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Beyond Elections, Fixing the Afghan State

Interviewee: Elizabeth Rubin, Edward R. Murrow Fellow, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 21, 2009

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Elizabeth Rubin, a journalist who has written extensively on Afghanistan, says whoever emerges as winner in presidential elections should face steady U.S. scrutiny for how they govern-from financial transactions to security. Rubin says official corruption and other governance problems, and inattention from Washington on this front, has played a role in stunting the country's development. Incumbent Hamid Karzai, she says, has engaged in some questionable power-sharing deals with warlords and it's not clear how his main contender, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah would govern. "I think that given how much money we are spending in Afghanistan and how many lives we are putting at risk there, we have the right to demand that the Afghan government show how they spend every single penny," she says. "And we have a right to demand certain kinds of justice, so that Afghan people feel there is some hope and justice in their lives. Right now there is none."

The first round of the Afghan presidential elections has just ended. There is extensive vote counting going on now, with President Hamid Karzai, widely seen as the favorite, and his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, as the leading contender. Does it matter who wins?

It does matter who wins. If Karzai wins, as we know from many reports, he has made a lot of deals with many unsavory characters and has promised a lot of cabinet positions to these people. He's also promised a lot of governorships. There are rumors that he has offered so many governorships that he will have to create new provinces. That is not a joke. That is a real possibility. So if he is to rule more effectively, he will have to disappoint these people and face the consequences or he is going to have to try to somehow turn them into legitimate players. Some U.S. officials think there is a way that old warlords can turn new tricks and become responsible members of society. Others in Afghanistan say that is impossible. They say that in Afghanistan, they rule by intimidation and by the gun and people are too afraid to stand up to them. That's what we can expect from Karzai.

Abdullah was Karzai's foreign minister until Karzai removed him. We don't know how he would rule. He's of a jihadi generation. He himself may not have been a warlord, but he is certainly connected to the same people Karzai is. So whoever wins, one of the things that the United States is going to have to do is make sure that the Afghan government is held responsible for every penny that it spends, something that it was not before.

Do you think there is a good chance there will be a runoff.

Yes.

It would probably be Abdullah versus Karzai. That's a long time between elections, almost two months. What will happen in the country in the two months?

It depends on two things: On how much the people think there was ballot box stuffing and how much the candidates and their allies stir up the people to riot. A lot will depend on the message given out by Abdullah and Karzai and their people. It's possible there will be a lot of turmoil but it is also possible both sides will be reasonable and say "it is too close to call and we need a runoff. Let's maintain stability until that time."

I got the impression from your New York Times Magazine article that the United States government officials would prefer that Karzai not be reelected. Is that a misreading?

I know [Former Finance Minister Ashraf] Ghani is popular with Western officials. There was an attempt to dispel the rumor that the United States was backing Karzai. This rumor was very powerful in May and June because the United States had given the green light to Karzai to stay in power through August even though his mandate ended in May as a way to maintain stability in the country. So he and his people used that to say the Americans are backing Karzai; don't you want to back the winner? But as soon as the new U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry began meeting with the other candidates they started being seen as possible choices for the Americans and that evened the playing field a little bit.

Everyone writes, including you, that this has been a very corrupt country. Could you give an example?

When the minister of the interior was Zahar Ahmad Muqbil, who was removed last year, [the ministry's] chief administrator was selling police chief positions for $100,000. The reason why it was so lucrative to be a police chief was because of the kickbacks you could get in the provinces, and mostly from the drug trade. Any trucks that came through the highway in your province had to pay extortion. And there were other kinds of extortion, such as in land sales, in settling disputes, in releasing prisoners, etc. So being a police chief was a lucrative position. Another example is in the south, where people talk about Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai who runs the south like a Mafia don. In the early years, he was appointing his tribal allies as district governors and police chiefs. The reason was to ensure that power stayed in the family and because the drugs were being grown down south and moved through the south and therefore he was ensuring that his allies got a cut as it was moved along his roads and also that they got kickbacks for him.

Whoever wins, one of the things the United States is going to have to do is make sure that the Afghan government is held responsible for every penny that it spends.

In addition, their enemies, tribal rivals--anybody that was deemed as not cooperating--faced having information given to the coalition that they were Taliban or al-Qaeda and in the early years, it meant a lot of people being sent to prison, or roughed up by coalition troops, mostly American at that time. And that meant slowly but surely these people went to the other side. A lot of these tribes were completely alienated from the government and the Americans, and began cooperating with the Taliban.

The Obama administration says it wants to do something different from the Bush administration on drug enforcement.

The Bush administration talked big about eradication but when it came to actually going after real smugglers, they had a spotty record. The Obama administration is now saying that the cause of the war in the south is about drugs so we are going to put [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] agents in with United States troops and we are also going to go after drug growers who are as much an enemy as the Taliban and labs, which are as much an enemy as the Taliban. They have sent sixty agents to the south, some with drug enforcement experience.

Karzai said in a debate recently he would favor some arrangement with the Taliban. Is that a real possibility?

The Taliban is a big umbrella for a lot of disparate groups. In the northeast, there are Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's people, Hezb-i-Islami; they are a different brand of insurgents. Hekmatyar had written a letter to Karzai. He and Hekmatyar were friends in the past. In the south you have Mullah Omar and his shura, which is a small council. They are a little more intransigent to some extent. Their condition has always been the removal of U.S. troops. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, who also ran against Karzai, had an interesting plan--a cease-fire, followed by negotiations, followed by removal of foreign troops. He felt certain Taliban units you would be able to bring in and some you wouldn't.

President Obama made the statement the other day that the Afghan war was a "war of necessity." This has become something of a theological argument, whether the war is one of "choice" or "necessity." How important do you think the Afghan war is?

The United States has a moral responsibility to Afghanistan. We have been involved there for decades. In the 1980s we supplied thousands if not hundreds of thousands of tons of military equipment to the country. We gave millions and millions of dollars to Islamist extremists and killers. We did not support education, or people trying to build up the country and then we walked away and let the country devolve into civil war. A realist school of international relations would say we need to stay in Afghanistan to prevent another attack on the United States. I don't know if that is really true. I imagine with satellite imagery and Special Forces we could probably ensure that there is not a training camp on Afghan soil. It is more of a moral responsibility, which also has to do with international responsibility and relations. I don't know if that means we need to have 70,000 U.S. troops there. I am not sure they can accomplish that much. Everyone talks about this "clear and hold and build" policy of counter-insurgency. U.S. troops can't hold terrain because they can't be in the villages at night to ensure the Taliban doesn't come back; they can't live with the population. They can't assure them of anything. If anything, their presence encourages the Taliban to come in. It is a Catch 22 situation. I am not a military specialist, but I don't think a military solution is the best solution.

As Americans, we tend to be so reluctant to dominate a country, to be seen as occupiers. But given how much money we are spending in Afghanistan and how many lives we are putting at risk there, we have the right to demand that the Afghan government show how they spend every single penny. And we have a right to demand certain kinds of justice, so that Afghan people feel there is some hope and justice in their lives. Right now there is none. These things require a different kind of attention from the past. As I heard it, Bush didn't feel you should be involved in the day-to-day affairs of a country. We should learn how the country collects taxes, how it organizes its police. If we don't do that, nothing is going to change in that country.

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