Khalilzad with a Big K

December 8, 2006

Zalmay Khalilzad is making up for lost time. Remember those long, slow, and eventless years of US foreign policy during the Clinton administration? (Certainly slow and eventless for the tastes of the PNAC signatories.) Well, they are over now, and all the activist diplomats and strategists like Khalilzad who languished in policy institutes during those days have now come to the fore and are using all the energy of those days of dormancy to shape the world and aid in the inexorable march of history.

In fact, at times this energy and enthusiasm is so out of control that it draws rebuke: in a recent memo the White House security advisor Stephen J.Hadley suggested that Zalmay Khalilzad ought to “to move into the background and let (Prime Minister) Nouri al-Maliki take more credit for positive developments.” For those familiar with the details of Khalilzad’s stint in Kabul, this comes as no surprise. Between Khalilzad and Karzai, the former always was the one with the bigger K in his name. That lame joke in the media about Karzai being the mayor only of Kabul, it seems, was also misplaced. The real mayor was always Khalilzad, and by some accounts, he still retains some of that capacity. Karzai must have sighed in relief when Khalilzad left town, and while the latter still gives an earful on the phone “almost daily,” his return to Kabul would be the last straw in Karzai’s legitimacy and would undo what political bearings he has got left with the people of Afghanistan. Khalilzad’s return to Kabul is ill-advised by any measure. (For a more compelling argument of this position see Demilitarized Warlord’s latest post.)

I know little about how Khalilzad views the UN. If his activist and often strong-handed, even unilateral personal style are any indication, it would seem that he has little patience for UN’s gargantuan bureaucracy and bickering. Yet he seems to want the job all the same.


Conflicting Polls and Waning Optimism

December 7, 2006

According to yet another opinion poll from Afghanistan (this one conducted by ABC+BBC) the people of Afghanistan are increasingly pessimistic about future:

“Public optimism has declined sharply across Afghanistan, pushed by a host of fresh difficulties.” (Click here for PDF copy of the poll’s findings)

These findings fly straight in the face of another recent poll, the very first “Key Finding” of which was that:

“The national mood was found to be positive on the whole.” (Click for Asia Foundation’s Survey of Afghan People)

I always felt that the methodology used for these surveys (especially given the constraints peculiar to Afghanistan) was suspect -now I have evidence.

Methodology aside, the findings do reflect what a modest measure of common sense would also reveal: the people of Afghanistan are not happy about how things have turned out (which is very different from what they had expected, and what they had been promised,) and they have little reason to think that this will change in the forseeable future.

Sympathy for the Taliban has increased in the South (among Pashtuns,) while at the same time as increasing numbers of Tajiks and Hazaras see the Taliban once again threatening Afghanistan. More people think that it is OK to cultivate opium. Other indicators (security, quality of life, the condition of women…) also point to a dismal downward trajectory.

I personally feel that the condition of the economy (unemployment is at roughly 50%) has a lot to do with how people view their future and that of the country at large, and justice has not been done in the recent polls (especially this one) to reflect this.

“It’s the economy, stupid!” -somebody ought to yell that in Afghanistan as well.

“A Glass Less Than Half Full, and Resting on a Wobbly Table”

December 5, 2006

That is Barney Rubin’s colorfully metaphorical assessment of the situation in Afghanistan: “a glass much less than half full… and resting on a wobbly table that growing threats… may soon overturn.”

Read his latest essay on Afghanistan -a long and worthy read in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs- titled “Saving Afghanistan”. A long-time observer of Afghanistan, Barney’s is a definitive voice in the academia on the matter.

I will be attending a gathering at USIP tomorrow where Barney is speaking. I will try to do a post on it here.

(It’s been rather busy in DC lately with Afghanistan-related events, and my grad school applications are finally picking pace – sorry for irregular updates.)

Europe’s Irrelevance, Not NATO’s Failure

December 1, 2006

As was expected, President Bush’s entreaties to the NATO members to enlarge their military footprints in Afghanistan (and to remove some of the rediculous limitations on their mandates) fell on deaf ears. Save for the over-enthusiastic new enlistees (read Estonia) most other senior members of the pact refused to increase troops or widen their mandate. Some have already billed this as “NATO’s failure in Afghanistan.”

As has been pointed out time and again, failure is not an option in Afghanistan. The historical experience of disengaging from and essentially failing Afghanistan in the 1990s would say the same thing. Afghanistan should not, can not, be written off easily as a failure. There will be far-reaching consequences. The United States understands this, and therefore, even if on a solo basis, will continue the mission in Afghanistan until such a time when the country can man its own security. Needless to say, this means a long time in Afghanistan.

While the outcomes of the Riga summit is certainly bad news for Afghanistan, it need not be a failure. Instead, it show’s NATO’s irrelevance to Afghanistan. More generally, it shows Europe’s irrelevance to today’s important global security issues. The Riga summit was an important test of Europe’s role in today’s world. Ever so persistent on multilateralism, especially in their vocal denunciation of US’s unilateral invasion of Iraq, the Europeans failed to live up their own standards in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the testing ground for Europe’s honesty about their rhetoric of multilateralism, and all indications seem to point to the direction of a profound hypocrisy.

The truth is that the Europeans are a little ahead of their times -a little more advanced than the rest of us. As Robert Kagan argues in his book Of Paradise and Power, given Europe’s sour experiences with the two World Wars, they have decidedly moved beyond the era of militarism and the use of military power as a political tool. Which is all grand and beautiful, and may finally have succeeded in harnessing the inherent German tendency for expansionism, but it does not apply to the rest of the world. The backwaters of civilization (Europeans can only view them as such) like the Middle East and troubled spots in Asia do not conform to this high-minded model of “perpetual peace.”

Which brings us to this: the United States should stop wasting its breath trying to encourage the Europeans to do something which they are all but existentially incapable of doing. It should own up to its important historical role and the responsibilities of a global leader and a hyper-power. In turn, the Europeans should stop wasting their breath trying to stop the United States from playing the role that it must play in today’s world. At times, the fulfillment of this role requires unilateral action, and the Europeans should resign themselves to that fact. Meanwhile, they should continue their positive contribution in terms of aid, reconstruction, and peacebuilding -as they are doing in Afghanistan.