Nation & World

‘Is Afghanistan Lost?’

4 min read

Panelists ask for clarity in U.S. policy

“When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

At a panel discussion Monday at the Harvard Kennedy School, Maleeha Lodhi evoked Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat to describe the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

The title of the event that Lodhi, formerly the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and currently a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, was taking part in was, “Is Afghanistan Lost?” Neither she nor any of her fellow panelists answered that exact question in the affirmative. But they each made a strong case that American policy has lost its way in Afghanistan.

“The war is going on almost on autopilot” is how another panelist, Barnett Rubin of the Center for International Conflict at New York University, put it. “The U.S. and NATO have, I would say, lost sight of their original objectives.”

Moreover, the international presence in Afghanistan, from which Rubin has just returned in recent weeks, is undercutting the country as a sovereign state — not least because of the way visiting foreigners provide for their own security. They turn to private contractors like Blackwater, that in turn subcontract with former warlords now active as security guards for hire. The subcontractors end up with more money, prestige, and firepower than the official Afghan national forces. This is true not only in the case of the U.S. military, Rubin said, drawing chuckles from his audience with a reference to the “Soprano-like figure” who heads the team protecting the Bagram Air Base. It’s true of aid organizations as well.

People of the region are very confused about what the United States is trying to do in Afghanistan, Rubin said. In a part of the world already susceptible to conspiracy theories, this has fed rumors. “Our stated goals are not at all consistent with what we’re actually doing, and, therefore, people think there must be a secret plan.”

The war in Afghanistan, Ambassador Lodhi said, “was not a war fought with any strategy. It was a war of emotion — to avenge the Sept. 11 terror attacks.” What’s needed is “not tweaking but a radical change of policy,” because “the situation has gone way beyond tweaking.”

Lodhi called for the redefining of policy goals in Afghanistan, and for a recognition that the strategy there needs to be more regional. “The stabilization of Afghanistan can’t be allowed to lead to the destabilization of Pakistan,” she said.

She also stressed that the importance of addressing “the trust deficit” between the United States and Pakistan. “Only at the leadership level is there trust.” She also called for “a break from this pernicious legacy of treating Pakistan as hired help instead of a valued partner.”

In his presentation, Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” reminded his listeners that U.S. policy in Afghanistan is due for a “reset,” not only because of the new Obama administration but because of the expected change of leadership of Centcom, the Defense Department’s command in charge of Southwest Asia, as well as an upcoming review by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This, said Coll, should lead to an actual written strategy document for Afghanistan, which would be a change from the status quo. “That may sound facetious, but the U.S. doesn’t have a joint operating plan.” He contrasted the situation with that of Iraq, where there is, he said, an 800-page joint operating plan. “Everyone more or less is singing from the same hymnal.”

The fourth panelist was Mark Garlasco, senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch, who raised the issue of “collateral damage” — civilian casualties — in Afghanistan as a result of the Western forces’ overreliance on air power. Though he stressed that “the opposition” in Afghanistan is the main killer of civilians there, and that Western forces strive to adhere to the Geneva Conventions, civilian casualties due to air power tripled last year over the year before.

This is in part because Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. counterterror operation, shares the battle space with the NATO operations in Afghanistan, but the two forces have completely different rules of engagement. “Black teams” from the CIA do not communicate with NATO, Garlasco said. Moreover, an “anticipatory self-defense clause” allows U.S. forces to call in airstrikes at a much lower threshold than the NATO forces.

The discussion, before a capacity crowd in the Malkin Penthouse at the Kennedy School, was moderated by Samantha Power, Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, who referred to the panelists as “a dream team” of expertise.