The Political Angle

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by Joshua Foust on 4/22/2011 · 13 comments

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 13 comments }

Brett April 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm

But when it comes to discussing what to do about Pakistan, we fall apart.

There’s not much we can do, not without paying prices that the US isn’t or shouldn’t be willing to pay. Even though, so much of Pakistan’s turbulence is internally driven.

In conclusion, I realize I’m leaving this as an open-ended, “oh crap” kind of thing here.

This is why I’m in favor of withdrawal.

lone wolf April 22, 2011 at 9:32 pm

u cant do war haf ass.
libya it seems is going the same way.
we cant keep funding long wars.
multi actionable policeing in several countrys in a short time range.
its crazy eights time in DC
get bin laden and end it.

Abdullah April 24, 2011 at 11:51 am

You won’t be able to war at all when the $$ comes tumbling down.

Don Bacon April 22, 2011 at 10:47 pm

With due respect, you forgot New Delhi.

CE April 23, 2011 at 4:42 am

And Moscow.

Paul April 23, 2011 at 7:27 pm

I think that’s why he added “(if you want to go there – you can expand this list as much as you want).”

CE April 23, 2011 at 5:51 am

Fucking Ray McGovern—always trying to make a stink, the old codger.

Well, at least he didn’t get arrested, beaten, and physically brutalized by the police this time; he just got verbally brutalized and abusively rebutted by the Foust, which, if you ask me, should be a goddamn badge of honor.

As for the greater discussion, count me as one of those Americans who just doesn’t give a shit anymore; but not because I don’t care what happens. I’m thinking the problem is that I care too much, and after 10 years of this crap, I’m too sickened and exhausted to keep on caring for much longer.

Domestically, the political angle suggests that Obama will sit on his hands until November 2012. If he gets a second term, then he’ll start thinking about taking some sort of meaningful action. Until then, he’s better off politically just letting the institutional, military and bureaucratic inertia dictate the policy in the short-term. No need to ruffle the military’s feathers in the middle of a reelection campaign. Of course, our young men and women will continue to fight and die in the Afghan bush, the luckless victims of a rudderless strategy which is still, unfortunately and sickeningly, a politically acceptable and sustainable course of action for those ****suckers in Washington (excuse my French).

As to the political angle in Afghanistan—if I owned a crystal ball, I would bet my allowance that Washington will end up propping up Kabul in a city-state/protectorate-type arrangement, while leaving the rest of the country to the vagaries of the Taliban and the wonderfully motley crew of warlords that have kept Afghanistan brimming with fun and excitement since the Russkies took the Tajbeg.

Amir April 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm

We in America need to know what we want- If we already know than our actions are troubling and bound to failure. If we want to understand Afghanistan and Afghan, we have to look at their 6,000 year history. If we want to understand Pakistan, the past 60 years is all there is, and for the most part we have been involved in Pakistani establishments since its inception. We would learn that Afghans cannot be bought although can be rented, they remain independent at the end. We know very well that cash is king when its comes to Pakistan. That said our gov’t is well aware of the links between terrorists and Pakistan’s military establishment. Thus, Pakistan harbors, finances, supports terrorists against other nations and we are fully aware of this. Our current policy is to reward billions to Pakistan for supporting terrorism as a thank you for killing our soldiers,terrorizing innocent Afghans, burning schools, destroying infrastructure in Afghanistan plus terrorism around the world.

Now here is the solution declare Pakistan as Terrorist state, impose sanctions until they take actions against terrorists. Yet, I see we are concerned more about our presence in Afghanistan than terrorism…If we look at the neighborhood, from central asian Russian states, China, to Iran bordering Afghanistan- our policy has been to prolong the war and pressure or prop up an Afghan gov’t which will submit to our agreements; besides the wolves around Afghanistan- we are preying on Afghanistan. Had we activated the Marshal plan as promised, we would be in a better position to win the hearts of minds of Afghans. Even if the militarily strong neighbors of Afghanistan disagreed with our presence, A strong pluralistic Afghan nation and force would not allow their interference. This is where we failed, now the Afghans in Afghanistan question our sincerity and fight against terrorism.

One thing I would like to add is that Afghan politics in not as easy as American 2 horse race political system or Pakistani politics….Afghan politics is very complex, trying to influence its internal affairs will dissolve any gains made by outside world- Afghans know very well how to survive. Afghans think the blueprint used in “rebuilding” Afghanistan and it security forces are classical tactics of colonialism(i.e not building Afghan air force, pluristic army, and not providing weapons)- so Afghans can request us to stay forever for security.

I question the wisdom of our gov’t, first eliminating Iran’s two enemies Saddam and Taliban, than supporting those who harbor and support terrorists who attacked America.

anan April 23, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Amir, very nicely said. You have said it much better than I could. There is an extraordinary and growing amount of suspicion among ANSF officers and enlisted that the internationals [UN, NATO, ISAF, US, Europe, Japan, China, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Arabs, Turkey, international NGOs, really all foreigners] might secretly be backing the Taliban/Al Qaeda and allies against them.

The internationals seem clueless. They act in seeming chaotic confusion, without even coordinating with other parts of their own country, let alone other countries in the coalition or actual Afghans.

