America's Latest Mistake in Afghanistan
Lethargy pervades the U.S. effort in Afghanistan at a time when urgent changes are needed. Evelyn Farkas, a member of last week’s election-monitoring delegation, explains what it will take to turn around the country.
The outcome of the Afghan elections may very well make the task for the international community in Afghanistan suddenly even harder than it appeared just a week ago, when there was already plenty of teeth-gnashing generated by the question of sending even more U.S. troops there. We need a legitimate government—and ideally a popular one—in order to make progress on achieving our objective: an Afghan government able to prevent its territory from being used as a safe haven by terrorists intent on attacking the United States.
Unfortunately, what the elections have demonstrated so far is that enthusiasm for them was lower than during the first round of democratic elections in 2004-2005. It will take probing by social scientists and pollsters to figure out how much of the lower turnout this time was due to intimidation or apathy (more specifically, the sense that the outcome was a predetermined victory for President Karzai).
Anecdotally, several international election observers could not help but be struck by poll workers and interpreters who “forgot” their voter registration cards, even in Kabul, where intimidation was less of a factor than in Taliban-controlled areas. Jahed Mohseni, the young Afghan head of the Moby Media group, responsible for the western-style presidential campaign debates, speaking with a perfect Australian accent, told a group of election observers, “What we are tackling is apathy.” So, despite all the television programs and the colorful blue-tinted campaign posters plastered over Afghanistan’s dusty storefronts, lampposts and fluttering from fences, perhaps Afghans felt helpless in the face of their president’s deal-making with warlords and rivals. In the end, the leaders of groups—tribes, militias—would decide rather than individuals.
For too long the U.S. and international effort has focused on the central government, and specifically the presidency, exerting efforts that go against the historical grain of this decentralized country.
We need a credible dynamic government in Afghanistan, one willing to fight corruption and empower Afghan citizens, especially women, who have the motivation to work for mutual interests with the international community. We also need dynamism on the U.S. and international side of team.
An embassy official who worked in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and returned this year recently lamented the fact that not much has changed in terms of U.S. government activities in Afghanistan, and more agonizingly that there is a spirit of lethargy pervading the embassy in Kabul. “There is no sense of urgency… and if this is the number one national priority, we need the right people.” He wasn’t talking about the cavalcade of new ambassadors in Afghanistan, but about the staff responsible for implementing programs. The U.S. effort needs quality personnel who will venture outside the embassy and who have more responsibility and incentives to demonstrate results.
As for the specific results, a credible Afghan government and vigorous international effort should aim to: 1) strengthen the National Assembly, or parliament of Afghanistan; 2) shift more focus on empowering local government, rather than the central government; 3) train Afghan security forces using special operations forces methods which demonstrate respect and are more likely to be accepted and effective; 4) vigorously prosecute the new counternarcotics strategy targeting drug kingpins, and hopefully laboratories; and 5) build partnerships with the business community to encourage their investment by mitigating their risk.
For too long the U.S. and international effort has focused on the central government, and specifically the presidency, exerting efforts that go against the historical grain of this decentralized country. It is especially important to right the balance of emphasis, if the elections yield a president that is not strong and legitimate in the eyes of a substantial segment of the Afghan population. The way to do this is to bolster the authorities and role of the Afghan National Assembly, and to work with local leaders who are not corrupt and genuinely interested in improving the security and prospects of their people.
Those local leaders who are willing to be strong credible partners should have the full support of the international community in fighting the drug trade and developing local economies. That is how it begins and ends; as Shafiq Popal, Chairman of the Afghanistan Youth National Social Organization explained last week, “If someone is jobless he will start robbing and then if he still has no job he will start killing and join the Taliban… we are fighting for jobs and rights.”
Evelyn N. Farkas, Senior Fellow at the American Security Project, was a member of the International Republican Institute's election monitoring delegation in Afghanistan last week, and is the author of Fractured States and US Foreign Policy: Iraq, Ethiopia and Bosnia in the 1990s.