Analysis: The view from Afghanistan on Obama's speech

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama’s announcement on troop strength will be just as eagerly awaited in Kabul as it will be in Washington, D.C., but the stakes are very different here.

Capitol Hill politicos will debate the pros and cons while calculating the partisan benefits of their position; Afghans are trying to figure out which option gives them the best chance of staying alive.

More troops mean more fighting, with more civilian casualties. This is the unfortunate “mathematics of death” pointed out in an earlier March interview by Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, who was spokesman for NATO in Afghanistan at the time.

U.S. and Afghan military analysts seem to agree that a staged withdrawal of U.S. troops would almost certainly mean a return to civil war, as newly empowered “warlords,” backed by American money and might, gear up for battle with their long-time foe, the Taliban.

It is an unenviable dilemma, both for Obama, who has to sell his choice to an increasingly skeptical American public, and for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is trying to hold his fragile country together.

Afghans are historically allergic to foreign military presence, as witnessed by centuries of history. This latest engagement bears little difference to previous incursions in the Afghan mind, despite rhetoric emphasizing “democracy” and “progress.” Given their recent fraud-stained presidential elections, Afghans are fast developing an aversion to democracy itself, which many see as a rather cruel trick being played on them by a cynical international community and a local puppet regime.

NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal’s new counter-insurgency strategy, which puts protection of the civilian population center stage, relies on the assumption that those very civilians support the Taliban only out of fear. If the local population can be convinced that their government, backed by the international community, will help and protect them, they will cease to provide shelter to the insurgents. Then the military can mop up the opposition and commence the job of helping the locals to develop a stable, productive society.

It sounds good on paper, but begins to fall apart almost as soon as boots hit the ground.

In much of southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of the new troops will be deployed, the Taliban dominates not only through outright intimidation, but perhaps more often because people have no faith in the central government and actively hate the foreign military presence. In most cases, they are turning to the Taliban as the best of a very bad set of choices.

At the end of the day, Afghans are a pragmatic lot; if the troops can rout the insurgents, deliver massive aid, bully the central government into a less corrupt and more responsive pose, they will tolerate their presence. The enthusiasm and hope with which U.S. troops were welcomed in 2001 is testimony to this attitude. The problem is that eight years of non-performance have made the Afghans wary of foreign promises. And Obama’s emphasis on an “exit strategy” is likely to reinforce their cynicism.

The famous Taliban dictum “you have the clocks, we have the time” is quite understandable to a population that senses that the U.S. and their faltering allies may not be around to protect them in one, five or 10 years’ time. The Taliban, on the other hand, aren’t going anywhere.

Unless more troops can turn the situation around with lightning-like speed, the fear in Afghanistan is that the war against the Taliban will quickly transform itself into a war on the population itself.

There has been progress in some provinces.

In Helmand, the Taliban seemed poised to take over just a few short months ago. Now two districts – Garmsir and Nawa – have been stabilized, with life slowly returning to what passes for normal in southern Afghanistan. Schools are reopening, the bazaar is doing a brisk business and poppy production is down.

But it has taken 4,000 Marines to partially secure two districts. There are 14 districts in Helmand alone. Trying to replicate Nawa’s success in this one troubled province would quickly swallow up Obama’s entire proposed surge. What happens, then, to neighboring Kandahar? Or the increasingly unstable North?

The rancorous U.S. debate over the links between Taliban and Al Qaeda has no traction in Afghanistan. The local population knows full well who the Taliban are: They are local commanders, the boy next door, the unemployed uncle, the younger son who went with the Taliban because his older brother joined the police, and the family is hedging its bets.

“I have a lot of friends who are Taliban,” said one young journalist from Helmand. “It would be impossible to live here if I did not.”

Young men join the Taliban for a variety of reasons, ranging from boredom to poverty. The Taliban pay three times more than the police, and they pay on time. Local Taliban fighters are respected and feared, while police are despised for their venality and incompetence.

Relatively few join the Taliban out of religious fundamentalist conviction. They join the Taliban to drive out the occupiers, and in that they have the tacit support of much of the local population, particularly in the southern portion of the country.

But while Afghans are uncomfortable with a foreign presence, the prospect of an immediate withdrawal is a frightening one. A recent article in the New York Times quotes American officials supporting a new Community Defense Initiative, which will assist tribal leaders in fomenting resistance to the Taliban.

This ignores the fact that, for the majority of Afghans, one of the few phenomena they loath more than the Taliban are tribal militia, which were responsible for so much corruption and predation that Afghans rushed into the harsh but honest embrace of the Taliban in the mid-1990s.

If the United States helps to impose one badly flawed regime on Afghans in order to get rid of another, they could very well end up getting the worst of both.

For Afghans, there is little to choose between the oppressive policies of the Taliban and the corrupt and repressive Kabul government. Transparency International has placed Afghanistan 179th out of 180 countries on its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index — only Somalia is seen as having shadier rulers.

The United States has publicly insisted that Karzai restore confidence to his administration by cracking down on corruption — but there are few encouraging signs that he is able or willing to do so.

In order to gain his victory in a badly marred election, Karzai has purportedly made a pact with some of the most corrupt people in Afghanistan. It will be extremely difficult to convince Afghans that their president is serious about restoring faith in the government while drug lords and men accused of serious human rights violations occupy high positions in the government. Nor will it be easy to demonstrate our own commitment to the task. The photos from Karzai’s inauguration, showing a beaming Hillary Clinton sitting directly in front of notorious warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, made a great impression on the Afghan public.

Karzai’s own brother has been linked both to drug dealing and to the CIA, according to the New York Times: The U.S. government has made its own share of deals with the devil, actively shoring up drug smugglers who were seen as tough on the Taliban. This has been amply documented in various media, most recently in “The Master of Spin Boldak,” published in Harper’s December issue, a profile of a border police chief in Kandahar province, who clears millions of dollars per month in drug profits while being generously supported by both Canadian and American troops.

As one counter-narcotics official put it in an earlier interview: “We had to get into bed with some pretty nasty characters in the name of counter-terrorism.”

The West has limited leverage over the Afghan government.

It is true that Karzai could not run his government for a day without U.S. money and support. But the United States cannot afford to let him fall – this would spell the death of its own efforts in Afghanistan.

So the two countries, and their presidents, are locked together, with no clear solution in sight. Whatever Obama announces on Tuesday evening will cement their union, for better or for worse.