What Now?

This week the students picked two articles that look at the future of Afghanistan with different lenses. Although they offer two different perspectives on the war, both authors share a similar concern. They both wonder where Afghanistan is going. Former President and head of the Peace Council Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated, the United States is getting ready to leave and pessimism is running high in Washington.

In Pessimism Fills Kabul During Mourning for Slain Peace Council Chief, Alissa Rubin wonders about the meaning and the consequences of the assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. It will have devastating consequences on the peace negotiations. The Taliban refusal to either deny or confirm allegations of the movement’s involvement raises questions about who was in fact responsible for Rabbani’s death, especially as the peace negotiations are far from being unanimously approved of, not least among former members of the Northern Alliance. It is however reasonable to believe that a Taliban faction or someone from the Haqqani network was behind the assassination. If that is the case, the Taliban strategy and capacity to eliminate high-profile target raises other very important questions. How divided are the Taliban on peace negotiations? How strong are they? Is the assassination of high-level politicians a sign of desperation from a fading movement or of increased capabilities? I am not yet convinced that it actually means anything. No one ever thought that the Taliban unanimously supported the peace negotiations anyway. The attack against Rabbani does not even show that the Taliban as a whole are opposed to the talks. And as far as political assassinations go, they are nothing new, especially in Afghanistan.  Nor have they ever been really difficult to carry out.

The assassination will have consequences though. Holding peace talks will get harder and harder. Letting the Taliban open an office outside Afghanistan to foster the negotiations is also out of the question now. The assassination actually feeds all the opponents to the peace negotiations. As Haroun Mir (the Afghan political analyst quoted in the article) rightly points out, Rabbani was bringing a “notable dimension of stability” that will be hard if impossible to replace. Although it cannot be denied that former President Rabbani made loads of enemies in the past, he embodied unity among the Tajiks. He was the one person who could hold all the different political factions and sub-groups together. It will be fascinating to see how former members of the Northern Alliance will play their cards in the near future and what the outcome of the political struggle will be. With the peace negotiations on hold, President Karzai is more isolated than ever. It will become increasingly harder for him to advocate peace talks with the Taliban “brothers” in this suspicious environment.

In This War Can Still Be Won, Fernando provides a totally different view on the future of the war in Afghanistan. Sharing his personal experience as an Army Special Forces officer, he strongly opposes the pessimism that prevails among “policy wonks, politicos and academics.” The year he spent on the ground with Afghan army units gave him reasons to believe in a brighter future for Afghanistan. He argues that the high-profile attacks are the consequence of a successful counterinsurgency strategy that manages to push the Taliban out and forces them to shift tactics. I can only hope he is right.  But I seriously doubt it.

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About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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9 Responses to What Now?

  1. patriotpaul says:

    Ten years today. 120 months worth of prognostications. 3650 days worth of headlines. 87600 hours worth development and reconstruction. And after hundreds of billions of dollars spent coupled with over 1800 combat deaths, the future of Afghanistan remains are clear as the Chicago River. Regardless as to whether the opinions are those of Americans or Afghans, divergence is the only quality that they all share. Pessimism expressed in Kabul after the assassination of former President and head of the Peace Council Burhanuddin Rabbani is matched with optimism expressed in the southern province of Helmand. And what is most telling of the situation in Afghanistan is that both of these sentiments can be justified.

    It is easy to see the glass as half empty. The assassination of Rabbani has shown the peace process to be fragile at best, and by some accounts non-existent. The Council on Foreign Relations raised some of these concerns the day after the 20th of September attack that took the life of the chief Afghan government negotiator with the Taliban; an attack that was preceded by the September 13th attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. In, “Blow to Afghan Peace Talks?” CFR Senior Staff Writer, Jayshree Bajoria, speculates that the “conditions for a civil” war have potentially be set and that the assassination has also “further fueled an ongoing debate about the value of negotiations with the Taliban.” And just today, on this 10th anniversary of combat operations in Afghanistan, Ms. Bajoria opens her piece suggesting that, “Although the war began with significant public backing, the costs have eroded U.S. public support, amid a global economic downturn, a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, and a $1.3 trillion annual budget deficit.”
    http://www.cfr.org/afghanistan/blow-afghan-peace-talks/p25970
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/09/killing-rabbani-and-reconciliation.html
    http://www.cfr.org/afghanistan/ten-years-afghan-war/p26134

