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An Interview with Juan Cole

The Diplomat speaks with leading Afghanistan commentator Juan Cole, author of the Informed Comment blog, about the recent election, the abandoned run-off and the future of US forces in the country.

The US and Britain were quick to congratulate Afghan President Hamid Karzai after he was declared the winner of the presidential poll this week. But in the medium to long term, how much have the claims of fraud in the first vote in August damaged his legitimacy and ability to govern?

Juan Cole: In the Afghan context, you have to remember that the message of the Taliban and the other groups that are opposing the Kabul government is that the elections are a sham–that Karzai is a Western puppet and these elections have been manipulated to make sure the right people win from Washington and London’s point of view. Opponents of Karzai are constantly putting out this propaganda, and I fear that events have played into that propaganda. So these events–the declaration that the August 20th election involved a great deal of ballot fraud, the refusal of Abdullah Abdullah to run in an election against Karzai on the grounds that the second round would be just as corrupt as the first–all of these are propaganda points for the Taliban and the other anti-Kabul forces.

The United Nations talked of widespread fraud in the first round. How much of this do you think is likely to have been centrally orchestrated?

Mr. Cole: The fraud appears to have occurred in select Pashtun-majority provinces. And it was Mr Abdullah’s suspicion that the Electoral Commission itself might have been involved. That’s a charge that has been made. So some observers feel it must have gone straight up to Karzai. In an Afghan context–where personal honour is very important, where tribal feuds can result from an insult–it’s a difficult thing to call Karzai himself a fraud. It is more common to say that people around him must have been overzealous and so forth. But obviously some still suspect Karzai was behind it.

There has been some speculation that Karzai’s main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, is considering joining a unity government. How likely do you think this is?

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Mr. Cole: Personally, I don’t understand why he would do that. That is to say, why wouldn’t he run in the run-off election so as to try and secure enough votes to be an attractive candidate for a national unity government partnership with Karzai? To pull out of the race on the grounds that the Electoral Commission was corrupt doesn’t seem like a very promising opening gambit for an attempt to join the Karzai cabinet. I know there are many observers in the major Western newspapers who broach this opinion, that Abdullah is positioning himself for a cabinet position. But it seems unlikely to me because of the way Abdullah withdrew from the race–it was a slap in the face to Karzai, so I don’t see an offer of a cabinet position coming out of that.

Do you think a unity government would be a good way for Karzai to regain some the legitimacy he appears to have lost?

Mr Cole: I think Karzai does have a credibility problem with the Tajik minority, the Persian-speaking Sunnis who make up about 22 percent of the population. And I think he’s probably also fairly unpopular with some of the other ethnic groups outside the Pashtuns. And of course a quarter of the Pashtuns are opposed to him. So the point of a national unity government would be to convince the Tajiks that they are well represented in the government, that their voice is heard and that their interests are protected. So to that extent, obviously having Abdullah Abdullah in the cabinet, were he to be seen to have influence and able to exercise patronage, would help to calm tensions. But that is a lot of ‘ifs’–if he is in the cabinet, if he is seen as influential, if he has a certain amount of patronage. And all of those ‘ifs’ are iffy.

How do you think recent developments will have affected the US request to Congress for 40,000 more troops?

Mr Cole: Of course the 40,000 troops suggestion is one of a number of suggestions put forward by General Stanley McCrystal, and is one that he appears to favour. This implies the US would undertake large scale nation building and a wide ranging counter-insurgency strategy and not just a narrow counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan. A lot of people in Washington feel that such a large scale counter-insurgency programme, which involves building national capacity, requires a reliable, credible Afghan government partner. And they feel that the events subsequent to the election of August 20 have deprived Washington of such a partner. And I know there are people in Washington who are asking how can you throw away American lives on propping up a corrupt and unreliable government? So my feeling is that the maximalist position–the argument for the 40,000 troops and a strong push for counter-insurgency–has been undermined. And I suspect that the Obama administration will compromise on something that falls short of that kind of plan.

Critics have suggested the Obama administration’s Afghan policy is a little incoherent and indecisive. Is this fair?

Mr Cole: No. I think that outsiders haven’t understood the timetable for decision making, which has been dictated by events beyond Mr Obama’s control. He came into office in January and immediately sent 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan. Those were a place holder for the development of a more coherent policy and they were intended to allow the August 20 election to take place, because of course the Taliban had pledged to disrupt this election. And there were provinces where very few people voted. But the 21,000 troops were designed to allow the election to take place.

