Earlier today I attended an interesting Senate Foreign Relations Committee roundtable discussion on Afghanistan moderated by chairman Senator John Kerry. Participating were Ashraf Ghani, former Finance Minister of Afghanistan and chancellor of Kabul University; Sarah Chayes, a former NPR Correspondent who since 2002 has been been running an economic cooperative in Kandahar; James Dobbins, senior researcher at the RAND Corporation and former Special Envoy to the Afghan Resistance; and retired Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, former Australian Special Forces Commando, adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, and all around COIN big wheel.
Declaring the roundtable format a better way to have a conversation, probe and learn” about an issue, Sen. Kerry began the discussion by asking “What is the scope of the mission” in Afghanistan? “What can we accomplish?”
Ghani said that the main problem in Afghanistan right now is weakness of governance. He stressed that the problems that currently exist are to a large extent the result of a series of interventions in the country, from the Soviets in the 1980s, and U.S. and Arab support for the anti-Soviet mujahideen, all of which have contributed to the lack of functioning governance structures and institutions, which have in turn created what must be understood, he said, as a crisis. Chayes agreed with this, saying that official corruption is so bad right now that many women in her collective have told her that they would prefer living under the Taliban. Every citizen interaction with the government, Chayes said, involves some form of shakedown. “You have to bribe eight different people for the privilege of paying your electric bill,” which is less than six hours a day. “The international community is blamed for this,” she said, as many Afghans feel this government has been imposed upon them.
Largely concurring with the crisis diagnosis, Kilcullen insisted that it was “crunch time in Afghanistan,” noting that violence is up 543% in the last four years. “Afghanistan right now is Vietnam under Diem,” Kilcullen said, with the U.S. and NATO fighting a grinding counterinsurgency on behalf of a corrupt leadership with little public support. Kilcullen offered two options for a way forward. The first was a redoubled effort to prevent an Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan, protecting the Afghan population from the Taliban, narcotics, and misrule, and continuing to help build Afghan civil society. The second was to focus solely on preventing an Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan. The problem with this second option, Kilcullen said, is that “it just won’t work.” Any strategy that focused solely on rooting out terrorism without addressing the conditions that allow it to take root in the first place is bound to fail. What is needed is “a surge of political effort” to build legitimacy for Afghan political institutions.
Dobbins suggested that, in terms of the military effort, a priority should be to “reunify command arrangements,” and to this end it would be wise to consider giving CentCom chief Gen. David Petraeus command of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Kilcullen agreed with this, and suggested that NATO also needed to ramp up efforts at training an Afghan army capable of defending its people against the Taliban.
Ghani responded by asking whether these ideas were “part of a national strategy of consensus,” and how they addressed the actual sources of conflict. “The threat to the population right now is the police, not the Taliban,” he said. Introducing more arms and training without addressing the governance vacuum that now exists, he added, will only make things worse.
Sen. Kerry then asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Can we turn this thing around?” No one was able to really answer this. All participants agreed that support for free and fair elections this year was a critical step in changing the culture of corruption and the perception that now exists among the Afghan people of the government as a predator. The strong consensus around the table, in my view, was that America’s involvement in Afghanistan will not end any time soon.