Obama’s Inherited Mess

The Brits and the Soviets learned this the hard way: No one tames Afghanistan. But if President Obama approaches the Central Asian quagmire with these five things in mind, there may be hope yet. Maybe.

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The daily death toll in Afghanistan makes it hard to see beyond the horizon. Twelve killed Wednesday in a home used by UN staffers; eight soldiers dead the day before. This in addition to hundreds killed this week in neighboring Pakistan and in Iraq. As the administration considers its options on Afghanistan, much of the public debate has been dogged by the onslaught of human tragedy. We rightly ask how many soldiers the U.S. will be forced to send to quell the insurgency? What will happen during Afghanistan’s upcoming Nov. 7 presidential runoff?

One thing is for sure: If we are not supported by the people of Afghanistan, our efforts will fail regardless of how many troops we send. That was the lesson the British learned in Afghanistan 150 years ago; that is what the Soviets learned in the 1980s. If the U.S. is considered a temporary force helping to bring about a future in which government is responsible to its people, then there is a chance for success. If we are regarded as invaders and defenders of a corrupt regime, then we will fail.

This struggle is about the grass roots. And the Obama administration realizes that Afghans will have a stake in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida only if they see themselves as being empowered.

Thus far, however, U.S. efforts to promote governance in Afghanistan have been haphazard and replete with short-term thinking. Afghans have been patient for years only to be rewarded with a Kabul regime rotten beyond measure. Over eight years of conflict, the Bush administration placed far too much emphasis on supporting an individual—Hamid Karzai—rather than developing genuinely democratic institutions. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars in this effort with very little in the way of positive results. Corruption in Afghanistan takes place on an industrial scale. While the coming Nov. 7 electoral run-off is a first step to addressing critical issues of governance, much more needs to be done to regain the public trust.

There are five things the administration should keep in mind when considering its options in Afghanistan.

1) Government reform needs to happen now. A re-run of the Aug. 20 electoral debacle would be a political and public relations nightmare. Another exercise in colossal fraud by either Karzai or his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, will only serve to accelerate a decline in public support in government and provide insurgents an easy political victory. There is not much time for the administration to push hard for the immediate and urgent reform of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, which indicated a majority win for Karzai in September despite ubiquitous complaints of vote rigging. The Obama administration has done the Afghan people a service by intervening forcefully to keep government honest—enough to hold a run-off election. Those efforts need to be stepped up in other ways.

2) It’s about institutions, not individuals. America’s trust (and Afghanistan’s future) cannot be placed in the hands of Karzai or any other single member of an executive body that suffers from chronic legitimacy disorder. The U.S. needs to help Afghanistan overhaul fundamental institutions of governance in such a way that they generate public trust. They can start by seeking to decentralize power away from the executive toward the judiciary and the legislature.

The U.S. should press hard for the formation of a grand assembly (or Loya Jirga) to amend the constitution. To do so, credible district and council elections need to be organized as soon as possible—preferably alongside parliamentary elections next year. What is most important is that these institutions be relevant to Afghan culture and experience. We are dealing with a society structured around extended families and not necessarily individuals. Sitting with local tribesmen and community leaders is a lot more time consuming than finding Western style “partners,” but it is the main way in which key messages about empowerment can be both sent and received throughout the country.

3) Militaries aren’t the best humanitarians. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are currently more than 256,000 Afghans who are internally displaced in Afghanistan. In 2007, secondary school attendance for boys in Afghanistan stood at a mere 18 percent for boys and 6 percent for girls. A good way for the U.S. and Western donors to gain the trust of the Afghan people is to ensure that funding for humanitarian efforts is provided for areas of Afghanistan regardless of who holds the territory. Doing so does not represent capitulation to an enemy, but rather an extension of our professed values.

Current U.S. strategy envisions relief efforts for the Afghan people as a part of a larger counter-insurgency campaign. The administration and other Western donors have pressed humanitarian groups to work with the military to provide assistance under what are called provisional reconstruction teams. But putting humanitarians alongside soldiers blurs the distinction between the two. It puts humanitarian workers at risk of being considered military targets and makes it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to safely reach all who are in need. There may be times when the U.S. military is called in to do such projects as construct roads and build bridges, but as a rule of thumb, military activities and humanitarian efforts should be kept as separate endeavors.

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