What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

Hamid Karzai reviews troops of the first gradu...Image via Wikipedia

I’ll tell you but it’s off the record …

The Deputy Ambassador of US Embassy Kabul, Frank Ricciardone was apparently over at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University recently for an evening lecture titled, “What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?” He sat down with The Herald staff writer Monique Vernon to talk about his life as a diplomat and about American relations with Afghanistan but requested that his lecture be “off the record.”

He was asked about his advice for students who are considering a career in foreign policy? His response:

“I had five years of being a schoolteacher in Italy and then Iran, and I’m really glad I did that rather then jumping right into federal service. You can see the world in a different way, and I think I am a better diplomat for having lived among people in Iran and all over Europe on a very low budget.”

He was asked about our biggest foreign policy challenge in the AfPak region, and he had this to say:

“Our mission is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan and prevent their return to either country in the future. Within that, we try to boil it down to a three-word motto, and the words that the Afghans like to hear are peace, justice and prosperity.”

He had a couple more paragraphs here.

As to why the lecture was open to the public but off the record, Ambassador Ricciardone gave a nice spin that sounds reasonable enough:

“There is kind of a custom, an interface between government and diplomacy and academia … It’s good to have that freedom where I don’t have to worry about someone extracting something and making a headline out of it at a moment of intense public interest in the foreign policy question of Afghanistan. I am a government official after all, and … I need to take great care that I faithfully represent the programs and the policies of the United States of America.

I thought that by making it off the record we could have a slightly more candid conversation with the question and answer part. Especially being around students as bright as Brown students are, I wanted to be able to give everyone a freer reign … It adds a level of protection, I think, for the decision-makers (in Washington).”

Huh? Read the entire Q&A here.

Did “gotcha journalism” cross his mind when he thought “bright Brown students?”

I am trying hard to be sympathetic to Ambassador’s Ricciardone’s position here. But I am having a mighty hard time. Here is one of our top career diplomats talking about what is currently our top foreign policy engagement. I am wondering on the purpose of giving a lecture titled “What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?” if one can only explain it off the record to a limited number of seats populated by Brown University students?

“Someone extracting something…” well now, how can one not extract a bite given this President’s
position on transparency and open government? The question I have is really quite simple. How can one engage the public effectively on Afghanistan given that a simple lecture is treated like an NIE?

As to adding a level of protection “for the decision makers (in Washington)” – whoops! Sorry, I think I fell off my chair when I read that.

Ambassador Neumann on Corruption in Afghanistan

Ronald E.Image via Wikipedia

“Corruption in Afghanistan has evolved over the years of war. Senior leaders taking a cut of projects may not be liked but the practice is long standing and has not traditionally sparked enormous discontent. But the years of warfare have produced a much more wide spread corruption in the society. When there is a pervasive sense of insecurity, when officials are not sure their government will continue, wonder whether they may have to flee to exile and lack any reason to believe they will ever enjoy a pension or even a living wage there is every incentive to profit from any position to safeguard themselves, their families and their friends. Without confidence in the future there is no basis for a sense of civic duty. This is the situation we face today. If every corrupt official were fired tomorrow I have no reason to doubt that the problem would shortly reemerge with the new cadre. This is not a counsel of despair. Other societies have emerged from prolonged period of instability. But it is a reminder that change will be slow and difficult and there are no silver bullets on single policy choices that will provide rapid change. In doing so we will have to pay attention also to the frequent assertions that our and other donors aid is fueling corruption through the actions of contractors and their interaction with Afghan subsidiaries.”

Ronald E. Neumann
US Ambassador to Afghanistan ((2005-2007)
Testimony at the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
November 17, 2009

Reconsider the Role of the PRTs?

Col. Mark Fields, commander, 189th Infantry Br...Image via Wikipedia

Gilles Dorronsoro, a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gave a testimony last week at the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Part of his testimony questions the role of the PRTs in Afghanistan; something that frankly, I have not heard brought up before. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that this war cannot be won militarily and that we need the civilians over there pronto. Since we are ramping up the civilian uplift with 974 additional personnel in the next couple of months, the question about the role of the PRTs in Afghanistan is an interesting and relevant one. Below is an excerpt:

Development is not the key in Afghanistan. The Afghans do not choose their political allegiances based on the level of aid. Economic aid is not a practical way to gain control of a territory, and it plays a marginal role in the war. Rather, whoever controls the territory is the most important factor in Afghans’ political allegiances. In other words, development must come after military control in the strategic areas, as a consolidating process. Aid is also not instrumental in ddressing the central issues of an exit strategy. Development should be territorially concentrated in the strategic areas, where it can reinforce the institutions.

If this analysis is correct, the Coalition should reconsider the role of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). What is their supposed strategic impact? I would argue that the PRTs are ineffective in state building and also of limited utility in preparing for withdrawal; hence, they should not be a priority. The PRT concept is technically useful in some cases, but it is a long-term liability for Western forces because it takes the place of the Afghan state, marginalizing Afghan players. If Western troops are in charge, there is no reason not to give civil operations to real NGOs or Afghan institutions. Moreover, the PRTs are unable to significantly change the perceptions of the Afghan population. Local populations are essentially dependent on whoever controls the territories in which they live.

Read the whole statement here.