Buying Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan: U.S. efforts to maintain imperial credibility

Christian Science
(September 8, 2003) calls it “Nation Building,
Redoubled.” A desperate new push by the Bush administration
to bring positive attention to its campaign in Afghanistan features
approximately $12.2 billion in additional spending for fiscal year
2004. The new spending package was approved by the U.S. Congress
on October 17, a few days after the UN Security Council ratified
a NATO agreement to expand the International Security Assistance
Force (ISAF) outside of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The ISAF
decision had been held up for almost two years because of U.S. objections,
which have now been dropped. The Far East Economic Review
(July 30, 2003) considers these moves part of a “major policy
shift” in Washington that “could not be more timely.”
Are the hopes and dreams of Afghan civilians, the United Nations,
and aid agencies all of a sudden on the brink of fulfilment, thanks
to the generosity of the United States? 

Afghan Elections 

some of the aid will undoubtedly improve the lives of some Afghans,
it is clear that the new U.S. program, dubbed “Accelerate Success,”
is geared more towards reshaping the Afghan public perception of
both the Afghan central government and the United States, its major
supporter. The most obvious goal is to ensure that interim President
Hamid Karzai is elected next June in the first public elections
in the history of the country, regardless of the interests of Afghans.
State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher told the press on
July 28, “We’ll place special emphasis on reconstruction
projects that demonstrate to the Afghan people the concrete, visible
programs that are improving their lives.” To the Administration,
improving lives is not as important as demonstrating that lives
are improving. The aid will be deployed over “the next ten
months,” according to Boucher, meaning between then and June
2004, when the elections are scheduled. 

and subtly, the U.S. is attempting to engineer a situation in which
the only real choice for the Afghan electorate is Karzai. This means
bolstering his standing with the people through increasing reconstruction
projects. It also means eliminating any serious challengers to Karzai’s
candidacy. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy (now appointed ambassador)
to Afghanistan, was reported as saying, “Afghan warlords, whom
Washington previously tolerated as allies against the Taliban, would
be ‘marginalized’ if they continued using guns to impose
their will” (WP, October 11, 2003). 

same day, President Karzai passed the “political parties law”
that “bans political parties from having their own militias
or affiliations with armed forces.” The law also bans “judges,
prosecutors, officers, and other military personnel, police, and
national security staff” from joining a party while still in
office. This narrows the spectrum of possible challengers to Karzai’s
candidacy (the law says nothing about puppet presidents affiliated
with foreign armies).

Afghans might agree that the decree is long overdue. For example,
the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)
for years has called for “debarment of higher-echelon individuals
of Jihadi and Taliban parties from holding high public office,”
as well as “prosecution of all individuals who, during the
past 23 years have committed high treason, war crimes, blatant violations
of human rights, and plunder of national assets.” But the law
is not calculated to bring justice to the Afghan people. 

to some, Karzai’s move will prevent “Afghan warlords from
using their private militias to intimidate voters” (RFE/RL,
October 16, 2003), which is probably true. But it will also eliminate
most of his potential opposition. The law was formally approved
a few days after members of the Northern Alliance militia, including
officials in the defense ministry, declared that they would not
support Karzai’s campaign, but would run their own candidate.
Karzai “reacted angrily” to the announcement, saying he
was “fed up with coalition government.” His bosses in
Washington are also worried. The Washington Post reported,
“The threatened internal defection from Karzai comes at a critical
time for Afghanistan’s troubled transition to democracy, already
a source of concern to the Bush administration, which strongly backs
Karzai.” An increase in the number of candidates is seen as
a threat to the “troubled transition to democracy” rather
than an example of democracy. 

perspective is not surprising, given the U.S. record in imposing
“democracy” on Afghanistan. The way in which Karzai became
president of the transitional government is a perfect example. In
December 2001 at the Bonn meetings, the Afghan delegates originally
chose an affiliate of the former King Zahir Shah as interim head
of state, but, according to one Western diplomat, “all the
delegates understood that the Americans wanted Mr. Karzai…. So
on December 5, they finally chose him.” Then, at the second
stage of the Bonn Process, the Loya Jirga (grand council) meetings
of June 2002, U.S. Envoy Khalilzad ensured that the immensely popular
former King did not stand for office, but was relegated to the figurehead
post of “father of the country.” The Northern Alliance,
used by the U.S. to oust the Taliban, also agreed not to field a
candidate in the Loya Jirga and was awarded positions in Karzai’s
cabinet. Karzai, the only remaining viable choice, was picked as
president a second time. 

