Tuesday, August 14, 2007

WSJ vs. NYT: is the Afghan glass half empty or half full?

Immediately below yesterday's interview with Karl Rove on the Op-Ed page, the Wall Street Journal published an article, "The Road to Jalalabad," that also tried to put a positive spin on a Bush administration problem. The author, Ann Marlowe, who has described herself as "more or less a neocon," sets out to counter the criticisms of the administration's record in Afghanistan. She attributes them entirely to partisanship -- her opening target is Hillary Clinton, who, Marlowe claims, has "cynically charged that we are 'losing the fight to al Qaeda and bin Laden' in Afghanistan."

Marlowe had no way to know that only one day before the publication of her article, New York Times reporters David Rohde and David Sanger would publish a comprehensive overview of the Bush administration's myopic parsimony in Afghanistan, drawing from on-the-record interviews with all three post-9/11 US ambassadors to Kabul, President Bush's first special envoy on Afghanistan, a serving three-star army general who commanded all US forces in Afghanistan, and a retired four-star marine general who as Supreme Allied Commander oversaw all NATO operations in the country. (I commented on that article yesterday.)

But I am not writing just to criticize Ann, as I will call her, since we have met in both Kabul and New York. Though it was clear from our first conversation that we did not agree, I respect the work she has done. Ann has been to Afghanistan eight times and contributed some of her own resources to worthwhile projects. She is not just an opinionated ideologue: her article is based on first-hand observations of genuine achievements that deserve more attention and analysis than they receive. By now Ann is a candidate for membership in the Association of People who Know More about Afghanistan than Is Legal in Most States and the District of Columbia, which I claim to have founded in 1992.

Ann's article is useful because a comparison of what she wrote and the New York Times article provides us with a means to discuss that endless question: is the Afghan glass half full or half empty? Is it nothing more than a matter of perspective, partisan or otherwise?

I first remember engaging with this amazingly persistent metaphor at a meeting in Paris in April 2005. This meeting eventuated in an edited volume with the alliterative title The Crescent of Crisis: U.S.-European Strategy for the Greater Middle East. It is the only volume to which I have every contributed with a blurb by Bill Kristol, though, to be fair, he did not attend the session on Afghanistan, presumably because his priorities, like the administration's, were elsewhere.

This collaboration between the Brookings Institution and the European Union Institute for Security Studies aimed at bridging US-European differences on Israel/Palestine, Syria/Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. On each subject the sponsors had paired analysts from the new world and the old to compare and contrast "American" and "European" perspectives and seek to forge a synthesis.

I accepted the invitation to provide an "American" perspective on Afghanistan. My trans-Atlantic foil was Ambassador Michael Schmunk, the former German special envoy on Afghanistan. Schmunk, with whom I had appeared at several previous meetings, gave his presentation, about how much the international community had achieved, and I gave my presentation, about how much the international community had not yet achieved, thereby endangering the sustainability of what it had. As I recall, Michael then summarized our presentations by saying that he thought the glass was half-full, whereas I thought it was half-empty.

I argued that this distinction missed the point. As a simple matter of fact, if a glass is half-full, it is ipso facto also half empty. People seem to make this distinction to defend their efforts against what the Wall Street Journal calls "the naysayers" in its web blurb for Ann's article. But the US, NATO, UN, and many other countries are not in Afghanistan in order to congratulate themselves on their efforts, or to do, as the Journal wrote somewhat peevishly, "as well as anyone has the right to expect." We are in Afghanistan to achieve some vital objectives. If we fail to achieve them, no one will give us an 'A' for effort. Besides, how do we know the glass is half rather than a tenth full -- and how full does it have to be before it contains enough water -- or essential oil, as in this picture of Gulestan Ltd. employees Shafiqullah Azizi And Mathieu Beley (which I took, by the way, in Jalalabad in April 2006)?

