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In Face of America's Longest War, Afghan Envoy Pleads for Patience
The Washington Diplomat / July 2011

By Larry Luxner

Moments before being sedated for surgery to repair a torn aorta last December, the late Richard Holbrooke told his Pakistani doctor, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, reportedly made the comment in jest. But that plea — which history will remember as the veteran diplomat’s dying wish — underscores the urgency of ending a conflict that has now raged for 10 years, killed more than 1,600 American soldiers and costs taxpayers an estimated $2 billion per week.

Eklil Hakimi, who deeply admired Holbrooke, is Kabul’s new ambassador in Washington. By coincidence, his Feb. 16 appointment by the Afghan Foreign Ministry was announced a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named retired U.S. diplomat Marc Grossman to replace Holbrooke as the State Department’s point man for Af-Pak affairs.

“It’s my job to explain — not only to our audience here in Washington, but also to the citizens of my country — that this is a long fight,” Hakimi told us. “It’s not one of those conventional wars where you have a clear definition of your enemy. The guerrilla war and the fight against terrorism is not something you can deal with overnight. It takes patience to explain to our citizens why it’s important to fight against terrorism. At the end of the day, it’s for the security of our citizens that we’re jointly fighting.”

Hakimi will also need plenty of patience in explaining the war to an increasingly restive American audience that’s grown tired and apathetic of the 10-year-old conflict — which recently surpassed the Vietnam War to become the longest war in U.S. history. The price tag for the war so far stands at more than $400 billion and counting, with just over $100 billion earmarked for 2012 — for a country with a gross domestic product of about $27 billion in 2010, a whopping 97 percent of which comes from foreign military and development funds.

With a re-election campaign coming up, the economy tanking and the war’s financial costs mounting, President Barack Obama is under intense pressure to bring the decade-long conflict to a close, especially after the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden. In a survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post the same day as the killing, 48 percent of respondents said the Obama administration should remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible; 47 percent said the forces should remain there until the situation has stabilized. That compares to a year ago, when 40 percent of respondents urged an immediate pullout.

“I know the American people are tired of war,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently told CNN. “But look, the reality is the United States had a very limited commitment in Afghanistan until well into 2008. And we didn’t have the right strategy and the right resources for this conflict.”

The reasons for that are well known — even Gates admitted that “we were diverted by Iraq, and we basically neglected Afghanistan for several years.”

As soon as it became obvious that President George W. Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished” in Iraq had fallen woefully short, Afghanistan quickly fell by the wayside. Today, many say Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a costly mistake that diverted attention from the real fight. Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge to refocus that fight back to the country from where the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks originated, and since taking office, he’s boosted the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan by around 65,000, including a surge of 30,000 troops in late 2009 — with an initial pullout slated for this month.

On June 22, Obama announced that of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops now serving in Afghanistan, 10,000 will be withdrawn by the end of this year, with the bulk of the 33,000 troops committed as part of the 2009 surge home by the end of next summer in 2012 — a steeper pullout than what Gen. David Petraeus and other senior Pentagon officials wanted.

As pundits analyze whether the drawdown is too much or too little, one thing is abundantly clear: U.S. officials are searching for an endgame to the nation-building endeavor in Afghanistan, where the definition of a “success” is constantly being recalibrated and scaled back — as Obama eschews his predecessor’s grander notions of fundamentally remaking the Afghan state in favor of more narrowly defined goals such as denying al-Qaeda a safe haven.

“We’re not trying to make Afghanistan a perfect place,” one senior administration official told the New York Times. As Obama himself put it in his June 22 address: “The tide of war is receding.” Yet it also seems the war is receding as an American priority.

Hakimi though says that despite the contentious debate over the U.S. troop presence, there is a clearly defined transition already in place for Afghanistan — and it must stay on track, especially given the tremendous sacrifices Americans have made for his country.

“The Afghan government, together with international coalition forces including the U.S., agreed at the summit in Lisbon last November to endorse the road map and a plan for the transition,” the ambassador said. “That transition will start in July 2011 and end sometime in 2014. This is something we agreed on.”

