Afghanistan - Success or Failure?
It is almost 5 years to the day, November 12th, since the Taliban were ejected from Kabul in 2001. Our euphoria at their unexpectedly rapid defeat has been greatly tempered by a reeling deterioration in security in Afghanistan over the last year. Suicide bombings have increased more than 4-fold from 20 in 2005 to 83 already in 2006. People all over the country are living in fear that they could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some 3,700 people have been killed this year and insurgent attacks have sharply increased. At the same time, opium production has risen from only a few hundred tons in 2001 to more than 6,000 tons in 2006. This is more than double average levels in the 1990s and 50 percent higher than last year.
What is going on? How did a country, which looked like it was finally beginning to get its act together, slide into such a rapid decline? How did Hamid Karzai, the first popularly elected president in Afghanistan’s history, so quickly lose credibility and governance? How did the United States, which brilliantly won the war on a shoestring, later spend billions on security with limited positive effect?
I’m angry, because the situation two years ago was very different. It is vitally important to understand how and why this has happened and what can be done to salvage an ever deteriorating situation. Now that the elections are over, I want to use this opportunity with you today to speak my mind. I’m not playing politics. As a simple American citizen, it is time to speak openly and honestly about what we have done right in Afghanistan and what we have done wrong. Lately, it’s been more of the latter.
To back up a bit, as some of you know, at the request of the U.S. government, I flew to Kabul in September 2004 to lead the Afghanistan Reconstruction Group. This was a group of 15 senior advisers drawn from industry, military and government, whose purpose was to advise and coach the ministers of the Karzai government. New Yorker Magazine even described us as his "shadow cabinet." What we tried to do was help the cabinet create functioning ministries with real strategies and real budgets. We also worked very hard to coordinate how both the U.S. State Department and Defense Department contributed to the Afghan reconstruction effort.
Despite these pretty awesome responsibilities, our life style was very austere. We lived in 9 foot by 15 foot converted shipping containers with lots of sandbags on the roof but only 3 minutes of hot water. Life was a 12-14 hour work day, often 7 days a week. Spouses were not allowed. So thousands of miles from home, with only a phone card and computer, we pretty much lived like monks. It was quite a change from Indian Hill Road.
But no one complained. Every single member of my team told me that they were in Afghanistan for one reason—to make a difference. All of us knew that Afghanistan and Iraq stood at the nexus of history. If these two nations failed, the West and the United States in particular, stood a very good chance of losing the struggle against terrorism.
A number of you here have vivid memories of World War II or the Korean War. In both cases, they were great struggles against totalitarianism. My own experience as a baby boomer was the Cold War, again a struggle against totalitarianism. I’ll never forget the day the Berlin Wall fell. Candy and I were living in Germany at the time. The joy and surprise that people in Eastern Europe could rise up against their communist masters peacefully and successfully was a true inspiration. I never felt prouder to be an American.
What we are witnessing today is another form of totalitarianism. It is cloaked in religion, but that is a technique many a group, Christians and Muslims alike, have used over the centuries. Al Qaeda and the Taliban want to roll back the clock. Freedom would be suppressed. Knowledge would be suppressed. Human rights would be horribly violated. Innocents would be readily sacrificed as a mere means to an end.
And so it was with vision, the strong support of the American people and also the support of many nations around the world that President Bush authorized the military attack on Afghanistan. Many pundits at the time said we would suffer an embarrassing defeat like the British in the 1840s or the Russians in the 1980s. However, they were wrong. With the rapid deployment of highly competent special forces, alliances with various Afghan tribes and great intelligence from the CIA, we soundly defeated the Taliban and routed them from the country in just a matter of weeks. It was a great success.
We then began to implement a strategy with three main pillars: security, democracy and prosperity.
In terms of security, bin Laden and the Taliban fled over the border to Pakistan. They assimilated into the local populace, basically just trying to disappear. This was not so hard to do, because most of the Taliban are Pashtun, the largest tribe in Afghanistan. There are about 40 million Pashtuns straddling the 1,500 mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan—about 10 million on the Afghan side and 30 million in Pakistan. With the same genes and same language, plus plenty of large mountains and remote valleys, it was easy for the Taliban to fall off the radar screen. Al Qaeda was more difficult. They were Arab and recognizable. We exploited these differences and with the help of the Pakistanis, the CIA and our special forces brought a number of them to justice.
