Afghanistan: Points of Power

Event Date: 
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Event Time: 
4:30 p.m.
Location: 
016 Robertson Hall

LISD Senior Research Associate Robert Finn presented a public talk titled, "Afghanistan: Points of Power" on February 11th, at 4:30 p.m. in Bowl 016, Robertson Hall, on the Princeton University campus. This lecture was co-sponsored with the Woodrow Wilson School.

In early January, President Barack Obama stated that Afghanistan would no longer have a “blank check,” to which Afghanistan’s President Karzai responded in an interview with ABC’s World News anchor Diane Sawyer, “We never had a blank check, but we’re grateful even for the little money that’s come to Afghanistan, even for the little help that’s come to Afghanistan.” Karzai’s comment was ill-received by many considering the U.S. has spent over $170 billion to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, and lost many hundreds of soldiers in the process.

Finn spoke about Karzai’s latest comment, and the problems Afghanistan continues to face on a daily basis. He defended Karzai’s statement on the basis that, “of the money that’s been given, only 5 percent of it has gone for development for programs that emanate from the embassy and all the rest of it’s been spent on military expenditures. “ Finn continued, “the problem – it wasn’t a gracious remark- but the problem from the start, and I’ve been saying this from the start, is that there’s never been enough money for Afghanistan.” According to the former ambassador, attention to Afghanistan got diverted to the problems in Iraq, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, among other things, and the result was underfunding in Afghanistan, which happens to be one of the poorest countries in the world. The World Bank placed Afghanistan’s annual per capita income at $800 in the year 2008.

Finn asserts that the low income is a factor, which leads to corruption and involvement in the Taliban.  “People kill because they want the job for their relative, so they will kill you to create a place,” according to Finn. In addition he added, “[the Afghanistan government] have increased the salaries of the national army because the Taliban were paying more.  A lot of the people who were fighting for the Taliban were doing it because there is no other work. In this country also recruiting is up for the military because everyone is out of work. It is one of the things you do, so they are no different over there.”

Despite the prevalence of the Taliban currently in Afghanistan, Finn believes that, “[Al-Qaida and the Taliban] will change.  It will wither away.  Circumstances will change.  The people will change.  So there will be something called the Taliban, but it won’t be this Taliban.” While his opinion may be comforting to some, the problem is that there are many other issues in Afghanistan that must be tackled. Finn lists his top three priorities for the country as, “training the civil service, setting up one or two model provinces and administrations, and working on job creation.”

The ambassador asserts that many of the jobs in Afghanistan are outsourced from the United States to firms in countries other than Afghanistan. Those countries then outsource the projects to Afghans, but at a much lower rate. Adversely, many jobs have been created in Afghanistan, but because people do not feel secure in their jobs due to the Taliban having their hand in everything, leaving most Afghanis resorting to looting or using corruption to get what they need.

The model provinces and administrations that Finn would make one of his priorities aims to set up a province in one of the poorest cities, and help educate the people of that city, to teach them how to succeed. Finn mentions the city of Bamiyan because, "it has a lady governor, it is one of the poorest, it is also one of the safest. The Hazaras [the ethnic group who primarily lives in Bamiyan] are moving ahead in education. They have the highest levels of education- not high, but higher than anyone else because they were always deprived.” By isolating cities and allowing them to build themselves up through education and job placement, the country can begin to redevelop one city at a time.

Despite President Obama’s claim that troops in Afghanistan would be withdrawing as early as 2011, Finn does not believe that will actually happen. “First of all, as soon as[Obama] set the date,  the military immediately started backpedaling on that. You can’t announce to the enemy that we are leaving as of this date because then all they have to do is stay,” noted Finn.  The Ambassador states that “we have to train the military, which they are doing slowly. Their training of the police is not going very well,” and he continued, “I have been complaining since 2002 that they have not been teaching these soldiers to read and write. How can you have a modern day army when the solider can’t even read a manual or keep a record? They are complaining if they lose the guns, but of course they lose the guns. There are no records.”

The future of Afghanistan and U.S. involvement within Afghanistan is uncertain, but what is certain, according to Finn, is that the country cannot recover it continues to lose jobs due to outsourcing, and if money sent for relief is not used effectively.  The government must step up and truly govern because the people of Afghanistan still want their government, argues Finn.

Finn is currently Senior Research Associate at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination and Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Prior to this he was the Ertegun Visiting Professor of Turcology at Princeton University from 2003-2005. He served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in more than 20 years, from March 2002 until August 2003. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan from 1998-2001 and his other diplomatic postings include Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey; Lahore, Pakistan; and Zagreb, Croatia. He opened the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan in 1992.

Finn is the author of the book The Early Turkish Novel, which has been published both in English and Turkish. His poems and translations have appeared in the United States, Turkey, France and Pakistan. He reads in more than ten languages. He holds a B.A. in American Literature and European History from St. John’s University, an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from New York University, and an M.A. and Ph.D in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey and a Fulbright scholar at Istanbul University.