Afghanistan Congressional Forum Highlights

April 19, 2007

Here is a shot at summarizing what went down at the Afghanistan forum yesterday. I am relying on hastily written notes and residual and highly selective memory, and therefore have no claims to providing a comprehensive summary. Further, I am a shameless name-dropper and am as liable to talk about people as about ideas- so consider yourself warned.
That said, here are a few things I found interesting.

First off, the group Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (with whom this writer worked all too briefly last year – honestly where in Washington’s Afghanistan-related groups has this writer not worked at for at least some time?) should be credited for organization and level of access. Gathering people like a senior Afghan cabinet minister, two top-level US State Department officials, and two prominent American scholars of Afghanistan all under one roof (the US Senate’s at that) needs heck of a lot of reliable networking, good coordination, and legwork.

My only disappointment as far as those present at the event is that only one member of US Congress showed up, and though there was word that Senator Boxer of California might join in, it seems she changed her mind at the last minute or found better things to attend to. That left the Republican Congressman from California Dana Rohrabacher the only representative of US legislature – a body that makes a lot of big decisions on Afghanistan and that therefore ought to take a keener interest in the subject (especially that the event was right at their own doorsteps.)

Though one of very few people in the US House of Representatives who has taken a keen interest in Afghanistan over a long period of time (in itself a frightening fact, and indicative of the American legislature’s lack of interest in the country) I have never been impressed by Congressman Rohrabacher’s record, or his public pronouncements, on the Afghanistan. I think for him, like for many other people, the wellbeing of Afghanistan’s people is not so much an end in itself as it is a piece of a bigger puzzle. In the case of Congressman Rohrabacher, who is famously big on defense, his interest in Afghanistan dates back to the anti-Soviet fight there. Had the interest stemmed from genuine concern for the Afghan people, I am sure he would have found the time and ample reasons to raise the issue throughout the 1990s, during which time the Republicans were in fact controlling the congress. Now that we all live in post-9/11 world, Afghanistan has again resurfaced as a subject of interest for some of the same people only as part of a bigger picture of war on terror, and equally frighteningly, of war on drugs.

This was all too clear from the brief statement given by the congressman -which, if you could get beneath its veneer of humanitarianism and heartfelt sympathy for the sick children of Afghanistan, and the general air of a stump-speech normally given on the campaign trail at the backwoods of Iowa and not to an audience in Washington that is relatively well-informed about Afghanistan- you could see his real lack of interest beyond the two topics of Taliban/Al-Qaeda and Narcotics. The highlight of the congressman’s talk was what he called a “Grand Deal” in which he in effect offered the people of Afghanistan to eradicate narcotics from their country in return for US-provided health-care for the children of Afghanistan. Go figure. To my dismay, Minister Ahadi not only chose to comment on the congressman’s speech, he even found the deal acceptable to the people of Afghanistan.
But then again I know far too little, am famously reactive to paternalism and condescension, and have never really owed anything, at least directly, to Washington’s power politics.

Though I have never been able to hold Professor Barnett Rubin’s attention (in high demand in Afghanistan circles) for more than a couple of minutes on three different occasions -two of which he has cordially terminated by giving me his business card- or to make any substantial conversation with him on Afghanistan, I admire his knowledge of Afghanistan, his relative familiarity with the many nuances of this nuance-riddled topic, and more importantly, his ability to successfully straddle the policy-academia chasm.
Afghanistan in the 1990s was a boring topic for many Americans – and yet Professor Rubin wrote two of his books (that I know of) on Afghanistan during this period, both of which, I should admit, I relied on heavily to learn and write about Afghanistan in my undergrad years, and to use as bibliographies for further research. Lastly, while he has continually talked to both policy and academic worlds about Afghanistan, he has consistently refused to get in bed with the government -or at least with the US government (but then again that could be more due to Professor Rubin’s personal politics: he regularly laments the current administration’s policies over at DailyKos, and both phases of US government’s intensive involvement in Afghanistan happened during Republican administrations.)

