U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan: Promise And Reality

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 6

The true impact of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is considerably at odds with the Bush Administration’s expansive rhetoric. The United States seeks to wage the war on terrorism, establish a democratic Afghanistan and reconstruct the country. However, in Afghanistan, due to the lack of security beyond the confines of Kabul (and even there it is problematic), the level of violence is rising, and President Karzai is at best only the mayor of Kabul. Efforts to reconstruct the country are proceeding in fits and starts and, in large measure, have been stillborn due to the rising violence. Moreover, Afghanistan has become fractured by ethnic tensions and growing dissatisfaction among Pashtuns over their under-representation in the Kabul government. The expectations of the Afghan people that their lives would be improved have not been fulfilled. Washington’s promise that it would lead the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan and transform it into a democratic nation with a viable political and economic life able to assume its rightful position in the world community have been largely unfulfilled. President Bush’s widely advertised “Marshall Plan” for the country has failed to materialize and the disarray in U.S. policy is clear.

Signs of trouble

Bush Administration officials, especially at the National Security Council (NSC), are worried about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. The Administration’s robust rhetoric has been only marginally implemented. Drift, policy incoherence, interagency compartmentalization and infighting, as well as unfilled promises due to under-funding and poorly managed reconstruction projects, continue to bedevil the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. This, two years after the brilliant military victory over the Taliban and al Qaeda. Adding to the difficulties have been the unsuccessful efforts to quash the Taliban’s resurgence and the renewal of al Qaeda activities.

The administration’s failure in Afghanistan has been exacerbated by the difficulties American policy is experiencing in Iraq. “Fixing” both has become a major administration priority. In the interim, the war on terrorism has become a casualty, being subordinated to the imperatives of the Iraq war and its aftermath. Daily events in Afghanistan are stark reminders of this. As a result, the Bush team has decided in recent weeks to take a firmer approach toward Afghanistan and Iraq. As a senior State Department official directly involved with Afghan affairs stated, “The Administration is fearful the growing quagmire in both countries could have serious repercussions in the 2004 presidential election.” This has meant a major shuffling of responsibilities within the NSC and a reappraisal by all U.S. government officials. The arrival of the former U.S. ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, on the NSC staff has provided an important catalyst for the policy change.

While there is no doubt that the Administration has adopted an altered approach to both Afghanistan and Iraq, this is part of a considerably broader strategy devised largely by White House political guru Karl Rove. Rove’s goal has been to find a way to translate foreign policy from a political deficit for the Administration to an asset. This would require a new aggressive policy crafted both to minimize the political impact on President Bush and to deflect the political effect on the electorate.

Necessary changes

According to a senior NSC official, Condoleezza Rice was “in over her head and needed help in order to keep these two imbroglios from damaging the President’s reelection aspirations.” Furthermore, not only did she need to manage her worldwide portfolio, but she also had to coordinate diffuse and competing policy outlooks within the Administration for both Afghanistan and Iraq. Blackwill’s arrival provided the impetus for Rove to develop a new strategic approach to both problems and to provide the momentum to achieve the necessary compromises for policy change from the secretaries of state and defense, as well as from the president and from Vice President Cheney and Rice. Blackwill, the same source cited above said, was “the perfect candidate to halt the failures and assist in forging a new strategy.” As a strong manager, Blackwill also would bring order to the “mess left at the NSC by Khalilzad’s departure.”

By the end of the summer, evidence began to surface that the administration was intent on reversing the drift in its Afghan policy, restoring lost momentum and addressing the growing security threat posed by the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s comeback. There was also a recognized need to instill interagency discipline in Washington and among the many U.S. government elements in Afghanistan to provide a genuine impetus for reconstruction. Since September, the administration finally seems to be matching concrete action with its rhetoric and promises. A prime example is its request for US$1.2 billion in the recent Emergency Supplemental. Combined with the US$600 million in the FY 2004 budget, this demonstrates a high level of serious attention of the sort that had been lacking since the destruction of the Taliban-al Qaeda regime.

Blackwill’s charter at the NSC, in addition to oversight of strategic policy, is to provide coherence to Afghan policy and ensure that U.S. government elements in Washington are integrated and “on the same sheet of music.” Additionally, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, retains his position as special presidential envoy for Afghanistan. Holding both positions concurrently is an unprecedented role for a U.S. ambassador. In this case, it is designed to ensure he will have the ability to integrate and oversee all elements of U.S. policy within Afghanistan. In theory, Khalilzad will not have his hands tied as did his predecessor in Kabul, Robert Finn, who had to deal with at least two other U.S. ambassadors operating independently in Kabul, as well as a host of senior military officers who were beyond his purview. Khalilzad now will have all elements of U.S. Afghan policy under his purview. The combination of Blackwill in Washington and Khalilzad in Kabul is intended to provide a sorely needed coherence that previously was lacking.


Despite the new U.S. government optimism, significant problems remain. The war on terrorism is in serious trouble. The Taliban have regrouped and are using Pakistan as both a haven and a staging area. As a result of attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces, local Afghan and international aid officials have slowed or halted reconstruction efforts in many areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border, as well as elsewhere throughout the country. The warlords or local leaders remain predominant in many areas of the country, undermining attempts to expand the Karzai government’s writ and withholding income that should accrue to the Kabul government. Poppy production is now at a four-year high.

It is certainly too early to tell whether the new U.S. direction will make for a significant change in Afghanistan. It is also unclear whether these changes will have an appreciable effect on Bush’s presidential reelection. Nonetheless, these changes are most welcome and should help the U.S. position in Afghanistan. One pitfall that must be avoided is adding to perceptions that President Karzai is an American puppet and that the Americans are using undue pressure to influence the Afghan political decision making process. The bottom line is that the United States should remain aloof from Afghan politics while assisting the legitimate government, providing greater security beyond Kabul and continuing to pursue the war on terrorism. Washington needs to encourage compromise and cooperation and let the Afghans determine the balances in their leadership. American officials must not be seen as just another maneuvering faction within the murky Afghan landscape. Khalilzad is probably the right U.S. official to perform this balancing act.