Lessons from Afghanistan’s tribal elders

A recent meeting of 200 Afghan tribal elders that I attended in Kabul illustrates why the 2014 presidential election will be pivotal to recapturing the Afghan people’s trust in their government and establishing the kind of stability they — and the international community — crave. The association of elders, known as maliks, was holding its ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

A recent meeting of 200 Afghan tribal elders that I attended in Kabul illustrates why the 2014 presidential election will be pivotal to recapturing the Afghan people's trust in their government and establishing the kind of stability they -- and the international community -- crave.

The association of elders, known as maliks, was holding its annual meeting in April, gathering representatives from all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and most of its districts, and inviting government officials and civil society leaders to discuss the critical issues facing their country at the local level. These maliks are key links between the people and the government in Afghanistan -- serving in semi-official roles for resolving disputes, delivering a measure of justice, and providing basic services when possible.

A recent meeting of 200 Afghan tribal elders that I attended in Kabul illustrates why the 2014 presidential election will be pivotal to recapturing the Afghan people’s trust in their government and establishing the kind of stability they — and the international community — crave.

The association of elders, known as maliks, was holding its annual meeting in April, gathering representatives from all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and most of its districts, and inviting government officials and civil society leaders to discuss the critical issues facing their country at the local level. These maliks are key links between the people and the government in Afghanistan — serving in semi-official roles for resolving disputes, delivering a measure of justice, and providing basic services when possible.

In my meeting with the group, I tried to understand why neither they nor the Afghan security forces, which most often outnumber the Taliban, can resist the militants, even when the elders say the presence of insurgents wreaks havoc on the local population. The maliks reported that they might have no more than 50 Taliban in their area, but as many as 300 to 500 government police officers or army soldiers on the ground. Helmand province alone has 12,000 police officers, according to one provincial official. I also asked the maliks how many people lived in their districts and the answers ranged from 50,000 to 200,000.

These ratios seem stacked in the government’s favor. So why couldn’t 300 to 500 Afghan security forces successfully take on 50 Taliban fighters, especially when thousands of people would benefit from such efforts? 

The 200 elders made the answer clear: it’s not about the size of the security forces or the quality of their equipment. It’s about whether the Afghan people believe that the government and, by extension, the armed forces represent their interests and will defend their concerns. The public’s trust has been eroded by widespread official corruption and efforts by the elite, and even the security forces, to enrich themselves as a hedge against the worst-case scenarios of a dramatic drop in international assistance or a collapse of the government.

From the perspective of these elders, it’s as though two groups that don’t represent them are fighting each other – one being the government and the other, the Taliban, fighting that government. The majority of ordinary Afghans are indifferent to both. Supporting either side makes no sense, according to the elders, when neither can be trusted to deliver on promises of security, justice, and services.

Before the 2010 U.S.-Afghan military offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province’s town of Marja, then-General Stanley McChrystal famously commented that the international troops were prepared, once they vanquished the enemy, to install a "government in a box." The idea was to support a group of Afghan administrators and a provincial governor to immediately provide the services the people needed, along with the security that the troops were to deliver.

But you don’t know what’s in that box. How many pieces are there? Are they rotten? Building up the Afghan police and army has to be paired with credible governance.

The presidential elections scheduled for April next year provide another chance at that goal. With that date approaching and most international forces due to depart Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the comments of the elders should be a warning bell, not only for the contenders hoping to succeed President Hamid Karzai, but also for the international community and the United States, which has invested so heavily in Afghanistan’s future.

International assistance for continuing to strengthen and modernize Afghanistan’s security forces is important, of course. But without the trust of the Afghan people, the government that comes to power after the election will stand little chance of faring better than Karzai’s regime. The successor also will have little chance of defeating the Taliban, or at least solidifying a strong negotiating position.

When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1992, they left behind the communist regime of Mohammad Najibullah, who was arguably in a much stronger position than Karzai today. Najibullah had hundreds of planes, thousands of tanks, heavy artillery, and a million-man military force. Yet, none of these could save the regime because people didn’t have confidence that the security forces could successfully challenge the formidable, U.S.-backed mujahideen forces. The final blow came when the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the financing that Najibullah had counted on.

In other words, if we want to save Afghanistan from collapse and another civil war that might lead to the re-establishment of safe havens for terrorist groups, it is imperative that the international community, especially the United States, supports a credible and inclusive electoral process that will be acceptable to the majority of Afghans and win continued international support. Without a government that represents the interests and values of the people, no amount of money and military force will be able to fill the legitimacy vacuum.

Shahmahmood Miakhel is the Afghanistan Country Director at the United States Institute of Peace and served as Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of the Interior from 2003 to 2005. The views expressed here are his own.

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