by Arnold Zeitlin
Visiting Professor , Guangdong University of Foreign Studies
please excuse the length of the following rant (see below) and take comfort that it could have been much longer:
despite the temporary intrusion of politics in the ukraine, afghanistan remains the flavor of the month, and, perhaps, of the entire year 2014, among the foreign policy deep thinkers of the washington DC think tank community. the afghan election this weekend and the draw down if not outright removal by the end of the year of u.s. and NATO troops have intensified scrutiny, policy papers and public discussions.
most of the activity reflects the mainstream DC view that, some how, the united states, to defend its own security interest, must remain a principal, if not THE principal, benefactor of a society that could be a renewed stage for al-qaeda terrorism and is deeply corrupt and in many ways has yet to emerge from the middle ages. the fact that up to two-third of americans polled see no good in afghanistan after 13 years of expenditure amounting to near;ly $50 billion and 13 years of warfare (actually, more than that — going back to the soviet invasion of the country in 1979) tends to be dismissed and is rarely voiced in these discussions and papers.
Messengers of the mainstream view tend to be high-level personalities whose reputation very much ride on a semblance of u.s. success in afghanistan. most of these men and women are high-minded, well-intentioned, intelligent and well-educated, experienced in government or the military and ordinarily considered extemely competent. they are very much the sorts of americans operating in afghan affairs since the the soviet invasion. the wonder is that either despite or because of their qualifications, the american experience in afghanistan has been a cock up.
amidst the american cheer leading and fantasy about the elections is a grim report from john f. sopko, the special inspector general for afghan reconstruction, who, with the jolly acronym SIGAR, is tasked to providing “vigorous oversight” of u.s. assistance money “to detect…waste, fraud and abuse.”
in a talk at the south asia center of the american council, a DC think tank, sopko outlined a series of horror stories about corruption, concluding “the costs in afghanistan…have been enormous. if we don’t…get serious about corruption right now, we are putting all of the fragile gains that we have achieved in….our longest war at risk of failure. if we get it right, we can….help the afghan people build a country that does not become another failed criminal state and a safe haven for terrorists….
“first, the initial u.s. strategy in afghanistan not only failed to recognize the significance of corruption but may even have fostered a political climate conducive to corruption….massive military and aid spending overwhelmed the afghan government’s ability to absorb the assistance. this, coupled with weak oversight created opportunities for corruption….decisions by the united states…have contributed to the problem.
“transparency international puts afghanistan in the company of somalia and north korea as one of the three most corrupt countries in the world….in a 2013 survey, 80 percent of afghans described corruption as a major problem, 65 percent…said it was worse than the year before….last month, the u.s. military published a study…(asserting)…’corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the afghan state’….
“the united states still does not have a comprehensive, unified, anti-corruption strategy…..consequently, we have schools that have been built so badly they are in danger of collapsing, clinic with no patients or with patients and no supplies or clean water, afghan police and army garrisons that are not usable and roads that are distintegrating for lack of maintenance…”
you may read his remarks at www.sigar.mil, click onto special reports, or hear them at:
in other discussions, corruption is usually mentioned but not to the detriment of ju.s. involvement in ther country. of course, there is virtually no representation either in these discussions of afghans who prefer the americans and their allies depart, who may be in the camp of afghan president hamid karzai or, heaven forbid, may be elements from the taliban, who, despite their dark image, are essential in determining afghanistan’s future.
speaking at the brookings institution, another DC think tank, ronald neumann, a former u.s. ambassador to afghanistan, said “no one knows taliban thinking”, which, of course, may mean no one has asked. you may hear that discussion at http://www.brookings.edu/events/2014/03/31-afghanistan-election-and-drawdown
afghans who participate in discussions and on paper often are closely tied to u.s. mainstream interests and, occasionally, have more american than afghan ties. the DC discussion is loaded.
