Defense Establishment’s Control of U.S. Policy Poses Threat to Afghan Reconstruction

Some officials within the Bush administration and the interim government in Kabul complain that the CIA’s and the U.S. military’s continuing control of U.S. policy is hampering Afghanistan’s reconstruction. The continuing military emphasis on policy is thwarting the development of political and economic tactics that strengthen the interim government and promote reconciliation.

“The war in Afghanistan is over and what is left is a mopping up operation in a few provinces, but the Department of Defense is still controlling policy,” says a U.S. official in Washington, closely involved in Afghanistan. Adds Edmund McWilliams, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s: “policymakers in Washington have failed to recognize that the key challenges are no longer simply military, but instead increasingly political.”

Since the fall of the Taliban in December, the U.S. military has conducted operations in three provinces along the border with Pakistan–Nangahar, Paktia, and Paktika–out of a total of 32 provinces in the country. However, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly reminded journalists that fighting in Afghanistan continues. Although the al Qaeda terrorist network still poses a major international threat, its influence in Afghanistan is now small, observers contend.

“For 95% of the population there is no war, and what people want now is greater security and reconstruction,” says a senior aide to Hamid Karzai, Chairman of Kabul’s interim government. “But the United States doesn’t get it.”

Some U.S. officials suggest that the lack of a political blueprint is due to the fact that the same small group of senior Pentagon, CIA, and National Security Council officials that ran the campaign against the Taliban continues to direct Afghan policymaking. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has not made a single statement on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan since February. The State Department and other political and economic arms of the U.S. government, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have little or no say in setting policy direction. The National Security Council (NSC) under Condoleezza Rice is closely allied to the Pentagon.

The lack of a political strategy is having an effect on the ground. The Pentagon and the CIA’s support for Pashtun warlords in southern and eastern Afghanistan in order to mop up al Qaeda has prompted Washington since last October to arm and finance about 45,000 Afghan mercenaries. So-called “American warlords” are often at loggerheads with each other, and pay scant attention to the Karzai government.

In addition, a few of these warlords have duped U.S. forces into bombing their rivals. Others are now overseeing the harvesting of a new and abundant poppy crop, which is refined into heroin within gunshot of U.S. bases around Kandahar. The interim government’s attempt to eradicate poppy cultivation before any reconstruction programs in agriculture have gotten underway has widened the gulf between Pashtun farmers and the Kabul interim government.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and NSC official, told reporters in Kabul on March 26 that there was “no contradiction” of the policy of trying to discourage warlordism in the U.S. arming new warlords. “There is not a single security problem, but various security problems in different parts of Afghanistan,” he said.

Meanwhile, USAID–which has nearly $300 million to spend this year for the reconstruction of Afghanistan–has been unable to establish a single reconstruction project from its strategic program. Instead it has farmed out some $13 million to other aid organizations that are still trying to set up projects and has provided another $14 million in small grants. Although USAID’s contribution to humanitarian relief remains enormous, several officials are reportedly in the process of resigning, disillusioned with their agency’s inability to contribute to reconstruction. USAID officials are unable to operate outside the U.S. embassy in Kabul due to security considerations, and were unable to oversee the dispatch of some 6 million textbooks printed by the United States for the recent “back to school” program.

The United States has also rejected demands from the UN and the interim government to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to other cities, which means there is little security in the countryside for the elections to the Loya Jirga, which start on April 23 and end when the tribal council is scheduled to convene in June. The Pentagon’s logic is that foreign peacekeepers would disrupt the war against terrorism. However UN deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette bluntly told the UN Security Council on March 27 that Afghans in many regions were being prevented by warlords from participating in the elections due to the lack of security available to them.

In Kabul, many Afghan ministers are frustrated that the U.S. military has made no attempt to rein in the growing power of the northern Afghan Panshiri faction, who have accumulated enormous power in recent months. The Panshiri Tajiks, followers of former commander Ahmad Shah Masoud and the key U.S. ally in last year’s war against the Taliban, run the three most powerful ministries in Kabul–Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. “The Panshiris are alienating the Pashtuns, and undermining Karzai’s ability to extend the writ of the government,” says a minister in the interim government. “Karzai cannot rein them in as long as the Americans say nothing to them.”

Between April 3-5, the Panshiri leaders of the intelligence service arrested up to 300 people–mostly Pashtuns–without informing the UN, ISAF, or interim cabinet, saying there was a plot by Afghan extremists to destabilize the government. The majority of those detained were quickly freed, and Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni went out of his way to stress that the arrests were not based on ethnicity. Nevertheless, the arrests have widened the rift between Pashtuns and Tajiks. Non-Pashtun warlords in northern Afghanistan also have been persecuting the minority Pashtun population there, according to a recently issued Human Rights Watch report.

The European Union has announced that the post-Loya Jirga government in Afghanistan should include more Pashtuns. The United States, meanwhile, has yet to clarify its position on the ethnic composition of the Afghan government. Washington does appear partly cognizant of the problems, but its remedies are questionable. On April 3 at a meeting of 35 donor countries in Geneva, the United States pledged to lead the effort to fund a new 60,000-strong Afghan army at a cost of $235 million, while Germany promised to help rebuild a 70,000 strong police force. But the creation of a new army is still several years away and it is still not clear who will command it–the Panshiris or a new neutral and professional Afghan officer corps.

The urgent need for reconstruction has prompted the CIA to fund “quick impact projects” using its Afghan mercenaries, according to officials in Washington and Kabul. However such projects–which bypass the interim government, UN agencies, the World Bank, and the UN Development Program–are likely to further strengthen the warlords and alienate the Karzai government, local observers say. Western relief agencies have already protested the U.S. military’s involvement in civil administration, contending that it creates a volatile security situation for aid workers.

The United States still enjoys enormous clout and influence in Afghanistan, but unless it is willing to use its power to strengthen the political and economic processes that will help rebuild and modernize the country, there is the danger that ethnic divisions could again split the country. For Donald Rumsfeld the war against terrorism remains a war, but for most Afghans, the focus is now on reconstruction. “Failure to develop an independent political strategy and insensitivity to human rights are strongly reminiscent of the mistakes U.S. policy makers made in the 1982-92 period,” says McWilliams.