Patrick Cockburn: The general is right. Liam Fox is wrong

The Taliban are able to present themselves as battling for Afghan independence

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Just when President Barack Obama looked as if he might be railroaded into sending tens of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan, the American envoy to Kabul has warned him not to do so.

In a leaked cable to Washington sent last week, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W Eikenberry, argued that it would be a mistake to send reinforcements until the government of Hamid Karzai demonstrates that it will act against corruption and mismanagement. Mr Eikenberry knows what he is talking about because he has long experience of Afghanistan. A recently retired three-star general, he was responsible for training the Afghan security forces from 2002 to 2003 and was top US commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.

There is a dangerous misunderstanding outside Afghanistan about what "corruption and mismanagement" mean in an Afghan context and a potentially lethal underestimation of how these impact on American and British forces.

The shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, argued in The Independent on Sunday a few days ago that though "corruption and establishing good governance" are not unimportant, "we need to recognise that Afghan governance is likely to look very different from governance as we know it in the West". Leaving aside the patronising tone of the statement, this shows that Mr Fox fundamentally misunderstands what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan. Corruption and mismanagement do not just mean that the police are on the take or that no contract is awarded without a bribe. It is much worse than that. For instance, one reason Afghan villagers prefer to deal with the Taliban rather than the government security forces is that the latter have a habit of seizing their sons at checkpoints and sodomising them.

None of our business is what Mr Fox, who may be British Defence Secretary by this time next year, would presumably say. We are not in Afghanistan for the good government of Afghans: "Our troops are not fighting and dying in Afghanistan for Karzai's Government, nor should they ever be." But the fact that male rape is common practice in the Afghan armed forces has, unfortunately, a great deal to do with the fate of British soldiers.

There was a horrified reaction across Britain last week when a 25-year-old policeman called Gulbuddin working in a police station in the Nad Ali district of Helmand killed five British soldiers when he opened fire with a machine gun on them. But the reason he did so, according to Christina Lamb in The Sunday Times, citing two Afghans who knew Gulbuddin, was that he had been brutally beaten, sodomised and sexually molested by a senior Afghan officer whom he regarded as being protected by the British.

The slaughter at Nad Ali is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan. It is why Mr Fox is wrong and Mr Eikenberry is right about the dangers of committing more American or British troops regardless of the way Afghanistan is ruled. Nor are the events which led to the deaths of the young British soldiers out of the ordinary. Western military officials eager to show success in training the Afghan army and police have reportedly suppressed for years accounts from Canadian troops that the newly trained security forces are raping young boys.

Mr Fox's approach only makes sense if we assume that it does not matter what ordinary Afghans think. This is what the Americans and, to a lesser degree the British, thought in Iraq in 2003. They soon learned different. I remember visiting the town of al-Majar al-Kabir in June 2003, soon after six British military policemen had been shot dead in the local police station. The British Army had unwisely sent patrols with dogs through one of the most heavily armed towns in the country, famous for its resistance to Saddam Hussein, as if the British were an all-conquering occupation army.

The Americans and British eventually learned the unnecessarily costly lesson in Iraq that what Iraqis thought and did would wholly determine if foreign forces were going to be shot at or not. Mr Fox claims the US and Britain will not be in Afghanistan in defence of the Afghan government, but if we are not doing that, then we become an occupation force. A growing belief that this is already the case is enabling Taliban fighters, who used to be unpopular even among the Pashtun, to present themselves as battling for Afghan independence.

Mr Eikenberry expresses frustration over the lack of US money being allocated for spending on development and reconstruction after Afghan-istan's infrastructure has been wrecked by 30 years of war. The ambassador has not even been able to obtain $2.5bn for non-military spending, this though the cost of the extra 40,000 US troops requested by General Stanley A McChrystal, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, is put by army planners at $33bn and by White House officials at about $50bn over a year.

This is one of the absurdities of the Afghan war. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Some 12 million out of 27 million Afghans live below the poverty line on 45 cents a day, according to the UN. Yet the lower estimate for each extra 1,000 US troops is $1bn a year.

The much maligned and rightly maligned Afghan policeman earns around $120 a month. In return for this he is forced to do a more dangerous job than Afghan soldiers, some 1,500 policemen being killed between 2007 and 2009, three times the number of deaths suffered by the Afghan army. Compare this money and these dangers with that of a US paid consultant earning $250,000 a year – and with the cost of his guards, accommodation and translator totalling the same amount again – lurking in his villa in Kabul.

Mr Eikenberry is rightly sceptical about the dispatch of reinforcements to prop up a regime which is more of a racket than an administration. The troops may kill more Taliban, but they will also be their recruiting sergeants. As for the Afghan government, its ill-paid forces will not be eager to fight harder if they can get the Americans and the British to do their fighting for them.

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