1. Notes From Afghanistan Part V: Understanding the Taliban. Are Our Assumptions Wrong?

    Published: September 21st, 2011
    Author: Edward Kennery

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    If there is one thing this month in Afghanistan has taught me, it is that our common assumptions about the Afghan conflict are likely to be fundamentally wrong.  One assumption that is frequently made is that the war is basically political.  Empirical support for this argument comes mainly from work done examining the roots of the uprising.  For instance Anand Gopal’s excellent report examining Kandahar in the early 2000s suggested that the Taliban were willing to recognize the Afghan government at that time, and only resumed hostilities after being harshly repressed by the local government.

    Viewing the conflict as political has immense policy implications because it implies that a political process based on power sharing could potentially succeed.  Or to paraphrase that old Prussian Clausewitz: If conflict is an extension of politics, then politics can potentially resolve conflict.

    Viewing the war as political also implies that the insurgency has clear political objectives.  What are the objectives of the Taliban?  First and foremost, they demand that the U.S. removes the troops based in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately this seems less like a “political” objective and more a short-term aim to strengthen their military and strategic position.  I specifically asked a reporter contact from Wardak, whether the Taliban’s core demands would be met once the U.S. withdraws.  He was highly skeptical.

    The Taliban’s broader goal of re-establishing an Islamic Emirate is incompatible with the Afghan state.  A return to Taliban governance is understood by many Afghans to mean the destruction of the state. The government has justifiably shown little appetite for deal-making, a point highlighted by the recent revelations in AP detailing how the Afghan government scuttled the U.S.-Talib Berlin negotiations.

    Unfortunately, the forces driving this conflict run deeper than politics.  If there is one startlingly obvious feature of Taliban tactics, it is that their missions are increasingly suicidal.  The attacks on the British council and inter-continental in Kabul show a trend of increasing suicide attacks.  These do not suggest a movement that has any intention of compromise.  An individual doesn’t agree to blow himself up over a dispute that can be resolved by “talking about it”.

    The Taliban have a triple strategy to achieve their objective.

    1.      Intimidation through night letters, assassination attacks, and bombings.  Increasingly this intimidation includes allies of Karzai (see the Charikar attacks) as well as foreign aid workers whose projects are tied to the government.

    2.   Outreach through culturally conservative vision of Islam that appeals to young socially constrained Afghans across diverse sectors of society.

    3.  Exploitation of tribal rivalries.


    Propaganda is a fascinating, and I believe under-researched topic in Afghanistan.  Local Afghans point out, correctly I think, that in terms of actual numbers, the Taliban remain a relatively small force.  True, I argue, but the most salient feature of the Taliban’s strength is not there total numbers of support, but their seemingly infinite ability to recruit.  Understanding this phenomenon is of paramount importance to defeating the insurgency.

    Even in Kabul, propaganda and messaging seems to play an important role in shaping beliefs.  Two features you often hear are that the government is somehow un-Islamic (this sounds to me like Talib propaganda), and that the Taliban are a bunch of Pakistanis (government propaganda maybe?)  At the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the an editor felt so strongly about this Pakistani connection that he interrupted my interview.  An Afghan aid worker was equally emphatic on this point; as evidence, she pointed to the captured “foreign Talibs” paraded on state television news channels.  If that doesn’t convince you that this is government propaganda, I don’t know what will.

    To be fair, elements within Pakistan have played (and continue to play) a role in supporting the insurgency and they heavily influence the insurgency—particularly the Haqqanis.  For instance, much of the radicalization of Afghans reportedly occurs in Pakistani madrasahs.  It should be re-emphasized, however, that the insurgency remains overwhelmingly local.

    My engineer host (mentioned last post) put it most accurately when he said, emotion in his voice: “I know my people have a lot to do with what happened, but the Pakistanis played a role too.”

    Tribal Exploitation:

    The relationship between the tribes and the insurgents also remains ambiguous.  On the one hand, the insurgent movement is seen correctly as an attempt to usurp power from tribal structures.  On the other hand Afghan tribes have been an insurgent’s best friends: Since the movement’s inception, the Taliban have continually exploited tribal rivalries.

