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Holbrooke Heralds U.S.-Afghan Pre-Election Engagement

(Inter Press Service)

With Afghanistan’s elections fast approaching and the country’s security situation rapidly deteriorating, the Obama administration is touting a new, broad approach to winning the fight against insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke at the Center for American Progress (CAP) on August 12 about the civilian component of the new U.S. approach.

Holbrooke stressed the incremental nature of the civilian effort, pointing out that defeat and victory are not yet relevant terms to use in terms of civil society programs. “The payoff is still to come. We have to produce results, and we understand that, and we’re not here today to tell you we’re winning or we’re losing. We’re not here today to say we’re optimistic or pessimistic.”

Holbrooke was joined by a panel of ten members of his interagency team, which represents the nine agencies that are working together on the U.S.-Afghanistan-Pakistan civilian effort.

Holbrooke’s team coordinates a range of non-military U.S. activities in the region, including agriculture, governance, media and communications, and investigations into terrorist financing.

“We’re here to tell you that we are in this fight in a different way, with a determination to succeed,” Holbrooke said.

Though several members of Holbrooke’s panel stressed that the fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are intertwined, much of the discussion focused on military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke explained the apparent prioritization of Afghanistan by saying that the Taliban and Al Qaeda “are basically fighting in support of one another, so they are allies.” He also observed, “If you abandon the struggle in Afghanistan, you will suffer against Al Qaeda as well.”

The broadening of strategy comes at a particularly difficult time for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. July saw 40 U.S. military casualties, the highest monthly total yet in Afghanistan, and so far, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in August.

In an August 10 article in the Wall Street Journal, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, acknowledged the worsening situation there, saying that the Taliban are threatening formerly secured areas in the north and west, and that “U.S. casualties are likely to remain high for months to come.”

McChrystal is expected to report to Obama this September about the situation in Afghanistan, at which point the administration will presumably decide whether to send more troops.

Much of the recent escalation of violence in Afghanistan has come from the Taliban—in anticipation of upcoming elections, set for August 20.

The Taliban have vowed to derail the elections, urging Afghanis not to vote and calling the election a “seductive U.S. process.”

President Barack Obama has called the upcoming elections “the most important event this year in Afghanistan,” and both the U.S. and the larger international community are working to ensure that voting goes as smoothly as possible.

At the CAP event, Holbrooke senior advisor Jane Marriott conceded that the elections “are being held in very difficult security conditions, and they won’t be perfect.”

Still, she said, the U.S. is working to help the election and campaign process along; one example Marriott cited is the U.S. providing media capacity and transportation to candidates, helping them to “campaign properly.”

According to Rina Amiri, another Holbrooke advisor, anticipation about the election has reached a fever pitch in Afghanistan, among both candidates and voters.

“This is the most candidates that have competed for an election,” said Amiri, referring to the 41 presidential candidates, including two women, and the 3,300 people running for 420 seats in the provincial council elections.

She also added that 17 million Afghans—about half of the country’s population—have registered to vote. This is up from the roughly 12 million who registered to vote in the 2004 elections.

President Hamid Karzai is considered the leader in the pool of presidential candidates, though recent polls suggest that he will likely not get the 50 percent of the vote needed to win the presidency outright in the first round. If no candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff will be held in October.

The Obama administration and Karzai government have had an at times rocky relationship. Karzai has criticized the U.S. use of private contractors, and the U.S. administration has criticized Karzai’s relationships with prominent Afghan warlords.

However, the U.S. stance appears to have softened recently. According to the Associated Press, Hillary Clinton recently indicated that Washington will work with whomever wins Afghanistan’s presidential election.

This attitude was reflected at the CAP event by Holbrooke’s team. Marriott characterized the United States and the international community as “actively impartial in these elections,” and Amiri told the Inter Press Service that “The [U.S.] embassy enjoys a good relationship with all of the candidates.”

Amiri also dismissed reports of friction between the Washington and Karzai as being a media creation: “There is a whole other reality that exists at the press level,” she said. “I think all of the key candidates are showing that they are going to be engaging on a constructive level,” regardless of election outcomes.

Post-election, then, is when Holbrooke’s team hopes to work with the government to push its various civilian programs. “After this election is settled,” said Holbrooke, “we [the international community] will be asking the government to reinvigorate the leadership in these fields that we’ve heard today.”

Holbrooke also remarked that, as important as all of his team’s efforts are, security is the primary determinant of real success on the civilian front; he noted that a school or a bridge is useless without the security to use them. “Of course, you can’t do civilian growth unless you have security,” he said. “It’s obvious.”

Danielle Kurtzleben writes for the Inter Press Service.

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