Nir Rosen argues that the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan is likely to fail and that the Karzai government is irredeemably illegitimate. I agree with the first point, but not with the second.
The United States, as Rosen says, has used a narrowly military lens in formulating its strategy. While recognizing that a military solution is insufficient for addressing the conflict, the United States has decided to escalate troop deployment. This course of action has been tried, and it has failed.
When the problem is cast in combat terms—Afghanistan as a theater in the “war on terrorism”—the solutions are inevitably military. But the central problem in Afghanistan is political. Past failures to achieve a political settlement have prolonged the war and created an internal war, a civil war between ethnic and regional groupings vying for power. Even the Karzai government, which has always been presented as a government of national unity and has included all the Afghan factions except the Taliban, is now party to the conflict. Political settlement and national reconciliation are the only solutions that will work.
I disagree with Rosen, however, that Afghanistan’s government—especially since August’s fraudulent election—is hopelessly illegitimate and cannot be reformed.
Part of the problem may be that Western policymakers have the wrong idea about what constitutes a “strong” state. Afghanistan does not need a centralized state with a massive military and police presence. This will only fuel the unrest. Instead it needs a loosening of the centralized state. Afghinstan’s future lies in devolving power to the local level; developing a consensual politics that meets the aspirations of all its peoples; and instituting a non-intrusive, but effective, state that empowers people in their cities and villages while reducing the authority of the elites and powerbrokers in Kabul, who often use their influence in pursuit of personal gain and political loyalty. Rosen is correct when he says that the Americans “[overemphasize] the importance of tribalism in Afghan society.” The real problem lies in the Afghan state’s historical approach to rural communities: a policy of divide-and-rule by the Pashtun-dominated ruling class.
It is also tempting to assume that corruption is endemic to Afghanistan. The corruption is, indeed, terrible, but the United States and its allies share some blame. The warlords that President Obama wants thrown out of government were brought to power by his predecessor and remain useful to U.S. and allied forces. Like the West, Karzai has no ideological alliance with them. Instead, he lacks broad popular support, so he relies on existing influential figures, many tainted by allegations of human rights violations, abuse of power, and criminal activity.
But just as the West bolstered a corrupt regime, so too can it encourage legitimacy and accountability. President Karzai must be given incentives to reduce his dependence on warlords and drug traffickers. Demonizing and isolating him will force him to seek alternative sources of support, which is precisely what happened after the West started criticizing him and his government.
And a new Western strategy in Afghanistan must include a partnership not just with Karzai’s government, but also with the Afghan people, and focus consistently and patiently on long-term political solutions. Such a strategy would have four elements:
First, a genuine dialogue with relevant, non-executive forces in Afghan society, including the parliament, civil society organizations, and the armed opposition. A lasting peace will require reconciliation among Afghanistan’s warring factions: the government; former jihadi leaders; and the many insurgent groups, particularly the Taliban. Obama is correct in his assessment that the “war in Afghanistan cannot be won without convincing non-ideologically committed insurgents to lay down their arms, reject al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution.”
When development aid is linked to military objectives and aims to buy Afghan ‘hearts and minds,’ it becomes an easy target for the Taliban.
Yet, while some efforts have been made to make contact and hold negotiations with insurgent groups, a credible road map for reconciliation has not been worked out. The United States has unhelpfully rejected negotiations with “Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s hard core that have aligned themselves with al Qaeda,” and factionalism has prevented the Afghan government from taking the less ideological approach that might bring the Taliban into the fold. To move forward, the United States and its allies must be more pragmatic. The Taliban must be allowed to enter the political mainstream. Furthermore, the U.S. role should be to facilitate—not dictate—a genuine reconciliation among Afghans. The legitimacy of the Afghan government would be greatly strengthened if it led the process.
Second, Afghanistan’s dysfunctional state requires reform. Legitimacy is enhanced through the provision of basic services, including security, but also depends on the government’s identity and the inclusiveness of political institutions. In tandem with reconciliation efforts, then, are measures to devolve state power and resources out of Kabul. After eight years of limited success in rebuilding Afghanistan’s political and economic infrastructure, international donors must persuade the Afghan government to decentralize. Instead of simply blaming President Karzai for his failures or threatening to deal directly with subnational actors, influential outsiders should encourage consensus on this reform. With greater authority in the hands of local leaders, individual Afghans will be better disposed to their leaders at all levels and have greater say in the administrative matters that affect them.
Devolving political power to the village, district, and provincial levels raises difficult issues of local accountability, and doing so may bring the “bad guys” into the political arena, necessitating additional reform efforts later. But Afghanistan’s problems cannot be solved at once. They will have to be tackled gradually.
Third, the Afghan people must have the authority and capability to reconstruct and develop their lives and livelihoods. When development aid is linked to military objectives and aims to buy Afghan “hearts and minds” with deliveries from the American military and private contractors, it becomes an easy target for the Taliban. Much more promising is capital investment in those communities, institutions, and programs that have proven responsive to popular needs. At the same time, transparency mechanisms should be fully utilized in order to reduce corruption.
Fourth, a new strategy must spur cooperation among Afghan civil society groups, which currently are isolated and weak and compete with each other for foreign funds. There are hundreds of Afghan-led successes across the country; however, the Afghan people are generally unaware of them. Indeed, foreign donors have made every effort to take the credit. If these activities are seen as indigenous Afghan building blocks, which they are, their success will continue, and they will draw more Afghans away from the insurgency.
Long-term peace in Afghanistan is possible. In the past, military force brought short-term stability—the Taliban in the second half of the 1990s and the U.S.-led intervention in November 2001. Both partially succeeded because the Afghan people were tired of war and ready to try the alternative. But long-term peace can only be accomplished with a political solution that includes national reconciliation, privileges ownership and control by local actors, and encourages cooperation among the Afghan civil society groups that can hold the government to account.