June 3, 2010

Karzai’s Tent Collapsing on US Strategy

The clamor inside and outside the giant white tent on a Kabul campus does justice to its scientific scenery.

Nuclear fusion and gravity are locked in combat, creating and storing up new elements before a potential gravitational collapse. Afghanistan’s National Consultative Peace Jirga, theoretically aimed at discovering “who we can talk to and who we can’t” within the Taliban according to one Afghan official, bears resemblance to an impending supernova.

Of course no one wants to be vaporized by gamma rays; accordingly the White House is hoping the whole mass fizzles. Assured that no ranking Taliban officials would attend, America finally cast aside its persistent doubts and offered a tepid blessing.

“Basically, we’re giving Karzai a pass on this, and after some earlier concerns, we’re saying, ‘Go in good health,’ and we’ll see what comes of it,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence specialist now at the Middle East Institute.

Hoping that nothing actually comes from the jirga, Washington failed to account that the Taliban isn’t the only detonator. Another stood a little ways off addressing reporters in his rose garden, every word expanding Afghanistan’s black hole. US officials are so caught up in President Hamid Karzai’s interaction with the Taliban that they’ve ignored the fallout with opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah.

Granted he’s a Tajik and the jirga is meant to be about Taliban integration, but these facts reinforce the point. The jirga is designed to address national reconciliation and many factions are at odds besides the Taliban. Western officials even took pains to avoid the impression of "Pashtun to Pashtun stitch up.”

Yet Abdullah was excluded and forced to boycott.

Al Jazeera also claims, “Elders in several provinces, including Helmand and Khost, say the most influential tribal leaders were rejected in favor of those loyal to the government.” True to form, the mood outside Karzai’s tent was widely described as skeptical, with Abdullah leading as an inside-out ringmaster.

That America felt relieved of the Taliban’s absence and unconcerned with Abdullah’s lays bare the jirga’s folly. Abdullah possesses international credibility, making his statements as significant as the debate inside Karzai’s tent. Coerced into agreeing with the Taliban, Abdullah marked Karzai with a kiss of death for not representing Afghanistan as a whole - or changing his behavior.

"Had it been a national jirga and a national effort we would have supported that effort,” he insisted, before adding the event, "seemed like a PR exercise to show that we are making an effort to reach peace in this country.”

Many Afghan analysts, including Haroun Mir of Afghanistan’s Center for Policy and Research, reverberated those doubts. Said Mir, “There’s a lot of skepticism, especially at this time. Everyone agrees that there must be reconciliation, but this jirga is more about Karzai’s personal political maneuverings than it is about peace.”

The same goes for America if one assumes its public support of Karzai’s jirga is sincere. And if not, America isn’t even interested in a PR exercise for peace.

The US argument goes that reconciliation can’t occur until the Taliban weakens or gives up its arms completely. But without a preemptive political strategy, counterinsurgency devolves into counter-terrorism and becomes futile in an unstable state like Afghanistan. Still relying on military operations to produce a political resolution, generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus’s “COIN” remains one-dimensionally skewed towards the military.

Washington’s words and actions indicate that its support for Karzai’s “reintegration” program has never been real.

Like Karzai’s jirga, US commanders and officials like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often speak of low level reintegration for show, to keep up the appearance of counterinsurgency. But they realize cash alone won’t buy off low-level Taliban and still have no intention of negotiating with Mullah Omar, or anyone he knows. Or letting Karzai.

Maybe a nice statement will be signed at the end, but no agreement with the Taliban was ever happening at the jirga. America never changed its mind, never had to.

How long then is America planning to wait out the Taliban? For that seems to be its political strategy, or lack thereof. Doubtful that the US military bends the Taliban into submission - certainly not within Obama’s expectations. Moreover, US commanders are insisting the Taliban’s momentum has been halted yet still refuse to communicate.

Something’s not right here, unless the Taliban isn't losing steam.

But the Taliban remain a subplot in the main story-line of Afghanistan’s National Consultative Peace Jirga. That honor goes to the feebleness of US strategy. The jirga is hailed as Karzai’s big moment, launched upon his return from Washington and the White House’s white-washing. Obama’s orchestrated photo-op fooled few though, especially not Afghanistan’s women, political opposition, the Taliban, or any fence-sitters. Even Karzai still doubts Obama’s feelings.

What the White House doesn’t seem to realize is that the Taliban’s absence from the jirga - the fizzle - is really a bang.

Though the Taliban were avoided today, Karzai appears to have alienated wide swaths of Afghan society. Everyone seemed to find fault in his handling of the jirga - whether in support or opposition to the Taliban - and now his PR event has morphed into a PR nightmare for Washington. Its strategy remains as weak as Karzai’s legitimacy, causing the jirga to assume similar properties as America’s grand strategy in Afghanistan.

Chaos disguised as order.

Their message already spinning out of control, US officials were deployed before and during the jirga to cheer Karzai’s leadership and reiterate support. As a result they sound bizarrely out of touch. Days ago one senior official was quoted as saying, “What we hope is that this process will help demonstrate Karzai as a true national leader. This is really just the beginning of an important process and the Afghan government will be seeking some consensus on how to proceed.”

The best case scenario is currently being described by Afghan and US officials as “a non-event.” An “important non-event,” one of many US contradictions.

Karzai’s leadership subsequently managed to disappoint a majority of the country, but that didn't deter White House adviser (and “AfPak” architect) Bruce Riedel from announcing, "We understand that it is better for Karzai to be seen as flexible rather than inflexible. So the onus of responsibility for scuttling any political process will be on the Taliban and not due to Karzai."

Not very convincing. The Taliban knows America has no intention of negotiating so why negotiate? Washington is actively blocking the political process not simply by refusing to withdraw, but by believing it can outlast the Taliban in its own land. Riedel’s thinking basically stands opposite of the majority of Afghans: Karzai is inflexible.

It's his job to gather a true representation of Afghan society, and he hasn’t.

“The No. 1 problem in the eyes of the people is the government and its failures to deal with the issues and challenges, including corruption,” Abdullah told reporters in his garden, the war surrounding them.

Hopefully a US official lingered nearby taking notes. Karzai’s shortcomings are America’s number one problem, not the Taliban, and yet it wants to fight the Taliban to the last man without the necessary local or national support. Or resources. Karzai’s metaphorical tent is collapsing on US strategy.

Whether America knows it is still hard to tell.

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