    On the other hand, seeing the glass as half full cannot easily be dismissed. In the same article, Bajoria notes that, “there are more girls in school…, more access to healthcare, a constitution guaranteeing human rights, and improved Afghan security forces–all significant accomplishments.” Fernando Lujan’s opinion piece in which he describes his personal experience with the Afghan Army in southern Afghanistan clearly portrays the types of gains in the security forces that are necessary for the final transition to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in 2014. And though surly the level of competency of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) across the country varies, it is difficult to argue that these institutions have not made strides towards autonomy. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, recently was featured in an article on http://www.army.mil that characterizes the state of the ANSF as making “tremendous progress.” Focusing on recruitment levels, standardization, integration of Afghan trainers and literacy programs, both the ANA and the ANP continue to gain momentum.
    http://www.army.mil/article/66245/Caldwell__Afghan_troops__police_make__significant__progress/

    Nevertheless, systemic problems remain deeply rooted in the Afghan political culture. Corruption at all levels of government continue to be a hindrance to legitimacy, particularly in the rural areas of the Pashtun south and east where the insurgency maintains control of large tracks of land and significant portions of the population. Combined with a dysfunctional government services delivery system (sewer, water, electricity, academics, trash, etc…) it is easy to slip right back to viewing the glass as half empty. And with the water in the glass as clear as the Chicago river, it’s no wonder that fewer people today than 10 years ago want to drink from that cup anyway.

  2. bjorkified says:

    Since we’ve discussed that these shifts in power between warlords happen frequently, is it safe to assume that this is an advantage to each of them? Would their power be less influential among their followers if there were no threat from the ‘ruler’ of the next patch of land adjacent? How big a role does topography play in these power struggles? I find it hard to believe that such power could remain in tact between such players on flatter land. And finally, does the power of one depend on the power of each of the others? What I mean to say is, is the power struggle the INDEPENDENT variable of this scenario? From an ignorant perspective, I could almost believe that one ruler would fail to rule this segregated nation.

  3. To respond specifically to these points/questions brought up in the main blog …. “How divided are the Taliban on peace negotiations? How strong are they? Is the assassination of high-level politicians a sign of desperation from a fading movement or of increased capabilities?”.

    I think the Taliban is still stronger than most people believe they are. It is possible that the assassination may signify neither increased capabilities nor desperation, but rather an internal re-organization and re-invention of how they are operating (high profile targeted attacks vs. random killings). I found this article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/05/world/asia/taliban-using-modern-means-to-add-to-sway.html?pagewanted=3&ref=terrorism) which I find reports an interesting perspective on what may be happening inside that terrorist organization today. The article, sadly enough, does make sense.

    While the Taliban are still utilizing terror to make themselves known – it is in the quiet places and the shadows that they have been whispering the loudest. Ensuring the Afghan people know they are still strong enough to control communications (via control of cell towers) and adding education for both men and women, as well as adding focus towards re-building Afghan’s economy (ends up sweetening the deal towards potential acceptance of the Taliban by the Afghan people). Could it be that the Taliban is actually starting to learn from past mistakes? After all, if we have learned from our mistakes (i.e., developing counterinsurgency and counterterrorism tactics, learning to hold and build, etc.) – it would seem naive and foolish to think the Taliban won’t eventually learn and grow from their mistakes as well. Perhaps all they need is this new image (technology friendly, pro islamic education, and re-building Afghan’s economy) to strengthen and increase their ranks even further.

