Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently proposed a “diplomatic surge” in Afghanistan to end the war. The goals are threefold: breaking the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, defeating the Taliban insurgency, and restoring regional stability. It sounds good on paper, but it’s a strategy based on wishful thinking. It also ignores the painful lessons we’ve learned from surging diplomats into war zones while the fighting still rages.
There’s a key ingredient missing from the plan, too — an ambassador with the juice to make it happen. The distinguished Marc Grossman — recently appointed as the president’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan — doesn’t wield the heft of the late Amb. Richard Holbrooke. Current ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s tenure — his term expires this spring — has been an abject failure. So before green-lighting an influx of additional diplomats, Pres. Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton, first and foremost, need to appoint a leader at the top who can regain influence in Afghan political circles and work with the military.
It’s become conventional wisdom that U.S. and NATO commanding general David Petraeus needs a partner in the mold of Amb. Ryan Crocker, with whom he worked so well in Baghdad. Names thrown out to replace Eikenberry include Crocker as well as such heavy hitters as former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who recently completed a lengthy study on the war, and Anne Patterson, who served with clear-eyed distinction in Islamabad. But one of the main requisites is that our man or woman in Kabul must have President Obama’s ear, making it clear to Afghan president Hamid Karzai that the new envoy needs to be respected. After all, the commanding general or CIA station chief should not — as has been the case for the past two years — be the key interlocutor of our diplomatic push.
Our relations with Afghan political leaders are indisputably at an all-time low. No matter how much truth there is in Eikenberry’s leaked and public comments about Karzai’s shortcomings, Eikenberry has created an adversary in Karzai and his allies and made cooperation strained, if not impossible, during a critical period. Perhaps this would have been acceptable if the absence of a relationship with the Afghan leadership had led diplomats to foster viable opposition movements that could pressure Karzai, but there is no tangible progress on that front either.
A stagnant political strategy will squander America’s hard-won kinetic progress when troops begin to draw down this summer. Petraeus seems to understand the uncertainty of long-term success when viewed with this lens. In a December interview, he took pains to separate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when asked if recent progress had convinced him that the troop surge had stopped the downward spiral. “I don’t do optimism or pessimism,” Petraeus said. “I would just quote Ryan Crocker: This is hard, and it’s hard all the time.”
The lessons of Iraq are too freely applied to Afghanistan, notably the concept that security gains will bring better governance. Unlike in Iraq, where Maliki, when elected, was a relatively unknown opposition leader in a crowded field, Karzai is still surrounded by a cult of personality and power created in large part by the international community. In the absence of a responsible partner in the Afghan government, the security gains in southern Afghanistan will not bring real stability, just negotiations with sundry characters and networks that are the antithesis of American values and the enemies of long-term peace.