April 30, 2010

By Guy Dinmore, pubblicato su l’Interprete Internazionale

As parallels with the Vietnam war become harder to ignore, the US faces a critical month ahead in Afghanistan. On the one hand the military build-up continues in Kandahar to take the fight to the Taliban’s heartland, while the corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai approaches a key moment in offering the insurgents a way out of protracted war.

With support for the war among US and European voters steadily diminishing, Karzai is treading a fine line in trying to shed his image in Afghanistan as an ineffectual puppet of the Americans. He has angered Washington with wild accusations that western officials and the UN conspired to commit the fraud in last year’s presidential elections (which his own people blatantly manipulated), and with his warnings that foreign interference risks legitimising the Taliban.

But for the moment, Karzai remains the man Barack Obama, the US president, has to deal with. Also, unfortunately, the same goes for his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, chairman of Kandahar’s legislative council and a key power broker who is accused by his enemies of running a mafia-like network of militia commanders and opium traffickers in the city.

Karzai travels to Washington on May 10 for a four-day visit. The Obama administration will try to set the parameters for a national peace conference to be hosted by Karzai on his return to Kabul, bringing together some 1,400 Afghans representing the country’s many tribes and factions. Karzai needs both the appearance of full US support but enough independence to remain credible. His aim is to achieve the consensus he needs to move next to reconciliation talks with senior Taliban.

The US accepts that elements of the Taliban who have no links with al Qaeda should be drawn into the process, but Robert Gates, defence secretary, believes they must be first convinced that they are losing the war. “I don’t think we are there yet,” he told a congressional committee in March. To that end the military campaign in Kandahar will be crucial. Guerrilla attacks by the Taliban on foreign workers and senior Afghans in the city are just the prelude to a brutal showdown.

Meanwhile support from European governments is only being sustained by Obama’s intention to start pulling out troops by the middle of next year. Opinion polls show that nearly two-thirds of Germans want their troops home sooner. Both main parties in the UK have promised a review of the Afghan war after their May 6 elections. Faultlines in Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition could also widen over the war, with the resurgent Northern League openly hostile to Italy’s continued involvement.

The risk for Obama and his European allies is that, like Vietnam, they will lose the war at home before achieving sustainable gains on the battlefield. The Afghan national army is not ready to hold territory gained and only five percent of its soldiers are Pashtun’s, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the main community in Kandahar.Ultimately only Afghans can provide the solution for a lasting peace. But with the Taliban demonstrating that they can create havoc in Kandahar, Karzai’s time is running out.

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