Charting a course for United States policy in Afghanistan poses many challenges as well as many opportunities. A panel hosted by the Heritage Foundation on August 27, 2009 discussed Afghanistan’s uncertain future and how to provide stability for the region.
“In the last ninety days or so…we’ve seen many changes in both leadership and strategy and resources,” said Lt. Gen. David W. Barno (USA-Ret.), Director of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. “It’s clear as we look at the dimensions of the challenges [in Afghanistan] that we’re in a critical period of time.”
Barno said that the “next twelve to eighteen months” will be crucial in deciding the outcome of the conflict. He also stressed the importance of “restor[ing] the trust between the Afghan government and their people.”
“That [trust] has been fractured over the last three-and-a-half years or so. During my [time] there from 03-05, there was a great deal of respect, trust, confidence, optimism between the people of Afghanistan and their emerging government. That is not true today and that has to change,” he said.
Barno described the Taliban strategy as “run[ning] out the clock” on the opposition. For this reason, Barno argued that the support of the American people is critical to achieving success in Afghanistan, because the Taliban strategy is “deeply rooted in our history there.”
Barno added that he has been approached by Afghans expressing concerns about whether the United States would abandon Afghanistan before the conflict is resolved.
“Their experience…is that at the end of the Soviet conflict, which Afghans believe they won on behalf of the West…at the end of that conflict, they believe America walked away from Afghanistan, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support their view of what occurred in the late 1980’s and early 90’s,” he said.
According to Barno, a “unity of effort” among international security forces, the United States military, and the Afghan army and police is necessary to combat the Taliban strategy. Barno argued that this should begin at a “grassroots level” rather than through deadlines set by politicians in Washington.
“Our organizational structures…in Washington don’t work that way. They’re not designed to work that way,” he said. “But we’ve got to get them to work in the field. Without that, we are not going to succeed in Afghanistan.”
Barno further argued that it will be incumbent upon the newly elected government of Afghanistan to regain the trust of the Afghan people.
“There is a tremendous gap now between the people’s expectations, which I saw as so high and so optimistic in 2004 and 2005 and where the Afghan people are today. So [President Karzai] of Afghanistan…has got to take on as priority effort rebuilding this trust,” he said.
Barno also expressed his concerns about the American people going back to Pre-September 11th mentality, thinking that such an event will “not happen again.” He cautioned that Americans need to be “extraordinarily vigilant” to prevent another major attack, adding that instability in Afghanistan breeds instability in Pakistan and other countries in the region, thus providing opportunities for terrorist ideology to flourish.
Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, Scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute, expressed his concerns about the recent Afghan elections.
“We went into this election expecting that indeed this would be a close election,” he said. “Despite the loss of popularity which had [lowered Karzai to] about 50%, that was no indication here necessarily of the support that [Karzai] would get in the election.”
In addition to not considering this level of support to be significant, Weinbaum referred to reported Taliban threats to disrupt the election as the “dog that wouldn’t bite.” He argued that it seemed as though there had been “two elections” in Afghanistan, one in the city of Kabul and another in the rest of the country.
On September 10, 2009, Afghanistan’s United Nations (UN)-backed Electoral Complaints Commission invalidated votes from Afghanistan’s southern, ethnic Pashtun provinces of Kandahar, Ghazni, and Paktika. These invalidated votes will be too few to affect Karzai’s lead and force him into a second round with opponent Abdullah Abdullah. The commission is currently continuing its investigation to finally decide whether a run-off election is necessary.
According to Weinbaum, Kabul’s elections went “smoothly,” but the same could not be said for other areas in the country.
“There is a direct relationship…between the security of the area in which the polling is taking place and the possibility for fraud,” he said. The Taliban surely must have been familiar with this principle; otherwise (as in the immortal words of the Baha Men) the dogs would have been “let out” to an even greater degree.
David Isby, author of the forthcoming book, Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires, a New History of the Borderlands’ Conflicts, argued that “the most important U.S. policy decision in Afghanistan is not implementing current policies but rather deciding what should come after them.”
“It will be easy for critics of the current administration to say simply ‘bring the troops home,’ which would enable the left to simply recycle their favorite bumper stickers, or for the Congress to impose conditions on the U.S. commitment or requirements upon the Afghan government that may be politically attractive but self-defeating,” Isby said.
Isby encouraged a “lasting relationship” between the United States and Afghanistan, similar to the relationship between the United States and Israel. “That Afghans fought and died is one of the reasons that all humanity can enjoy a world without Soviet Communism,” he said.
Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow for South Asia at the Heritage Foundation, focused on Pakistan’s role in the region, saying that the “U.S. has to have a partner in Kabul that has credibility with the Afghan people.”
She added that the Afghan people participated in the election “in the face of brutal Taliban threats and attacks.”
“I think this says something about the Afghans’ determination to pursue a democratic future rather than harsh Islamist rule like that we saw under the Taliban in the late 1990’s,” she said. “The Taliban’s threat to cut off the fingers of those who voted, I think shows their desperation, and shows that they have nothing to offer the people except violence and intimidation.”
Curtis argued that it should be up to the Afghan people to decide whether voter turnout for the election was “high enough to reflect their will.” She added that if President Karzai maintains over 50% of the vote amidst accusations of voter tampering, his government would be on “very shaky ground.”
According to Curtis, this could result in a run-off election in October, giving the Taliban more opportunities to thwart the efforts of the new Afghan government.
At the same time, the process could foster Afghan belief in the democratic process. “[The Taliban] still believe they can chase the coalition forces out of the country and retake power and institute their harsh Islamist rule that accommodates Al Qaeda and its agenda, and this is simply an outcome that the U.S. cannot afford,” she said.