Last Exit from Afghanistan

2 November 2009

Last Exit from Afghanistan

By Gwynne Dyer

There must be a better way to rig an election.

First the Western powers occupying Afghanistan let President Hamid Karzai stay in the job for months after his term actually expired, on the grounds that an election in the late summer would be easier to arrange. They finally held the election in August and declared it a shining success: Karzai, Washington’s man in Kabul, had been re-elected, even though turnout nationally was only 30 percent. (In the Taliban-dominated south, it was only 5 percent.)

President Barack Obama, who was already under great pressure to send more US troops to Afghanistan, declared that “This was an important step forward in the Afghan people’s effort to take control of their future.” And then it all fell apart.

As the evidence emerged that up to a third of the votes allegedly cast for Karzai had been fraudulent, the United States backed away from celebrating his “re-election.” Indeed, the fraud was so blatant and massive that even the Afghans began to choke on it, and various American emissaries threatened and bullied Karzai into accepting a run-off vote against his closest rival in the first round of voting, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

That vote would have been held this Saturday (7 November), but Abdullah knew that he would lose again. He belongs to the Tajik ethnic group, and there are twice as many Pashtuns (Karzai’s ethnic group) in Afghanistan as there are Tajiks. So Abdullah complained that the election officials conducting this run-off would be exactly the same men who had rigged the first round – which was quite true – and demanded their resignation.

Karzai refused to remove them, Abdullah used that as an excuse to withdraw from the election, and last Sunday the run-off was cancelled. Karzai was proclaimed president once again on the basis of the discredited first-round vote, and the whole sorry mess was abandoned. But there is a silver lining: if Obama wants to bail out of Afghanistan, he now has an excellent excuse for doing so.

The pathetic shambles of the past few months has had relatively little impact on public opinion in Afghanistan, where Karzai’s democratic “legitimacy” was never much of an issue. His power, such as it is, has always depended on US military support and access to Western aid, not on votes. But the fiasco has had a significant impact on public opinion in the Western countries whose troops are fighting in Afghanistan.

Actual Western military casualties in Afghanistan have not been very high: just over 900 American soldiers have been killed there, together with 200 British, 140 Canadians, and much smaller numbers from other NATO countries. But the loss rate has been mounting steadily, as has the sense of futility back home: a Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll late last month found only 47 percent of Americans supporting a further build-up of American troops in Afghanistan, while 49 percent opposed it.

The declining support for the war is driven largely by a growing perception that it is unwinnable. If the US army is losing ground in Afghanistan after eight years in the country, and four previous invading armies from the industrialised world (three British and one Russian) have been forced to withdraw, why should we believe that this time is going to be any different? But the constantly repeated assertion that withdrawal from Afghanistan would lead to a surge in terrorist attacks on the West is also losing credibility.

It was always nonsense: terrorists don’t need “bases” to plan their attacks. Regular armies need bases, but all terrorists need is a couple of safe houses somewhere. Controlling Afghanistan is almost entirely irrelevant to Western security, and that reality is also beginning to seep out into the public discussion in the United States.

A dramatic recent example of this was the resignation late last month of Matthew Hoh, a former Marine captain and Iraq veteran who had joined the State Department and was working as the top American official in Zabul province in eastern Afghanistan. “My resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing the war, but why and to what end?” he wrote in his resignation letter, which got considerable exposure in the US media. “I fail to see the value or worth in continued US casualties.”

If Obama can extricate himself from the tactical minutiae about whether to send 40,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, or 20,000, or none, and focus on the larger question of why the United States is occupying the country at all, he can still save himself. And now is his best-ever chance to pull out, because the political train-wreck in Kabul gives him an ideal opportunity to renege on his foolish promises to pursue the war in Afghanistan until victory.

If he misses this opportunity, he may never get another, for it will inevitably, inexorably become “his” war, and the Americans who are killed there from now on will have died on his orders. Once that kind of burden descends on a politician, it becomes almost impossible for him to change course and admit that those deaths were futile. In that case, the Afghanistan war will eventually destroy him.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“The pathetic…Afghanistan”; and “A dramatic…casualties”)