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AFGHANISTAN: Holbrooke Heralds US Engagement Pre-Election

Danielle Kurtzleben

WASHINGTON, Aug 13 2009 (IPS) - Facing a worsening security situation in Afghanistan, as well as rapidly approaching elections in that country, the Obama Administration is touting a new, broad approach to winning the fight against insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke at the Centre for American Progress Wednesday about the civilian component to the new U.S. approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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

Holbrooke’s team members represented a variety of facets of the U.S. civilian strategy in the region, including agriculture, governance, media and communications, and investigations into terrorist financing.

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 programmes. "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."

"We're here to tell you that we are in this fight in a different way, with a determination to succeed," he added.

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 prioritisation 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 18 U.S. soldiers have been killed so far in August.

In an Aug. 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 decision will be made 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 Aug. 20.

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

U.S. 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 those elections go as smoothly as possible.

Jane Marriott, Senior Advisor to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, conceded on Wednesday 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, Senior Advisor on Afghanistan for the Office of the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the anticipation of the election has reached a fever pitch in Afghanistan, both among candidates and voters.

"This is the most candidates that have competed for an election," said Amiri, referring to the 41 presidential candidates, including 2 women, and the 3,300 people running for 420 seats in the provincial council elections.

She also added that 17 million Afghanis – 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 of elections. If no candidate gets 50 percent, a second round of elections will be held in October.

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

However, the Obama Administration stance appears to have softened recently: the Associated Press reported that Hillary Clinton this week indicated that the U.S. will work with whomever wins the Afghan presidential election.

This attitude was reflected on Wednesday by members of Holbrooke’s team. Marriott characterised the U.S. and the international community as "actively impartial in these elections," and Amiri told IPS that, "The [U.S.] embassy enjoys a good relationship with all of the candidates."

Amiri also dismissed reports of friction between the U.S. and Karzai as being a creation of the media – "there is a whole other reality that exists at the press level," she said, adding, "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 variety of programmes. "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 a precursor to 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."

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