As the page turns into The Year of American Withdrawal, I think of a handmade sign I saw years ago taped to a wall in one of the control rooms of ABC News in New York: Toujours la même dreck." Same old, same old - only worse.
As the New Year began, AFP reported the first 2011 death of a coalition soldier, in southern Afghanistan, by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). Last year, you will recall, set a grim record as the deadliest year for U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan since we first put boots on the ground there in 2001. While the U.S strategy, such as it is, has been to escalate the military pressure on the Taliban to degrade their ranks and persuade them to negotiate a settlement, the Taliban strategy seems to be pretty much the same thing: attack, attack, attack and make it seem as though the planned withdrawal is a tail-between-the-legs retreat. As my old friend Shahmahmood Miakhel, the Afghanistan Country Director for the United States Institute of Peace wrote for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, "...it is now at least widely recognised that there is no military solution for Afghan problems. There is broader consensus than before on the need to create conditions that allow for broader peace negotiations and a settlement, not a deal."
Across the border in Pakistan, the fox waits patiently for the henhouse to be left unguarded. The Washington Post reports that Pakistan's powerful (read: more powerful than the president or prime minister) army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani has consistently resisted all appeals from the U.S., from President Obama on down through the diplomatic and military chains of command, to attack and wipe out Taliban and Al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan. And why should he? Kayani is thinking long-term (not America's forte) to the day when U.S. and coalition forces leave Afghanistan. By playing nice with the Taliban now, Pakistan gains more influence in the future Afghanistan, which has been a Pakistani goal for decades.
And speaking of our pals the Pakistanis, and the matter of long-term influence, just look what all of our billions have bought us. The New York Times reports that the country was brought to its knees on the final day of 2010 by radical Islamists protesting any change in the blasphemy laws. Strikes and demonstrations brought thousands of Pakistanis into the streets to call for the execution of Ms. Asia Bibi and for the government to let the law stand as is. Ms. Bibi, a Christian, was condemned to death for an "insult to Islam" -- touching the water bowl of a Muslim as they worked together in the fields. The Pakistani government is assuring the radicals there is no plan to change the law, which is usually applied to persecute minorities such as Christians. It would seem that our lavish spending on Pakistan has not brought the country any closer to democracy or even sanity. The chair of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission says the forces of democracy are in retreat in his country.
Nor have our sacrifices of blood and treasure produced the desired results in Afghanistan after nine long years. The Afghan National Army is pitifully weak, the National Police are pitifully corrupt, as is the government in Kabul. Among the WikiLeaks revelations was the backstage pressure put on President Hamid Karzai by the U.S. to flush the Water and Energy Minister out of the government. The minister, the old Herat strongman Ismael Khan, is regarded by the U.S. as "the worst" of a very bad bunch, but Karzai resisted all entreaties to remove Khan from his post, where he oversees the distribution of some $2 Billion in U.S. aid. Several years ago, when Ismael Khan was the governor and undisputed warlord of Herat, in western Afghanistan, Karzai raised eyebrows by removing him from office and bringing him to Kabul where he could keep an eye on him. It was thought then to be a show of strength by Karzai, but maybe it was done at Khan's request. Maybe he wanted to be closer to the money.
In nine years of bloody warfare, the U.S. has been unable to mold Afghanistan into a stand-alone nation, let alone a progressive democracy. Despite our massive presence and monetary aid (or perhaps because of it) Afghanistan is now ranked as the second-most corrupt nation on Earth and is unable to defend itself against its own insurgents, much less those from Pakistan and the Arab states. Pakistan has grown successively more radical and unwilling to stand with the U.S. to fight the common threat of radical Islam. The casualty rate of 2010 was the highest since the fighting began; nearly 498 U.S. soldiers died last year alone.
Let the leaving begin.