x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Afghan poll crucial to stabilising country, says US envoy

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, says the vote will be a critical way to legitimise the Afghan government and jump-start US efforts to stabilise the country.

WASHINGTON// A week before Afghanistan's national elections, Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the vote will be a critical way to legitimise the Afghan government and jump-start US efforts to stabilise the country. "Any issues that we would like to focus on: anti-corruption, a national reintegration amnesty programme, improving the government at the subcentral level ? we are working on them, but until an election legitimises the government, whoever wins, we have had to focus on that," said Mr Holbrooke, who appeared yesterday at a press conference hosted by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. "This election matters and we will see what happens."

Mr Holbrooke warned of potential complications and "disputes", noting that such problems are inevitable in a wartime election that involves 41 candidates. "Holding an election in a wartime situation is always difficult and holding one when the enemy says they are going to try to disrupt it makes it even more difficult," said Mr Holbrooke, a former UN ambassador under Bill Clinton who helped broker the 1995 peace deal that ended the war in Bosnia.

Still he said he agreed with Barack Obama, the US president, when he characterised the election as the most important event in Afghanistan this year. In January, Afghan officials chose to postpone the national election citing security concerns, a move that Mr Holbrooke said threatened to undermine the Afghan constitution, which mandates that a vote occur within 30 to 60 days of the end of the presidential term. Hamid Karzai's term technically expired in May.

Even as he sounded warnings, however, Mr Holbrooke praised the administration's new, broader approach to Afghanistan, which includes efforts to disrupt "illicit finances" and a new communications effort aimed at countering Taliban propaganda. He was especially upbeat about a shift in focus away from eradicating poppy - which provides a vital source of funding to the Taliban - to new US efforts to increase agricultural production of other crops and improve business opportunities for Afghan farmers.

"This is most successful thing we have done so far," Mr Holbrooke said. His appearance and more positive tone comes amid rising violence in Afghanistan and concerns here that the war effort is not going well. In July, 44 American soldiers died in Afghanistan, the highest one-month total since the war began in 2001. Nineteen US soldiers have already died there in August, according to the website icasualties.org

Pressure has mounted on Mr Obama, who has ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, to spell out a clearer policy, including plans for an eventual exit strategy. Mr Holbrooke said he was keenly aware that the American people expect more tangible results. "We all feel the impatience and pressure of the American public and the Congress, which legitimately wants to see progress," he said. He also stressed the importance of Mr Obama's dual focus on Western Pakistan, where al Qa'eda and the Taliban have found a safe haven and where US troops are strictly prohibited. He touted as a major victory the reported assassination of Beitullah Meshud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan.

But he was also careful not to sound overly optimistic at a time when many are questioning the prospects for US success. "I am not here today to tell you we are winning or we are losing. We're not here to say we are optimistic or pessimistic," he said. We are here to say that we are in this fight in a different way with a determination to succeed under direct personal supervision of the president."

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story paraphrasing Gen Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, as saying the Taliban has gained the upper hand. The article, entitled "Taliban Now Winning", prompted a swift response from the Pentagon, which argued that Gen McChrystal's words were taken out of context. The fallout illustrated the high stakes in the battle to shape perceptions of the war effort back home.

Later this month, Gen McChrystal will present the results of his "strategic assessment" of the war effort to the president. He is expected to request additional troops, with some speculating the number could be around 10,000 or more. There also are reports that Mr Obama is being urged to double the number of civilian advisers in the country. The US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eickenberry, has asked the administration for additional $2.5 billion (Dh9.2bn) in non-military spending for 2010, 60 per cent more than Mr Obama had requested, according a report in The Washington Post.

Mr Holbrooke praised Gen McChrystal's effort to "protect the population", or limit the number of civilian casualties. He said those efforts made it easier to conduct civilian operations in Afghanistan. "The best counter-propaganda is to reduce civilian casualties," he said. "The rules of engagement have changed in a way which has produced a result on the ground." sstanek@thenational.ae