The Washington Diplomat / August 2009
By Larry Luxner
Long before his inauguration half a year ago, President Barack Obama told the world that Afghanistan would be his top foreign policy priority. Less than a month after taking office, Obama authorized 21,000 troops to be sent to Afghanistan, bringing the total U.S. troop strength there to 57,000 today, and up to 68,000 by year’s end.
All of a sudden, everyone started remembering what pundits had called “the forgotten war.” That sharp new focus has turned Afghanistan’s Said Tayeb Jawad into one of the highest-profile ambassadors in Washington. These days, Jawad gives at least 20 media interviews a month — not counting numerous op-ed pieces in newspapers and magazines, and frequent speeches at think tanks and seminars.
The Washington Diplomat caught up last month with Jawad, Kabul’s top envoy in the United States, who said he’s busier than ever. “My job is to get the message out and confront some of the misunderstandings Americans have about Afghanistan,” he said. “Washington is a sophisticated city. This is not PR. It’s educating people about what’s going on.”
And Jawad has been busy with his education campaign — blasting the West for the “meager resources” given to the Afghan government, “underinvestment” in the national army, and “total negligence” in building the country’s police and judicial systems. He also rebuffed suggestions by U.S. officials that the administration set more “realistic” goals for Afghanistan, a country known for its resistance to foreign intervention.
“To suggest that Afghans do not deserve peace, pluralism and human rights is wrong and racist,” Jawad argued in a forceful speech he gave earlier this year at Harvard University.
Since then, the envoy has taken a cautiously optimistic tone in the wake of Obama’s renewed commitment to Afghanistan. “With the new administration in place, we had to renew all our contacts. The good news is that there’s a willingness to listen,” Jawad told The Diplomat over glasses of iced tea spiked with cardamom, as the embassy’s director of media relations, Martin Austermuhle, took notes.
“Today, Afghanistan is the number-one foreign priority of President Obama’s administration, because the situation in Iraq is improving. We are also fortunate that more than 40 countries have sent troops there to help in the peace process. And many countries are also contributing financially.”
Still, the world knows this is America’s war, and Jawad himself heaped praise on the American soldiers fighting in his country, calling them “the best-equipped troops and the most courageous” of the 100,000 or so military personnel currently in Afghanistan.
“The Americans go everywhere they’re needed. When they come in, they make a difference. They go after the bad guys,” he said. By comparison, “some of our NATO partners don’t have resources.” Without naming specific countries, Jawad complained that NATO troops in general must increase their fighting capabilities — and soon.
“They’re not doing patrols. They’re not doing anything to protect people’s lives. That’s why the Taliban are attacking,” he charged. “It undermines our perception of security.”
And establishing real security — more than seven years after the U.S. ouster of the Taliban following the 9/11 attacks — is exactly what Obama hopes to do by waging an entirely new strategy in Afghanistan. In addition to the troop buildup, there’s been a greater focus on reconstruction and economic development. Also key to winning the proverbial “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people is to keep those hearts beating, so there’s been a huge emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, says his soldiers aren’t out to kill, but rather clear areas and hold them — providing residents with lasting security. “The operations are not aimed at the enemy force. They are aimed at taking away the population from the enemy,” he recently told Time magazine.
Jawad praised Obama for not only “adopting a comprehensive new strategy” to confront some of Afghanistan’s most daunting security challenges, but also for setting up a powerful team that includes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser James L. Jones and Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The rapid collapse of the Taliban on the one hand, and the diversion of attention and resources to Iraq on the other, created a condition where many of the expectations of the Afghan people to live in a safe and secure Afghanistan were not met,” the ambassador told us, noting that comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq irritate him.
“We are working very hard to decouple Afghanistan from Iraq,” he said. “For one thing, the terrorist threat to the United States came from Afghanistan — not Iraq — and secondly, there’s a strong international consensus to help Afghanistan. Despite the challenges we face, this is a just war.”
A war that, for better or worse, Obama has inherited and staked much of his foreign policy reputation on, though Jawad is optimistic that “with the new administration, there’s a much better understanding of the magnitude of the problem — and a better plan in place to deal with it,” he said. “What we are seeing is a surge of military troops, but also a civilian surge that goes along with it, going into places around Kabul and southern Afghanistan to confront the terrorists.”
But the new strategy is sure to mean more deaths in the short term. As of press time, U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan totaled 664. In fact, July is shaping up as the deadliest month of the Afghan war for U.S.-led international forces. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell acknowledged that the United States is losing troops “at an alarming rate,” telling reporters that July has been “an extraordinarily difficult month for all of us who are so heavily invested in trying to better the situation in Afghanistan.”
Likewise, the number of British soldiers killed — 184, including eight in a 24-hour period in July — has become a major political issue in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, Britain’s army chief said more troops are needed in Afghanistan’s volatile southern province of Helmand as U.S. and NATO soldiers continue a bloody campaign to oust Taliban fighters ahead of presidential elections set for Aug. 20, in which President Hamid Karzai is expected to win re-election.
