Not Mayor, Not Monster, Just Muffing It

by Joel Hafvenstein on 10/1/2010 · 35 comments

Remember when hardly a week went by without some article in the Western press referring to Hamid Karzai as the “mayor of Kabul”?  It was one of those exasperating sound bites that thrived for years despite being much more pithy than accurate.  Sure, the authority of the president’s office wasn’t sufficient to disarm warlords, purge corruption, or end disputes by fiat.  But from quite early on, Karzai’s sweeping patronage powers affected every part of the country, thanks to the centralized constitution and his spotty but significant influence over Western aid money and troops.  Karzai was capable of using those powers with remarkable boldness and tactical acumen – especially in summer 2004, when he kicked Fahim off the presidential ticket and dislodged Ismael Khan from Herat.  From that point if not earlier, anyone who smirked about “the mayor of Kabul” simply wasn’t paying attention.

These days almost everyone agrees on Karzai’s relevance and patronage powers – as an insurmountable obstacle to the Afghan reconstruction.  I have a degree of sympathy with Josh’s recent article where he argues that this new conventional wisdom is also an overstatement.  The President is not a monster; sayke’s riposte goes too far in attributing the murder and fraud of Karzai’s circle to the man himself.  And I agree with Josh that the “blame Karzai” meme crucially overlooks:

  • the dysfunctional institutional framework the West accepted for Afghanistan, especially the over-centralized presidency and partyless democracy;
  • the Western deployment of aid and military power in clumsy, destructive ways that have profoundly discredited the Afghan government;
  • the West’s predilection for lavishing money, arms, and prestige on the very warlords and kingpins that we berate Karzai for empowering; and
  • the bleak prospects that any Afghan President, with the best will and vision in the world, would face in governing so damaged a country.

 All that said: when we set aside the question of how we got here and start looking for ways forward, I still can’t see how a Karzai-led government is consistent with a stable Afghanistan.  Thanks to the constitution we wrote/acquiesced in, the Afghan presidency is an indispensable institution.  We can’t start pretending that Karzai’s just a mayor and try to reform the government around him.  He’s amply demonstrated his capacity to derail electoral, constitutional, and judicial reforms, as well as anti-corruption and counter-narcotics measures.   

I don’t think Karzai has shot down these efforts because he’s a mafioso.  He’s following a vision for stable government that relies on keeping himself at the helm and as many powerful people as possible on board.  He won’t dispense with thugs like Dostum even when they give him every excuse to, because he knows he may find them politically necessary down the road.  He reportedly believes that “his two greatest mistakes as president were the removals of Sher Muhammad Akhundzada and Marshal Fahim.”  Karzai’s not going to allow a genuinely rule-of-law based system, because it would alienate the former commanders and nouveaux riches businessmen whom he sees as key to controlling Afghanistan.

For a long time, Karzai’s pragmatic, conciliatory, inclusive style of governance was cast as a strength.  His tactics for winning and retaining support across the spectrum of the Afghan political elite have undeniably succeeded in building a kind of stability.  Haseeb Humayoon’s coolly descriptive analysis of the 2009 election correctly highlights the breadth of Karzai’s support base — including not just the warlords, ethnocrats, and crooks of lore, but much of the technocratic, educated class beloved of foreign donors.  The Karzai team is tactically smart, and it can probably keep on coopting or outmaneuvering rivals to sustain its grip on power.

One thing it plainly can’t do well is govern.  Patrimonial systems rarely do much to help the people at the bottom of the pyramid, even with muscular leadership, and Karzai has been unwilling to get tough with even the most brazenly predatory and self-enriching figures in his coalition.  He doesn’t hold his governors and cabinet members accountable for bad governance (unless he also suspects them of disloyalty).  It would never be easy to create a government that gave Afghans security, justice, and jobs.  Karzai’s unconditional big-tent governance strategy makes it all but impossible.

Meanwhile, he’s in a legitimacy contest with the insurgency – and the Taliban understand the nature of the fight they’re in.  They don’t need to win a single pitched battle with the ANA (let alone NATO).  They just need to keep out-governing the government, especially on the issues that are most important to ordinary Afghans.  They have a vastly better track record at crime prevention and creating security than the ANP.  The insurgent shadow courts are more credible than the corrupt government ones.  The Taliban not only have a code of conduct – they have ombudsmen who receive and investigate public complaints about commanders who violate the code.  They’ve got a sophisticated propaganda machine repeating that they’re the legitimate government of Afghanistan.   And they’ve been very effective at killing off the Kabul government’s ground team (woleswals, pro-government maliks and mullahs). 

All this out-governing may not have made the insurgents popular – the Taliban will almost inevitably be more feared than loved – but it’s consolidated the space within which they’re tolerated, and at times welcomed.  Strategically, it’s at least as vital an asset as their Pakistan sanctuary.

So ignore all the gossip about whether or not he’s on drugs, legal or otherwise: the problem with Hamid Karzai is that his vision of stability and his strategy for achieving it are flawed.  It’s simply not the basis for a government that can defeat the insurgency. 

