Going Local: The Key to Afghanistan


Aug 8, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on August 8, 2009.

The U.S.'s strategy of building a centralized state is doomed to fail in a land of tribes

The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is now President Barack Obama's war, one he pledged to win during his election campaign, promising to "reverse course" and defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda. One of the biggest problems, however, is that since late 2001, the United States has crafted its Afghanistan strategy on a fatally flawed assumption: The recipe for stability is building a strong central government capable of establishing law and order in rural areas. This notion reflects a failure to grasp the local nature of Afghan politics.

In many countries where the United States has engaged in state-building, such as Germany and Japan after World War II, U.S. policy makers inherited a strong central government that allowed them to rebuild from the top down. Even in Iraq, Saddam Hussein amassed a powerful military and intelligence apparatus that brutally suppressed dissent from the center. But Afghanistan is different. Power has often come from the bottom up in Pashtun areas of the country, the focus of today's insurgency.

It is striking that most Americans who try to learn lessons from Afghanistan's recent history turn to the failed military exploits of the British or Soviet Union. Just look at the list of books that many newly deployed soldiers are urged to read, such as Lester Grau's "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" and Mohammed Yousaf and Mark Adkin's "The Bear Trap," which document some of the searing battlefield lessons that contributed to the Soviet defeat. Yet, outside of some anthropologists, few people have bothered to examine Afghanistan's stable periods. The lessons are revealing.

The Musahiban dynasty, which included Zahir Shah, Nadir Shah, and Daoud Khan ruled Afghanistan from 1929 to 1978. It was one of the most stable periods in modern Afghan history, partly because the Musahibans understood the importance of local power. Many U.S. policy makers have not grasped this reality, still clinging to the fantasy that stabilizing Afghanistan requires expanding the central government's writ to rural areas.

Some Afghans had to learn this lesson the hard way. Amanullah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929, tried to create a strong central state in the image of Ataturk's Turkey and Reza Shah's Iran. This proved disastrous. The central government's attempt to push into rural areas sparked social and political revolts, first in Khowst in 1923 and then in Jalalabad in 1928. By 1929, local rebellions became so serious that Amanullah was forced to abdicate, and Afghanistan deteriorated into several months of anarchy.

Masses of rural Afghans today still reject a strong central government actively meddling in their affairs. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, which are dominated by Pashtuns, many consider the central government a foreign entity. "My allegiance is to my family first," one tribal elder from Kandahar told me earlier this year. "Then to my village, sub-tribe, and tribe," he continued, noting that the government played no meaningful role in his daily life.

I have often been struck by the disconnect between the center and periphery when traveling through areas where, as recently as this year, some villagers had never heard of President Hamid Karzai, who has led the country since 2001. In a few cases, they even thought U.S. military forces I was traveling with were Soviets, not realizing that the Soviet army withdrew in 1989. Time has a way of standing still in rural Afghanistan.

The lessons of Amanullah Khan were not lost on the Musahibans. While they believed it was important to build a strong army and competent government technocrats, dealing with rural Afghanistan required extraordinary caution. They exempted a range of Pashtun tribes from military service and established a fairly effective tribal engagement strategy in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Zahir Shah supported village-level defense forces, called arbakai, to establish order in eastern Afghanistan. These village-level forces were used for defensive purposes and organized under the auspices of legitimate tribal institutions. But the result was clear: Law and order were established by locals, not the central government. When rebellions occurred, as they sometimes did, the government could temporarily move into rural areas and crush them.

The Soviet-backed regimes never learned the Musahiban secret, and tried to establish order from the top down. The United States and much of the international community made a similar mistake beginning in 2001, conceiving of success as emanating from a powerful central government. But this reflects a quintessential Western understanding of the nation-state, not one grounded in today's reality. "I'm afraid we are still looking for the solution only in Kabul," a senior U.S. government official recently told me. "It is a false hope."

After the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the U.S. and its allies began building an Afghan national army and police force. They also supported presidential elections in 2004 and parliamentary elections in 2005. But there were no systematic efforts to engage tribes, sub-tribes clans, and other local institutions. And there were no efforts to encourage elections at the provincial or district level, where most Afghan political energies are focused. The United States did, however, back a handful of warlords, usually detested by Afghans because they operate outside of the tribal system.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups are most attuned to local dynamics. In southern Afghanistan, for example, Taliban commanders have developed a fairly effective bottom-up strategy to co-opt or coerce tribal and other local leaders. They often send individuals from the same tribe, sub-tribe or clan into an area to convince locals that resistance is futile and that the Afghan government is a corrupt, puppet regime.

