There’s no other way to put it and nothing funny about it. Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s latest statements, in which he blamed presumably his own fraudulent election on “foreign interference,” have made a fool of President Barack Obama and his recent jaunt to Afghanistan.
But the joke heard round the world is on more than him.
Repeatedly fooled by Karzai, the White House is hoping to cover its own mistakes by fooling US allies and the American people. Apathy to the war will run high until unemployment decreases and the White House will run as far as it can on Afghanistan until then. Maybe it’s time then to erect a roadblock, seeing that instability isn’t showing signs of decelerating.
US military officials would contend that progress is discernible to the well-trained eye. Opium seizures are up as DEA agents flood the country, multiple operations are driving insurgents out of population centers, Taliban popularity is in the teens. Across the border Pakistan has declared total war on its own Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, while improving ties with Washington.
Yet these military officials are the same ones who in 2009 began to preach that military progress is dependent on political progress, and who taught their civilian counterparts to speak the same. And how much “progress” is real when the political front in Afghanistan has been deteriorating since its disastrous national election in last August?
US strategy has suffered a string of explosions since then.
From the very beginning Afghan opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah set a foreboding tone by boycotting the run-off in November. Having providing Karzai’s only protection during the corruption-laced election, US officials such as senior Obama official David Axelrod shrugged off Abdullah by saying he couldn’t win anyway.
Parliamentary elections, whose local nature many consider more significant, were subsequently delayed from May to September. Karzai also failed to form a full cabinet twice and has yet to complete the process, eight months after election day.
Lately he engaged in several suspicious acts, most notably issuing a decree below the radar that gave himself the right to appoint all five commissioners to the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), previously staffed by the UN. So when Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament rejected the decree recently, it became clear that Karzai was venting at both the then and now.
"There was fraud in the presidential and provincial election, with no doubt there was massive fraud," he told employees of the state election commission. "This wasn't fraud by Afghans but the fraud of foreigners, the fraud of Galbraith, of [head of the EU's observers Philippe] Morillon and the votes of the Afghan nation were in the control of an embassy."
But he also revealed, “Foreigners will make excuses, they do not want us to have a parliamentary election. They want parliament to be weakened and battered, and for me to be an ineffective president and for parliament to be ineffective.”
Obama had personally told Karzai during his secret rendezvous, “the American people are encouraged by the progress,” but no progress is visible in this chain of events. It is presumed that Obama knows this and was merely saving face, and that Karzai must don his anti-US mask for the public, but these assumptions aren’t entirely true.
Yes, Obama and Karzai must play their parts, but both are destructive acts. Afghanistan is a lie that keeps getting bigger and bigger before it ultimately collapsing. While fallout could occur if one side or the other spoke in truths, the final explosion will be all the worse if this spectacle continues uninterrupted.
And two parties outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan are particularly inside the blast zone - NATO and the US public.
The White House, having committed the original sins of sheltering Karzai and low-balling General Stanley McChrystal’s troop request, is now stuck in the sorry position of begging NATO allies for additional troops. The London Conference generated only 500 additional UK soldiers, leaving the White House scrambling to push its surge to 40,000.
Perhaps Washington’s lowly position explained its frustration.
“The demilitarization of Europe - where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it - has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st,’’ Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a NATO audience in February.
This was his way of asking for help.
Realizing the inefficiency of Gates’ methods, the White House quickly adopted the opposite approach. General David Petraeus wooed Turkey during an early March visit, implying the need for more trainers while never directly asking for more military assistance.
The end of March saw two more NATO members hit up. First Secretary of State Hillary Clinton culminated a week of rumors that America would ask Canada to extend its combat mission beyond 2011, its withdrawal date. Clinton, tongue in cheek, praised the excellence of Canadian forces - then denied making a formal request.
So did Canada, but that’s the point of a silent request, and apparently US denial wasn’t enough because Prime Minister Stephen Harper put his foot down twice. Too many Canadians oppose the war to leave any doubt.
Colin Robertson, a former senior diplomat at Canada's embassy in Washington, now a senior fellow with the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, put it succinctly: “This is all by design."
The same strategy was just applied to France as President Obama dined with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Their meeting generated a humorous New York Times editorial claiming Sarkozy must pay up for the Obama boost. Apparently Sarkozy got everything he wanted from Obama and now has the popularity to send combat reinforcements, trainers at the least.
But was the point to temporarily raise Sarkozy’s approval just to manipulate him for more troops? Is America so desperate in Afghanistan as to meddle in France’s internal politics, and doesn’t this process cancels itself out anyway? What’s the point of having France, or any country in the same situation, send more troops without the public support to sustain them?
The present reality suggests that NATO members secretly doubt Karzai and hence the military mission, otherwise they wouldn't be freezing troop levels when more are clearly needed, or dropping out all together. In every major country - the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia - a majority of the public opposes the war.
America is being forced down a unilateral path. Sarkozy made a rather clairvoyant statement when he beamed, “When Obama says something, he keeps his word. When he can, he delivers. When he can’t, he says so. So there are no surprises.”
Obama has told the American people that he thinks he made the best decision available, and that he thinks he can deliver victory, but surely he must know better that Afghanistan isn’t how he and his officials are portraying it.
The coalition clearly remains short of troops as well as trainers, which are supposed to be the linchpin of US withdrawal. Disagreement between Kabul and Washington over Taliban reconciliation may never be bridged. Pakistan remains strategically balanced between America and the Afghan Taliban, while India has no intentions of resolving the Kashmir conflict.
And it’s been proven that what’s good for Karzai isn’t necessarily good for America. Kandahar is a disaster waiting to happen with his half-brother Wali still running the provincial council and, allegedly, the opium trade.
US officials have resorted to warning him, according to one military official, “I'm going to be watching every step you take. I'm going to put you on the JPEL (Joint Prioritized Engagement Lis). "That means that I can capture or kill you."
Marvelous political strategy.
All of these factors point to one overriding conclusion: America cannot wait until December 2010, as planned, to review Afghanistan. This is simply an excuse to silence dissent. An immediate reversal in policy - withdrawal - is unrealistic so a first step must be formed in its place.
There is certainly some merit to sticking with a strategy and allowing time to yield results before evaluating, but conditions for the military surge don’t exist.
Afghanistan isn’t like Iraq 2007, where a tribal uprising was already developing. Rather than correcting mistakes before they become uncontrollable, Afghanistan feels like gambling more to pay back a gambling debt. The war requires constant modification and reconsideration, not hiding it in the closet until 2011.
Back in Canada for a G8 meeting, Clinton told reporters, "The last 15 months have demonstrated clearly the unwillingness of Iran to fulfill its international obligations.” Yet the same can be said for Karzai, whom she made no mention of. Former UN official Peter Galbraith could have easily been speaking of the White House as he defended himself from Karzai’s attack.
“What this really suggests is that Karzai has a slim connection with reality,” he said. “Frankly, I think Karzai is a bit unhinged."
Which means Obama is losing his grip on Afghanistan too, and if he falls the only ones laughing will be the Taliban.