    It should be noted that the tribal governance as a root cause of the insurgency contradicts the common explanation that state or warlord abuses are the main drivers of the conflict.  For instance, in Uruzgan longstanding blood feuds between the Popolzai (Karzai’s tribe) and Nurzai as well as inter-tribal rivalries seem to have played a larger role in the Taliban’s resurgence than the admittedly heavy-handed policies of former governor and warlord Jan Muhammad.  Even Jan Mohammad’s replacement with a more conciliatory governor, the security situation has continued to deteriorate (see The Liaison Office Report on Uruzgan).

    As for the central government, they continue to have a very limited presence in rural districts.  For instance 80 to 90% of disputes in non-Talib areas are settled in the tribal judicial system; to the extent that Talib resurgence represents a rejection of predatory governance, its predatory governance at the tribal level.

    That’s all for now. Next post I will conclude with the pros and cons of various policy options.

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  2. Secretary Gates talks tough on Afghanistan, but so do the Taliban. Is this just rhetoric?

    Published: June 9th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    Robert Gates is delivering some of his final speeches as Secretary of Defense, and many commentators have written excellent assessments of his tenure at the Pentagon.  Perhaps Gates’ most important legacy will be the ongoing war in Afghanistan, so it has been especially interesting to hear Gates talk about the war to U.S. troops in Kabul this week.

    His talks could not be more timely:  The conditions are set for a major re-evaluation of the war effort following Gates retirement and Petraeus’ new assignment to the CIA.  Early indications suggest that the President is deeply concerned about the cost of the war and is contemplating a speedier withdrawal—meanwhile support has softened considerably in Congress.  But perhaps the biggest game-changer is not occurring in Washington—I refer of course to the prospects for reconciliation between the insurgency and international forces.

    This week Gates had a chance to set the record straight on Afghanistan, but on the surface his talk disappointed on this front.  He continued to follow the administrations canard of hyping ISAF’s momentum by pointing to the usual cherry picked data points and concluding that the U.S. is ready to deliver the “decisive blow” against insurgents.  Meanwhile news from Afghanistan shows considerably less reason for optimism.  Jawad Zahhak, the Provincial Chief of Bamiyan Province (once home to the Bamiyan Buddhas and regarded as one of the more stable regions) was assassinated by local insurgents.  As the Afghan blogger Ali Karimi points out, Zahhak’s death draws out the ethnic aspect of the conflict.  Zahhak was a known as a vocal defender of the Hazara minority.

    If there is a ray of optimism to support the Secretary’s rosy outlook, it may be coming from a very different location.  Last Friday, the Embassy of India hosted a fundraiser for the Nooristan Foundation, an NGO that has done excellent work in some of the most insecure regions of the country.  They have even opened a school in Taliban controlled Nuristan, which reportedly educates 70 boys and girls.  So, as is typical for Afghanistan, the picture of the insurgency is incredibly complex—are they going to push for ethnic cleansing as the news from Bamiyan suggests?  Or can they be pressured to respect the gains in human rights as the Nooristan Foundation school would indicate?

    But back to Gates:  The Secretary of Defense paints a picture of an insurgency on its deathbed, but tellingly says that within a year the Taliban will be negotiating a peace deal.  This optimistic forecast is based on the assumption that the Taliban will not negotiate as long they are “winning”.   (By this logic and the deathbed Taliban scenario we keep hearing from DoD, one wonders why the U.S. is seeking a deal with the insurgency!).  Meanwhile the Taliban themselves have issued a press release calling reports of a potential deal completely fabricated.  The Taliban’s argument mirrors Gates’ in many ways.  “Why negotiate while we are winning?”

    Putting an optimistic spin on this week’s events, perhaps both Gates and the Taliban are playing up their strengths ahead of potential talks.  A positive sign is the decision by the Afghan government, undoubtedly with U.S. input, to lobby the U.N. to de-blacklist key members of the Taliban.  My half-hearted defense of Gates is this:  in order to maximize the likelihood of a successful negotiation, he has to “talk up” the war effort.  He is in effect a used-car salesman selling a piece of junk:  Will anyone notice that the brakes are gone?

