No More Representatives, Please

The last thing we need is a new big shot envoy in Kabul.

Over and over again during the past eight years, the United States and its allies have been on the lookout for that one "big idea" -- the silver bullet program or institution -- that can make the war in Afghanistan work. Over and over, they have invested all their energy and hopes in the idea's pursuit. And time and again, they have been disappointed as Afghan realities intervene to frustrate success.

Now, there's another big idea in the offing: to install an international high representative in Kabul in hopes of coordinating a stronger international position vis-à-vis Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Another, unstated reason for the proposal is perhaps to circumvent Kai Eide, the United Nations' outgoing point man in Afghanistan, whom some in the U.S. administration are said to view as ineffective.

In October, I resigned from my position as a political affairs officer at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan over policy differences with its leadership mostly concerning our handling of the election debacle. But I continue to believe that the U.N. mission is the best and only way to coordinate international support to Afghanistan. This latest magic trick won't work any better than the last one. In fact, it may even be worse.

The idea of a high representative has been floated for a number of years. The logic is that the "light footprint" strategy pursued by the international community for the first few years after the fall of the Taliban, including the accelerated sovereignty of Afghanistan thereafter, was a mistake. While not assuming any executive powers, the high representative would signal a more critical and conditional relationship between the international community and the Afghan government.

The first and most obvious question to be asked is what and whom a high representative would represent. There are already several multilateral entities in Afghanistan. In addition to the United Nations and the local offices of its many agencies, Kabul hosts the European Union, European Commission, and NATO civilian representatives. Then there are the embassies, the U.S. Embassy being by far the largest. Coordinating positions among these various stakeholders is difficult enough. Anyone who has tried would no doubt tell you that what's needed are fewer multilaterals, not more.

Also up in the air is what kind of mandate, exactly, such an oversight body would have. The United Nations, for all of its many flaws, is the most publicly legitimate organization on the ground. Were the U.N. to appoint a "high" representative, it's hard to see how the job would differ from the current "special" representative post. Circumventing the U.N. would be equally fraught as countries excluded from the NATO coalition, but still interested in how things turn out in Afghanistan, would no doubt be upset. Adding insult to injury, a non-U.N. high representative would likely strip the U.N. mission of its current political mandate.

Big-picture questions aside, it would be a mistake to underestimate the difficulties international organizations have in operating in Afghanistan, especially at the provincial level. The United Nations has spent years building its presence in 23 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and has plans to expand to all of them. It has an experienced and capable national and international staff, though a sizable group of us have left in the past few months.

No other multilateral organization can match the United Nations' hard-won network of offices, staff, and personal relationships. Although the U.S. State Department has representatives in each province, for example, they work on one-year rotations, taking their knowledge home with them as soon as it's finally acquired. A new office of the high representative would be self-absorbed for months, trying to establish itself in the capital, hiring staff, and arranging facilities. So, setting up a new entity would take time -- something that U.S. President Barack Obama's recently announced war timeline does not exactly permit.

Nor would it be simple for a high representative to function on the ground -- and here once again, the U.N. experience is telling. For its entire existence, the U.N. mission has been in the unenviable position of being both a political entity in Kabul and the U.N. Security Council-mandated coordinator of international assistance to the country. As you might imagine, these two roles are in great tension. Humanitarian aid of the sort the United Nations coordinates must remain apolitical -- in other words, exactly the opposite of what the U.N. mission is. For example, our offices were in touch with troops on the ground -- a line that humanitarian workers find more morally precarious to cross. So great were the tensions this year that we established a separate Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2009. A high representative would surely face similar dilemmas.

Take, for example, the ever-present question we faced about how to coordinate with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, ISAF. By working closely with ISAF, we reasoned, the U.N. might be able to influence military operations for the good of the Afghan people. But doing so might compromise our own U.N. principles of neutrality as well as endanger U.N. staff by identifying ourselves with the military.

Even more difficult questions arose over our relations with the Afghan government, which our mandate required us to support. The debate came to a head over the August presidential election, in a very public disagreement between Eide and his deputy, Peter Galbraith, my direct boss. Their dispute over how to respond to the clear and widespread signs of electoral fraud raised questions that had lingered over us from the beginning: How independent was the U.N. mission from Karzai's government, and how much room did we have to criticize the Afghan government for its ineffectiveness and corruption? A new high representative would be faced with the very same dilemmas.

