Political Expedience and the Afghan War

As the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan continue, one hears pundits muttering about how the Afghan War is arguably the longest war in the history of the United States. Whether it’s actually true or not, one thing is for certain, and that’s that this war has gone on for far too long—nine years after the first invasion, and yet we’re still in combat mode? Something must be wrong. And something absolutely is. Last week it was reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his associates have been consistently receiving money from Iran. One would expect denial of this charge from a U.S.-backed regime, but Karzai nonchalantly confirmed the charge. He even went on to say, “We are grateful to the Iranians for this.”

It is one thing to receive money surreptitiously from the Iranian government and deny it, but it is entirely another to mention it so casually and openly. What gall must Karzai have to state so emphatically his allegiance to the Iranian government—a regime deemed a rogue by the United States? This is not to say that Karzai should completely toe the American line. But in this case it is most certainly safe to side with the U.S., as the overwhelming majority of the international community is of the same opinion with regard to Iran, as sufficed by the joint sanctions placed upon Iran by all the major powers. Perhaps Karzai merely wishes to maintain good relations with a neighbor he will have to deal with after the U.S. leaves—and this would be somewhat excusable given his adversarial relationship with his other neighbor, Pakistan. Unfortunately the problems surrounding Karzai run deeper than his complicity with Iran.

In just the past year, Karzai has shown an unrelenting intransigence that would have earned him the title of “rogue dictator” from the U.S. under normal circumstances. Recall just over a year ago, when Karzai rejected a runoff in the presidential election after 25 percent of the votes were deemed to be illegitimate, casting doubt on his victory. U.S. and U.N. officials were running wild trying to persuade him to agree to a runoff to save face and so that they could at least superficially call Afghanistan a democracy. Ultimately, Karzai heeded their demands, only for his opponent to step down from the race a few days later. This is not a shining endorsement for the values and integrity of Karzai.

Then came the allegations that the Karzai family has been exploiting all levels of the Afghan economy—all the way from the troubled Kabul bank, which is partly owned by his brother, to humanitarian aid funds that are being smuggled to Dubai, and even to the drug trade. The alleged involvement in the Kabul bank and looting foreign aid are worrisome as the nation is teetering on the verge of economic collapse, but the more troubling allegation is Karzai and his associates' connection to the drug trade.

A 2008 report by the Center on International Cooperation states that the profits of the drug trade exceed 50 percent of the country’s total Gross Domestic Product. And only 20 to 30 percent of these profits actually reach the hands of the farmers. The rest is purportedly shared by traffickers, militant groups, and corrupt Afghan officials from the lowest to highest levels. But the most alarming finding of this report is that opium production reached its peak in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008. This means that 6 years into the war, neither the U.S. nor the Afghan officials could contain perhaps the single largest threat to the War on Terror. As long as the militant groups continue to have access to large sources of funds that empower them, how are we ever to win this war?

No matter what Karzai has done, has been accused of doing, or is overtly doing, the U.S. has taken a conciliatory approach. Karzai is able to act with impunity because the U.S. no longer has the political will or the financial capital to escalate this war. As Robert Jervis, professor of political science at Columbia University, postulated last year, the U.S. is preparing itself for a “withdrawal without winning.”

Consider President Barack Obama’s situation right now. If he escalates this war and actually tries to weed out corruption, he’ll have to pour more military and financial resources into it. The doves on the Democratic side will staunchly oppose this, as will the self-proclaimed “austerians” on the Republican side who oppose adding to the national debt. And if he accepts Afghanistan as it is and pulls out, the Democrats may be content, but the Republicans will taunt Obama and the Democrats for their weakness and will turn this into an election issue to beat Obama in 2012.

It looks like a “damned if he did, damned if he didn’t” situation, but Obama appears to have found another path: set a clear timetable for withdrawal, create the impression that progress is being made in Afghanistan, and pull out on deadline, regardless of the status on the ground. Just look at Iraq—a perfect example of Obama’s employment of the same strategy. The parliament has met for a total of 20 minutes since its election in March, and there have been sustained acts of insurgency in just the last few months. Clearly, it would be farcical to call the situation stable, but the Obama administration has proceeded with its withdrawal plan nonetheless.

The War on Terror in Afghanistan has more or less become a war of political expedience. Maybe the recent allied offensives in Kandahar are weakening the Taliban, but we need to realize that, just like weeds, the minute U.S. and the allies leave this region, the Taliban and other tribal militant groups are certain to make a rapid comeback. Karzai has realized the inevitability of the situation and is plotting his survival for the long term, making deals with Iran and the Taliban. The sad truth in all this is that the “longest war in American history” will have to end without a victory.