Hamid Karzai
Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai. Photo by Reuters
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The American security firm Blackwater, several of whose employees have been accused of murdering civilians in Iraq, can rest easy. The U.S. administration recently awarded it a $220 million contract for work in Afghanistan. Blackwater, which as part of its attempts to change its image is now known as Xe Services, will secure the new American Embassy building in Kabul and the Central Intelligence Agency bases in that country.

Congressmen are fuming because the contract was awarded to the company that was booted out of Iraq and described in a congressional report as "being staffed with reckless, shoot-first guards who were not always sober and did not always stop to see who or what was hit by their bullets." But this apparently isn't bothering CIA chief Leon Panetta. In response to complaints about the signing of the contract, Panetta said there is an increasing need for security, and it appears there aren't many alternatives.

If the decision to employ Xe Services seems strange, to say the least, Panetta's statement that only about 50 to 100 Al-Qaida fighters remain and are in Pakistan's tribal areas implies that the CIA does not know exactly whom it is fighting. And we have not yet said a word about where Osama bin Laden is; the last precise information is from 2005.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's dismissal because of the Rolling Stone story in which his aides disparaged Vice President Joe Biden brought to the surface the discord among decision-makers in the U.S. administration.

McChrystal, who last week announced he would retire from the military and not wait for another assignment, copied from Iraq to Afghanistan the strategy based on a big increase in troop numbers. He intended to act extensively against the Taliban, in close cooperation with Afghanistan's military forces and civilians.

This strategy assumes that civilian cooperation is essential for military achievements. Therefore, it is necessary to have a stable government and tremendous development budgets, which will make clear to the people who is serving their interests and encourage the Taliban to lay down their arms.

To this end McChrystal asked for, and received, around 30,000 additional soldiers. According to the presidential order, this effort should lead to the withdrawal of American forces in July 2011. Biden did not support this strategy. In his opinion, focused operations against terror activists was preferable to showy military actions.

Active Taliban

McChrystal's strategy will also be implemented after Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, takes over. Even if this strategy has not yet yielded real results, there is nothing to replace it at the moment. The battle for Marja in Helmand Province, which was supposed to mark a turning point in the way military operations are carried out, did kill many Taliban (and Afghani civilians, while causing tens of thousands to flee. ) However, as predicted, the Taliban have taken over other areas of the country and have not stopped attacking in Marja.

The result is that the target date for the start of the American withdrawal, July 2011, is not yet a sure thing. "Now, there has been a lot of obsession around this whole issue of when do we leave," said U.S. President Barack Obama at a press conference at the G-20 conference in Toronto. "My focus right now is how do we make sure that what we're doing there is successful."

The problem is that there is no definition of "mission successful."

The obstacles, however, are perfectly clear. For example, the American planners aim to build an effective Afghani army and police force based on 400,000 recruits. According to estimates, at the American training center in Afghanistan it is possible to train 28,000 soldiers a year, at a basic level.

But it turns out that new recruits come mainly to earn some money, not to fight. Many of them disappear after they receive their first pay packet. The basic training courses for police, which last eight weeks in the United States, are abbreviated in Afghanistan to three weeks. According to reports that have reached Congress, many of the new police are permanently high on drugs.

The Afghani rookies train using American methods, which include carrying heavy backpacks, something they are not used to. The weapons they have received from the U.S. military, M-16 rifles, are sensitive to dust and are not suited to Afghanistan.

Ethnic problems

A bigger problem lies in the tensions among the ethnic groups. In the military units there is balance, more or less, between the Pashtuns, who are the majority in the country and from whom the Taliban stem, and the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras (who are mostly Shi'ites ). But when it comes to fighting the Taliban in Pashtun regions, Pashtun soldiers are hesitant and the burden falls on the Americans.

The inter-ethnic tension in the army is linked to the political tension in the country. President Hamid Karzai, whom the Americans chronically distrust, is pursuing an independent policy that does not jibe with the U.S. strategy. Unlike Washington, he takes the American withdrawal date seriously and is preparing for it.

Karzai is focusing on enlisting the support of Taliban leaders to ensure security and political stability in the country on the day the American defense evaporates. To this end he has been talking for several weeks with his colleagues in Pakistan, who support his approach. For them, too, cooperating with the Taliban will provide a political advantage.

The Taliban leaders, and especially the head of the Haqqani movement, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who commands the largest radical militia in Afghanistan, have declared they will negotiate only when the Americans leave Afghanistan. Until then they will persist in their fight against Karzai and the Americans.

In the meantime, however, Karzai continues to take steps to bring the Taliban closer. He has fired his army chief of staff, Bismullah Khan, and brought about the resignation of intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh. Both men are of Tajik origin, fought the Taliban at the start of the war in 2001 and are considered fierce opponents of rapprochement with the Taliban. Both, incidentally, have excellent relations with the CIA, which sees their dismissal as a measure designed to obstruct the American strategy.

In light of the changes in the Afghani administration, there has been an awakening among the Uzbek and Tajik leaders, who fear that Karzai is "giving the country to the Taliban," in the words Rahman Oghli, an Uzbek member of parliament. "Afghanistan is liable to revert to civil war if the Taliban are part of the regime," he says.

The U.S. administration is investing about $7 billion a month in the war in Afghanistan. However, as in Iraq, where military operations and street battles dictated the shaky political outcome, in Afghanistan the Americans have no idea how to define success that will allow them to end the fight.