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Can Afghanistan Meet Karzai Goal of Handling Own Security by 2014?

July 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai requested more global support at Tuesday's conference in Kabul on security and development. Jim Lehrer gets two views from veteran State Department official James Dobbins and an Afghan-American, Nazif Shahrani, who is a professor at Indiana University.
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JIM LEHRER: For more on this, we go to James Dobbins, a veteran State Department official who was special envoy to Afghanistan in the early Bush years. He now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. And Nazif Shahrani, an Afghan-American, professor of anthropology at Indiana University. He travels frequently to Afghanistan.

Mr. Dobbins, how do you see the worth of this Kabul conference?

JAMES DOBBINS, director, International Security and Defense Policy Center Director at the RAND Corporation: Well, I think it set out several significant aspirations and goals. One is for the Afghan government to take the lead in providing security throughout the country by 2014; a second, for the international community to begin putting more aid through the Afghan government; and, thirdly, support for Karzai’s effort to try eventually and over the longer term to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

JIM LEHRER:Professor, do you agree that it — it set some goals that were worthy goals? Or what is your view of it?

NAZIF SHAHRANI, professor of Anthropology, Indiana University: Well, the goals are certainly worthy. This is not the first time international community and President Karzai have made promises to the people of Afghanistan and to the international community.

In fact, this year, this is the third time, the London conference, the peace jirga in Kabul, and now the Kabul international conference. The track that President Karzai has for keeping these promises, unfortunately, are not very good.

He has not, in fact, done much of what he has promised to the people of Afghanistan. And they are quite cynical about this conference and other conferences like this.

JIM LEHRER:Well, let’s be specific here for a few moments.

Mr. Dobbins, the president said, OK, Afghanistan can take over the national — the security of the country by 2014. Is that — is that a doable thing?

JAMES DOBBINS:Well, I would say two things. First of all, it’s an aspiration, not a commitment. Secondly, it’s Afghanistan taking the lead, not taking over.

JIM LEHRER:OK.

JAMES DOBBINS:Like, as a point of reference, Iraq took over the lead for security in Iraq more than a year ago, and we kept 140,000 troops there throughout that year.

We’re only now reducing down to 50,000. And we’re going to keep 50,000 there for another 18 months. So, taking the lead isn’t the same as taking over.

JIM LEHRER:Well, can he take the lead?

JAMES DOBBINS:I think it’s a reasonable goal to — that, by 2014 — that’s four years from now — they will be in the lead; we will be in a supporting position.

JIM LEHRER:A goal, but is it a reasonable expectation?

JAMES DOBBINS:I think it’s a reasonable goal. I think, as aspirations go, they tend not to be met fully and on schedule more often than not. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it slip, but it’s not — but it is reasonable to strive for it and to hope it can be met.

JIM LEHRER:What’s your view of that, of the 2014 aspiration, Professor Shahrani?

NAZIF SHAHRANI:I think, if it could be achieved, it would be a blessing for the people of Afghanistan.

But, unfortunately, President Karzai, in the last nine years, has consistently lost the confidence of the people of Afghanistan. He has the international support, but he has been losing the support of the people of Afghanistan. He has failed in his leadership, particularly amongst his own Pashtun tribesmen in the south.

And they — he was hoping that people would back him. But, unfortunately, given the corrupt nature of the government he has been running, the people in Afghanistan are not very confident that he could be able to achieve either the goal for 2014 or even for many years into the future if that was the case. The leadership deficit in Afghanistan is a very serious one from the perspective of the people of Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER:And you think the key to it is — is just corruption, just simple corruption? Or is it more complex than that?

NAZIF SHAHRANI:It is more than that. It’s also the system of governance.

I think President Karzai insisted, through the new constitution, to create a super-presidency and an extremely centralized government structure, which he has not been able to deliver. He has failed. And I think this is an inappropriate system of governance for a multiethnic society such as Afghanistan.

And I think he has not been able to also come up with any offer for the Taliban to be — to negotiate over. He wants to negotiate, but he hasn’t said what he is going to offer them to negotiate for or over. And he needs to articulate what that might be.

