CIA Advisor Advocates Meddling in Afghanistan’s Election

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by Joshua Foust on 7/10/2012 · 6 comments

Michael O’Hanlon wants America to pick the next Afghan president:

The stakes are huge. If a warlord or corrupt politician wins the presidency, aid will be wasted and Afghanistan’s economy — still dependent on billions in annual foreign aid, such as that pledged during Sunday’s donor conference in Tokyo — will regress. Improvements in citizens’ quality of life, such as dramatic increases in life expectancy, school enrollment and cell phone availability, are likely to be squandered. Worse, insurgents will have a rallying cry likely to resonate with millions of disaffected Afghans. Civil war could resume and, with it, control over large parts of the country could be lost to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat.

This is a strange position to advocate: everything will fail if a corrupt politician wins the election, but everything might not fail a little less if a “moderately serious reformer” wins. In case you wanted to know what a “moderately serious reformer” looks like, O’Hanlon doesn’t actually describe the reforms that would be necessary. He does, however, name-check the same three English-speaking candidates Americans salivated over in 2009: Atmar, Abdullah, and “economic wizard Ashraf Ghani”.

None of those candidates drew broad appeal the last time around — not even Abdullah, who despite widespread support in the west still somehow wound up with hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes. The “wizard” Ashraf Ghani was widely hailed in western op-eds about the Afghan reformers who will save the day, but he finished in fourth place, losing even to a homeless man who campaigned from his car. That man, Ramzan Bashardost, actually won two provinces (Ghazni and Daikondi, where his Hazara heritage really helped)… but he doesn’t speak very much English so he doesn’t warrant a name-check from the Michael O’Hanlons of the world.

So beyond not understanding the field (O’Hanlon couldn’t bring himself to mention Ali Ahmed Jalali, Afghanistan’s former interior minister and current faculty at the National Defense University, who is also running), O’Hanlon doesn’t even bother to say what “reform” entails. That is its own discussion — Afghanistan’s government needs serious reform, and no one argues with that — but the appeal of minority candidates who don’t enjoy strong national appeal means using them to accomplish any reform is, to put it very gently, an uphill battle.

But there is a bigger problem with O’Hanlon’s article, and that is his apparent ease with the idea of “picking a winner.” O’Hanlon doesn’t seem to understand that “picking a winner” was the U.S. strategy in 2002. Picking a winner is why we’re stuck with corrupt, etc., Hamid Karzai. Karzai got the royal treatment in 2002: interviews on PBS, lauded at the State of the Union Address (“A lifelong Afghan nationalist”), the darling of every cocktail party and gathering around town for months.

From 2002-2004, everyone loved Karzai. They all thought this supposedly non-corrupt, non-warlord Pashtun leader would unite the country, keep corruption at bay, and lead Afghanistan into the future.

Of course that was nonsense. Karzai turned out to be just as venal, corrupt, and ineffective as every other leader of Afghanistan in recent decades because, as I explained for Foreign Policy two years ago, the institution of the presidency itself is broken. It is designed to not function normally:

The problem with focusing on Karzai so much is it places the entire onus for success or failure on Karzai, the person, when the bigger problem is the institution of the presidency. Afghanistan has one of the most centralized governments in the world. Karzai is responsible for managing the performance of 34 provincial governors, 400 or so district sub-governors, and all their associated chiefs of police, to say nothing of competing constituencies in Kabul. He personally appoints all government officials down to district administrators, of which there are hundreds. It’s no wonder he is having trouble governing…

Afghanistan does not have the benefit of strong institutions, so governance is based on relationships and patronage — trading favors, or appointments, for money. In the West, it is normally called corruption. In Afghanistan, though, corruption is, unfortunately, how the system works. Karzai could not have removed the warlord Ismail Khan from Herat in 2004, for instance, if he hadn’t offered Khan a ministerial position to compensate him for the loss of power and privilege. Nor could he have simply wished away Gul Agha Sherzai’s predatory rule of Kandahar without promising him power and money and influence elsewhere (in that case, the province of Nangarhar, where Sherzai is now governor). With only limited power to coerce his rivals, and moral suasion of limited value in a land ruled by ruthless, unsentimental men, corruption is just about the only tool an Afghan president has.

Anyway, Michael O’Hanlon thinks we can change that by meddling in Afghanistan’s politics and picking a new, supposedly more effective and less corrupt, “winner.” Another Magical Pet Afghan! Good times.

It’s funny, in 2002 when O’Hanlon was endorsing the war he called “masterful in both design and execution” and “one of the greater military successes of the twenty-first century” for Foreign Affairs he didn’t have these same concerns about Karzai. In fact, O’Hanlon doesn’t even mention Karzai in his writing about Afghanistan until 2008, when he endorses working with him as a means of providing enough troops for the war. Throughout 2008, O’Hanlon’s public statements about the war focused narrowly on the troops — his concern about the need for a reformist president (for Karzai was obviously, horribly, counterproductively corrupt in 2008) certainly didn’t inspire him to write of the dire need for a reformer in Kabul.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 2009 election that O’Hanlon complained that corruption was “badly overlooked,” even though he was one of the media-ubiquitous “experts” who was overlooking it. But overlooking it is precisely the point.

