The sting 2

The New York Times exposes a farce enacted on the real stage of international politics: a perfectly performed con-trick by which an imposter extracted a mountain of moola from craven double-dealing presidents, diplomats, and generals involved in The Endless War of Waste and Futility.

The conman claimed to be Mullah Akhta Muhammad Mansour, “the second highest official in the Taliban movement” after the founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

He and “two other Taliban leaders” were flown to Kabul from Pakistan in a NATO plane, wearing serious beards, and were ceremoniously ushered into the presidential palace, where they proceeded to beard President Karzai in his den, so to speak. Then they were conducted to the city of Kandahar where “Mullah Mansour” and his two merry men hoodwinked government officials, NATO commanders, American diplomats and top-brass.

For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement.

But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO appear to have achieved little.

“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”

American officials confirmed Monday that they had given up hope that the Afghan was Mr. Mansour, or even a member of the Taliban leadership.

Doubts about the man’s identity arose after the third session of negotiations. Only then –

A man who had known [the real] Mr. Mansour years ago told Afghan officials that the man at the table did not resemble him.

Even so, they wistfully hoped that whoever he was would come again. They’d paid him to keep the fake peace talks going, and any old talks, with anyone at all, are better than none.

While the Afghan official said he still harbored hopes that the man would return for another round of talks, American and other Western officials said they had concluded that the man in question was not Mr. Mansour. Just how the Americans reached such a definitive conclusion — whether, for instance, they were able to positively establish his identity through fingerprints or some other means — is unknown.

As recently as last month, American and Afghan officials held high hopes for the talks. Senior American officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, said the talks indicated that Taliban leaders, whose rank-and-file fighters are under extraordinary pressure from the American-led offensive, were at least willing to discuss an end to the war.

President Karzai himself – who wears, literally, the mantle of power – denied that any talks with any Taliban, real or pretend, were going on at all:

“Do not accept foreign media reports about meetings with Taliban leaders. Most of these reports are propaganda and lies,” he said.

The Taliban also deny that any talks took place, or were planned.

In a recent message to his followers, Mullah Omar denied that there were any talks unfolding at any level.

Now, since “Mullah Mansour” turns out to have been a scam artist, it seems they might be telling the truth.

Since the last round of discussions, which took place within the past few weeks, Afghan and American officials have been puzzling over who the man was.

So who was he?

[Some] say the man may have been a [real] Taliban agent. “The Taliban are cleverer than the Americans and our own intelligence service,” said a senior Afghan official who is familiar with the case.  “They are playing games.”

Others suspect that the fake Taliban leader, whose identity is not known, may have been dispatched by the Pakistani intelligence service, known by its initials, the ISI. Elements within the ISI have long played a “double-game” in Afghanistan, reassuring United States officials that they are pursuing the Taliban while at the same time providing support for the insurgents.

The theory we like best is that he was “a humble shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta”, who simply enlisted the help of two cronies and carried out the sting operation for the most understandable of motives – to get a lot of money. Which they did.

Sensitive investigations 0

These days there cannot  be many states, if any, with governments free from corruption, but some are more corrupt than others. Afghanistan looks to be among the worst. Its make-believe democratic institutions, president and parliament, and the police and the military, are oiled with corruption. Bribery and extortion characterize the politics of the country. A thousand busy Americans driven by noble intentions will not easily succeed in purifying the soul of the nation or changing the Afghan way. Even John Kerry, whose noble intentions are on display though his own soul has been tainted by fibs about his military adventures, has failed to persuade President Karzai – the fellow who literally wears a mantle of power – to play nice. And though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls Karzai to inform him loftily of her “displeasure”, he continues to do it his way. This so disheartens the well-intentioned folk pursuing the counter-corruption endeavor that they are thinking of abandoning it.

This is from the Washington Post:

A close adviser to President Hamid Karzai, arrested last month on charges of soliciting a bribe, was also under investigation for allegedly providing luxury vehicles and cash to presidential allies and over telephone contacts with Taliban insurgents, according to Afghan officials familiar with the case.

