The situation in Afghanistan is desperate.

As President Obama and his advisors debate how many additional troops to send to Afghanistan–at this time–it seems, once again, that the most important questions are not being asked or receiving the attention they deserve. The debate, framed in the media at a high level of abstraction as a question of whether or not to send more troops, does not address the diplomatic and political failures which have led to our current predicament. These failures bear directly on the choice of any future strategy we might pursue. If their critical nature and root causes are not grasped and addressed, the dispatch of additional troops to Afghanistan will not reverse a deteriorating situation, just as the dispatch of additional troops in 2008 and earlier this year failed to halt the advances of the Taliban.

Diplomatic and Political Failures

We have eight years of experience with President Karzai, and it is absolutely clear that he cannot or will not establish a government that elicits the support of the people, as the August elections confirm. Our real policy now appears to be to allow the massive fraud in the August elections to stand, as the Administration’s response to Amb. Peter Galbraith’s battles with United Nations Special Representative Kai Eide and Galbraith’s dismissal reveal.

Note, however, that accepting this fraud is equivalent to accepting Ahmadinijad’s fraud in Iran. Are our diplomats connecting the dots? Do they understand the impact such a policy is likely to have on the opposition in Iran?

How did we get here?

To an unusual degree, key players in the decision making process on Afghanistan have been military men. National Security Council Advisor Gen. James Jones worked on Afghanistan previously as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2003-2006, while the present U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Gen. Karl Eikenberry, was the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2005-2007. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, after outstanding successes in Iraq, is now in charge of our forces in Afghanistan. Gen. David Petreus, following a brilliant tour and reversal of strategy in Iraq, is now McChrystal’s superior as head of CENTCOM. These are four extraordinarily talented generals, but their professional experience has been largely confined to the military. We should not be surprised if, as military men, they tend to see the military elements and dimensions of the situation in Afghanistan in sharper relief and as more important than would, let us say, professional diplomats with 20 or 30 years of experience negotiating with different political factions and government officials in the region.

At the same time, the appointment of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Amb. Richard Holbrooke, another superstar, seems to have distorted the normal flow of information, coordination and decisions in the State Department, as well as the accountability of officials before Congress. With this outstanding cast, one is left with the impression that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has been far removed from day-to-day decision making on Afghanistan.

While Gen. Eikenberry is a distinguished military leader, his lack of previous diplomatic experience is a serious handicap in Kabul, where the ambassador both leads reporting to Washington and must persuade and lead the Afghans, NATO and the UN, and all of the various U.S. agencies with their conflicting perspectives and agendas. Moreover, experience may be a two-edged sword in Kabul, where everyone seems to have become quite accustomed to doing business with the incumbents. Indeed, many U.S. and international officials and contractors may come to be dependent or co-dependent on their Afghan counterparts, with even the “metrics” they report tending to support both their own and their counterparts’ programs.

In addition, the UN and a number of our NATO allies tend to view their tasks as peacekeeping and development work, as if they were in Kosovo or Bosnia, whereas the U.S. military is engaged in a very “hot” war. These competing perspectives generate bureaucratic and organizational behavior that results in dysfunctional decisions and outcomes. Such behavior is not surprising, but should be recognized as contributing mightily to the situation we now face.

Catastrophic Failure

One overriding fact remains. Our diplomacy in Afghanistan has not been successful. It has failed. It has failed in a catastrophic way.

The bad decisions are becoming evident, with no sign they will not be followed by even more bad decisions. They include:

1) Failure to understand that the NATO and UN templates from Bosnia and Kosovo were utterly unsuited to the realities of Afghanistan, where fresh analysis and program development was required.

2) Failure to change an electoral law that makes the development of national political parties almost impossible.

3) Agreeing to Afghan elections conducted by a Karzai-appointed commission, instead of sticking with the UN-conducted elections that worked so well in 2004 and 2005.

4) Not insisting, as Galbraith wanted, that the fraud being prepared by the Karzai government be stopped.

5) Acquiescing in the election fraud, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) looking the other way while the fraud occurred.

6) Failing to insist on a correct vote tally and a second round of voting, as required by Afghan law, thus showing Afghans what we, NATO and the UN really believe about democracy in their country.