With the enemy in hiding, we turned to the huge security problems inside Afghanistan. The country had been continuously at war for almost 30 years. There were weapons and mines everywhere and many warlords still held power in their local provinces. As a result, we insisted that the warlords disband, disarm and retrain their militias for peacetime occupations. "Swords into plowshares." We seized huge quantities of arms, over 100,000 tons. Just one warlord’s tanks, rocket launchers and heavy artillery filled an entire football field. He also gave up 50 shipping containers of live ammunition! In exchange for their cooperation, Karzai took a leap of a faith and invited a number of the warlords into his cabinet. This turned out to be a mistake but I will get back to that later.
Violence plummeted and both Karzai’s popularity and our own soared. Even well into 2005, over 75 percent of Afghans all over the country said they were glad the Taliban were gone. Moreover, they viewed the U.S. as liberators, not occupiers. As our convoys went through the cities or countryside, it was not hard to win a smile. Just to show you the difference from Iraq, when a suicide bomb exploded in a Kandahar mosque in 2005, the top 100 mullahs in Afghanistan condemned the bombing and issued a fatwa, a religious edict, that said any Muslim who killed other Muslims or innocent infidels became an infidel himself and would be damned to Hell. There were no 70 virgins waiting for him in Paradise. Of course, you never read about this fatwa in the New York Times or Washington Post…
Additionally, we started spending billions of dollars to recruit, train and equip an Afghan National Army as well as an Afghan National Police. Starting from scratch, there are now 35,000 men in the Army with good quarters and reasonable discipline. The police force is 55,000 but due to a high level of illiteracy and corruption, will require many years to reform.
In terms of democracy and governance, in December 2001 the UN, the U.S., Britain, Germany and other nations came together to form the Bonn Agreement, which set forth a plan for self governance of Afghanistan. In March 2002 a loya jirga, or grand tribal assembly, was held to appoint an interim administration. This was followed by a constitutional loya jirga, which debated and adopted one of the most progressive constitutions ever enacted in a Muslim country. In October 2004, shortly after I arrived, the first presidential election in Afghanistan’s history was held. 8.5 out of 10 million registered voters went to the polls. 42 percent were women. This was unprecedented. Karzai was elected with a solid majority. On December 7, 2004, 3 years to the day that the Taliban were routed from their last stronghold in Kandahar, Karzai was inaugurated as President. It was a magic moment. Light radiated on to him through a window in the chamber. It was like he had been ordained by God to rescue the nation.
In January 2005, Karzai formed his cabinet. It was better than the first. A number of the warlords were out and some competent technocrats were in. It gave us some hope. We brainstormed for about a week and gave him our suggestions for a 100 day plan—how he could jump start his administration and the economy. In September of 2005, parliamentary and provincial elections were held. There were 5,800 candidates, including 600 women for 249 positions in the national parliament and 420 representative positions in the 34 provinces. While a number of warlords and even war criminals were elected to office, the election was judged by outside observers as both free and fair. Again, it was democracy at work.
In terms of prosperity, Afghanistan is still booming. GDP rose 8 percent in 2005 and legal GDP is over $4 billion. With the illegal drug trade, it is about $7 billion. While we were there, inflation was low and the Afghan currency was stable, with reserves over $1 billion. Of the $28 billion required to get the country on its feet again, over $10 billion has been pledged by countries all over the world for the next five years. If the funds actually come, and that is a big IF, they will really help.
Because of the improving security and economic situation, 4.5 million refugees have come home and 6.5 million children are back in school. 4,000 hospitals and 6,000 miles of roads have been built or rebuilt—all contributing to the general welfare and promoting economic growth. There are cell phones everywhere and while TV usage is still low, most homes have a radio. There is healthy freedom of the press.
Clearly in the last 5 years, a great deal has been accomplished. However, there is still so much to do. Literacy is only 36%. One out of every 5 children dies before the age of 5. Life expectancy is below 45 years. Only 6 percent of the population has regular access to electricity. Only a third has access to clean water. Only 16 percent of the roads are paved. Moreover, the newest highway, the Kabul-Kandahar road (which I have driven in a 20 vehicle armed convoy) is a suicide ride for the average foreigner due to attacks by criminal bands and Taliban fighters. The money we have spent to date has only begun to scratch the surface.
