Manipal, India — If the Taliban are gaining ground in Afghanistan, the reason lies less in their prowess than the daily errors made by their presumed foes – like NATO, an organization that clearly swears on the altar of “rule by committee.”
From think-tankers and journalists to retired diplomats and serving military personnel, there is an abundant pool of "expertise" in NATO that gets together to form policy. Within each subset the most extreme views prevail, as do such views in the same individual at different points in time.
In times past, those conducting operations in the field would get to decide on tactics rather than be “remote-controlled.” But these days, NATO's field administrators as well as managers need to conform to the dictates of superiors who come to Afghanistan for less than a day at a time and spend most of it in a conference room. In the process, they pull out dozens of individuals from their work, and then most simply gaze out the window while the drone of talk continues.
What is NATO’s objective in Afghanistan? Judging by their tactics, the inference is inescapable that it is primarily to look good to their own people rather than working out an effective response to the Taliban.
Unfortunately, the latter involves tactics that could be unpopular at home because of short-term spikes in casualties, but could save many times more NATO lives in the long run.
Because of using methods that smell good rather than work, the situation in the country is getting steadily worse. And despite the reality that Afghanistan is still a "mandated" territory -- effectively under the control of foreign powers, comprising NATO in this case -- Afghani President Hamid Karzai has become the red herring held as the cause for the advance of the Taliban. This is despite his lack of powers and minimal control over the deployment of resources.
Karzai is now being made to twist in the wind for his "failure" to ensure an election that meets the standards of a country like Switzerland. Indeed, Afghanistan 2009 is even dodgier than Florida 2000, where the only votes that counted were those of the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. At that time, none of the countries that have criticized the election verdict in war-wracked Afghanistan challenged the selection of George W. Bush by the court. Clearly, Afghanistan and therefore Karzai are being held to a different standard. And, in the process, the ability of the Afghan administration to reverse the progress of the Taliban is being steadily degraded.
Unless the Afghan election verdict gets announced soon, major damage will be done to the ability of the moderate Pashtuns led by Karzai to defeat their more excitable cousins.
The 2009 Afghan elections have been a messy affair, and in many locations warlords have stuffed ballot boxes, while elsewhere they prevented voters seen as unsympathetic from casting their ballots. It was not just Karzai whose backers had access to such methods; supporters of the telegenic Abdullah Abdullah, who was removed by NATO as foreign minister four years ago due to pressure from Pakistan, also did.
If NATO wishes to conduct a "fair" election in Afghanistan, the alliance will need to bar the Afghan population from participating in the poll, because all too many are susceptible to warlord inducements and pressures, while others just do not care if ballots in their name get stuffed into boxes.
Those who fantasize about holding Swiss-type polls in present-day Afghanistan need to be taken to a psychiatric clinic for evaluation and treatment, rather than be taken seriously. The delusion that Afghanistan is capable of an election that is fair by Swedish standards, for example, has held up the declaration of the result and threatens a messy runoff that can exacerbate tensions and lead to the dissolving of the anti-Taliban tribal coalition, which Karzai has been fashioning over the past two years.
Karzai has linked up with a collection of individuals who are unlikely to win prizes in scripture, but who have agreed to challenge the sway of the Taliban. Given the impossibility of holding a "fair" election in Afghanistan, the only relevant question is whether the candidate is willing to challenge the Taliban or not.
Sadly for Karzai, most of his candidates do not come from lists favored by those to whom NATO has outsourced its Afghan strategy, which is Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. For this band of true believers in the impossible, manipulating the United States and the European Union into destroying Karzai is delaying a verdict and forcing a runoff. As in Central Asia and in Kashmir, both the U.S. and the EU are going along with the wishes of ISI proxies in Afghanistan, now that Abdullah has made up with the agency that he knows engineered his dismissal from government in the past.
In 2001, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney went along with those who advised that he listen to the Pakistani army and stop the advancing Northern Alliance from overrunning the south of Afghanistan. That disastrous error of judgment coupled with the U.S.-assisted escape of leading Taliban figures from Kunduz shortly afterward, is the reason why the Taliban are within striking distance of forcing a panicky NATO into getting them admitted into the Afghan government. Should that take place, they will metastasize across the country and once again make open war on NATO, once they judge themselves to be strong enough.
The ISI are masters in the care and feeding of both officials and journalists, and in Richard Holbrook, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, they found the individual they need: a man desperate for a quick fix that will give him the prestige he needs to become the next U.S. secretary of state when, as seems likely, the present incumbent slips up or slips out.
What Afghanistan needs is a government that is seen to have a chance of victory over the Taliban and the only team that meets such a need in Kabul is the group clustered around Karzai.
In a way, the open hostility of several U.S. and EU policymakers towards Karzai has burnished his credentials as an Afghan nationalist. It has to be shown to the Afghan people that one need not be a Talib to stand up to NATO. Should there be a delay in declaring the result of the 2009 poll, the Karzai option will begin to fade, and in the ensuing vacuum, it will be the Taliban that will gain.
There are a few other countries in the world that have dodgy elections, including those in the immediate neighborhood of the United States. Perhaps Holbrook needs to be sent there rather than continue his “Operation Wreck” on the moderate Pashtuns challenging the Taliban.
In 1978-1979, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's team turned back from the autocratic Shah of Iran. They got Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Turning away from Karzai is not likely to bring to power anyone with whom U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration would enjoy having breakfast.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)