Edwards elucidates Afghan war

In light of President Obama’s Dec. 1 speech at West Point and the announcement of a revised strategy for the war in Afghanistan, José Martínez ’10 sat down with David Edwards, professor of anthropology and author of several books about Afghanistan, to discuss the country’s current conditions and the implications of the new plan.

During last week’s international studies colloquium, you asserted the clear possibility of civil war, chaos and a potential collapse of the current Afghan government were the U.S. to leave the country at this time. What key factors explain the fragility of the Karzai government?

I think that the claim that is often stated, particularly by those who want the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, is that the Karzai government is branded by its association with a foreign power and “infidel” regime. I do not think that is the case. I believe that the biggest problem with the Karzai government is that since it first came into existence in 2002 it has failed to achieve measurable success in terms of providing livelihoods for the Afghan people, creating a governance structure in the country both at the national, provincial and district levels and stemming the tide of corruption. These problems are not solely the responsibility of the Karzai regime; a part of the problems is due to the way in which international efforts have failed.
One of the reasons you have corruption in Afghanistan is because the government has been under-resourced; they have not had enough money to pay the police, army and civil servants and they have very limited sources of revenue, so the inability to pay people has led, inevitably, to corruption. It is a complicated problem and I would not want to lay all the blame on the shoulders of Karzai himself, but I think one thing he has proven is that he is willing to tolerate people around him who do not have the best interests of the Afghan people in mind.

How did the claims of fraud that resulted in the cancelation of the run-off election for the presidency undermine the mandate of Hamid Karzai for his second term? How will this affect the delicate task of administration and governance?

I have not seen anyone who has been able to explain who was responsible for the fraud, whether it was Karzai himself or people under him who were, for their own reasons, trying to gain the favor of their patrons. At any rate, the fraud happened and I think it certainly undermined his international legitimacy. It came at a very bad time in terms of the perilous process that U.S. cooperation with Afghanistan was going through. It could not have come at a worse point from Obama’s point of view, in the sense that he was trying to get the American public, NATO countries and international bodies to agree to an escalation of the military efforts along with a recommitment of financial and civilian resources to Afghanistan.
At the very moment Obama is trying to mobilize international cooperation, along come these allegations of fraud so that many begin to question why exactly we are helping Karzai if he is stealing elections. The fraud is more pronounced because the Bush administration put so much focus on democracy and elections as the sine qua non of nation-building and why we were in Afghanistan in the first place.
What did you think of Obama’s Dec. 1 speech at West Point and his new strategy for the country?

I liked his speech a lot more after I read it carefully than I did at the time it was given. There was a unity of vision that I think was interesting. I think the naysayers about Obama have said that his interest in building the international coalition and domestic consensus has limited his vision and ability to accomplish his agenda. There is an argument to be made for that point of view, but I feel that he is honestly someone who believes in consensus. One of the themes that resonates through the speech is his feeling that partisanship has eroded public discourse in America and that the absence of a conciliatory middle-ground is hurting our international standing. The solution internationally for Obama is through cooperation, multi-lateralism and the ability of international organizations to work and function effectively, and this comes through quite clearly in the speech.
Another thing I liked in the speech is that he is not talking of defeating the Taliban, he is talking about reversing their momentum, and I think that is an important distinction, because the Taliban is not going to be defeated. The only way we can be successful is to reverse their momentum and we need to think through what that means so we can offer alternatives by building up the Afghan government, national security forces, providing livelihoods and security for the Afghan people. It’s not just a military strategy, it’s a counter-insurgency strategy which has to think more about laying the groundwork for a viable government which will help secure people’s livelihoods.
Does the July 2011 withdrawal date set by Obama compromise America’s efforts in any way? Will it embolden the Taliban or is it simply a way for the President to appease his domestic critics?

The cynical way to look at the timetable is that it is there for the liberal wing of his own party, and I am sure that is part of the calculation. On the other hand, the way that the administration is justifying its policy is by claiming that one of the problems all along with how we have conducted ourselves in Afghanistan has been the lack of coordination and a real sense of urgency. I think he is giving the Karzai administration, not just us, a deadline. I don’t believe for a second that if in 18 months there are measurable signs of progress we will leave – Obama’s strategy is not a black-and-white scenario. If the situation in 18 months has eroded and the Karzai administration has made no progress then we might consider leaving, but if there are measurable signs of improvement on a number of different fronts, then we will stay.

