Afghan and NATO forces are bracing for a major springtime offensive from the Taliban, which they expect to be fueled by a flow of weapons and gunmen from Pakistan. Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Said T. Jawad, praised recent U.S. pressure on Pakistan to conduct a crackdown on insurgents based in its territory. But he expressed deep concern about lagging reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, calling for improvements in the way international aid is delivered and projects like the civil-military provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) are carried out. “Unless we enhance the capacity of the Afghan government to deliver services and provide protection,” Jawad says, “just the military operation alone will not be successful.”
Everybody expects a Taliban offensive this spring. We saw today with the attack during Vice President Cheney's visit the Taliban claiming involvement. How great is the concern in Afghanistan of a very intense Taliban campaign?
We anticipate the offensive, but there is not much concern about it. Because the Afghan security forces, NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], and the U.S. forces are ready to confront that danger. Afghan security forces are working closely with our NATO allies and the United States to increase our capacity to defend the Afghan people, and there's a better realization here in Washington about the magnitude of the problem. NATO has improved its performance in Afghanistan significantly.
At the same time, NATO is facing some challenges. There are divisions within NATO about the rules of engagement of some forces in combat. How concerned are you or Afghan officials about the military commitment of NATO nations?
Since NATO started taking a bigger role in Afghanistan, their performance as far as military fighting capability and political commitment is improving. Frankly, today it performs a lot better in Afghanistan than [it did] six months ago.
How are they improving?
They're improving their tactics. They've received better equipment. And also the number of NATO troops on the ground in Afghanistan has increased.
So the talk about a Taliban offensive is not as worrying as perhaps other challenges facing the country?
We have to be prepared for that challenge that's coming up. We are preparing for this offensive at different levels and on different fronts. First, we are working more closely with Pakistan to make sure the terrorists don't receive the logistical, military, and ideological support they are receiving right now. And we are improving the coordination between the Afghan security forces, NATO forces, and coalition forces. NATO also is acquiring better mobility to allow their limited number of troops to be more agile in response to the upcoming possible Taliban offensive.
You mentioned more engagement with Pakistan. Does that also include the border?
It is a big border, but the border is not where the problem is. We have the same kind of border with Iran, with Central Asian countries, with China. And we have a very small capability of defending along all our borders. So the problem is not so much the border but the existence and operation of the centers where the terrorists are acquiring training, financial support, ideological backing, and logistical support.
Do you think the visit of Vice President [Dick] Cheney will have a positive influence on the situation?
Certainly the visit of Cheney, [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Robert M.] Gates, and a number of high-ranking officials from NATO countries to Pakistan will help it further cooperate in the war against terror and also make sure that the upcoming possible Taliban offensive is not as intense as it could be.
When I was at the United Nations, I remember the Afghan ambassador there saying the problem in Afghanistan is a triangle: It's Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISI [Pakistani intelligence agency]. Is the triangle still there? Or has it weakened or changed location?
The military in Pakistan is a strong institution. They are a very capable institution. So we would like the military to truly deliver and be more cooperative in this fight. I don't want to comment on the internal mechanism of how the military or the intelligence agencies operate in Pakistan. But as a whole, we appreciate what President Musharraf is doing, and we think that unless we have the full and sincere cooperation of Pakistan, we will not have a stable Afghanistan, a secure region, and a safe world.
There's a new report (PDF) from CSIS on the situation in Afghanistan. It calls 2007 a “breaking point year.” And it touches on concerns that Afghans have expressed about not only security but issues such as the performance of the justice system, of delivering basic services, electricity. It also warns of a potential weakening of support for the central government. How concerned are you about reconstruction?
One reason for the security challenges that we're facing in Afghanistan is terrorism, but it's not that the terrorists or the Taliban are very strong. The fact is the Afghan government's capabilities to deliver services and to provide protection are limited. Unless we enhance the capacity of the Afghan government to deliver services and to provide protection, just the military operation alone will not be successful. We can push aside the Taliban from a province. Then they will go to the neighboring province or they will go across the border and then come back.
It's very important that the international community and the United States, our partner, invest in building the capacity of the Afghan government to hold the areas after they have been cleared of the presence of the terrorists. And also make sure there will be no frustration among ordinary Afghan citizens, because it's been five years since the international community came to Afghanistan, but still only 6 percent of Afghans have access to electricity. The Afghans are entitled and are demanding an improvement in their daily lives, in the form of better security, more roads, energy, schools, and health clinics. We hope that as part of the new [Bush administration proposed] package of financial assistance to Afghanistan in the amount of $11.8 billion, some of these concerns are addressed immediately. It's very important that we deliver assistance to the Afghan people and implement some of these reconstruction projects as soon as possible.
