It is good that there are at least some people with the self-control, talent and amazing patience to skilfully practice the black art of diplomacy. It is better to at least keep talking than to back away from the table and not talk. That is true even if it is obvious that talks are not going to accomplish anything in the short or medium term. Maybe in the long run something good, e.g., an unnecessary war avoided, will come of it. However, there are times when the people that diplomats have to deal with are so profoundly corrupt, odious and offensive that one would think that human patience would simply run out.
On October 9, 2013, page A6, the New York Times (NYT) published an article discussing “a stinging critique of the American-led campaign” in Afghanistan. Afghan president Hamid Karzai made comments in an interview with the BBC where he criticized the U.S. for “causing harm to the Afghan people” in its quest to find Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. At the moment, American and Afghan negotiators are trying to agree on terms of relations once the U.S. withdraws its troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. As president Karzai delicately put it: “If the agreement doesn’t suit us, then, of course, they can leave.” President Obama has hinted that if there is no agreement, the U.S. may have to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. The U.S. had hoped to keep about 10,000 troops for training Afghan troops and hunting terrorists.
An insult was that, although Karzai conceded that his own government was “weak and ineffective” and that it had not been able to tackle rampant corruption within its own ranks, the blame for the corruption fell on the U.S. and its allies. It is true that the U.S. cannot account for the aid it sends to Afghanistan and U.S. aid is likely a major source of funds to terrorists and corrupt officials. Despite that, massive corruption and vote fraud is closely linked to Karzai himself and his close allies. As early as 2001, the year the U.S. put Karzai in power, Afghanistan was referred to as a kleptocracy and he has done nothing to change it since. The Afghan government admits to internal corruption, but insists that they can deal with it. That is pure nonsense. The Afghan government is capable of dealing with essentially nothing. Mr. Karzai’s allegation that the U.S. caused corruption in Afghanistan is mendacious hypocrisy.
As far as the future goes, the odds unfortunately look good for a Taliban resurgence, a massive economic collapse and the sad slide of a well-armed Afghan society back into the Taliban dark ages. That is despite Karzai’s insistence that “The return of the Taliban will not undermine progress. . . . . there will be more Afghan women studying and getting higher education . . . . Even if the Taliban comes, that will not slow down.” Despite that assertion, it appears inevitable that the Taliban will re-enter Afghan politics. If that happens, the results are not likely to be good for anyone, except extremists.
The U.S. and Karzai are at cross purposes. U.S. forces in Afghanistan recently captured Latif Mehsud, a leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is the group that claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010. Karzai has criticized the U.S. action as an affront to Afghan sovereignty. The prospects for Afghan-U.S. cooperation do not look promising to say the least. Odioius people of Meshud’s ilk are what Karzai is looking to bring back into Afghan government and “civil” society. We will sorely need our diplomats.
It is getting worse
The evidence says that the Taliban will return to power and that their tactics have not changed. A recent Wall Street Journal article reports that about 590,000 Afghans out of a total population of 30 million are internally displaced by fighting between Taliban and Afghan forces. The pace of displacement is sharply increasing. Overall security continues to deteriorate and many Afghan citizens are desperate to leave the country. A UN expert on Afghan refugees said that refugee’s “desperation is incredible” and as many as 200,000 Afghans could flee to Pakistan next year as U.S. troops withdraw. Discouraging and sad as it is to say, this looks much like the end of the Vietnam war all over again. It is time to begin to ask who is responsible for this situation. It is easy to argue that our flawed two-party system and inept U.S. political leadership had more than a little to do with the impending disaster.
Given the poor and worsening situation in Afghanistan, one can only wonder why the delightful Mr. Karzai thinks he can do anything about the Taliban if they regain power. Common sense suggests that if the Taliban does gain power, Karzai will slip out of the country in the dead of night, taking billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars with him. It would be either that, or he stays in the country and the Taliban slits his throat. The presence or absence of a residual American force will not alter the outcome. U.S. forces will only be able to stand by and watch the end game.
Finally, it is worth note that tucked into the NYT article about Karzai, was a little box called “Names of the Dead”. It stated that to date 2,269 American service members have died in the Afghan war and related operations. It stated that DOD confirmed the deaths (presumably in Afghanistan) of five U.S. service members with ages ranging from 19 to 25. To date, the U.S. has spent about $667 billion in Afghanistan. In the coming decades, hundreds of billions more will be spent caring for our wounded service members.
Hard questions need to be asked
If the Taliban does come back into power Afghanistan will likely slip quietly back into the dark ages. If that does happen, the question the American people should consider is how well did the two-party system serve or not serve the U.S. public interest or the people of Afghanistan? How effective was nation building? The original promise was a total cost of about $50-60 billion for Afghanistan, but that now looks like an outright fabrication or staggering incompetence. What difference would there have been if the U.S. had simply gone into Afghanistan and captured or killed Osama Bin Ladn when it had the chance to do so and then simply left, with the Taliban returning to continue as it did before the invasion. There are many questions that need to be asked and answered.
Unfortunately, those questions are unlikely to be major topics in mainstream two-party politics. The politicians from both parties are responsible and if the outcome is truly sour, neither side will want to discuss it. In that case, the American people will, yet again, have been misled and ill-served by their government. There will be no accountability for the failures. Taxpayers simply have to pay the price and the two-party status quo will carry on with its self-serving business as usual. All things considered, it is hard to assess who or what is less odious – Karzai or an intractably incompetent two-party system.
2. Link: An astonishing inability of some U.S. agencies to account for how they spend money is a topic the RPCA has raised before (Reform Party of California Commentary: DoD’s Unacceptable Accounting Practices). This is a serious, chronic problem that is simply beyond the capacity of two-party politics to address.
7. Although the NYT article says that Afghanistan itself generates 20% of its government budget with the rest coming from foreign aid and military spending, that is hard to reconcile with other reports asserting that over 90% of the country’s budget comes from the outside (Afghans fear for economy after U.S. leaves). Even if the NYT 20% figure is accurate, common sense says that Afghanistan will collapse once we leave (Will Afghanistan collapse after U.S. troops leave?; World Bank Issues Alert on Afghanistan Economy). With any luck, all of that doom and gloom will turn out to be wrong. One can only hope for the best.
9. Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2013, pages A1, A16; online at Afghans Flee Homes as U.S. Pulls Back.
10. Recalling the Vietnam War is instructive. The circumstances feel uncomfortably similar but arising in a different context and part of the world. At the end of the Vietman War, Americans were promised “peace with honor“. What they got was peace with defeat and humiliation. South Vietnam, especially our South Vietnamese allies, got much, much worse. Like the North Vietnamese, there is no reason whatever to think that the Taliban will ever give up or that it will fundamentally change any time soon. Any agreement the Taliban enters into with Karzai can be broken and justified on religious grounds or not justified at all. In either case, the U.S. would do nothing because there is nothing it could do. We are not going back to war there again and everyone knows that. If that assessment is in error, the RPCA welcomes hearing the alternative vision. There is nothing pleasurable about seeing a fiasco and misery of this magnitude unfold. Both the Afghan and American people are the losers in this sad affair. On the U.S. side, politicians and bureaucrats will continue unfazed as they always do because there is typically limited or no accountability for failure. There is usually only reward for success or just simple perseverance, regardless of performance.
11. The ultimate cost of recent wars will be at least $3.7 trillion. About $667 billion has been spent in Afghanistan alone so far (http://nationalpriorities.org/cost-of/), but that number increases a by a billion or so every couple of days.