. . . a wider regional conflict
... the blood of fallen Americans does not desecrate; it consecrates
Eric LaMont Gregory
While the attempted Times Square, Christmas Day, and Fort Hood tragedies are still fresh in the American psyche, the visit by the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to Washington affords an opportunity to reflect upon our reasoning and policies towards Afghanistan and, the wider regional conflicts in Central and South Asia as well as the conduct of the campaign to counter global jihadist terror.
I spent two months in Afghanistan in the late spring and early summer of 2002 in discussions with the Executive Branch of the Afghan government including talks in the presidential palace. Air Force Intel and the Political Section of the American Embassy, London, were instrumental in elevating my trip to ‘mission’ status.
The Karzai government wanted to ascertain the relevance to Afghanistan of a plan that I had submitted to the State
Department concerning a reconciliation and reconstruction effort for Angola at the end of the 35 year-old war there in early 2002, the ‘Matenga Brief’.
After meeting scores of Afghans representing the last five regimes in that war-torn part of the world, I entered the presidential palace with messages from many of those with whom I had spoken; many of these individuals and groups including warlords, Taliban and foreign fighters, Afghan civic and religious leaders, and significant others; were either unable or unwilling to speak to Karzai or his officials directly.
The Karzai government also had messages for President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, and to their British counterparts Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, respectively.
First, Karzai was concerned that there were groups all over the developed world collecting money for Afghan relief but none of these groups were in contact with the Afghan government. The Afghan people had no contact with these groups and are still unaware or how much money they collected in their name.
Second, these same charities dispatched thousands of individuals to Afghanistan, mostly Kabul, and yet there was no registry of the skills or expertise of these individuals available to the Afghan Government. The need for such a registry came to light in meetings with an individual who had run the Kabul water supply works for some thirty-five years. He was concerned that shallow wells were being drilled in the vicinity of deep wells; a recipe for contaminated drinking water. A review of the current relief effort in Haiti is much the same.
Third, once settled in Kabul these groups while advocating capacity building, in reality operate without coordinating their activities with the relevant agencies within the albeit fledgling Afghan government. They work in competition to but not in coordination with those Afghan agencies trying to build an adequate social and technical infrastructure.
And, the UN headquarters also ran a government within Afghanistan, with little meaningful operational contact with the Afghan government.
The Karzai government had the responsibility to undertake the role of governing but only the charities and the UN had the funds and personnel to do so. But, without at least a liaison function with the legitimate representatives of the Afghan people their efforts proved costly but not very beneficial.
This state of affairs, as many American, British and UN officials explained to President Karzai, was how the ‘international system’ operates. That is, when one reads that America or Britain is giving so many millions of dollars, pounds or Euros to Afghanistan, what they mean is they are giving that money to American and British groups who will carry out operations in Afghanistan. There are implications of the ‘international system’ for the American taxpayer, and raises the issue of direct government support to religious organizations.
The monies made available to the Afghan government directly were in the form of loans.
The fourth message Karzai sent to Washington and London was that it would be in the best interests of Afghanistan, if the thousand (1000) or so groups that had come to Afghanistan were reduced to no more than four or five. This was in keeping with the single agency approach that the former head of the Overseas Development Agency (ODA) in Britain, Baroness Chalker, employed in response to both the Kurdish Uprising and the Hurricane in Honduras.
Needless to say, the lobby interests of the international system’s management bureaucracy held sway and Karzai’s wish was not granted. This placed significant limitations on Allied forces in Afghanistan, that is, with so many well placed sons and daughters of American and British officials in the area representing American and British charities, the armed forces were kept in Kabul to guard them at the expense of venturing outside of Kabul to stabilize the territory that had recently been vacated by the Taliban.
The current ‘surge’ is to do in 2010, what we should have done in 2002.
What Karzai’s government needed (needs) is access to the same technocrats that American administrations, whether federal, state, or local; rely upon to run the major departments of government. Importantly, the new Afghan government needed mundane things like an efficient Motors Vehicles Bureau, as well as, a banking system, hospitals, schools, police and fire services, among other pressing requirements.