But I understand and even sympathize with Ann's frustration and Michael Schmunk's desire to show that Germany's and Europe's engagement had not been for naught. The media focus almost entirely on the military struggle. One modest contract I have had with a media organization describes me as a "terrorism analyst." I tried to have this changed to "regional analyst" or "Afghanistan analyst." But the TV people told me they were interested solely in terrorism, and thus far they have been true to their word.

Ann rightly asserts that Afghanistan is and has long been one of the poorest countries in the world with massive obstacles to economic development and political stability that have nothing to do with the Bush administration (or even the Clinton administration). But from her visit to Kabul and three Eastern provinces (Nangarhar, Laghman, and Khost) she concludes that "the trend lines are up, not down."

What are those trend lines? More flights between Dubai and Kabul on the private carrier Kam Air (though she does not mention that the national carrier, Ariana, is being stripped of its assets by various mafias and is consequently in greater danger of collapse now than it was when it was placed under international sanctions during the Taliban regime); cheaper and geometrically increasing access to mobile telephones (and, she might add, television and the internet); repair and construction of both primary and secondary roads; investments, largely funded by the US, in infrastructure for agricultural marketing; the growth of private banking; the construction of a new university in Khost with funding from the United Arab Emirates; significant funding of development by remittances from migrant workers; the "wholehearted support" for the US of "85-90% of the population," according to a US military officer; the growth of school enrollments; and, she claims, some improvements in security: no "conventional attacks" by Taliban in 2007 and some success in countering "al Qaeda, Taliban and other fighters [who] cross from Pakistan," something she apparently considers to be an unavoidable fact of local geography. She repeats the common conservative trope that Afghanistan (or Baghdad) is no more violent than the US's inner cities (we know who lives there of course). She mentions San Jose, Indianapolis,and Detroit, but it does not occur to her to wonder why parts of the US are apparently almost as violent as Afghanistan. I guess it's just the way those people are.

Like Ann, I wish that more people in the US and Europe knew of these positive trends and real accomplishments. They do not lead me to conclude that Afghanistan is irreversibly on the way to stability and prosperity, but they show what we have to lose by not making a more effective effort. They give me hope that, despite all the mistakes, mismanagement, corruption, and even crimes, the will of the people of Afghanistan is still strong enough that an international partnership with them can succeed.

But that may not happen if current trends continue, especially some that Ann did not mention. Unfortunately these concern fundamental issues that will determine whether Afghanistan and its international supporters can sustain these achievements.

The NYT article identifies the following not so hopeful trends:

Like Osama bin Laden and his deputies, the Taliban had found refuge in Pakistan and regrouped as the American focus wavered. Taliban fighters seeped back over the border, driving up the suicide attacks and roadside bombings by as much as 25 percent this spring, and forcing NATO and American troops into battles to retake previously liberated villages in southern Afghanistan.

. . . Afghanistan’s embattled president, Hamid Karzai, said in Washington last week that security in his country had “definitely deteriorated.” One former national security official called that “a very diplomatic understatement.”

At critical moments in the fight for Afghanistan, the Bush administration diverted scarce intelligence and reconstruction resources to Iraq, including elite C.I.A. teams and Special Forces units involved in the search for terrorists. . . . .

When it came to reconstruction, big goals were announced, big projects identified. Yet in the year Mr. Bush promised a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, the country received less assistance per capita than did postconflict Bosnia and Kosovo, or even desperately poor Haiti, according to a RAND Corporation study. . . .

In September 2005, NATO defense ministers gathered in Berlin to complete plans for NATO troops to take over security in Afghanistan’s volatile south. It was the most ambitious “out of area” operations in NATO history, and across Europe, leaders worried about getting support from their countries. Then, American military officials dropped a bombshell.

The Pentagon, they said, was considering withdrawing up to 3,000 troops from Afghanistan, roughly 20 percent of total American forces. . . .

