Who's Running Afghan Policy?
Several months ago a leading American expert on Afghanistan was meeting with Meghan O'Sullivan, a deputy national security adviser in the Bush White House. The topic at hand was the attitude of Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani leader, toward the revived Taliban insurgents operating out of Pakistani territory. Musharraf's government seemed (as it does now) to be willfully ignoring the Taliban, or perhaps even providing them with safe harbor and assistance. Why would Musharraf do either?
The expert explained that many factors shape the difficult Pakistani-Afghan relationship. He pointed to the decades-long conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan and mentioned the Durand Line, the supposed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 1,600-mile-long line, imposed on Afghanistan by the British in 1893, divides Pashtun and Baluch regions and separates Afghanistan from territory it has claimed as its own. Afghanistan has never officially recognized the Durand Line, which has been a great source of strife between the two countries.
By referring to the Durand Line, the expert was noting that US efforts in the region are complicated by pre-9/11 history. O'Sullivan, according to this expert (who wishes not to be named), didn't know what the Durand Line was. The expert was stunned. O'Sullivan is the most senior Bush Administration official handling Afghanistan policy. If she wasn't familiar with this basic point, US policy-making on Afghanistan was in trouble.
After Iraq, Afghanistan is the most profound foreign policy mess the Bush Administration faces. Five years after US forces chased the Taliban out of Kabul, the Taliban are resurgent, adopting tactics used by Iraqi rebels. The central government of President Hamid Karzai remains weak and cannot provide security or basic services to its people. Reconstruction has slowed dramatically. Poppy cultivation has exploded. Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are affecting the military campaigns against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And the consensus among Afghanistan experts is that many Afghans, seeing little direct benefit from the lagging reconstruction efforts, have lost faith in the US-backed government. According to recent Congressional testimony by Barnett Rubin, a New York University professor who has advised the United Nations on Afghanistan, a former Afghan minister recently said, "The conditions in Afghanistan are ripe for fundamentalism."
Yet George Bush has no senior-level official responsible for policies and actions in Afghanistan. "The situation is worsening," notes former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. "We have to have someone in government responsible for the whole picture--military, economic assistance and political. There's a nexus between each. But there's not one person in the government designated to be in charge of that nexus. It could be the ambassador. It could be someone else--if they have resources and clout and accountability. But this Administration has not been keen on accountability."
O'Sullivan is not the issue. She is a protégé of Richard Haass, who left the State Department as policy director in July 2003 and became president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and she is neither a neocon nor an ideologue. She has even earned the suspicion of conservatives for having proposed engaging with Iran and for suggesting--before 9/11--that it is unproductive to brand a state a "rogue regime." The problem is that O'Sullivan, who is in her mid-30s, is not an expert in the field and does not have the stature to take on heavyweights in the Administration (say, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld). Worse, she has two briefs: Afghanistan and Iraq. Either project would (or should) be more than a 24/7 job for a senior Administration official. As a Congressional aide quips, "It's too much to ask anyone to handle two policy failures at once. And what we have now is Administration policy-making that happens mostly by drift, with the White House not caring all that much about it. They'd rather see Afghanistan as 'mission accomplished' and move on." (The White House said O'Sullivan was not available for an interview.)
It has been a year and a half since the Bush Administration had a major player covering Afghanistan. That was Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American named ambassador to Afghanistan and a special presidential envoy in 2003. He was well schooled in the nation's history and culture and its internecine conflicts. In 2002, as a special envoy, he oversaw the loya jirga that led to the establishment of a government there. He later negotiated with regional Afghan leaders. "He would routinely jump into a car and go over to Karzai's office to give him marching orders, for good or bad," says a Congressional aide who witnessed such occasions. A neocon advocate of the Iraq War and a disciple of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, Khalilzad had direct lines into the White House and the Pentagon. In March 2005 he was named US ambassador to Iraq.
Khalilzad was replaced by Ronald Neumann, a career foreign service office, who previously served in Iraq and Bahrain. Neumann lacked the standing of Khalilzad. "He tries, but he's not able to get stuff done," Rubin says. "He does not have the clout. When I ask him for something difficult, he says, 'It will never get through the bureaucracy.'"