Legitimation Crisis in Afghanistan | The Nation


Legitimation Crisis in Afghanistan

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William R. Polk
William R. Polk's most recent book, Understanding Iran, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in October. He is...

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Mr. President, don't derail your presidency by bungling Afghanistan.

To get perspective on this, it is useful to look at Vietnam. There too we found that the people resented our efforts and often sided with our enemies, the local equivalent of the Taliban: the Vietminh, or, as we called them, the Vietcong. The Vietminh killed officials, teachers and doctors, and destroyed even beneficial works. Foreigners thought their violence was bound to make the people hate them. It didn't. Like the Kabul government, the South Vietnamese regime was so corrupt and predatory that few supported it even to get aid. When we "inherited" the war in Vietnam, we thought we should sideline the corrupt regime, so we used our own officials to deliver aid directly to the villagers. It got through, but our delivering it further weakened the South Vietnamese government's rapport with its people.

Is this relevant to Afghanistan? Reflect on the term used by Gen. Stanley McChrystal when his troops moved into Helmand: he said he was bringing the inhabitants a "government in a box, ready to roll in." That government is a mix of Americans and American-selected Afghans, neither sent by the nominal national government in Kabul nor sanctioned by local authorities.

How will the Afghans react to McChrystal's government? President Karzai was at least initially opposed, seeing the move as undercutting the authority of his government. We don't yet know what the inhabitants thought. But we do know that when we tried similar counterinsurgency tactics in Vietnam, as the editor of the massive collection of our official reports, the Pentagon Papers, commented, "all failed dismally."

If we aim to create and leave behind a reasonably secure society in Afghanistan, we must abandon this failed policy and set a firm and reasonably prompt date for withdrawal. Only thus can we dissociate humanitarian aid from counterinsurgency warfare. This is because once a timetable is clearly announced, a fundamental transformation will begin in the political psychology of our relationship. The Afghans will have no reason (or progressively less reason, as withdrawal begins to be carried out) to regard our aid as a counterinsurgency tactic. At that point, beneficial projects will become acceptable to the local jirgas, whose members naturally focus on their own and their neighbors' prosperity and health. They will then eagerly seek and protect what they now allow the Taliban to destroy.

If under this different circumstance the Taliban try to destroy what the town councils have come to see as beneficial, the councils will cease to provide the active or passive support, sanctuary and information that make the Taliban effective. Without that cooperation, as Mao Zedong long ago told us, they will be like fish with no water in which to swim. Thus, setting a firm and clear date for withdrawal is essential.

This leaves us with the third issue, the central government. We chose it and we pay for it. But as our ambassador, Gen. Karl Eikenberry, has pointed out in leaked reports, it is so dishonest it cannot be a strategic partner. It is hopelessly corrupt, and its election last year was fraudulent; General Petraeus even told President Obama that it is a "crime syndicate." It is important to understand why it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of its people.

For us, the answer seemed simple: a government must legitimize itself the way we legitimize ours, with a reasonably fair election. But our way is not the Afghan way. Their way is through a process of achieving consensus that ultimately must be approved by the supreme council of state, the loya jirga. The apex of a pyramid of village, tribal and provincial assemblies, the loya jirga, according to the Constitution, is "the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan."

Like the Russians, we have opposed moves to allow Afghanistan to bring about a national consensus. In 2002 nearly two-thirds of the delegates to a loya jirga signed a petition to make the exiled king, Zahir Shah, president of an interim government to give time for Afghans to work out their future. But we had already decided that Hamid Karzai was "our man in Kabul." So, as research professor Thomas Johnson and former foreign service officer in Afghanistan Chris Mason wrote last year, "massive US interference behind the scenes in the form of bribes, secret deals, and arm twisting got the US-backed candidate for the job, Hamid Karzai, installed instead.... This was the Afghan equivalent of the 1964 Diem Coup in Vietnam: afterward, there was no possibility of creating a stable secular government." An interim Afghan government certified by the loya jirga would have allowed the traditional way to achieve consensus; but, as Selig Harrison reported, our ambassador at the time, Zalmay Khalilzad, "had a bitter 40-minute showdown with the king, who then withdrew his candidacy." We have suffered with the results ever since.

Could we reverse this downward trend? If we remove our opposition to a loya jirga, will the Kabul government respond? Probably not so long as America is willing to pay its officials and protect them. But if we set a clear timetable for withdrawal, members of the government will have a strong self-interest in espousing what they will see as the national cause, and they will call for a loya jirga. Indeed, President Karzai already has.

Would such a move turn Afghanistan over to the Taliban? Realistically, we must anticipate that many, perhaps even a majority, of the delegates, particularly in the Pashtun area, will be at least passive supporters of the Taliban. I do not see any way this can be avoided. Our attempts to win over the "moderates" while fighting the "hardliners" is an echo of what we tried in Vietnam. It did not work there and did not work for the Russians in Afghanistan. It shows no sign of working for us now. As a 2009 Carnegie Endowment study of our occupation and the Taliban reaction to it laid out, even after their bloody defeat in 2001, "there have been no splinter groups since its emergence, except locally with no strategic consequences."

Nor, as I have shown in my history of two centuries of insurgencies, Violent Politics, are we likely to defeat the insurgents. Natives eventually wear down foreigners. The Obama administration apparently accepts this prediction. As the Washington Post reported this past fall, it admits that "the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a political or military movement, regardless of how many combat forces are sent into battle."

A loya jirga held soon is the best hope to create a reasonably balanced national government. This is partly because in the run-up to the national loya jirga, local groups will struggle to enhance or protect local interests. Their action will constitute a brake on the Taliban, who will be impelled to compromise. Today the Taliban enjoy the aura of national defenders against us; once we are no longer a target, that aura will fade.

If we are smart enough to allow the Afghans to solve their problems in their own way rather than try to force them to adopt ours, we can begin a sustainable move toward peace and security. Withdrawal is the essential first step. Further fighting will only multiply the cost to us and lead to failure.

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