Corruption, tribalism frustrate our efforts in Afghanistan

Perhaps Republicans, upset that their messages aren’t getting through to President Barack Obama, should follow Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s lead: threaten to join the Taliban.

Karzai claimed he was prepared to do just that earlier this month, after he was the butt of scathing criticism from both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The criticism stemmed from election fraud and statements Karzai has made condemning American military presence in Afghanistan — a presence that may be the primary thing protecting Karzai’s presidency.

But, lo and behold, after his threat to join the dreaded Taliban, the kid gloves came out in Washington. As a front-page headline in The New York Times put it last Saturday: “U.S. now trying softer approach toward Karzai.”

I don’t think about the war in Afghanistan as much these days as I did about four years ago, when our son Derek was doing a tour of duty with the Army Reserve in southern Afghanistan. Having a loved one in a combat zone tends to focus one’s attention on that area.

Still, I do read regularly about what is occurring in Afghanistan, for which the adjective “war-torn” seems impossibly lame.

Karzai’s corruption is far from the entire story. In much of the country, our forces confront an ancient culture where tribal loyalty is supreme. To get a sense of how that affects our efforts, read this fascinating story in The Washington Post, about U.S. forces withdrawing from the Korengal Valley east of Kabul last week: http//:www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/14/AR2010041401012.html.

More than 40 U.S. soldiers have been killed in the valley over the past five years, and many more wounded. The Afghan death toll is much higher. U.S. commanders originally sent troops into the valley to take on the Taliban and al-Qaida, and to draw insurgents away from other areas. They no longer believe that plan is working.

“In 2010 a new set of commanders concluded that the U.S. had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted above all to be left alone,” the Post reported.

Most of the 5,000 residents of the valley live in stone houses. They defy Afghan government edicts about things like cutting down ancient cedar trees. They killed contractors who tried to pave the only dirt road through the valley. And they speak their own language.

How can we ever expect to establish a fledgling democracy there, as appears to be occurring in Iraq? Or make the area more stable?

Not all Afghans are as isolated or tribalistic as those of the Korengal Valley. There are people struggling every day, trying to improve their lives and those of their fellow countrymen. But, even in more sophisticated urban areas, corruption is said to be rampant, official bribery is a way of life and support for our efforts can change with the wind.

Karzai, it seems, is just doing what many of his ancestors have done over thousands of years: playing one side against the other.

Several writers last week, and Third District Congressman John Salazar who recently returned from Afghanistan, have made arguments along these lines: Sure, Karzai is a corrupt, deceitful ally, but he is our corrupt, deceitful ally. We need him if we are going to maintain stability and keep the Taliban and al-Qaida from using Afghanistan as a terrorist base.

I’m unconvinced. It seems like I have heard similar arguments in the past. Didn’t our political leaders decide that our interests would best be served by supporting autocrats such as Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and the Shah of Iran. Sure they were dictatorial and corrupt, but they would lend stability to their regions and their countries would eventually move toward democracy, we were told.

To put it in Palin-esque language: How’s that workin’ out for ya?

I’m not ready to say we should abandon Afghanistan immediately and withdraw our troops as quickly as possible. But we should have a real plan — one that doesn’t depend on the loyalty of people like Karzai — an understanding of what we can realistically achieve and when we should get out if those objectives aren’t being met. That doesn’t appear to be the case now.

Oh, we should keep the drones flying, attacking places where terrorists are congregating.

***

As I mentioned, there are plenty of wonderful people in Afghanistan who have worked closely with our forces and who want a better future for their country. How can folks in western Colorado help them?

Recently, an unusual book came across my desk. It’s titled, “101 Ways to Help the Cause in Afghanistan,” and it’s written by Jim Hake, founder of a group called Spirit of America.

Hake is an Internet entrepreneur from California, and his group has a number of programs to assist U.S. troops trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghanis. His book lists scores of other nonprofit organizations that offer assistance on everything from farming tools for Afghanistan, to dental kits for Afghan children, to building girls’ schools to greenhouse vocational training. There’s also a section on groups that help our veterans. I like the Mennoite group that provides loans for women-run small businesses in Afghanistan.

To learn more or purchase the book, go to http://www.helpthecause.com.


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