Afghan officials in the past have expressed frustration that money donated or contributed to reconstruction doesn't really reach Afghan hands. Is that process improving?
From the entire financial assistance that's been given to Afghanistan, only 5 percent has been given to the Afghan government. Twelve percent of the funds have been given to the Afghan reconstruction trust fund established for Afghanistan. And we can withdraw money under certain conditions. The remaining 82 or 83 percent of the assistance has been spent outside the budget and control of the Afghan government. This is a problem. First, there is a waste in the way the money has been spent in Afghanistan, like many other places. Second, while we are building a political system in Afghanistan by encouraging the Afghan people to participate in that process—86 percent of Afghans participated in electing their president, we have a parliament in place in Afghanistan—yet at the same time, the government and the parliament have not been given the financial resources to address the needs of the Afghan people. The people are saying, “We have played our part, we've played our role. You've asked us to participate in the political process, we did. But we don't see visible improvement in our daily life.”
And so who do you approach then? Do you approach the United Nations, the World Bank, individual governments, the biggest donors—Japan, the United States—to try to cut through that and improve those percentages that you mentioned?
We are dealing with each donor separately. The funding mechanism also has to do with constitutional and legal requirements of the donor countries and communities. So that's why we have to address them individually. Some of the countries and some of the institutions are more flexible as far as recognizing our priorities and being responsive to our needs. Some others, because of the legal requirements or the history of the country, would not provide assistance to the government. Since we're doing state building in Afghanistan, we have to build the capacity of the Afghan government. An argument that's always being made says: “Well, we cannot give the money to the government because the government does not have the capacity.”
Capacity is a commodity on the market, like anything else. Whoever has resources will buy that capacity. So if you don't give adequate resources to the government in Afghanistan or anywhere, other institutions, like NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] or private companies, will take away the limited capacity that exists on behalf of the government. For instance, if you're paying forty-five to sixty dollars in Afghanistan to a university professor, if he leaves his job, he can become a cook or a driver with an NGO and make three hundred dollars a month. It's very difficult for us to keep that capacity. In order to build the capacity of the government anywhere, we have to invest in these governments by first providing training opportunities, but more importantly, enabling the government to pay adequate salaries; otherwise we will lose capacity.
One of the mechanisms to promote or expand central government control is [civil-military] provincial reconstruction teams [PRTs]. How do you assess their performance?
Initially, we wanted to have the PRTs come to Afghanistan under any condition they preferred to operate under. We had a very loose framework because for us, their symbolic presence was important. In the second phase, they got involved in some of the relief operations and also small-scale reconstruction projects, which is important. But I think the most efficient use of the PRTs would be to have them work on increasing the capacity of the Afghan government to deliver services. For instance, instead of digging a well, which could be done by an NGO or someone else, or by the private sector, if they could help the local government by training a few accountants, a few managers, or a few chiefs of police, that would be a lot more beneficial. This way, they create capacity, they help the Afghan government deliver services. And they do something that could not be done easily by a competing NGO or private sector company.
Earlier you mentioned Afghanistan's other borders. Let's look to the west. How helpful has Iran been in reconstruction or repatriation of Afghans?
One of the successes of Afghan foreign policy has been to engage Iran in a constructive manner. Iran has been helpful in building roads in Afghanistan, in the education sector, and in a variety of other projects. They're playing a constructive role. And we would like to keep Iran playing a constructive role in Afghanistan because in our experience in the past, we know that they could also be very destructive if they choose to do so.
Has Iraq become a distraction though in terms of outside help for Afghanistan? Even now it is being called a potential center for terrorism while Afghanistan was already in that role.
There's no doubt the amount of resources—financial, political, and even intellectual—on fighting the war on terror effectively are limited. And some of these resources were diverted to a much bigger crisis, which was Iraq. But if you look back at the history after the Cold War, Afghanistan was neglected, and there was no Iraq then. And we all paid a heavy price for that. So we should look at these countries separately. Afghanistan is the original front in the war against terror. If we do not succeed in Afghanistan, we will fail in winning the war against terror, certainly.