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  3. Reconciliation: Then and Now

    Published: May 31st, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    About eight months ago, a spate of articles were published in major American newspapers suggesting that the U.S. and Afghan government had begun serious overtures to the Taliban.  At the time, some optimists suggested that the U.S. was turning a corner in its Afghan strategy, particularly with the decision in that month to allow insurgents safe passage to negotiate with the Afghan government.  (As Afghanistan Study Group Director Matthew Hoh pointed out, nothing dampens an insurgent’s incentive to talk peace as much as a hellfire missile through the windshield.)  These reports died down, soon after it was revealed that the man supposedly representing the Taliban was actually a lowly shopkeeper from Quetta, not the number two man in the Taliban as had been believed.

    Flash forward eight months, and its reconciliation season again.
    The latest report in a string of “secret talks” articles comes from the German paper Der Spiegel. Apparently, the Germans have been mediating talks between Tayyab Agha (a relative of Mullah Omar) and senior U.S. officials.  I imagine the vetting process this time around was a little more stringent, although depressingly David Ignatius writes in this morning’s Washington Post:

    “[U.S. officials] are trying to establish whether Agha speaks for Omar and his Quetta Shura, or for a faction of it, or whether he is a lone wolf.”

    Oh, boy.  Here we go again.

    While the news out of Germany may be promising, Pakistan’s role in potential talks remains complicated.  During a previous reconciliation period, Pakistan successfully scuttled negotiations by arresting Mullah Baradar—the Taliban’s lead negotiator.  Ironically, the arrest was at first depicted as a coup for the U.S.-Pakistani relations, that is until someone annoyingly pointed out that:  a. Baradar was not really hiding (remind you of someone else?) and b. was the most approachable member of the Quetta Shura.

    Thank goodness this time around the Pakistanis are playing a more constructive role, pushing one of the most violent groups, the Haqqani Network, to engage in talks according to a recent report.  How does the U.S. respond to this Pakistani collaboration?  From the Wall Street Journal:

    “I don’t see any evidence that makes me think Haqqani is a guy we’re going to want to be talking to,” said a U.S. official.

    The U.S. is pissed that the Pakistanis are pushing for talks, and not taking it to the insurgency militarily in the FATA region.

    Makes you wonder how committed we really are to a negotiated settlement.

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  4. How to Interpret the ASG Report and Blog

    Published: April 18th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney Afghanistan Study Group

    An expert on Afghanistan recently brought up two interesting critiques of the Afghanistan Study Group. The first concerns the nature of the war—is it an ethnic or political conflict?  The second concerns the appropriateness of drawing parallels between war costs and economic and social problems here at home. Both issues are worth discussing in greater depth.

    Ethnicities, Tribes, and Politics

    First, to state the obvious, suggesting that the Afghan conflict is partly ethnic is not the same thing as saying Taliban are an ethnically homogenous group, (a conclusion that Study Group Director Matthew Hoh has repeatedly rejected).  The ASG Report says the conflict is

    1) partly ethnic, chiefly, but not exclusively, between Pashtuns who dominate the south and other ethnicities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks who are more prevalent in the north, 2) partly rural vs. urban, particularly within the Pashtun community, and 3) partly sectarian”.

    This, to me, seems like a fair statement although more emphasis should have probably been placed on the importance of tribal divisions.  The fact that we identify the Taliban in south and east as predominately Pashtun, and insurgent groups in the north as primarily Uzbek, highlights the ethnic component of the conflict[i]. But ethnicity, as this report indicates, is by no means the sole point of contention. The war is highly complex, with multiple layers and multiple sides.  In some areas of Afghanistan, the conflict is best described as a Hatfield and McCoy type “sectarian” feud between families, clans and villages. The United States invaded Afghanistan without understanding this complexity; it is unclear whether either those who support continuation of the COIN strategy, or those who favor peace talks have come to grips with this.

    But there is a broader point here that some “experts” ignore at their peril: Politics in Afghanistan are woven into ethnic and tribal identities.  You cannot separate the two.  Anand Gopal explains this linkage better than anyone:

    “…tribal identity is still an important mechanism through which individual interests are negotiated.  In Southern Afghanistan’s system of largely informal networks, a shared tribal or clan background with the holders of power means access to state services, resources , and more.”

    Gopal concludes that marginalized tribes “formed the recruiting base for the Taliban.” Even noted historian and anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who comes down strongly in favor of rural vs. urban explanation for the conflict, agrees that in Afghan politics “tribal and ethnic groups take primacy over the individual”.