With respect to Mr. Novak and others who think they can talk Karzai into a different strategy, I reckon that the president and his inner circle have too much invested in the current approach.  With respect to everyone who blames the constitution and belatedly calls for government to be devolved to the provinces and districts (hello, ASG): you’ll get a new, decentralized constitution over Karzai’s dead body.  With respect to the righteous wrath of sayke, I don’t see how an American coup at this point gets us anything but an illegitimate puppet government even less capable of delivering stable governance.

So forget Switzerland.  We are simply not going to see a stable, insurgency-free Afghanistan at the end of this tunnel.  America will continue to subsidize Karzai and his motley coalition, in the hopes that like Najibullah, he’ll be able to hang on in Kabul even after the troops are gone.  The Karzai government will never reach the “position of strength” from which we’d like to negotiate with the Taliban.  Instead, I’m guessing we’ll try to freeze the conflict at a level of violence which, while high, will be tolerable to Western interests and minimize our loss of face.  The losers will be the majority of Afghans, whose country will remain a wound for the foreseeable future, stuck with the system we’ve given them.

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Boris Sizemore October 1, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Joel…Great analysis and put together a lot of the discussion.

Speaking for Josh Novak, who is a good friend, I learned he is getting some good feed back from Kabul. Omer Daud Zei, another friend had an interview recently where he mentioned some of the Novak Paper’s points.

ISAF is also reviewing it for the first time as the Afghans have sent it over to them.

Also the new WJ post election has potential for some new blocs, to include the Abdullah opposition. All is not black. Some of the members have also received the Novak plan and view it positively.

I would ask everyone. Which country looks better today-Afghanistan or Pakistan? I would put my vote in for Afghanistan, Pakistan is blowing up.

There is a long way to go. Josh Foust outlined what we are up against, but it does boil down to working with Karzai. In the final analysis we sink or fall with him now. Let’s hope some good comes out of this, however far off because there is vast middle in the country that deserves much better.

Can they be reformed? Even Josh Novak would say it is a long shot, but at one million dollars a year per soldier, definitely worth analyzing at the upper levels. Could not hurt trying to turn the situation. We are wasting billions folks. Nothing to lose, trying something new.

The Steve Coll piece at the end really says the same thing. Karzai is critical to the whole effort. He has been praised and now demonized as Joshua Foust points out. But, we need him to perform and the Novak plan at least is about trying and using Afghan forces to fight the war and getting everyone on the same page. Hard but not totally impossible. It is sensible at least.

The ANSF will in the end have to take this challenge on. Better to do it with a focus on unity and a resurgent leadership. Why not? There is nothing to lose. Things are already bad enough, cannot get much worse or more insecure.

We are muffing it for sure. But like Little League just takes a few hits until you get the hang of it. Experience counts, and that is what Joshua Foust notes all the time. The Novak plan is based on experience and knowledge of the players -it is worth a shot.

The question is not if it can be done or tried, but whether the “experts” that have produced this disconnect with the Afghans will allow it to be tried. Or perhaps the forces against success are now set in stone.

Only time will tell and we have about 5 years, even in the worst case Najibullah II scenario which is essentially what you have described and is a very possible outcome.

Pakistan may not even last that long before it explodes. This will prevent the ASG-ISI plan from ever going anywhere. There are not that many other real plans out there.

Maybe the only choice permitted is COIN and only COIN but we know where that is going now. Lets try something new.

sayke October 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm

mr. sizemore –

i’m deeply sympathetic to this analysis, but given that even steve coll calls karzai “self-isolating” and compares him to king lear, how are we supposed to expect that he can built genuine national unity? the novak plan puts a lot of faith where faith has been put previously, to little effect so far… i guess i just wonder – what makes you think it would be different this time?

Joel Hafvenstein October 2, 2010 at 8:44 am

Hi Boris, thanks for your thoughts. I couldn’t agree more about the vast middle that deserves better. I fear that we’ve alienated so many of them to so great an extent that Daudzai is right: NATO soldiers won’t win hearts and minds. On the other hand, for the Karzai government to start winning hearts and minds on a meaningful scale, it would have to change its spots to an extent I find implausible.

So with respect to everyone still trying to find a winning policy combination for Afghanistan, I think that game’s done. The 2009 elections essentially sealed the outcome of the NATO-led reconstruction of Afghanistan. As NATO countries start to wind down their involvement, their policy from this point forward can do degrees of harm or good, but will not change the overall momentum of the country.

It’s now necessary to think about what the next phase looks like: strong insurgency, weak but persistent government, India, China, Iran, and Pakistan playing roles equally or more significant than the West.

CostOfWar October 1, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Great analysis, Joel. There are better ways of explaining the situation in Afghansitan than calling Karzai a corrupt, incompetent maniac and spitting grand accusations without much evidence (Sayke). You have showed one of those ways here

Joel Hafvenstein October 1, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Thanks, CostOfWar. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog, btw.