“things are not as bleak as they seem in afghanistan” is a theme expressed in an introduction to one discussion at the u.s. institute of peace, a congressionally created organization, which claims to do “non-partisan work” in preventing and resolving conflict. that occasion was a high-powered affair, opened by stephen j. hadley, the institute’s chairman and george w. bush’s former national security advisor, and including ambassador james f. dobbins, the state department’s special representative for afghanistan and pakistan, his retired predecessor, marc grossman, and david ensor, the director of america’s voice of america.
hadley insisted that a stable afghanistan can be achieved and the election will demonstrate that “power will be handed over peacefully.” certainly the office may be handed over, but as for “power,” that raises the question of who wields power in that country. none of the presidential candidates seem to have a grip on power.
dobbins said afghans will go to the polls in a time of “rising incomes, rising longevity, rising literacy, rising mobility, rising political engagement” and, pausing for a moment to grip reality, added “and rising uncertainty about the future.” he spoke of the danger of interference in the election by what he called “political entities,” evidently unwilling to even mention the name, taliban. dobbins then rattled off a series of statistics to bolster his assertion:
* longevity has risen from 42 years in 2001 (when the taliban were driven from rule in kabul) to 67 years;
* ten million children, 40 percent of whom are girls, are in schools;
* sixteen million subscribe to mobile phones;
* the econony has tripled and growth is at 9 percent (but no mention that u.s. annual aid of $16 billion is as large as the country’s gross national product.
* a total of 175 radio and 75 TV stations operate (but no mention that is has cost $500 million in aid to support them).
all of this is from the low period of 2001; i suspect the figures would be different if compared with afghanistan in the days when i covered it in 1970-72 or even when i was last there in 1989.
the USIP discussion is at http://www.usip.org/events/getting-beyond-2014-in-afghanistan.
in a talk at the center for american progress, sen. robert p. casey jr., a pennsylvania democrat, cited similar statistic and like almost all commentators, marveled at the progress of women, as if that had been an objective of u.s. involvement (remember it was to get rid of al-qaeda) and without noting that the status of women in places like pakistan and oil-rich saudi arabia seems to be low in priority in u.s. relations with those countries. you may hear casey at: http://www.americanprogress.org/events/2014/02/28/85008/afghan-elections-and-the-u-s-role-beyond-2014/
another common theme is praise for the performance of the afghan army, which seems miraculously in six to 12 months to have become an effective fighting force. interestingly,retired general john allen, former u.s. commander in afghanistan ,in a talk at brookings, where he is now a fellow, steered away from that hyperbole, although he said the army, “well advised and tactically mobile, will have a reach that we have not seen before.”
finally, two young afghans presented at the woodrow wilson center for scholars, another think tank, a report on civil society’s role in the afghan future. they were perfect examples of the sort of young people in such short supply in afghanistan. one, mehreen farooq, was a graduate of american university in DC, the other, waleed ziad is working for a ph.d at yale. their own future as modernists is tied to a medieval society; it is easy to sympathize with their plight. you may see and hear more at: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/civil-society-afghanistan-spark-or-stumbling-block-for-stability.
in concluding their report, they insist the united states “cannot afford to abandon afghanistan” summing up reasons that pretty much reflect what other mainstream thinkers advocate:
*”if the security situation worsens, afghanistan could fall back into the hands of violent extremists (read al-qaeda) or become a failed state..;”
* with nuclear-armed pakistan to the east and nuclear-ambitious iran to the south and west, “the u.s. cannot afford to ignore how afghanistan will interact with its neighbors”;
* after spending at least “$647 billion u.s. taxpayer dollars in the…longest standing war in u.s. history….this financial investment should not be squandered by completely abandoning our investments and achievements there.”
these reasons can be challenged. eminences as lofty as joint chiefs chairman admiral michael g. mullen and defense secretary leon panetta assured americans as recently as 2011 that al qaeda in afghanistan was on the way out. al qaeda was always more comfortable in pakistan, any way, and since has moved to franchises in more hospitable environments in yemen, syria and somalia among other points. as for all that $647 billion, until both the united states and afghanistan get their fiscal acts together, it might be prudent to avoid throwing good money after bad.
thank you to anyone who managed to read this far. luv all, az