What the new Afghan government did not need was the influx of so many uncoordinated groups that do not cooperate with the relevant departments in government to build their capacity to provide services.
As part of my mission to access the likelihood of the aforementioned brief to the circumstances of Afghanistan, I met with many Afghans and others who although not Afghan exert a significant influence on the Afghan people and state e.g., business owners, tribal leaders, foreign information gatherers, and so on and so forth.
During my stay in Afghanistan Allied forces were in charge during daylight hours and other forces were in control from dusk to dawn. To meet some stakeholders it was necessary that my team venture out during the curfew, which was established to begin at sunset.
Some of these discussions were fascinating, others chilling. One of the later came after a lot of cloak and dagger moving around until both sides were satisfied that at the end of the discussions we would be allowed to leave our meeting in relative safety. Relative safety under such circumstances is the best that can be achieved since a party or parties not involved in the direct talks might want to intervene.
In one such meeting which included Taliban and foreign fighters, a Mullah said to me in no uncertain terms, that the soil of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was being desecrated by the blood of American and other infidel soldiers.
Sir, I countered, ‘the blood of fallen American soldiers does not desecrate; it consecrates’.
Although he was clearly English speaking, nevertheless he waited for my translator to repeat what I had said in his native language. Some ten minutes or more passed before the Mullah spoke to me again, this time and for the duration of our discussions he would speak only through my translator.
The Mullah then said to me that Islam was the fastest growing religion in the world. My translator said that he had emphasized that 'true' Islam was the fastest growing religion in the world. The Mullah went on to say that Islam will one day, and in the foreseeable future dominate the world.
Judging from the look on their faces they thought that the ‘dominate the world’ statement had silenced me, that they had delivered a knock out punch.
I allowed them a period of time to prepare for my response. And, in a slow and clear voice, I said that one of our presidents had once remarked ‘that noone has a monopoly in the marketplace of morals’.
It took a considerable time for my translator to get the right words to them in their native tongue. The Mullah asked my translator if I had said morals or religion.
My translator turned and asked me whether in the sense of my response to the Mullah if morals and religion were not the same thing. I told him no. Morals, I wanted him to convey in his translation, as coming form an inner sense of right and wrong which may be understood as conscience. Whereas, religion on the other hand is an outwardly derived set of rules more akin to the rules of law, or even what a Mullah might suggest ought to be done.
The meeting place fell silent as the Mullah began to understand my response clearly. The Mullah’s group withdrew to more private discussions among themselves for more than half of an hour.
He returned to where we were standing and said that our discussions might continue on a Friday. On Friday in the Islamic faith a Muslim is obliged to think about how things ought to be and explore philosophical questions, as opposed to discussing things as they are. He repeated his offer for us to continue talking on Friday and then said that we could go in peace.
I had my translator ask the Mullah if he meant that we could go in peace or in safety. Peace being an inner derived sense of calm or a feeling of harmony with one's surroundings. Whereas, safety is an outwardly derived agreement between a Mullah and a guest, for example, that the guest would not be harmed nor cause harm to his host. The Mullah responded that he wished me inner peace, and that I could go, as agreed, in safety. In any discussion, or negotiation, words are very important.
During the curfew breaking trip back to our compound in the University area of Kabul, I wondered why the Bush administration and others who had been at the receiving end of jihadist terror had not countered the tendentious propaganda these groups use to promote their cause and viewpoints. I said to my translator that if the administration was not up to the challenge, I welcomed it.
Afghanistan under the Taliban was a ‘Narco State’. A drug cartel is a drug cartel, and these organizations operate pretty much the same in Afghanistan, Columbia or Mexico. In essence, like state sponsored terrorism, drug cartels cannot exist without the active participation of governments, militaries, and their respective intelligence services.
I met poppy growers, landowners, and other participants in the Helmand Province narcotics trade to discuss the possibility of a crop substitution programme. In any such negotiation there is always the question ’if we give up growing the poppy by which means we derive an income, will we be able to derive an income by cultivating another cash crop’.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country. In the late 1950’s Americans established a system of irrigation canals throughout Helmand Province. Years and years of neglect have rendered these channels inoperative, and therefore the abundant water that cascades from the Uruzgan Mountains into Helmand Province is lost to agriculture.
