The Afghan Peace Jirga (Part 2 of 2)

War and Peace

[Read part 1 here]      Focused first and foremost on consolidating his power, like any political leader facing an insecure environment (the same principle applies to North Korea, who seeks a nuclear deterrent to ensure regime survival), Karzai failed to make the needs of the Afghan people his priority, as reflected in the flawed loya jirga most recently. However, the responsibility for the poor success the government has had in delivering tangible results outside of Kabul is not his alone: for instance, the so-called “international community” failed to deliver the promised aid on a timely basis starting in 2002. The tensions in US-Afghan relations peaked earlier this year, with several high level US officials (including, famously, Richard Holbrooke) viewing Karzai as an obstacle more than anything else based on his poor track record so far. Such an opinion begs the question of how any counterinsurgency is supposed to succeed, absent a committed effort to strengthen public authority, to consolidate the rule of law and to promote transparent, independent political institutions.

Yet far from tackling this challenge, the current US strategy appears to compound its difficulty by pursuing a unilateral and military-heavy approach focused on short-term results rather than on strong institutions and ensuring long-term stability. The increased reliance under president Obama on Special Forces (led by the current commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal, himself a scion of Special Ops) is symptomatic of this problematic thinking, as their purpose is not to rebuild a region, to hold a territory, but to serve as highly mobile units to be deployed in situations where the enemy is beyond the reach of regular army units. An excellent article by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times offers a clear illustration of how the different mentalities guiding Special Ops on one hand and regular military units on the other lead to a chaotic situation where the former favor short-term gains that end up going against the efforts by the latter toward long-term security and stability. By the way, this should in no way be taken as criticism of Special Forces: they’re trained with a specific purpose in mind, and are in my opinion being misused in Afghanistan, whose situation doesn’t call for primarily relying on special ops – unless their ever-expanding role highlights a fundamental and even more problematic lack of coordination or of clear directives from the president specifying as to which route to pursue. The tensions between short-term and long-term have only increased, apparently, since president Obama announced that the drawdown of US troops would begin in July 2011. (Although I’d just like to point out that “beginning to withdraw” and “leaving” are two very different things: it’s a very slow process, and one that the president has left deliberately vague – nothing says it has to be a large reduction in July 2011, nor a rapid one…)

Furthermore, I can’t but wonder how a counterinsurgency is supposed to succeed if the Afghan police force is discarded from the get-go as a corrupt and useless institution (the same goes for Pakistan, where we favor missiles over cops, or overly rely on drones while neglecting the police); by deeming the police beyond hope, and therefore failing to invest any kind of meaningful resources into making it more professional, Richard Holbrooke and those whose thinking inspired his own views (presented in a May 2008 Congressional testimony) unwittingly favored the emergence of new warlords and the simultaneous marginalization of any public institution – local or national – in the face of the new strongmen. Meanwhile, the absence of alternative forces to carry out the functions supposed to be played by the police (i.e., ensuring everyday security according to the rule of law) created a void that private militias accountable to no one, led by new warlords, quickly moved to fill in.


The resemblance between what Dexter Filkins describes in 2010 and what Ahmed Rashid described in Descent into Chaos about the early years of the Afghan war is striking – despite the stepped-up international presence (especially US): the same flaws of short-term over long-term, counter-terrorism versus nation-building, appear to be constraining US efforts, now as then; the principal victim of these errors being, of course, the Afghan people. (This isn’t simply a question of helping an impoverished population out of sheer generosity: for those who favor a more “realist” line of thinking, I recommend reading this op-ed as well as this note which lays out how the problem of corrupt and weak institutions risks directly hindering international efforts in Afghanistan – all the more so as the US doesn’t possess a clearly-articulated strategy focusing on improving the lives of Afghans according to their needs. On the matter of the importance of listening to local inhabitants for international assistance to be effective, I’ll simply refer you to Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen.)

Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution wrote an op-ed last May in which she defends a position similar to mine, albeit with greater clarity and authority, and whose title sums up this argument nicely: “Stop buying off the Afghans.” However, her piece stops short of stating plainly the problem of incoherent, incompatible approaches at the core of the matter, the dilemma that Washington must resolve once and for all. Simply put, the United States has to decide whether or not, yes or no, straight up or down, no maybes or anything, are we committed to a carrying out a counterinsurgency and nation-building mission or are we simply in Afghanistan to take out the terrorists (whoever that vague label may apply to) and in that case admit it, and reduce our presence accordingly. Hesitating as we’ve done so far will not only be a far more costly option, and one that stretches our forces needlessly thin, but a counterproductive one as well that ultimately risks harming American interests as well as exposing Americans (soldiers, diplomats, civilians working in Afghanistan) to unnecessary danger.

Despite adopting a broader perspective on Afghanistan and Pakistan that recognizes the military struggle for what it is, but a component of the overall approach, the current US administration seems in practice to be drifting toward a more limited counterterrorist operation that relies heavily on Special Ops and on CIA-operated drones. Used regularly as a high-precision weapon, the latter constitute an assassination program conducted on an ongoing basis with very little oversight, something Stephen Walt is right to worry about; the faulty reasoning that makes them seem an attractive option has been highlighted on several occasions by Steve Coll and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation.

Meanwhile, when the international conference takes place next month in Kabul, the security of the Afghan people is sure not to be a decisive factor for the foreign powers assembled there, and whose deliberations and back-door negotiations are sure to have a greater impact on the evolution of the situation in Afghanistan than the loya jirga. Hopefully by then the Obama administration will have made a clearer choice as to what kind of commitment it is prepared to offer; should it opt for a reduced engagement, in keeping with a narrower objective, it will need to immediately execute a carefully thought-out but delicate action plan to prevent regional power dynamics from intensifying.

Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, Taliban, United States