21 April 2010

Afghan state struggling for any victory over west

KABUL, Afghanistan—What really gnaws on the Afghan government and much of the public is that the price of international support is the loss of most decision-making powers. Afghans are regularly reminded that international aid serves the interest of the donor, not the recipient, and that all the “rules” for matters like reporting and accountability are designed to meet the interests of the donor. The central government is estimated to have control of only 20 percent of the international funds “given” to Afghanistan.

One area in which the Afghan state can exercise some muscle, at least in Kabul, is over social behavior or public morality, which are governed by a conservative Islamic ethic. The sale and consumption of alcohol by Afghans is banned, but licenses are available for restaurants that sell only to non-Muslims, essentially the internationals or ex-pats. Sometimes the restaurant owners, who are typically ex-pats themselves, find that pay-offs to key ministries work as well as a license in keeping the doors open.

There aren’t a lot of places for international workers to hang out in a conservative Muslim war zone. So when the Afghan government recently yanked the operating licenses of some of those “hot spots,” many of the ex-pats were crushed. The story got enormous play. At the moment, almost anything from Afghan is hot, as evidenced by the swelling population of international reporters, many of whom used to hang out at the very bars that were shut down.

On the short ride home from work yesterday, a single colleague under the age of 30 was bemoaning the damage to his social life of drinking and carousing. He identified the story by Tim McGirk on the Time/CNN website as the one “that started it all” and claimed it was sensationalized and loaded with inaccuracies—charges that are without substance in my opinion.

Let’s put this story in context. Pres. Hamid Karzai recently lashed out at the west and claimed he was so frustrated with the actions of the U.S. military that was considering whether to join Taliban himself. He then apologized to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one of the few Americans who will return his phone calls. The next day Karzai ripped into the west again.

Karzai has no shortage of the reasons to be fuming, particularly over the appalling civilian death count produced by the U.S.-led forces. Despite months of assurances from Gen. Stanley McChrystal that he would go the extra mile to reduce civilian casualties—part of his plan to win “hearts and minds,” he told us—the numbers continue to climb.

Karzai has no accomplishments upon which he can build a base of support. He has about as many cheerleaders as Bush/Cheney team did their last six months in office. As best I can tell, the only issue that unites an overwhelming majority of Afghans is their belief that the United States has failed them again. The U.S. bailed after the Soviets left in 1989 and the civil war ignited among the armies that had been sustained for a decade by U.S. and Saudi funds administered by Pakistan. After the Taliban were removed in 2001, the warlords were appointed to run the state and the little known Karzai was tipped to be the chief apologist for the occupying powers. In 2003, the U.S. military shifted its attention to the invasion of Iraq. So it is more than a little ironic to hear Karzai bite the hand that anointed him head of state and realizing that the only way he can gain stay in power is to join the chorus that wants the U.S. out now.

On the horizon lies the chance of an even greater and infinitely crueler irony: the return of the Taliban, who rose to power because the warlords could not produce any peace. Today the structure established by the U.S. and dominated by the former warlords is not generating peace either. And standing by the door are men with patient grins slapped on their familiar faces.

Photo: Strong man in training, Jalalabad, Afghanistan

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