The Way Forward: Building Partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Part 2)

Media

[Read part 1 here.] I’ve been following issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as usual, and fully exposed to US media coverage of the war in Afghanistan. (Note: what follows isn't a political criticism of "mainstream media, simply a personal thought regarding a subconscious biais present in American media).

One thing in particular that struck me recently was that for all the talk of the Afghan government being a “partner,” the US has yet to treat Hamid Karzai as such. “Building Partners” does not mean building institutions, supporting certain officials or devising new policies to help lead Afghanistan (or Pakistan) to a brighter future: it means recognizing that the US is neither omnipotent nor all-cognizant, that to succeed in Afghanistan we have to build a true relationship with the government to ensure we leave behind a stable country when we ultimately leave Afghanistan (which by the way won’t be July 2011: everyone’s been clear this is the beginning of the process, and something else the press seems to have forgotten: barring a new announcement, this “withdrawal” will only concern the 30,000 troops that recently arrived). Even if we shift to counter-terror ops, we will retain a sizable military presence in Afghanistan, which means negotiating basing rights with the government, and we will continue to send important amounts of military aid Kabul’s way – in the neighborhood of $6 billion/year, according to an ISAF report recently obtained by AP.

Of course, this raises the legitimate question of who is “Afghanistan.” Is it Karzai? Tribal leaders? Warlords? While I definitely don’t claim to have the answer to such a question, I would suggest that we should try to convince Karzai that all security is local, to paraphrase Tip O’Neill (and to quote someone who recently paraphrased Tip O’Neill in this fashion) – that the US goal isn’t to destabilize Karzai. Given his lack of trust in the US, the nighttime arrest of an advisor who plays a key role in Afghan politics and  presidential palace intrigue  may not have been the best way to sell anti-corruption measures as a tool of enhanced governmental control to Karzai…

On the other hand, I was struck this morning (September 7) by a thought that caused me to pause: commenting on Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent surprise trip to Afghanistan, an American official explained to the NYT that given the strains in the relationship, public criticism of Karzai on corruption wasn’t helpful. True, but this argument reminded me of arguments by Bush administration officials to defend their support of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to the bitter end… A troubling, if imperfect parallel (Karzai doesn’t control the army like Musharraf did but remains a somewhat legitimate leader of his country – at any rate who would be more legitimate at this point, right now, than Hamid Karzai?), but one that has caused me to ponder at great length on this issue today – except during work hours of course.

In this context, talk of  India making a more concerted outreach to Iran and Russia  is most welcome news for the US and its allies, although it may not appear so at first glance. Indeed, the US (as the lead ISAF contributor) needs to work with the fabled “regional stakeholders” about which much has been written and little acted upon (at least in the public arena – hopefully behind the scenes diplomatic corridors are overcrowded with such informal meetings). Given the difficulty of reaching out to actors such as India, Iran and Russia, the possibility they may coordinate their views potentially presents the US with an opportunity to talk with one block, not three actors individually; and I would imagine having go-betweens to Iran could prove useful for both Washington and Teheran…

Finally, the last group the US must seek to maintain strong, vibrant partnerships with is its traditional European allies: they need to be convinced that their voices will be heard as we shift towards a political process and exit strategy down the road – something they’ve been advocating for a while – that the US appreciates their sacrifices and is aware of the political pressure their leaders face back home due to their continued support for the war in Afghanistan. This isn’t to say NATO nations couldn’t contribute more, at the very least in trainers and in delivering funds they pledged for the reintegration process, which has apparently been trickling in at a very slow rate (i.e. $2.6 million out of $250 million). However, it should be noted with regard to this last point that the US has reportedly only spent $200,000 out of a $100 million account that General David Petraeus has control over specifically for this purpose, so who knows what the real issue is here - all I know is, I'm not knowledgeable enough or sufficiently delusional to claim to understand the full picture in Afghanistan, but I increasingly wonder if anyone actually does…

Afghanistan, Corruption, Pakistan, Taliban, United States, Haqqani Network