I know I am digressing (and yes part of the reason for all this praise is the hope that Professor Rubin will read it and be more willing to talk next time we meet) but the point is that his comments yesterday followed a similar trend and he held fast on many topics that he differed with the US government. He was highly critical of the US government’s food aid policy in Afghanistan and said that it constituted a “pro-narcotics” policy, in that much of the food aid was purchased outside Afghanistan and then distributed there. This is in effect like “dumping” in foreign trade, and upsets supply and demand chains for locally grown staple crops (wheat) and favors drug-cultivation by the farmers who get a better deal out of growing poppies than wheat. I can hardly see how a reasonable person can disagree with this.

About Washington’s narcotics policy in Afghanistan Professor Rubin favored greater emphasis on alternative livelihood development, but criticized the way this was currently done: almost 100 million dollars earmarked for alternative livelihood development in Southern Afghanistan has been channeled to one consulting firm in Washington (I think I know which one) and in turn, they have nothing to show for it on the ground. Asked about the level of aid to Afghanistan, he said that Afghanistan was shortchanged compared to other “post-devastation” countries – a term he borrowed from Ajmal Ghani, the AACC head and panel moderator. On Taliban he was predictably critical of Pakistan’s role, but also said that the US government should not fear democratization in Pakistan as a destabilizing force -in effect disagreeing with Washington’s post-9/11 mentality of either Musharraf or Islamist chaos. He also an impressive pitch in the beginning about the incident at Tolo TV offices in Afghanistan and hoped that the government will address the matter properly.

For Finance Minister Ahadi’s views I recommend you glance at Joshua Faust’s summary of a recent event at Brookings Institution here. Though given at a different event and on a different topic, some of the same sentiments came up in his remarks yesterday: the debilitating complexity of the “Afghanistan project”, the difficulty in prioritizing needs, the need to channel more aid through the Afghan government, and a marked reluctance to mention Pakistan by name as a sanctuary for the Taliban. I have a generally low opinion of people in politics (particularly those in Afghan politics,) so when I see somebody who is relatively well-spoken, and who quotes from Hannah Arendt, I am all the more enamored by them. This is what happened yesterday. Dr. Ahadi has been a lifelong academic, and though I have disagreed with some of his earlier writings -in particular an early paper in a peer-reviewed academic journal in the US on the place of ethnicities in the history of state-building in Afghanistan- nonetheless I hold him in high esteem.

Still I have to say I was rather discouraged by his answer to an impassioned question by a Moby Media representative about the arrest of Tolo TV staff in Kabul he expressed his hope that “civil society and the international community would raise their concern” and that “Afghanistan is a young democracy…and incidents like this should not discourage us.” Needless to say, the burden of investigation and prosecution in this matter rests squarely on the government of Afghanistan and not on civil society or the international community; and that the excuse of young democracy is no way to sidestep tough decision-making, and it could still be used ten years from now. In answer to the moderator’s question whether the aid to Afghan government was enough, Dr. Ahadi thought that compared with the monumental task of “return to normalcy” it was far from it.

While busily wording a question about joint war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan and the feasibility of “decoupling” the two (which I am glad to report I got to ask from Undersecretary of State Nick Burns, with a built-in condolence regarding Monday’s shootings at Virginia Tech no less) I missed an interesting exchange between John Gastright of State Department vs. Dr. Marvin Weinbaum and Professor Barnett Rubin as representatives of what Mr. Gastright termed “Washington thinking.” I caught the end tail of the exchange when Professor Rubin extracted a rare laugh from the audience saying: “I am not sure what Mr. Gastright is referring to by ‘Washington thinking’ – I come from New York.”

That difference could have resulted from any number of issues: from the US government’s emphasis on eradication while many in the policy analysis community emphasize alternative livelihood to the US government’s consistent use of subcontractors for project implementation while one study after another finds them wasteful and lacking effectiveness, there remain a wide range of areas where the gulf between policymaking and policy analysis remains wide open, and conversations such as yesterday’s are bound to contribute a great deal to bridging it.

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