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Déjà Vu in Afghanistan

Posted: 11/22/09 04:19 PM ET

Hamid Karzai tolerates corruption, accommodates warlords, is not doing enough against drug trafficking and looks the other way when it comes to the Taliban. That's why the West is annoyed at the Afghan president, considers him and his government as a bottomless pit and is now wondering how Afghanistan can be saved despite Karzai.

And what are we doing? We apply a strategy of carrots and sticks. The carrots are the official blessing at the inauguration last week and the continuation of pouring in lots of money. And the sticks: A barely veiled threat of military withdrawal and an open attempt to bypass Karzai and to deal directly with the warlords in the Afghan provinces.

Does that sound familiar to you, is it ringing a bell? That's no surprise. Those methods have been adopted frequently in the past, most recently in Iraq. Almost every Iraqi leader has been threatened and courted. But it didn't really work. Because it cannot work. Iraq and Afghanistan are not Germany or Japan after World War II. Neither do the people in those countries in a broad sense feel liberated from their previous regimes, nor do they share the Western values and system of thought.

Eight years into the war in Afghanistan it sometimes seems as if we are back on square one. Hearing Hillary Clinton wishing in a Rousseau-kind of way Hamid Karzai may "conclude a contract with the Afghan people" and asking him to ensure that Afghans will be better off soon sounds completely detached from the reality. In Kabul the U.S. secretary of state spoke as if she was dealing with a European country. She acted as if she was giving advice to a state that has a strong political center, a nation that is homogeneous and a population that listens to the government. But this does not apply to Afghanistan. That's wishful thinking. Afghanistan was never like this and never will.

In an interview with PBS' Newshour, the Afghan president recently quite pointedly said why the West is engaged in Afghanistan: "Well, the West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan. It is here to fight the war on terror. The United States and its allies came to Afghanistan after September 11." Then he continued: "Afghanistan was troubled like hell before that, too. Nobody bothered about us." And he is right. If the West would have felt sorry for the Afghans because they were stricken by hunger, poverty and civil war they could have intervened earlier. That's why the advice of the West sounds shallow and selfish. And that's why carrots and sticks will not work.

There are only two options: Either we are in Afghanistan for the long haul no matter what or we have to leave. There is no happy medium. If we stay but say, well, we might be leaving soon if you not behave, then the doors are wide open for the Taliban. They will simply wait it out and they are pretty good at that. And the Afghans know that.