Originally posted December 2009
The United States and NATO effort to stabilize Afghanistan is showing signs of severe tension. As Afghanistan further descends into chaos, President Barack Obama’s administration is not of one mind about what course of action to follow in Afghanistan. The current review of President Obama’s Af-Pak policy, which was announced in late March 2009, has turned into a divisive debate of irreconcilable options between his senior national security team. The reverberations emanating from this debate are clearly felt in war-torn Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding which way the debate in Washington is finally settled, many Afghans are skeptical that a new strategy will bring about a lasting peace in their country. And that is because Afghanistan is often seen as a problem as opposed to an opportunity to be exploited for peace.
Fundamentally, the problem in Afghanistan is political in nature. It is not a problem of terrorism or global jihad. The failure to reach a political solution and the absence of justice has paved the way to war. It is an internal war — essentially a civil war. The United States is supporting one party in this civil war. Al-Qa‘ida, Pakistan’s ISI, and other regional powers support the Taliban to offset the US-supported Karzai government. This support is essentially instrumental in character. It is not necessary, and can be avoided. It will require that we work out a sound political solution. Our failure to do this has prolonged the war. It has cast the problem in military terms. And the solution pursued is a disproportionately military one. This thinking must be reversed.
The Tragedy and Folly of Peace through War
The current thinking that we must escalate the conflict in order to weaken the Taliban and force them to the negotiation table is flawed. Escalating the conflict will prolong the war. That is precisely what the Taliban want. They expect the United States to prolong the war. That gives them a mission and a purpose. So instead of giving them a raison d’être, we must take it away from them. Ending the war, not expanding it, must be our first priority. We must not look for a forced exit strategy, with all the humiliation and defeat that comes with it. A prolonged war will result in the death of many more Western and Afghan troops and countless civilians. Rising troop casualties and civilian deaths will weaken political support in Washington and will give Afghan politicians the pretext to denounce the United States and appeal to nationalism. Public opposition to the war will increase, and as a result, our mission will become more complicated.
Under the current approach, forging peace is a derivative of fighting war. Many in Afghanistan see this war as a continuation of former US President George W. Bush’s ‘‘war of revenge.’’ It is time for President Obama to present the mission in Afghanistan differently. The ultimate objective of the mission should be “working for peace to end the war,” rather than “prolonging the war to win the peace.” The latter policy is neither sustainable nor winnable. Afghans are tired of war; they will be our allies if we respond to their need for peace. We will lose them if we continue to respond to their distaste and fear of war mainly by conducting military operations.
Towards a Strategy for Lasting Peace
The first essential ingredient of a new strategy is to focus not on fighting, but on achieving a political solution and addressing the justice agenda, which will delegitimize the Taliban and make it unnecessary for them to seek support from al-Qa‘ida, the ISI, and other regional actors. Politics is safer and much cheaper than waging war. If the United States and its coalition partners are looking for an exit strategy, then that is the one they should choose.
The second ingredient is to vest in the Afghan people the authority and capability to reconstruct and develop their lives and livelihoods. When development aid is used to buy Afghan ‘‘hearts and minds’’ and delivered by American groups to serve US objectives, that assistance becomes an easy target for the Taliban. The change process, from war to peace, needs to be given to the Afghan people.
The third ingredient is to promote reconciliation at all levels. After three decades of war and internal strife, the only structures that the vast majority of Afghan people trust are their families and tribes. That is what they have fought for and will continue to fight for. When we focus our efforts on building peace, there will be no need to arm militias and tribes to fight the Taliban.
The fourth ingredient is to support local governance systems. Across Afghanistan today there are whole districts that are still peaceful. Such districts are found in provinces where the insurgency is active. These districts, with their own functioning community governance systems, must be the new platform on which to build a larger peace. The Chamkani District in Paktia Province, for example, is an oasis of peace despite insurgent activities in the province. It has managed to remain peaceful because of its strong tradition of tribal solidarity and social cohesion, which have served as a bulwark against Taliban infiltration.
The fifth ingredient is to help spur cooperation between and among Afghan civil society groups, which currently vie with each other for foreign funds. There are hundreds of Afghan-led successes across the country. However, the Afghan people are generally unaware of them. Indeed, foreign donors have made every effort to take the credit. Two examples illustrate the negative impact of donors’ aid policies. In the lead-up to the August 20, 2009 presidential elections, Afghan civil society groups presented a joint action plan for election monitoring and civic education. But the donors decided to fund individual NGOs and civil society groups, forcing them to compete with each other. Similarly, donor policies, despite advice from the Afghan independent media community, have not supported the establishment of a media trust fund to channel funding to independent media, which would have fostered collaboration, rather than a disunity of effort. When these activities are viewed as indigenous Afghan building blocks, the Afghan people will gravitate more strongly to them and be less susceptible to the insurgency’s appeals to Islam-ism and nationalism.
Long-term peace in Afghanistan is possible. On two recent occasions, military force has brought short-term stability — the ascendancy of the Taliban, and the US-led intervention in November 2001. Both partially succeeded because the Afghan people were tired of war and ready to try the offered alternative. But both cases proved that fighting in order to achieve long-lasting peace will not work. Long-term peace in Afghanistan can be achieved through a strategy that above all strives to achieve a political solution, privileges ownership and control by local actors over foreign donors, helps to advance reconciliation at all levels, and encourages and supports cooperation among Afghan civil society groups.