Afghan elections need credible candidates – Minister Jalali
By Rana Fawad
Posted April 4, 2009
WASHINGTON: Without a credible alternative block of candidates in Afghanistan, the voters will have hard time in believing elections were fair.
This was remarked by former Interior Minister of Afghanistan Ali Jalali during a discussion titled ‘A New Way Forward in Afghanistan’ held at the Center for American Progress on Friday. Other panelists included Dr. Frederick W. Kagan (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute), and Fred Kaplan (“War Stories” columnist, Slate Magazine).
Lawrence Korb (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress) moderated the proceedings.
The Center also released its report “Sustainable Security in Afghanistan: Crafting an Effective and Responsible Strategy for the Forgotten Front” on Afghanistan.
Analyzing the situation Minister Jalali told the audience that people of Afghanistan have concerns whether the coming elections (on August 21) will be credible or not. He warned that if the majority of people in the South do not have access to voting, it can cause a credibility problem. He also urged the election commission and those who are involved in preparing and conducting the elections process to remove any perception of manipulation.
He added that there are many candidates running in the election but unless a credible alternative is established as part of the election, it will be very difficult for the Afghans to believe in the credibility of the process.
Minister Jalali who is also a distinguished professor at the National Defense University pointed out that apart from the elections in Afghanistan, new U.S. policy on Afghanistan, and surge in troops will be important in determining the future of the country. He said if the government could not rule effectively, the surge will have negative impact.
“There is a good news for the first time in eight years,” the former minister told the gathering and added that the new policy has a link between the goal and strategy. “In the past seven years many things were confused.” He emphasized that a stable government is a must to overcome problems there.
Minister Jalali remarked that the tribal system in Afghanistan had transformed over the years and the people need to be integrated democratically, economically, and socially.
Agreeing on most of what Minister Jalali said, Dr. Frederick W. Kagan added that the U.S. presence at this point in Afghanistan is primarily not just to fight al Qaeda because there’s little al Qaeda in Afghanistan since we threw them out in 2001 and 2002.
He opined that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is also critical in the struggle against a number of other groups that threaten the American and global interests in a very fundamental way. He explained that Afghanistan is the playground of groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, like the TNSM group to which the Pakistani government just surrendered the Swat river valley, and like the Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrike Taliban Pakistan which has jus threatened the White House. “None of them have goals particularly in Afghanistan other than the pleasure of killing Americans.”
Dr. Kagan warned that these groups together represent a threat to the United States and to the region that has a billion and a half people and several hundred nuclear weapons.
Commenting on the Af-Pak strategy, he cautioned that though the issues are inextricably interconnected, we should care about each country because of its own reasons. “We care about Afghanistan because of Afghanistan. We care about Pakistan because of Pakistan and we care about India because of India.”
Dr. Kagan said war in Afghanistan was winnable and told the audience that comparatively situation was less dangerous than in Iraq. He commented that there is no civil war based on ethnic divisions in Afghanistan. “Fundamentally, it is a straight up insurgency.”
He termed the recent hyperbole about the impossibility of winning in Afghanistan as exaggeration. “I think President Obama understands that it is a winnable war and he is committed to win. I think his strategy is sound.”
He favored the idea of funneling financial aid through the government even if it is corrupt instead of giving it to individuals. Dr. Kagan said it is essential to enhance the government’s credibility and give it a chance so that it could build institutional capacity.
Disagreeing with Dr. Kagan on President Obama’s plan, Fred Kaplan said in his view the administration is not into it as deeply as his fellow panelist says. “I think the strategy that Obama articulated the other day is still a rather tentative one” and added that the President didn’t add any additional combat troops to the 17,000 that he announced to bolster support leading up to election to make the election fair process.
Kaplan commented that going after insurgents along the border is not the broad counterinsurgency. “That’s not protecting the population. That’s not building up services.”
He sounded cautious on Obama’s talk about developing economic, agricultural, and other areas and a dramatic increase in civilian effort of preparing educators, engineers, lawyers, etc., in Afghanistan. Kaplan questioned why those people should go there unless they are going to be protected. He doubted the additional 21,000 troops are enough to do so many tasks.
Analyzing the availability of resources, Kaplan commented that the administration does not have sufficient number of troops to send to Afghanistan. He added that build up in Afghanistan is proportionately linked to draw down in Iraq.
He said undermining support for al Qaeda and Taliban is necessary but it is also a staggeringly ambitious goal in the given circumstances. He pointed out that this goal is not supported by the amount of resources we need to put in, it is not supported by crucial players in the Obama administration, and it may not be supported by the American public because they are not paying attention to it. Kaplan also mentioned that the cost of war in Afghanistan is much higher than it was in Iraq.
Talking about Pakistan’s role in the situation, he said the sanctuary for terrorists in the tribal area cannot be eradicated unless Pakistan’s army is persuaded that it does not need to man border with India. He said it was extremely difficult and referred to Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani’s book in which he writes that one of the foundation points of Pakistani state is the idea that India is the main threat – “the Hindu-Muslim thing.”
Replying to a question, Minister Jalali said the people of Afghanistan don’t see the Taliban as an alternative. “They are reluctant to stand against them on behalf of the government that cannot protect them and deliver basic services to them.”
When asked why Pakistan’s offer to mine or fence the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is rejected by the Afghan government and the NATO forces, the panelists were unaware of any such offer made during General Musharraf’s regime.
Rejecting the idea Minister Jalali responded that it will not solve the problem. He said a strategic problem cannot be solved with a tactical move and added that it is very difficult to mine 2,400 kilometers (1491 miles approx.) of a mountainous border. He remarked that the source of the problem needs to be addressed.
Minister Jalali referred to the U.S.-Mexican border and questioned that with all the technology and capacity you cannot seal that border.
Responding to the same question, Dr. Kagan remarked that the idea of land mines along the border is also a humanitarian matter and added that to him it strikes as ethically questionable and he would not be part of any such thing.
When asked about recruiting local militias to fight the Taliban, Minister Jalali responded that it was tried in 2006 but didn’t work and as a result thousand of weapons and hundreds of vehicles are unaccounted for. He said they take that money and see if the government is viable or not, and there is no guarantee that the government will stay there. “So, they are very pragmatic people because they grew up in wars.”
He added that unlike Iraq, in Afghanistan families have split loyalties to cover all bases. “If one cousin is with the government, the other cousin is with the Taliban.”
Minister Jalali emphasized the need to build indigenous capacity of police and armed forces. He wished it was paid attention to in 2003 instead of 2009. He said now it will take time to reach there.
To a question about the air strikes inside Pakistan, Dr. Kagan and Kaplan opposed them and said that they are counterproductive. Fred Kaplan also remarked that the idea of buynig off the entire poppy crop should be considered as well. “I don’t think you can just wipe out a farmer’s crop and tell him that don’t worry we will help you grow wheat next year.”