Listening Skills

By John Liang / March 2, 2011 at 6:16 PM

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in the past month has "criticized what he called 'parallel structures' operating outside the law in Afghanistan, such as foreign aid organizations and private security firms," according to news reports:

Karzai said some foreign-run private institutions do more harm than good for Afghanistan.

"The parallel structures are there in order to help Afghanistan … in order to help Afghanistan's improved governance. Unfortunately, the real effect of that is in reverse of the objectives," he said.

Karzai said in the coming year he intends to focus on the “drivers of corruption" by enforcing laws and working out land-management programs as part of his goal to take over full security in the country by 2014.

That criticism may be justified, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee this morning, saying the United States had done a "lousy job" of listening to Karzai's concerns. Specifically:

Every issue that has become a public explosion from President Karzai has been an issue that he has talked to American officials about repeatedly in private. He, like the Iraqis before him, complained a long time about the private security companies and how they were out of control, and nobody had oversight over them. He told us that repeatedly, and he didn’t go public with it and didn’t make it a dramatic issue until he finally reached the end of his tether.

Civilian casualties. It wasn't until Gen. McKiernan and then Gen. McChrystal got there that we actually started taking the issue of civilian casualties really seriously, but it was something he raised every single time.

And so, these issues that have ended up in him having these explosions, these critical comments that he has, in my view, in most instances, there is a basis for that. Maybe he overdoes it, maybe he carries it too far, but that's a reality, and you know, the truth of the matter is, again, this is one of the things the administration has looked at, and spent a lot of time over the last several months on: Where do we set the standards, in terms of our goals? We are not there to build a 21st-Century Afghanistan. What do we need to do in terms of development -- both in terms of governance and also in terms of their capabilities and so on that, frankly, gives us a path out, having accomplished our objectives?

So the idea -- there isn’t a developing country and particularly anywhere near as poor as Afghanistan in the world that delivers services outside the capital. There isn’t a government like that that isn’t corrupt. So . . . how do we establish objectives that allow us to accomplish our national security objectives within the framework of the reality of the history and culture of Afghanistan -- and at the same time, help begin to build a relationship with them that we have with dozens of other developing countries that will last long after 2014 in terms of helping them modernize and develop some of these capabilities?

But figuring out how to balance what our objectives are, and what we actually need to do in Afghanistan is one of the things that I frankly think that this administration has done a better job of than I've seen during the entirety of the Afghan war.