Havens in Pakistan loom as biggest hurdle in Afghanistan

Bill Harris says he sees "no signs that our government has made any progress" over the past year in stemming the flow of militants into the south.
Bill Harris says he sees "no signs that our government has made any progress" over the past year in stemming the flow of militants into the south.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

After serving as the senior U.S. diplomat responsible for Kandahar, Bill Harris is convinced that American forces have made "staggering progress" against insurgents this fall in areas around Afghanistan's second-largest city.

But he is equally certain that the overall war will fail if the United States does not find a way to eliminate the de facto sanctuary that Taliban fighters have established in neighboring Pakistan. "As we sat there for a year . . . we knew the insurgents who attacked us were going to Pakistan to re-equip, replenish, retrain and get orders to attack us again," he said.

His alarm over Pakistan, which grew with each month he spent in Kandahar, contrasts with his diminishing concern over the behavior of President Hamid Karzai's half brother, the most powerful political leader in southern Afghanistan. Harris arrived thinking that Ahmed Wali Karzai was Afghanistan's equivalent of the notorious Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar and should be expelled. Harris left believing that Karzai was supporting U.S. strategy and that decisions about his future should be left to Afghans, not Americans.

Harris's field-level insights on Pakistan and the Karzai family illuminate the challenges facing the United States as it seeks to translate recent security improvements into something more than transitory gains. Those issues are among the most important and complicated questions being discussed by members of President Obama's national security team as they assess the Afghan war this week.

"Pakistani sanctuaries are crucial: If you can't solve that problem, you can't win," said a senior military official who is participating in some of the review discussions and discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity.

Now back home with his wife in a quiet Colorado Springs subdivision that feels a world away from the bedlam and privation of Kandahar, Harris said in a lengthy interview that he saw "no signs that our government has made any progress" over the past year in stemming the flow of militants into the south. "I came away feeling a little abused and ripped off by my government."

His tan - a product of the scorching desert sun - has faded under the winter clouds of Colorado, and he has taken a razor to the silvery beard he grew to impress tribal elders, but he continues to stew about Pakistan. To him, the sanctuaries represent the most direct threat to all that he feels he has accomplished over the past year.

Because he no longer works for the government, Harris does not have to hew to the State Department line that the Pakistani government has made inroads against insurgent havens. But he also does not regard himself as a disaffected whistleblower. Indeed, his views are shared by many American officials in Afghanistan, including diplomats, reconstruction advisers and military officers.

"Bill has changed, but so have a lot of us," said a former colleague in Kandahar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to journalists. "There's nothing like spending a year on the ground to teach you what you can't possibly fix, and what you need to fix that the people back in Washington just don't understand."

Out of retirement

Harris, 60, first landed in Afghanistan in 2002 for a three-month stint as the political adviser to the top U.S. commander at the time. His roommate at Bagram air base was a one-star general named Stanley A. McChrystal.

When McChrystal was named commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in May 2009, the stocky but fit Harris offered to come out of retirement for one last taste of adventure. He was not an Afghan hand - much of his State Department career was spent in Latin America and with the U.S. military - but "McChrystal was getting the band back together . . . and I wanted to be one of those guys."

By last fall, he had grown a beard and moved into a shipping container on the Kandahar provincial reconstruction team's compound, a former fruit-canning factory on the city's eastern fringe that was run by the Canadian military. With 10,000 U.S. troops rolling in over the year, Harris was charged with building up a team of American diplomats and development advisers to support the surge and eventually take charge of the reconstruction effort.

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