Tag Archives: Taliban

The straight man at the bazaar.

Support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai continues to dwindle. Others have argued that Karzai is a manic depressant, corrupt, and unwilling to side with the US because they, unlike the Taliban, will eventually leave Afghanistan. Fouad Ajami, formerly at Johns Hopkins SAIS and now at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, adds that Karzai wants the US to stay while simultaneously deriding its presence:

American policy has emboldened Karzai. Great wealth came to his impoverished country, and the opportunities for banditry have fed into a culture of dependence and corruption. Truth be known, neither the Karzai regime, nor the Taliban warlords, want the Americans out of Afghanistan. The treasure we pour into that country sustains the ruling cabal and the Taliban alike. We are the straight man at the bazaar, the stranger fleeced by the locals. The protection money we pay for our convoys wends its way into the pockets of the Taliban. Long ago, Afghan society had lost the ability to provide for its own people: There is no economic life to speak of, the pillars are the drug trade and the foreign handouts. It is in the interest of the Afghans that their country be seen as a dangerous land. Were we to head for the exits, the Afghans are certain to block our way with reminders that Al Qaeda is there, or could make a quick return. This is an odd kind of nationalism, one that wants to keep a foreign military presence—and deride it at the same time.

Our predicament in Afghanistan is self-inflicted. We drove up the strategic rent of Afghan real estate. President George W. Bush flattered and indulged Karzai aplenty; the Obama administration’s surge in Afghanistan added to the Afghan president’s insolence.  Afghanistan became the good war of necessity, a rebuke to that bad war of choice in Iraq.  Iraq had been the “stupid” war, so Afghanistan must be, by default, the “smart” war. We could never discipline Karzai, nor ask of him the minimum of public decorum. He could belittle our sacrifices and get away with it. “They do give us bags of money—yes, yes, it is done. We are grateful to the Iranians for this,” Karzai said last year in a typically audacious way. The big money came from the Western democracies; Iran was next door and could buy influence with a small amount of baksheesh. After all, the Iranians have bazaars of their own and they can price things at or near what they are worth. Bags of cash, the reports from Afghanistan confirm, are hauled out of Kabul to Dubai, and there are eight flights a day to the casino and tax haven that Dubai has become.


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The Benefits of Taliban Governance

Thomas Barfield suggest structural changes the US and Afghan governments can implement to avoid both the dissolution of the Afghan state and a civil war within in. Among these suggestions are the recognition of political parties – to weaken ethnic and regional networks who “owe their strength not to popular enthusiasm but to a simple lack of alternatives” – and the devolution of power to local authorities, akin to the democratic federal system in the US, as a structure to provide stability.

Barfield, a Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and one of the smartest observers writing about Afghanistan, also shares these thoughts on incorporating the Taliban into local governments:

Opening up provincial and district governorships to competition would provide the safest form of power sharing with the Taliban. Whereas non-Pashtun Afghans oppose granting the Taliban a role in the national government, they have few objections to former (or even current) Taliban members serving in districts or provinces where they have local support. Allowing the Taliban to serve in a democratic government would likely lead to beneficial fissures within the Taliban, since those who come to hold positions in local government would have less reason to remain loyal to the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. Participating in a coalition government would put much different pressures on Taliban members from those they faced when they essentially ruled as dictators in the 1990s. The stated goal of the Taliban’s central command — seizing power nationwide — would immediately clash with the interests of these local commanders turned politicians. Similarly, the need for these governors to deliver services and patronage to their own districts would increase their incentives to cooperate with those who could provide such aid: namely, the government in Kabul and its international allies.

The article, “Afghanistan’s Ethnic Puzzle,” is also recommended for those, well, trying to understand Afghanistan’s ethnic puzzle. That understanding requires the acknowledgment of the ever-changing links and loyalties that unite and fracture Afghanistan’s regional, ethnic, and religious groups, and the avoidance of simple deductions and conclusions.

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Dick Cheney vs. Joshua Rovner and Austin Long

Dick Cheney:

In my view, the most important lesson to be learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s is what happened after the Soviets left. The United States turned its attentions elsewhere, and Afghanistan descended into civil war. The resultant instability and eventual takeover of the country by the Taliban meant that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists were able to find a safe haven there. Throughout the late 1990s, thousands of terrorists were trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and it became the base for the attacks of 9/11. When I hear policy-makers talk about walking away from Afghanistan, I want to remind them of what the consequences can be.

(From In My Time, p. 347.)

Not so, say Joshua Rovner and Austin Long in a CATO Institute Foreign Policy Briefing.

They point out that both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued that state-building and counterterrorism are inseparable. Obama’s national security strategy states that, “In Afghanistan, we must deny al Qaeda a safe haven, deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the government, and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”

First of all, that argument is not even practical. Rovner and Long explain:

Unfortunately, the necessary ingredients for successful state building—time, money, and existing institutions—are in desperately short supply in Afghanistan. Public and congressional opposition to the war is rising in the United States, and the Obama administration has already announced it will scale back the U.S. commitment beginning next year. In addition, Afghanistan’s political and economic institutions are extremely weak. The fledgling government has had enormous difficulty expanding control outside of Kabul. The judiciary, which is notoriously inefficient, competes in many places with a shadow Taliban court system. Economic institutions remain fragile at best; witness the recent run on the Kabul Bank. For all of these reasons, the U.S. desire to build a strong and legitimate government in Afghanistan is not practical.

“The good news,” they explain, “is that it is not necessary.”

A state-building failure would not mean victory for al Qaeda or the Taliban. Even if the United States substantially reduces its ground forces in Afghanistan and the Kabul government remains weak and ineffectual, al Qaeda would not be able to recreate anything like the safe haven it once enjoyed. The original circumstances that made sanctuary possible no longer exist today.

Why? First of all, if the Taliban were to regain control over parts of Afghanistan, there are significant costs to pay (i.e. airstrikes), which they know well. There would be little hesitation from either American political party about using air assets for such operations. It is much more likely that al Qaeda will have to remain in hiding for the foreseeable future. This was proven in the Korengal Valley in 2010, when al Qaeda attempted to reestablish itself in an area that coalition forces had left, only to be greeted by U.S. aircraft informed by Afghan sources on the ground.

Second, the Afghan Taliban have some support from the Pakistani ISI. Al Qaeda does as well, but they will most likely elect to just stay in their current sanctuary. Pakistani militants, an enemy of the Pakistani government, do not have such support from the ISI. The Afghan Taliban would not risk their ISI support by extending a welcome to Pakistani militants if the Taliban were to return to Afghanistan.

Thus, if the Taliban return to Afghanistan, they have no incentive to welcome neither al Qaeda nor Pakistani militants. If they welcome the former, the U.S. will certainly retaliate. If they welcome the latter, no one will stop Pakistan from attacking.

As Rovner and Long conclude:

The upshot of this analysis is that state building is not necessary to succeed in Afghanistan. The decline of the central state will not lead to a domino effect in the region. Al Qaeda will not be able to recreate its old safe haven there even if the government collapses. Pakistani militants will not find reliable sanctuary either, regardless of what happens in Kabul. Rather than investing heavily in state building, the United States can achieve its interests by streamlining its counterterrorism campaign. It does not need to become mired in the bloody business of Afghanistan’s political evolution.


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