    Yes, political grievances are at the heart of the insurgency, but these political grievances reflect complex ethnic and regional dynamics.  To suggest that the Afghan conflict is political and not ethnic or tribal is to fundamentally misunderstand Afghan politics.  This is not a trivial error.  If political reconciliation is the best hope for peace going forward, longstanding ethnic and regional tensions have to be addressed, or we risk further exacerbating the conflict.  Indeed, trying to separate politics from tribal and regional dynamics is undoubtedly an exercise in determined ignorance.

    Drawing Parallels between Afghanistan and U.S.:  Does it Make Sense?

    Will Thomas has written a number of blogs highlighting how the costs of the war reflect a society whose priorities are out of whack.  My personal favorite compares Marjah in Afghanistan to Camden New Jersey, one of the most violent cities in the United States.  But does this parallel make sense?  Camden has a local government.  What does it have to do with the federally funded war?

    First, (again to state the obvious), Will Thomas was clearly not suggesting that the money for Afghanistan could be immediately reallocated to New Jersey.  The point of the post was to broadly illustrate America’s skewed priorities.  Second, more importantly, federal funds do go towards local communities like Camden all the time.  Just last year, the stimulus spent over 77 million dollars in Camden and federal funds have frequently supported local police and firefighters elsewhere.  The 2011 budget agreement is cutting a $52 million program to help municipalities hire police and firefighters.  One city that benefited from this program…you guessed it, Camden New Jersey.

    There is a real question as to how much good an extra $100+ billion a year could do to stop urban decay in the United States, and no one is suggesting that pulling out of Afghanistan will solve all our social problems.  There may well be other priorities, but that’s the point.  We need to be asking hard questions about how best to spend our limited resources—a failing war in Afghanistan is probably not the answer.

    [i] To be clear the insurgents are identified by their ethnicity, not their political affiliation (Maoist) or even religion (Sunni versus Shia).  This suggests that ethnicity is the most important identifier.

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  5. How much can we learn about the Taliban in just seven days?

    Published: April 12th, 2011
    Author: Edward Kenney

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    Now that Afghanistan is awash with rumors that the Taliban and the Karzai government may be engaged in secret talks—with the prospect of more formal peace arrangement to take place in Turkey later this year—there have been a number of articles deconstructing the Taliban in just the last week.  So what have we learned?

    *Newsweek has a who’s who guide to the Taliban.  Similar to the Karzai government, most of the senior Talibs have long complicated histories dating back to the 1990s or even earlier.  Many commanders either led forces against the Northern Alliance or were ministers under Mullah Omar.  If the Newsweek article accurately depicts the governing structure of the insurgency, there is perhaps greater hope that a comprehensive peace deal with Omar will be honored by the various Taliban groups.

    This report also raises a number of questions.  How much do we really know about the Taliban “shadow” government?  We know that many of these individuals worked under Omar previously, but how much influence does the Taliban leader still maintain?  The uniformity of the Taliban leadership is contradicted by Anand Gopal’s report from last autumn which points out that key members of the insurgency were wiling to break with the Taliban early in the war.  Their entreaties were rejected by Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai at the behest of U.S.  Also left unanswered:  how much of insurgency’s command and control structure has been compromised due to the troop surge?  The Newsweek “guide” doesn’t answer these questions, which are crucial to the coalition’s strategy going into negotiations.

    *A recent report from the Washington Post looks at the Taliban foot soldiers, and comes away with similar conclusions.  For years now, Karzai has been referring to the insurgency as his “Taliban brothers”.  Turns out, this isn’t even hyperbole.  According to this report, many families have been torn apart by the war.  The article follows two brothers—one of whom supports the U.S./Karzai, the other the Taliban.  Both acknowledge that they may face each other in battle, but also hope that some day the family can be reconciled.  As with the Newsweek article, this report probably indicates that the prospects for reconciliation are better than some might think.  To the extent that kinship ties both improve the ability to communicate with the enemy and incentivize the peace process, these familial relationships between ally and enemy can be utilized effectively.  But we should also not underestimate the tribal and ethnic divisions that do still exist.

    *Adding to this note of caution, Lael Adams writes that international forces have a fundamentally misguided view of the Taliban’s ideology.  “…the determination to preserve national and personal freedom and independence [is] the true Afghan ideology,” she writes.  She concludes that

    the international community’s refusal to reconsider the actual threat and composition of their enemy on the battlefield is based on their belief that a Talib equals a terrorist and that international troops are defending their respective homelands by fighting in Afghanistan”

    Such a belief has led to an unwillingness on the part of the coalition to forcefully push for the reconciliation process.

