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Afghanistan: Who's to Blame?

by Informed Comment Global Affairs (reposted)
From a Saturday, December 15, 2007 entry on Informed Comment Global Affairs, a group blog run by Juan Cole, Manan Ahmed, Farideh Farhi, and Barnett R. Rubin
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, at a NATO meeting in Edinburgh, has decided to change tactics in dealing with NATO allies in Afghanistan:
"We're going to try to look at this more creatively than perhaps we have done in the past when we basically have just been hammering on (allied governments) to provide more," Gates said in a post-meeting interview with a small group of reporters traveling with him from Washington.
Why the change? Maybe Gates was embarrassed when Europeans pointed out what happened just last Tuesday when he testified at the House Armed Services Committee with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen:
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged Tuesday that the U.S. military's primary focus remained the war in Iraq, not Afghanistan, prompting criticism from Democratic lawmakers who want the Pentagon to devote more attention and resources to the Afghan conflict.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war in Afghanistan was an "economy of force" operation, a military label for a mission of secondary importance.

"Our main focus, militarily, in the region and in the world right now is rightly and firmly in Iraq," Mullen said before the House Armed Services Committee. "It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity. In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must."
Maybe Gates should speak to his own Commander-in-Chief about the importance of Afghanistan (which has no dedicated link on the White House website).

More troops might be useful in Afghanistan, if they had the right mission. Put in more troops with the wrong mission, and they will just fail more quickly and more messily. But the whole "blame Europe" trope is just an exercise in the Bush administration's favorite activity: avoiding accountability. (By the way, is authorizing the use of torture an impeachable offense, like covering up illicit sex? Just wondering.) A few facts:
  • In 2001 the administration rejected an offer from the UK, France, and Germany to place the entire Afghanistan mission under NATO.
  • Until 2003, the administration rejected increasingly urgent requests from President Karzai, the United Nations, and many others to expand the International Security Assistance Force.
  • The administration continues to claim that Afghanistan and Iraq are one struggle, knowing full well that most NATO members did not support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
  • Before major deployments of Canadian and European NATO troops to southern Afghanistan in 2005, the administration assured its partners that it would take care of the infiltration of Taliban from Pakistan; the administration had completely ignored Pakistani support for the Taliban until then and had not even deployed any intelligence resources to track it. Since then infiltration has increased, and Pakistani Taliban allied with al-Qaida now have free reign in much of the border region, as the authority of the administration's chosen partner, General Pervez Musharraf, continues to crumble, and Europeans continue to be killed by guerrillas and suicide bombers trained, funded, and equipped in Pakistan.
  • The administration continues to press relentlessly for an escalation of eradication of Afghanistan's opium poppy crop, even though the conditions for successful use of this counter-narcotics tool do not exist, and the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands, whose troops will bear the brunt of the resulting increase in insurgent activity, have opposed these pressures.
In any case, a retired four-star general speaking at a private meeting recently characterized the lack of troops in Afghanistan as a "sixth-order problem." The key problems are the lack of a coherent regional strategy, especially toward Pakistan and Iran, and the failure from the very beginning to invest adequately in governance and development and in any aspect of security but the Afghan National Army. All of these resulted from decisions taken by the Bush administration in 2001-2002, not from our European allies.

Some of these same allies may have made some of these points in private at Edinburgh. As a result of Gates' new attitudes, he is now working with other NATO members to address these shortfalls:

Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, who joined Gates at the conference, told reporters afterward that he and his counterparts agreed that the nonmilitary part of the effort to stabilize Afghanistan also needs to be re-energized and improved.

"There was a strong sense that the civilian side, run by all of our governments and by the U.N., needs now to be elevated and expanded and be made as strategically purposeful as what we see on the military side," Burns said.

Gates said the Edinburgh talks produced a consensus on the need to fashion an "integrated plan" for what needs to be achieved in Afghanistan within the next three to five years as well as specifics on how those things can be accomplished.

The major proposal circulating to address these issues is the appointment of a high-level coordinator. The leading contender for this position, former Bosnia High Representative Paddy Ashdown, has argued:

"I've always said that Afghanistan was more likely to succeed if the international community co-ordinated itself and spoke with a single voice," the former Bosnia chief told Sky News television.

"Its failure to do so has led us to a position I think where the relatively low level of resources we are putting into Afghanistan are seriously wasted," he added.

Such coordination is badly needed. But calling someone a "high level coordinator" does not enable him to produce high-level coordination. The position is reported to include being appointed both UN SRSG and the NATO Senior Civilian Representative and perhaps eventually EU Special Representative as well. But the UN SRSG has no budgetary authority over the UN agencies, let alone the bilateral donors (led by the U.S.) that provide aid through their own parallel (and very wasteful) channels. The NATO SCR has authority over neither military activities nor the civilian assistance provided by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The EUSR has no authority over the aid provided by the European Commission. Unless the "coordinator" presides over a pooled international budget for Afghanistan, including security sector reform, development aid, and counter-narcotics, he will just become another agency that needs to be coordinated. Inevitably, he will be tempted to spend his time hectoring the Afghan government rather than coordinating the international actors.

The Afghan government badly needs coherent support from the international community; but a high-level "coordinator" without real authority will not deliver it. Afghans will listen to such a coordinator only if he actually produces more coherent assistance. Otherwise he will be a focal point not for coordination, but for blame. I hope that's not the point.

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