From Clinton to Kerry – Another Chapter of the Afghan Saga

February 19, 2013
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By Farzana Nabi, Ph.D. -

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, four Secretaries of State – including the current Secretary – and the same number of Secretaries of Defense have dealt with various issues surrounding the war in Afghanistan but none have come close to claiming a breakthrough on the battlefield or the diplomatic arena. However, with the end of the UN-mandated NATO combat mission in sight by 2014, an opportunity exists for the new appointees (the Defense nomination still in-process) to see real progress with one or both tracks. What might such progress look like and eventually be considered as relative success for the principals and the Obama administration overall?

In 2009, Hillary Clinton, during her own Senate nomination hearing, listed Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, at the “forefront of the challenges that the new administration will face.” As the U.S. was contemplating a troop surge and hoping to engage Pakistan to play a more helpful role, Clinton stipulated the need for an endpoint to the war in Afghanistan. An endpoint was set during her tenure as Secretary of State, but the regional dynamics, with very few exceptions, is still as bothersome as it was a few years ago.

On her way out, Clinton pointed out that restoring American leadership was the cornerstone of her legacy. In the interviews she gave to U.S. news outlets, there was very little mention of Afghanistan. But she indicated that she would continue to champion gender rights, with an emphasis on Afghanistan.

Now that John Kerry is at State, he will be reminded of his own remarks during Clinton’s 2009 hearing, when he expressed an analogy and drew parallels between the Vietnam and the Afghan war. He insisted on the need to implement a global counterinsurgency campaign, striving to understand “different” people and cultures and building the “successful structures of [Afghan] governance.” Kerry highlighted the need to change the United States’ approach to Afghanistan, most significantly, taking into consideration the tribal nature of Afghan society.

President Hamid Karzai’s visit last month to Washington was highlighted by yet another withdrawal announcement, but left decisions to be solidified regarding how engaged the U.S. and its allies will remain beyond 2014, and how it might deal with a laundry list of tasks, and just as importantly, with an uncertain Afghan future.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that 34,000 American troops will return home from Afghanistan over the next year, leaving less than 33,000 until the end of mission. As the U.S. and NATO allies move towards ending the combat mission, the State Department’s role will become even more important in meeting the U.S.’s diplomatic and complex regional objectives dealing with political overtures, shared interests, and prevent efforts to sabotage those interests.

Furthermore, if the now-negotiated Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and Kabul is reached, several U.S. agencies will need to coordinate their efforts to assure that Washington pursues a focused counterterrorism strategy and provides adequate training and support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) so that – in the words of President Obama – “the country does not again slip into chaos.”

Secretary Kerry will have to engage many in the region and beyond to play a constructive role. As a member of the Senate since 1985 and former Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Kerry is no stranger to geopolitical issues and Afghanistan, specifically. He made multiple trips to Afghanistan and was successful in convincing President Karzai to participate in a run-off election in 2009. In his own Senate confirmation hearing, Kerry posited that the first priority with regard to Afghanistan was making sure that Afghan forces are equipped to take the security lead and “maintain a capacity to prevent the kind of basing for terrorism, which took us there in the first place.” Kerry’s consistent stance is that a pure military victory in Afghanistan is out of sight and a political resolution and reconciliation is Washington’s best bet, even though it is a more lengthy approach.

However, Kerry’s strongest words were about the Afghan elections, stating that a smooth U.S. withdrawal hinges on Afghans holding credible elections and not just reconciliation efforts to draw the Taliban to lay down their arms.

Determining the difference between Kerry and Clinton’s policy objectives with regard to Afghanistan might be too soon, and some may even argue that what Clinton dealt with back in 2009 is very different from what Kerry has inherited. Nonetheless, if U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is to succeed beyond military means, Secretary Kerry should heed the following four recommendations:

The first is to reinforce the idea that Afghans can control their future by taking ownership of their country. Three decades of war have led most to operate in survival mode with unease for what the future may hold. With an eye on 2014, anxiety has increased among Afghans that civil war may break out once international forces leave. The “me versus the world” mindset needs to be undermined with strategies that instill messages of cooperation. Unclear about their future, people in Afghanistan are hesitant to expand their businesses, create new ventures and are looking for ways to leave the country. While there are existing programs that work by providing a grant or loan for a business, for example, followed by training, such programs need to be expanded. Therefore, the U.S. must build the confidence of the Afghan people with campaigns that focus on their ability to determine the trajectory of the future of their country.