    For the first time since the war began, there is a broader effort to understand the enemy.  This trend could not come at a more urgent time, as reports of peace talks continue to increase.  Unfortunately there remains a decent chance that our understanding of the Taliban—from the leadership to the lowly foot soldier—remains fundamentally flawed.

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  6. Reconciliation in Afghanistan: This time it’s for real?

    Published: March 1st, 2011

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    Steve Coll reports in the New Yorker that the Obama administration is engaged in secret high level talks with the Taliban.  If true, this marks an important development towards ending the conflict; Afghanistan Study Group put political reconciliation and power sharing first in its list of recommendations for a new direction in Afghan policy.  It is nice to see the Obama administration following our advice.

    Still, Coll’s revelations should be taken with a grain of salt.  We all remember the reports last fall that the U.S. was facilitating peace talks; unfortunately one of the Talib leaders with whom the U.S. was talking turned out to be a fraud, and the negotiations fizzled.  A heavy dose of skepticism is therefore warranted when it comes to anonymous sources claiming the existence of secret ongoing peace negotiations.  Nevertheless, this leak does suggest that the Obama administration is more willing to engage the Taliban than previously thought.

    One line particularly stuck out in Coll’s article:

    General David Petraeus said recently that counterinsurgency efforts in the Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces had pushed the guerrillas back. It was these perceived military gains that influenced the Administration’s decision to enter into direct talks.

    Just last week, John Nagl and Nathaniel Fick of the neo-conservative Center for New American Security argued in the New York Times that the insurgency would have to be marginalized before negotiating; a view that always seemed at odds with reality.  Now the truth comes out:  If Coll’s report is to be believed, it was actually the Americans who refused to negotiate from a position of weakness.  If the supposed military gains of the past month open up the door to a peace process, this will indeed be a positive development.

    End Note

    On the subject of reconciliation, Afghan analyst Minna Jaavenpaa has an excellent new report on the challenges of making peace in Afghanistan published by the United States Institute for Peace.  Her paper nicely compliments some of my own work on this subject.  It is well worth a read.

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  7. Seven Reasons to be Pessimistic about the Prospects of Reconciliation with the Taliban

    Published: February 14th, 2011

    Edward Kenney
    Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

    In the past this blog has advocated of a process of reconciliation with the Taliban tied to government reform involving a decentralization of power.  This process of reconciliation is the best way to ensure that at the end of the war a power vacuum resulting from a U.S. withdrawal does not lead to civil war.  However, there are several potential obstacles to this approach.

    Borrowing heavily from Waldman and Ruttig’s recent paper, below is a list of seven reasons why a reconciliation process may fail.

    1. The challenge of motive

    To the extent that U.S. withdrawal is an objective of the Taliban, they can simply hold out until 2014, when combat operations are supposed to end.  Sooner or later, public pressure from the U.S. and other international countries will force the U.S. to withdraw.  As Waldman and Ruttig argue that “overlapping interests”—both the U.S. and Taliban want the occupation of Afghanistan to end—are dwarfed by the Taliban’s and the U.S.’s belief that the war can be won without negotiating.

    2. The challenge of enforcing an agreement across disparate groups

    Any peace arrangement has to be enforceable.  This requires both coordination among various insurgent groups such as the Haqqani, the Quetta Shura and HIA HIG.  It also requires the ability to enforce an agreement within insurgent groups.  Will radicalized midlevel commanders heed the Taliban leadership in Pakistan?  This remains an open question.  Worse, the U.S. policy of killing older and more moderate commanders exacerbates this problem.  Since “combatants’ security concerns dominate every decision during the peace process”, according to Waldman and Ruttig, this problem of accountability is potentially a deal breaker.

    3. The challenge of identifying key players

    The U.S. and International community need to be able to identify key players in the Taliban leadership.  This is not an easy task as the Mansour imposter debacle illustrates.  Most Afghan experts argue that a broad-based inclusive arrangement is necessary for reconciliation to be successful.  This policy, therefore, also requires identifying critical members of civil society.  It is fairly easy to envisage a clumsy process of inclusion exacerbating intertribal tensions, as those who are left out of the negotiating table reject any deals resulting from reconciliation.

