Remarks on Afghanistan to the Asia Society

James F. Dobbins
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
Washington, DC
July 9, 2014

Ambassador Dobbins: Thank you, Tom. And thank you for arranging this and for inviting me.

When this event was originally envisaged, I think it was to look at Afghanistan’s longer term future. I would like to be able to look with confidence at Afghanistan’s future two or three weeks from now. With the current situation, I’d be satisfied with that. I’ll try to sketch out where things stand and what the prospects are at a particularly pivotal moment in Afghanistan’s political development. But I think it’s useful to say a few words about what has been accomplished over the last 13 years, since the U.S. intervention in 2001 and the establishment of what was originally a provisional government and then finally a fully constitutional government under Hamid Karzai who was originally inaugurated in December of 2001 as the provisional chairman of the then interim government.

I know there’s a perception that we’ve put a lot of money into Afghanistan and haven’t seen a lot as a result. I think this is largely an inaccurate picture. If you look at post-conflict and conflict reconstruction efforts, Afghanistan in many ways stands out for the degree to which these investments have yielded substantial changes. Afghanistan’s economy has expanded by more than 400 percent. Longevity in the country has gone up more than 20 years over this period. That’s a larger increase and longevity than any country in the world or any society in the world has ever experienced in human history in such a short period and it’s truly remarkable.

The UN development program rates every country every year on sort of a one to ten scale in terms of human development, which is a combination of standard of living, education and health. And while Afghanistan remains the poorest country in Asia and one of the poorest countries in the world, it made more progress in human development than any other country in the world over the last decade. And this is measured by the fact that literacy in the country is up. Twice as many Afghans can read and write today as could read and write when the U.S. arrived in 2001. And twice as many will read and write a decade from now as can read and write today if the eight million children that are in school stay in school.

So there have been remarkable changes in the nature of the society. It’s much more urban than it was. This means that millions of people have moved from their tribal familial clan roots into cosmopolitan urban centers. It’s a much more informed society. You went from one government-owned television station to 75 stations, 74 of which are independent. It’s a wired society. Ninety percent of the country has cell phone coverage. Roughly half the families in Afghanistan have cell phones. And so it’s, in fact it has better cell phone coverage than neighboring Pakistan just in terms of the quality of the reception. It’s 3G rather than 2G.

So there have been a lot of social, economic changes in the country which has evolved more quickly than almost any other society under similar circumstances. That’s partly because a lot of resources have been applied to it, and it’s partly because it starts from such a low base. But before coming to my current position I was with the RAND Corporation and we looked at 20 societies, basically all of the societies in which international forces had been introduced in the aftermath or in the midst of a conflict since 1989, the end of the Cold War, and within that group Afghanistan had a higher level of increase in human development than any of the other 19 countries.

Against those measures, a lot has changed.

What Afghanistan hasn’t achieved, obviously, is peace. Of the 20 countries that we looked at, 16 of them did achieve peace. So it’s not as if Afghanistan has achieved everything we’d hoped for. In fact it has not achieved the one thing that we most hoped for, which is that it would be a society at peace with itself and its neighbors, which would no longer be a potential breeding ground for international terrorism. And we’re not yet at that point.

As I think most of you know, the President recently made a decision regarding future American commitment to Afghanistan. He decided that we would keep significant American forces to Afghanistan for another two years, nearly 10,000 in 2015. About half of that in 2016. And then beyond that, a continuing commitment of very substantial security assistance, money and advice and training done under the aegis of an enlarged American embassy with a very substantial Office of Defense Cooperation, as well as continued economic assistance going forward for at least a decade.

One of the questions I was asked when testifying before Congress shortly after the President’s decision was, is this going to be enough to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, for rolling back the progress that has been made in gender equality, in education, and in human rights and freedoms, and in economic development that have occurred over the last 13 years? The answer was, it depends. It depends on a number of things.

First of all, it depends on the success of the security transition. That is a transition from a basically U.S. and NATO-led counter-insurgency campaign to an Afghan-led, Afghan-manned, Afghan-managed, Afghan-run security operation in the country.

That transition is largely complete. Over the last year the Afghans have led all security operations in the country with the U.S. and NATO gradually diminishing their participation. And so far the results have been pretty good.