(CROSSTALK)

NAZIF SHAHRANI:And I think through a decentralization government structure in Afghanistan, which would be far more appropriate for the country, Taliban might have an incentive to negotiate with the government, that is, to be able to run their own local communities in areas where they have support.

JIM LEHRER:Mr. Dobbins, do you see the same thing, that this is basic, that it goes back to just the way it’s governed, as much as the way — as much as Karzai, the way he does it?

JAMES DOBBINS:I think the problems the professor outlined are certainly serious problems. I do think they have to be kept in some perspective.

There is a serious problem of corruption in the country. On the other hand, this is a country that was at civil war for 30 years. And it’s hard to expect people to have more loyalty to institutions than to their families, their tribes, and their extended relationships.

And, so, naturally, that’s where their primary loyalties lie. And it leads to high degrees of patronage and what we would characterize as corruption. It’s a serious problem. It needs to be combated.

Secondly, I don’t think it’s fair to blame President Karzai for the central — the nature of the centralized government. First of all, it’s the only kind of government Afghanistan has ever been familiar with, is a weak unitary government, and only informal, no formal, structures at the local level.

Secondly, I was the U.S. representative at the Bonn conference, where this government was originally set up. Hamid Karzai wasn’t even there. And it was clear that all of the Afghans there were unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with the concept of federalism.

Now, I do think the professor is right that, if there are serious negotiations that begin with the insurgents, with the Taliban and others, it will lead to demands for some degree of decentralization. And, on balance, that might not be a bad thing.

JIM LEHRER:Do you have any reason, Professor Shahrani, just to go to the bottom line here, to be optimistic about whether all of this, not only the civil discussion and the aid discussions and all of that, corruption, but also what’s happening militarily on the ground, is going to lead to a stability that will eventually result in a stable Afghanistan? Is this thing on a path toward hope, in your opinion?

NAZIF SHAHRANI:I think, unless and until we have a truly honest government in Afghanistan as partner for our military efforts and economic and political efforts, we will not be able to succeed in this.

And I think our military leaders have the best knowledge about the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. And they have been calling for community participation in policing and defense in Afghanistan. And I hope that General Petraeus would be able to as he has convince recently President Karzai to pursue building a governance system from the bottom up, where the people of Afghanistan have communities of trust that they believe in, and that we need to turn those informal institutions into formal ones and build a government truly that represents the people of Afghanistan and that they supported.

And when they support an honest government in Afghanistan, our efforts will bear fruit. Without that, there is no hope.

JIM LEHRER:How do you — how do you — what’s your level of optimism at this point long-term, Mr. Dobbins?

JAMES DOBBINS:Well, all wars do end. I think Karzai continues to enjoy a really, almost unique degree of international support. There are obviously reservations, and there are concerns. And…

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER:From the people on the ground, you mean?

JAMES DOBBINS:Well, again — no, well, I’m saying international support.

JIM LEHRER:OK. International support.

JAMES DOBBINS:I mean, virtually every major power in the world supports Karzai, supports the NATO presence. The only country that has any real reservations is Pakistan, which is — which is indeed a serious problem. But, still, it’s rather isolated in that regard.

I think, in terms of domestic support, again, his numbers are probably better than our own president’s. So, we have to put this in some perspective. But they have fallen. He had 90 percent popularity ratings when he went into office. He’s been in office now for a long time, since 2001, nine years, and — and has faced very large problems, some of his own making, as the professor has indicated.

And this has eroded his support. But it’s still at quite respectable level. But, finally, I do agree that we do need to support a bottom-up strategy, as well as a top-down strategy, not just supporting and strengthening the regime in Kabul, but also trying to recreate more vibrant local institutions.

And the U.S. government was — was divided on this until recently. General Petraeus seems to have been able to secure agreement, first of all within his own government on that, and now from President Karzai, for a strategy that does focus more at building local — including local security capacity.

JIM LEHRER:Along the lines that Professor Shahrani just outlined.

JAMES DOBBINS:Very much so.

JIM LEHRER:Yes.

So, we will leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

JAMES DOBBINS:A pleasure.

NAZIF SHAHRANI:Thank you.