Jawad, 50, is the same age as his boss, Karzai. Prior to his appointment as ambassador in 2003, Jawad served as the president’s chief of staff, spokesman and press secretary. He was also director of the Office of International Relations at the presidential palace in Kabul.
Karzai’s man in Washington is fluent in English, German, French, Farsi and Pashto. In 1980, while studying law and political science at Kabul University, the Soviets invaded, and Jawad was forced into exile in Germany.
Since then, he said, Afghanistan has never been the same.
“If you look at Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, it was a peaceful, prosperous country, where women served in the cabinet. It was a destination for tourists. This war in the past 30 years is a new phenomenon,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is bring Afghanistan back to what it used to be. In some areas, such as the Afghan National Army, we’ve made significant progress. Today, Afghanistan is a very different country from what it was seven years ago. There’s a long road ahead of us. We must rebuild state institutions because we’re still facing a brutal enemy.”
He pointedly added that the world had a hand in creating this enemy. “Everybody nourished and financed extremism in order to provide an alternative to communism. Nobody really thought about what would happen once the Soviets were gone. In fact, the ones that received the most amount of money were the most extreme groups.”
In January 2002, after U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and root out al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the United States helped establish an interim administration with Karzai at its head. With strong backing from the Bush administration, Karzai won the 2004 presidential election and promised to bring peace to his country.
Yet the war has dragged on unabated. In Washington, there’s no shortage of opinions on how the Obama administration should confront the increasingly frustrating dilemma of how to win the war in Afghanistan — or what even constitutes victory in the troubled nation.
Fotini Christia and Michael Semple, writing in the July-August 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, contend that although sending more troops is necessary “to tip the balance of power against the insurgents,” Obama’s policy will succeed only if it is accompanied by a political “surge” that entails a committed effort to persuade large groups of Taliban fighters to put down their arms and give up the fight.
“So far, Afghan leaders and their U.S. backers have made only half-hearted, ill-funded and largely futile efforts to exploit the willingness of Taliban commanders to switch sides. Reconciliation with the Taliban has never been a sufficiently high priority for the Karzai government or Washington for either to put in place a coherent strategy encouraging defections from among the movement,” according to the article’s authors.
Jawad said the article’s conclusions are flawed, and that Karzai — who enjoyed almost unlimited support from Bush but is far less enthusiastically viewed by Obama’s people — is doing the best he can to defeat the Taliban by all means at his disposal, military and otherwise.
“Fortunately, Afghans know exactly what kind of misery, poverty and isolation the Taliban will bring,” Jawad told The Diplomat. “The reason they’re tolerated is that people aren’t assured of the ability of the international community and the Afghan government to protect them. If they behead a teacher, for example, of course all the other teachers will be reluctant to continue to teach.”
The ambassador has his own formula for dealing with the feared Taliban, dividing the Muslim fundamentalist group into roughly three sub-categories.
“The first group, about 10 percent of the entire Taliban army, are the hardcore, ideological Taliban who are affiliated with al-Qaeda and international terrorist groups. That affiliation goes back many years, when they were fighting together against the Soviets,” he explained. “These 10 percent are completely against human rights, education for women, anything that stands for Western society. The way to deal with them is through military means. They must be killed. There is no middle ground.”
A second group, comprising about 20 percent of the Taliban’s fighting force, are “people who have been recruited by the Taliban because they’re providing protection for drug traffickers, or recruited by the intelligence agencies of neighboring countries like Pakistan to serve political purposes,” and those who have been antagonized by NATO’s military operations in Afghanistan. “With this group, we can talk and negotiate,” Jawad said. “We can bring them over by removing the reasons for their antagonism.”
The remaining 70 percent, according to Jawad, are “paycheck Taliban — basically uneducated, ignorant young men who have been promised money or paradise, and have been sent to destroy their own country. With this group, there is no need for extensive negotiations.”
Such people, the ambassador said, should be offered jobs at decent wages — and hope for a better future. “So if the Taliban are offering $300 a month to kill people, you offer them a little more, say $350, to rebuild,” he said. “They are foot soldiers. Some of them have been brainwashed, but most are doing it because there are limited economic opportunities. Compared to the military expenditures, this is not a big deal.”
Since 2001, the United States has spent $173 billion on military expenditures in Afghanistan, with another $32 billion spent on reconstruction aid.
“In the recent bills related to financial assistance for Afghanistan, Congress in most cases provided more money than the Obama administration asked for,” said Jawad, quickly adding that “I don’t think this money is wasted. But more money should be invested in building the capacity of the Afghan police force. It’s our job to defend Afghanistan, and we are ready and willing to do it. What’s missing is resources. We need to pay these people adequately. If all we can pay a police officer is $30 a month, who’s going to show up?”
Another priority of both Afghanistan and the United States is to build up the Afghan National Army (ANA) from the current 79,000 soldiers to 122,000. Yet a new study by the Rand Corp. says the ANA is woefully under-funded.
