Failing Afghanistan

Barack Obama's strategy won't succeed unless he realizes that Hamid Karzai is neither the problem nor the solution.

President Barack Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan on Dec. 3 is just the latest sign that his administration's latest review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is in full swing. "Today, we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have the chance to build a more hopeful future," he told an assembled crowd at Bagram Air Force Base. "You will succeed in your mission."

Back in Washington, officials are trying to determine what success looks like. They are assembling a comprehensive "report card" of U.S. efforts, with inputs from all the departments and agencies that have a hand in the region. The White House wants to know which of its policies have demonstrated success, and which ones are failing.

Many assessments will probably prove inconclusive. The effect of the U.S. troop surge on the military balance of power will be particularly tough to measure, especially in those regions of Afghanistan where new forces have only been at work for six months or less. This will also be true for a wide variety of other newly expanded programs, for which resources will need to be applied over a longer time frame in order to show concrete signs of progress. Kabul, after all, can't be rebuilt in a day.

Amid this sea of ambiguity, at least one clear judgment is possible: Washington's political strategy in Afghanistan deserves a failing grade.

The U.S. political strategy is comprised of different elements, many of which attempt to alleviate Afghanistan's poor "governance capacity" -- that is, its inability to provide basic services to its people. This is indisputably true. The Afghan government has proved itself incapable, for instance, of establishing local courts and legal institutions, to the point that many Afghans approach the Taliban to adjudicate their civil disputes. Afghanistan's poor health care, education, and transportation infrastructure all hinder economic opportunity and development. These are serious problems, but they are common to many other poor, developing countries around the world. And many of those countries are not plagued by raging insurgencies.

As analyst Steve Coll pointed out this summer, those conducting the December review should focus on the fundamental -- and truly political -- question of whether a majority of the Afghan people and their leaders are working toward the same goals as their international allies. Today they are not. In the heady days after the Taliban were toppled, the Kabul government was widely accepted as a force for national and international unity. But over nine long years of war and mistakes on all sides, that unity has broken.

Many influential Afghans who are natural partners in the fight against international terrorism feel alienated from their government and are deeply frustrated with the United States for propping it up. For some, last year's fraudulent presidential election was the final straw. Others, especially minority groups and women, fear the outcome of "reconciliation" talks between an exclusive, unrepresentative group of President Hamid Karzai's cronies and Taliban insurgents. Still other powerful figures have been disappointed by recent parliamentary elections -- another exercise tainted by massive, politically motivated fraud and whose results were greeted by protests from disenfranchised Afghans.

In short, there are good reasons to fear that Afghanistan is falling apart at the seams, and things have only gotten worse over recent months.

The Afghan government's inability to mobilize public support makes the war more difficult and costly -- in American lives and dollars -- every day. As challenging as the U.S. military effort may be, it will become next to impossible should political fissures worsen, transforming the Taliban insurgency largely centered in Afghanistan's south and east into a countrywide civil war.

Unfortunately, Washington's policymakers have too often equated Afghan "politics" with the narrow question of what to do about Karzai. The Afghan president's erratic behavior and the corruption of his closest allies are big problems, especially if Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has it right that he has become "decidedly anti-Western." Even so, Karzai's critics usually stumble on the question, "If not Karzai, then who?"

This is the wrong question to ask. Karzai represents a major obstacle mainly because the new Afghan state was born with a fatal flaw -- a presidency that dominates the national and provincial governments. Numerous assessments, dating back to the process that generated Afghanistan's current Constitution, have lamented the fact that Karzai faces too few checks and balances and too few mechanisms for building and maintaining a national consensus. Afghanistan's true problem is its government's structure, not the personality flaws of its leader.

Many new democracies, especially those born in post-civil war conditions, write constitutions with strong parliaments so that former combatants can share power in the national government. Many select federal systems so that provincially elected leaders have a voice in the management of their internal affairs. Afghanistan has neither of these features, and it shows.

Nevertheless, calls for structural political change in Afghanistan have not been taken seriously within the U.S. government. Instead, officials have argued that Washington's political failure could be reduced to a "Karzai-management problem." If we could only get the right balance of carrots and sticks, these policymakers have maintained, then we could convince Karzai to develop a functioning Afghan government.

And so, over the course of the past year, we have witnessed an assiduous U.S. campaign to build a better partnership with Karzai. That effort persists. Obama's itinerary in Afghanistan Dec. 3 included a conversation with Karzai, reportedly to address their latest bout of tensions.