There is another problem, the poppy growers in Helmand Province by in large do not own the land - they are mostly tenant farmers. The land is owned by Pakistanis.
We were able to negotiate an understanding whereby the tenant farmers would grow other crops if they could be given access to the sea, therefore access to world markets. We would also have to clean out the irrigation channels.
With direct access to world markets and proper irrigation Southern Afghanistan could be as productive as Southern California or Florida.
We began with negotiations with the Pakistani government towards the end of providing Afghanistan with access to the sea by means of an Hong Kong style 99 year lease of a 99 kilometer strip of land along the border that exists between Iran and Pakistan at the southwestern tip of Afghanistan.
We would also have to deal with the absentee landlords that owned the land where the poppies were grown. I will not say much about that here but this problem was to become an administrative matter, along the lines of eminent domain.
When an adherent to the Islamic faith swears or makes a promise before a Mullah in a Mosque, it is an oath to be kept at the risk of one’s eternal salvation. The tenant farmers in this case were willing to swear not to grow the poppy before their Mullah in a Mosque. It was the responsibility of the allies to keep our end of the bargain, i.e., renegotiate their obligations to the land owners, irrigation and access to the sea – world markets.
Discussions with the current as well as the previous regime’s administrators of Helmand Province continue to this day, but not with the urgency we had brought to this set of discussions, and without the violent confrontation that now consumes our military forces there.
The ‘poppy substitution’ proposal was delivered to the ‘Charges d'Affaires’ (a military person who is in charge of an embassy until a civilian ambassador is appointed) who stated that the Americans had given control over the poppy negotiations to the British.
A meeting with the British ambassador revealed that there were no negotiations of substance on the poppy or narcotics trade at that time. And, more importantly, in terms and in words that the phrase ‘British understatement’ is meant to describe, an opinion was expressed that Washington’s attention was perhaps shifting to another theatre of war.
We are engaged in a regional conflict in Central Asia. And, often a conflict or even success in one part of a region will have unforeseen and often untoward consequences for other states in the area. For example our successes in the war against the drug cartels in Columbia forced the cartels to find other areas of operation and the drug cartel wars in Mexico are in part a result of American ‘success’ in Columbia.
The regional implications of a war on drugs have rarely been analyzed properly by successive American administrations. The slow but stready influx of Islamic narcotics traffickers into Central and South America is a case in fact. With the traffickers come intelligence operatives for the terrorist groups, and with them the highly dispendable believers who actually carry out attacks.
It is with great pride that Al Qaeda declares to their new recruits how they financed the 9/11 attacks through a multi-million dollar coupon redemption scheme run by infiltrators based mostly in Texas and Michigan. It remains their goal to raise money for their Western Hemispheric operations in the Western Hemisphere. In other words, to raise the money to destroy America from the American people. And, in this regard they have had and continue to have much success. The number of non-Western Hemishperic nationals caught at our southern border in just the last year, should send a chill up the spine of the American people.
The rather rapid fall of the Taliban regime between October and December of 2001 seemed to be definitive, but in reality we had just pushed them into Northwestern Pakistan. The equally rapid decline in the security situation in Pakistan is a direct consequence of our successful Afghanistan campaign.
Although, no comparative description is ever wholly adequate, in terms of the size of the economy, Pakistan is the United States and Afghanistan is Mexico. The tensions that arise on our southern border are no less problematic than on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan or looking westward the frontier with Iran.
As long as American policy remains largely country specific, and until American policy reflects an awareness of the regional implications of its policies, we will not have much success in countering, no less getting ahead of the terrorist.
' ... noone has a monopoly in the marketplace of morals’
This article is an excerpt from the upcoming book ‘An End to War’ by the author and Ohio US Senatorial candidate Eric LaMont Gregory.
Preliminary copies of the book are available – see Donate page.