John Hockenberry: Good morning, everyone. We begin in Afghanistan and Washington. Afghan officials say dozens of civilians died last in bombings by coalition air crafts. The bombs were dropped on a Taliban controlled region in the western part of Afghanistan after fighting broke out on the ground. The U.S. says it's investigating the report, and it serves as a backdrop as Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives in Washington today as part of a series of meetings this week that may determine his and his country's future. Today, Obama's special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, testifies on the administration’s plans for both countries, and tomorrow President Obama will meet with President Karzai along with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Here to talk about this is Ambassador Robert Finn, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. He currently has a dual appointment in Princeton's Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He's a veteran diplomat and ambassador, thanks so much for being a part of the Takeaway.
Robert Finn: Good morning.
John Hockenberry: What is the challenge, first of all, for American diplomats attempting to affect changes within Afghanistan dealing with Hamid Karzai, who even people on the ground in Afghanistan view as a weak, possibly discredited leader?
Robert Finn: Well, there are a couple of things that haven't been done. The President's plan is heavier on the military side than the civilian side. I think the civilian side needs to be beefed up, the money has to be put up front and the civilians have to be brought in there, and the reason for that is to help with governance and development in the country, because one of the major complaints of the people there, aside from security and you've just had another incidence with those problems, is the fact that they don't see development. And this is a really weak side of the Karzai government. There has not been a trained civil service, there are not responsible government officials in the provinces, and that's an area where we could step in and be very visible, and I think we should do that. I tried to get this done when I was there; it didn't happen. I would suggest now as part of the new program, setting up model provinces and taking over one or two provinces and working very closely with the governor there, perhaps in the province of Bamiyan where there's a lady governor, to give a model for the people of what government in Afghanistan could be like.
John Hockenberry: Yet, before he left for Washington, Karzai chose controversial warlord Mohammad Fahim to be one of his vice presidential running-mates. It seems that part of Karzai's problems is that he deals not with civilian leaders who are credible, as you say, but more likely warlords, and that has been behind his charge of being corrupt. Is he the leader for this new civilian leadership to be built up to counter the military?
Robert Finn: We have to work with the government of Afghanistan, whoever that's going to be. They're going to have an election in August, I don't think the U.S. government should pick somebody to win before the election takes place. Marshal Fahim was, is one of the main warlords, you're quite right. He was also Minister of Defense in the years that I was there. Karzai chose him simply for ethnic coloring so he could have a balanced platform. His other nominee for vice president is Khalili, who's the leader of the Hazara's. He chose him because of election balancing, for the program, he will be a problem.
John Hockenberry: Yet, Hamid Karzai, from his moment of real triumph after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Taliban, has eroded from this kind of popular civilian leader, to someone who's barely the mayor of Kabul. Geographically speaking, what can Karzai hope to control in his own country?
Robert Finn: Well, it's a more nebulous system than it looks like. He needs to have a government that's responsible to him, that he can control, so he needs to have responsible government officials, he needs to be able to pay them a living wage, which we're still not doing in many cases, so that his government can reach out into the countryside. The people who are the government officials in the countryside now are appointed by him, they are all nominally subject to him. In fact, they don't openly flout his authority, they just do it in the day to day basis, so this is something that could be worked on to aggrandize the power of the government. And it doesn't have to be Karzai, it could be someone else.
John Hockenberry: Let's talk about that. Do you expect the Obama administration to approach Karzai as one of many possibilities as the election gears up? Or should they back Karzai as the person they're going to go with here?
Robert Finn: I think for Afghanistan and for our relationship with Afghanistan, the United States should not be supporting a particular candidate. Karzai, as you pointed out, is tarnished; there are some other candidates, I don't know who's going to win. Afghanistan has to choose it's own leader and not have someone outside telling them what to do.
John Hockenberry: How much of a challenge as an ambassador is it to deal with someone like Hamid Karzai, who has very little credibility on the ground, yet is sort of the ace in the hole for the administration, which has so much at stake inside Afghanistan?
