Sunday, September 04, 2011

Two Very Quiet Coups.

In Kabul today, the spectacle of armed soldiers barring nine MPs from taking their seats in the Wolesi Jirga marks the unseemly denouement of a protracted constitutional struggle between the presidential palace and the Afghan parliament, between Hamid Karzai and the Electoral Complaints Commission, between the rule of the khan and the rule of law. The khan won. Meanwhile, in Washington, a long and ugly policy war among and between the most senior White House, State Department and Pentagon personalities involved in the Afghanistan file has run its course. The American denouement: Joe Biden won.

The dynamics behind these two slow and quiet coups are intimately related, and although not widely noticed, their synergies have been in plain view for some long while.

In Washington, Afghanistan's last best partner in the cause of a sovereign and democratic Afghan republic was the solidly anti-capitulation General Stanley McChrystal. When the White House defenestrated McChrystal last June, Barack Obama, who is easily the most charming American president since JFK, effortlessly convinced his citizens that McChrystal's ouster was the unfortunate but necessary consequence of - wait for it - some saucy comments the general and his clerks had made to a Rolling Stone correspondent, in a bar, in Paris. The endgame of that caper is that now, within the beltway, Afghanistan's fate has fallen to Biden, easily the dumbest American vice-president since Dan Quayle. Or maybe Spiro Agnew. Your call.

It was just days before McChrystal was banished from command in Washington last summer that Hamid Karzai took the opportunity to rid himself of McChrystal's closest Afghan counterpart, Amrullah Saleh. The battle-hardened and fiercely anti-capitulation chief of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security was NATO's last best partner in the cause of a Taliban-free Afghan future. Karzai, in his own uniquely charming, robe-swishing and dandy-hat-wearing way, managed to convince a lot of people who should have known better that Saleh had to go because - wait for it - he had failed to prevent a Taliban bomb from landing in the vicinity of Karzai's laughing-stock "peace jirga" in Kabul.

I well remember the morning in Kabul when news broke that Saleh was gone. The sky was filled with helicopters. Squads of hard boys from the various branches of the Afghan National Security Forces were racing around the streets in their armoured trucks. The sharp tang of foreboding hung in the air. That evening I gathered with a crowd of sombre Afghan journalists to watch Saleh's press conference on television. Technically, Saleh had resigned, and when one of Karzai's officials appeared on screen to contradict Saleh and repeat the official Karzai line that it could not have been the dear brothers of the Taliban who had attacked the jirga, it must have been someone else, the room erupted in laughter.

It helps to cleave to a sense of humour about it all. History will tend to repeat itself as farce. For all the agonies that America's fiscal and economic predicament must necessarily bring to bear upon the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, can we not at least notice the farce and get real for once about where all the money goes? How is it possible that Afghanistan's annual gross domestic product, which trundled along at less than $2 billion during the half-century preceding 2001, is now still less than $15 billion in its entirety a decade after September 11, and yet Biden and his entourage manage to get away with telling Americans that those ungrateful Afghans are costing the U.S. treasury more than $100 billion a year?

Without dwelling on such details as the $10 billion the U.S. military spends annually on air conditioning for itself in Afghanistan, or its lavish payments to such U.S. contractors as KBR ($13.1 billion between 2007 and 2009), or the shell-game costs of President Obama's civilian surge in the near-tripling to 1,300 of the number of senior USAid bureaucrats in Afghanistan whose annual costs to the U.S treasury, factoring in their security details, each amount to roughly $500,000 a year, or the costs of the innumerable low-level USAid contractors who bill out at $900 a day, enough to pay half the annual salary of an Afghan schoolteacher (gosh, these numbers do add up), here's a modest proposal.

Dear Joe:

Since your policy consists of putting a shiv into the ribs of the entire democratic project in Afghanistan anyway, why not just take your $100 billion a year and go home? Since you're solely concerned with American "security interests" in Afghanistan, you could simply re-invest a fraction of that amount, say 15 per cent, in the anti-Taliban forces of Amrullah Saleh, the Basej-e-Melli, Abdullah Abdullah, and the rest. An educated guess would have Saleh's crowd handily running through the Taliban like wolves through flocks of sheep and leaving little but bones within a year or two, and pleased to be taking the battle into Peshawar and straight down into Quetta if needs be. Their tactics would not likely satisfy the Marquess of Queensberry, mind you, but all you'd have to worry about in that regard is the employment of sufficient staff in Washington to field complaint calls from Code Pink and Dennis Kucinich.

Downside: You and the sinister political tendency you represent would have to manage without the dodge of that sniggering, eye-rolling and smartass advantage you've enjoyed in deconstructing the folly of the very idea of a "war on terror." Upside: You will no longer be kept awake at night wondering when the penny will drop and everyone will finally notice that the preposterous idea of negotiating peace and reconciliation with terror is a dumber and greater folly, by at least an order of magnitude.

One last quick observation.

Anyone who thinks the "war in Afghanistan" is ending just because that's what the handsome American president says, do note that in the Washington Post story reporting today's events in Kabul, Ahmad Behzad, the Afghan parliament's deputy speaker, is quoted thus: "With the support of the people, we will use political and civil means to stand against the coup of Mr. Karzai, and this coup will be doomed.” Last summer in Kabul I spent an illuminating afternoon with Behzad. He's a bright young legislator from Herat, and only one of several senior Afghan democrats I met (and whose prescience is presented in my forthcoming book) who were quite candid in telling me on the record that should "political and civil means" fail, the response to any American-induced capitulation to the dark forces of reaction besieging Afghanistan will require resort to arms.

Should it come to that cataclysm, no matter which side wins, the post-apocalyptic landscape will not feature a victor that could be called, no matter how far you'd want to bend the euphemism, an "American ally." Here's Behzad's assessment of what Biden's troops-out and peace-talks policy had already accomplished, by last December, in Afghanistan:

"The consequences of talks and negotiations with the terrorist groups, including the Taliban, has been devastating and damaging. First, it has encouraged the Taliban. With the proposition of this motto, Taliban revived and planned to exert more pressure on the government of Afghanistan and the foreign forces to gain better and bigger privileges. That part of the society who no more had any hope for the Taliban gained hopes that this group will again emerge in the political scene. Third, the government of Afghanistan is trying to give Taliban privileges by releasing the Taliban captives who were caught in fights against the political system of Afghanistan. It has given Taliban more supremacy as they have again joined their ranks."

As the last nine months have proved with a preponderance of the most unimpeachably gruesome evidence, events have played out exactly in the way Behzad anticipated.

Nice work, Joe.


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