What intrigues me about Amir Taheri’s piece on Afghanistan is that the critics of the Bush administration’s approach seem to want to intensify the least effective aspects of the current plan, rather than looking at the approach Taheri counsels. They tend to dismiss Hamid Karzai as the “Mayor of Kabul” when in fact that is all an Afghan ruler can be. If the Obama administration seeks to increase the centralization of Afghanistan, in the way that the Soviet Union attempted, they will find themselves with a worsening security equation, and every tick of the ratchet towards central control will incite more response from the countryside. It is important to recognize that the relatively more peaceful areas of the country in the north are also the areas that have enjoyed the most local control. This is no coincidence.
It is ironic that initially Afghanistan was a model of success precisely because the United States worked with local tribes and proxy forces, augmenting them with critical intelligence and fires capabilities. We should have applied more of this model to Iraq from the onset, rather than waiting for several years and suffering thousands of casualties. (This is not hindsight — I wrote on this in NRO in February 2002, 13 months before the kickoff of Operation Iraqi Freedom.) General Petraeus, principal architect of the winning strategy in Iraq, understands that there are similar challenges in Afghanistan, and that a top-down centralized ruling architecture will not work in that country. One hopes that the new administration will not force the effort in Afghanistan in a direction that the Soviets tried to apply for 10 years that wound up crowning the demise of the Soviet Union with a humiliating defeat.