The Afghan officials also said that it had been Karzai himself who intervened to win the quick release of the aide, Mohammad Zia Salehi, even after the arrest had been personally approved by the country’s attorney general. The new account suggests that the corruption case against Salehi was wider than previously known and that Karzai acted directly to secure his aide’s release.

The intervention by Karzai came after the Afghan investigators had begun to pursue corruption cases against the aide and possibly other Karzai allies inside the presidential palace. A commission formed by Karzai after his aide was released concluded that Afghan agents who had carried out the investigation with support from U.S.-backed law enforcement units had violated Salehi’s human rights and were operating outside the constitution.

The back-and-forth revolves around the work of two American-backed Afghan task forces, one known as the Major Crimes Task Force and the other called the Sensitive Investigative Unit. It has created perhaps the most serious crisis this year in relations between Afghanistan and the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Karzai to express her displeasure with any decision that undermines anti-corruption enforcement, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) flew to Kabul this week with a warning to Karzai that his actions put at risk U.S. funding and congressional support for the war. …

Salehi is a Pashtun from Wardak province who heads the administration of Afghanistan’s National Security Council. Salehi has played a key role in support of Karzai’s efforts to win reconciliation with Taliban insurgents and end the war in Afghanistan. The current and former Afghan officials said he had spoken regularly by cellphone with Taliban representatives and had arranged meetings between the Karzai administration and members of the Taliban …

The Afghan officials said that the investigation had determined that Salehi had also been involved with making cash payments from a palace fund to pay off Karzai’s political supporters, and distributed gifts such as armored Land Cruisers and luxury Lexuses.

“He was one of the most trusted staff members in the palace to do special things,” said one Afghan official with direct knowledge of the case. …

One of the special things he did was to accept a bribe not to investigate bribery:

Wiretapped conversations had also produced evidence that Salehi had accepted gifts, including a car provided to his son, in return for playing a role in opposing a corruption investigation aimed at New Ansari, the nation’s largest money-transfer business, which was raided by investigators in January. “The talk on the intercepts was pretty clear that this car was intended to get Salehi to interfere with the investigation,” said a senior U.S. official who worked with Afghan anti-corruption teams. The American official said the evidence had been presented to Afghanistan’s attorney general, Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, who signed an arrest warrant for Salehi and instructed the Major Crimes Task Force, an Afghan police unit mentored by the FBI, to execute the arrest. …

On July 25 … Salehi was taken to a counternarcotics detention center in Kabul.

By 6 p.m. the same day, however, police with the Major Crimes Task Force received a second letter from Aloko, the attorney general, ordering Salehi’s release.

An Afghan official with direct knowledge of the case said that Aloko had come under “enormous pressure” from Karzai to set Salehi free. A second Afghan official with direct knowledge of the events said that Aloko “received an order from the president” that Salehi be released. …

According to the Afghan officials, corruption investigators now say they fear for the safety of their families and do not believe it is possible to convict those close to the president. They do not expect Salehi to be indicted. Some believe the two elite task forces will be disbanded.

That would be a blow to General Petraeus. Apparently he’s pinned his hopes on them, believing that the country could be “restored” to stability if only the corruption could be got rid of.

Gen. David H. Petraeus the new American commander, has made clear that he sees the effort as central to restoring stability to the country.

So the story of Salehi is not encouraging to those who still believe there is something to be won in Afghanistan. To others it bears a message of despair.

Poof, they’re gone 0

US counter-insurgency tactics in Afghanistan are being modeled on methods that worked – so they say – in Iraq.

The Washington Post reports:

Perhaps the most important reason population control worked to the extent it did in Baghdad was because each side believed the other posed an existential threat, and both turned to the United States for security. In many parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, the population has yet to seek protection.

