What about Afghanistan?

Apropos my previous article on U.S. policy towards Pakistan, several readers have asked me how my suggested change in approach relates to American strategy in Afghanistan.  For example, would not an Indian disengagement from Afghanistan only embolden the Pakistani military and ISI?  It is paramount to first provide an accurate overview of the situation in Afghanistan.

Despite the escalation of American military involvement in the country and the official adoption of the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy, little has been achieved to weaken the Taliban and other Islamist militants operating in Afghanistan.  True, reports frequently emerge of local gains against these groups, but such victories are normally not consolidated.  It is unfortunate that the review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan back in December was largely self-congratulatory in focusing on these minor and temporary gains as a sign of progress and success.  Meanwhile, Taliban rule has returned to parts of the north that had long been shielded from the presence of Islamist militants (e.g., Kunduz province).

To begin with, two types of insurgencies need to be identified in Afghanistan.  The first is the ideological insurgent movement - -- aiming to control Afghanistan and retake Kabul - -- led by the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Hezb-e-Islam, with whose members the Pakistani military and ISI have been playing a double game.  The second, however, is a localized, predominantly Pashtun tribal insurgency often conflated with the Taliban and located primarily in the south of Afghanistan, where the bulk of combat operations has been taking place for coalition forces.

This insurgency, as Matthew Hoh points out, "is composed of multiple, seemingly, infinite groups," and is primarily fueled by "what is perceived by the Pashtun people" generally as "a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies."  Hence, the large presence of U.S. and NATO forces in the southern areas -- and of an Afghan army and police force mainly composed of non-Pashtuns -- feeds the idea of an occupation force against which the localized Pashtun insurgency is justified.

It should therefore come as no surprise that with the advent of the surge, American troops have only become further embroiled in a quagmire in the south, with attention diverted from the real, ideologically driven Taliban and other Islamist militants.  No wonder, then, that analysts such as Joshua Foust have characterized the fight in the south essentially pointless.

A further aggravating factor that has only allowed the Taliban and other Islamist militants to make gains in Afghanistan is the nature of the Karzai regime.  Its appalling corruption and mockery of human rights are hardly secret.  For instance, in Transparency International's 2010 "Corruption Perceptions Index," Afghanistan was ranked the second-most corrupt country in the world, tied with Myanmar at an extremely low transparency score of 1.4 out of ten.

The second major flaw in the government in Kabul is the manner in which it has centralized power.  Under the current Afghan Constitution, the president has unchecked authority to appoint provincial governors and hundreds of other positions in various fields of administration.  This has only contributed to the strategic message of the localized Pashtun insurgency: namely, the call to resist rule and taxation imposed by an unrepresentative and corrupt government.

Consequently, we must adopt a new approach of containment.  I previously explained how the Pakistani military and ISI have backed through the policy of "strategic depth" the activities of the various Islamist militants in Afghanistan as a way of preventing India from using the country as a base to threaten Pakistan's interests.  Another reason behind this support is a belief amongst Pakistani military and intelligence officials that the Taliban and its ideological allies in Afghanistan best represent the Pashtun population.

Thus, if the army and ISI are going to be persuaded to abandon "strategic depth," it has to be shown that the Islamist militants in Afghanistan neither stand a reasonable chance of taking Kabul nor represent Pashtun grievances.

First, the U.S. and NATO need to reduce their military footprint in the south as soon as possible, gradually withdrawing many of their troops to bases in the north, where the population is generally not hostile to coalition forces.  Second, instead of the strategy of nation-building that aims to instate a strong, centralized authority in the capital, there should be an emphasis on working towards political reconciliation.

This should translate to making it clear to Karzai's regime that financial aid is not unconditional and will depend on granting the Afghan Parliament the right to confirm major appointments in government, allowing district councils to be elected, working for greater transparency in administrative institutions, and decentralizing the budgeting authority.

Note that I do not advocate simply ending all Western aid to the Karzai government.  That is not such a simple thing to do.  The Pakistani military and ISI specifically object to Indian support for the government in Kabul.  They do not fear that the West will use Afghanistan as a base against Pakistan.

What else could decentralization entail at a local level?  We might wish to turn to the example of the Afghan king Zahir Shah, whose peaceful forty-year reign (1933-1973) was largely due to a strategy of co-optation of and cooperation with village society.

From each manteqa (Pashto for a self-identified, culturally uniform, and shared geographic space, centered on clusters of little villages), a prominent man could be selected as a baradur ikhan (heroic local leader), endowed with permanent and indivisible federal assets, obligations, and powers.  The baradur ikhan could then act as a link between the central government and the qawm (Dari Persian for a dense web of frequently renegotiated solidarity networks at the local level) in each manteqa.

