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?The chicest man on the planet today? ? that?s what designer Tom Ford of Gucci said in 2002 about the then-new Afghanistan president, Hamid Karzai. Democracy is blossoming in Afghanistan thanks to Karzai, U.S. president George Bush said in 2005 when he welcomed the Afghani leader to Washington. But the tone has changed since Barack Obama was elected to the White House.?

Afghanistan is a country of drugs, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a few weeks ago about the so-called ?blossoming democracy,? while the president himself told a reporter recently that the Afghani government is ?cut off? from what is happening in its country.?

On August 20, presidential elections are slated to take place in Afghanistan and plans are already under way to introduce new American military and political policies there. The aim: Establishing a more decisive and effective administration in Kabul that will be less corrupt than the present one, plus deployment of a 17,000-strong American military force as well as a few thousand instructors from European countries, who will deal with the local police and army. This is in keeping with Obama?s belief that the war in Afghanistan should be more American and less international, in terms of numbers of soldiers.?

There are at least 10 potential candidates for the presidency, but it seems that 52-year-old Karzai, who until recently declared he no longer wanted the job, is doing his best to win another term in office. His excellent English, his leadership of Popalzai ?(one of the biggest Pashtun tribes in the country?), and the fact that he served as an adviser to the American oil company, Unocal, which planned a pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan ? all this has made him a popular figure and a man who was worthy of being president in George Bush?s eyes. However, his cap, made from the fur of fetal karakuls ?(Persian lambs?), continued to annoy animal lovers.?

At first, Karzai supported the Taliban regime, but he changed his tune after members of the movement murdered his father. He has apparently not broken off ties with the Taliban leadership entirely, however: In the past year, he initiated a dialogue with them and requested that the United Nations remove the names of 142 Taliban militants from its list of wanted terrorists.?

The Obama administration is indeed in favor of a strategy in Afghanistan that would be similar to the U.S. modus operandi in Iraq ? flooding the country with thousands more American troops, building up a local army of some 200,000 soldiers, establishing an effective police force of some 180,000 members, and signing cooperative agreements with various tribal heads and ?moderate? elements among the Taliban. This plan was proposed to Obama by General David Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, who is also in charge of the campaign in Afghanistan. Petraeus has an equation: For every 1,000 Afghan citizens, 20-25 local soldiers should be conscripted. But no one knows the exact number of citizens living in Afghanistan: Estimates vary between 23 and 30 million.?

Another problem is that that induction of such a large number of soldiers not only requires a gigantic budget, it also requires other basic changes. A soldier in the Afghani army earns between $50 and $150 per month at present. A volunteer who is prepared to join a tribal militia set up by U.S. Army makes about $120 per month, or he can choose either to serve in the private army of a tribal leader or of a drug baron, where he can also earn almost double, enjoy better conditions and have time to make money on the side.?

The U.S. Army thus has to decide whether to forgo establishment of the militias, so as to prevent competition between them and the government-run army. But the Afghani army is still dependent to a large extent on foreign instructors. Indeed, only 12 of its 36 battalions are capable of fighting independently, without such assistance, and they can only carry out relatively simple operations that do not require coordination with aerial forces. Since so far the national army has been ineffective and its ability to control areas outside Kabul has been negligible, the Pentagon will have difficulty giving up the contribution made by the smaller militias.?

The next problem concerns the ethnic composition of Afghanistan, which makes it difficult to establish a homogenous army that is not dependent on tribal structure or command. Can a Pashtun commander be in charge of a Tajik or Uzbek unit? The Pentagon does not publish data about the Afghan army, but, according to various assessments, some 70 percent of the commanders are from the Tajik minority ? which annoys the Pashtun majority.?

The U.S. Army has tended to deploy Tajik units in the southern areas of Afghanistan, which is populated mainly by Pashtuns, so as to avoid cooperation between the Pashtun army and the Taliban, who are also Pashtuns. This system may be logical in psychological terms, but it is bad from the military standpoint. Tajik soldiers do not speak the Pashtun language and therefore do not understand what is being said by the tribes, among whom they are fighting. True, there are translators but they are not locals and are unfamiliar with the customs. An even bigger danger is that if an independent Afghan army is established along tribal lines, a civil war could erupt when the foreign troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan. The Americans have still not formulated a strategy to deal with this.?

Like the new Israeli government, Afghanistan?s government consists of 31 ministers, most of whom have apparently no responsibility. Their sole purpose is to represent tribes and other groups, to ensure political quiet. This is an expensive quiet not only because of the need for budgets for all the ministries, but because it encourages a culture of corruption. In addition to the official budget that relies mainly on donations from western countries, there is a broad ?secondary? economy built on bribery.?

Thus, according to reports, it is possible to get an appointment as commander of a regional police station in Afghanistan in return for a payment of $100,000 to the relevant minister, or to settle a conflict over legal ownership of a house if one pays a judge $25,000. To transfer the route of a convoy of trucks into a neighboring district, the head of the convoy would be wise to pay the regional police chief $6,000 so that he will not pass the information on to the Taliban. In effect, anything requiring governmental intervention, whether it is issuance of a permit to open a business or an appointment to a senior position, requires some sort of bribe.?

The money for such payments comes from two major sources: donations from abroad earmarked to help the country?s rehabilitation, which often pass through the hands of subcontractors who are barely supervised, and the drugs trade, which has grown by 30 percent in the past two years. It is true that the number of regions where opium is grown has dropped by half, but in the five main areas it is still the largest source of local wealth. Incidentally, the president?s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is suspected of being a large-scale drug dealer.?

One example of corruption at the top involves the former attorney general of Afghanistan, Abdul Jabar Sabit, who owns a huge house in one of the most prestigious areas of Kabul, costing several hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to a report by Dexter Pilkins in Time Magazine, Sabit now lives in Canada after being fired by Karzai because of corruption, but his house is being offered in the rental market for $5,000 per month. This is the very same Sabit who made a name for himself as a fearless fighter of corruption in Afghanistan. The commander of the Kabul police, Mohammed Ayub Salangi, also lives in a huge house in the same neighborhood, for a monthly rent of $11,000.?

In a German study which examined the transparency and integrity of the various regimes in the world, Afghanistan ranked 176th out of 180 countries.?

?There are problems with corruption,? Karzai admits, but he says that his government?s conduct has improved vastly. Meanwhile, the president recently appointed hundreds of new officials to the government so that they could help him with the upcoming presidential elections. America?s tax dollars at work.?

The government that Karzai was referring to is located mainly in Kabul, since in other parts of Afghanistan other forces are in charge, whether Afghani, American, British, Italian or German. There are also Iranian and Saudi Arabian investors who roam the countryside and wield power. The ?moderate? and ?extreme? Taliban have divided certain territories between them, while representatives of the Pakistani intelligence arms recruit supporters from all sides. The U.S. wishes to reign in this situation and to fill up and straighten the ranks so that its army can one day withdraw from Afghanistan.?

From afar, from Moscow, Vladimir Putin can rub his hands in glee and smile. The U.S., which got the Soviets out of Afghanistan 20 years ago, is now mired there itself. It took the Soviet Union 10 years to comprehend the situation. The U.S. has two more years to complete its decade in the same troubled spot.