O’Hanlon’s latest scheme for the country — he’s had several, from masterpiece to throwing troops at the war to making policemen to, now, somehow divining which magical pet Afghan we should pick to solve all of our woes — is the heart of the problem of the American misadventure in Afghanistan. Those with high visibility platforms suggest ideas or endorse policies without considering their recent, failed pasts (remember “arm the tribes?”). And they are given credibility for this because of… well, I don’t really know.

At the end of 2008, I was at a NATO conference on the future of Afghanistan. There, two DIA analysts insisted that the only way to maintain the good momentum we had in Afghanistan was to ensure that Hamid Karzai won the presidential election while also making sure it was free and fair so people accepted it. There were a lot of nodding heads with stars on their shoulders. The U.S. continues to think it can and should meddle in the politics of Afghanistan not because it is good at it, but because it has money and “interests” at play.

That’s absolute madness. If history tells us anything it is that the U.S. is especially bad at meddling in Afghan politics. We just don’t get it. We are bad at it. We have been bad at it. We have never been good at picking a winner — we do it so inconsistently, I’m astonished that in 2012 such an idea is still being pushed like it’s the result of considered research.

Investing all of our political eggs in a few slick “reformers” in Kabul is the worst thing the U.S. could possibly do. Some pro-western men in Kabul want American money for their presidential campaign? How surprising! The real problem driving corruption in Afghanistan is its broken institutions, not the personality of its president (remember: Kazai was widely believed in the west to not be corrupt in 2002-4). Focusing on the personalities of the candidates, as O’Hanlon does, ignores all the many challenges any of them would face in actually reforming the country — the other constituencies (including the Taliban), the extreme difficulty of actually reforming anything (Karzai tried to, for a while, before he gave up and went with a least-worst approach to running what he could), and the enormous political baggage we’d saddle any client with when our support inevitably becomes public.

The only thing O’Hanlon’s proposed policy will get us is the same crappy situation, only with more culpability for America mixed in. And probably, given his other writing on the subject, a plea for more troops and more time, etc.

Last thought. This is Michael O’Hanlon’s byline for the Washington Post op-ed: “Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy,” which he co-authored with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal.”

Here is Michael O’Hanlon’s short biography for the Brookings Institution: “Michael O’Hanlon specializes in national security and defense policy and is senior author of the Iraq and Afghanistan Index, projects. Before joining Brookings, O’Hanlon worked as a national security analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His current research agenda includes military strategy and technology, Northeast Asia, U.S. Central Command, and defense budgets, among other defense/security issues. O’Hanlon is a member of General David Petraeus’s External Advisory Board at the Central Intelligence Agency. His most recent books include The Wounded Giant (Penguin, 2012) and Bending History (Brookings, 2012).”

See that bit I highlighted? O’Hanlon does not routinely disclose his status as an advisor to the CIA when he writes op-eds advocating various policy ideas. That’s why I titled this post, “CIA Advisor Advocates Meddling in Afghanistan’s Election.”

Because that is precisely what is happening when O’Hanlon writes these articles. It is dishonest not to disclose his close professional and personal relationship with the Director of Central Intelligence, David Petraeus, and it is dishonest of the Washington Post not to disclose that relationship when it is publishing the opinion that the American government should interfere in another country’s politics and elections.

It is difficult to overstate just how screwed up that really is, so instead I’ll stop before the cursing begins and blood shoots out from my eyes.

Surreal Bonus: Michael O’Hanlon interviews U.S. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell in 2011 about training Afghan Army and Police forces. Lt. Gen. Caldwell is currently fending off allegations that he delayed a probe into abusive practices at an Afghan hospital because it might reflect poorly on President Obama.

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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 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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AJK July 10, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Sometimes, on the darkest nights in the darkest time of the year, when I think that all hope is lost and that I’ll never find employment, I consider adding a “-zai” to the end of my name and walking into DC as a “Reformist Candidate for Afghanistan.”

Xenophon July 10, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Excellent piece.

O’Hanlon is absolutely representative of his species, the DC think tankasaurus. He’s never met a war, nation-building project, arrogant meddling in the affairs of others, neocon adventure that he didn’t fundamentally like. And he just never seems to draw any lessons from past failures (e.g., Iraq).

Steve Magribi July 11, 2012 at 1:10 am

O’Hanlon is a frustrated person. You never go so far out on a limb and telegraph your direction so far in advance. Actually, he obviously floated this “election interference” idea out without clearing this from his Board Mates. Big Mistake. He might be missing some meetings soon,,,he might disappear, in a positive sense, of course.

