Saturday, October 10, 2009

Afghan reboot

What should we do now? Boots or no boots?

The Afghan war/nation building/counterinsurgency/hearts-and-minds operation has largely gone down the drain. A recent report described the utter futility of our training efforts for the Afghan army and police force, whose members are cashing out and disappearing as fast as we "train" them, then coming back for more pay and more training with new names. Pakistan remains likewise uncontrolled, with their border home sweet home for insurgents and jihadists of all sorts.

The core of the problem is corruption. While there is plenty of corruption and stupidity on the part of US and its contractors, the more serious problem is that the Afghan government is fully corrupt, with little hold on the affections and respect of the populace or any plausible way to engage with it, certainly not after the shameful election antics just witnessed. In Iraq, the US faced a population that had long been used to a powerful central state. However frightfully it fell apart into a lord-of-the-flies free-for-all, Iraqis generally nurtured the hope that eventually chaos would recede, either at the hands of another strongman, or directly at the hands of the US occupiers, and they could resume something like normal life in a semi-developed country.

But in Afghanistan, the political culture has never gotten to the point of effective centralization, let alone parliamentary democracy, checks and balances, technocracy, and the many other ingredients of modern statehood. Decades of civil war have eviscerated basic expectations of normalcy. The situation is reminiscent of the rotten governments of South Vietnam, successively installed by the CIA via coups d'├ętat as the US blindly tried to prop up the South with hardly any knowledge of its culture or history. In effect, the US was busily turning the population of the South against its government instead of for it, giving them over into the arms of the Vietcong.

As the Taliban are today, the Vietcong were indigenous (i.e. grass-roots), nationalistic, ruthless, and far more efficient than the government or US forces. They had inherited a mantle of anti-imperialism, first against the Japanese, then the French, as the Taliban have against the Russians and the Americans. Their all-important currencies were credibility and sympathy- sympathy by being of the rural South Vietnamese culture, and credibility both through their history and by way of their organizational skill and successes against their enemies.

How are we winning the sympathy of the population of Afghanistan? It is a complicated question, but basically, the answer varies between not very well and not at all. The vision of a well-run state with women's rights, security, and economic development is, in the Afghan context, a far-away utopia. The competing vision of traditional Islam and plenty of money from poppy cultivation makes a good deal more immediate sense, at least to the middle power-brokers- the warloads, tribal leaders and family heads. And if the Taliban has more effective grass-roots mafia-like enforcement of power and security, then that would be icing on the cake, despite other problems with their vision- that unremitting and barbaric shariah is hardly palatable to most Afghans either.

My take on all this is that our numbers of soldiers is not the issue. The issue is the nature of the government, and how well-aligned it is in the near and far term with its people's aspirations. The situation is worth saving, both for our own interests, for our historical debt to Afghanistan, and for purely humanitarian reasons. The answer is to boot the government out as soon as possible and replace it with direct temporary control by NATO.

The local nation-building process needs to begin not from the top down as it did with power-brokers held over from prior puppet governments, tribal organizations, mujahideen and civil war antagonists. These may well end up being the relevant powers in a new Afghanistan, but they should get there from the bottom up. A caretaker central government organized by NATO could rapidly organize a skeletal federal system and local civic processes and elections (supplemented by jirgas where those might offer extra inclusion and participation). There should be a step-wise process working up the ladder of governance, from local to provincial to national, focusing on each in sequence so that there are civic institutions and experience at each level before the next level is put under local control.

Such a government would not be filled with Europeans, but have a mix of Afghans and NATO / UN officers enforcing rules against corruption and ineffectiveness, with accountability flowing from the top, and all the churn and active firing and hiring that would imply. It will take time to assemble an effective government and weed out bad elements, but it will take less time through reconstitution than it will by jollying the current system along while also fighting a war at the same time. We should honestly recognize that we gave it a good shot through the original Loya jirga, national elections, etc., but need a do-over at this point, from strictly empirical criteria. In most measures, Afghanistan's government rates worst in the world right now, roughly even with that of Somalia.

A new provisional government would not be terribly strict or controlling in most aspects. For instance, poppy cultivation should be legalized and freely allowed. Given the choice between losing the war, the country, and the war on drugs, or just the war on drugs, the latter is the better choice. Likewise, if local communities choose to install tribal elders as their representatives, (through local elections with secret ballots), that is fine as well. Land reform should be encouraged, buying out large landholders and assuring individuals of right of tenure. Credit reform is needed as well, encouraging microlending and other modern instruments for farmers on all scales. The point is to make citizen service, efficiency, and non-corruption the focus of government, all sheltered under an umbrella of security that assures citizens that the Taliban won't be coming back unless it is their free choice. This is best done from the ground up with civic processes starting at the grass roots.

That is the lesson I take from Vietnam- that politics is critically important. Terrorism/insurgency has no pull or point to it without a political background, which in most cases is a government that is incompetent, uncaring, and corrupt. Winning hearts and minds is not just a figure of speech, but the essential element to giving Afghanistan hope. The current government has demonstrated its inability to provide that hope. While foreigners automatically have many liabilities in winning local hearts and minds, and in running the upper levels of the Afghan government, it would be difficult to do a worse job than our chosen government is doing right now. Whatever we do militarily, it will not have any point without a better solution to the core political problem.

  • George Packer on Holbrook and Afghanistan.
  • Frank Rich on Obama's choice in Afghanistan.
  • Vietnam- read A Bright and Shining lie, by Sheehan, among many others.
  • Cohen on individualism in America.
  • Apparently, we are a Christian nation, after all!
  • Is the Vatican a state? If so, shouldn't the Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama be as well? And others?
  • Another bubble in its infancy.
  • Lie about climate change? Who would ever do such a thing?
  • On death and philosophy

No comments:

Post a Comment