As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Afghanistan Review Up On Friday

The big foreign policy news is that President Obama will unveil his policy review on Afghanistan on Friday.

The source declined to provide any details of the much-anticipated review, which has been looking for new ways to halt the worsening insurgency in Afghanistan.

Obama has said the United States is not winning in Afghanistan and last month ordered the deployment of 17,000 extra U.S. troops to the country.

He declined to comment on the results of the review on Tuesday. "I don't want to prejudge what is still a work in process," he told reporters.

Nevertheless, senior administration officials have provided the outlines of possible policy adjustments.

They have spoken out in favor of increasing the size of the Afghan security forces, improving cooperation between NATO nations and the Afghan government and increasing civilian assistance to build institutions and infrastructure.

These are frankly marginal components to an overall solution. The Afghan security forces don't simply need an increase in size, but an increase in core competency - recent reports have shown many of them to be drug-addicted and unreliable. Civilian assistance and regional cooperation is nice, but will fail to change the fundamental dynamic of a homegrown insurgency and a corrupt central government increasingly hated by the population.

On those fronts, the Administration has moved in various ways. First, they are seeking cooperation from local forces, including so-called "moderate Taliban" and warlords. The government feels it needs their help in securing goals on economic stability, infrastructure growth and poppy eradication, as well as to undercut popular support for the Taliban. In addition, the Guardian reports on plans to bypass Hamid Karzai:

The US and its European allies are preparing to plant a high-profile figure in the heart of the Kabul government in a direct challenge to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, the Guardian has learned.

The creation of a new chief executive or prime ministerial role is aimed at bypassing Karzai. In a further dilution of his power, it is proposed that money be diverted from the Kabul government to the provinces. Many US and European officials have become disillusioned with the extent of the corruption and incompetence in the Karzai government, but most now believe there are no credible alternatives, and predict the Afghan president will win re-election in August [...]

As well as watering down Karzai's personal authority by installing a senior official at the president's side capable of playing a more efficient executive role, the US and Europeans are seeking to channel resources to the provinces rather than to central government in Kabul.

A diplomat with knowledge of the review said: "Karzai is not delivering. If we are going to support his government, it has to be run properly to ensure the levels of corruption decrease, not increase. The levels of corruption are frightening."

This is fraught with danger. Karzai was installed as a puppet several years ago, and his weak governing style has worn out its welcome among the population. I tend to doubt the lack of credible alternatives, and believe there's nothing credible about usurping the authority of an elected leader, which could easily backfire. Decentralizing power probably makes sense in a nation with almost no history of strong civic institutions, but I don't see how installing that from above helps matters. As Charles Lemos notes, another puppet just adds a buch of strings:

It is hard to not see this move as the installation of a puppet government. The other aspect of the plan is a de-centralization effort aimed at bypassing the central government in Kabul altogether. Money will be directed more to the officials who run Afghanistan outside the capital - the 34 provincial governors and 396 district governors. "The point on which we insist is that the time is now for a new division of responsibilities, between central power and local power," the senior European official said.

But what leads me to conclude that the Guardian's story is accurate is this line:

"In Wardak, as in southern Afghanistan, U.S. forces are embracing local leaders while quietly sidestepping President Hamid Karzai -- whose relations with American military leaders and diplomats have grown toxic. Wardak Gov. Mohammed Halim Fidai is an English-speaking former refugee who has spent much of his career working for U.S.-funded NGOs and has enthusiastically embraced the new strategy."

It seems that we are to have a large number of Afghan puppets.

Finally, the Administration will include an exit strategy in their policy review, which is about the only facet of it I totally agree with. President Obama discussed this with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes:

STEVE KROFT: Afghanistan ... What-- what should that mission be?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Making sure that al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies. That's our number one priority. And in service of that priority there may be a whole host of things that we need to do. We may need to build up-- economic capacity in Afghanistan. We may need to-- improve our diplomatic efforts in Pakistan.

We may need to bring a more regional-- diplomatic approach to bear. We may need to coordinate more effectively with our allies. But we can't lose sight of what our central mission is. The same mission that we had when we went in after 9/11. And that is these folks can project-- violence against the United States' citizens. And that is something that we cannot tolerate.

But what we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems. . So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's gotta be an exit strategy. There-- there's gotta be a sense that this is not perpetual drift.

That's very smart, but sometimes events take control - especially if all the troops and the money and the alternative governing strategies and drawn-out counter-insurgency tactics have been put in place. Afghanistan remains dangerous but the military cannot solve the entire puzzle, not that the Administration believes that. I do not mean to abandon Afghanistan, but I do think we can look to alternative strategies such as those put forward by Reps. Mike Honda and Raul Grijalva:

On the economic front, Afghanistan's infrastructure is near non-existent. This is a serious security issue. The lack of an adequate transportation grid for healthy trade makes poppy the crop of choice for Afghan farmers. Poppy produces quickly in dry climates, harvests in three months, and withstands long journeys to market. Since Afghanistan provides 92 percent of the world's opium, strategies to transition farmers off poppy must rely less on eradication and more on providing alternative crops—pomegranate, sugar cane, maize, cotton, rice, squash, legumes and potatoes—and viable market routes, regionally, nationally and internationally. Add training for traders, market managers and small-business owners, and a program to empower women economically (business is profitably boosted when gender-balanced), and a new Afghan economy emerges.

Furthermore, by freeing farmers of the financial fix offered by poppy, you undermine the Taliban's hold. The Taliban protects and finances farmers who face crop eradication, a dependency that establishes unwitting loyalty. If we intervene by providing farmers with alternative options, we reduce the Taliban's reach and employ communities that are facing unemployment rates of 40 percent to 80 percent. Other ways of reducing Taliban influence include the construction of schools (enrollment is dangerously low at 25 percent) and hospitals (provinces like Helmand struggle to equip even two hospitals for 700,000 residents). As long as Kabul quits the nation on both accounts, the Taliban is eager to substitute [...]

The president's intent is right, to help a beleaguered country realign itself. But lest Obama miss the opportunity to learn from the previous administration's mistakes, a concerted effort to realize these economic, political and social goals is necessary. We recognize that the answer to Afghanistan remains elusive, as it has puzzled outsiders, from Britain, to Russia and now America. But we need to do right in a country that is failing fast. The ground for gain, economically, politically and socially, is vast. We trust the president is ready to pursue it.

Relatedly, Steve Hynd argues that the consensus view on the need for counter-insurgency tactics in Afghanistan is wrong, and the public does not want a protracted 15-year campaign in the tribal regions costing maybe a trillion dollars, and that the more favorable approach is a containment strategy that relies on local intelligence and law enforcement to ensure that extremist elements cannot project violence across borders.

I am willing to listen to the policy review and engage with it directly, and will not pre-judge the process. But the mission and the tactics have to be roughly equivalent, and we cannot ask our military to employ themselves serving an impossible goal.

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