I should emphasize that while I disagree with some of sayke’s analysis (and his conclusion that a coup might make matters better), I share his anger and outrage at how thoroughly Karzai has squandered the resources and goodwill entrusted to him by both the Afghan people and his Western sponsors. Sure, I’m more cautious than sayke in attributing certain crimes to Karzai himself, but Karzai’s protection and enabling of criminals remains unquestionably appalling.

Overall, like many who have worked in Afghanistan, I am profoundly disappointed in a President who had the potential for great leadership but whose bad judgement and paranoia have ultimately contributed to his country’s relapse into violence and chaos.

sayke October 1, 2010 at 8:08 pm

costofwar – perhaps i should have stressed that i actually see him as a tragic figure, possessed of a certain interpersonal genius on the one hand, but invested in a dangerously backfiring style of “governance”-via-corruption on the other. i don’t think he’s a maniac. i think he’s got serious issues, and is in way over his head… like the ambo said, an inadequate strategic partner. as such, i don’t see how anyone can support strategies that depend on him being one.

i mean, it’s one thing to hope that he will become one, but hope is not a plan. let us consider alternative plans, in case continuing to rely on karzai goes intolerably awry – as it could in a million subtle ways. doing that, though, implies having a sense of what “intolerably awry” looks like. i think we passed that threshold years ago. what does your threshold look like?

Brett October 1, 2010 at 1:59 pm

With respect to the righteous wrath of sayke, I don’t see how an American coup at this point gets us anything but an illegitimate puppet government even less capable of delivering stable governance.

A coup at this point sounds like a recipe for several years’ worth of intense instability as the top position settles. It gives me vibes of what happened in South Vietnam after the US got rid of Diem in 1964.

Don Anderson October 1, 2010 at 2:20 pm

This is a another viewpoint on all the other plans floating around. Most of them are just insane. ASG-I would not call it insane, but it is “determined ignorance.”

So what else do we have?

Pres. Obama is supposed to be reviewing the options now. COIN or nothing, Petreaus or Nothing. Najibullah or nothing. Drone em back to the Stone age or nothing.

Is this all we have after 10 years and 600 Billion Dollars?

I mean it is hard to believe that ASG is the best 1000 think tanks can put together, and it is so full of holes a rat could go through it.

Do you wonder why President Obama is desperate to do the transition as soon as he can?

Hell, at least Novak tried to put something together, may not work but at least he tried. I say give it a shot. I can’t see anything else that is worth a damn out there now.

Steve Maghribi October 1, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Joel..Thanks for the write up.

But this is just Sayke light.

Everything is lost. Karzai cannot change. They are doomed. Nothing is ever going to get better. The Taliban that Afghans loathe, and were so happy to see leave, is now appearing like a good option.

Really? You actually believe that Afghans are dying to join the Taliban and that most of the fighters are not coming in from Pakistan? Go say that to a Panshiri or a young Afghan, or a woman, or a Hazara.

Or that Karzai, who Joshua Foust has pointed out, has used basically traditional Afghan patronage skills, is so bad that everyone is just dying to have the one eyed Emir back?

This is cultural mirror imaging. We discuss everything as if it applied to us. Patronage is how this society works, and how it worked most of this century.

Patronage via elections is exactly what Steve Coll was talking about. That is -the BEST we can expect is that Afghanistan is like the Philippines or Colombia. Both are patronage based corruption high countries. That is the best target.

Take away the ISI and Saudi Funding and the Taliban has nothing.

They are not the desired end state for the vast majority of Afghans. Do you think if the Taliban were not assassinating villagers that the Marjah operation would have failed or taken so long?

That whole section about competitive government is illogical. The Taliban do not win by establishing government, they win by making government impossible. This is what they have done in over 60% of the country. There was no government under the Taliban. None. Mullah Omar kept the treasury of the Nation under his bed.

Institutions take more than 5 years to develop. The problem here is that without the insurgent invasion, Afghanistan today does appear more like the Philippines or Colombia or Bolivia or other countries with patronage based, corruption high societies. As long as they are getting attacked it is hard to develop them.

The Corrupt Afghan government only gets 20% of the aid to be corrupt with. The rest is given out by the Foreigners.

You are mixing things up. The institutional development is being challenged by the insurgency and that is why things look so bleak. The Taliban is not seen as an option by most people they are being terrorized into compliance.

The patronage system would work, not well, but would work without the terror that is coming from the East. ISAF has not brought security and that is what is fouling up the machine. If there was security, the system would work just like it does in all these other far from perfect countries.

Joel Hafvenstein October 1, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Hi Steve – yep, on most of the points you outline, I am much closer to sayke’s analysis than to yours. If anything, I am more of a pessimist than sayke – “sayke heavy”.

I’m not saying Karzai can not change. But I see no reason to think he will, and I think the last few years have plainly shown how little leverage the West has over him. I agree that if there weren’t an insurgency, Karzai’s weak legitimacy would be much less of a problem. But that’s not the scenario we’re facing, is it?

