By Adam Cohen
The possibility of a negotiated settlement for the 10-year war in Afghanistan finally gained some traction when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a political surge in February. Since then President Obama and other prominent officials have refuted the notion that the conflict can be resolved by military means alone. The goal is to create political solutions led and agreed upon by the Afghan government and the insurgency, and acknowledged by major regional players including Pakistan.
This is not mere idle talk. Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly acknowledged that his government, as well as that of the United States, has been in discussions with Taliban officials. Though those who comment on the status of negotiations are sure to qualify them as preliminary and fragile, any progress is surely a good thing.
The principle of negotiating from strength certainly applies here. The United States and its allies hope that maintaining military pressure on the insurgents will encourage them to abandon violence and address their grievances through peaceful means. But the U.S. withdrawal of only 33,000 troops in the next two years and continued use of counterinsurgency and counter-terror strategies are not likely to bring about this desired effect. Indeed, the position of strength needed to undercut the insurgency and bring it to the negotiating table has less to do with force and more to do with governance capacity and trust. Combating civil corruption and careless military mistakes will go a lot further in inducing the insurgency to talk than continuing the current overreliance on military force.
The Fallacy of Military Power
Overreliance on the military to force the insurgency into negotiations and the claims that troop withdrawals will undermine progress on that front are based on false assumptions. In fact combat operations are increasing the legitimacy of the insurgency more than garnering support for the government. Insurgents largely move freely in the critical Eastern Triangle region, a major route for fighters coming into the country from Pakistan. Coalition bases meant to offer a stabilizing presence remain distant from local populations. The unnecessary casualties resulting from Special Operations night raids support insurgency narratives that condemn the foreign coalition as dangerous and coldblooded.
Furthermore, Afghans recruited for the national military and police force must undergo more rigid screening processes. There have been several cases in which men recruited by the Afghan security forces used their positions to help the insurgency. Infiltration can have serious consequences. The Carnegie Endowment for Peace argues that suicide attacks should not be considered signs of desperation on behalf of the insurgency, but as troubling proof that insurgents have mastered the art of penetrating the Afghan security apparatus. The psychological impact of these types of attacks, in the capital no less, cannot be overstated. Any discussion of restoring local confidence in the capability of the Afghan security forces, let alone Afghanistan’s ability to assume security responsibility in the near future, must address this issue. If the stability and loyalty of the Afghan armed forces cannot be guaranteed, the insurgents will not fear confronting them and will not likely become willing participants in negotiations.
Rather than focusing on military force, the coalition ought to implement a strategy that focuses on good governance. After all, the insurgency is fueled primarily by the weakness and corruption of the national government. Much like poor military practices, a government with weak authority does more than just destabilize the country — it strengthens its enemies.
Rule of Lawlessness
In a society based on local leadership, authority is becoming increasingly and dangerously disconnected from provincial government. Important services like education and medical care are often “outside of government control” and require the consent of the Taliban to run at all. In some places — the northeast province of Kapisa comes to mind — government officials simply don’t exist. This lack of civilian authority isolates the population and plants serious, and clearly warranted, doubts in the minds of local Afghans about the ability of the national government to provide for the most basic needs of its people.
Without much competition, the Taliban have stepped into authority roles in large areas of eastern Afghanistan. Preying on the need for order, the Taliban establish shadow governments that “operate as parallel governments, administering taxes, settling disputes and distributing power through the appointment of local military commanders.” Rule under Sharia law might be harsh, but it is apparently better than the lawlessness that pervades when government neglect leads to mass insecurity.
Economic corruption strengthens the insurgency in a variety of ways as well. Fraud and laundering schemes involving major government officials engender skepticism of the government and make it more likely that civilians will put passive trust in the insurgency and Taliban shadow governments.
Exacerbating the situation is the existence of a “shadow economy.” The insurgency exploits the unregulated Afghan economy and corrupt government officials in running the lucrative opium trade, engaging in massive mineral smuggling rings, and imposing local taxes. All of these moneymaking techniques would be impossible without political and police support. Certain elements of the insurgency, notably the Haqqani network, infiltrate the development sectors in construction and logistics using front companies. Complicit in these practices, along with the many Afghan officials, is U.S. and international aid doled out to develop infrastructure and foster long-term stability in the country. Unfortunately the process of aid corruption works to support the very groups the coalition is struggling against. It is not hard to imagine why Afghans are suspicious of their government officials and their empty promises of support.
The United States claims that it is committed to pursuing an Afghan-led diplomatic path to ending the conflict. Secretary Clinton and those senators in attendance repeated this sentiment at Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on June 23, 2011. In spite of this, the United States still places short-term emphasis on continuing the same counter-productive military practices. The administration has promised to scrutinize the recent Senate report, which details how international aid has created a criminalized war-economy in Afghanistan, and implement new strategies to avoid these loopholes. It must do these things and then some.
The greater puzzle of negotiations in Afghanistan encompasses more than just the Afghan government and the insurgency: it involves regional players including China, Iran, India, Russia, and, most critically, Pakistan. The ability to diminish the insurgency’s capacity to achieve its goals hinges not only on denying it access to Afghan resources and support, but also on preventing it from using Pakistan as a safe haven from which it can stage attacks across the Durand Line.
Selig Harrison in Foreign Policy lays out a strategy for Afghan-led negotiations acknowledging the necessity of allowing the Taliban to maintain authority in certain provinces as part of a “shift to a loose federation.” This strategy also involves further U.S. force reductions and international pressure on Pakistan to encourage it to better police its borders. If the international community is to engage in negotiations with the insurgency that will put the national government on a higher footing, it must consider how its actions affect the situation. Not only must the United States reassess how it uses its military and financial strength to combat the insurgency, it must work with Kabul to strengthen political and financial oversight and promote good governance, especially around judicial practices.
For these efforts to be effective and legitimate, the Afghan government must be allowed to take the primary role so that it may rebuild civilian confidence in its ability to govern and actually gain the skills necessary to do so without foreign leadership. Quashing corruption will go a long way in shoring up support for the government, suppressing the insurgency, and providing Afghans with much-needed tools for their future. The United States must adopt this definition of “a position of strength” to bring about a political solution for Afghanistan.
Adam Cohen is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.