THE NATION 12/05/09
By Michael Shank

Returning to Washington this week, after a whirlwind tour in Afghanistan, I am dizzy, not from delight but from the overwhelming disconnect between rhetoric stateside and reality Asia-side. Thankfully, my boss, Congressman Michael Honda, chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Afghanistan Taskforce, is trying to penetrate this rhetoric and advocate that reality. But it is not an easy job, especially in a town where sound bites often usurp sound analysis. This week, as I drafted talking points for the Congressman in preparation for an interview with the Wall Street Journal, I stumbled, not on words but on emotion. What I had just experienced in Afghanistan was so far afield from the Washington majority thought that I found the moment simultaneously disabling and empowering–both of which stem from feeling like a lone voice on a complex conflict. This returner’s culture shock was not a result of neophyte globetrotting as I’ve worked in conflict zones throughout the Middle East and Asia; it stemmed from a deep disappointment with how Washington is disconnected from the reality on the ground.

Perhaps I should not be surprised. Many member and staff delegations come to Kabul with a careful creation of a particular perspective and rarely experience a raw treatment of ground realities unescorted and uncensored. Admittedly, for places like Afghanistan, security threats are pervasive enough that flak-jackets and armored vehicles are assumed necessary and delegations require it. For me, the only way I could guarantee a raw look was to travel alone, staying not in the heavily guarded, foreigner-friendly Serena Hotel in Kabul, but rather in a local inn with a lone security guard and a rickety fence, both of which were ill-equipped to prevent serious attack. I went “local” on all fronts, accommodations, clothing, transportation and conversation, and what I found was a serious disconnect in three key areas–governance, development and security. Hekmat Karzai, one of Kabul’s brightest new leaders, reaffirmed this thinking, citing clear gaps in all three categories.

First, when it comes to good governance in Afghanistan, even if we are not formally committing ourselves to nation-building, we have some serious improvements to make. Demand by Afghans is there, but supply by Americans is not. All government representatives I met with–ministers, parliamentarians, ambassadors and the president’s office–are desperately seeking assistance. Our call to Karzai to quit corruption and lead the country rings hollow given past precedent in terms of capacity building. Take, for example, my conversation with the president’s spokesman, a gentle-spoken man in his early 50s. I received a litany of frustrating anecdotes regarding foreign-funded capacity building. The most unflattering: A 25-year-old communications graduate, funded by a US private contractor, who’d never traveled outside the United States, sent to build capacity within Karzai’s communications team, while completely unfamiliar with traditional Afghan forms of communications.

Yet, even this mishap, which happened several times with other foreign communicators, wasn’t his primary frustration. What pained him most was that he witnessed across all of Karzai’s ministries a devastating trend: the Afghan government would train young Afghans to take over leadership positions, only to have them leave for substantially higher paid positions with foreign contractors or international organizations. Karzai’s key communicator pleaded with me: If we want to build capacity in Afghanistan, the international community must be mindful of the harm we do by incentivizing Afghans with excessively higher salaries so that government jobs remain unappealing.

Second, our development efforts are bedeviled not by bad intention but by poor implementation. There is a bitter taste in the Afghan mouth towards foreign aid contractors. For every one good American, said a source, Afghans can identify 100 Americans they don’t like. There is where the rhetoric-reality discrepancy is most disconcerting. If you ask most State and Defense officials, they will stand by their provincial reconstruction teams. And yet, several Afghans quickly shared similar stories of multimillion-dollar development projects that got whittled away by multiple participating contractors and subcontractors. By the time the overpriced project broke ground, a mere fraction of the funds benefited local Afghans, ostensibly the constituency the project intended to serve. For every foreign aid dollar entering Afghanistan, only $0.10 stays in the country–an underwhelming amount if you compare it, as Afghans do, with the cost of a US solider at $1 million a year. Just imagine how that money could be spent on development.

Frankly, some of the only effective foreign development forces I encountered in the country were (1) the Aga Khan Foundation, which maintains a “no-security-personnel, no-armored-vehicle” policy and depends on community legitimacy, trust and acceptance for its security, and (2) Al Geiser, a fluent Dari speaker from my Mennonite hometown in Ohio, who has been working throughout Afghanistan for the last ten years building turbines for hydro power plants with funding from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Al is building turbines capable of generating 500kw, enough to power an entire village or two–the only turbines of that size produced by Afghans. Every other turbine of equal or greater size is produced entirely by foreigners. But what testified most tellingly to their tacit commitment to helping Afghans: Aga Khan’s salaries are roughly a third or half of UN workers, while Al’s living quarter is the humble apartment shared with his Afghan business partner’s seven-member family.

Thirdly, Americans and Afghans are becoming less secure with the policies presently in place. These policies are increasing, not decreasing, threats. Beyond the mere fact we are simply not training Afghan army and police to help Karzai govern effectively, there are two dangerous trends at stake in tackling threats. One involves the frequent, albeit unintentional, raiding and killing of civilians, which turns the civilian tide in favor of the Taliban protectorate. We are tackling an ideological opponent with bombs rather than with intelligence. The other, perhaps even more dangerous and unsustainable, involves the disregard of former Taliban, who have disarmed and desire reintegration into society. This makes political security and stability an untenable goal.

Former Taliban government minister Moulavi Arsalan Rahmani cited for me the increasing vulnerability of his Afghan Talib brothers, saying that Al Qaeda is keen to cast an umbrella over the various splintered Taliban groups throughout Central and South Asia and that the US is pushing the Afghan Taliban ever closer to Al Qaeda. Rahmani offered up his Afghan Taliban brethren for negotiations, suggesting that this was one way of undermining Al Qaeda, by preventing them from gathering all the various Talib under its wing. This opportunity to divide and conquer through diplomatic means seems to elude Washington, which is wrapped up in an enemy narrative that misses the complexity of conflict and the opportunity therein to prevent additional violence.

Washington defense and development industries could do half the harm if we listened to what Afghans are telling us, in all sectors, governance, development and security. That would require a listening tour, an effort, which if managed properly, would manifest much community legitimacy, trust and acceptance, the keys to security and stability in Afghanistan. A big ask, perhaps, for a town where that tack is atypical, but the only way we’ll win the hearts and minds of an increasingly alienated Afghanistan.

Michael Shank is the communications director for US Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA). This article reflects the individual opinion of the author and not the Office of Congressman Honda