That transition is largely predicated on training some 350,000 Afghan security forces to take the lead by the end of 2014 and on the lofty assumption that the central government in Kabul can get its act together. Reconciliation talks with the Taliban — despite having sputtered for years — have re-emerged as part of the exit strategy as well.

In fact, Hakimi, 43, spoke with The Washington Diplomat the afternoon of June 17, just as the U.N. Security Council was voting to delink the Taliban from al-Qaeda — part of an effort to reach a political settlement with certain Taliban fighters. Following the unanimous adoption of Resolutions 1988 and 1989, which distinguishes between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the enforcement of a 1999 travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo, Susan Rice, U.S. envoy to the United Nations, said the creation of two separate sanctions blacklists “sends a clear message to the Taliban that there is a future for those who separate from al-Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by the Afghan constitution.”

The very next day, Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly confirmed for the first time what by then had already become common knowledge: that the United States has begun preliminary talks with Taliban insurgents.

But in that same speech to a youth conference at the presidential palace, the always unpredictable and at times erratic Karzai once again lashed out at U.S.-led NATO forces for ordering air strikes that have killed hundreds of innocent civilians — and using Afghanistan “for their own purposes.”

“The nations of the world which are here in our country are here for their own national interests,” he said. “It is just for their national interest that they put our lives under their feet and dishonor the people.”

The war is indeed becoming significantly more dangerous for Afghans, despite coalition attempts to minimize civilian casualties. In May, according to the United Nations, 368 non-combatants were killed — 82 percent of them by the Taliban and 12 percent at the hands of NATO forces. Reflecting similar trends, the United Nations said that 2,777 Afghan civilians lost their lives last year, the most since the war began, with insurgents responsible for about 75 percent of those deaths (which includes the recruitment of child suicide bombers, a relatively new development). Yet it’s the deaths caused by U.S. and NATO forces that attract the most attention — and anger.

In early May, Karzai bluntly warned that NATO must stop air attacks on Afghan civilians immediately, or face “unilateral action” from his government. “If they continue their attacks on our houses, then their presence will change from a force that is fighting against terrorism to a force that is fighting against the people of Afghanistan,” he declared. “And in that case, history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers.”

The outburst prompted an equally harsh response from America’s outgoing ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. “When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost — in terms of life and treasure — hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people,” Eikenberry said, “my people, in turn, are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.”

The weariness has been boiling over on both sides, but Hakimi, an amiable yet reserved diplomat, is not one to engage in heated rhetoric. A large portrait of Karzai hangs on the wall directly above his desk. The ambassador, who’s been on the job less than five months, hasn’t had much time to decorate his office. The only other items of interest are a framed award from a 2002 “achievement summit” in Dublin, and a map of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces made from the semi-precious blue stone lapis lazuli.

Asked what kind of relationship he has with his president, Hakimi simply said: “I represent his government. I’m in frequent contact with his office, and President Karzai is committed to a long-term partnership between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Because of that, we have initiated negotiations for a strategic partnership document that will define our future relationship.”

Nice words, yet when asked about Karzai’s increasingly antagonistic comments against the United States — which have infuriated many lawmakers on Capitol Hill — Hakimi painted a rosy picture of bilateral ties in the way only diplomats can do.

“We have a very good relationship, and we work with each other as strategic partners,” he insisted. “Here and there are some misconceptions and misunderstandings, but that’s part of my job, and my colleagues in Afghanistan, to clarify those misconceptions and bring about mutual understanding.”

Pressed to explain what he meant, Hakimi said that “between the two partners, on a day-to-day basis, sometimes you say something to your domestic audience that could be misinterpreted in the other capital. But as far as the bigger picture is concerned, we are partners in the fight against terrorism and in achieving the main objectives. You have more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and we are deeply grateful for all those young men and women in uniform who have sacrificed with their blood.”

In fact, American blood is flowing faster than ever.

In May, 56 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan compared to 51 the year before, while 51 other coalition troops lost their lives in April compared to 34 in April 2010. “The rising death toll has set off alarm bells within the American high command in Kabul, which is desperate to show that its strategy is working, and at the White House, where senior administration officials will soon make a decision about how many of the 30,000 ‘surge’ troops should begin withdrawing in July,” wrote Yochi J. Dreazen of National Journal.

