Saturday, November 13, 2010

Afghanistan: Counterinsurgency or Social Reconstruction?

US and Western efforts in Afghanistan are based on a number of dubious assumptions. First, the Obama administration continues to think in terms of a military victory. The original idea of a draw down of US troops by the summer od 2011 has now changed as President Obama recently indicated that substantial numbers of American troops may remain in Afghanistan until as late as 2014. Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai recently indicated that the US troop presence should be reduced as he seeks to find an accommodation with the Taliban. Unfortunately, the focus remains on the military, rather than on a larger societal perspective.

Second, the US and its NATO allies continue to think that the Hamid Karzai regime will be able to rule Afghanistan once the draw down of Western forces occurs. However, all Afghans know that the Karzai regime is highly corrupt and that it offers them little in the way of security and social services. Countless journalists have reported that consistent American efforts to pressure President Karzai to change his ways have been ineffective. Although Karzai invariably agrees to crack down on corruption, there has been no significant change in his behavior at all. To expect that the Afghan leader will develop a greater civic consciousness and seriously try to help his people is naive in the extreme.

Third, the US and its Western allies, but especially the US, continue to conceptualize Afghanistan's problems in term of political elites. Essentially, there are three sets of elites, those who are part of President Karzai's circle, the Taliban leadership, and local warlords who are not linked to either. None of these elites offer much hope for the future for the Afghan people and thus cannot be viewed as the basis for a long term solution to Afghanistan's problems.

President Karzai views the country as his own privy purse, the Taliban seek to impose once again an incredibly repressive regime on the country (which Afghans reject), and most local warlords combine the worst aspects of the central government and the Taliban. Indeed, one reason the Taliban was so successful in taking power in the mid-1990s was the popularity it gained by suppressing the warlords who had ruled after expulsion of Soviet forces in 1990. The warlords' arbitrary and repressive behavior, including stealing from the people, seizing their daughters, and imposing tariffs throughout the country that hampered commerce made them highly unpopular.

Fourth, the US and NATO view Afghanistan as a unitary state. Given the country's ethnic diversity and regional traditions, it makes much more sense to think of it in federal terms. Here Iraq has something to tell us about Afghanistan. Local provinces should have greater powers, especially in light of the limited services they receive from Kabul. This consideration also suggests why defeating the Taliban will not occur through Kabul but rather through the provinces.

Finally and most problematic, the US and the West continue to think of Afghanistan in short term policy goals. The time frame here spans 2-5 years at most. As I argue below, the problems of Afghanistan suggest the need for a much longer time frame. Developing policies according to the above mentioned assumptions suggests that the the US and NATO will lose in Afghanistan. But is there another approach?

The approach suggested here is built on two counter assumptions - assumptions related to a social reconstruction approach. First, defeating the Taliban must take place at the local level and largely bypass the Karzai regime. What I am suggesting here is the development of "regional security-development clusters." This entails finding local leadership that is willing to work with the international community, not just to provide security for the inhabitants but to help develop local agriculture and small scale artisan production and industry.

One step that has already been taken in that direction is the development of agricultural cooperatives in many areas of Afghanistan. One example is the successful triangulation between the Parwan Raisin Producer Association, which is located about an hour north of Kabul, Mercy Corps, a NGO located in Portland Oregon, and Fullwell Mill, a producer of organic and fair-trade foods located in Sunderland, UK. The US Agency for International Development has provided important funding to help the project succeed.

In return for participating in Mercy Corps.' training on how to grow organic raisins, local farmers now have a foreign outlet in Fullwell Mill which pays them excellent prices for their high quality Afghan raisins. While 35 farmers signed up to participate in the program when it began, 200 are now participating once the community saw that Fullwell Mill has kept its promises to purchase the cooperative's raisins at the attractive price they originally offered.

While the example of the raisin producer cooperative is a small one, it is indicative of the way in which the Taliban can be defeated in Afghanistan. Development here is based on a "bottom up" model. Rather than trying to create large costly projects designed in the West that do not fit with existing economic activity and customs, small scale projects such as the export model for Afghan raisins point to the manner in which Afghans can become economic stake holders and develop incentives to prevent the Taliban from winning adherents in their communities.

Once these communities prosper, and, more importantly, see a sustainable development model that will serve them well into the future, there will also be less problems with security. Afghans recruited to the police forces and army will now have an incentive to protect their communities because their families are enjoying ongoing economic benefits. Here we need to realize that the number of Afghans drawn to the Taliban because of its radical Islamist ideology is very small. Further, we need remember that few Afghans want to see the reimposition of the type of brutal Taliban rule that existed prior to the fall of 2001. Thus the Afghan populace is not inclined to support the Taliban if the correct mix of economic and security conditions are in place.

The Western counterinsurgency model does not adequately theorize the type of approach to thwarting Taliban efforts to seize control of Afghanistan because it still thinks too much in terms of military strategy and narrowly and short-term policy goals. The idea that foreign troops can wear the Taliban down and force them to the bargaining table does not address the long-term development problems faced by Afghanistan. Unless Afghans have the resources to provide for their families, there is no reason why the Taliban, and its highly lucrative opium production, will not reassert itself after a Western withdrawal from the country if Afghans have no other economic alternatives. Such an outcome would simply mean a return to the status quo ante with much Afghan, American and NATO blood having been spilled and huge amounts of monies spent to no benefit for Afghans or the West.

The second counter assumption challenges the idea that the US and NATO alone can prevent a Taliban victory in Afghanistan. When we see the large budget deficits being run by almost all Western countries, we need to realize that problems like the Taliban in Afghanistan have been to be addressed by a large international coalition. This means spreading the economic costs among a greater number of players. Saudia Arabia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil are all countries that could contribute funds and/or technical resources to help with the type of massive development effort required in Afghanistan (but one that need not be excessively costly if the focus remains developing already extant local production and resources).

What is needed in Afghanistan is a larger vision. This vision could be addressed by a series of international conferences in which democratic countries - all of whom face threats from radical extremists such as the Taliban and al-Qa'ida - work to develop an international response to the problems of failed states or quasi-failed states like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many others.

"Winning" in Afghanistan does not mean the temporary defeat of the Taliban only to see it reemerge yet again to repress the Afghan people and provide a safe haven for organizations like al-Qa'ida. A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be terribly destabilizing to Pakistan, which is experiencing separatist movements and its own Taliban threat. While military action is obviously important in preventing a Taliban victory, the Obama administration's should move beyond its focus on force levels to addressing the underlying causes of radical extremism in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Defeating radical extremism is a long term project. The West needs to get used to that idea. Local populaces must be given hope in the future. Developing an international alliance of states with mutually shared goals and values, and, equally importantly, creating stakeholders among the local populations caught in the violent crossfire, is the only way to win this struggle.

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