I am in Kabul, Afghanistan, this week as part of a task force put together by the Century Foundation. The task force, chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi and Tom Pickering, brings together 13 scholars from eight countries to consider how the international community can best promote stability in Afghanistan. Over the next few days I’ll share my insights about Afghanistan from this trip. Hopefully they’ll give you an idea of what life is like here and how the U.S. mission is faring.
My trip over was quite an adventure. Because of a schedule mix-up I arrived by myself in Kabul at 6:30 in the morning on Sunday with no one to meet me. After talking to a few people in the airport, I arranged for someone to take me to where the cabs are—for a fee.
On the way, we encountered a fully armed U.S. soldier who asked my name. He was putting people on his list (servicemen and private contractors) into armored vehicles and giving them body armor. After about a 10-minute walk, we arrived at a place near the airport that in addition to the cabs had a dozen money changers. Before I could change money, my escort told me U.S. dollars were preferred.
He took me to a cab where another man and I bargained about the price to take me to the hotel. I assume he got a cut. After a 45-minute drive through the worst traffic this side of Baghdad we got to the Serena Hotel, where the guards would not let him in. I had to walk about a block after he dropped me off.
When the other members of my group arrived at the hotel from the airport in armored vehicles they were amazed and relieved I was there. Two task force members, who had served at embassies in Kabul for several years, told me the Taliban could have taken me. Given my options—a seven-hour wait at Kabul Airport, which looks like a 1920s airport in a small U.S. city—I decided to take a chance that things would work out.
Kabul has the worst traffic and worst air pollution of any city I have ever seen. I hope that some of our aid money is going to buy some traffic lights and clean up the air. The city also has a large number of street vendors and shops. Since my room wasn’t ready I did some shopping Sunday morning. I did not see another Westerner walking around or see anyone walking around when I was driving.
Sunday evening, I did an interview on President Barack Obama’s visit to India with Al Jazeera English at their Kabul studio. The producer had sent me an email asking if I could do an interview in Washington, D.C., but when I told him I was in Afghanistan, he said Kabul would be great and sent a car. The drive took me to a different part of the city where all the networks have their studios, all behind high walls.
I also visited the International Security Assistance Forces area in Kabul, which resembles the Green Zone in Baghdad with high walls, barbed wire, and checkpoints. Like Baghdad’s Green Zone, it is completely removed from the reality of Kabul and Afghanistan. In fact, we ate lunch in an open air courtyard that looked like McPherson Square or Lafayette Park in D.C.
Because two members of our task force have much experience here we have and will continue to see some highly influential people. As might be expected, most U.S. civilian officials were very pessimistic about the situation while the military—both the International Security Assistance Force and Afghan—say our strategy is working and we need to give it more time.
All of these people, however, agreed on three things:
- President Obama’s West Point speech last year announcing the surge did not achieve its desired effect. The only message that Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region heard was that the United States is leaving starting in July 2011. No one gave the administration credit for finally devoting the proper amount of resources and attention to Afghanistan after eight years of neglect by the Bush administration.
- We need a new special envoy because the current one has lost credibility with the Afghan government.
- The Pakistanis continue to have an à la carte approach to dealing with the Afghan Taliban. Some parts of their government take military action against some parts of the Taliban while others provide assistance and shelter to parts of the Taliban.
For the rest of the week we have meetings scheduled with Gen. David Petraeus, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, among others. It should be an interesting week.
Check back for more on these meetings and other news.
Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.