Silk Road to Success

Afghanistan's October elections left many experts with egg on their faces. Armed with impressions gleaned from a few days in Kabul, and often not even that, they assured the public that the elections were doomed, and that reckless U.S. policies would be responsible for their failure. Security was woefully inadequate, we learned, and the Afghan public--especially women--would be intimidated by Taliban threats to disrupt the voting. Bloodshed, low turnout and gross corruption were all but inevitable, and the whole mess would be due to the Bush Administration's intemperate desire to push the voting up to before the American elections.

Defying these grim predictions, Afghan voters, including women, turned out in droves, and the voting on the whole passed smoothly, with negligible violence. True, there were problems with the ink used to mark voters' thumbs, and double voting doubtless occurred. But the vice chair of the UN's electoral panel concluded that overall the process was "safe and orderly." Other observers termed the elections "a triumph", citing the high turnout and the failure of Taliban forces to disrupt them.

The relative success of Afghanistan's elections is all the more surprising given the conventional wisdom that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is failing. The General Accounting Office reported in June on "Deteriorating Security and Limited Resources" in Afghanistan, while nato's Secretary General warned that its Afghan mission was "flirting with failure."

That might have been true a year ago. The post-9/11 Pentagon, in crafting policy towards Afghanistan, had focused narrowly on wiping out Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, with inadequate attention paid to issues of security and governance. The tactical decision to arm and support the nearly moribund Northern Alliance as the only anti-Taliban force on the ground unwittingly turned into a much closer relationship than was desirable or intended. When the United States finally toppled the Taliban, Tajiks from the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul, packing the new government with their own supporters to the exclusion of everyone else. The UN's 2001 Bonn meetings ratified this dangerous situation, and the 2002 "emergency loya jirga" further ratified the Bonn conference's mistakes.

While U.S. officials talked bravely of "working the situation", Northern Alliance leaders in Kabul consolidated their hold on power. Marshal Fahim, confirmed in Bonn as Afghanistan's Minister of Defense, kept his own militia lodged in the capital and cut deals with warlords elsewhere, undermining hopes for a national army. He and his family seized control of key markets to create their own income stream, independent of Karzai and the United States. Many Pashtuns went into sullen opposition as they watched this unfold. A few took up arms. Since most Taliban leaders had been Pashtun, this gave the appearance of a Taliban revival. It was in fact a new movement of Pashtuns and other groups excluded from the post-Taliban order. Because the United States backed Karzai, they blamed their fate on America.

All this further weakened the fragile Karzai government. Charged with rooting out remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States worked with whatever forces were at hand, including warlords aligned with Karzai's enemies within the government. This approach also jeopardized efforts by other U.S. agencies. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was effective in providing emergency humanitarian relief, but continuing security problems complicated its efforts to rebuild schools and clinics, print and distribute millions of textbooks, reconstruct irrigation systems, and introduce high-yield seeds that could boost wheat harvests. NGOs used U.S. taxpayer money and grants from other countries and agencies to dig wells, open medical clinics and meet other basic needs, but continued insecurity and insufficient attention to issues of governance put this, too, at risk.

Thus, Afghanistan by the end of 2002 seemed headed in the wrong direction. Having escaped the Scylla of Taliban rule and domination by Al-Qaeda, the country was now heading for the Charybdis of a weak and ineffective central government, a countryside under warlord control, and much of the public increasingly alienated. In short, Afghanistan seemed to be again on the verge of becoming a failed state, the very condition that gave rise to U.S. intervention in the first place.

A Mid-Course Correction

In April 2003, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld went to Afghanistan to see for himself what was happening there. He concluded that U.S. efforts there were not on track, and called for new initiatives to revive them. The Pentagon, the nsc and the State Department joined forces to prepare a new government-wide policy that could be taken to the president. In a graceful euphemism, they described the new policy not as a strategic about-face but merely an acceleration of the old. It was one of the most effective interagency collaborations that Washington had seen in decades.

In turn, the Bush Administration promptly engaged coalition members and UN officials, making them partners and leveraging America's input of personnel, equipment and money. At the same time, it made it clear that this new policy would be worked out and executed with the Afghans, rather than being done to them.

In June, President Bush approved the new policy, called "On Accelerating the Program in Afghanistan." Bush also charged Afghanistan-born Presidential Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with responsibility for implementing the program.

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