“It is particularly alarming to many Pentagon officials,” he continued, “because senior military commanders had expected a high death toll in Afghanistan in 2010 — when the surge troops were fighting their way into Taliban-held areas of Kandahar and Helmand provinces — but believed that casualties would start to decline this year as NATO and Afghan forces expanded their control over the former insurgent strongholds.”

Hakimi offered his own take on this year’s rising body count.

“Recent casualties have been high, but this is because the enemy has suffered a lot. Gen. [David] Petraeus did a great job of putting pressure on them, and securing areas where we had problems before, mainly in southern and western Afghanistan. So the insurgents have diverted attention elsewhere and have intensified their violence. But according to military experts, even though there’s been some violence here and there, the overall security situation in Afghanistan in those two areas is improving.”

Hakimi though wouldn’t comment specifically on how many U.S. troops ought to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. “This should be based on realities on the ground,” he said. “It should be a bottom-up approach, meaning that commanders in the field can assess the situation better than we can. We need the view from military experts to assess the situation, and based on that, we can reduce troop levels.”

Outgoing Defense Secretary Gates has made it abundantly clear that he thinks the military needs time for its strategy to bear fruit and preserve the fragile gains the country has made. And despite the litany of bleak headlines, Afghanistan has made tangible progress. For example, more than 8 million children — nearly 40 percent of them girls — were enrolled in school this year, a seven-fold increase since the war began. In addition, the widespread attrition and illiteracy rates among army recruits have been slashed, and the U.S. troop surge has largely accomplished its stated goal of ousting Taliban insurgents from the strategic southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

National Journal’s James Kitfield says the argument put forth by Petraeus and Gates “that precipitous troop withdrawals will put those gains at risk, coupled with President Obama’s ‘err on the side of caution’ approach to Afghanistan at virtually every strategic inflection point of his presidency, strongly suggest that [Obama] will call for a relatively modest and gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces in the coming year of somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 troops.”

“Whatever decision [Obama] makes, we will have a significant number of troops remaining in Afghanistan,” Gates said in a June 19 interview with CNN, affirming that the United States had begun talks with the Taliban.

Yet not all of Afghanistan’s 30 million inhabitants are exactly thrilled about compromising with the Taliban, which imposed a strict version of Sharia Islamic law and was notorious for its barbaric treatment of women (stoning, acid attacks and mutilation were just a few of the repercussions women faced for defying the Taliban). Human Rights Watch says women living in areas where Taliban extremists have regained strength since being booted from power in 2001 now once again suffer intimidation, violence and death.

“Afghan women want an end to the conflict. But as the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban draws closer, many women fear that they may also pay a heavy price for peace,” warns the rights group in a 70-page report. “Reconciliation with the Taliban — a group synonymous with misogynous policies and the violent repression of women — raises serious concerns about the possible erosion of recently gained rights and freedoms.”

In fact, the very weekend that reports of Taliban negotiations were confirmed by U.S. and Afghan officials, a New York Times article pointed out that the well-financed government program to reintegrate former fighters has only lured a handful of midlevel commanders. At most, the article said, the program has attracted “only a fraction of the 20,000 to 40,000 Taliban insurgents, and many of the fighters who have taken advantage of the program may not even be Taliban, just men with weapons.”

Gates himself, speaking to CNN’s “State of the Union,” said it could be months before such talks yield results, if they even do so at all.

“Who really represents the Taliban?” he asked, highlighting the difficulty of locating members of the Taliban who could credibly speak for the group’s Pakistan-based leadership. “We have said all along that a political outcome is the way most of the wars end…. The question is when and if they are ready to talk seriously,” Gates added, cautioning yet again that drawing down too many troops too quickly could jeopardize any rapprochement.

Former Afghan diplomat Masood Aziz, who’s now with the Atlantic Council, says he has no doubt that “without a broad political reconciliation seeking full, genuine and legitimate representation for all, we will never have stability” in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. But he too sounds a loud note of caution.