Three months after announcing the proposed troop withdrawal, the White House Office of Management and Budget cut aid to Afghanistan by a third. . . . American assistance to Afghanistan dropped by 38 percent, from $4.3 billion in fiscal 2005 to $3.1 billion in fiscal 2006, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service. . . .

In the spring of 2006, the Taliban carried out their largest offensive since 2001, attacking British, Canadian and Dutch troops in southern Afghanistan.

Hundreds of Taliban swarmed into the south, setting up checkpoints, assassinating officials and burning schools. Suicide bombings quintupled to 136. Roadside bombings doubled. All told, 191 American and NATO troops died in 2006, a 20 percent increase over the 2005 toll. For the first time, it became nearly as dangerous, statistically, to serve as an American in Afghanistan as in Iraq. . . .

Among some current and former officials, a consensus is emerging that a more consistent, forceful American effort could have helped to keep the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s leadership from regrouping.

The Times article does not even deal with narcotics. According to a UN report released in June, Afghanistan's opium production continued to soar in 2007, accounting for 90 percent of the world's supply. Helmand Province alone produced more than Myanmar, the world's second largest producer.

All the flights to Dubai and mobile phones in the world will not defeat the growing insurgency, stabilize the tribal areas of Pakistan where the Taliban and al-Qaida are based, and sustain a government undermined by rampant drug-fueled corruption. International observers agree that stabilizing Afghanistan will require foreign troops for years if not decades, but Afghans will not tolerate the current toll of civilian casualties for years let alone decades, especially when they realize, as reported by Mark Benjamin in Salon.com, that the number results in part from the US counter-terrorism forces using looser rules of engagement than NATO. The Afghan government will never be able to pay for even the current size Afghan National Army, and under current threat conditions it would need a far larger and better equipped one to provide security. The only alternative is to reduce the level of external threat, but destabilization in Pakistan and a US confrontation with Iran could have the opposite effect. Overall, the summary conclusion I presented in Paris in April 2005 now seems a little too rosy:
Since the overthrow of the Taliban by the US-led coalition and the inauguration of the interim authority based on the UN-mediated Bonn Agreement of December 5, 2001, Afghanistan has progressed substantially toward stability. Not all trends are positive, however. Afghanistan has become more dependent on narcotics production and trafficking than any country in the world. It remains one of the world’s most impoverished and conflict-prone states, where only a substantial international presence prevents a return to war. The modest results reflect the modest resources that donor and troop-contributing states have invested in it (Figure 1). Afghans and those supporting their efforts have many achievements to their credit, but declarations of success are premature.

Since then the return to war has occurred. The Afghan glass may be half full, a tenth full, or near to overflowing. But it is standing on a very rickety table in an earthquake prone area. It will not matter how full the glass is if the table collapses or one of the region's unstable tectonic plates suddenly shifts.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the outstanding post, Professor Rubin.

I'd be curious to read in a future post perhaps a synthesis of the positive and negative views of the situation. For example, what events need to occur for Afghanistan's economy to be on a steady track, and to reduce its reliance on poppy? What is preventing these steps from being taken? Is there hope for a government based on a notion of citizenship rather than tribal affiliation? If so, how can this be acheived and what obstacles stand in the way? Your insight is much appreciated, and you certainly have a forum here to write about topics apart from terrorism.

gdamiani said...

Very interesting article, thank you... however the bottom line is, as long as there is an occupation the glass is dry empty.

shawayman said...

Thank you professor for the fantastic analysis, very fair, very balanced. (God, why does it seem so wrong to use those descriptors???)

Azar Balkhi said...

Dr Rubin is a typical American politician who always worked hard and tirelessly came with reality of Afghani society . God bless him and give Noah’s age. Wa Salam

Lotus said...

This is a very-belated comment, but I wanted to make the observation that asking if the Afghan glass is half-empty or half-full is a half-question.

The other half is asking if that glass is being filled or being drained. It seems to me it's being drained. Perhaps slowly, but drained.

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