Afghan President Hamid Karzai begins his second term with his country on the brink of chaos.
To establish control, two major elements of reform are necessary. First, Karzai needs to rein in the major power brokers and end the large-scale corruption that threatens the country. Second, he has to convince local Taliban leaders to change sides and support the government.
Without the first, the second will never happen.
Throughout Afghanistan, government is largely absent. Where it is present it is often run by a class of politically appointed power brokers who are tied to drug lords, weapons smugglers, criminals, and sometimes to the insurgents themselves. Government not only fails to provide basic services, it often actively harms the people it should be helping. In essence, government is the problem.
Karzai's second term is a chance to offer a better choice – security and better governance, in place of the self-appointed power brokers and corrupt local leaders. Indeed, if Karzai, with international assistance, can establish political legitimacy, an effective government and capable security forces, then the Afghans can win their civil war.
Those, of course, are big ifs.
The first step? Once the Karzai government actually starts to reform, coalition forces and the international community have to insist that Afghans take the lead in all major endeavors—including security—as soon as possible. This means greater risks in the short term. But it's the only way to create the political conditions necessary for success.
Only then will Afghans see that their government leaders are Afghanistan's leaders. And only then will the Taliban lose their principal propaganda platform – that of defending the people from powerful and predatory officials.
The point is, foreign armies cannot win counterinsurgencies – only indigenous leaders and their governments can. But they cannot do this while playing second fiddle to foreign armies. Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are first and foremost political conflicts to be won by indigenous leaders, forces and people.
A reformed Karzai government could pave the way for the crucial second element—convincing some Taliban leaders to recognize the central government and change sides. This is not an unusual tactic in Afghanistan, where pragmatism often trumps ideology.
It's not at all clear that Karzai is prepared to move in these directions. Indeed, many of the promises he made to power brokers to get elected make it extremely unlikely that his government will make the necessary reforms.
But the international community has strong leverage if it chooses to use it. Afghanistan is far more dependent on security and economic assistance than Iraq was. As a result, the role of the international community is to create the conditions in which Karzai's government can—and must—make the needed reforms.
Terrence Kelly is a senior operations researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
This op-ed also appeared on Globalsecurity.org.
This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org on November 2, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.