Abramowitz’ critique was among the many advanced at “Obama’s Afghanistan: The Media and the War,” a forum in which yours truly took part last weekend in Los Angeles. Organizers were Ambassador Derek Shearer, Occidental College, and Geoffrey Cowan, Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, University of Southern California.
Even as Afghanistan emerges as the top story in the United States, newsman Bill Schneider observed, the media concentrate almost exclusively on troop numbers – not so much the on number of troops actually needed, but rather on the number that Obama will send.
Other experts at the forum included Peter W. Galbraith (below left), onetime U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, now in the news for having been fired as the United Nations’ Deputy Special Representative to Afghanistan on account of his efforts to expose what he called “colossal fraud” during the country’s presidential election. (photo credit) The contest, which began in August (prior post), ended last week with the declaration that Hamid Karzai had won re-election after his rival withdrew from a scheduled runoff. (Despite widespread agreement regarding irregularities, the U.N. General Assembly yesterday gave the result its vote of confidence.)
In a speech available in full here, Abramowitz contended that electoral fraud was a foregone conclusion: “The notion that decent elections could be held” – given problems of security, cheating, and corruption – “boggled my mind.”
Galbraith begged to differ, contending that the "free, fair, inclusive, and transparent" election mandated by Afghan law could have occurred. What doomed the process, Galbraith maintained, were avoidable failures; especially, the failure to insist that national election commissioners be truly independent from Karzai, and the failure to cancel remote and insecure polling stations, “ghost-voter” sites ripe for fraudulent exploitation.
Abramowitz and Galbraith did agreed on a key point. As the former put it:
‘The election was supposed to be a defining moment, which it was. But not the one they wanted.’
(My 2007 post on elections and democracy is here.)
Still another point seemed to garner the forum’s consensus: the election left Karzai’s government weaker, not stronger. That and other problems render the sending of more troops difficult – in the view of some, ill-advised. Meaningful results likely would require longterm engagement even if Afghanistan enjoyed legitimate leadership. In the absence of any such “credible local partner,” Galbraith argued, “The mission that the troops would be sent to do cannot be accomplished.”
Many at the forum referred to past U.S.-led interventions – mistakes at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam, lessons from Bosnia and Iraq.
'Americans hate political wars,'
Schneider (above) observed, and warned that Afghanistan, a war about which we've posted since our founding, but which is newly returned to American consciousness, might soon fall into that disfavored category. (photo credit)
Many experts called for greater attention, by the media and by policymakers, to human rights and humanitarian issues; lamented were the conflict’s consequences on civilians, not only in Afghanistan but also in border areas of Pakistan, as well as the continued lack of personal security and the continued oppression of Afghan women.
Of particular interest was the presentation of Katherine Spillar (left), co-founder and Executive Vice President of the Feminist Majority Foundation and a longtime advocate on behalf of women in Afghanistan. (photo credit) “We promised a Marshall Plan,” Spillar said of U.S. involvement since 2001, “and we’ve delivered very little of that.”
For many at the forum, disengagement was equally unpalatable – they feared withdrawal would both reverse whatever changes have occurred and risk restoration of a safe haven for terrorists.
Cross-cutting considerations like these tie the policy hands of President Barack Obama, who’s reassessing U.S. policy regarding the conflict in Afghanistan. (map credit) Obama is thought to be seeking some midway between escalation and withdrawal. The forum confirmed that finding such a midpath to success is devilishly difficult.