Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Time Has Come, the Walrus Said, to Talk of Many Things

Editor's Note: the following is a guest post from, Haley Gallagher. The views expressed are her own.
I doubt Lewis Carroll predicted when he published Through the Looking- Glass and What Alice Found There that it would have lessons as applicable today as they were to the late 1800’s. The message that resonated yesterday from Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress (CAP) was that it’s time to move beyond the rhetorical debate about U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and seize the opportunity to engage in a broad and serious discussion.

CAP hosted an event, “Assessing the Afghan Election” yesterday and had a panel of experts (Jackie Northam, Eric Bjornlund and Brian Katulis) analyze the current situation in Afghanistan as well as suggest recommendations moving forward. Sadly, positive accolades given by the Obama Administration for the success of the elections in Afghanistan on August 20th are not being echoed in other news publications. Turnout was not as high as expected due to various reasons highlighted by the panel including voter intimidation by the Taliban specifically in the South, heightened security, general apathy, and a sense of defeatism that neither candidate was a good option. Ms. Northam informed the audience that there was hope turnout would increase over the course of the day, but this was not the case. She never saw lines of more than 6-8 people coming out to vote in the streets of Kabul, one of the more heavily protected areas.

Mr. Bjornlund, with Democracy International, admitted that the security situation in Afghanistan made the elections very difficult to observe. Additionally, while this was the first time observers joined provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), it was extremely challenging to observe in rural areas. He echoed Ms. Northam’s sentiment that the climate influenced a lack of voter turnout. Furthermore, gauging an accurate percentage of voter turnout is nearly impossible to measure given that the amount of voters is uncertain. While an independent election commission exists to deal with allegations of voter fraud and electoral complaints, there is speculation over what the commission expects to do—or can do— with complaints once they’re registered.

Katulis painted an even grimmer picture stating that we can expect more violence to ensure in the days to come with potential increases in Taliban threats as well as candidates refusing to accept results. However, the time is crucial and the U.S. should seize the moment to engage in a serious policy debate about Afghanistan and determine how to ensure cooperation moving forward. He outlined three points: 1) It’s not too early to think about how to advance power sharing, 2) It’s extremely important for the U.S. to put pressure on Afghan leaders, who emerge from the election, to focus on anti-corruption, counter-narcotics and governance, and 3) The U.S. should be concerned about the lack of clear goals and objectives in Afghanistan.

The U.S. should demand a commitment from Afghan leaders to agree to power-sharing and working from the ground up to uproot the systems that have plagued Afghanistan for years. Moreover, we’ve been hearing the same thing about Afghanistan over the past two years which is endemic of a Groundhog Day effect. Katulis cautioned against using misleading words such as victory, win and success to describe the situation in Afghanistan. He also claimed that he has yet to hear a cogent case for more troops.

Another great point from the panel was that if the U.S. starts to look like an occupation, Afghanistan will reassert its sovereignty. Currently we lack a strong U.S. framework for a strategy in Afghanistan. While General Stanley McChrystal is expected to deliver this soon, there are questions regarding strength of the strategy. We cannot insert a U.S. model into Afghanistan and expect it to be a recipe for success. The U.S. tried before to impose the idea of a strong central government in Afghanistan and given the complexity of the society this will not work. Government must come from the ground up and include all of the right players in order to establish credibility and legitimacy. The dialogue needs to continue on a more serious level before opportunities are lost.

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