Wednesday June 7, 2006
Last week an American military convoy on a road into Kabul crashed in a traffic jam. What happened next is confused. It appears the American soldiers, whose drug consumption is reputedly prodigious, lost their heads and fired into the crowd. The result was half a dozen deaths and the worst riot Kabul has seen since the occupation four and a half years ago.
This lost city in the mountains is, compared with Baghdad, relatively peaceful and is recovering well from the Taliban trauma in the 1990s. Security is good and money is spent on infrastructure. But frustration among the three million inhabitants is growing at the inability of the large foreign community to do anything but admonish them for not doing what they are told.
Last week's riot was aimed largely at that community, which reacted by withdrawing its workers from the provinces and gating them in its compounds. In a walk round the old city on Monday I saw not a single westerner. The downtown Serena hotel, built by the Aga Khan as a symbol of normality, ceded victory to the rioters by bricking up its ground-floor windows, Baghdad-style.
Afghanistan is facing probably the last attempt by outsiders to give it a western political economy. Nato's international security and assistance force (Isaf) comes under the nine-month command of an extrovert British general, David Richards. He is running a sort of peacekeeping Olympics, with soldiers from some 36 nations - from Luxembourg to Mongolia - all out to prove their new-world-order spurs. He must somehow do what has defied the Americans for four years: curb the resurgent Taliban, impose government on the provinces and persuade local rulers to pay allegiance and taxes to Kabul - for the first time in their history.
Long-standing Kabul-watchers tend to put their heads in their hands at the "if only we hadn't ... " hindsight that guides so much modern intervention. Hamid Karzai, the weak but brave American-backed president of Afghanistan, appears to be moving away from the western nation-building models of his more technocratic ministers, and towards a more traditional Afghan politics. After four years of waning authority outside Kabul, Karzai knows that to survive he must deal with existing power brokers, including the drug warlords - whatever this does for his reputation abroad.
Last month he appalled western observers by appointing a dozen provincial police chiefs described to me by one UN official as "gangsters and criminals". Having failed to disarm local militias, he decided to pay them as regulars. Unfortunately he particularly rewarded his own people, the Pashtuns, invoking the wrath of the Tajiks, who led last week's riots. Karzai's portrait was torn down in preference to that of the assassinated Tajik hero Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Meanwhile, down south, the Americans have failed to stem increasing Taliban infiltration from Pakistan. Their brutal bombing of villages has recruited hundreds of fighters to the Taliban cause and bred hatred for both the Americans and Karzai. On Thursday the Taliban almost killed the Canadian commander in Kandahar.
Richards must try to reverse all this. He is certainly the kind of soldier I would put in any last ditch. He would defend Rorke's Drift to the final bullet and pin down an entire panzer brigade to cover the Dunkirk retreat. His strategy is to draw a thick line under the heavy-handed American tactics and go for hearts and minds in selected "ink spots". He is intolerant of timid rules of engagement laid down for soldiers by their European governments and of namby-pamby NGOs who upset local communities with their "gender awareness sessions".
The trouble is that Richards has no control over the Americans, obsessed with tracking down the Scarlet Pimpernel of Waziristan, Osama bin Laden, by hook or crook, mostly crook. He has no control over Karzai's deals with warlords and none over the reigning confusion that is western opium policy.
In 2001, at the west's bidding, the Taliban stamped out almost the entire poppy harvest (by shooting farmers). After the invasion the Americans rewarded provincial warlords by allowing the 2002 crop to proceed and then, with a lethal sense of humour, made Britain lead nation for poppy eradication. Given Britain's consumption of the stuff, it was like getting Libya to chair a UN human-rights convention. A year later the policy has produced the highest ever Afghan opium yield. John Reid, as defence secretary, was obsessed with eradication, telling parliament, with no shred of evidence, that it was "absolutely interlinked to the war on terror".
The Americans turned a blind eye, accepting that some 80% of the country's exports by value are tied up in opium. Yet they still train Afghan pilots in Texas to spray poison on poppies. As for substitute crops, there are none of remotely equivalent value, especially since the west started dumping wheat on the Afghan market this year.
A faintly plausible intervention in southern Afghanistan might have the west buying the entire poppy crop for processing through legal channels (as in Turkey and India), thus undercutting the Taliban and the drug mafia. It might involve bribing local councillors to toe Kabul's line and joining local militias in hitting back at Taliban incursions. On a conservative estimate I am told this would need a "foreign legion" of 150,000 British troops in the desert. Isaf has just 6,000 troops, with the Dutch and Canadians politically averse to casualties. The mission is little short of suicidal.
Whether or not he keeps western troops, money and Land Cruisers, Karzai seems secure as "mayor of Kabul" and titular head of Afghanistan. But the drug barons and militia commanders are likely to remain rampant elsewhere. Karzai will eventually have to strike some deal with some version of the Taliban in the south, much as Pakistan has de facto. It would be better struck if isolated European garrisons were not dotted across the south.
The original American policy had realpolitik. It was to capture Kabul with proxy tribesmen, topple the regime and get out fast. Even the most starry-eyed neocon could see little thanks in nation-building in Kabul. But the policy needed cover for its retreat. It needed a fall guy.
Step forward plucky Britain, with Afghan glory lodged in its military genes. This time it even came with a glittering baggage train of cosmopolitan hangers-on. The fall guy will fall. We can only take comfort that he will do so in style.