Monthly Archives: March 2007

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When Less Is Best

First published in The New York Times, 20 March, 2007.

Why are we in Afghanistan? Vice President Cheney talks terror, Britain focuses on narcotics. The European Union talks ‘state-building,’ others gender. On a different day, the positions seem interchangeable. Five years ago, we had a clear goal. Now we seem to be pursuing a bundle of objectives, from counterinsurgency to democratization and development, which are presented as uniform but which are in fact logically distinct and sometimes contradictory.

Finance officers in Kabul and shepherds in Kandahar want to know what we did with the $10 billion we spent in the last four years. So do any number of commentators on Afghan TV and radio. And when Helmand villagers see soldiers from countries thousands of miles away carrying guns and claiming to be only building schools, they don’t believe them.

I have noticed that many Afghans now simply assume we are engaged in a grand conspiracy. Nothing else in their minds can explain the surreal gap between our language and performance. The United States needs to be honest about what it wants from Afghanistan and what it can achieve.

We should remember that we came first to protect ourselves against terrorist attack. Afghans can understand this and help. But counterterrorism is not the same as counterinsurgency. Counterterrorism requires good intelligence and Special Forces operations, of the sort the U.S. was doing in 2002 and 2003. Recently, however, NATO has become involved in a much wider counterinsurgency campaign, involving tens of thousands of troops. The objective now is to wrest rural areas from Taliban forces.

But many of the people we are fighting have no fixed political manifesto. Almost none have links to Al Qaeda or an interest in attacking U.S. soil. We will never have the troop numbers to hold these areas, and we are creating unnecessary enemies. A more considered approach to tribal communities would give us better intelligence on our real enemies. It is clear that we do not have the resources, the stomach, or the long-term commitment for a 20-year counterinsurgency campaign. And the Afghan Army is not going to take over this mission.

Our second priority should be to not lose the support of the disillusioned population in the central and western part of the country. We have spent billions on programs that have alleviated extreme poverty and supported governance but have not caught the imagination of Afghans. Afghans are bored with foreign consultants and conferences and are saying, ‘Bring back the Russians: at least they built dams and roads.” To win them over we should focus on large, highly visible infrastructure to which Afghans will be able to point in 50 years — just as they point to the great dam built by the United States in the 1960s. The garbage is still seven feet deep and buildings are collapsing in Kabul. We can deal with these things and leave a permanent symbol of generosity.

Once we are clear about our own interests, we can think more clearly about the third priority, which is to improve Afghan lives through development projects. There are excellent models, from U.N. Habitat to the Aga Khan network, which has restored historic buildings, run rural health projects, and established a five-star hotel and Afghanistan’s mobile telephone network. The soap business that the American Sarah Chayes has developed with Afghan women has been more successful than larger and wealthier business associations. Such projects should be separated from our defense and political objectives.

Sometimes it is better for us to do less. Dutch forces in the province of Uruzgan have found that, when left alone, the Taliban alienate communities by living parasitically, lecturing puritanically and failing to deliver. But when the British tried to aggressively dominate the South last summer, they alienated a dangerous proportion of the local population and had to withdraw. Pacifying the tribal areas is a task for Afghans, working with Pakistan and Iran. It will involve moving from the overcentralized state and developing formal but flexible relationships with councils in all their varied village forms.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that we squandered an opportunity in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, being distracted by Iraq and not bringing enough troops or resources. But my experience in Afghanistan has led me to believe that the original strategy of limiting our role was correct.

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Our Echoes Come From You

First published in the New York Times, 24 March 2007.

Afghanistan is now both more and less than a nation. Dialects of its official language are spoken from Iran to India. Its greetings and rituals are recognizable in Chechnya. Kabuli woodwork incorporates motifs from Syria, the Mughal Empire and pre-Islamic Uzbekistan. On Tuesday, I heard a song from a mystical order, founded in Afghanistan, which was played by musicians from the borders of Nepal.

