July 16, 2010

Afghanistan's Relationship Paradox

They questioned him again and again. What are the objectives in Afghanistan? What does the end game look like? Is Washington still trying to do too much, or are its efforts not enough?

"Many people are asking whether we have the right strategy,” Senator John Kerry, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointedly opened. "Some suggest this is a lost cause. This is the time to ask hard questions about the progress we are making toward our objectives of defeating al-Qaeda and bringing a measure of stability to Afghanistan."

"We need a better definition of exactly what the definition of success is in Afghanistan."

"There are a lot of people in this country who are very confused,” added Jim Webb, Senator from Virginia and respected foreign policy authority. “There's a real need here in my view for clarity in terms of what actually can be accomplished.”

Richard Holbrooke, US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, didn’t have much to say other than, "I do not want to give an optimism/pessimism report to you. I think there are significant elements of movement forward in many areas but I do not yet see a definitive turning point in any direction."

Holbrooke offered the usual: train local forces, support the central government, reintegrate “10 dollar” Taliban. Negotiations with Taliban leadership remains off limits, as the blacklisting of Haqqani's network telegraphed. But Holbrooke did insist that President Barack Obama’s civil and military teams are peacefully co-existing, as if there was any doubt that General David Petraeus would seamlessly assume command. He’d been prepping for the job longer than they let on.

"We are absolutely on the same page when it comes to the overall strategy and working together," Holbrooke promised.

Senators remained skeptical of his visible attempts to dodge their questions. The central issue of strategy is a war’s ultimate objectives and they clearly doubted the stones that form the arch: Afghan President Hamid Karzai, slow progress in Marjah and Kandahar, the speed and quality of training Afghan security forces, "sporadic" reintegration, and a deadline that doesn’t fit.

Holbrooke presumably returned to the White House to relay the Senate’s displeasure. Maybe some high-level dialogue followed after which Afghanistan’s strategy was clarified. But giving them the benefit of the doubt requires a large enough leap of faith as it is, based on Obama’s strategy since assuming office, and his silent transfer to Petraeus suggests he won’t be clarifying anything soon.

Already suffering from a relationship gap with his own base, the gap between Washington and Afghanistan is every inch their 7,000 mile distance.

“There is a serious ‘relationship gap’ between the international community and the Afghan communities we intend to assist and protect,” says Norine MacDonald QC, President and Lead Field Researcher of ICOS. “The international community is failing to effectively meet the needs of the local population or understand their world view. We are also failing to explain ourselves or our objectives to the Afghan people. This provides clear opportunities for Taliban and Al Qaeda propaganda against the West and has resulted in high levels of negative attitudes towards our troops on the ground.”

In a report released Friday, the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) interviewed males in Kandahar and Helmand provinces during June and yielded the following results: “70% believe military operations in their area are bad for the people, 74% believe that working with the international forces is wrong, 55% believe that NATO is in Afghanistan “only for their own benefit, to destroy or occupy the country, or to destroy Islam,” 75% believe foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions, 68% believe that NATO forces do not protect the local population, 61% believe that more Afghans are joining the Taliban compared to 2009, and 64% believe their government administrators are linked to the Taliban.”

Meanwhile, “the Taliban has inserted itself into the local society and created an effective political narrative: much more than an armed guerrilla insurgency, the Taliban today is a political force and a political player.”

The ICOS’s conclusion: “The international community does not understand or meet the basic needs of ordinary Afghans, and they in turn do not understand the reasons for our presence.” They lack an understanding of Washington’s strategy just like the majority of Americans, US Congress, NATO populaces, Muslims and non-Muslims alike - and oppose the war in similar numbers.

Obama may be able to parry the Senate without addressing Afghanistan’s drift and secure his surge’s funding, but ignoring Afghan perceptions spells doom.

Bridging multiple gaps won’t be easy though. Explaining the war in full requires a deep understanding of Afghanistan, its people, and their role in the region, something Obama has yet to demonstrate. The ICOS released a negative report on Marjah in April and included amendments for Kandahar. Though the US military operation toned down in response to local opposition, it’s obvious that the ICOS, at least, doesn’t believe enough political precaution was taken.

And the ICOS deduces what many long suspect: America and NATO still don’t know their friends or enemies as well as they need to. The gap is more a paradox than a straight equation, rendering its solution a greater challenge than clearing the air.

The ICOS finds “some successes,” but they double as links in the paradox. 55% of those interviewed believe NATO is winning the war, while 72% would prefer their children to grow up under an elected government rather than the Taliban. The evidence that Afghans prefer self-rule has always existed, but the means are forever a burden to overcome.

No matter how much Afghans want stability and an end to Taliban rule, the presence of US and NATO troops will always clash with this future. Afghans in the south believe a stalemate is inevitable, as 65% of those interviewed believe that Mullah Omar and the Taliban should join the national political process. Another paradox is thus formed: loathed as it is, 80% believe Al Qaeda will return if the Taliban maintains control of its territory.

So roughly half of Afghans support US and NATO military operations but two thirds don’t trust them. Most want an end to Taliban rule and al-Qaeda influence, but also think negotiations are the war’s only exit, and that al-Qaeda may return if the Taliban survives. We wish President Obama best of luck in untangling this knot.

There’s a worse condition though than failing to understand, and that’s failing to listen. When the rogue Afghan soldier who killed 3 UK troops phoned the BBC and AP to explain his rationale - he had recently witnessed NATO forces killing a 5 year old - US officials brushed off his motive as unclear.

No wonder they’re unclear on the war’s direction too.


  1. I have a feeling we will be hearing something from Mullah Omar, and other Taliban leaders before this year is out.
    "The enemy of my enemy is my enemy". Seems to be the mode of the day in Afghanistan.

  2. He may wait until 2011 to make any move. He's probably more hunted than bin Laden.

  3. LOL
    Mullah Omar is alive. So it would make sense that they are after him.
    Not so the case with OBL. :-)

    What more is there to talk about after this? "Beat them beat them hard until it is unbearable"

  4. The Palestinians have 30 years of bad Bibi memories.