Talking Politics in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 1/26/2012 · 14 comments

On Tuesday, I had the unexpected pleasure of sitting on a panel with Michael O’Hanlon and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale to talk about the future of American strategy in Afghanistan.

That’s the video of the event. In case you don’t want to sit through 90 minutes of jabbering, I’m pasting my comments below, because I think they get at something very important: politics. Specifically, our failure to understand politics.

This image has been making the rounds today. I don’t know who that woman is, what unit she works for, or in what part of the country that image was taken. So this isn’t personal to her and it’s not directed at her; rather, this is representative of the military’s broad (and broken) approach to culture.

What is so striking about this image are the visual clues that are meant to signify a respect for culture: specifically, that pink head scarf. It is meant, I suppose, to show that this woman really cares about social norms of modesty in Afghanistan. It is also meant, I suppose, to distract otherwise pious men and women from noticing her combat uniform, AK-47, boots, and sun glasses — none of which an actually “modest” Afghan women would really wear. I don’t really have any other comments beyond noting how jarringly, amusingly out of place that image is.

Anyway, my notes from the talk:

Negotiations are not really how insurgencies end

Insurgencies end through the creation of a political framework for settling conflicts

I suggest we must be willing to scrap the entire Afghan government and state we’ve spent the last ten years building. This is an enormous step, hugely costly, and possibly ruinous, but it’s the only way we have a chance of ever ending the war.

While some point to foreign troops, it is really the current Afghan government and state that are driving the insurgency.

Break out of the Kabul bubble, away from the military, and speak with normal, non-Americanized Afghans. You find that they think the Taliban is only like 20% of the problem. The rest is the government’s inability to cope with local politics. (C.F., Kapisa, Khost, Marjah, etc.)

We can get some tactical successes but there isn’t strategic & political vision for an endgame.

Politics is the U.S.’s achilles heel in Afghanistan. We, as a country, never put in the hard work to understand them at a local, regional, national, and international level. As a result we are crippled by our reliance on Pakistan, badly overspending on our Central Asian NDN alternative, and left with almost no options beyond attempting a massive do-over.

The current government cannot and will not be an effective partner in negotiations – there is too much bad blood, too many competing interests, and too little willingness to address the political goals of the Taliban.

“Stop fighting and accept the constitution,” often stated as the preconditions for talks to begin, is really a call for surrender. The Taliban are fighting to change the government; demanding they accept it is pointless. The Taliban are a political reality in the country that we have proven incapable of changing.

We need to start looking at how the state of Afghanistan can be re-ordered to accommodate the Taliban demands, so that they can seek their preferences non-violently instead of violently. Our current strategy doesn’t allow for that.

As a result we should keep our expectations for the negotiations VERY LOW.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from 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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Don Bacon January 26, 2012 at 11:49 am

I hope that someone brought up war profiteering. The business of America is business, and war is big, profitable business. This profit drive often masquerades as “support the troops” and “win the war,” but those are only to cover the money angle which discourages any meaningful effort to end the affair.

Also, did the Silk Road Strategy or India/Pakistan come up? IOW this is a regional issue not confined to Afghanistan as you (JF) well know.

Sorry about the questions, but 90 minutes is even longer than an hour.

anan January 31, 2012 at 4:32 pm

The US spends less than 0.8% of GDP on direct military operations in Afghanistan. The political economy aspects of that spending on American policy and the American economy are insignificant. Grow up.

RScott January 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

“While some point to foreign troops, it is really the current Afghan government and state that are driving the insurgency.”

Actually it is a combination of the two. We overthrew the Taliban government in Kabul, ineffective as it might have been in our judgments, selected and put in power the present government with the help of what was left of the resistance to the Taliban “unification effort”, the Northern Alliance, which is corrupt and for many (at least Pashtuns) illegitimate, supported and kept in power by our “foreign military occupational force” (that amny see as a replacement for the Soviets.) and that seems to be calling most of the shots even in the failed reconstruction effort, wasting millions in the process…not focusing on what was/is actually needed (support of a legitimate the ag economy). The basis of the present ag economy at least in Helmand is opium poppy in which the local government and the police are involved and our military/civilian PRTs look the other way so as not to upset the farmers..allowing the narcotics industry to thrive rather than putting in an effective reconstruction/counter-narcotics effort…as I have been outlining for the past 10 years or so. None of this is lost on the local farmers. They understand what is going on. We must keep in mind that the areas that produce most of the opium are areas of traditional cash crop, double cropping farmers that did not produce narcotics until the Soviet invasion (but bumper crops of wheat, cotton, melons, corn, peanuts etc. even in drought years) on the largest well designed (by Morrison-Knutsen Construction Co. of Boise, ID, 1946-58) irrigation system in the country.

RScott January 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm

ps. The photo of the lady with the pink scarf can stand as a symbol of our complete failure to understand and address the real issues in at least Helmand.

carlo cristofori January 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm

“It is really the current Afghan government and state that are driving the insurgency:” Absolutely correct.

However, the problem is not to reorder the Afghan state so as to accomodate the Taliban’s demands, but the un-accomodated demands that drive people to support the Taliban.

RScott January 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Absolutely wrong. Re-read my total comment above and Bacon’s briefer comment below and give a little thought as to how this thing started and what has been going on during the past 10 years. And for a little background, take a look at my

Don Bacon January 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm

There’s an Afghan government in name but it is generally powerless (1) outside Kabul and (2) against U.S. policies it dislikes (house raids, etc.).