But Afghanistan is internally fragmented. It contains diverse Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Baluch people, who dominate the neighboring ‘stans.’ The Pashtun majority was split with Pakistan in the 19th century. The recent civil war has eroded nationhood further.

Government policy must respond to this fragmented pluralism. The myriad social organizations, histories and experiences of isolated Afghan communities should be liberated, and the state should become less centralized. This is because Afghans do not want to be ruled by an overbearing, alien government, and the civil service does not have the capacity to govern effectively across the country.

Devolution, however, should be counterbalanced by a new idea of a nation. President Hamid Karzai has embraced ethnic diversity in his elaborate Uzbek robes and Pashtun prayer beads. He must rebuild Kabul as a national symbol. He needs a new unifying definition of Afghanistan to replace the old and still powerful myth of jihad against foreign occupation.

Afghanistan is defined by its organic relationship to wider Muslim Asia. It is a barren country that first flourished as a trading station, connecting Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan, taking silk to Rome and cotton to China. It is historically entrepreneurial, adept at exploiting foreign financial support and finding varied irregular incomes. It is now supported by the cash of four million recently returned refugees and many remittances. Afghan carpets, tiles and calligraphy are attractive to neighboring markets because they draw on a regional tradition. Afghanistan should benefit from the overland trade between its resource-rich or rapidly growing neighbors.

This trade can be developed by increasing the United States investment in building roads. A year ago, it took nearly a day to get from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan — which was the time it took in 1933. Now the journey can be done in half the time.

But Kabul airport, which could easily make money, is pathetic; imports are taxed 15 times as they move from the borders to the capital; exports are crippled by cumbersome regulations and transportation costs.

Karzai’s largest problem lies with his Muslim neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. He must use everything that Afghanistan shares with these countries: linguistically, historically, culturally and religiously to charm, outwit and influence them. He should do the same throughout the Islamic world. The Middle East has never been so wealthy or so generous. Yet Afghanistan has failed to win its financial support.

The United States must, like Karzai, approach Afghanistan consistently as part of a wider region. There are identical tribal and political groups on both sides of the Afghan- Pakistan border, separated only by colonial line. We emphasize democracy and human rights and pursue an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, but we support Pervez Musharraf, a military ruler, who takes a political, negotiated approach to the same groups in Pakistan. As a result of this schizophrenia, Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders base themselves in Pakistan and attack our interests from there.

Actions in one country spread quickly to neighbors. The invasion of Iraq disturbed Iran, then the election of a Shiite government emboldened it to finance other Shiite groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Concessions to India frighten Pakistan into financing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Our response to the Taliban angers Muslims in Europe and Indonesia. Yet Afghanistan’s influence can also be positive. Shiite-Sunni violence has spread from Pakistan to Iraq. But the Murad Khane district in central Kabul, which contains five Shiite and Sunni ethnic groups, has, like the rest of Afghanistan, recently avoided sectarian violence.

This year is the 800th anniversary of the poet Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan, traveled through Central Asia, Persia and Arabia and died in Turkey, without being aware of leaving a single country. Tens of millions can recite his poetry. His line applies well to Afghanistan:

“Ma chu kuhim o sada dar ma ze tust.”

“We are mountains, our echoes are from you.”

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What We Can Do

First published in the New York Times, 27 March 2007

We must acknowledge the limits of our power and knowledge in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and concentrate on what is achievable. The question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What can we do?”

This is rarely discussed. When I ask politicians whether we can defeat the Taliban, they reply that we “have to” defeat the Taliban. If I ask whether we can actually do any good by staying in Iraq, they reply that we have “a moral obligation” to the Iraqi people.

By emphasizing moral necessity, politicians can justify almost any risk, uncertainty or sacrifice and make compromise seem cowardly and criticism treasonous. When I suggest recognition of Moktada al-Sadr or negotiation with the Taliban, I am described as an appeaser. But these moral judgments are fragile, and they increasingly cloak despair, paralysis and preparation for flight.

