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Reassuring an Edgy Afghanistan

Interviewee: John Dempsey, Head of Office, Kabul, Afghanistan, United States Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
September 4, 2009

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Afghanistan is beset by mounting security problems, an unsettled presidential election, and growing wariness by some of its chief international partners. As debate intensifies over the level of U.S. commitment to the war effort, John Dempsey, a Kabul-based analyst for the United States Institute of Peace, says Washington should commit more resources to the fight. "There needs to be a sustained and holistic approach to fighting the war in Afghanistan if we're going to walk away with anything that resembles a victory," he says. The most immediate concern for Afghans, however, is securing a credible election result, Dempsey says, something the international community has little control over. "The fear is that what we saw in Iran a couple of months ago may be replicated here, where people take to the streets saying that the election was stolen, perhaps with even more violence."

There are a lot of competing concerns in Afghanistan right now, but among the most pressing is the unresolved and disputed presidential election. How serious is the electoral crisis, and what options does the international community have to help resolve it?

The international community, with two dozen or so special representatives for Afghanistan meeting in Paris this week, came out unequivocally stating that they support the process and not any individual candidate. They've been sticking by that line for quite some time, so as to make this seem like an Afghan exercise rather than something the international community is trying to influence. Tallies from 60 percent of the polling stations show that [current President Hamid] Karzai has 47.3 percent of the vote and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has 32.6 percent. Obviously, if that was the final outcome, that would lead to a two-man runoff, which many have suggested would be good for democracy in Afghanistan because it would require the two most prominent candidates to face off in a campaign against each other and state their platforms clearly. But the ballots have been marred by widespread fraud charges, and many say that low voter turnout suggests that even if there is a winner in the first round, that person won't have much of a mandate due to a small percentage of people who went to the polls. There's no guarantee that a second round would be any more free from fraud, and it's entirely possible that there could be even more.

"The fear is that what we saw in Iran a couple of months ago may be replicated here, where people take to the streets saying that the election was stolen."

The international community poured tons of resources, money, election monitors, and troops to secure polling stations. For months Washington and the international community had called these elections vital for Afghanistan's future. And yet so much seems to have gone wrong. Why?

There are a few reasons. One, of course, is the rising insurgency. It's the predominant concern of the international community right now. A successful election is a key step in establishing legitimacy in the central government--and improving the government's legitimacy is certainly a central part of the counterinsurgency strategy, to make sure that whatever government is elected has the support of the Afghan people. But with the declining security situation in the country, the international community and the Afghan security forces have had no choice but to focus their attention on that. Certainly in the run-up to the election, securing polling stations was a critical concern. But security on election day itself wasn't so much the problem, although there were a number of attacks that day. The low turnout was a result of Taliban threats to potential voters in the weeks leading up to the poll, and the fraud and vote rigging were the result of political deals cut over recent months and even longer.

You saw candidates, including the incumbent, Karzai, making deals with key figures to try to ensure their support in the long run. That means promises of key posts and positions. In Afghanistan it's often key tribal leaders who are able to deliver the votes of tens of thousands of constituents among their tribes. If you can sway a key tribal leader in a particular area, that person can guarantee you the votes of virtually all of the people in their constituency. You're looking at a relatively limited amount of people that you have to appeal to in order to win. At the same time, the international community has been saying that this is one of the most important moments in recent Afghan political history, but they have focused largely on elections logistics and security, while devoting limited attention to ensuring transparency and fairness. They've poured a lot of money into trying to ensure that the polls came off safely. Arguably they were somewhat successful, in terms of preventing spectacular attacks on election day and assuring millions of voters who turned out that they could vote safely and that their vote counted. But the widespread allegations of fraud and irregularities still have to be addressed properly to ensure the election's legitimacy.

What's the mood in Afghanistan now?

Everyone's waiting. Abdullah, the opposition candidate who would face President Karzai if there is a runoff, has publicly stated that he would support the results of the independent electoral commission and would not call on his supporters to take to the streets in protest. However, there are signals from others within his camp that suggest otherwise. The fear is that what we saw in Iran a couple of months ago may be replicated here, where people take to the streets saying that the election was stolen, perhaps with even more violence. With the Iranian experience in mind, the international and Afghan security forces are gearing up for, and preparing to prevent, any potential unrest that might result once the final results are announced.

Let's move to the question of changing U.S. military strategy. The commanding general in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has presented his recommendations for a strategy shift. What's different in this strategy that hasn't been tried in the past seven-plus years?