One possibility, some might suggest, would be for the high representative to turn to the United Nations for information, analysis, relationships, and most likely, logistical support. A small office of the high representative could be set up in Kabul, buttressed by the U.N. mission and its field offices beyond. It might work. But I struggle to discern the advantage of such an arrangement over the current setup.

A far better approach would be to strengthen the U.N. mission under new leadership once Eide has completed his term in March. The title Eide's replacement holds -- whether it's special representative, special envoy, or high representative -- matters little. More important will be the individual himself. He will need to have the full support of the international community and, in particular, the confidence of the Americans. But he will also need to carry weight with the Afghans, this second task being far more difficult. The optics will prove important -- especially the nationality. Anyone from the immediate region will have to be ruled out, as would anyone from the United States (Europe being only slightly more acceptable).

None of this is to say that the U.N. is achieving all it could be in Afghanistan. Progress is slow and hampered by the mission's current mandate. The U.N. mission needs greater independence from the Afghan government and member states. Ideally, it should have a major role in finding a resolution to Afghanistan's conflict, involving both political reforms and negotiations with parts of the insurgency. Such a process cannot be driven by Afghan politicians who, left to their own devices, would continue to enrich themselves until they escape as the regime collapses. It would be far better for everyone if this were done multilaterally through the United Nations, rather than by Washington and its friends.

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Obama's Indecent Interval

Despite the U.S. president's pleas to the contrary, the war in Afghanistan looks more like Vietnam than ever.

As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, truth is ridiculed, then denied, and then "accepted as having been obvious to everyone from the beginning." So let's start with the obvious: There isn't the slightest possibility that the course laid out by Barack Obama in his Dec. 1 speech will halt or even slow the downward spiral toward defeat in Afghanistan. None. The U.S. president and his advisors labored for three months and brought forth old wine in bigger bottles. The speech contained not one single new idea or approach, nor offered any hint of new thinking about a conflict that everyone now agrees the United States is losing. Instead, the administration deliberated for 94 days to deliver essentially "more men, more money, try harder." It sounded ominously similar to Mikhail Gorbachev's "bloody wound" speech that led to a similar-sized, temporary Soviet troop surge in Afghanistan in 1986.

But the Soviet experience in Afghanistan isn't what everyone is comparing Obama's current predicament to; it's Vietnam. The president knows it, and part of his speech was a rebuttal of those comparisons. It was a valiant effort, but to no avail. Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again.

In his speech, the president offered three reasons why the two conflicts are different. And all are dead wrong. First, Obama noted that Afghanistan is being conducted by a "coalition" of 43 countries -- as if war by committee would magically change the outcome (a throwback to former President George W. Bush's "Iraq coalition" mathematics). The truth is, outside of a handful of countries, it's basically a coalition of pacifists. In fact, more foreign troops fought alongside the United States in Vietnam than are now actually fighting with Americans today. Only nine countries in today's 43-country coalition have more than 1,000 personnel there; nine others have 10 (yes, not even a dozen people) -- or fewer. And although Australia and New Zealand have sent a handful of excellent special operations troops to Afghanistan, only Britain, Canada, and France are providing significant forces willing to conduct conventional offensive military operations. That brings the coalition's combat-troop contribution to approximately 17,000. Most of the other 38 "partners" have strict rules prohibiting them from ever doing anything actually dangerous. Turkish troops, for example, never leave their firebase in Wardak province, according to U.S. personnel who monitor it.

In Vietnam, by contrast, there were six countries fighting with the United States. South Korea alone had three times more combat troops in that country (50,000) than the entire coalition has in Afghanistan today. The Philippines (10,500), Australia (7,600), New Zealand (500), Thailand (about 1,000), and Taiwan also had boots on the ground. So the idea that Afghanistan's coalition sets it apart doesn't hold water.

