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US Ambassador To Afghanistan’s Civilian Counter-Insurgency Project Undercut By Lack Of Credible Government Partner

The President is meeting again with his advisors about Afghanistan today. Despite what appears to be a rough consensus among military and some (but not all) civilian leadership to send at least 30,000 additional troops into the country, Obama has not signed off on the proposal and is seeking different options encompassing different goals, some of them with a lighter footprint. The sticking point appears to be an actual governmental partner.

Officials said that although the president had no doubt about what large numbers of United States troops could achieve on their own in Afghanistan, he repeatedly asked questions during recent meetings on Afghanistan about whether a sizable American force might undercut the urgency of the preparations of the Afghan forces who are learning to stand up on their own.

“He’s simply not convinced yet that you can do a lasting counterinsurgency strategy if there is no one to hand it off to,” one participant said.

A new document obtained by FDL News from the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, highlights the difficulties in pulling that off. The memo to officials leading the civilian effort in Afghanistan, which can be read here, defines the immediate objective as to “harden” Afghanistan, to make it resilient enough to deal with internal threats to its security and stability. Yet even as it claims that civilian personnel must aid in strengthening the bonds between what Eikenberry calls “the legitimate government” and its people, he acknowledges this:

Without a more effective government and a more just society, Afghanistan will always be in danger of falling back into anarchy and lawlessness that made it a haven for violent extremists and the place where Al Qaeda planned and trained to attack our country on September 11, 2001.

It’s just axiomatic at this point that the government in place under Hamid Karzai is destined to be ineffective and corrupt. 8 in 10 Afghans believe that corruption is widespread in the country, and a majority believe it has worsened since last year. This is why the President has stopped short of embracing a counter-insurgency effort that is destined to try and move wary Afghans toward this government.

Eikenberry outlines three principles for success: 1) putting Afghans in the lead and involving them in all governance and development issues; 2) strengthening military/civilian coordination, although “lasting security will not be achieved unless we can make progress on governance and development”; and 3) taking “programmatic risks,” moving outside the safety of the US Embassy and into the actual forward locations. Eikenberry imagines a large role for the development efforts, calling it “an integral component of the President’s strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan.” He outlines an expansive network of senior civilian representatives responsible for various regions that can smooth the flow of resources to various parts of the country. He notes the building of ministries, economic development projects and support for reconciliation efforts with Taliban fighters as crucial to the overall goal.

But none of this can happen without a credible partner on the ground. And that is particularly true when, as Eikenberry acknowledges, short-term improvements must be seen by the Afghan people or the entire project risks loss:

Time, unfortunately, is not on our side. Eight years after we and the rest of the international community arrived, there is growing impatience, both among Afghans and in our own country, at the failure to achieve lasting results. We must make substantial progress in the short term to ensure we have the opportunity to pursue our long-term objectives.

That paragraph right there explains the hesitancy from the President, in my view. The civilian component can be as well-resourced as possible, which Eikenberry says it is for the first time in the conflict. And the military can have all the troops it needs. But with the civilian and military strategy funneling to a corrupt, inefficient, inept central government, there simply cannot be much in the way of progress in the short term. And without short term progress, the project is doomed. As Eikenberry says, “We could achieve better security and a revived economy and still not achieve our goal of hardening Afghanistan if problems with corruption and lack of services are not fixed.” That’s an incredibly honest take – and it’s what is driving the reticence to commit more lives, resources and treasure halfway around the world.

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David Dayen

David Dayen