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Afghanistan: Losing the Afghan People

by Nir Rosen and Marika Theros

President Barack Obama came to power promising to get the United States out of Iraq and refocus attention and resources back to the “good” but “forgotten” war in Afghanistan.  After conducting perhaps the most thorough and frank assessment of the deteriorating security situation in the country, the new administration announced, in December 2009, a comprehensive new strategy backed by a massive injection of money and troops.  On the ground, the strategy has combined increased military activity to degrade the Taliban into submission, with civil activity to strengthen Afghan government capacity sufficiently to enable it to progressively assume full responsibility for its own security.  One year later, the President’s review of the strategy concluded that there have been “notable operational gains” but which remain “fragile and reversible.” Tactically, US-led forces scored important gains against the Taliban over the last 12 months: disrupting its network, clearing several key districts in the south of insurgent activity, and killing significant numbers of mid-level commanders.  However, this rather optimistic assessment obscures the fact that tactical military gains have not reversed the bleak strategic outlook for the country.  

This unfolding narrative of progress simply does not match the security experiences of ordinary Afghan citizens or their increasing perception that the future remains dark. The year 2010 witnessed a significant spike in violence both in the south, with offensive military operations triggering greater Taliban intimidation and assassinations of civilians, and in the north in heretofore ‘stable areas’ where international neglect and government abuse provide fertile ground for insurgent expansion. Real progress has been further complicated by the increasingly poisonous relationship between the Afghan government, the international community, and the Afghan people, aggravated by a potentially catastrophic electoral crisis, even more predatory government corruption and brazen war-profiteering, and near total disregard for the average Afghan citizen.  As American and NATO forces enter their tenth year in Afghanistan, Afghan communities find themselves increasingly caught in a complex system of violence generated by insurgents, criminal gangs, drug lords, corrupt officials, US-allied local strongmen, and aggressive international forces.   

Initially, the new administration’s strategy raised expectations with its shift in emphasis from the enemy-centric military operations of before to a more comprehensive counter-insurgency (COIN) policy aimed at improving governance and protecting the Afghan population. But this never quite happened on the ground. In Kandahar, the US is bombarding populated areas with smart rocket launchers and guided warheads, razing orchards, destroying homes, and partnering with people like the brutal commander Colonel Abdul Razik and his militia. This increase in offensive operations, night raids, drone attacks, and use of irregular local forces remain precisely the tactics that provoke civilian outrage even as they increase Taliban losses. Even more problematic, the international community never developed a complementary and much-needed political strategy that reinforces Afghan national unity and builds trust between state and society through genuine political reform and reconciliation at all levels of society.   

In fact, it appears that we are dangerously disregarding the aspirations of the Afghan people.  They are the main actors in this drama, the ones who pay the price in blood and livelihoods and will determine the outcome of this struggle. Amidst all the noise in western capitals about progress or lack thereof, Afghan voices are conspicuously absent.  In December 2009, LSE Global Governance at the London School of Economics, together with the Civil Society Development Center in Afghanistan, embarked on a joint research and dialogue project that has engaged a range of selected Afghan citizens - community, religious, and tribal leaders; NGO and community activists; teachers and educators; and, students and youth leaders – in seven regions to capture their experiences of insecurity and their views on how to secure Afghanistan’s future.  Through in-depth conversations with Afghans in the provinces of Balkh, Baghlan, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, and Nangarhar, we sought a better understanding of both the dynamics of violence at local levels and Afghan, not international, aspirations for the future of their country.