    4. The challenge of neutralizing potential spoilers

    One such spoiler, of course, is Pakistan.  Elements with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Pakistani Security Forces continue to back Islamic groups in the hopes of ensuring that Afghanistan remains a buffer against India.  When Taliban leadership signaled an interest in making a deal with Afghan leadership, Pakistani security promptly arrested Mullah Baradar, the Quetta Shura’s second in command.  According to Andrew Exum, this move was viewed by the Taliban leadership not to engage in diplomacy with the Karzai government.

    Pakistan is far from the only potential spoiler the U.S. should be concerned about.  Thanks to our policy of providing material support to various warlords, there are several powerbrokers on our side that have a large incentive to continue the conflict.  For this reason, turning off the money spigot is perhaps the first step in the reconciliation process.

    5. The challenge of managing the international element

    Reconciliation and power-sharing is likely to drastically affect regional politics.  According to Ivan Savchuk, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, Afghanistan’s regional neighbors are at a cross roads between cooperation and competition.  A power-sharing agreement which gives greater regional control to various ethnic groups will also create the ideal environment for renewed competition between India, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics.  This “international” aspect of the political reforms needs to be taken into account by proponents of the reconciliation approach.

    6. The challenge of a lack of trust

    Matt Hoh, the Director of the Afghanistan Study Group likes to point out that until last Fall, Taliban leadership were not given safe passage to talk to the Karzai administration.  “Nothing diminishes the prospects of diplomacy like a cruise hellfire missile coming through your windshield”.  Trust remains a crucial stumbling block.  Even if the Taliban were to promise not to invite al Qaeda back to Afghanistan, which will almost certainly be a U.S. demand, what mechanism will be put into place to ensure that the Taliban follow through with their promises?  The presence of neutral third parties could help enforce an agreement, but is any potential third party acceptable to both sides?

    7. The challenge of a lack of experience

    No one should underestimate the potential for incompetence being arguably the greatest hurdle in achieving a sustainable settlement.  The Taliban have an excellent track record fighting battles, but almost no history of compromising and deal-making.  David Rohde, the New York Times reporter who was captured by the Haqqanis described the absurd demands made by his captors which were far removed from reality.  Ambassador Mitchell Reiss, who has written books on negotiating with insurgent groups, says that a great deal of patience is required by all parties, especially while the insurgent group learns how to negotiate effectively.

    As this far from complete list illustrates, the reconciliation process is not without its obstacles.  The Afghanistan Study Group supports reconciliation because it remains the least costly way to wind down the war.  Some may be left with the impression that reconciliation is impossible.  This is an incorrect conclusion.  Some sort of peace settlement is still by far the most likely scenario to end the war.  How else will the war end?  To the rest of us, the pertinent question is, “how much money and blood will be spent before both sides realize that a settlement is in their interest and decide to work past these obstacles?


  8. Governing Challenges in Afghanistan

    Published: February 10th, 2011

    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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  9. One of These Things Is Not Like The Other

    Published: February 9th, 2011

    Two Kandahar-based field researchers, Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, have produced a paper on the history of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda and where that relationship stands today. The paper, which was produced for the Center for International Cooperation, argues that these two pariah organizations have long standing historic tensions.  The two authors conclude that a power-sharing deal with the Taliban could include a commitment on the Taliban’s part not to invite al Qaeda back to Afghanistan.

    Similar to Anand Gopal’s research on the origins of the insurgency, Kuhn and Van Linschoten  argue that fateful decisions were made soon after the Taliban were overthrown, which would come back to haunt the U.S. and Afghan governments,  particularly the decision not to engage the Taliban early in the war.  As an “interlocutor” put it:

    If [the Taliban] had been given some assurance that they would not be arrested upon returning to Afghanistan, he said, they would have come, but neither the Afghan government nor their international sponsors saw any reason to engage with the Taliban at that time – they considered them a spent force.”

    Again we see two potential hurdles of reconciliation: a lack of trust and an asymmetry of power.  Early in the war the Taliban did not feel confident that the Afghan government was willing to negotiate in good faith, and given the strength of the U.S./Karzai position, the Taliban were probably right to be wary.  This story belies the notion that the insurgency must be marginalized before they will negotiate.  We’ve seen the Taliban “marginalized” and guess what?  There has  been no political settlement.

