Commentary: AFPAK: No silver lining

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large  |  April 24, 2013 at 7:53 AM
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WASHINGTON, April 24 (UPI) -- He has the skill sets of a gifted politician and of a soldier with impressive operational experience in Afghanistan and he now sounds the alarm that if we don't make fundamental changes rapidly, all will be lost.

Tobias Ellwood is a conservative member of the British Parliament who served in Afghanistan and has been back 10 times -- every six-eight months -- as a leading politician to assess the situation. On one recent trip, Ellwood accompanied U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, former Central Command chief, former U.S. Joint Forces command and former NATO supreme allied commander.

Afghan fatigue has set in and several key countries allied with the United Stated have quietly bailed out. And, says Ellwood, "there is a very somber mood among those still there."

Ellwood, a reserve captain, is with the Military Stabilization and Support Group, "a unique defense organization that provides Britain with an army of skills and knowledge that is used to provide military support to the civilian efforts to stabilize countries that are either emerging from conflict or are at risk of sliding into chaos."

But Ellwood has more questions than answers:

Why has it taken so long to elicit a sense of purpose?

Why was a Western-style government imposed? "Things were arguably better under both a monarchy and a dictatorship," says Ellwood.

The Afghan desertion rate, he points out is 30 percent; Afghan army fatalities, 1,000 a year; recruits, 70 percent illiterate; half of Afghan police, corrupt; presidential power, unchecked; teachers, half of them appointed by President Hamid Karzai; drugs, desertion, churn, all sowing evil seeds for the future.

Speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Ellwood said, "One must remain an optimist."

His recipe to pull back from the brink of disaster:

1) Take what exists rather than impose a system that no one wants. Eighty percent of Afghanistan's population of 35 million "lives in tiny villages where the Shura system has worked for hundreds of years so why impose a system that no one wants."

2) Demobilize half the army to cut down on enormous defense expenditures that cannot be sustained and retrain them into basic skills with a view to creating a corps of engineers for economic development.

3) A prime minister should be responsible to Parliament, not the presidency. Afghan people have nothing to say; even teachers are appointed by Karzai.

4) Prioritize 22 national programs to focus on untapped mineral resources, which include one of the world's largest in iron ore.

Pakistan has long considered Afghanistan a protectorate but at the present time its first priority is to protect itself from internal collapse. The grim news from this shaky nuclear power that is only 66 years old keeps getting grimmer.

The latest expert to weigh in with a gloomy perspective is award-winning journalist Gretchen Peters, who covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade for ABC News, The Christian Science Monitor and the New Republic and is a regular commentator on NPR and BBC.

Her book "Seeds of Terror" broke new ground on the role opium played in three decades of conflict in Afghanistan. And Peters has given presentations at the Pentagon, the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Peters drills down beyond the usual alarms and threats from Pakistan, a dirt-poor country that possesses the fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Her assessment of the economic numbers:

-- Pakistan needs to be growing at about 7 percent a year, the Asian Development Bank says, to accommodate its exploding population rate and simply sustain new job market entrants. Fully one-third of the population is under 15, which means the country needs to add millions of jobs yearly. It isn't happening. Major seeds of unrest.

-- Although it eased to just less than 7 percent in March, inflation has been in double digits and the rupee has lost 20 percent of its value since 2008.

-- Rising commodity prices and power brownouts have sparked nationwide riots and driven as many as 28 million Pakistanis into extreme poverty.

-- The energy crisis has caused the textile industry, Pakistan's largest, to shrink more than $1 billion.

-- Foreign direct investment declined 50 percent in 2012 and has dropped another 30 percent this year.

-- External debt has soared to $130 billion, more than 65 percent of gross domestic product.

-- Pakistan now has a lower tax base than Afghanistan. It has fewer actual taxpayers than does Guatemala, a country of 14.3 million people.

-- Corruption is rampant and reaches the highest levels of government. Some see the Pakistani state on the verge of collapse. Instead, we believe the government to be highly efficient at extracting resources from wealthy Persian Gulf oil states.

-- Remittances from abroad quadrupled since 2001, surging in 2012 to more than $13 billion. United Arab Emirates remittances grew 70 percent last year.

-- Deposits, advances and assets at Pakistani banks are up 269 percent, 268 percent and 209 percent, respectively, since 2001, and pre-tax bank profits posted a 9,991 percent growth.

How is this possible in a country that can't even keep its street lights on? Peters asks.

A senior private banker in Pakistan tells her Pakistani-owned bank accounts in Switzerland have doubled to $400 billion in the last decade.

Despite sharp declines in foreign direct investment, Peters reports the Karachi Stock Exchange "showed returns of 49 percent in 2012, making it one of the five best performing markets in the world."

Much of the money, Peters says, is "flowing to criminals, terrorists, insurgents" and "fuels corruption and instability."

"Once this level of criminality sets into an economy, it is very hard to dissemble it (and) is highly destructive to the regular economy."

Arshad Ali, research analyst at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, writes "Homegrown terrorism by militant, sectarian and separatist groups pose a key threat to the elections in Pakistan on May 11."

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is reported to have prepared "200 suicide bombers" to disrupt what is planned as the first democratic transition of power in the history of Pakistan.

Terrorism is part of Pakistan's way of life. Some 33,000 civilians were killed in acts of terrorism in a single year.

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