The Afghan Armed Forces have demonstrated the capacity for independent tactical and operational activities. We’ve managed to reduce the total NATO force there by 100,000. That is from about 150,000 to well under 50,000 at the moment, without the Afghan forces having lost any significant ground to the Taliban. So that’s a pretty significant demonstration of capacity if you can withdraw 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops and maintain the same security, level of security in the cities and the countryside that you had when you had a much larger force.

The second dependent is, it is dependent on continued U.S. and international financial support. The Afghan civil budget is substantially dependent on economic assistance from the U.S. and other countries. The Afghan security budget is even more dependent on economic assistance from the U.S. and other countries, and while the dimensions of that assistance is expected to gradually diminish over the next decade, it’s not going to diminish to anything like zero, and there’s going to be a significant requirement for continued financial assistance.

Now as compared to the cost we were bearing when we had a substantial military force there, this is going to be a tiny fraction of what we were spending one or two or three years ago, or even what we’re spending today in Afghanistan where we still have something like 30,000 American troops. But it will still be a substantial commitment for us and for other international donors which will need to be sustained if the progress that we’ve made in Afghanistan is going to continue.

A third factor on which Afghanistan’s stability and continued development depends is the behavior of neighboring states. Afghanistan, unlike some of the other countries that we’ve dealt with with the former Yugoslavia, for instance, or Iraq where the internal tensions in the society were such that very strong states nevertheless broke up, Afghanistan has always been a rather weak state that has been a victim of the ambitions and activities of its neighbors. The ethnic and sectarian tensions in Afghanistan aren’t non-existent, but they don’t have the same degree of intensity as in some of these other societies whereas in Yugoslavia the Croats and the Serbs simply didn’t want to live in the same state if they could avoid it or in Iraq the Kurds and the Arabs don’t want to live in the same state if they can avoid it, in Afghanistan the Tajiks don’t want to live in Tajikistan. The Uzbeks don’t want to live in Uzbekistan. The Hazara don’t want to live in Iran. And the Pashtuns don’t want to live in Pakistan. They just all want to govern Afghanistan. So it’s a competition. It’s a competition over power and it requires a degree of power sharing to work. But that’s different from a competition over national identity. It’s different from having a group of people who really just don’t want to live in the same society. So it should be a somewhat simple process, but it does depend on not having neighboring states prey on those divisions and exacerbate them as has happened historically.

I think we’ve been able to forge a reasonable degree of consensus among neighbors, all of whom profit from having a peaceful and stable Afghanistan; none of whom have much to gain from having the country go back into generating large-scale terrorism, large-scale refugee migration, large-scale criminality and the other products or by-products of a failed state.

I think it is unusual when President Karzai rather surprised everybody by saying that he wasn’t going to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement which would provide a basis for a continued American and NATO presence in the country, that he was personally advised over the next few weeks by President Putin of Russia, President Xi of China, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, and Prime Minister Singh of India, he was advised by all of them to go ahead and sign the agreement. That’s a pretty unusual constellation of countries arguing for a continued American military presence in Central Asia and it does suggest that they subordinated their dislike of an American military presence for most of them to their even greater dislike of a breakup of Afghanistan into wider civil war. So there’s some hope that that regional consensus can be sustained.

The fourth thing, and the most important of these variables which will depend on whether or not the continued commitment envisaged by the Obama administration and the American allies there is going to be sufficient to hold the country together is the elections, and whether the elections produce a clear result that secures international and Afghan domestic buy-in. And a government that has broad support within the society.

The first round was very encouraging with good participation, relatively good levels of security, entirely provided by the Afghan Security Forces. NATO and its allies stated in their concerns they didn’t go out on election day on either of the election days. These were securities entirely handled by the Afghans.

The second round also had good participation. There’s some debate about whether it was smaller or larger than the first round. And security was also quite good.

There has, however, developed a considerable controversy over that election, over that second round, and the degree of fraud that was involved. I think everybody expected some degree of fraud in a society of Afghanistan’s level of development. This is not unexpected. But the charges have been that the fraud was quite extensive. And in fact both campaigns agree that there was extensive fraud. Both campaigns agree in principle that the electoral mechanisms need to investigate that fraud and discount those ballots that are a product of it. But so far the level of adjudication of fraud has been inadequate for reasons that I’ll come back to.