Robert Finn: Well I certainly worked with a lot worse than Hamid Karzai in my career as Ambassador, I can tell you that. At the time that I was there, he in fact was Mr. Afghanistan, he was very popular, things seemed to be going well. So the problems that we have now, which I foresaw then because after the Bonn program was implemented and he had to run the country, I saw that he had problems with his management style and decisiveness and getting all of these turbulent people in line. He is still someone we can work with. The real problem, well, he is a problem, the real problem as we see also in today's headlines is the growing war. The Pakistani government is calling on the people of Swat to evacuate the valley. That's a very, very serious problem.
Farai Chideya: Ambassador, there has been much talk that the war in Iraq actually could be much simpler than Afghanistan, where the Taliban is just deeply entrenched, they beat back the Soviets. What, realistically, when we talk about the Taliban, when we talk about the tensions in Afghanistan between the government and the Taliban. Is this an uphill battle that really, almost, is not winnable?
Robert Finn: No, it's a guerrilla war, and all Pashtuns are not Taliban, there are a lot of people who could be brought over to the government side if the government could demonstrate security and development. And it's demonstrated, security in certain areas has yet to demonstrate convincing development for the people there. Many of the people who are fighting with the Taliban are fighting because the Taliban pays them better than anything else that's available. That can be changed.
John Hockenberry: Is that an argument for civilian aid? And is the civilian government robust enough to appropriately distribute aid to compete with the Taliban?
Robert Finn: It is an argument for aid. Our expendatures in Afghanistan have been 94% military from the beginning. The government in Afghanistan will have problems in distributing the aid, and another area where we've fallen is that we have not worked sufficiently to build up the capacity of the government of Afghanistan from the beginning. That's something that can be done, that's why I come back again to training a civilian capacity. Our civilian capacity and their civilian capacity, because this is the weak pillar of the structure.
John Hockenberry: Let's shift over to military for a moment. What do you make of this story in the New York Times today: Jane Perlez writes the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan actually makes NATO and Coalition troops much more vulnerable, and that the war is going to be much worse rather than better, regardless of the amount of aid, simply because tactically, the Taliban can run across the border and escape NATO forces?
Robert Finn: She's absolutely correct, and I assume that they will be talking about that tomorrow when they have their meetings.
John Hockenberry: And is that why Karzai and Zardari are meeting together with Obama? That Obama needs to have both of them around the table to even get anything done?
Robert Finn: I think it's good to have them both around the table. I don't know that it has to be exactly as you expressed it, but clearly the plan is to bring them all together to get some agreement on this. They have a mutual border, they have to defend, the government of Pakistan is, as we know, very weak. All these things should be brought together and discussed together to work out a credible plan, because otherwise it's not going to turn out the way we want.
Farai Chideya: There's been a lot of talk about how aid groups are having a lot of difficulty in the region, and in some places like Sudan, aid groups or rather NGOs have really pushed for change. Do you see that with the NGOs who are operating in and around the region?
Robert Finn: Well yes, they are pushing for change, that's one of the reasons they're there. They're also seen by the Taliban as instruments of the western military structures that are there, and this is a change from when the Taliban were in power, when they were seen as innocent people helping an Islamic state, and that's something that the NGOs have problems dealing with. But yes, they are instruments of change and one of the problems of the Pashtuns, not the Taliban, is that they see their way of life threatened by what's going on. Modernism is coming to them, and Taliban is one answer that they've come up with for that, but it certainly doesn't have to be the only answer.
John Hockenberry: And modernism, of course, is a consequence of aid, which complicates the discussions as Hamid Karzai comes to Washington to meet with Barack Obama. Ambassador Robert Finn was the first U.S. envoy to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2002, he currently has a dual appointment in Princeton's Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He joined us from Princeton. Ambassador, thanks so much for being on the program.