  4. I will confess that as I’ve been reading the assigned texts and listening carefully in class, I have felt like an outlier, which is not exactly a new experience. My political perspective has been substantially shaped by the anti-war movement, so I tend to find discussions about how the US could have been more effective to be question-begging. In my view, there was no justification for the 2001 invasion, not even the horrible crimes of 9/11.

    However, now that we – the US – are there, what would an anti-war perspective offer? Malalai Joya, former Afghanistan Parliamentarian, insists that all three of the forces responsible for the present situation must be removed from the nation, the 1) Taliban, 2) Northern Alliance, and 3) U.S.A. Joya argues that the present parliament is filled with war criminals and extremists not that much different from the Taliban.

    I am aware that such a clean sweep is unlikely, in the short term. And, what would take the place of these powers? The fight for a peaceful future for Afghanistan will not be won overnight and it will be built from below, by the Afghanistanis who desire real freedom, justice, and peace, not those who perpetuate the present injustices.

    The removal of these forces may take years or decades, and so a long perspective is necessary. I take encouragement from recent history when brutal regimes have fallen in the former Soviet Union, South Africa, and other places where mass movements have achieved remarkable things. None of these victories ended in utopia, but neither do conventional politics.

    • patriotpaul says:

      I completely agree with your assessment that a “long perspective is necessary.” But it seems clear that the U.S. has established that 2014 is the end of the war and we will be pulling out our forces. However, does that mean that we will totally remove our presence from the country? And what is “long?” Is it 5 years? 10? 20? In my experience with the Afghan people, the capacity for self government at the sub-national government will remain lacking for decades.
      The current literacy rate in the rural areas of the country, where the majority of the population resides, have remained steady at around 11% (and much lower among the women). My hopeful estimate for increased literacy has the literacy rate doubling every generation. So just to get to 40% literacy, we’re talking about 20-30 years. And that is presuming a consistent effort to increase the education standards across all segments of a fragmented society. Without a long standing permanent presence of the U.S. required to maintain both security and stability in Afghanistan, the prospects for that occurring are slim.
      Corruption is rampant throughout the country. It is instituted at the highest levels of government and is executed at the lowest. For the people to have faith in their government legitimacy and credibility is required. As it stands, the people in the villages lack trust in everyone; in particular the government. Tribal leaders speak out against the corruption that stems from Provincial and District Government centers at shuras planned and executed jointly between GIRoA and ISAF officials, but nothing is done because the offices are maintained through the systematic collection of extortion based revenue. Ask me why and I’ll tell you that it has to do with a Constitution that looks great on paper, but does not translate into pragmatic solutions at the local level. All of this leads to unacceptable levels of corruption.
      Places like the former Soviet Union, S. Africa and even Iraq in the context of the post 9/11 age were blessed with respectable literacy rates and governmental institutions that facilitated the delivery of basic services with acceptable levels of corruption. Afghanistan is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a place that can be compared to other hot-spots of political flux.
      Without a long term commitment to security, governance, and development made by the International Community and led by the United States, Afghanistan is doomed to repetitive failure, that ultimately could lead to failure of the U.S. in meeting its strategic goals of preventing Afghanistan from ever becoming a place from which terrorists have plan, prepare, and launch attacks against the the world. And if we’re not committed, then we should not waste even one more day there.

      • afghanclass says:

        I disagree with your assessment. My view is the contrary.I believe that a long perspective is not necessary.I’m surprised that the U.S. didn’t learn the same from the soviets occupation of Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to re-asses it’s strategy.If the U.S. is truly in Afghanistan to help the people, and if the people literacy rate is too low, then there are other methods that the U.S. could employ in order to effectively build a nation, and at the same time encourage the natives to develop a trusting attitude toward, at least, the U.S. government. For example the U.S. wants the world to see it as a nation builder. The U.S long term security startegy is supported or built upon a world pursuit to a democratic society. In other words the U.S. believes that the U.S. would be best secured if all international states were democratic ones. However,in order to be affective, a democracy has to be built from a voluntary basis.
        If international communities like afghanistan were forced to change how they live in their society by external forces that claim to be nation building, but they appear to have alternative or underlying goals that are aim at the natural resources of that particular community, i’m sure those communiteis like Afghanistan would resist to their very last breath, no matter how high or low their literacy rate were. Therfore, I suggest that the U.S take a different approach to acheive their long term goal of building a democratic state, and at the same time this approach would significantly decrease corruption in that land.First, make sure the U.S. is being asked for help. If the people don’t want us there, then don’t invite yourself. We don’t have to be the world’s police, unless someone calls the police. It’s like being in a domestic argument with someone you live with. If the people having the argument don’t call the police, and in fact they don’t want the police and have no need for the police,the police don’t just show up. The same should be said for the U.S. Secondly, there are several international institutions that play the role of policeman/woman
        and prefer that the U.S. didn’t always take over their role. Once the U.S. has decided that it is imparitive that it act, it should clearly spell out to the people of the land that it plans to occupy, it’s intent and how the U.S. plan to help the people. In other words it should state it’s mission and give a viable time-line to accomplish the mission.
        In order to combat the corruption that has crippled the Afghans, the U.S. should only provide monetary assistance if the U.S. could micro manage it. In other words after the U.S has made an asssesment of exactly what vital resources were necessary to accomplish the goal at hand, the U.S. would be responsible for supplying those resources to the population, not through the indigenous government but by U.S. personel. For example, if the goal was to get the afghans to develop and create small businesses once they developed an appropriate business plan,The afhgans would get the start up money directly from the assigned U.S. Employee working their in Afghanistan. This U.S. employee would be responsible for overseeing the entire project and pass out the monies as the business owner progressed.The Afghan government would have no say in the matter. Another example of micro- managing is when the Aghanistan government realizes that it needs to have a better sewage system and the U.S. thinks they should have one. The U.S could pay the contractors directly as the U.S. monitored the job and paid the contractors after every stage of development. The people of Afghanistan would start to realize that the U.S. really is helping their community and the monies are reaching the population that it is intended for. It would be hard for those who oppose a U.S. occupation to use propaganda to incite anarchy or to encourage insurgencies.Now, the U.S would be looked at as liberators. Corruption would be dramatically decreased and the people would start to view democracy as a positive. If nation building is done that way, a long perspective is not necessary.

  5. Afghanopoly says:

    D Shaw: thanks for the link. It’s a great article. I’ll post something today, and will add the link, as it’s related to this week’s article.

    radicalprogress: I agree that in its great majority the Afghan population “desire real freedom, justice, and peace.” However, there is no such thing as a durable power vacuum, and it is very unlikely that the main powerholders will be removed in a foreseeable future. Besides, “those who perpetuate the present injustices” are also popular among fractions of the population. For example, while General Dostum is criticized and ostracized for his Human Rights records, it cannot be denied that he is still very popular among Afghan Uzbeks.

  6. patriotpaul says:

    In response to Afghanclass:

    Your proposed micro-management solution is exactly what the U.S. Government is doing through its Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Almost word for word. The PRTs are micro-managing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of reconstruction projects from micro-grants to sewer projects to building of schools and hospitals. We’ve been doing that for nearly the full length of the war. and now there are 27 PRTs in the 27 of 34 Provinces, 13 of which are U.S. led. So the facts are that we are doing just that, yet corruption remains unacceptably high. Why?

    And as for the long war – I encourage you to take a look at a paper written by The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis called “Radical Islamist Ideologies and the Long War – Implications for U.S. Strategic Planning and U.S. Central Command’s Operations”

    http://www3.citadel.edu/smll/Seminar/Additional%20Resources/Davis%20monograph%20Radical%20Islamist%20Ideologies%20and%20the%20Long%20War,%20Jan%2007.pdf

    It’s a bit lengthy, but presents the idea of The Long War and has been sited by policy makers since its publication.

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