On indecision and the international intervention in Afghanistan.
Last week’s renewed debate between President Barack Obama and Republicans in the Senate, reminds us how murky and poorly defined the goals and strategies of the so-called war on terror remain as it enters its fifteenth year. Nowhere is this ambiguity more apparent than in Afghanistan, the place where most of the Guantanamo detainees were first apprehended.
Beginning in 2006, I spent a year and a half working with a small group of potters in a picturesque town in the mountains north of Kabul. Even while the insurgency spread in the south and the east of the country, the town, which had been leveled by the Taliban, remained staunchly in favor of the international presence. Over the course of the next nine years, however, corrupt elections, an ineffective government and a sense that a small group of former warlords had largely taken over all the key resources, led to the growing sense that the international intervention had failed to fulfill its initial promises. Returning last spring, I was stopped in the grape fields below town by a roadblock set up by the Afghan Army. The soldiers lounging on their armored personnel carriers, gifts from the US Department of Defense, said that there was an ongoing operation in the villages above, to clear it of the Taliban.
The recent news coming out of Afghanistan has not been good. The UN recently reported that 2015 had the highest number of civilian casualties since they began tracking the number.
The recent news coming out of Afghanistan has not been good. The UN recently reported that 2015 had the highest number of civilian casualties since they began tracking the number, Afghans make up the second highest number of refugees after Syrians in the current wave of asylum-seekers, and the Taliban have retaken key districts in the south of the country.
Who is to blame for the situation?
The easiest answer is probably the Taliban—and this answer is the one driving the US government’s recent decision to deploy more troops to the south of the country. Yet, on a broader scale, this overly simplistic answer misses some of the real issues in Afghanistan.
The first problem with the answer that the Taliban are to blame is the fact that Taliban have been greatly undermined over the past twelve months. The revelation of the death of Mullah Omar has created divisions in the group deeper than any seen previously, with infighting over leadership positions and whether the group should negotiate with the Afghan government. Simultaneously the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan, known locally as Daesh, constitutes the greatest threat to their legitimacy among potential insurgents thus far.
Afghanistan’s current morass has much more to do with the weakness of the so-called National Unity Government (NUG), which emerged from the truce between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer (a role not found in the Afghan constitution) Abdullah Abdullah. The compromise emerged out of the failed elections of 2014, the results of which still have not been released. The compromise was meant to placate both Pashtuns in the south and minority leaders in the north, and while it avoided short term violence, it has become a political dead end. By accepting the CEO position, Abdullah has assured that there is no real opposition to the current government. This means, essentially every key non-Taliban Afghan leader has a piece of government pie (and the international resources attached to it)—and each is terrified of losing it, making them unwilling to compromise or negotiate on anything.
This has meant that appointments have not been made, ministries are at a standstill, and the parliamentary elections—due in 2015—still have not been held. This has created economic stagnation and the continued monopolization of resources by local commanders and strongmen. For the potters, who saw rapid improvement in their living situations after the American invasion, recent years have seen both economic decline and resurgence of local commanders in the previously stable area.
The international community has not contributed to the situation, sending ambiguous signals about the election process and the status of the NUG. In particular, John Kerry supported the temporary compromise between Ghani and Abdullah, but did not give them a timeline for resolving disputed aspects of the current government. Some other countries continue to send aid, but particularly given the dysfunction of many ministries, there are real questions about whether this money is helping, or actually encouraging politicians to do little reform, while they continue to enrich themselves with international funds. By sending more troops, the US is taking an active military role in confronting the Taliban, but any gains will be temporary unless they pressure the Afghan government to reform politically.
This is not new. As I argue in Losing Afghanistan: An Obituary for the Intervention, the United States government was too often caught between different strategies, jumping from state building to counterinsurgency to counterterrorism, with occasional detours into development and human rights. The potters I worked with saw aid groups and soldiers, all come and go, with no clear plans for the town. For the soldiers, diplomats and relief workers I interviewed who made up the intervention, perverse incentives, an impenetrable bureaucracy and limited cooperation wasted valuable opportunities and billions of dollars. The Navy SEAL, wind engineer and ambassador who are at the heart of the book, are all extremely thoughtful, well-educated and well-intentioned individuals, yet all felt the impact their years of work in the country had was deeply constrained.
This futility does not need to continue. There is still a role for America to play in assisting the Afghan people. The diplomats and relief workers I interviewed had built roads and schools, the soldiers brought stability to regions long affected by the conflict. Yet these gains are tenuous. A strong, transparent, democratic and, most importantly, functioning Afghan government is needed to help the Afghan people. American and other international military and development assistance should not be given blindly, but should be contingent on the Afghan government actually serving the Afghan people.
A limited, continued troop presence may be necessary for some time to come, but far more important to the future of Afghanistan is a clear strategy from the Afghan government for the road ahead, with diplomatic support from the US and other international donors. Little progress is likely to be made as long as the US continues to attempt to address Afghanistan’s political problems primarily through military answers.