There is a political battle brewing in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with the United States. The elites of Afghan society are gathering supporters and squaring up on different sides of a major, divisive issue, based on a fundamental disagreement over negotiations with the Taliban.
The Afghan High Peace Council, an admittedly clownish attempt by Hamid Karzai to introduce some sort of reconciliation process for the Taliban, has taken to bragging that members of the Taliban are actively seeking a negotiated end to the war.Ghulam Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan’s education minister and a member of a peace council in charge of reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, tells the Washington Times that there are some efforts by the Taliban and even some al Qaeda members to “reach out” to the Peace Council to start some sort of talks. This could easily be bluster on the part of the Peace Council, but it matches with other stories over the last 18 months or so that there is interest in negotiations to end the war—an inherently political process.
Opposing the efforts of the AHPC, and senior U.S. policymakers like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a worrying new coalition set up by former foreign minister and presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and former intelligence minister Amrullah Saleh. The National Movement (or Besij-i Melli) held a huge rally in Kabul last month, where one of their major platforms was rejecting talks with the Taliban. Saleh has become kind of famous for his rabid hatred of the Taliban—repeating it in countless (and endless) interviews with PBS Frontline as demanding the carpet bombing of Pakistan, rejecting political means of ending the war, and—in my view at least—a petulant temper tantrum over having to give up his guns in 2002 while the Taliban didn’t. The National Movement is drawing inspiration, like every single other dissident group on Earth at the moment, from the “Arab Spring,” even though its goals and its political social context have nothing to do with the Middle East.
But here’s what’s worrying. Abdullah Abdullah remains the strident opponent to Hamid Karzai he’s been since losing the election (and despite the insane level of fraud, he most likely would have lost anyway). But these two men, Abdullah and Saleh, are drawing huge amounts of support amongst educated elites, mostly Tajiks. In a way, and Tahir Qadiry explains this well, they are mobilizing the Northern Alliance in opposition to an inclusive settlement that allows the Taliban to rejoin society. It is a truly nightmare scenario—an educated, fairly wealthy ethnic minority is organizing opposition to including an uneducated ethnic majority in the primary political process governing the country. This is dangerous, in other words—there’s no way of knowing how this revival of the Northern Alliance will play out, if it will revive militias and brutal thugs like Abdul Rashid Dostum or if it remains at the purely political level. But it has the potential to seriously undermine any hope of progress in the war.
The war in Afghanistan is, at a very fundamental level, political. The dispute growing between the High Peace Council and the National Movement is, at a very fundamental level, political. I’ve been harping on this for years, that many of the biggest problems we face in Afghanistan are neither military nor economic in nature, but political. The U.S. has never had real challenges on the battlefield—the Army and Marines are terrifyingly good at “clearing” areas. But the politics of what to do with those cleared areas has always mystified NATO and ISAF.
The Washington Post recently reported that the Marines have spent nearly $1.3 billion in the last 18 months in Marjeh, and there remains no political structure to assist with governance. Even in supposedly successful places like Nawa, also in Helmand, the Marines have shown a marked inability to understand and affect the political context of the areas they control—and they have been substantially more successful than the Army in doing this! But they’re stuck in a stilted mode of thinking that, once the guys with guns sweep through, they can lavish money upon an area and declare it successful.
This is not a war the Taliban are winning: from a political perspective they’re barely more functional than the Afghan government is. It is a war we are losing—by ignoring the politics of Afghanistan, of the basic political question driving the war (e.g. what will be the ultimate political system of Afghanistan), and the politics preventing Afghans and Taliban from sitting down to negotiate, we are sowing the seeds of failure.
Meanwhile, we’ll focus on building farms for farmers, as if Afghans who already farm need any help learning how to farm. We are choosing not to get it. The key question facing policymakers—how do you create the structures for a political process without dictating an outcome or working against our interests—is, sadly, left unasked and unanswered.