Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama's Afghan Policy Is His Vietnam

President Obama's announced new foreign policy shifts in Pakistan and Afghanistan leaves little doubt the war against terrorists in that Middle East region is his. We see it as his Vietnam.

The mission is simple but altruistic:

Eradicate al-quada and the terrorist factions of the Taliban, restore the infrastructure of Pakistan, train the Afghanistan army and police and rid its government from corruption.

Unlike his predecessor George W. Bush whose secondary mission was to establish democracy in the region, Obama has established benchmarks to measure his plan's progress. He pledged not to write a "blank check" for Pakistan's internal improvements, assuming, of course, Pakistani leaders try.

Obama's plan calls for 60,000 U.S. troops and civilians in Afghanistan by this summer. The mere presence of uniformed foreign troops no matter what their purpose is defined by militants and nationalists as "occupiers" and used as recruiting propaganda tools for al-quada.

I share the anti-war critics' contention that killing all the radicals in the region is an impossible mission. Al-quada is not a standing army but a bunch of gorilla fighters driven by religious fanaticism. As the saying goes, you can kill the man but not the spirit.

Afghanistan has a long history of expelling foreign armies. Just ask the British and Russians when they were known as the Soviet Union. It is a land ruled by warlords for the most part and a weak central government. President Hamid Karzai's authority rarely reaches the outskirts of the capital city of Kabul.

Corruption is the mainstay of the Afghan government encapsulated by rumors Karzai's brother is involved in the country's illegal heroin crops and distribution.

The situation is best described in The New York Times by Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking to reporters after Obama's speech Friday on announcing the policy shift.

Holbrooke noted the corrosive role of instability and terrorist safe havens in western Pakistan, and said that the United States could not abandon the region. “We can leave as the Afghans deal with their own security problems,” Holbrooke said. “That’s what the president put emphasis on today on training the national army, training the policy.”

“The exit strategy,” he went on, “includes governance, corruption, but above all, and this is the single most difficult aspect of what we are talking about today, it requires dealing with Western Pakistan.”

“You can have a great government in Kabul,” Holbrooke said, “and if the current situation in Western Pakistan continued, the instability in Afghanistan will continue.”

At the moment, Washington remains frustrated by the course of events in the region. Holbrooke noted that Afghanistan is in the middle of an election campaign, and said that even as the timing of the voting remains uncertain, Washington must not wed itself forever to Karzai’s government or favor any candidate. And even as the Americans strike with missiles at enemies in Pakistan, and press the country to take a harder line against hostile factions, they must respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.

“Of all the dilemmas, problems and challenges we face, that’s going to be the most daunting, because it’s a sovereign country and there is a red line,” Holbrooke said. “And the red line is unambiguous and stated publicly by the Pakistani government over and over again: No foreign troops on our soil.”

Asked about the campaign against Afghan corruption, Holbrooke said, "We're not going to lay out how we're going to deal with it. To some extent, we don't know yet."

It is a fool's errand trying to analyze a region no one has visited or studied. From a westerner's perspective, Afghanistan's people are marvelled because of their true grit for survival.

The country's main source of gross national product is its poppy fields. Afghanistan ranks 115th of 224 listed nations in GNP at $6.96 billion -- 60% from heroin production --in the latest report of 2005. That's less than most 50 states in the U.S.

History is full of ironies. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, the Taliban took control and eradicated most of the heroin crop, an effort rewarded by the U.S. and other nations in millions of dollars for their efforts. After Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. routed the Taliban. They returned and U.S. Drug Enforcement officials claim they have used proceeds from the sale of heroin to finance their comeback.

In a story published Sept. 3, 2007, in the Washington Times, Afghanistan has resumed being the world's leader in heroin trafficking.

Reports by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said Afghanistan's share of the U.S. heroin market doubled in the past five years. The RCMP report warned that the increase in Afghan heroin in Canada came despite nearly $60 million spent by the Canadian government to fund anti-drug efforts in that country, adding that about 60 percent of the heroin on Canadian streets comes from Afghanistan.

The report said the heroin was making its way to Canada through two main trafficking arteries: the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it is routed to India and then Canada, and from Afghanistan to western Africa, where it is shipped to the United States and then Canada. About 92 percent of the world's heroin comes from opium poppies grown in Afghanistan, according to the 2007 World Drug Report — released in June by the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime. Opium cultivation accounts for nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross national product.

Poppy production has expanded wildly since Hamid Karzai's government took control in 2002. Last year, Afghan farmers produced 6,100 metric tons of opium, while farmers throughout the rest of the world cumulatively harvested 510 metric tons. Ten years ago, Afghanistan produced 2,248 metric tons of poppies.

Diverting production of heroin to life-staining agricultural crops is the challenging mission taken upon by the World Bank. Challenging not only because a metric ton of heroin dwarfs the return for a metric ton of grain in cash but also because the rural valleys irrigation dams and canals are dysfunctional.

Called the Emergency Irrigation Rehabilitation Project, World Bank lending subsidiaries have loaned Afghanistan $65 million to rehabilitate the country's water projects. A progress report in July 2008 says:

Afghanistan’s harsh terrain and arid climate make it an unforgiving place for agriculture. Only 12 percent of the land is arable and 85 percent of that land requires irrigation. Adequate and reliable supply of irrigation is therefore essential for sustainable agricultural production, which is pivotal for overall economic growth and poverty reduction.

Nearly 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas and depends on agriculture. There is high incidence of poverty. Improved agricultural performance offers significant prospects for raising farmer incomes, contributing to food security, providing rural employment, and reducing vulnerability.

Afghanistan’s agriculture sector has suffered from nearly a quarter century of prolonged war, political upheavals, damaging floods and drought, and neglected maintenance of the irrigation infrastructure. The main drivers of agricultural growth and rural poverty reduction – roads, irrigation, information and technology, education, and markets – had all deteriorated due to social conflict, lack of maintenance for infrastructure and collapse of technical information and market systems.

This situation has been exacerbated by frequent droughts. To enable faster overall economic growth and significantly reduce rural poverty, agriculture needs to grow at a minimum rate of 5% per annum over the next decade.

At present, the irrigation infrastructure is in a serious state of disrepair. The traditional community based organizations (mirab systems) and government institutions supporting the O&M of irrigation schemes have seriously deteriorated. About 60 to 70 percent of the underground small canals (Karezes) are not in use; most of the river diversion structures feeding the irrigation canals are dysfunctional or of temporary nature; traditional and large canal networks are damaged and partly or wholly dysfunctional.

Consequently, irrigation schemes now operate at about 25 percent efficiency, compared to the norm of 40 to 60 percent, and are feeding only about a third of the pre-war irrigated farm areas with low reliability of supplies.

The World Bank reports some success in several of the agricultural zones. However, the overall program administered by the government's interior ministry is plagued by incompetence and resistance from rural farmers. The report did not blame the lack of progress on corruption, but rather:

Capacity and skills set of project staff is weak and efforts need to be targeted to those staff who are involved in project implementation (through on-the-job and hands-on training) rather than on general capacity building efforts for the ministries.

What this means to me is that Obama's best hope is more of a prayer: Get the Afghans to provide their own security and get the hell out of the country ASAP.

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