Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Obama decision on Afghantistan

Last week President Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy to secure the population, pressure the Taliban, and train indigenous forces. The Bush administration, after launching a war against Al Qaeda and the host Taliban government following the September 11th attacks in 2001, proceeded to neglect the Afghan situation in favor of the next war it launched in Iraq. The under-resourced allied forces were left in a weak position leading to endless warfare that in turn contributed to the destabilization of Pakistan and war weariness on the part of the public of the United States and its European allies who also have troops on the ground.

Many were (and are) ambivalent about the proposal and the temptation to simply abandon the central Asian country was (and remains) high in many quarters across the political spectrum. However, Steve Coll argues (hat tip to Jeff Weintraub) that abandonment of Afghanistan now would produce a worse civil war than the Afghans suffered in the 90’s, further destabilize Pakistan which could result in a new Indo-Pakistan war, and increase danger to the Americans and British alike. There were no easy solutions for the President to pick from given the rather the serious consequences of simply walking away versus the costliness but unpredictable outcome of pushing forward on the war.

Clare Lockhart, of the Institute for State Effectiveness, writes in the London Times Obama struck the right balance in his decision:
President Obama has got it right. After taking his time to wrestle with the enormous challenge of defining the US national interest in Afghanistan and its region, he has provided a credible vision of ending the war, stabilising the country and handing over responsibility to Afghan self-rule. His move away from fighting, endorsing General Stanley McChrystal’s analysis, will protect the population and provide a security bridge while Afghan forces are trained.

No country can be run by an army alone. Lasting security in Afghanistan will be provided when Afghans can govern themselves. Mr Obama’s speech balances nurturing Afghan governance at all levels with a tough stance on accountability.

This provides a framework for restoring Afghan self-rule. It learns the lesson that bypassing Afghan institutions and spending billions of dollars on a parallel set of organisations run by UN agencies, NGOs and contractors that leach capacity away from core Afghan frontline services does not work.


The key conundrum now is that an effective counter-insurgency strategy requires a legitimate government. In recent years, the Afghan Government has lost the trust of both the international community and its own citizens. Requiring a set of strict accountability standards is an important way to restore integrity. Rather than proclaim the existing Government as legitimate, a better approach is to recognise that legitimacy is earned. Trust should be restored through deeds, not words.

Change needs to come not only from the Afghans, but the way that international actors operate. The aid system requires a thorough revamping, so that it no longer undermines the very institutions it claims to support. This will require measures such as limiting the wages paid to Afghan staff working in the aid system to the same level they would earn in Afghan ministries.
It will also require choices about which Afghans the international actors choose to consort with. A senior Afghan official described to me with dismay how, at an important national meeting, three significant figures walked straight past legitimate representatives who had been sent from their districts, and made a beeline for three warlords standing in the corner. This casual slight was deeply symbolic; the representatives left the meeting crestfallen.

There are three steps that remain: first, Afghanistan needs a peace-building framework. There is already a reconciliation effort under way, aimed at bringing insurgents back within the political fold. A broader approach would seek to build on the broad consensus within Afghan society already expressed through the series of Loya Jirga (tribal councils) and the recent public discussions on the need for a restoration of rule of law and just governance.

Second, the fastest and cheapest way to create stability is to engage Afghanistan’s youth with the skills they need to manage their own futures. There is a lost generation of Afghans, whose education was sacrificed to 20 years of jihad against the Soviet Union and civil war. The new generation — the 60 per cent of Afghans under 25 — fare no better.

Leaving school under-educated at 11, poor pre-teens make rich pickings for madrassas, the Taleban and the opium economy. The most cost-effective way to stabilise Afghanistan would be to invest in the secondary and advanced education and training of the next generation and find out how many medics, teachers, engineers, accountants, lawyers, construction workers and farming specialists are needed.

Third, Afghanistan can and should pay for its own nation-building. The rich potential of the Afghan economy offers not only the basis for millions of jobs for Afghans, but the means for it to collect the revenue to pay its own bills. The recent US Geological Survey report shows that Afghanistan has hundreds of billions of dollars of mineral wealth. It has significant agricultural potential and a thriving textiles and construction industry. It could also collect several billion dollars a year in revenue from trade passing through as well as taxes on business and land. Instead, this money is being collected illegally, furnishing the insurgents’ and warlords’ coffers instead.

Yet the most inspiring aspect of President Obama’s speech is his picture of America maintaining its moral authority in the world through the way that it ends wars and prevents conflict. He speaks of an America seeking not to claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples, but one that is heir to a noble struggle for freedom. And this offers hope to American citizens, their allies and the Afghan people.
You can read Coll’s blog here and Lockhart’s entire article here.

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