Yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion with some heavy weights. From left to right: Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Richard Vague (of the New America Foundation), Paul Pillar, former DASD for South Asia James Clad, and… well, me. Honestly, I didn’t quite feel like I belonged, and you can see in the video of the event (my comments are about 36:30 in) that I was a bit nervous.
I did, however, achieve one very important thing: I referred to the war as a malarkey of tragic horses. And someone laughed at it? Weird. Anyway, I converted what I said there into English and pasted it below. I’d appreciate comments.
Talking Politics in Afghanistan
I think everyone in the room can agree that Afghanistan is a malarkey of tragic horses. I use that phrase very deliberately, to point out that the vast majority of what we hear of the place is empty nonsense-talk about what is going on in the conflict, what our options are, and so forth.
And it’s refreshing to hear sober, clear thinking from the panelists here today about what we do moving forward. But if we really want to move the discussion forward about what we do, we have to get into the political equation. And I think this was the heart of The Century Foundation Task Force report; I would even say it was the heart of Ambassador Pickering’s comments earlier.
But politics is also the topic that we tend to avoid the most. That is because, ultimately, politics are hard. Politics in Afghanistan are even harder, and politics in Pakistan are even harder still. I fully agree with everyone here when they say that the war in Afghanistan is not really about Afghanistan; it is ultimately about Pakistan. But when it comes to discussing what to do about Pakistan, we fall apart. We tend to rely on clichés, platitudes, and empty threats. And frankly, I don’t have any solutions to this, I’m just highlighting the problem (I’m not an expert in Pakistan).
However, when we look at things like how to negotiate with the insurgency, or how to establish some sort of regional order, we’re making the mistake of assuming the only actor we need to deal with is the insurgency, or al Qaeda. Both of these groups are really just single actors in a much more complex network of players, political interests, and organizations, that all contribute to instability—both inside Afghanistan and inside Pakistan.
When we look at the major groups involved in Afghanistan—the government, ISAF, the Northern Alliance remnants, and the Taliban—just one of those groups, the former Northern Alliance bloc, is made up of at least a dozen competing subgroups, off of whom are very likely going to start killing each other the moment we leave and stop providing a security umbrella. That has nothing to do with the insurgency—it is political. A huge part of the instability in the south of Afghanistan has nothing to do with the Taliban, and everything to do with opium—that’s not the insurgency, or al Qaeda. It is political. These are political considerations that need to be taken into account when we think about what to do about the war.
Ultimately, if we can somehow put an end to all of the violence in Afghanistan, that still will not solve our fundamentally political problems that plague the war effort. It will not address the major issues we have to deal with when it comes to creating a regional solution, which, yes, has to do Kabul, and Islamabad, and Washington, and London, and Brussels, and Tehran, and Beijing (if you want to go there – you can expand this list as much as you want).
In the midst of creating this regional framework, we have to keep in mind that, ultimately, this is about politics inside Afghanistan, and politics inside Pakistan. And neither country wants the world to be dictating terms to them, doesn’t want the world to be dictating morals, goals, policies, any of that. So, while all of our good ideas are, in fact, good ideas, and have context, and precedence, and history, ultimately, if Afghans and Pakistanis do not buy into the politics of what we’re doing, it will not work. Nothing will work if Afghans themselves don’t buy into it.
Unfortunately, what Afghans want, and what Pakistanis want, is the one thing that we don’t know. We do not have much insight into what normal, regular people in either country really want. We don’t have good insight into how politics inside either country works; we don’t have a good presence outside the capitals of those countries; we don’t have good contact with the civil societies outside the capitals of those cities, to say nothing of normal people who are not educated and don’t speak English.
In conclusion, I realize I’m leaving this as an open-ended, “oh crap” kind of thing here. But, when we’re thinking about the political issues in these countries we need to keep in mind that these are political issues. And when we talk about things like budgeting priorities in the United States, about the acrimony that brings out of us, how people are practically stabbing each other in the kidney over this stuff, and then think about what would happen if the world tried to dictate to us a fundamental political issue, like whether you are going to obey the Taliban or the Karzai government, we have to understand that these are quite literally life-threatening issues. They will not back down simply because we tell them to.