7) More broadly, throwing out the whole democratic rationale for being in Afghanistan by going along with the election fraud.

Legitimacy–First Things First

The failure in Afghanistan has been a diplomatic and political failure, not just a military failure. Military strategy will falter if diplomatic and political strategy does not keep pace. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan by proceeding on the naive belief that we can “stand up” a legitimate government born of fraud, or that we can “stand up” an Afghan army both capable of defeating the Taliban and loyal to a government lacking in legitimacy and losing public support. Legitimacy is the key to developing both a more effective government and a more capable army and police. Without legitimacy, both possibilities appear to be but chimeras in the desert sand.

As we commit additional troops, we need to investigate and understand the specific causes of our diplomatic and political failures, first, to develop a viable government in Kabul and the provinces, and, second, to organize and hold elections recognized as fair, thus conferring legitimacy on the government.

Following catastrophic diplomatic and political failures, we may need a new diplomatic team in Kabul, better decision-making structures and personnel at State, more vigorous Congressional oversight, and a whole rethink of whether the “aid and development” element of our strategy in Afghanistan, as currently implemented, makes any sense given our experience on the ground. Certainly we need to bear in mind that our counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq, to the extent it has been successful, has depended in critical part on free elections and the development of a legitimate government that could gain the support of the population. Finally, we should never lose sight of the fact that what we do about the election fraud in Afghanistan will have profound repercussions in Iran, and beyond.

The Trenchant Observer
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Comments and debate are invited.

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.


  1. The Observer | October 24, 2009 at 12:49 am |


    You make excellent points.

    One of the key problems we need to address is the tendency of government officials, contractors and others to feel superior to the people in the country they want to help. Part of this is cultural shock, a somewhat natural tendency to withdraw into your own belief system when confronted by an alien culture you do not understand and are operating in a a country where you cannot speak and communicate directly with the people around you (except for a small educated elite who speak English or some other western language).

    In Afghanistan, we need to be particularly on guard against any tendency to feel we know better than the Afghans what is best for their country–and their lives. The entire function of the elections is to enable them to speak to those issues directly themselves.

    Of course, when all of this is occurring in a war zone, things can get quite complicated. Still, in thinking about the August 20 elections and the upcoming second round of elections on November 7, it is useful to be reminded that it is the Afghans’ opinion of what is good for them and for their country that must be honored–by conducting a free election and ensuring that the votes are fully and accurately counted. If the Afghans have the courage to vote, the U.S., NATO and the UN should have the will to ensure that those votes are counted and that a government is formed based on those results.

    That is why the pressures on Abdullah to form a coalition with Karzai before the second round never made sense, because their very purpose was to avoid the expression of the will of the people through elections. After the second round, there will be plenty of time for the politicians in Afghanistan for form a unity government if they wish to do.

    We can be encouraged now that the U.S., NATO and the UN are currently engaged in efforts to correct the mistakes they have made in the past. Still, we will need to be extremely vigilant as to what happens during the polling and collection of election results from the second round. Whoever emerges as the victor and particularly If Abdullah wins, as he may, the U.S., NATO and the UN will need to ensure that the result is implemented–as they have just done with the first round.

    Throughout, we must remember that we are there to listen and to understand the people and the culture. We have a legitimate interest in seeking to persuade them and to help them uphold minimum international standards of human rights and good governance. But we should never fall into the trap of thinking, however unconsciously, that we know what is best for the Afghans and that we are running the place.

  2. Oct. 15, 2009

    This thoughtful article goes to the roots of the dilemma in Afghanistan. Somalia could replace the name Afghanistan and the article would be just as relevant. Our model for dealing with conflicts in multilateral and multicultural worlds needs an overhaul. We are repeating past errors.

    1. Diplomatic and Political Failures haunt Somalia and the Horn of Africa.
    2. Military bias in the policy making procedures is a substantial cause of the failures.
    3. In Afghanistan it is UN/NATO/US/Afghans who have conflicting agends. In Somalia it is UN/EU/US/AU/IGAD/Somalis who have conflicting agendas.
    4. Legitimacy of the government is the key to any military, diplomatic, or political success. We have created Karzai in Afghanistan. We have created Sheikh Sharif in Somalia. Both are not recognized by the people as “legitimate leaders.”

