Facing Reality: A New Approach in Afghanistan

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By Amit Pandya – The international community does not face imminent failure in Afghanistan. It has already failed. The immediate necessity is a radically new approach.

The news tells the grim tale. A 40% increase in civilian casualties; more US soldiers killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq; a steady trajectory, of two years or longer, of eroding control by the Kabul government, and military and political advances by its enemies, usually styling themselves “Taliban.”

The presence of foreign troops is an irritant to Afghan nationalism, prompting many to join the Taliban, as an act of national resistance rather than of ideological sympathy. The widespread civilian casualties, perhaps inevitable in civil conflict and guerilla warfare, add to the sense of resentment and alienation between foreign forces and Afghans.

The Afghan Army suffers from a lack of legitimacy because it is seen as the instrument of a weak government that enjoys little popular legitimacy. The Afghan state fails to provide personal security. Law and order routinely means predatory behavior by licensed law enforcement. The courts, where and when they operate, are slow, capricious and unreliable. Corruption is endemic and pervasive, for ordinary Afghans in almost any interaction with officialdom, and among high officials benefiting from their offices, often through protection and sponsorship of crime. The sad truth is that, with the exception of limited success in delivery of health services, the government has failed to provide the basic services for which states exist.

Meanwhile, the international community muddles along. NATO interminably debates the size, geographical range and rules of engagement of troop commitments from its members. Despite a longstanding concern in all quarters (donors and Afghan government) about the focus and effectiveness of foreign assistance, there has been no meaningful progress, particularly in capacity building of the central government. As a result, there is a perception that much money has been wasted and misspent, with little benefit to Afghans.

The real issue is not how to fine tune the NATO mission to vouchsafe success. There is no way that the mission can succeed. It is a matter not of the size of international military presence, nor the firepower brought to bear, but rather a recognition that even a substantially larger and more aggressive presence would fail. Indeed, it is likely that a larger and more aggressive presence would raise the stakes and increase Afghan nationalist resistance. Indeed, recent experience suggests that increases in military presence are not the key to success in Afghanistan.

For this reason, calls in the United States for more from NATO allies, and for enhancement of the US military contingent, are misplaced. The West and the Afghan government have not failed because of insufficient force. They have failed because the present political arrangement is inherently unviable and a sure source of conflict.

Needed: A New Consensus among Stakeholders

Afghanistan is a complex society, comprising regional, tribal, sub-tribal and local sources of loyalty and patronage. When it has found political equilibrium and stability, it has done so by the careful balancing, along many axes, of disparate and potentially fissiparous interests, in a meticulous balance of rewards and obligations. This has undoubtedly been disturbed by decades of civil war and the forces of modernization, which have brought new forces to the fore and placed an additional premium on the possession of armed might. Yet there remains little alternative to the establishment of some such equilibrium. Indeed, the atrophy of traditional mechanisms suggests that the task of consensus building across the Afghan nation is all the more imperative.

Only a new dispensation that is agreed to by all stakeholders, in Afghanistan and outside, can hope to vouchsafe a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan, the traditional mechanism of the jirga or shura offers a means for negotiation of a political compromise at all levels, from the most local to the national. The national process which produced the current constitution of Afghanistan was an attempt to use this traditional mechanism, and is to be faulted only because it excluded many significant stakeholders: those in the south in armed rebellion against the government, and unarmed political forces effectively excluded from the process.

A process of Afghanistan-wide reconciliation must include those forces now loosely clustered under the name Taliban. They are significant numerically and geographically, and at least some of the new recruits are drawn by national sentiment rather than ideological commitment. Their military capacity would doom any process that excluded them. In addition to bringing armed potential spoilers to the table, such a process could also make room for unarmed and peaceful political actors who have been sidelined by the de facto dominance of the warlords. Civilian political actors are likely to prefer a transparent consensual process to the present sham democracy.

Such a process would face an uncertain prospect, but remains the best of the viable options. Members and other beneficiaries of the present government will be reluctant to risk their power. The Taliban may not agree to abide by a consensus. Therefore, the international community would need to be a highly interested guarantor of its fairness.

It is therefore equally important to bring all interested outside actors to agreement on a settlement. The international supplement to the national Afghan process proposed would be a modification of the “Six Plus Two” formula that was the basis for international deliberations during the period of Taliban rule in Kabul. In addition to all of Afghanistan’s proximate neighbors, those governments required to endorse an agreement would have to include the United States, Russia, the European Union or NATO, and India.

Only thus can all potential spoilers be domesticated and the long-suffering people of Afghanistan have a hope of peace. 

Amit Pandya is a Senior Associate at the Stimson Center and Director of the project Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges. 


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