Just imagine how difficult it is for Afghan leaders to have to meet with and sort through more than 60 countries and their international NGOs . . . all of whom say 180 degrees contradictory things. [Often different parts of the same country say opposite things.] Then imagine the challenge of working with internationals who drive through Afghanistan with 4-18 month tours without coordinating with their predecessors or successors, and usually with limited understanding of Afghan culture or languages.

Amir, internationals are giving Afghans a lot of aid, but without thought, understanding and coordination. It would be better if internationals coordinated all their security aid through MoD, MoI, NDS [or NTM-A in the short run] and all their economic aid through the Afghan state.

Internationals should agree to fully finance the ANSF and education ministry over the next decade or two, provide short term bridge grants for basic physical infrastructure investment; provide some enablers and leave it at that. Afghans are and should be responsible for their own economic development and winning their own war against the Taliban/Al Qaeda.

International aid to the ANSF should be focused on MG Patang’s ANP Training Command and MG Karim’s ANA Training Command.

Sadly the international community discouraged funding and combat enablers for the ANSF until December, 2009. Partly for fear that this would cause Pakistanis [and their Gulf Arab funders] to overreact.

anan April 23, 2011 at 7:27 pm

In response to Amir’s comments about weapons procurement for the ANSF.

It puzzles me that the Afghan people are not demanding more military aid from Russia. The Russians owe the Afghans. The Taliban pose a greater threat to Russia than they do to Europeans or Americans. On Karzai’s visit to Russia, Russia offered Afghanistan a piddly $500 million in grants. The Russians are charging the Afghans top dollar on many of the ANSF’s new Mi17s, artillery, parts, and other weapon systems. Why aren’t Afghans demanding that the Russians step up? Russia could donate more Mi17s, transport fixed wing, Mi35s, artillery [with NTM-A picking up the cost of upgrades]

Afghans can also offer to be a much better ally of China than the ISI/extremist wing of the Pakistan Army. Pakistani Army is taking many billions of dollars in Chinese grants while quietly supporting terrorism against China. In return for Afghan help in increasing Chinese security, China needs to contribute a lot more to the Afghans [similar to how they give the Pakistani Army so much equipment.] China and NTM-A could buy two squadrons of Pakistani manufactured JF-17 supersonic light attack multipurpose aircraft for the Afghan Air Force. This would have the side effect of winning Afghans a powerful pro Afghan lobby within the Pakistani establishment.

The next time India offers a large military donation to the Afghans and the internationals flail their hands . . . the Afghans could ask the internationals . . . “Are you with us, or with the terrorists? Please help us or get lost.”

The Afghans should similarly demand that the Iranians step up [not in weapons procurement since Iranians produce military junk, but in other ways.]

Afghans could similarly pressure the South Koreans to give them discounts on K1 turboprop aircraft.

anan April 23, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Joshua, your formulation above is one of the best you have ever made . . . and you have said some pretty good stuff in the past.

Sadly almost the only reason internationals care about Afghanistan is because of Pakistan. [Even true for Iranians, Turks and Stans.]

“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.” Would elaborate on this. We don’t know what we think we know. For example the vast majority of Afghans don’t like the “Taliban.” But we don’t understand the nuances of why they don’t like the “Taliban” or how opinions differ on specific “Taliban” associated factions or why different Afghans dislike the Taliban for different reasons.

Unfortunately Afghans and Pakistanis misunderstand each other as bad or worse than we misunderstand them. “malarkey of tragic horses” is a well chosen phrase.

“We don’t have good insight into how politics inside either country works;” 100% true. Unfortunately even Afghans and Pakistanis have difficulties understanding their own internal politics. This is one reason I think it is generally better to increase the capacity and performance of Afghan institutions and generally let them do their own thing within reason. [i.e. internationals have a responsibility to ensure that grants to Afghan institutions don’t excessively strenghten organized crime.]

“we don’t have a good presence outside the capitals of those countries” Did you mean provincial capitals? Internationals [international NGOs, international aid organizations, PRTs, troop contringents] have spread out to many Afghan provincial capitals and many subdistricts. Many internationals view Afghanistan through the prism of “their” tiny sliver of Afghanistan. For most internationals that is not greater Kabul.

Your point is more true of Pakistan.

“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.” Bingo.

“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.”

Nicely put. Internationals can and do have a major impact but don’t understand the channels through which this influence takes place. The greatest long term influence of the internationals is through their influence on Afghanistan’s institutions and their affect on Afghan education.

Well intentioned liberals can sometimes seem overbearing, pretentious, condescending.

Maybe internationals should avoid talking about “woman empowerment”. But rather empower actual Afghan woman and in time they will figure out how to win their own rights. How to do this? Empower the Afghan education ministry. Finance ANPTC and ANATC to college educate many thousands of Afghan woman officers. Some of this could be through 4 year college degree programs. Motivated rural Pashtun Afghan woman could be offered 7 year programs that teach them K-12 plus a 4 year bachelors degree.

Abdullah April 24, 2011 at 11:49 am

@CE
How will you feel 100 years from now? 1000, or 10,000? We will still feel the same, and one day, the tide will turn. Or has it already?

CE April 26, 2011 at 7:00 am

I agree that America will be had by the short and curlies in the not-too-distant future—mainly due to domestic fiscal and political pressures—thus forcing Washington to reassess its Afghan commitment; but, according to this chap, assuming you manage to get rid of the Americans, you will still be dealing with the Turks, Persians, Pakistanis, and Chinese for a long time to come, whether you like it or not.

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