The Guardian, July 10, 2009

Afghanistan: Led by donkeys

Unless miracles happen, this poll will usher in four more years of a corrupt narco-regime whose leader, Hamid Karzai, is the not-so-private despair of everyone from Barack Obama downwards.

It is harsh to claim that British soldiers are dying needlessly in Afghanistan, particularly on those families whose lives are scarred permanently by their loss. But Nick Clegg was right yesterday to break the cross-party consensus by questioning out loud what is going on there. It is not good enough for the defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, to strike Churchillian tones by saying the way forward will be hard and dangerous, and then plead for public forbearance. The business of government is to set a goal and provide a strategy for getting there. In Afghanistan we have neither. And the British public's tolerance is running on a timer.

British soldiers are notionally dying to allow a national election to take place in Helmand. Unless miracles happen, this poll will usher in four more years of a corrupt narco-regime whose leader, Hamid Karzai, is the not-so-private despair of everyone from Barack Obama downwards. Even the US commander in charge of two provinces on Kabul's doorstep voices his frustration by warning in this newspaper today that Mr Karzai's re-election could trigger a violent backlash from Afghans yearning for a government they can trust. Colonel David Haight put it pithily: "Four more years of this crap?"

He is not alone. The US has been sending Kabul a stream of messages that it supports the process, not the man. Mr Karzai, who told tribal power brokers that he was Washington's man, is perturbed by this. But he continues to be confident of victory, even an outright one in the first round. He should be, because he has placed his loyalists in the election commission. The only question is whether the Afghan voters are so fed up with this that they will defy their clan elders and vote him out.

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who was at one point touted as a possible replacement for Kofi Annan as UN secretary general, is counting on that happening. He is one of 41 candidates for the presidential poll, but the most prominent challenger. He stands out for having a credible strategy, not only for ending the war with the Taliban by offering a three-year ceasefire, but also for rebuilding the Afghan state. As he sets out on the campaign trail, he has no helicopter, no state protection and scant access to the Afghan media. Can he web-2.0 his way to the Afghan voter? It is not obvious that he can, even though the sheer number of candidates for provincial councils - there are 3,300 of them - suggests an engagement that is still alive. Still, candidates such as Mr Ghani are non-predatory fish, and they are swimming in a tank full of sharks.

This election is about more than personalities. Unless the US and British troops can convince the population that better governance will come in the wake of their advance, the military effort will have been wasted. The troops will be "holding" nothing more than the scrubland on which they are standing. And the Taliban will simply disappear from Logar and Wardak, where the US troops currently are, to pop up in Ghazni, where they are not. The war the Taliban are fighting is backed by drug money. If rural per-capita incomes increased from $1 to $4 a day, opium production would become unprofitable. This is only one measure of how security, poppy production and governance are inextricably linked.

Let us all be clear. As things stand, we are losing this war, not just because the Taliban show more resilience, nor simply because people like Mr Karzai and his family thrive off the instability their rule creates. We are losing because a coalition spending $20bn a month on military operations has - after eight painful and bloody years - no political strategy for reaching its stated goals. Afghanistan is not the only country whose government is failing. Successive British governments that mouth platitudes about the sacrifice their troops make fail them time and time again.

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