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A New Administration, a New Afghanistan Policy?

COM’s Nick Mills, Karzai author, on why relations must change

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COM's Nick Mills says we need to ask the Afghans how they would solve their problems, listen carefully, and respect their opinions and advice before sending more troops to Afghanistan. Photo by Vernon Doucette

In his first week in office, President Barack Obama made it clear that the U.S. relationship with the government of Afghanistan and its president, Hamid Karzai, was about to change. Instead of regarding Karzai as an ally, as the Bush administration had done, the Obama regime would consider him an impediment to U.S. goals in a strategically critical part of the world.

BU Today spoke with Nick Mills, a College of Communication associate professor of journalism and the author of Karzai: The Failing American Intervention and the Struggle for Afghanistan, about the differences between the old and the new policies and where our relationship with Afghanistan should go from here. Mills first met Karzai (Hon.’05) in the 1980s, when Mills was field director of the Afghan Media Project, an effort to teach Afghan refugees news-gathering techniques to better document the war with the Soviet Union. He later worked with the Afghan leader for several months, writing the story of Karzai’s rise to power and of the difficulties of life in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

BU Today: How has President Obama signaled a change in this country’s relationship with Afghanistan and with President Karzai?
Mills:
Simply by not being George W. Bush, for starters. Bush and Karzai have been closely linked by Afghans, and Karzai has come to be seen as a tool of the United States, and thus equally responsible for civilian casualties, corruption, and lack of progress in reconstruction. The change in Washington has given rise to hope in Afghanistan for change there as well.

Many reports, some published in newspapers such as the New York Times, suggest that Karzai’s government is awash in corruption. Is that your perception too?
Yes. Government ministers, who are not paid princely sums, have constructed mansions in Kabul and elsewhere that are beyond their normal means and are symbolic to Afghans of the corruption in government. Karzai seems unable or unwilling to mount a serious crackdown on corruption. No one has accused him of being personally corrupt — that is, on the take. But allowing corruption to run rampant is a kind of corruption in itself.

What are the specifics of the corruption allegations?
I can’t be specific to the point of naming names, because I don’t know the names, but I have been told that even the air base at Bagram is a transshipment point for Afghanistan’s drugs, and that the drug merchants cross borders with impunity because they can pretty much buy, or kill, any official who stands in the way. One of Karzai’s brothers has been linked to the drug trade by a fairly substantial body of circumstantial evidence, but Karzai says he won’t act on circumstantial evidence. Nor will he order an investigation.

Karzai has apparently attempted to postpone the next election until months after his term expires in May. Does he have a legitimate reason for postponement?
One rationale is that some mountainous areas will still be snowbound and not able to participate; another is a lack of security in some areas; a third is that the electoral machinery cannot be set up in time. They should have thought of these things in advance, of course, when they wrote the constitution, but the creation of the constitution was a contentious process and probably not as thorough as it might have been.

If given a choice, should the United States work with provincial leaders, who by and large oppose Karzai, or with Karzai and the central government?
The international community — not just the United States — should decentralize the aid process, work with the provincial leaders, focus on achievable local projects, and maintain a respectful distance from Kabul, because the Afghans don’t trust Kabul. Not a lot has been accomplished by the Karzai government, and the rest of the country is frustrated by the lack of progress.

Vice President Joseph Biden recently visited Afghanistan and described it as “a real mess.” What does he mean?
I’m not going to guess what was in Biden’s mind when he said that. I would describe it as a real mess, too, and I can tell you what I mean by that. The political system is ineffectual. The judicial system is virtually nonexistent, making it hard to enforce laws. Billions of dollars in international aid have gone into the pockets of corrupt officials. The poppy crop and drug production account for the greatest share of Afghanistan’s economy. Infrastructure construction has been minimal; I have read that Kabul has less electricity now than it did under the Taliban. The Taliban have grown stronger than before and control a lot of territory. Pakistan’s intelligence service and Saudi operatives such as bin Laden make sure that the Taliban not only have a safe haven, but are well armed and well financed.

There’s a giant paradox staring at us, and we don’t know how to reconcile it: Afghanistan needs more security, the Afghans are not prepared or equipped to provide their own security, but U.S. and NATO forces are seen by many Afghans as an army of occupation, much as the Soviets were in the 1980s, and serve as the recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So, to simplify that paradoxical equation, the more troops we pour in, the stronger the Taliban get.

What’s the solution? Is it impossible to impose the authority of a central government on Afghanistan? Is Afghanistan better off without a central government?
Afghans have never responded well to centralized authority. The last great period of peace occurred in the so-called “decade of democracy,” when King Zahir Shah was on the throne, ruling with a very soft touch and leaving most of the power with local and provincial khans, or tribal chiefs. Karzai is a royalist and a sort of romantic nationalist — I think his first choice would have been to reinstate the king, or lacking that, to become king himself. He has a romantic vision of Afghanistan as one nation, one people, based on a happy childhood in the last days of the monarchy.

That said, I have come to believe that the United States, and perhaps other Western powers, pushed Afghanistan too far, too fast toward democracy. I think it might have been a wiser choice to have a strongman with some strong provincial leaders in charge for a few years to whip things into shape. That, of course, presumes a strongman who is not corrupt and who would punish corruption and see to it that aid money was well spent, that the infrastructure was swiftly built, etc. I don’t think such a person existed in 2001, so Karzai, with his solid ties to the United States, was picked. Even Karzai could have done much more, but he was hobbled by restrictions on his authority dictated by the United States and by his own character, which makes him a consensus builder and not an autocrat. He had a window of opportunity when the Afghans were solidly behind him, but for a variety of reasons he missed his moment.

If you were Obama’s advisor on matters related to Afghanistan, what advice would you give?
One, show the Afghans more respect. One of the reasons for Karzai’s ineffectiveness has been the Bush administration’s bullheaded approach to Afghanistan and the refusal to respect Karzai as the sovereign. Another reason is the military’s lack of respect in the field for the Afghans’ land, culture, and traditions. Another is the high rate of civilian casualties caused by misguided aerial bombardment. I would advise President Obama to listen very carefully to the Afghans before sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan, to ask them how they would solve the problems, and to respect their opinions and advice.

The day after Karzai spoke at BU’s Commencement in 2005, he went to Washington to ask Bush for more authority over the foreign, that is, U.S., forces on his soil. Bush publicly dismissed the request, which undermined Karzai, made him furious, and lowered his standing in the eyes of Afghans.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

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