When cooperation with Karzai has failed, U.S. officials have tried to circumvent him by working directly with local Afghan officials or partnering with national ministries. Time and again, however, they end up running headlong into an omnipresent presidency. This is true, in part, because Karzai has complete authority to appoint provincial governors and hundreds of other local government officials. Afghan officials with the political authority to make critical decisions routinely defer to Karzai for fear of making the "wrong" call and falling out of favor. U.S. efforts to combat Afghan corruption have been especially stymied by Karzai's personal interference. U.S. political strategy always recenters on Karzai because Afghanistan's government revolves around the president.

Fostering meaningful political reform in any country represents a daunting challenge and should inspire some reasonable fears in Washington. However, in this case, the benefits of addressing the structural flaws in Afghanistan's government outweigh the risks.

True, Karzai and his allies will fight any loss of control tooth and nail. They will accuse Washington of inappropriate interference in the affairs of a sovereign Afghan state. They might release hysterical public statements that make Karzai's recent outbursts look like child's play.

But U.S. officials need not be deterred by such charges. They must take into account the fact that Washington already interferes in Afghan politics every day, expending U.S. resources and manpower to bolster the current Karzai-centric system.

There are also real concerns that U.S. officials are not well positioned to manage the complex mechanics of Afghan political reform. The history of Washington's interference in constructing Afghan institutions is not a happy one. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and other international officials did play central roles during the first constitutional loya jirga, and look where that got us.

But such hands-on manipulation might not be necessary this time around. Instead, Washington could offer a green light to a range of Afghan opposition leaders who would be willing to launch their own reform process. This group should include leaders from each of the main Afghan ethnic groups and political factions, such as Karzai's 2009 presidential election challengers, former government ministers, and parliamentary opposition figures. An Afghan-led reform process that is inclusive, re-energizes constituents who are now sitting on the sidelines out of frustration with both the Taliban and the Karzai government, and begins to change the structure of the Afghan government in ways that foster national unity and power sharing would no doubt serve U.S. core interests in the country.

These are ambitious goals, but not unreasonable ones. The first step is to make sure that Washington's December review is not turned into a bean-counting exercise that ratifies business as usual. A serious review will at least force the Obama administration to weigh the costs and risks of a new strategy against the failure of the present approach. Even better, it will encourage a policy that charts a new course -- one designed to turn the tide of Afghan politics in a direction that encourages the U.S. and Afghan governments to work more productively on accomplishing their shared mission.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images


China's Coal Addiction

As the U.N. climate summit continues in Cancún, the Guardian's environment correspondent, Jonathan Watts, looks at one problem not likely to improve soon -- the Middle Kingdom's ravenous appetite for cheap coal.

View photos of China's pollution.

Coal is compressed history, buried death. Geologists estimate the seams of anthracite and bituminous coal in northern China, for instance, were formed from the Jurassic period onward. Within them are the remains of ferns, trees, mosses, and other life-forms from millions of years ago. Although long extinguished on the surface world, they still possess form and energy. Consider coal with a superstitious eye, and foul air might seem a curse suffered for disinterring preancient life. Described with a little poetic license, global warming is a planetary fever caused by burning too much of our past.

China recently overtook the United States as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because it is so dependent on this fossil fuel. For each unit of energy, coal produces 80 percent more carbon dioxide than natural gas and 20 percent more than oil. This does not even include methane released from mines, for which China accounts for almost half the global total, or spontaneous combustion of coal seams, which release 100 megatons of energy from coal each year. China's economy is utterly dependent on coal. It provides 69.5 percent of the country's energy, a greater degree of reliance than that of any other major country. Cheap coal generates electricity for Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing, fires the steel mills of Huaxi, powers the production lines of Guangdong, and allows consumers in the West to buy Chinese goods at knockdown prices. No other fuel has such an impact on the environment, both local and global.

Air pollution is appalling in almost every city in China. The toll on human health is enormous. Barely 1 percent of the urban population breathes air considered healthy by the World Health Organization, and it is worst in northern China. The result is premature death, lung cancer, bronchitis, and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Another high-risk group is poor peasants who slowly poison themselves by heating their homes with dirty coal. But the full risks are obscured. The toxic buildup of lead, mercury, and other heavy metals in the soil and water near coal plants and smelting factories is not usually measured. Entire communities are being poisoned without realizing it.

