Flailing About, Blindly

by Joshua Foust on 1/15/2007 · 3 comments

Count Robert Gates as among the masters of the obvious: in a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, he informed Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that the Taliban threat will grow in 2007. This meeting took place in the context of calling for “broad international support” for the Afghanistan mission, even though those calls have been made since at least 2004.

At least it’s finally getting some attention, most recently of Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton. She just completed separate meetings with Karzai and Musharraf; we’ll see if anything useful comes from them.

Meanwhile, down south in Helmand, some intense fighting cleared the way for USAID contractors to continue construction work on the Kajaki Dam, which is meant to provide electricity to nearly 2 million people.

What a tremendously bad idea. Infrastructure is not the problem in Afghanistan, it is the symptom—of a failed occupation, a failed national police force, a failed policy at the highest levels of both governments. The U.S. was dumb to assume the Northern Alliance warlords wouldn’t give up power voluntarily, just as it was dumb to assume that the Taliban wouldn’t regroup in the free areas in Pakistan. Worse is siphoning off troops from Afghanistan to plug holes in Iraq. Karzai, on his part, hasn’t been the best enemy of corruption, though in his defense neither has NATO.

It is a society-wide, society-deep problem. Building a dam is a nice gesture, but it is merely the continuation of the failed “let’s be nice and hope they like us” policy, in which NATO troops clear out a local Taliban stronghold, chasing them into the mountains, and try to hand out public works projects and candy to win “hearts and minds.” The locals are smarter: they know the militants aren’t really gone, and that it usually only takes until nightfall for their return, often with new violence and terror should anyone cooperate with the Westerners.

As I said before, it is fundamentally a crisis of manpower. There are not enough troops to properly secure the country, and there are not enough troops to hold territory once it has been cleared. This has resulted in heart-breaking cases like Panjwai, in which not even those public works projects have materialized.

The very lack of security and control is what is causing these failures. Upgrading a dam is wonderful, but when NATO rolls through and bulldozes your orchard to build a road the Taliban then use to re-occupy your village, gratitude toward the West is probably one of the last things on your mind.

This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that we don’t really seem to know what we’re doing in Afghanistan. Policies and actions clash with rhetoric, and all seem to change by the week. NATO responds by throwing money at the locals, and USAID throw its resources into building dams instead of social or political institutions. And everyone is pointing their fingers at each other, refusing to take responsibility for the fact that, in reality, this entire half of the country is slipping through their fingers.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Laurence January 15, 2007 at 9:14 am

Josh, thank you for your posts on Afghanistan. I learn a lot from them–and look forward to reading YOUR book, too…

Joshua Foust January 15, 2007 at 2:24 pm

Laurence –

I appreciate that, but for the time being I’d settle for someone not rejecting a column I submit.

Brian January 19, 2007 at 3:40 am

I am presently based in eastern Afghanistan and work with the Afghan government on its reconstruction efforts. Though the situation is quite complex and challenging, requiring a long-term committment from the international community, I see many positive signs of change. I find the reception by the average Afghan for international – both civil and military – to be quite positive. Though I find your comments interesting, I also find them somewhat unbalanced, and a bit detached from the reality on the ground. Afghanistan if not “falling”, though the situation is very delicate (particularly in the South). Simply adding more troops alone will not normalize the country. Sustained engagement by the international community in support of the Afghan government at all levels is critical. This includes support to rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure (some of which may provide a vital resource – electricty), social services, and private sector. And for the record, USAID invests millions of dollars in “social and political institutions”. I suggest you take a look at http://www.usaid.gov for related background on the Afghanistan program.

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