A New Strategy for Afghanistan

The scene of an explosion near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last month.
The scene of an explosion near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last month. (By Rahmat Gul -- Associated Press)
By Lakhdar Brahimi
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Seven years ago in Bonn, Germany, Afghan political representatives reached an agreement under U.N. auspices to rebuild their country on the ruins of the Taliban regime. Some called the conclusion of that agreement, with just weeks of preparation and only 10 days of negotiations, a diplomatic miracle. On some levels it was. But the deal was reached hastily, by people who did not adequately represent all key constituencies in Afghanistan, and it ignored some core political issues. As I said publicly then, any progress achieved remains unsustainable until the most difficult questions are confronted. And today, Afghanistan faces serious troubles.

A great deal has been achieved: For at least two years after Bonn, most Afghans felt more secure than they had in decades; more than 5 million refugees returned home; about 80 percent of the population obtained access to at least some health care; 5 million to 6 million children returned to school; parts of the national or local government came to be led by capable, honest people. Many Afghans and foreigners lost their lives for these accomplishments; their sacrifice must be recognized.

Yet the challenges confronting Afghanistan could still reverse all this progress. In the face of widespread lawlessness, joblessness, poor governance, corruption, narco-trafficking and an escalating level of bombings, Afghan hopes have given way to despair, resignation and anger. President Hamid Karzai would be the first to recognize that his government is making little headway. The government is losing ground every day to insurgents and other outlaws who now control at least a third of the country. Rather than uniting against a common enemy, various Afghan politicians remain distracted by selfish, futile struggles for power.

The international community, meanwhile, is viewed by Afghans as having reneged on its promises to secure and rebuild the country. Billions in aid are perceived to have been misdirected or wasted. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which before coming under NATO leadership was welcomed in Kabul, is perceived as dysfunctional; it runs the risk of being seen by most Afghans as a foreign occupation force. And foreign occupying forces do not fare well in Afghanistan.

A new strategy is urgently required. It must be a collective effort of Afghans and all their foreign partners. Three sets of questions -- yet to be answered properly -- should provide the starting point for discussions.

First, what is the Taliban, whom does it represent, how powerful is it and what does does it want? Are Afghans leaving or joining its ranks, and why? How much of the insecurity in Afghanistan can rightfully be attributed to the Taliban?

Second, what will it take to build a strong relationship of mutual confidence between Afghanistan and Pakistan? Such a relationship is indispensable, because it is a geopolitical reality that peace cannot be sustained in Afghanistan if Pakistan is opposed to it.

Third, to what degree are major developments in the region affecting the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan and, more generally, shaping the context for progress in Afghanistan?

Seven years ago, the Taliban was routed and vanished from Kabul and other big cities, but it never surrendered to anyone. It stood to reason that its intentions and strength would have a major bearing on the country's future. The United Nations therefore made two suggestions in early 2002: to reach out to those members of the Taliban potentially willing to join the political process; and to deploy the ISAF outside of Kabul, with significantly increased strength. Both fell on deaf ears. I regret bitterly not having advocated even more forcefully for these proposals at the highest levels. Their pursuit then might have changed the course of events in Afghanistan.

By 2003, as President-elect Barack Obama has noted, the Iraq war had fundamentally altered the context for international action on Afghanistan. In addition to the diversion of resources and attention, Iraq made it much easier for al-Qaeda and others to portray the U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan as part of a broader "invasion" of Muslim countries and an assault against Islam. In the absence of a strategy to credibly convince ordinary Afghans and others in the Muslim world that this is not the case, there is a danger that additional troops or money for Afghanistan will have limited, if any, impact.

Afghans who committed themselves to peace seven years ago must do so again today. They cannot let personal ambitions and rivalries distract them from the dangers their country faces.

NATO members, meanwhile, must resist the temptation to keep conducting "strategic reviews" in parallel to the Afghans and one another. A single strategy is needed.

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