One of the bloggers recently asked whether there are “regional authorities who benefit from [the] US war aims and associated resources and who do not attract suicide bombers?”
It is my understanding that there are local authorities who benefit from the US presence: the former US-backed Northern Alliance commanders who have managed to capture state positions after 2001, as well as their local clients who benefit from the redistribution of resources coming from the center (mainly through appointments to official positions). Although those former commanders have been increasingly depicted as human rights violators and illegitimate “warlords” by Western media and policy-makers, it seems today that President Karzai needs them more than ever. In times of uncertainty about the US presence in Afghanistan, I argue that local elites who oppose the Taleban rely increasingly on the strong non-state armed actors that were once able to resist the Taleban. In a strongly conservative country where Westernized technocrats have failed to demonstrate their ability to bring a brighter future for Afghanistan, where there is no reason to believe that the American presence will last, people tend to rely on what they know best: strong leaders who proved their resilience over the years.
As the United States is now openly supporting government-led negotiations with the Taleban, I argue that these leaders find themselves confronted to a paradoxical situation that contributes to their empowerment. On the one hand they have no interest in seeing the Taleban come back to power and threaten their political positions. On the other, they benefit from the risk of Taleban resurgence. It gives them leverage over a politically isolated President who has no choice but to seek their support and redistribute some of the resources he receives from the international community.
For them, the Afghan political system therefore works as a virtuous circle. They have leverage on the center that they can use to strengthen their power on the local level. In return, their local authority prevents them from being sidelined by the central ruler and increases their leverage. They work as a link between the center and the periphery and as such, can hardly be replaced. While many observers argue that those leaders have no more power, it is enlightening to see that President Karzai keeps most of them on board: Marshall Fahim as his First Vice-President or Ismail Khan as his Minister of Water and Energy for example. He even brought General Dostum back to Afghanistan to benefit from his political support in the 2009 Presidential election. Considering the post-2001 international environment in Afghanistan, their power might not express itself in the way it used to, with undisputed control over large portions of the territory, but it does not mean that this power is gone. On the contrary, these actors have proved their resilience: they have the capacity to survive in an extremely hostile international environment.
Although some leaders (such as Ismail Khan) openly criticize the US presence in Afghanistan to strengthen their legitimacy vis-à-vis the local population, it is clear that they all benefit from it and have no interest in seeing the US leave the country. The situation might however change if they stop reaping the fruits of the American involvement in Afghanistan.