Beyond Elections, Fixing the Afghan State

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the wake of the Afghan presidential elections, United States officials should help the country improve its governance, says Elizabeth Rubin in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for Rubin serves as Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. For the full interview, please visit the council's Web site. A few excerpts:

The first round of the Afghan presidential elections has just ended. There is extensive vote counting going on now, with President Hamid Karzai, widely seen as the favorite, and his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, as the leading contender. Does it matter who wins?

It does matter who wins. If Karzai wins, as we know from many reports, he has made a lot of deals with many unsavory characters and has promised a lot of cabinet positions to these people. He's also promised a lot of governorships. There are rumors that he has offered so many governorships that he will have to create new provinces. That is not a joke. That is a real possibility. So if he is to rule more effectively, he will have to disappoint these people and face the consequences or he is going to have to try to somehow turn them into legitimate players. Some U.S. officials think there is a way that old warlords can turn new tricks and become responsible members of society. Others in Afghanistan say that is impossible. They say that in Afghanistan, they rule by intimidation and by the gun and people are too afraid to stand up to them. That's what we can expect from Karzai.

Abdullah was Karzai's foreign minister until Karzai removed him. We don't know how he would rule. He's of a jihadi generation. He himself may not have been a warlord, but he is certainly connected to the same people Karzai is. So whoever wins, one of the things that the United States is going to have to do is make sure that the Afghan government is held responsible for every penny that it spends, something that it was not before.

Everyone writes, including you, that this has been a very corrupt country. Could you give an example?

When the minister of the interior was Zahar Ahmad Muqbil, who was removed last year, [the ministry's] chief administrator was selling police chief positions for $100,000. The reason why it was so lucrative to be a police chief was because of the kickbacks you could get in the provinces, and mostly from the drug trade. Any trucks that came through the highway in your province had to pay extortion. And there were other kinds of extortion, such as in land sales, in settling disputes, in releasing prisoners, etc. So being a police chief was a lucrative position. Another example is in the south, where people talk about Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai who runs the south like a Mafia don. In the early years, he was appointing his tribal allies as district governors and police chiefs. The reason was to ensure that power stayed in the family and because the drugs were being grown down south and moved through the south and therefore he was ensuring that his allies got a cut as it was moved along his roads and also that they got kickbacks for him.

In addition, their enemies, tribal rivals-anybody that was deemed as not cooperating-faced having information given to the coalition that they were Taliban or al-Qaeda and in the early years, it meant a lot of people being sent to prison, or roughed up by coalition troops, mostly American at that time. And that meant slowly but surely these people went to the other side. A lot of these tribes were completely alienated from the government and the Americans, and began cooperating with the Taliban.

President Obama made the statement the other day that the Afghan war was a "war of necessity." This has become something of a theological argument, whether the war is one of "choice" or "necessity." How important do you think the Afghan war is?

The United States has a moral responsibility to Afghanistan. We have been involved there for decades. In the 1980s we supplied thousands if not hundreds of thousands of tons of military equipment to the country. We gave millions and millions of dollars to Islamist extremists and killers. We did not support education, or people trying to build up the country and then we walked away and let the country devolve into civil war. A realist school of international relations would say we need to stay in Afghanistan to prevent another attack on the United States. I don't know if that is really true. I imagine with satellite imagery and Special Forces we could probably ensure that there is not a training camp on Afghan soil. It is more of a moral responsibility, which also has to do with international responsibility and relations. I don't know if that means we need to have 70,000 U.S. troops there. I am not sure they can accomplish that much. Everyone talks about this "clear and hold and build" policy of counter-insurgency. U.S. troops can't hold terrain because they can't be in the villages at night to ensure the Taliban doesn't come back; they can't live with the population. They can't assure them of anything. If anything, their presence encourages the Taliban to come in. It is a Catch 22 situation. I am not a military specialist, but I don't think a military solution is the best solution.

As Americans, we tend to be so reluctant to dominate a country, to be seen as occupiers. But given how much money we are spending in Afghanistan and how many lives we are putting at risk there, we have the right to demand that the Afghan government show how they spend every single penny. And we have a right to demand certain kinds of justice, so that Afghan people feel there is some hope and justice in their lives. Right now there is none. These things require a different kind of attention from the past. As I heard it, Bush didn't feel you should be involved in the day-to-day affairs of a country. We should learn how the country collects taxes, how it organizes its police. If we don't do that, nothing is going to change in that country.

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