There are a number of things. I still haven't seen the report, as it's confidential, but I do think that they're looking at the central tenet of the current counterinsurgency doctrine, which is to protect and persuade the population rather than target and destroy the enemy. Of course there's little evidence that this will work in a country that's as difficult to operate in as Afghanistan given the topography and level of impoverishment, not to mention the influence of Pakistan next door. We certainly took our eyes off the ball when we went into Iraq in 2003. Right now there's an increased effort on making up for lost time. But U.S. strategy overall is looking to shift the balance between military and civilian efforts. There is a big push on agriculture, a shift in counternarcotics policy, and a look to build governance and rule of law as part of the overall COIN [counterinsurgency] effort.

President Barack Obama faces a potentially tough decision--deciding whether to pour more troops into a war that the U.S. electorate is turning against. From where you sit, what's the need? More troops, more civilian resources, or a combination of both?

Certainly it's a combination of both. It cannot be a one-pronged counterinsurgency strategy. There has to be both. We've relied overwhelmingly on the military side of things. Our military resources have outnumbered our civilian resources by such a large number for such a long time. But the balance is starting to shift somewhat. An increase in the number of international troops is needed to fill the security vacuum until the Afghan security forces are capable of handling their own security needs. In the meantime, the Obama administration is placing more emphasis on the hearts and minds aspects of the war, looking to address the fact that Afghans are crying out for jobs and a government that's going to protect them rather than be seen as predatory. They're looking for good governance. They want a government that acts in their interest, rather than a government that is seen as corrupt, self-serving, and that puts in power people who, back in the early 1990s, were the very same people who were fueling the civil war, who are responsible for massive human rights abuses and other atrocities, and who caused the chaos and lack of law and order that led to the Taliban coming into power in the first place.

One thing that the West hasn't done nearly enough of in the past is use the significant leverage that it has over the Afghan government to try to effect change. We gave Karzai a free pass during the Bush administration, and certainly the Obama administration is not doing the same. Unfortunately, right now, there is governing inertia. People are waiting for the election murkiness to clear before really pressuring the Afghan government to take more action to improve its performance.

"There's little evidence that this will work in a country that's as difficult to operate in as Afghanistan, given the topography and level of impoverishment, not to mention the influence of Pakistan next door."

As somebody who has been in Afghanistan for quite some time, and is currently watching events unfurl in Kabul, what do you make of the current political tenor in Washington?

There needs to be a sustained and holistic approach to fighting the war in Afghanistan if we're going to walk away with anything that resembles a victory. It's interesting that only a year ago Afghanistan was talked about as the "good war" as opposed to the "bad war" in Iraq. People seemed not to question that premise. Now that Obama is in office and we're focusing our main foreign policy effort to fight a war in the most remote part of the world against a guerilla insurgency that has a number of splinter groups and offshoots, making it very hard to deal with using one singular approach ... I can see how people would ask how we're going to get out of this morass.

Some suggest that there are similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan--that this is Obama's quagmire. And there are many similarities: a guerilla insurgency, asymmetrical warfare, neighboring countries providing sanctuary, etc. But the key difference is that Vietnam was part of the global Cold War game--the Vietcong never presented a threat to our homeland. Whereas in Afghanistan and on the Pakistan side of the border, we're fighting an enemy with every intention of launching attacks directly on American interests throughout the world. That's the reason we came into Afghanistan in the first place. Does it require a military solution to defeat such a threat? To some degree certainly, but we've relied too heavily on the military perspective. Instead, [we] should devote more attention to civilian efforts and to protecting the Afghan population--not just in terms of security, but also in terms of providing access to justice and jobs and making them feel that they live in a country whose government wants to serve them.

In addition to all of those debating whether now is the time to leave, there seems to be a general consensus that we don't have many more chances. Is this really our last chance, as many are now suggesting? Or is talk of this being "the last chance" more political noise than reality?

It's overblown that the Afghans don't want the Americans here. Virtually no Afghans want to return to Taliban rule, which polls have shown. The greater danger is that the American public is going to get fed up. Senator Lindsey Graham [R-SC] was here last week and said that this was the last chance, mentioning that the American public is not going to put up with spending billions of dollars and seeing rising numbers of American combat deaths without any progress being made. And he's right, they shouldn't settle for that. There have to be visible signs of progress and signs that the new strategy is working. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael] Mullen, [Commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David] Petraeus, and [Special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Amb. Richard] Holbrooke have all said that they recognize that political imperative. We don't have the flexibility or luxury of waiting ten years to see improvements in Afghanistan, although it may take that long or more in some instances to see the impact of our development efforts. But that is, of course, how politics works. Next year's midterm elections figure as much in Washington's planning for Afghanistan as anything.

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