I think the current impasse in which essentially both of the candidates believe, probably quite sincerely, that they won the election and are unprepared to concede and are arguing for high levels of fraud, again is not particularly unusual in these kinds of situations, although it does present a serious problem in the case of Afghanistan which already has a significant insurgency underway and has had for more than a decade.

I think that, our view is that in order to address these concerns there are two levels of engagement that are necessary. Two processes that need to go forward. One is the formal electoral process. That is the electoral, the Independent Electoral Commission and the separate also independent Electoral Complaints Commission need to review the suspect ballots and discard those that appear to be the product of fraud. But a second process also needs to go forward which is a negotiation between the two candidates, between the two campaigns, on the formation of a government that has broad representation in society as a whole.

Afghanistan has the challenge of having a constitution which is a winner take all constitution. It’s a presidential, not a parliamentary system. The president has an unusual array of powers and the checks and balances on the president are much more limited than our own system, for instance, or in most others. And yet Afghanistan is not at a level of development in which a winner take all system can really be accommodated. The levels of trust in the society aren’t substantial enough. As I suggested, the checks and balances are not adequate enough. And democracy is not sufficiently developed to the point where a winner take all system in which the losers retire and organize for the next election but don’t share in power following their loss, is really a workable solution. And so for this to go forward there needs to be both clarity about who won the election, but there also needs to be some degree of consensus about how the successor government to President Karzai is going to be formed.

President Karzai, and there’s been a good deal of criticism of him and he’s had a good deal of criticism for us, but I think he has been successful by and large in creating broad constituencies across the ethnic and sectarian and linguistic and religious divides in the country, and in forming coalitions that were broadly inclusive. And in many ways he was successful in this because he didn’t come into office as the result of a campaign to which he owed a lot of debts. He came into office as the result of an internationally organized process of consensus among opposition to the Taliban. He was then able to win a couple of elections without, while positioning himself as above political parties. And as a result, he had the capacity to govern in a broadly inclusive fashion which he largely succeeded in doing.

It’s obviously more difficult when you’ve got a winner who comes into office owing his victory to a constituency that supported him and has to explain to that constituency you now have to share power with the people who opposed them. That’s a lot harder sell and it’s one that Karzai never faced. It is I think a task that his successor is going to find more difficult than he did for the reasons I’ve suggested. But this idea of a government of national unity that does reflect the participation of all of the significant elements of Afghan society, including those that were embodied in either of the campaigns, is we think a prerequisite for a successful government following what we hope will be a successful election that will pursue a clear-cut result.

The process -- Both of these processes have begun, but both of them are still at a rather preliminary stage. The process of, if you will, examining the ballots and determining which of them should be disallowed has only begun. One cycle of audits began. In our view it was inadequate in scope and produced inadequate results in terms of the corrective measures taken. Something much more substantial, robust and transparent needs to be put in place. The nature of that is largely agreed between the two campaigns and with the electoral commission, but there’s always something that’s not agreed and as a result this hasn’t been initiated.

The power sharing discussion is also at an extremely preliminary stage. The two actual candidates have not been meeting personally, and their representatives have not been fully empowered to engage in the kind of discussions that would yield meaningful results.

As the result of these delays, we had a very dangerous situation earlier this week where the situation looked like it was going to go badly off track in a way that might have been irremediable. That is to say a number of Dr. Abdullah’s supporters began talking about establishing what they were calling a parallel presidency. That is declaring him president, then governors in some of the country would declare themselves as loyal to the new parallel president. While this was occurring some of the police stations in Kabul were being taken over by Abdullah supporters, and it looked like this might gain enough traction to present if not outright civil war, a division in the country that would be very difficult to heal.

We moved fairly quickly to try to head this off. Secretary Kerry, who was actually on an airplane from here to China made several calls in the course of the night to both Abdullah and Ghani as well as President Karzai and pulled the Abdullah camp back from this. President Obama also spoke to first Dr. Abdullah and later to Dr. Ghani. On the one hand assured them that Secretary Kerry would be arriving for discussions with them at the end of this week; and cautioned in particular Dr. Abdullah about moving preemptively in an unconstitutional fashion.

