What if the entire U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is based on a flawed premise? A counterinsurgency campaign is waged to defeat insurgents who are trying to supplant a central government with some version of their own. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has been trying to defeat a largely Pashtun insurgency that doesn’t care much for our man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai.
That goal never appeared easy; the Pashtun are an extremely war like bunch and they don’t like foreign armies on their soil either. Now things have gotten even worse as the insurgency has spread far beyond the Pashtun community, driven in large measure by the illegitimacy of the Karzai regime. It was hoped that national elections would serve to unify the country. Widespread accusations of voter fraud have dashed those hopes.
Last month, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Tuft University’s Andrew Wilder, who has spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan, said the “fundamental flaw” in U.S. counterinsurgency strategy there was trying to extend the reach of the central government when the local people view the central government as the number one cause of insecurity.
Wilder said that there is a civil war being waged in Afghanistan, the same largely ethnic conflict that has been fought pretty much non-stop since the Soviets left in the late 80s. The Pashtuns believe the Northern Alliance took over the reigns of power in Kabul and all other state institutions in 2001, including the security forces. The Tajiks and other ethnic groups in the north believe the Pashtuns actually wield the instruments of power. Again, the fuel that stokes so many of these irregular wars is perception.
The perception among the Afghan people is that the election was stolen by those in power, the same people who have done little to improve their daily lives. When he returned from participating in Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic review, Center for New American Security fellow Andrew Exum said he feared popular unrest and anger at a perceived corrupt election much more than offensive operations orchestrated by the “Quetta shura,” the Taliban’s leadership based in Quetta, Pakistan. That worst case scenario has been born out.
Counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen said recently that Karzai reminds him of Vietnam’s president Diem in 1963. The Kennedy administration supported his overthrow back then, and we ended up owning the problem. As soon as we prop up Karzai, Kilcullen said, we end up owning Afghanistan. “If I were a Taliban commander I wouldn’t be trying to disrupt the election, I’d let the unpopular guy win, and then go to the population and say, “Can you stand another five years of this guy?”
The best chance for success in Afghanistan had been the hope of cleaving away parts of the population, the proverbial fence sitters, from the more extremist Quetta shura Taliban. That required the people buy in, on some level, to the Afghan central government. It’s difficult to see how that happens now given the results of the election.