Just Back from Afghanistan

We visited two cities in Afghanistan, Kabul and Kandahar, near the Pakistani border. What a mess. No one can make sense of Afghanistan because it doesn't really make sense.
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I wrote this two days ago, but wasn't able to post it until now. I am now back home in Colorado:


We just landed in United Arab Emirates. Sorry I've been slow to reply on my Iraq posts, but it was because I was in Afghanistan the last two and half days. I wasn't allowed to announce it ahead of time but now that I am back on "friendly" soil I can share my experiences as part of a Congressional Delegation visit to Afghanistan.

We visited two cities in Afghanistan, Kabul the capital and Kandahar in the south near the Pakistani border. What a mess. What another world. No one can make sense of Afghanistan because it doesn't really make sense.

We hardly glimpsed the real Afghanistan. Through the bullet-proof windows of our van, we saw a few children playing, women in Burkhas, and men going about their daily business as we drove from the airport to the Embassy, but our briefings were all in military bases or government buildings.

I grew up loving Afghan food. My parents befriended an Afghan immigrant in the early 1980s in San Diego. My parents gave him our old pots when he started an Afghani restaurant in the area. Later, he opened an Afghan import shop next door to the restaurant and it was a special treat as kids when we would go there and I could pick out some little Afghani trinket in addition to having a delicious meal. A few years ago he moved his restaurant to one of the most posh areas of San Diego and it has been great to watch his success.

On this trip to Afghanistan, unfortunately not a single bite of Afghan food passed our lips. We stayed on the military bases and embassy compound, ate in cafeterias, and the only Afghani we even met with was the Minister of the Interior.

Thus, despite traveling thousands of miles and visiting the country itself, my context and understanding of Afghanistan is pretty much the same as the average American's--based on the same information that the Obama administration and US military have given us in making their decisions. If I had a few weeks I would love to really try to get to know some Afghans.

Despite our short stay and limited exposure, it was a great opportunity to learn from our generals, NGOs, and diplomatic officials as well as leaders of the Afghan government.

No one has any idea how many people live in Afghanistan. Intelligence estimates range from 22 to 32 million people. There has been no census since 1959. The Ministry of Education has no idea how many kids are in schools. Most likely more than 75 percent of the population is under 30 years old and has only known civil war their entire lives. 25 is considered middle-aged there because the average lifespan is only 46 years. One American soldier charged with working with local groups told me that when he arrived in a remote village he was assumed to be Russian because they hadn't heard that the Russians had quit Afghanistan (in 1989!). This is the kind of information gap we are talking about.

It is generally believed by us that the Taliban is not popular here. Whatever a poll means in this social context, apparently 80-90 percent of Afghans do not want the return of the Taliban.President Obama has articulated a clear strategy for our presence in Afghanistan, which has been long awaited and is much appreciated by both the Afghans and our military: "Defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and prevent their return to either country in the future."

First of all, I commend Obama for not only articulating a strategy that is both concise and (in my opinion) correct. The reason that we have "chosen" Afghanistan is that it provides sanctuary to those who perpetrated 9/11 and still scheme to do our nation harm. With this new clear mission, however, I fear that our current tactics are not mapped correctly to our strategy.

The first aspect of our new tactics--a diplomatic surge--is indeed well suited to our goals. Not only do we have a senior Special Envoy to the region in the form of Richard Holbrooke, but we have an extremely capable Ambassador in Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, a former 4-star general, and we also have Deputy Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., who himself would be a senior Ambassador at any other post (he recently completed four years as Ambassador in Cairo).

We need all the high-level diplomatic support we can to master the diplomatic complexities of fighting against an enemy holed up in two countries, as well as navigating the complex regional politics. Iran, for instance, a generally a hostile nation that is currently attempting to develop nuclear arms, is helping with redevelopment in western Afghanistan even though we don't have direct dialog with them regarding it. This is the just the tip of the iceberg of the vast complexities our new diplomatic team will face, and I'm thrilled that we have a top-notch team that is ready and up to the challenge.

The second part of our new tactics--a military surge (more troops)--includes a renewed focus on the building effort. Building wells, schools, and promoting economic development are all nice things, but if the goal is merely to "do good and help people" we could probably bring Africa or Latin America ten times as far along with the same resources than Afghanistan. The real battle in Afghanistan and Pakistan is against Al Qaeda and we should gauge our actions with that in mind.

