US national security policy past as present in Afghanistan


What’s next for Afghanistan? The options for policymakers today may be few, but it is not that clarity is lacking. The problem is that predicting outcomes remains elusive even after 16 years of on-the-ground engagement, making policy decisions all the more difficult.

In the plus column, the Trump administration has untethered the U.S. from old timelines divorced from Afghan realities: timelines that emboldened enemies, undermined policy objectives and raised doubts about U.S. commitments abroad. On the negative side of the ledger, the U.S. no longer controls the clock in Afghanistan, if it ever did, and some local leaders appear intent on reversing progress.

{mosads}Since 2001 the U.S. has labored, at significant human and material cost, in pursuit of two sets of policy objectives that on paper appear complementary: one focused on counterterrorism, and the other on institution-building to deny extremists a safe haven and recruitment pool born of weak governance. In practice, however, the preponderance of effort from the start has favored the former, posing serious challenges for the latter. A proposed Obama administration rebalancing of the two lasted about as long as Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s stint as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF).

Had McChrystal’s stillborn counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) enjoyed the benefit of additional time — before drawdowns were announced and tactics shifted away from its population-centric approach — there is no empirical evidence that the outcome in Afghanistan would have been markedly different. Whatever empirical backing existed was only to be found in the histories of colonial insurgency in British Malaya, French Algeria and the success of small unit operations in the hamlets of Vietnam — not in the realities of post-colonial, 21st Century south central Asia.

Nevertheless, the military surge component of the Obama strategy did see territory temporarily returned to Afghan government sovereignty. But backfilling with effective and sustainable Afghan governance — the central COIN pillar that McChrystal once called “government in a box” — has proved the greater challenge. The result, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in its last report to Congress, is that extremists have regained control and are actively contesting more territory today than at any time since 2001.

It is easy to blame the country’s governance deficits on local factors for which the U.S. has no remedies, as critics of U.S. involvement are apt to do. Similarly, explanations can be found in the meddling of certain neighboring states, relationships with which the White House appears to now be in the process of reassessing. But the threats to both Afghanistan’s security and U.S. objectives in the country also include errors of past expediency and shortcomings in the twin approaches of counterterrorism and institution building.

In early 2018, the contradictions between the lines of effort pursued by the West since 2001 are manifesting themselves in the stalemate between Afghanistan’s elected president Ashraf Ghani and regional strongmen Atta Mohammad Noor and Gen. Abdul Raziq. One, the dismissed governor of the strategic northern Balkh province, the other the reportedly soon-to-be-replaced police chief of southern Kandahar province (the birthplace of the Taliban), both are facing allegations of corruption and human rights abuses that observers regularly cite as factors in the insurgency’s durability.  

With Noor and Raziq publicly repudiating their president’s constitutional authority (Raziq said earlier this month that the government “cannot fire me”), Kabul’s next steps are unclear. As with other regional powerbrokers, the two enjoyed the past indulgence and material assistance of foreign patrons for whom anti-terrorism often trumped good local governance. Ghani is no doubt looking to the same patrons for guidance and support.

While post-9/11 Afghan history is replete with such cases (read: Dostum, Fahim, Sherzai, Ismael Khan, etc.), Ghani knows that a diminished Western footprint in the country may not permit him the same carrots and sticks of his predecessor; i.e. a plumb reassignment backed by Western pressure. Meanwhile, enjoying the government’s discomfort is a veritable who’s who of the worst days of post-Soviet, mujahideen factionalism in the early 1990s — a time that gave rise to and led many Afghans to initially embrace the Taliban as saviors.

As U.S. troops continue to make the ultimate sacrifice and Western diplomats endeavor to put delayed elections back on the calendar in 2018 in an attempt to sustain Afghanistan’s institutional revival (and with it progress made on fronts including women’s education and health care), the outcome of the Ghani-Noor-Raziq dispute is a consequential one. For U.S. policymakers, in particular, how this power struggle ultimately plays out has implications not only for Afghanistan’s future stability and security, but also the timeline of the U.S. presence in the country, 16 years into the mission.

Owen Kirby served as a senior governance advisor for the U.S. Department of State in Spin Boldak District, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2009-2010, when Gen. Abdul Raziq was head of the district’s Afghan Border Police force.

Tags Abdul Rashid Dostum Afghanistan Afghanistan–United States relations Ashraf Ghani Asia Atta Muhammad Nur Gul Agha Sherzai Kandahar Kandahar Province Pashtun people Taliban War in Afghanistan

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