The majority of Afghans still loathe the Taliban, but across much of the country the Karzai government is even more unpopular than the insurgency. Sure, Afghans expect the government to be a patronage pyramid, but they also expect their government to provide certain very basic public goods – security, a judiciary, job opportunities. They see clearly how corruption keeps the current government from providing those goods. They remember how much safer they were under the loathed Taliban.

The insurgency is not a Pakistani movement (though of course it benefits greatly from ISI support and from sanctuary in Pakistani Pakhtunkhwa). Most of the young men who are dying for the Taliban are Afghan Pashtuns. The grievances for which they fight are local grievances. The anti-Taliban passion of Panjsheris and Hazaras does not change that fact.

sayke October 1, 2010 at 8:29 pm

mr. hafvenstein –

excellent analysis – it’s a battle for legitimacy, in which the moral high ground is the most strategically valuable asset in play. “karzai’s vision of stability and his strategy for achieving it are flawed. it’s simply not the basis for a government that can defeat the insurgency.” that’s the takeaway, and one of the core dilemmas faced by the international community. the other is that pakistan is at war…

but to clarify – why does everyone thing i was suggesting a coup? i mean, that shouldn’t be off the table a priori, but even i would only advocate it under certain truly extreme circumstances – like karzai joining the taliban. in that case he should be treated as such. so be it.

in general, i’m merely calling for a wide-ranging exploration of options. i won’t discuss any such options in detail now except for the simplest: counting the freakin’ votes. the fact that karzai systematically steals elections is something we can easily use if we try, and is a basis for justly removing him from power. why shouldn’t we do so? shouldn’t we have done so in 2009? didn’t we have the perfect excuse? weren’t lots of people saying we should? why shouldn’t we consider not doing so one of the largest mistakes of the war?

Joel Hafvenstein October 2, 2010 at 7:49 am

Hi, sayke – and please, do call me Joel unless I’ve pissed you off. I agree that we should be looking at a full range of options, and I hope that someone can see a better way out than I can.

On the coup thing, we may have a slight difference in terminology; when you talk about “removing him from power,” I would call that a coup, whether or not it’s done justly. There’s no constitutional provision for Karzai’s foreign backers to sack him for election fraud. Hence, however good our justification, it’s a coup. And that’s how most Afghans would see it.

Yes, if NATO were ever going to stage a coup, the best time would have been in 2009, as the election theft was underway. Give Karzai a hard ultimatum, declare a state of emergency with some kind of cobbled-together unity government if he didn’t buckle. I understand why NATO didn’t do it — it would have taken us back to square one, in a much worse environment than we faced in 2002, with a government whose initial legitimacy would have been far less than Karzai’s in 2002, and with Western voters already unwilling to tolerate the financial and human cost of our Afghan campaign. It would not have had much chance of a good outcome, and it would have removed any likelihood of drawing down troops or spending in Afghanistan for the next decade.

But we should recognize that by allowing Karzai & Co to steal the 2009 election, we gave up whatever slim chance we had of a successful COIN campaign and a stable Afghanistan (in the next decade). From that point on, all the likely outcomes were bad ones, especially for ordinary Afghans.

sayke October 1, 2010 at 8:48 pm

mr. hafvenstein –

another quick note: i understand how you would prefer to refrain from attributing the murder and fraud of karzai’s circle to the man himself – but the cossacks work for the tsar. let us not mince words about where the buck stops. his office wields enormous power, and any attempt to dilute its responsibility should be called out as the BS it is.

CostOfWarBlog October 1, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Sayke, I come to respect parts of your analysis, then again you stress on broad judgments like this that makes me question again. “The cossacks work for the tsar”: this is simply not true in this case. Karzai, more than anyone, wishes that was the case. The issue at heart of the mess here is that everyone is working for himself and Karzai’s government has very little power over them, especially when it comes to corruption. It is easy to deal with corrupt practices in a system when checks and balances have been developed over a couple centuries. but it is damn hard to do that when you have little to no legal infrastructure in place. And, repeatedly, you tend to forget that about Karzai’s Afghanistan.

sayke October 2, 2010 at 5:20 am

costofwarblog – thanks for keeping an open mind, at the very least =) you’re right to point out that karzai faces very real constraints in this respect… but what do you think fazal ahmad faqiryar would say about whether the cossacks work for the tsar? this isn’t just my analysis here – i’m echoing a perspective widely held by afghans and internationals alike, that just doesn’t seem to be getting the currency here that it has on the ground…

it’s weird – if we complain about that afghan government’s incredibly centralized structure gives the office of the president far too much power, how can we then complain that karzai has no power over corruption? wouldn’t occam’s razor suggest that, for whatever (possibly good) reason, he just doesn’t want to?

