PILPG Update: Morton Abramowitz’s “A View From Kabul” Published in the National Interest

June 9, 2009

PILPG Advisory Board Member Morton Abramowitz’s commentary on the political situation in Afghanistan recently appeared in The National Interest. The piece provides an insightful look into the United States government’s involvement in the fledgling democracy. Ambassador Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, served as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research from 1985–1989.

The full article is included below and is also available here.

A View From Kabul

By Morton Abramowitz
June 8, 2009

Afghanistan: Who are we fighting? Who should do the fighting? What else is needed? When will it end?

Discussing these questions in Kabul feels like watching the film Rashoman. The perspectives of Afghans high and low, senior American and allied officials, aid workers, and NGO leaders are often significantly different. Sorting it all out is not easy.

Few, however, disagree that this will be a long war. There is little hope of a definite conclusion; the best is a trajectory of overall improvement while violence persists. Much depends both on how much and how long aid flows to the Taliban from Pakistan and on development and better governance in Afghanistan. Regardless of American involvement in Afghanistan, it is highly doubtful that the Taliban can reclaim Kabul, even with the continued support of Pashtun fighters from western Pakistan. Afghanistan does not face trained, regular forces as South Vietnam did in the North Vietnamese Army. All the same, significant American involvement will have to be sustained for many years, not only to accomplish security objectives, but also to aid development of the Afghan south and southeast. That raises the question of American domestic politics—will Americans continue to support massive amounts of aid for Kabul?

The shortcut of negotiations with elements of the Taliban and other extremists is often discussed in Washington. But the Afghans are apparently already exploring this option in various ways. Afghans do not have American sensitivities about who they talk to. Whether such talks go anywhere is another matter, as long as the regime’s survival is ensured. The Afghan government might surprise us.

The administration has declared that our principal objective in Afghanistan is to destroy al-Qaeda, which poses a threat to the homeland. That makes it appear that American involvement in Afghanistan is more limited and thus will make it easier to reassure a tired public and get necessary funding from a skeptical Congress. All indications, however, are that we are trying to build a more durable Afghan state. Interestingly enough, Afghans rarely speak of the threat from al-Qaeda. For them, this war is all about the Taliban, whom the Americans are mostly fighting along the border with Pakistan, with the Afghan casualties caused by American military action.

Viewed politically, Afghanistan is split in two: a belt of Pashtun provinces in the south and an assortment of regional ethnic interests in the north. President Hamid Karzai keeps this difficult array together with deals. It may not be democratic, but has become a major function of the presidency—maintaining a modicum of peace and cooperation among major ethnic blocs. The northern groups want increased influence, but in a united Afghanistan. All interests must be acknowledged, and, problematically, those of the Pashtuns were not sufficiently addressed when the state was created after the war. Karzai needs to build a better government, but we should be wary about being seen as trying to remove him, as was alleged three months ago. Any such effort would be viewed badly in the country, and finding another leader with the necessary political skills to serve as a unifying force in this fragmented country will be difficult.

Today the Americans do most of the fighting. The extent to which that facilitates Afghan unity is debatable. One very senior Afghan official, who did his own share of fighting over the years, says that American troops should function as trainers, but Afghans should do the fighting and the dying. Afghan forces are better equipped than the Taliban and have more legitimacy in the eyes of local populations than foreigners. The Taliban are hardly the Wehrmacht; battles are small and more like skirmishes anyway. Over time government forces will become more adept, although initial losses will be great. After all, he said, the Afghans fought each other this way for many years. Several senior American officials agree that such a strategy would be more appropriate, but were skeptical that the United States would go along or that the Afghan government would make such a request.

The United States also seeks to create projects to generate quick short-term developments in sectors where such results in war-torn countries are often hard to come by. In that way, the administration hopes to establish credibility and limit donor fatigue, also a preoccupation of Afghan officials. The Obama administration has decreed civilian “surges” to quickly improve the situation. They are underway, with more Americans operating in Kabul, and also in the provinces under the supervision of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. That military emblem may help satisfy security concerns, but it is not appealing to Afghan villagers and can threaten aid workers. Hopefully the oft stated American commitment to Afghanization will be advanced by more immediate Americanization, but skepticism is in order.

More important, however, Afghanistan has huge systemic problems. So many—75 to 80 percent outside the major cities—cannot read or write. Although the position of women is improving in the cities, it hasn’t changed in rural areas. They continue to live in earlier centuries. And yet, gender mainstreaming is necessarily slow, as rushing the process would invite social instability. These kinds of development objectives are a generation’s work.

Prospects for greater stability and development in Afghanistan simultaneously engender optimism and pessimism. Despite increasing Taliban military efforts, in various parts of the country the violence is still mostly confined to Pashtun-majority areas. Kabul has been long under siege, but the bustling city gives an impression of resilience and recovery. Governance and rule of law remain deficient, but there is a sense of growing governmental capabilities.

Afghans say they have a good chance to make a state if the United States continues its support for a long time to come. And that brings us back to the short- and long-term. The positive factor is the greater dynamism and ability of the new American team. But there is no miracle to be found in today’s Afghanistan. It will be a long slog. In the end, it is better that Congress and the American people understand that. George Kennan’s famous admonition that “history does not forgive us our national mistakes” is very much in order.

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