Winston Lord: Making Up For a ’Lost Year’ in Afghanistan

October 16, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Clinton administration, reports that on a recent trip to Afghanistan he found that “huge problems” remain. But Lord says that conditions will start to improve because the Bush administration and other nations have now begun to take “several encouraging steps.”

Asserting that the administration’s preoccupation with Iraq meant that Afghanistan was largely ignored for a year, Lord, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “I think we can still succeed in Afghanistan, but we have made the job much more complicated because of the ’lost year.’”

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Currently co-chairman of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Lord was interviewed on October 15, 2003, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.

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You were just in Afghanistan with a delegation from the International Rescue Committee. What were your impressions?

There are huge problems. But I am not overly pessimistic. There is good news and bad news. Essentially, the Bush administration and, by extension, the international community, lost a whole year from mid-2002 until a couple of months ago, because of a lack of focus and resources and cohesion. On the other hand, in the last couple of months several encouraging steps have been taken. I think we can still succeed in Afghanistan, but we have made the job much more complicated because of the “lost year.”

Why do you think there was this “lost year,” as you call it?

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First, the administration’s resources and attention were distracted by Iraq. Second, officials may have underestimated the problems in Afghanistan, including the security problems. And third, there was a lack of interagency coordination both in the field and in Washington. We paid a price on all these fronts.

Could you enumerate the steps now being taken?

The administration has announced a series of steps and a general acceleration of our efforts in Afghanistan in the last couple of months, for two reasons. First, there is an election scheduled in Afghanistan next summer, and it is important that this look like a legitimate election and also that the moderates do well. Second, of course, there is an election in the United States in November 2004 and, with the prospect of Iraq looking spotty at best, the administration cannot afford to have Afghanistan looking problematic at the same time. Whatever the reasons, the good news is that various mistakes that were being made are now being rectified. Let me tick some of these off:

  • We were not applying enough resources to Afghanistan, but in the last couple of months, the president has announced a doubling of resources, an additional $1.2 billion, both for security and economic reasons.
  • Progress was too slow in building up the Afghan army and police and these efforts have now been accelerated with some initial promising results.
  • We lacked an ambassador in Afghanistan. We now have appointed one, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been President Bush’s special representative to Kabul. He still has to be approved by the Senate. He will presumably have more interagency clout; meanwhile, there has been an interagency coordinating task force set up in Washington in the last couple of months. Combined with giving Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, more coordinating responsibilities for Iraq and Afghanistan, there should be greater cohesion in our policy, which until now has been lacking.
  • The Pentagon was at best lukewarm about, if not resisting, the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF], now under NATO command, beyond Kabul. The administration, much too belatedly, now supports this, and the Security Council this week passed a resolution authorizing and encouraging this expansion.
  • On the economic front, most of our projects were slow-moving, with typical AID [Agency for International Development] contracting and subcontracting, rather than focusing on projects that could have an immediate economic, political, and psychological impact. For example, road-building. In recent months, we have stepped up our efforts on such projects, and now construction on the road from Kabul to Kandahar has made good progress. Then again, this should have been done a year ago. But it shows that there is an accelerated effort to get things right.
  • Finally, we are increasing the deployment and changing the focus of provincial reconstruction teams [PRTs], which are [responsible for] a combination of security and reconstruction, as the name implies. This also helps stability in certain areas.

Every one of these things should have been done more than a year ago. We lost valuable time. But at least now the administration is focusing on the right priorities.

Describe the security situation. There are reports that Taliban forces are increasing in number and that attacks continue, particularly in the southeast.

There is a triple threat on the security front. First, there is the Taliban resurgence in the south and east, with some help from foreign Arab and al Qaeda forces. This resurgence by the Taliban threatens both economic progress and political stability.

Clearly, President [Pervez] Musharraf of Pakistan, whatever efforts he is making— there are different views on that— he and his government have not been able to seal off the [Pakistan-Afghanistan] border or exert enough control to prevent [the establishment of] Taliban sanctuaries. All the Afghans are frustrated with the Pakistani performance. The U.S. administration is more willing to acknowledge the multiple challenges Musharraf faces, but I think Pakistan can and should do more.

The second threat is still the warlords’ resistance against central government control and fighting among various warlords. And third, there is ongoing banditry and a huge drug problem.

It is a very daunting, complicated security situation. The main way to meet the challenge, of course, is for the Afghans themselves ultimately to take this over, just as it is in Iraq [where Iraqis will eventually assume control]. That’s why the acceleration of the training of the Afghan army and police is important. How do you get from here to there? In the meantime, as we boost Afghanistan’s self-reliance, we need a combination of NATO expanding beyond Kabul to some of the other major cities and— one hopes at some point to rural areas— the expansion of the PRTs, and ongoing efforts by coalition and U.S. forces.

Is President Hamid Karzai truly in charge?

It is a major challenge to extend the central government’s writ throughout the country. There are different kinds of warlords. Some do provide security. Some do help the Americans go after the Taliban, so we are reluctant to take them on directly. Some are corrupt, some are druglords. Many abuse human rights, including those of women. You have to distinguish. Karzai’s strategy, which we have backed, is to move rather carefully, meaning you cannot take them all on head-on in all places at all times. He has replaced some warlords, including one in Kandahar. He is beginning to collect revenue from the warlords, although not all that they should be giving the central government. This month, he is launching a very delicate task of demobilizing militias and warlords. He has reformed the defense ministry to try to show a greater diversity of ethnic representation and to reassure the Pashtuns that they are getting a fair stake in the government as well as in the army. Part of the reason for the Taliban resurgence in the south, in addition to the lack of good security moves by our side, has been the feeling of some Pashtuns that other ethnic groups are still dominant and in league with certain warlords. This is going to be a tough process. Whether Afghans will begin to think in national terms rather than in ethnic terms is a key factor for future stability and for the Karzai government to spread its influence.

