Russia helps the U.S. in Afghanistan

As U.S. allies look for the exit, Russia, perhaps because of problems with Afghan heroin at home, gets in deeper

By Juan Cole
Published September 9, 2009 1:10PM (EDT)

Jonathan Landay of McClatchy reports as an eyewitness on the guerrilla attack in Kunar Province on an Afghan Army expedition to Ganjgal village that killed 4 U.S. marine trainers. AFP says that 10 Iraqi army personnel and one policeman were killed and ten others wounded. Landay's powerful, Hemingwayesque account of the ambush reveals the flinty violence and casual betrayal that beset the U.S./NATO mission in those godforsaken hills. The Ganjgal elders whom the Afghan army personnel asked for consultations on allowing the establishment of a government police station may have tipped the Taliban; or the tip may have come from one of the Afghan officers, serving as a double agent. We saw hundreds of such incidents in Vietnam, and for the same reasons -- nationalism trumps foreign intervention. Landay himself was clearly in severe danger of his life, so this account was bought at dire risk; I've been interviewed by him in the past and want to express my relief that he escaped harm, though of course the deaths incurred by the expedition are deeply regrettable.

There was also a bombing attack outside a NATO office at Kabul Airport that killed 2 civilians and wounded several others. France24 has video:

The USG Open Source Center also translates an article from Afghan Islamic Press for September 8, 2009: "Baghlan Province security forces launched an operation against the Taleban in the Dand Ghori area of Pol-e Khumri District last night. In connection with the incident, the governor of Baghlan Province, Mohammad Akram Barakzai, told Afghan Islamic Press that a policeman had been killed and 16 others, including the director of the anti-terrorism forces, injured in the operation. He also said that casualties had been inflicted on the Taleban, but said that he had no exact details about the numbers of casualties." Reuters says that 12 Taliban died in the fighting, and that the Afghan police casualties were from a roadside bomb that hit them when they were returning.

For the cost of the Afghanistan war and the way various funds are being used, see Tom Englehardt's essay at, "Afghanistan by the Numbers," which is extremely useful for pulling together in one place a series of key statistics.

As the security situation continued to be fragile in the Pashtun areas of the country, an incipient electoral crisis sharpened. There are two electoral commissions operating in Afghanistan, a wholly local and a partially international one. The local one, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, announced Tuesday that with 90 percent of ballots counted, incumbent President Hamid Karzai now has 54% of the votes, enough to allow him to avoid a second-round run-off against his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. But the other body, the United Nations-supported Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) (which has Afghan members but the head of which is a Canadian), clearly was disturbed at the IEC announcement and it ordered the IEC to conduct a recount and to throw out clearly fraudulent ballots.

In essence, the two electoral commissions have locked horns, and if the local body gets its way, Karzai may well be declared the winner hands-down. The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission has the authority to order recounts, but it is probably too under-staffed and under-funded to make its objections stick. If the IEC declares for Karzai, he may well keep his job because of inertia (see: next-door Iran). On the other hand, the EEC's objections really could lead to a massive recount of over 5 million ballots, which might delay a firm result for several months.

VOA explains the controversy:

About 5,720,000 votes have been counted, with the IEC identifying only 169,317 as invalid (for various reasons). In contrast, the Electoral Complaints Commission believes that there are many more fraudulent ballots yet to be so declared (perhaps hundreds of thousands)-- so many, in fact, as likely to deprive Karzai of outright victory if they were all thrown out.

Bruce Riedel of Brookings has urged that a run-off election be held whatever the final vote count, just to reassure the public that the election has a legitimate outcome. But I don't know of any candidate who would accept such a reversal once having formally been declared the winner (it would have been the fairest thing for Bush to have done in 2000).

Aljazeera English reports on the infighting in the Obama administration over Afghanistan policy, with some officials wanting to expand the war and others wanting to avoid a quagmire.

Aljazeera English also reports on the "executive plan" whereby Washington would like to see an appointive executive to help the president run the country. Anthropologist and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, an also-ran in the presidential election, is being mentioned for the post. Ghani, who recently authored a book on fixing failed states, would be superb, but you worry that his authority and legitimacy would be damaged if he was seen as imposed by the U.S.

Meanwhile, even as many NATO nations have become lukewarm about their involvement in Afghanistan, Russia is proving more helpful to the U.S. now. Russian P.M. Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are afraid of Taliban militancy fanning the flames of revolt in provinces such as Chechnya. They also fear that Afghanistan's poppy trade is hooking Russian youth on heroin and exacerbating Russia's demographic decline, threatening a further deterioration in its geo-political power. Russia now has about 141 million people, but it was 146 million or more in 1991. Its population is continuing to decline as deaths outstrip births every year, though the rate of decline has slowed. But Medvedev estimates that the country has as many as 2.5 million addicts, 2/3s of them under the age of 30. Afghan heroin is thus in danger of accelerating the population loss again. (Much of the population loss probably has to do with alcohol abuse by men to begin with, though the economic collapse and capitalist "shock therapy" may be implicated, as well). Since Afghanistan is now the source of 85 percent of the world's heroin, and since the poppy-growers thrive in a failed-state environment, the Russian Federation increasingly has an interest in seeing order imposed on Afghanistan and the poppy production slashed.

Russia Today has more on drug addiction and demographics:

Russia's willingness to transship U.S. materiel to Afghanistan is starting to make more sense.

Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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