After sixteen years of war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledges that we are not winning. Three U.S. Senators visiting Kabul over the July 4th holiday argue that the U.S can’t win without a new strategy. The Trump Administration has promised a new strategy but seems to defer to the Pentagon on troop levels.
A consistent strategy has in fact been in place since 2001: 1) Make sure “our guy” is President (shades of Diem) and support whatever he wants, while 2) training the Afghan National Army (ANA). There has never been any questioning of these two basic tenets. Supposed strategic reviews have merely addressed tactics. Should we field 100,000 troops? 3,000? Maybe 10,000 will turn the tide. And should the U.S. (with NATO) do the fighting, or “advise and assist” the ANA?
It is past time to examine the strategy. Having spent five years in Afghanistan (between 2004 and 2014), I am convinced that the fundamental problem is governance failure.
With U.S. acquiescence, President Karzai declined to implement those portions of the 2004 Constitution that provided for elected city, village and district councils, and elected mayors. President Ashraf Ghani has followed suit. Councils do not exist, and the president personally appoints every mayor in Afghanistan. Would Americans stand for this?
If local appointed officials are corrupt or incompetent, citizens have absolutely no recourse—except for taking up weapons, or supporting those who do. We complain about corruption, but have ensured that Afghans are deprived of the one time-tested mechanism for dealing with corruption: “Vote the bums out.” If Taliban were to win a local election in, say, Kandahar, voters would find out whether they could pick up the trash. Insurgents now are free to posture without any responsibility for delivering.
The Presidency is problematic for a different reason. The April 2014 Presidential election was indeed held per the Constitution. Abdullah Abdullah won 45% of the vote to Ashraf Ghani’s 31%, but with no candidate reaching 50%, a runoff was held in June. A surge in ballots (not necessarily voters) in Pashtun areas flipped the result, giving 56% to Ghani, the U.S. preferred candidate. I was in Kabul analyzing polling station results, and the “turnout” in female polling stations in the middle of the desert was a wonder to behold. A recount—i.e., recounting fraudulent ballots rather than investigating the ballot box stuffing—dragged on into September until Secretary of State Kerry swooped in to broker an agreement between the two candidates. We were apparently running up against a deadline to have a President in place to sign the basing agreement.
Under the Kerry agreement, Ghani was to be President, and Abdullah something called Chief Executive. Oh, and the two agreed that the Constitution would be amended accordingly.
Think back to 2000 Bush vs Gore: Did anyone suggest that they cut a deal and share the prize? And alter the U.S. Constitution to legitimize the deal? Of course not, yet we thought this muddle was OK for the Afghans. The deal has no Constitutional allocation of authority, and no legal basis for resolving disputes about who is in charge of what. The result is infighting and paralysis.
More troops cannot resolve a conflict that is fundamentally about governance—not a conflict between Taliban (a collective term for an assortment of insurgents with a wide variety of agendas) and government, but about the relationship between citizens and their own government.
The Afghan National Army
Which brings us to the army. The U.S Army is not merely a collection of trained individuals, but an institution with a clear command and control structure answerable to legitimate civilian authorities and internally managed to ensure both the welfare of the troops and achievement of the mission.
Given the lack of structurally accountable Afghan government, what should we expect of the ANA? While large numbers desert, there are many individual soldiers who do care for their country and are willing to fight and die for it, but training frontline soldiers does not address the chain of command problem up through the Ministry of Defense—with politically connected officers siphoning off (and presumably selling) equipment and ammunition instead of supplying the troops, inflating rosters in order to collect international funding for ghost soldiers, and skimming the pay of those legitimately on the payroll.
In the absence of accountable civilian government, more training of the ANA is somewhere between pointless and counterproductive, with no improvement in accountability and even more weapons and more trained shooters injected into the volatile mix that is Afghanistan today.
Make Governance the Priority
This is not an argument for “nation building.” Afghanistan has a perfectly plausible Constitutional governance structure and a history (pre-Soviet) of utilizing these mechanisms without outside assistance. We need to stop subverting these structures for our own short term ends. Municipalities and districts should conduct their own local elections and manage their own affairs. A presidential election should be held (preferably without international financing and “assistance”) and a president selected per the Constitution. If the Afghans decide to convene a new Loya Jirga and rethink their own governance arrangements, that should be their business.
A political deal between the incumbent Afghan government and some faction of the Taliban, as some commentators have suggested, is no answer. Instead of structurally accountable government at all levels, answerable to all Afghan citizens, such a deal would only perpetuate elites in Kabul divvying up the spoils of an unconstitutionally centralized regime. It would do nothing to address the governance failures driving the conflict. Continued citizen disaffection will produce an unending supply of new insurgents.
The most useful thing we could do at this point is to condition further U.S. aid upon full implementation of the Constitutional provisions for sub-national government, and a timetable for a new presidential election. Beyond this, we should leave the Afghans alone to sort out their own governance problems. We can best support them by restraining Pakistan, which supports and shelters the various insurgents.
Ms Fryklund has spent five years in Afghanistan, working for USAID, UNDP, OSCE and with the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. She has worked in Kabul, Nangarhar, Kandahar and Helmand.