Their “hearts and minds must be won”, but –

Many Kandaharis regard the Taliban as wayward brothers and cousins — fellow Pashtuns with whom they can negotiate and one day reconcile. They also worry about siding with their government because they fear Taliban retribution, both now and when U.S. troop reductions begin next summer.

The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy depends on persuading Pashtuns to … cast their lot with their government.

Their incorrigibly corrupt government, it should be said. But push on.

The U.S. military and civilian agencies are trying to help the government win over the public by delivering services to the population that the Taliban does not offer, including education, health care, agricultural assistance and justice based on the rule of law.

That requires capable civil servants willing to work in an unstable environment — and that’s where the strategy is hitting its most significant roadblock.

“Unstable environment” being a nice way of saying “death trap”. Not many Afghans are attracted to it.

A recent effort by Karzai’s local-governance directorate to fill 300 civil service jobs in Kandahar and the surrounding district turned up four qualified applicants, even after the agency dropped its application standards to remove a high school diploma, according to several U.S. officials.

But the four could, maybe, read and write. Next problem, how to keep them alive?

U.S. officials are exploring ways to protect Afghans working for the government. One plan under consideration would involve transforming the Kandahar Hotel into a secure dormitory surrounded by concrete walls, for civil servants. Development contractors working for USAID are building compounds with secret entrances to minimize the chances that insurgents spot staff members.

Nervous men walled up together, sneaking through secret ways – as a recruiting ad, probably not great.

And even if a few more semi-educated civil servants were to sign up and be willing to huddle behind concrete barriers and slink about in fear, the outlook for law and order is not bright.

Getting government officials in place is no guarantee of success. Kandahar’s governor and mayor are regarded as ineffective administrators, but U.S. and Canadian advisers are trying to transform them into more competent leaders.

Trying and trying, however discouraging the signs:

In the Panjwai district to the west of Kandahar … the district governor and the police chief recently got into a fight. The chief hit the governor with a teakettle and the governor smashed a teacup on the chief’s head, the confrontation culminating in a shootout between their guards.

In Arghandab, U.S. military and civilian officials spent a year working closely with — and praising — the district governor, Abdul Jabar. When he was killed in a car bombing in Kandahar this summer, the officials blamed the Taliban.

But some of those same officials concluded that the governor was skimming U.S. funds for reconstruction projects in his district. His killing, they think, was the result of anger by fellow residents over his not distributing the spoils, not a Taliban assassination.

“It was a mob hit,” said one U.S. official familiar with the situation. “We saw him as a white knight, but we were getting played the whole time.”

Maybe if Afghans who can read and write are transported out of their “unstable environment” to the United States and trained in, say, Texas, they might do better?

It ‘s been tried, at least by the military. Afghans were willing, even positively eager to be flown to America. Once there, they weren’t slow to take advantage of the opportunities suddenly laid before them: wine, women, song, and freedom.

Fox News reports:

A loose network of Mexican-American women, some of whom may be illegal immigrants, have been responsible for helping numerous Afghan military deserters go AWOL from an Air Force Base in Texas

Many of the Afghans, with the women’s assistance, have made their way to Canada; the whereabouts of others remain unknown. Some of the men have been schooled by the women in how to move around the U.S. without any documentation.

The Afghan deserters refer to the women as “BMWs” —  Big Mexican Women — and they often are the first step in the Afghans’ journey from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to Canada …

The Afghan military men usually meet the women at three nightclubs in San Antonio … The nightclubs include two military hangouts — Tiffany’s Cocktails and Mirage, located outside Lackland’s main gate — and Graham Central Station, a massive warehouse-like building in downtown San Antonio that houses “six nightclubs under one roof” that host a variety of theme nights. Photos on Graham Central’s website show scantily clad women rolling around in what appears to be Jell-O.

In the past eight years, no fewer than 46 members of the Afghan military have gone absent without leave … As most Afghans on the base do not have cars [what – they’re not given cars?! – JB], many of them depended on the women to pick them up at Lackland’s back gate in the middle of the night and help them vanish.

