Last Fall in Afghanistan
If you follow the news of any place daily, you start to see some patterns. I have been following events in Afghanistan on a daily basis since mid-August, and in that time I’ve seen stories well up, break, and vanish—although some are still simmering, and some are threatening to blow much bigger in the months ahead. Here are some of the main stories I’ve seen in Afghanistan this fall (I’m leaving out night raids, suicide bombings, kidnappings, and other such violence: that’s constant.)
It’s died away now, but for a while there—in September and October—the pressure on Karzai to “do something” about corruption forced him to launch a series of initiatives. Two problems soon cropped up, however. One, Karzai’s closest associates were hip-deep in the scandals. Second—and worse– some of the key figures suspected of criminal corruption in Afghanistan were on secret payrolls working for the U.S. military or for U.S. intelligence agencies. As this came to light, the need to end the corruption seemed to lose some of its urgency. Most recently, the U.S. has decided, as a matter of policy, not to pursue cases of corruption as aggressively as in the past—reportedly because it doesn’t seem to produce any progress.
The Kabul Bank Fiasco
The Bush Administration saw privatization as the route to reconstruction in Afghanistan and they encouraged entrepreneurs to found every sort of institution, including banks. The biggest winner was Kabul Bank, an enormous thing with several billion in assets—bigger by far than the country’s supposed national bank. The country’s payroll, including the salaries of civil servants, policemen, and soldiers came to be funneled through this bank. The trouble was, the bank was being looted by its principle officers and its directors, most of whom were closely connected to the Karzai family and other powerful political figures. they included Karzai’s brother Mahmoud and relatives of the notorious Tajik warlord Fahim, who held the post of vice-president. These guys were using huge loans from the bank to buy real estate in Dubai which they could sell within weeks for enormous profits. They were also borrowing from the bank to set up security and service companies that specialized in gaining American contracts. When the real estate market in Dubai belatedly suffered the same crash as every other part of the world, the bank looked like it might default. For a few days, it closed its doors and refused to admit depositors. At that point, the government-owned Central Bank took over and the officers of Kabul Bank were fired. No one seems to know if it then got a sudden infusion of cash from the U.S. government. In any case, the bank seems to have righted itself and remains open for business.
The Battle for Kandahar
Last year, the United States and NATO undertook to conquer the small town of Marjah, near Lashkargah, described as the headquarters for the Talibanist insurgency in that region. They won the battle, but Western forces are still pinned down there, because the insurgency just won’t quit. This fall, the U.S. and NATO decided to take control of Kandahar, the country’s second biggest city, the birthplace of the Taliban, and the spiritual center of Talibanism. The battle last several weeks, and the U.S. and its allies won. But acts of insurgent violence keep erupting there, so Kandahar, like Marjah, may have emerged as another wound that just won’t heal.
The Parliamentary Elections
On September 18, Afghanistan was scheduled to have its second set of parliamentary elections since the new “democratic” government was set up. This would be a good time to note that the first set of these elections four years ago went fairly well. So did the first presidential election, which ended with the expected victory of Hamid Karzai, running as the candidate for the American Puppet Party. The second set of presidential elections were much more contentious but still ended with Karzai in power. The second set of Parliamentary elections has been a brawl. It took more than two months to announce the results, thousands of complaints of fraud have been lodged, and a special five-judge panel of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court has been set up to investigate these complaints, although few expect that any court will be able to settle all the brouhaha.
Rumors of Peace (Talks)
First, there were rumors that a number of people associated with the Taliban had come to Kabul for secret meetings with Karzai and his associates. Then the leading figure in these supposed peace talks was arrested and imprisoned in Pakistan, by Pakistan. So ended that line of possible peace talks. Then Karzai set up the High Peace Council, some fifty former warlords, clerics, and special appointees, whose assignment it has been to work out the terms for some sort of negotiation with the Taliban. This has sparked much optimistic chatter in the west about a “political solution” to the war, although few really discuss what coming to terms with the Taliban would really entail for Afghans who don’t want to live under Taliban-style rule. Then came rumors of a new round of peace feelers from the Taliban, and the news that one of the top Taliban leaders, possibly a top aide to Mullah Omar himself was in Kabul to negotiate. Then this top aide fled the capital and vanished. It turned out the wasn’t a leading member of the Taliban but an imposter—just some Pakistani shopkeeper who saw an opportunity to make some dough. His disappearance left all the various parties spluttering. U.S. officials said they suspected he was an imposter all along. Karzai said he never talked to the guy, not even once. Britain, whose secret service had flown the guy secretly into Kabul, said nothing. Talk of peace talks seem to have subsided.
Minerals of Afghanistan
In July or so, U.S. officials broke the news that Afghanistan has over a trillion dollars worth of mineral resources, which could end up making this country a central player in the unfolding economy of the future, if the minerals are properly developed. The precious resources include gold, oil, natural gas, copper, iron, and “rare earth,” minerals such as lithium that will be crucial to the solar and electronic technologies of the future. But here’s the curious thing. Although the existence of these minerals was announced (and is still being touted) as if they had just been discovered—by U.S. geologists—people have actually known about them for a long time—at least hundreds of years in the case of the copper and iron, and since Soviet days in the case of the oil and gas. A second curious thing: while the U.S. is pouring money and lives into fighting a mounting insurgency in Afghanistan, the Chinese have secured the contract to develop the copper of Afghanistan, which is the single most precious resource of all the finds, and may be on the verge of signing up the iron too.
Iran Pushes In
It’s hard to know what Iran is up to, or thinks it’s up to, but over the last few months it has been aggressively asserting its connections to Afghanistan and its potential power over it. Some of this assertiveness comes in the form of cultural initiatives. Iran promoted a film festival in Kabul: most of the films were Iranian, and therefore in Farsi, a language most Afghans speak. Iran promoted a trade fair this fall, featuring mostly Iranian businesses. Iran also offered to help broker peace talks, a pronouncement that brought a chilly silence from the U.S. Next, the news broke that Iran had been giving cash to Karzai personally, as much as $30 million a year, none of it acknowledged or accounted for. Both Karzai and Iran have insisted there is no quid pro quo involved here, Karzai has do absolutely nothing in exchange for the cash. Nice work if you can get! I immediately wrote to the Iranian foreign ministry to let them know that if they would only give me $30 million a year, I would promise to do absolutely nothing. Heck, no skin off my back, I’m not doing much of anything right now. Iran has not gotten back to me. And now, most recently, Iran has halted all fuel tanker truck into Afghanistan on the Iranian side of their mutual border, giving no reason for it—seemingly just to demonstrate what a chokehold it has on the country, especially given the turmoil in Pakistan that hampers normal trade across that border. In the U.S., Iran’s initiatives have been played as if this all has something to do with the Taliban. Iran has been described routinely as “an ally of the Taliban, “ and sometimes as a power that supports the Taliban. I guess the logic is that both the Taliban and Iran are enemies of the United States so they must be friends. Actually, Iran is asserting its role as a replacement for the U.S. as the Kabul government’s “chief ally” against the Taliban. American protestations about Karzai seem to stem from a feeling that he’s cheating on the U.S., as if the two countries are married and are supposed to have a monogamous relationship.