Joel Hafvenstein October 2, 2010 at 8:04 am

Hi Sayke – I agree with you that Karzai has more power over governors and cabinet members than he has been willing to use. I also agree that this implicates him, morally and politically, in the crimes committed further down the chain of command. And it makes me angry, too.

But I still think it goes too far to say that he manages the opium trade or assassinates political competition. That really makes it sound like the problem is his personal villainy; I would say the problem is his flawed vision for managing Afghanistan.

Toryalay Shirzay October 2, 2010 at 12:19 am

Karzai should have been brought to trial for the elections fraud in 2009. Whoever decided not to is guilty of dereliction of duty.Allowing Karzai to grab the high office set a very bad precedence for Afghanistan and diminished the credibility of the US/NATO.Either the US/NATO were given bad advice or they didn’t really care.
Make no mistake: Pakistan,Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil Shieks control the Taliban and since they are the most vicious attack dogs,they will take over Kabul once the ISAF exit the country.Whoever think otherwise do not understand the mindset of the islamic fascist pushtoon Taliban.

Bernard October 2, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Obtain the views of Shirzay Toryalay not participate, yet do not agree on some issues. Yes, I think Karzai in 2009 elections would have to go to court.

Shah Mojadedi October 3, 2010 at 1:58 am

This all a strange combination of ideas about Karzai-A little Dr. Stranglove, A little Imperial Perspective(those ignorant natives just don’t understand-I am so angry) and a little strange fixation on the the man.

It is a combination of:

A. Absolute ignorance of the mores and collaborative spirit of the Afghan jirga, where all parties have power relative to actual support networks and historical tribal relationship. This limits Karzai’s power all the time. Each is treated as an equal in Afghan discussions.

B. Hubris-Those natives just don’t understand-But we do

C. Taliban Propaganda-Joel H has swallowed hook line and sinker the noble story of the Taliban. They are not even half as powerful as is made of them.

D. Not understanding the pressure of 40+ countries exert daily on Karzai and his NEED to work towards independence.

E. Scapegoat Karzai not the lack of security and foreign influence. The Pakistanis and Saudis do not fund this Taliban, they are fighting for local grievances and $10 a day. Total Lack of knowledge here.

F. This is just ASG Light….and paranoia heavy..Grow up guys, I can tell you worked in Afghanistan and came back with some real problems. You know nothing of Afghans

Joel Hafvenstein October 4, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Thanks for your response, Shah Mojadedi. I agree that non-natives like me are disadvantaged in understanding what’s going on – and yet we keep trying. For what it is worth, what I’ve written is based on criticisms and analysis from Afghans, not just my fellow hubristic imperialists.

Many of my Afghan friends, especially the non-Pashtun ones, would struggle with your claim that the mores of the traditional jirga still describe the dynamics of national politics in Afghanistan. Do you really think all parties have a fair allocation of power and come to the President as (roughly) equals? I certainly agree with you that Karzai’s authority over local power-brokers is limited, but I don’t think it’s by anything as noble as the collaborative spirit of the jirga.

I also respectfully suggest that (like many complacent Afghan leaders, both in the 1990s and today) you are underestimating the appeal of the Taliban. Of course the Taliban still receive Pakistani and Saudi funding. That has never been sufficient explanation for their success. Hekmetyar was receiving more external funding than the Taliban in 1994, but he never swept across the country as they did. The insurgency today is expanding not primarily due to Pakistani money, but because it’s following a smarter strategy than the government and its Western sponsors. Reducing the Taliban to a foreign invader movement is great propaganda but bad analysis.

Of course Karzai needs to be independent of his foreign patrons. I don’t think the Afghan government should be accountable to Washington, I think it should be accountable to ordinary Afghans. In how many parts of the country is that the case? In how many parts of the country can villagers rely on the police to protect them from crime, or the courts to settle legal disputes quickly and fairly? I don’t blame Karzai for the fact that the police and judiciary have been captured by commanders and criminal networks. I wouldn’t expect him to be able to miraculously fix the situation. But I think that as long as he remains so focused on keeping the support of the commanders, he will not be capable of improving security and justice for ordinary Afghans. That error of judgment will continue to strengthen the insurgency.

anan October 4, 2010 at 3:13 pm

“suggest that (like many complacent Afghan leaders, both in the 1990s and today) you are underestimating the appeal of the Taliban.” Perhaps we are all using sloppy language. When you say “Taliban” which “Taliban” from which district are you refering too? Which Taliban faction are you referring too? There are many of them and they are different from each other. Some of them have more legitimacy than others.

There isn’t nearly enough attention given to internal Taliban dynamics.

Mullah Omar centric QST seems to be weakening while TTP, TNSM, Siraj, IJU/IMU, Iyas Kashmiri’s Lashkar al Zil, Hekmatyur, LeT seem to be in strenghtening in pockets of the east and north.

Overall there seem to be more, better quality, better lead, better equipped and better funded international Taliban in the east and north than ever before. And increasingly they are attacking ANSF + ISAF in company or even battalion sized engagements. Increasingly with greater effectiveness. Some of them even fight similar to Pakistani Army special forces. [Which suggests that they are lead or embedded advised by retired Pakistani Army.]

