“We’re not here today to tell you we’re winning or we’re losing. We’re not here today to say we’re optimistic or pessimistic. We’re here to tell you that we’re in this fight in a different way, with a determination to succeed, under the direct personal supervision of the president, the secretary of state, and the rest of the cabinet,” said Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a CAP event on Wednesday.
Holbrooke and his interagency team engaged in their first public discussion of the United States’ “AfPak” strategy. This multidisciplinary team, which heads the civilian aspect of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan as well as the regional diplomatic effort, is made up of participants from nine different agencies. Several team members spoke at the event, which was moderated by Center for American Progress founder and CEO John D. Podesta, including Vikram Singh from the Department of Defense; Sepideh Keyvanshad from the U.S. Agency for International Development; Otto J. Gonzalez from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Rami Shy from the Treasury Department; Jane Marriott from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and Vali Nasr, Barnett R. Rubin, Rina Amiri, and Ashley Bommer, all advisors to the special representative.
Rubin discussed two necessary conditions for success in Afghanistan: “One is enabling the Afghan government to control and govern its territory, and the second is supporting and creating a regional and international environment where neighbors and great powers have a stake in the stability of [the country].”
“I think it goes without saying that the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked together,” Nasr said. Pakistan faces a daunting set of challenges in addition to its role in the Afghan conflict: a rocky transition to democracy, a major Taliban offensive that has sparked a refugee crisis, and a battered economy. Going forward, the team will help Pakistan navigate these challenges and integrate the country into a region-wide framework to bring peace to Afghanistan.
Different members of the team outlined how U.S. policy was changing in numerous areas. Previously, efforts to build Afghanistan’s government have largely focused on the national level. “Our security strategy is aimed at creating a local security environment that is supportive of competent [subnational] officials rebuilding relations with those communities and also revitalizing them through … community development programs,” Rubin said.
Gonzalez described an agricultural development program aimed at restoring jobs and income to Afghanistan’s largest sector and increasing Afghans’ confidence in their government. “What we have is a strategy that is integrated, resourced, civilian, and military, and one that really puts agriculture in the forefront where it needs to be in a country like Afghanistan,” he said.
This new emphasis on agriculture is designed to complement a shift in counternarcotics strategy. The team has phased out poppy eradication in favor of agricultural development—working with the country’s farmers, rather than against them—and targeting high-level drug traffickers.
“This combination … has had spectacular results,” Holbrooke remarked. “We have increasing evidence that it’s really disrupting the Taliban internally.”
Keyvanshad, Holbrooke’s senior development advisor, discussed a number of other development programs now underway, including improving governance, reforming the justice sector and the rule of law, building the government’s capacity to promote economic development, and working with civil society.
Holbrooke stressed the interdependence between security on the one hand, and development and state-building on the other. “Without security, you can build a bridge, you can build a school, and one grenade sets it off,” Holbrooke said. “We are trying to integrate the civilian and military.”
Though Holbrooke did not speak to the issue of troop levels, remarking that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus had already “addressed the troop question very fully,” he did discuss the role of the police.
“The biggest single obstacle we’re going to face, I want to be very honest with you, is going to be strengthening the police,” Holbrooke said. “You can’t do [counterinsurgency] unless the police take over a key role in security after the military forces do the clearing.”
Communications is another area in which the civilian and military aspects of counterinsurgency must support each other according to the interagency team. “[Our adversaries] fight an information war supported by military efforts on both sides of the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Singh.
The team has developed a communications strategy to fight militants on their own terms: extending the reach of media to isolated populations, disseminating counterpropaganda, and building the capability of the government and the private sector to effectively communicate with and engage the populations of both countries. “It’s about tying these populations to their government in areas where they really historically have not had those ties,” Singh said.
The panelists also previewed the upcoming elections in Afghanistan. “[Next week’s] elections, which are the first Afghanistan’s held since the 1970s, are being held in very difficult security conditions, and they won’t be perfect,” said Marriot. “But we expect everything possible to be done to minimize fraud and to ensure the integrity of the ballot … to ensure that these elections are seen as legitimate by the Afghans and by the world.”
The Afghans are largely leading the election process, according to Marriot. The United States is providing candidates with transportation and media access, encouraging them to debate and develop platforms, and supporting the key electoral institutions while holding them to account.
Rubin helped clarify the administration’s objectives for the region. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say that we are committed to stay in Afghanistan until [it] is a perfect democracy,” Rubin said, but rather “until we are secure from terrorist attacks launched from there, and until the region is secure from nuclear terrorism and other forms of destabilization that would be extremely dangerous.”
Holbrooke was cautious in saying what victory in the region would look like. When pressed by John Podesta to define success in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he remarked—“we’ll know it when we see it.”
For more on this event please see the events page.