Planting flowers in the imperial graveyard

    Dear President Hamid Karzai:

    Over centuries of tumultuous political history, Afghanistan has come to be known as the “graveyard of empires.” The Mughal, British and Soviet Empires have all failed in their attempts to conquer the center of the Asian web. The British and Indian quests shaped “The Great Game,” a strategic conflict for regional control. The Soviet endeavor slowly dissolved their military strength and led to the end of the Cold War. The continuing American conflict portends similar consequences. Afghanistan is not prepared for a national democracy or a vibrant market economy. The international objective vis-a-vis the imperial graveyard should be prudent and simple: Contain conflict.

    As nice as it would be to call you democratically-elected, America hand selected you. Your regime is the product of the Bonn Agreement, a political deal that ensured ethnic balance in the new Afghan government. The Americans sought to jump in bed with the Northern Alliance, a group of moderate Tajik chieftains, and install its leaders as the new democratic government of Afghanistan.

    However, the Afghans, a majority of them your fellow Pashtuns, would not accept the legitimacy of any government that did not adequately represent their ethnic interests. A larger political settlement, hatched by the Americans, Iranians, and various Europeans, founded the government that you now lead.

    This was all about seven years ago. Since the Americans invaded, overthrew the Taliban and gave you your new job, the veneer of stability has begun to fracture. A multilateral force still has to police the streets and deliver supplies to the Afghan people. NATO and American forces are training Afghan army and police officers in the hope that power will once again reside with the domestic security forces.

    This international presence, however, has failed to bring anything more than temporary stability to the region.

    The Taliban, once forced to the margins of Afghanistan and the western regions of Pakistan, has reconstituted. The group is responsible for persistently mounting suicide attacks on American and international forces. Corruption pervades your government as drug interests fuel your still feeble economy. Your country has a porous border inviting violent radicals to cross; Afghanistan plays host to periodic bombings and is wanting of any rule of law; your government, paralyzed by corruption and inefficiency, remains subject to American political will.

    The Obama administration seeks to increase the domestic and international security forces in Afghanistan, but can a surge bring stability?

    There are four interconnected issues that you and the Americans must confront and resolve if Afghanistan is ever to become stable.

    Border Control
    The purpose of border control is to foster security and stability within Afghanistan so that a government can function. Waziristan, the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a safe haven for Taliban insurgents. Terrorist bases in the border regions allow for insurgents to attack swiftly in Afghanistan and escape back to refuge in Waziristan, where U.S. troops refuse to go. Without border control, Afghan security remains a fantasy.

    Most consider the future of Afghan security to be contingent on cooperation with the Pakistani national government. Turmoil in Pakistani politics and continuing disputes with India have distracted from pressing concerns over Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. While the United States has pressured Islamabad to crack down on the haven in Waziristan, and has provided the money to do so, Pakistan has cut multiple deals with tribal councils there who are committed to maintaining the region’s Taliban ties.

    The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. must increase pressure on Pakistan in order to fill in the gaps of its border with Afghanistan. Some consider a stronger troop presence in the region and continued counterterrorism missions with pilotless drones to be necessary first steps to securing the border. However, more American forces near the Afghan/Pakistani border are not the answer, nor are more airstrikes. The key to border security must come from joint local enforcement by the Afghan and Pakistani police and military forces.

    The Afghan and Pakistani national governments have difficulty projecting military or police force across their entire countries. According to Afghan historian Amin Saikal, the death of Afghanistan’s founder, Ahmad Shah Abdali, prompted the country to devolve into “microsocieties” led by warlords and ethnic chiefs. The relative ungovernability of several regions within their countries renders local policing necessary and prudent.

    In this case, local politics must bond with local policing to mold a new form of international relationship. Tribal councils in Pakistan need to meet regularly with provincial governments in eastern Afghanistan to keep their local populations safe from intrusion by fleeing Taliban fighters. Due to conflicting ethnic and linguistic identifications, the national police force or military from either country would have difficulty policing the border area. Instead, the border guard should be comprised of citizens who know the area and can develop a trust with its residents.