The Mullah Omar centric Quetta Shura Taliban seems to be suffering pretty heavily in Helmand at the hands of 30 K ISAF + 1 entire ANA Corps + something like 5 K AUP [my estimate] + 2 ANCOP combat bns.

Suspect that Mullah Omar centric QST will come under serious pressure in Kandahar province. [12 K ANA including at least 10 combat ANA battalions + 5 K provincial AUP + 6 ANCOP combat battalions + 15 K ISAF of which about 3 to 3.5 K are Candians and more than 10 K US Army with a smattering of others.] Whether Mullah Omar centric QST will hold out better in Kandahar than Helmand remains to be seen. I think Kandahar will be tougher than Helmand. But it is probable that Mullah Omar centric QST will be weakened relative to other Taliban factions.

203 ANA Corps + their ISAF seem to be holding the line against Haqqani in Loya Paktia, where the surge in Siraj fighters (which appear to fight in integrated Afghan and international units) is matched by increased kinetic initiative by 1-203 ANA and RC-East/CJTF 101.

However, Siraj appears to be taking over large parts of southern Logar. He increasingly attacks large ISAF/ANA formations with rising effectiveness. Taliban [which ones?] have much more initiative and momentum in Wardak than a few years ago. Although it is unclear where the momentum is in recent months.

Taliban [increasingly international Taliban or internationally linked Taliban] have the momentum in Nursitan, Kunar, Laghman and Nangarhar. Increasingly fighting in large units with remarkable technical competence.

The Northern ANSF and ISAF believe that there is a rising international role in and contribution to the fight in the North. To clarify what “international” means they clearly specify that they have no evidence of Iranian involvement with the Taliban in the North.

“The insurgency today is expanding not primarily due to Pakistani money, but because it’s following a smarter strategy than the government ”

They are also fighting a lot better. Anecdotally their direct and indirect fire support [mortars, light artillery] is becoming more accurate. The war in large pockets is becoming more kinetic, and more large unit on large unit.

It is critically important that locals see their ANSF decisively win more of these large unit battles. Or else, why would they risk openly supporting the Afghan Government and ANSF?

You are right that the Afghan judicial system and police force is a huge problem. In part because the intenational community has refused to fund sufficient long term police officer and legal attourney training for ANP and MoI civilians.

Probably ANP officers need 18 months to 2 years training to properly be able to read, interpret and enforce the rule of law. [1 year if they are college graduates to begin with, but how many ANP are already college graduates?] They are only getting 6 months training now. ANP NCOs get 14 weeks training. ANP enlisted are suppose to get 6 weeks training although many have less than that. Some one third of all serving ANP have no training of any kind.

To increase the lenght of ANP officer training cycles to 2 years, MoI needs to train 4 times as many ANP officers at any given time compared to the status quo. [To still generate the existing number of projected ANP officers.] NTM-A and Major General Pattang’s ANP training command lacks the funding, trainers and facilities to do this. [One stop gap measure is to train large numbers of ANP officers outside Afghanistan in the short run. Turkey, UAE, Jordan, India, China, mainland USA, Indonesia, Malaysia are some options. Could Egypt and Azerbaijan help with this?]

It is unrealistic to expect a judicial system to function if the ANP training command and NTM-A is unwilling to fund long term college education and training for large numbers of ANP [some of which can be diverted to the attourney track.]

Afghanistan has a massive shortage of judges, prosecutors, and advocates with more than 12th grade education.

Joel Hafvenstein October 7, 2010 at 8:10 am

anan, thanks for your comment – it’s enlightening as always.

I’m going to keep opening myself up for disagreement and ridicule by saying that when I said “Taliban” I primarily had in mind the southern groups associated with the Quetta shura. This is not to challenge your claim that they’ve been fighting less effectively than the Eastern groups. But as I said in my post, I don’t think this thing is going to be won or lost through pitched battles.

I agree with you that military advances for either ANSF or insurgent groups are significant; but ultimately, I’ve drunk enough of the COIN koolaid to believe that it’s going to come down to governance in the end. And pace the Afghan commenters on this thread, the QST is outperforming Karzai on that front all over the south, whatever blows they’re taking on the battlefield.

anan October 7, 2010 at 10:59 am

Southern Afghan Mullah Omar Centric QST. Helpful clarification. They have more legitimacy and popular support in the South than other Taliban groups do in the North and East. Generally, Mullah Omar QST is being degraded and sidelined by other Taliban groups in the East and the North. You probably already know about how Hekmatyur mauled QST in several large Northern Afghanistan engagements. Other Taliban seem to be more subtly taking over the movement in most of Afghanistan outside the South. In the west, most of the Taliban are not Mullah Omar QST according to the 10.1.2010 briefing by RC-West’s commander. Siraj Haqqani has even started to move into Zabul. How long do you think before Mullah Omar centric QST is a smaller part of the insurgency in Zabul than Siraj?