Our best estimates show there to be no more than 5,000 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Geographically, they operate out of the Pashtun areas in the south and east of Afghanistan and on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. The Pashtun tribe constitutes about 40 percent of the population of Afghanistan and is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai is Pashtun, and there is a tradition of Pashtun leadership of the nation. Do we really need to occupy an entire country of around 30 million people to root out 5,000 enemies?

Unlike Iraq, there is no definitive time frame for our operations in Afghanistan to succeed. The general consensus of our military, NGOs, and diplomats is that "our mission" will take at least ten years and but probably more like a generation. Our international coalition is trying to advance Afghanistan from feudalism, through the industrial revolution, and into the information age--in just one generation. That's a tough challenge even if you're not battling terrorists at the same time.

I harbor a deep degree of ambivalence about the military surge. The diplomatic surge is good, increasing our covert ops and intelligence abilities focused on Al Qaeda is good, but adding tens of thousands of American troops for years doesn't necessarily get us closer to defeating Al Qaeda.

I don't see how the new troop surge follows from Obama's announced policy. We should engage "the enemy" (Al Qaeda and their Taliban hosts) in the south and east of Afghanistan and the Pakistani border.

The only actual Afghan we spent significant time with was the Secretary of the Interior. He had one fake leg, having lost the other fighting with the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan. He was trained in Moscow, married to a Bosnian, and spoke fluent English. Extremely charming, if a little slick, he told us exactly what we want to hear on all counts.

While I was warned not to be biased to like officials just because their English is good and they are charismatic, this minister has received excellent marks so far from the US. He impressed me as a CEO would and sounded like an MBA.

His two biggest challenges are understaffing and corruption. To put things in perspective, most officers aren't literate, a requirement to be promoted to Sergeant. It's hard to imagine police officers who aren't literate, but that is to be expected in this nation. He told us that the ratio of police in Afghanistan 1.3 per thousand, far less than in major western cities, where it us usually around 4 per thousand. To retain staff, the minister is working on institutional reform and figuring how to better train and pay the police force.

The minister's other major challenge is corruption. Afghanistan produces a lot of opium, and the money generated from this illicit trade is used to buy politicians and police, as well as fund terrorist organizations. Rather than poppies, the US is trying to get Afghanistan to grow pomegranates (good luck). The minister is focused on building the institution of the police, which is a lot more than just training. Of the three players in Afghan security--the army, the intelligence force, and the police--the minister bemoans the fact that the police are the last to be built up by the allies.

In addition to our briefings from generals in Kandahar and Kabul, we got to spend an hour with troops from our home states in Kabul, and it was fun to visit with four young soldiers--two Air Force, two Army--from Colorado who signed up to meet me. I am happy to report that the troops are well fed, lodging conditions are decent, and safety is pretty good. In fact, one of their biggest complaints is that the military is taking too many precautions about their safety. For instance, one of the soldiers from Colorado trains police officers. He, along with other Americans and members of the international force, mentors Afghani police officers, usually 1 on 1. Mentor and mentee spend all day together, teaching and learning the importance of professionalism, service, and the many skills they need to succeed. This young man was invited by his mentee to dinner to meet his wife and kids. The military prohibits this kind of activity for security reasons, even though it would help build lasting bonds.

While the US government and military leaders have nothing but his safety in mind, I do sympathize with the soldier. I wish that we had more freedom on our Congressional Delegation trip (CODEL) and could have interacted with actual Afghanis, the men and women outside the bases and embassy walls. The only time we even went through the "real Afghanistan" was as we were being ferried between military bases with inches of bullet proof glass separating us from reality. I never even smelled the scents of the stores and shops we passed. I would have gladly taken on a reasonable level of risk to make the overall experience more useful and informative, but was prohibited from doing so. Maybe there is some way to empower individual solders to make these kinds of decisions subject to some ground rules. I would go stir crazy if, like these soldiers, I was living in a place for a year and could never go out and see the real country and get to know the people I'm working with during the day! Surely these kinds of interactions and relationships could further our cause of defeating terrorism.

One final note about our military is that they are an incredible and impressive fighting force. These men and women are consummate professionals and part of an expert military machine; I am amazed anyone would want to go up against our troops. And yet Mulla Omar, Osama Bin Laden, Zakari, and other terrorists are all still at large, along the Pakistani/Afghan border. I'm not sure that our occupation of Afghanistan will help bring them to justice, but our efforts along the Afghani/Pakistani border hopefully will, and I think it's only a matter of time until we find them and prevent Al Qaeda from taking innocent lives again.

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