We are learning, painfully, that many of the problems in Iraq or Afghanistan — from violence and state failure to treatment of women — are deeply embedded in local beliefs, political structures and traumatic histories. Iraqis and Afghans do not want their country controlled by foreigners and non-Muslims. A powerful and effective minority is trying to kill us. The majority is at best lukewarm: they may dislike Sadrists or the Taliban, but they prefer them to us.

We are also now aware how little we can comprehend. Our officials are on short tours, lack linguistic or cultural training, live in barracks behind high blast walls and encounter the local population through angry petitions or sudden ambushes. We will never acquire the subtle sense of values, beliefs and history needed to create lasting changes, still less as we once intended, to lead a political, social and economic revolution.

Paul Bremer, then the top American administrator in Iraq, told us in October 2003 that we had six months to computerize the Baghdad stock exchange, privatize state-owned enterprises and reform the university curriculum. Now he would be grateful for stability. The American and British people have sensed that their grand objectives are unachievable, and since no one is offering any practical alternative, they are lapsing into cynicism and opposition.

Meanwhile the paralyzed leaders, afraid of their impotence, flit from troop increases to flight, from engagement to isolation. We must prevent this by acknowledging our limits,

while recognizing that although we are less powerful and informed than we claimed, we are more powerful and informed than we fear.

A year ago, for example, I felt it would be almost impossible to help re-establish ceramics, woodwork and calligraphy and restore part of the old city of Kabul. I worried that Afghans were uninterested, the standards too low, the prices too high, the government apathetic and international demand nonexistent. But I found great Afghan energy, courage and skill and received imaginative and generous support from the U.S. government. Unexpected markets emerged; the Afghan administration helped; men and women found new pride and incomes. There are many much better established and more successful projects than this all over Afghanistan.

My experience suggests that we can continue to protect our soil from terrorist attack, we can undertake projects that prevent more people from becoming disaffected, and we can even do some good. In short, we will be able to do more, not less, than we are now. But working with what is possible requires humility and the courage to compromise.

We will have to focus on projects that Iraqis and Afghans demand; prioritize and set aside moral perfectionism; work with people of whom we don’t approve; and choose among lesser evils. We will have to be patient. We should aim to stop illegal opium growth and change the way that Iraqis or Afghans treat their women. But we will not achieve this in the next three years. We may never be able to build a democratic state in Iraq or southern Afghanistan. Trying to do so through a presence based on foreign troops creates insurgency and resentment and can only end in failure.

“You are saying,” the politician replies, “that we ought to sit back and do nothing.” On the contrary I believe we can do a great deal. But ought implies can. We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

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An Afghan Policy Built on Pipe Dreams

 First published in The New York Times, March 3, 2007.

The international community’s policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, “Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals of political, economic and social liberty, conceived in the West, as their own.”

In Afghanistan in January, Tony Blair thanked Afghans by saying “we’re all in this together” and placing them in “the group of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, whatever your race or your background or your religion.”

Such language is inaccurate, misleading and dangerous.

Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like “human rights,” “democracy” and “development” is unhelpful.

For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. “Warlords” retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops.

Yet, senior officials with long experience with Afghanistan often deny this reality. They insist that Taliban fighters have next to no local support and are purely Pakistani agents. The U.N. argues that “warlords” have little power and that the tribal areas can rapidly be brought under central control. The British defence secretary predicted last summer that British troops in Helmand Province could return “without a bullet fired.” Afghan cabinet ministers insist that narcotics growth and corruption can be ended and the economy can wean itself off foreign aid in five years. None of this is true. And most of them half-know it.

It is not only politicians who misrepresent the facts. Non-profit groups endorse the fashionable jargon of state-building and civil society, partly to win grants. Military officers are reluctant to admit their mission is impossible. Journalists were initially surprisingly optimistic about transforming Afghanistan. No one wants to seem to endorse a status quo dominated by the Taliban and drugs. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, particularly in Afghanistan.