Yet coal mines are as much a part of China's civilization as paddy fields. Mining and industry have been crucial in ensuring the longevity of the Middle Kingdom. Despite its reputation as an agricultural civilization, for most of the last 2,000 years China has been by far the world's biggest producer of coal and iron, a status lost only temporarily in the early 19th century when Britain began industrializing. It is no coincidence that the country's recent return to great power status has come at a time when it is once again No. 1 in these basic industries and when large numbers of peasants are working below rather than on the surface.

The more I have looked into the deeply entrenched industry in China, the blacker it seems. Over the years, I have talked to black-faced miners at the mouths of illegal pits, descended deep down the shafts of huge state-run collieries, consulted labor activists, and interviewed mine owners and policymakers. The picture that emerges is of a deadly, filthy industry that is trying to clean up but is repeatedly mired by market pressures, weak oversight, and the demands of an economy that is desperate for more fuel. Collieries destroy arable land and grazing pastures, erode topsoil, worsen air and water pollution, increase levels of river sediment (raising the risk of floods), and accelerate deforestation (especially if the coal was used to make charcoal). The country's most pressing environmental problems -- acid rain, smog, lung disease, water contamination, loss of aquifers, and the filthy layer of black dust that has settled on many villages -- can all be traced back in varying degrees to this single cause.

Nowhere is this more evident than in northern Shanxi province, a coal-mining stronghold where I went to see how the black subterranean dust fouled the skies above the most polluted city on Earth: Linfen, which has held that unenviable title for most of the previous decade. Shrouded in a spectral haze, the city lies at the heart of a 20-kilometer industrial belt, fed by the 50 million tons of coal mined each year in the nearby hills. When the pollution was at its worst in the late 1990s, the average daily level of particulate matter in the air was over 600 parts per million, far off the hazard scale (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index considers any reading above 200 parts per million as "very unhealthy"). The New York-based research nonprofit Blacksmith Institute once ranked the city alongside Chernobyl on a list of the planet's 10 most contaminated places.

As I approached this blackest of black lands, the smog was so thick it seemed to consume its source. On the outskirts of the city, smokestacks belched carbon and sulfur into the putrid mist that enveloped them. Iron foundries, smelting plants, and cement factories loomed in and out of the haze as I traveled along the roads leading into Linfen. When the driver stopped in the outlying village of Liucunzhen, locals told us they lived most of their lives in smog.

"We only see the sun for a few days each year," said Zhou Huocun, a community doctor. "The color of our village is black. It is so dirty that nobody airs their quilts outside anymore so we are getting more parasites." He had seen a steady increase in respiratory diseases among his patients as the air quality had deteriorated over the years. The unborn were at even greater risk. Shanxi's birth defect rate is six times higher than the national average (which is itself three to five times the global norm). And coal was to blame.

Of course, China is now trying to clean up its mines and its skies. On the orders of the central government, Linfen was closing down small, illegal collieries and the worst-polluting factories. I dropped in at the city's environment bureau to ask whether these measures were working. The director, Yang Zhaofen, had progress to report. Of a sort. "Linfen is no longer the most polluted city in China," he announced proudly. "It is the second worst."

The local government was taking countermeasures. As in many other cities, it was switching to gas-powered central heating instead of coal. Yang told me it had already shut down hundreds of small mines and were in the process of closing 160 of 196 iron foundries and 57 of 153 coking plants. Small, dirty, and dangerous operations were to be replaced by large, cleaner, and more carefully regulated facilities. But I had heard that before. Over the years, local governments announced coal-mine closures as often as crackdowns on markets of pirated goods. Neither usually lasted long. As soon as the price rose and attention shifted, the illegal mines and fake DVD shops reopened. Old habits die hard, especially when there's money to be made. Precedent suggested many of the closed factories and mines would reopen. As long as the demand for coal persisted, the risks to the environment and health would not go away.

With 20 percent of the world's population and an economy that continues to grow, China needs huge amounts of fuel. Deposits of oil and gas are small relative to the country's size, but coal is abundant. When I met with Xiao Yunhan, an energy visionary at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he told me: "Nobody likes coal, even in China. But do you have a better solution for our energy-supply problems?" he said. He expects consumption of coal to double over the following 10 years. For at least another two decades, said Yunhan, China will be trapped in a coal-dependent economy.

"Even if China utilizes every kind of energy to the maximum level, it is still difficult for us to produce enough energy for economic development. It's not a case of choosing coal or renewables. We need both," the senior scientist said. "We have to use coal, so the best thing we can do is make that use as efficient as possible."

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