A Grassroots Visit Belies Washington’s View of Afghanistan

A Grassroots Visit Belies Washington’s View of Afghanistan

SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS 12/12/2009
By Michael Shank

Wrapping up a whirlwind tour in Afghanistan, I am overwhelmed with what I found and how far afield it is from Washington’s thinking.

Many congressional delegations come to Kabul but rarely experience on-the-ground realities. The way I could guarantee a raw look was to pay for the trip myself, staying not in the heavily guarded, foreigner-friendly Serena Hotel, but rather in a local inn with a lone guard.

With the blessing of my boss, Congressman Mike Honda, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Afghanistan Task Force, I went “local” on accommodations, clothing, transportation and conversation. What I found was a serious disconnect in three key areas: governance, development and security.

On help with governance, demand is there; supply is not. All government representatives I met with – ministers, parliamentarians and staff from the president’s office – are seeking assistance. But the U.S. call to President Hamid Karzai to quit corruption rings hollow, given our record of promoting good governance.

Meeting with Karzai’s spokesman, I heard a litany of frustrating anecdotes. The most unflattering: A 25-year-old communications graduate, funded by a U.S. contractor, was sent to train Karzai’s team even though he had never before traveled outside the United States and was completely unfamiliar with Afghan forms of communication.

Across Karzai’s ministries, there is a devastating trend. The government trains young Afghans to take leadership roles, only to have them leave for higher-paid positions with foreign contractors. If we want to help Afghanistan stand up, we must be mindful of the harm done by offering Afghans excessively high salaries so that jobs in their own government are unappealing.

On development, our efforts are bedeviled by poor implementation.

There is a bitter taste in Afghan mouths toward foreign contractors. Many shared stories of multimillion-dollar projects that got whittled away by contractors and subcontractors. When the overpriced project broke ground, a fraction of the funds benefited local Afghans.

For every foreign aid dollar entering Afghanistan, only 10 cents stays in the country — an underwhelming amount if you compare it, as Afghans do, with the cost of a U.S. soldier at $1 million a year. Just imagine that money spent on development.

On security, Americans and Afghans are becoming less secure, not more. Beyond the insufficient training of the Afghan army and police, there are two dangerous trends.

One involves the frequent U.S. raids and killing of civilians, which turn the civilian tide toward the Taliban protectorate. We are mistakenly tackling an ideological opponent with bombs instead of intelligence.

The other involves the disregard of former Afghan Taliban members who disarmed and want to reintegrate into society. In refusing to recognize their efforts to reform and reconcile, we keep them marginalized, further strengthening the opposition.

Former Taliban minister Moulavi Arsalan Rahmani cited for me the increasing vulnerability of his Afghan Taliban brothers. He said al-Qaida is casting an umbrella over the splintered Taliban groups throughout Central and South Asia, and the U.S. is pushing the Afghan Taliban closer to al-Qaida.

Rahmani offered to bring Afghan Taliban members to the table for negotiations. He suggests this could undermine al-Qaida by preventing them from gathering all Taliban members under their wing. This opportunity to divide and conquer, by negotiating with reformable Afghan Taliban, eludes Washington, which misses the complexity of the conflict.

Defense and development industries could do half the harm if they listened to what Afghans are saying. By doing so, and by attending to their requests, we could win their trust and acceptance, the keys to security in Afghanistan.

MICHAEL SHANK is communications director for U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, D-Campbell. This article reflects the author’s opinion and not that of the congressman.