“Let us not believe in the naïve notion that negotiation with the Taliban means handing Mullah Omar a position in the Afghan Cabinet or that money will buy loyalty from the Taliban,” said Aziz. “Instead, it should mean doing everything possible to endow the local authorities to have the ability to reach into the villages, allowing each district to have enough security so that they can form local jirgas, determine their own needs and seek partnerships with the authorities — assisted by international aid — to extract themselves from the yoke of poverty and insecurity, and from the coercion of the extremists.”

Hakimi, for his part, again counsels patience.

“This is one of those sophisticated wars that will continue for quite some time. Besides the military surge and the civilian surge, we have added this political surge into the overall strategy. Our aim is to open the doors and start negotiations with those insurgents and opposition armed forces who are willing to join a political settlement,” Hakimi explained.

“We agree to this with three conditions. Those who renounce violence, cut ties with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution are more than welcome to join the peace process. Once they accept this, they can be reintegrated into Afghan society.”

Hakimi, who spoke to The Diplomat following a lengthy interview with state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), is Afghanistan’s former envoy to both China and Japan.

The ambassador’s father is from Laghman province, and his mother from Kapisa province, both located northeast of Kabul. Hakimi — who is fluent in Dari and English, and well versed in Pashto, Urdu and French — received a master’s degree in engineering from the Kabul Polytechnic Institute in 1991, after which he joined his country’s foreign service. But when civil war broke out three years later, he fled with his family to California, settling in Orange County.

Hakimi returned to Afghanistan in 2002 and went on to become deputy foreign minister for political affairs after serving in Beijing and Tokyo. As such, he took a leading role in an ambitious project to link Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India by a 1,700-kilometer gas pipeline that has yet to be inaugurated.

Hakimi was sent to Washington to replace Said Tayeb Jawad, a former press spokesman and chief of staff to Karzai. Jawad, had served as Afghanistan’s eloquent, media-savvy ambassador for seven years — until his sudden dismissal last year following the appearance in Kabul of photographs of an alleged embassy gala for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, showing women in sleeveless outfits and liquor flowing freely. Jawad insisted the photos were doctored and that he was on an official trip to Latin America when the supposed party took place.

We asked Hakimi if his management style differs much from that of his high-profile predecessor, who has since joined the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. The diplomat thought for a minute.

“I’m not aggressive,” he finally said. “I’m very systematic and results-oriented. I want to do things gradually, but firmly. I don’t expose myself too much, especially to the media. I want to spend my time and resources on something I believe in, on something that at the end of the day could best serve the interests of my country.”

And chief among those priorities is the fight against terrorism.

Hakimi fondly recalled the day nearly two months ago, when Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s three-story complex near Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing the al-Qaeda leader instantly.

“That was a major milestone and a significant success for all of us,” said Hakimi, who learned the news through official channels but wasn’t surprised that bin Laden had been hiding out in Pakistan. “Eliminating a symbolic leader of terrorist groups made us more than happy, because we are the ones who suffered the most from what he did. Our president said very clearly that this was a happy day for the Afghan people.

“But let’s not forget we are fighting a very complicated terrorist network. Yesterday it was announced that al-Qaeda’s main command has named Ayman al-Zawahiri to replace him. That reminds us all that this network is still there. This war is crucial, and we must fight shoulder to shoulder to eliminate this threat.”

Equally crucial to eliminating that threat is Pakistan, Afghanistan’s unstable neighbor to the east, where the 9/11 terrorist mastermind had found refuge. That country’s rapidly deteriorating partnership with the United States took a turn for the worse after bin Laden’s killing — which the Pentagon conducted on Pakistani soil but without Islamabad’s permission (also see “Pakistan: Marriage of Convenience or Is U.S. Sleeping With an Enemy?” in the June 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Noting that “Afghanistan didn’t choose Pakistan as a neighbor,” Hakimi charged that the country’s mountainous tribal area is “a safe haven for terrorists who demolish our schools and kill our children.”

“We don’t have a choice. We have to deal with it,” he said, noting that after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, more than 4 million Afghans took refuge in Pakistan. “During the resistance, Pakistan played a crucial role, but after the Soviet withdrawal, everything totally changed. Ever since 9/11, we have been saying that the main cause of terrorism is within those safe havens.

