By: Annette Brinckerhoff
In 2001 the United States set out to find Osama bin Laden. Seeking justice for the events of 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom engaged the Taliban in Afghanistan and democratization efforts for the war torn state became a priority to ensure national security. During the initial stages of the occupation, the United States had strong international and Afghan support. Afghani people, after decades of civil war, occupation, and extremist violence were ready to turn a new leaf in history. Parents wanted jobs, children wanted to go to school. The populous simply wanted to return to a way of life absent from the fear of drone strikes, sectarian violence, and military rule. This support allowed the United States to quickly “defeat” the Taliban within the first few months and declare victory in Afghanistan. With this false sense of victory western allies retreated from the situation from Afghanistan. Attention turned to Iraq and no one noticed the creeping return of the Taliban since Afghan’s instability left a power vacuum, which the Taliban easily filled. This second coming of the Taliban regained the Wests’s attention and U.S. troops continue to be stationed across the country.
So here we are again today. The United State’s time is coming to a close in Afghanistan with Obama announcing troop numbers to be at 5,000 by the end of 2016. Once again, there are distractions preventing a comprehensive exit strategy. ISIS is commanding the most attention in the region, Yemen is falling into chaos, domestically there is very little support for prolonged presence. Ghani has argued for extended presence of troops though it is highly unlikely that congress will authorize such action. So now we must understand the state of Afghanistan, to better understand the region.
Now, Afghanistan has reached a transition decade where the balance must be found between domestic autonomy, and international support and dependency. This is a particularly tricky question in a country where damaging power relationships have degraded the integrity of governance systems.
During the U.S. occupation, the military armed, payed, and supported war lords and their local militias to assist in the fight against the Taliban’s terrorism. In exchange, a blind eye was turned towards the corrupt and violent actions of these factions. This precedent is now being utilized by a weak national Afghan army.
Despite millions of dollars of financial support and significant training efforts by the United States, the Afghan military has been unable to provide security to its people, so they’ve turned to the old American militias and war lords for support. This dynamic does several things. The first is that it demonstrates the fragility of the Afghan army. With many of the soldiers high on weed, heroin, or opium, a muddled chain of command, and virtually no leadership the army doesn’t provide a legitimate source of security or stability. This in turn causes decreased trust in the government and a security void ready to be filled by the Taliban.
The alliance between the Afghan National Army and local militias and war lords brings an important cooperation between two armed units, which is important for national unity and helps maintain the support of powerful war lords for the central government. However, for most Afghans this alliance brings up memories of a civil war where U.S. backed war lords mercilessly fought each other over turf with no consideration for collateral loss. This perception is the most crucial in the struggle for Afghanistan’s long term security because it directly affects the popular opinion on the government. If the Afghan people see a government supporting corrupt war lords, and falling back into old patterns of tribal violence there is no reason for them to trust and support Ghani’s developing government. Without this support, a power vacuum is left open ready for the Taliban to offer security and governance.
On the other hand, without the support of local militias Ghani’s government would be unable to stand against Mullah Omar and his fighters. This dependence doesn’t only extend to local armed factions. Afghanistan relies on foreign aid and loans for 70% of their budget and the United States practically single handedly maintains the military by providing hardware, salaries, and training. This dependence stems out of a lack of a functioning economy. In a country where war has prevented normal trading practices and encouraged a brain-drain, the economy is stagnated without the infrastructure and professional force to get it back on track. So this crippling dependence on the United States and the rest of the developed world continues. Without it Afghanistan collapses, but relying on foreign entities challenged Afghanistan’s fundamental autonomy.
Without direct military involvement the United States can still maintain a powerful and positive role if applied right. Through private investment into small businesses, supporting entrepreneurship will reinvigorate the economy. In the past, reconstruction projects were given out via contracts to huge multi-national corporations. If instead, private actors on this side of the world set up small loans to individuals in Afghanistan to start construction companies, build electricity grids, and agricultural cooperatives. What this does is empower individuals with a stable pay check, personal security for their families, and the structural stability of everyday life. It gives support to the central government as one that can provide economic opportunities for its people and removes many of the incentives for supporting the Taliban.
Using political influence to affect domestic debate in Afghanistan is also critical. In a country who’s dialogue is largely dominated by corrupt and extremist voices, which don’t necessarily reflect popular opinion it is important to support Afghan policies which support human rights and individual security. What this means is allowing zero tolerance through incentives for harmful government action. Corruption, human rights abuses, and intolerance towards minorities from government, civilians, or religious leaders must be met with a strong judicial system. Strengthening systems which support the rule of law is vital for establishing a legitimate state. If there are no consequences for wrongful action, there is nothing to prevent it from happening again.
The United States didn’t win in Afghanistan, more pressing security concerns overwhelmed the agenda, and Afghan reconstruction proved to be a long, uphill battle. Military assistance hasn’t left a record to be repeated and a divided government doesn’t allow for a cohesive Afghan/American strategy. We must look now to private individuals with creative solutions to channel Afghani desire for a stable state into productive action. The war against the Taliban was “successful” on a hardware front with most fighters retreating to the border with Pakistan. But the war for Afghanistan’s long term stability free from religious extremism is in its most critical moment. There will not be another chance to get Afghanistan wrong again. The return of the Taliban would mean an increased influence and support for ISIS and the death of prospects for peace.