I already mentioned the huge drug problem in Afghanistan. One out of every 10 Afghans is directly involved in the opium trade, reportedly even several provincial governors. Afghanistan accounts for over 90 percent of the world’s heroin trade. This is a cancer which is devouring the country and seems frankly unstoppable. Its rapid growth over the last five years can be directly traced to the core problem in Afghanistan—a lack of governance.
Despite the elections, which gave all of us hope that democracy could take seed here, the central government in Kabul is in many ways ineffectual. It has no control of the borders. It has great difficulty collecting the revenues necessary to pay its employees. It has been depending on the U.S. and others to pay the wages of the Afghan National Army. Karzai even had difficulties finding the money to pay his own Afghan bodyguards. We were greatly concerned they would desert and he would be vulnerable to assassination. The Afghan National Police receive some funds from Kabul, but allegedly strip off many of the customs revenues at the border. The Ministry of Finance does not have adequate control.
Karzai and his Minister of Interior appoint the 34 provincial governors. When I was there, about a quarter of them were considered by impartial observers to be incompetent and hopelessly corrupt. When we pressed the President to replace them for the good of the country, he often just "moved the pieces on the chessboard"—exchanging a corrupt governor in province A for a corrupt governor in province B and so on. It was very discouraging and greatly damaged Karzai’s credibility with both the international community and his own people.
I am also unhappy with our own government. This was my first experience in the public sector and it was an eye-opener. From the good side, in all three departments, Defense, the CIA and State, I was proud to see that Americans of all ages and all walks of life had come to this rather lonely corner of the world to make a difference. Moreover, within Defense and the Agency, one got the sense of a real culture of accountability and mission. My department, State, was a disappointment. Many of the people there did not buy into the new U.S. mission of nation-building. These folks thought their role was simply to observe and report. Inexperience, stifling bureaucracy and incompetence were often the case. Having come from the very results-driven private sector, my colleagues and I just had to "suck it up" and try to find a way to make a difference within the system. My wife has the doctorate in psychology, but I think a bit of it rubbed off on me. Otherwise, I would have been totally ineffective.
So let’s go back to our 3 original questions. How did Afghanistan lose it? Well, it never had it to begin with. We hoped to drag a country which had been living in more or less the 19th century into the 21st century. It was a bridge too far. It makes no sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building roads, for example, if you don’t teach Afghans how to maintain them, including finding the revenues necessary to do so. The challenge is generational. It will take 20 years to educate the population. We must help the Afghans build schools, print books, find teachers. They have so little. It will take time. We need a prioritized, rationally funded long-term reconstruction program which focuses upon the core societal infrastructure: roads, power, water, schools, hospitals, and telecommunication. With this, we could make some progress.
How did Karzai fail? President Karzai is a very intelligent man, and I believe a good man. He is an excellent speaker and when you are with him, he says all the right things you would expect him to say. However, I do not believe he is a good manager. He appears to have real difficulty in setting priorities, picking the right people and then holding them accountable for results. Some of the finest minds in Afghanistan left his cabinet after one or two years. They were uniformly discouraged by his inconsistency and lack of support. He has not aggressively tackled corruption. He is also out of touch. He rarely travels outside of Kabul–even to his own Pashtun tribal region in the South. So many Afghans think of him as a tool of the international community. If he were an American CEO, he would have been long since replaced.
But Karzai is the elected President and I still believe he has the chance to be a great President. However, he must rise and "take the bull by the horns." He must put strong leaders with integrity into the provinces. He must further upgrade his cabinet—winning back some of the talent he lost. He must get out of Kabul frequently and reach out to the people. We will properly protect him. He can’t stay in the palace in Kabul. He must set clear national priorities and execute against those priorities.
One of those priorities must be counter-narcotics. The kingpins in the drug industry are well known. Karzai’s credibility will be greatly enhanced if he has these kingpins arrested and extradited to the U.S. and Europe for trial. Finally, he must find a way to engage Pakistan. The Taliban have sanctuary there. He must find a way to motivate President Musharraf to work with him. The war of words in the press accomplishes nothing.
