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Paying the Price in Afghanistan

Most officers, now deploying to Afghanistan often for their third or fourth time, are far more attuned to political developments and the problems facing that country than the politicians who are ordering them into battle. Based on my experience teaching classes to deploying officers before each unit departs, there is an overwhelming consensus that governance in Afghanistan is fatally flawed. While officers recognize that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is inimical to American security, few officers see how propping up Hamid Karzai’s corrupt plutocracy is a U.S. interest.

Alas, the problem that Karzai has become today is the direct result of a strategy that traded short-term gain for long-term ills. Without doubt, it was important that the United States unseat the Taliban. Simply put, the Taliban can never be a partner for peace and it should have no role in Afghanistan’s future; it must be eliminated. The Clinton administration had tried a negotiated solution with Taliban leaders; the same Taliban representatives with whom Obama’s team now engage promised any number of resolutions, but then as now always failed to deliver.

When Operation Enduring Freedom began, the problem was not just the Taliban but rather, more broadly, the warlords or, in diplomat-speak, “regional power brokers.” When Operation Enduring Freedom began, Afghanistan had been without an army or professional police force for years. Warlords ruled the country. The United States was not in a position to subdue every single warlord; Afghanistan was not logistically capable of handling the huge numbers of U.S. forces that would be necessary for such a mission; the country did not have the extensive networks of bases such as those Saddam Hussein had left behind in Iraq.

The strategy hatched by Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American on Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council (and future ambassador to Afghanistan), was to co-opt as many Afghan warlords as possible by giving them posts in the new Afghan government, thereby removing them from their regional power base, all the while building up the new Afghan security forces. To enable this strategy to work, American officials needed a strong central government, with a president able to appoint not only ministers, but also governors and other regional officials.

Karzai certainly did not object to a strong presidency, and played along. He appointed Ismail Khan—a major Iranian-backed warlord from Herat—to be minister of energy. Notorious Afghan Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum became chief of staff to commander of the Afghan National Army, a largely ceremonial position.  The new Afghan government transferred Gul Agha Sherzai to be governor, first of Kandahar and then Nangarhar. Initially, the strategy paid off. By the time the warlords recognized their power had been surpassed by the national army, it was too late for them.

The payback, however, is now: The central government has become a major source of grievance. Karzai is mercurial and his family notoriously corrupt. If a basis of the U.S. counterinsurgency is to win hearts and minds at a local level, then Karzai and the centralized model implemented during the Bush years becomes the major problem. Afghan villagers and townsmen want leaders to whom they can turn who look like them, speak like them, and are representative of the population in the district in which they live. But, if the appointees and decisions are coming from above, then ultimately the only way to fight city hall is to fight the central government.

So what to do? The short-term strategy achieved its goal—the power of the warlords was undercut—but the bill is now coming due. Unless there is a concerted effort by all international partners to encourage a new loyal jirga to reconsider the structure of government, then Afghanistan is headed once again to chaos. Success will depend on empowering local officials beneath the banner of a loose central government. Alas, the United States has no standing now to rectify either problem, nor does Karzai have an interest in loosening the grip of his family. Obama’s timeline for withdrawal has undercut what little leverage American policymakers have.

The whole situation adds up to a frustrating mess for our soldiers, who are putting their lives on the line for a noble goal betrayed by a diplomatic fiction they all can see through. It is time our politicians treated our troops with the respect they deserve. They are willing to answer the call, but they must see that the problems so glaringly obvious in Afghanistan are being addressed rather than swept under the rug.



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