An anxious wait in Afghanistan
By Derek Henry Flood
KABUL - "Can I go now?" This was the final statement last week by the United
Nations' chief in Kabul, veteran conservative Norwegian diplomat, Kai Eide,
fired at a British television journalist during an interview on the finality of
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's re-election for a second five-year term.
Eide had been asked his thoughts on Karzai's runoff challenger, Abdullah
Abdullah, withdrawing from the race and announcing vague plans to create a
genuine political opposition in a country where none has ever existed.
Eide, already frustrated after a full session of journalists peppering him with
questions about the uncertain future of the UN mission in Afghanistan, said he
was "happy to be going to Oslo in three-and-a-half hours".
At the international organization's most critical internal moment
since the assassination of the head of its Baghdad mission, Sergio Vieira de
Mello, in August 2003 (along with 21 other people), Eide talked of his relief
at his holiday in Oslo. Five international UN staffers were killed last month
in an attack on their guesthouse in Kabul, and the organization faced a crisis
of credibility following flawed local and national elections.
All the same, the UN General Assembly declared last Monday that Afghanistan's
presidential election "was both credible and sound". In a unanimously adopted
resolution, the 192-nation assembly also urged the government of Karzai to
carry on with "strengthening of the rule of law and democratic processes, the
fight against corruption [and] the acceleration of justice sector reform".
Following the attack on its staff, the UN decided on an extensive pull out,
although it insisted this was a stop-gap measure while its facilities were
re-evaluated and further fortified. The UN had staff living across a broad,
largely unsecured swath of Kabul, which was to be immediately consolidated to
prevent further such tragedies.
UN spokesmen stated that none of its aid work and nation-building would be
interrupted, as that was all done by local Afghan staff, who would have to
weather the current storm of massive security shortfalls that felled their
The internationalist project in Afghanistan is at its most schizophrenic now
that the dust from the election has largely settled and it is time to move on.
While US President Barack Obama is on the precipice in deciding whether to
increase troop levels by 40,000 and continue escalating the American-led war
effort, many non-governmental civilian nation-builders have been forced to flee
the country or been told to relocate to quieter parts of Afghanistan.
A large part of the revamping of America's Afghan policy relies on the UN and
the non-governmental organization community that operates under its security
umbrella, aside from the planned increase in American non-defense personnel to
be deployed "in-country".
Even a partial UN pullback or temporary scale down, which the United Nations
Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) stresses it is not doing, is in
direct contravention of Obama's strategy.
Three Taliban suicide attackers simply disguised as Afghan policemen landed an
immense victory for their movement's violent, accelerating momentum. Striking
at the soft underbelly of the expatriate civilian community in the heart of the
capital, the Taliban have undoubtedly altered the arithmetic being drawn up in
the White House's situation room.
The United States has become accustomed to doing the so-called heavy lifting in
Afghanistan, where it contemplates troops surges in the tens of thousands while
its allies with their caveats and highly sensitive and skeptical constituencies
balk at their own proposed troop increases even when talked of only in the low
In contrast to its wealthy, industrialized allies, the US may be forced to
reach further afield for a surge in foreign manpower contributions from states
in lesser-known North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) affiliate bodies such
as the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EPAC).
The US Department of Defense currently has US Marine Corps trainers in the
Republic of Georgia, an EPAC member and long-shot NATO aspirant, to train its
staunchly anti-Moscow Caucasian ally to fight the Taliban alongside American
and French International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in the coming year.
Georgia, a tiny, fragmented nation that faces a grave territorial threat from
Russian Federation forces occupying significant tracts of its territory, will
soon be punching well above its weight in Afghanistan (as it recently did in
Iraq when Georgian troops made up the third-largest coalition contingent). It
will be serving its own strategic goals while core members of the
Brussels-based alliance like Canada and the Netherlands are faltering on their
future commitments when Afghans and Americans need them the most.
Urban Afghans who make up the majority of the country's population are aware of
Western wavering and international indifference to their plight, largely thanks
to global satellite television, the Internet and low-tech, bazaari gossip.
The notion that a poor, threatened state like Georgia is prepared to go to the
hilt to side with the United States (though largely due to its own
realpolitik), and the idea that wealthy nanny states can pull out because the
casualties the war is producing are wildly unpopular with vocal public opinion
in their domestic voting blocs, leave Afghans to feel increasingly vulnerable
and doubt the West's sincerity to sustaining the fitful, democratic
transformation of their once failed state.
Taliban forces have made it very clear that they have indeed returned to Kabul,
proven recently by yet another suicide attack against NATO forces on Jalalabad
Road. In contrast to running their Islamic Emirate in the dark daylight of the
late 1990s, a decade on from the height of their formal political reign the
students from the south are now regularly breaching Kabul's thin security
perimeter and staging spectacular hit-and-run attacks. Though these operations
have resulted in far lower body counts than their counterparts have achieved in
their much more densely populated Pakistani neighbor, they have been equally as
strategically effective and forced the international community to reassess the
enemy it faces in the AfPak quagmire.