“In Pakistan, there are questions about freedom of media,” he added of the acrimonious bilateral relationship. “If you talk about things the government doesn’t like, they shut down the system. You won’t find these kinds of restrictions in Afghanistan.”

Yet many U.S. policymakers now argue that the real terrorist threat emanates from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Even the late Holbrooke, in the musings he left behind to his wife, wrote: “A stable Afghanistan is not essential; a stable Pakistan is essential.”

As a result, some say America’s limited resources should be directed toward Pakistan, a Muslim-majority, largely secular nation that is home to a growing nuclear arsenal and whose government is being increasingly challenged by Islamic extremists.

Pakistan has received approximately $20 billion from the United States, mostly military assistance, since 2001. The tab of course for Afghanistan is far higher. The Pentagon is on track to spend $113 billion on its Afghan operations this fiscal year, and it is seeking $107 billion for the next.

“To many of the president’s civilian advisers, that price is too high given a wide federal budget gap that will require further cuts to domestic programs and increased deficit spending,” wrote Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post. “Growing doubts about the need for such a broad nation-building mission there in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death have only sharpened that view.”

In fact, it can cost upward of $500,000 to keep an American civilian employee or contractor in Afghanistan for one year — although that’s still a bargain compared to the $1 million a year each deployed service member costs.

Last year, Chandrasekaran noted, the United States spent nearly $1.3 billion on military and civilian reconstruction operations for 80,000 people living in one district of Helmand province. That’s as much as total U.S. military assistance to Egypt.

“It is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in early May.

A report compiled by Kerry’s committee and released in early June urged the administration to rethink its assistance strategy, arguing that poor planning and oversight have hampered the costly rebuilding effort in Afghanistan — at times flooding the country with money that it’s ill-equipped to manage.

The report suggested “a simple rule: Donors should not implement projects if Afghans cannot sustain them,” also debunking the theory that there’s always a correlation between insurgent attacks and traditional nation-building efforts such as combating poverty and education.

This “tidal wave of funding,” when not monitored, can also fuel waste and runaway corruption. In fact, some NATO officials have put the annual price tag of Afghanistan’s corruption at more than $12 billion, a mix of bribes, graft, stolen government revenue, pilfered foreign aid and black-market smuggling.

Yet Hakimi defended Afghanistan’s track record. “You can see corruption everywhere,” he said. “As a least-developed country, we admit that yes, there is corruption in Afghanistan. But making corruption some big issue is not the way to resolve it.”

In addition to corrupt local officials skimming their share of U.S. and foreign development money, Afghanistan’s democracy is still in its infancy and was marred in 2009 by Karzai’s election victory against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. There are also widespread problems within the country’s nascent army, including drug abuse, illiteracy and ethnic tensions, and despite the infusion of foreign funds, roughly 40 percent of Afghans remained mired in poverty.

On the flip side, that same congressional report warned that Afghanistan could tumble into a “severe economic depression when foreign troops leave,” while also citing examples of successful development projects.

“Let’s not forget that after 30 years of war and destruction, we have lost most of our infrastructure,” Hakimi pointed out. “Over the last 10 years, with the support of our partners, we have achieved a lot. We are not completely reliant on U.S. aid. We have enormous natural and human resources which we can explore one day. The support we need from our friends is that we should stand on our own feet, and get to the point of collecting our revenues and developing a dynamic economy.”

Hakimi, while acknowledging growing frustration with the war, said the NATO-led effort is gradually making progress in weeding out the Taliban — and urged Americans to be patient and keep the long-term perspective in mind.

“Because of our shared values, we have accepted a democratic system where our people can decide their own destiny. We are surrounded by countries whose people are thirsty for freedom. And the freedom of speech and religion we enjoy today, you can’t find in any of these countries — not in Iran, nor Uzbekistan, nor Tajikistan, nor Turkmenistan. And for sure you cannot find them in China,” he said.

“To the extent that I can, I try to reach out to key members of Congress to explain the overall situation in Afghanistan and about our progress. We try to explain what kind of role Afghanistan could play as a partner — not only in the fight against terror but as a permanent ally of the United States in the years to come.”

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