Hearts and Minds 

primary goal of the new U.S. monetary aid to Afghanistan is to enhance
Karzai’s military leverage over the warlords and improve his
chances of election in June. The aid package comprises a small portion
of the $87 billion Iraq/Afghanistan spending package approved on
October 17 by Congress. Of the $12.2 billion earmarked for Afghanistan,
90 percent will be spent directly on U.S. military operations. Even
the $1.2 billion “reconstruction” portion of the Afghan
aid has $400 million (or 30 percent) going to supporting the Afghan
National Army and the national police. 

tiny fraction of the money, $300 million, will be spent on critical
infrastructure, “to accelerate the construction of roads, schools,
health clinics, and local, small-scale projects.” The infrastructure
reconstruction needs of Afghans are immense. The UN and the World
Bank have estimated that Afghanistan needs between $11 and $19 billion
over 5-10 years. The Afghan government estimates the price to be
$30 billion. Paul Barker, Afghanistan country director for CARE
International considers the new U.S. aid, “rather less than
we were hoping for…. Afghanistan is not a one-year contract, there
is a need for multi-year help for Afghanistan, probably of around
20 billion dollars” (AFP, September 9, 2003). But there
are no indications that the $1.2 billion grant is anything but a
one-time additional funding request from the White House, intended
to accelerate visible reconstruction in key areas and help solve
Hamid Karzai’s image problems. 

politicization of aid in Afghanistan was discussed in a June 2003
study commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs, “A Retrospective Analysis of Humanitarian Principles
and Practice in Afghanistan.” The study found that “there
seems to be a negative correlation between…direct superpower involvement
and the ability of the international system to engage with crises
in a relatively principled manner. In Afghanistan, the ‘highs’
in politics (Cold War proxy interventions; post 9/11 peace-building)
correspond to ‘lows’ in principles.” This conclusion
is exemplified in the current U.S. aid package, where helping Afghans
is a public relations tool to improve the standing of the incumbent
president prior to elections. According to the Christian Science
, “lack of aid to remote areas…could undermine
U.S. efforts to win hearts and minds, both in regard to U.S. forces
and the Afghan central government” (September 8, 2003). The
armed opposition to the Afghan central government certainly agrees
with this assessment. Since September 2002, the number of armed
attacks on aid workers has risen from approximately one a month
to one or two a day. “The Taliban see the building of roads
and schools as a weapon against themselves. This indicates the kind
of people they are,” commented Zalmay Khalilzad (AP, October
7, 2003). Khalilzad fails to wonder what “kind of people”
use aid to “win hearts and minds” and guarantee election

An Extension of The U.S. Government 

William B. Taylor Jr., the coordinator of Afghan policy at the U.S.
State Department, informed Radio Free Europe of the “critical
difference” between Afghanistan and Iraq: “There’s
an Afghan government duly elected, [a] perfectly legitimate, sovereign
government that we fully support. That is not the case in Iraq.”
Since Karzai was chosen by 1,500 delegates when they had no other
choice and he appointed his own cabinet, it is difficult to understand
how the Afghan government can be called “duly elected”
or “perfectly legitimate.” 

brief examination of the mechanisms by which the U.S. government
“fully supports” the government of Afghanistan shows the
limited sovereignty the Afghans actually have over their own affairs.
Rarely mentioned is the fact that Hamid Karzai’s unelected
cabinet contains five U.S. citizens. Like interior minister Ali
Ahmad Jalali, who left a job with Voice of America (a news organization
funded by the State Department to serve the “long range interests
of the United States”), these U.S. citizens guarantee that
the proper perspective makes its way into Afghan public policy.
In addition, the Bush administration is now “considering placing
up to 100 U.S. experts in key positions in Afghan government ministries”
(Reuters, August 14, 2003). The plan, devised by Zalmay Khalilzad,
was leaked in August by disgruntled State Department officials who
were upset when the not-yet ambassador made decisions on department
matters. One official complained, “He wants to build an empire.
He wants to ‘Bremerize’ the operation,” referring
to L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator who essentially runs Iraq.
Another senior State Department official said, “He wants to
set up not just an embassy but a parallel structure that works directly
with the Afghan ministries” (AFP, August 26, 2003).
Khalilzad, who was also Bush’s envoy to Iraq before being appointed
ambassador to Afghanistan, denied the charges. “We are not
going to be running things here.” Rather than being “shadow
ministers,” the new U.S. advisers would serve as “experts
to help carry out Afghan government policies and ensure the new
U.S. aid is properly spent” (WP, October 11, 2003).
It is not clear how different that is from “running things.” 

