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The US Must Capture the Heart of the Afghans

The Afghan capital Kabul was the venue for the most spectacular event in decades on Tuesday, July 20th. Forty foreign ministers from seventy countries and international organisations renewed their support for the Afghan government. Among pledges and commitments of the US-led Western donors, the conference set 2014 as the date for the transfer of all security control to the Afghan authorities. The conference agreed on increasing funds for development channelled though the Afghan government from the current 20% to 50% in order to speed up this process. Many delegates also stressed the need for a sustainable negotiated settlement with the insurgents.

This is indeed a new phase in the long war in Afghanistan that the international community set benchmarks for the government of Afghanistan to take responsibility of the war in its new partnership with Western forces. The new partnership largely implies that the Afghan government has to Afghanize the war so that foreign troops gradually leave the country.
Reassured by the support of the international community for his government, President Hamid Karzai confirmed his government's willingness to take over responsibility for his country's security at this conference in his inaugural speech: "I remain determined that our Afghan national security forces will be responsible for all military and law enforcement operation throughout our country by 2014".

As a transitional phase to accomplish this goal, General David Petraeus has already broken the pattern by launching his new counterinsurgency strategy of forming new Village Defense Forces in the chaotic south of Afghanistan. These local security forces are aimed at transforming the Afghan villages into defensive bastions against the attacks of the Taliban-led insurgency.

This battle plan is a replica of what occurred in Iraq. Even though this plan of awakening villages against the enemy successfully coaxed and mobilised thousands of Sunni tribesmen against the al-Qaida affiliated insurgency in 2007, its prospects in Afghanistan seems hazy for obvious reasons. Firstly, Pouring more guns and ammunition into volatile Afghan villages might actually end up in the hands of the Taliban. The Taliban and a three-decade of war have drastically altered the traditional power structure in Afghan villages. The landowner and clan leaders have now lost control over the villages. The mosques and the mullahs are nowadays the absolute arbiters of village administration.

Secondly, Karzai has failed to capture the hearts of his countrymen especially his fellow Pashtuns who regard him as nothing more than a puppet in the hands of the warlords of the Northern Alliance who were propped up to power with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Thanks to the American tax money, these warlords are now all multi-millionaires who reportedly send annually at least $1 billion, gained as graft or scavenged from Western donors to their private accounts outside the country. This amount exceeds the government's annual revenue. The flow of more cash into Kabul, therefore, will certainly encourage kleptomania further within the top echelons of Karzai's regime including his siblings.

When, I was working in Kabul with a World Bank's sponsored position with the Afghan Ministry of Education for six months last year, from Karzai's office down to a check-post in the suburbs of Kabul, I saw with my own eyes that looting and thievery was made the only ideology that brought top members of Karzai's regime together. Unfortunately, I also noted a growing unwillingness among the Afghan soldiers and police to fight the Taliban.

The lessons of the past decade of Western involvement in Afghanistan, the realities on the ground and the hidden and pernicious agendas of the predatory neighbours of Afghanistan, suggest that the only sensible option still open to the West is holding direct negotiations with the Taliban. I mean, of course those Taliban who fight inside Afghanistan and are willing to renounce al-Qaida, drop medieval misogyny and respect the rights of ethnic minorities. A greater role is for the UN to help facilitate such a negotiation An unmediated channel of negotiation will arguably lessen the current Western dependence on Pakistan, which is very keen to maintain the status quo in order to reverse everything in Afghanistan for its own security and geopolitical strategies.

Experience has shown that neither playing footsie nor a stick and carrot policy in dealing with Pakistan in relation to the war in Afghanistan has been productive. Pakistan pinned its existential survival to controlling the Afghan Taliban. "The US is putting off Kandahar operation for it is waiting for a simultaneous strike by Pakistan on Haqqani group in North Waziristan. Pro-Pakistani Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan. NATO has been defeated and Kabul is now like a dish waiting for Pakistan to eat." The ex-Chief of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), General Hamid Gul put this bluntly in a recent interview with the Pakistani private television network IRY. Gul is not just an aging retired general talking gibberish; he is a real mouthpiece for the Pakistani military and political elite who is widely believed to be the master handler of the Taliban leadership hiding in Pakistan, including their semi-illiterate one-eyed leader Mullah Omar.

History bears evidence that foreign forces in Afghanistan can never prevail unless the local population and a representative local government stand behind it. Seeking a military solution for Afghanistan is no more a successful option. Since he took office, President Obama has tripled the American troops in Afghanistan but the situation on the ground is not improving. By forming a lasting friendship, the West can win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan as an Afghan old maxim goes, "Being your friend, an Afghan will cheerfully go with you to hell, but you cannot take him to paradise by force."

Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an Adjunct Fellow with the Writing & Society Research Group, University of Western Sydney (UWS)