Does it matter? Most people see our misrepresentations as an unappealing but necessary part of international politics. The problem is that we act on the basis of our own lies. British soldiers were killed because they were not prepared for the Helmand insurgency. In the same province, the coalition recommended a Western-friendly technocrat as governor; he was so isolated and threatened he could barely leave his office. Hundreds of millions of dollars invested in anticorruption efforts, and the police and the counter-narcotics ministry, has been wasted on Afghans with no interest in our missions. Other programs are perceived as a threat to local culture and have bred anger and resentment.

Still others have raised expectations we cannot fulfil, betraying our friends. I experienced this in Iraq, where I encouraged two friends to start gender and civil society programs; we were unable to protect them, and both were killed. Even when we fail, instead of recognizing the errors of the initial assessment and the mission, we blame problems in implementation and repeat false and illogical claims in order to acquire more money and troops.

The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality. This is not to counsel despair. There is no fighting in the streets of Kabul, the Hazara in the centre of the country are more secure and prosperous than at almost any time in their history, and the economy grew last year by 18 percent. These are major achievements. With luck and the right kind of international support, Afghanistan can become more humane, prosperous and stable.

But progress will be slow. Real change can come only from within, and we have less power in Afghanistan than we claim. We must speak truthfully about this situation. Our lies betray Afghans and ultimately ourselves. And the cost in lives, opportunities and reputation is unbearable.

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The Value of Their Values

 First published in The New York Times, March 7, 2007.

I began my career as a Foreign Service officer in Indonesia. There, journalists, diplomats and aid workers emphasized that local government was “incompetent, inefficient and corrupt.” I heard the same when working in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. My colleagues often seemed contemptuous of the nations where they served. They overlooked the cultures’ virtues and strengths, which are the keys to rebuilding nations, particularly after insurgency and civil war.

Foreign policy experts will tell you that poor states lack the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, free media, a transparent civil service, political participation and a great deal more. Employees of major international agencies commonly complain that Afghans or Iraqis or Kenyans “can’t plan” or “can’t implement.”

At its worst, this attitude is racist, bullying and ignorant. But there are less sinister explanations. As a diplomat, I was praised for “realism” if I sent home critical telegrams. Now, working for a nonprofit, I find that donor proposals encourage us to emphasize the negative aspects of local society. Many of our criticisms reflect our deep assumptions about citizenship, management and the state.

Afghans and Iraqis are often genuinely courageous, charming, generous, inventive and honorable. Their social structures have survived centuries of poverty and foreign mischief and decades of war and oppression, and have enabled them to overcome almost unimaginable trauma. But to acknowledge this seems embarrassingly romantic or even patronizing.

Yet the only chance of rebuilding a nation like Iraq or Afghanistan in the face of insurgency or civil war is to identify, develop and use some of these traditional values. Many international reformers overexaggerate the power of technical assistance and formal processes. In fact, in these contexts, charisma can be more potent than bureaucracy. Politicians have to demonstrate an intuitive understanding of local power structures and an empathy for the unexpected things people value about themselves.

This may be uncomfortable for the international community. A leader who can restore security, reconcile warring parties and shape the aspirations of a people may resemble an Ataturk more than a U.S. president. This is not a call for dictatorship. True progress must be sustained by the unconstrained wishes of the people. These should include, in Afghanistan, people with strong liberal values as much as conservative rural communities. These various desires must be protected from both the contorted control of an authoritarian state and the muffling effect of foreign aid.

The international community often attempts to avoid imposing foreign systems. Donors try hard to emphasize grass-roots consultation in designing a political system. But it is much easier for us in theory than in practice to admire and empower an unfamiliar society.

Our approach to nation building in Afghanistan has failed to accommodate the splits between Hazara and Pusthu land arrangements, gender attitudes and codes, or their different approaches to literacy, the dignity of the individual or economic progress. We do not embrace the many unexpected ways in which Afghans might overcome trauma, invest, trade and learn. Such diversity should not be imprisoned by the current centralized government, but empowered by a devolved and flexible federal system.

