Posted by: Jeff | November 22, 2009

Rethinking Strategy in Afghanistan

(updated below)

Iraq has dominated the headlines in the past six years, but the legacy of a less-discussed ongoing conflict may be more relevant to future security and state-building efforts.  Say what you will about the moral relevance of America’s role in Iraq, but it is Afghanistan that stands most prominent and most challenging in the effort to improve global security.

Photo: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

It’s been over eight years since American troops hit the ground in Afghanistan, and the results have been underwhelming.  Osama bin Laden is still at large, the Taliban is still entrenched in wide swaths of the country, and democracy is tenuous at best.  President Obama has announced a troop increase to establish a wider security perimeter around Kabul and hopefully turn the tide against pockets of insurgent resistance throughout the countryside.  However, this decision has been met with a large amount of skepticism, as it represents an escalation rather than a significant shift in strategy.

Perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board and completely rethink our Afghanistan strategy.

An appropriate starting point is objectives.  To date, our Afghanistan policy has had three goals: to eliminate elements of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to achieve lasting security through the elimination of armed resistance associated with the Taliban, and to establish and promote a working democracy.  After eight years, these objectives remain wishful thinking.  Recent news reports from Afghanistan – of an increase in violence and a deeply flawed election – cast doubt on the efficacy of the mission.

By reconceptualizing how we view a post-conflict Afghan society, we may be able to temper some of the discontent and division that has made security and the practice of democracy impossible.

A recent Transparency International report, the 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, measured the level of corruption in the public spheres of 189 countries and decried Afghanistan as the second-most corrupt state in the world after Somalia.  Like in Somalia, many regions of Afghanistan remain outside effective government control.  This limits the ability of the state to enforce the rule of law or establish legitimacy as a source of arbitration or regulation.

As Jeffrey Herbst writes, states that fail to establish influence in the periphery of territories become hollow shells, with the inviolability of borders defended by international institutions like the UN and legitimate state institutions clustered solely at the center.   The state lacks the capacity to project power from the center across the geographic territory enclosed by the internationally recognized borders.  The result is effectively a state that exists only in the capital; outside Kabul, chaos reigns.  In William Reno’s seminal work on warlordism in Africa, he writes that a hollow state creates the opportunity for entrepreneurs to challenge state sovereignty and ownership of resources in the periphery.  Pockets of alternate resource provision rise, as these entrepreneurs establish links with localized populations and compete for local hegemony with both rivals and the state.

We’ve seen this happen in Afghanistan, where the absence of the state in places like Kandahar and Jalalabad has given berth to factionalized groups seeking to assert dominance.  As Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment writes:

The Taliban are mostly LOCAL. It is not possible to “protect the population” against the Taliban; they are part of the population and the more we fight the more they are popular.

Kandahar: Outside State Control. Photo: PHILIP POUPIN.

The factor most limiting to the ability of the state to assert control over the periphery is legitimacy.  Most Afghans view the alternate sources of power of warlords and the Taliban as stronger and more real than the state.  But many also view them as more legitimate voices of the people, representing local interests in the community rather than the international norms hoisted upon the national government in Kabul.  The embedded nature of insurgent groups makes it difficult to severe the ties of political trust placed in localized groups, however violent they may be.  As Austin Long of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs writes:

The Taliban [in Kandahar] are local, but the motives of local Taliban are not automatically the same as the motives of the Quetta Shura. They are about specific local grievances that can be addressed. This may be hard given that many of the grievances are against the Afghan government or parts of it, but it is not impossible.

Democratization is in part about establishing legitimacy of a national representative government, and this is an area in which the nation-building project in Afghanistan has failed.

President Hamid Karzai has offered little reassurance in the legitimacy of the state.  After four years as President that were marked most notably by the lack of real anti-corruption reform, the recent 2009 presidential elections were marred by allegations of voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing.  Corruption and electoral fraud serve to further distance the state from the peripheral population, whose criticisms of the non-representative nature of the national government have been partially confirmed.

We’ve reached something of an impasse in Afghanistan, where the entrenched militant groups become more popular with the continued failings of the national government, and efforts to eliminate pockets of the Taliban through ISAF-led military operations have only created additional grievances among local populations.  A new strategy is clearly needed.

In attempting to explain continued inequality in the face of professed universal liberty in the United States, Judith Shklar laid the foundation for a modern theory of citizenship that aptly captures a disconnect between Afghan society and policy implementation there.  Shklar described two forms of citizenship – republican citizenship tied closely to locality and kinship, common in the ancient Greek polis; and liberal citizenship signifying a universal membership in a larger body politick, such as that forged by the Roman Empire.

Contemporary notions of citizenship tend to be liberal.  The nation-state has become the predominant political actor in world politics today, and as such, nation-building is a paramount developmental activity of the modern state.

In Afghanistan, the commitment to liberal citizenship is an assumption made by Western states and institutions seeking to shape a modern Afghan state.  It is not necessarily an indigenous value.  In fact, evidence that Afghans feel a close bond with factions tied to individual communities suggests that the widespread conception of citizenship in Afghanistan is republican in nature.  If this is the case, it is no wonder that there is little widespread appeal of a national state based on universalistic values rather than local issues and identities.

A man rides a bike across the ruined landscape of Kabul. Photo: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

A reconceptualization of the ideal Afghan state is thus in order.  Rather than focusing on a centralized political apparatus that emanates power from Kabul, strategies that decentralize state power and embed institutions in local communities is necessary.  Given the low density and large territory of Afghanistan, this is a monumental task.  However, there is already evidence that it is more effective than current strategy.  As Austin Long describes:

Spin Boldak district, which, being on the border with Pakistan should be easy prey, is not secure, but neither is it Taliban dominated. This is despite the low presence of ISAF (coalition) troops. Why? The local strongman, General Razziq of the Border Police, is effective at both managing local tribal grievances and fighting the Taliban.

A clear strategy emerges from this anecdote. Rather than seeking to replace existing power structures in Afghanistan, the international community (and the Afghan central state) should actively seek out local institutions and individuals that can be entrusted to utilize state resources in this way.  Conflict mitigation is an important step in increasing state legitimacy.  As embedded institutions and individuals make headway in replacing elements of the Taliban as legitimate purveyors of the rule of law and community reconciliation, faith in government institutions as legitimate will only increase.  In fact, this is not entirely different from the strategy for Iraq proposed and articulated by Vice President Joe Biden when he served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This is a long project, and not an easy one.  But if we refocus our efforts in Afghanistan to include legitimacy-building as well as democracy promotion, we may still achieve the outcomes we desire: human security, the elimination of the Taliban and al Qaeda as popular alternatives to the state, and democratic capacity.

Update: It seems that the new strategy in Afghanistan that President Obama will unveil next Tuesday is expected to represent this “bottom-up” type approach of emphasizing locality over centralized reform.  According to The Economist:

[O]ne change is that American troops are increasingly teaming up with Afghan tribal militias, in hopes of replicating the Anbar Awakening that took place in Iraq. The strategy involves a bottom-up approach to national unity. Mr Kaplan explains: “An explicit and essential part of [Army Major Jim] Gant’s strategy is to draw the individual tribal teams into a network of tribes—first across the province, then the region, then the nation—tied in to the Kabul government through a web of mutual defenses and the supply of basic services.” After eight years of relying on Hamid Karzai and the government in Kabul, this sounds like a promising new approach.

Now we’ll just have to see whether this works.


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