Opinion

The Great Debate

Afghan elections redefine U.S. role

On Saturday, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president, marking a critical turning point in Afghanistan’s history and our role in the country.

This election comes at an important time in U.S.-Afghan relations, which have been hindered by the erratic and often insulting behavior of President Hamid Karzai. The outcome will present an opportunity for the United States to redefine our relationship with Afghanistan in a way that addresses our shared security concerns and the long-term stability and viability of the country.

Make no mistake, the democratic transition to a new president would not be possible without the last 12 years of sacrifices made by the United States. The Afghan people and Americans owe a profound debt of gratitude to our armed forces, diplomats and U.S. Agency for International Development workers who helped transform Afghanistan from a failed state to fledgling democracy.

The United States has lost more than 2,300 servicemembers in Afghanistan and many thousands more have returned home with grievous injuries. USAID’s partner organizations have lost more than 400 people. We honor the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, the sacrifices made by their families and those who will bear lifelong wounds of war.

America’s investment and sacrifice have paid real dividends for the people of Afghanistan. Life expectancy has doubled. Maternal mortality has been cut in half. More than 9 million children are in school, 3.5 million of them girls, compared to 1 million in 2001.

Afghanistan votes on its future

The coverage on the impending Afghan presidential elections has been filled with death and chaos — the tragic shooting at the Serena hotel where an international election monitor was killed, the shocking attack on the Afghan Election Commission’s headquarters, the killing of a provincial council candidate and the news that several international monitoring groups are pulling out.

These tragedies, however, shift the focus from the major news in Afghanistan this week: Election fever has gripped the nation. I hear from Afghans as well as many foreigners now working in Afghanistan that the excitement about the coming April 5 presidential election is palpable and encouraging.

If this election goes relatively smoothly, it will mark the first democratic handover of power in Afghan history. Potential large-scale fraud and violence will be substantial obstacles to overcome, but there are also some positive signs. Voters, observers and security personnel are gearing up with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation.

How to fix foreign aid

All war-torn countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, share a common characteristic — the absence or destruction of economic infrastructure. The lack of opportunity fuels frustration and unrest, giving violent actors an opening to destabilize fragile institutions.

The frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other fragile states, exists despite Washington having spent billions of dollars in military and non-military aid to boost their economic development during the past decade. The lack of progress has fed a growing sense that U.S. foreign aid programs cannot establish economically viable systems.

I know this firsthand. As Deputy Under Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, I led a team of private-sector business leaders, agriculture experts, geologists and engineers in an effort to restore or create economic opportunity in war-torn communities. Our work focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but it later expanded to Pakistan, Sudan and Rwanda.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

Can Obama ever close Guantanamo?

Twelve years ago this month, President George W. Bush issued an order authorizing the U.S. military to detain non-U.S. citizen “international terrorists” indefinitely, and try some of them in military commissions. Within two months, those seized in the “war on terror” following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan were being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

A dozen years later, the United States is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, ending “the longest war in American history,” as President Barack Obama observed on Veteran’s Day. Yet the Guantanamo prison — now notorious as the site of torture and other abuses — remains open.

Obama pledged to close Guantanamo as one of his first official acts in office. Yet nearly six years into his presidency, the prison continues to hold 164 foreign captives. Only three have been convicted of a crime.

How Blackwater fought two wars — and State Department red tape

This is an excerpt from Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror, by Erik Prince, published this month by Portfolio.

On March 27, 2009, President Obama stood at a podium in Room 450 of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. Over his right shoulder was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; over his left, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Today, I am announcing a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the president said.

In the eight years since the United States had invaded Afghanistan, stability there had moved at a glacial pace, to the extent it moved forward at all. Taliban suicide bombings continued seemingly at will in the fledgling democracy. Insurgent aggression had prevented enough voter registration that the country’s landmark presidential elections, scheduled for May 2009, had to be pushed back three months. The United States had just come off its deadliest year of the war there, with 155 service members killed in 2008. In 2009, it only got worse.

Fighting for democracy in South Asia

For the first time in post-colonial history, all of the countries of South Asia are democracies.

From Bhutan to Bangladesh, Kabul to Kathmandu, democratic institutions are taking hold and giving people a voice in how they are governed. But these historic gains could be short-lived if troubling trends in some impending political transitions go unchecked.

Over the next six months, more than one billion voters across South Asia will choose leaders of some of the most diverse and vibrant countries in the world. Coming elections in India and Afghanistan and successful recent elections in Pakistan and Bhutan illustrate the depth of passion voters across the region have shown for electoral democracy.

Let Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail without us

Adding to an unenviable list of challenges that already includes earthquakes, sectarian violence and an economy teetering near collapse, Pakistan’s leaders are attempting to open a new round of high-stakes peace negotiations with homegrown insurgents, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The United States cannot do much to help these talks succeed, but President Barack Obama should use his October 23 summit with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ensure that if Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail, they fail in ways that unite mainstream Pakistanis in the fight against violent extremism rather than creating new rifts between Washington and Islamabad.

Unlike the Afghan Taliban groups that have had a live-and-let-live arrangement with Pakistani authorities, directing their violence beyond Pakistan’s borders, the TTP has conducted attacks with devastating effect on the Pakistani military and government, as well as innocent civilians. Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, describes the group as the state’s top security threat. And because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed, fast-growing state of nearly 200 million citizens that borders India, China, Iran and the Arabian Sea, the TTP’s disruptive potential also threatens U.S. security.

from David Rohde:

For Obama, a contradiction too many

President Barack Obama will have to deliver one of the finest speeches of his presidency next Tuesday if he hopes to win Congressional support for a strike against Syria. Out of nowhere, the Syria vote has emerged as one of the defining moments of Obama’s second term.

With three years remaining in office, the vote will either revive his presidency or leave Obama severely weakened at home and abroad.

There are legitimate criticisms of Obama's initial response to the Syrian government’s barbaric August 21st gas attack outside Damascus. The president should have demanded that Congress be called back from recess immediately. He should also have immediately made a far more personal and passionate case for strikes.

A fragile peace with Taliban if school attacks escalate

In the week in which America opened the door for negotiations with the Taliban, three bloody massacres of school children — shot down simply because they wanted to go to school — raise grave questions about what kind of peace the Taliban offer.

Within days of the initiative for talks, the Taliban shot to death nine foreign tourists encamped on the peak of Nanga Parbat in northern Pakistan, saying the murders were in retaliation for a drone attack that killed one of their leaders. But what kind of justification can possibly be offered for the firebombing of a college bus carrying forty girls from their Quetta campus in Pakistan? Fourteen defenseless girls died in the bombing; eight more people died when the terrorists ambushed the hospital.

We are confronted by a savage war waged by Islamic extremists against young people seeking education. In the wake of the outrage in Pakistan, two appalling massacres that killed 16 students were perpetrated in Nigeria by the country’s leading terrorist group, Boko Haram, whose name literally means, “Western education is sin.” It all underscores what is crucially missing from the seemingly good news that the Taliban, ensconced in its nice new headquarters in Doha, Qatar, has made two pledges for peace. One: to end the war peacefully, and a second to stop using Afghanistan as a base for terror strikes against other countries, as it did in 9/11.

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