The stabilization of Afghanistan depends primarily on Afghans, and any strategy that ignores this is doomed to failure.
The question, then, is whether the Afghans—national leaders, local leaders, and ordinary folk—have something resembling a coherent vision of stability and the will and means to achieve it. And further, do the United States and its international partners understand that vision and support it?
Nir Rosen does a good job of illustrating some of the most confounding hurdles to stability, but he takes an excessively narrow view. The truth is far more complicated, leaving more room for optimism than does Rosen’s bleak assessment.
The government headed by President Hamid Karzai is a mishmash of nascent institutions, corrupt patronage networks, and divisive factions. But dismissing the national government is a grave misreading of the last eight years, or indeed the last 129 years. Rosen repeats the oft-stated but mistaken claim that Afghanistan has never had a functioning state. In fact, between the 1880s and the 1970s the Afghan government slowly grew in size, capacity, and reach. The state remained weak in numerous areas, and bureaucracy was mostly limited to population centers, but it functioned in many respects, and most importantly exercised a monopoly on the use of force but for a brief period in 1929.
This limited government—strong in a few areas and absent in others, with a healthy degree of autonomy for local communities—remains the most likely model for success in Afghanistan. Decades of conflict have severely diminished the capacity and legitimacy of the state and upended social, cultural, and economic dynamics that made that earlier stability possible. No amount of will or resources will move Afghanistan back in time, but promoting stability is still possible.
The Afghan bureaucracy has proved surprisingly resilient through these many years of war. A 2004 report by the World Bank and the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit found that the government is easily subjugated and ignored, but when brought into play by active and creative officials—such as Ehsan Zia, Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, who oversees the National Solidarity Program, or former Minister of Finance Ashraf Ghani—the government can really perform, or at least facilitate performance. Afghanistan had exactly zero cellular phone coverage in 2001, but today there are 9.5 million cell phone users, thanks to effective government regulation and private investment. In early December 2009, a fiber-optic cable network that had been under construction for two years was launched in Afghanistan. It will radically expand Internet access while drastically reducing costs. This is not Somalia, or even Afghanistan ten years ago.
At the local level, many provincial and district governors, mullahs, and community leaders work doggedly and at constant risk to their lives to resolve disputes and promote legitimate economic development. Many of the Afghan civilians being murdered by the Taliban every day are not only “collaborators” with the “puppet” government, but genuine local leaders who want to help their communities out of the morass of violence and poverty.
However, these positive forces do not yet dominate the government, and a tide of violence would wash away all the improvements made over the last eight years. Already, dozens of schools and bridges built since 2001 have been burned down and blown up. Much of the government looks like a confederacy of dunces, or worse, as General David Petraeus reportedly told President Obama, “a crime syndicate.”
Many, by dint of greed or ideology or fear, undermine the effort to provide security and some modicum of justice. Insofar as they are affiliated with the government, they remain the principle source of illegitimacy and push the population into the Taliban’s hands.
Another fundamental driver of conflict in Afghanistan goes largely unmentioned in Rosen’s piece—Pakistan. The Afghan population was done with the Taliban in 2004, but with support and safe haven in Pakistan (and poor delivery on American promises in Afghanistan), the Taliban were able to start making inroads again. Other neighbors also continue to interfere to the detriment of stability. Even when the Afghans and their international partners do well, these exogenous forces undermine that progress.
Remarkably, after eight years of failures, Afghans do not reject the vision of Afghanistan offered by the Karzai government and the international community hammered out in the 2001 Bonn agreement and reaffirmed in the 2004 constitution and 2006 Afghanistan Compact. Most Afghans desperately want that vision enacted. They decry the failure to deliver on the promises of security, the rule of law, and provision of human rights and economic opportunity. Rosen’s article suggests that these disappointments have led to a generalized anti-American, anti-government uprising like that faced by the Soviets in the 1980s. Fortunately, that has not yet come to pass, even in the Pashtun areas where the Taliban are most influential.
Clearly, the Karzai government must clean up its act, the Afghan security forces must improve, the international forces must implement a better strategy, and aid resources must be better targeted. Everyone acknowledges these challenges, which are common to every conflict or post-conflict environment. Undoubtedly, the necessary changes will not come easily, but they are possible, and I would not count the Afghans out just yet.