Congressman Rohrabacher on Afghanistan: Start Drawdown Now

Afghan expatriate and renowned humanitarian Hasan Nouri has led a quixotic effort to change U.S. Afghanistan policy for years because his solution doesn't fit neatly into Westernized state-building paradigms. Hasan and the group he chairs, the New World Strategies Coalition (NWSC), advocate a bottom-up approach to rebuild Afghanistan that is not politically palatable because it calls for the U.S. to cease meddling in Afghanistan's affairs - both politically and militarily.

It's been challenging for Mr. Nouri to find any Westerner, let alone an American politician, who truly understands the root cause of the chaos in Afghanistan and is willing to try his remedy. But, as he arranged my exclusive phone interview with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California last week, Mr. Nouri said to me with a hint of excitement and relief in his voice: "Dana gets it."

At surface, it's somewhat surprising a staunch Republican like Mr. Rohrabacher would back such a dovish and culturally-sensitive plan that calls for pulling troops from Afghanistan and opposes imposing Jeffersonian democracy on the Afghan people. Nobody has ever accused Rohrabacher, a Republican member of the House since 1989, of being a bleeding-heart liberal - if anything, he's the conservative's conservative.

Before joining the House he served as a Special Assistant to President Reagan and was one of Reagan's senior speechwriters for seven years. Rohrabacher played a pivotal role in the formulation of the Reagan Doctrine, a Cold War strategy to "rollback" Communist expansion by supporting resistance movements. The doctrine was most famously exemplified by the U.S. heavily funding and supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. And Dana is not just some theoretician or policy wonk - he didn't simply help write the Reagan doctrine - he helped implement it, according to a recent Mother Jones article:

In 1988, shortly after winning his first term in Congress, Dana Rohrabacher dabbled briefly in another vocation--freedom fighter. With Afghanistan's anti-Soviet insurgency a cause celebre for conservatives, he traveled to the front lines. Sporting a thick beard and traditional Afghan attire, the congressman-elect joined up with a rebel infantry unit whose mission included laying siege to a Soviet position.

After our discussion, it seemed clear that to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher there are three underlying evils at work in Afghanistan that must be addressed: centralization, U.S. military involvement and Hamid Karzai.

MICHAEL HUGHES: The New World Strategies Coalition (NWSC) wants to develop and implement bottom-up solutions to provide education, infrastructure and economic development at the tribal level in Afghanistan. What are your thoughts on this approach?

CONGRESSMAN ROHRABACHER: A bottom-up rather than a top-down approach is a prerequisite for success in Afghanistan. So many people acknowledge this but no one follows through. It is very difficult to move forward because the powers that are profiting at the central level in Afghanistan are resistant to change.

MICHAEL HUGHES: In light of a recent report from the International Crisis Group that paints a bleak picture of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANFS), do you think it is wise for the U.S. to continue funding this group - or are we throwing good money after bad?

CONGRESSMAN ROHRABACHER: It's a matter of emphasis. No one is advocating not having central or national security forces. However, we must emphasize security at the local levels - such as tribal, regional and provincial forces. By focusing too heavily on the central security solution we are putting all of our eggs in one basket - and that one basket is against Afghanistan's culture and society.

No one has been able to completely centralize the military and rule Afghanistan from the capital. We're not advocating ignoring building a national army, but we must focus on more efficient ways to bring stability to the country, which is primarily by building a reliable militia system with provincial leaders in cooperation with national forces.

MICHAEL HUGHES: In a previous article I mentioned that Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post suggested that Zalmay Khalilzad could be a "healing power" for Karzai because he did such a "bang up job" the first time around in supporting Karzai and establishing the transitional government. What is your take?

CONGRESSMAN ROHRABACHER: If Zalmay did such a "bang up job" why is everything in total disarray? He did not set the country on a course for stability and prosperity. He oversaw the establishment of a government that was unable to function in Afghan society. And on top of that he browbeat people into accepting Karzai. He even browbeat the ex-King of Afghanistan Zahir Shah into accepting him.

Khalilzad was not in the anti-Taliban camp in the 1990s, so why the hell would we bring him in now? By forcing Karzai into office, Khalilzad snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory because the Taliban were beaten at that point.

The selection of Karzai is another case of the U.S. government forcing a notable personality on a country in hopes that person can unify it. The selection was all personality-based - someone who looks good to the State Department. And it was forced instead of setting up a freer and more competitive political environment. Karzai is the equivalent of Diem in Vietnam or Marcos in the Philippines.

MICHAEL HUGHES: Are you optimistic that Karzai can deliver services and governance for his people while cracking down on corruption?

CONGRESSMAN ROHRABACHER: Nobody can provide services from using a completely centralized approach. Whenever you centralize too much power there will be more and more corruption. To fix corruption the government must be de-centralized. We need to focus at the tribal, village, city and provincial levels.

Again, Karzai's mannerisms were very pleasing to Westerners, but not very pleasing to Afghans. He did not have a political base at the local level whatsoever.

Zahir Shah was the king of Afghanistan for 40 years and was successful because he didn't try to rule the entire country from Kabul. The King had a mandate from God- but he still let the people rule themselves locally.

MICHAEL HUGHES: President Obama indicated the U.S. would support Karzai's reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. Do you think it's a good idea to try and negotiate with the Taliban at this point - even the "moderate" elements?

CONGRESSMAN ROHRABACHER: First of all, we drove people into the hands of the Taliban by sending foreign troops into their country. We shouldn't incorporate radical Muslims into the central government. A better approach would be to up the ante by paying off tribal leaders to win back those that joined the Taliban in the first place - it's a lot cheaper and it's easier to do that.

MICHAEL HUGHES: If we refocus efforts and everyone agrees with your solution, how long would the U.S. military remain in Afghanistan at current levels?

CONGRESSMAN ROHRABACHER: Within a year we should start drawing down - if we do it the right way we can start drawing down right now, because it does not take a large number of U.S. troops to execute the strategy of buying militia leaders and building alliances in the villages.

However, there is a price. I am a major supporter of human rights - especially women's rights, but in order to buy support at the local levels, the downside is we can't just overthrow their current cultural and societal norms and push Western values on them.