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Taliban Rule Well, Karzai Doesn't

The U.S. led counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan is straining under fundamental contradictions that threaten to undermine the effort there, according to a number of experts who recently returned from contributing to a strategic review undertaken by new Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

To begin with, coalition interests and those of the government of Hamid Karzai do not always align, and sometimes are at cross-purposes. Much more problematic, they say, the Afghan public views the Karzai government as abusive and corrupt and a threat to their security. In a series of briefings and public discussions, leading counterinsurgency and military experts referred repeatedly to the “predatory” actions of the Afghan government upon the Afghan people; particularly egregious are abuses by the universally derided Afghan National Police (ANP).

The situation poses a distinct challenge to U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, which aims to enable the host nation government to rule and gain the people's consent to be governed.

To that end, the U.S. is pursuing a “population centric” counterinsurgency strategy designed to provide security to the Afghan people. The U.S. is now in the difficult position of protecting the population from the regime it not only helped install but continues to prop up with enormous financial and political support.

The U.S. is trying to extend the reach of the central government throughout the country when many people view the government as the number one cause of insecurity, said Tuft University’s Andrew Wilder, speaking last week at the United States Institute of Peace. “That’s a real fundamental flaw in our current counterinsurgency strategy.”

Viewing their own government as predatory and abusive, many Afghans turn towards the Taliban, which has proven very skillful at exploiting public greivances, said the Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who has advised U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The Taliban are kicking our ass at the local level,” he said, speaking at USIP. Insurgents have set up effective shadow governments in villages and districts that are often quite responsive to the people's desire for justice and accountability.

“You’ve got to get in there and make the people feel safe and protect them from all comers, including their own government, their own police, the warlords and the drug traffickers, otherwise you’ve got no chance to get them to turn,” Kilcullen said. The people’s perceptions are the only thing that truly matters in counterinsurgency. The Afghans he spoke with said that in common rule of law matters, they regularly turn to the Taliban, not their own police.

Stephen Biddle, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and another member of the McChrystal strategy review team, said that poor to nonexistent local level governance and a ruling regime that is seen as largely illegitimate, makes the war in Afghanistan much more similar to the Vietnam war than Iraq ever was. If local governance is not radically improved, openings will be continue to be created for the Taliban, who are looking for just such opportunities. He said the U.S. must begin to use all leverage at its disposal to spur the Karzai government to clean up its act.

This unhealthy state of affairs was largely our own making. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the U.S. focused its efforts on installing the “shell” of a modern state, with power concentrated at the top, in the president’s office and in government ministries, Wilder said. But the Karzai government still functions on a traditional “personalized patronage basis,” where favors are handed out according to tribal ties, he said. U.S. policy has enabled the status quo to continue.

Even U.S. aid efforts are often seen as benefitting the country’s warlords and other powerful players and not the Afghan people, Wilder said. Development and construction contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are routed to those with political or personal ties to Karzai. Corruption at the top is now so pervasive and entrenched, he is skeptical of the U.S. ability to reform the Afghan government.

Recognizing the contradiction of trying to protect the people from its own government, Kilcullen said the U.S. must address the rot at the very top, and establish some kind of legitimate government in Kabul, otherwise the entire effort is likely to founder.

He worries that if, as is widely expected, Karzai wins the national elections scheduled for later this month, there will be widespread perceptions among the people that the election was a fraud, further delegitimizing the government. The U.S. and the international community may ultimately have little choice but to either compel reform or threaten to pull support.

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