And I guess opium dominates the economic scene.

That’s a big problem, but only one of many. Afghanistan’s economy has been devastated by decades of war, invasion, civil conflict, Taliban extremism, and severe drought. The good news on the economic front is that they’ve had a record wheat harvest, the largest in 25 years. And the construction and economic activity in Kabul is very vivid to any visitor. Some of the high profile projects like roads are beginning to show progress. But the bad news is that there are still daunting challenges. The drug trade has really increased. And it is much more profitable to farmers than wheat or anything else. And so, the economy, although making progress in certain areas, has a long way to go, which in turn affects the popularity of the central government.

Does the drug money get into the Afghan economy, too? Is the government reluctant to crack down on the drug trade?

Government officials would like to do more, but they’ve got to take on so many challenges at once that, reluctantly, they figure they can’t do a great deal there. They are making efforts, like paying farmers not to plant opium, but in economic terms, unfortunately, the drug trade is still much more attractive to these people. It’s a tough problem.

Is the administration pledging enough money for Afghanistan?

I think it is enough if other nations step up to the plate and we and the Afghans use the resources well. The resources should have come before, both for the security measures that I mentioned and to show concrete progress on the economic front and in the lives of Afghans as you head into the election process next year. It’s going to require better coordination and better focus and I think there are signs that that will now happen.

Did you get a chance to look at the social scene? I keep seeing reports that outside of Kabul conservative restrictions on women, such as in education, persist.

There is no question about that. Even before the Taliban, and since, the role of women in Afghanistan is extremely depressing. Afghanistan is vying with Saudi Arabia for the gold medal for mistreatment of women. There is a very conservative culture there. The Karzai government, to its credit, is doing all it can to improve the situation, including schooling for women, and the new constitution being considered will clearly promote equal rights for women. They will be allowed to vote. But the problem is whether the conservative male society will harass them and keep them from voting.

In Kabul, there are women in the streets, but I would say that at least 90 percent of them are still wearing the head-to-toe burkhas. And in traveling outside of Kabul, any women you see are certainly in burkhas, but you almost never see any women. We drove three hours south to a place called Gardez, and I don’t think we saw more than a handful of women the entire time, even outside of their homes. This is one area the International Rescue Committee is addressing in a major way. We have been in Afghanistan for 15 years and promoted women’s education, even under the Taliban. But above all, we have been educating women in Pakistan, Afghan refugees, many of whom can now go back to Afghanistan and improve the opportunities there. But I have to tell you that it is going to be a long haul before the women in Afghanistan get a fair shake. It’s a very bleak situation, despite the efforts of the Karzai government.

How is the United States regarded? Is the goodwill that followed the liberation of Kabul still there?

I think it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of the Afghan people detested the Taliban, are glad they are gone, and welcomed the United States and allied efforts to rid them. There is still a good amount of goodwill generally toward the United States and the international community for ridding them of this nightmare, but having said that, given the lack of progress in this “lost year,” many Afghans are very concerned they are going to be deserted again. The United States and the international community walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled and we paid the price in the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist camps. We have all seen the results, including 9/11. It is essential that we not walk away again, that we stay for the long haul. It is in our own self-interest, not just in the interests of the Afghans alone. So if sufficient progress can be made in the next year or two, and if the election can be carried out— these are big ifs— we do have the advantage of the Afghan people still welcoming outside assistance.

Now, there are some, particularly among the Pashtuns, the majority tribe, that feel the Northern Alliance [the largely Tajik militia that fought the Taliban] is still dominating the government, including the ministry of defense, and so there is a very tricky situation as you head to the elections in how this will play out in terms of representation. Crucial challenges are whether the varied Afghan tribes and ethnic groups can work together rather than pulling apart. The jury is still out on that.

Is there a clear candidate against Karzai?

No, not as of now. There are two elections scheduled for June 2004. One is for president. Karzai should do well there, but there are some previous politicians, including Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was once temporary president, who might run against him. How well Karzai does depends partly on whether in the next year or so he can show real progress on the economic front, whether security improves, particularly in the south and east, and whether Karzai and his allies can get organized. Here the warlords with local resources and organizations have a distinct advantage. Karzai himself is very popular and considered honest. But some think he is too weak and indecisive, for example in moving against the warlords.

There is also a parliamentary election and so the issue is whether there will be sufficient security to permit registration of voters in various regions to go ahead. That’s now beginning. It is being run by the United Nations. That’s why, among other reasons, the recent decision by the United Nations to bless the expansion of ISAF and the October 31 visit by a high-level delegation of 10 United Nations ambassadors led by the German and U.S. ambassadors are good political steps underlining the international community’s concern. The challenge will be to get enough international forces to Afghanistan quickly and out to various cities. This will take some time, unfortunately.

What else is needed?

Over the longer term, we are going to need a strategy for the surrounding countries. There’s been a history of other countries meddling in Afghanistan. It’s not only making sure that Pakistan steps up its efforts to cut off the cross-border infiltration which is disrupting the south and east, but also Iran’s role in the west, and Russia’s traditional role. We have to make sure all countries respect Afghanistan’s neutrality and stability and don’t succumb to the temptation of meddling in its internal affairs. Perhaps the most hopeful sign is that the Afghan people want to go home. During these past 18 months, we’ve seen the largest single repatriation effort— some 3 million refugees returning— in the history of the United Nations. The IRC is proud to be a central player in this rebuilding of lives and hope.

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