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A New Page for Afghanistan’s President Karzai and the Obama Administration?

May 12, 2010

The current visit of Afghan President Karzai to Washington, D.C., accompanied by many of his ministers and high-level officials, is being greeted on both sides as an opportunity – indeed a necessity – to open a new page in the relations of two strategic partners in need of each other’s support and trust. There is bitterness on both sides even while there is an overwhelming hope to move forward and cease accusations and counter-accusations that have taken place ever since then-U.S. presidential candidate Obama visited Afghanistan in October 2008, and called upon President Karzai to get out of his bunker and face reality.

Negative feelings now overshadow all aspects of relations between the two governments. The relationship was darkly clouded by Afghanistan’s recent presidential elections and the harsh words, pressuring, and legal and political maneuvering that have accumulated through the actions (and inactions) of many individuals and institutions since then.

Whether the international community set itself up for failure in the election context more than two years ago, is a good, but rarely voiced question. Should we avoid critical analysis of past mistakes? It is my hope we can learn from past mistakes.

In the age of televised politics, where image always trumps reality, there is no doubt that visible signs of renewed unity will be prominently on display this week. Yet, when the visitors return home to Afghanistan and the TV cameras are switched off, reality will come back to the fore and problems will have to be faced.

History shows that, in politics, polite smiles, gracious statements, high-level commitments, and A-list dinners and receptions undoubtedly serve as very important functions of resetting a framework when it has gone wrong. In this case, it may be the only way of moving past the disappointing results of the last year and a half. Yet, history also shows good wishes and hopes cannot wholly reorder reality. Policies being discussed and implemented at this juncture need to be carefully reviewed – even more so than the roles of particular individuals responsible for creating obstacles to the reconciliation process.

If we are willing to see clearly, current reality in Afghanistan is one of déjà vu. There are uncanny similarities today to the failure of the three major modernization efforts that took place in Afghanistan: during the 1920s, the 1960s-70s and the 1980s. These failures should remind us of why we are facing such serious challenges today. The lessons so far forgotten are fairly simple:

  • Focus and prioritize modernization efforts and do not overload the agenda in relation to the strength and the scope of the coalition that has to implement it (King Amanullah).
  • Don’t exclude potential spoilers, losers, and rebels from the political arena (President Daoud).
  • If a militant opposition develops, do not let foreign military forces lead the war against them (Soviet Union).

A consensus on a comprehensive set of strategies should address all three of these lessons at the same time. Occasionally, promising bits and pieces appear – but, they don’t yet seem to add up to a truly comprehensive strategy; it is more fits and starts. For example, on the positive side – the potential peace jirga and reconciliation efforts on the part of the Afghans aim to bring about an inclusive political settlement, and for that, U.S. support will be crucial. But the recent military operation in Marja, while it did result in recapturing territory, it also caused some anger and alienation. The announced operation in Kandahar might seem necessary from a strictly military point of view. Yet, whether it will help “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda and its safe havens” or actually “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” our own peace building efforts is an unknown. The Taliban – some of them at least – seem to think that instead of waiting, they should announce their own offensive and thus help in disrupting and dismantling our PR efforts.

So, we should hope that the Washington visit will focus equally on substance as it will surely focus on the image. Without it, we will soon ask ourselves: why did we fail again?

Zoran Milovic is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Afghanistan. He can be reached a zmilovic@asiafound.org.

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