Kim Sengupta: Nine years after 'liberation', Afghans continue to despair

The country is deep in crisis and the West's relations with President Karzai are at an all-time low

Sunday 18 April 2010 00:00

Relations between Hamid Karzai and his Western sponsors have reached a new low. The war continues with the Taliban launching attacks in Kabul and US-led forces preparing to launch an offensive in Kandahar. And nine years after "liberation", the Afghan people continue to despair over endemic corruption, abuse of power and economic hardship.

Five months have passed since the unveiling of the new strategy for what is now very much Barack Obama's war.

Afghanistan remains in crisis. There have been successful military operations by Nato, but the fighting and civilian losses have also created resentment.

There is growing uncertainty whether the drawdown of Nato forces from next year remains a viable option. The exit strategy is predicated on enough Afghan forces being ready to take over security. But there is a shortfall of around 500 trainers. And leaving before the Afghan government is able to provide its own security is not an option.

There is a further matter of responsibility towards a country that had been destabilised by foreign, including Western, interference. Afghans complain, with justice, about lack of development, of unemployment and the continuing violence. But very few of them show any desire to be ruled by the Taliban or Islamist warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – recipients of US and British largesse in the past.

Increasingly strident statements by Karzai have provided more ammunition to the international community. But Karzai remains the main player, who is tapping into growing resentment about foreign domination.

There was undoubtedly fraud in last year's elections. But many Afghans objected to the way the supposedly Afghan-run process was controlled by the Election Complaints Commission.

Karzai's people also speak about their anger and sense of humiliation at the regular lectures they receive from visiting Western politicians. But most of the time the Afghan President has had to listen in relative silence. As a supplicant to the powers subsidising his country, he has little choice, but this just adds to his resentment.

The faltering political process in the country is, of course, intrinsically linked to the security situation. There is now acceptance by Nato that a purely military victory is impossible, and there must be a process of reconciliation.

Late last year, I was with the US Marines during Operation Khareh Cobra in Helmand. The offensive was to retake the Taliban stronghold of Naw Zad. It was a dress rehearsal for Marjah which took place three months later, and Kandahar, scheduled for this summer.

In the past, captured Taliban fighters had disappeared either into the vast US detainee facility in Bagram airbase or the less-than-tender clutches of the Afghan intelligence, the NDS. This time prisoners were taken back to their villages and freed into the care of local elders. The policy is modelled on how Sunni nationalist groups in Iraq were induced to turn their back on al-Qa'ida.

Success in Naw Zad and Marjah has been mixed, and Kandahar is likely to be an even bigger challenge. It is true that Naw Zad has seen more than 100 families go back to their homes. But also slipping back are the insurgents, through a strip of land known as "Pakistani Alley". Some of the prisoners returned to their communities have disappeared, back with the Talibs.

Refugees are also returning to Marjah. But there, too, the insurgency has a presence. The capture of the adjoining town of Showal was celebrated with the pulling down of a Taliban banner, replacing it with the Afghan flag. A week later, I saw a roadside bomb go off under a British truck just 20 metres from that newly hoisted flag.

When Karzai visited Kandahar last week, elders at a public meeting demanded that the planned offensive be called off. It would not bring them stability, they said, but death and destruction. The President responded that he will personally guarantee the operation will not take place as long as the tribal leaders are against it.

Karzai does not really have a veto on this – the Americans are determined to "clear" Kandahar and curb the power of local leaders.

However, the risk of inflaming local opinion is great in this Pashtun heartland. Nasruddin Ali, a shopkeeper, appeared to sum up the mood of many in the city. "We have been suffering for a long time now, we have had members of our families killed and kidnapped, homes destroyed. We must have peace. What is the point of having thousands of foreign troops here if they can't bring peace?"

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