This situation is not helped by calling the resistance to it an “insurgency” rather than what it is: A resistance to a military invasion, government overthrow and brutal occupation with a puppet government facade. It is no more an insurgency than the French Resistance was, a situation that was only corrected by driving out the invaders.

After all, we do have some experience in failing this way.

anan January 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm

:LOL: Who controls Balk province? Herat province? Badakshan? Kabul? Nangarhar?

The GIRoA and Afghan establishment are internally divided. But they exists and they matter. They can sabotage and veto anything they want, anytime they want.

How much support do you think the Taliban [perceived as Pakistani proxies by most Afghans] has among the 62% of Afghans who are not Pashtun? For that matter, how popular are they among Pashtuns. The 180,000 ANA is forty some percent Pashtun, and they don’t like the Taliban.

President Karzai’s office micromanages provincial governor, district sub-governor, senior ANSF officer appointments. I guess this makes Karzai powerless?

Nick January 27, 2012 at 6:07 am

Regarding the image of the female soldier, I hope everyone is smart enough to know that we, as Coalition Forces and the International Security Assistance Force, aren’t there to assimilate to their culture. And I mean in ANY way, shape, or form. So, for that female to go out of her way and defy military regulations on the wear and appearance of the uniform in order to be less offensive to the culture she is forced to protect is one of many GLOWING examples of U.S., and ISAF as a whole, compassion. Is there anything amusing about that image? Not on your life. Compassionate, the level of which I don’t believe the author could ever understand? HELL YES.

And “pious” Afghans? Pious Afghans who rape unsuspecting, defenseless women only to entrap them in marriage and beat and rape their whole lives through? Pious Afghans who cultivate a crop which enslaves people to heroin? Pious Afghans who charge a “tax” on people living in the same city, yet not of their faith? Are these the righteous of whom you speak? I believe the “pious” women to whom you refer are, in actuality, subjugated. Subjugated women, beaten down by a culture with no respect for its life-givers. Its care-takers.

I do agree Afghan politicians are spoiled teenagers who, when given the keys to their own car, think they hold the keys to all knowledge and we should never have given them those keys so soon.

RScott January 27, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Your description of “pious” Afghans is like taking the stories from most nightly news broadcasts in the US and using them to describe “Americans”. Not too accurate…if that is what you really think “pious” Afghans are.

Don Bacon January 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Nick is, probably unintentionally, explaining in his own words why the U.S. can never prevail in Afghanistan.

S January 29, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Yes..and for those of us women actually working in the field who respect the culture….some of us are ostracized for doing just that. It appears, whether a woman is leading a CIA team, is a soldier in the field, or is a field researcher risking her rear to understand a particular issue, some in DC will always find fault and make it their business to belittle the women who are serving their country the same as the men.

anan January 31, 2012 at 4:17 pm

“Break out of the Kabul bubble, away from the military, and speak with normal, non-Americanized Afghans. You find that they think the Taliban is only like 20% of the problem. The rest is the government’s inability to cope with local politics. (C.F., Kapisa, Khost, Marjah, etc.)” Bingo. Granted, I have heard this view from anti Taliban Afghans who are not from Taliban heavy areas. Most [or perhaps many] Taliban in the North, West and Center are perceived as closer to organized crime than hard core Mullah Omar centric Quetta Shura. They interact with other organized crime close to Northern Alliance plus, GIRoA and none of the above.

There is a deep fear of kidnapping for ransom, robbery and weakness of the rule of law. Many courts and police are seen as corrupt. ANA are also seen as corrupt [popular, legitimate but still “corrupted” as many Afghans see it]. The ANA isn’t really a permanent presence that locals can rely on for help outside the hot zones. They are more an occasional (if that) swing through the area type of thing.

There is no clear authority fully in control of many areas. Internationals are not the problem in most of Afghanistan and don’t have responsibility for security or governance in most quiet areas.

In the majority of Afghanistan, “politics”, governance, and security [as in security from non Taliban threats] is what matters.

And perhaps this is what the international community and international discussion has to focus on.

President Obama’s inner circle is pushing for sharply reducing the budget and size of the ANSF to $3 billion/year and 250,000 end strength. If this happens, the ANSF will have to pull out of much of the East and South. Obama’s vision appears to be to shrink Afghanistan back to anti Taliban rump state and give the Taliban control over many Pashtun areas. This seems to mesh with Turkish, Indian, Russian and Iranian policy.

While this reality means a focus on politics in the quieter areas, it also means that it is unrealistic to “scrap the entire Afghan government and state we’ve spent the last ten years building. This is an enormous step, hugely costly, and possibly ruinous, but it’s the only way we have a chance of ever ending the war.” Again, I mean in the quieter parts of Afghanistan. The ANA, MoI and GIRoA institutionally exist. The Northern Alliance plus exists. As does their very real patrons in Turkey, Russia, Iran and India. They will strongly resist scrapping the status quo. And they cannot be beat. As long as Karzai can twiddle Singh, Putin, Khamenei and Erdogan on his thumbs, Karzai can’t be removed. It is time we accepted this reality and work through the existing Afghan establishment as best we can.

Sebastian February 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I think this was the first time on your blog that I actually read some suggestions from you how to do better in Afghanistan. Normally, you are critising other articles and strategies, but unfortunately you very seldomly say how your approach would look like. Please feel encouraged to detail that further. It might be obvious to you, but for me as someone without any background in foreign affairs, it isn’t.

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