Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: So, the good folk in Afghanistan are our newest best friends. The official term is Major Non-Nato Ally (MNNA) and that rates them just as reliable and just as trustworthy as our other main MNNAs – Australia, Egypt, Israel and, of course, that key player in working out a solution for the Afghan conflict, Pakistan.
The 2016 Democrat Presidential Nominee, Hillary Clinton, popped down to Kabul yesterday, to pass the good news to President Hamid ‘fancy dresser’ Karzai and the rest of the gang. The announcement was timed to coincide with the meeting in Tokyo of all those, who are being asked to find something bigger than loose change from their government pockets – once NATO and the other forty or so American-led forces heroically abandon Afghanistan in 2014 – if not sooner.
Afghanistan says it’s going to need an $8billion a year pay-off. Half is for an aid programme and half to maintain its security forces.
By the time various Afghan officials have trousered their share of the money, there won’t be too much left to keep the Taliban out and the hearts and minds of the largely Western taxpayer happy to shell out that sort of money during the worst economic times in many living memories.
Some countries, of course, will be only too happy to buy their way out of any further responsibilities and certainly once the troops are out and it’s just Afghans killing each other then so will the big network TV crews strike camp and head for another prime-time conflict. (Get your booster-shots for Mali, guys and girls, it’s going to be the new Afghanistan). When the TV crews go and the Star Spangled Coffins disappear, we won’t even remember where Kabul is. Or so we hope.
But America has a bigger agenda. It will have to keep at the very least a training presence in Afghanistan. Back in May this year, Karzai and Obama signed a ten- year deal for military and civil regeneration programmes starting in 2014. But Ms Clinton’s people know that it will not take much effort by Taliban and opposing warlords for Afghanistan to descend to such low chaos levels that no US-Afghan strategic partnership will work as advertised.
There is also a heavy commercial background for Afghanistan to be our newest best friend. With the arms around the shoulders thing comes the promises to US corporations that they will get the major chunk of the re-building and security contracts. Anyone, who doesn’t understand how that works, only has to read the large print in similar contracts between the withdrawing US and the emerging and equally corrupt Iraqi regime.
Then there’s the matter of military hardware. By 2013, the Afghan security forces are scheduled to take all commands from Obama’s coalition of the none too willing. They will be armed with US weapons instead of the Soviet gear left behind when that crew got out. The Russian T-55 and T-62 tanks were old but not on their last legs. But the Afghan Army was demanding new German Leopard tanks. No way said Washington. You will have our brilliant (unless you’re in one) Patton M60s. The Russian helicopters will stay – until they’re all crashed or deemed unflyable.
The reason the Afghans are claiming $4billion a year to keep their army going is that it wants to use the money (apart from bribery and poppy habit) to buy more modern weapons. The US is going to have a problem with that one and could find itself in support operations for longer than it thinks.
So, the new best friend status is the extension of the May Washington agreement but also a reminder that the Afghan job is by no means done.
There’s one large hangar of military material that the US will be leaving behind. It contains black, all-the-way zip body bags. The Americans (and quite a few others) are quite happy for them to stay where they are. They do not wish the Afghans ill, quite the opposite, but the real reason for going in 2014 and the real reason for 10 year deals and dollars in the Bank of Kabul is that it is a price worth paying for getting out of a miserable war that could so easily prove to have been meaningless within a year of ending.
The body bag store is the symbol of the story of that war. The newest best friend status may mean that store is not redundant.