‘Going Local’ in Afghanistan

This article is part of a strategic dialogue, responding to David Castonguay’s In Praise of Warlords.

I’m in overall agreement with the “going local” spirit of David Castonguay’s piece. If the overriding objective of U.S. policy is to end the war in Afghanistan as quickly as possible — as it should be — then the United States can’t wait on the central government for permission to promote local reconciliation. A key component of local reconciliation is giving locals greater responsibility for local security, regardless of their relationship with the central government, and regardless of what their relationship to U.S. forces has been in the past.

Moving forward in this way is what the United States did in Iraq, which the central government in Baghdad was deeply skeptical of, to say the least. But this decentralization contributed decisively to decreasing violence, saving many Iraqi and American lives, and creating the conditions in which the Iraqi government was able to successfully demand an agreement for a timetable for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Promoting local reconciliation without the approval of the central government may seem inimical to respecting Afghan national sovereignty, as it was argued to be in Iraq. But this appearance has to be weighed against other factors that are on balance more compelling.

As long as the U.S. occupation remains, the Afghan government cannot be truly sovereign. Key decisions about Afghanistan aren’t being made by Afghans. So far, President Hamid Karzai criticizes U.S./NATO airstrikes to little avail; calls for an end to U.S./NATO night raids to no avail; calls for an end to U.S./NATO detentions of Afghans to no avail; and calls for peace talks with senior Taliban leaders to no avail. These are key decisions from which the elected central government has been effectively excluded. In this context, the lack of central government approval is a hollow justification for failing to promote local reconciliation, which could save many Afghan civilian lives. Ultimately, the only solution to the problem of Afghan sovereignty is to end the occupation. That which does most toward ending the occupation has a compelling case for being pro-sovereignty.

The U.S. occupation overlays a longstanding Afghan civil war. And, in fact, the occupation has compromised the ability of the central government to resolve the civil war. For example, the United States played a key role in creating a constitution that authorizes the Afghan president to appoint governors rather than preside over direct elections (as takes place in the comparatively “decentralized” United States). Enabled by the U.S. occupation, the central government in Kabul doesn’t pay the full cost it would otherwise incur for its failure to effectively promote local reconciliation. If the United States were to leave, the central government might feel greater pressure to compromise or have to concede its inability to control large areas of the country. Therefore the United States bears some responsibility for this failure of the Afghan central government, even if promoting local reconciliation is official U.S. policy.

To feasibly end the occupation, the United States must address to some degree the issues connected to the civil war, for example, by supporting reforms of the Afghan constitution that would increase the accountability of local officials (such as having them directly elected locally) and supporting a national unity government that would include insurgents and redress the perception in some Pashtun areas that the central government is Tajik-dominated. This may include pushing the central government faster than it is otherwise willing to go.

Castonguay overstates his case somewhat in his claim that the United States is banking too much on the Afghan National Forces (ANF). He doesn’t really give evidence of this assertion. Rather, he gives evidence that banking too much on the ANF is bad. In some measure, the United States is already where Castonguay says it should be — not waiting on the central government and not relying exclusively on the ANF. In the recently reported deal with the Shinwari tribe, The New York Times noted that U.S. officers decided to bypass the government entirely and pledge $1 million in development aid directly to the Shinwari elders. “We have absolutely no faith in the Afghan government to do anything for us,” the tribal elders said. “We don’t trust them at all.”

The fact that U.S. policy has already moved on this point — without, of course, solving everything — underscores that it is one piece of the puzzle: important, but not everything. An equally important piece is the need for direct political negotiations with senior Taliban leaders — as Karzai and the outgoing head of the UN mission have called for — employing the mediation of the Pakistani and Saudi governments as much as is useful. For such talks to be successful, the United States must be ready to move its position on key Taliban demands, including an end to night raids, the release of prisoners, the removal of senior Taliban officials from the UN blacklist, and ultimately, a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign military forces.

Robert Naiman is the policy director at Just Foreign Policy and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.