Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

Afghanistan: Governance and the Civilian Strategy

Source: Project on Middle East Democracy

July 16, 2010

The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing yesterday on governance and the civilian strategy in Afghanistan. This was the eleventh installment in a series of hearings on Afghanistan over the past year and a half. The issues of government corruption and institution-building, as well as questions about U.S. goals, benchmarks, and measures of success in civilian programs, featured prominently in the discussion. The Committee—headed by Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and ranking Committee member Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) —requested the testimony of Mr. Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(POMED’s full notes continue below, or read the rest of the entry as a pdf.)

Sen. Kerry opened the discussion, arguing that the war in Afghanistan plays a “critical role” in U.S. national security, whereas only in the past year have American officials made a concerted effort to provide a “clear” definition of the U.S. mission and strategy there. Kerry stated that progress has been “mixed,” pointing to the fact that “regrettably, corruption in some quarters appears to grow” and that one in three Afghan households reports having to pay a bribe to obtain public services. He proposed that the U.S. must “demand accountability” from its partners, saying that “governance remains one of the great challenges, if not the great challenge” of the mission. On that note, Kerry indicated that the Committee will soon be releasing a report on the topic of corruption, including recommendations for an improved U.S. response. Nevertheless, Kerry noted that the Afghans themselves must also show a willingness to take ownership of this issue.

Noting that the Obama administration requested $4.4 billion to support civilian efforts in Afghanistan in 2010, and another $3.9 billion for the next fiscal year, Kerry suggested that Congress must “take a tough look” at the civilian strategy to ensure that funds are being spent effectively. He mentioned 16 briefings conducted by Committee staff in recent weeks with State Department and USAID officials, to examine how the money is being distributed. Kerry also called for a better understanding of how the U.S. is defining success in Afghanistan, and what an acceptable state would look like there.

Sen. Lugar spoke next, expressing “substantial concern” over the fact that “gains in governance, development, military training, and other areas have not occurred” in Afghanistan according to the administration’s original timetable. Lugar stated that “both civilian and military operations in Afghanistan are proceeding without a clear definition of success,” arguing that U.S. policy appears to vacillate between a narrow, security-focused definition of progress, and a much broader, society-building vision. Lugar discredited the latter, saying, “We should know by now that such grand ambitions are beyond our resources and powers.” He specifically expressed his desire to discuss the U.S. position on a draft reconciliation program recently presented by Karzai to NATO.

Holbrooke made opening statements that directly thanked Senators Kerry and Lugar as well as Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) for their 2009 legislation on Pakistan, which he claimed has contributed enormously to facilitating improved relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Holbrooke characterized the decision to work on the two countries as a single issue as the most critical point of U.S. policy, and stated that “security is the essential prerequisite for everything else.” Calling last year’s widely criticized elections a “near disaster” that ultimately produced a “legitimate government,” but in a “very messy way,” he argued that with the election hurdle passed, the administration has now begun full implementation of a number of programs in agriculture, counter-narcotics, rule of law, and funding contractual efforts. He highlighted the full-government, cooperative nature of the effort, introducing key staff from a wide array of civilian and military agencies.

Holbrooke emphasized the importance of the upcoming Kabul conference on July 20, which will be attended by Secretary of State Clinton along with leadership from NATO, the UN, and many foreign nations. Indicating that Clinton will demonstrate American commitment to an integrated civilian-military effort, he cautioned that the U.S. must not attempt to “Americanize” the war, and said that the Afghan government bears the final burden of success. Holbrooke hailed the reintegration program announced by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which hopes to remove Taliban fighters from the battlefield through reconciliation, and which will be fully unveiled for the first time at the conference. Stating the creation of the program closes a “massive gap” in policy, Holbrooke noted that the U.S. has assigned $100 million to fund it. Saying that the administration “[shares] the concern” of Congressmen over government corruption, he also indicated that Karzai has committed to upgrade his anti-corruption office and that this topic will be under discussion at the conference.

In response to a question from Kerry on the “major impediments” to more rapid progress in governance issues, both locally and from the top-down, Holbrooke listed five obstacles: first and most importantly, the absence of qualified personnel to staff the government; poverty; corruption; the country’s history; and its high illiteracy rates. Arguing that there will be no military solution in Afghanistan, but rather that the U.S. must help bring about a political one, Kerry highlighted engagement with Pakistan as “critical” to success, an assessment that Holbrooke concurred with.

Lugar questioned U.S. motives for staying in Afghanistan, arguing that Al-Qaeda extremists may find refuge in other troubled nations such as Yemen and Somalia while the U.S. remains distracted by the Afghan conflict. Lugar noted that the U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq, even though Iraq has so far failed to form a government and the parliament has held only one meeting. He suggested that likewise, the U.S. cannot remain in Afghanistan indefinitely without defined metrics and goals, even if stability has not been entirely achieved. He asked to clarify an acceptable conclusion to the situation.

Holbrooke proposed that reconciliation represents the means to removing Taliban from the battlefield and ending the war, and stated that the President’s policy on withdrawal is “clear.” Emphasizing that economic and development assistance and police training initiatives will continue beyond combat troop commitment, he stated that the administration is “fully committed” to this comprehensive effort.

