The missing political strategy: Why Obama’s surge is failing in Afghanistan

By: Michael Hughes  

According to a new report by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Making Peace in Afghanistan: The Missing Political Strategy, the U.S.-led military surge is not working and the only way to achieve peace in the region is through a political strategy. And a peace settlement will only be sustainable if it is acceptable to a broad range of Afghan constituencies, is supported by regional actors and is facilitated by a trusted international mediator.

The Taliban Insurgency is Not Subsiding

President Obama’s military surge has only intensified the conflict and expanded it geographically, smashing the notion that military gains have been made by NATO forces. ISAF casualties are currently at all-time highs, up 20% from 2009 and are four times greater than they were in 2005.

Since 2005 the insurgency has exploded from a few thousand fighters to as many as 35,000. The predatory nature of the corrupt Afghan government, U.S.-led night raids and civilian casualties have led to a swelling in enemy ranks – this despite the fact that the Taliban have killed more civilians than coalition forces. Policy analyst Minna Jarvenpaa writes:

Despite such brutality, the insurgency is gaining momentum far beyond the south and southeast, and beginning to enlist non-Pashtun fighters. The map of Afghan government access to districts across the country is steadily diminishing. Many previously stable areas in the north (including Badghis and Faryab provinces), northeast (Kunduz, Baghlan, and Takhar), and central Afghanistan (Kapisa) have become key infiltration routes. The Taliban have delivered night letters—threatening notes left on doorsteps under cover of darkness—even in the central highland region of Hazarajat, until now one of the most stable parts of the country.

External Resources Fuel the Insurgency

Allocating additional funds for development with pressure to spend it quickly to meet security objectives has created a “war and aid economy”. According to the report:

Donor programs delivered in an environment of state weakness, warlordism, racketeering, and rent seeking create conflict and popular disappointment, rather than winning hearts and minds.

Siphoning off U.S. largesse has become a lucrative enterprise for the Afghan political elite. Thus, ending the war is not in their best interests. A network of maligned actors controls the mechanisms of government for personal gain, and instead of promoting stability and good governance, they reap rewards from development and military contracts. A recent U.S. congressional inquiry even found that U.S. taxpayer dollars have indirectly funded the Taliban movement.

Karzai Regime Lacks Commitment to Reform

The lack of genuine interest in reform among the Afghan leadership calls into question NATO’s entire state-building approach. Karzai has abused presidential powers to block reform and has rejected a transparent audit of Kabul Bank after a bailout worth hundreds of millions – a bank whose shareholders include one of Karzai’s brothers and a sibling of the vice-president.

The Karzai regime has alienated the population and eroded the public trust – key factors driving the Taliban’s growth:

The social breakdown and lawlessness that preceded the Taliban takeover is being repeated in many parts of Afghanistan, enabling a comeback in some provinces. In Wardak, the Taliban have set up a parallel administration across the province and people look to the shadow governor, district chiefs, and judges for administration and justice. Unlike official government courts, Taliban courts are known for swift decisions, harsh punishments, and not soliciting bribes.

A counterinsurgency approach, whose premise is based on winning local support, is doomed to failure because the Afghan people do not trust their central government.

Political Settlement

Unfortunately, any sustainable political settlement will likely not be fully resolved for years – but that shouldn’t prevent the development of a process agreeable to all key stakeholders. Most Afghans, for example, will not accept a return to the conditions under Taliban rule and are unwilling to sacrifice human and women’s rights for an uneasy and uncertain peace.

Contrary to the assertions made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier on Friday during a speech at the Asia Society, diplomats should not determine the “red lines” for negotiations on human rights and women’s’ rights issues – rather, the Afghan people should drive the establishment of such parameters ahead of discussions with the Taliban.

Although many international stakeholders are pushing for a quick and easy exclusive peace deal to be struck between the Karzai government and the Taliban, the fractured nature of the insurgency could undermine the Taliban leadership’s ability to deliver a legitimate political settlement.

Any exclusive Karzai – Taliban deal will lead to civil war and the collapse of the Afghan central government after non-Pashtun ministers and much of the army walk out. Plus, there is no evidence to suggest the Quetta Shura is interested in discussing any power-sharing arrangement at this time. And the High Peace Council established and loaded by Karzai is heavily weighted towards the very factional leaders who caused 30 years of mayhem and whose lawless rule made conditions ripe for the Taliban rise to power in the 1990s.

Another problem is the inevitable involvement of Pakistan, whose Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has deep links with both the Taliban and Haqqani networks and may even participate in meetings of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership council. This makes negotiations more complex because most Afghans, especially northern Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other minority groups, do not want the Pakistanis to play any role in the process.

The Afghan government and its backers are demanding that the Taliban renounce violence, abandon its alliance with al-Qaeda and agree to abide by the Afghan constitution, while the Taliban want foreign forces to withdraw before discussions commence.

The Taliban will also look for “an expanded role of Islam in national life; power sharing at the provincial and local levels; the release of detainees; and a say in civil service, police, and justice appointments.” Jarvenpaa believes it may be possible to give sharia a more prominent role in law-making without bargaining away fundamental freedoms.

The report also claims that the international community must facilitate dialogue and help structure the process so that what emerges is sustainable, but must learn from previous mistakes:

Given the Afghan government’s testiness about foreign involvement, it will eventually take the United States, as the most powerful actor, to broker agreement over a mediator. The United States itself cannot play this role for lack of impartiality, but whoever is appointed must have U.S. support at the highest level. Successful negotiations will require an exceptionally knowledgeable mediator with a clear plan and the ability to maintain support and coherence among the international actors, as well as sufficient authority to conduct regional diplomacy and bring the parties to a peace conference. This could be a role for a UN mandated envoy, although not for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan; its reputation for impartiality has been weakened among Afghans due to its mandate requiring a close relationship with the Afghan government and its handling of the 2009 elections.

The author believes American-led forces must take a less combat-oriented military posture across the country to create the political space for genuine negotiations. A first step toward talks could be agreeing to a reciprocal and incremental set of confidence-building measures which might include deescalating hostilities, localized cease-fires, prisoner releases, and delisting insurgents from target lists and the UN sanctions list.

For NATO troops to exit by 2014 a political strategy and a peace process must first be in place. The report concludes by underlining that the international community must not become the guarantor of a deal that leads to civil war and greater regional instability. On top of the significant security interests that are at stake, there is a moral obligation to prevent leaving Afghanistan in a condition worse than it was prior to foreign intervention.

(Michael Hughes is a journalist and foreign policy strategist for the New World Strategies Coalition (NWSC), a think tank founded by Afghan natives focused on developing political, economic and cultural solutions for Afghanistan. Mr. Hughes writes regularly for The Huffington Post and his work has appeared in and Ruse the magazine. Michael graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in History).

Note:This is a cross post from

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: