Another year, another BBC poll [pdf] to find out if those lucky Afghans are happy with their lot under the benevolent rule of the Jelly Amir. Even with the characteristically loaded questions, it isn't very good news for Obama. He wants to increase troop levels by 30,000, but this is opposed by the majority of the people polled, 44% of whom want a decrease in troop levels, indicating that patience with the occupiers is running out. Indeed, 52% want a timetabled withdrawal within one or two years, and 58% say support for NATO forces is weak or non-existent in their area. The escalation in the air war isn't very popular either, with 77% saying the air strikes are unacceptable. Although the Talibs remain unpopular among most, only 8% of the people blame the country's problems on the Taliban, with the majority citing US-allied warlords and other sources of violence, as well as joblessness and poverty, as their main concern. This is perhaps why most of those polled (64%) would rather have a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, which has been Karzai's stated goal for some time. The new US administration is reported to be losing interest in Karzai, and may well ditch him if he steps too far out of line. This could be dangerous, as the Karzai administration, for all its faults, commands far more popular support than NATO.
Intriguingly, the Obama-Biden administration is decreeing a 'new realism' with respect to Afghanistan, with all of the embarrassing stuff about spreading democracy removed. Once again, the natives have let us down: we had such high hopes for them, and now we must revise them down - from building a vibrant democracy to ensuring 'security'. The problem, apparently, is that Obama's advisors have told him that the war is going very badly, while the US military ascendancy are urging him to focus on Pakistan, with the whole country apparently considered "al Qaida's headquarters" (so reports The Guardian). Now, hold on. No one, but no one, believes that 'Al Qaeda' is about to take over Pakistan, or any other country. It has no mass support anywhere in the world. It is a marginal outfit, it has probably lost most of its funding and mobility. And, while it is capable of barbarous violence, this is unfortunately not a USP. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, 'Al Qaeda' and the Taliban are not natural allies. It is a mistaken assumption, originating in the mythologies used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, that bin Laden and Mullah Omar were buddies. They may have agreed that Hasan al-Turabi was dangerously progressive when it came to womens' rights, and Omar did agree to put bin Laden and his acolytes up. However, as Lawrence Wright has shown, this was always an alliance of convenience based on the low diplomatic costs at the time and the rewards of money and weaponry that bin Laden could bring to bear in the struggle against the Northern Alliance. The Taliban were quite ready at one point (before September 11) to turn bin Laden over to the Saudi ruling family and allow them to dispose of him. Moreover, while 'Al Qaeda' operated globally, the Talibs were a local force and wished to remain that - the bloody adventurism that culminated in 9/11 was never a Taliban project. The original myth of the war on Afghanistan is that it was a logical response to the attacks on the United States, and that logic is now being gradually and insidiously extended to the case of Pakistan.
If the renewed focus on Pakistan were really about combating 'Al Qaeda', it would be far more logical to negotiate a truce between the governing Uzbek warlords and the Talibs, and withdraw the troops. The bin Ladenists would never get a look-in. In reality, it is becoming a war for strategic control of central and southern Asia (Obama really listened to Brzezinski's spiel about the 'global Balkans'). Pakistan is falling out of the grip of US power, and neither parliament nor the brutal army can deliver for America any longer. This is to a large extent the result of America's past policies, not least the support for Zia and their funding the development of the reactionary Wahabbi cadre under the control of Pakistani intelligence. Now the US is using its military power to back up pro-American forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while bombing and attacking various insurgent groups supported by the ISI, or a dominant faction in the ISI. It is hard to see how this won't escalate into a torrent of bloodshed if Obama gets his 30k+, especially with added support from presently reluctant NATO allies. I can hardly wait for the BBC's Afpak poll, which will probably be out within the year at this rate.