Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

American Idiocy

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on November 19, 2009

Hillary Clinton demonstrates America's ignorance towards Afghanistan

With the question of whether to send an additional 40,000 American troops into Afghanistan continuing to loom over President Obama’s head, the conversation over U.S. strategy has shifted over the past few days to political issues.  Among the most frequently asked within the administration is whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a reliable ally in the fight against Taliban insurgents.

With government corruption and the lack of accountability a main recruiting tool for Taliban militants, the United States is seriously starting to wonder if more troops will solve the endemic problem associated with Afghanistan’s gross-mismanagement.  U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said something quite similar to the White House, sending a leaked cable to the President arguing that a sustained U.S. troop commitment would be useless without a clean Afghan authority that serves the basic needs of its people.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to back up Eikenberry’s remarks in her latest television tour this past Sunday, when she complained that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is not open-ended, and that Karzai would have to establish functional and effective institutions if he expects the United States to increase its commitment in both manpower and money.

Here are two controversial comments made by Mrs. Clinton regarding Afghanistan’s national government:

“I have made it clear that we’re not going to be providing any civilian aid to Afghanistan unless we have certification that if it goes into the Afghan government in any form, that we’re going to have ministries that we can hold accountable.”

“We are expecting there to be a major crimes tribunal, an anti-corruption commission established and functioning, because there does have to be actions by the government of Afghanistan against those who have taken advantage of the money that has poured into Afghanistan in the last eight years.”

Coming from an administration that has gambled its presidential legacy on the Afghan mission, these types of remarks seem to do more harm than good.  What President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s tone implies is that the United States will cease to help Karzai solidify control over Afghanistan if he happens to engage in another mistake.  This puts Karzai in a terribly difficult situation, where his political survival rests upon what the United States considers acceptable.

Regrettably, the White House rhetoric also gives the Taliban insurgency a valuable blueprint for sparking a complete American withdrawal.  By citing Karzai’s corruption problems, Washington has essentially provided the Taliban with a potential tool for success; continue delegitimizing the Afghan Government and the United States will lose both its patience and perseverance.

American frustration over the Afghan mission is palpable across the country.  After all, the United States has been in Afghanistan for the past eight years and has nothing to show for it, minus a few paved roads and the destruction of a few Al’Qaeda training camps.  But no one said this was going to be easy (expect maybe George W. Bush), especially when the United States Government decided to neglect Afghan society for the sake of a preventive Iraqi invasion.  Did people truly believe that this strategic blunder would not result in devastating consequences in the future?

Unfortunately, the U.S. Military is finally paying for its missteps eight years after the initial invasion.  Hostile comments from the White House only worsen the situation, prompting Karzai to question whether American leadership is once again floundering when “shit hits the fan.”

As Iraq has shown, a successful counterinsurgency operation contains the right combination of civilian and military power to offset gains made by insurgents.  “Winning the hearts and minds” of the indigenous population requires long-term devotion to ensure that American interests are being achieved and that America’s adversaries are losing sway.

Specific to Afghanistan, Americans must begin to respect the Afghan-way-of-doing-things, which inevitably requires an understanding of the tribal council system, a decentralized form of governance, and the numerous ethnic grievances that have persisted for centuries.  A top-down approach will simply not work, and the Afghan population may never accept western democracy.  This however does not mean that “Afghan democracy” cannot be accomplished.  At the grassroots level, democracy can flourish in Afghanistan, with a few minor tweaks that account for the needs and preferences of Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and the hundreds of other groups comprising Afghan society.

Complaining about Hamid Karzai’s performance does not help get any of these reforms get off the ground.  Yes, he is responsible for numerous corruption charges and the terrible mismanagement of American taxpayer dollars.  But pretending that he is the only antagonist fails to grasp the Afghan crisis in a reasonable fashion.

For the last eight years, the United States has been placing all of their eggs in one basket, hoping that a single authority can magically turn the billions of American dollars into a swath of reconstruction projects and development programs.  Maybe it is time to abandon this line of thinking, instead concentrating on a sustained counterinsurgency plan that addresses the real causes of the current conflict; a lack of “Afghanization.”

-Daniel R. DePetris

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