We made clear that the United States, neither the United States nor its partners are likely to support a divided Afghanistan and that the consequences of such a division would be to begin to roll back the extraordinary progress that has been made over the last 13 years.

The nature of Afghanistan’s continued dependency on international financing for security forces and for its broader government functions means rapidly the Army would stop getting paid, the police would stop getting paid, schools would close, clinics would close, electricity would be in debate, and Afghanistan would have made a sudden detour back into the mid 1990s which would be a great tragedy.

This is not what the Afghan people voted for. Millions and millions of Afghans came out to vote in a democratic election. They believed their votes would make a difference. There have been numerous polls which indicate that they’re prepared to accept the results of that election, even if it doesn’t result in the person they voted for being elected. So the Afghan people are prepared for and are looking forward to sustaining the kind of progress that they’ve made over the last 13 years. They are voting for a democratically elected government. They’re voting for continued cooperation with the international community. They’re voting for continued consolidation of the social and economic progress that they’ve made over the last 13 years. And they deserve more than a serious division among their political leaders which stymies that kind of progress and threatens to reverse it.

I’ll stop there and be glad to take a few questions.

Moderator: I think we only have time for a couple of questions.

Question: My name is Deb Freedman, I’m with Associated Press. I have two quick questions for you. One is an easy one, I think.

You talked about how you’d like to see a more gradual decline in the amount of civilian aid that the U.S. and other nations are going to [inaudible] moving forward. I think the aid was cut, though, by about half this past fiscal year. If we end up in a continuing resolution it’s going to remain [inaudible]. I was wondering if you can comment on that.

Then secondly, the United States is looking to the Afghan election bodies to help to solve this problem, but the IEC, I believe, is pretty well done with their job [inaudible] preliminary results. Now it’s up to the ICC and the ICC has allegations of being tainted. Abdullah is not real big on those leading that group. So I can’t quite understand how the Afghan electoral bodies are going to be able to resolve this without perhaps UN intervention or something.

Ambassador Dobbins: On the assistance, it is true that Congress cut the non-security assistance to Afghanistan by 50 percent this year. I think that was largely a response, it had two causes and it was clear in the report. One was that there was a lot of unspent aid in the pipeline and they felt we ought to be spending more of what had been allocated in previous years which implied that once we’d done that they were prepared to raise the level again. The second was they were clearly antagonized by some of the hostile statements that President Karzai had made in refusing to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement and in alleging the United States responsibility for a lot of the disorder and violence in Afghanistan. So I think it was a reaction to both of those. And both of those situations will be in the past.

We have been projecting, I think it was about a 16 percent decline year over year each year for the next four or five years, not a 50 percent decline. So our request for next year will go back, will be higher than what we got last year although lower than what we requested consistent with this more gradual decline. So we will try to persuade Congress to go back to a more gradual decline in that assistance.

In terms of the electoral institutions, it was the Independent Electoral Commission that was, whose chief electoral officer was alleged to have been engaged in fraud, not the Complaints Commission. The Independent Electoral Commission has for the moment completed its processing as it turned the job of auditing the remaining ballots and determining which of them are valid to the Complaints Commission which is a different independent body. At the conclusion of that process, once a certain number of ballots have been excluded, the issue will go back to the Electoral Commission where the individual who was charged with fraud has since left. They will have to certify the results.

But you’re right, there’s a level of distrust among at least the Abdullah campaign and these institutions. Both campaigns and President Karzai have asked the UN to play a stronger role. The UN has been playing a role in designing the mechanisms by which ballots will be reviewed for possible fraud and is making proposals to both campaigns and to the Complaints Commission in the next 24 hours about how to go forward in that regard.

Moderator: Ambassador, do you have a question. I know who you are, but maybe not everybody does.

Question: At Brookings I was previously head of the [inaudible].

You mentioned, [inaudible] that have been followed again by certain concerns [inaudible]. President Obama made the decision to withdraw all forces by the end of 2016. Since then we [have] had [violence in Iraq] and we have also had, there has been new concern over the situation in Afghanistan. [Inaudible] a little bit of how you see Obama’s decision in light of the developments that have taken place [inaudible]?