Military performance matters more in the short run. Outgoverning matters more in the medium and long term. Hekmatyur didn’t “outgovern” Mullah Omar centric QST in the North. He “killed” them.

Afghanistan is several wars at the same time.

In the South, Mullah Omar Centric QST increasingly avoids even platoon sized attacks. In Helmand, they almost always attacking in very small groups. This is a COIN fight, where outgoverning is very important.

However, in places where the Taliban frequently hits hard in effective company and battalion level offensives; that is a conventional kinetic fight [similar to Hezbollah/IDF in 2006 or Kargil between India and the Taliban in 1999.] Much of Afghanistan is more a conventional kinetic fight than COIN.

Am I naive to think that the first priority is to mall the Taliban in large scale engagements, ideally with the ANSF since that damages Taliban morale more? Once the Taliban is reduced to small scale attacks, then focus on development?

By this metric, the Taliban no longer has significant capability to launch large scale attacks in Helmand and Kandahar. The focus in those two provinces should be governance. [And to keep massed Taliban formations from launching attacks.]

Be very curious to see your response to this briefing by Lindy Cameron:

She leads the Helmand PRT and is responsible for all civilians, economic aid, and governance assistance on the part of the international community in Helmand.

What do you think about her strategy of outgoverning Mullah Omar centric QST?

Joel Hafvenstein October 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm

anan, just a quick note: thanks for the thoughtful and informative response. After I’ve read Lindy Cameron’s comments more carefully and checked in with some Afghan friends in the south, I’ll try to put together my own response — but in a new post, so this conversation doesn’t get buried in a long-dead comment trail.

Shah Mojadedi October 3, 2010 at 11:25 pm

FYI on the Novak Plan. I called home to Kabul and the village. Mr. Novak and his Father(RIP) are very well respected amongst the Eastern Pashtun tribes where they have the most solid and respectable contacts. Whether he can enter the Presidential Palace and work miracles no one knows, but he gets a green light from the right kind of people.

Shah Mojadedi October 5, 2010 at 12:06 am

Joel-Thanks but you are still way off….If you want to talk about what Americans like you THINK, that is fine, but your knowledge of Afghans and what is going on is off.

A. Jirga. Believe or not, there is still a very respectful fashion that leaders are dealt with. There is no hierarchy other than as I as said the powerbase and the tribal background. President Obama gets more of a “do what I say” than any Afghan would ever dare. Honor, respect and listening skills make an Afghan leader only first among equals. This is an Afghan trait and includes non Pashtuns. It is just how we do things. You need to make your point slowly, with a lot of discussion. Your picture is off. If any Afghan would dare to do things you want Karzai to do, there would be constant fighting amongst everyone all the time. Honor is important, and we avoid pushing the line. Thus it is a slow discussion and change.

The 1990s is a long time ago. I worked with Dr. Abdullah in the election and we had many Pashtuns supporting us. You should plan on going back to Afghanistan and spending more time with Afghans this time. It would help. I do not even like Karzai, but when I see this kind of lack of knowledge, I felt I needed to respond.

B. I still laugh about your Taliban portrayal. Believe me, most Afghan families are so big we all have relatives that have joined the Taliban or know the Taliban. Also remember we have multiple contacts in Pakistan so we can always find out what is going on.

The ISAF always works against itself, if there was more communication and less hubris, things would change. Your portrayal is just like reading the NYT or Washington post. Simple without knowledge.

Have you ever taked to a Taleb or a Haqqani or a member of the HIG-Joel? I know you have not. Do you speak the language? No.

Don’t you consider this when you say things?

This is a big part of the problem. To know Afghans takes generations we do not open up unless we know you for a long time. Trust and Honor is essential.

There are very very few Americans who would have this contact since most of them left in the 1990s. Very few were there. That is why I was surprised that Mr. Novak is known at all. But they have a generational relationship, so we accept them. They are still foreigners but are considered friends. If they go out to the villages they will be protected.

Joel…you will not be protected in the villages as you do not have the tribal support. Plus you are an instant expert. One or two years and you know everything. There are many of these.

We very rarely claim westerners as life long friends that we must defend. We are very nationalistic and maybe xenophobic so we are hard to reach.

The Taliban is far far from the fantasy in your head that their propaganda has made them seen. This you need to revisit. We have problems, but your analyis Joel is off. I am glad to see this Registan site. Thanks for all your work.

Adnan Kakar October 5, 2010 at 12:33 am

I am another Afghan who agrees with Shah. This site sometimes makes me laugh. Joel H. study more please. Very funny look at the Taliban.

Your comment about the police is funny. We never needed police in the villages. We watch ourselves. Crime is in the urban areas, they have police. We resolve our small problems without Government.

No one understands what the Americans want, I am not even sure they do. Do you know any Afghans or just the ones that say what you want to hear for money? Please review this, it as if you you just say what you want to say without any focus on reality.

