Afghanistan Ambassador Ryan Crocker has jumped from his breeze of a confirmation hearing in the US into the fat end of the fire this week. The new ambassador has arrived in a country reeling from a string of assassinations of government officials and worried about what the future may hold, as the US continues to contract its fighting presence across the country.
Yesterday, Kandahar's popular mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi was murdered by a Taliban suicide bomber while receiving petitioners. The dual US-Afghan national (he lived in America for decades) was exactly the sort of official the US, which harbors hopes of transforming Afghanistan's political culture, wanted to see more of. Tom Peter wrote yesterday that Mr. Hamidi, "an accountant for most of his life... had far more in common with Western politicians than he did with many of the warlords and powerbrokers in control of large parts of Afghanistan."
He also had enough steel to get things done in the Tombstone-like atmosphere of Kandahar. A Kandahari pharmacist told Tom that he once saw the son of a powerful local official park his car in a way that completely blocked a narrow road. The official's son brushed off all requests that he move his car, including from Hamidi, who happened upon the scene. Hamidi's response? He bashed in the man's rear-view mirror with his shoe. The message was received, the car soon moved.
That followed the murder earlier this month President Hamid Karzai's half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, long the main powerbroker in Kandahar, the ancestral home of both the Karzai's and where the Taliban found its initial strength in the early 1990s. In April, Kandahar's police chief was killed by a suicide bomber and also earlier this month, Jan Mohammed Khan, a powerful warlord in Uruzgan and a key ally of President Karzai's, was killed in a suicide attack at his home in Kabul.
Mr. Crocker, dealing with the first of what's likely to be many crises on his watch, borrowed a page from the Iraq war public communications book (where Crocker served as ambassador from 2007-2009): The murders, he said, could in fact be a sign of the enemy's weakness.
The US has spent billions of dollars in the past few years trying to remove the Taliban from Kandahar and neighboring provinces, and Crocker suggested yesterday that the killings might be because the Taliban "have been damaged to the point that they are resorting to terrorist attacks... Clearly these are horrific attacks but they can also be interpreted as a sign of organizational weakness on the part of the adversary," he said.
Assassinations and suicide bombings have been a feature of the war in Afghanistan from the the start. Indeed, even before the US got involved. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance commander who would have almost certainly been a US ally, was assassinated a few days before the 9/11 attacks on the US.
But as if in response to Crocker, the Taliban carried out a far more operationally complex assault today in Uruzgan.
In the provincial capital of Tirin Kot, squads of Taliban fighters, some wearing suicide vests, assaulted the governor's compound, a TV station, and a police station, all in the heart of town. The BBC reports that among the dead was Ahmed Omed Khpulwak, who worked for the BBC's Pashto news service and for local news outlet Pahjwok. The situation was bad enough that NATO air support was called in to win the battle.
And that need for air support, brings us to US debt negotiations and the ongoing drawdown of US troops.
The US – by far the most potent piece of the NATO force in Afghanistan – is spending $113 billion there in the current fiscal year and has requested $100 billion for next year. With Congress in the process of groping toward a deficit reduction deal to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit and avoid the first US government default in history, steep cuts in domestic services seem inevitable – whether it's the Republican call for spending cuts with no increase in taxes, or President Obama's desire for a mix of cuts and new revenues. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada wants the lion's share of savings to come from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, is calling for sharp cuts in the routine defense budget as well. Given the political mood in the US and the focus on debt, the era of free-spending on foreign wars, which have been mostly funded "off-budget" for a decade, is well and truly over. And it's happening at a time when the stated objective of bringing good government to Afghanistan is far from achieved and parts of Afghanistan, particularly the south, are looking very shaky, indeed.