The South Asia Channel

What Obama Missed in Afghanistan

On Tuesday, vowing to "turn the page" on U.S. Afghanistan policy, President Barack Obama announced a complete withdrawal of troops by 2016. As he noted, Afghanistan’s election this spring marked a key milestone in the American effort to cultivate a new kind of democratic politics in Afghanistan — and then to beat a graceful withdrawal.  ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Tuesday, vowing to "turn the page" on U.S. Afghanistan policy, President Barack Obama announced a complete withdrawal of troops by 2016. As he noted, Afghanistan’s election this spring marked a key milestone in the American effort to cultivate a new kind of democratic politics in Afghanistan — and then to beat a graceful withdrawal.    While Obama admits that Afghanistan "will not be a perfect place," he and other Western policymakers hope that the past 13 years have moved the country far enough forward that their donor-supported progress will stick. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the exit in Afghanistan: while foreign leaders worry about whether their accomplishments will endure, the increasingly assertive Afghan ruling class is already busy negotiating its country’s future. We have been working in and on Afghanistan for the past decade, and our most recent research on governance and politics thereconfirmed that the Western ability to orchestrate Afghan outcomes is already on the wane. Despite considerable foreign-supported progress over the past 13 years, today’s Afghanistan offers a more restricted role for international actors. In what will become an increasingly brutal struggle between two sides of Afghan society, the limits (and sometimes perverse effects) of Western inducements have become self-evident. In today’s Kabul, it’s local brawn and brains that matter — and both are eager to embrace the challenge.  

From 2001 onwards, the U.S. and its partners took upon themselves the gargantuan task of rebuilding a post-Taliban Afghan state — and so they used every lever they had to encourage the Karzai regime to offer "good governance." Incentivized by foreign carrots and sticks, the Afghan government drafted a constitution, unfurled militia disarmament programs, launched a centralized development planning process, and instated a first-of-its-kind human rights commission. Provincial Reconstruction Teams funneled development projects directly to good (or "good enough") officials in hopes of bolstering their local strength. Foreign military officers mentored and communicated "red lines" to Afghan National Security Force colleagues. In short, Western players noted good behavior– and rewarded it.

International efforts to shape a new kind of Afghan politics didn’t stop there. Foreigners also got into the business of picking winners, encouraging the Karzai administration to identify those individuals with the "right" profiles for key government jobs. With energetic international support, well-educated, English-speaking émigrés were appointed as governors or ministers- and what they may have lacked in an indigenous power base, they gained in the foreign resources marshaled for their disposal.

But there has always been a limit to Western attempts at shaping a kinder, gentler Afghan political culture. In fact, U.S. officials have long acknowledged the practical benefits of empowering local tribal militias as counterinsurgent forces and fierce mujahideen commanders as Coalition partners.

And today, in the face of international military drawdown, that logic is more prevalent than ever: a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" dynamic reigns supreme in Afghanistan. Consider the famous technocrat and presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani: this Columbia PhD literally wrote the book on fixing failed states but surprised many by choosing the fierce northern warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, as his vice presidential running mate. This particular combination of brains and brawn is classic 21st century Afghanistan: purely pragmatic, and a guaranteed means for two long-standing politicians to survive another day. If Ghani wins the presidency, he will have influence in pockets of the country that were previously beyond his reach and a minority constituency will be represented in the halls of power like never before. It’s a vintage Afghan deal in every sense– and there are hundreds of them afoot as the country enters its next political chapter.

For American policymakers, this all amounts to good news; it’s no longer about the United States. Over the past 13 years, policymakers and generals alike have launched a series of strategic shifts in their efforts to improve Afghanistan, largely conceived in quantitative terms. There was the early "light footprint" approach, and then the maximalist, more-is-more aims of the 2009 surge, and today’s debate on future troop levels. Underlying each successive approach was the assumption that international inputs would yield commensurate Afghan outputs.

As the final days of the Karzai administration wane, a qualitative revision of the U.S. role in Afghanistan is in order. The almost scientific belief that well-designed, surgical American interventions will orchestrate desired Afghan outcomes can no longer be justified. In fact, the Obama administration’s approach to the current election process is a good start: process-focused and outcome-neutral. Likewise, in the governance and development arena, donors have an opportunity to shift from attempting to entice good behavior to accepting that Afghanistan’s increasingly outspoken elites are already defining their own rules of the game.

Does this entail giving a new Afghan government a blank check? Certainly not; concerns of corruption are real, and U.S. policymakers will inevitably maintain their own priorities. But where foreign support can add value, the U.S. can choose which Afghan-initiated efforts to bolster, and then provide more predictable, long term aid than the previous era’s collection of fleeting projects. In the military arena, continued support for the growth and professionalism of Afghanistan’s security forces will alleviate Afghans’ greatest concerns- chaos and bloodshed-and bolster an institution whose development will ultimately enable the emergence of other mature government institutions.

The new Afghan landscape does not mean the West should give up on supporting forces of progress. Rather, it means embracing the organic voices of reform and anti-Taliban outrage that have already emerged: witness Afghan journalists’ response to the Taliban’s gruesome massacre at the Serena Hotel this spring, when reporters boycotted coverage of the Taliban for the following 15 days. Behold the reaction to the tragic mudslide in remote Badakshan province earlier this month, when Afghan organizations rallied to the cause with fundraising efforts but also called Kabul-based politicians to task for their perceived inadequate response. Witness the grassroots-organized blood drive to lend support to the increasingly admired Afghan National Security Forces. In an Afghan landscape that increasingly boasts innovative businessmen and highly skilled technocrats, assertive journalists and entrepreneurial grassroots activists, a genuine civil society uprising is underway — not one incentivized by Western enticements. As President Obama gets ready to turn the page, the Afghans have already begun a new chapter.

Frances Z. Brown is a former USAID official and non-governmental organization worker in Afghanistan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, and a Truman National Security Project Fellow. Dipali Mukh
opadhyay is assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and the author of the new book
"Warlords, Strongman Governors and the State in Afghanistan" (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Brown and Mukhopadhyay made their first trips to Afghanistan in 2004 and recently returned from Kabul.

Dipali Mukhopadhyay is an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and author of Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan.

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