Afghanistan’s Might-Have Been

Former presidential hopeful Abdullah Abdullah tells Washington that supporting Hamid Karzai and doing right by Afghanistan aren't the same thing.


Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former foreign minister and a leading contender in the country’s 2009 presidential election, arrived in Washington, D.C., this week with a simple message: support for the government of Afghanistan does not exclusively mean support for President Hamid Karzai. Abdullah, who was defeated in a presidential race marred by allegations of fraud, accused Afghanistan’s leadership of having "lost a sense of direction" in remarks at the New America Foundation Tuesday.

Following closely on the heels of Karzai’s visit to Washington last week, Abdullah concentrated on the importance of strengthening Afghanistan’s democracy. "The success of the Afghan government … will depend on the trust and sympathy of the majority of people in Afghanistan," he told his American audience. Unless the country’s government drastically improves, the Taliban would still find willing recruits among Afghanistan’s population. Afghans "want a moderate Islamic country, democracy, equal rights, respect for women’s rights, education, and [to live] at peace with one another in a dignified manner," Abdullah asserted.

Abdullah poured cold water on the Karzai government’s hope that it can offer Taliban forces incentives to abandon the insurgency and rejoin the political process. "They are not fighting to join the system — a democratic system," he said. "They want to take Afghanistan back to the old days, where Afghanistan was the heart to international terrorism."

After a brief opening statement, Abdullah sat down with New America Foundation President Steve Coll to discuss the way forward for Afghanistan in greater detail:

Steve Coll: President Karzai is going to hold a peace jirga at the end of this month or the beginning of next month [in order to attempt to reintegrate the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political process]. What is your evaluation of the peace jirga? And what is your evaluation of the American policy of trying to reintegrate the Taliban at a local level?

Abdullah Abdullah: First of all, the peace jirga is mainly a government-led initiative. It should have been a national, much more broadly based initiative, in order to gain the trust of the people. Some people in the country have interpreted this effort as an attempt to bring the Taliban back. I’m not saying that this is an attempt in that direction, but that perception — it matters. Those things are not being considered in the preparation of the jirga. To think that we can bring [the Taliban] back [into the political process] — they are not fighting there because they cannot be painters or carpenters. Part of the incentives is vocational training for the ex-combatants. I don’t know.

It’s a sort of program that has been worked out for a different planet, not for what is going on in Afghanistan. When I look into the details of the reintegration program, it’s very idealistic. But the way forward is to bring the people in order to isolate those extremist elements, so they don’t see a situation where they can take recruits from.

SC: What are the chances of achieving the goals that the American government has laid out in Kandahar Province over the next six months?

AA: The insurgency has reached a level that, unless we turn the tide against it, it becomes very difficult to regain the trust of the people. The people will think the Taliban are coming back. So on the surge, I am in favor of it. It was necessary. But what is the important element in the success of such a strategy? It is, of course, the part of the strategy that General McChrystal is emphasizing: protecting the civilians.

It is also important is to replace the Taliban system [of government] with a system that functions much better. We shouldn’t be in a situation after 8 years, billions and billions of dollars spent, and many lives sacrificed to say that we want to create a better system than the Taliban — it should be absolutely different from it as possible. That part can make a military strategy fail.

SC: How do you see the U.S.-Pakistani relationship — is it producing changes in the historic Pakistani support of the Taliban?

AA: In terms of Pakistan, there are positive developments. There is a civilian government elected in Pakistan. There is a wider population that does not support the Taliban anymore, because of the atrocities the Taliban have committed. But, at the same time, the issue of the Taliban still getting support from some corners [of the Pakistani establishment], from some institutions — that’s a big question.

[F]rom the time that [Barack Obama’s] administration was in place, [there have been] different voices, different messages given. Consistency of messages in Washington has great impact on the lives of millions and millions of people in our part of the world. If it’s inconsistent, people will get mixed messages.

For example, the worst-case scenario for Afghanistan is premature withdrawal, subcontracting the case to a neighboring country like Pakistan. This is what had happened post-Cold War, and as a result of that we have today’s mess — the suffering of your people and our people. These are the things that should be taken out of the agenda. And then what remains? Commitment, long-term commitment. With foresight, and political will, and determination.

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