Afghan warlords: Back to the future?

Afghan warlords: Back to the future?
© Getty Images

If you consider who will have the upper hand in Afghanistan — the government, the Taliban, or the warlords? — the correct answer is “all of the above.”

After NATO’s retreat from Afghanistan, the country will almost certainly experience a surge of violence as the various factions compete for power. The U.S. and its allies are committed to supporting the central government in Kabul — which most of Afghanistan’s minority ethnic groups think favors the Pashtuns — but many of the institutions the West created are weak.

The U.S. may have to rely on the warlord-led tribal militias to augment the 300,000-man Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in the fight against the Taliban. In addition, the militias can support the Central Intelligence Agency as it attempts to collect information on potential terror threats to the U.S.

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Many militias have a reputation for trafficking in narcotics and abusing civilians, so the U.S. will have to proceed cautiously. But caution will be needed on both sides, as America’s hasty midnight departure from Bagram Airfield diminished its credibility as a partner. Failing to ensure the Afghan military had an adequate supply of smart bombs won’t help the U.S. reputation either.

This will be a unique case of the principal-agent problem, where the American principal has little credibility and no way to motivate or police the agent other than money and arms — or the old standbys, sanctions and indictments. And the principal’s representative will be barricaded in a secure compound in Kabul, unable to travel the country to enforce America’s writ.

The U.S. can influence the transactional relationship by providing resources, but the militias may also “self-fund,” that is, levy taxes or traffic in narcotics, diluting the principal’s influence with the potential for bad PR to boot. And if an “American” militia traffics drugs to Russia, Moscow will act, and those “Russian bounty” stories may become more than an urban legend.

And the U.S. may have to compete for influence with Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, India, and the Central Asian countries. These regional powers and neighbors of Afghanistan have more at risk than far-away America and Europe — and their interests may not complement Washington’s desires for the future of the Kabul central government and the country.

And the local powers have other priorities: Pakistan will want to continue its campaign against India; China will wish to secure its Belt and Road Initiative interests; and Russia will want to ensure the unrest doesn’t encourage the flow of experienced jihadis to the Northern Caucasus or drugs to metropolitan Russia.

U.S. officials will hate a bidding war with Russia, China, or Pakistan as they prefer managed competition with a “level playing field” and “guardrails.” And Russia and China may use the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to influence the struggle, further complicating the U.S. diplomatic and security response.

The warlords will be wise not to accept U.S. “assurances” as the hail-fellow-well-met diplomats, soldiers, and spooks fade away when the prosecutors show up, mumbling something about the “rule of law,” when — and its “when” not “if” — some of the militias transgress.

The U.S. intemperately declared it wouldn’t abandon Afghanistan, and its enthusiasm for central government institutions will hobble its interactions with the warlords, who may find lucrative relationships with countries more focused on ends than means, and not robotically creating central government institutions, something alien to the country’s political culture, and the warlords’ interests.

Will the Kabul government have a realistic view of dealing with the warlords? Maybe, as last year it promoted a notorious warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, to be Marshall in the Afghan National Army (ANA) as part of a power-sharing deal.

Dostum is an example of the connections and past-relationships that will complicate the U.S. strategy: Dostum was trained by the Soviet KGB and worked in the Afghan communist government before he defected to the mujahedin; after the rise of the Taliban he sided with the Northern Alliance; in 2001, he joined the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban, and he later served as deputy defense minister and a Marshall in the Afghan National Army; he has lived in exile in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and “has been backed over the years by the Soviet Union, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Russia, and the United States,” all of whom will want to secure his loyalty, to the fleeting extent that’s possible.

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And the warlords have changed their business model from ruthless thuggery to provider of public services or patronage, defender of ethnic identity, and exploiter of the state-building process through reconstruction contracts or ministerial positions. As such, they have secured local legitimacy at odds with Western notions that don’t recognize tribal society or patrimonialism as anything but speedbumps on the road to modernity.

The warlords may prove more adaptable in the changing political and military landscape than the West, and why not? They and their kinsmen are the ones who will die if they err, not anyone in Washington, D.C. or Brussels.

America’s diplomats, generals, and spooks will have their work cut out for them as they struggle to keep the “Warlords 2.0” onside and contain the looming civil war from spilling over the borders to Central Asia, Iran, China, and Pakistan, who will blame Washington if worse turns to worst.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).