By providing select qawm members with federal assets requiring allegiance and owed service, life at the village level would be connected much better with the decentralized substructure of the state and ultimately the centralized superstructure.  In effect, a chain of personal obligations and owed service to the central government would be created from the baradur ikhan right down to his retainers in the manteqa, and, through mutual support obligations, across manteqas to other baradur ikhans.

Moreover, the ethnic base of the Afghan National Army (ANA) needs to be broadened.  Incidentally, in some areas wrested recently from Taliban control, the implementation of a new "Afghan Local Police" (ALP) program that depends on arming the country's tribesmen and entrusting them to maintain control is a step in the right direction.

The ALP is reminiscent of the localized militiamen dubbed the "Afghan Militia Forces" (AMF), which played an important role in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.  However, the new Afghan government subsequently sought to disarm the AMF in favor of a new national army.  By 2005, some 63,000 militiamen deemed part of the AMF were disarmed and demobilized.  Much more weight will have to be transferred to the ALP as disengagement increases, even if the ANA can become more representative of Afghanistan's population.

If the plan suggested above is properly implemented, the first apparent result should be the disappearance of the localized Pashtun insurgency.  This will help to isolate and contain the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups like the Haqqani Network without having to negotiate a deal with such ideologically driven insurgents.

In turn, the Pakistani military and ISI will be much more conducive towards abandoning the policy of "strategic depth."  Such a prospect could become even more probable if Islamabad's chief ally -- China -- offers Pakistan economic cooperation on projects in Afghanistan like the Aynak copper mine, in which Beijing has invested $3 billion.

As is the case with Pakistan, much depends on the willpower of local actors.  Nevertheless, the alternative strategy I outline regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan is the only viable way of stabilizing the region as a whole and allowing for a safe withdrawal schedule.  President Obama should stick to his proposed withdrawal timetable beginning in July 2011 (although, as I suggested earlier, he should seek to disengage U.S. forces from the south).  Yet if all goes awry, the least we should do is issue a warning that any aggression emanating from future militant bases in Afghanistan will be met with severe counter-terrorism strikes.
Apropos my previous article on U.S. policy towards Pakistan, several readers have asked me how my suggested change in approach relates to American strategy in Afghanistan.  For example, would not an Indian disengagement from Afghanistan only embolden the Pakistani military and ISI?  It is paramount to first provide an accurate overview of the situation in Afghanistan.

Despite the escalation of American military involvement in the country and the official adoption of the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy, little has been achieved to weaken the Taliban and other Islamist militants operating in Afghanistan.  True, reports frequently emerge of local gains against these groups, but such victories are normally not consolidated.  It is unfortunate that the review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan back in December was largely self-congratulatory in focusing on these minor and temporary gains as a sign of progress and success.  Meanwhile, Taliban rule has returned to parts of the north that had long been shielded from the presence of Islamist militants (e.g., Kunduz province).

To begin with, two types of insurgencies need to be identified in Afghanistan.  The first is the ideological insurgent movement - -- aiming to control Afghanistan and retake Kabul - -- led by the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Hezb-e-Islam, with whose members the Pakistani military and ISI have been playing a double game.  The second, however, is a localized, predominantly Pashtun tribal insurgency often conflated with the Taliban and located primarily in the south of Afghanistan, where the bulk of combat operations has been taking place for coalition forces.

This insurgency, as Matthew Hoh points out, "is composed of multiple, seemingly, infinite groups," and is primarily fueled by "what is perceived by the Pashtun people" generally as "a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies."  Hence, the large presence of U.S. and NATO forces in the southern areas -- and of an Afghan army and police force mainly composed of non-Pashtuns -- feeds the idea of an occupation force against which the localized Pashtun insurgency is justified.

It should therefore come as no surprise that with the advent of the surge, American troops have only become further embroiled in a quagmire in the south, with attention diverted from the real, ideologically driven Taliban and other Islamist militants.  No wonder, then, that analysts such as Joshua Foust have characterized the fight in the south essentially pointless.

A further aggravating factor that has only allowed the Taliban and other Islamist militants to make gains in Afghanistan is the nature of the Karzai regime.  Its appalling corruption and mockery of human rights are hardly secret.  For instance, in Transparency International's 2010 "Corruption Perceptions Index," Afghanistan was ranked the second-most corrupt country in the world, tied with Myanmar at an extremely low transparency score of 1.4 out of ten.

