Travels With Nick # 8: Escape From Kabul

My flight from Kabul to Delhi was at 9:40 am on Indian Airlines, the national carrier of India. I was flying through Delhi on my way to visit some friends in Kathmandu, Nepal. I figured I was in the neighborhood.

I left for the 20 minute drive to the airport early -- 6am -- insurance against unknown delays or issues. Good thing too. One would expect Kabul airport security to be tight. One would hope and expect Indian Airlines security to be extra tight considering the Indian Embassy in Kabul was bombed only two months prior. Correct on both counts. My car had barely reached the outskirts of the airport when we reached the backup for first security checkpoint. The Afghan National Police (ANP) were searching all cars, searching all bags, and doing pat downs on all passengers. After I piled back in the car, we crawled for another quarter mile before reaching the second checkpoint, manned by the Afghan National Border Police (ANBP). This time, passengers and their bags were forced to exit the car, go through a bag and personnel scan/search, and then rejoin their searched car for the final quarter mile drive to a chaotic parking lot where one could catch a bus to the terminal. After a ten minute wait, the bus made the two minute drive to the terminal where all passengers were dumped into an outdoor baggage and personal screening line for the third security check. Successfully passing this check entitled me to enter the airport terminal building and try to figure out how to turn my e-ticket into a boarding pass. Turns out, e-tickets are issued for flights from Kabul but not advised. I lucked out and the Indian airlines agent literally hand wrote my ticket out on a blank piece of white paper. Next came two more security check points inside the terminal (including one where they wrap your baggage in a strap) before finally getting to the gate at 8:55am, only 45 minutes before scheduled departure. The flight was delayed thirty minutes so we finally boarded at about 10am — but not before going through one last bag search and pat down literally right at the door of the plane.

All the waiting in traffic, security lines, and at the gate gave me plenty of time to reflect on the trip and core policy and operational questions about our mission in Afghanistan. At the start of the trip, I intended to learn more about the causes of conflict in Eastern Afghanistan and whether the US strategy and resources were matched and organized effectively to the problem. In particular, I wanted to look at the question of whether the US strategy of expanding governance from Kabul was still realistic or if a more local political engagement approach might make more sense.

I came away from the trip angry at the negligence of the Afghan politicians and the Bush Administration for squandering six years and countless billions of dollars on a politically soft and ineffective version of nation building. Spending money on infrastructure projects and coaching good governance is a grossly insufficient political strategy, particularly in the corrupt and inefficient atmosphere of Afghanistan today. I saw no evidence of a strategic approach to apply pressure and leverage on Afghan politicians, warlords, and tribes in order to build pragmatic support, stamp out corruption and isolate extremist influence. There apparently has been little effort to forge pragmatic political deals with the Pashtun tribes or to devise a more nuanced relationship between tribal authority and participation in the political process. Areas where security is good like Kabul or the West are not nearly the economic success stories one would expect from six years of security and economic development. Organizationally, the US military in has been asked to do the impossible in Afghanistan, burdened with too few troops and unsupported by a US civilian presence so minimal and irregular to render itself strategically meaningless. The net effect has been to falsely raise expectations, effectively lower responsibility and accountability, and turn the US military into an undermanned welfare program.

These critiques do not undercut in any way my admiration for the many tremendous individual leaders like John Spiszer or Steve Erickson who are making a difference despite organizational or resource shortcomings. In my view, Afghanistan's backslide is the result of weak leadership at the national level, not failures at the operational level.

There are reasons for optimism. The Obama team is leaning hard into AfPak, as evidenced by injection of both new and additional senior leadership, both civilian and military, as well as the surge of military and civilian resources into Afghanistan and the new assistance programs for Pakistan. What is less clear at this point, is how the Holbrooke/Eikenberry/McCrystal team will reenergize the political process in Afghanistan to impose more accountability and pragmatic cooperation from key Afghan leaders in Kabul and across the East. Having been an inside observer of Mr. Holbrooke's work in the 1990s, I'm confident we'll see much more political leverage in play in the coming months, in Kabul, Islamabad and in the provinces. Regardless of who wins the fall presidential elections in Afghanistan, the new Afghan President must take a tougher political line with corrupt or tainted warlords and work relentlessly to forge political deals with the Pashtun east at the expense of extremism. He should tell Afghans stop expecting the West to lift them up and call upon them to rebuild the Afghanistan they dream of. Stronger leadership in Kabul and Washington can make secure areas like Kabul shining examples of progress and prosperity to remind people what is possible and offer Afghans a more tangible alternative to conflict or the Taliban.

Having left Kabul, I arrived safely in Nepal, where soaring mountains and ancient Buddhist and Hindu culture now host a fledgling democracy — and a reminder of what is possible. The long time insurgency in Nepal has ended because the Maoist rebels are now part of the political process. Political engagement, process and compromise are the critical ingredients of peace more so than road projects or laser guided bombs. Security and reconstruction operations cannot themselves create political stability, they are only essential tools in pursuit of the political process. In Afghanistan and Pakististan, there is much political work to do. But I am thankful to have seen the beauty and the opportunity of Afghanistan and to meet Afghans who so passionately want peace and prosperity. I look forward to a future visit to Afghanistan that is far closer to that goal.

Thank you to Small Wars Journal for allowing me to share my thoughts on my Afghanistan trip. Readers can contact me at ndowling@idsinternational.net

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