This is the year of the big Afghan retreat. By this December, British and American troops will have left the country after 12 disastrous years. After spending billions of dollars to promote good governance, economic development and women’s rights, they will depart from a state that is among the three most corrupt in the world, has rates of infant mortality that match the worst in sub-Saharan Africa and ranks 175th on the United Nation’s chart for gender equality.
No wonder the gap between official western statements and the views of most Afghans remains huge. Rarely has a foreign occupation created so much misunderstanding between the invaders and local people.
Whether the departure of foreign troops is total is not yet clear. After negotiating a pact that would allow about 10,000 US troops to remain indefinitely, Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign it unless he gets more concessions. Recently, leaked conclusions from the US’s latest national intelligence estimate paint a picture of “chaos” in Afghanistan if all US troops depart. Yet, only a minority of Afghans are worried. A poll, financed by the US government and conducted by Glevum Associates in the run-up to the presidential election this April, has found that no more than 40 per cent of those surveyed felt it was important for candidates to support troops staying after 2014.
This chimes in with the general Afghan perception, articulated repeatedly by Karzai, that US and British troops have caused excessive death and destruction. His position is, of course, ambiguous. Without US support he would never have become president. But torn between loyalty to his protectors and paymasters and the need to express the feelings of most Afghans, he has become increasingly critical of the foreign occupation as his time in office runs out. In Whitehall and Washington, where officials and generals peddle the propaganda of success, Karzai’s line creates exasperation. They should look at another survey published last month, by the US-based Asia Foundation, which found that 77 per cent of Afghans said they would be afraid to encounter international forces.
What then of April’s elections, touted as another milestone of progress? Almost all of the 11 candidates have faced serious allegations of graft. Seven are linked to allegations of war crimes. The worst is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a hardline Islamist who will go down in history as the man who invited Osama Bin Laden to settle in Afghanistan in 1996. That such a man could be tolerated as a potential president reveals the cynicism of official western discourse on good governance.
The one good thing about the election is that candidates are crossing the ethnic divide in their choice of running mates. Even Ashraf Gani, a Pashtun who is the most progressive of the candidates and one of the two front-runners, has felt it necessary to pick the Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum as his vice-president. If these pragmatic alliances can help prevent a resurgence of fighting, they will have achieved something. However, the fact that avoiding civil war is Afghanistan’s top priority as western troops depart is the biggest indictment of the West’s 12 years of failure.
As for the resurgent Taliban, rather than trying to destroy them by force, the West should have sought to negotiate. Neither Karzai nor western policy ever embraced this option seriously. There has been much talk of “reconciliation”, but it was only a euphemism for a surrender, in which individual Taliban were expected to abandon their armed struggle. Now, with the West on the way out, Washington’s appetite for a U-turn is nil. The chance that Afghanistan’s new president will talk to the Taliban is not much greater: 2014 will not be a good year.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Jonathan Steele is the author of Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground.