| ||A Long Hot Summer and a Call for Change|
By Ali Ahmad Jalali
This summer the public mood in Afghanistan is a combination of anxiety and hope. With more than 400 attacks in a single week in June, violence has reached the highest level since late 2001. The trend is expected to continue, making this the bloodiest summer since the downfall of the Taliban nearly eight years ago. Meanwhile Afghans across the country hope that a new United States approach, coupled with a much desired improvement in governance following the Aug. 20 Afghan presidential election, might reverse the security decline and pave the way for stabilizing the situation
A recent public opinion survey by the International Republican Institute indicates that only 30% of Afghans think the country is moving in the right direction, a 49% drop from 2004. Yet disappointment has not made Afghans apathetic, with about 75% of eligible voters registered for the upcoming presidential election, with 60% intending to participate.
This comes against a backdrop of several years of poorly resourced and ill-coordinated reconstruction efforts during which the situation evolved from a relatively simple postconflict setting into a complex threat environment marked by terrorism, insurgency and the many challenges of nation building. The deployment of 21,000 additional U.S. troops over the next 12 months is designed to reverse the momentum of the insurgency and encourage the development of strong and accountable Afghan governance.
However, the security situation is spiraling out of control, and this summer may be the last opportunity to reinvigorate the counterinsurgency efforts. Violence has been steadily increasing for the last three years, and is set to rise further this summer as the presidential elections and the arrival of U.S. “surge” forces present a new range of targets for insurgent attacks. Ineffective governance by the Afghan administration has eroded its legitimacy amongst the population, which has seen no discernible improvement in its safety or prosperity.
The new U.S. policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan aims at disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban in both countries and preventing their return there. Building a viable government in Afghanistan that can control its territory and win the trust of its people is the prerequisite for achieving these goals. The eradication of violence and terrorism cannot presage establishment of a stable government, but rather a stable government must presage the eradication of violence and terrorism if these gains are to be sustained. Although Afghanistan cannot be turned into a full-ﬂedged democracy overnight, it can eventually be transformed into a stable country deﬁned by democratic principles. The fulﬁllment of such a potentiality will require the governments of Afghanistan, the U.S. and their coalition partners to forge a shared vision of an Afghan state able to govern its citizens justly, grow its economy steadily and secure its territory independently.
During the last seven years, policies designed to stabilize and democratize Afghanistan have failed not because of their infeasibility, but because of the uncoordinated and poorly resourced efforts to support them. International involvement in the state-building process was an afterthought to the ﬁght against global terrorism, and was driven by the desire to remove the threat to the U.S. emanating from Afghan territory. From the outset, contradictory concepts dominated international effort to stabilize the country.
The Taliban were removed from power, but neither their potential to come back nor their external support was addressed. Alliances of convenience with warlords perpetuated the inﬂuence of the most notorious human-rights violators. Insufﬁcient investment and inefﬁcient use of funds, mostly outside government control, failed to create economic opportunities, good governance and the rule of law. Militarily, U.S. troops focused narrowly on ﬁghting “terrorists” in Afghanistan, even though many terrorists had already snuck across the border to Pakistan. Other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members restricted their troops’ contributions to peacekeeping operations despite the fact that peace had not yet been achieved. As a result, opportunities to stabilize Afghanistan were squandered and a revitalized Taliban-led insurgency was allowed to emerge.
Now Afghanistan has reached a tipping point. Its government’s legitimacy and, in fact, its very existence is being openly challenged by an array of insurgent forces. The Taliban, which has long operated a shadow government in Afghanistan’s most dangerous areas, has succeeded in extending its power to Kabul’s doorstep, and a weak and corrupt Afghan government is powerless to stop it. Most Afghans do not view the insurgents as a viable alternative to the current government, but they are reluctant to stand up to them on behalf of a government that can neither protect them nor deliver them basic services.
afghanistan’s transition from conﬂict to peace and sustainable development is a process of state building with its associated security, political and economic dimensions. It involves the creation of a set of institutions, capacities, resources and provisions for the rule of law. Both state building and governance in Afghanistan are troubled by diverging concepts that inﬂuence the policies of domestic, regional and global actors on the Afghan scene. They are further hindered by a continued cycle of political and economic violence. In such an environment, competing demands for responding to these challenges are often hard to reconcile. Adopting and pursuing a much-needed comprehensive and integrated strategy, along with its coordinated implementation, is further exacerbated by the involvement of numerous domestic and international actors who come with an uneven level of commitment, different degrees of resources, procedures and priorities. The resulting operational constraints inhibit strategic coordination in ﬁghting the insurgency while building state institutions and good governance.
Consequently, different actors involved in Afghanistan fought their own separate wars ranging from counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, stability operations and “peacekeeping” initiatives. With no strong links between these efforts, at times they worked against each other. As a result, there was no unified long-term vision and no uniformed standards for measuring success. This has to change. In the long run, success will be defined by the ability of the Afghan government to control its territory, win the trust of the people and prevent infiltration and subversion from abroad. For this to happen, it is imperative that international and Afghan security forces focus on protecting the population from the violence and intimidation of the insurgency.
Unless this occurs, no government initiatives will succeed in improving the lives of the citizenry. It is only through such governance that the international community and the Afghan government can achieve the ultimate counterinsurgency goal: to make the Taliban and their insurgent allies irrelevant. The Taliban will not be defeated by force, but can be undermined by stability, economic progress, political transparency and well-enforced legitimate systems of justice. The centrality of security and justice as counterinsurgency issues is apparent from recent Afghan history. The popular discontent with lawlessness under the Mujahideen government in mid-1990s paved the way for the success of the Taliban. Later it was the Taliban’s brutalized “justice” and their oppressive securitization schemes that turned the people against them during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The great danger for the current Afghan government and its international supporters is that their failure to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and protect them from the depredations of Taliban reprisals is leading the population to acquiesce, albeit reluctantly, in the return of Taliban control.
Practicable democracy is a prerequisite for America’s successful process, however, can be hindered by short-term political agendas, as well as by excessive dependence on external assistance. In 2003-04, the rush to a quick solution for integrating the incompetent, and often corrupt, demobilized militiamen by dumping them on police structures undermined the long-term development of the National Police that continues to suffer from rampant corruption and professional incompetence.
A change will require connecting tactical and strategic operations, reconciling short-term and long-term goals and supporting what Afghans see as future priorities rather than allowing outsiders to make the decisions for them. Currently, Kabul is not in full control of institution-building, security operations and development choices; the basic functions of governance are performed by an array of state and nonstate actors, including foreign militaries, international bodies, ngos and informal/traditional domestic power holders. Nor are military and nonmilitary operations coordinated and directed toward a common goal. Meanwhile, actions carried out by different partners, including nato, the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom, the Afghan government, regional partners (Pakistan in particular) and others, are strategically fragmented. The alternative is to make the Afghan government the sole owner and coordinator of the overall strategy. However, this is not likely to work before the Afghan government acquires the capacity to strategize and coordinate the overall efforts for stabilization and reconstruction.
In developing a new strategy, Afghan society needs to be mobilized in pursuit of what its population aspires to instead of what a supply-driven assistance program imposes upon it. Many have debated whether such mobilization should be driven by the central government in a top-down approach or by local organizations in a bottom-up approach. In reality, both approaches have been tested, and both should be utilized as the situation in Afghanistan is moved forward. The Bonn process initiated a bottom-up approach by allowing regional strongmen and warlords to help overthrow the Taliban. The decentralization it created was in turn meant to be checked by the 2004 Afghanistan constitution, a document that empowered the central government to proceed from the top-down. Today, there is a need to balance power harmoniously between the center and the periphery. Ideally, the Afghan central government would take the initiative in ﬁghting insurgents, building critical infrastructure and reforming corrupt national institutions, while community organizations would take the lead in driving local-level economies, delivering services and conducting dispute resolution.
However, long-term stabilization can be achieved only through creating a secure space through short-term actions. Three factors will determine whether the security situation can be stabilized in the short-term: the U.S. “surge” and its concomitant shift in counterinsurgency strategy; the outcome of the presidential election and the willingness and ability of the next Afghan government to reform institutional structures and the provision of services to the population; and, ﬁnally, Pakistan’s operations against insurgents in the Pashtun tribal belt along the Durand Line.
The Civil-Military ‘Surge’
the surge of military and civilian personnel into Afghanistan must be fixed to a strategy that prioritizes the two prerequisites for long-term stability—protection of the population and the building of Afghan institutions and capacities for good governance. In order to create an environment conducive to political progress, the Afghan population must be provided with security. By living within communities and conducting the most difﬁcult counterinsurgency operations, international troops and the Afghan National Army can provide the space for rule of law and stability to emerge.
As in Iraq, the “surge” of U.S. troops and civilian personnel into Afghanistan will coincide with a reorientation of counterinsurgency strategy. The promotion of Gen. Stanley McChrystal to the role of commander in Afghanistan is being touted by the White House and the Pentagon as a signal that the U.S. intends to do things differently, and better than before. Despite his background in the Special Forces and his experience running manhunts in Iraq, Gen. McChrystal has been forthright in declaring that success in Afghanistan will not be achieved primarily through the application of force. At his Senate conﬁrmation hearing, he announced the basis of his strategy for Afghanistan was “to convince people, not to kill them.”
Rather than attack the insurgents, Gen.
McChrystal intends to conduct a “classic counterinsurgency campaign by getting people down in among the population.” This is a belated but welcome recognition that protecting the population is the key to victory in Afghanistan. So far, air strikes and over-focus on force protection at the expense of civilian casualties and durable security; picking and choosing discredited allies in ﬁghting terrorists and insurgents; and indiscriminate and unwarranted searches of peaceful villages without consideration for local culture, or detaining inhabitants who have no known connection with hostile armed groups, have provoked resentment and indignant protests that hindered the stabilization effort.
Without international troops living among the most vulnerable communities it is impossible to create a security environment in which the government of Afghanistan can begin to address the needs of the people. The mission of the “surge” forces must focus on isolating the population away from the insurgents, and enabling Afghan security forces to take increasing responsibility for this task in the coming years.
Ultimately, while military success is needed, it can do no more than create the space for the sort of good governance and political reconciliation that is necessary to undermine the appeal of the insurgency. Although the success of the Afghan government will eventually rest on the institutional capacities and leadership of technocrats and politicians, it is up to security forces to create the environment in which progress can be achieved. Currently, the levels of violence are so high, and international troops so thinly dispersed, that the Taliban and its afﬁliates have almost unhindered access to the population on a daily basis. Under such conditions, it is unreasonable to expect people to commit to the government.
Finally, the success of state building and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan remains tied to events in Pakistan. With insurgent camps in Pakistan providing safe haven for Afghan militants, the two nations’ conﬂicts are interlinked and perhaps even inseparable. The success of the Pakistani army in suppressing the uprisings in Swat and Northwest Frontier Province, and the ability of the government to address the grievances of the population on matters of justice, land rights and rule of law will have a profound effect on the ability of the Afghan government and its partners to conduct successful counterinsurgency operations. Pakistan’s Army and Frontier Corps have recently been clearing out militants from the Swat Valley and nearby districts and the army has been pounding strongholds of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in the South Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Speaking at a recent Pentagon press conference, Col. John Spiszer, a U.S. commander stated that Pakistan’s military offensive against insurgents appears to be draining resources including money and weapons that might otherwise be going to militants ﬁghting on the other side of the border in Afghanistan. Consequently, he indicated that militants’ activity in this area of Afghanistan has declined. But there is a need to expand the military operations against the mostly untouched Taliban bases in the Quetta area where attacks are launched against Afghan and nato forces in the southern provinces of Afghanistan.
At a Turning Point
this summer, afghans will vote in a presidential election for the second time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. While indulging in the unavoidable oratory commemorating this landmark event, Afghan and Western leaders should be aware that the result of the election will be essentially irrelevant if the process of forming a new government is not handled correctly. The Afghan population is tired of the venality and incompetence that have been such unfortunate hallmarks of this administration. The election process should be judged on how well the government is able to enact the structural and personnel changes necessary to put Afghanistan on the path of progress.
Bringing a divided polity, fractured on ethnic, tribal, geographic and linguistic lines, into a uniﬁed government is a necessary task for the new president. However, if impractical campaign promises that create high expectations, deal making and cabinet horse-trading allows corrupt or compromised ofﬁcials to regain high ofﬁce then the government’s legitimacy will be fatally undermined from the start. With the security situation worsening, and the Afghan population increasingly distrustful of the promises made by its elected leaders, there is an urgent need to show that accountable, effective and efﬁcient leadership is possible. The entire operation of governing has to be reformed, and done so in a way that satisﬁes the ﬁerce desire for positive change, probity and development.
This election thus comes at a turning point for Afghanistan. If progress cannot be made on security and development over the next 12 months to 18 months, then momentum will shift comprehensively and perhaps irrevocably toward the insurgents. Coinciding as it does with the military and civilian surge, the elections are an opportunity to change the way government does business and show the Afghan population that state institutions can bring stability.
However, a number of problems exist, with the potential to forestall the emergence of a newly legitimate government. One problem is that there are complications associated with the security situation. According to recent assessments by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, there is substantial threat of the Taliban in one-third of the country’s districts. The threat is particularly signiﬁcant in the south which is likely to prevent many Pashtuns from being able to vote. By keeping the Pashtun voters out of the election, the insurgents insure that the new government will be seen as unrepresentative. Pashtuns who fear domination by other minority ethnic groups become easy prey to insurgents’ propaganda that the government is a vehicle for ensuring their subjugation and oppression.
although attention this year is likely to focus on the surge and the elections, these are both means to achieve broader ends: security for the population and better governance. These two principles must guide the deployment and operation of international forces, and deﬁne the shape and behavior of the new government regardless of who leads it. If positive change cannot be achieved in these two areas, the Afghan population will begin to abandon the government, and the streets of Kabul will likely see antigovernment rioting and rising public disobedience.
Over the next 18 months, certain key indicators will show how successful the governmenthasbeeninprovingitscommitment to reform, justice, rule of law and the security of its citizens. As measures of success, we should focus on whether the population feels secure, for this above all else will determine the success of counterinsurgency and therefore state building. Are refugees returning or leaving? Is civilian cooperation with government intelligence and security services improving? Are militants’ bombing and suicide attacks up or down? Can people and goods move freely? Rather than the overall level of violence between the the military and insurgents, answers to these questions will indicate whether the population is being protected and whether the government is able to fulfill its mandateto improve its lives.
Ali A. Jalali was the Interior Minister of Afghanistan from January 2003 to September2005. He now serves as a Distinguished Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.