Changing nothing

2009-08-20 00:00

“THEY have the watches, but we have the time,” say the Taliban commanders in Afghanistan, and it’s perfectly true. The election today is not goin­g to change that.

The foreign forces, from the United States, Canada and Eur­ope, are well-trained, well-equipped troops who can inflict casualties on amateur Taliban fighters at a ratio of 10-to-one or worse. But the Taliban have an endless flow of fresh fighters, and much popular support among the Pashtuns of the south and southeast. Not to mention all the time in the world.

The Taliban were and are almost exclusively Pashtuns, so it was really the Pashtuns, 40% of the population and traditionally Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group, who were driven from power by the U.S. invasion in 2001. They are fighting foreign, non-Muslim invaders, and the government the foreigners put in is corrupt, incompetent and mostly non-Pashtun. Why wouldn’t the Taliban have support among the Pashtuns?

Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, is a Pashtun, because the U.S. understood that it needed a Pashtun figurehead. The regime’s most powerful people, however, are non-Pashtun warlords from the various ethnic minorities of the north and centre: Tajiks, Uzbek­s and Hazaras.

Now we are asked to believe that an election will restore confidence in the government. It is nonsense. This election has no more relevance than the ones that the U.S. used to stage in Vietnam. Colonel David Haight, commanding the Third Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. 10th Mountain Divi­sion in the Logar and Wardak provinces near Kabul, was helpfully indiscreet about it in a recent interview.

“I think that apathy is going to turn into some anger when the administration doesn’t change, and I don’t think that anybody believes that Karzai is going to lose,” Haight told an embedded reporter from the Guardian. “There is going to be frustration from people who realise there is not going to be change. The bottom line is that they are going to be thinking: ‘Four more years of this crap?’”

Unless bribery, blackmail and threats no longer work in Afghanistan, Karzai is going to win. He isn’t even bothering to run a conventional campaign. He bailed out of a televised debate with the other presidential candidates at the last moment, and leaves it to them to hold election rallies in provincial towns. He has made his deals with the warlords and the traditional ethnic and tribal power-brokers, and is counting on them to deliver victory.

Karzai and the U.S. are shackled to the warlords because those were the allies who the U.S. recruited to fight the Taliban on the ground when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The Taliban, being exclusively Pashtun, never controlled all of the country. Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek militias continued to hold out all across the north. So the U.S. made deals with their leaders, showered them with weapons and money, and helped them into power instead.

It made good sense militarily, but it meant that the non-Pashtun warlords would dominate the post-Taliban government. They don’t live in the hills any more, but in the wealthy Kabul neighbourhood of Sherpar. Two of them, Moham­mad Qasim Fahim, a key Tajik warlord, and Karim Khalili, a Hazara warlord, are Karzai’s choices as vice-presidents.

The West’s government in Kabul is not going to get any better. It cannot, given its origins. There will be “four more years of crap”, and by the end of that the U.S., Cana­dian and European voters, whose governments sent their troops to Afghanistan, will be ready to bring them home. What will happen then?

Nothing particularly dramatic. Afghanistan was invaded in revenge for 9/11, but the U.S. could have played it differently from the start. Right after 9/11, a 1 000-strong shura (congress) of Muslim clerics in Kabul declared its sympathy with the dead Americans and voted to expel Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from the country.

The Taliban regime had just made a lucrative deal with the U.S. to eradicate poppy growing in the country, and most younger Taliban commanders wanted to maintain the deal and expel the Arab crazies. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, barely managed to overrule them, and if the U.S. had spread some serious money around, it could easily have gone the other way.

Washington wasn’t interested in that outcome because after 9/11 the U.S. public wanted blood. Under­standable enough, but inva­ding Afghanistan is always a bad idea (although it is always temptingly easy). Once the invaders have left, however, the Afghans never follow them home. It won’t happen this time either.

Western rhetoric insists that the hills of Afghanistan are directly connected to the streets of Manhattan, London and Toronto. But no Afghan, not even any member of the Taliban, was involved in the planning or execution of 9/11, nor in the later, lesser attacks elsewhere in the West. Nor would the Taliban sweep back into power if all Western troops left Afghanistan tomorrow. The other players are still in the game.

Everybody who dies in this conflict is dying for nothing, because it will not change what happens when the foreign troops finally go home. As they eventually will.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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