Western management jargon is of little help to Afghan entrepreneurs, who use tricks, trust, community and crises in a powerful way. The strong Afghan sense of justice, community and religious belief can support a counternarcotics program, the rule of law, democracy or security. But the real drivers of change are opaque.

Ultimately, we must respect countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and trust in their ability to find their own solutions. This does not mean we need to withdraw entirely. A Harvard M.B.A. will be better at building a hydroelectric plant than a local tribal process. Foreign troops can sometimes, as in Bosnia, end a war. Our rigid values, critiques and methodologies can, even in Iraq, set up a central bank and stabilize a currency.

But the central problems are national and political. Our invective about state failure and our dissatisfaction have become part of the problem. Real solutions will emerge, often improbably, from local individual virtues, and from the cultures we struggle to describe and tend to ignore.

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Turn to Tolstoy

First published in The New York Times, March 13, 2007.

Politicians have taken to publicizing “reading lists.” President Bush, we were told, last summer was to read a comic historical novel on the first Afghan war and Camus’s “The Stranger.” The Tory members of the British Parliament were issued weighty books on Middle Eastern politics. But why is no one reading Tolstoy’s novel “Hadji Murad”?

Tolstoy served as a soldier in the Russian campaign in the Caucasus in 1851, which was presented as a mission to bring modern government and economic growth to a medieval Muslim state. It was resisted by a bloody jihad, one of whose leaders, Hadji Murad, kidnapped widows, annihilated Russian columns, executed 26 prisoners and twice joined and then defected from the Russian administration.

In a letter at the time to his brother, Tolstoy described Hadji Murad’s actions as “base.” Fifty years later, after having espoused nonviolence and apparently given up on writing novels, Tolstoy decided to make this warlord the center of one of the great portraits of violent occupation.

The action is driven by ignorance and corrosive bureaucracy. The occupiers are isolated: living in a barracks, being rocketed at night and encountering the local population only through raids on villages and sudden ambushes. The tactics switch at whim, the strategy is destabilized by political rivalries.

But the local population is equally fractured and confused. The Chechen leader of the resistance “had declared his campaign victorious but knew it had been a failure, that many Chechen villages had been burned and devastated and that the fickle, frivolous Chechens were vacillating, and those of whom were nearest to the Russians were ready to secede.”

Tolstoy stubbornly records details inside Russian camps and, transcendentally (for he was as isolated as any soldier in a foreign land), inside Chechen homes. He opens the novel with the smell of the dung-fed fire in a mud hut, where Hadji Murad is preparing his defection. The conversation has nothing to do with money or grand theories of progress. Instead, quick sparks of sentiment and honour flicker out of the rituals of greeting, eating and prayers.

This empathy allows Tolstoy to catch the generosity and joy in battle of a young Russian officer attacking a village, but also the burned house and the bayoneted boy. Tolstoy shows how, in the fine texture of the local resistance, self-interest can blend with honour, fury and religion in “a natural instinct akin to the instinct of self-preservation.”

In the simplest interaction between the two sides, different world-views shimmer around the language of the interpreters. Hadji Murad is asked whether he liked the capital, Tiflis:

” ‘Alya’, he replied.

” ‘He says, “Yes,” ’ said the interpreter.

” ‘And what did he like best there?’

“Hadji Murad said something in reply.

” ‘He liked the theater best.’

” ‘Well, and did he like the viceroy’s ball?’

“Hadji Murad frowned. ‘Every tribe has its customs. Our women do not dress so,’ he said.”

The occupiers and occupied both despise and mimic each other. Hadji Murad delights in a modern chiming clock and uses it to time his prayers. The Russian officer dresses like a Chechen. The different national honor codes drive fights but also reconciliations: greed and nobility combine in a single exchange. Hadji Murad presents a sword as an almost contemptuous gesture to a Russian; the recipient examines it to see if it is a fake.

