KABUL, Afghanistan -- It is always hard to gauge what diplomats really think unless one of their cables ends up on WikiLeaks, but every once in a while, the barriers fall and a bit of truth slips into public view.
That is especially true in Afghanistan, where diplomats painstakingly weigh every word against political goals back home.
The positive spin from the Americans has been running especially hard the last few weeks, as Congressional committees in Washington focus on spending bills and the Obama administration, trying to secure money for a few more years here, talks up the country's progress. The same is going on at the European Union, where the tone has been sterner than in the past, but still glosses predictions of Afghanistan's future with upbeat words like "promise" and "potential."
Despite that, one of those rare truth-telling moments came at a farewell cocktail party last week hosted by the departing French ambassador to Kabul: Bernard Bajolet, who is leaving to head France's Direction Génerale de la Sécurité Extérieure, its foreign intelligence service.
After the white-coated staff passed the third round of hors d'oeuvres, Mr. Bajolet took the lectern and laid out a picture of how France -- a country plagued by a slow economy, waning public support for the Afghan endeavor and demands from other foreign conflicts, including Syria and North Africa -- looked at Afghanistan.
While it is certainly easier for France to be a critic from the sidelines than countries whose troops are still fighting in Afghanistan, the country can claim to have done its part. It lost more troops than all but three other countries before withdrawing its last combat forces in the fall.
The room, filled with diplomats, some senior soldiers and a number of Afghan dignitaries, went deadly quiet. When Mr. Bajolet finished, there was restrained applause -- and sober expressions. One diplomat raised his eyebrows and nodded slightly; another said, "No holding back there."
So what did he say?
That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West's investment in it, would come to little.
His tone was neither shrill nor reproachful. It was matter-of-fact.
"I still cannot understand how we, the international community, and the Afghan government have managed to arrive at a situation in which everything is coming together in 2014 -- elections, new president, economic transition, military transition and all this -- whereas the negotiations for the peace process have not really started," Mr. Bajolet said in his opening comments.
He was echoing a point shared privately by other diplomats, that 2014 was likely to be "a perfect storm" of political and military upheaval coinciding with the formal close of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.
As for the success of the fight on the ground, which American leaders routinely describe now as being "Afghan-led," Mr. Bajolet sounded dubious. "We do not have enough distance to make an objective assessment," he said, "but in any case, I think it crucial that the Afghan highest leadership take more visible and obvious ownership for their army."
His tone -- the sober, troubled observations of a diplomat closing a chapter -- could hardly have been more different from that taken by the new shift of American officials charged with making it work in Afghanistan: in particular, with that of Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the new American commanding general here. This week, General Dunford sent out a news release cheering on Afghanistan's progress, noting some positive-leaning statistics and praising the Afghan Army's abilities.
"Very soon, the A.N.S.F. will be responsible for security nationwide" General Dunford said, referring to the Afghan National Security Forces. "They are steadily gaining in confidence, competence, and commitment."
At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan's government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said.
Several diplomats in the room could be seen nodding as he said that drugs caused "more casualties than terrorism" in Russia, Europe and the Balkans and that Western governments would be hard-put to make the case for continued spending on Afghanistan if it remains the world's largest heroin supplier.
The biggest contrast with the American and British line was Mr. Bajolet's riff on sovereignty, which has become the political watchword of the moment. The Americans and the international community are giving sovereignty back to Afghanistan. Afghanistan argues frequently that it is a sovereign nation. President Hamid Karzai, in the debate over taking charge of the Bagram prison, repeatedly said that Afghanistan had a sovereign responsibility to its prisoners.
His implicit question was, what does that really mean?
"We should be lucid: a country that depends almost entirely on the international community for the salaries of its soldiers and policemen, for most of its investments and partly on it for its current civil expenditure, cannot be really independent."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.