By Khalil Nouri –
There has recently been a call for the establishment of an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group (APSG) that will be modeled off the Iraq Study Group (ISG) of the Baker-Hamilton Commission. The project is driven by the realization that this regional dilemma cannot be resolved militarily – it requires a political solution. Why? Because the coalition’s death toll is approaching 2,000 and frustration among NATO allies is mounting, evidenced by the news that Canada, the Netherlands, Romania – and most recently Poland – are all contemplating a full pullout.
Given these conditions, despite the fact that Washington’s Afghanistan policy is due for a review and maybe an overhaul in December, political challenges are on the rise and moving rapidly beyond the vast U.S. military’s ability to adapt. Tribal imbalance, years of ethnic feuds, cultural and religious divides, weak governance, opium cultivation, corruption, civilian deaths and warlord dominance have made this an uphill struggle for the West, and one too vaunting to repair. Thus, we hear the call for an Iraq-like study group.
However, the profound contrasts between the two nations demand participation by those who grasp all of the essential and unique aspects that must be considered in order to deliver a valid analysis. Due to the fact that the symptoms and root causes of the chaotic conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are so dramatically different, native independent Afghan and Pakistani experts must be employed to ensure the Study Group delivers solutions that are both transparent and realistic.
Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia (R), who authored the legislation in 2005 that created the Iraq Study Group, believes U.S. Afghan policy is adrift and sent President Barack Obama a letter stating:
“We are nine years into our nation’s longest running war and the American people and their elected representatives do not have a clear sense of what we are aiming to achieve, why it is necessary, and how far we are from attaining that goal.”
Congressman Wolf and ten additional congressional representatives – a bipartisan group – urged the President to immediately appoint a study group to evaluate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Based on the current political climate and the unique issues of the Afghanistan war, the APSG agenda and the results will be much different than the ISG’s. Qualified intellectuals can best identify and assess critical success factors and can delicately weigh the complex home grown political impasses.
A combined group of independent indigenous Afghan and Pakistani thinkers along with former U.S. dignitaries is required to create a comprehensive study that is credible and accurate. Without these types of individuals it is nearly guaranteed that any analysis coming out of Washington will be flawed, which could potentially have devastating consequence.
Formation of the Study Group
This Study Group tool is designed to measure the successes and failures of the war in Afghanistan and provide a foretaste for the upcoming Obama Administration’s policy review in December. In that regard, assembling not just an Afghanistan study group, but an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group is essential; because both countries are inextricably linked, and it is impossible to solve Afghanistan’s ills unless there is a close and simultaneous study of Pakistan as well.
Moreover, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, proposed the same idea, similar to a new ISG during Obama’s fall 2009 internal strategy review. The Ambassador wrote that the group should not become “a months-long Baker-Hamilton-style commission” but should instead be “a panel of civilian and military experts to examine the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.”
However, there was to be a similar construct like the previous group, except that the civilian experts for this group would include expatriate Afghans in the mix.
Convincing an increasingly skeptical American public that success in Afghanistan is achievable is a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Yet, there is legitimate cause for this cynicism because according to a General Petraeus analogy, “Helping to train and equip host nation forces in the midst of an insurgency is akin to building an advanced aircraft while it is in flight, while it is being designed, and while it is being shot at. There is nothing easy about it.”
This is just one of the many complexities the U.S. must address that plague this war-torn nation. The endless list includes issues that will involve other regional actors, especially those who have historically interfered in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
The most complicated situation of all is in Kandahar, where tribal analysis is needed to assess the exact symptoms that are hindering governance, tribal balance, reconstruction and opium eradication.
The question that seems to be forefront in everyone’s mind is whether the conflict is winnable. However, we first need an answer to the everlasting mystery of what success in Afghanistan looks like. What are we fighting to achieve? Would it be satisfactory merely to ensure that Afghanistan did not become, what it was, a terrorist base? This leads directly to the thorny issue of attempting to pacify the Taliban, which so far has yielded negligible results.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s lack of leadership and increasingly erratic and alarming behavior has caused U.S. officials much consternation, as little to no progress has been made on reforming a corrupt Afghan government.