The president went on to assert that the Taliban are not popular in Afghanistan, whereas the Viet Cong represented a broadly popular nationalist movement with the support of a majority of the Vietnamese. But this is also wrong. Neither the Viet Cong then, nor the Taliban now, have ever enjoyed the popular support of more than 15 percent of the population, according to Daniel Ellsberg, the senior Pentagon official who courageously leaked the Pentagon Papers revealing the military's endemic deceit in the Vietnam War.

The president's final argument, that Afghanistan is different because Vietnam never attacked American soil, is a red herring. History is overflowing with examples of just causes that have gone down in defeat. To suggest that the two conflicts will have different outcomes because the U.S. cause in Afghanistan is just (whereas, presumably from the speech, the war in Vietnam was not) is simply specious. The courses and outcomes of wars are determined by strategy, not the justness of causes or the courage of troops.

The reality on the ground is that Afghanistan is Vietnam redux. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's regime is an utterly illegitimate, incompetent kleptocracy. The Afghan National Army (ANA) -- slotted to take over the conflict when the coalition pulls out -- will not even be able to feed itself in five years, much less turn back the mounting Taliban tide. The U.S. Center for Army Lessons Learned determined by statistical analysis that the ANA will never grow larger than 100,000 men because nearly 30 percent either desert or fail to re-enlist each year. The ANA is disproportionately Tajik, drug use is a major problem, all recruits are illiterate, and last month the ANA reached only half its modest recruiting goal despite 40 percent unemployment nationwide.  The American media, in its own regression to 1963, simply regurgitates Pentagon press releases that vastly inflate the actual size of the Afghan military, which is actually less than 60,000 men, just 32,000 of whom are combat troops.

The strategy's other component for dealing with the Taliban, "negotiating with moderates," is also ludicrous to anyone who is familiar with the insurgents. The Taliban are a virus. There is no one to negotiate with, and from their perspective, nothing to discuss. And the Taliban know they are winning. Meanwhile, commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan to secure the urban areas (rather than the rural countryside where the insurgency is actually metastasizing) is plagiarized from the famous never-written textbook, How to Lose a War in Afghanistan, authored jointly by Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union.

Most critically of all, Pakistan's reaction to Obama's speech was to order its top military intelligence service, the ISI, to immediately begin rebuilding and strengthening covert ties to the Afghan Taliban in anticipation of their eventual return to power, according to a highly placed Pakistani official. There will be no more genuine cooperation from Pakistan (if there ever was).

And that is why the United States is now headed for certain defeat in Afghanistan. Obama's new "strategy" is no strategy at all. It is a cynical and politically motivated rehash of Iraq policy: Toss in a few more troops, throw together something resembling local security forces, buy off the enemies, and get the hell out before it all blows up. Even the dimmest bulb listening to the president's speech could not have missed the obvious link between the withdrawal date for combat troops from Iraq (2010), the date for beginning troop reductions in Afghanistan (2011), and the domestic U.S. election cycle.

So we are faced with a conundrum. Obama is one of the most intelligent men ever to hold the U.S. presidency. But no intelligent person could really believe that adding 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, a country four times larger than Vietnam, for a year or two, following the same game plan that has resulted in dismal failure there for the past eight years, could possibly have any impact on the outcome of the conflict.

Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes used to say that "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The only conclusion one can reach from the president's speech, after eliminating the impossible, is that the administration has made a difficult but pragmatic decision: The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and the president's second term and progressive domestic agenda cannot be sacrificed to a lost cause the way that President Lyndon B. Johnson's was for Vietnam. The result of that calculation was what we heard on Dec. 1: platitudes about commitment and a just cause; historical amnesia; and a continuation of the exact same failed policies that got the United States into this mess back in 2001, concocted by the same ship of fools, many of whom are still providing remarkably bad advice to this administration. 

We believe the president knows perfectly well that Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again, both domestically and, as we wrote in Military Review this month, in Kabul and out in the Afghan hills, where good men are bleeding and dying. And he's seeking the same cynical exit strategy that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did in 1968: negotiating the best possible second-place position and a "decent interval" between withdrawal and collapse. In office less than a year, the Obama administration has already been seduced by the old beltway calculus that sometimes a little wrong must be done to get re-elected and achieve a greater good.

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