Governing Challenges in Afghanistan

The Century Foundation produces some of the most progressive research on Afghanistan.  Recently, the Center for American Progress held a round table to discuss a Century Report with the authors Marika Theros and Mary Kaldor.  Their paper entitled Building Afghan Peace from the Ground Up describes three obstacles, which the international community must surmount in Afghanistan: chronic insecurity, lack of rule of law, and a failure to engage civil society.

The Good:  Theros and Kaldor have an excellent explanation of governing challenges.  Their depiction of how average Afghans view the conflict is a helpful addition to other research on the topic:

Many Afghans perceive the current insecurity less as a conflict between the government and international allies on the one side and Taliban and al Qaeda on the other, and more as a mutual enterprise in which various actors collude in predatory and criminal behavior.”

They point out that this problem is exacerbated by the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) reliance of local strong men and networks of “power-holders” who lack legitimacy in communities and are part of an ingrained kleptocracy in many cases.  A similar conclusion was reached by Michael Hastings, in his latest profile of General Petreaus in Rolling Stone magazine and by a recent article for by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker.  The New Yorker article, in particular, depicted a government system best described as a pyramid scheme.  Karzai’s closest associates are at the top of the pyramid, collecting cash from individuals below them on the totem-pole such as the midlevel bureaucrats and bribes from the country’s major financial institutions.  At the bottom of the pyramid are the majority of the Afghan people, who are victimized by their government.  It is no wonder the national police force, a symbol of the state’s corruption, is almost as unpopular in Pashtun belt as the Taliban.

The problems the Century Foundations identifies are real, and their willingness to make bold recommendations, including calling for the arrest of fifty of the most predatory political leaders in Afghanistan should be commended.

The Bad

Some of their recommendations have repercussions that are not explored in this document.   At the risk of an oversimplification, the Century Foundation recommends removing the bad leaders and predatory government networks (possibly by having leaders arrested) and replacing them with good leaders and positive civil-society networks.  This sounds good, but the governance problem is complex and there are at least half a dozen potential pit-falls.

1.        Removing the bad leaders might impact the U.S.’s military objectives.  We rely on these networks for various services including intelligence and security.  Furthermore, they’re armed and may not take kindly to having their leaders arrested.  This policy could lead to more local “leaders” turning to or into the insurgents.

2.       How do you remove the bad leaders?  The U.S. does not have the authority to arrest the most corrupt Afghans.  Meanwhile, Karzai has every incentive to keep these predatory networks around as they help him remain in power.

3.       Arresting a leader may not impact how these networks operate.  A leader can, after all, be replaced.  Why would the current government put in place institutions which would undermine their ability to profit from the local population?

4.       How do you identify the “good leaders” and civil society networks and empower them?  Village politics is as complex and divisive as national politics.  This policy may end up empowering one group at the expense of others, despite our good intentions.

5.       Keeping forces in sensitive southern regions, but ending “offensive operations” may simply allow the insurgents to regain the offensive.  It also presumes that troop behavior and not foreign occupation is the cause of the violence.

6.       Creating space for civil society is difficult in a conflict when civil society is often unarmed and at the mercy of armed groups on both sides.  This dynamic needs to be reversed, and probably the only solution is a broad reconciliation with both local Talibs and the leaders of the Quetta Shura and Haqqani networks.

The Century Foundation recommendations are not necessarily bad, but more work needs to be done to address these and other issues.

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