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Why we’re failing in Afghanistan


A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan asks: Do we have the political will to succeed?


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By Wendy Norris 12/15/08 1:47 PM
(Photo/SeaDour, Flickr)

(Photo/SeaDour, Flickr)

When it takes seven bone-jarring hours to drive just 90 miles over war-scarred dirt roads from Kabul to the troubled Helmand Province in southwest Afghanistan, the complexity of the intertwined U.S. diplomatic and military missions becomes clear pretty fast.As bullets flew to overthrow the Taliban-controlled government in 2001, a coalition of international diplomats, nongovermental agencies and the United Nations embarked on an ambitious but often disjointed and underfunded reconstruction process coordinated by a dizzying array of acronym-laden groups and a largely disinterested Bush administration.

“I don’t know if we didn’t have the understanding or we didn’t have the will. We’ve never resourced a war with civilians,” said Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-07, who spoke in Denver last week.

“The military went to war and the nation went to the mall,” said Neumann sardonically in a speech on the risks of declining U.S. diplomacy at a meeting of the Institute for International Education/Denver World Affairs Council.

Neumann, a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service, served in top posts throughout the Middle East, including ambassador to Algeria and later Bahrain and as a political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq prior to his posting in Afghanistan. He now serves as the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, D.C.

The career diplomat offered a cautionary tale of how the United States is slowly losing its grip on the war in Afghanistan through misappropriated foreign affairs expertise in rebuilding a war-torn nation and how we can reclaim our mission.

Stumbling blocks in Afghanistan
Neumann’s concerns about the Afghan reconstruction process echo a stinging rebuke of the Bush administration’s failues in Iraq in aDec. 14 exposé jointly published by The New York Times and ProPublica.com. The report cited an unpublished, 513-page history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq, which concluded, ‘The government as a whole has never developed a legislatively sanctioned doctrine or framework for planning, preparing and executing contingency operations in which diplomacy, development and military action all figure.”

Neumann sketched a similarly stark picture of Afghanistan, America’s first front in the global war on terror, which has been raging for more than seven years, two longer than Iraq.

U.S. Agency for International Development programs, understaffed and all but forgotten by the White House for the decidedly more macho (and photo op-worthy) combat operations, are outsourcing some humanitarian missions to a better-funded Defense Department, thus diverting attention from its own military mission. Recent news stories recount how various National Guard units are teaching agricultural techniques to farmers instead of providing much-needed training to Afghan police and security forces virtually wiped out by Taliban counterinsurgency attacks and poorly conceived deployments.

Neumann did not spare U.S. allies in his criticism. NATO forces in Kabul and scattered throughout the countryside are too few in number and have earned a reputation for not engaging the insurgents, leading to a deteriorating security situation in which embassy officials and redevelopment contractors work.

“Many of the NATO allies serve 4-6 month tours which means they barely have time to destroy anything designed by their predecessor before they abandon the field to the chaos of their successor,” Neumann told the Colorado Independent.

If that isn’t tough love, the candid diplomat’s gloves came off in a biting 2006 interview in Der Spiegel:

[I] believe all NATO nations should remove their caveats on their forces. That’s what was agreed to. NATO has made a fundamental commitment to win in Afghanistan. And NATO is either going to win here or fail as an organization. I think every nation that does not want to do all it can does not fulfill its commitment, and will at some point have to look at what the impact of their failure is on NATO.

The secret to winning the war? Hire a taskmaster

Ambassador Ronald Neumann speaking to members of the Institute for International Education/Denver World Affairs Council. (Photo/Wendy Norris)

Ambassador Ronald Neumann speaking to members of the Institute for International Education/Denver World Affairs Council. (Photo/Wendy Norris)

At the heart of Neumann’s frustration is a new dimension in nation-building never encountered by civilian-led efforts. The most successful U.S. reconstruction project — the Marshall Plan — took place in postwar Europe, not during the war itself.Now, welcome to Afghanistan.

Nearly 30 years of warfare beginning with the 1979 Soviet invasion through a brutal Taliban regime that ruled the country from 1996-2001 has utterly destroyed the nation’s most basic infrastructure and government institutions. Active warfare and counterinsurgency continue as the United States and its allies attempt to rebuild the country in a political leadership vacuum.

As Neumann explains it, tedious, backbreaking inter-provincial travel causes Afghan political leaders — and more importantly local police units — to make few visits to outlying areas outside of Kabul or the other population centers. Military convoys are slow and ripe for ground attack and hidden roadside bombs. Opium poppy eradication programs urging farmers to replace their illegal crops with foodstuffs like wheat, tomatoes and melons are stymied by the lack of safe transport to market. The hard reality is that a donkey laden with bags of poppy makes far more economic sense to a struggling farmer than taking the chance that fragile produce squashed on washboard roads will yield enough money to care for his family.

Its not as though the United States hasn’t tried. The U.S. Agency for International Development committed $1.7 billion for civilian highway and road construction projects for fiscal year 2007, with the Defense Department adding $304 million in funds to link major cities and built-out rural communities since 2002. According to a July 8, 2008, Government Accountability Office report, the Afghan roads project is plagued with logistical problems with its international partners and is significantly behind schedule. The Defense Department has yet to even report on its progress after five years.

The biggest obstacle to winning the war, Neumann says, is not radical Islam-inspired terrorism, an ineffective Afghan government mired in corruption or a largely poor, illiterate populace. It’s the completely disjointed coordination of the multibillion-dollar reconstruction process coupled with no political will to enforce a thoughtful, cohesive military, diplomatic and humanitarian strategy coming from the White House.

“This is not something that civilians have a background in to understand,” Neumann said.

You take a senior military officer and the whole idea of complex operations and very complex planning and the size staff you need — this is something they’ve grown up with. When you talk about our senior civilian decision-makers, of whatever party, they come out of a background in which the big decisions are — the things that count — are the big policy decisions. They’re not into this implementation stuff. So there’s very little in their life experience to understand the importance of putting together the mechanics of implementation.”

Next: Neumann’s advice for the Obama administration.

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