“Finding a source of funding to pay the salaries of an additional 40,000 soldiers and to build the necessary infrastructure has not been a bright spot thus far,” the study contends. “Afghanistan’s GDP is only $11 billion, and the annual federal budget is $4 billion, much of which is foreign aid. Opium cultivation and trafficking constitute a large part of the country’s economic activity. Thus, the ability of the Afghans to provide the economic support and develop the infrastructure that the ANA requires remains an open question. It is likely that a continued international commitment will be necessary to ensure that the ANA and its infrastructure are sustained.”
The ANA isn’t the only Afghan institution facing a cash crunch. Jawad said his embassy on Wyoming Avenue is seriously “understaffed and under-budgeted” and that most of its lobbyists work on a pro bono basis. The mission’s annual budget is less than $1 million. “We need at least $3 million a year to operate,” he said, “but we don’t have it.”
Yet Jawad knows that with rising bipartisan frustration in the United States with the war effort and an ongoing economic downturn, money won’t be flowing freely. “There is pressure by Congress to show results quickly,” he acknowledged. “If we carry out the military operation now under way, we will see results — provided there isn’t a drastic deterioration of the situation in Pakistan.”
Jawad in fact says he’s convinced Osama bin Laden is no longer in Afghanistan but in neighboring Pakistan, and probably in a large city like Karachi. The aging terrorist and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks is suffering from kidney disease and is on dialysis, Jawad suggested, meaning he’d likely be detected if he were still living in a cave in the Afghan mountains.
While the elusive al-Qaeda leader’s whereabouts are unknown to all but a handful of Taliban fighters, Jawad said it’s much harder these days for lower-level Taliban warlords to escape into the mountainous tribal areas under Pakistani jurisdiction.
“Before, the hardcore Taliban were able to cross the border into Pakistan. But now we have a civilian government there, and they realize the dangers of supporting such groups. Pakistan realizes now that this wasn’t a wise policy. You cannot use extremism as a selective tool of foreign policy, because it will eventually endanger your own society.”
Afghanistan and Pakistan have made recent strides to jointly tackle Islamic militants operating in the lawless tribal areas along the country’s porous 1,600-mile border, which U.S. officials have described as the new frontline in its war against Islamic militants. On another positive note, Jawad — who returns home two or three times a year — said that foreign investment is rapidly growing in various areas of the economy from copper mines to telecommunications, insisting that life in Kabul is completely normal.
Well, almost normal. The increased troop presence is linked to a jump in the number of bombings and attacks on U.S. and NATO forces, including those in Kabul — which will be under even heavier security this month as Afghans go to the polls to elect their president on Aug. 20. Barring any last-minute surprises, Karzai will easily win re-election despite misgivings in the Obama administration about Karzai’s competence. A recent poll of 3,200 Afghans funded by the International Republican Institute — which receives U.S. government money — showed that 31 percent would vote for Karzai if the election were held today. That’s a sharp drop from the 55 percent of Afghans who elected him to office in 2004.
On the other hand, 69 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of Karzai, and 43 percent of likely voters said he deserves a second five-year term. Only 7 percent of voters said they’d vote for Karzai’s strongest rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. A third candidate, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, had even less support, at only 4 percent.
The United Nations is urging all candidates to campaign with dignity, and to avoid language that could incite violence. Its special representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has also asked government officials to avoid interfering with the election, and for all voters to take part in the polls because, as he said, this is about more than choosing Afghanistan’s next president.
“After years of conflict and developments that have not met Afghans’ expectations, it is important to strengthen peoples’ confidence in the democratic processes, and to strengthen Afghanistan’s democratic institutions,” said Eide. “It is about the legitimacy of leadership.”
And if Karzai takes over again as expected, he’ll have to prove his legitimacy beyond Kabul by influencing the tribal leaders who control vast swaths of the country while confronting endemic problems such as massive poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, corruption and a lucrative poppy industry that fuels narco-trafficking and terrorism.
But Jawad defends his president, noting that the government has succeeded in eradicating poppies from 23 of the country’s 32 provinces, leaving about 90 percent of poppy production in six Afghan provinces, all in the south, where most of the fighting is taking place.
He also often trots a list of statistics attesting to the accomplishments his war-torn nation has made in a span of just several years — as he did during his speech at Harvard University. “Today, 6.4 million children are going back to school, 36 percent of them girls. We have a democratically elected president and 28 percent of parliament is comprised of women. We have a vibrant and free media, with hundreds of private radio and TV stations. Schools and health clinics have been built with your assistance in far-flung villages that had never had them. Women have become elected officials such as senator and ministers; they are voters, students, teachers and entrepreneurs,” the ambassador told the Harvard students.
“I disagree with those that argue that being in Afghanistan is dangerous,” he added. “The fact is that, as we remember from the post-Cold War era, not being in Afghanistan is much more dangerous.."