Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Day After

The Taliban will still be winning -- unless what comes after the election is real change.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Image
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Image
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Image

It is campaign season in Afghanistan. Thirty-eight presidential candidates and more than 3,000 prospective Provincial Council members are on the hustings. Colorful posters of candidates posing in the regional dress of sought-after constituencies festoon the walls throughout the capital. Candidates of all stripes are promising change: an end to the war with the Taliban, the start of a new war on corruption, and any number of wild schemes: One hopeful told me in Kabul that he would distribute 100 acres of land to every Afghan family. 

At the same time, in the insurgency-riddled south of the country a different campaign is underway. With nearly 17,000 new U.S. troops in place, NATO and Afghan forces have launched operations Panther's Claw and Khanjar to clear militants from key population centers -- the first phase of the Obama administration's robust new counterinsurgency strategy. There is a hope that this push will also benefit the national elections on Aug. 20 by making voting more secure for millions of Afghans. However, just days before the election, violence is at a seven-year high and it is difficult to say whether Afghans in the most restive provinces will have the confidence to show up in force at the polls. Taliban threats to cut off voters' fingers and otherwise interfere with the voting have given even more cause for doubt in the last few days.

It is campaign season in Afghanistan. Thirty-eight presidential candidates and more than 3,000 prospective Provincial Council members are on the hustings. Colorful posters of candidates posing in the regional dress of sought-after constituencies festoon the walls throughout the capital. Candidates of all stripes are promising change: an end to the war with the Taliban, the start of a new war on corruption, and any number of wild schemes: One hopeful told me in Kabul that he would distribute 100 acres of land to every Afghan family. 

At the same time, in the insurgency-riddled south of the country a different campaign is underway. With nearly 17,000 new U.S. troops in place, NATO and Afghan forces have launched operations Panther’s Claw and Khanjar to clear militants from key population centers — the first phase of the Obama administration’s robust new counterinsurgency strategy. There is a hope that this push will also benefit the national elections on Aug. 20 by making voting more secure for millions of Afghans. However, just days before the election, violence is at a seven-year high and it is difficult to say whether Afghans in the most restive provinces will have the confidence to show up in force at the polls. Taliban threats to cut off voters’ fingers and otherwise interfere with the voting have given even more cause for doubt in the last few days.

The campaign that is missing, however, is as central to success in Afghanistan as the other two: the move to meet demands for justice and accountability shared by ordinary Afghans across the country.

The twin pillars of legitimacy in Afghanistan are security and justice. In the absence of either — or both — people will look for alternatives. This is where the Taliban come in. From 1994 to 1996, as the Taliban swept across an Afghanistan rent by chaos and warlordism, it was their approach to security and justice, not Islam, that won them legions of supporters. The Taliban brought law and order, often absurd in form (no kite-flying) and brutal in application, but always swift and effective. Today, they are drawing from the same playbook, and it is still working.

Why? Because the Karzai government and its international backers have failed after nearly eight years to create a government that is respected and trusted by many of its people. Warlords who committed well-documented atrocities — some after the U.S. invasion in 2001 — continue to occupy high positions in the government. The return of Gen. Rashid Dostum this week to Afghanistan — the infamous Warlord of the North who has a well-documented human rights abuse beat sheet going back nearly three decades — is only one example of how the Karzai government has undermined itself by cozying up to criminals.

Corruption is also endemic in the country. Afghanistan was ranked among the top five most-corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International this year. Ties to the $4 billion opium trade are found at every level of government. Even when the justice system seems to function, the powerful go free. In April, President Hamid Karzai pardoned five convicted drug traffickers — one the nephew of his campaign manager. And most ordinary Afghans don’t have access to a reliable court to resolve their disputes.

The most dangerous direction for Afghanistan, and the United States, is increased military engagement that props up an increasingly illegitimate government. Instead, the United States must act aggressively with its Afghan partners in the lead to break the cycle of impunity and corruption that’s dragging us all down and providing a hospitable environment for the insurgency.

A few key steps should be taken immediately after the election to set a clear tone for the next Afghan government. First, the Afghan president should make a major speech indicating zero tolerance for corruption and criminality. Second, this demonstration of leadership should be accompanied by the creation of a new, empowered anti-corruption and serious-crimes task force, independent of the government agencies it may be investigating. The international community must devote intelligence and investigative support, as well as the manpower to support dangerous raids. In the first few months, several high profile cases including the removal and/or prosecution of officials engaged in criminality, including members of parliament, should be highly publicized. We should approach this mission with the same vigor as other key elements of the counterinsurgency campaign. Third, the new Obama administration counternarcotics strategy that shifts resources from feckless eradication programs to focus on interdiction and prosecution must be successfully implemented.

Finally, we must put real effort into strengthening Afghan institutions that will be responsible for these matters over the long haul, giving them the capacity and tools they need to lead. At the same time, we must be realistic in understanding that most Afghan disputes will continue to be resolved by traditional councils of elders, tribal and religious leaders. Rather than fight what works, we should embrace it and develop ties between the formal and informal justice systems.

All of these efforts will require significantly more resources and attention than we’ve devoted to justice over the last eight years — but still a fraction of the cost of elections and military campaigns. Most importantly, it will require political will, from Washington and Kabul, to reverse the perception of injustice that threatens our success.

 

J Alexander Thier, the founder of Triple Helix, was the executive director of the Overseas Development Institute in London and was USAID’s chief of policy, planning, and learning from 2013 to 2015. He is writing in a personal capacity. Twitter: @Thieristan

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