Many of the men decided to go AWOL just hours before they were scheduled to fly home to Afghanistan

In one instance, a student … who is now living in Toronto, spent hundreds of dollars on books and materials to take home to Afghanistan, where he was supposed to teach English. But he vanished less than a week after purchasing the textbooks — and just hours before his flight was due to depart.

Another student … described by friends as the most unlikely of the 46 to go AWOL, decided at the very last minute not to go home. A pilot with two wives and more than a dozen children, he failed his final exam and felt too humiliated to face his family, the sources said. He vanished in March, and the sources said he could not have gotten away from Lackland without help.

The women are believed to have been responsible for picking up numerous other Afghans …

The women who help the deserters are like groupies…  Many are single and older than the Afghans, who tend to be in their early 20s. If an Afghan needs a ride, they’ll pick him up. If they’re needed to run errands — or to take them away from the base in the middle of the night — they will be there at a moment’s notice …

But the women do more than drive the “getaway cars”; … they also provide the deserters with crucial advice and encouragement, apparently drawn from their own personal experiences. The women … have told some of the men that it’s possible to live in the U.S. illegally.

“These guys, they want a better life, but they’re scared to run away without their passports or identification, they’re scared they’ll get caught,” a source who has assisted in [a] multiagency investigation said.

“These BMWs say, ‘It’s OK.’ Then poof, they’re gone.

Humiliation 1

America, Britain, NATO  – anyway, our side –  is trying to sue for peace with the Taliban.

They’re not calling it that – they’d say they’re “asking for talks” – but it amounts to the same thing. It’s the first step in the attempt they must make to get out of the war without too great humiliation. So far, they’re not succeeding even with that low aim.

The British army chief of staff, General David Richards, egged on by US commanders, shouted out loud that “it might be useful to talk to the Taliban”.

The Taliban couldn’t help hearing, and their  answer through intermediaries is that they will not enter into any kind of negotiations with Nato forces.

That’s according to the BBC – not a source we usually trust, but the story rings true.

The Taliban statement is uncompromising, almost contemptuous.

They believe they are winning the war, and cannot see why they should help Nato by talking to them. …

June, they point out, has seen the highest number of Nato deaths in Afghanistan: 102, an average of more than three a day.

“Why should we talk if we have the upper hand, and the foreign troops are considering withdrawal, and there are differences in the ranks of our enemies?” said Zabiullah Mujahedd, [when] a trusted intermediary conveyed a series of questions to [him], the acknowledged spokesman for the Afghan Taliban leadership, and [he] gave us his answers.

“We do not want to talk to anyone – not to [President Hamid] Karzai, nor to any foreigners – till the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.” …

Doubts about the value of the operation are already growing in every Nato country.

The BBC  (or “Auntie Beeb” as the old harridan is often unaffectionately called in Britain) thinks that General Petraeus’s task is now to change that perception. We don’t think so. His task, as we have said, is to find a way of getting out of the war with as little humiliation as possible.

But even that’s a bad idea. Best thing would be to get out now, because the most humiliating way will be to go on trying not to be humiliated without succeeding.

Actually there must be humiliation whatever is done.

Karzai in power corruptly and/or dealing with the Taliban ? Humiliation.

NATO/US talking to the Taliban to include them in power? Humiliation.

The Taliban refusing to talk to NATO and waiting for it to leave? Humiliation.

Continuing to pretend there is an Afghan army loyal to “the nation”?  Humiliation.

Leaving next July with the same sort of mess there is now or worse? Humiliation.

Giving up on victory and preferring the word “success”? Humiliation.

Pretending Pakistan is an ally and doesn’t have its own designs on Afghanistan? Humiliation.

Trying not to be humiliated and pretending not to be? Humiliation.

Defeat on the battlefield in Marja, Kandahar, and soon all over? Utter humiliation.

Our side is thoroughly, deeply, irredeemably humiliated now. And not another American or NATO life should be lost in this hopeless and even absurd cause .