Sen. Feingold (D-WI) agreed that U.S. engagement in Afghan “can and must extend beyond military engagement,” but called on the administration to focus on a sustainable, global policy to combat Al-Qaeda. He also asked how Karzai’s efforts at reintegration had translated so far on the ground. Holbrooke responded that implementation of the reintegration effort has not yet begun since they program was only recently announced, but called reconciliation the government’s “highest priority,” mentioning that the administration would press the Afghan government to fulfill its already stated commitment to put reintegration officials into every contested district in the country immediately. Holbrooke indicated that this effort would be undertaken through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and using trust funds led by the British and the Japanese governments.

Sen. Corker (R-TN) demanded a definition of an acceptable end state in Afghanistan; clear objectives; a plan for achieving them; and specific metrics for measuring progress in the civilian programs, calling the administration’s policy on this matter “incredibly vague.” Referencing a report submitted to the Committee earlier this year detailing the civilian programs, Holbrooke summarized 6 initiatives: rebuilding agriculture; creating a justice system to establish rule of law; ending poppy eradication; developing sub-national governance at the district level; women’s empowerment; and major efforts in specific areas, such as providing electricity to Kandahar. Holbrooke expressed a fear that if the U.S. were to walk away from Afghanistan prematurely, the consequences would be “catastrophic.”

Sen. Cardin (D-MD) voiced his concern regarding the ability of the Afghan government to run a country while practicing good governance and respect for human rights, arguing that the U.S. must make certain that USAID and international aid does not end up funding corruption. Holbrooke explained that prior to the Obama administration, only 8.8% of all aid money to Afghanistan was actually going through the government, with 91% bypassing it through NGOs, and that even now the percentage has only risen into the teens. He claimed that the administration has “made accountability our hallmark” and has put into place accountability criteria for each ministry.

Sen. DeMint (R-SC) suggested that the situation has deteriorated on the ground and that many civilians now fear the Kabul government more than the Taliban. Holbrooke acknowledged that many citizens are not satisfied with the services they’re receiving from the Kabul government, and indicated a need to “incentivize” local authorities in Kabul to take greater responsibility, noting that corruption and the rule of law are “huge problems.” However, he argued that polls consistently show that less than 10% of Afghans want to return to the “black years” of the Taliban, pointing to the progress Afghanistan has enjoyed in some areas such as agriculture and to its 20% growth in non-drug-related GDP last year.

Sen. Casey (D-PA) criticized Karzai’s “lack of leadership,” asking how the U.S. should measure his performance and what achievements he needs to make. Holbrooke responded that Karzai should be evaluated by the same standards as any other chief executive, including whether or not he lays out clear programs, fulfills his own deadlines, and is effective. Saying that his purpose was neither to defend nor criticize Karzai, Holbrooke nonetheless cautioned that all of Afghanistan’s problems could not be laid at the doorstep of one man, stating that the Karzai has recognized the seriousness of corruption, and adding, “He’s doing the best job he can under the circumstances.”

Sen. Wicker (R-MS) quoted statements by CIA Director Leon Panetta questioning whether insurgents are truly interested in reconciliation; Holbrooke suggested that Panetta was addressing a separate group from those who are being targeted for reintegration.

Sen. Webb (D-VA) argued that international terrorism is “by its very nature fluid,” suggesting that by December, the American people need to see “measurable results” in Afghanistan leading to an agreed-upon conclusion to the conflict, not just program-by-program successes. Holbrooke reiterated the importance of Afghanistan-Pakistan in the war against terror and stated that the President feels “deeply” the need to demand results there.

Sen. Shaheen (D-NH) voiced a concern that reconciliation with the Taliban might come at the expense of gains in the area of women’s rights. She asked if the U.S. was on the same page with Karzai regarding reconciliation processes. Holbrooke responded that the administration will not allow a regression in women’s rights to occur, noting that fighters who seek reintegration first have to accept the Afghan Constitution, renounce violence, and affirm due respect for all minorities and the role of women. He mentioned U.S. support for women civil society groups, including direct programs on the ground such as an ambassadorial fund for women. At the same time, Holbrooke acknowledged that though Karzai agrees with the American stance on women’s issues, many anti-Taliban conservatives do not, adding, “We can never cut down our vigilance on this.”

Sen. KAUFMAN (D-DE) argued that whereas the discourse on Afghanistan tends to “gloss over” governance programs, “the civilian side is going to make the difference in this.” He indicated his concern over the Kabul government’s failure to prosecute known, specific cases of official corruption, observing that building local respect for the government represents a key part of the counterinsurgency strategy. Holbrooke responded that the administration has a “huge” anti-corruption effort underway and highlighted Task Force 2010, which reviews U.S. contracts to limit fraud. Holbrooke claimed that such efforts were built on essentially nothing and would take time to reach their full effectiveness.

Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) mentioned that Congress had mandated periodic reports to assess the effectiveness of U.S. assistance to Pakistan for eliminating terrorist threats, claiming that the administration had failed to submit these reports as required. In light of the recent controversy regarding General McChrystal, Menendez also asked whether all U.S. officials involved in the effort were on the same page. Holbrooke stated his belief that the administration was in compliance on the reports, and expressed his intention to get to the bottom of the matter. He then concluded by affirming that the current civilian-military effort in Afghanistan was the most cohesive he had seen throughout his career.

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