    While strengthening border security may contain the Taliban, it does nothing to confront them. One of the keys to fostering stability and crippling the insurgents will be cutting off their main source of funding: the poppy trade. This trade is not only the lifeblood of Afghan terrorism, but also the livelihood of countless Afghan farmers. It is not nearly as simple as burning poppy fields or arresting warlords; cracking down on poppy farming means exacerbating the poverty of the Afghan citizens we are ultimately seeking to protect.

    The soft power branch of U.S. foreign policy has already sought to switch Afghan farmers from poppies to wheat or other more innocuous crops in order to stop fanning the flames of the international drug trade. These other crops, neither as profitable nor as palatable as the poppy, have been rejected by Afghan farmers.

    The key problem is that opium interests have tapped into your Cabinet and the highest levels of Taliban leadership. The Afghan government does not have any incentive to challenge them, and in turn does not challenge the insurgency’s backer. At the same time, challenging the opium interests might hurt Afghans more than it helps.

    Attempting to rid Afghanistan of opium is a fool’s errand. Any solution must attempt to separate the ordinary farming interests from the drug interests. It is an oversimplification to think that there is no gray area between civilian farming and the drug trade; the two are obviously linked. Our efforts at control must be directed to push those affiliated with the drug traders out of government, which means reconfiguring your Cabinet. If we remove those linked to the drug trade from the national government, the government will be open to pursue stronger law enforcement and social policies that begin a crackdown on illicit trade and an economic transition away from a poppy-dependent system. Cleansing the cabinet, of course, must be coupled with the prioritization of transition toward other commerce.

    International Occupation
    Afghanistan can both secure its borders and begin to dissolve the foundation of the Taliban without an international occupation. Some defense experts argue that a surge is appropriate for Afghanistan for the same reasons it “worked” in Iraq. A larger presence directly translates into more security and affords localities an opportunity to strengthen their foundations and organize their institutions. The key to the initial success of the surge in Iraq, however, was not the number of troops, but the powerful ascent of local police forces like the Sunni Awakening Councils.

    I am not by any means proposing that we flood local Afghan security forces with undocumented arms like we did the Sunnis in Anbar. Instead, I am proposing that we intensify training efforts of local security forces and deploy international NGOs like the International Law Institute to train local Afghan governments in managing a police force, building economic institutions and crafting a federalist political settlement. While the international occupying forces are the primary targets of Taliban bombings, withdrawal will only leave the country more vulnerable to extremism. As the international security presence disintegrates, the Afghan political and security presence will need to strengthen.

    Throughout history, no strong national government has successfully governed a unified Afghanistan. Though I have no problem trying to defy history, a strong national government in Afghanistan is just not feasible. The forces of the tribal system of local government are too strong for a central source of power to overcome.

    However, a national government can and should exist. It should bring representatives from the various localities together in a political settlement of limited authority. The point should be to regulate trade and international affairs, not to set policy for the whole of Afghanistan. There should be a national army and police command, but forces that are funded and trained at the local level. There will of course be difficulty with the loyalty of these forces to the national government. If they report to national commanders of diverse backgrounds, though, it is possible to avoid internecine conflict.

    The American model of federalist governance will not work for Afghanistan, but a more regional model might. Power should be highly localized in terms of meaningful policy and development decisions. While the national government will undoubtedly play a role in fostering stability and growth, a negotiated cabinet with shared power might prove less inimical than an authoritative premier. Ultimately, I am saying that your government should relegate more power to the provinces and that you should share more power with a less corrupt cabinet.

    If nothing else, these debates reaffirm that your job is unenviably difficult. I fear that your country may become a vacuum, a failed state in a region of incredible instability. The United States cannot repair it. You cannot repair it. You can, however, begin to plant the seeds that will revive the imperial graveyard.

    Very truly yours,

    Ben Armstrong


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