Making Friends in Afghanistan,With and Without Viagra


In Afghanistan, no stone is left unturned. Around Christmas, the Washington Post reported that the CIA offers Viagra pills to older chieftains in exchange for information. The new weapon is supposed to have delivered “a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes.”

Would the American intelligence have finally found a way for winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people? It seems too good to be true.

If only because globalization has resulted in most of the blessings of Western civilization having been long available at Tarin Kowt’s bazaars. Among DVDs of “The Sopranos” and “24”, one can surely find the popular little blue pills. And it certainly won’t be long before the Taliban let the stuff come across the border on pack mules.

But it is understandable that the West is looking for a new approach in Afghanistan. Because the war is at an ugly dead end. The Taliban is active in more and more parts of the country. Violence is on the increase, including in and around the capital, Kabul. The Karzai government has less authority than ever. And last year, 294 foreign soldiers were killed, 62 more than in 2007. More than seven years after the overthrow of the Taliban, it is still unclear how the war can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

However, the Netherlands is not gloomy. In December, the commander of the armed forces, General Van Uhm, reported that the area that the allies have managed to secure in Uruzgan – the so-called ink stain – is steadily growing. On the average, one roadside bomb explodes every week, but that is in contrast to the fact that three are detected in a time.

Minister Van Middelkoop, who paid a visit to the troops on Christmas, also expresses hope. “The ink stain is spreading,” he claimed. And that, assures the Ministry of Defense, without the introduction of Viagra.

But as Dutch troops are performing their task, the nature of the war is starting to change around them. The government in Washington is convinced that it is not going well in Afghanistan – and that something must be done quickly. Not only are the Americans sending 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. They are also going to put a stronger mark on the way the war is conducted.

For example, the troops are going to be busy fighting the drug trade in earnest. NATO had already so decided this fall, but in practice not much happened. A number of allies and commanders on the ground find that the military are not trained for that, and fear that by doing so it will set the population against the military.

The Pentagon decided upon such a controversial course change around Christmas. The Americans will provide the local militia with money and weapons, so that they can help in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The idea is that local communities have taken care of themselves from way back, explained the American Ambassador in Kabul. “The way to fight the Taliban now is to make those communities stronger, so that they themselves can protect their villages, fields, and valleys.”

Inside and outside of Afghanistan there are serious objections to that plan. Van Middelkoop does not like it; his Canadian colleague even expects that it will be counter-productive. Also, many Afghans, who still remember too well how they suffered under the violence of irregular armed groups, have a lot of anxiety about it. It was exactly because of the lawless nature of such groups that the Taliban were able to set themselves up as an alternative.

Until now, one of the most important objectives of NATO was to strengthen the central government in Kabul. To that end, it is working hard (and with some success) to build up the Afghan national army, and (with less success) the national police. Strengthening governance, justice, and the fight against corruption was also deemed crucial to make Afghanistan a viable state.

Apparently, Washington has now abandoned that ambition. The financing of militia will start shortly in Wardak province, by Kabul. Thus, in addition to an army and police, a new armed force is being built up, detached from the government in Kabul.

Recently, Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said matter-of-factly that perhaps we have placed too much emphasis on the importance of the central government during the past few years. President Karzai will have listened with interest–in this year when he hopes to be re-elected. But his position is already so weak that he might as well resign himself to the fact.

Van Middelkoop said in Uruzgan that 2009 will be “a crucial year”–and it certainly looks that way. But that will have less to do with the performance of the Dutch military, than with the way in which the Americans still hope to win the war.

Juurd Eijsvoogel is editor of NRC Handelsblad.

About this publication


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply