Running out of time, patience in Afghanistan
By Karl F. Inderfurth | August 8, 2007; Boston Globe
WHEN PRESIDENT BUSH hosted Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at Camp David earlier this week, it was their ninth meeting since US-led military forces ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001. It may also prove to be their most fateful. Time is running out to get things right in Afghanistan.
The battle for Afghan "hearts and minds" is in danger of being lost because of rising civilian casualties and war damage. The Karzai government is losing the support of ordinary Afghans due to widespread corruption, the failure to provide needed social services, and its inability to control large parts of its own territory. A US National Intelligence Estimate says Al Qaeda has established a new safe haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Meanwhile, international support for "staying the course" in Afghanistan is slipping. The Taliban surge in suicide bombings, hostage taking, and killing of foreigners is taking its toll.
Bush said that the two leaders talked about their security strategy for Afghanistan. In the weeks ahead, that strategy should focus on two overriding priorities -- what can be done to enhance the Afghan president's ability to govern at home and what steps can be taken to reinvigorate the international community's commitment to a stable and secure Afghanistan over the long term.
A July report by the British House of Commons Defense Committee provides valuable guidance on both of these objectives. Entitled "UK operations in Afghanistan," it contains 39 conclusions and recommendations based on the British experience in that country, including in the volatile southern province of Helmand where Taliban resistance is the fiercest.
A refrain thoughout the report is that Afghan reconstruction and development (jobs, roads, water, and electricity), rather than military power alone, is the key to winning Afghan "hearts and minds" and achieving a successful outcome.
Among the report's key recommendations -- and ones the United States should support -- are:
First, coordination of the international effort in Afghanistan -- involving a 37-nation coalition, scores of international agencies and non-government organizations, and billions of dollars in aid -- is a huge task and not going well, setting back the reconstruction effort. The UN needs to appoint a "high-profile and authoritative individual" (meaning with political clout) to coordinate resources, ensure coherence, and work closely with the Karzai government.
Second, violence is increasing and spreading to previously more peaceful provinces in Afghanistan and the capital, Kabul. Also increasing are the numbers of civilians killed and injured as a result of NATO and US military activity, undercutting support for the foreign presence in Afghanistan and fueling the Taliban insurgency. All efforts must be made to minimize civilian casualties (as acknowledged by a change in military tactics recently announced by NATO in Brussels).
Third, NATO is falling short on its planned military requirements for Afghanistan. The reluctance of some NATO members to provide troops for the Afghan mission is "undermining NATO's credibility" and its operations. A strategy is needed to persuade these NATO governments to address this deficit.
Fourth, the international community should put greater emphasis on training the Afghan National Police -- seen as the weakest link in the country's security reform program -- and address corruption in the judicial system. A recent conference in Rome pledged $360 million to train judges and build new prisons and courts. Karzai told the conference an urgent problem is low salaries, a major contributor to corruption of the system.
Fifth, the effort to redirect Afghanistan's "narco-state" economy lacks clarity and coherence. International disagreements over the appropriate means of poppy eradication must be addressed along with more active development of alternative livelihood schemes.
Finally, Afghanistan's relations with Pakistan and Iran are vital to its future. Iran's effort to check the flow of narcotics across its border with Afghanistan is welcomed (as Karzai also did at Camp David), but concern is expressed about reports that "explosives originating from Iran have been used by insurgents in Afghanistan." In response, engagement with Iran -- not isolation, as favored by the United States -- is recommended: "This underlines the urgent necessity for the West, particularly the US and the UK, to foster constructive dialogue with as many parts of the Iranian government and its offshoots as possible."
One senior British official says the next 18 months are critical for Afghanistan: "If we do not make progress in that time, we could be in deep trouble." This period coincides with President Bush's remaining term in office. Afghanistan's future and Bush's presidential legacy are, as they have been since 9/11, inextricably linked.
Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001, is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.