Commentary by Lt. Colonel John Lewis Cook, USA (ret.)
While the story got little press coverage, the Afghan government released some 80 Taliban fighters from prison last Friday, just before President Karzai travels to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Obama to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan. These prisoners were among some 3,000 Taliban that the U.S. turned over to the Afghans last April as part of the so called “transition process,” as America prepares to withdraw from the country. And, make no mistake, there will be more released. Many more. An additional 400 are expected to be released in the coming days and this number doesn’t include the 250 that have already been released.
The Afghan government claims that this is a “good will gesture” that will facilitate the “peace process” the Afghan government says it wants to achieve with the Taliban. Perhaps, under different circumstances, there would be some merit to the government’s claim, but not in this case. These are hard-core jihadist who have committed brutal acts against the Afghan population as well as coalition forces. There is little doubt that they will return to the battlefield and continue these brutal attacks, notwithstanding the assurances from the Afghan government that they will be instruments for peace and reconciliation. In the meantime, there is little the coalition can do, other than stand on the sidelines and wring their hands in despair, since this is definitely not what the coalition forces expected.
However, it should not come as a surprise. This is what happens when you pretend that the central government of Afghanistan, a government we created in our own image, will function as our government does. True, we handed them a constitution with three branches of government that is designed to protect the rights of all citizens. This constitution is extremely well written and has ample safeguards that are designed to protect the citizens from abuse from any source, particularly the central government. The problem is it doesn’t work that way. After eleven years of combat, we failed to realize that Islam trumps everything in a Muslim nation. We failed to realize that President Hamid Karzai has a closer connection to the Taliban than he does to a Western form of democracy. While the nations that make up the coalition forces in Afghanistan has changed their governments several times and all ambassadors and diplomats and military commanders have been replaced countless times, the only constant in this whole tragic affair is Hamid Karzai. He was there in the beginning in late 2001 and he will, no doubt, be there in the end. It is Karzai who has pulled the strings from the beginning and he has become a master at it.
While it seems so long ago, at one time the U.S. set a deadline for leaving Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. However, Karzai moved that date to the right by more than three years, to the end of 2014. Whenever we complained about the rampant corruption in his government, he threatened to join the Taliban. When we tried to destroy the poppy fields, he waved the bloody shirt of the poor poppy farmers, and we backed off. Now, we have completely given up on any eradication effort involving the poppies. And whenever an Afghan civilian was killed in an airstrike, he held a press conference and blamed the coalition. At every turn, he was always ahead of us, always blaming the coalition, yet willingly accepting billions to rebuild his country and most of the money made its way into private bank accounts in Dubai.
What most Americans fail to understand is that tribal loyalty is very powerful in Afghanistan. Karzai belongs to the Pashtun tribe. This tribe has produced the rulers of Afghanistan for the past 300 years. Over 95% of all Taliban belong to this tribe. We failed to recognize this connection early on and now it is far too late to do anything about it. However, this fact does explain why he doesn’t view the Taliban as we do.
The truth is, he was never serious about defeating the Taliban. It was always about Karzai and his interlocking criminal enterprise. He used the Taliban when it suited his purpose to look like a war time president. At other times, he was willing to pretend he wanted to make peace and was willing to show he was sincere, by releasing hundreds of Taliban jihadists. Now, he is on his way to Washington once again, willing to put on a command performance, reminding our elected leaders just how important it is to save Afghanistan. And, once again, he will be given assurance that we will not abandon his country. Meanwhile, more Taliban fighter will be released and we will justify this shameless act as the kind of things a sovereign nation is allowed to do, that he somehow knows what is best for his country. After all, we made him who he is and gave him all the power of a chief executive. So why should we be surprised now? And an even more important question is, why are we still there?
About the Author
Lieutenant Colonel John Lewis Cook, United States Army (Retired), “served as the Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, Afghanistan, with responsibility for developing the force structure for the entire Afghan National Police. As of 2012, this force totals 157,000. From March 2008 until August 2012, his access and intimate associations with all levels of the Afghan government and coalition forces have provided him with an unprecedented insight into the policies which will determine the outcome of the war. It is this insight, coupled with his contacts and associations throughout Afghanistan that form the basis of Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure.
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