Why it’s time to reassess priorities in Afghanistan

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

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Sixteen years have lapsed since the US and it’s allies entered the Afghan arena to remove the scrounge of the Taliban. But 16 violent years later, neither side seems to be anywhere near what can be termed a decisive victory.

Despite the US now being on its third president and having tested various strategies under a series of highly capable generals, the Taliban continues to remain a formidable and resilient foe. Last year the Taliban managed to capture and hold 42 of the 407 districts whilst contesting another 55.

They even managed to temporarily capture the capital of Kunduz province in October of 2015 from which they were eventually ousted only to attack the city again exactly 12 months later. All in all, figures from 2016 confirm that 3,498 civilians were killed with 7,920 injured.

The Trump administration has yet to articulate it’s Afghan strategy but experts believe that to break the current stalemate an additional 5000 troops will be required – for which there seems to be little political appetite.

At the heart of the US mission, is a fight for the allegiance of the Afghan people. It is their allegiance which is key to the other priorities: protecting them from Taliban forces, building up the Afghan national forces, boosting the government’s legitimacy, and improving the coordination of civilian aid.

Success with these aims depends on the support, active or passive, of ordinary Afghan elders, men and women. But the same is true of the Afghan Taliban. It is ordinary Afghans who, daily, choose to get involved in the Taliban insurgency, or to involve themselves in the US-supported projects such as signing up to join the new local guardian force operating in Wardak province, the fledgling national army, or local or national democracy.

Despite the US now being on its third president and having tested various strategies under a series of highly capable generals, the Taliban continues to remain a formidable and resilient foe

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

‘Good guys, bad guys’

If we acknowledge this we acknowledge that regarding the war in Afghanistan in simplistic Manichaean terms – save as many good guys as possible while taking out as many bad guys as possible – is a mistake. The “good guys” and the “bad guys” are often the same people. Rather the US must play a game of incentives – maximizing Afghans’ incentive to participate and minimising their incentive to fight.

There is little the US can do to minimize the incentive to fight, especially for those Afghans motivated by the mere presence in their country of Western, non-Muslim forces or by skewed interpretations of a rural conservative brand of Islam. But there are things they can do to maximize the incentive to participate. Foremost among them is bringing the Taliban into the political process. I believe the pros of this approach outbalance the cons.

The first con is that it will mean some unpalatable results. The Taliban’s often brutal form of conservative justice shocks the liberal sensibilities of the western electorates paying for the war. Bringing them into the political process will mean conceding that where, for example, young brides wed older men, US troops are not the right means to change those customs and attitudes.

Worst of both the worlds

The answer to this is that we are getting these unpalatable results already – we have the worst of both worlds. President Karzai recognized this and made these kinds of concessions to bolster his legitimacy. These helped to shore up his power, but did not substantially neutralize the Taliban’s desire to fight by bringing them into the political process.

The pro is that bringing the Taliban into the political process will mean setting up a thoroughgoing participative process. One of the problems with the electoral system we implemented was that traditional power brokers such as warlords had such a central role in ensuring support for the candidates.

For example, the government paid insurgent leaders in exchange for their agreement not to attack voters or polling stations, according to the former head of Afghanistan’s Intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh.

Nobody expected an advanced democratic process. But we can reasonably expect that next time, votes are a better representation of opinion on the ground, rather than who has been bought to “deliver” a particular province or area for a candidate.

This will require that the differences over how Afghanistan is governed be expressed in debate, rather than merely fought over, and this is the real advantage of bringing ex-militants into the process as much as possible. This process will necessarily start with negotiating with some people who the US has been fighting. That will not be easy to accept.

But participation is the first step toward a self-sustaining process. And that is essential to boosting the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It is also essential to get Afghanistan to the point where we can begin to bring our soldiers home.


Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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