Greetings from Kabul: Part Two

Senior Fellow Lawrence Korb Reports from Afghanistan

Many of the impressions I came away with on my first day in Afghanistan were reinforced after spending five more days in the country and meeting with more than 30 Afghan, American, and International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, officials. I also developed other conclusions. Before getting to them, let me emphasize that my conclusions are mine alone and do not represent those of the Century Foundation, my colleagues on this trip, or the Center for American Progress. Nor will I quote anyone directly.

I mentioned in my first piece that I’m part of a task force put together by the Century Foundation to consider how the international community can best promote stability in Afghanistan. Our group is composed of five people: two retired non-American diplomats with long experience in the region, a freelance journalist, a scholar at the Century Foundation, and myself. Everyone speaks Arabic except me. Not all of us attended every meeting but we always debriefed each other on what went on at the meetings not all of us could attend.

Each session would last about an hour and they were sometimes conducted in conjunction with a meal. They involved frank exchanges primarily because three of the members of our group know the officials very well and promised not to quote them. Over the course of our trip we met with:

  • The president
  • One of Afghanistan’s vice presidents
  • Five cabinet members and five parliamentarians, including the speaker and a committee chairman
  • The heads of three NGOs
  • A warlord
  • Numerous journalists
  • ISAF military officials
  • Ambassadors from four countries that contribute to the mission
  • Heads of the United Nations, NATO, and EU delegations
  • Two former officials of the Taliban
  • The runner-up in the last presidential election

I’ve been on many of these trips, both inside and outside of government. But usually I am part of a delegation consisting primarily or entirely of Americans. This was the first time that I was outnumbered. In many meetings I was the only American present and often found myself explaining, justifying, and sometimes arguing with Afghans in support of President Barack Obama’s positions.

It was very frustrating to hear high-ranking Afghan officials constantly criticizing President Obama’s July 2011 “withdrawal date” while ignoring the fact that President Obama has tripled the number of American troops in Afghanistan and the fact that during the Bush administration Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen both sat on requests for more troops. In one meeting I had to interrupt a high-ranking official who said he could not understand why the president would even begin a drawdown next summer and tell him the reasons why he did so.

Let me summarize my impressions with this background in mind. One of the first things that struck me was how many people have not only read but seemed to have digested every word in Bob Woodward’s most recent book, Obama’s Wars. We were consistently quizzed on how the president could have such a dysfunctional team that produced, in their view, a disjointed policy. One person went so far as to say that the Obama administration is run just like Pakistan—that is, the military is in charge. Most people knew more about Woodward’s book than the president’s West Point speech, which outlined his Afghanistan policy.

The confusion within the administration portrayed in Woodward’s book is compounded by the number of people who speak for the United States. Gen. David Petraeus, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and Special Representative Richard Holbrooke are three principal voices for the United States in Afghanistan. But members of Congress also visit continually, give advice to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and make speeches often contradicting administration policy. (Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and three other senators were there during our visit.)

Second, President Karzai’s call on the United States to lessen its troop presence rings true. It was reported in The Washington Post on our final day in Afghanistan. President Karzai appears to be very angry at the United States and he was much more comfortable dealing with Gen. Stanley McChrystal than with Gen. Petraeus. Moreover, President Karzai is tired of the United States lecturing him. He apparently believes we need him more than he needs us and is not only willing but anxious to begin talks with the Taliban.

Third, many people cannot understand why the world’s military superpower cannot defeat the Taliban after all these years. People holding this view believe that 100,000 U.S. troops—plus 50,000 from other nations—could conquer the Taliban if we wanted to, but that we avoid doing so because we want to stay permanently in the region to promote our own agenda.

Fourth, very few Afghans or other non-Americans buy the notion that the United States is in Afghanistan for the good of the people or to advance human rights. They contend we are here to support our own national interests and wish we would stop trying to portray our mission as an idealistic humanitarian enterprise.

Fifth, everyone knows that the recent parliamentary elections were a farce but nobody knows what to do about them. Twice while we were there hundreds of legislators who lost their seats demonstrated against the process. (This messed up the already gridlocked traffic.) One defeated legislator told us that even his own vote for himself was not counted.

The Pashtuns, who are mainly in the south and east, are particularly unhappy because they lost seats and will be underrepresented. The northerners, on the other hand, are pleased and will resist any attempt by President Karzai to correct the balance. My guess is that President Karzai will not call for new elections but will finesse the issue with appointments to the cabinet and the Senate—two-thirds of whom he appoints.

Sixth, as far as “team Kabul” is concerned (as Petraeus refers to his Afghanistan team), the July 2011 date is meaningless. They believe that 2014 is now the date for deciding the next steps in Afghanistan. A headline in Afghanistan quoted Special Representative Holbrooke as saying the United States does not have an exit strategy.

Seventh, our military operations have been very effective at killing many of the more senior Taliban leaders. This is particularly true of those conducted by special forces. Unfortunately, these leaders are being replaced by younger members of the Taliban who are more radical and less willing to negotiate.

Eighth, the Afghan governmental system needs to be reformed. The structure is dysfunctional as a result of the arrangements made at the Bonn Conference in 2001. It is neither fully presidential nor parliamentary, nor is it unitary or federal. Which means that even if the election and appointed leaders were completely honest—which they are not—it would be difficult to govern the country.

Ninth, the training of Afghan Security Forces has improved markedly thanks to the efforts of Lieutenant General William Caldwell and his team. The army and the police are meeting their numerical and quality goals and the force is becoming more capable. The real issue is whether there will ever be a government legitimate enough that young men and women will be willing to fight and die for it.

Finally, I believe that the United States and its allies missed what one of our military commanders in the early days of our involvement called the “golden moment.” The Taliban had been all but defeated in 2002 and the country was reasonably secure. The president was seen as legitimate by the majority of the people. But by diverting our troops, resources, and attention to Iraq, we let this opportunity slip by.

Now we have to accept a negotiated solution that will amount to something less optimal than we could have had if we had remained focused. For more information on how the United States should move forward in Afghanistan, keep an eye out for forthcoming reports by the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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