Afghanistan in the Opinion Pages

There’s quite a bit on Afghanistan in the opinion pages of today’s newspapers. Peter Galbraith (son of economist John), whose peremptory firing by the United Nations from his job as UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan made headlines last week, against conventions (and the express request of UN Sec. Gen. Ban Ki-moon) has taken to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to give his side of the story. His explanation is terse and harsh:

Since my disagreements with Eide [ed. Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, Galbraith’s friend and superior in Afghanistan] went public, Eide and his supporters have argued that the United Nations had no mandate to interfere in the Afghan electoral process. This is not technically correct. The U.N. Security Council directed the U.N. mission to support Afghanistan’s electoral institutions in holding a “free, fair and transparent” vote, not a fraudulent one. And with so much at stake — and with more than 100,000 U.S. and coalition troops deployed in the country — the international community had an obvious interest in ensuring that Afghanistan’s election did not make the situation worse.

They failed in that objective:

The election was a foreseeable train wreck. Unlike the United Nations-run elections in 2004, this balloting was managed by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC). Despite its name, the commission is subservient to Karzai, who appointed its seven members. Even so, the international role was extensive. The United States and other Western nations paid the more than $300 million to hold the vote, and U.N. technical staff took the lead in organizing much of the process, including printing ballot papers, distributing election materials and designing safeguards against fraud.

Part of my job was to supervise all this U.N. support. In July, I learned that at least 1,500 polling centers (out of 7,000) were to be located in places so insecure that no one from the IEC, the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police had ever visited them. Clearly, these polling centers would not open on Election Day. At a minimum, their existence on the books would create large-scale confusion, but I was more concerned about the risk of fraud.

Local commission staff members were hardly experienced election professionals; in many instances they were simply agents of the local power brokers, usually aligned with Karzai. If no independent observers or candidate representatives, let alone voters, could even visit the listed location of a polling center, these IEC staffers could easily stuff ballot boxes without ever taking them to the assigned location. Or they could simply report results without any votes being in the ballot boxes.

Read the whole thing. He follows with a cautionary note:

President Obama needs a legitimate Afghan partner to make any new strategy for the country work. However, the extensive fraud that took place on Aug. 20 virtually guarantees that a government emerging from the tainted vote will not be credible with many Afghans.

In a collection of ten brief suggestions from various notables on Afghanistan in the New York Times former Gen. David Petraeus advisor David Kilcullen counsels:

Only a legitimately elected Afghan president can enact reforms, so at the very least we need to see a genuine run-off election or an emergency national council, called a loya jirga, before winter. Once a legitimate president emerges, we need to see immediate action from him on a publicly announced reform program, developed in consultation with Afghan society and enforced by international monitors. Reforms should include firing human rights abusers and drug traffickers, establishing an independent authority to investigate citizen complaints and requiring officials to live in the districts they are responsible for (fewer than half do).

A loya jirga would be the traditionally Afghan method of responding to a national crisis of the sort presented by the clearly fraudulent elections and IMO would be preferrable to a run-off election because of its greater authority and resonance.

Others expressing opinions include terrorism scholar Robert Pape who warns of increasing suicide attacks as the foreign presence is increasingly seen as occupation, Anthony Cordesman, a primary contributor to the McChrystal plan, Frederick Kagan, and Andrew Exum, better known in the blogosphere as Abu Muqawama. Again, this is well worth reading in whole.

My own preference for Afghanistan would be something along the lines of the one put forward by Afghanistan authority Rory Stewart in the London Review of Books:

The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer — perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance — not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

This has been criticized as a political non-starter. My advice: figure out a way to sell it.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Terrorism, Uncategorized, United Nations, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Three things I don’t understand:

    1) Where exactly would our forces be based? Pick any spot in Afghanistan, and if you cede the surrounding territory to the Taliban, it becomes untenable.

    2) How do we support development if the Afghan government is not just corrupt but anxious and therefore highly motivated to fill their secret offshore accounts? I don’t know that we can build roads and dams or whatever in Afghanistan without cooperation from local authorities.

    3) Does this strategy have any more coherent an end game than the current strategy?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    If you’re looking for an endgame, we should just acknowledge defeat and withdraw now. I don’t think there’s any objective worth achieving in Afghanistan that can be achieved with a short term commitment.

    However, the commitment shouldn’t be ours alone, indeed, it shouldn’t even be mostly ours. The problem with situations like the one in the Hindu Kush isn’t unique to that area and it’s a world problem: what is to be done with ungoverned areas?

  3. If you’re looking for an endgame, we should just acknowledge defeat and withdraw now. I don’t think there’s any objective worth achieving in Afghanistan that can be achieved with a short term commitment.

    Okay, let me use a different term. What’s the end state we’re looking for? What’s our best case scenario, the thing which, when we see it we’ll think, “Good, that’s what we were after.”

    Should we be looking to split Afghanistan into a Pashtun and non-Pashtun state? Cede the Pashtun areas to the Taliban and try to salvage the rest? Or are we holding Kabul alone against the countryside? Are we creating a prosperous “West Berlin” to act as a counterpoint to a failed Taliban state?

    If not then why bother spending money on development? Develop to what end? If we could somehow remain engaged for 20 or 30 years is there something we could, even theoretically achieve? I’m honestly baffled, not just by how we get from “here” to “there” but by what “there” might be.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    My objectives would be substantially less ambitious than those stated in Gen. McChrystal’s plan. If the Administration’s objectives are different from those stated in the general’s plan, then I don’t know what the Administration’s objectives are.

    I think that simply withdrawing from Afghanistan would be an error for tactical, strategic, legal, and moral reasons. We don’t want to return to the status quo ante. We don’t want to give a propaganda victory to the takfiris.

    As occupying power we have a legal responsibility to turn the country over to a legitimate government. The current one isn’t. And the stated and implied commitments we’ve made to the Afghan people are a debt of honor.

    Don’t get me wrong. If I’d had my way we wouldn’t be in this particular fix at all (we’d be in a completely different fix). But it is the fix we’re in.

  5. steve says:

    Since al Qaeda appears to operate with impunity in Pakistan, why does it need Afghanistan? If we reduce to 20.000 troops, the Afghans will have to be able to run the country, something Kharazai has been unable to do. Since we will need the blessings of the official government to stay, and not get attacked by the troops we have armed and trained, we will need to support what I suspect will become an even more corrupt government. We need to develop some leverage over Kharzai or his replacement.


  6. odograph says:

    Who coined the phrase “declare victory, go home?” Regardless, the principle seems under-applied.

    George Bush Sr., had the wisdom and the strength to do it in Gulf War I. At the time I deferred to him. He was a former head of the CIA, knew spooks, and told us his call.

    In retrospect George Bush Jr. only confirmed the judgement of the father.

    … in Afghanistan I think we’re there again.

    Declare victory go home, not because we can’t achieve more, but because whatever we achieve will unwind once we are actually gone. Ten years from now Afghanistan (and Iraq) will have the government they can make for themselves, regardless.

    Apparently this transition to naively run elections was a bad one, but if it didn’t happen now, it was going to happen in a few years.

  7. odograph says:

    (Dave, if an external power runs your elections forever, it isn’t exactly democracy.)

  8. Solomon2 says:

    It’s amazing that it only takes two or three highly-placed U.N. officials to sabotage the democracy of a nation of over thirty million people.