    Despite the difficulties of achieving a settlement there is compelling evidence to suggest that the Taliban would be amenable to taking a harder line against al Qaeda.  Again citing a Talib leader, Kuehn and Van Linschoten write:

    One such vision – recently suggested by a senior Taliban political strategist – is that Taliban forces could conduct counterterrorism operations, including joint operation together with U.S. Special Forces, against al-Qaeda and possibly its affiliates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

    The two authors are quick to point out that this type of strategic cooperation is unfeasible as long as the U.S. and Taliban are engaged in conflict.  This fact, however, merely underscores the damage that a political settlement could potentially bring to al Qaeda.  If Bin Laden loses allies among insurgent groups operating in the FATA region, his position becomes dramatically less secure.  Policymakers take note:  Ending the conflict in Afghanistan, with a power sharing agreement, would likely be disastrous for al Qaeda.

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  10. “Tweaks” to our Afghanistan War Strategy

    Published: February 7th, 2011

    An article in Sunday’s Boston Globe reported that Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is calling for a revision of US strategy in Afghanistan with a more limited focus for the mission and a significant reduction in the number of American forces deployed there. The story has garnered considerable attention as Senator Kerry is seen as a key proponent of the Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and was a supporter of the plan to “surge” an additional 30,000 troops into the country.

    However, the Globe issued a clarification this morning, stating that Kerry had in fact not called for a “significant” reduction in US military forces, but rather a “tweak” of current strategy that would reduce US troop levels by an unspecified amount and place a greater emphasis on counter-terrorism.

    Regardless of the correction to the record, other statements made by Senator Kerry in the Globe story depict an important administration ally moving toward a critical re-examination of the assumptions and goals underlying US involvement in Afghanistan. Indications of such a shift are particularly significant given the upcoming round of oversight hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Further, they echo concerns over Afghanistan from a growing number of voices in Congress on both sides of the aisle.

    Senator Kerry’s concerns over the current strategy come on two main points that hold considerable promise should they become a focus of the oversight hearings:

    First, Sen. Kerry calls for clarification on the metrics of success in Afghanistan, noting that despite claims of recent military gains there is general agreement that no military solution to the conflict exists. Rather he states, “What I worry about is whether or not the government [improves] sufficiently to make a difference.”

    This worry is well-founded, as evidenced by CJ Chivers’ article in Sunday’s New York Times which describes a shadow government run by the Taliban and flourishing in the vacuum left by the Karzai administration in Kabul. However, while Kerry’s focus on governance is warranted, difficulties in extending the reach of the central government must not slow efforts to forward the political negotiations whose success should be the true measure of an effective strategy.

    Second, Sen. Kerry seems intent on defining US strategic interests in Afghanistan. In the Boston Globe article Kerry differentiates between Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan stating, “Unlike Vietnam, where there was no threat to the United States, and no real strategic interest…here there is a real one.”

    There are indeed real strategic interests for the United States in Afghanistan and the oversight committee hearings that Senator Kerry will serve on would do well to keep focused on them.

    The first: prevent Afghanistan from becoming a “safe haven” that could significantly enhance Al Qaeda’s ability to organize and conduct attacks on the United States.

    The second: keep the conflict in Afghanistan from threatening the stability of the Pakistani state and the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

    Both of these interests would best be served by putting the full weight of US engagement in Afghanistan behind the effort to reach a political settlement.

    On the first point, a report published today by the Center for International Cooperation at N.Y.U. argues that the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban is a matter of pragmatic politics rather than ideology. This finding highlights the potential of a political approach to achieve the separation between Al Qaeda and the Taliban necessary to accomplish the US’ strategic goal of denying Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the reports authors argue that increased military targeting of Taliban field commanders and provincial leaders has left the movement in the hands of increasingly younger and more radical fighters and, if continued, this strategy will strengthen the influence of Al Qaeda among the Taliban.

    As for the second point, engaging regional stakeholders like Pakistan and India in the process of creating a political settlement in Afghanistan holds far more promise for stabilizing the Pakistani state and safeguarding its nuclear arsenal than carrying on an increasingly kinetic military campaign that encourages the maintenance of sanctuaries for militant groups within Pakistan and radicalizes generations of Pakistanis in the furor over drone attacks in their country.

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