January 12, 2010

Behind the Numbers

A lot of information is coming out of Afghanistan right now: information, disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda mixed with inevitable human error. On the surface President Obama’s surge is moving in the right direction: most Afghans are optimistic about their future.

The question is why - and how much this matters.

US troops have certainly played a part in comforting the average Afghan. If they, in particular Karzai’s supporters, were thinking Obama might pull out all at once then the effect could be the 30 point increase in the poll. A swift pull out would lead to chaos which they, not Americans, would have to endure.

It also seems that Afghans, pragmatic as they are, realize they’re stuck with Karzai or the Taliban.

How else explain a 20 point boost, from 52% to 72% for Karzai’s approval when 95% of those surveyed said corruption is a problem, 76% a big problem? Or that 74% were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the outcome even though only 39% believed last year's election was conducted honestly and 59% thought the vote counting was fraudulent?

Afghans, with respect, have made lemons out of lemonade - this is the situation and they’re prepared to deal with it. While their attitude is typically courageous and critical to Obama’s surge, their response remains an ambiguous cloud.

Is a storm dissipating or forming?

The poll cites 2005 as the last time Afghans were so happy. It also fails to mention that happiness starting dropping before the Iraq surge in 2006. Naturally Iraq derailed their happiness to begin with, but some mistakes made in Afghanistan had nothing to do with a lack of force.

US officials are out in force selling Obama’s surge. Taliban support is way down, they say, and the poll found that 69% believed the Taliban posed the biggest danger to the country; 66% blamed the Taliban, al-Qaeda and foreign militants for violence in Afghanistan.

So does 25%-35% blame foreign forces? General McChrystal is visiting villages and saying tribal elders want the Taliban out, but the Taliban can’t be that unpopular because America is hoping to flip most of them and funnel the resources into their communities rather than individuals.

Negotiation with their leaders is ongoing for good reason.

“It seems a fair bet that an intense drive to pry apart the less committed Taliban from the core Taliban will yield some success,” The Dawn reports. “but the fact is, as long as Mullah Omar is around the only hope for meaningful peace with the Taliban lies in reaching some kind of compromise with him and the Taliban central shura he leads.”

UPI quoted McChrystal as saying, "I can't speak for Mullah Omar. He's indicated no willingness, but I can certainly say that within his organization there are constant reverberations of interest in doing that."

For the record Omar declared in a recent statement, "The invading Americans want mujahadeen to surrender under the pretext of the negotiation. This is something impossible."

A strange mural is being painted, where Afghans believe Karzai’s a fraud but are OK with it, that their future will get better despite corruption being universally criticized, and that fears the Taliban but feels the need to reintegrate them into society.

The first two concerns have directly decide the third. President Karzai is on his last chance. What happens with him, at least theoretically, decides everything else. If he sets his government up straight, which he hasn’t shown signs of doing yet, then corruption can potentially be managed to a reasonable level.

Corruption, as part of the culture, cannot be eliminated so management would be the next best thing. Less than half of Afghans should believe corruption is a problem - money needs to go where it’s supposed to go.

Obama’s surge is like a water-mill, if the water doesn’t flow the wheel won’t turn. That goes for the army, police, schools, roads, hospitals. government salaries; economic decisions must be based on the good of the country. Then maybe the pivotal task, “converting” moderate Taliban, can soak up the threat and allow US troops to phase out.

Both US officials and former Taliban soldiers say it can be done, based not on the last 4 and 1/2 years but what could have been.

The Global Post recently interviewed Mohammed Gul, a former Taliban commander, who participated in the Afghanistan National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission (known by its Dari acronym, PTS). $3-million lured over 4,400 Taliban soldiers into the program since 2006, which promised medical treatment, a stipend, and employment in return for their AK’s.

Metaphorical AK’s, as they probably kept their literal ones.

But the offer was too good to be true. Gul said his check ran out after three months and received no job. He’s sat around for the last three years cursing his fate by the sound of it.

“This is my obligation, to go back and start fighting,” said Gul, whose name has been changed. “The government said it would give me land and a job if I left the Taliban. They have broken those promises. Now I will break them.”

“There are big problems,” admitted General Khan Mohammed. “At first, so many came in saying they no longer wanted to destroy Afghanistan, saying that the fighting life was too hard, saying that they wanted an ordinary life. But they now realize we have nothing to offer... We have broken many promises. The government has broken many promises.”

As a result only 48 insurgents joined the program in Kandahar in 2008. In the three months since the presidential election, just five have signed up. This is all set to change with an infusion of US dollars into the billions. US officials have been preparing to roll out a thick carpet of green for some time.

“The whole Afghan nation is fed up with three decades of conflict and I do believe that they want to support this government," said Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, a US favorite. "But up to now, we were not able to provide them with protection, which they needed... so once we are able to do so I think there will be a great change."

"We're prepared to support them because I think we sense in the Taliban ranks there's a tremendous number of fighters and commanders who would like to come back in," said McChrystal as he proclaimed the tide is turning, a discussion for the near-future. "We just need to craft the kind of program that supports that."

Obama might have that problem if the money can get to turn those “ten dollar Taliban” into 30 dollar government employees, with possible openings in the army and police. This plan might not work even if it “works,” since the Taliban could either not switch in bulk or infiltrate instead.

But Obama's surge is going to smash into what could be a strong wall if his money doesn’t reach an estimated 15,000-20,000 Taliban foot soldiers.

Said another former Taliban official, Mullah Salam, “I'm a former commander, a former police chief, a former director of a prison. I used to drive a very nice car. Now I cannot afford shoes for all my children. I know that the foreign people here are good people. The Canadians and Americans are here to help. But when Obama gives money to the Afghan government, the Afghan politicians put it all in their own pockets.”

Gul is the direct result: “I practiced jihad [holy war] against the invaders,” said Gul. “I wanted to fight the government, to remove the invaders from Afghanistan. I think I must go back to the fighting. What else can I do? I'm hopeless here, hopeless.”

A year from now Obama needs Gul to sound like Salam.

“I was very tired of the fighting,” said the father of eight, who likely voted for being optimistic about 2010. “I wanted to stay at home with my children. My children needed school. They needed to go to the city to have a good life.”

Otherwise the system will break from top down to bottom up. Taliban soldiers are mainly Afghans after all, not foreign invaders like al-Qaeda was in Iraq. There’s nowhere else for most of them to go.

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