The second recommendation is to continue to marginalize the extremists and subversive and irreconcilable elements of the Taliban and other groups, and help reintegrate those who wish to work toward a peaceful Afghanistan. Secretary Kerry can make this a significant aspect of the U.S.’s counterterrorism strategy. Additionally, the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in May 2012, which called for reaching a Bilateral Security Agreement can help shape relations between the two countries along economic, security, political and cultural lines.

The third recommendation is to reinforce efforts by Afghans to build strong civil society organizations and political institutions that can start aiming to be incorruptible, acknowledging in the process that this takes time and that democracy is not borne in a vacuum. Socio-political transition is just as imperative as a security one, and rule of law must be prioritized, with Afghans engaged in public discourse without being threatened by corrupt officials. One way this might be accomplished is supporting a vigorous debate on constitutional reform. The international community must caveat the aid it presently provides to pressure the Afghan government to consider constitutional and political reform, and providing more systemic accountability, bridging the gap with the citizenry.

The final recommendation is to avoid the use of nation building as an abstract strategy to build cooperation and cohesion. Rural audiences, that comprise more than 70 percent of the total Afghan population, cannot relate to campaigns that emphasize national institutions. Nation building strategies have failed and should not be pursued further because it remains a predominantly urban phenomenon advocated by political figures and opposed by rural leaders and their followers.

A focus on building the confidence of the Afghan people will enable them to secure their country, hold their government accountable, institute socio-political safeguards to root out corruption, focus on education, and build their structures and institutions with a certain level of foreign assistance – leaving them empowered and able to declare that they are involved in change with some assistance, but no interference.

Farzana Nabi is a social scientist who has performed extensive analysis of Afghanistan’s social, political, and military affairs for the U.S. Dept. of Defense, NATO, and various government institutions. She is a founding member of Afghan Analytica and serves on its editorial board.

Nader Naderi on transition in 2014

Light News Bites

• Days before a planned visit by President Karzai to Islamabad, Afghan and Pakistani national soccer teams met for a match in Kabul—their first such contest in 37 years. A capacity crowd of around 7,000 filled the stadium amid heavy security. The Afghan side's 3-0 victory touched off a raucous street celebration, boosting Afghan national pride as foreign forces withdraw, international aid dries up and the Pakistani-backed insurgency keeps up its attacks. (WSJ)
At the sentencing hearing of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, Haji Mohammed Naim, 60, from the village where Bales killed 16 civilians in March 2012 testified: "That bastard stood right in front of me, I wanted to ask him: 'What did I do? What have I done to you?'" A jury will decide whether Bales will get life in prison or be eligible for parole. His guilty plea in June means Bales won't face the death penalty. (Newswires)
• On August 8th the Afghan Air Force (AAF) conducted its first independent air assault operation. In the past AAF helicopters were part of larger NATO air operations and under NATO command. Operating from Jalalabad airfield, over a dozen AAF helicopters (Mi-17 armed transports and Mi-35 gunships) worked with a brigade of Afghan infantry to clear two districts under the Taliban rule.. (Strategy Page)
• A music concert organized last week in Afghanistan’s central Bamyan province to mark International Youth Day drew an audience of thousands from all over the country. Masoud Hassanzada, singer for the rock band ‘Morcha’ said: “We perform rock music is a new way… but people understand our messages. The poetry we use is about the daily life of Afghans, social issues and politics.” He added: “I think no political process can be successful without cultural support.” (UNAMA)
• Afghan Attorney-General Muhammad Isaaq Aloko has kept his job despite a decision by an angry President Hamid Karzai to sack him over an unauthorized approach to the Taliban. Aleko denies the claim. (Reuters)