11/22/2010 Afghan Update – How Do You Solve a Problem Like Insurgency?

Edward Kenny
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

Reconciliation and the Importance of Governance

In the NPR debate described in the last post, Max Boot echoed a common theme among proponents of Counter- Insurgency (COIN) on the question of governance.  He argued that an insurgency is by its very nature a symptom of failed governance.  Failed governance cannot therefore be a reason to abandon a Counter-Insurgency strategy.     However, re-establishing legitimate governance is the key to any successful counter-insurgency campaign.  Those of us who support change in strategy argue that the conditions for re-establishing rule of law in the Pashtun Belt are absent; institutions do not exist at either the national or local level to address core grievances[1].

A recent paper by journalist Anand Gopal highlights this governance program, but makes a slight variation on the traditional lines of debate.  Gopal argues that the failure to reconcile various tribal differences sharpened the problem of governance for Afghans in Kandahar Province.  The Taliban, reports Gopal, were willing to accept Karzai as the legitimate leader in early 2002 in return for some basic assurances that they would be left alone.  What happened?

“Karzai and other government officials ignored the overtures—largely due
to pressures from the U.S and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s erstwhile enemy”

Meanwhile the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sherzai adopted a hard-line against former Taliban officials.  Many ex-Taliban were tortured and killed; all ex-Taliban faced harassment from the local government.

Certain tribes were also favored under Sherzai’s rule; the Popolzai (Karzai tribe) and the Barakzai (Sherzai’s tribe), were overrepresented in the government whereas the Panjpai ,who made up over a quarter of the population in Kandahar, were largely excluded.  The decision to exclude former Taliban, reminiscent of the de-Baathification in Iraq, set the stage for increased hostility and a Taliban resurgence.

[1] This contrasts strongly with Iraq whose Sunni Militias had broad legitimacy in Anbar Province.

What Does Political Exclusion Mean?

Political exclusion in Afghanistan is about far more than having a voice in government.  As Stephen Biddle has noted, those “outside the government network” are likely to lose their lands and livelihoods to corrupt officials.  In his report Gopal expands on this theme:

“Under such conditions, police corruption and predation became endemic… In one
well known incident in Panjwayi, a police officer demanded goods from a shopkeeper
in the district center.  When the shopkeeper refused, the policeman shot and
killed him and absconded with the goods.”

In such an environment, it is no wonder that local Pashtuns joined the insurgency.  For many, the Taliban’s Islamic courts are the only place to get a fair hearing.  This point in many respects echoes Matt Waldman’s work on the prospects of reconciliation.  Like Waldman, Gopal argues that Rule of Law is one of the main motivations for the insurgency:

Many Taliban did not take up arms simply as an exercise of the principle of jihad
or the expulsion of foreigners…but rather because it was the only viable
alternative for individuals and groups left without a place in the world.

Gopal’s paper is a useful reminder that reconciliation and institution-building go hand in hand.  Establishing governance without reconciling with insurgents is simply empowering those at the center of the corruption and exacerbating local grievances, a strategy which is clearly doomed to fail.

McKeon on the December Review

One frustrating development over the last week has been news that the December Strategic Review will not be a comprehensive assessment of  strategy.  The press has reported that the president is sweeping this review under the table and will not fundamentally reassess the strategy until July 2011.  Whatever your views on the war, this position is unacceptable.  Indeed the principle recommendation from last week’s bipartisan CFR report is to make a serious war assessment next month.

The public has a right to know whether any of Obama’s vaunted fifty metrics have seen progress.  Even those who support the current strategy would like to see the Pentagon make the case that the war can still be won, despite the ambiguous news reports coming out of Afghanistan.  Those of us on the other side of the debate would like to question military leaders on corruption in the Karzai administration, the increased in fatalities among coalition forces, and the expansion of the insurgency into regions which were previously peaceful.  Getting military commanders to testify should be one area where Republicans and Democrats can stand in agreement.

Fortunately, there are signs that this dynamic is already happening.   Buck McKeon, the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has said he wants Petraeus to testify:  (Via Robert Naiman /Politico)

“During the December review, the American people deserve to hear from the
new commander on the ground,” McKeon told an audience Monday at a conference
hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative.”

Good for Mr. McKeon!  The Pentagon has said that Petraeus is “too busy” to stand before congress, so it will likely take prodding from Republicans in Congress to get the general to testify.

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