The Afghan problem can’t be addressed, let alone solved, by force. Nor can it be solved through negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The conflict, after all, is not between two distinct segments of the population. Negotiation is an appropriate strategy when there is indeed a two-party conflict—as in a civil war—and both sides have support among different factions of the population. But neither the government nor the Taliban has much popular support. The problem is not the presence of the Taliban; it’s the absence of good governance. Negotiation and force are not just unproductive strategies; they are strategies addressing the wrong problem.

During my 3 ½ years spent in Afghanistan working as a contractor for the UN Development Program and with the U.S. Agency for International Development, I heard the figure 10% for the proportion of the population actually supporting the extremist social views of the Taliban. From my contact with Afghan citizens – as well as my work with the judiciary, district officials, and provincial representatives of the line ministries – , I’d second this assessment. The Taliban are not a group with an independent constituency among the population. They are the beneficiaries of governance failure, a symptom of the problem, not its cause.

By supporting negotiations, we would be awarding the extremists a victory that they could not otherwise win. Why legitimize something that is opposed by 90% of the population? The Karzai government is similarly interested in negotiations; Western support for the idea anoints the corrupt central government as a legitimate party to negotiation. Again, the interests of the vast majority of the Afghan population are ignored.

Neither would negotiation serve U.S. interests in the long run. A Western-sponsored division of the spoils between the corrupt central government and the vicious Taliban does nothing to resolve the underlying governance problems that the average Afghan struggles against. When neither government nor Taliban has much popular support, a deal between the two would only set the stage for a new blow-up a year or two down the road—when the United States would have less credibility, many fewer options, and less public support for intervention.

It’s the Governance, Stupid

Governance really does matter, and the key is accountability to local citizens. Afghanistan has a highly centralized governance structure. The Afghan president appoints all governors, district officials, and mayors, and he can dismiss or transfer them on a whim. Last year, in a lecture at American University in Kabul, an Afghan-American professor identified this extreme centralization as the root problem in Afghanistan. He said Afghans aren’t citizens; they are subjects. This drew wild applause from the Afghan audience.

This centralized structure fosters corruption. All the incentives are perverse. Would-be appointees and employees may have to pay (in cash or other services) to obtain their positions. They expect to recoup their investment by extracting bribes and fees from the hapless citizens. Governmental employees have an open-ended profit-making opportunity, and citizens are without recourse. Americans with a corrupt or incompetent mayor can vote him out—and the threat acts as a check on behavior between elections. Afghans have no such option.

It is in the interests of Afghan government officials to create and maintain convoluted requirements, e.g., for getting a business license or recording a land deed. Every signature required presents an extortion opportunity. This puts a damper on business activity. A business that has to stay under the radar can never grow. With a more business-friendly environment, economic growth would be possible, reducing incentives for young men to sign on with the Taliban for the paycheck.

The U.S. State Department has the right impulse in trying to identify and support the more effective local governments, but this assumes a governance structure in which local government has both permanence and incentives to be responsive. Good government occasionally occurs, but it is only due to conscientious individuals, not to incentives inherent in the governance structure. Some officials, such as Governor Mangal in Helmand, are indeed talented and committed. However, it is largely a waste of tax dollars to invest in officials who could be removed tomorrow.

Don’t Mourn, Decentralize

Afghanistan does indeed have a “unitary” (as opposed to a federal) system of government, but this does not preclude locally chosen government with real powers. A significant decentralization of power, responsibility and accountability does not require any change to the Constitution or the convening of a Loya Jirga. It only requires statutory change.

The U.S. government should use whatever leverage it has to get laws and practices changed in order for Afghanistan to implement accountable local government. This can be done immediately. Change does not require a five-year transition as suggested by the Afghan Independent Directorate of Local Government (IDLG) —a contradiction in terms if there ever was one. This is a unit of the central government, established in mid 2007 when the local government supervision section of the Ministry of the Interior was spun off. While it may appear to donors that something is being done to increase local accountability, IDLG’s mission remains one of “supervising” local government, not decentralizing it. If, however, local officials were locally selected, were responsible for spending decisions, and had an incentive to serve the taxpayers, such locally directed technical assistance could be highly effective.

Why should Afghans (and donors) have to settle for working around a dysfunctional governance structure that fosters corruption and is unable to deliver services? Let’s address the underlying accountability problem. With responsive local government, support for the Taliban would melt away and there would be no reason to negotiate with the hard-core remnants.

Inge Fryklund is an international development consultant who has worked on governance in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, West Bank, and Tajikistan. She is a lawyer, a former prosecutor, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.