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Getting It Right in Afghanistan

By Thomas A. Schweich
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Democrats and Republicans have spent the past two years sparring with each other on key aspects of the effort to rebuild Afghanistan. We have disagreed on such issues as whether to spray the poppy crop with chemicals and whether President Hamid Karzai and his friends are too corrupt. But as Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly during this time, we have also come to realize that we share some core beliefs. As the administration completes its strategic review of Afghanistan policy, I urge Democrats and Republicans, our allies abroad, and the Karzai government to come together on key points before it is too late:

-- More troops, but with the right mission. President Obama has ordered 17,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan. While more troops are needed to train the Afghan national army (and more civilian trainers -- not troops -- are needed to train the civilian police forces), additional troops risk invigorating the insurgency by increasing the number of civilian casualties. Civilian casualties are the single greatest reason we are losing support among the Afghan people and their government. U.S. commanders need to make clear that our primary mission in Afghanistan is to provide security to the people -- and that mission trumps pursuing terrorists in cases where the latter effort interferes with the former. A secure people will help us root out terrorists.

-- Public diplomacy in Europe. Some U.S. allies have largely maintained their effort in Afghanistan as a way to cooperate with the United States despite opposing the war in Iraq. They defined whatever mission their publics would accept, and NATO accepted that incoherence as the price of cooperation. Obama needs to get Europeans to understand that the most immediate threat to peace is the globalized extremism developing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has already reached into Europe. Greater dialogue will result in a more unified European commitment and possibly more troops.

-- Restructured development assistance. Karzai complained late last year that NATO's provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) constitute a "parallel government." The PRTs are a lottery; how much aid a province gets depends on the budget of the country commanding the PRT -- which could be the United States or Lithuania. Meanwhile, donors complain that they cannot go through the government in Kabul because its ministries are corrupt and slow-moving. Overall, the PRT structure distorts Afghan national priorities and conflicts with the government's structure. Working through community development councils to implement national programs under the general oversight of the Kabul government would allow the international community to fund what communities need rather than what allied nations can spare. This approach would affirm the political leadership of the central government while allowing communities to take ownership of reconstruction efforts and reduce costs.

-- Limited engagement with Iran. The Obama administration has taken the right step in saying it would engage with Tehran regarding Afghanistan -- but the engagement should be narrow in focus. When the United States branded Iran a part of "an axis of evil" while relying on Pakistan, which had basically created the Taliban, hard-liners gained the upper hand in Tehran. Iran, a nation of Shiite Muslims, derives no ideological or military benefit from supporting an extremist Sunni Muslim movement. Limited confidence-building efforts regarding Iran should begin with Afghanistan's drug trade, which funds the insurgency that is killing Americans. With over 50 percent of the Afghan opium trade transiting Iran, an estimated 3 million Iranians, mostly young people, are using heroin, morphine and opium. This common problem could be a starting point to a more productive relationship.

-- More effective engagement with Pakistan. Pakistanis believe that the United States propped up a military dictatorship to pursue its war against terrorism at the expense of their national interests. The democratically elected civilian government is trying to persuade its military and people that terrorist extremism and poverty are greater threats than India or the United States. We must financially support the new civilian government. Then we can work with it to finally end the Pakistani military and intelligence services' longtime partnership with armed militants and terrorists, and to integrate the tribal areas where these groups are based into the mainstream administration of the Pakistani state.

-- Agreement on common terms on peace negotiations with insurgents. Most of those fighting allied troops in Afghanistan pose no strategic threat to the United States. The Taliban regime, while vicious, brutal and repressive, did not plan and execute Sept. 11 -- al-Qaeda did. The Taliban continues to signal ambiguously the extent of its willingness to separate from al-Qaeda, compromise and seek a political role in Afghanistan. Until we see more credible signs of a willingness to make concessions, it is too early for real negotiations but not for exploratory talks to determine who would represent the various parties in real negotiations, and what sort of general terms Afghans and the international community could agree to. After that, how to deal with various Afghan factions is not a U.S. decision as long as those factions reliably disavow terrorism -- Afghanistan is a sovereign country.

-- Corruption. Massive corruption has eroded faith in the Afghan government and the international presence. The principal responsibility for corruption lies squarely with the Afghan government. The international presence can inadvertently feed corruption as military bases pay warlord militias to guard their perimeters and award contracts to warlords' relatives, some of whom are involved in drug trafficking and other crimes. The international community's use of contractors, some with no local knowledge or operational capacity, leads to opaque hierarchies of sub-contracting, in which some money is siphoned off in overhead by contractors and then funneled to locals who control security and construction companies. The United States and its allies must adopt a more refined assistance policy that attacks all causes of corruption.

These objectives depend on unity between the United States and its allies, and a recommitment by the Karzai government to integrity and decisiveness. Pulling this off will also require all of President Obama's diplomatic skills and patience.

Thomas A. Schweich, a visiting professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, was a special ambassador to Afghanistan during the Bush administration.

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