Following the scheduled withdrawal of the surge forces in July 2011, what role should the 70,000 U.S. troops that remain stationed in the country have? How long do you believe there should be a troop presence in the country?

I don’t know how long there needs to be a troop presence. I think the key for now is that there needs to be measurable signs of progress. If there are major signs, one of them is going to be that the Afghanistan National Security Force (ANSF) will be able to take more of a front-line combat role and, to the extent that they are able to do that, to begin to handle combat responsibilities and inter-face with the civilian population. This will allow American and NATO troops to become more invisible, relegating them to support and training operations if all goes according to plan.

What have the Afghans you have spoken to think about the U.S. presence? Have their views changed radically at any point since the initial invasion?
Afghans are by no means unified in their views so I do not want to characterize what Afghans in general think, and it is also impossible to even guess percentages given that there is no reliable polling or census data, so it is very difficult to characterize Afghan public opinion in any coherent way.
I do not think that we have been viewed as occupiers from the beginning, and I do not think it is fair or historically accurate to refer to Afghanistan as the “graveyard of Empires,” as though Afghans are somehow inherently xenophobic or opposed to the presence of foreigners on their soil. But certainly, there have been a number of incidents that have eroded our credibility and status in the country. The instances of civilian casualties, euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage,” the instances of U.S. troops going into people’s houses and searching for arms caches while violating the sanctity of domestic quarters, all those things have a tendency to erode our credibility and prestige, while also creating new enemies.

Karzai recently detailed his willingness to talk with Taliban leaders (specifically, Mullah Omar) as part of a broader effort to bring peace to the country if the initiative had the support of the Obama administration and other international partners. Should the U.S. support this initiative?

Implictly, it already has. One thing that was said in the West Point speech was that we would support efforts by the Afghan government to negotiate with elements of the Taliban who are ready to make peace and be cooperative. Obama signaled there that negotiations toward an end to this conflict are possible. I think his administration views negotiations as one way of reversing Taliban momentum. Interestingly, the Taliban is saying the same thing; it has declared that people who are willing to rescind their loyalty to the Karzai regime and state their loyalty to the Taliban, the Qur’an and Islam will be accepted back into the fold. So both sides are trying to erode the power base of the other by winning defections. That is a legitimate way in which power politics operates in Afghanistan, through defections; that is a part of the game.
Should establishing democracy in Afghanistan be a primary goal for the U.S. in the future?

I don’t think that it should be a primary goal. I think we overemphasized it at the beginning. I think the Bush administration in particular tended to view democracy like development on the cheap – it was a cheap way to declare victory and wash your hands and get out. Democracy is a hard slog and we know that in our own country there was a lot of good fortune and an incredible first generation of founding fathers who laid the intellectual and ideological groundwork for democracy’s emergence. In Afghanistan you have a largely uneducated society, no free press, a country torn-apart by civil war, a flooding of weapons which allows any extremist to potentially undo years of work . . . and democracy is hard work, and it is harder now than it has ever been because of the way in which extremists can force their opinions on others. I think democracy cannot be viewed in isolation. It needs to be an endpoint rather than a beginning, and I think we need to be realistic about it and not pin too much weight on its future prospects.

Is Afghanistan now Obama’s war? How key will the conflict be to his presidency? Observers are already saying this is his war and it could lead to him being a one-term president.

Afghanistan is Obama’s war without a doubt. It became Obama’s war if it wasn’t already after the speech at West Point. I think there are a number of issues which seem independent but are actually inter-dependent: Health care, the economy, jobs, financial reform and Afghanistan all require a strong president and any of these issues can end up weakening him, and if one thing weakens him in one area, it will weaken him in another. He is trying to do unpopular things right now and he is trying to pull it all off and the only way he will succeed is if he pulls it all off. In essence, I think each issue is much like one of those blocks in the game Jenga: if he fails in one endeavor there is the distinct possibility that the whole edifice will collapse.