Nation-Building on the Cheap

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Not long after the Taliban fell and Hamid Karzai became president of Afghanistan, Ali Jalali's phone rang at his Glenwood, Md., home. It was his old friend Karzai, inviting Jalali to return to his homeland and work in the new government. Jalali, who had fled Afghanistan 22 years earlier and taken U.S. citizenship, accepted. He served nearly three years as Karzai's interior minister, stepping down in late 2005 to teach at the National Defense University here. Recently, Jalali spoke with Washington Post staff writer Marc Kaufman about the hard lessons he learned nation-building in Afghanistan.

There has been a sharp escalation of violence [in Afghanistan], especially in the south. Why the upsurge?

A combination of foreign support, the militants' use of safe havens across the border, weak government control in the area, poverty, a growing connection between drug traffickers and terrorists, and repression of communities by local thugs and corrupt government officials -- they all contribute to the problem.

The Taliban and other terrorist forces have little support in Afghanistan. Their leadership, ideology and political vision have long been rejected by the people. If, God forbid, the Afghanistan government fails, it will not fail because of the Taliban. . . . It will fail because people do not see significant changes in their lives.

You were a member of the Karzai government for almost three years. What has kept it from doing more?

I have known President Karzai for a long time. He is honest in his efforts and does try to respond to these challenges. But he lacks a strong and cohesive political party, a team to help him formulate good policies and to follow through with implementation. [It's hard] governing through deals with regional networks, warlords and opportunistic wheeler-dealers. No real vision.

The American government and international community have said Afghanistan is at the center of the war on terrorism and have poured in billions of dollars. Do they have a vision?

They all have different visions. You see this clearly in the development of the security sector. The main pillars of reform -- army, police, justice, counternarcotics and disarmament -- are interconnected, but they were each supported by one "lead nation" from the G-7 group, and their approaches can be very different. For example, even if you built a very good police force, the criminal justice sector being developed very weakly by the Italians wouldn't support it. When you arrest a suspect, the police can legally hold him for 24 hours, and then he goes to the judicial sector. Often the suspects buy their way out.

Is the Afghan economy coming alive at all? Are things improving?

During the past four years, Afghanistan made remarkable progress. Still, the recovery is fragile and cannot be sustained without prolonged international assistance. By March 2006, the Afghan economy had grown by more than 80 percent since 2001, but much of that growth comes from foreign assistance and [the] illegal drug economy. Estimates are that only 6 percent of people have access to electricity, and less than 20 percent to clean water.

Has that level of electricity distribution or clean water availability changed much in the last four years?

Not much, I would say.

That's surprising, given the amount of aid we've been told has gone to Afghanistan.

In the 2004 Berlin conference, the figure agreed on for securing Afghanistan's future came to $28 billion over seven years. But how much was really invested? You know, a pledge does not mean that this money is going to be available.

What percentage of the aid money is actually reaching Afghanistan?

In some cases [of specific contracts], I was told less than 30 percent.

There is a general belief here that things are getting better in Afghanistan. You seem to be saying that maybe isn't true.

If you compare Afghanistan today with three years ago, you can definitely see some progress. You don't see warlords challenging the central government. In 2003, I wanted to bring changes to the center of Paktia province, Gardez, but a few thugs were ruling that province. It took us a lot to replace them. New people we sent in had to go with a contingent of police. Now you don't see that kind of situation in Afghanistan. But there are still so many other problems, and together they keep Afghanistan weak. I believe the international community should realize that stabilizing Afghanistan and keeping it from becoming a failed state again cannot be achieved on the cheap.

Has that been done on the cheap so far?


What do you make of the announced reductions in American troops in Afghanistan, and their replacement by NATO forces?

A drawdown in Afghanistan would send a very negative message. Already, some people in Afghanistan speculate that the United States is again abandoning Afghanistan. The Taliban and some neighboring countries are playing a waiting game, saying the United States will leave one day. Taliban commanders are often quoted in Afghanistan saying, "The Americans have the clocks, we have the time."

The Iraq war started soon after you arrived back in Kabul. How did that war change the war you were fighting?

There were intangible impacts -- especially the shift in attention. And the attacks against American and coalition forces in Iraq encouraged some people in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, to think, "Okay, we can do the same thing in Afghanistan."

Tactics like suicide bombings?

Yes. Suicide attacks are alien to the Afghans, and the more sophisticated roadside bomb technology are al-Qaeda efforts adapted by the Taliban and other terrorists. Most likely they came from there, from Iraq.

Pakistan often talks of helping the United States find Osama bin Laden and [his second in command] Ayman Zawahiri, but do you think the Afghan government gets much help from Pakistan in catching Taliban leaders?

The Taliban have training camps, staging areas, recruiting centers and safe havens in Pakistan. As long as the Taliban continue to use Pakistani territory for attacks on Afghanistan, the suspicion that Pakistan is playing a double game will persist.

The Afghan Supreme Court recently condemned a man to death for having converted to Christianity. He was released, but how do you understand what happened?

He was never at risk, and only the media publicity made it a very difficult case. . . . One thing that has created resentment among Afghans is the perception that some aid organizations try to lure people from their religion. They argue that the person was a needy person, and converting to Christianity was the price he had to pay to get help.

Do you think there are aid groups now doing the same kind of things?

Yes, I've heard that some aid groups are at the same time evangelical groups that try to proselytize Christianity among needy Afghans.

Powerful people in Afghanistan tend to attract enemies. Did that happen to you?

There were two or three known attempts on my life, and four or five reported attempts.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company