In some cases, the Taliban has effectively reached out to tribes that are the majority in their district but have been marginalized by the ruling minority tribes, such as the Popalzais, who are favored by President Karzai, a Popalzai. When Taliban fighters fail to co-opt local leaders, they sometimes assassinate them. But neither the Afghan government nor the United States is playing at the local level, and it has prevented them from achieving their key objectives.

America's original goal for sending forces to Afghanistan was to uproot al Qaeda terrorists and their supporters after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Sadly, this goal has still not been achieved. Nearly eight years after the attacks, U.S. and other Western intelligence indicates that al Qaeda is still the most significant threat to the U.S. homeland. Al Qaeda's key sanctuary has moved from key areas like Jalalabad in 2001 to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan today. That's about the distance from New York City to Philadelphia.

Earlier this year, the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, noted that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area "is the headquarters of the al Qaeda senior leadership" who are planning attacks on the United States. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also warned that "three quarters of the most serious plots investigated by the British authorities have links to al Qaeda" operating from the border region.

A litany of terrorist attacks and plots has been incubated in this area. The successful March 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, July 2005 attacks in London, foiled 2006 plot to blow up airplanes flying from Britain to the U.S. and Canada, and more recently thwarted plots in Germany, Denmark, Spain and France have a common theme. They all link back to al Qaeda or other affiliated terrorist groups operating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

What's more, the two most successful insurgent groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban and Haqqani network, have developed a close strategic relationship with al Qaeda. In fact, some assessments indicate that their links are even closer than before 2001. If Americans should have learned anything from September 11, it was that the United States cannot accept a situation where al Qaeda and its allies enjoy a sanctuary to plan and train for terrorist attacks against the United States.

The reality, then, is that the United States is stuck in Afghanistan and Pakistan for now. But as violence levels continue to increase, it is at a critical juncture. With mid-term U.S. elections coming next year, White House officials are demanding measurable progress in Afghanistan. Now is a pivotal time to fundamentally rethink America's strategy.

While much has changed in Afghanistan since the Musahiban dynasty, one thing has not: Politics remains a local game. Rather than banking on stability entirely from the top down, as Amanullah Khan and the Soviet-backed regimes tried and failed to do, it would be more prudent to develop a bottom-up strategy to supplement top-down efforts.

There is still a window of opportunity to do this; many Afghans detest the Taliban and other insurgent groups for trying to impose an ideology they consider alien. The objective of senior Taliban leaders is to establish an extreme version of sharia, or Islamic law, across the country. In the 1990s, the Taliban banned kite-flying and many forms of entertainment, and relegated women to sub-human status.

What would a new strategy look like? As Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the newly appointed U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has already indicated, it should be predicated on a core tenet of counterinsurgency: protecting the local population. The insurgent and future Chinese leader Mao Zedong perhaps recognized this when he noted that there is an inextricable link in insurgencies "between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water and the latter to the fish who inhabit it." Both insurgents and counterinsurgents need the support of the population to win.

Tribal, religious and other local leaders in Afghanistan best understand their community needs, but they are often under-resourced or intimidated by Taliban and other insurgents. This is where the Afghan and U.S. governments can help. A key starting point is security and justice. In some areas, local tribes and villages have already tried to resist the Taliban, but have been heavily outmatched. The solution should be obvious: They should be strongly supported.

This may include helping establish village-level "community watch" programs centered on the jirga, the legitimate governing institution in Pashtun areas. In some places, jirgas are composed primarily of tribal leaders, who adjudicate disputes and mete out justice. In others, they include religious and other figures. Finding ways for organizations like the Afghan army to support village-level forces, such as developing a quick reaction force when villages come under attack, would give the people a reason to ally with the central government.

Strengthening security from the bottom-up also helps solve the numbers problem in Afghanistan. Some studies, including the U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, argue that 20 security forces per 1,000 inhabitants may be required to win a counterinsurgency. But with an Afghan population of nearly 33 million, this translates into approximately 660,000 forces.

There will never be enough international or Afghan national forces to reach these levels. But that's okay. Stability in Afghanistan has only come when local communities provide the bulk of these numbers, not the central government or outside armies.

Some U.S. policy makers have pinned their hopes on negotiating with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. But this is unlikely to work with a range of senior leaders, who are hard-core ideologues and have retained a relationship with al Qaeda. A better option would be to focus U.S. and Afghan efforts at the local level by co-opting tribes and other local actors, and helping them protect their own villages. It's a strategy that has a track record of actually working in Afghanistan.

Seth G. Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, is author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan" (W.W. Norton).

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