The first time I visited Afghanistan, two years ago, the presidential election of 2009 was already the most important date on the horizon. Well, nobody was entirely sure whether it would be in 2009 or 2010. But they knew it would matter big time. If it went well, Afghanistan’s deliverance from 30 years of near-constant internecine carnage would be accelerated greatly. If not, not.
Here’s how it went. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that a week before the election, the members of a southern tribe decided they had had enough of Hamid Karzai and they preferred his leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. But they never got to vote for him because Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, threw the governor of Shorbak, the tribesmen’s district, in jail and shut down all of its polling stations. Then the district police stuffed ballot boxes until Shorbak had returned nearly 30,000 votes for Karzai.
So after Barack Obama and Stephen Harper showed all kinds of proper concern about the mockery of democracy that took place a couple of months ago in Iran’s national elections, they are now in a bit of a bind, because both men run governments that need to work with Hamid Karzai and his thug brother every day of the week.
I’m afraid it’s not obvious to me what the solution is here. Iran’s sham election was worth denouncing, and I continue to prefer to believe that Afghanistan’s sometimes-contemptible government shouldn’t be abandoned to the Taliban and their assorted henchmen.
But we have a problem here. Afghanistan is getting steadily far more violent, for its own inhabitants and for the Westerners, including Canadians, who have now spent eight years trying to put it right. More NATO soldiers died in July and August than in any entire year before 2006. The 17,000 extra U.S. troops Obama sent after his inauguration in January have been enough to stir up a hornets’ nest but not enough to control it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only Republican holdover in Obama’s cabinet, fired the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, in June and sent a handpicked replacement, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to clean up the mess. This week McChrystal sent his bosses a report calling for a new strategy in Afghanistan, eight years into the conflict and less than six months after Obama announced the last new strategy.
Reports say McChrystal will call for up to 20,000 additional U.S. troops on top of the 17,000 Obama already sent and the 30,000-odd who’ve been there all along. I think you could make a case that Gates—who went to the wall to keep the springtime troop surge from being too large—should lose his job if the commander he selected says that was a mistake. But firing Gates at this stage would merely be a distracting sacrifice to the gods of procedure. It would do nothing to halt Afghanistan’s downward spiral.
Remember Shiite Personal Status Law, which sought to protect the right of Shiite men in Afghanistan to rape their wives and forbade their wives to leave the house without permission? There was quite a fuss over it in April. “That’s unacceptable—period,” Peter MacKay said then. “We’re fighting for values that include equality and women’s rights. This sort of legislation won’t fly.”
It flew. Karzai’s government passed it into law in August.
So how are we doing? Afghanistan is deadlier for Canadians and our allies than ever. As a hole for military effort and expense in blood and treasure, it is getting deeper, not filling up. The guy who seems likeliest to hang onto power there is a fraud backed by thugs in the service of values we like to claim we could never support.
All of this to keep Afghanistan from breeding more terrorists—even though most of the 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia and hatched their plot in Germany, two countries we are not proposing to occupy and democratize.
At some point, the logical conclusion is that Afghanistan has ceased to be worth the effort because the effort does not make it measurably better on any axis that matters to its citizens or our own. Each observer will reach that point at a different time. For me it would tend to come very late indeed, because I have believed since Sept. 11, 2001, that this is Canada’s struggle too and that we should make a meaningful contribution.
It’s just harder and harder to see what’s meaningful about all this. On the so-called rape law, here’s what Stephen Harper said in the spring:
“The involvement in the international community, and particularly Canada and our NATO allies, is based on the pursuit of very fundamental values in opposition to the kinds of values the Taliban stood for . . . If we drift from that, there will be a clear diminishment in allied support for this venture.”
Since he said those words in April, the law Harper decried has come into force and 11 more Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan. It becomes harder every day to believe that patience in this struggle is synonymous with virtue.