Afghanistan: “Can Do!” or “Can We Do?”

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U.S. Army troops patrol in Zabul province last month / DoD photo by Brian Ferguson

Marine Lieut. General John Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee three weeks ago that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the future of Afghanistan as he readied to take over for Army General Dave Petraeus (the change of command happened Monday).

A new State Department inspector general’s reportSensitive But Unclassified it reads at the top and bottom of each of its 64 pages — has a decidedly more pessimistic view:

As the last 10 years have demonstrated, nurturing an effective Afghan Government that is responsive to its people is enormously difficult. For generations, authority has resided not with a central government but with local power brokers and tribal militias who see little benefit in surrendering power to the center. To date, the election experience has been mixed, with manifold allegations of fraud. The Afghan Government has yet to build an administration that can begin to address expectations for services, jobs, and security. Corruption remains a major problem. Afghans’ patience with their government and with the international community is waning after years during which many have seen little or no improvement in their lives. Support in the United States and other countries for assisting Afghanistan is also fraying.

Defining success in Afghanistan will demand strengthening the bonds between Afghans and their government. Supporting this goal, however, is a costly endeavor. Its continuation comes at a time when budgets are tightening in Washington. However large the U.S. Government’s outlay in Afghanistan has been in recent years, it is not immune to substantial cuts in the present climate. These budgetary truths will be critical to both the counterinsurgency effort and the transition to normal operations. Given current economic conditions, the Afghan Government lacks the ability to make up shortfalls in funding. Jump-starting the economy to meet the challenges of a post-war slump in funding is an essential part of transition planning.

To achieve its goals, Embassy Kabul has put in place a vast bureaucratic structure. The management of this behemoth and the security of its personnel and facilities in the face of ongoing challenges are daunting. Teams of individuals who, like most of their embassy colleagues, rarely stay in country long enough to become experts in their functions in Afghanistan are charged with institutionalizing both effective management controls and comprehensive security procedures.

The U.S. military looks at Afghanistan and consistently sees a canteen that’s half full. The diplomats, not so much.