Are you so concerned about Afghans? Then go there and show us then maybe you can find out what is going on.

Joel Hafvenstein October 5, 2010 at 3:50 am

Hi Adnan, thanks for your comment. The villages where I used to work in Helmand, Badakhshan, and Jawzjan were highly vulnerable to crime on the roads and extortion/theft by local armed groups. In Helmand, everyone commented that during the Taliban time, there were no criminal checkpoints on the roads and no theft in the villages. In all three provinces, the people I met were upset that the ANP not only failed to prevent theft and extortion, but were generally seen to contribute to it. That’s what I was referring to in terms of crime.

Don Anderson October 5, 2010 at 12:55 am

The comment about Hekmaytar was off. More of the “story line.”

The West did not give money to the 7 main Jihadi groups. The Pakistanis controlled the funds. Yes, Hekymaytar was a favorite, but the funds came from Zia Ul Haq.

The Taliban suddenly appeared when the Pakistanis changed their champion. There are stories of Pakistani advisors leading the units, some of which we are hearing now again.

No one knows where the the Taliban got all the new weapons?
At first only Saudi Arabia and Pakistan even recognized the Taliban.

Authentic Afghan leaders were sold down the river, just like we are doing to Karzai today-again. I hope they can stand up this time for their country and not for the “US wants Pakistan to have a say” party line.

This heroic Taliban is a mistake. They are the tool of Saudi Arabia and the ISI, everyone knows it. They terrorize and abuse the farmers and no one is crazy about their justice either.

The police are also not welcome because in the end Afghans still only trust their tribal leaders and jirga. The Foreigners were so inexperienced that when the government was set up they never took this into consideration.

Multiple mistakes made again and again in one year increments as new “experts’ come and go.

Joel Hafvenstein October 7, 2010 at 8:37 am

Hi Don – in the 1990s, the Taliban were on a roll in Kandahar before they attracted Pakistani government support (the trucking mafia saw their potential before the ISI did). Sure, they wouldn’t have gone on to sweep the country in the same way without ISI funds and military resources; but the Pakistani government dumped Hekmetyar and embraced Mullah Omar because the latter was showing results.

Similarly, the 2000s insurgency was incubated in Pakistan, but it’s put down roots in Afghanistan and could now burn on without Pakistan’s support (though there’s no prospect of it having to do so any time soon).

It’s too simple and comforting to see the Taliban as a purely Pakistani creation and not recognize the ways they have won support or tolerance within Afghanistan by providing desperately needed public goods. As Daud Sultanzai has said of the insurgents, “They are very smart in choosing what tools they should use that society is looking for.” That is more important than the money and guns in explaining their successes.

Don Anderson October 5, 2010 at 12:57 am

But do let me add as in the paper by Novak…Now the baby tiger Taliban is poised to eat their Pakistani masters…but the Pakistanis are just figuring it out, too late..

Steve Maghribi October 5, 2010 at 4:54 am

Anan…good analysis, I can tell you put a lot of work into it.

Nangarhar and Jalalabad now is the make or break Province for the war. If Nangarhar is lost, everything goes.

Boris Sizemore October 5, 2010 at 5:43 am

I second that on Anan, he always makes good responses and knows a lot about the ANSF. This is going to be very important in the future.

Khalil Nouri October 11, 2010 at 1:39 am

Your analysis is convincing and I personally have thought about this for some time now. I finally realized that there is no other solution to this predicament but an Afghan solution. If there is an Afghan solution then the time is now prior to NATO and the U.S. start pulling out of Afghanistan.
To this cause, I have written a White Paper and like to share it with anyone who is interested. Please send me an email at:

–Restoring the Tribal Balance–
An Indigenous Solution for Peace in Afghanistan

Khalil Nouri

Steve Maghribi October 11, 2010 at 7:38 am

Linda Norgrove-(Josh was upset) was a A++++ person in Afghanistan. I spoke to some people in Kabul who knew her
from before. A++++ Big Loss.. Very Sad, and I am sorry too.

The last big rescue that I remember was last year, a brand new NYT reporter decided to go up to Kunduz. I was sitting in a hotel breakfast place and listening to him talk to his “handler” who was charging him like 100K to rent a house and assuring him that he had all the contacts for their trip.

He was asking questions like “do they speak dari or pashtu in the villages?” and “where is the hot night spot?” Never questioned the crazy rates he was getting charged.

I sat there, thinking to myself….”this guy is going to get killled” or get someone else killled”

Sure enough he was in the newspaper within a few weeks captured and an Afghan co hostage was shot during the rescue.

Apparently they just captured/killed the local commander in Kunduz who captured him.

Crazy situation. The NYT I think has got two or three kidnaps already…They need to send some people who have long term relationships there now. It is a tough place…2002 is over. So saying I had a tour there in 2005 does no good. This is 2010 and it is a real war now with new rules. Actually it has been bad a long time, it is just now people are waking up in the NGO world.

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