Civilians are still the short pole in the tent

While Secretary of State Clinton touts her efforts to strengthen the civilian side of U.S. foreign policy, an experienced voice speaking out from the Baquba Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq still sees problems with recruitment, training and leadership. No need to choose between the two: both are on the right track, but civilians are still the short pole in the tent when it comes to expeditionary state-building.

Where is that long promised Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review? Will it be another four years?

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Take off the training wheels!

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), one of Kabul’s leading thinktanks, thinks Afghanistan has problems implementing high-level policy prescriptions:

While donor influence on the making of policy has generally been high, formal policies have proven to be very limited in the shaping subsequent action, and are often quickly discarded or replaced. Thus, much policymaking at the national level is best understood as a means of representation and of negotiating donor-government relationships.

AREU had already expressed doubts about the latest reconciliation efforts.

None of this surprises, but it is an important reminder: national plans are nice, but donors need to leave the Afghans to make more of their own decisions. No one ever learned to ride a bike with the training wheels still on!

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Thank you!

When I count my blessings on Thanksgiving, high among them are those of you who serve abroad, in military and civilian roles, to protect those of us who remain at home and to bring some order into a cruel world. Your courage and commitment make this world a better place.

I am not only thankful for the Americans.  Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese, Pakistanis and many others are also trying to do the right thing.  And let’s not forget the Iranians, North Koreans, Yemenis, Somalis and others struggling to maintain dignity and free themselves from violence and oppression.  My thanks to you all.  May your struggles be fruitful!

And last but not least:  thank you readers for your kind attention, which I will try to reward with interesting perspectives and readings.  This has been a challenging and enjoyable first month of going public with what had once been quiet and private thoughts.  Your site visits and encouraging notes have spurred me on, and I thank you for the privilege of offering a few thoughts on the events of our day.

It is too much to hope that peace will always prevail, but I hope not too much to imagine that we can come to understand better why it sometimes does and sometimes does not.  That will help us better the odds, and improve the ways in which we deal with conflict.  Even the opportunity to imagine such things is worth being thankful for!

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Fewer troops, more politics

The Center for American Progress weighs in with another report that advocates reducing military efforts in Afghanistan. This one should go on that shelf I suggested you clear:  it makes a good, strong argument for an improved political and diplomatic strategy.

While trying to avoid criticism of the Administration, the report is forceful and clear in faulting current efforts for failing to define a clear political end-state for Afghanistan and for giving Afghanistan a higher priority than it deserves in the hierarchy of threats to U.S. national security.

The report fails however to ask or answer explicitly that vital question:  “is Karzai worth it?”  But it gives a clear enough implicit answer:  no, not unless he cleans up a good deal, and even then there is a compelling need to decentralize, thus reducing his control, enlarging the political pie and enabling more local power brokers access to a slice.  Failing that, CAP would have us withdraw both troops and money more quickly than currently planned.

Where the report fails to convince is in arguing that troop drawdown and increased political and diplomatic effort are compatible.  When did we ever manage that trick in the past?  It gives ample examples of problems the troop presence creates, but do we really think thinning out in Helmand and Kandahar before making more progress is going to improve the situation there?

The report is big on leverage, conditionality and benchmarks:  give the Afghans things we want them to do, and cut funding (or the troops) if they don’t do them.  There may well be too much money in Afghanistan (we are spending several times the country’s GDP), but conditionality and benchmarks have rarely worked well elsewhere (certainly not in Iraq).  It is not clear why they would work much better in Afghanistan.

So yes to more politics and diplomacy, but so long as we are willing to ignore the question “is Karzai worth it?” we’ll likely do better not drawing down the troops too fast.

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Brilliant policy vs. real world resistance

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, SAIS colleague Kurt Volker welcomes the results of the NATO Summit but wonders whether the real world will permit serious implementation.

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Petraeus determined, Pentagon reports some progress

With David Petraeus in Paris vaunting the necessity of success in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has just issued a nuanced account of where things stood on September 30.

The Pentagon:

“Progress across the country remains uneven, with modest gains in security, governance, and development in operational priority areas. The deliberate application of our strategy is beginning to have cumulative effects and security is slowly beginning to expand. Although significant challenges exist, some signs of progress are evident.”

General Petraeus:

“Il est vital que l’Afghanistan ne redevienne jamais plus un sanctuaire pour les extrémistes”, a-t-il résumé lors d’une conférence à Sciences-Po Paris. La seule façon d’atteindre cet objectif est, selon lui, “d’aider les Afghans à assurer leur sécurité eux-mêmes”.

Or, for those without enough French to challenge my translation:  “It is vital that Afghanistan never again become a sanctuary for extremists,” he said in a lecture at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, “the only way of achieving this objective is to help the Afghans to ensure their own security.”

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