Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, Part I

I hope you enjoyed our first conversation on the uprisings. We tried to cover as much ground as we could. This week we are beginning our second conversation, which will focus on the war in Afghanistan. We will pay particular attention to the various political, military, security, and strategic factors that are central to the war.

With so many issues connected to the war, I almost do not know where to begin. But given that so many scholars and policy experts believe that Afghan politics, rather than military force or other tools, are key to resolving the conflict, I think I will start there.

In short, if Afghans cannot get their internal politics fixed, then all of the external political, economic, and security and military assistance and support from the U.S. and its allies will be irrelevant and wasted. Afghanistan will remain chaotic and violent for the foreseeable future. The main remedies are in the creation and molding of thoughtful and effective political ideas, institutions, and leaders indigenous to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, as of right now, all of those things are problematic, for both short-term and long-term reasons.

First, let us look at the short-term picture. There really is no credible, competent government in Kabul to partner with the West or Afghan civilians in an effort to make progress on the host of political, economic, and security challenges facing Afghanistan. The government, at bottom, appears be more of a problem than a problem-solver, and much–though by no means all–of that is because of Hamid Karzai. Karzai is not an especially popular politician, and for good reasons. The country is still not a safe place. The government is hardly transparent. About 90% of the world’s opium production is housed in Afghanistan. Corruption is rampant. Just look at the last presidential election in August 2009, which was rife with fraud and irregularities and other shady and outright illegal activities. Furthermore, there have been widespread reports–most notably issued by UN envoy Peter Galbraith–challenging Karzai’s mental stability. Karzai has been described as erratic, unbalanced, and a likely habitual drug user. Whether these allegations are true is almost beside the point. They fit into a coherent narrative of a leader who lacks control–in his professional and personal life.

This picture of Afghanistan has had negative repercussions. First, it is clear that Afghan civilians have never warmed up to Karzai and his government. And many do not trust and lack confidence in Karzai and his government. Second, because the Taliban and its affiliated groups know this, there is little incentive for them to halt the violence and come to the bargaining table. Betting on the continued incompetence in Kabul, they can simply remain patient, maintain their resistance, and hope that the people will tire of the disorder and chaos and eventually transfer their loyalties to them. Third, the U.S. has grave doubts that Karzai can do what it takes to end the violence and stabilize governing institutions. After almost ten years of war, this only makes more and more American citizens and lawmakers less inclined to support a war that is going nowhere and only leading to increased U.S. casualties.

And as for the long-term horizon, this is just as big of a conundrum. Here is the Afghan puzzle: Kabul must find a way to connect itself to all of the tiny villages, and everywhere in between, in a seamless, non-invasive way. Remember, this is a society that has resisted centralized authority for ages. Power has been traditionally centered at very micro levels, such as tribal or village councils. The Afghan people are accustomed to their independence and autonomy and prefer to live their lives according to such principles. Outsiders who infringe on their way of life are looking for a fight. But in this case, "outsiders" refer not only to the U.S. and the rest of the West, but also often to actors and groups inside Afghanistan. And so as we can see, the concept of Afghan nationalism, at least so far, is still in a very incipient stage. Friendship, familial ties, and ethnicity trump ideas of the nation-state.

With this in mind, it did not make much sense for Afghan leaders to impose a centralized presidential political structure in their country. It would have been far better to create a decentralized system, with power farmed out to local institutions and leaders and the state limited to working on issues like foreign policy and border defense. At this point, it might be too late to rework the 2004 constitution, but perhaps the problem can be finessed in various ways. For instance, maybe prerogatives and responsibilities not explicitly mentioned in the constitution can be handled at local levels. But this must be addressed or Afghanistan risks inadvertently fomenting a perpetual crisis over how much authority the state should possess. For if the state oversteps its perceived boundaries, angering and alienating Afghanis, it will drive the people into the open arms of militant and terrorist groups who are willing address their grievances. And this is particularly likely in a country like Afghanistan (an insecure, unstable war-time setting that fails to provide jobs, schooling, and skills to residents), which really does not offer many tangible benefits in exchange for loyalty and citizenship.

What are your thoughts, Yohanes? I am especially interested to hear your take on how Pakistan fits into this equation. Is there any way Pakistan can be coerced or persuaded to go after Taliban and AQ elements on its turf? How can Pakistan be part of the solution rather than the problem in Afghanistan? What has to change, in your view?

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