http://mondediplo.com/blogs/afghanistan-s-least-bad-choiceEXCLUSIVE 29 NOVEMBER, by Chris Sands
On a quiet autumn afternoon in November, a wall protecting Afghanistan’s presidential palace and defence ministry was in its latest stage of construction.
Already a daunting size, the fortification was still not deemed high enough to shield those inside. Each year a new layer of stone, concrete or razor wire needed to be added.
At the same time, across town, more than 2,000 delegates were attending a grand assembly – known as a Traditional Loya Jirga - to discuss a vital aspect of the country’s future.
In a land where people have grown accustomed to living only for the present, these tribal elders, clerics, MPs and officials had spent four days deciding on the possible terms of a strategic agreement with the United States. The meeting was controversial even before it began and depending on who you asked, the participants were either representatives of the nation or traitors engaged in an act of political theatre. The one subject all could agree on was this: regardless of the Jirga’s outcome, the war remained far from over.
Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, standing in the grounds of the private university and school he runs in Kabul, hinted at what makes Afghanistan such an alluring and dangerous place. Establish a close bond with Pashtuns and they will help you wherever you are in the world, he said. The problem, as American and Nato forces are discovering, is what happens when members of the same ethnic group believe their honour and religion are under attack.
Night raids, air strikes and arrests have caused deep resentment here, particularly in southern and eastern provinces. The result is a widening insurgency and a feeling, in certain quarters, that history is repeating itself.
Ahmadzai served in the resistance against the Russians and their local allies in the 1980s, before going on to be appointed prime minister in the Mujahideen government that followed. Convinced that a jihad now is equally justified, he politely explained why he would not be attending the Jirga. “Afghans are very alert against colonial powers, they would rather kill themselves than accept the orders of others. Fighting the British they did this, fighting the Soviets they lost 1.5 million people, and now in this war the same story is going on. They [the international troops] must go,” he said.
Later that day Ahmadzai and a coalition consisting largely of Islamist activists, politicians and community leaders held a press conference denouncing the prospect of long-term US military bases in their homeland. A fatwa hung on either side of the stage as a range of speakers eloquently expressed their hostility to Nato forces and warned that President Hamid Karzai may yet meet a similar fate to the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
Elsewhere in Kabul, there was opposition from more temperate voices. Critics said the delegates had been chosen to ensure the government’s goals received enthusiastic support. They described the gathering as unconstitutional and claimed domestic and regional tensions would rise in the event of a strategic agreement that kept some American troops in Afghanistan far beyond the end of 2014, when all foreign combat soldiers are due to leave.
Latif Pedram was one of scores of MPs who decided to boycott the Jirga. A secularist from the northern province of Badakhshan, he saw the process as part of a wider plot to undermine parliament. “Karzai has never paid respect to our rules and regulations. He has always tried to interfere in our affairs,” he said.
A clear indication of the Taliban’s attitude arrived in October, with a statement announcing that participants would face “severe repercussions” and “be charged with treason if caught”. Then, in the week the Jirga was scheduled to begin, came another email. The insurgents claimed to have acquired the government’s own security plan for the meeting. In case anyone doubted them, a litany of the alleged secrets – including a map of the venue and documents detailing deployments of the police, army and presidential guard– were attached. Soon afterwards a suicide bomber was shot dead near the assembly site.
In the end, the only significant incident during the Jirga itself occurred when two rockets were fired, both missing their target and one wounding a civilian. The effort required to keep bloodshed to a minimum, however, showed how precarious the situation had become. Karzai travelled the short distance to and from his palace in a helicopter, remarking in his opening speech how developed Kabul looked on his journey there. Roads in a broad area around the venue were off limits to cars and pedestrians, and government offices, schools and many shops were closed throughout the four days. The Afghan intelligence agency claimed to have foiled a series of attacks.
Those who support the long-term presence of US troops inevitably cite the constant threat of violence and instability as a reason. Fearing abandonment, they insist that without at least some foreign soldiers for the foreseeable future, a civil war would start just as it did once the Soviets withdrew. “Until our national security forces can bring peace and security for us, we are happy to have them here,” said Ahmed Shafiq, a veterinary science student, after the Jirga.
The delegates ultimately delivered what was asked of them, giving the president a list of recommendations, which he gratefully accepted. Most notably, they said the US should be allowed to maintain a military presence in the country until 2024 if various conditions, including an end to American-led night raids, were adhered to.
Officials in Kabul and Washington have been arguing over the details of the strategic pact for months, but still no drafts have been made available to politicians or the public. Despite this, a deal is expected before a Nato summit in Chicago next May. Though the precise nature of future international involvement in Afghanistan is unknown, one way or the other the increasingly bloody conflict will continue. A thick fog of anxiety hangs over life here and the Jirga has not changed that.
Ghulam Jelani Zwak, director of the Afghan Analytical Advisory Centre, said there was no real alternative to a strategic agreement with the US. “This decision was a choice between bad and worse. This was the bad choice but not the worst. The worst choice is a civil war.