the capital the Afghan government has little authority. In some
cities, however, the emissaries of the central government are not
Afghans, but foreign troops and advisors. Provincial Reconstruction
Teams (PRTs) consisting of 100 or more U.S. troops and political
advisors (and now those from other Western countries) have been
operating since late 2002 in 4 relatively stable Afghan cities.
Initiated by the U.S. government, PRTs were supposedly a response
to the call for expanded international peacekeepers outside of Kabul,
which the United States rejected. Under the guise of providing infrastructure
support, the PRTs carry out a number of useful tasks for Washington.
Building schools and roads is seen as a way to “win hearts
and minds” for the central government, as well as for the U.S.
occupation. At the same time, the PRTs gather intelligence about
possible threats to both. One U.S. Defense Department spokesperson
said the objectives of PRTs are “security, reconstruction,
strengthening the influence of the central government and monitor[ing]
and assessing the local regional situations.” Another official
said, “This has put a human face on the American presence.”
But, “despite our name, we’re not really here to do reconstruction.
We are here to reinforce Afghan authority” (WP, October
1, 2003). Given that a significant portion of the Afghan central
government is beholden to U.S. concerns, this really means U.S.

PRT concept has met with nearly unanimous denunciation by aid organizations
for militarizing the delivery of aid, for doing little to improve
the security situation, and for its inefficiency. A position paper
by InterAction, a consortium of over 100 NGOs operating in Afghanistan,
asserted that the PRT system “blurs the lines between humanitarian
workers and a combat military force and related intelligence gathering
apparatus, creating increased security risks for NGOs and other
expatriate assistance personnel.” A report by Refugees International
(RI) said, “The comparative advantage the PRTs have is their
capability as armed soldiers to enhance security for Afghans, the
Afghan government, and international aid organizations, plus their
potential ability to operate in insecure regions in which unarmed
civilian aid agencies cannot. Ironically, most of the present PRTs
are located in the wrong places—relatively safe cities such
as Kunduz and Bamian.” Instead of providing security so that
aid agencies can operate in difficult areas, PRTs have tended to
duplicate the work of NGOs in stable zones, “but with overheads
off the charts.” Relying on PRTs for reconstruction is extremely
inefficient. RI has estimated the cost of operating a PRT to be
“at least $10 million per year in personnel and support costs
alone.” In a year, a PRT is expected to be able to build only
“a handful of schools worth about $10,000 each.” Thus,
if a PRT succeeded in building 10 schools in a year, the overhead
rate would be 99 percent. 

U.S./NATO Occupation 

Bush planners figure that to get Karzai elected the Afghan people
have to be convinced that the only path to security and stability
lies with him and his powerful friends. In addition to increasing
the funding for “reconstruction,” the U.S. has finally
withdrawn its objections to ISAF expansion. This comes only after
the 4,500 soldier force has had its military control devolved from
the UN to NATO in August, making it less internationally accountable
and more accountable to the architects of “Operation Enduring
Freedom.” U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte told Reuters
(October 13, 2003), “While Washington was initially cool to
the idea, it changed its mind after NATO took the ISAF command.”
The ISAF expansion has long been a stated wish of many Afghans,
so the change is certainly meant to enhance the perception of security.
It is not clear, however, that it is intended to bolster real security,
since initial plans call for having ISAF troops join PRTs. According
to Reuters (October 14, 2003), “The first ISAF troops in the
Afghan provinces are expected to come from Germany, which has said
it wants to send up to 450 to the northern town of Kunduz to form
a civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Team.” The deployment
to Kunduz, a “relatively benign” town, indicates the chiefly
public relations purpose of the ISAF expansion. The ISAF operation
is seen by U.S. and European planners as a way to enhance the public
image of NATO and give it a reason to exist. NATO officials say
the expansion of the ISAF will bring more “relevance”
to the organization. From the point of view of the U.S. leadership,
NATO being more relevant means it works more in conjunction with
U.S. goals. From the point of view of some European leaders, there
may be the wistful desire to regain lost imperial glory. 

NATO now has an excuse to operate outside its “treaty area.”
According to Xinhuanet (October 13, 2003), “NATO is
taking concrete steps to consolidate its first base in [Central
Asia]…[T]he ISAF expansion clearly betrays its efforts to direct
increasing strategic attention to the region.” When ISAF was
a UN operation, Russia and China, NATO’s major competitors,
as well as other non-NATO countries, had influence over military
operations in Afghanistan. Now a non-Russian and Chinese force,
controlled by the U.S. and Europe, is taking over a country in the
backyard of Russia and China. The expansion of NATO to Asia is momentous,
but was uncontested at the Security Council, even by permanent members,
Russia and China. Apparently both countries have tentatively aligned
themselves with NATO to justify their own battles against “terrorism,”
namely Russia’s terrorist war against Chechnya and China’s
crackdown on independence movements in western China. 

