|Peace scheme mooted for Taliban
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has told the BBC he plans to introduce a scheme to attract Taliban fighters back to normal life by offering money and jobs.
He would offer to pay and resettle Taliban fighters to come over to his side, with the scheme funded by the international community.
He said the UK and US would show at a conference next week in London that they had decided to back his new plan.
Japan is one of the countries which, he said, is prepared to put up the money.
The Taliban currently pay their volunteers, who are often just farmers, significantly more than the Afghan government can afford to give its forces.
President Karzai said the Afghan people had to have peace at any price.
War was not the only way forward and there had to be proper peace activity and reconciliation.
Previously, he said, Britain, the US and other Western countries had not been happy about the idea. Now they had changed their minds.
He stressed that Taliban supporters who were members of al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks would not be accepted. But anyone who accepted the Afghan constitution and did not have an ideological opposition to it could return.
Lame duck perception
Doing deals with his enemies is a bold approach, but as President Karzai enters his second term of office he knows he must get an agreement.
“ My presidency is weak in regard to the means of power, which means money, which means equipment, which means manpower, which means capacity ”
Many of his own people, as well as the Western powers, regard him as a lame-duck president.
In the past, his ability to run Afghanistan has been limited by the powers of the warlords, and by the high level of corruption.
With considerable frankness, he accepted that there was some truth in this.
"Yes," he said, "my presidency is weak in regard to the means of power, which means money, which means equipment, which means manpower, which means capacity."
The clear implication was that if he got these things, he could start to run the country as he wanted.
If there was agreement at next week's conference in London, Afghanistan would be in a position to run its own affairs.
In five years, he said, Afghanistan could be controlling its own security and leading the fight in the country against corruption and the drugs industry.
But he is still smarting from the heavy criticism he got from the Americans and British about the way last August's presidential election was run. He insists it was a concerted effort by the West to undermine him.
"Unfortunately our election was very seriously mistreated by our Western allies," he said.
Now, though, he had to depend on them to help him. Could he trust them?
"We trust them because we are in a relationship together," he replied.
President Karzai angrily rejected a suggestion earlier this week by a UN agency that nearly a quarter of Afghanistan's GDP was swallowed up by corruption.
Nevertheless, he said, "if you expect us to be a First World country, you are making a mistake".
|Bombs and baksheesh
TERRORISM and guerrilla warfare are often intended as macabre theatre. And so it was on January 18th when teams of Afghan fighters and suicide-bombers slipped though concentric rings of checkpoints and brought mayhem to the centre of Kabul. They struck as President Hamid Karzai was swearing in members of his cabinet. Nearby, to the sound of explosions and gunfire in the streets, foreign guests were huddled in the Serena hotel, the target of two previous attacks. Smoke billowed out of a shopping centre. The Taliban kept up an online commentary on the progress of its “martyrdom-seekers”.
It was in some ways the most audacious attack on the capital since the American-led intervention in 2001—an act of armed propaganda to demonstrate that neither Mr Karzai nor his foreign supporters could protect the centre of Kabul. It was certainly not the launch that Mr Karzai wanted for his new government, just ten days ahead of a big conference on Afghanistan in London; plans to hold a second meeting in Kabul this spring may be in doubt. And it raises questions about the recent claim by General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, that “the tide is turning” against the Taliban, now that the first units of the 40,000-odd “surge” troops he has been promised are starting to deploy.
Yet on closer examination the attack offers some glimmers of hope. Afghan intelligence appears to have been tipped off about the impending attack, and security forces were on heightened alert. In contrast with past attacks, when insurgents were able to enter the Serena hotel, government buildings and a UN housing compound, this time the attackers were repulsed from ministries and other big targets.
Guards at the central bank, the first building to be struck, opened fire on a man they correctly identified as a suicide-bomber before he could get inside. Later in the day they also stopped a suicide-bomber from driving an ambulance full of explosives into anything worthwhile. The attackers went after softer targets, such as a cinema and a shopping centre. They were quickly contained by Afghan security forces, and several were killed. Better still, it was all done by Afghan forces, with little fighting by NATO troops.
That will increase confidence in General McChrystal’s intention to keep expanding the Afghan security forces. The army is projected to grow to 134,000 soldiers by the end of the year. The general wants the London conference to approve a further expansion to 171,000 by October 2011, with the police growing from about 94,000 men to 134,000. This would keep Afghan forces on target for the 400,000 soldiers and policemen that General McChrystal has said are required by 2013. Last year commanders struggled to recruit and retain enough soldiers to keep expanding the ranks, but the announcement of higher wages (rising from $120 to $165 per month, now with an extra $75 a month in danger pay for front-line units) appears to have brought a surge in recruits.
The growing size and competence of the Afghan security forces are central elements in General McChrystal’s plan to regain the military momentum, not least because President Barack Obama has said the American surge would start to ebb in July 2011. How quickly the drawdown takes place is the subject of behind-the-scenes arguments. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are keen to see some kind of timetable to begin handing over security responsibility, province by province, to Afghan forces. Military officers want such transitions to be determined by conditions on the ground, not by a calendar.
Another element, expected to be endorsed in London, is a more active and better-financed programme to “reintegrate” low- and medium-level Taliban fighters, including the offer of jobs for defectors and the promise of protection—not just from the Taliban but from American-led special forces. Senior NATO officers will be monitoring the programme, with hopes that it will be financed by foreign donors, including Arab countries. Mr Karzai has called for a peace jirga, or tribal assembly, to promote reconciliation with insurgents. But America, for one, is sceptical about any attempt to woo the Taliban leadership before NATO is in a stronger military position.
With his extra troops, General McChrystal hopes to expand the ink-spots of government-held territory in the main population areas in the south. But the Taliban may well intensify their attacks in the hope of minimising the effects of the surge and demoralising NATO forces. Last year was by far the bloodiest for NATO in Afghanistan, and the traditional winter lull in fighting hardly exists any more. More spectacular attacks in Kabul must be expected, and perhaps a greater effort to threaten Kandahar, the second-largest city. The Taliban have been talking up “the failure of the butcher General McChrystal”, and predict a “massive upheaval” this year.
Matters are not helped by the murky dynamics of Mr Karzai’s government. After the scandals over ballot-rigging in last summer’s presidential election, Mr Karzai has been humiliated by parliament, which has twice rejected most of his cabinet choices. Many nominees appear to have been excluded for laudable reasons: their backgrounds as warlords or suspicions of corruption and incompetence. Yet many were surprised when Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, a former interior minister, won more votes than any other minister, and was given the counter-narcotics portfolio. In his previous job, he was criticised for failing to curb police corruption.
The ubiquity of official corruption is laid bare in a rare UN report that seeks to quantify it. A survey conducted by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime found that half of the 7,600 Afghans interviewed had paid a bribe in the previous year (see chart), handing over on average $160 each time, about a third of average annual GDP per head. This extrapolates to about $2.5 billion worth of baksheesh nationally every year: roughly as large as Afghanistan’s opium economy, and a quarter of licit economic output. For most Afghans, corruption outranks insecurity and unemployment as the country’s greatest challenge. Corruption corrodes Mr Karzai’s legitimacy; if he does not curb it, other problems may prove insoluble.