The second major flaw in the government in Kabul is the manner in which it has centralized power.  Under the current Afghan Constitution, the president has unchecked authority to appoint provincial governors and hundreds of other positions in various fields of administration.  This has only contributed to the strategic message of the localized Pashtun insurgency: namely, the call to resist rule and taxation imposed by an unrepresentative and corrupt government.

Consequently, we must adopt a new approach of containment.  I previously explained how the Pakistani military and ISI have backed through the policy of "strategic depth" the activities of the various Islamist militants in Afghanistan as a way of preventing India from using the country as a base to threaten Pakistan's interests.  Another reason behind this support is a belief amongst Pakistani military and intelligence officials that the Taliban and its ideological allies in Afghanistan best represent the Pashtun population.

Thus, if the army and ISI are going to be persuaded to abandon "strategic depth," it has to be shown that the Islamist militants in Afghanistan neither stand a reasonable chance of taking Kabul nor represent Pashtun grievances.

First, the U.S. and NATO need to reduce their military footprint in the south as soon as possible, gradually withdrawing many of their troops to bases in the north, where the population is generally not hostile to coalition forces.  Second, instead of the strategy of nation-building that aims to instate a strong, centralized authority in the capital, there should be an emphasis on working towards political reconciliation.

This should translate to making it clear to Karzai's regime that financial aid is not unconditional and will depend on granting the Afghan Parliament the right to confirm major appointments in government, allowing district councils to be elected, working for greater transparency in administrative institutions, and decentralizing the budgeting authority.

Note that I do not advocate simply ending all Western aid to the Karzai government.  That is not such a simple thing to do.  The Pakistani military and ISI specifically object to Indian support for the government in Kabul.  They do not fear that the West will use Afghanistan as a base against Pakistan.

What else could decentralization entail at a local level?  We might wish to turn to the example of the Afghan king Zahir Shah, whose peaceful forty-year reign (1933-1973) was largely due to a strategy of co-optation of and cooperation with village society.

From each manteqa (Pashto for a self-identified, culturally uniform, and shared geographic space, centered on clusters of little villages), a prominent man could be selected as a baradur ikhan (heroic local leader), endowed with permanent and indivisible federal assets, obligations, and powers.  The baradur ikhan could then act as a link between the central government and the qawm (Dari Persian for a dense web of frequently renegotiated solidarity networks at the local level) in each manteqa.

By providing select qawm members with federal assets requiring allegiance and owed service, life at the village level would be connected much better with the decentralized substructure of the state and ultimately the centralized superstructure.  In effect, a chain of personal obligations and owed service to the central government would be created from the baradur ikhan right down to his retainers in the manteqa, and, through mutual support obligations, across manteqas to other baradur ikhans.

Moreover, the ethnic base of the Afghan National Army (ANA) needs to be broadened.  Incidentally, in some areas wrested recently from Taliban control, the implementation of a new "Afghan Local Police" (ALP) program that depends on arming the country's tribesmen and entrusting them to maintain control is a step in the right direction.

The ALP is reminiscent of the localized militiamen dubbed the "Afghan Militia Forces" (AMF), which played an important role in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.  However, the new Afghan government subsequently sought to disarm the AMF in favor of a new national army.  By 2005, some 63,000 militiamen deemed part of the AMF were disarmed and demobilized.  Much more weight will have to be transferred to the ALP as disengagement increases, even if the ANA can become more representative of Afghanistan's population.

If the plan suggested above is properly implemented, the first apparent result should be the disappearance of the localized Pashtun insurgency.  This will help to isolate and contain the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups like the Haqqani Network without having to negotiate a deal with such ideologically driven insurgents.

In turn, the Pakistani military and ISI will be much more conducive towards abandoning the policy of "strategic depth."  Such a prospect could become even more probable if Islamabad's chief ally -- China -- offers Pakistan economic cooperation on projects in Afghanistan like the Aynak copper mine, in which Beijing has invested $3 billion.

As is the case with Pakistan, much depends on the willpower of local actors.  Nevertheless, the alternative strategy I outline regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan is the only viable way of stabilizing the region as a whole and allowing for a safe withdrawal schedule.  President Obama should stick to his proposed withdrawal timetable beginning in July 2011 (although, as I suggested earlier, he should seek to disengage U.S. forces from the south).  Yet if all goes awry, the least we should do is issue a warning that any aggression emanating from future militant bases in Afghanistan will be met with severe counter-terrorism strikes.

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