Giving Afghanistan Back to Afghans

The Asia Society hosted a panel of Afghanistan experts on Tuesday in light of President Barack Obama’s recently announced new Afghanistan strategy. The panel — comprised of Peter Galbraith, former deputy special representative of the secretary-general of the United Nations to Afghanistan; Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University; and 2009 Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani — was quick to identify the difficult position Obama finds himself in, not just on the ground, but over the airwaves.

As Ghani pointed out, in a globalized world, there is no such thing as giving two different speeches to two different audiences. Obama was faced with the task of addressing not just the American people when he spoke to cadets at West Point, but the entire world. Ghani says that Obama struck the right chord with Americans, but left something lacking for the Afghan audience.

One of the main obstacles for Obama’s new strategy is the lack of a credible Afghan partner following an election that was widely regarded as fraudulent. Galbraith says that there are other, more fundamental problems with the current Afghan government, primarily its centralized structure in a decentralized society. Galbraith suggests an overhaul of the current constitution in order to decentralize the Afghan government. Obama echoed this sentiment in his speech at West Point when he stressed that the United States would focus on working with non-corrupt local government officials in its quest for credible partners.

Karzai was expected to reveal his new cabinet on Saturday, but the announcement has been postponed until later this week. The appointments are being closely watched as a reflection of whether Karzai is serious about restoring legitimacy to his regime. Tarzi said that while he suspects they will include a lot of “window dressing,” he is hoping for a small cabinet with individuals who are internationally understood as untainted.

In addition to problems relating to legitimacy, Ghani criticized the utter lack of organization among aid groups and wants to see accountability for money spent in Afghanistan — especially by the U.N. Ghani says that the organization does not meet international auditing standards and is nowhere close to transparent in its spending. He says the U.N. and the United States must “unify the money.” If these changes are made, Ghani said, “a lot more can be done with a lot less.”

An overarching theme in the Asia Society discussion was the idea of justice. Ghani says that to the Afghans, the concept of justice goes back further than Islam itself and the way to win the hearts and minds of the average Afghan will be through providing basic rights. Right now, the only tangible justice Afghans see is that provided by the Taliban’s shadow government. If an Afghan living outside of Kabul has a grievance with the government, there is rarely a place to voice that complaint. By contrast, he said, the Taliban have local ombudsman to mediate grievances. Ghani said the Taliban system is quite effective, and if the central government could rival such a service, Afghans would happily change allegiances.

Both Ghani and Tarzi agreed that though the military obstacles are immense, coalition troops are being led by some of the smartest political minds that the U.S. military has ever produced. Tarzi, a former marine and current professor at the Marine Corps University, said that the military in recent years has learned to reevaluate standard procedure to fit a new defense paradigm. Both also praised General McChrystal’s leaked assessment of the war in Afghanistan as a “profound political document.”

The original question posed to panelists — Do you think Obama’s new strategy can succeed? — was largely left unanswered. But there was a sense of optimism that if the necessary time was invested, the government restructured and funds properly appropriated, Afghanistan has a chance. Ghani believes that Afghans want change. “We don’t want to be refugees again,” he said.

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