To turn the tide against insurgency in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has pursued a three-pillar strategy: First, it has used both carrots and sticks to secure Pakistan’s cooperation; second, it has sought to bolster Afghan government institutions; and, third, it has embarked on a military surge to defeat the Taliban.
However, Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai resorts to religious and nationalist rhetoric to avoid the hard work needed to deliver services to the populace and to create the political narrative necessary to justify the military mission. Washington, too, has failed to articulate to Afghan society the true aims of U.S. efforts.
Amidst this communications vacuum, conspiracy theories swirl. Some Afghans speculate that the United States implanted the Taliban in the country in order to harass Russia, China, and Iran. Others argue that the United States prolongs the war to test new weapons, destabilize central Asia, or maintain a stepping stone to Caspian oil reserves. The Pakistani establishment and its Afghan supporters believe the United States harbors a hidden agenda to destabilize the region in order to dismantle Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and thus have remained uncooperative in efforts to end the Taliban insurgency.
Afghans of all social strata perceive the huge gap between Kabul and Washington over good governance, development, corruption, military policy, and diplomacy. Only when it comes to the transition to full Afghan control does there appear to be a confluence of opinion, although it is unclear whether this is due to Afghan transition chief Ashraf Ghani’s public diplomacy or, more likely, NATO’s desperation to leave and Karzai’s desire to see NATO go.
While the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) can brag about its recent military success, that success will be unsustainable without Kabul’s cooperation. The White House has tried a number of strategies to pressure Karzai. After years of quiet diplomacy, President Obama’s White House has used bullhorn diplomacy to criticize Karzai publicly. Obama briefly suspended the two presidents’ regular video conferences. Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the centerpiece of American and European development efforts, have promoted provincial authority to undermine central power. Most recently, Washington has threatened to cut assistance if Karzai does not investigate corruption. None of these strategies, however, has persuaded Karzai to embrace good governance or cooperate with ISAF, perhaps because Karzai knows, despite American bluster, that he retains unconditional financial support.
The Obama administration has not tried the one strategy that will work, however: the reconstitution of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban constituency, both to recreate a political context for the NATO mission and to force Karzai to choose sides between the Taliban and Afghanistan. The anti-Taliban constituency is not an ethnic alliance against the south, but rather a political umbrella for all Afghans who seek a pluralistic society and oppose the Talibanization of the society as part of a so-called reconciliation deal. Perhaps 80 percent of Afghans oppose the Taliban. Such an umbrella will be Afghans’ best representative in any talks with the Taliban, since Karzai and his High Peace Council lack credibility among Afghans who experienced the Taliban’s oppressive rule. Acquiescence to the Taliban’s return has demoralized society and fuels further conspiracy theories about America’s true intentions. Karzai’s embrace of Taliban rehabilitation also deprives ISAF and NATO of vital political support in Afghanistan.
An anti-Taliban constituency can mobilize society around the grand strategy of a prosperous Afghanistan largely immune from Talibanization. The massive flow of international aid and ISAF support for Karzai undercuts efforts to solidify an anti-Taliban constituency which would best promote Afghanistan’s interests, justify the American investment in Afghanistan, and protect the national security of both countries. The massive flow of Western assistance to Karzai — not to mention discretionary cash assistance from our ambitious neighbors — has eviscerated civil society and promoted a binary choice between Karzai and political marginalization. That nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, America now allows its money to, at least indirectly, support the group responsible for those attacks shocks Afghans and should shock all Americans. It is time to embrace true change, rather than stumble along a failed path to 2014 — the year in which NATO hopes to withdraw forces, and the year of the next Afghan presidential election.
— Amrullah Saleh led Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security from 2004 to 2010.