And now to the last question, how did WE lose our way? How did we spend billions with precious little now to show for it? It all boils down to Leadership. Part of it is Policy. Another part is Political. The next part is Structural. And the remainder is Individual.
From the policy side, we decided that "the squeaky wheel gets the oil." So even though Iraq has about the same size population and geographic area as Afghanistan, has much better infrastructure and is in every measure wealthier, Iraq received the overwhelming share of both military and reconstruction funds. Afghanistan was forgotten not in words, but deeds. Finally after a concerted effort by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, in 2005, Congress provided reconstruction funds of over $2 billion to Afghanistan. This year, the State Department completely dropped the ball and obtained only $600 million for reconstruction. This is ridiculously short-sighted and can only convince the Afghans that we are abandoning them once again.
We made the same mistake with our troops. While the number of US troops has actually been pretty stable and NATO forces have increased substantially, there were many rumors in Kabul about significant reductions, up to 75 percent, in US force levels in order to staff the requirements in Iraq. Just a whiff of this has been fatal. Due to national caveats, NATO forces from major countries like Germany, Italy or Spain are not permitted to engage in active combat. So NATO is not viewed as a credible deterrent. The Afghans greatly respect U.S. fighting capability, but are thoroughly convinced we will soon leave. We must send them the opposite signal and fast.
From the political side, we have not been effective in convincing Karzai to clean up his cabinet nor the provincial governments. This is costing us both dearly, because the local corruption is poisoning any chance of "winning the hearts and minds." We have also been ineffective in convincing Karzai and Musharraf to pursue a strategy of rapprochement. They must work together or the Taliban will successfully "divide and conquer."
From a structural side, we have not put in place the institutions nor budgeting and capital allocation procedures necessary for effective nation-building. Congress has systematically gutted the Agency for International Development (AID) of talent. They have neither adequate nor competent people to administer huge reconstruction contracts for electricity generation and distribution or large contracts for roads or schools, for example. They need these people "on the ground" in Kabul. Additionally, Congress doles out money one year at a time. If you haven’t spent all your budgeted funds by the 4th quarter of the fiscal year, one often sees an orgy of spending in that 4th quarter, so that Congress won’t be inclined to take the funds away from you. This is not good business. In a nation-building process which takes a decade or more, such annual approaches to spending are myopic and unrealistic. We must allow for the rational—multi-year funding.
Finally, from the individual perspective, we had fantastic leadership while I was in Kabul: Ambassador Khalilzad, LTG Barno, and UN Special Representative Jean Arnault. We really worked together as a team, keeping the arrows aligned to move Afghanistan forward. This tight level of cooperation is gone. Coordination is noticeably absent. Frankly, I do not believe we have the right "TeamUSA" in place in Kabul. None of the individuals in these key positions apparently has a strong rapport with Karzai. While some may be ambitious, none have shown true qualities of leadership. It is hurting us. We need to get strong leaders back in country--people that Karzai can respect and be happy to take counsel from.
The same applies to Washington. I firmly believe that Americans are sick and tired of the blatant partisanship occurring there. They want Democrats and Republicans to start working together for the good of the country and the good of the world. My wife Candy is a lifelong Democrat; I am a lifelong Republican. Yet, we have been happily married for almost 35 years. We talk about our differences. We deal with them. It is time for our leaders to do the same.
In closing, my 10 months in Afghanistan was one of the most satisfying periods of my life. It was an exhilarating intellectual and spiritual experience. I would be happy to go back, but Candy would probably kill me before I got back on the plane. Seriously, she gave me fantastic support. It was very difficult for us as a family because my children were firmly convinced I would never come back. In fact, three of my colleagues were in a vehicle hit by a roadside bomb only one month after I left. They are still recovering.
Afghanistan CAN be a success. It is a bit of a wild country, but the Afghan people are incredibly resilient. They have endured untold suffering. They devoutly believe in God and have only simple wishes. They want the fighting to stop. They want to be able to put food on the table and their children in school. That’s all. We forgot them once and paid for it with the loss of many innocent lives. This tragedy will reoccur if we abandon them again.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we must never, never, never give up!
Louis R. Hughes
Speech to Rotary Club of Wilmette, IL
November 15, 2006