The recent firing of Afghanistan’s deputy prosecutor because he tried to indict a corrupt crony within Karzai’s inner circle, and the Kabul Bank’s financial disaster – an institution which bankrolled Karzai’s fraud-tainted election campaign – are events that have not only exposed the criminal and corrupt nature of the Karzai government and his family, but have also caused a national crisis.
Karzai’s ballot stuffing, corruption and incompetence have become the greatest obstacle to winning over Afghans from the Taliban, because he is now seen as nothing more than an illegitimate puppet. So, should there be such urgency for merely conducting another round of voting when the Karzai’s can buy the election? Or is it time for a more radical reappraisal of the Afghan constitution?
Testing the Commander-In-Chief
Mr. Obama’s foreign policy will be tested further by year’s end before he evaluates his Afghanistan strategy in advance of the July 2011 start-date to begin pulling U.S forces out. His commander in the field is surely about to get tested again, and in a very dramatic way. The opposition in Afghanistan is keying their operations off of our timelines.
At this critical time, Obama is seeking the right policy position on Afghanistan, but his decision will only bear fruit if the Study Group were to include the real influential, intelligent Afghan-Americans who have inside knowledge that no other American is capable of obtaining for lack of bloodline connections.
General Petraeus, who is admired as a military commander that possesses profound intelligence, was the general in Iraq when the ISG was put together and he showed his full support for the process despite President Bush initially being opposed to it.
Subsequently, President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, all ended up supporting the initiative. It is highly likely that General Petraeus’s current war assessment will once again be weighed without bias or robust deconstruction. But Afghanistan is considerably more complex than Iraq – the General himself has admitted as much, yet the findings of this study can be misleading if the knowledge of Afghan natives is not leveraged.
The controversial withdrawal date of July, 2011 means different things to different people, and hopefully this study will clear the uncertainty surrounding it.
If the Study Group’s findings are intended to create a roadmap for good policy implementation, then it must initially include people of competence and capability to evaluate matters thoroughly. It is critical because the study will provide that official second opinion. This analysis must be as sound as possible or we will perpetually lack a solution to this 10-year old war in the graveyard of empires.
Above all, the Study Group should ratify and affirm the fact that the United States has no intention to betray and abandon Afghanistan, but it should begin by discarding the current strategy of accepting corruption as a necessary evil.
Furthermore, the costly military campaign is more likely jeopardizing America’s vital security interests as opposed to protecting them. The U.S. should pursue more modest goals that are both consistent with America’s true interests and are in balance with the norms and culture of Afghanistan that are, above all, more likely to succeed.
President Obama should welcome this type of analysis and critique of his strategy, especially considering he did not mind seeing an independent commission criticize President Bush during the Iraq Study Group.
However, with public doubts about Afghanistan growing, and with President Obama’s team preparing to conduct their own review in December; an independent commission might be launched as well. If so, it could greatly complicate the Obama Administration’s efforts to control its own destiny in Afghanistan. An Afghanistan/Pakistan Study Group that included Afghan-Americans would be a better alternative.
The formation of a bipartisan APSG that included prominent Afghan-Americans (and possibly Pakistani-Americans) is critical to working towards agreement on the most responsible path forward for the coalition, United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However well-intentioned the APSG is, foreign governments can no longer afford to dictate Afghanistan’s future without indigenous feedback, especially considering the results it has historically borne.
It is time to let Afghans participate in the effort to halt their nation from spiraling into chaos. It is time for Afghan-American voices to be included in this analysis and strategic decision-making process. And it is finally time to allow Afghans, for the first time, to have some input in determining the fate of their own country.
Khalil Nouri is the cofounder of New World Strategies Coalition Inc., a native think tank for nonmilitary solution studies for Afghanistan. www.nwscinc.org