Most election interference ops are done more or less covertly. Of course anything done in Afghanistan, unless you actually know the players personally for a long time are never covert. It gets out. Everyone knows. Your Candidate is tainted by the support. You kill your Candidate, “moderate” reformer or not. The one way to lose this next election is to be the “US Candidate”. O’Hanlon is actually sabotaging someone in advance. Big Mistake.

Most everything is done by a long long series of jirgas and no decision get made for a long long time. Karzai spends 90% of his time talking in Jirgas and is always bored out of his mind. The Governors and District Governors and everyone else does the same. It is the very system that both sustains and slows down things (as seen by outsiders) which actually keeps everything from just blowing up. There is no other way to operate here.

It is not that there are no “institutions” it is that there are Institutions and they are well respected.
Things just do not work the way we want to see them. No Afghan- North East South or West would ever change this. We just need to get used to it and learn how it works and do our best to influence the consensus that results in each and every situation. The key is getting to sit in on these meetings, and very few can even know when and where they are held. I know about two foreigners that have ever sat in on these kind of meetings where the process of making decisions occurs. Guys like Josh Novak or Don Anderson actually are house guests at the houses when these things happen, and thus are accepted. During the election only these two foreigners even got in with both Campaigns and could talk to both Candidates. It gets more complex when you get down to the Provincial level, but it is always the same detailed process.

This is Afghan Democracy. Love or Leave it. In O’Hanlon’s case, leave it makes sense now.

No one affiliated with a Tank or Sub Group or ISAF or the Embassy every gets near anything anymore. The Post 2001 world still flows back in time to the pre 1979 pre 1989 pre 1999 worlds. There is no other way. When we can figure this out, then we can evolve, but not until.

Don Bacon July 14, 2012 at 10:13 am

I wonder what (whom) Petraeus has in mind. Zalmay Khalilzad? But the constitution says “Should be citizen of Afghanistan, Muslim and born of Afghan parents, and should not have citizenship of another country” which also (the citizenship part) knocks out others, like Karzai’s older brother, Abdul Qayum Karzai, and Ali Ahmad Jalali, who served as the country’s second post-Taliban interior minister. Both are U.S. citizens.

Then there’s the Afghanistan National Front (ANF) — the old Northern Coalition — under leader Gen. Abdur Rashid Dostum, who is currently going at it with Karzai on various matters. Ahmad Zia Massoud of the ANF has said that the only solution to resolve the Afghan crises was to switch to a parliamentary system with decentralization of power in Afghanistan.

None of this would satisfy Pakistan, I fear, which is probably more important locally then satisfying Brookings and Petraeus.

Nathan July 20, 2012 at 7:21 am

There’s idealism…there’s reality. There’s the ideal those would like to become reality.
I think we could forgive a man, regardless of his advisory contacts, who simply looked at that last iteration of an event and believed something similar might re-occur.
It might be worthwhile to policymakers, and experts, to think through the problem set instead of looking ahead with preconceived notions of what the result might be.
I can’t even begin to imagine where anyone might get the impression the U.S. could engineer an electoral result in Afghanistan…
I think that not ignoring the reality of U.S. influence over the matter isn’t quite the same as suggesting that that influence intrinsically undermines Afghanistan’s sovereignty. It would be hard to argue that Afghanistan has much experience in the past few decades with what we migh call sovereignty. To advocate no U.S. influence in the election, influence gained by thinking about who we would support — and, again, that is not the same as saying we are not going to support who wins the election — seems the same as advocating for complete withdrawal. As desirable an outcome it will be to see international forces removed from Afghanistan, there will probably be a Presidential election there that occurs before it is accomplished. I think O’Hanlon’s article should be viewed in that light…

Boris Sizemore July 21, 2012 at 3:14 am


You probably do not know very many Afghans…and how they think. Sitting with Afghans every day is an education in of itself.

First of all, they have a great great sense of being a Sovereign nation. In fact, they consider themselves Sovereign for thousands of years. They have a history, and the ten plus years of US influence, five of them under severe insurgency does not represent any great change.

Americans tend to overestimate their influence. The fact is Afghans always do things the Afghan way no matter what we say. Our influence is SO much less than we imagine. Rookies like OHanlon are guilty of this overestimation of influence.

I realize in Washington, many like to think that we call the shots in these countries. The fact is, outside of financial influence(which is impossible to really control, as we have found out) We have nearly no lasting impact on anything that happens here. That goes equally for Egypt, Israel and Pakistan, other key “US Allies,” that we subsidize.

It may be hard to imagine, but if you do not have a long term relationship with Afghans, you have nothing. We will unfortunately be educated in this during the next decades, but the Taliban fighters have no problem disputing our imagined influence every day here in Khost.

OHanlon is off in every way but loose. Nothing personal, but his postion is intellectually weak and realistically unrealistic in every respect.

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