Much of central Kabul has begun to be Baghdad-ified in recent months. Security
emplacements are not being erected to protect the population as the much-hyped
counter-insurgency doctrine supposedly dictates. Rather than the Afghan
government and its Western allies being able to secure the population in the
midst of months of political turmoil, warlords, drug runners and unscrupulous
Afghan government officials are busy fortifying the immediate vicinities
surrounding their infamous "wedding cake" houses.
These garish, pastel edifices that signify opulence and corruption in the wake
of Afghanistan's post-9/11 aid and narco-driven cronyism are becoming
mini-fortresses dotted about the city, the most outlandish being that of
on-again, off-again Karzai ally Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose lavish, pink stucco
complex includes his own private television station replete with his Junbish
militiamen sporting rocket-propelled grenades behind a corral of grey cement
Peasant laborers hand-mix concrete to make crude speed bumps and install stacks
of sand bags in front of the homes of those who show fear for themselves and
indifference to the populace.
The disastrous August 20 poll and the internal Western discord about what to do
about it, culminating in the abrupt cancelation of the November 7 runoff
following Abdullah's withdrawal, give many Afghans cause for despair.
Noted terrorism analyst Peter Bergen stated at a New York-based think-tank
conference dealing with counter-insurgency strategy in 2008 that it was very
unlikely that the Taliban "would ever stage a Tet offensive on Kabul",
referring to the 1968 Vietcong offensive in Vietnam.
For the moment, as long as the ISAF is headquartered in Kabul's expanding Green
Zone, this will likely remain true. But such a massive Taliban surge into the
Afghan capital does not appear to be its modus operandi.
A carefully targeted war of attrition highlighted by the August 15 suicide
attack near the entrance to the office of General Stanley McChrystal, the top
US soldier in Afghanistan, just days before the first round of elections
demonstrated that the Taliban are not simply relegated to the crags of Kunar
and the plains of Helmand.
The Taliban carry out carefully staged operations based on precise intelligence
that are far more economical than staging a huge military offensive against
Afghan and NATO forces. One no longer needs to be on a remote patrol in the
Afghan countryside to fear a deadly Taliban barrage.
The October 28 attack on a relatively insecure UNAMA guesthouse in Kabul's
Shar-I-Naw neighborhood, where many foreign analysts and aid workers reside,
may have even greater implications for the counter-insurgency policy being
advocated by top McChrystal advisor David Kilcullen that relies on
non-combatant roles to de-escalate a rising insurgency.
At the moment, the White House appears to be rattling a useless sabre, telling
Karzai he has no choice but to curtail corruption in his cabinet. Karzai spent
much of the summer cutting palace deals among and campaigning alongside some of
the most infamous men in Afghanistan's painful recent history.
With unreformed warlords Marshal Mohammed Fahim, Dostum and Haji Mohammed
Mohaqiq at his side, asking Karzai to ferret out those responsible for
undermining Afghanistan's national interest appears a miserable oxymoron.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission certifying Karzai president while
draping the whole process in unwavering articles of the unsound constitution
has led to a widespread crisis of legitimacy for the electorate and the donor
countries that have been supporting - and dying in - Afghanistan for the past
It is deemed necessary for the Afghan people to view their head of state as
legitimate and their nation as sovereign if national reconciliation is to ever
solidify on a passable enough scale to enable the eventual draw-down and exit
of Western troops.
The Americans believe they still maintain the ability to turn up the leverage
on Karzai if their once pliant ally is deemed more of an obstruction than a
viable partner in this process. But Karzai has been busy courting regional
powers such as Iran and India as well as autocratic UN Security Council members
Russia and China, and the Afghan president sees himself as having plenty of
As NATO nations slowly and delicately debate the merits of their individual
troop contributions, Afghanistan's quasi-elected leader continues to
consolidate his power and tells London and Washington he may do something about
corruption in due time, while simultaneously rewarding the regional strongmen
who stood by him during the election season via a variety of nebulous internal
political pacts, the details of which may never be fully known to those outside
the Afghan presidential palace's thickening walls.
Obama is carefully reviewing several proposals brought forward by his closest
defense confidants that will make an expansion of the US military footprint in
Afghanistan no longer a matter of if, but of how and when.
The BBC reported last Thursday that Obama's ambassador in Kabul, former General
Karl Eikenberry, who commanded troops there during the Bush administration, had
recently recommended against any proposed surge. In diametric opposition to
McChrystal's request of 40,000 more troops at the other end of the strategic
spectrum, Eikenberry stated that the US must be certain of Karzai's intentions
to clean up the massive levels of corruption that exist at all tiers of his
government before the US exposes more of its soldiers to the battlespace.
As America and its dithering allies continue to debate within and among
themselves, the Afghan people desperately fear being left in the perpetual cold
of Afghanistan's long political winter.
After a canceled second round of polling when Afghanistan needs consensus the
most as the war ratchets up and the confidence of the people is shaken in both
their leadership and donor states, Kai Eide is on vacation. Karzai immediately
left his crisis zone to attend an Organization of the Islamic Conference
meeting in Turkey, where he chatted with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
The US, meanwhile, cannot agree on the most basic tenets of military policy,
all the while Afghan and Western troops, not to mention untold numbers of
civilians, continue to die.
Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in
analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through
traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.