While the United States has touted military success against the Taliban, officials admit they have made less progress off the battlefield in improving Afghanistan’s government and charting its political future. Critics say the Obama administration lacks a strong political strategy to complement military plans, but officials contend they are making headway in the difficult task of turning a nation shattered by war into a stable democracy. The White House is hoping its strategy — which rests on a bigger U.S. civilian presence to help improve basic services and governance, political support for reconciliation talks, and pressure on Pakistan to end militant safe havens — will bear more fruit as it starts to withdraw troops in July.
But more than nine years after the ouster of the Taliban government, Afghanistan is plagued by corruption. Ties with neighboring Pakistan are precarious and there is little evidence to suggest nascent talks with the Taliban will make quick progress. Below are scenarios for several of the key areas of the United States’ political strategy for Afghanistan.
Afghan institutions are stronger than they were in 2001, but many Afghans still go without basic services like health care and clean water. Few Afghans trust courts and local government is often described as “predatory.” Last year Washington sent hundreds of civilian officials to Afghanistan to help bolster governance at the local level, but officials say change will be slow at best. Rule of law is critical. You’re not going to solve this by military means alone,” said John Dempsey, a senior State Department adviser who works on governance issues.
In the best scenario, U.S. efforts to get local jobs filled with technocrats would bear fruit. New judges would improve faith in the judiciary and service delivery would improve. Such steps, however, will depend on improving security, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and progress in curbing corruption that has plagued the public sector.
If that does not happen, civilian efforts to transform local government could fall flat. In that scenario officials continue to prey on Afghans and corruption goes on unchecked. All of this could endanger the plan to put Afghans in full control of their own country by the end of 2014 and give Western countries a chance to exit gracefully.
DEMOCRACY AND THE KARZAI CONUNDRUM
As U.S. attention has turned from Iraq to Afghanistan, a gulf has widened between Washington and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over corruption, civilian casualties, and more. “There is a trust deficit between the U.S. coalition and the government of Afghanistan. Often … Karzai has believed the United States was working to undermine him,” one former U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
Widespread reports of fraud in the most recent presidential and parliamentary polls did nothing to put to rest some U.S. officials’ desire to see new leadership in Kabul. This month the country was plunged into a new crisis when Karzai faced off against incoming lawmakers over his efforts to delay the new parliament’s inauguration.
In an ideal scenario, Karzai would get tough on corruption and foreign officials would smooth over past strains. A more productive relationship would blossom between Karzai and lawmakers, adding to the government credibility. If this does not happen, U.S. officials may find a less cooperative central government that would make it more difficult to transition smoothly out of the war. Corruption would alienate Afghans and fuel support for the Taliban.
TALKING TO THE ENEMY
As security has deteriorated over the past year, a consensus has grown around the idea that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Karzai’s government has been speaking to the Taliban for at least two years but reportedly nothing of substance has been discussed.
If the U.S. gamble succeeds, last year’s troop surge will further weaken the Taliban and put the Afghan government in a stronger negotiating position. In an ideal scenario, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would broker discussions and true decision-makers within the loose, shadowy Taliban organization would come to the table. If Western military efforts sputter, however, the Taliban will have little incentive to seriously negotiate. In this scenario, Taliban leaders in Pakistan would refuse to lift preconditions, including a full withdrawal of foreign troops, and would be loathe to risk losing by engaging with Western powers. Talks would fail to get off the ground.
PAKISTAN: FRIEND, FOE OR ‘FRENEMY’?
Perhaps the most uncertain element in U.S. strategy is Pakistan, which Washington has been pressing to quash Taliban and other militants sheltered within Pakistani borders. “It’s a dilemma because in some ways Pakistan is an ally. It allows supplies and attacks on al Qaeda in Waziristan, but it also acts as an adversary,” the former official said.
In one scenario, massive U.S. aid funds combined with veiled threats will convince civilian and military leaders in Islamabad to deploy troops to restive lawless areas along the country’s western border, reducing the need for U.S. drone attacks in those regions. Pakistan would also crack down on elements of security forces who are cooperating with or supporting militants and Islamabad would do more to foster reconciliation talks. In the other scenario Islamabad’s decisions are driven by awareness that U.S. military presence will soon shrink. Preferring a stronger Pashtun Taliban than an Afghan government friendly to its arch-rival, India, Pakistan would hedge its bets. Taliban attacks in Afghanistan would continue.
Missy Ryan, SCENARIOS – Will U.S. political strategy succeed in Afghanistan?, Reuters, Jan 25 2011