x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Time runs short to alter course of Afghanistan

Beneath the photo opportunities and mutual platitudes, huge obstacles remain, including deep divisions between the two allies that could yet widen as the war escalates.

Kabul // As public relations exercises go, this week's press conference between the Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, could not have been better staged.

Gone were the recent hostile exchanges that hinted at some of the psychological scars this war is inflicting upon both nations. There was no talk about continued widespread corruption on the one hand and allegations of foreign meddling on the other. Instead, a united front was displayed for an American audience desperately needing some good news at a time when soldiers are dying at record levels in a conflict often likened to Vietnam.

Mr Karzai spoke of how moved he was when meeting injured US veterans and expressed gratitude for the help Washington had given his country. Mr Obama acknowledged "hard fighting" awaited, but said: "Our solidarity today sends an unmistakable message to those who would stand in the way of Afghanistan's progress." The problem is that beneath the photo opportunities and mutual platitudes, huge obstacles remain, including deep divisions between the two allies that could yet widen as the war escalates.

Whereas Mr Karzai clearly enjoyed a close bond with the former US president, George W Bush, his life has never been quite as comfortable since the change in the White House. Part of this emanates from a feeling in Washington that the previous administration was too easy on the Afghan government and did little to stem the Taliban-led insurgency when it first emerged. Subsequent military and political pressure has caused ruptures here and done nothing to curb the bloodshed, leaving both sides worried about what happens next.

Mr Obama intends to start bringing troops home in July 2011, having massively expanded the occupation during his tenure. He hopes that by next year his surge will have brought some measure of security, but so far the strategy appears to be backfiring badly. By throwing more soldiers into the mix, he has increased civilian casualties and pushed more Afghans into the arms of the insurgency. His withdrawal date has left the government in Kabul feeling vulnerable and exposed, and added to a sense on the ground that the rebels are winning.

Meanwhile, the much-vaunted boost in reconstruction and development that was meant to accompany all of this has failed to materialise in any meaningful way. The perception has grown that the US is fighting itself into a corner. With the situation deteriorating, Mr Karzai is increasingly making overtures to the Taliban and promoting the idea of deals with senior insurgent leaders in an effort to broker a peace agreement. It is a solution favoured by most people here, yet one that Washington has not openly endorsed in realistic terms.

In essence, then, the key difficulties the Obama administration inherited in Afghanistan still exist: a weak central government, rampant corruption, a porous border with Pakistan, mass unemployment, a disciplined resistance movement, high civilian casualties and a feeling among Pashtuns that they are being victimised, to list just a few. Unfortunately, these problems not only remain, they have often worsened and multiplied as a direct result of Mr Obama's policies.

A recently published Pentagon report gave the kind of insights not seen during Mr Karzai's four-day visit to the US. It said violent incidents here rose by 87 per cent from February 2009 to March 2010. Out of 121 districts assessed, 92 did not express support for the Afghan government. Instead, 44 of them were neutral and 48 either supported, or were sympathetic towards, the insurgency. In another report, the International Council on Security and Development produced a second set of damning findings when it examined the impact of a major military offensive launched in February. Of the more than 400 Afghan men the European-based think tank interviewed, 61 per cent felt more negative about Nato than before Operation Moshtarak and 95 per cent said more young Afghans have joined the Taliban in the last year.

Mr Obama has stated, "I'm absolutely convinced we will succeed." To some people listening in the US, they may have sounded like reassuring words. When matched against the reality of the situation, however, they are extremely worrying. Either he is misleading the public, or he is genuinely deluded about what is happening in a war he has made his own. Handshakes and public displays of optimism are not enough. The presidents of both countries must address large flaws in their approach to the conflict and each other, and even then it could be too late. Time is running out.