U.S. for its own part has downgraded the expected danger to its
interests posed by China. In May the Pentagon identified instead
an “arc of instability,” comprised of mostly poor countries
“cut off from economic globalization,” that is expected
to be more dangerous than China in the near future. The arc “runs
through the Caribbean Rim, Africa, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the
Middle East, South Asia and North Korea.” In what the Wall
Street Journal
calls “one of the biggest shifts in U.S.
military thinking in the past 50 years,” a new strategy is
being developed that will involve U.S. troops in “lots of small,
dirty fights in remote and dangerous places.” Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld “envisions a force that will rotate through
a large number of bases scattered throughout the world” (WSJ,
May 27, 2003). The U.S. invasion of Iraq in March put 150,000 troops
there for an indefinite length of time, representing an enhanced
long term U.S. presence in the Middle East. Similarly, the largest
concentration of U.S. troops in the Central Asian portion of the
arc—about 10,000—is in Afghanistan. The occupation there
is not expected to end soon either. Maintenance and upgrade plans
for a soldier’s barracks at Bagram Air Base anticipate another
eight years of operation. The base operations commander in Kandahar,
Lt. Col. Steve Mahoney, told Stars and Stripes (a newspaper
for overseas troops), “We’re going to be here a long time.” 

A Committed U.S. Imperialism 

most strident criticisms in the major news media of U.S. imperial
behavior in Afghanistan are that it is not effective enough. Many
liberal commentators are calling on the U.S. to take its imperial
role more seriously. Michael Ignatieff, director of the Harvard
Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, uses the derisive term “Nation
Building Lite” to describe Bush administration policy towards
Afghanistan. He has argued instead “for a committed American
imperialism,” believing that for the Afghans “their best
hope of freedom lies in a temporary experience of imperial rule.”
This “difficult truth” may not be popular, but “imperialism
doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes politically
incorrect.” By “committed imperialism,” Ignatieff
means imperialism that does enough good things for its subjects
that it diffuses resistance, not spawns more. He rightly censures
the Pentagon for the well-known incident where an Afghan wedding
party was bombed, but on grounds that call into question his credentials
to teach human rights policy. Ignatieff explains that one of the
key ingredients of imperial power is “awe,” a fact “the
British imperialists understood,” and which the U.S. maintains
“by the timeliness and destructiveness of American air power.”
But “awe can be sustained only if the force is just.”
The bombing of the wedding was unjust, making it a “major political
error” (not a war crime or human rights violation). Errors
weaken the imperial stranglehold, since “the more errors there
are the less awe and the more resistance American power will awaken,”
making the Afghans less likely to submit to imperial rule, “their
best hope of freedom” (NYT
, July 28, 2002). 

empires consolidate their power over their subjects via “awe,”
they are allowed by other countries to get away with it by building
“credibility.” One reason behind the Bush administration’s
“policy shift” on Afghanistan was made clear in a June
2003 report cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and
the Asia Society, “Afghanistan: Are We Losing the Peace?”
According to the report, “Losing the peace through inadequate
support for the Karzai government would gravely erode U.S. credibility
around the globe and make it far more difficult to obtain international
support in dealing with similar crises in the future.” 

new push to keep Hamid Karzai in power reveals an unusually desperate
side of the Bush administration’s foreign policy at a time
when the campaign in Iraq is going badly and opinion polls show
that “Americans are for the first time more critical than not
of Mr. Bush’s ability to handle both foreign and domestic problems”
(NYT, October 2, 2003). The heightened domestic attention
that accompanies Congressional war spending, plus the publicity
surrounding the upcoming Afghan Constitutional Loya Jirga in December
and the Afghan presidential elections in June, will make it easier
to keep U.S. behavior towards Afghanistan “on-camera.”
It is up to the anti-war movement to take advantage of renewed visibility,
expose the reality, and weaken the credibility of the U.S. empire
in the midst of the official propaganda barrage. It is also important
to listen to and publicize Afghan voices who want true democracy
in their country and an end to perpetual imperial domination. 

Ingalls is a founding director of the Afghan Women’s Mission,
a U.S.-based nonprofit organization. He is a staff scientist at
the Space Infrared Telescope Facility Science Center, California
Institute of Technology.