Of the many mistakes the US and its allies made in Afghanistan, perhaps the most significant was to recruit Hamid Karzai to head the fragile state, says a former official.
“It would be a tragic mistake for the international community to conclude that democracy doesn’t work in Afghanistan, while the only thing that doesn’t work is democracy as Karzai’s government understands it,” writes former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up candidate for president in 2009.
Karzai is in Washington this week to meet with President Barack Obama and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, amongst others, in part to discuss the follow-up to the strategic partnership agreement’s road map for relations following next year’s departure of ISAF forces.
But the international community’s “initial mistake was to entrust President Karzai with the sacred duty of securing the fate of our embattled nation,” Abdullah writes for Foreign Policy:
The Afghan government has done little to ensure that the institutions of democracy, from our parliament to our courts and civil society, are supported and nurtured. Instead, it has confused the Afghan people by being passive toward corruption and pursuing an inconsistent and ambivalent policy regarding reconciliation with the armed insurgency. As the current Afghan government has repeatedly made clear, a red line of reconciliation with the Taliban must be their acceptance of the Constitution — and Karzai needs to illustrate his own commitment to this same standard. No wonder Afghans feel no connection to this government and understand democracy to be code language for anarchy.
ISAF forces have largely quelled the Taliban insurgency in many of their former strongholds.
“So why, then, was it so difficult to find an optimist in Helmand Province?” asks New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin:
In conversations with dozens of tribal elders, farmers, teachers and provincial officials, three factors loomed large: dissatisfaction with the Afghan government, the imminent departure of Western troops and recognition that the Taliban are likely to return. Few expressed much faith in the ability of the Afghan government and security forces to maintain the security gains won by the huge American and British military effort here.
A former U.S. envoy to Kabul is trying to ensure a smooth transfer of power when Karzai leaves office in 2014.
Afghan politicians “need to make sure that there is a constitutional, democratic and orderly change of government,” said Zalmay Khalilzad.* He recently returned to Kabul, he said, “to facilitate an agreement among key personalities and forces on a possible consensus on key issues confronting the country, and the formation of a team to lead a broad public discourse on those issues.”
“After three decades of war, Afghans are weary of war and desire peace. However, peace must not come at the cost of human rights and democracy,”argue Hamid Arsalan and Hodei Sultan, program officers at the National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Institute of Peace, respectively.
“A peaceful, democratic Afghanistan where human rights are protected should be a security imperative for Washington, necessitating that it put its full support behind an inclusive, transparent peace process led by Afghans and promoted by regional actors,” they contend, writing (in a strictly personal capacity) in Afghan Analytica, an independent, non-partisan online platform created by Afghan practitioners, academics and advocates:
In the absence of a democratic government, Afghanistan could become a hotbed for terrorism once again. Washington invested heavily in Afghanistan over the past 11 years in order to combat extremism, therefore the U.S. government should have a vested interest in ensuring a stable peace beyond 2014 and deterring the emergence of terrorism hotbeds….. While it remains unclear how a politically negotiated settlement will play out in the coming years and who the key stakeholders will be, it is clear that the Taliban does not wish to talk with the current Afghan government, leaving Washington to think outside the box and tap into other credible stakeholders in Afghanistan that could help lead the process. Afghan civil society leaders represent various ethnic and interest groups including religious minorities, women and youth and could be key players and stakeholders in the peace process.
“Many things are right about the west’s approach,” according to Kurt Volker, a former US permanent representative to Nato and George Robertson, a former Nato secretary-general:
To name a few: transferring control to Afghanistan’s military leadership; training Afghan security forces; targeted attacks on extremist fighters and their leaders; strengthening political institutions; preparing for elections in 2014; and supporting health and education for a new generation of Afghans.
At the same time, serious problems remain: corruption; lack of basic security in certain areas; continued Taliban attacks, including insider infiltrations; havens (if not active support) for extremist fighters in Pakistan; ineffective government institutions; and a rampant opium economy that fuels the insurgency. It is understandable that after 12 years, thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent, the US and its allies are tired. Hence the relentless drive to transfer responsibility in 2014.
“The current plan is to continue significant troop reductions, promote political “dialogue” with the Taliban, and retain a minimal residual military presence after 2014 for training Afghans and striking terrorist targets,” they note. “There is just one problem: what if it doesn’t work?”
What does not make sense is spending more money and lives in 2013, while risking the whole thing coming apart in 2014. If we want to avoid a civil war, major human rights abuses and the risk that Afghanistan again becomes a haven for exporting extremism, we need to start working out a Plan B – one that focuses on achieving substantive goals, not the timing of our exit.
“The political transition, based entirely on credible and transparent elections, is of paramount importance because it will restore the Afghan people’s faith and sense of ownership in their government,” says Abdullah, who leads the National Coalition of Afghanistan, a coalition of opposition parties:
Despite all the fraud and mismanagement in previous elections, it is, remarkably, not yet lost. And if the government obtains this mandate from the people, it can act with confidence on issues from dealing with the Taliban to stabilizing the economy and receiving long-term assistance from the West and the international community that will ensure Afghanistan’s security, stability, and prosperity. By playing a constructive role in facilitating necessary electoral reforms and overseeing a credible and legitimate transfer of power in 2014, Karzai can still take advantage of this unique opportunity and moment in Afghan history to be remembered as a reformist.
*Zalmay Khalilzad is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.