Afghan views of a mutual business enterprise gone badly wrong

Although the project is ongoing, initial observations and findings highlight three main themes that have implications for Western policy.  Firstly, the Taliban movement is a symptom of larger ills, and the continued focus on defeating them obscures the fact that the post-2001 political and economic order the international community helped create is the fundamental driver of instability, violence, and recruitment into the insurgency.  Secondly, the current strategy with its near exclusive focus on government and armed actors as partners in the war effort perpetuates a system of personalized politics, power-grabbing and profiteering that fosters insecurity, corrupts Afghan society, and prevents the emergence of alternative political forces.  Many Afghans described the current cycle of violence less as a conflict between insurgents and the internationally supported Afghan government and more as a mutual business enterprise in which belligerents – the political and economic elites, the internationals, and the insurgents – use insecurity as a cover for personal political and economic ambitions.  They point to the massive amounts of international aid underwriting a perverse political economy that has created a nexus of financial interests between corrupt government officials, warlords, international contractors, and even the Taliban.  As Martine van Biljert summarizes, “in the last eight years international contractors, policy makers and military have become part of an intricate patronage and racketeering network, sometimes as hostage, sometimes as unwitting contributors, but often as an active party seeking to further their perceived economic, political or security interests.” Now, too many groups have an interest in perpetuating the conflict. 

Finally, Western perceptions of Afghan society don’t seem to have outgrown Kiplingesque clichéd narratives of Afghans as savage, ungovernable, and war-like - useful characterizations to help explain away current challenges while absolving the international community of responsibility for their role in the current conflict. In fact, most Afghans want a rational outcome that produces a participatory system of governance rooted in Afghan values and able to provide minimally adequate services of justice, health, and education. Most Afghans do not challenge the existence of the state itself and support a unified Afghanistan.  Talk by some western observers advocating partition provokes negative reactions. The democratization process is losing popular support since it is viewed as rewarding a class of unrepresentative individuals who impose their power through sheer violence.  In assessing the current struggle, Afghans look to progress on questions of justice, representation and allocation of resources rather than to kill-and-capture rates or announcements of new programmes in Kandahar or Helmand that link the populace to the government.

There has been a great deal of damage done; not all of it can be undone.  However, some tools are still available and can be mobilized within our own capacities.  

First, the international community must recognize that the money it is pumping into Afghanistan is a primary source of corruption and conflict.  Despite their very real needs, most Afghans consulted call for a reduction in aid to levels within the absorptive capacity of the country, because wasted aid assistance fuels corruption and predation.  Equally important, the international community must ensure that aid produces tangible results on the ground and not simply be measured by the metrics of money spent within the fiscal year and units of production.  The number of school rooms built is much less important than the number of children who complete the school year. 

Secondly, the international community has had great difficulty moving the Karzai government to effectively crack down on corruption, ignoring the fact that we have a relatively unused but powerful tool in our hands: the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  A number of Afghan officials, contractors, and strongmen are dual citizens – American and Afghan.  Afghans know this, and draw a number of conclusions including theories of collusion between Afghan-American citizens and the American government.  The US Government should seriously consider prosecuting those Afghan-Americans who have participated in corrupt practices, writ large, during the conflict - not only as a simple matter of justice but as a deterrent to others and as a message to the larger population that accountability does indeed matter. 

Thirdly, the international community – particularly the US – must do more than pay lip service to a political solution and de-escalate the conflict.  The dynamic of violence created by the different parties to the conflict –the Afghan government, the insurgents, US-allied strongmen, and foreign forces  – has disempowered ordinary Afghan citizens and communities and prevented the emergence of alternative political forces.  In the absence of viable political space, this has pushed many into the ranks of the Taliban as the only form of protest against an abusive governing regime.  This requires more emphasis on issues of governance, justice, and representation; a reconsideration of the exclusive partnerships developed with the pro-government local strongmen; a genuine effort to defend the Afghan population from predatory political and economic elites (and not only insurgents); and, increased checks on impunity and marginalization.  

More can make things worse

America’s strategy this past year has been more money, more troops. But more can make things worse and does not outweigh issues such as dignity, justice, nationalism, and Islam. Marja is not a success, even though a lot of money and focus was put on it. As we send in more soldiers and cash, the problems get worse and most Afghans increasingly question the intentions of the international community.  This is not a perceptions problem that can be managed by better messaging and more strategic communications.   This requires tangible changes on the ground.  Ultimately, the international community and the Afghan government must earn the support of the Afghan population; Afghans must feel that the international presence is here on their behalf, not just for their own strategic interests.

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