I think Obama was initially hoping that someone other than Karzai would win. Then he was hoping that were Karzai to win, that the election would be an opportunity for him to shore up his credibility. But he had decided that no wide-ranging policy changes could be instituted until we knew who the president of Afghanistan was going to be, and under what circumstances he was going to rule. Unfortunately for Obama, all of his hopes have foundered on the sordid political realities of Afghanistan. So Karzai was not unseated and his credibility was not shored up. But I don’t see how Obama could have made his choices in March, not knowing who his partner would be.

More broadly, what do you make of the US approach to Afghanistan–what would you like to see it doing?

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Mr Cole: I have long admired Colin Powell’s doctrine that he put forward regarding the Gulf war, which is that any military operation undertaken by the United States should have a clear, achievable goal; that it should be clear how the goal would be achieved and in what time frame it could be expected to be achieved; it should have broad public support and there should be an exit strategy. Those are the elements of the Powell Doctrine. Powell was unable to have his doctrine applied to any of the subsequent wars, even though he was Secretary of State when they began. But what we don’t know about the US mission in Afghanistan is–what is the goal? When will it be achieved? How will it be achieved? What would happen if it weren’t to be achieved on the right timetable? What’s the exit strategy? And how would you shore up public support for this, because the majority of Americans now want out of this thing according to public opinion polls. And it’s a little unlikely that the number that want to stay there is going to increase, barring a major act of terrorism on US soil, which might rally the troops. In fact it seems the war is likely to become more and more unpopular.

We haven’t really heard any of those things from Obama. The most they’ll say is that they hope to train 400,000 security forces–200,000 military and 200,000 police–in the next few years and turn the security of the country over to them. But that’s always the plan in such situations. It was the plan in Vietnam and so forth. But that’s not much of a plan.

A report by the Center for a New American Security has laid out 3 scenarios for Afghanistan–the first is that Afghanistan slips back to the pre-September 11 days of the Taliban, the second is that other NATO countries withdraw, leaving the United States to support its Afghanistan allies for a long-term struggle, and a third where Afghanistan succeeds in becoming inhospitable to transnational terror groups. Which do you think is most likely?

Mr Cole: I’d say that there’s a fourth possibility that they’re missing, which is that there would continue to be a relatively weak Afghan government, but which would anyhow manage to make a fragile peace with its challengers and provinces.

The idea that Afghanistan could be set up with a strong central government that asserted itself throughout the country is a wild idea because its whole GDP, in real dollars and not purchasing power parity, is something in the order of $9 billion a year. And their government budget is less than a billion.

Just maintaining a 400,000 man security force, equipping it and keeping it in place, would certainly cost $2 billion per year. Where is Afghanistan going to get that kind of money? It’s just too poor a place to have a strong central government. And although social structures are changing, sometimes rapidly, there are still a lot of people in Afghanistan for whom tribal identity is foremost, for whom localism is very important and who resent federal government. So the idea of a strong central government dominating these clans is also unlikely because what are clans about? They’re about feuding–they feud with each other and they feud with outsiders.

So the dream that Afghanistan could be made into Sweden doesn’t take into account local realities. There will always be these tribal rebellions in the provinces. Past Afghan governments have dealt with these rebellions by negotiating with the rebels or setting the enemies of the rebels on the rebels and occasionally crushing them with a targeted central intervention. But the Afghan central government is more like an acrobat than a king upon his throne. And so I think the most likely scenario is that the US will eventually withdraw, because I don’t think the public will put up with this for very much longer, and that it will leave behind a relatively weak government that will be forced to cut deals with the forces that are opposing it.

I don’t think people realize the degree to which that is already the case–Karzai only really controls about 30 percent of the country and the Taliban probably have about 10 or 15 percent, which means in much of the country, local warlords and other forces are ruling, and they’re ruling in a way that doesn’t cause them to come into direct conflict with Kabul. And so Kabul and them coexist. So it’s not a unified state, and the best thing would be to convince the rebels of various sorts–all of whom are being lumped together as Taliban, quite inaccurately–to accept that same deal of fair local autonomy but with more fruitful relations with the central government.