Afghanistan: Dispelling Myths, Clarifying Facts

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Read full report, “Local Contours of Security in Afghanistan.”

By Prakhar Sharma – Afghan President Karzai’s recent visit to Washington, DC, resulted in improved public gestures of trust from both countries. But there are daunting challenges ahead that will test the nature of this partnership.

President Obama is likely to face pressure to withdraw troops from Afghanistan over the next few years, whether or not there is significant progress on the ground. He must find a way to demonstrate military and political successes in Afghanistan to show that the commitment of additional troops was worth it.

President Karzai, on the other hand, has seen his credibility plummet-both locally and internationally-since the controversial 2009 election. For him to make any headway in reconciliation with the Taliban, he not only needs to be seen as a legitimate and strong leader by the Afghans, but also as supported by the West with resources and sustained commitment.

Both Presidents reiterated their belief in the reconciliation process, and mentioned that a political solution was the only realistic way to resolve the issues at hand. President Obama also mentioned that a strategy for dialogue needs to work in tandem with a military solution. Though battlefield victories in Afghanistan won’t end the conflict, they would create conditions for dialogue and reconciliation.

However, after nine years of largely uncoordinated military and civilian efforts and mixed results, patience is running thin on both sides. The insurgency has expanded each year since 2004, in part because local governance has failed to address the basic needs of the Afghan people.

It is now crucial to proceed with caution and care, in order to craft policy that is grounded in local realities. Some factors to consider:

  • The insurgency is multifaceted. People typically adopt an ideology to rationalize their actions; therefore, radicalization usually happens after a person has joined an insurgent group, not before. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to identify why someone may join the insurgency, be it for ethnic, political, economic, social, or ideological reasons. The distinction between “good” and “bad” Taliban is thus a non-starter. Any political strategy towards reconciliation and reintegration should address all interrelated factors that propel people to pursue violence.
  • There is an ethnic dimension to the insurgency. The mostly Pashtun Taliban rose to prominence in 1995 after the Afghan civil war. This occurred because they were not part of the civil war that erupted after the Soviet withdrawal-they put an end to all the bloodshed, and were widely accepted by a populace that was tired of the infighting among the warlords. After 9/11, the US-led coalition removed the Taliban, and welcomed back most of those warlords as part of the Afghan Government. While it is hard to say who is worse today-the former warlords or the Taliban- the alternatives have not made it easy to win the hearts and minds of the people. At best, it is insulting to the Afghans to be provided with such dubious choices. At worst, it undermines governance, and weakens the credibility of the United States and its claim of being a nation-builder.
  • Battlefield victories will only render positive results if we have credible local partners. Ultimately, this conflict is about presenting Afghans with better and more promising choices. By partnering with those who have abysmal human rights records, and making them the face of the local government and a voice of international engagement, we are only undermining our mandate and people’s trust in our intentions.
  • To address weaknesses in governance and the corruption in government it is necessary to build on the existing structures, and address the reasons for their weaknesses. The international community’s engagement in Afghanistan is about building an effective system of governance. The existing structures have enormous deficiencies, but bypassing them will only lead to temporary structures that will not stand the test of time after the US troops withdraw.
  • Three decades of conflict have fractured the tribal leadership across the country. Building national institutions will be more effective than reviving traditional structures. Neither arming the local militias, nor relying on community-driven defense initiatives is a sustainable solution to the conflict. These initiatives will only rearm the local power brokers and spike ethnic and tribal conflicts locally.
  • The Afghans want the international community and the US troops to remain engaged. The Afghans may answer “no” when asked whether they want the Americans to stay in their country, but on further probing, they frequently indicate that it is not the presence of the American troops, but their behavior (airstrikes, arrests, house searches) that makes Afghans wish them away. The poor reputation of the local government, for genuine or political reasons, also contributes to the negative perceptions about the foreign forces that are seen as supporting corrupt local governments.

The meeting between President Obama and President Karzai was a timely reaffirmation of the merits of partnership between the Afghans and Americans, and allowed both parties to articulate their commitment to continuing progress. Such commitments are crucial to signal that the international community is dedicated to the stabilization process in Afghanistan.

Photo Credit: The White House

Prakhar Sharma was a Visiting Fellow with the Regional Voices project at the Stimson Center. 

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