My second question if you permit, the elections also have demonstrated that there is a tension between the younger, better educated people in Ghani’s generation in Afghanistan and the older [inaudible]. You mentioned the need for government [for] unity. That means including the younger reformers and the old guard who are not so reform oriented. Would you reflect on that in light of the kind of expectations we can have from a new government in terms of a more [offensive] reform process? Thank you.

Ambassador Dobbins: On Iraq, I think it’s really kind of speculation whether if Iraq had fallen apart before the President made his decision, whether that might have affected his decision, I don’t know the answer to that. It’s quite possible.

I think the President’s decision was made against the background, however, of recognizing that we’ve got a lot of challenges like Iraq. Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, where in many ways the challenge of international terrorism and terrorist sanctuaries is considerably more acute than it is in Afghanistan at the moment. And at what point do you accept some risk in Afghanistan in order to better deal with these others, recognizing that you have finite resources and that we can’t plug every hole in the world and address every potential recruiting ground for terrorists by deploying a large number of American forces. So in a sense, while I think you can argue the Iraq analogy would have affected the debate on Afghanistan if it had come a little earlier, it was precisely the fact that we have to have the flexibility of dealing with situations like Iraq when they occur not just in Iraq but in Syria and in half a dozen other places where you now have active insurgencies that have parasitic relationships with terrorist organizations or are themselves in some cases the product of terrorist organizations that require our assistance.

Sorry. When anyone asks two questions I always forget the second.

Question: Unity.

Ambassador Dobbins: Sure. I think there is a balance that has to be struck here. I know that there’s been a deep concern within the international community and perhaps even more among Afghans themselves about levels of corruption and efficiency in their government.

I mentioned the study of 20 societies in which the UN or the United States or others had deployed international forces in post-conflict situations, and in Afghanistan human development actually did better than any other one in terms of rate of improvement. It doesn’t mean it was better at the end than all of them, it just meant its rate of improvement was higher.

Rather interestingly, there’s also another organization that rates every country in the world on governance, on the quality of governance. It gives, again, a one to ten rating. It’s the World Bank. And of those 20 countries, Afghanistan was third from the top in terms of the improvement in governance over that period, which means it improved faster than 16 of the other 20 countries.

Again, what are you comparing Afghanistan to? Are we comparing it to societies like Bosnia or Kosovo or others where you’re at a higher level of development to start with? Are you comparing Afghanistan to its neighbors -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, China -- none of whom have ever had a democratic election? Or are we comparing it to some objective standard by which it falls short? It also falls far short in the estimation of its own population.

So corruption and economic growth were bigger issues in the campaign than the insurgency for levels of violence, which says both the security situation has diminished in terms of public concern, and these others have replaced it.

That said, society, Afghanistan wouldn’t have achieved what it has in terms of education and in terms of health, in terms of human development, in terms of media, without some degree of competence within the government structures and some degree of effectiveness in delivering to the population.

I think Karzai came into government in a government that had no institutions at all. There were no ministries, there was no police force, there was no Army. When Karzai took over the UN gave very new minister one car and one satellite phone. That was it. So the ministry had a car and a satellite phone and that’s where it started. So Karzai governed by distributing patronage. That’s how he held the country together. You had a country with very weak institutions that didn’t project much beyond the capital, and you had a country that was divided into two languages, different religious structures, different tribal and ethnic structures, and he held it together very successfully through a process of distributing patronage.

Our society depends on patronage to a limited degree, but it’s certainly more circumscribed than it is in Afghanistan because we have very strong institutions that limit it.

So one man’s corruption is another man’s patronage. I think that some degree of patronage allocation and power sharing is going to be essential for a new government to be formed that retains the support of all elements of a society. At the same time it’s clear that the voters were demanding a degree of improvement in the quality of governance and the degree of diminution in the level of corruption. That too is going to have to be a government objective and the two are going to have to be balanced.

Moderator: I hate to say, for every hand that’s gone up and every good question, I’m sure that lingers, I see other hands suggesting that we need to let you go. But please join me in thanking Ambassador Dobbins.