Pursuing a mirage 0

Afghanistan has never been a nation-state as the West understands such a thing.

This report shows plainly enough that any plan to meld the Afghan tribes into one democratically governed nation is doomed to failure; but it also shows how hard it is for those who imagined it could succeed to see its naivity.

Even an Afghan member of the so-called parliament, trying to fit into the Western illusion, speaks of Afghanistan being “split” as if it were a nation that might be divided into two sides, whereas in fact the region is inhabited by a plurality of feuding fiefdoms, and “splintered” would be a better word to describe the humanscape (to coin a term). An even better word might be “crazed”, in the sense of a network of cracks.

It describes how President Karzai’s attempt to bring the Taliban into a central government is the very thing that will shatter such West-compliant unity as has been tentatively achieved. And it calls this a “paradox” rather than what it is – the proof of the impossibility of a hopeless, foolish, Western fantasy, the pursuit of a mirage.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, it tells us, still think they can prevent Afghanistan being “torn apart” – as if it had even been whole, or as if they really can make their fantasy come true.

The drive by President Hamid Karzai to strike a deal with Taliban leaders and their Pakistani backers is causing deep unease in Afghanistan’s minority communities, who fought the Taliban the longest and suffered the most during their rule.

The leaders of the country’s Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, which make up close to half of Afghanistan’s population, are vowing to resist — and if necessary, fight — any deal that involves bringing members of the Taliban insurgency into a power-sharing arrangement with the government.

Alienated by discussions between President Karzai and the Pakistani military and intelligence officials, minority leaders are taking their first steps toward organizing against what they fear is Mr. Karzai’s long-held desire to restore the dominance of ethnic Pashtuns, who ruled the country for generations. …

“Karzai is giving Afghanistan back to the Taliban, and he is opening up the old schisms,” said Rehman Oghly, an Uzbek member of Parliament and once a member of an anti-Taliban militia. “If he wants to bring in the Taliban, and they begin to use force, then we will go back to civil war and Afghanistan will be split.”

The deepening estrangement of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun communities presents a paradox for the Americans and their NATO partners. American commanders have concluded that only a political settlement can end the war. But in helping Mr. Karzai to make a deal, they risk reigniting Afghanistan’s ethnic strife.

Talks between Mr. Karzai and the Pakistani leaders have been unfolding here and in Islamabad for several weeks, with some discussions involving bestowing legitimacy on Taliban insurgents.

The leaders of these minority communities say that President Karzai appears determined to hand Taliban leaders a share of power — and Pakistan a large degree of influence inside the country. The Americans, desperate to end their involvement here, are helping Mr. Karzai along and shunning the Afghan opposition, they say. …

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was worried about “the Tajik-Pashtun divide that has been so strong.” American and NATO leaders, he said, are trying to stifle any return to ethnic violence.

“It has the potential to really tear this country apart,” Admiral Mullen said in an interview. “That’s not what we are going to permit.” …

There are growing indications of ethnic fissures inside the army. …

Prominent Afghans have begun to organize along mostly ethnic lines. ….

Recently [President Karzai] he has told senior Afghan officials that he no longer believes that the Americans and NATO can prevail in Afghanistan and that they will probably leave soon. That fact may make Mr. Karzai more inclined to make a deal with both Pakistan and the Taliban.

As for the Pakistanis, their motives are even more opaque. For years, Pakistani leaders have denied supporting the Taliban, but evidence suggests that they continue to do so. In recent talks, the Pakistanis have offered Mr. Karzai a sort of strategic partnership — and one that involves giving at least one [of the] the most brutal Taliban groups, the Haqqani network, a measure of legitimacy in Afghanistan.

“Karzai has begun the ethnic war,” said Mohammed Mohaqeq, a Hazara leader and a former ally of the president. “The future is very dark.”

The wrong war 0

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if somehow, between now and July 2011 when American forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Afghans could be made over into enlightened, fair-minded, peaceable people, free of old tribal conflicts, filled with a thirst for righteousness, respectful of women, eager to become law-abiding free-marketeers, and enthusiasts for establishing the customs and institutions that embody and support true democracy?