After 50 years of reflection, Tolstoy no longer considers Hadji Murad “base” or even glamorous. He ignores Hadji Murad’s youthful adventures and begins with his defection as a middle-aged man, negotiating with spies for the release of his family and vainly petitioning the bureaucracy. In the viceroy’s palace, crowds of Russians gaze at Hadji Murad, but he disdains to look back. Tolstoy, who is normally judgmental, hardly explores the character of Hadji Murad. Instead, he maintains a respectful distance, concluding perhaps that it is not his place to judge. What Tolstoy recognizes, and what ultimately makes this the great portrait of occupation, is Hadji Murad’s autonomy.

House of Lords

Make the Lords Stand for Election? First, Let’s Sit and Think

First published in The New York Times, March 17 2007.

When I visited Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, I found senior people in the Coalition Provisional Authority largely uninterested in events in the province where I was based. They focused on writing a draft constitution for Iraq. Paul Bremer III was excited about the document and thought it could be a source of national pride. But very few Iraqis had been consulted. They did not think it would bring a more effective government and felt it would be dangerously disruptive. I was reminded of this when I read about the vote this week to turn the House of Lords into a wholly elected chamber.

Britain’s unwritten constitution has adapted incrementally over centuries to challenges to the political system. The House of Lords once represented hereditary noblemen against the king; its power was later limited by the House of Commons. Recent changes have been positive.

It is now, like the Canadian Senate, essentially an appointed house, consisting of senior community leaders, generals, academics, business people and retired ministers, with a small rump of bishops and hereditary nobles. Members serve for life; they can scrutinize and delay, but can’t veto bills. The House of Lords is much less powerful than the House of Commons or the prime minister. Its primary role is as a watchdog.

On Monday, the House of Commons voted 337 to 224 to introduce elections for the members of the Lords. On Wednesday the Lords objected. An elected Lords would bring changes in fundamental constitutional relationships that have not been adequately considered.

Two elected houses make sense in a federal system, where the lower house represents individuals and the upper house the states. But Britain is not a federal country. Both houses would probably duplicate the same principle of representation. An elected Lords would have the democratic legitimacy to demand more power at the expense of the Commons and the prime minister.

There would be other, more eccentric, consequences: an elected house would exclude the bishops, severing the constitutional connection between the state and the Church of England, a subject over which governments were destroyed in the 19th century. It would remove the remaining 92 hereditary peers, who now serve until their deaths. The queen would then be even more of an anomaly. These changes, perhaps overdue, would be fundamental and should not be entered into lightly.

Real constitutional change should be driven by crisis and necessity. The United States achieved change on this scale only through revolution. That crisis created the opportunity for the Founding Fathers to define their basic philosophical principles and write a new constitution, which remains to this day both a cornerstone of national pride and also a formal political instrument, governed by strict rules.

But in Britain there has been no such crisis. In fact, most believe that the House of Lords is being a good watchdog. It has recently publicized and defended principles of justice and liberty against the government’s human rights and terrorism legislation. Even the reformers want to preserve this positive function. Their problem is not with what the House of Lords is doing, but with how its members are chosen.

The reformers believe that they can change the selection processes without changing the outcomes. They fail to see that these things are connected. It is because the House of Lords’ members are appointed for life that they have an independence that allows them to challenge party policy.

Meanwhile, the British public is largely frustrated with elected politicians and not enthusiastic to see more of them in the Lords. Voters understand that the House of Lords remains anachronistic, irrational and imperfect, but feel no pressing need for change. This has encouraged the Lords to vote overwhelmingly to remain an appointed house. The party leaders, Tony Blair and David Cameron, have evasively favoured a hybrid house: partly elected, partly appointed.

In Britain, the grand banner of democracy is cloaking flimsy and unnecessary policies. There is room to make the appointments process more transparent, representative and non-political. But in reality, an elected upper house would make sense only in the context of a new written constitution that redefined the separation of powers; the relationship with the lower house, the church and the monarchy; and deep issues of national identity. But to do that would require the rigor, seriousness and courage of the Founding Fathers.