    Posted by Jim Shanor

  3. Friedrich Haas | October 16, 2009 at 1:06 am |

    October 9, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for your article on this topic. First of all I think, we need rethink our goals and exit strategy. Even if I do not expect that some NATO states have plans to leave for some strategic reasons as Afghanistan is providing the strategic deepness for Pakistan and strategic resources in Afghanistan as copper, etc.. Anyway – for succeeding in Afghanistan we need definitely better diplomacy – a real comprehensive and intercultural approach, who is respecting the local culture, thinking, knowledge, informal structures, authorities, … given by centenaries of history. Every foreign power failed in Afghanistan, when they did not respect the given preconditions. Unfortunately our templates in the Balkans quite often did not respect these facts, too.

    Diplomacy, negotiations, policy, … of NATO states failed because we almost completely ignored the intercultural gap and history of the conflict and the country. These nations and peoples learned how to deal with foreign powers for centuries. We are just the latest intruder –nothing else. We are lost, if they perceive us as an enemy and will fail like others (e.g. British Empire and USSR). If we do not understand and respect their way of life, we wont be able to set the right incentives and wont move anything in the right direction. So it is indeed about diplomacy and communication – intercultural communication.

    I have been assisting NATO commanders in several missions in the Balkans as POLAD and intercultural advisor. Most of our officers are not trained to live, think and sense in a different culture. Even more many are by training “cold war kids” – they still do not feel comfortable with modern asymmetric warfare. It’s frustrating and irritating to realize, if you do by instinct a good job like you always did, but the results are anything but what you expected. So do diplomats, senior officers of development agencies, … . And here comes another typical leadership issue: you hardly find the guy who admits frankly: “Hey I do not what to do. I am helpless. My compass is misleading. I am lost.” Do we have good leaders, who are able to realize their weakness? Are they ready to surround themselves also by non-military experts, learn from their expertise? Are they able to create teams, who are finally able to make a real comprehensive approach happen?

    Cultures like in Afghanistan do not make a difference between a commander, diplomat, businessman or politician. In the perspective of locals a leaders is it all in one person. So local people perceive the foreign commander as another leader who unites the four or more roles of local leader, war-lord, clan chief, … . The military commanders is confronted with high expectation overtaxing what he was trained for and what he was told to do by NATO and his home country. So we have to rethink our strategies and personnel planning: If we want to succeed in such a context, we have to change and adjust our instruments. We need a very carefully selection of distinguished commanders with outstanding leadership and diplomacy skills. In a mid and long term perspective we have to change the training of our military leaders: Diplomacy, intercultural communication and negotiation skills will be key competences of a future successful commanders in Afghanistan and other theaters.
    In German Army we have an old saying: “Digging trenches saves blood!”. In the famous battle of Monte Casino in WW II in Italy, German troops did such a good digging, that only cutting their supply lines by allied air dominance finally decided the battle. So I like to say today “better intercultural communication and diplomacy saves blood”. Ah – why not starting this one within the NATO community first? Local war-lords in Afghanistan know how to play games with foreign powers, who do not get along with each other for what ever reasons.

    P.S.: An outstanding colonel ret. of German Forces, who is succeeding in Afghanistan since two decades, is the former MD of German Special Forces Reinhardt Eroes. Have a look at his story and how he’s able to stabilize the area, building schools, etc.. He’s a diplomat. He learned to deal with local leaders and gained their respect, when he took two times a year and more off, to serve as civil doctor under Soviet occupation, wanted dead of alive by the Russians, because he was serving the local population outside the soviet controlled areas. It’s a pitty that even our German Ministry of Defense only asks him occasionally for help and take the benefit of his experience and competences:

  4. Very trenchant, indeed. Do we (either the US or the international community) have vital interests in Afgh that require or even support a continuing and intensified military campaign? Does the real mission lie in Pakistan? Is Al Qaeda still a legitimate target, wherever it exists, or should we focus entirely on Bin Laden and his immediate coterie?

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