behind them.
It will not be easy to bring peace to Afghanistan; the Taliban are strong and hold much sway in rural areas, and the government will probably never initiate the reforms that this writer has suggested. However it is worth soldiering on, because even if nobody really believes that they’ll succeed, what else is there to do?