Fixing Afghanistan will require ending its 'bully' culture
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My earliest recollection of warlords in Afghanistan is not very different from the American bully phenomenon. Growing up under Taliban oppression, they frequently stole from us. “Ice-cream is bad for you,” said one particular Taliban with a Kalishnikov rifle. He grabbed my ice cream and ate it right in front of me without even cracking a smile. Even today, it's rare that I eat ice cream without reliving that experience.

As a young child in northern Afghanistan, life under the Taliban regime was a world with no possibility. The bullies ruling over us, were illiterate, oppressive, and preyed upon even our few small moments of joy. Yes, I had money to buy ice cream, but no means or rights to defend it. He too had money, but little reason to spend it when his authority was absolute at the end of a barrel. It was an illegitimate monopoly of violence. Under such rule, I was safe from predators, but not safe from the predatory actions of the state. Nearly two decades later, robbery still exists, but the bullies have changed.

As the U.S. develops a new strategy for Afghanistan, a debate rages over where to focus efforts: fighting an endless stream of Taliban in the countryside, or managing the fractions and political instability in Kabul. In focusing its efforts on creating the perfect military strategy, the U.S. risks neglecting a dangerously divided political system in Kabul that cannot lead the war to a peaceful settlement.

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Unlike a football match, there will be no clear end or regulation “win” in this war. While more troops will deter the Taliban’s growing momentum, the long target at this point in the 17-year war is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and reach a political agreement. The U.S. needs to focus on helping Afghanistan build a credible and united political system in Kabul that will force the Taliban to lay down their arms and join the political space.

 

The current political dynamic is divided because institutions are personalized, dominated by clans and family elites, and run like an oligarchy. When fathers die, their sons take over to continue the legacy, but formal institutions are not strengthened. SIGAR and other investigative agencies have noted the corrosive impact of corruption on the state building process in Afghanistan. Inadvertently, the West has empowered and legitimized the rule of bullies in Kabul. 

This might not be so bad if our new system of robber barons used the spoils of war to benefit the citizens of Afghanistan. Instead, the current political system in Kabul is at war with itself. There is disunity within the ranks of politicians that is spreading into security and civil service bureaucracy. Rather than managing the war effort, the National Unity Government is divided between those strictly anti-Taliban, those who sympathize with the Taliban, and those who are hedging their bets on which side will ultimately win. A political system deeply divided, and at war with itself, can neither win a war nor reach a peace agreement.

The biggest threat to Afghanistan’s stability and U.S. success in Afghanistan is not Taliban or ISIS-K in the countryside, it is the fragile state of Afghan politics. The reign of warlords only undermines the creation of stable and viable institutions, and further erodes any hope of a peaceful settlement with insurgents.

The U.S. should consider uniting all the internal parties by reducing support for local strongmen that avoid or undermine Afghan institutions. The U.S. can show real leadership in this effort by hosting a summit where all factions can dialogue and find consensus moving forward. It’s time the bullies in Afghanistan stop taking from the public. They might find that instead, Afghans are more than willing to share.

Abdul Waheed Ahmad (@awaafg) is an Afghan Fulbright scholar at the State University of New York. He previously worked with the Independent Directorate of Local Governance and Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan.


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