It would be more than wonderful, it would be a miracle.

But if that miracle could be worked, wouldn’t the achievement be worth the cost in blood and treasure of the long war America has been waging against the Taliban?

Some think so.

But what is actually happening among these backward, feuding, misogynistic, deeply ignorant people is a continuation of what has always been happening: feuding, subjugation of women, and savage cruelty – of which this is a very recent example from Afghan sources:

Taliban fighters have hanged a seven-year-old boy, claiming he was passing information to foreign soldiers in the volatile southern province of Helmand.

(“Volatile” is good. We like “volatile”.)

And of what is about to happen we are being nervously forewarned by US military commanders, according to this report from the Washington Post:

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that the civilian-military offensive scheduled to begin in the southern city of Kandahar this spring would take months longer than planned. The Afghan government has not produced the civilian leadership and trained security forces it was to contribute to the effort, U.S. officials said, and the support from Kandaharis that the United States was counting on Karzai to deliver has not materialized.

When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said … in explaining why the Kandahar operation has been pushed back until at least September.

“It’s a deliberative process. It takes time to convince people,” he told reporters at a meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels.

But time is short. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said this week that the U.S.-led coalition has until the end of the year to prove to the United States and its allies that their forces have broken a stalemate with the Taliban. …

In Marja, in western Helmand province, where Marines launched a major operation this year, U.S. efforts have been hindered by the absence or incompetence of Afghan officials and security forces and by the Taliban’s enduring resistance. …

Many  officials are despairing behind the scenes.

“Washington is making nice with [the corrupt President of Afghanistan] Karzai, but what good has that done?” a U.S. official in Afghanistan said. … “We need him to step up and take a leadership role, to get his government to support what we’re doing. But he’s either unwilling or unable to do it. …

In Kandahar, U.S. military officials said a complex web of official and unofficial power brokers stands to lose if efficient government and rule of law are imposed. “There are generations of families that have lived off corruption,” said 1st Lt. James Rathmann … who leads a platoon in Kandahar city …

The operational plan drawn up for Kandahar last spring began with U.S. Special Operations forces raids against individual insurgent leaders within the city and in the Taliban-heavy “bands” in surrounding districts. At the same time, U.S. civilians were to help organize shuras, or meetings of local leaders and elders, to offer development aid and encourage them to take political control. By June, more than 10,000 newly deployed U.S. troops were to begin clearing the Taliban from the outlying districts, up to 80 percent of which the military estimates is controlled by insurgents. …

McChrystal  … acknowledged that winning support from local leaders was tougher than expected. Some see the Taliban fighters as their Muslim brothers rather than oppressors; others are afraid of assassination by Taliban hit squads that target government supporters or see no advantage in challenging the existing political power structure.

“There’s no point in clearing an area until you have the capacity to do the hold, to bring governance” that does not now exist, one military official in Afghanistan said. “Without the Afghan government civilian capacity — without a district government that can provide some basic services — you’ll end up with what we’re experiencing in Marja right now.” …

Asked whether the delay leaves time for a decisive outcome by the end of the year, McChrystal was noncommittal. “It will be very clear by the end of the calendar year that the Kandahar operation is progressing,” he said. “I don’t know whether we’ll know whether it’s decisive. Historians will tell us that.”

Decisive? Changing Afghanistan forever? We don’t think so. Even if the Taliban fighters are wiped out in the forthcoming Battle of Kandahar, there will be no lasting change.

The war in Afghanistan is being fought for nothing.

The Taliban were whacked with the first offensive. The US should have withdrawn then, with a warning that if terrorists from Afghanistan attacked American targets again, they’d be whacked harder. The continuing campaign has been tragically pointless.

What American – or “coalition” – forces ought to be fighting is the urgently necessary war against the Iranian regime before it launches its nuclear attack.